Continuing on the theme of gratitude and the kindness and care taking we receive from others, I am reflecting further on how much we depend upon these for our very survival, even though so much that is done for our benefit is taken for granted, barely even recognised.
When I was embarking upon the first Amida Ministry training - the format of which has changed considerably now - I looked down the list of what the course would entail. My eye was caught by ‘Nei Quan’. Involving looking inward and asking searching questions - the concept terrified me! After all, I’d spent much of my life avoiding doing just that.
Facing the fear
However, this was something I was going to have to do at some point during my training. So, on the basis that teetering on the edge of the high diving board, with the terror increasing, would be more nerve-wracking than holding my nose and taking a running jump, facing the fear and doing it anyway, I signed up for the next 5-day retreat.
Silence apart from answering the teacher’s questions, remaining in an allotted space within the shrine room with cushions, paper, crayons and pens, left with my own process. Served with beautifully prepared and arranged meals, watching the teacher carefully arrange the curtains to give us some shade, when I glanced outward, there were moving details that touched the heart deeply.
Looking inward there was, of course, the possibility of skirting round the questions, avoiding anything too painful, and being less than immersed in the enquiry. However I reasoned that this was a unique opportunity which it would be foolish not to take advantage of.
What has this person done for me?
We started by being given the first question, “What has this person done for me?”, focusing on a primary care-giver. My mother. Now, sad to say, for most of my life, my mother and I have not had a great relationship. I was born prematurely in dramatic circumstances, nearly arriving on a train, then being kept in hospital in an incubator for a number of weeks, in a city where my parents didn’t live. My mother couldn’t even stay so I didn’t see her during that time. Hence, crucial bonding didn’t happen. Also, once I was home, as a premie baby I was fretful and cried and cried at night. Not exactly the blissful vision she had built in her mind of how motherhood would be. My blond and bubbly sisters, when they arrived, were much more the thing. Extrovert and pretty, like her, while I grew up dark haired, quiet, introvert, hiding behind my glasses, afraid of anger, buried in books and, sinfully, like and liking my father.
A different perspective
So there was much gritty material to work with during these 5 days. After time spent in thought, I found myself writing the story of my mother’s life, both in linear fashion, through time, but also horizontally, in the context of the time she was living in, from before my birth and throughout my childhood. This gradually opened my eyes as I began to gain much more a sense of who she actually was and what had affected her. A different view from my previous child’s perspective. As I immersed myself into the story, I felt as though I was stepping into her shoes. And then I began to appreciate not only all the things she had done for me, through times of real financial worries and post-war hardship - I was born in 1946 - in an environment much tougher than that in which she had been raised, travelling from place to place as my demobbed father followed employment. All those nappies changed and washed by hand, all those meals provided, all those sleepless nights with this grizzling baby, the tedium of endlessly repeated quotidian domestic tasks. Like many wartime marriages, following the glamour of travel and uniforms and the danger of the times, my parents each married to someone with whom they did not really have much in common. The lack of friendship in a place where she was an outsider. Then, after a few years, the relative easing of life as we moved from the tenement flats, which had no bathroom, a shared toilet, flights of concrete stairs, to a bungalow with all mod cons and a small garden where my father grew vegetables, in her home town, near my grandmother, followed by the births of my sisters in a private nursing home, attended by the familiar elderly family doctor. I thought, too, about how much harder it must have been to care for the child she did not feel in tune with. Much harder than the same care for the children who are more similar to herself, who had been born in an easier time.
My pen was flying over the paper and, as the days progressed, I could feel an inner shift. Then there were subsequent questions: “What have you done for this person?” Well, I had to face it, like most children, embarrassingly little. And, “What difficulties and troubles has my existence occasioned for this person?” As you can imagine, over the years, a great deal. All the practical, unremitting and tedious hard work that bringing up any child involves. Plus the emotional burden of the less liked child who could be, let’s face it, pretty unlikeable at times.
There was much more to those five days. However, what happened afterwards was that, on the basis of this new and more comprehensive understanding, once I was home again, I was able to talk to my mother honestly, without rancour and with some compassionate understanding, about what I had discovered. And, as a result, she was able to admit what she had felt about me. This was the moment when a great healing began. Which has been a huge gift to us both and has been developed and maintained over the subsequent years. A difficult relationship has become a peaceful one, with much affection. So, yes, although the prospect was daunting, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity of the experience that allowed me to excavate and discover some uncomfortable truths and new perspectives. Thus began the process of turning all that grit into pearls.
What did I learn?
* That a story is just a story, a confection, that we tell ourselves in order to understand, to have some control thereby, sometimes to have a persona to which we are attached, whether that story is positive or damaging or even true. That stories can keep us stuck.
* That other people involved can have a completely different narrative. And a bystander could see things completely differently again.
* That none of these are ‘the truth’ but just snapshots with a distorted lens.
* That I could be wrong (an ongoing lesson)
* That most stories can be reframed. And, subsequently, of course, my story was reframed by my teacher, who gave me my ordination name.
Namo Amida Bu
The 'Su' part is like su in sugar, so can mean blissfully, happily, good, excellent, right, virtuous, beautiful, well, rightly. And the 'jatin' part means birth. So, in place of what seemed a rather unhappy birth experience, with rather unhappy consequences, Dharmavidya gave me a happy lifetime (all the circumstances contributing to where I am now), made me 'well born', in the sense of being fortunate. Namo Amida Bu!
Juline Smit said:
It was such a privilege to spend time with you the week before last Sujatin and to listen to you sharing parts of the narrative of your early life and relationship with your mother so movingly described here. I guess I have the sense that as well as the stories we tell ourselves never being "the truth" they also do hold something that is true each time they are told. And each telling is a revision of the story. So this for me is less about "letting go of these stories" but rather seeing the value in the thread of each narrative, and the richness that weaving them together can bring. It leaves me somewhat hungry to experience a full nei quan retreat myself. Much love, Namo Amida Bu
Thank you for sharing Sujatin. Can you tell me what your Buddhist name Sujatin means?
Elja Stoel said:
Beautiful written and thank you for sharing this touching personal experience Sujatin. With your writing you give an insight into the existence of many stories in one's personal life and into the liberation in letting go of these stories. Namo Amida Bu much love.
And your reply, tears to my own. I owe you so much gratitude. Much love from wet and chilly Perth
This story brings tears to my eyes. Much love. Namo Amida Bu.