By Richard Brady in December 2002
During the 1996 Plum Village Summer Opening, l stayed in touch with my partner, Elisabeth, through weekly phone calls and regular letter writing. Towards the end of the retreat, I started feeling defensive of my sense of spaciousness on hearing Elisabeth's plans for our time after my return home. Gratefully, I took advantage of an opportunity to share this experience with Sister Jina. After listening quietly to my angst, Sister Jina said, "Richard, in my experience defensiveness is a sign that you are not getting the love you need." I nodded in reply, and she continued, "But, Richard, there is only one person who knows the love you need and can give it to you, and that is yourself. Furthermore, if you give yourself the love you need, you will be able to accept with gratitude the love that Elisabeth offers you."
Sister Jina's wisdom penetrated me but left me perplexed. "Are there practices for giving myself the love I need?" I asked her. Sister Jina went on to describe a two-stage practice. In the first stage I was to hold my five-year-old self in my lap as I meditated and shower him with all the love he needed. After several weeks of doing this, I was to switch and be that five-year-old, sitting on this large lap, and to receive all that love. I began right away. It was deeply satisfying for me to enfold my needy child with love. But when it came time to receive that love, I found it impossible. I tried this practice several more times, always with the same results.
During Thay's twenty-one-day retreat in June, 2000, I experienced a great deal of negativity and self-doubt. This time it was my friend, Eveline, who came to my aid. Eveline described a meditation experience in which she had let her negative emotions swirl around her like a whirlwind. She had sat in the eye of this hurricane, its calm center, breathing and smiling. With Eveline holding my hand, l tried her practice. First I saw my recent distress. Then came pain I had experienced at many earlier times of my life. Finally l saw that times of suffering were not the only things swirling around me. They were interwoven with many other life experiences. After breathing and smiling to all my life for a while, I opened my eyes with a new sense of calm.
Returning home from Plum Village, I found myself constantly in the grips of a whirlwind of negative emotions. At times I would remember to find my way to its calm center. This would help, but only for a while. Then, one night before going to sleep, I read Leslie Rawls's Mindfulness Bell article about transforming her grief over her father's death. In her article she described experiencing her grief as a whirlwind with her little girl caught up in it. She told about repeatedly trying to bring her little girl down without success. Finally, she understood that she had to embrace her child, whirlwind and all. As I read this, I realized that in sitting in my own hurricane's eye, I was creating a false separation between myself and my emotions. Calm was there but not transformation.
The next morning, as l meditated, Sister Jina's self-loving practices came back to me. Suddenly I saw that in attempting to be the child on that big lap, my attention had been entirely on trying to receive love. I had never felt my little boy's fears and neediness. This time l climbed into my child's skin, fears, neediness and all. From that place I was able to feel love's embrace for the first time. Nevertheless, it did not become easy for me to invite up my childhood wounds. While meditating, I might think about my little boy's emotions but not truly experience them. I have found two routes into accessing these emotions. When I have experienced a strong negative emotion such as anger, I have tried to remove myself from the situation in which it has arisen and go sit quietly with my feelings. When I have done this, I have been able to experience childhood emotions underlying my current experience. Also, on several occasions while meditating I have become aware of tensions in my body and, by simply watching these physical sensations have contacted with in them old fears and grief. I did not push away these emotions but accepted them unconditionally. This acceptance not only allowed them to remain present but to intensify. Whatever happened, I held with love and felt myself held with love.
This process is a slow one. I still get defensive, but now l can share this defensiveness with Elisabeth and work with it myself. I have become much better at communicating my relationship needs to Elisabeth and responding lovingly to hers, in part, because I am more able to see doing both as opportunities for growth. With gratitude I thank my Dharma Sisters Elisabeth, Jina, Evelyn, and Leslie for all you have given me.