Category Archives: discernment

Suffering… End of Suffering

I’ve read a lot of Dharma books and have felt time and time again that I Get It, I know what to say and what to think, I Am A Good Buddhist ™.

But I haven’t been “getting it”. When JB was dying and I was angry and sad, I felt like a bad Buddhist. “The Buddha wouldn’t have gotten so attached,” I thought. “The Buddha would have realized that JB is impermanent and wouldn’t be so upset at the news of JB’s impending death.” “The Buddha wouldn’t be sad like this.” “I’m not a good Buddhist because I’m sad, angry, irritable.”

And then a couple of weeks later, I accepted that my emotions were what they were and let go of the idea that they should be something else. Yet still, deep inside, I felt disappointed that I “wasn’t as far along the path to enlightenment as I thought I was”. Yet this disappointment was easily overshadowed by the grief that followed, especially the day of JB’s death.

Tonight I attended a dharma talk at my local sangha, which was given by a lay teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition who leads the local sangha. (The sangha itself is unaffiliated with any particular tradition, but the leader happens to be trained in Insight Meditation.) Tonight’s dharma talk was about the Noble Eightfold Path. During the talk, the teacher spoke about the benefit of having an intention, such as the intention to end suffering.

I made the intention to end suffering in myself and all others when I took my Refuge and Bodhisattva vows almost a year ago. But it suddenly struck me tonight that ending suffering doesn’t mean what I’ve always thought it meant.

I’ve always thought that ending suffering meant ending those emotional states that we find unpleasant and painful: anger, agitation, irritability, jealousy, rage, sorrow, despair, sadness, boredom, loneliness, etc. That when I feel any of those unpleasant emotions, it’s because I’m not enlightened yet.

But what is suffering, really? The day that JB died and I cried for almost an hour, was I suffering? No. I was full of sorrow, but I was not suffering.

Why not? Because I had given up the judgment. I wasn’t adding something to my emotion that wasn’t there. I was just experiencing that emotion–grief–completely.

I read a book a few months ago titled “How to Be Sick”, written by a Buddhist who is disabled. In this book, she makes a powerful argument that physical pain doesn’t always lead to suffering, that the suffering comes in when we judge our pain as good or bad, i.e., when we add something extra to the pain. This made a lot of sense to me at the time, since I’ve certainly experienced being in pain and being happy at the same time.

Tonight I realized that emotions are like physical pain and discomfort. They come and go. They’re not good or bad. Suffering doesn’t come from having emotions; it comes from feeling that the emotion you’re having isn’t right, from judging that emotion and labeling it. Just as one can be in physical pain and not be suffering, so one can be in the throng of despair and also not be suffering.

As Pema Chodron wrote, “Nothing is what we thought.”

And that is perfect.

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Filed under buddhism, daily life, death, discernment, emptiness, emptying, grief, impermanence, love, mindfulness, pain, physical pain, simplicity

The Testing of Abraham: To Follow Where We Are Led, a Bible Post

Imagine this: you and your wife have tried and tried for years to have a baby.  After so many failed attempts, you and your wife have finally given up all hope. Your wife no longer has her periods; you both have entered into old age. Then, God comes to you and says:

“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and [your wife] will then have a son.”

Your reaction, of course, is to burst out laughing. And when you tell your wife, she does the same.

But God knows what He’s doing–of course–and come the next year, you and your wife finally have a baby. You name him Isaac, as God directed, and life is good. Isaac grows up strong in your faith and you–of course–absolutely adore him.

Then God calls to you and tells you:

“Take your son Isaac… and there you shall offer him up to me as a sacrifice.”

Wait, what?

(Readers familiar with the Old Testament will recognize the main character in this story as Abraham. Readers not familiar with the Old Testament will find this story in chapters 18 and 22 of Genesis.)

As Abraham is leading Isaac up the mountain God led him to, Isaac, being rather astute, notices that his father has all the makings for a sacrifice to God, except one. He asks:

“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” (Genesis 22: 7)

And his father, perhaps out of a desire to hide the truth from his son or perhaps because he believes what he says, replies:

“God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.” (Genesis 22: 8)

But as they get to the appointed place, there’s been no word from God. Abraham builds an altar and places Isaac on it. Just as he’s about to slaughter his son, a messenger from God shows up and tells Abraham not to kill Isaac. Relieved, but still needing an offering, Abraham spies a ram caught in a thorny bush.

Two thoughts struck me as I was considering this story. The first is how faithfully Abraham was willing to follow where God led him. As Quakers, we believe that we, like Abraham, can be led by God. But are we as willing to follow our leadings? If we are given a leading that we know is from the Divine Source, but is utterly abhorrent to us, are we still willing to follow where God would lead us? Or are we more willing to follow those leadings that are comfortable, that do not shove us violently out of comfort zone and into a really, really uncomfortable place?

In addition to the Bible, I’ve been reading “Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship”, a book about Quakers and their relationships with African Americans in the US. One thing that has stood out to me is how faithful individual Friends were in following their Guide, and how often bodies of Friends would not follow them. I wonder if Friends back then (I’m only partway through) were subject to the same doubt by other Friends that Friends today who are given uncomfortable leadings are subject to. I wonder if we are more likely to doubt the veracity of another’s leading if it’s one that makes us uncomfortable.

Back to Abraham… the second thought that came to me was how often the intention behind God’s leading is not what we expect. God told Abraham, “Go, kill your son for me.” Abraham, like most of us would have, must have assumed that the purpose of walking up that mountain was to kill his son. But the purpose was to reveal the strength of Abraham’s faith. The notes in my Bible indicate that God was “testing” Abraham, to see if he was truly worthy of the blessings God was planning on giving him. I have a different idea: the test wasn’t for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s, so that Abraham would truly know how strong his faith was and would no longer doubt it.

Sometimes God calls us to do something and we think we know the intent behind it. Sometimes the call itself seems to contain its own purpose. But if we get caught up in what we believe will be the end result of the leading, we may miss the point. If Abraham had gotten caught up in the idea of killing Isaac, he might never have made it up that mountain. Sometimes the point of a leading is just to follow it. God alone knows what the purpose is. All we are called to do is to be faithful to our Guide and follow where He leads.

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Finding Balance

When I was in 8th grade, I had a theory about how the world worked. The theory was that there was a finite, definite amount of suffering and happiness in the world, and that, consequently, the more I suffered, the less others would suffer. In a way, this gave my pain of that year a purpose: after all, if I wasn’t suffering, that would mean someone else would be.

8th grade was a hard year for me. I’d had a falling out with most of my friends from the previous year and was left with only 2, other outcasts who it was social suicide to spend too much time with. But they were good, true friends, and I wish I had treated them better before I had no other choice. In addition to social things, there was family turmoil. And, of course, there was always my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis looming in the background.

In retrospect, I suspect this worldview came from a desire to find meaning in my suffering. At the time, my faith was very strongly Christian, if not completely in line with the Catholic Church. But Jesus was very important to me and I related very strongly with the suffering he went through. If my suffering was to prevent others from suffering, then it had a purpose, a meaning, like Jesus’s suffering did. After all, Jesus suffered on the cross and died so that we could be free from sin. Like Jesus, I was willing to suffer so that others wouldn’t have to. And that connection and belief made it more bearable.

But the flip-side to this worldview is very, very dangerous, especially to a kid permeated with the guilt and sin teachings of the Catholic Church. Believing that my suffering would prevent someone else’s also meant that if I was happy, I was actively causing someone else to suffer.

By the end of the year, I’d fallen into a pretty deep depression that I only made it out of because of a wonderful experience that year at Arthritis Camp.

But the desire to take on another’s suffering is at the heart of the Bodhisattva vow I took a month ago. The difference now is that I’m a lot more spiritually and emotionally capable of doing so; though even now, I’m not fully able to take on the suffering of all beings, as my vow requires. I know that, in a very real way, I–and all others–are already Buddhas, we already have bodhichitta/Buddha-nature within us, but I, like most others, have not fully realized that. I have not, as Quakers would say, come to know that experientially.

The other difference is that I don’t believe in the same worldview. I don’t believe that my happiness actively causes someone else to suffer, or that my pain prevents another from suffering, nor that there is a finite, definite amount of suffering and happiness in the world.

The point I want to make is that finding balance is essential. One cannot take on the pain of the world before one is able. So often, we try to do too much. This is especially true of people who volunteer their time who often feel obligated to do more than they can because someone has to do it. But one cannot offer more than one is able to do. For example, if a charity needed someone, for whatever obscure reason, to perform a handstand and I volunteered to do so, I would then be put in a position to do something that’s not physically possible for me to do, no matter how much I desired to help out and do it.

And there’s the other side of this, also, when we refuse to do what we can because we assume there are others who are more able or more willing to do so… or because we just, ultimately, don’t want to get any more involved.

I am lucky that both of my religions offer concrete, solid practices for finding this balance. As a Buddhist, meditation allows me to gain Right Understanding. And as a Quaker, waiting on God, meditative listening, and the process of discernment allows me to figure out what I can and can’t do.

And there’s always the push, also, that thrusts one out of one’s comfort zone and into a whole new place, that makes one realize that one’s limits are quite a bit further away than one thought.

What methods of finding balance do you use?

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Filed under arthritis camp, buddhism, catholicism, daily life, discernment, faith, meditation, quakerism

Notions

There’s been a lot of discussion recently and not so recently within Quaker circles, both online and off, about whether Quakerism is a Christian faith or not, who should or shouldn’t be allowed to be a Quaker, and as many variations of these two as one can think of.

What it boils down to, Friends, is a discussion about notions. And I feel that we are missing the point.

When I was growing up, I called God by names that were familiar to me: God, Lord, Dieu, Father, Mon Père. I would hear my father, who spoke Arabic as well as French and English, occasionally launch into a long prayer in Arabic whenever he was feeling overwhelmed by emotions. I always assumed that the word Allah pointed to a different god; that when one prayed to Allah, one was literally praying to a different god than my God. I believed this until I asked my father one day what the word “Allah” meant.

It was just another name for God, he said.

Now, to be fair, his intention probably wasn’t for me to equate the God Christians worship with the God Muslims worship, as there is a very strong anti-Islam sentiment in his family. But when I learned that God could be called by many different names by different people all over the world, it changed my perspective.

Friends, I ask us to challenge ourselves. Here is what I know: I know what it feels like to be held under a leading, with the weight constantly resting on my soul until I’ve fulfilled what I am being called to do; I know what it feels like to have my heart start pounding during Meeting for Worship, the vivid sense of being truly alive as I give the message, the relaxation as my body returns to normal.

If I call the One who gives me messages and leadings God and the person sitting next to me in Meeting for Worship calls the One buddha-heart or our internal humanity or Jesus Christ or Allah or Yahweh or Buddha, are we not still following the same One?

There is One (or Many, if you prefer) who moves us, Friends. But the One’s existence is not dependent on the names we use or the specific theologies we cling to.

I apologize if this post is upsetting to some, but I am really confused over what exactly we are arguing about. For it seems to me, Friends, that what we are arguing about are just notions, notions we should be willing to use when they are helpful and let go of when we have been led to a better way.

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My Secret Lenten Offering

I know Quakers don’t celebrate Lent, but I was raised Catholic, and this practice has stuck with me. Every year come Lent, I try to think of something to give up or to do. The purpose for me hasn’t been to make Lenten offerings temporary changes (“I will stop playing video games for Lent”), but permanent ones (“I will pray every day”). Regardless of what I do or do not believe about Jesus’s death and resurrection, I enjoy celebrating Lent as a way to remind myself of the importance of spiritual growth and of nurturing my relationship with God.

So, as Lent approached this year, I started thinking: “What should I give up for Lent this year?” Most years, I come up with something flimsy, or what I decide to give up changes multiple times during the course of Lent–the most memorable example of this was when I was a college student and tried to give up a certain kind of meat while eating mainly in the school’s culinary-challenged dining hall and trying to get enough calories at meals to not binge on PopTarts or Ramen or EasyMac–but this year, I came up with something that would stick right away.

This Lent, I decided, I would give up over-eating. After all, I believe that over-eating is a moral issue: by over-eating, one is, in theory, preventing someone else from eating that food; it’s consuming more than one’s fair share of Earth’s limited resources. And, besides, I’ve been trying to lose weight for years. (Can you guess which is the real reason and which the excuse?)

And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. That’s the Lenten Offering I’ve been open about with others, even posting it as a status update on my facebook account. (One Friend misread “over-eating” as “over-reacting”, which sounds like a good idea for a future Lenten Offering.) For Lent, I’m giving up over-eating.

But in secret, there’s something else I’ve given up for Lent this year, something that came to me as an idea months ago and has now burrowed so deep inside me that the decision was made long before Lent began… something that came to me in the midst of my reading through the entire Bible in a meager five-month period:

To give up spiritual/religious reading for Lent.

But, the Stout Person of Faith in me pipes up, that’s not something you should be giving up for Lent! That’s something to do MORE of during Lent, not less!

And yet, there it is, my secret Lenten Offering: I’ve given up spiritual reading for Lent. Because, when it comes down to it, I’ve done a LOT of spiritual/religious reading in the last 5 years. I’ve read the New Testament–from beginning to end–every year, starting at Christmas and ending at Easter. I just finished reading the entire Bible–Genesis to Revelation–in a five-month period that ended in mid-February. I’ve made a study of the religions I identify within: Christianity/Quakerism and Buddhism.

I’ve done a lot of spiritual reading. The time has come for me to shed this and find something new. What have I been avoiding Doing by spending so much time reading? What other practices have I been too busy reading to try?

So, here it is: This Lent (in addition to giving up over-eating), I’m giving up spiritual/religious reading to open myself to other practices, to not become locked in habit and ritual… to remind myself that the purpose behind all the reading I’ve been doing isn’t to study, but to grow.

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A New Perspective on Jesus

I’ve been thinking about Jesus for a long time. I was raised Roman Catholic and grew up with a deep faith in God. But I was never sure about Jesus. For a while, I believed in the Trinity. I remember crying while reading about Jesus’s crucifixion in one of the Gospels when I was around 12. I felt so sad that he was killed. In a way, I grew up with Jesus. He was inspiration for moral behavior, he was my faith mentor.

And yet, there was always a sense of discomfort whenever a prayer directly addressed Jesus. (I had the same discomfort with prayers addressed to Mary, though that’s a bit off-topic for this post.) No matter what I wanted to believe about Jesus, praying to him always made feel twitchy, like telling a white lie.

As I said, this has been going on for a while. In high school, I became determined to read the whole Bible before graduation. By the time I graduated from college, I was only to Kings 1 in the Old Testament. As Christmas of 2004 approached, I decided it was time to finish the Bible. My goal was the end of Lent 2005… and I succeeded. In the winter of 2006, I found Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the New Testament. Since then, I start reading the New Testament around Christmas and finish by the end of Lent.

All this to say that I’ve read the New Testament at least 4 times now and have been waiting for clearness on this for over 15 years. All this, also, to delay revealing a discernment that has been growing in me since childhood and only became clear to me while randomly talking about Jesus with my husband last night.

I don’t believe Jesus was God. I don’t believe he was the son of God, at least not in the virgin birth, unique way most Christians do. What I do believe is that Jesus was a son of God, in the same way that we’re all sons and daughters of God. But most of all, I believe Jesus was a man–just a man–who was able to connect with God on such a deep level that he and God became united. Jesus lived and breathed God’s will. By the time of his death, he was One with God.

And this is so important, because if Jesus was just a man, if there was nothing unique or special about his birth, this means that all of us have that same opportunity to become united with God. We don’t get to say, “Well, Jesus was Jesus. I’m only human, after all!” as an excuse for our spiritual failings.

We all can connect with God. We all have that potential within us to follow Jesus’s path to God, to live in “the way and the truth and the life”.

And one of the best ways to do this, in my experience, is by reading the New Testament and becoming familiar with Jesus’s life and teachings. He said more than “Love your neighbors as yourself” (and he wasn’t even the first to say that anyways!). His life reveals the importance of fellowship, of solitude, of prayer, of ministry, of healing, and of constructive criticism.

So, now I know the answer to the “Am I Christian” question that I’ve been asking myself for the last few years. Yes, even though many Christians wouldn’t agree with my theology. I am a Christian because I try to follow Jesus and because the New Testament is my primary Holy Book.

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A Gathered Popcorn Meeting

Shortly after I became a regular attender at my Monthly Meeting, I heard infamous tales about Popcorn Meetings for Worship. I remember in particular hearing about a terrible Meeting for Worship my Friends had attended once in D.C., where an older person stood up and ranted about how disrespectful young people were, and then he was immediately followed by a young person who ranted about old people. They went back and forth through the whole Meeting.

Popcorn Meetings I’ve always heard spoken of with disdain. They’re Meetings for Worship where people pop up, one after another, leaving next to no time for real worship, i.e., of the silent variety. I’ve experienced a couple of them myself and thought their infamy was well-deserved.

So I was pretty disappointed last Sunday when it became clear that Meeting for Worship was definitely becoming a Popcorn Meeting. It all started with the monthly reading of a Query:

How does our Meeting help to create and maintain a society whose institutions recognize and do away with the inequities rooted in patterns of prejudice and economic convenience?

Is our Meeting open to all regardless of race, ability, sexual orientation, or class?

What steps are we taking as a Meeting to assure that our Meeting and the committees and institutions under our care reflect our respect for all and are free from practices rooted in prejudice?

Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried, including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority?

What am I doing to help overcome the contemporary effects of past and present oppression?

Am I teaching my children, and do I show through my way of living, that love of God includes affirming the equality of people, treating others with dignity and respect, and seeking to recognize and address that of God within every person?

This is a hard query for my Monthly Meeting, as conflict about same-sex marriages left many hurt several years ago. As a result, this query tends to generate somewhat predictable messages in Meeting for Worship. This time was no exception.

I strove to find God in the brief moments of silence as person after person stood to give a message. As I try to write down the crux of the messages after Meeting, I desperately attempted to quickly memorize crux after crux. In the end, 11 people rose to speak in a 60 minute meeting. And somewhere in the middle of Meeting, I found myself wondering if attempting to worship for the rest of the Meeting was even worth it. “How can I possibly worship when someone is standing to speak every 5 minutes?”

I felt annoyed. “Another Popcorn Meeting,” I thought dismissively. In doing so, I also dismissed the quality of the messages.

Luckily, God ignored my dismissal. The messages were, whatever I thought of them at the time, Spirit-led. Friend after Friend rose to speak truth to power about the Meeting’s avoidance of discussing same-sex marriage. Friend after Friend rose to speak about the need to love those who disagree. Friend after Friend rose to remind us that disagreement is another form of diversity. Friend after Friend rose to say that acceptance doesn’t necessitate tolerance of opinions that harm others.

Friend after Friend rose to honor their Light within.

Meeting for Worship with attention to Business followed shortly after Meeting for Worship. More people rose to voice their discomfort with our Meeting’s lack of action regarding same-sex marriage. And at the end of Meeting for Business, in the slot for “future concerns”, the recording clerk rose to say that her sense was that it was time for us to act. She suggested a called Meeting for Business about same-sex marriage, to be held in September. After more discussion, a Friend rose to suggest a committee be formed to prepare for the called Meeting for Business.

Friends were in unity. And after years of inaction–or, to be accurate, indirect action–my Monthly Meeting is, finally, acting, directly and openly. And this fruit of action was sown by seeds planted in a Popcorn Meeting, a Meeting I dismissed as not counting as “real” worship.

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Filed under discernment, GLBT rights, leadings, lgbt issues, meeting for business, meeting for worship, ministry, quakerism, speak and listen with love, third haven, worship

Testing

Someone in my family is going through a tough time right now. I found myself thinking last night about whether I should reach out to her or not. It seems like it should always be a good thing to reach out to help someone, but I thought I should test it first. “I want to help her,” I thought. But then, as I let the sentence echo in my mind, I heard something else: “I want to be the one who helps her.”

“I want to help her.”

vs.

“I want to be the one who helps her.”

Not the same at all. And with that realization, I realized that I’m not in a place right now where I can help her, because I’d be doing it to build up my ego instead of doing it out of real compassion for her.

Two weeks ago, I had a scheduling conflict with my Meeting’s Worship and Ministry committee. It seemed very possible that I’d have to withdraw my membership from this committee. I found myself thinking, “I want to serve my Meeting.” Now, thinking back, I wonder:

“I want to serve my Meeting.”

vs.

“I want to be the one who serves my Meeting.”

I’ve been in a period of discernment about whether to take on a second term with this committee (my first term ends this December). While eating breakfast several weeks ago, I offered up the following prayer: “May I do Your will, Lord.” And then I thought about what I’d just said and was struck with discomfort.

What if God doesn’t want us to do His will all the time? I couldn’t help but think that if God had wanted us to do His will all the time, He wouldn’t have given us free will. He would have made us as puppets. Is it even right to ask God always, “What do you want me to do here?”

I’ve found myself recently saying things like, “I’m waiting to see what God says,” or “I’m waiting for a leading about this” when I’m asked a question that I already have an opinion about, but know that my answer isn’t the one the questioner wants. I used to do this with Rob, too: blaming unpopular decisions on him when it was me who made them.

Before I can follow God’s will, I have to be able to stand up for and follow my own.

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Filed under compassion, daily life, discernment, ego, emptying, faith, family, God, leadings, obedience, pride

Jesus as the Way

I wrote this in my real journal last night and feel inclined to share it:


I’ve been almost plagued with confusion over whether I’m a Christian or not. It just seems like one of those questions one should know the answer to, and my answer is that I don’t know. I feel defensive whenever I say I’m a Christian. I try to follow Jesus’s teachings, I worship God, I follow [or try to follow] leadings I’m given, I take my faith seriously: is this not enough? I believe God loves us enough to become mortal and die for us.

I guess what concerns me is idolatry. If Jesus is not God and I begin to worship him, I would be committing idolatry. And there’s no way to know, not really. And part of me feels like I’m splitting hairs and missing the point, that it doesn’t really matter if Jesus is God, just that God loves us enough to do it.

But what about the Holy Spirit?

Does it matter if Jesus as described in the New Testament truly existed or not? Is it not enough that God chose to reveal this aspect of Him: that He loves us enough to die for us? If I know that, isn’t that enough?

And yet, praying to Jesus makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I imagine Jesus as the medium through which communion with God is possible. And whether he was or was not, the possibility of his existence has led me to God.

But the road is not the destination. Sunlight is not the sun.

Or is it? Would the destination be the same without the road there? What would the purpose of the sun be without its rays?

None shall come to the Father except through me.

But people start from different places. Their roads to God must each be different. Imagine God as the center of a circle. We are on the circumference. Each of us has a straight path that leads us to God.

This does not make God subjective, only our experiences of Him. A pebble is always a pebble, whether it decorates your garden or is in your shoe.

But Jesus. If one grants him divinity, does human divinity not follow? It’s a concern. Where does God end and man begin? Especially if Jesus connects the two.

And again, I feel I’m missing the point and getting mired in details.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Not the person, but the way. Of peace. Of self-sacrifice borne from love. Of compassion. Of mercy. Of faith. Of following God’s will.

This is how I did it. Do the same, and find God.

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Right Speech

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to… You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don’t speak that day… Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech.

“The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”, by Thich Nhat Hanh

I have not been good about this recently. I have spoken my heart without using loving speech. I have spoken without Right Understanding. I have run ahead of my leading, trying to push it into action when I am not clear on what I am being led to do.

I need to let love lead me, not fear, and not anxiety or the need to feel like I’m doing something.

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