eight step recovery

Third Reminder – karma

Karma can be scary. Does it mean if we get sick we have done something wrong in our life? This was one of the question on my friends lips in her dying process. ‘What had she done so wrong to get pancreatic cancer?’

Nothing, she had done nothing wrong. The only karma in her dying is that she was reborn as a human, and if we take a human birth we will inevitably get sick, or age, and die.

If I get a cold it does not mean I have been unskilful. It could mean though that I went out in the cold, didn’t wrap up well, and so I caught a cold. Hence my action had a consequence. But someone else may have done something unskilful, gone out in the cold weather without wrapping up well and not catch a cold. Their actions had a different consequence. They may well not have been under the weather. There can be so many factors to why if we commit the same action, why the consequence is not the same.

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In 1999 the captain of the England Team preparing for the world cup Glen Hoddle was sacked because of his misguided and ignorant views on karma. He believed that the: ‘disabled, and others, are being punished for sins in a former life.’ This was also once an ignorant view of black people and sadly today some people can think this of the Dalits of India.

Most Buddhists do not talk of sin. We speak about unskilful and skilful actions. And furthermore there is no devil to punish us for our sins in Buddhism. There is only the mind that can haunt us like a tormented ghost. The leader of the Dalits, the late Dr Ambedkar once referred to caste as nothing more ‘than a notion of mind.’ Most definitely not a sin, or a punishment due to past lives. Therefore he believed we could liberate the mind, and he changed the Karma of his people by converting to Buddhism because this was the religion that would emancipate their minds. His mass conversion in 1956 allowed hundreds of thousands of people who were called ‘Untouchables’ to rename themselves as Buddhists. It was the beginning of the uplift of his people. If we were to recognize the potency of the mind we would be able to step out of the confinements of the body we are born in and free ourselves from societies oppressions.

My karma as a black woman was that I used to let society’s prejudice oppress me. I in fact oppressed myself with my own thinking.

Karma is about our actions having consequences. And each consequence may be a gain or a cost. That’s it, in its simplicity. It’s not that if you do an unskillful deed you will be punished by the wrath of God. But yes, if you do an unskillful deed there will be a consequence, which may mean that it will prey on your mind, prey so much that you turn to another unskillful action to get rid of the thoughts in your mind. Creating a vicious cycle.

My karma is this. My actions will have consequences. Full stop. If I don’t accept reality, see things as they really are. If I don’t accept that I am going to die, my living will be full of suffering. My dying will be full of suffering. This is the law of karma. My actions of denial will have a consequence.


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I love you and one day I will die

Angel statue against a dramatic sky

I love you and one day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.

Death is unavoidable; it will come to all of us, today, tomorrow, next month, next year.
Death is unavoidable; even I will die. Even you will die. Everyone we know will die.

Death is unavoidable, you and I may die before our parents. You and I may die before our children. You and I may die before our friends. You and I may die before our loved ones. You and I may die after our loved ones.

Death is unavoidable; this is the only thing we can guarantee in life. During this next year someone we know will die, or we will know of someone who knows someone who has died. In five years some of us may have even died. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

Death is not a tragedy. How we respond to death can be a tragedy. Denial of death is a tragedy. Blame is a tragedy. Saying it’s not fare is a tragedy. Death will come – all we can hope for is that we have a happy death.
Death is unavoidable, why not die well. One can hope for a non violent death, one can hope for a death from the failing body, from sickness or old age.

The longer we live, the more we will see die. In 20 years more of us would have died, and in 60 years most of us would have died.

Never be to overjoyed when someone arrives. Never be to saddened when someone leaves. This can be a mini rehearsal for learning to mourn who we lose.

Always hold lightly in your heart that this may be the last time you see the person you are with now.

If you can live like this only loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and peace will flow from your heart.

Death is unavoidable and it will come to all of us.

What does the gap between birth and death mean to you?

How are you living your life?

We may die a sudden death without saying goodbye to our loved ones, family, friends – what is it that we need to tell them so we have no regret if this happens?

How are you preparing for your death?

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The second reminder: Death and Impermanence

‘One day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.’

As I write this I have goose bumps. It enlivens me as well as scares me. There are many days I don’t want to die, and yet I know this is the cycle of life. Once I am born I am old enough to die. I remember speaking with one of my friends when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wanted to know how long she had? Little did she know she only had seven weeks. Reflecting on this question, I realized she had 49 years to live, it took 49 years for her to die. How long did she have? She had now.

And yet so many of us, including myself live life as is we are immortal as if we are immune to death, as if it will not happen to us. As if our first terminal diagnosis is the first warning that we get that we will die.

I remember once saying to a friend who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago: “Hold on, hold on I could die before you. Your husband could die before you. Some of your friends could die before you. There is no guarantee you will die first.” Life is immediate for all of us, our death is immediate to all of us, if we wake up to that reality. I know that to be so true. I have woken up in the morning, felt on top of the world, had a great day at work, jumped on my bicycle and been knocked down by a car, more than once. Life is fragile, we do not know when it will end, but we know it will end. The uncertainty of not knowing can be more stressful than the actual dying.

A dear friend of mine died at age 44, from ovarian cancer. Initially she was given five years to live. But during surgery to remove her ovaries the surgeon punctured her bowel. This accelerated her living. She was terrified of dying, and her partner asked her: ‘What is so awful about dying?’. She couldn’t answer, but after this question her life changed. She accepted her dying process, to the extent that we gave her a living funeral. I remember telling her we wanted to celebrate her before she died. She lit up, and then proceeded to tell me what food she wanted, which people she wanted to attend. She said: “I want this celebration to help me pass over.” Her mom, brother, extended family and friends came to say goodbye to her. We all rejoiced in her life, told her we loved her, and said goodbye to her. She sat through every single bit of it, present and alert. Two days later she died. My friend taught me not to fear death.

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One of my best friends has just died. Was it a shock? Was it sudden? I know that my friends, family and i will die. And yet it still comes as a shock. I realize I still do not accept impermanence. I am in resistance to the change, that my dear friend will no longer share long talks with me, no longer laugh with me no longer support me. My selfish mind continues to cause me suffering. I have multiplied my pain by resisting it. I want Georgina to still be here, so I can here her call me V, so she can tell me everything that is going on back home in England.
I am more prepared for my own demise than the demise of those I love and know in my life.
Thich Nat hanh offers this practise. When we part with people we love – we hold each other – and look at each other with loving kindness and say: “I love you and one day you will die”

I leave you with this quote from Pema Chodron – “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.


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We are the miracle

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Joyful to have
such a human birth
Difficult to find
Free and well-
favored.

Composed by Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. 1974.

It is a miracle that we are born, and that we are still living. Every minute, world wide approximately 267 people are born and 108 people die. Just over 40% of us survive birth, and none of us survive death. Last month I asked you: ‘How are you making the most of your precious birth? I ask you again this month, as it is a reflection we could do daily.

Our human birth
ordinary and extraordinary
Our human birth
joyful and painful
Our human birth
healthy and unhealthy
Our human birth
longevity and fleeting
Our human birth
precious and worthless

Do not let your birth be worthless. Embrace this precious opportunity. There is the gap between birth and death. This gap is called life. Mind the gap.

  • What are you doing in the gap?
  • How awake are you in the gap?
  • What could you begin doing differently in the gap?


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The first reminder: my precious birth

I hope it is not too late to realize that joyful is my precious birth. If we are deep in the disease of an addiction it is impossible to realize and to take advantage of our precious birth. When we are sober, clean and free from anything that obsesses or controls the mind we have emotional and spiritual health. Only then can we begin to appreciate our precious birth.

Every human that is born has a precious birth. The difference is that some of us have the perfect conditions to realize our potential while others are born into conditions where their potential can be hindered by external factors they had no control over, like sickness, diseases, war, famine and natural disasters. Those of us living in countries without these factors can also hinder our potential by the internal factors created by the mind; greed, hatred and delusion.

I have gratitude right now in this moment because I have my physical health, energy, and more than enough food to eat. What do I have to complain about? I currently live in country that is free of war on its own territory. I can walk outside my house and not fear I may walk on a land mine. I have my freedom as a woman, and yet I still complain. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor and not worry about the cost, and know that I will be treated with decent care. Yet I still complain. How fortunate I am. And If I don’t realize this good fortune I will be wasting my life. Wasting my precious birth. I will be at risk of turning to alcohol, food, or any other false comforter to fill the void in my life.

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Knowing all of this, how should I live my life? I choose to live each moment as if it were the last. ‘I do that ‘ an addict may well say. However most addicts live life as if there is no tomorrow. The addict lives life chasing yesterdays experiences and tomorrows desires. The addict lives in complete denial of seeing things as they really are. Not just the addict, but most people live their life like this. Our minds are so full of delusions, stories we tell our selves, resentments and craving that it is impossible to see things as they really are.

If I could live my life as if every moment was the first and the last my life would be different. How? I don’t know. But I do know if my mind was not attached to the past, or the future it would be different. Free of mental turmoil, without the craving for something to dull my feelings.

If tomorrow I get sick or, tomorrow I get knocked off my bicycle and lose a limb. I know that if I hold onto the past of when I was well, and had all my limbs, I will suffer even more. If I was able to be in the moment of my life, I would be able to see my precious birth despite my physical disability. I shudder at the thought of this, and I know that there are people in the world who can live with that acceptance and awareness. Not letting a physical disability take away their precious birth.

I’ve had two cancer scares. The first was when I was 24. I remember thinking “I have to change my life”. It worked, the cancerous cells disappeared. But I didn’t change my life. I was most definitely on the path that led to more suffering. I numbed everything out with work, social life and denial. Before my next cancer scare, I was attacked. It took being almost strangled to death at age 27 for me to change my life. It was my wake up call. I wasn’t meant to die. I got away, alive. So what was I going to do with my precious birth?

Exactly this. I told myself this was not going to be another thing to pull me down. It never has. I have never been a victim of this incident. Sometimes it’s as if it never happened. I didn’t hold on to it. I let it go, and moved into the next moment. Yes it had an impact, that lasted a few months, in dreams. But the only pain that took time to go was the physical side effect in my neck.  Even that subsided. I turned to Buddhism soon after and woke up to my precious birth.

My second cancer scare was at 35. I remember walking out of the clinic and thinking I’ve had a good life, it is okay to die. I’ve lived 35 long years, yes it would be good to live some more, but you could hardly say poor thing she died so young. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

I could never have thought so positively if it wasn’t for my Buddhist training. It so happened my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t cancerous cysts, just fibroids.  And so I am still here. Still trying to live this precious life ethically with mindfulness and wisdom. Rather than live it mindlessly by numbing out in front of the tv, on the computer, eating food, alcohol, substance abuse, depression or anger. Life is too short for that, which is why our birth is so precious.

We have the mental factors to see things as they really are. If we were to nurture our faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom we would be moving towards the good, have awareness, focused concentration and intelligent understanding.

The five hindrances of craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth and torpor and doubt would no longer obscure the mind. We would have made use of our precious birth.

As I write this month’s blog I can’t but help think about the tragedy in America. It is so sad. A precious life wasted, many precious lives lost. What happened to that poor kid James Holmes for him to be caught up in a delusion and use his intellect to massacre innocent people? Why did he waste his precious birth?

We live in a world today where our children are indoctrinated by greed, hatred and delusion. Just watch the video games that are marketed to youth. Kids are rewarded, given points for killing someone. Young people I have worked with, have told me that: ‘video games are screwing up some of their friends’.

We have to wake up to reality. We are nurturing a generation of young people who have different values than their parents. Video games are just one example where we are teaching young people about violence uncritically.

We have to take responsibility. It’s not just about our birth. It is about the precious birth of generations to come. In living our lives wisely we will help those born after us to realize their full potential.

How are you making the most of your precious birth?

Next month a reflection on the first reminder.


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The Fourth Truth: There is a path that leads us away from suffering

I used to be confused about why the third truth came before the fourth. And I realize now that if I could not accept or believe that there was an end to suffering, I would not have trudged the path. After all, I would not have known what would be at the end of the path—or if there would even be an end. If somebody had described to me the path that would lead me away from suffering before telling me that there is an end in sight for suffering, I would have most probably had an attack of horrified anxiety. And convinced myself that the life I was living was much more manageable than stepping on to the path that would supposedly lead me away from suffering!

The path that continues to lead me away from suffering is the threefold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Threefold PathEightfold path
Ethics/VirtueRight Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
MindRight Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
WisdomRight View
Right Intention

Ethics/Virtue

I cannot say how contented I have become, how much simplicity there is in my life, and how much stillness, too, since I have become more ethical. The five Buddhist precepts opened a door in my heart. They gave me tools to begin living my life differently. I remember becoming a mitra (a friend of the spiritual community) in my tradition. During my ceremony, I took on the five spiritual precepts. I knew as I recited them that they had given me a way to purify my heart. I took them on seriously, and recited the positive and negative forms daily for almost 5 years. Since my ordination in 2005 I have recited ten precepts daily. They have been the principals that have trained me to live my life with mindfulness. They are some of the tenets of right speech, right action and right livelihood: These are the five training principals that are universal to all lay Buddhist traditions. Many monastic communities can have as much as a 100 or more.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given. With open handed generosity I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech. With truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants. With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

(The positive and negative precepts appear as cited by Urgyen Sangharakshita.)

Mind

After a week of learning to meditate, I walked out onto the street and thought the whole world was changing. I had “beginner’s mind.” I paused and chuckled to myself as I realized it was I who was changing and that there was no going back. I had a glimpse of seeing things as they actually were. Meditation caused a revolution in my physical, spiritual and emotional self. I began to walk, think and pray differently. The practice of metta, cultivating loving kindness for (a) myself, (b) a friend, (c) someone I do not know, and (d) an enemy, continues to revolutionize my life. People I thought I would never speak to have come back into my life, because this meditation allowed me to forgive my enemies in the fourth stage (d). The fourth stage cultivated compassion in my heart for my enemies. As the hatred melted away, my self-hatred also melted away, and I am a much happier person. However, after my beginner’s mind began to fizzle, the real work began. I had to apply right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration to develop my meditation practice. I committed myself to the path of transformation. I began TO study, took up a daily meditation practice and went on retreats. In 2005 I effectively went for refuge, hence placing the three jewels at the centre of my life. The ideal of enlightenment (buddha), the teachings of the buddha (dharma) and spiritual community at the centre of my life (sangha.) I had a lay person ordination into the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was named Vimalasara (she who’;s essence is stainless and pure), took on the Bhodisattva vow, the ten precepts, and a visualization practice. My mind had most definitely changed; no longer were my decisions based solely on my sexuality, skin colour or gender. My decisions more and more are based on my going for refuge to the three jewels.

Wisdom

This part of the path, right view and right intention, brings me back to the fourth truth. I continue to develop my understanding of these truths. The Buddha says everything we experience has three characteristics, which are known as the three marks of conditioned existence. He says all life is (a) unsatisfactory, (b) impermanent, (c) unsubstantial, and nothing is fixed at all. These three marks have impacted my identity. I am not so attached to my female self, black self, or queer self. I used to experience everything through these filters. Hence I was often not open to others who were not female, black or queer. I was often judgmental and reactive. Although they had been part of my raft to help me along my recovery, if I was to continue to grow I had to let go of my fixed identities. They were at the centre of my life, and one could say I went to refuge them to them.

Letting go of identities meant I had to forgive those people who discriminated against me. Let go of those people who tried to label me with black stereotypes such as ‘intimidating, loud, aggressive, chip on my shoulder, athletic etc.’ I continue to learn to have compassion for those people who continue to discriminate against me. Without forgiveness, there is no room for wisdom. We must let go of fixed identities, thoughts and grudges. Integrate self and let go of self. Wisdom stops me from settling for the life I live now, which is much better than what it was 15 years ago. Despite how far I have come, I am committed to further understanding the truth. Training my mind, opening up to the possibility of real insight, letting go of self, practicing forgiveness and cultivating transformation, for me is a life time service.

Since stepping onto the path, the three jewels have become what is at the centre of my life. The majority of my decisions are based on going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

The Path

So I am on a path that leads me away from suffering. But sometimes I fall off, I stumble, and sometimes I choose not to walk it. But I always get back on. Fear can eat away at my faith and keep me off the path. But my faith can also eat away at my fear, and keep me on the path. There is no vacation from the spiritual life—I must strive on. If I reflect on the day I first walked into a Buddhist centre 23 years ago I know there is no alternative to the path. The Buddha made it simple with the eightfold path: live by these principals and we will gain insight and, perhaps even enlightenment.

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The third truth: the cessation of suffering is attainable

Whoa!

Really? There’s an end to suffering? An end to our pain? Our inner conflicts? Yes there is.

Sadly some people don’t make it. Some people do not realize there is an end to suffering, and choose to shorten their life, rather than bear the load they have been struggling with on and off for years. They believe letting go of their life will be the end of their suffering. And who am I to say this is not true? What I do believe is it can’t be the answer to inner peace.

By the time I was 12 I had tried to take my own life, and again at 18. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know there was a way out of my misery. I thought I couldn’t cope. I knew it was an option as I had known friends in my life who had facilitated their own exit out of life. Fortunately my sincere attempts failed. My stomach pumped, laying alone in a hospital bed, I glimpsed that there had to be another way. I found it through traveling, getting away from my life, and I have to admit my time traveling with my best friend aged 19 was one of the happiest times I had in my teenage years. I was happy every day for eight months. Every other traveler I met was happy and if we weren’t we just moved on to the next place. But I had to come home and face my true inner self.

Traveling opened me up to the rest of the world. I witnessed suffering everywhere I went. I was touched by a Palestinian who told me his story, and in the middle of it he knelt down to pray. He asked me to tell his story. Perhaps it’s why I became a journalist, telling many people’s stories. As a journalist I realized I was not alone in my suffering, but still I could not see an end to it.

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Simple life experiences continue to teach me to accept the fact that the cessation of suffering is attainable. A few years ago I experienced excruciating tooth pain for a week. I had become tight around my pain. I panicked, went into horrified anxiety, and began swallowing painkillers like candies. During that time, a new root canal was put in, an old root canal was dug out, and an abscess flared. My face was swollen, and it hurt even to talk. I wanted to get rid of the pain and I wanted to control it, but when I came to my third day on painkillers, I realized they were doing nothing to curb my pain. I threw out the drugs and observed my pain. Sometimes it was intense, and sometimes it was calm, but what I have to admit is that the pain became more intense when I resisted it. I was creating mental suffering.

The cessation of the mental suffering was most definitely attainable. But what about the physical suffering? I have to admit I still suffered with pain, but the pain did not stay the same throughout the week when I relaxed into it without panic or fear.

I had to surrender to the pain, and when I realized that, the physical pain became manageable. I lived with the same amount of pain, but without pain killers, and I witnessed how my pain changed. How at times it throbbed, at times it just ached, and at other times it thumped throughout my jaw, my gums and my head. My life became bigger again, for it was not just focused on my tooth pain; there was a lot more going on in my physical body and my life. My fear and panic narrowed my life. All I could think of was my tooth pain, and nothing else.

My tooth made me realize that my mental pain was causing my suffering. My physical pain was just sensation that was always changing, arising and ceasing. My mind created a suffering that made my pain feel torturous. I realized that mental suffering can cease.

In my youth I had created mental suffering that lingered for years. I had sentenced myself with self hatred, and had also sentenced my biological mother and all my other abusers with hatred. This inevitably caused me great suffering. I hated my biological mother and abusers with a vengeance for all the things they had done to me. I hated myself, and I began rejecting myself through an eating disorder. I had created my suffering that lasted many years. I had become a victim of my own mind. I used to be proud of being a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. But I soon realized as a survivor I was only surviving through the skin of my teeth. I was lucky not to have been dead, from the extreme anorexia and bulimia I had imposed on myself. I knew I had to start living. The third truth taught me that if I was to accept there is an end to suffering, I had to be compassionate towards myself. Self compassion allowed me to begin letting go of my self imposed mental suffering.

I realized through letting go of the suffering, that there was a clear distinction between physical and mental pain. It had all seemed the same. I learned that I could experience physical sensation without the self imposed mental suffering. But once I had created mental suffering, there was always going to be some kind of physical sensation. I have learned that I cannot be free of physical sensation, from the minute to the extreme, but I can be free of the mental suffering that adds to the pain.
It is not the physical pain that makes us angry. We make the physical pain angry. Our mental conditioning punishes us and makes life a trial rather than a journey of equanimity. If we can let go of our fears, we can cultivate faith. There is hope, and there is an end to suffering! If we let go of mental suffering we will begin to experience the beauty of inner peace.
When a negative mental state arises, that puts us down, criticizes us, judges us, or undermines us, just breathe and say: ‘Let it go, let it go”.
Or when any of the above arises, we could pause and say: ‘This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. This is a moment to be kind to myself. May I give myself the compassion I need?’

When you are feeling calm take some time in your day to reflect on impermanence. Impermanence is all around us if we open our eyes to it. If we are deeply honest with ourselves we will accept everything changes and that includes our mental suffering. We will see that it is possible to detach from the past, and let go of grasping for the future. Being in the present moment will bring about an end of suffering.

If all else fails – get down on your knees and pray. Call out to whatever your God of understanding is and ask for help. In these moments true insight can arise.

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The Second Noble Truth

When I first read the second truth, I had goose bumps, because I knew my life was heading in the direction of suffering. All the choices in my life were on the path of suffering, and all the things I was doing in my life too, kept me on the path of suffering.  At age fourteen I had chosen to live on the streets. I had gone off the rails. Eighteen months with my biological mother from the ages of eleven to twelve and a half had taught me to self medicate. No adult could tell me what to do. I was going to take complete control of my life. And so I had made my choices, with clarity. I chose to live on the streets, and when I realized I had made a wrong decision I didn’t know how to make a new decision. My only way out was the hope that I would be caught for my unskilful actions. This choice led me to be locked up by the age of fifteen.

‘Every decision is a good decision; you can always make a new decision’ says my teacher the Venerable Sangharakshita. I was resistant to the pain of my bad choice. I could not face the pain of knocking on a social worker’s door and admitting I had made a stupid decision by living on the streets. And so I numbed my pain with more shoplifting. I got a high out of it, and it made me feel good. So many things had been stolen from me as a young child: my virginity, my spirit, my voice and my feelings. I resisted the pain of this, did not even know how to come into relationship with it at such a young age. So I self-medicated through the buzz of “taking the not given” from shops.

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I fitted neatly into Shinzen Young’s formula S=PxR  (suffering equals pain times resistance.) I was not aware that my resistance to my pain during my adolescence was rooting me quite firmly on the path that leads to more suffering. Unbeknown to me I was just multiplying pain every time I resisted it with my addictions of self-hatred and shoplifting.
 
Shoplifting and pickpocketing were my second addictions, that covered up all my toxic and messy feelings. I knew I couldn’t continue living this life, and I thought I needed something else to cover up my feelings. I had learned during the brief time with my biological mother not to show or express one bit of emotion or feeling. If I did I was sadistically punished. I had learned to take immense physical pain without flinching. And I was not going to let go of that power. She stole my spirit and it took everything I had inside me to survive her brutality and not leave my body forever. I learned self-hatred, and hatred of her. Self hatred was my first addiction. It was the place of self-pity I fled too. Self-pity rendered me helpless and on the path that led to more suffering. I was passive, I didn’t ask for help, just hoped that Jesus Christ or God would rescue me.

I got out alive. God didn’t rescue me — my school friends finally did — and I was taken away by the police. However I was spiritually dead, with a heart full of hatred. I was unable to speak of my experience for years. I numbed the pain, and on the surface appeared the most together, happiest and sorted adolescent in the orphanage — and I was drowning inside.

I became anorexic/bulimic. I had found an acceptable way of dealing with my feelings. Eating and throwing up. The only feeling I had was the physical pain of collapsing on the floor, the battering of my stomach, the hoarseness of my throat. But it soon became unacceptable, and I became an extreme bulimic. All other feelings were stuffed down and then purged out. I had become so skilled at not feeling that I was not aware of the fact that I was suffering. Some say ignorance is bliss, but in retrospect, my ignorance was a delusion. I knew I was unhappy, but all I had known my whole life was unhappiness and, so, I had nothing with which I could compare my unhappy life. And so, in my times of unhappiness, I felt a false happiness, most probably stimulant or alcohol-fueled.

The origin of suffering is attachment. What was I attached to? I had spent a whole lifetime in my late teens and early adulthood running away from all the attachments in my life—or so I thought. I ran away from all the orphanages I was placed in. As soon as something difficult came up I was out of the door like a flash of lightning, and lived on the streets. I had no possessions, just a heart full of toxic luggage. I had become attached to not feeling; as soon as a whiff of sadness arose, I pushed it back down so that I would not have to feel it. I was only allowing myself to feel the highs in my life, but even when I felt good, I  would squash that feeling too. It was too scary to inhabit such exciting feelings. The smile had been beaten off my face, and trampled into the ground by my biological mother. I was not allowed to be happy or sad. Pushing down all feelings had saved my life. Ironically this was my path that led me to more suffering.

Of course there are many other things that can put people on the path of suffering. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our minds are attached to impermanent things. We are not aware of the fact that our desire, passion, pursuit of wealth, or prestige, striving for fame, and desire for popularity are all paths that lead to more suffering. Why should we not strive for these things? If we are to live life in the present, accepting the impermanence of all these things, living an ethical life, some of these things may naturally occur as a result of our insight. The reality is such that there is no way to happiness. Rather, happiness is the way. Happiness is what people like Tom Maggliozzi and Rakesh Sarin call reality minus expectations.

I most definitely did not find my way by anesthetizing myself from life’s dramas, nor did I find it through the use of stimulants either, or in night clubs. Instead, I found it deep inside myself. The resentments, anger, fear and hatred in my heart muddied my happiness. I was unable to let go of the expectations of my reality, of things that I thought should have happened in my childhood. It was too painful to accept what had happened, and so I felt rage, anger and blamed. I had to do what Pema Chödrön advises, and lean into the pain, stop fending it off with my addictions and feel the pain. I had to learn that in pain there is joy, and that in joy there is pain. I had to empty myself of my addictions, and sit in the gap.

Learning to be with the emptiness of our lives, with the meaningless, the unknown, and the questions of what life is about, is a practice of patience. How many of us are patient, prepared to sit in the gap and reflect on these questions? It is easier to reach for something to put in our mouths or in front of our eyes, and to distract ourselves from the fact that life is fleeting and out of our control. Distractions and mood-altering substances point us in the direction of the path of suffering, and also the denial of impermanence leads to more suffering. Our denial, our distractions, are all part of the resistance that multiplies our pain. Letting go of our thoughts before they become thinking can help us step off the path that leads to more suffering.

We are the maestros of our suffering. We can determine how much suffering we create for ourselves and how much we want to get lost on the path that leads to more suffering. And it is possible to be happy without the addictions many of us have. To say we have no addictions is a delusion. Addiction can be when you cling onto something to such an extent that its cessation causes suffering or severe trauma. Living can become an addiction: we are attached to life, our health, our youthfulness. In that realization, there is much insight.

We can also meditate for positive emotion and integration, and become attached to this state of being. Or we can step on the path of spiritual death and spiritual rebirth that will truly take us to a place of enlightenment. Suffering can bring us to this realization. There is hope for the addict. Some psychotherapists say that some addicts are experiencing a spiritual emergency. Whatever the addict is going through, the fact is that it can be through the recovery from our addictions that we can turn our lives around. We can move beyond recovery and tread on the path of irregular steps to take us beyond self clinging and liberation. We can step onto the noble eight fold path.

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The first noble truth

The First Truth: There is suffering

Everything is impermanent. What arises will cease. When Shakyamuni gained enlightenment (insight), he became a Buddha, which means he attained an awakened mind. He awoke to what enlightened beings had seen before him. He rediscovered the path onto which we can return. The Four Noble Truths are part of the teachings that connect all Buddhist traditions.

The First Truth, that there is suffering, may seem pessimistic at first, as if life is hopeless. That is how it once appeared for me. Although I had suffered, I would have told you once upon a time that I had a great childhood, but once I stopped going for refuge to the nightclubs, to sex and intoxicants, the suffering hit me. I spiraled into an eating disorder. I was unable to cope with the reality that there was suffering. And if there was I was going to be in control of it. But acknowledging my own suffering connected me to every other human on this planet. I was not alone. I had suffered and so had everybody else I knew.

The light bulb switched on when in the same week, I had one friend grieving the loss of her mother, and another who was grieving the loss of her dog. The latter puzzled me, why was she so distraught? As that thought arose I could see that pain was pain. Suffering was suffering, the cause of it was irrelevant.

It was insightful for me to accept that in my life, and everyone else’s that there will be suffering. And even more insightful to learn how I created more suffering. I had lived my twenties anesthetized to my suffering. I had done everything possible to avoid suffering, so I thought. But I had to learn that there was suffering, and I could make it worse or easier for my self. The first truth was plain and simple, and I could not avoid the truth. From the moment I was born I was old enough to die.

By the fact we are born, we suffer. We age, become sick, and die. This gives us pain and grief. We lament, making such statements as, She was too young to die, He wasn’t meant to die, It is so unfair that I am sick, and Why does this happen to me? Yet, as the saying goes, once we are born, we are old enough to die.

Perhaps, we are born sick at birth, with a dis-ease, and our lives are about healing this sickness. The die-ease of life can be cured by the practice of renunciation.

Yet we live our lives attached to almost everything around us, unaware that, every day, we consciously or unconsciously renounce something in our physical, mental and spiritual lives. Ironically, we never seem ready for the final renunciation of our lives. So many of us are still sick when it comes time to renounce our bodies. This is suffering. It cannot change, and it will not change; we are always changing, whether we like it or not. Thus, to die well is to die with faith, energy, awareness, wisdom, and loving kindness.

Interestingly, death in some cultures is not such a painful occurrence. Some women know that their children will die before the age of five, due to poverty and sickness. Here in the West, a child dying before their parents is considered to be a most cruel occurrence.

Modern medicine has advanced the longevity and health of the physical body, but it has stagnated the growth of the mind and heart. We have become attached to our bodies, our health and our beauty. Ironically, the only guarantees in life are that we will age, we will get sick, and we will die! We do not know when these events will strike us, but we know they will happen. Nonetheless, many of us live our lives as if we were unaware of the fact that such mundane phenomena will happen to us.

The suffering occurs when our mind and hearts are unable to accept the first truth—that there is suffering. We are unable to see that everything is impermanent, that what arises will cease. When happiness or success arises it, too, passes, and something new arises when it ceases. And when unhappiness, difficulties and tragedies arise these, too, pass and something new arises. Suffering occurs, because we want happiness to last forever. We become attached to it, and when it passes and unhappiness arises, we move into aversion and hatred, wanting to push away our unhappiness, while craving for happiness to arise again.

We refer to a sunny day as “beautiful,” thus fixing our day and, so, when it rains, it becomes an awful day and we suffer. If we could simply refer to the sun as “shining” and the clouds as “raining,” we may begin to lighten our load of suffering. By extension, we may begin to see death as merely another part of the life cycle. Thus, there is hope.

My first step in recovery was to acknowledge that this human life will bring me suffering – and suffering is okay, if I don’t move away from it. It will arise and cease.

Detox Your Heart – Valerie Mason-John – Google Books

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Discovering the four noble truths

A Spiritual Crisis

I was brought up in Essex in an orphanage run by Church of England Christians. Many of them had given up their lives in the material world, to work for the Lord, and looked after poor orphans. There, I learned several Christian truths, including the following three:

  • There is a heaven, and if I am “good” I will end up there.
  • There is a hell, and if I “mess up” I will end up there.
  • I can repent, and the Lord will forgive me.

Reflecting on these three truths, coupled with praying to a God that never came to my rescue when I needed Him, initiated a spiritual crisis within me.

By the time I was 19, I had broken six of the ten commandments. I had killed insects, stolen, committed adultery, worked on the Sabbath, taken the name of the Lord in vain, dishonoured my parents by hating them, and had considered — for a fleeting moment — Hari Krishna to be a god. I had no idea how to repent, and I did not have the desire to repent, either.

I found myself in the Holy Land a year later, where I parted for once and for all with my childhood savior, Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem. I had hoped to receive a sign that I was on the right path. The bible was my savior during the time I lived with my biological mother between the age of 11 and 12 and half. I had grown up in foster homes and orphanages until the age of 11. Then came a new culture of thinking. Children should not grow up in institutions all their life, if they were babies they should be adopted out. If they were old like me and already living in an institutions social workers tried to track their parents down and place children back with their families.

Needless to say it was a disaster for many, I saw many leave with their single parent mother, and return in months. When my turn came I expected the same. My mother had been tempted with a two bedroom apartment. They would give her this if she took her daughter back. Of course she didn’t want to raise me, she had given her first two children away to grand parents in Africa, put me in an orphanage and the youngest was adopted.

How could she refuse such an offer? An immigrant from Africa living in awful accommodation for eleven years; she accepted. From day one I was abused, and am lucky to be alive to tell my story. I prayed every night to God to take me away from her awful place. I read the bible daily and found solace in the stories, while living a tormented and tortured life. Finally one day I believed God had answered my prayers. 18 months later I was met by the police and social workers at school, and removed, and she was taken to court. However God had come to late, I was already damaged. I had lost faith in humans.

I was angry. Why had Christ allowed so much suffering during my childhood? Surely, if he cared, he would have come to my rescue? Why hadn’t he come to the rescue of the people of Israel, Palestine?

I was disgusted with what I saw in Bethlehem. It was as if I was witnessing Jesus entering the temple courts, driving out all who were buying and selling there. I, too, wanted to overturn the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling candles and tack. I did not want a cross; I wanted Jesus’ love and compassion. Yet, I could not feel it. I returned home bereft, went off the rails for a while, and fell into spiritual drought.

Night clubbing, intoxicants and sex became my spiritual path. Through intoxicants I experienced states of being that transformed me momentarily, but blew holes in my brain. Through sex I experienced a surrender I was unable to do in any other part of my life, but that was because I was always under the influence of something. Dancing saved my life, I lived for night clubbing, it was through the freedom of dance without intoxicants that I experienced something greater than me, I glimpsed integration……..

The lesbian, black, and dance communities filled the void. I sought refuge in each of these communities, placing them at the centre of my life. I chose my friends and social life from this pool of people and activities, but still, there was something missing.

Feminism, Womanism, Leftism, Separatism, Pan-Africanism, and Afro-centrism clearly were not the answer. While aspects of the theories and lifestyle spoke to me, I still found myself alienated from my spirit. I had become emotionally impoverished as a black lesbian, because the world in which I grew up denied my existence. Black people weren’t queer, neither were we feminists or separatists, that was what white people did. It did not exist in African/Caribbean communities, that was the claim. And so I could not bring all of myself into black political organizations, through fear of being physically attacked. This was the early 80s Britain.

However neither the communities in which I found myself, nor the theories I studied, spoke to every part of who I was. The black lesbian community chastised me for having white lovers, because it was considered sleeping with the enemy. The black heterosexual community were in denial about homosexuality. The white feminist and lesbian communities often denied the black experience. We were even denied entrance to some night clubs because of our skin colour.

I knew I needed to heal, but I did not know how. I knew I needed something that could make sense of the life I was living, and why I was living it. Banishing people from my life because of their sexuality, gender, race, or class was not the answer. Separate spaces where I could be all black, all lesbian, or all woman helped me to heal some of my wounds, but I needed more. I wanted to go out into the world and be all of me at the same time.

I was fortunate to have friends who meditated with the Triratna Buddhist Order, formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. And within this sangha, or spiritual community, I found I could attend separate retreats for women or lesbians, and people of colour. I’m not sure I would have come across the four noble truths if I had not discovered the sangha. Unconsciously, I was an angry black lesbian woman, and I needed a safe space where I could take off some of my armour. These retreats for different aspects of me allowed me to heal, but I needed to integrate myself take of my armour full of labels and learn to trust.

When I first heard the four noble truths, tears came to my eyes. They resonated within me and presented me with the opportunity to work with my life differently. The truths and meditation also changed my life profoundly. They shook me awake. They were the most exciting things I had learned in all my years of education. The four noble truths turned everything around in my psyche. They made sense of my life. The truths taught me that I was interconnected with all beings, not much different from anyone else. I was no longer alone with my labels that I had become so attached to, that had become my fixed false self. I realized that although I had experienced my fare share of suffering from the reality of the conditions I was born into, I had also piled a whole lot more suffering into my life, from the choices I had made. The truths presented a freedom from that suffering. For the first time in my life, I could see a way out of my suffering. I could step onto the eight fold path.

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