“Go back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your feelings need you, your perceptions need you. Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it. Go home and be there for all these things.”
“To take good care of ourselves, we must go back and take care of the wounded child inside of us. You have to practice going back to your wounded child every day. You have to embrace him or her tenderly, like a big brother or a big sister. You have to talk to him, talk to her. And you can write a letter to the Little child in you, of two or three pages, to that you recognize his or her presence, and will do everything you can to heal his or her wounds.”
“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” ~All quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh
As we head towards the end of the year, there is the summation of our goodness, our badness, and the wish to be better. The New Year’s resolution is an interesting part of our calendar. In this resolve, we make a vow to stop eating so much, to stop gambling, or being addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, narcotics, shopping, pornography, to start exercising and keeping better hours, to eat healthier, to love even our enemies, to risk more, to work harder, be stronger, more diligent, to meditate twice a day, to begin to meditate, to stop thinking bad thoughts about those who don’t agree with us, and to be kind to all beings—always. We identify all the ways we do not enact true kindness and want to believe with the turn of the calendar we can leave our negative thoughts, our ugly habits in the previous year. And to some extent, we can be new in the sense that we can always start again. We are constantly laying down new neural connections, even up to the moment of death, there is neurological change. But we are not actors who end one miniseries and appear in the next as someone totally different, fresh and unencumbered by the past. We bring our conditioning and habits wherever we go.
Years ago, I was on a plane reading Suzuki Roshi’s book, Not Always So: Practicing the True Way of Zen, and I heard the teaching that there is nothing to get rid of. I put the book down in my lap and looked around the plane in wonder. I felt so light and free with this awareness that I didn’t have to work for years to become a different person to be worthy of waking up. I wanted to ring the call button for the flight attendant—did they know that there was nothing to get rid of? Did anyone else on my flight realize all the time spent trying to transform our lives and become worthy of other’s love and our own was unnecessary? Furthermore, we can’t do it. We don’t get rid of our stuff. We don’t just get over it, or let it go without doing the work of being with it. All our beliefs, words, and actions have a story. We do not do anything without good reason. When I want to get rid of a behavior or way of thinking through will-power, I am doomed to fail. We can’t muscle our way through to enlightenment.
Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to stop and come home to ourselves. When we do this, we stop searching outside ourselves to look and feel better. We start to listen to what’s beneath our desires. When we see how we are caught and look at what we are doing we can ask what is the need beneath the behavior? Beneath the lust, we can hear the body’s cry of loneliness. Beneath the greed is the fear of annihilation, and under the rage, the truth that I am not considered. When we listen, we can hear these pieces of ourselves calling out for our attention. If we were children, we would cry out, express these needs as sobbing for help. As grown folks, we don’t cry out, but the sadness, the wanting comfort and care, the feeling that we need to be more, the unmovable discomfort, it’s still there.
These are places where we would rather not go because they call upon us to offer tenderness that we do not believe we deserve. It’s easier to condemn and hate ourselves for being weak, lazy, or indulgent, that to open to the part of us that is so deeply needing our love. If we expand this thinking into our society, it can seem bizarre, even frightening, to look at those who are enacting greed, hatred, and delusion with kindness. Just like our hurtful behavior tells a story of lack, of need, and of wrong beliefs, the people on the surface are symptoms. Until we as a country can look at what we cannot bear and collectively listening to the suffering, to the cries of the hurting, only then can we get to the why.
We can make laws, social reforms, and enact public policy, but in a country where in 2007 approximately 2.4 million people with black skin were part of the penal system, far more than the 1.7 million who were enslaved according to the 1850 U.S. census, we cannot say this is an equal and colorblind society and that the suffering has stopped (Alexander, 2010). We can’t say that we’ve gotten over, or let go of our brutal history. When we fall in line with the societal values that suppress our kindness, our cooperation, and our need to listen to the cries of our suffering and others, we reject our potential for wholeness and perpetuate an unjust and inhuman society.
We are incredibly sensitive beings. I bet we can remember any hurt or injustice that was ever perpetrated on us—and we can remember any kindness as well. The denial of our feelings in our bodies and minds tells us that we cannot be trusted to hold our own pain. But we are the only ones who know what we are looking for. We are the ones who know what we are crying out for and how to make ourselves whole. We stop. We calm. We listen and heal. It is not something that anyone else can do for us. Each one of us is uniquely gifted with the right medicine for what we are longing for.
I inhabit the body of a cisgender white skinned female for this lifetime. I cannot escape the reality that my life is easier and safer than if I had brown or black skin and much safer than if I were born a brown or black skinned male. As a society we embody a world where there is marginalization, there is injustice, and there are deep wounds that are calling out for us to lean in and listen, to do the hard work of opening to the things we would rather not look at and that we hope someone else will solve. Being present to this great wound with kindness, that is resistance. It is resisting the societal pull that tells us to buy something and shut up the sobbing in us and our country. It is resistance to look to ourselves to find the balm for our own loneliness, our disconnection, to lean into our greed, to say, “darling, what are you afraid of?” To hold prejudice and hatred like a sick child who needs healing, this is radical love, radical vulnerability, and radical trust. I do not know any other way to wholeness than through the very thing that looks so fearsome.
This year, my resolution is to lean in with as much tenderness and kindness as I can hold. Not resolving to be better or different, but resolving to be available for myself. To listen to the story of my whole life and reclaim my wholeness through this willingness to listen with gentleness. To have the courage to hear the brokenness. Not throwing anything away, I learn the way to healing, first with myself and then the world. Wishing us all a fierce gentleness for ourselves and all beings this holiday and new year.
May we all trust our light.
Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press: New York, NY.
Suzuki, S. (2003). Not always so: Practicing the true spirit of zen. Harper Collins: New York, NY.