Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1992

Suffering and the Way to Cessation; Ajahn Sumedho
Flowing with the Pain; Jody Higgs
Towards Simplicity; Sister Thanasanti
Washing Away the Blood; E. Bernstein, Y. Moser
Out in the Outback: Letter from Australia; Ven. Kovido
Life of Forest Monk (Pt IV); Luang Por Jun
Highland Retreat; Venerable Suriyo
Aspects of Training: A Universal Order; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:
Editorial: Ajahn Sucitto


Flowing with the Pain

Jody Higgs describes her own experience of severe arthritis and its blessings.

As a teacher of Yoga I was proud of my strong and flexible body. The danger with yoga, Ven. Tiradhammo had warned, was the tendency towards attachment to a healthy body and identification with it. 'How unkind', I remember thinking. And I put his comment to one side in the mind, treating it with the kind of silent contempt appropriate for one who picks his nose in public. I couldn't hear this teaching; however, I was about to experience its truth. In the next couple of years the outer hip pain I felt was to evolve into the wide array of feeling sensations, experiences labelled medically as bilateral osteoarthritis of the hips.

Now walking was easier with a stick. Many yoga asanas, previously vehicles for awareness of pleasurable sensations, now became vehicles for awareness of pain and limitation: attachment was replaced by aversion.

However, this adversity had its uses. The physical disability persuaded my employers to allow me time off, an escape from the Scottish winter, an opportunity to spend a month at Suan Mokh, the Thai monastery pervaded by the great presence of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa. His forest hermitage had recently built an international retreat centre nearby, where during the first ten days of every month, his Sangha teach the Buddha's Dhamma in English to all who will listen. Our esteemed teacher himself, despite being over eighty, frequently taught Dhamma to the hundred or so on my ten-day retreat, an experience for which I shall always be grateful.

Each day, breathing, I watched joy - her joy in helping, my joy in accepting and receiving.

Several days into this retreat as I queued for a meal, I observed that all the chairs were already occupied, leaving the rest of us on straw mats to sit on. 'Beginners' backs unused to sitting meditation practice', I mused, noticing a hint of smugness in the mind. As I passed by with full dish and mug in hand, a fellow retreatant arose and silently offered me her chair. I quickly gestured my refusal and perceived a momentary flash of hurt in her face. As a result I felt pain arise. I felt like I had slapped the face of a child offering a flower.

The energy behind my silent rejection surprised me. Where did it come from? What was behind it? Fortunately the retreat situation allowed further investigation. As I gave that energy voice, what would it say? - 'No, don't want your silly old chair. Whatever made you think that I might? I am perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary; quite capable of standing on my own two feet!' Or was it three feet? So that energy was pride. Egotistical pride had slapped the face of the child offering a flower. With that insight the mind wanted to cry and laugh at the same time!

Eating my food I contemplated further. It hurt to realise that my mindless response had discouraged a spontaneous act of generosity. Now generosity was a quality of mind which I had studied. By observing my own experience - offering dana to the Sangha for example, I had how the act of giving in itself created receiving, the receiving of happiness, of joy of well-being. That realisation had done irreparable damage to my 'tally card' concept of giving and receiving whereby if I entertain you to dinner, then you owe me something in return. If giving and receiving could be contained in the same single act, then the 'tally card' model with which I had grown up was simply inadequate and inappropriate.

It wasn't long before I was offered another flower. Each day after the last morning sitting all the meditation cushions had to be cleared to the sides of the meditation hall in preparation for sweeping and cleaning. It took longer to unfold my body and stand upright than it took others. One morning as I opened my eyes and began this process, bowing to the Triple Gem, I was aware of the eager face and willing hands offering to take my meditation bench and cushion to the side. Happiness was already there. Gratefully I bowed my acceptance, aware of joy arising. Was it the joy of gratitude or the joy of generosity?

Happily this interaction was to be repeated each morning for the remainder of the retreat. Each day, breathing, I watched joy - her joy in helping, my joy in accepting and receiving.

The dukkha of pride was not quenched, however. The ten-day retreat over, those of us who stayed on moved back to the main monastery. After the evening sitting the walk from the meditation hall to the women's quarters through the dark forest included a steep and slippery slope which I could negotiate with mindfulness. The first time that a strong arm was there to steady my cautious ascent, I watched a tightness arise in the body; 'resentment' was the appropriate label. But as I watched, it vanished! What a relief that darkness hid this reaction! Now consciously I could open to generosity, to gratitude, nurturing feelings of metta towards this child with her flower offering as together we silently moved through the forest.

I began to observe a pattern to the mind's reactions. The ego-pride reaction was more likely to arise when the help being offered was with something which the mind perceived 'I can do for myself, thank you!' When, on the other hand, the assistance being offered was a task the mind perceived as difficult, awkward or painful for the body (dishwashing, for example, which involved bending over a basin on the ground), then acceptance and real gratitude came instantly.

'How really stupid and childish!' I thought. 'Wouldn't it be nice if I could be open to every act of generosity, graciously accepting every flower that is offered me regardless of my own wants or needs?'

'Judging again; attaching to goodness, wanting things to be other than as they are' ... a habit of mind, but now a noticed habit, and once again I observed how the noticing itself created a softening, a space, a sort of release.

Frequently Ven. Tiradhammo's remarks came to mind - the danger of attaching to the healthy body and identifying with it. Duhhka, Anicca, Anatta ... The unsatisfactoriness of this physical body with its variety of painful sensations was now obvious. Anicca, its impermanence, too, was clear. Anatta, not-self: whereas identification with the physical body as 'mine' seemed natural while it was healthy, I observed with amusement and horror that now that the body was ageing, unhealthy and disabled, the mind could more readily contemplate anatta. I had 'too much dust in my eyes' to learn from Ven. Tiradhammo. But arthritis, it seemed, was a more persuasive teacher of Dhamma.