When Life Breaks You Open

Sep 27, 2022 4:58:16 PM / by Valerie Brown

I was drawn to Buddhism because of its clear path of practice and healing. I loved the silence and simplicity of sitting, walking, and eating meditation. Because suffering seemed to follow me, I wanted to understand the Buddhist teachings on the nature of suffering, the Four Noble Truths. Though simple, maybe even obvious, these statements of truth are profound:

 The Four Noble Truths

  1. Life contains suffering.
  2. Understand the causes of suffering.
  3. There is an end to this suffering.
  4. There is a path, a way out of suffering.

These teachings are sometimes misunderstood, and some label Buddhism as depressive, a downer, or negative. The teachings do not say that all life is suffering, but instead that life contains suffering, which is a continuum from mere disappointment to catastrophe. When you recognize the universality of suffering, you begin to understand that there are many causes of suffering, most notably our own craving and desire, which are a form of suffering resulting from not accepting things as they are. Of course, it’s easy to accept the things you like. It’s much harder to accept people and things you don’t, and that’s the challenge. It’s not enough for us to understand what drives suffering or that there is a way out of suffering. Even suffering doesn’t last forever; everything changes. What is important for us is to follow the path toward well-being, which is the Buddha’s teachings on the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right View. A true understanding of how reality and suffering are intertwined.
  2. Right Resolve. The aspiration to act with intention, doing no harm.
  3. Right Speech. Abstaining from lying and from divisive or abusive speech.
  4. Right Action. Acting in ways that do not cause harm, such as not taking life, not stealing, and not engaging in sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood. Making an ethically sound living, being honest in business dealings.
  6. Right Effort. Endeavoring to give rise to skillful thoughts, words, and deeds and renouncing unskillful ones.
  7. Right Mindfulness. Being mindful of one’s body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities.
  8. Right Concentration. Practicing skillful meditation informed by all of the preceding seven aspects.

Together, these teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path helped me understand my suffering and have it be in service of something much bigger than the grief I was experiencing in the moment. In the Plum Village tradition, we’re encouraged to engage Buddhism and its teaching through our life experience and not to be caught up in theory or dogma. I understood suffering and broken-openness yet again when I traveled to Japan on pilgrimage. While there, I fell in love with the art of preparing tea, which feels like slowing down time. To serve and study tea is to study mindful awareness based on Japanese values of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. It is a practice of cultivating beauty in small, very ordinary acts: lighting the charcoal burner or brazier, folding the tea napkin, holding the tea tray, pouring the tea, arranging the tea sweets, and more.

When I returned home, by chance, a local Korean woman offered a class in the art of tea, and I was excited to join and begin studying tea. My Korean teacher came from a long ancestral lineage connected to the art of tea. Her mother studied and taught tea for decades, and her family owned a small factory that made teacups by hand. One day I was busy in the kitchen, arranging the napkins and tea sweets on a tray. My teacher asked me to get one of her family’s precious heirloom cups from the cabinet and place it on the tea tray. I walked slowly and handled the earthen cup with great care. Just then, somehow my hands slipped from around the cup, and it fell to the ground and shattered into many pieces. It all happened in slow motion. Crash!

I felt a lump in my throat and a knot in my chest as I looked at the cup smashed into pieces. I apologized over and over again and offered to pay for the cup. My teacher turned to me, smiled, and said, “Now the cup is worth even more. It can be transformed by kintsugi.” Kintsugi, she explained, is the Japanese method of repairing broken ceramics with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. It treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise; it draws attention to the object’s imperfections as a way to make it whole, giving the flaws a focal point of the piece.

This practice, though particular to the Japanese, is also found in other cultures, including the Diné (Navajo) of the southwest United States. While studying weaving with a master weaver at Ghost Ranch, I learned that the Diné deliberately weave an imperfection into a corner of their textiles. It’s said that is “where the Spirit moves in and out.” Among the Diné, weavers entwine a part of themselves into the textile. There is a single line of contrasting color extending from the center to the edge of the textile, the spirit line or spirit pathway. The spirit line allows the trapped part of the weaver’s spirit to exit safely, separating the weaver from any harmful thoughts that they may come in contact with as the textile is used, sold, or exhibited. Among the Diné, the so-called imperfect has an important role. In Japan, the “imperfection” makes the cup more valuable.

“A heart that has been consistently exercised through conscious engagement with suffering is more likely to break open instead of apart,” writes Parker Palmer. “Such a heart has learned how to flex to hold tension in a way that expands its capacity for both suffering and joy.” The heart of brokenness is not a weakness, says researcher Brené Brown about vulnerability, something she sees as our essential work. “The uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are about engaging life and suffering without turning away from what breaks you, and instead leaning in wholeheartedly. What breaks your heart reminds you of what you love and what you live for. At times, my heart breaks explosively in shards of sadness. Rather than deny, suppress, or ignore that sadness, I accept myself, the vulnerability, the brokenness, the “gold” that repairs the soul. My heart breaks, and it is softer and more supple because of suffering.




This is an excerpt from chapter 3, “When Life Breaks You Open: Practice and Growth,” of Hope Leans Forward.


Topics: Excerpt

Valerie Brown

Written by Valerie Brown

Valerie Brown a Buddhist-Quaker Dharma teacher, facilitator, and executive coach. A former lawyer and lobbyist, she is co-director of Georgetown's Institute for Transformational Leadership as well as founder and chief mindfulness officer of Lead Smart Coaching. She is an ordained Buddhist Dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, and is a certified Kundalini yoga teacher. In her leadership development and mindfulness practice, she focuses on diversity, social equity, and inclusion. Brown is an award-winning author whose books include The Road That Teaches and The Mindful School Leader with Kirsten Olsen. She holds a juris doctor from Howard University School of Law, a master of arts from Miami University (Ohio), and a bachelor of arts from City University of New York. Brown tends a lively perennial home garden in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

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