Last night, one of my favorite people, Bikkhuni Vimala ( pronounced Beekoonee Weemala) gave the dhamma talk at the Blue Lotus Temple. She is the first American nun that Bhante Sujatha ordained and I love her real life experiences and her down to earth views.
She shared a compelling tale, one most of us are familiar with in one version or another, about forgetting to practice loving kindness towards herself.
Vimala was diagnosed with a serious eye condition and thankfully, there is now effective treatment for this sometimes devastating illiness.
But there’s a pretty big catch.
You have to get shots in your eyeball. Yes, that’s correct. A needle inserted into your eyeball, which apparently does not hurt, but does some pretty severe damage to your psyche.
The procedure is traumatic. I am certain that the most primitive part of our brain reacts in abject terror as the needle comes close and then screams in agony at the basic wrongness of inserting said needle into your eye.
Also, it messes with your vision. Blood vessles burst and the shape of your eye is impacted. Which means that Vimala sees a black spot and waves. It’s hard for her to focus. This beautiful monk can’t wear her contacts and her prescription glasses won’t work now. As anyone who wears glasses or contacts knows, it gets very tiring to look at the world without assistance. So Vimala is also more tired than usual.
Yet, one short week ago, she found herself actively considering a drive to Minnesota to see a friend. She went back and forth with her choice, trying to decide if she wanted to go. It’s a 6 hour drive each way, and the event which Vimala was attending would leave her driving at night.
Finally, after lots of struggle, she picked up the phone and cancelled. Towards the end of the conversation, Vimala mentioned her eyes. Her friend was surprised.
“Oh my gosh! I don’t even drive at night anymore ! How in the world could you think about a 6 hour drive at night after that?”
How in the world, indeed. At that moment, Vimala was able to see herself more clearly. She is a monk, who espouses loving kindness most especially toward herself. She is the person who changed my life with her oft quoted phrase, “Be your own best friend. “
She told us that she realized how difficult it is to practice loving kindness on herself, and how easy it was for her to lose track as she went about her life, trying to please people or change them.
As she spoke, I though about my trip last week to Florida for a family wedding. Over the last year, my financial circumstance has been challenging. I could not have made the trip without the extremely generous support of my family, who offered up airline points and hotel fees. I wanted my 19 year old son there, and as the time of the wedding approached, I let his lacrosse schedule rule the day. He had a game. But I have to admit that if I had plenty of money, I would have made sure that he got to this wedding.
I have 8 brothers and sisters and all nine of us were together for the first time in as long as I could remember. I couldn’t afford to buy plane tickets early and by the time the wedding was near, I couldn’t afford them at all. I looked at buses, trains, and cheap flights. I thought about driving to New York and getting my son but realized it’s 14 hours to new york and then another 15 hours to Florida. I gave up and decided to just drive myself, dreading the 18 hour car trip, complaining about it to friends.
One of my family members heard about my plight and immediately sent me his airline points. The day before the wedding, I made my flight reservation for a total cost of $125.00. I was grateful and so moved by his help that I have a hard time putting it into words.
But listening to Vimala last night has me pondering; Why didn’t I ask sooner? Wouldn’t it have been kinder to request points in advance so no one had to use so many? I cheated my son out of a beautiful weekend because I was ashamed and unable to ask for help. Now I know. When I feel the hot wave of shame come on, it is an indicator to flip on the loving kindness thermostat and cool myself down with the pleasant breeze of reassuring self-talk and positive affirmations.
I already know I won’t remember this. My mind has a lifetime of patterns etched into it. Shame will still win sometimes, but if I practice, I believe it can get better. One bad feeling at a time, I can practice exposing my needs so I can get help, instead of covering them up so that no one can even see what needs to be done.
Last weekend, I received another generous gift. I attended a writing workshop with a dear friend, who paid the way for me. It was difficult to accept, but now I know that if I refuse, I am preventing a person from giving, and myself from receiving, two of the most sought after experiences in any spritual practice.
It is better to give than receive includes the idea that it is better to move out of the way and let someone else give once in a while. Give the gift of the opportunity to someone. Let another person be the star, give the talk, or pay the bill. This is an important way to give. It doesn’t feel that great to admit that you need or want some help. It feels a little strange to take a back seat, especially when you’re “the one.” It feels especially awkward to accept generous gifts from those we love, but in the end, those we love benefit from the opportunity to practice loving kindness and generosity. One thought at a time, I am trying to remember. It is good to give someone the opportunity to give, even to me, even when I am certain that I don’t deserve it. As Vimala has said so many times, we can be our own best friends, and I know that my best friend would encourage me to accept these gifts.
“Do you see how we collect alms from your mother in the mornings? We do not say thank you. She does not expect our gratitude. Of course we are grateful, but we know she is earning her merits, just like us.
So we practice no self, the ideal called dana paramita. Can you say that word back to me little friend?
The young boy says “Da-na Pa ra mee ta” getting it right the first time. Both teacher monks smile at Neil’s obvious intellectual ability.
“Yes, exactly, very good. So you see, in our practice, with no self, there cannot be another. We are one. There cannot be a giver without a receiver. By walking away from the owl, you are earning your merits, giving the mother owl the chance to save her youngster, and by accepting her help, the little owl is also earning merits.
Your mother could not earn her merits by giving alms unless we stand at her door, with a bowl for the alms.
So you see, the giver and the receiver create each other.
We cannot separate the two. One is not better than the other.
We can appreciate poor people and injured animals as important receivers, to be respected equally with the givers.
Receivers make giving possible. Remember that. To be a receiver is a meritorious act.
To give is also a meritorious act.
By allowing me to give you this lesson, you are allowing yourself to receive this lesson, and the baby owl can be a receiver who is also giving me this lesson. You see, it goes on and on.”
Neil is quiet, collecting his thoughts. He is becoming wise. He walks with the teacher monks and does not look back at the injured owl as they continue their walk to the Bodhi tree. He does not run ahead anymore. He is a small boy walking between two wise men, slowing down to learn, on the way to becoming a monk.” – from My Wish, the story of the Man who Brought Happiness to America