A few days ago, an 11-year old girl asked me, “What do you do when you’re sad?” As she looked back to her father it became apparent that he had encouraged the question but the look in her eyes made it clear that it was an important question for her. I felt surprised and touched. I didn’t know what to say so I took a moment to breathe. I am used to talking about Dharma practice with adults but with a child I knew that I had to be more direct.
Finally, I said, “Sometimes I have to let myself be sad because usually I try to not be sad. I give myself some time to be sad – like 10 minutes or a half of an hour. I let myself cry and really feel sad. But then I stop and I do something else that makes me happy, like going for a walk, talking to a friend, singing or reading something beautiful. Then I don’t get too sad.” I then asked her, “What do you do when you’re sad?”
She thought for a bit and then said, “I don’t know.” She thought some more and smiled and I knew that it was enough. We went on to play with the other children at the seaside, part of a weekend mindfulness retreat. We didn’t come back to the topic of sadness, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The answer that I gave was only a small part of what I “do” when I feel sad. Sometimes it’s the other way around, and sometimes I try to use every tool and technique that I’ve learned all at once. There’s no magic formula.
Recently I went through a few months of feeling sad, tense and agitated. Nothing was particularly wrong but I was out of sorts. The Winter Blues must have been part of it but there was more to it and I couldn’t find the root. I kept feeling a tension in my stomach, like a burning belt being tightened around my diaphragm. I could only smile with my mouth – it wouldn’t reach my eyes. I felt too heavy. I practiced a lot of mindful breathing and relaxation to release the physical tension. I contemplated the source of the agitation during formal sitting practice and through writing. I let the tension fully take over and then watched it change. I talked with friends, I sang. I did everything I could think of and still the agitation and sadness kept coming back. It grew uncomfortable and distressing. I wanted to figure it out and get rid of it, but I couldn’t.
When our resting period arrived I took a week to be quiet, spending a lot of time in the woods and sitting in the orchard under the first wild plum trees in bloom. I hoped that the resting and the long-awaited sunshine would melt away the tension. But even that didn’t work. I had to give up and just accept that it was going to continue indefinitely.
On the last day of “vacation”, I sat under different plum tree. The tension was there. I read an article about suffering and suddenly I understood! I said out loud,“This is just dukkha!* It’s just what mind does!” I had studied the First Noble Truth many times but obviously hadn’t understood very much. Agitation, tension and sadness are simply things that happen. Sometimes they can be understood and released, but other times they remain a mystery. We don’t like to be uncomfortable and we naturally try to avoid it – that’s what makes it uncomfortable!
Once I stopped trying to get rid of the dukkha, acceptance and curiosity were able to step in and everything changed. It became very interesting to watch the tension, to feel the discomfort and find a spaciousness that all the trying had squeezed out. The only problem was that once I stopped seeing the tension as a personal fault to be fixed, it dissapeared fairly quickly. Once it became simple, there was no problem! I had to laugh out loud, sitting by myself in the orchard. A few weeks have passed and it hasn’t come back. I’m still a little amazed that it was so simple.
The teachings of the Buddha and of my Teacher help me to find freedom and happiness in the midst of life’s difficulties. I’ve learned many mindfulness techniques: placing attention on physical sensations, noting the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral qualities of sensations, noting thoughts, contemplating impermanence and interdependence, and of course awareness of breathing. I am grateful for the tools I’ve learned and the living Dharma that I’ve received. Yet it was a little girl, so earnest and open, who reminded me that the deepest teachings and most transformational practices are useless if they aren’t simple enough to share with a child. Especially the child within. * Dukkha is a Pali word often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction