Sorrow and Beauty

Adapted from a June 2013 retreat talk by Wayne

There was a note on the board last night, asking whether there might be a connection between sorrow and beauty. The writer had noticed, in listening to the talks, that there were for him moments of deep sadness and at the same time a sense of great beauty. I don’t think that this has ever come up before—and it is refreshing to have something new to look at! What was clear this morning in turning the words over and in seeing what they evoked, was a real possibility of a connection and an inter-relationship—an undivided flow between what we see as beautiful and what we feel as sadness.

In a similar vein, another person in a meeting this week reported that, while walking in the fields, there were times when the feelings evoked were almost too much—too much beauty, too many wildflowers and vibrant green grasses. The sky this week has been ever-changing, the clouds parting and closing, the sun peeking out between the clouds—and trees swaying in the wind, drooping from all the rain and the weight of their spring flowering. And then there are still moments, moments when everything lights up and shines; a sparkling hillside.

The beauty that we are overwhelmed by, that evokes such strong feelings, is the same beauty, the same world, that we usually miss, that we pass over and that resides in the background, obscured by our preoccupations. It’s very easy, most of the time, in the car or walking, to just pass through the world around us, to hurry to get to where we have to go, or to where we think we have to go. Often after work or on weekends, Susan and I will take our dog, Chester, to one of the trails that run alongside the two nearby reservoir lakes. When Chester walks, he is on high alert, watching, sniffing everything with great interest, and yet never losing track of us, or of people or animals that pass by. And yet we say that our human brain is more evolved, has a greater capacity, because, as we go along, we can think of what happened at work today and worry about what might happen tonight or tomorrow—and distance ourselves from the actual, from the beauty of the land and of the moment.

It is easy enough, when we are in the thinking and planning mode, to miss seeing what is actually here, but there are moments of waking up—how else would we realize that we were day-dreaming? And the waking up can be marvelously simple if we don’t become entangled in remorse at being asleep—the sleep-walking is already a memory and is gone—and we can be here freshly. As the person who talked about walking in the fields and in the forest noticed, when there is some quieting, when my ideas, my concerns about myself and my desires for something better are in abeyance, there is openness to whatever is here. It is as if the the shell of me is not quite so solid—there are pieces missing! And one notices beauty in very ordinary things: eating, walking, riding the bus or the driving in the car–even working on the computer! We do not need anyone to confirm this beauty, but it is nice to share, to see together. And we do not need a drama, the drama of seeing the biggest bear or the most perfect flower…there is an amazing grace in every-day things—a field of grass, the stream and the log caught in the stream, the water rushing over it or the new buds on the evergreens—and the thoughts and memories that come and go.

With a stilling of the brain/body there may be a weakening of the sense of distance between what is commonly thought of as me and the world. There is an intimacy and closeness. And even though what we report about walking on the beautiful land is coming from memory, that doesn’t have to be a hindrance to seeing. Right now, talking with people in a large room, there is also that sense of shared space and of intimacy—of great beauty and of the power of that beauty, the energy of being here together. And a moment ago it was noticed that the eyes were watering, there was some tearing. I’m not sure it was sorrow, but there was an intensity of feeling. When the whole system is open and unguarded, there can be a wonderful intensity that will express itself in ways we cannot know or need to control.

Much of our sadness comes from thoughts, thoughts about what we have lost or what we may lose—the flowers that are out today will be gone tomorrow, the birds that are singing now will fly away in the fall, and we and all that we love will change or disappear. But that is a thought created sadness. It doesn’t make the feelings any less real, but it’s not quite the same as what comes simply, without the coloring of thought. Maybe in a talk or a group dialogue or in something we read or discover for ourselves there can be a seeing that is so powerful, a seeing that is so immediate, that there is a welling up of tears. I don’t think that is the crying of self-pity, of woe is me or woe is you—and yet there may be a trace of sadness. This is probably not something we need or have to explain, but perhaps it is a kind of loss, an emptying out of the old, to make room for we know not what. And there is nothing wrong in feelings that are engendered by thought, in feeling, sensing and aware-ing the sorrows that emerge from our sense of separation and isolation and from our fears. It is wonderful, though, to discover that thought does not have to bind us—that we don’t have to cling to our sorrows. Seeing how suffering emerges and exists in this person, it is possible to see the suffering of the other in a new way, without needing to wallow in that suffering. Is there separation outside of our thoughts and beliefs—our memories and images? Without the blanket of thought and belief, there can be a simplifying of emotion, a possibility to feel and be with what is alive in this moment, with no regrets and without the overlays of should and ought.

There is a passage in the Heart Sutra: “There is no pain, or cause of pain or cease in pain or even path to lead from pain, nor even wisdom to attain.” No pain, no cease in pain; simply what’s here at this moment, without the judge or the chooser, saying “Don’t feel that, that’s not what meditators should feel,” or “you should be detached, don’t even think that, it should be transcended.’ These are all stories that we tell ourselves. Is it possible to see that a story is a story? And maybe to discover that none of it really matters, in a moment it is gone and—listen—there’s a bird singing—an incredibly beautiful song—this song, this moment! The sense here is that, with this work, there isn’t the filtering, the ability to stand back in a fog of indifference—there is openness and seeing. I recently read a letter on a website called “Caring Bridge,” a website where people write about serious illness and dying, about themselves or about someone close to them. A day or two before retreat a friend wrote about telling her children—having a talk with her children—about the real possibility that their father, her husband, who has been living for many years with various cancerous tumors, brain tumors and other tumors that either spread or were removed or that receded, may not recover this time, that the cancer had spread too far and that the body was too ravaged to fight it off. There was not enough left, not enough weight and not enough of an immune system to resist or to take the chemicals and the radiation. Hearing this one of the two children said nothing, listened silently and the other asked “Could we not talk about this, could we talk about something happy?” Unless we have hardened ourselves, turned our backs on each other, how can we not feel? Like the child who goes silent, like the child who wants to talk about something else, something happy, the mother who has to talk to the children and the husband, tired, exhausted beyond measure and in pain. Amazingly, what comes up in looking at this is that there is beauty too, in the question, in the silence and in the sadness. We don’t really know where one begins and the other ends and it makes absolutely no difference.

Is it sufficient to feel what is here; the pain, the sorrows and the moment to moment flow of life, death and dying? Seeing the sorrow here is seeing the sorrow of the whole of humanity, of the world. Seeing this sorrow does not mean we are bound to it and yet we are not separate, not on some lofty perch of indifference. This kind of seeing – whole seeing or wholesome seeing – is not tainted by what should or shouldn’t be. To me this seeing is the root of kindness. People sometimes ask: “Why don’t we talk more here about compassion?” There is a memory coming up of my parents having come back from church, my mother making Sunday dinner, saying in a tired and somewhat doubting voice, “I learned today that we’ve got to be more loving, that we have to be more kind.” I don’t see kindness coming from trying, from a supposed to. I really feel that compassion, this feeling of with-ness, of not being separate, is the genesis and the embodiment of kindness. In order to fight with each other, in order to hate, we have to make a picture. We have to create the enemy and we have to go over and over this picture and the narrative that accompanies the picture and the story – the buzzwords, the derogatory buzzwords. In a way it is kind of easy, we can slip into it and then we don’t have to look at ourselves, at how we are, at how we embody the same stuff that we’re blaming on someone else – the same anxieties, the same fears, the same rough edges. In this sadness of discovering our condition and our conditioning, there’s also an amazing joy. We’re not shouldering the burden alone. And it’s really nothing substantial—the conditions and the conditioning are window dressing, a surface movement. Are we interested in discovering what is beneath the surface?

There is a perhaps a sadness in the inevitability of people and things breaking down, slowing down and falling apart. Or is it sad—that’s our usual way of looking at things, but does it have to be so? Toni, during a recent visit, asked out loud “How much can a body bear?” I don’t know for sure, but I didn’t and don’t feel that there was self-pity in that statement—it was simply an open wondering, emerging from the reality of extreme pain and exhaustion. And yet the pain was borne—there was no choice. Is that the marriage of sorrow and beauty? When it is clearly seen that there is no choice, can we be with whatever appears, with the everyday circumstances, with the pains, sorrows and joys that constantly emerge, change and disappear. Changing, changing, changing! And yet there is a seeing that is not coming from the changing, but from silence, from the changeless. And is there also a kind of kindness, a species of kindness that isn’t moving from me to you, that isn’t dependent on anything—that is our natural life, our natural being. This kindness is not separate from the silence, the stillness—and the things that come and go, easily and freely. Are the sorrows and joys moving freely, like the petals that are falling in the rain and the wind, the petals and clusters of blossom that flutter in the storm? [A clash of thunder sounds.] Hmmmm! There’s no separation, no need to criticize or judge—just boom!—and the ground littered with spring blossom. It’s quiet now, birds are singing and perhaps there is a stillness between thoughts—no one word, no series of words or descriptions will do. And yet, there is beauty in the moment, in each moment, when there is no holding back, no hesitation and no wanting things to be otherwise. There is incredible beauty and a fresh innocence in simply being with whatever is here, with the wholeness of this moment—whatever it brings!