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Mindful June 2017

insight We think we need

insight We think we need the conditions of our lives to reliably give us what we want. But we know it will all break down. Frank Ostaseski is a meditation teacher who cofounded the Zen Hospice Project. In 2004, he went on to create the Metta Institute to provide innovative educational programs and professional training to foster compassionate, mindfulnessbased care. hemophiliac father who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion. Years before his illness, he had disowned his gay son. But at the end of life, father and son were both dying of AIDS, lying next to one another in twin beds in a shared bedroom, being cared for by Agnes, the father’s wife and the son’s mother. For some, dying was a great gift. They made reconciliations with their long-lost families, they freely expressed their love and forgiveness, or they found the kindness and acceptance they had been looking for their whole lives. Still others turned toward the wall in withdrawal and hopelessness and never came back again. All of them were my teachers. These people invited me into their most vulnerable moments and made it possible for me to get up close and personal with death. In the process, they taught me how to live. When confronted by such harsh realities in life, or even some small discomfort or inconvenience, our instinctive reaction is to run in the opposite direction. But we can’t escape suffering. It’ll just take us by surprise and whack us in the back of the head. The wiser response is to move toward what hurts, to put our hands and attention gently and mercifully on what we might otherwise want to avoid. Once I was speaking to a group in a rural area in the Pacific Northwest, and we began talking about the possibilities that arise when we stop running away from what is difficult. One of the attendees, a burly middle-aged man with broad shoulders and an even wider smile, spoke up. “That reminds me of telephone poles.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Telephone poles? What do you mean?” I asked. He explained that he once had a job installing telephone poles. “They’re hard and heavy, stand- 74 mindful June 2017

insight Awaken Everyday ing up to forty feet high.” There was a critical moment after you placed a pole in the ground, he said, when a pole was unstable and might topple over. “If it hit you, it could break your back.” His first day on the job, the man turned to his partner and said, “If this pole starts to fall, I’m running like hell.” But the old-timer replied, “Nope, you don’t want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it. You want to get real close and put your hands on the pole. It’s the only safe place to be.” Lovingkindness Retreat A Weekend Retreat Mindfulness for Educators A Weekend Retreat Uncovering a Wound One afternoon when I was about five, I cut my hand while playing with a pocketknife. I was terrified because there was blood everywhere. My mother took one look at the wound and calmly said, “Oh, I think we need the magic towel for this one.” Then she pulled me up onto her lap, wrapped my hand in a towel hanging from the stove, and held me until I began to calm down. After a while, I caught my breath, and she said, “Let’s take a look.” I didn’t want to; it was too frightening. But accompanied by her kindness and reassurance, I was willing to try. Slowly, she unwrapped the towel, and together we looked into the wound. I realized that I would be OK. In that moment, I saw that it is possible and even helpful to turn toward our pain and that there is always the possibility of healing. The secret of healing lies in exploring our wounds in order to discover what is really there. When we allow the experience—creating space and acceptance for it—we find that our suffering is not a static, monolithic thing, but rather it is composed of many elements, including our attitudes toward it. Understanding this, we can work skillfully to alleviate the underlying reactions that exacerbate our problems so that we might ease our suffering. It will only be removed by wisdom, not by drenching it in sunshine or attempting to bury it in a dark basement. Suffering is a pretty dramatic word. Most people don’t think the term applies to them. “I’m not suffering,” they say. They imagine children starving in a famine-struck African country or refugees fleeing war in the Middle East or people afflicted with devastating illnesses. We imagine that if we are good and careful, stay positive, play by the rules, and ignore what’s on the news every night, then it won’t happen to us. We think suffering is somewhere else. But suffering is everywhere. Suffering is falling in love and then becoming complacent. → Living from Your Center: Integrating Mind, Body and Spirit Introduction to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Retreat Meditation for Emotional Healing and Spiritual Transformation Full Funding Available for Educators, Artists and Healthcare Professionals. copperbeechinstitute.org June 2017 mindful 75

June 2017
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