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Excerpt From "Life Matters: Stories of Transition, Healing, and Hope"

by Abigail Brenner


This is an excerpt from Life Matters: Stories of Transition, Healing, and Hope. Stories from real people capture the real meaning and inspiration that research, no matter how extensive, simply cannot provide. Within the pages of this book are intimate and precious pieces of personal history that make up a life. They are culled from men and women of all ages and backgrounds and describe many different kinds of change and transition. But as different as each of our lives is, as many twists and turns as we personally make, many of the themes comprising life’s transitions are universal ones.

What is Peace, Anyway?
In thy light shall we see the light.
Psalms 36:9
It is said that fear and love cannot coexist. On a self-imposed time out, a week long silent meditation retreat, one man confronts himself about the fear that stands in his way of fully receiving the unconditional love sent to him on a regular basis. He knows he is loved, yet struggles to loosen the stranglehold that fear seems to have on him. What is its source? What purpose does it serve? What is the belief behind it?
“To paraphrase Mark Twain, Everyone is talking about peace, but no one seems to be doing much about it. What is peace anyway? I believe it is an aspect of love, perhaps the rarest and most precious because it is at once intimately gentle and infinitely expansive. It is the comfort of a mother’s touch and the reassurance of the Milky Way’s eternally safe embrace. Like love, peace can only come from inside. As Meher Baba, the great Indian sage once observed, ‘Love has to spring spontaneously from within and it is in no way amenable to any form of inner and outer force. Love and coercion can never go together; but though love cannot be forced on anyone, it can be awakened in him by love itself.’ This statement, in turn, expands upon Buddha’s golden rule: Hatred can never be ended through hatred, but by love alone is healed.
By these two definitions, however, most efforts to create peace (war on terror, Mideast roadmap, even political elections) are doomed from the outset. The Prussian military theorist, Karl von Clausewitz once famously stated, ‘War is politics pursued by other means.’ If we simply reverse the wording, we can see that politics is war pursued by other means. Again, how can war--no matter what form it comes in--ever bring peace? However, if we eliminate war and politics--the two most widely accepted methods of achieving peace-- how will we ever end conflict and bloodshed? The answer is perhaps simpler than we can imagine: peace can only ever be found within ourselves.
Now, however, we face an entirely different problem: how to recognize peace? The bald fact is that most of us wouldn’t recognize peace if it came up and bit us on the ass. We don’t have a clue what it is. This was brought home to me two months ago while I was on a seven day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The focus was on metta, the Buddhist principle of loving-kindness. The practice of metta involves the repetition of several affirmations along the lines of ‘May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be free.’ Once the sensation of metta is established in our own hearts (my experience of it is a warm, sun-like glow radiating out from my upper chest), we were instructed to direct it towards others, beginning with ‘benefactors’ (people towards whom we feel unconditional love and/or gratitude) and then moving towards ‘dear friends, then ‘neutral people’, and, finally, ‘difficult people,’ anyone towards whom we felt any ambivalence (often spouses and other family members).
Doing walking meditation one morning before an ancient wooden carving of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, I was repeating these affirmations for myself over and over as I walked slowly back and forth before the statue’s benevolent gaze, literally split down the middle by the dry cracking of wood. ‘May I be safe.... I felt my own awareness crack open. How often did I feel unsafe? About money? About my marriage? About my kids? About the world? To answer, ‘all the time,’ would be only a slight exaggeration. Not completely unsafe, but so often a flicker, a taste lurking just below ordinary perception, often emerging as anxiety, irritation, judgment or anger. Even the simple act of fastening my seat belt (or safety belt) connotes fear or danger.
Yet where did this danger come from? Were the repo men getting ready to seize my truck? Was my wife about to leave? Was anyone threatening my children? Have I ever set eyes on a member of Al Qaeda? No, no, no, and no. This pervasive sense of fear was entirely generated in my own head. It was as if Kwan Yin’s breaking face, the carved wood revealing itself for what it was-- an ancient dried and cracking tree trunk--was literally revealing that the primary threat to my stability came from between my own ears. How then to bring peace to this domain?
I returned to the main mediation hall to ponder this question, this time before the benevolent gaze of a large bronze Buddha. He looked at me with such patience, but offered no answers. A few days later, we came to the ‘final exam’ of the week--sending lovingkindness to ‘difficult people.’ This category included anyone towards whom we had deep and even slightly ambivalent feelings--spouses, parents, children. How strange that I could send metta to George Bush with relative ease (I wouldn’t wish responsibility for the Iraq disaster on my worst enemy), but that my wife would pose a greater challenge (Who was contributing more to the household income, really?).
As I prepared myself to send her metta, starting with myself and working my way up, a series of vivid images poured into my mind’s eye. First, I saw my ‘benefactors’, friends who provided the original inspiration to attend this retreat and who had not only been my dharma teachers in preparation for it but who had generously paid for a chunk of the cost: my dear friend, Dawn, light pouring from her face and then, emerging from the shadows behind her, her husband, Bill, bearded and robed, his gaze suffused with the deepest kindness. The light coming from them was so bright I could only see their silhouettes. I moved on to some ‘neutral’ people and then saw my wife.
However, before I could ‘send’ her anything, a wave of love came pouring from her--all the ways she had quietly supported and held me on my spiritual path in all its aspects: in my struggle with alcoholism, with my depression; all the ways she had quietly held me, held my head while I wept, held space for me so I could meditate. The list of gratitude went on and on. My eyes began to burn, and then my shoulders started to shake, gently at first, and then harder as the parade of benefactors began to grow; people towards whom I held resentments came one after the other and I saw, felt, their profound, no-strings-attached love for me. It wasn’t that their affronts were erased, just that how they might have hurt me was eclipsed by how their presence in my life blessed me.
A voice began to sound over and over in my head: ‘You’ve been fighting the world off for your whole life. You’ve been fighting off the world.’ I had a flash of a drowning man struggling against his rescuers, bringing them down, too. I then saw Charlton Heston in that famous clip from Bowling for Columbine: at an NRA convention, holding his rifle aloft and intoning the mantra, ‘From my cold, dead hands...’ But here the gun was control, the desire to monitor what entered my reality. And by insisting upon my inalienable right to hold this ‘gun,’ I transformed gratitude into suspicion and resentment. Compassion became shrouded in cynicism. And, worst of all, humility looked like a weakling’s lame excuse. The statue of Buddha looked down from the front of the meditation hall with cold indifference. ‘You really don’t have a clue, do you?’ The words of the old country song floated into my mind, ‘Who you gonna believe--me or your lying eyes?’ It all really came down to that: who would I believe--my superstitious mind or the world that so gently held me?
I looked back up at the Buddha. He was ablaze with light. The setting sun, pouring through the huge hall windows, bore down on the bronze figure with a transfiguring brilliance. The details of the statue were eclipsed by the sun’s blast, leaving me staring at a dark silhouette of a figure in meditation, seen from the front. To the left of the statue, like a twin or double, was the shadow cast by the Buddha, a perfect side view etched in midnight black. Around this double Buddha, light blazed. Above, dozens of fiery squares burned in the shadow of the window’s frame. To the left, around Buddha’s doppelganger, roared the light which had just passed through the large glass candlesticks standing on the altar; swirls of rainbow light seemed to pulse like a living halo around this second Buddha. The words of Arjuna when he beheld Krishna in his true form poured into my mind:
If a thousand suns were to rise and stand in the noon sky, blazing,
such brilliance would be like the fierce brilliance of that mighty Self.
I felt small and weak. What do I know about anything? All the world’s pearls were offered to me and, like Christ’s swine, my response was to trample them into the mud and then go after the people offering them to me. In this moment, it was so clear that the Buddha Knew and I did not. Tears of frustration and shame welled up. Would I never get it?
And then, like the gentlest hand upon my head, the famous Zen saying floated into my mind: The only difference between a Buddha and an ordinary man is that the one realizes he is a Buddha and the other does not. ‘My child,’ the bronze figure seemed to be saying, ‘You are me. You are my twin. And so are all who look upon me.’ I looked around the hall. It was as if I were surrounded by dozens of Buddhas, each in his or her own posture and mood. I looked back at the front of the hall. Like Arjuna, I wanted to cover my eyes. The light was almost too much to bear. ‘Do not shy away from your own light, my child. Why do you think you are here?’
I saw then the choice I faced, not just at that moment, but in every moment: would I choose to face my own light and that of others or would I look away? Would I choose to love what I beheld or to reject it? Would I choose peace or would I continue to be in endless conflict with what is?”

Abigail Brenner is both a doctor and an interfaith minister. She attended New York Medical College and completed her internship and residency in psychiatry at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center. Dr. Brenner served as an attending physician at NYU-Bellevue and as an assistant clinical professor at New York University School of Medicine, is a board certified psychiatrist in practice for more than 30 years and is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.
She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life, SHIFT: How to Deal When Life Changes, and the co-author of The Essential Guide to Baby’s First Year.
Life Matters is available on Amazon and through her website www.abigailbrenner.com .


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