When asked about the problem of responding to violence, the Dalai Lama replied, “Tolerance and patience do not imply submission or giving in to injustice.” What is most important, he says, is not to give in to anger or hatred. If we cannot control others’ actions, we can control our responses to them. Sopa, the Tibetan word for patience, comes from a root that means “able to withstand.” The truly courageous person, says the Dalai Lama, is able to withstand harm without the mental suffering that hatred and anger bring. The violence I suffer every day is the slow, niggling kind committed by a degenerative illness bent on emptying me out one teaspoon at a time. Every day, I relearn that suffering is an activity of the mind. My hours fill with torment or bliss depending on my own degree of sopa, my ability to withstand physical harm while maintaining an inner calm. It’s like learning to relax in the dentist’s chair: if you could practice during every waking moment, you might get good at it.

But my illness is just a particular form of the universal human malady. We all suffer the limitations of our humanness: not just our aches and pains but our fear, our anger, our pettiness, our grief. Fact is, we do practice being human in every waking moment. And the more mindfully we practice, the more often our conflicts dissolve, the more easily we create new possibilities for relationship and community.

On a recent evening I attended my son’s and daughter’s first piano recital, a kind of event I normally dread. Children, parents, and grandparents packed the small old church in the village center. Amelia, at age six the youngest performer on the program, had to go first, and I endured a stretch of terror watching her march solemnly to the front, climb onto the piano bench, and play a flawless rendition of that immortal classic “Fuzzy Baby Bird.” It turned out to be a wonderful recital. Amelia and Aaron played well, but more to my surprise, so did everyone else, and we were treated to what I had least expected: an evening of good music. Still, in the midst of it, I found myself growing sad. With my weakened and trembling hands I can no longer play the piano or the guitar as I once did, and the more beautiful the music I heard that night, the more keenly I felt the loss. I knew such feelings came from what the Zen Buddhists call “small mind,” from my grasping, fearful self, unable to let go and simply enjoy the moment. So I took heart, thinking that at least someone was playing, that these children were carrying on where I no longer could.

But then something more happened, something I can barely put into words. All of a sudden, it was as though I were playing the piano, but playing through these children. Only it was no longer a matter of “me” and “them.” We were playing the piano. For a few moments, I broke through into what is called big mind, that state of being in which the illusion of our separateness falls away, when our attachments dissolve, and we experience the boundlessness of our true nature. 

From Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, © 2002 by Phillip Simmons. Reprinted with permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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