This is an edited version of a talk given by Reverend Leoma at Norwich Zen Buddhist Priory in June 2015.
I’d like to share with you something that I’ve found helpful in my own training recently, in the context of training in difficult situations. Most of us have probably had one or more events in our lives that have affected us deeply and that we continue to have to work with, situations that have caused us much grief. Perhaps we still feel traumatised, or angry. Or perhaps we just don’t feel we have closure, we’ve not yet laid the event to rest. The ongoing nature of this work can make us despair that we shall ever have “dealt with it”. Then it’s easy to fall into thinking, “I’m not a very good trainee, because I’m still grappling with this after all these years”, or more subtly, “I’m not a very good trainee, because this is still coming up”. We can’t seem to help having an ideal of training, which we don’t measure up to.
For me, training in this area is about getting to the crux of the matter and then seeing how many extra layers I add. And the heart of the matter, and what we tend to skirt around and try to avoid, is: “this hurts, this really hurts”. It’s absolutely crucial to acknowledge this, otherwise we can’t go forward. To do this, we tend to have to work our way through all sorts of difficult emotions. We have to get past those judgements of: “after all this time, I’m still feeling like this”. We have to start by acknowledging: “yes, I do feel like this – it hurts”. There is no rule book that we should be following here. Each person is individual. We each have a unique set of causes and conditions that have brought us to where we are now. We have to acknowledge our perception of how it is for us, without judgement. Perhaps another person in a similar situation wouldn’t still be hurting, but this is how it is for me now. It’s up to us to be honest with ourselves. It’s not about trying to conform to how we think we should be: “I should be coping better”.
When we do get to the heart of the situation, we find “this hurts”. There can be a simple acknowledgement that this is what is there for me, without any judgement. If we can see “this hurts”, then we can start to accept it. This can be like embracing a little child. We can be with the hurt; very, very gently hold it; let it be there. To do this can be quite emotional, as we come to experience: “it’s OK that it hurts, this is what needs to be seen”.
What we come to see also is how difficult it is just to be with the hurt. “This hurts” is, by definition, painful. So we distract ourselves, squirm away, by adding layers, especially by finding someone or something to blame: “it’s all your fault”, “you have hurt me”, “you have caused me harm”, “you have made me feel guilty”. Then we get caught up in all that is wrong with the other person. Or we may turn the blame in on ourselves: “I am useless, worthless, hopeless, a failure”. We may be tempted to try to understand why the other person did what they did, even making excuses for them. Insights into this may be helpful, but so often this is just another area of speculation. Even if the other person actually gives a reason, this may not be the whole picture – the person themselves may not know all their motivations. So this too can be a cul-de-sac, which we go round and round in, analysing what the other person did and why. These extra layers are all stories kicking in and they very quickly obscure “this hurts”. We get trapped in those layers, flailing around, separated from the heart of the matter, so that there seems no way forward.
What is really important is to appreciate that there are two aspects here: the hurt and then all that flows from it. We can disconnect those two things, so that the hurt can be there and nothing need flow from it.
This is extremely difficult, because in these cases it is usually blindingly obvious that “it’s not my fault”: “you behaved badly, unreasonably, selfishly”, “you hurt me”. Or else: “the world is unfair, cruel”, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. But it is these stories that turn us into a victim and keep us locked in there, these stories of how I am not or was not in control, because “you did this to me, made me like this”, or because “it is part of who I am that I am useless”. If we can just be with “this hurts”, without any story, without “this hurts because …….”, then there is no judgement and no victim. It is just: “this is how it is”, “this hurts”. It’s not that “this hurts” is a neutral observation as such, because there is likely to be a lot of emotion present. But “this hurts” can be there without adding any judgement or story.
One particularly compelling story can be that the other person has to make the first move. “Why should it be me who takes the first step, when they were the one who hurt me, harmed me?” Perhaps we are waiting for them to say sorry, so that we can start to move forward. But as the years unfold, we come to realise that this is probably never going to happen and by then we’re trapped in a prison of suffering. We can’t get closure, because we’re relying on externals to change. Actually, only we can end our suffering. Through meditation, we have the opportunity to break through the confines of the situation. We can change our perception of the situation and so there is the potential to change the situation itself. As our relationship to the situation changes, we don’t necessarily have to do anything. We don’t have to rush out and find the other person to embrace them. But something can shift in our heart and this will affect our subsequent actions.
What happens when we sit with “this hurts” in zazen? Part of embracing the hurt is to accept: “this may actually hurt for the rest of my life and that’s OK, so be it”. We’re not trying to chase the hurt away. At the same time, we have to take care not to indulge the hurt, not to fall into despair or resignation. We have to take care that the hurt doesn’t become “my hurt”, not even that “I have been hurt”. What turns hurt into suffering and keeps it going is: “this is my justified hurt, justified because of what you did”. We have to sit with open hands and be very, very gentle with it. Whenever we realise that we are identifying with or investing in the hurt, we gently return to the uncomplicated “this hurts”. If it is just “this hurts”, there’s a simplicity there. We can then let go of that thought and just be with the feeling. What actually is this hurt when I sit with it? What does it feel like? We can let it come and go in meditation, like any other feeling. We can become familiar with it. We can come to see that this actually is insubstantial, ungraspable. It does dissolve, even if it coalesces again within moments. We can be with it and then it matters less whether it is there or not. We’re not looking for it to dissolve. If the hurt is there, it’s there and we just sit with it. Shorn of its stories, we can come to a different relationship with the hurt. We have to stay open, not separate off a hurt self. As we sit with “this hurts”, where is the undivided in this?
This is what is meant when it is said that greed, anger and delusion (the three poisons) will not stop arising as long as we’re human and so what‘s important is what we do with greed, anger and delusion when they arise. We are human beings, with emotions, so we have to train with the emotions that arise, which isn’t the same as indulging them, letting the stories take over. The hurt associated with a particular situation may always be there – the key thing is how we train with that hurt. Can we just be with the hurt? Or does it develop into anger, resentment etc. and keep us enmeshed in suffering. This is an absolutely pivotal point for our practice. This is where the hours that we spend looking at a wall can be utilised, so that we find an end to suffering.
We can easily trip ourselves up by saying that the presence of hurt shows the presence of self and, as a trainee, I’m working towards no-self, so “this hurts” indicates that I’m not a good trainee, as I’m far away from no-self. If we look in this way, we’re trying to impose the truth from outside and we’re avoiding what is true for us here now. We have to start from where we are, which is “this hurts”, and move forward from here, rather than try to start from where we think we should be, which is not the truth of this moment.
What I’ve been describing is how we can move forward with difficult situations that have been with us for years. But this approach is also applicable to new situations that we encounter in day-to-day life. Whenever we find that we are crashing around in our heads, criticising what someone has done or angry at how a situation has turned out, we can look for “this hurts”, because it will be there somewhere. That’s why we’re crashing around in our heads, because “this hurts”. But we’re getting nowhere and causing ourselves suffering. If we can connect with “this hurts”, we can cut through all that. “This hurts” can be hidden behind various facades, such as: “I am disappointed with how things turned out”, or “I am disappointed with you”. Or it may be hidden behind fear, fear of the consequences or fear of where the situation may lead. But if we look carefully, we’ll find “this hurts”. Often, in everyday life, by the time we realise what’s happening, we’re caught up once again and the hard edge of the self is already present, criticising and blaming. We can’t seem to be able to drop it, to let it go, especially if we feel we’ve been really let down, badly treated. But what we can do is stop the hard edge getting any harder and begin to soften it. We can find that gentler approach by looking for “this hurts” and just being with it.
The more familiar we become with “this hurts” underlying our own anger and blaming, the more we can recognise that “this hurts” also lies beneath others’ anger, blaming and resentment. So we can be more sympathetic, and manage a gentler approach, when anger and blame are directed at us. We can be a bit more understanding and less reactive. This alters our response to the situation and so we can change the situation.
“This hurts” is not a doctrine of despair. It’s the stories that cause despair. So whenever we see we’re caught in a story, we can work to let it go. And a particularly important story to drop is “I can’t do this”. Yes, we can do it, if we want to. We can let go of the stories and be with “this hurts”. “This hurts”, full stop – don’t go any further. “This hurts” is an acknowledgement that allows softening, gentleness and openness to develop around the pain. It makes space for everything to loosen up and shift, so that we come to a different perception, a different relationship with the situation and we are no longer trapped in a prison of suffering.