May 1, 2012 Tuesday Morning, Emerald Isle Retreat

Working with emotions; two wings of wisdom and compassion; Clear Comprehension; “Milerepa: head in the Demon's mouth;” (Aura Glaser's Tricycle article); releasing dualities;  Barbara's story of opening to pain of deafness  from anthology,  Being Bodies;

Barbara: Good morning. I enjoy watching many of you sitting out on the beach. When I look occasionally at some of your faces, some of you seem to be in a place of great space, awe and joy. It's beautiful out there.

Many years ago at a Buddhist teacher's conference, I heard Jack Kornfield make a statement that surprised me, way back then, 20 years ago. He said when he speaks to some of his most advanced students and he asks, “What are you working with?” and he guessed he would say, “Oh, there's a lot of spaciousness, joy, no self,” almost universally the response was, “Anger. Fear. Confusion.”

We get beyond reactivity to those objects, but we don't get beyond experiencing them; we're human. Just like we don't get beyond the experience of physical pain. If I stub my toe, it's going to hurt no matter how enlightened I become. How I respond to that pain will differ. In the same way, emotional pain will still arise.

So our practice has two wings, wisdom and compassion. I think of them as the wings of the butterfly. It can't fly with just one wing. We develop wisdom by looking at arising objects through presence and dependent origination, really understanding with our own direct experience how everything arises out of conditions, is impermanent, is not self. At first it's an intellectual understanding, but then the insights deepen into real knowing: this is how it is. We walk on the beach , cut a foot, and complain, “why are there sharp shells?” And with the hundredth time we cut our foot on a shell walking barefoot across the sand, we finally think, “Maybe it's time to put on shoes when I walk over the shells,” and to release attaching blame! So we start to respond compassionately and wisely, rather than saying, “Who put these darn shells on the beach! Who made them jagged?”

Our heart opens more to our human condition. We develop the compassion, the loving kindness, the awareness, to hold space for unpleasant sensations and thoughts as they arise and not be so self-identified with them. This is really the core of our practice.

The next step is harder. We all have deep, hidden places, places that are so hard to open to. We may have patterns in ourselves that our best friends would say, “Oh sure, I know you do that.” But WE don't see it! We've really hidden it well from ourselves. We may have places that nobody has seen, we've hidden them so well.

Only kindness can reveal them. And then what? One practice that I find very helpful... John mentioned a number of tools last night, such as the Four Empowerments, for working with habitual tendencies, and just vipassana practice, metta, and so forth. Another support practice is called Clear Comprehension.

It has four parts. Clear comprehension of purpose. We pause and ask ourselves, “What is really my highest purpose here?” Maybe one is very angry at one's spouse or best friend or boss. “Is my highest purpose to be right at all costs? Is it to do it my way? Or might my highest purpose be to foster deep understanding and harmony, really hearing each other and each opening to the other's views?”

Clear comprehension of suitability is the second step. Is what I'm about to say or do suitable to my highest purpose? If I'm in an argument with my husband and I'm convinced that I'm right and he's way off base, and I'm about to shout that out, “Where did you get this dumb idea!? You're so wrong!” - wait a minute. Is confirmation that I'm right really my highest purpose?

My highest purpose also doesn't lead me to simply back down and say, “Oh, I'm sorry, you're right; I'm totally wrong” That's not being true to myself. My highest purpose is to have him hear me and to have me hear him, to keep talking in a way in which we are able to really hear each other rather than just shout at each other, until we start to find a base for action that suits us both. So it's a kind of harmony, but it's not harmony at all costs. It's not harmony at the cost of swallowing my own truth. It's simply the willingness not to enact my anger, my fear, my sense, “Got to have it my way,” and really work with each other. So we have clear comprehension of purpose, and clear comprehension of suitability.

The third part of Clear Comprehension has the odd name of clear comprehension of the domain of meditation. What this means to me is, I take all the feelings that are coming up. “I want it my way. He's wrong. Oh, but I don't want to get into a major fight with him. I should hear his view.” I take all of these thoughts that are coming up and simply remember to bring it all into the meditative mind. Here are diverse objects arising out of conditions;  papanca, or proliferating thought,  each of these objects in itself the ground for further conditions. Popcorn popping, all going off.

And the fourth step, clear comprehension of the dharma. Real awareness, where is the suffering here? Right now, here in this moment, he and I are both suffering. Where is the suffering? Within the dharma, within the Four Noble Truths, see the suffering. The impermanence of all that's arising and passing away, that it's all based on conditions, his conditioning, my conditioning, external conditions. Awareness can move into the empty space that can hold all this. Remembering that the whole self that's creating this mini war is an illusion. Letting go of such strong attachment to my views.

So I find this practice, Clear Comprehension and its four parts, to be a very powerful on-the-spot support to seeing the karmic tendencies, stepping aside from them. Just opening my heart more. It's the body of the butterfly. Compassion wing, wisdom wing, and Clear Comprehension provides the body, the center of it.

No matter how deep we go in our practice, things still come up that surprise us and that are hard. We become very skilled at hiding the things that are hardest for us. When we come into a long retreat like this and we're experienced practitioners, if we're practicing in an authentic way, some of these hidden demons are going to surface.

This is not bad, that they're surfacing. Maybe you did come to this retreat to experience a week of bliss and tranquility, but it's probably not what you're going to get. If we practice authentically, whatever has been most buried may surface. At least it's going to lift its little tip up out of the ground. At first we may ignore it, but it keeps poking itself up.

You've all worked with me with Milarepa's story of “invite your demons in for tea,” and that's a first step. We do this with kindness. It's not whether we invite them in for tea but how we invite them in for tea. If we invite them in for tea with the idea, “If only I do this, I can manipulate them and they'll go,” that doesn't work. There has to be an authentic willingness to be in the presence of these demons, to open our hearts.

So we invite them in for tea. Since everything is impermanent, eventually they'll dissolve but maybe not this year, or this decade. How do we work with it when we've invited them in for tea and we see the subtle quality of manipulation? If he'll just drink his tea, then he'll dissolve and he'll go and I'll be back to tranquility again. But he doesn't go, he's just sitting there. My opinions, my anger, my fear. Just sitting there.

I want to do something a little different this morning and read you a part of an article from Tricycle Magazine. It is written by a good friend of mine, Aura Glaser, who lives in Ann Arbor and is a dharma teacher. It's another Milarepa story, one that really cuts right to the heart of this. I could summarize it, but it's so beautifully written that I want to just read it in her words. I'm not reading the whole article, perhaps half of it or a little less than that.

Into the Demon's Mouth; Like the great Tibetan saint Milarepa, we can learn to face our fears with clarity and kindness. By Aura Glaser. To see the whole article:

Tricycle  Spring 2012

The spiritual journey involves stepping into unknown territory with a hunger to know what is true. One of the essential elements of such a life is the understanding that everything we encounter— fear, resentment, jealousy, embarrassment—is actually an invitation to see clearly where we are shutting down and holding back. At some point we realize we can't manipulate life to give us only what we want: the rug gets pulled out regularly. So what do we do? Although our deep-seated tendency is to reject the unwanted in an effort to prevent suffering, it turns out that all the ways we resist actually limit our lives, bringing us pain. And yet how do we find the courage to open to, and accept, all of what we are and all of what is arising in our body and mind? How do we tap the confidence to live with that kind of openness and receive what is arising in the moment, just as it is, with clarity and kindness? How do we let life, with all of its disappointments and sorrows soften our heart? In the Tibetan tradition there is a story about the great cave-dwelling yogi Milarepa that illuminates the often bumpy road we travel in the process of releasing resistance and making peace with ourselves. 

One day Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have got to get rid of them!” He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won't work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence. After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. They simply stare at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving. 

At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we're going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon's mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space. 

One of the things I love about this story is that it doesn't feed our romantic vision of spiritual life. We sometimes imagine that if we just lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won't encounter life's sharp edges. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquility and joy. We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, all of our unresolved trauma pushing up from the depths like a geyser of black mud. The story of Milarepa feels much closer to the truth. Working with all that has been pushed down is a central part of the spiritual journey.

And when those demons appear, it is not so easy to just relax and let go. We usually try a number of different approaches to get these uninvited guests to go back to the dungeon. This story takes us on a journey that includes the well-worn strategies and habitual maneuvers we attempt—and ultimately abandon—in the process of genuinely opening to ourselves and our lives. 

The first stage of this journey is awareness. We begin to see what is happening. Milarepa comes back to his cave, and finds that it is full of demons—maybe they've been there all along, but now he clearly sees them. We experience this dawning recognition as we begin to see the things we have been running from, hiding from, or trying to push away. Our patterns of avoidance and denial can take so many different guises that often we don't even really see them until our awareness begins to deepen. It may be 20 years before we realize, “Oh, I became a doctor because I wanted my parents' approval.” Or “I am always taking care of people because I want others to need me.” Or “I was the life of the party because I felt empty inside.” A lot of times we look at the things that we do without recognizing that what's really driving us is a need for approval, a need to be needed, or a need to fit in. And sometimes our most obvious destructive behaviors conceal something else that is even more difficult for us to acknowledge. We may, for example, be willing to acknowledge our anger, but unwilling to look at the fear and vulnerability beneath it. So we “work on our anger” without touching the raw place underneath. 

I remember years ago when I was living with one of my closest friends how appalled I was when I realized how competitive I was with her. She was getting the attention I wanted for myself, and I was burning with jealousy and resentment. I thought of myself as a loving person who wanted the best for my friends, and the situation revealed a side of me I didn't want to know. Even more upsetting was the growing realization that beneath that jealousy was a deep sense of unworthiness. I came to see that I craved that attention in order to feel good about myself, and not getting it felt annihilating. There was no escaping this situation—I felt like I was in a pressure cooker, and it was incredibly painful. But not being able to hide or run away, I gradually discovered what compassion for oneself really means, and how it really is the basis of an authentic and openhearted life. 

When we don't acknowledge all of who we are, those unacknowledged parts will land in what Jung called the “shadow” that we then project onto others. This is one way of seeing Milarepa's encounter with the demons. He was encountering his shadow—all that he had suppressed and rejected in himself—in the demons. 

Often when a painful feeling arises, we short-circuit that experience; we don't listen to it. We're afraid to touch it. We turn on the television. We spend hours on the computer. We eat a bag of chips. We go to a movie. We shop. We drink too much. We find some way to keep ourselves busy and numb. We have many ways of distracting ourselves so that we don't feel the full impact of pain. Instead of being accepted into consciousness, the feeling goes underground and enters the cells of our body. It doesn't go away; it goes in. Anyone who has had deep body work, has done intensive meditation practice, or has engaged in somatic practices on their own has likely experienced how the body reveals our history in surprising—and sometimes unsettling— ways. Things we've long forgotten, our body remembers with impeccable accuracy.

We may imagine that spiritual awakening is something separate from our physical embodiment, but awakening and embodiment go together. To be embodied isn't just about feeling comfortable in our own skin—it's about a complete opening to life.

This is where awareness comes in. With awareness, even if we shut down, we see ourselves shutting down. That in itself begins to illuminate the territory. We may not be able to stop ourselves from doing the habitual thing, but we are watching ourselves do it. Most of us, when we do become aware of something unwanted in ourselves, have a knee-jerk reaction to it, and do just what Milarepa first did when he saw those demons. We ask, “How can I get rid of this thing?” This second stage on our journey is one of our habitual maneuvers. We see something, and if we don't like what we see, we want to expel it. We recoil. We judge. We attack. I can't begin to count the number of times I've sat with someone in therapy who wants me to help them figure out how to get rid of whatever they don't like about themselves. And sometimes this tendency can be even worse in those with long years, even decades, of dedicated spiritual practice. 

We come upon our greediness, jealousy, or impatience, and the next impulse is to go to war with it. We don't realize that all the while we're strengthening the thing we're fighting against. It's like trying to push a beach ball into the water. Holding it down requires a huge amount of energy, and inevitably it pops back up with equal force, taking an unpredictable direction. But if you give the beach ball space and let it be, it will float effortlessly along the surface. 

Some years ago I read a piece by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in which he described the spiritual warrior as someone who is not afraid of space—not afraid to experience oneself, and one's world, fully. If we're afraid of who we are, we continually feel frantic about filling that space, anything to avoid that persistent unease beneath the surface of our lives. The  fearlessness of the warrior comes from stepping again and again into open space, with body, breath, and heart exposed. It is the fearlessness that is willing to be intimate with fear. 

As Milarepa's story unfolds, we find that there is a discovery process at work. When the direct attack fails, as it inevitably does, he tries another approach—indirect manipulation. He begins this third stage when he decides, “I'm going to teach these demons the dharma.” There is subtle fix-it energy at work here. The indirect manipulation looks like a greater acceptance and accommodation, but it is still rooted in the rejection of experience. We are still bent on avoiding and getting rid of what we don't like. We still don't want to face our most undesirable parts, and we're secretly hoping that maybe we can pass directly into freedom without doing that. There is a lot of room for self-deception here; this is where we can get caught in spiritual bypassing. We begin to use our spiritual practices and all the things we've learned to perpetuate a disconnection from experience and a disembodiment from life. Our idealized image of what it means to be a spiritual person doesn't allow for self-knowledge that contradicts it. 

So the ego moves into a high-rise. It's possible to live for a long time in a luxurious penthouse in the ego's high-rise, while all the lower floors are rotting and decaying. If you're lucky, before you die the whole thing will collapse and you'll find yourself on the ground. The transcendence experienced at the level of ego's high-rise is not embodied. It has not penetrated the matter of our lives. The “gone beyond” of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom, is not this. True transcendence is the deepest form of intimacy because nothing is excluded from its embrace. Transcendence is union. In the union of form and emptiness, our bodies and minds and the whole phenomenal world are not rejected but rather are found to be direct expressions of the sacred. In spiritual bypassing we use spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and basic needs. Avoiding our full humanity actually stunts our spiritual growth and prevents real spiritual maturity. 

There was an article a few years ago in The New York Times Magazine called “Enlightenment Therapy,” about a Western Zen master who had his high-rise collapse. After living for decades in what seemed to be a highly actualized spiritual consciousness, he began experiencing terrible depression, debilitating anxiety, and dark despair. His decades of meditation had not healed his core psychological wounds, and his life was coming apart. In desperation he went to see a therapist, and gradually he was able to open to and heal some of the profoundly fragmenting trauma that he'd experienced in his early life. His depth of meditation had allowed him to “rise above” these wounds until one day the wolves of his undigested pain came howling at his door. He understood, over time, that his “talent” for enlightenment experience was in part an expression of the ability he had developed early in life to dissociate from pain. Through opening to these buried conflicts he was able to move toward a genuine friendship with himself, and a more authentic wholeness. 

This capacity to see every situation in our life as our path marks a shift from willfulness to willingness. This is the fourth stage in the story. Milarepa relinquishes his solutions and strategies and surrenders to the presence of the demons, and to whatever they may have to teach him. At this point we begin to see everything that arises as an opportunity to deepen our understanding and to soften our heart. We view our life situations as inherently workable. We are willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it. And somehow this willingness, this gentle allowing, starts to calm things down. 

In order to be with ourselves in this complete way, we need to be in contact with our inner resources of self-compassion and lovingkindness. Our capacity to turn toward whatever scares or repels us, and remain present with it, depends on our access to inner goodness. When we are able to connect with this ground of inner goodness, it brings a level of confidence and ease that can embrace our full humanity in all its complexity. Without that, we won't be able to stay with whatever's arising. This connection to our inner goodness is like the rope a rock climber uses to stay in contact with the steep rock face. Without that rope of connection, we can free-fall into self-blame and self-hatred and actually intensify the existing wound. Transitioning into this fourth stage requires a bone-deep commitment to honesty. We really have to be willing to look at ourselves, and this takes guts. We aren't going to run away even if we see a demon staring back at us in the mirror. We are going to stick with ourselves no matter what, because we are more interested in what is true than in what is comfortable. As we begin to really look into our lives we ask, and want to know, “What is this uneasiness I don't want to touch?” “What is this unhappiness that is always there despite all my accomplishments?” “What is this anxiety that is always humming beneath the surface of my life?” We have the courage and strength to move toward that which we may have spent a lifetime hiding from. 

Jung commented that we don't become enlightened by imagining beings of light but by making the darkness conscious. That is the work at this stage of the journey. We're retrieving all the lost and exiled places in our lives. In truth, it is life returning for itself. In our willingness to open, we are returning for the life that is still waiting to be received. All that we pushed aside is ever waiting to be received into the arms of our clear-seeing tenderness. Rumi said, “When you embrace hurt, it becomes joy.” Is this true? What happens if we soften toward something when we would usually harden? At this fourth stage, we begin to risk exploring the forsaken landscape of our lives. This terrain can be highly charged, and sometimes we find we don't have the resources in a given moment to move any closer. We get overwhelmed, and our brain starts melting out our ears, our belly starts to flip, we want to vomit, and our whole system feels like it's crashing. So we are present to that. We reconnect with our inner goodness, deepening our confidence, our well-being, and sense of basic trust. And then we try again. We discover that the journey is a dynamic process, full of alternating successes and failures. And we discover that failures are not dead ends. Every time we're up against the wall, we're also standing at a threshold. The invitation to open to our experience—whatever it is from moment to moment—is always there, no matter how many times we need to rediscover it. 

This ultimately brings us to the fifth and final stage of complete letting go, where all resistance is gone. We no longer demand that life be on our terms. Instead, we begin living with the understanding that the source of wisdom is in whatever is in front of us—it is in whatever is arising in this moment. Wisdom is not somewhere else. It's not in someone else. It's right here in our own bottomless heart. 

So Milarepa lets go of that last shred of holding back and places himself in the largest demon's mouth. The demon dissolves into space. In this space, wakefulness radiates with an unconditioned compassion that, in the words of the late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, “goes against nothing and fulfills everything.”

Aura Glaser, Ph.D., is a dharma teacher and psychologist integrating spiritual, psychological, and embodiment work. She is the author of A Call to Compassion, a cofounder of the organization Jewel Heart, and a therapist in private practice who works with individuals across the country. To contact Aura Glaser, email

I haven't read anything here that you don't already know. Rather, I'm simply directing your attention to it. What's going on in your practice? I have nothing against blissful experience, but don't get lost in that spiritual high rise, pushing things away. I'm not suggesting that you should be experiencing pain or discomfort in your practice. There may be hours, even days, of real joy and ease and spaciousness. Wonderful.

Simply constantly be mindful of the question, is there something that's being shut off here? It happens so fast. A little bit of discomfort, maybe physical discomfort. Anger comes up. “I don't want this.” And then, “It's nothing. It's impermanent. It will go.”  Well, it is impermanent and it will go. But maybe that's not really an authentic response, because I'm not relating openheartedly with kindness to the, “I don't want this.” It's like riding a wave. If you get behind, you fall off. You've got to stay present with it.

I remember way back in the first year or two of knowing Aaron. I had been experiencing a lot of fear, anger and confusion. He was talking about all of these feelings that were coming up. And he said to me, meditation is a fire-break. Everything's burning around you. When you come back to your breath, back to the present moment, that which is burning is not burning so intensely right here. It's burning all around you. There's no avoidance of it. But you're giving yourself some space in which to see what it is instead of just running from the fire.

I found that very helpful, and I began really to imagine that, to visualize that in my practice. When something very uncomfortable came up, and I would feel, for me the habitual tendency to run from it, or conquer it, or whatever, to just come back to my breath. Just this moment. Experience the fire break. It's burning all around, but in this space there's calm spaciousness. I don't use the spaciousness to avoid the tumult, just to re-center and rest. The fire is still burning around me. I'm going to have to return to it. There's no avoidance of it. But I'm giving myself this moment of spaciousness.

In that moment of spaciousness I began to learn that whatever I felt was chasing me, whatever was absolutely abhorrent and impossible to be with, such as, back in those days, the intense rage around being deaf, that when I came to it, there was a sense of spaciousness that said, “This too is possible to be with.” I am able to be totally intimate with this rage. And it was only by being intimate with the rage in that way that I began to break through it and know that which was not raging.

I thought here of something related that I want to share with you. I'm going to read from my chapter, “No Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body, Mind” from the anthology Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Dilemma of Embodiment, published over 10 years ago by Shambala (Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, editors). I had been meditating for a number of years, had made some peace with my deafness, with the anger, but I knew there was something that I had to get to. I'm reading about one page of the piece, starting with the words: “It took me many years to really understand the nature of my suffering, and even longer to understand and heal my relationship with my deafness...”

(The whole piece is attached; I read mostly from ”READ FROM HERE”  on page 8, to near end)

No Eye, Ear, Nose...

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

No form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or objects of mind...

Prajnaparimita Hridaya Sutra


 No ear; no sound; no realm of hearing: in 1972 I lost my hearing and all the inner ear nerves which effect balance.  This loss has been my life's greatest burden and greatest gift.

I dealt with this loss the way I'd always dealt with difficulties, which was to put my energy into the coping and not allow myself any self-pity. I was the mother of an infant, and although I felt  vulnerable and sick, my upbringing didn't allow me to be needy.Coping “well” helped me to feel safe and in control at a time of my life when my physical condition was so terribly out of control.  I couldn't hear; I couldn't even stand, walk, read or focus my eyes as the world swirled dizzily by my sick-bed in nauseating spirals.  I was encapsulated in a bubble  which none of the world's voices could penetrate.

After a month I began to crawl like a baby, knees rubbing sore on the hardwood floors. Slowly I learned to pull myself to my feet and took my first steps, stumbling across the eternity between dresser and door, door and bookshelf, keeping my balance visually.   Lip-reading was not yet possible for me but at last my eyes could focus enough to read.

The Buddha tells us to “cultivate the body,” but I abandoned the body like some discarded rag..  I denied my pain and grief, denied the new limits of my body, pulled myself together and coped. I coped well on the surface. I had a loving husband and friends, and fulfilling work as an sculptor and university teacher.   I had two more beautiful children after I became deaf. I pushed away the anger and fear which threatened the safety of my life.  

It is no surprise that  I felt increasingly separate. One to one conversation was fine  but  when several people were talking together  I felt like I was outside a window, looking in at a group gathered in warmth around a feast-laden table. I could only sit outside in the cold, and watch  them  with  longing. Always  this glass pane of silence divided us.

Of course friends tried to include me. They spoke slowly. Many learned to finger spell. Someone would fill me in on others' conversations. Soon I saw that it wasn't their thoughtlessness  but  my longing and anger that caused me to suffer.  That realization was almost worse. because then I began to criticize myself for not appreciating the loving concern of  those around me.

It became clear that I needed to investigate my sense of separation. Indeed,  my suffering forced such practice on me,  How to do the needed work?  I was young. I had not yet met Buddhist practice. My Quaker devotional practice of many years nurtured me but gave me no tools to be more fully present.

To attend the pain of daily life became my practice.  I was a sculptor. Part of the work of a sculptor is creative but there are also hours of drudgery,  polishing or filing huge pieces of bronze,  for example, .  Before I became deaf I used to play music in my studio as entertainment during the  non-creative times. Suddenly there was no entertainment, nothing  but the echo of my own thoughts. For the first nine months I memorized songs and sang to myself, but finally, this wore thin.  Each day in the studio brought deeper discomfort.

What follows comes from my journal, written as I began to attend to that which cried for healing - not the deafness but the illusion of separate self.

 March  1:  Last week in class we were talking about the joy of creativity and some students commented  that they loved that part of art but found much of the work boring. A student asked me what I “do” all day in my studio; am I always focused on my work?  I felt some embarrassment as I told him about memorizing songs and singing to myself to combat the boredom.  

 Why was there embarrassment? Later, I realized that I'm losing a big chunk of each day by labeling it as “boring.”  I'm also escaping from the pain of my deafness  Finally, I'm teaching the students that this pattern is okay.  While meditating this morning  I made the decision not to entertain myself the next few weeks but just to watch the thoughts and emotions and see what I've been running from.

 March 2:   Not diverting myself while I work is the hardest thing I've ever done. I was cleaning the edges of a large piece with a power grinder and then with a file. After about an hour I felt so much restlessness and anger I had to stop and go for a walk.

 March 3:  This morning  I tried to  focus on my hands.  Can I just watch their motion, knowing I'm filing when I'm filing?

 Later: No! It doesn't work. It became a chant, “filing up, filing down,” and had nothing to do with the experience of filing. There is such boredom with filing. Question: what is boredom?

 March 4:  I am so filled with anger, I don't know what's happening. I tried  filing again, “up, down...”  and again the words had nothing to do with the experience.  I finally stopped and admitted to myself how much I hate this aspect of the work. There's nothing to do but file. A trained ape could do it.  I'm feeling rage that my deafness has deprived me of the means to make this work bearable -  listening to radio and feeling connected to people.

 I  took a long walk and asked myself what I'm really angry at. I don't hate the filing; I hate the deafness!  I hate the silence! Why do I hate the silence so much?

 March 7:  I walked around the meadow yesterday with Mike  [my 11 month old son] on my back. He fell asleep so I walked around the marsh and through the woods. It's the longest I've walked since  I got sick. While walking, I realized I'm deaf here too but there's no anger. My mind is very still when I walk, not asking for entertainment. What's the difference? I feel connected to the trees, the sky.  There's nothing I'm pushing away; therefore I don't need diversion. The singing is  diversion, not from the boredom of grinding sculpture but from the intensity of the anger and  pain of isolation.

 March 8:  While meditating this morning a wisdom deep within whispered, “Breathe....”

 Later: I started working with the piece that still needs seams bronzed, using the welding torch. I must pay attention or I get burned.  Breathe?  I realized that when I work with the torch and am paying close attention, breath is very present. I began to watch myself breathing as I worked; no that's not quite right. I began to watch the breath moving in and out, the way I hold it with each circular motion of torch to rod, release when the bronze drips, hold it again as hand moves closer to the fire.  It flowed all together, hands, fire, bronze, breath.  I started to feel a great joy, like I was part of a dance. I don't understand it at all, but the morning's work flowed effortlessly, even joyfully, past.  

 March 11:   Today I tried breathing while I filed. Attention shifted, almost imperceptibly, from breath to the movement of the hands, but the experience was different than last week when the noting of “up, down” was disconnected from the actual hands. Today I was just watching the hands, not forcing them, engaged in the same “dance” as with the breath and welding. I experienced something rather strange that I don't have words for, almost an intimate connection with the file and sculpture, a kind of love-making. It most definitely wasn't boring!

 I still don't know what “boredom” is.

 March 15:  Today I  found myself crying silently as I worked, just feeling sadness and letting tears run down my cheeks, not trying to push the reality of my deafness away. .  The sadness is clean. It's uncomfortable, but workable.

 What changed the same filing from “boring” to deeply connected ? It's continued that way for five days. With “boring” there was anger, not at the work but at the deafness which kept me from diverting myself from the work. I couldn't get away from  “look what happened to me - not fair;”  and all of that. It burned. By ending  “boring” I allowed some of that pain without all the “stop feeling sorry for yourself” shit I've been spouting.  Feeling sorry for myself doesn't solve anything, but maybe judging my feelings doesn't solve anything either.  When I stay with the work, with my breath, with my hands, my mind stops trying to use thought to lead me to safety. I'm just there.

 March 19:  I can't control my mind with conscious will. Therefore, I can't keep myself safe and comfortable.  I don't know how to phrase this. I'm beginning to see that my deepest pain is not from what's happening or not happening in my life but from my relationship with it. My pain is not from the deafness but from how much I want to be rid of the deafness. But how can I ever make friends with this silence which so devastates me?

 March 26:  Non-boredom is connection! It doesn't accompany connection; it is connection, a mind state in which I'm totally connected!  Boredom is separation. When I'm separate from myself (i.e. disallowing my thoughts and feelings) , I'm separate from my family, from my work.

 April 2, 1973:   Has it really been just a month that I've been working this way? I find deep joy in it, am finding I very much look forward to being in the studio. It's become a time of deep focus and peacefulness. At one level mind is jumping around and at another level it's totally concentrated, just watching the jumping with much spaciousness and no obsession to control. It's the most peaceful thing I've ever done. I enjoy grinding seams! The bronze seems alive, responsive. Even “boredom” has become interesting!


 It took me many years to really understand the nature of my suffering and even longer to understand and heal my relationship with my deafness,  For all those years my day-long practice was just to breathe and create, breathe and  file or weld, breathe and  be. I spent hours a day, month after month, in this way for over a decade.

 In those years my meditation practice changed and deepened.  My suffering was less intense but still present and increasingly, practice led me to investigate the nature of that suffering and to understand how it grew out of a sense of separation, an agony of aloneness. What was separate? How had I become ensnared in what my deepest meditations taught me was illusion?

At one point I began to have nighttime dreams of a giant surf, of wanting to swim but finding the waves huge and forbidding. Every morning when I sat to meditate, the question would arise of whether I wanted to go down to the beach in my meditation, to a non-physical but still wild sea.  My answer was always "no." It became harder and harder to meditate. My back began to ache, first just while I was sitting, then in anticipation of it. I knew I was running from something, but I still wasn't clear what it was.

Finally, one morning during meditation I said "yes." and went to the beach, opening to the experience of  the waves while I sat. What follows comes from my journals,  

 Feb. 19: The surf is huge, the waves dark. I understand that I must submerge myself. I must take a single step into the unknown. A wave crashes down. I step into its ebb and see the next wave tower above me, black belly, white foam, feel it slap me under, roll me in its power. I am drowning. I can't breathe. Desperately I force my eyes open. I breathe deeply, gasping breaths of cool air in the safety of my room. I stop trembling. I close my eyes. I am back on the same beach. I do the whole thing again. Over and over and over. How much time goes by? My watch tells me later that it really was hours.

 I beg for help. No! Assurance that I can do it. (An aside here. Aaron was there. When I begged for help, Aaron said, “No, you can do it.” But this was for publication in an anthology, so we left Aaron out rather than take the space needed to explain who he was.) Suddenly, in the midst of a terrible wave, Barbara, the strong swimmer, takes over. "Don't fight it,” I hear my voice saying.  “Be one with it." I start to swim with the wave. I gather momentum, I dive down and come up in the calmer swells beyond. I return to shore and do it again, and again, until I can enter the water, not without fear, but knowing how to harmonize with this previously overwhelming force. I am complete. All that I need to bring to this wave is within me.

 Coming out of the sitting, I began to reflect: death is not an end but just another step. It is the step before birth. I need fear neither. It is all part of the process.

 I began to do metta meditation. "May I be healed; may I find peace; may all beings be healed and find peace...."

 So I had accepted my deafness as a death, and I had learned that I could survive that one step into the unknown, could allow myself to be overwhelmed, but I still didn't know where this was going.

 Feb. 20: This morning I felt like I'd never meditated before. I couldn't sit still. I couldn't quiet my mind from its turmoil. My back, which has continued to hurt through these weeks, ached horribly. My legs were cramped; my forehead itched; I was alternately freezing and sweating. Most of all I felt so totally alone.  "Sit with it," I told myself. "Just watch it. Watch all the pain and anxiety and see where it's going. Watch yourself wanting so desperately for things  to be different." After well over an hour I got up. I walked around for a few minutes. The aloneness, the agitation came with me. I sat again.

  The isolation became overwhelming. Searching for something that might help, I reached for the lines of the 23rd psalm  "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil..." Into the space  I had opened through this small kindness to myself came the understanding:  "You are never alone, but this is the isolation into which you've bound yourself. When do you remember feeling like this before? When do you last remember really needing that psalm

  And with a rush all the memories came back. I saw those first weeks of my illness. All sound was gone. I couldn't focus my eyes. To turn my head even a bit brought waves of dizziness. I felt  helpless and alone.  I realized, in this morning's  instant of remembered pain, that in 16 years I have never cried for my pain.  

When I understood how I'd buried this pain, I just sat there on the floor and cried, and cried. The remembering hurt, but not nearly as badly as burying it had hurt. I wept for the loss of my hearing, I wept for the aloneness, I wept for the fear, I wept for the one in a glass prison, seeing, but totally cut off from the world. All that week I remembered and cried.

I had raged at my deafness but never allowed the pain into my heart. I simply buried it, and met any feelings of self-pity with contempt. I see that my deepest separation was from myself....

 Feb. 21:  Last night I shared this new awareness with Hal and cried with him, and felt his love. Today I lay in bed before dawn, in that same bed where I was once so ill, and cried for the frightened young woman who had to cope with this illness. I reached out to my ears, gently searching for the nerves that were oxygen starved and dead. They seemed to ask me for forgiveness for failing me.  I touched my ears, that part of me that I've so often cursed, with love. Finally I reached out to myself, to the self I've so often criticized for feeling self-pity, for not "trying harder." "Barbara, I forgive you; Barbara, I love you."

Today I find I am no longer “deaf,” only that I hear on a different level, hear the silence! It is a wonderful gift!  Yes, there's still pain when my children laugh and I know I've missed the beauty of that sound. No, there is no longer suffering. My deafness reminds me to keep my heart open to the 10,000 joys and sorrows of us all.

End of reading...


This is what I ask of you, and nothing less. Each in your own way,  be as courageously authentic with your experience as you can, but only with kindness, no force. Always inviting a deeper opening, a deeper awareness, the deepest authenticity of which you are capable in that moment. And know it's going to keep going deeper, deeper, deeper. You're never going to get to the end of it, and that's fine. But gradually you start to know the immense capacity of the heart to hold all this pain. The deep dharma wisdom seeps through with the real knowledge, it's all impermanent and none of it is based on a separate self. But you're not using those understandings for spiritual bypassing anymore, as Aura puts it,  but rather it becomes the ground on which we can finally rest.

(taping ends)