About 20 years ago, a close friend and I drove to southern Virginia to attend a retreat led by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. At the closing ceremony, he asked us to choose a partner—I turned to face my friend—and bow to each other. He then instructed us to hug our partner while taking three conscious and full in-breaths and out-breaths. With the first breath, he said to reflect, “I’m going to die”; with the second, “You’re going to die”; and with the third, “And we have just these precious moments.” After slowly releasing our embrace, my friend and I looked at each other through our tears. Thich Nhat Hanh had, in a beautiful way, turned us toward the refuge of truth.
Facing and accepting the realities of our existence is not easy. We are deeply conditioned to try to hold on to whatever we hope will give us security and pleasure, and to protect ourselves from pain. Holding on locked my friend Paul into two decades of conflict in his marriage. An extrovert who thrived on being with others, Paul felt shut out by his wife, Karen. “She would rather be alone with our cat and her poetry,” he’d complain, “than spend time with me.” Hurt and angry, he’d accuse her of abandoning him emotionally, of not caring about him, of not showing up. Her response would be to withdraw even more. Then, during a weekend when Karen was away visiting their adult daughter, he had a stunning realization.
“Week after week, year after year, I was assuming she should be different, that our relationship should be different....And Karen is the way she is.” He realized he and Karen would never achieve his dream of intimacy. The more he directly opened to his own hurt and loneliness, the more he began to accept Karen as she was. Their relationship relaxed and became more fundamentally honest, respectful, and caring. “When we came to the decision that we wanted to separate, it was not because we were at war,” Paul told me. “It was because we were being honest...accepting how it was.” Then he added wistfully, “It’s sad how we covered over our love through all those years of wanting each other to be different.”
When we walk through the gateway of truth, we start by recognizing what’s real and intending to accept it. Accepting what is does not mean passive resignation; it is a courageous engagement with the reality of our experience. We might not like what we discover, but we can hold it in compassionate presence. The more we rest in this presence, the more lucid our attention becomes. We see what lies beyond the changing play of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and discover our inner refuge—the wakeful openness and tenderness that beholds and enfolds all experience.
Excerpted from True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. Copyright © 2012 by Tara Brach.