One day this will happen to you: life will surprise you. Life will show you that you have been dreaming, and it will wake you. We each have countless examples. Here is one of mine.
Once many years ago, I took my young daughter on a meditation retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh—a retreat that included children. At the beginning of the first night, as the children clustered at the foot of the stage, looking up at the great Zen master, I felt as if a cool dream was coming true. Thich Nhat Hanh smiled and looked into my daughter’s eyes as few adults ever look at children. Although he sat very still on stage, the Vietnamese Zen master seemed to bow to her inwardly, offering his full presence and inviting her to be who she really is.
Alexandra threw her jacket over her head.
“Children look like flowers,” said the man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. “Their faces look like flowers, their eyes, their ears…”
Alex stayed hidden under her black jacket. Surrounded by the monks and nuns from the French monastic community Plum Village, the great teacher calmly lifted his eyes from my daughter, taking in the some 1,200 people who had gathered for a five-day retreat on the wooded campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York. As Thay, as he is affectionately known, kept talking about the “freshness” or openness and sensitivity of children, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way Alexandra was ducking for cover.
The great Zen teacher described freshness as one of the qualities we possess in our true essence, our Buddha nature. It appears when we return to our true home in the present moment. Yet Alexandra, shrouded in nylon, suddenly reminded me that freshness also includes those times when we feel raw and vulnerable.
What had I been thinking? Suddenly, it seemed terribly clear that I was not such a cool mom, that I had been lost in a dream. I had no clue that by bringing I risked exposing her to how we are. At the end of that first agonizing night, the great Zen master called us all to listen to the sound of the bell, calling us all to our true home. “My true home is in Brooklyn,” Alexandra whispered. It seemed like a deafening whisper to me. All around us children sat quietly. I had horrible thoughts and horrible thoughts about my horrible thoughts. I burned. And over the next five days, it got worse.
One day this will happen to you: life will open a vein of vulnerability or shame or pain that is just dazzling in its power. The force of it will amaze you. This will happen no matter who you are. When you sit with this pain, you will find that it fills you. The cup of the body and mind will not be half empty or half full so there is room for the air of mindful awareness. The cup will be full to the point of running over. And this pain will not feel universal, but very personal and defining. The ego has been called the “pain body.” At such times, you will know what this means.
One day this you will discover that spiritual practice doesn’t take you up out of the pain of your life but down into it. You will discover that freedom comes as you come to know your suffering, as you learn to hold your pain and sadness and rage as you would hold a child, as Thich Nhat Hahn teaches. If you do this, life will continue to surprise you. Help will come from unexpected places. Here’s what came to me:
All the participants of the retreat, including the children, were invited to join Thich Nhat Hanh for walking meditation, walking slowly along pathways in the woods to a lake. It was late October, and leaves were falling. Alex was walking up front with the great teacher, but she split off to scamper to the top of a leaf-carpeted hill. “I’m going to roll down this hill,” she shouted to another girl. “Come on!”
It actually awed me that she was so unselfconscious about shattering the silence. Alexandra rolled down the hill alone, sounding to her mother like a bear crashing through the forest. I dropped my head and trudged along, instinctively creating the impression that Alex was not my daughter. Suddenly, I noticed Thich Nhat Hanh gliding along like a mountain on rails next me. His presence felt very strong and centered, yet his face looked calm and fresh. My face (and mind and heart) ached like a clenched fist. Alex raced to the water’s edge, where she stood waving and smiling at me. I felt a pang of love for her and pain, pain, pain at the welter of thoughts and feelings surging through me.
The bell calling for mindfulness sounded. I knelt down in the sand and looked down. My pain filled me, screening out the world. After what seemed to be a long, lonely time, the bell rang again, and again, and a third time. I slowly looked up to see an old man’s hand gently stroking a familiar head of ash blond hair. Thich Nhat Hahn and my daughter were sitting side by side. It slowly dawned on me that it was Alexandra who had rung the bell, calling the rest of us back to our true home.
“I was throwing sand, and I looked up and he was looking at me,” she explained later. “He was kind of smiling. He waved for me to come over and sit by him. He didn’t say anything, he just showed me how to ring the bell.”
Life will surprise you.