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Noticing the Sacred in the Ordinary

Originally published in the Mindfulness Bell Magazine, Issue 88, Autumn 2021.

Posted with permission. Click here for subscriptions to the Mindfulness Bell Magazine.

In memory of our beloved Dharma Teacher, Joanne Friday.

The longing to understand suffering in myself and others has been front and center of my personal, spiritual, and professional work. My journey through contemplative practices has taken me from the Afro-Cuban roots of Catholicism, to yogic philosophy and, for the past 16 years, to Buddhism. It is in the fertile soil of Buddhist practices where my heart took root. The Buddha, dharma, and the sangha have helped me water seeds of joy, compassion, and lovingkindness that provide rich nutrients to my soul. Mindfulness has helped me cradle my suffering and habit energies. My mentors have lovingly nurtured opening my heart and looking deeply into the roots of suffering to help transform it. Thay’s teachings and loving presence have been guiding lights in this journey.

From an early age, I explored creative ways to cope and transform suffering. Some of them were skillful and eased suffering and others were unskillful and brought more pain to my life. My heart longed for healing but somehow knew that doing so required being vulnerable. I was afraid. My inner child hid in a cloak of shame and fear. The compassionate strength of our practice has helped me write these words with love, courage, and a vulnerability not available to the younger versions of myself. I stand with fierce compassion in the loving embrace and strength of the sangha.

I had a traumatic childhood. Even writing these words brings some tightness to my chest and tenderness to my heart. I witnessed and experienced how alcoholism destroys families; how sexual abuse leaves the heart and soul confused; and how verbal, physical, and psychological violence makes one question if life is worth living. At school, life was no easier. l grappled with being gay in a culture that was actively hostile to sexual minorities. Yet despite these many challenges, there was a voice in me that guided the way. This voice of resiliency was kept alive by the love I did receive in the midst of so much chaos and by the strength of many benefactors and ancestors living in my bones. This voice invited me to care for my aching heart.

And then fifteen years ago life as I knew it collapsed when my late husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Grief catapulted me into a landscape without gravity. My heart was not ready for this loss. Grief revealed a kind of suffering and vulnerability that required careful tending and composting. Grief was the way back to my heart.

Grief became the doorway to cultivate an open heart and offered me the opportunity to experience compassion and vulnerability. Yoga and meditation kept me grounded one breath at a time. These contemplative practices helped me find refuge within myself and, paradoxically, connect me with the rest of humanity. I understood that suffering was universal. I was not alone despite feeling that way many times. Thay’s teachings helped me compost suffering. With a steady practice and the loving compassion of family, friends, and spiritual sisters and brothers, grief slowly transformed into gratitude. I began to experience life differently. It was no longer about the big picture or the big things, the beauty of life was in noticing the sacred in the ordinary.

One example of the sacred in the ordinary is listening to my dog, Tashi, drink water after a long walk. Have you ever heard how delicious this slurpy sound is? And how messy this experience can be? It is a metaphor for life--it is satisfying and nourishing but also elusive. You cannot hold life any more than you can hold water. It is also messy. Imagine grateful dog rubbing against your pants right before going to work. I learned that if I stop, breathe, and go slowly, I can see the beauty of life all around me and in me. I don’t need to change my life but expand my view. To remember that in the midst of suffering there is joy and in the midst of joy there is suffering—to honor that we cannot have one without the other has been remarkably healing. The 14 Mindfulness Trainings have helped me explore this knowing in an embodied manner. It took time. It required patience and ongoing support from spiritual mentors and from the beloved sangha.

Let me be clear. There is no spiritual bypassing. I still struggle. Moments of deep connection and attunement with life collude with years of conditioning. Reactivity, fear, and anger are old friends that visit me frequently. When I don’t stop and listen to their messages, I act in ways that usually bring more suffering to my life and those around me. I keep trying. I have come to appreciate that life is about embracing our imperfections and sharing our gifts. Self-compassion has been a healing balm and constant reminder in this journey: To know in my heart and in my bones that I do not need to be perfect to be worthy of love.

I continue composting grief in my life. I have experienced many losses. My heart has been heavy processing them and also feels very tender and open. My children continue to be great teachers in this journey. Holding their suffering more spaciously has been one of the gifts of the practice. And then we lost our beloved Dharma Teacher, Joanne Friday. I miss her. As I prepare for ordination this coming June, I remember her words clearly: “I will be there with you when you ordain. I am in your heart and you are in mine.” I feel her words deeply and they give me so much peace. She continues in my heart and in the heart of our community.

Grief has taught me many things. Perhaps most importantly, the process of transforming grief has left me holding the one question that Thay says is most important: How can I help? How can I help facilitate spaces of healing where others can connect with their inner wisdom and transform their suffering? This is a guiding question in everything that I do. My life has been transformed through the study and practice of The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. From being aware of my suffering, to cultivating a compassionate and healthy life, to dwelling happily in the present moment, each of the trainings points me back to love, compassion for self and others, and for taking action to help alleviate suffering in this world. We go as a river. We go with the strength and love of the sangha.

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