With most things in our daily lives, it’s easy to lose sight of why we do what we do. It’s so easy to keep up a form while forgetting the meaning or to drop form and meaning only to drift away from what we care about in life. I often find myself swaying one way or another, even with the practice of mindfulness. It seems an odd thing for a nun to say, but when one lives full-time in a monastery, or with one’s partner, or even doing the work that one loves, at a certain point we can lose sight of why we do what we do. It is so vital to stop from time to time and remember.
This past month I spent a fair bit of time reflecting upon what first drew me to mindfulness practice. I had all sorts of ideas about how I wanted to help the world and in the process I was burning myself out. And then I read a poem – Please Call me by my True Names by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – that expressed everything I had been searching for and it went deeper than I knew could be possible. In particular, it showed me that spending time trying to save victims and blame perpetrators couldn’t heal the wounds of the world. Only through understanding and compassion, even for offenders of the most horrific crimes, could I bring the healing and the peace that I sought. I saw that I had a very long way to go to open my heart wide enough for the whole world to fit inside, but it was the most important thing that I could do in this life.
I connect with an appreciation and enjoyment of the practice in small and big ways everyday but I don’t always remember my deep aspiration. So this past month, I spent time with it. I re-read the poem. I tried to remember how utterly revolutionary it was for me to meet such a beautiful (and at the time foreign) concept as true compassion. I let my heart feel the excitement again. My teacher says that if we write a poem every day, we cannot lose our Bodhicitta, the mind that strives toward awakening and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings. So I wrote my own poems, like this one.
Of dandelions and mulberries and skies filled with stars
The oceans are rising, the forests are dying
And children get shot, by classmates and police officers
The rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer
And for every one good thing that happens in the world
It seems like there are ten tragedies to match it.
I know this. You know it too. We all know it.
Even the dandelion knows it
And still she grows up
in manicured lawns and in the cracks of the concrete
pushing, pushing, pushing
beaming a golden face that
smiles at everyone who passes by.
whether in a garden or under a highway overpass
the dandelion knows all the world’s woes
and still she grows
because that’s what dandelions do
the mulberry tree knows the world’s woes
and it doesn’t stop her from growing either
great green leaves grow on
branches that bend down,
offering red and purple fruit, saying,
“here honey, have some sweetness.
go ahead, take some more.”
she knows every reason there is to cry
that’s why she is so generous
because that’s what mulberry trees do
the stars know it too
and still they shine, lighting up the night sky
the stars shine down on us from every direction
holding us in their infinite embrace
they’re our great great great great great… great-grandparents
singing lost psalms of wisdom and faith
they shine on us
not because we’re worthy or chosen or pitied
but because they want to show us how immense love can be
they want to show us how beautiful we already are
because that’s what stars do
in a world filled with such incomprehensible violence and pain
there are still flowers and fruit trees, sweet and ripe
and stars upon stars upon stars upon stars that shine
brightly, all night long.
when i feel lost and broken
i call on the dandelion
to teach me simplicity
and the strength of small actions
i call on the mulberry
to teach me to keep my arms stretched wide open
even when my hands are empty
and i call on the stars in every cell of my body
to teach me fearlessness
because we’re 4.5 billion years old
in this gorgeous and incomprehensible world filled with woes and worry
we can to taste fruit and watch flowers grow
and enjoy the stars at night
because as human beings, this is what we do
anything less would just add to the tragedyI feel nourished, having reconnected with my initial love for this path, for the Buddha’s teachings, for the Dharma in its many shapes and sizes, and for mindfulness practice. Yes, mindfulness is being aware of our breath and our movements and our emotions, but it is also remembering what brings us joy and remembering that peace is possible here and now. And it’s about remembering why we do what we do, filling our lives with meaning and love. For the sake of all beings.