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We Can’t Control the Storms, but we can Remain Awake in Their Midst

Posted by on Sep 28, 2014 in Blog Posts |

We Can’t Control the Storms, but we can Remain Awake in Their Midst

“In the moment of mindfulness there is no suffering.“ – Ajahn Sumedo

Remaining in present moment awareness, being with what is, just as it arises, without embellishing it with past remembrances, future what ifs, or desire to be someplace else, or to have things some other way, we find peace. It is only our fearful, resistant, clinging, or desirous mind that can destroy our peace, and cause us to suffer.

Childbirth and labor, with their waves of tightening and progressively evolving sensations can be challenging. Mild in the early stages, birthing waves grow keener, even painful, but whether they cause us suffering, is purely our choice. When we allow our ever chattering mind to build walls of aversion, resistance, and fear around our labor, we are participating as the author of our own suffering.

If we have educated ourselves, read, practiced, and prepared for birth, so that we have driven out ignorance and delusion, and we choose to be mindful, awake, aware, and present in each moment, then there is no reason for suffering to arise. Even in the midst of painful contractions, we can recognize the positive and miraculous power and design of our female body, the wonders of the act of birth, the way we are working together with our child to bring him/her forth into life, and release our mind into a surrendering welcome, which opens and frees us into the realization of a peaceful, gentle birth. We can recognize that although our physical body may be surging and working hard, we are more than just our physical body and its sensations. It is fully our choice whether we allow ourself to become ensnared in fear and pain, or instead to stay in each moment as it unfolds, anchored by our breath and simply viewing the natural arising and passing away sensations as changing conditions, neither good, nor bad, just the true nature of birth. There is nothing wrong, there is no injury or assault to overcome, there is only this natural process unfolding, which we need not be fearful of. Suffering can only enter in when we allow our minds to dwell in realms of fear, doubt, or anxiety. We ourselves create our own suffering through wrong assumptions and perceptions we heedlessly create, and then continue to dwell on.
If we wisely and mindfully investigate and reflect, we begin to understand the true nature of any circumstance, and this understanding diminishes resistance, allowing a natural surrender.

The Japanese poet, Rengetsu wrote:
The barrier I set in my heart
against the falling blossoms
has gone…
now the beginning of autumn –
the cool of the river sound.

When we confine ourselves to very fixed, static, rigid, judgemental definitions of what labor sensations, stages, and childbirth will be, as well as our ability to experience it, we close ourselves off from any other possibilities. “Childbirth is too painful, I can’t handle pain, I can’t deal with the medical information, I am going to lose control, nurses and doctors will try to force me to do things I don’t want to do, birth is just something you have to grit your teeth and get through”, then you have already written the script, and informed the actors, your body and mind, how to play their parts.

There is also available, the choice of a more reflective, contemplative, compassionate, open, joyful, and dynamic perspective of birth. You can choose to see your birth as having a myriad possibilities for it to lovingly and pleasantly unfold. You can let go your attachment to fear, and the need to control every aspect of your birth, so that it goes just the way you feel you need it to go. Instead simply welcome each moment as it comes, each birth wave, each breath, as it rises to the peak and then passes away, as the breath comes in to the depths of your belly and passes out again, letting it be just as it is, not adding embellishments, as icing on the cake in the colors and flavors of fear, doubt, resistance, or worry. Simply welcome one wave at a time, just this one, and now this, arising as a felt sensation and passing away again. In this here and now place of being fully in each moment, anchored and grounded in the breath, we find freedom and liberation from delusions that create fear and resistance. In this present moment truth, we find our center, our axis mundi, our dharma, our truth, here we sit calmly beneath the Bodhi Tree and just breathe, allowing the waves to wash over us one by one, helping to usher our precious babe forth, and ever closer to our loving, welcoming arms. In this place of mindfulness there is no suffering.

Two of my favorite Japanese poets are Kobayashi Issa, and Otagaki Rengetsu. Both of these famous poets had very challenging lives, littered with tragedy and loss. Even so, their ability to remain with “just this”, each moment as it took form and passed away, unadorned by the conscious minds ever present storytelling and race to embellish and aggrandize, (which creates fear, worry, and doubt), allowed them to be more easily with whatever came their way. In this fashion their suffering was lessened, and in present moment, mindful awareness they could still recognize, and even write of the ephemeral beauty and joys of life as well, even in the very midst of tragedy, challenges, and loss.

After the passing of his daughter, Kobayashi Issa wrote:
“This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet…”

“A world of grief and pain
flowers bloom,
even then…”

Kobayashi Issa, as he came to call himself, is now counted among the Three Pillars of haiku by all but a handful of scholars, alongside undisputed masters Matsuo Bashō, and Yoka Buson. Kobayashi Issa was born the son of a farmer. At the age of three, his mother died. His father needed to work the farm so Issa went to live with his grandparents. Ten years later, his grandmother died, so Issa was sent back to live with his father and new stepmother. After the birth of her own son, his step mother grew to resent Issa, beating and abusing him often. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Edo to study under haiku master Norokuan Chikua . For years afterwards, not much is known of his life, other than that he wandered the countryside, and was very poor. At the age of 65 Issa’s father died of typhoid fever. Issa’s step mother and step brother challenged his father’s will and it took thirteen years for it to be worked out, so the property could be split between the two brothers. At the age of fifty-one, after enduring decades of loneliness and poverty, Issa married a younger woman named Kikku. Sadly, Kikku and Issa were not fated to have a happy life together. All three of their children died of small pox, and Kikku herself soon died in childbirth. At sixty years of age, Issa found himself alone, and visited with mysteriously recurring bouts of paralysis. Issa married a second time, a young woman from a local Samurai family, but she left him only three weeks after they were wed. A third time Issa married, but again the marriage was stricken with hardship when the couples house burned to the ground, and they were forced to live in a small hut. Walking out in the snow one day soon after the fire, Issa was struck by another bout of paralysis. He lay there, alone in the snow, unable to move, until finally, he froze to death. The following Spring, his wife gave birth to their daughter, the only one of his children to survive, whom he would never meet.

Kobayashi Issa poems:

A sheet of rain.
Only one man remains among
cherry blossom shadows

Washing the saucepans –
The moon glows on her hands
in the shallow river.

The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.

Just by being,
I’m here –
in the snow-fall.

In my deserted home village
The old cherry tree
Now in bloom.

Gratitude for gifts,
even snow on my bedspread
a gift from the Pure Land

In this mountain village,
shining in my soup bowl,
the bright moon arrives

A lovely thing to see
through the paper window’s hole,
the Galaxy.

That gorgeous kite
from the beggar’s shack

Otagaki Rengetsu was born the illegitimate child of a geisha and a feudal lord, and was sent away to live with a family in Kyoto. At the age of eight or nine, she went to live at Tamba-Kameyama castle, to work as a serving girl. She lived at the castle until the age of fourteen, and while there also learned the arts of poetry, calligraphy, sewing, embroidery, dance, and sword play. Known as a stunning beauty, and said to have been courted by many suitors, she also grew to have the manners and bearing of a daughter raised by a Samuai family. At the age of thirteen, Rengetsu lost her brother and her mother, and over the next thirty years she would lose everyone she held dear, including five children, two husbands, two adoptive siblings, and finally her adoptive father. After the death of her second husband, and her father, Rengetsu cut her hair short, renounced the world, and took vows as a Buddhist nun. Needing to support herself, Rengetsu began writing poetry, and creating pottery,which she inscribed with bits of her poems. As her skills with calligraphy, pottery, and poetry grew, Rengetsu’s works became greatly sought after. Though she sold her art to make a living, she also gave many pieces away as gifts to those in need, and was known for her many acts of charity. Rengetsu spent much of her life traveling, her journeys, adventures, and musings upon her days bringing material for her poetry, resulting in poems that speak with the voice of one who has tasted deeply of life. In the last ten years of her life, Rengetsu stopped her travels and took up residence, as a guest of Abbot Wada Gozan, in a small hut in the precincts of Jinkou’in (Temple of Heavenly Light), in the small village of Nishigamo, a short distance from Kyoto, where she lived until her passing in 1875. During her years in Nishigamo, she spent much time doing all she could to help alleviate the suffering of her fellow villagers, and taught the village children, so that she was greatly missed after her death. She is remembered today as one of the brightest lights of 19th century Kyoto, and celebrated during the annual procession of the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages).

Otagaki Rengetsu’s poems:

With nothing to do
something sad,
yet pleasing…
in my hut
awaiting the flowers
during the spring rains.

in the twilight mist
where they go I cannot see…
I envy the wild geese
only their voices trailing behind.

Turned away at the inn
I take this unkindness as grace…
resting instead
beneath the hazy moon
and evening blossoms.

In the end
should my love be wasted
like Sashimo grass
It shall continue as fireflies
burning over the fields.

My children…
I used to stroke
their sleepy morning hair
laying loose upon my sleeve—
white dew on blossoms of pinks.

Without these dewdrops
no lodging
for the moon—
buried under lotus leaves:
the water of a garden pond.

Through the vines
no one comes
to these hedgerows
where the mist rises…
a mountain village in autumn.

We become blessed or cursed by the way we take up and hold challenges and tragedies that befall us, and the way we choose to work to transform them. Our focus and perspective can imprison us in an oubliette of our own making, or release us into the freedom that no circumstance can ever take from us.

As we simply choose to stay with things as they arise, sorrowful or sweet, we learn to use moments of challenge, fierce storms, vulnerability, and change of seasons, as clay for the vessel of our journey. We learn the truth that the course of our journey, and the path of our footfalls, is continuously created anew, and too, continually passing away, along the road of life’s dynamic, ever changing nature. We learn to stop resisting, which brings sorrow and suffering, and instead, to let things go their way, and to naturally take up residence, and dwell in each present moment’s sufficiency.

In childbirth, just as in life, at the moments we dance upon the dawning precipice of breakthrough, of realization, or momentous change, at the hour of what feels as the greatest test of our endurance and faith, a cry invariably escapes our doubting lips, “ I can’t do this anymore”, “I can’t stand this job, or endure this illness, or deal with this problem, one more day, one more minute.” Our mind tries intensely to argue us out of stillness, out of just being, patiently, openly, mindfully, expectantly, with what is. We cannot endure, we cannot bear it, we cannot simply be, we must resist, we must act, we must do. But if we remain still, constant, steadfast, simply kindling the fire of each present moment, just this one, and now this one, and this one, not gazing wistfully behind or struggling to move too suddenly ahead, we might just awaken to a newness of hearts bursting open, and as a caterpillar who rested patiently in each safely harbored moment of his sheltering cocoon, emerge transformed and reborn as a wondrous new creation. We might then step forth to dry and test our wings,soaring to new heights, never before imagined. Out of the patient sufficiency of resting in each moments care, our spirit learns to soar into the magnificence of what truly is, while sorrow, suffering, resistance, fear and frantically doing rather than being, simply fall away, like a worn out chrysalis, we have no more need of.

In childbirth this moment is christened with the first wondrous cries of your baby’s sweet voice, an abundance of joyous tears for his safe and miraculous arriving, for the strength you never knew you had, and for the amazing feat of endurance and courage you just performed, surprising even yourself with your abilities. Having come through the all encompassing, transformational cocoon of labor, moment by moment, wave crashing upon wave, you emerge on the far shore of selfhood, as a new and wondrous creation, a Mother!

There is a story told of an old fisherman who set sail, in his small vessel, on a grey and foggy day. He was drifting peacefully upon the lake when suddenly, from out of the mist, another boat came crashing into him. The old fisherman was furious, and for the next several hours he had to work to repair small cracks and leaks in the side of his boat. As he worked, the anger in his mind expanded and increased like an over full balloon. He cursed the irresponsible sailor who had lost control and caused damage to his boat. The longer he ruminated and obsessed over his anger, the more miserable he became and the more he blamed the unknown sailor. This thoughtless sailor had not only damaged his boat, he had spoiled his entire day. In fact, he had caused him to miss the opportunity to catch a lot of fish, he had caused his family not to have fish for dinner, and he had caused a loss of income for the fisherman. He fumed and fumed until he was utterly heartsick with anger and resentment. As the hours passed, and the sun rose higher in the sky, the fog gradually lifted. To the fisherman’s great dismay, the clearing weather revealed the empty boat, which had broken loose from its moorings, drifting nearby. There had in fact been no sailor, irresponsible or otherwise, who had hit his own boat. In his mindless anger and continued obsessing, he had caused his own suffering, and caused himself to miss the opportunity to catch fish, sell fish, and feed his family. The sun shining more brightly came to reveal a glorious day wherein the birds were singing, the sound of the water lapping against the boat was sweet and calming, the wind across his cheek enlivening, and a myriad other pleasures which his choice of anger and resentment had caused him to miss entirely.

(The next time you find yourself holding onto and filling your mind to bursting like an overfull balloon, with fear, anger, anxiety, doubt, etc. Remind yourself, there is no one in the other boat. The other boat is empty, and the only one you have to blame for your loss of peace, is yourself.)