Sangha Reflections on Resilience

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Resilience


My experience of resiliency has been both bitter and sweet. I liken it to the way I feel when chewing the seeds of a pomegranate or drinking its juice; there’s a bite to it that cannot be ignored. If you want to get to the sweet you have to be clear that you’re gonna taste some bitter. If you want to receive the benefits of the fruit, you must acknowledge its entire constitution, and acknowledging the fruit means you must eat it in its entirety. It’s a package deal. It is a meditative practice that requires us to accept both the sweetness and bitterness of life.

I dream of a world that’s accepting of my unique and gentle spirit; where I can be safe and comfortable in my skin. There are days when I must acknowledge that my longing for safety appears to be antagonistic to my particular physical embodiment. I can’t deny the stories of all the black people who have been murdered without just cause. Nia Wilson, a beautiful and delightfully energetic eighteen year old Black woman was taking the Bart train with her sister and a white man decided it was time to maim her and take her life. Who does that? I must say her name and eat the fruit. Yet, I believe that anything less than an equitable world is unacceptable, and I hold this as an aspiration for myself and for the generations to come. They deserve a better world that can move beyond our trauma and hatred of difference.

We can be free. It might seem light years away, but I think life is about daring to dream the impossible dream. Resilience has become a fact for many choosing to live their lives with dignity, it’s not a luxury. If there’s anything this time is asking us, whether we’re on the cushion or marching in the streets, it’s asking us, where is your resiliency?

—Itoro Udofia

 

When I first walked through the doors of the Brooklyn temple, my plan was to develop a mental health framework that would stop my recurring bouts of clinical depression. Like many people, I thought meditation was a relaxing process that would quell my anxiety and give me perspective. That turned out to be merely an entry point that opened the way to a different kind of resilience: the ability to navigate through all aspects of my life.

Even though there was a lot I didn’t understand, I loved how Shugen Roshi connected mysticism and daily life. I also thought, “I don’t need to be on a Path. I just need to get to the end of the block.”

One day, having weathered a depression relapse, I realized I was ready for more. “I have reached the end of the block,” I told Roshi. “I want to know which way to go.” “We don’t pressure people to do anything,” he replied. “But the door is wide open for any level of involvement.” And so I stepped through that door. I even did a month-long residency at the temple, quickly divesting myself of the notion that everyone there was an elven-type ethereal being. They’d even put me in a provisional student robe!

I sought out counseling that wove together mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy, working through the issues before they turned into a full-fledged episode. I continued my daily zazen and attended a few short sesshins. As I was winding up counseling, the tectonic plates of my life shifted. Evicted from my apartment, I found myself with a job but not much else. I couch surfed for a year, moved into a new apartment, and eventually lost that job too. I have navigated all this with relative equanimity, healing myself along with the Temple, and deepening my practice further by becoming a formal student. And perhaps there is an element of my original idea of resilience in there after all: thriving no matter what comes my way.

—Theresa Braine

 

Resilience is one breath at a time, staying in the center of the storm. Sitting with my breath on the cushion in the midst of physical pain or emotional upheaval or cycling thoughts, sitting with my breath in every activity. Resilience is staying awake, staying present when everything is screaming fight! flee! hide! Learning how to listen to those voices, learning how to communicate with those voices, learning how to offer peace to those voices. Resilience is acting on the behalf of someone who is angry and resentful because they don’t understand yet why things are happening the way they are, who needs love and support that I fail to give as often as I succeed. Resilience is finding work again after a job falls apart (four times in sixteen months). Resilience is aiming to be true to myself, even when others disregard, turn away, reject, abandon, even when the world feels crowded, loud and intense. Resilience is knowing that everyone has their own weather.

—Andy Jikai Kriger

 

When I was living in New York City in my 20s I was trained to do a form of acupuncture to help people recover from alcohol and drug addiction, providing a lifeline for many going through the trials of getting clean. The acupuncture clinic was based in a hospital in the Bronx and the facilities were modest, the staff overworked. 

As part of the training, I attended Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings to hear first-hand from men and women who were in recovery. Many told stories about harrowing experiences they’d had while using, and the suffering they and their families had gone through as a result of their addiction.

About midway through the meeting, a wiry, middle-aged man rose to speak. He talked about a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse starting as a teen. At one point he’d been in an accident and injured his eye; he’d been partially blinded for years and suffered immense pain. When he got finally sober he’d had his eye looked at and the doctors found a piece of glass that had been lodged in it for over a decade.

I remember looking at this man and wondering at his sheer survival. The visceral horror of a shard of glass in your eye for a minute, much less years, was hard to take in. But he had told about his life matter-of-factly, as all of the speakers had. This was not the recounting of an epic triumph, but the all too familiar story of a regular person grappling with the fallout of structural injustice.

 His teaching for me, one that I’ve come back to over the years, is this: heroism is actually the unsung, unheralded survival of day-to-day life. Hearing what this man had gone through and been able to speak about on the other side was profoundly moving. People’s ability to bounce back from astonishing suffering with a continued will to live is itself a simple, rough-hewn miracle.

—Katherine Jifu Jamieson

 

I was separated from my mother for six years, starting from birth. The infant home in which I was placed was overcrowded and understaffed. I remember many times I cried myself to sleep. I had no support system and was very lonely.

Throughout my early life I felt insecure and relied on alcohol and drugs. After hitting bottom I forced myself to stop my cycle; this is when I found Zen Mountain Monastery.

When I heard about the immigration crisis and of mothers and fathers being separated from their children, it pierced my heart. Although it brought up very emotional feelings I decided to post my story online, asking people to share. The response was very gratifying, as many did share my story. The release of emotions for me was unbelievable—I felt recharged.

Now I have a wonderful wife and I am grandpa to three beautiful boys. For the first time in my life, I have enjoyed the experience of being with a newborn child.

—John Konshin Murray

 

There I was in a village in Nepal I’d seen in National Geographic. My trekking group was camped for two nights in a vacant yak pen. During night two, I became very ill with a GI condition, and all night rushed to the tiny outhouse. In the morning my tent mate and I were led to a local inn while everyone else went to the next destination. The inn keepers and I didn’t speak a common language but they communicated incredible kindness, checking on me, offering food, and scouting the village to find me a Coke. The next day, a guide came to retrieve us. The air was thin and the trail steep.  All I could do was put one foot in front of the other, breathe, and let go of the thought, “I’m going to die.” Two days later we were camping on the grounds of the Tengboche Monastery alongside trekkers from many countries. As the stars loomed large above, I felt deep awe, gratitude and connection.

I ask myself, “Can I apply this same strategy when dealing with the range of emotions that arise in response to narrow-mindedness and prejudice?” Listening to the news, my first reaction is to think, “I’m not like that.” Friends talk to me about the dishonesty and extreme views of some political players. Who are those people?” A sense of self-righteousness comes over us. Would it be possible for me to approach these people with a spirit of kindness and a willingness to understand their perspective? In Nepal, the language that united us was compassion. Can I bring that intention into the current climate here? Can I deeply listen to the fears of those people in order to mend the separation? Perhaps I can, if one step at a time I see their world as our world, breathe, and allow my own reactive thoughts to come and go. Bearing witness without expectation seems important. 

The same stars continue to shine in the same sky. My faith in deep connectedness remains in spite of appearances.

—Donna Shoho Forgey

 

In my artwork, I have been drawing and painting and stitching a lot of circles lately. I can’t seem to get enough of them. Yet, I began to notice a funny background sensation with each one that I made. When I was able to put a word to the feeling, I realized that it was shame. Who in the world feels shame about drawing a cirle? How absurd! I followed the sensations and thoughts back until I remembered my years as an art student in the 1980s when my friends were all male painters who openly mocked “women’s art.” Female artists who made circles were at the top of the list. The line of thought was circle = vagina = weak, sentimental, soft, horizontal, dependent on feelings rather than cool, hard, vertical, facts and logic and strength and power…and I bought into it completely. It makes me want to cry for all of myself that I have lost and pushed away, consciously or unconsciously, in order to make art that would meet the approval of my male artist friends. The truth is that my friends really didn’t know better. Still – ouch. Thirty years later and I still feel that stain of shame on drawing a circle.

I feel that painful moment during every sesshin as well.  It arises like clockwork, a moment of white hot rage directed at every man who has violated and negated the humanity of women through their thoughts, words and deeds. In one Thursday morning dokusan with Roshi, through my rage-filled tears, I realized that I cannot live this way. I saw that my anger was really profound grief for the enormous loss that white men’s greed, anger and ignorance has caused for all of us (themselves included). In some ways, the grief is so much more painful than the anger, yet it also feels more correct. I can hold this grief and not be consumed by it in a way that I cannot hold the anger.

All of this reminds of what Shoan once said to me, “the good stuff never happens when you are sitting pretty.” Through the rage-filled tears, the shame and the grief; something is there. My job is to stay still and see what it shows me – it just might be the good stuff. 

—Robyn Ikyo Love

 

She is smaller now than she has ever been. Stooped and losing inches to arthritis and osteoporosis and something else—the cares and hurts of old women. So I make fun, of course, because I am her daughter and have fallen pretty close to her tree. I shrink myself down a few inches when I stand next to her—at least 6 inches above—or kiss her on the top of her head and call her “shorty.” She slaps me and tells me how she can’t wait to see from the other side, when she is dead, and how she will laugh at me because she knows I will miss her. She is my mother and she is all resilience.  The kind of resilience that I don’t want to detail because I don’t want to remember what life handed her again and again. I think I should say something like “7 times down, 8 times up.” But I don’t think she ever went down. We, her daughters, are mortal, so we’ve gone down and come back up. That’s what life requires. But she is both the hurricane and its eye—the unnerving force of nature, and the calm center. Always, always spinning forward.

—Sandy Joshin Del Valle

 

Life is fragile. We often forget just how fragile it is until accidents happen. It is in the face of accidents that true resilience often shines.

One clear October day in 2003, my colleague and friend Christina left for a bicycle ride. Christina was physically strong and an excellent bicyclist. But that day a branch got stuck in the spokes of her front wheel. Her bike stopped instantly and she flew over the handlebars, landing square on her chin. Her face was smashed and worse yet she suffered from broken vertebrae in her neck, paralyzing her almost completely from the neck down and making her body the site of an ongoing “neurological storm,” as Christina calls it, that is nearly incessant.

I remember the day of her accident vividly, and the coming together of the community around Christina and her partner Janet after her accident in the form of dinners delivered to their back door and other services. But it was while reading Christina’s memoir, A Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain, that I realized the true meaning of resiliency. And not only Christina’s but also Janet’s. Together they show the power of love and what it means to suffer and yet remain strong. All of us who have sat sesshin, not to mention everyday zazen, have experienced considerable pain in our legs, necks, shoulders, and heads. While this pain is real and often intense, it usually disappears soon after standing up again. Yet for Christina there is no standing again. Still, in the face of constant physical pain and the difficulty of regaining her life as an academic, Christina and Janet have demonstrated true resiliency, overcoming difficulties with everyday activities so that Christina can once again devote herself to her students, colleagues, and friends.

—William Kando Johnson

 

In the wake of my Mother’s death some time ago, I lost my way. I came to the Apple Blossom Sesshin hard-grieving, listless, and spinning.

One evening my teacher said, “Just remember that you have gone through it many, many times. You know how to do this.” 

This teaching struck me and I took it to heart. Over the years I have worked with it in difficult and smooth times. It expands and contracts without any limit and travels easily. For me, this long view forward and backward is a useful way to develop resilience.

—Warren Chikan Bacon

 

In my work as a therapist I’ve been astonished by human resilience. It’s actually not uncommon for me to work with someone who has experienced horrific abuse yet has somehow managed to internalize a sense of decency, compassion and kindness, often in spite of never having that modeled for them growing up. I have noticed a similar tendency in communities and groups of people: in my life I have been deeply moved and inspired by the resilience of communities that have been systematically and brutally oppressed and yet maintain a sense of spiritual connection, beauty and the ability to express joy. I feel I have much to learn from them.

And it’s not just humans. Life is resilient, regardless of what form it takes. It cannot be stopped: it will just change forms and appear in a different way. I think of water: it always finds its way. Life may get beaten down or beaten back, but it cannot be entirely destroyed, and it will come back in whatever way it can, even if that way seems twisted or malformed. It always moves towards the light, it’s source of strength and energy, and brings with itself the nourishment of the earth. Things may die or be killed or destroyed, but life itself never is. I know this is true for life on earth, but I suspect it is true beyond the bounds of this planet as well. Ultimately, I think life is all there is, and it always prevails.

—Donna Nicolino

 

The robe of resilience—a cricket outside my window. The lonely firefly on the street, its friends hanging in the backyard with the mosquitoes. The garden seeps out sideways and in the back door. Seeping water through the roof and walls and cellar, the plaster falling in sheets and chunks and specks. Rotting like the clothes on the man on the street, homeless all of us, searching and seeping through like water like the wildlife in my kitchen seeping and breathing and breeding and building building, demolishing, rotting, and building again, breathing, pulsing—this city of sponges, a coral reef—growing every moment. A million plastic ice coffee cups. A billion straws. Ten thousand texts. The mind moves in between the spaces between the gaps in my heart. This stomach churning and hungry for my home my mountain. The whole forest is waiting for me. 

Maybe that which I always thought was true was just a lie someone told me, unknowingly out of their own ignorance. But how could I be angry at space? There is room enough here in this vast sponge body, room enough, not apart. Squished in like the number 2 train at rush hour, like a boundless blue ocean of rolling hills. Big fat generosity. You say my loneliness is delusion? I say let me be human. This stream went underground after the land was stripped. Little by little. Learning to trust.

—Polly Horne

 

I met my to-be wife in India where we both worked at a charity for street children and somehow both felt an immediate connection. After a year we got married and planned to move back to Ireland, my home.

I had hoped that we could travel soon after getting married but we had to negotiate the complicated bureaucracy of India to get her a passport, which required other documents first. Countless times we found ourselves back at step one. On a couple of occasions we found ourselves in dangerous situations with the wrong people. It can be very difficult, particularly for poorer people, to get passports, voting cards, etc. in India.

All the while India was taking its toll on me—the heat, pollution and overpopulation compounded by the stress and worry that we may never get the documentation to allow Candice to travel abroad. I really hit the wall and found myself truly exhausted in my whole being, yet I hung in there. The repetitive pattern was to run away as I felt I was going to go crazy with the pressure. I was truly vulnerable and felt very fragile. We resigned to the fact that we would have to live in India long term.

My practice was mostly Christian, sometimes Buddhist with some Indian influences thrown in the mix. I did sit regularly and prayed often which gave me strength, though I did lose my stability again and again.

In hindsight, I can see that there was an inner resilience, a quality other than what I had known. Somehow I found my way, at times moment by moment. I went to stay at a Christian ashram for a short while and found some stability again.

Eventually, we indeed were able to move to Ireland together.      

—Stephen Murphy

 

Roger has a broken wing, Samson has a lame foot. They are the last of the thirty-eight Canada geese we have lived with since early June. The flock flew and these two remained. Then yesterday, Samson disappeared; Roger remains, walking around unafraid but not engaging with us either. It’s heartbreaking as we imagine the pain of watching his brothers and sisters fly away.

Then I heard about J35, the Orca killer whale who delivered the pod’s first calf in three years. Her baby lived for less than an hour. She spent the next seventeen days carrying the newborn on her head. It’s so unimaginable, this carrying of the dead baby. Did she even understand her calf was dead, or was she following mothering instincts? Was she ‘grief stricken,’ to use human language?

I lost my mother twenty years ago, but I don’t believe that many years could have passed. My grief is still so close to the surface—I miss her—and strangely with every year that passes I look more and more like her.

What does resiliency look like? Roger the goose will undoubtedly lose his life to a predator, but for now he lives, drinking water from a muddy puddle and eating insects and seeds. The desire to live is strong. The Orca whale mother finally released her decomposing calf and returned to the pod where she was seen feeding on salmon and cavorting, signs of her resiliency.

Three days later, I can’t believe it, but a young goose appeared and is staying very close to Roger. He is no longer alone! Roger and his new pal are eating, napping, and engaging us with their presence. We know they might not be here when we wake tomorrow, but they have shown anything is possible. Everything is possible.

I feel an ever-growing love for those who were once close to me but are no longer in their bodies. I don’t know how this works but am truly grateful to have such connection.

—Shinji Hoffman

 

Daido Roshi always said “trust yourself,” but I found that when you’re in the painting studio, you are alone—and you don’t know. It’s not that you won’t feel anxious or fearful, doubting or worried, or hesitant. It’s not that you don’t feel all those things, but you allow yourself to recognize them and don’t let them hold you back, because you have some deep trust or prior experience of pleasure of entering.

Allowing things to be crap and allowing things to fail—and they have to fail—because you can’t know what to do next unless you make a mistake. Say to yourself, “oh really? That doesn’t look right.” Or, “That was terrible, why did I do that? Fine.” Then you have an example, an experience of “oh, okay, I can move on from there, I can take a step, and maybe that’ll offer me something else. I don’t know but I’ll try it.”

Like with beginning to do zazen, it’s just a way of going on forward in the discovery. It is learning how to allow yourself to be in those moments of discouragement and hesitancy and not let them stop you. They’re part of it. You have to feel, listen, and respond.

—Michelle Seigei Spark

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