We just returned from sitting a wonderful week-long retreat to find two rooms of our small monastery flooded. With workers coming in, ripping up flooring and carpeting, tearing apart the kitchen and guest room/library, our peace and tranquility could easily vanish, especially with a visiting nun arriving and numerous teaching events on the horizon. Yet, this is relatively minor compared to many challenging circumstances that arise in a human lifetime.
It is useful to reflect on how we tend to meet sudden changes, increased stress, and difficult situations and how we can practice with the minor ones so we are adept in our skills when the major ones come along.
One of our most powerful tools is mindfulness. A wonderful book, “Mindfully Facing Disease and Death” by Bhikkhu Anālayo, clearly describes how the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness can be applied to life’s most challenging events, relieving suffering in the mind in spite of extreme suffering in the body.
Mindfulness also brings relief when we experience mental suffering and stress. A man visited us whose father had recently died. He felt that he had gotten through the roughest part of dealing with his father’s death but was experiencing bouts of extreme anxiety. He wanted to know how to work with these intense feelings. The encouragement to turn towards the feeling, notice where it is felt most strongly in the body and investigate it, brought some immediate relief. The feeling became an object in his experience instead of an all-consuming state of being. As he faced the anxiety, underlying sadness surfaced. He quickly understood that the next instruction to bring metta (loving kindness) to this “holding” of his experience was very different from practicing loving kindness. The combination of mindfulness and applied metta led to a refreshing opening and freeing of the heart.
With a firm foundation in mindfulness, we can apply the member of the four Divine Abidings (loving kindness, compassion, joy or equanimity) most suitable for the situation. Combining these practices provides immediate relief as well as purification of the mind, leading to true freedom from suffering.