Saying Hello To Your Suffering: The Meaning of No Mud, No Lotus
January 23, 2015 / By Jason at Parallax
I was at the Deer Park Holiday Retreat earlier this month, and the theme this year was “New Year, New You.”
While there, we watched Thich Nhat Hanh’s New Year dharma talk from 2013. In the talk, he said something that was very interesting: “There can’t be a new year if there isn’t also a new you.” If we do not have the intention to water the seeds of transformation within us, he elaborated, the so-called new year will continue to be very much like the old, not only for us, but also the world.
With that in mind, I had the privilege of sharing my own insights on the transformative practice of compassion with many of you at the retreat.
I shared the story of a life-changing incident that occurred many years ago when I was sixteen and volunteering at a community legal clinic for those who could not afford attorneys.
It was while working there as a receptionist that I encountered a very literal case of “saying hello to your suffering.”
One day at the clinic, I picked up the phone to answer a call as I routinely did, and I heard the sound of a woman crying and what sounded like the humming and whirring of a train or subway car pulling into a station.
“My husband has been beating me and I have no money for a divorce. I should jump onto these tracks and kill myself.”
I realize now that this woman had not only called the clinic for help, but had begun the process of saying hello to her suffering. And suffering had said hello to me that day.
Even as she contemplated her own annihilation on those steel tracks with the train arriving ever closer, she had enough strength within herself to call a total stranger who happened to be a completely unprepared sixteen year old.
In his latest book No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgment. So the practice is not to fight or suppress the feeling, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness, (pp. 26-27).
Rather than saying to the woman, “I’m only sixteen years old; I don’t know what your suffering is, nor how to help you,” I simply listened to her with all my heart, cradling her suffering gently in my arms.
I listened to her for an hour or more, and gradually the crying stopped and I could not hear the train.
I am not so presumptuous to claim that I saved this woman’s life, but what I can say is that my act of compassion sprouted within her the beginnings of a lotus from the mud.
If you’re going through a difficult time, Parallax hopes that the new year leads to the blossoming of a new you. To help get you started, here’s one of my favorite passages from No Mud, No Lotus:
“There is a Buddhist teaching found in the Sallatha Sutta, known as The Arrow. It says if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least ten times more intense.
The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life—being rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident—are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain. The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety. All these things magnify the suffering. Many times, the ultimate disaster we’re ruminating upon hasn’t even happened.
We may worry, for example, that we have cancer and that we’re going to die soon. We don’t know, and our fear of the unknown makes the pain grow even bigger.
The second arrow may take the form of judgment (“how could I have been so stupid?”), fear (“what if the pain doesn’t go away?”), or anger (“I hate that I’m in pain. I don’t deserve this!”). We can quickly conjure up a hell realm of negativity in our minds that multiplies the stress of the actual event, by ten times or even more.
Part of the art of suffering well is learning not to magnify our pain by getting carried away in fear, anger, and despair. We build and maintain our energy reserves to handle the big sufferings; the little sufferings we can let go.
If you lose your job, of course it’s a normal response to feel fear and anxiety. It is true that in most cases to be out of work is a suffering; and there is real danger attached if you don’t have enough to eat or can’t afford necessary medicine. But you don’t need to make this suffering worse by spinning stories in your head that are much worse than the reality. Some people in this situation may think “I’m no good at this or that,” or “I’ll never get another job,” or “I failed my family.” It’s important to remember that everything is impermanent.
A suffering can arise—or can work itself out—for anyone at any moment. Instead of throwing good energy away on condemning yourself or obsessing over what catastrophes might be lurking around the corner, you can simply be present with the real suffering that is right in front of you, with what is happening right now.
Mindfulness is recognizing what is there in the present moment. Suffering is there, yes; but what is also there is that you are still alive: “Breathing in, I know I’m alive.”
Your eyes still work: “Breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.” To have eyes in good condition is a wonderful thing. Because you have eyes in good condition, there’s a paradise of shapes and colors….”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, available now at booksellers everywhere.