“Most people are afraid of suffering,” writes Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. “But suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has a remarkable ability to get my attention by saying the simplest things in fresh ways. Especially when I’m stuck in some sort of tiresome, sticky emotional mud; the kind of mud you can’t imagine could ever produce a lovely lotus blossom.
Earlier this year, I spotted his book, No Mud, No Lotus: the Art of Transforming Suffering at Elliott Bay Book Company. I thought it might come in handy as I embarked on my big 2017 foot surgery adventure. But month after month, it sat in a stack on my desk, where I mostly ignored it. When the title did catch my eye, I found it irritating. “Transforming suffering?” Tell that to my friend with cancer, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell that to the exhausted firefighters all over the West. Tell it to the people of Houston, Florida, Mexico, Puerto Rico. Tell it to the DACA dreamers. The Syrian refugees. The millions of us who have to worry, again, that the Republicans are going to yank our health care. The sidelined career diplomats who live in fear every time our president opens his mouth about North Korea.
“Transforming suffering.” Hah! I preferred the edgier acronym a neighbor taught me: AFOG. Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth.
But as I sat at home this summer while my family hiked; as I pondered why foot surgery had somehow triggered pain in parts of my body—back, hip, glute—that were not near my foot, I inched a little closer to actually picking up the slim black book with its taunting title. I was fed up with obsessing about the physical mysteries of recovery. I hadn’t really turned my own challenges into an AFOG at all. I was trying to, but I kept getting mired in the fog of self-pity, which is an ugly stew, not unlike the thick gruel of forest fire smoke.
“The art of happiness is also the art of suffering well,” Nhat Hanh writes. Hmmm. Really? “Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side.” He goes on in a similar vein: without darkness there is no light; without cold there is no warmth.
But the story that got my attention was his description of his own suffering from a virus in his lungs that made them bleed. Nhat Hanh is well-known for his love of joyful, mindful breathing; for adages like: “When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to do is to breathe and to become aware that you have 24 brand-new hours to live.” When he was stricken by this severe lung virus, he wrote that “it was difficult to breathe, and it was difficult to be happy while breathing.” But after he healed? “Now when I breathe, all I need to do is to remember the time when my lungs were infected with this virus. Then every breath I take becomes really delicious, really good.”
It wasn’t being well that made Nhat Hanh even more joyful about breathing; it was the fact that he’d been so sick. This is not such a difficult concept. But Nhat Hanh knows how easy it is for us to forget these simple truths, and that’s why he keeps writing about them. I’m sure he would not be surprised or insulted if I told him that his book sat in a stack for weeks before it was finally, grudgingly, opened.
No one, including Thich Nhat Hanh, would argue that suffering is inherently good. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and fires: not good. Twanging something somewhere in my lower back just as I was getting mobile again: ditto.
But like Nhat Hanh breathing with joy after his illness, I know this: the rain that finally washed away the smoky haze over Washington state was the most beautiful, sweet-smelling rain ever. Letting go of hiking for a while and, instead, riding my bicycle around Seward Park for the first time in months was the best bike ride ever.
On the radio this morning, a resident of Central Mexico talked about how catastrophe brings us together. Politics and grudges become irrelevant. People are at their best.
In the words of the wise Buddhist monk: “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”
Seattle readers: There are still a few spots left in my Introduction to Memoir Writing Class, which starts next Wednesday at Seattle Central College. I’m also excited to be a presenter at the Write on The Sound conference in Edmonds on Oct 7. That event is sold out, but I’ll keep you posted re future similar opportunities.