Some of you may know I moved to Brevard, North Carolina a little over two years ago. I’d rank my relocation as one of my top three, if not number one, in the tough transition category. I lived in the house on Green Winged Teal longer than I’ve lived anywhere. After a few months, I nicknamed my new home “Beaufort of the Mountains.” Brevard begins with a “B.”It’s a small town not yet discovered by throngs, and it’s quaint and cool with terrific people just like Beaufort. Beaufort lounges in spiritual tidal waters. Brevard rests at the foothills of majestic Blue Ridge peaks. Both towns are pieces of heaven.
One of the new habits I am developing is regular attendance with my husband to a Monday night meditation group named “Set Your Week of Peace.” I lack the skill to sit still. My breathing practice is more like heavy sighs mixed with yawns and gasps for air. My mantra is a checklist of to-do items while other group members seem centered and undisturbed, palms up, eyes closed, chests rising. I know this because I’ve peeked. In spite of my Zen defects, I keep trying.
The group chose Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No Mud, No Lotus as our first read for 2023. The subtitle is The Art of Transforming Suffering. After our first night’s meditation, I woke up the next morning with a clearer recognition that suffering and being a witness to pain makes moments of peace and contentment all the more sweet. Hanh says, Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.
Here’s the thing. I don’t like this message. I don’t like pain. Growing up, I’d pass out any time a nurse or doctor approached me with a syringe. Once, in an optometrist’s office, I passed out getting eye drops. Alcohol vapors, white coats, and any healthcare professional prepping a loved one for an outpatient procedure causes me to leave a bedside for fresh air and a chair. I’m better these days. I donated blood for the very first time last October but I had to be coached every step of the way and rewarded with apple juice.
All this to say that like it or not, I suspect I am going to learn something about suffering. I already have, but I’m pretty good at locking pain away, ignoring it, or denying hardship. Still, this is not exactly true. Another odd practice I’ve begun are overnights at an emergency shelter. In Beaufort, I volunteered for Family Promise at St. John’s Lutheran so families had a chaperoned place to stay while they figured out their next steps. In Brevard, we have the Haven House and Cove Shelter. I stay at the Cove now and again so folks can come out of the cold, have a meal, take a shower, and do laundry. (I forgot to mention that it gets way colder up here than it does in the cozy Lowcountry, although this winter is proving to be brutal for everyone.) If you’re hanging out with people without shelter, you are experiencing discomfort firsthand.
Suffering and pain are no strangers to families and friends inside our homes. After losing my mom, I remember how chapped, cracked, and dry my hands were from caregiving. This past December, I left Michigan after assisting my mother-in-law with baths, laundry, and housekeeping and my hands were raw with small cuts from soapy water and dry heat. What I marveled at six years ago and remember in amazement is that my hands heal in a matter of days. It’s the heart that takes time, and even then, the scars never really go away.
I was with a group of women on New Year’s Eve and one of the gals said that when our hearts break the scars formed as we heal make our hearts bigger. She confessed she stole this concept but that doesn’t matter. It’s the lesson. A broken heart gets bigger as it heals making it capable to love large and more fiercely than ever before. I like this thought. I don’t like knowing my heart will break again, and again, and again. I hate it, but I am going to take Mr. Hanh at his word and begin to accept suffering as a transformation into joy. Hanh prescribes rest, deep breathing, mindfulness, and an appreciation of nature as a path. He says I can be “in touch” with suffering versus being overwhelmed by it. It’s a big promise and I am skeptical. I don’t like the hurt of absorbing another person’s pain or confronting my own. It all seems too grown up and mature, and I dislike being a grown-up.
The thing is, I am still growing, thank God. As long as I’m taking deep breaths in meditation or heaving air trying to run away, I’m alive. And as long as I am alive, my life is a mixture of happiness and the not-so-happy. Acceptance, surrender… it’s all happy horse poop I already know. I guess it’s time, yet again, to welcome an oil and water mixture of joy and pain into the mixed greens of my daily life. Hope that goofy metaphor has you smiling. It’s a Zen thing.