Gordon Peerman’s Blessed Relief: What Christians Can Learn from Buddhists About Suffering has been a life-changing read for me. It is helping me learn how to get some distance from my emotions and approach discomfort and even suffering from a position of acceptance rather than resistance. I’d love to share some passages with you over the coming few weeks.
From there, I’ll turn to the other books I read in Bhutan… Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, The Art of Living, and Happiness, all by Thich Nhat Hanh; and Married to Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness, by Linda Leaming.
Gordon Peerman, a Nashvillian, is an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist in private practice. He has taught Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at Vanderbilt’s Center for Integrative Health as well as mindfulness practices at Vanderbilt’s Law and Medical Schools. A graduate of Yale Divinity School (M.Div.) and Vanderbilt Divinity School (D.Min.), he has been an adjunct faculty member at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he taught a class in Buddhist Christian Dialogue. He teaches Centering Prayer and leads retreats at St. Mary’s Sewanee.
Peerman begins Blessed Relief by explaining the basics of mindfulness. You might think he wouldn’t need to. At this point in American popular culture, “mindfulness” seems almost like mac and cheese: it’s everywhere. We all think we know what it means – or at least I did.
I needed some further understanding.
Here are some passages I found especially helpful and hope you will as well as we approach the holidays…
On “The Heart of Mindfulness”…
This was my first time in Alaska, and it seemed to me as though we were paddling through a Tang Dynasty scroll. Cloud-hung mountains came right down to the water. The occasional human being boating across the water was tiny in the vastness of the landscape. We floated past the trunk of a tree where someone had nailed an enormous whale skull.
Enormous, too, was the silence of the place. There were no mechanized sounds, just water sounds, wind sounds, eagle sounds, all coming from and disappearing into the great silence… “This is wonderful. I could stay here forever.” Breathing in, “Happiness is like this.” Breathing out, “Smile.” Just breathing, floating, smiling, happy. Nothing else was necessary.
But since, as Buddhism teaches, everything changes, so does the mind with happiness. After a while, I found myself wanting just a little bit more happiness. Buddhists call this the ‘grasping mind,’ and it is this grasping that leads to suffering and stepping on the wheel of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death. The grasping mind was wanting just a little bit more. The thought came to me, “I wish Alex [my son] and Kathy [my wife] could see this.” How quickly on the heels of happiness comes an improving thought: “This could be even better.” Mind with happiness becomes mind with improving – a slight bit of resisting what is.
When we are able to watch our minds, we can notice that different thoughts come and go. Who knows where these thoughts come from or where they go? Usually this coming and going of thoughts happens out of our awareness, but with mindfulness practice, we can take notice and watch. Watching thoughts is like watching boats moving past our view on the water: “Here comes the ‘improving’ boat; there goes the ‘it’s-not-quite-right’ boat.” By knowing that the mind has moved to improving, we can choose whether to follow this improving thought or to simply watch the urge to improve arise and let it be, without having to take action or fix anything.
…Paddling that afternoon, when I stopped to pay attention to the improving thought in my mind, I was able to let it be, and in time, it let go of me. Could Alex and Kathy be here with me now? No. More to the point, could I be here now? With this question, something shifted inside me. Being here now happened, and letting go of improving happened, and a little movement of energy flowed through my torso with this release. I came back to the feeling of the paddle in my hands, the sound of the paddle in and out of the water, the rhythm of my breathing. I thought of what one of my Buddhist teachers often says: “Be here now. Be someplace else later.” Smile.
On “Small Mind, Big Mind”…
…Small mind is the narrow, grasping mind reaching out whenever it can for pleasure, praise, recognition, or gain. Small mind reflexively grasps for what it believes will bring happiness and pushes away what it believes will bring pain. The little crabs in the tidal pools of Tebenkof Bay, their claws reaching skyward seemed the perfect representation of small mind. Watching my own small mind’s pincers open and close on what it wanted at the moment – whether it was a more comfortable sleeping bag spot or less snoring from the tent next door, or more of a particular kind of food or a warmer or cooler temperature – I saw all the big and little ways I was in contention with reality. Small mind, resisting what is, wants just a little bit more or just a little bit less…
Big mind, on the other hand, is open to what is. Because it knows the truth of impermanence, that everything changes, big mind knows that pleasure does not come without pain, that praise does not come without blame, that gain does not come without loss, that recognition does not come without disgrace. These Eight Vicissitudes, as the Buddha called them, inevitably come conjoined as “terrible twins”… Big mind is open to the full play of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral events, but small mind wants only the pleasant and inevitably suffers when reality brings pain, blame, loss, or disgrace instead. Buddhist teachers compare small mind to a little container, a cup, into which a handful of salt has been dropped. Big mind, by contrast, receives the same salt of experience, but the salt can diffuse into great spaciousness, like the wide waters of Tebenkof Bay.
Again and again on the Alaska retreat, I got to see how mindfulness could convert the narrow grasping of small mind to the spacious openness of big mind. The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa used to say, “There is no cure for hot and cold.”