This past week I received an unexpected letter from an old friend of my mom’s. My mom passed away, quite unexpectedly, about 5 years ago at the young age of 71. My mom, Sally, was a vibrant, energetic, and positive person, who did a whole lot for a lot of people, and was well-loved by many.
My mom’s friend described some of my mom’s wonderful qualities – always making the best of every situation, her enormous capacity to care for others, the importance of her family, her ability to work endlessly for causes she cared about, and her love of being surrounded by friends. She also reminded me of my mom’s tendency to be very private with her feelings, and her ability to get her own needs met without much sharing, and her endless capacity to put others’ needs before her own.
My mom was almost always in good health. But even if she wasn’t, you would have had a hard time knowing it. Within a short period of time, she went through treatment and recovery from two kinds of cancer, lost her mother, and had a serious thyroid disease. And yet I never saw her shed a tear, or in fact complain about any of the treatments. She always had time for entertaining her friends, cooking dinner for her family, and working. In some ways, she was a model of strength. And yet, because I didn’t ever see her vulnerable, I think I might have missed out on a deeper connection with her.
If you have met me, you probably know that, while I share some of my mom’s wonderful qualities, I am not one to hold my tongue about my feelings. Since my family members weren’t big believers in feelings, it took me many years and some expensive therapy to figure out what I was feeling, and learn how to share my feelings in a way that actually helped get my needs met. And I like to share my negative feelings. I consider this processing to be a part of my spiritual path.
And yet after reading this letter, and remembering my mom, I started to wonder whether there was something I could learn about not always needing to share my negative feelings. Is there something between Pollyanna (“I’m fine, everything’s perfect”) and needing to vent every time something difficult comes my way? I recently saw a dear friend who is going through a difficult break-up, and when I asked her how she was, she said she was fine, with a smile on her face. When I prodded a little deeper, she confessed that she was having a very hard year, but she didn’t want to keep dwelling on the negative. She wanted to start to focus more on the positive aspects of her life.
So I ask myself, and I ask you too, how do we keep our joy and gratitude alive without losing touch with our authentic feelings? And how much time and energy is most helpful to spend “processing” our negative feelings? Can we simply feel them and let them go? I have found that sharing difficulties in my life has been a way to connect on a deep level with other people. If you saw the movie, I Heart Huckabees, you may remember in the conclusion of the movie, they suggest that human beings connect with each other only by witnessing each other’s suffering.
The Buddha discovered that dukkha or unsatisfactoriness is a necessary condition of living our life. He suggested that our dukkha is caused by either grasping at pleasant sensations, or pushing away difficulties. If we spend too much time complaining or dwelling on our negative feelings, are we grasping at the instant gratification of getting attention rather than sitting with the difficulty itself? And if we pretend that nothing is wrong, are we pushing away our difficulties? How much sharing of our suffering do we need to do in order to connect to others, and when is it too much?
Thich Nhat Hanh describes using our mindfulness to bring awareness to our positive elements:
Our body and our consciousness are like a garden: there may be a number of trees dying in that garden, but that does not mean that the whole garden is dead. Maybe the majority of the trees are still vigorous, beautiful. That is why we should not allow the negative to overwhelm us, because there are still many things that work well within our bodies and our consciousness. The therapist can invite his client for a walking meditation session, and during that session, he will try to put his client in touch with the positive elements within him or around him. In the Buddhist practice this is very important. Mindfulness is the energy we generate, and first of all we want that energy to help us get in touch with the positive things-joy and happiness.
Dear friends, this is the koan (an unanswerable question/riddle) that I am sitting with. If you have any insights, I would love to hear them. What I do know is that the practice of yoga, including sitting meditation and everyday mindfulness, are what I trust to help find the way. I am heading off for several weeks of vacation and retreat, and perhaps I will discover some insights sitting on the beach, listening to a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, or being together with extended family. I will certainly let you know. And if it rains the whole time, or we have other difficulties while we are there, I am sure I’ll still want to tell you all about my troubles. But with practice, perhaps I can avoid getting stuck in my dukkha, and remember all of the positive parts as well. I’ll let you know.
much love and joy,