Over the weeks people have become gradually accustomed to a particular way of speaking.It makes for precision and clarity, leading to the possibility of individual understanding and collective resonance.Likewise, it is crucial to the development of sangha or community, because it reflects and encourages a collective sense of a group work being undertaken and purposefully cultivated by every person in the circle.People have much to say.Many speak two or three times.No one remains speechless.People speak about learning to relate to habitual patterns of experience in new ways.Without exception, they speak about learning to be mindful in daily life, about finding themselves in typical situations, acting atypically.Some say that their family members don’t quite know what to make of them.Others say that they don’t know what to make of themselves.Others report a newfound sense of assertiveness expressed in their unwillingness to swallow what has lain heavy in the chest for so long.The contrast between the anguish expressed during the last two weeks and what is being uttered today is striking.This conversation goes on for a long time.This initiates a torrent of conversation.Francine was on the edge of tears during most of class the last two weeks.This week she has begun to sob quietly, and her unwiped cheeks redden and glisten in this accommodating space.Since then she has continued to raise five other children while suffering with relentless depression, anxiety, and panic.Our eyes meet, and I know that today she is going to speak.She opens her mouth, shapes a word, moves her lips, but no sound emerges.How do you meet them at the door laughing?How do you invite them in?I can’t laugh, I am so sad, so filled with grief and guilt. Everyone in the room turns her way.There is a collective indrawing of the breath, then an audible sigh as the breath releases.Pierced by the warm arrow of her inquiry, I know that her asking does not come by way of a challenge.No proof is being demanded.Rather, there is a deep longing to know, to emancipate herself from the undue burden of this reality.It is no different for any of us.And so, I am left momentarily motionless and speechless.This is a good thing.Here, in this moment, there is no room for anything but the receiving of her question.This allows me the space to actually feel the question.To simply sense and then slowly gather together all of the aliveness being aroused and released in me by the arrival of the unexpected.Right now, beyond any conception of mind, the guest has arrived, and I am invited into the possibility of welcoming and entertaining them all.Because she has already spoken freely with all of us about her son’s death, I speak openly about this when responding to Francine’s question.I suggest to her that the poet is in no way telling her that she is supposed to be able to literally laugh in the face of the arrival of the memory of her son or of the grief and pain she feels.Rather the poem may be suggesting an inner attitude toward whatever it is that we encounter, urging us to consider the possibility of meeting our grief and pain openhandedly.This is not our usual way of meeting adversity.Most often we resist, retreat, or keep busy.Given our collective penchant, which she knows quite well from her statement staying busy has kept me from feeling that the pain would overwhelm and kill me, the possibility I am suggesting seems to make some sense to her.Although the death of a child is not a part of my experience, I have faced many losses in my own life, some having to do with my children.At first these losses seem unbearable and incapable of being healed.I sense that Francine has convincingly created an imagined and enormous fear, believing that she is completely incapable of working with her pain and grief.I do not believe that this is true.I remind her that the manner of her son’s death was completely out of her control.We talk about the possibility of approaching what seems to be overwhelming in a way that might allow her a measure of control.Perhaps, like walking toward an ocean in which she might wish to swim without knowing the temperature of the water, she can begin to test the waters of her grief and anxiety with her little toe.Working the edges, not needing to plunge into the center of this emotional sea with her whole body.In this way she might begin to engage this painful aspect of her life at her own pace.Today, maybe one or two seconds.Maybe thirty seconds next week.Soon it is time to go.Some people leave for other appointments.Many say a brief word or stay huddled close to Francine.They offer no advice.Most simply thank her for her courage and her willingness to ask the question that was on everyone else’s mind.Briefly, Francine and I talk together in the hallway.She reaches for my hand and says, Thank you. I tell her that she is welcome and thank her for her efforts while reminding her that I am available if she wishes to call me during the week.Twenty minutes later heading to Chicago.Midday arrival in San Francisco.Heading into Berkeley.Seduced by the smiling smoothness of the whole operation, the attention to service that has magically whisked me from East Coast grayness to the sunny, green hills of the Bay Area.Three lanes moving fast.Passing by new construction.Passing by eucalyptus and dry brush.Moving from sixty to zero in a few seconds.One hell of a traffic jam stretching out as far as the eye can see.Breaking into uproarious, almost uncontrollable laughter, followed quickly by a spillway of unforeseen tears carrying me into abrupt, deafening silence.Extricated from the Hype.The illusion of importance.The great equalizer, reducing all of us to enforced stillness and a reckoning with the bare truth of not really being in the driver’s seat after all.The same for all of us that day, whether native San Franciscan or tourist, driving old or new car.No matter what our destination.She’s been referred to the clinic by her primary care doctor, who has written a caring, heartfelt letter about his patient, urging us to allow her to participate in the program.I arranged to see her early the following week.When she arrived she was given a series of forms to complete.This usually takes about fifteen minutes.After forty minutes Joanie was still at it.When I found her in the waiting room, she was flustered.Not because of the difficulty of the questions, but because she felt that she had gone through such a transformation in the last few weeks that she was now being misrepresented by answers to questions that asked about her physical symptoms and psycho logical states during the last month.In an attempt to counter this situation, she had filled the margins with explanations and commentary whose purpose was to clarify and resolve in some way the dissonance and distance between her sense of self then and now.As we spoke in the waiting area, her first words were I thought that this interview would be a time for me to talk with someone about where I am and what the program is all about. I assured her that this indeed was the intent of the interview but that it was helpful for us to have people complete the questionnaire before our meeting.I welcomed her into my office, and we began to talk.She had obviously thought about this in detail.In fact, she was hyperdetailed in her comments.When I asked her where she lived and about her living situation, she responded by telling me about her town, complete with street address and the street address and town of her good friend who would be helping her make arrangements to come to the medical center for classes.We talked about her stay in the hospital, what had led up to it, as well as her sense of where she stood today.Her comments continued to be microdetailed.After I had listened to and discussed her situation for what began to feel like a long time, she quietly stated, I’m really here to get information about the clinic, to see what it is all about and if I want to do this, now. With that comment I realized that I was annoyed and that my annoyance was growing.I started shifting in my chair.My focus moved away from her and onto myself.I had the feeling that my time was being wasted. ThatI had more important things to do.In short, I didn’t want to be here explaining the details of the program and listening to someone ramble on in excruciating detail who might never take the course anyway.Do you get the picture?As my reckoning with these feelings became clearer, I realized that they had almost nothing to do with Joanie, nothing to do with the length of the interview, and everything to do with me.I was creating the annoyance.Joanie was circuitous, nervous, and absolutely sincere.She asked me if she was talking too much.She said this happened whenever she was nervous.I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t.Yet her question had a powerful, sobering effect on me.It helped me to stop and begin to see Joanie as a person, regardless of whether she elected to participate in the clinic.As a result, I was able to put myself in her position, to realize that if I were her I would be nervous, and furthermore, that my manner was only contributing to her escalating anxiety.
A most illuminating point of view put across by someone who clearly knows their stuff. You have to decide for yourself how much you're going to go for it this time today or next week or any time soon.