A River in Winter
Damariscotta River; Damariscotta, Maine
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There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that, even in the most happy moments of our existence, we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations.
*Henri J. M. Nouwen. Out of Solitude.
The most secure place to hide a
treasure of gold
is in some desolate, unnoticed place.
Why would anyone hide treasure
in plain sight?
And so it is said,
"Joy is hidden beneath sorrow."
*"The Hiding Place." Trans., Kabir Halminski. In Rumi.
The Pocket Rumi. Ed., Kabir Helminski.
* * *
When a preteen, I was taught the shortest verse in the Christian Scriptures. The verse in the King James Version, or Authorized Version - the only version we were allowed to use - reads, "Jesus wept" (Gospel of John 11.35). Jesus is informed Lazarus died. He weeps and proceeds to the tomb and Mary and Martha, Lazarus' sisters. Jesus was close friends with the three.
Another Gospel passage shows Jesus weeping, while he enters Jerusalem before his crucifixion. In the Gospel of Luke 19.41, he looks at the city and speaks of the dark days ahead for the city and her citizens.
Outside the Gospels, the writer of Hebrews speaks of Jesus' heart-tenderness. He prayed with "loud cries and tears" (15.7, NRSV).
These scriptures show us a man receptive to feeling deeply others' suffering. Jesus did not live in some mystical aloofness. His solitude, inner or outer, was a solitude of solidarity.
* * *
Others may see persons who enjoy solitude as stand-offish, even selfish. Persons who avoid solitude may be seen as engaging and caring. Solitude, spiritually, however, can introduce one to depths of caring and solidarity unknown to those who misunderstand the value and role of such aloneness. A solitude of solidarity is an awakening to both one's union with all and, also, to the fact that much social engagement is an avoidance... a fear of aloneness and of one's own true self, as well as death.
* * *
Tender: from Latin tarunah, "soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful." Akin to Armenian t'arm, "young, fresh, green."
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Listening to music, I began weeping. After it stopped, it soon started again. I recalled it had been many months since I had had what many call a good cry. I could not identify why the weeping happened, though I had several seasons of deeply-felt angst over the months prior. I lost a sense of inner rootage, of home wherever I was - my island of peace and belonging. I felt like I was floating nameless and faceless, while others moved about me, seemingly belonging and befriending. The music aided this tenderness to take shape in a prayer of lament. A prayer of words did not accompany this lament; the weeping was prayer.
* * *
A spiritual path and practices like meditation can introduce us to our innate tenderness. When we begin to practice silence, we might be surprised at how tenderness has been hushed by busyness, clinging to belief, entertainment, or trying to help or fix others.
* * *
During the same time as the outpouring of tears above, a fellow spiritual practitioner spoke with me with a gladsome face. He told of how he was awakened to the need to welcome suffering. He had spent many years trying to avoid it, even after devotedly practicing a spiritual path. He felt relieved to stop running and invite himself to feel the pain.
Possibly, he looks so joyful, for when we welcome tenderness to feel suffering, we open ourselves to the sensation of joy and all the pleasant feelings. Tenderness means we feel the opposites - "pleasant" and "unpleasant." We, also, become aware of neutral feelings. And, with tenderheartedness, compassion can arise that does not fit in any of these feelings.
Silence initiates us into the practice of witnessing all our feelings. Thus, in tenderheartedness, we can observe feeling without denying it or being overwhelmed by it.
* * *
We can try to use our spiritual practice to shield ourselves from others' or our suffering. Whatever we hide behind is usually something we identify as reasonable. We can hide grief by prayer as easily as by whiskey, promiscuous sex, or gambling. We can use a church or zendo as a hideaway as easily as a bar or the beds of an assortment of sexual partners. Likely, one of the most accepted forms of hiding is doing good for others. We might reach a point where we no longer feel any tenderness.
* * *
Relaxing in meditation provides us a connection to the basic spaciousness in which all things live, arise, and return. Realizing the spaciousness, we may sense some avoidance of a sensation in us that is soft, vulnerable, and alive. Some light comes into a closed room, maybe after we open the blinds a little over one window. This warmth feels good, we see better and feel more vibrant and uplifted, but we get a hint of a deep, pervasive, and anonymous sadness. We cannot clarify where the sensation comes from.
* * *
Stillness has a way of opening windows. The Light showers light on all sorts of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. It does not pick and choose, as the Sun shines without discrimination on all things. The same Light that clarifies our joy does the same for our sadness. This Light, furthermore, that enlightens proceeds to transform our suffering.
Hence, in silence, we do not fight feelings. We sit quietly, befriending all that comes to awareness, trusting the natural healing process. As a wounded animal rests hidden, allowing the body to heal by its native wisdom, we do the same for our woundedness.
Yet, we come to see our suffering is not merely our suffering. We experience a newfound freedom when realizing our suffering is everyone's suffering - all sentient beings. In recognizing this, the suffering becomes lighter, less personal.
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Alongside sadness, we might sense a newfound joy. This joy is subtle but very real – more real than anything we have known as happiness. This joy surprises us. The realness of it might intimidate us.
And how do quiet bliss and subtle to pronounced sadness live together in the body? But they can, and they do - we learn this in silence.
* * *
Buddhist teacher, Pema Chōdrōn, speaks of tenderness as our "soft spot" (The Wisdom of No Escape). This soft spot is a gentle, non-aggressive, and non-violent place in us.
Picture yourself with no sense of physical feeling. One of your feet was accidently cut. You are walking about, blood gushing out without receptivity to pain. Contrast this to having the faculty of sensation. That same cut would lead you to limp. You would try to reduce or eliminate pressure on the foot. You would proceed to tend the wound. You might have to quit using that foot for a time for it to heal. You might go to an emergency room, if the cut is deep enough to warrant treatment there.
Likewise, we find we are awakened to what I call our innate vulnerability. It is as though a vulnerability plant grows out of muddy, dark water. Our silent contemplation is like casting some warm sunshine on that place, and the plant extends upward into the spaciousness. We do not pull the plant upward, the plant arises naturally. With that, we are sensitized to the basic, natural place of tenderness we share with other beings. This rawness accompanies awakening to basic creatureliness. We feel the joy and sadness of being a creature among creatures.
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The Christian Bible provides a striking reference to the shared tenderness of all Nature. Romans 8.22 reads, "For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (CEV). The writer says non-human beings suffer, too.
Compassion connotes a shift from my to our. Our soft spot is that of others. This transition aids us in releasing our view that this suffering is my suffering. When you feel your suffering, can you let it open to be our suffering? If you do, this does not mean denying the immediacy of the suffering. It places it in a larger context. In this, we acknowledge our interbeing with all beings. The suffering transforms, even if it does not decrease, for it is no longer owned as separate by a separate self.
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A like experience of weeping as the one shared above happened to me on a retreat. I was a pastor and attended evening worship with other pastors and denominational leaders. We would end the meeting with a time of invite to an altar for prayer. One night I decided to go forth, kneel, and pray. Upon getting on my knees, I was surprised by an uprush of uncontrolled wailing. I was shocked by what was happening. Yet, I did not try to block it. As it continued, a close friend knelt beside me, held me, and spoke words of comfort to me. I had no idea why this was occurring and, to this day, have no explanation of why it happened at that time and place.
* * *
I am still learning to sit with the soft spot. I am learning to feel what I was afraid to feel. That is, to feel the deep, subtle sense of ache. I am learning not to own it as my own. Like my Buddhist friend, I am learning to welcome suffering - that of others and myself - as a friend, not an enemy.
* * *
Can we allow space for the wisdom arising from the soft spot? If we sit with it, we can begin hearing the message it brings us. Sitting with tenderness can be a gift we give to others. This offering can be a pathway to healing. So, sometimes, stillness teaches us being with tenderness is compassionate. Yes, silence invites us to relax into our soft spot and trust it is present not to harm us but to teach and heal us.
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*©Brian K. Wilcox, 2023.
*Use of photography is allowed accompanied by credit given to Brian K. Wilcox and title and place of photograph.
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse.