By Jon Berry
EVERY COUPLE SUNDAYS, I DRIVE TO QUEENS to visit someone close to me who’s in a long-term drug-treatment program. It’s the latest stop in a downward spiral that’s taken him through a half-dozen detoxes, hospitals, rehabs, and shelters in New York City in the past nine months and, over the past 12 years, on a labyrinthine journey across the country for a cure that so far has proved elusive.
But we don’t talk about the past. Maybe an expression of gratitude for the nurse in Westchester who gave him $40 to get to a hospital, and said "just pay it forward.” Or the woman who came across him in the street in Manhattan and called 911 to get him an ambulance; the guys in the shelter who kept an eye out for him; the nurse’s assistant who prayed at his bedside; the psychiatrist who offered to see him essentially for free when he’s ready; the cops, ambulance crews, social workers, and others who treated him with dignity when they didn’t have to.
Or maybe the waitress who looked past the wear-and-tear signs of homelessness in his appearance one morning last fall when I took him out for breakfast – the grungy clothes, the urban grit on his hands – and greeted us with a cheery “what’ll you have, boys?” (Question to ponder: Does the Buddha wear a waitress’ uniform?)
Mostly, for the hour or two that we have together, we just sit with each other. Not focus on the past. Or project into the future. Instead talk about the present – how we’re doing, what we’re reading, what our day has been like.
I’m not sure this is what Sharon Salzberg, the Buddhist author and teacher, had in mind in her lecture on mindfulness at Tibet House in Manhattan last week. But what she said seemed familiar: Mindfulness means opening fully to the moment. We need to learn to let go of clinging to things we love (as if holding on hard enough will keep them from ever going away); sit with pain rather than push it away; not go to sleep or numb out on distractions when life bores us. Not fall into traps like thinking “it’s never going to get better.”
Instead we are to engage in a balanced way with whatever life brings. “Learn the ‘letting-go’ muscle,” she said. When we slip, which, as in meditation, inevitably happens, “begin again.”
Investing in the here-and-now fully (it’s not mindhalffullness) seems to be in the core of many spiritual traditions. It’s the essence of one of my favorite 12-step slogans (actually, one my friend turned me onto): “Look down at your feet.” Where we are is where we’re supposed to be. The most important lessons for us are not out there in the future, or over there where the cool people are. They’re right in front of us, in the quotidian rhythms of life – children, spouses, parents, friends, work, colleagues, the person in front of us in line at the bank. They can especially be in the places we never seek out – doctors’ offices, unemployment, visiting days at rehabs.
In seminary, I’ve learned that some of the deepest, most healing changes occur in the unexpected places. The road. By a well. A cave. Hardship.
“Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
…I pray for whatever you send me,
And I ask to receive it as your gift.”
- Psalm IV, translated by the poet Stephen Mitchell
I’m not by nature a transcendence-seeker. I agree with the singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who wrote that he spent most of his life “avoiding transcendence” for the simple reason that “the shit hurts.” These kinds of experience ask us to change. Go to new places. Leave the comfortable. Let down our guard.
I flinch a bit when I hear people say they’re thankful for their troubles because of how much they’ve grown spiritually. “Hey, take mine," I think. "You’ll grow even more.” But they have a point. The kindness my friend found in the group of guys he met in the homeless shelter changed me – how they looked out for each other so they wouldn’t get into trouble; bought each other slices of pizza when they came into a little money; swapped tips on negotiating the social services departments, getting a library card, finding hot meals at churches. I can’t walk by a homeless person now without offering a silent prayer.
Others’ generosity, too. When a local cop was critically injured in a car accident on duty, I gave blood, wrote get-well cards, made donations, prayed. Experience has bonded me to an ever-widening community. The world has become sweeter, more precious, more of an adventure – when I remember to keep my eyes open.
Life is a package deal. We don’t get a menu (“Yes, I’d like Pleasure, with a side of Pleasure. Dessert? No Pain.”). And, as Salzberg says, life can “turn on a dime.” The next moment could bring a natural disaster. Or a full ride to graduate school. A dreaded diagnosis. Or true love.
Or we could be like the woman I fell into a conversation with on the train home the night of the lecture (funny how life can put a coda on what we’ve just heard). Fifteen years ago, during a snowstorm, she decided to check in on a new neighbor and found, to her dismay, there was little she could do. The neighbor was deaf; they couldn’t communicate. She resolved to take a sign language class so she could talk with the neighbor. That led to another class. And another. Now she’s in graduate school to become a counselor to the deaf. All because of snow.
I used to think the beatifically smiling Buddhas my kids have bought me were beaming because they’d risen above the world. Now I see that they smile because they're connected to everyone. And everything. And, within this torn world, find joy.
Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
I will not refuse this grief
or close myself to this anguish.
Let shallow men pray for comfort:
“Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.”
I pray for whatever you send me,
and I ask to receive it as your gift.
You have put a joy in my heart
greater than the world’s riches.
I lie down trusting the darkness
for I know that even now you are here.
– translation by Stephen Mitchell
Sharon Salzberg has a new book, Real Happiness. Her series of lectures is continuing at Tibet House. She’s worth listening to (as a wise commenter inferred in response to an earlier post): down-to-earth, accessible, witty, droll, learned, laser-sharp, and an amazing storyteller. Check the Tibet House calendar.
For more on Stephen Mitchell’s A Book of Psalms, click here.
I’ve always liked Steve Earle’s ornery take on transcendence. After trying out various definitions – “going through something” brings to mind “plate glass windows and divorces”; “rising above” problems “smacks of avoidance as well as elitism” – he settles on it meaning “being still long enough to know when it’s time to move on.” He then adds: “Fuck me.” From the cover notes of Transcendental Blues.
More and more, I value the notion that all ground we walk on can be sacred ground – no matter if it’s in as church or synagogue, in the wilds of nature, a city street, or a hospital. Last year, I wrote a post on the theme. Here’s a link to it.