“Let it Be” was released 2 months after my birth in 1970….it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song but it is the one that has followed me through my forty-three years, turning up with uncanny ability whenever I’m in the worst kinds of trouble or in the glory of my days.
I strongly believe in the power of music, how it heals us, how it tears us apart…..makes us remember, moves us to action. How you can listen to the same song on the radio for years without realizing that it, like “Let it Be”, was meant for you. Paul McCartney said he had the idea of “Let It Be” after he had a dream about his mother who died of cancer when McCartney was fourteen and so she was the inspiration for the “Mother Mary” lyric.
Growing up, my Father listened to the Beatles daily and it seemed Paul and John’s voices were always echoing through the halls of our humble abode. “Let it Be” seemed too simple, too boring. I had no room for it in my abnormal life, my wildly animated “Yellow Submarine” kind of life. I believed that life treated us to lemons at birth and kept at it until we figured a way to sweeten the tartness. Maybe somewhere out there were people who lived lives of lemonade and leisure, but I’d never seen it.
By the time I was sixteen, I’d been living on my own in monastery for a few months while in the process of ordination. I had taken a big risk, ordaining and, making my way through high school by myself. The process of Theravada ordination and the six month silent, secluded forest retreat that’s mandatory was so difficult…especially for a sixteen-year old girl. The loneliness was new to me….and I didn’t like it…..no matter how simple our living, my family had each other and our bond unbreakable. I hated going into such solitude each evening knowing that no one was waiting for me….knowing I only had my practice to keep me warm….knowing I wouldn’t see them.
Sometimes, after long study periods in the local library, I would drive around, passing houses…that sort of silence can be deafening…..I would long for the lights in the windows. One night the horrible feeling in my gut was too much to bear. The only thing that I could do was pull over, curling up around the steering wheel. When would I ever be part of my family again? Why couldn’t I feel complete by myself? Why did I feel I was failing in the practice of the Buddadharma and all the beliefs that felt so central to my being? Why was I letting down all my dear Teachers, my parents, my family, myself? Why couldn’t I just go home and simply have what I want? Why, why, why……..?
And it happened: an answer. “Let it be” on the radio. A song with the simplest lyrics, a song I’d heard but not really listened to or held an interest in for my whole life. Yet, it was meant for me. I hadn’t noticed before that the song isn’t about throwing in the towel, “letting it be” as I’d thought…….but letting those things that we can’t change, the things that keep us up at night, make us pull over onto the sides of roads……letting them be.
My answer came in the form of a song with a message that fit my predicament completely. The Beatles created generations of people who bond over their music, who feel connections that are more powerful than what they could have anticipated. I believe in “Let it Be” and its ability to heal, to create community, to shine until tomorrow.
And then there’s that something that all broken hearted people can agree on: things may be downright awful…..but it always, eventually, gets better. I knew that I wouldn’t be alone forever and that I would be with family again…..that I would be happy again. A bright, hopeful happy. A happy I could spread around, be proud of. A “Let it Be” kind of happy. I listen to “Let it Be” regularly now…it holds such deep meaning for me….it comes to me in dreams and makes me smile. Today, I am so grateful for so much in my life….my family, my practice, my Teachers, loving friends and the ability to simply let things be….Buddhism teaches us that letting go is the hardest thing of all, but invariably, the most freeing.
I had already paid my money, tucked my package under my arm, and was walking out the door when I heard her calling my name. There she was, perched on a small bookcase, in the outer room of a local store….a small ladybug planter that, I swear, was calling my name. Molded out of light brown clay, her thin legs were drawn up under her thick body, and her head was tilted coquettishly. She wore an impish grin and looked as if she were about to bat her eyelashes to get her way. The urge to take her home was so irresistible that I turned around and bought her immediately.
This has been a time of reinvention in my life. After emerging from the fog of some difficult situations, pain and grief, I found myself intent on revealing the authentic woman inside and honoring her by making decisions on that authenticity. Those decisions were not only the big ones, like what do I want for my life and who do I want in it, but also the more mundane ones, like how do I decorate my apartment. I found that in order to remain true to my authentic self, I had to really be quiet and dig down and listen to what was speaking to me.
If I have learned nothing else during the course of my life, I’ve learned to listen to my inner voice which holds a distinguished courage in being present with any situation.. Everyone has one. We call it different things: our moral compass, a gut feeling, following our heart. Whatever we name it, we should always pay attention to it. It makes us who we are and it takes great courage to listen.
I believe that courage is forged as one endures the fires of life and chooses to face the flames….even when no one is looking. As a child, I thought courage was an innate quality, passed down from parents or found within the solitude of church. I was taught to make responsible decisions and to treat others fairly, but no one told me that the most difficult choices are those that take place quietly in my own heart. It is easy to do the right thing when you have an audience, others from whom to derive judgment and receive praise. But when I found myself alone and confused at 15 years old, and solely bore the responsibility to choose my path, I began to discover what “courage” really meant.
It was a quiet moment spent in meditation that I knew what my decision would be. The message was clear: the path I felt within me needed to be fully born and was more important than any discomfort, fear, or loneliness I might face. The decision to follow my heart took courage, but not nearly as much as the long road ahead would demand. Living life outside the “norm” shapes you by offering opportunities to make courageous, unselfish decisions, but it also comes with a great deal of pain and loneliness. There is a social stigma connected to following a certain path which doesn’t involve the single desire to make boatloads of money, that many would like to believe no longer exists. They are wrong, and that has been made painfully clear to me more often than I would like to remember. It took courage to go to work, even though I was exhausted from hours of study and felt hopeless inside….as if my strides were eventually to amount to very little….perhaps I would have missed so many opportunities to get a high paying job, meet “important” people, meet a husband, live comfortably, live the “right” life, have tons of friends…..and it took courage when I strove to go back to school even though I barely believed in myself….and when I took a risk and I followed my heart to try to work things out with people in my life even though the odds were stacked against us. Those choices, those moments that I faced the flames, have led me to my greatest experiences of love, happiness, and fulfillment.
Now, almost 28 years later, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I chose the more difficult road. My life is beautiful and full of the stuff from which courage is made. Just the other day my Mother told me how much she respected me for the many painful and difficult decisions I’ve made along the way…and the very difficult one I made so many years ago, when I first began to discover what “courage” meant. I am happily graduated from University and adore my Teachers who at times I am humbled by their intense commitment to philanthropic and humanitarian efforts.
I believe that courage is still being shaped inside me as I write this, quietly preparing me for my next adventure, for my next trial by fire. Courage is not an innate quality, but emerges as we allow it room and as we listen to that little inner voice. It is not hard as rock, but soft and malleable, stained with tears, filled with reflections of the hidden parts of ourselves, and always waiting to reveal itself. When I quiet my mind, the message is clear: opportunities for courage present themselves to each of us daily, and if we let them, they will lead us to our greatest experiences of love, happiness, and fulfillment. Courage is waiting for you to look into the flames…….but you have to make the choice to be transformed.
I believe deep down, way back, behind the noise and chaos of everyday life we do know who we are and what we need to be happy and whole. We simply have to have the courage to listen. We know the voice that tells us we no longer want to live in dysfunction. We know the voice telling us we deserve to be genuinely happy, and we know that voice that says, “yes, that ceramic ladybug would look good in my kitchen.”
That voice often gets lost in a cacophony of other peoples’ suggestions, and recommendations and ideas and “you shoulds” and “so-and-so woulds.” And then after years of being muted and muffled, that voice within gets quiet and only whispers, and we find ourselves turning away from our most real selves and the values that make us who we are. It takes practice to let the inner voice shout once more. It takes being willing to feel for that small flame of joy deep in your belly when you recognize your authentic voice and know it’s speaking your truth. It takes courage to stand up to the other voices that want to bend and mold you to their imagined image for you.
As I look back I know that most of the mistakes I have made have come when I didn’t listen to myself, when I didn’t trust my instincts.
There is so much coming at us every day that life can get very confusing, but, as my Mother has always told me, there is only one person with whom you go to bed every night and get up with every morning, and that is you. Sometimes you stop paying attention to yourself. I believe you need to listen, carefully, to hear your inner voice. And then you have to do what it says.
It takes being willing to listen to the ladybug.
Perhaps the most important reason for “lamenting” is that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things, to know that all things are our relatives. -Black ElkA saint (is one) who does not know how it is possible not to love, not to help, not to be sensitive to the anxiety of others. -Abraham HeschelThis story is so old we don’t know who told it or who it’s about, except that it speaks to all of us. We no longer know if it was a “he” or “she” at the center of the story. No doubt the story has grown for every telling. But for this telling, let’s call our central character Kwun and let her be a heroine.One day Kwun crossed a valley and stumbled on a bloody scene. An entire village was laid to waste, the people torn apart. Walking among the bodies, her heart was breaking open, enlarging for coming upon the suffering. She was drawn, almost compelled to look inside their bodies and at the same time repulsed by the violence that had opened them. There was an eerie silence steaming along the ground. It looked like the fierce work of a warring clan. Suddenly, Kwun heard a terrible cry from the middle of the scene. She had to pull a dead man aside to find a woman barely breathing, clinging to her little boy who was bleeding from the head. Kwun fell to her knees and without thinking embraced them both, their blood coating her. The cry of the dying mother was as much from her own pain as from her powerlessness to help her son. When she saw Kwun, her cries grew worse. It was clear she was asking Kwun to take her boy. At first, Kwun shook her head, unprepared for any of this. The dying mother clutched Kwun’s hand and fell away. The boy was unconscious, still bleeding from the head. Wherever Kwun was going before stumbling into the valley, that life, that plan, that dream was gone. It was too late to close her heart and walk away.She lifted the little, bloody boy and, though he was unconscious, Kwun covered his eyes as she walked over the rest of the bodies, leaving the village. Carrying the boy, she began to cry, feeling for the mother who had watched her man die and her son be bloodied, and feeling for the boy who, if he woke at all, would be all alone. She began to moan as she walked, keeping the cry of the mother alive.By the end of the day, Kwun managed to climb out of the valley and, exhausted from the tasks of surviving, fell asleep at the mouth of a cave. When Kwun woke, the bloodied little boy had died in her arms. She didn’t know what to do, though there was nothing to do. She held him for a long time, then opened his little eyes, wanting to see what was left within him. And looking there, she began to feel the cries of the world, long-gone and long-coming. It overwhelmed her as she felt a pain that almost stopped her breathing. But she kept rocking the little one, certain the world would end if she put him down. Without her knowing, she began to hold the broken that would fill eternity, long before they would suffer: the stillborn, the betrayed, the sickly, the murdered, the thousands left to mourn. Letting them move through her began to open her heart like a lotus flower. And the cries of the world, though she couldn’t name a one, made her stronger. At last, she fell asleep again. While she slept, Kwun became a source of healing. When she woke, she spent her days touching the wounded, holding the dying, and keeping the cries of the world alive. The cries became a song she didn’t understand, other than to know that, as the wind can lift the snow off a branch, the cries altogether can somehow lift the sadness off a broken heart.Wherever We Go
Kwun may be an ancestor of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kuan-yin, whose name means hearing the cries of the world. We’ll never know, but like rivers joining in the sea, stories coalesce and merge over time into the one story that remains, the one we each wake to, surprised it is ours.
Wherever we go, wherever we wake, we are challenged like Kwun to hear the cries of the world very personally. The cries are unending and overwhelming, and our noble charge to hear them…..to hold them and keep them alive…..is how we keep the life-force we need lit between us. As Black Elk says at the beginning of this chapter, the reason to lament is that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things, and to know that all things are our relatives.
This has never been easy; for grief is so challenging that it often blinds us to its importance. As the Sufi poet Ghalib says, “Held back, unvoiced, grief bruises the heart.” Try as we will, we can’t eliminate or solve these cries, for they are the song of existence. When we try to mute or minimize the voices of suffering, we are removed from the life-force that keeps us connected. If we get lost in the cries, we can drown in them. So what are we do with them? What is a healthy way to relate to them?
I’ve found that whatever I go through opens me to what others have gone through. This is the gut and sinew of compassion. Our own ounce of suffering is the thread we pull to feel the entire fabric. Having pinched a nerve in my back, I can feel the steps of the elderly woman who takes twenty minutes to shuffle from the bread aisle to get her milk. Having lost dear ones to death, I can feel the weight of grief that won’t let the widower’s head lift his gaze from the center of the Earth where his sadness tells him his wife has gone. Having tumbled roughly through cancer, I can feel fear arcing between the agitated souls who can’t stand the wait in the waiting room. I’ve begun to meet the cries of the world by unfurling before them like a flag.
In college I volunteered at a nursing home. One day, while sipping tea and sitting with a most lovely grandmother in her apartment, she fell into another time and left the room. She’d left an old photo on the table. It was of a young family posing in a studio in 1933. The parents seemed to have the whole world ahead of them. When she returned, I asked. It was her sister and brother-in law and their small son. They lived in Bucharest. There was a long pause and an even longer sigh, “We saved and sent them steamship tickets to come.” She dropped her huge hands on her lap, “They sent them back, and said Romania was their home.” They died in Buchenwald.
It was pulling that thread that opened my heart to the cries of the Holocaust and from there, to the genocides of our time. Those cries plagued me, wouldn’t let me sleep. In time, I realized I was opening myself to the enormous suffering of history for no other reason than to feel the complete truth of who we are as humans. This is impossible to comprehend, but essential to let it move through us, the way the cries of the world moved through Kwun so many centuries ago.
Each of us must make our peace with suffering and especially unnecessary suffering, which doesn’t mean our resignation to a violent world. For the fully engaged heart is the antibody for the infection of violence. As our heart breaks with compassion, it strengthens itself and all of humanity. Can I prove this? No. Am I certain of it? Yes. We are still here. Immediately, someone says, “Barely.” But we are still here: more alive than dead, more vulnerable than callous, more kind than cruel…..though we each carry the lot of it.
That we go numb along the way is to be expected. Even the bravest among us, who give their lives to care for others, go numb with fatigue, when the heart can take in no more, when we need time to digest all we meet. Overloaded and overwhelmed, we start to pull back from the world, so we can internalize what the world keeps giving us. Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they’ve closed, to open our souls once they’ve shied away, to soften our minds once they’ve been hardened by the storms of our day.
Always, on the inside of our hardness and shyness and numbness is the face of compassion through which we can reclaim our humanity. Our compassion waits there to revive us. When opened, our heart can touch the Oneness of things we are all a part of. Then, we can stand firmly in our being like a windmill of spirit: letting the cries of the world turn us over and over, until our turning generates a power and energy that can be of use in the world.
Running from the Cries
Sometimes being alive is so hard that we think it would be better to avoid all the suffering. But we can’t, anymore than mountains can avoid erosion. And there is a danger in running from the cries of the world. In extreme cases, our refusal to stay vulnerable can twist into its opposite in which we strangely get pleasure from the suffering of others. The German word Schadenfreude means just this. Such perverse pleasure derives from the utmost denial of being human; the way running from what we fear only makes us more violently afraid. Severely renounced, the need to feel doesn’t go away, but distorts itself. In the same vein, the term “Roman Holiday” refers to the grisly spectacle of gladiators battling to the death for the pleasure of the Roman crowd.
This danger is insidious in today’s rush of incessant news coverage twenty-four hours a day. We can be brought into heartbreaking kinship in a second, as with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City or the horrific massacre of twenty schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. And like Kwun in the ancient tale, we can be compelled to look at the raw insides of tragedy to glimpse how tenuous our time is on Earth, while being repulsed by the violence that opens such a stark revelation. But if not careful, the endless replaying of tragedy from countless angles can push us over the line till we fall prey to that perverse pleasure of the Roman crowd.
To view tragedy beyond our feeling of it adds to the tragedy and turns us into dark voyeurs. Yet just as Kwun’s rocking of the lifeless, little boy enabled her to hear and feel the suffering of those yet to come, keeping our heart open to one torn life can enable us to hear and feel the cries of all who suffer.
Which side of reality we dwell in determines whether we are offspring of Kwun and Kuan-yin, descendants of those who keep the cries of the world alive, or offspring of the warring clan, descendants of those who gut whatever is in the way, who cheer the bloody spectacle. These twin-aspects of life are closer to each other than we think. The seeds of both live in each of us. It is our devotion to staying vulnerable that keeps us caring and human.
True connection requires that a part of us dissolves in order to join with what we meet. This is always both painful and a revelation, as who we are is rearranged slightly, so that aliveness beyond us can enter and complete us. Each time we suffer, each of us is broken just a little, and each time we love and are loved, each of us is beautifully dissolved, a piece at a time. We break so we can take in aliveness and we dissolve so we can be taken in. This breaking and dissolving in order to be joined is the biology of compassion. The way that muscles tear and mend each time we exercise to build our strength, the heart suffers and loves. Inevitably, the tears of heartbreak water the heart they come from, and we grow.
Our fear of such breaking and dissolving keeps us from reaching out, from stopping to help those we see in pain along the way, telling ourselves it’s none of our business. But no one can sidestep being touched by life and, sooner or later, the fingers of the Universe poke us and handle us and rearrange us. Running from the cries of the world makes the Universal touch harsh. Leaning into the sea of human lament makes the Universal touch a teacher. Hearing the cries of the world causes us to grow, the way every flower opens for receiving the rain.
What Are We to Do?
The life of Kwun and Kuanyin calls, their simple caring in our DNA, though it’s never easy to cross into a life of compassion. Since the beginning, we have all complained, when weary or afraid of the power of feeling, that we have a right to happiness. Can’t we ever look away? Must we always feel guilty for those who’ve suffered beyond our control? But guilt is the near-enemy of true kindness. It won’t let us look away or let us give our heart to those who suffer because our lives will change if we do.
No matter how we fight it, life always has other plans and we are faced, when we least expect it, with the quandary of living softly in a beautiful and harsh world. Under all our goals and schemes is the sudden need to help each other swim in the mixed sea of joy and sorrow that is our human fate.
The truth is: my suffering doesn’t have to be out of view for you to be happy, and you don’t have to quiet your grief for me to be peaceful. Allowing our suffering and happiness to touch each other opens a depth of compassion that helps us complete each other.
There are always things to be done in the face of suffering. We can share bread and water and shelter in the storm. But when we arrive at what suffering does to us, there is only compassion…..the genuine, tender ways we can be with those who suffer.
Some days, I can barely stand the storms of feeling and fear civilization will end, if we can’t honor each other’s pain. But in spite of my own complaints and resistance, I know in my bones that openness of heart makes the mystery visible. Openness to the suffering we come across makes our common heart visible. If we are to access the resources of life, we must listen with our common heart to the cries of the world. We must forego our obsession with avoiding pain and start sensing the one cry of life that allows us to flow to each other.