By Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni
I live in no man’s land, right next to a piece of road that is unincorporated by the county. Sandwiched between the cities of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, it seems to belong to no one.
In England I was part of a large community of monastics in a well-established tradition with excellent support. I left all this behind when I returned to the US seven years ago. Now I live in a hermitage, with one other bhikkhuni but without a community of other Buddhist monastics nearby, and in a place where wearing robes and being an alms mendicant is alien at every level to most people I encounter. As a female Buddhist monastic in a secular world, I inhabit my own no man’s land. Where do I belong?
When I think of my most consistent intense feelings of belonging, I think about what happens when I’m in a wild and energized place in nature. These days I regularly experience love and belonging in the Garden of the Gods near where I live in Colorado. When I’m nestled against the dark red rocks I relax deeply. As I relax and let go, I feel expanded. It is as if the boundary of ‘me’ first softens and then dissolves. Ego is letting go. My body changes from being a solid entity to a flow state. I become porous. Outside and inside become designations rather than concrete realities. I notice subtle sensations, movement and consciousness. The solidity of ‘me-ness’ is replaced by a lot of space, the clear knowing of that space, and love. This love has no point of origination. It pervades everyone and everything.
It is no coincidence that the most profound experiences of belonging come when I feel love permeating every part of me. Love is welcoming, embracing and accepting. Nothing is rejected. Everything belongs. It is also no coincidence that this happens when I have relinquished grasping, when ego has let go. With people, I rub up against the parts of myself that are still growing up, trying to be someone to them, wanting to be accepted or feeling I have to protect myself from their wanting me to be some way that I’m not.
The depths of unconditioned love and belonging I have experienced in nature have allowed me to explore the presence and absence of these qualities with people. Recently, I have plumbed the depths of what it is to be lonely, not to belong, how they arise and how to work with them. Sometimes not belonging evokes an existential emptiness. This isn’t a thin film on top of the experience of wellbeing. It dissolves joy, goodness, and insight. It seems to go on forever and have no other reference points. It can be completely overwhelming. Attention vanishes into this existential emptiness, until there is no witness remaining. No longer am I experiencing emptiness, I am emptiness. This experience becomes the lens through which I see and experience everything. It is relentless and consuming. For me this has not been a small blip on the screen of my life but a compelling force that has gripped me and wrestled me to the ground sobbing and exhausted.
It is extraordinarily difficult to move from this place. When I have been humbled to my knees, I must start where I am. I turn to what is; say yes to the pain and touch the nothingness. The miracle of mindfulness is that it can take something that I have identified as who I am and turn it into the object of what I can observe. Under the persistent lens of mindful observation, as I ask how, where, in what way do I experience this painful sense of nothingness, existential emptiness eventually shifts from ‘me’ (subject) to what I experience (object). Turning attention towards it is neither trivial nor insignificant. It is huge.
What makes it possible to move towards what is wholesome when we are lost in the dark, to take attention that has vanished into existential emptiness, retrieve it and return it’s observational capacity to notice? Many traditions call this grace. Buddhists call it merit. I experience it as both. When we have faith in meditation practice we can persist even when we don’t see quick results. Our merit supports our faith.
Merit is our field of goodness. Our relative merit is the part that increases or decreases like a lake that fills from the rain and gets depleted in a drought. It increases from acts of generosity, integrity, and insights. It gets depleted from dwelling in thoughts or engaging in actions based in ill will or obsessive desire. Our innate goodness is not dependent on the things we do. It is our Buddha Nature, the radiant luminous knowing that is ever present. This is what is present when the veils of confusion clear. Touching our innate goodness, seeing that we are in fact, whole, complete and sufficient just as we are can be transformative – it cuts through beliefs about our insufficiency and ideas that we must seek wholeness from someone or something outside. It allows us to deeply relax. When we touch our innate goodness and rest there our relative merit increases.
Grace as used in theistic traditions is not based on the recipient’s apparent goodness; it is an unconditioned and unearned gift of the divine transcendent. For Buddhists, we can experience grace when we experience our own Buddha nature, experience the deathless – what exists before birth and beyond death. Sometimes this comes when we sink into awareness that is pervasive and boundless. We can feel grace when are in contact with someone who has this understanding and their awareness and love evokes similar feelings in us. Often for me, the Garden of the Gods functions as a portal to pervasive awareness and love. This too is grace. In my daily life living on the generosity of others, I feel grace when something that I need comes without having to ask for it.
We can find love from both the relative and transcendent sides of the spectrum. On the relative side, we begin with the feeling of deprivation and insufficiency, where love is perceived as outside of ourselves. We do what we can to cultivate loving relationships, connect with love, evoke love and bring love in. In the transcendent experience of love, we change our state of consciousness to gain access to something ever present; where we don’t try and bring love in, but release the ‘me’ that keeps the ever-present love out.
Releasing the ego or ‘me’ can happen by relaxing deeply and resting attention in the awareness of relaxation. It can happen with breath practices that change the movement and quality of subtle body energies. As we experience more subtle energies, we can also experience more subtle consciousness. With more subtle consciousness, awareness expands and with it, clinging lessens. With less clinging, there is less identification with all manner of thoughts and beliefs including the ideas that we are insufficient, that love is beyond or outside of us, or that we don’t belong. Without these limiting beliefs, love can be experienced as the other side of awareness. Love’s cherishing is warm. Awareness’ knowing is cool. They are two sides of the same thing – a non-judgmental acceptance of what is. As conditional acceptance of what is ripens into profound acceptance, and we start feeling the fullness of not being separate. We can see the apparent boundaries of love and awareness dissolve, experience no inside and outside of love/awareness and that there is no person or anything that is excluded from love/awareness, including ourselves. This experience of love and belonging is deeply regulating. My nervous system relaxes completely when I am able to feel this.
Transcendent experiences of love and awareness can open us up so that old beliefs crumble and new ways of being in the world emerge. And yet as powerful and transformative as these experiences can be, like anything else, they come and go. When they come and stay for a while, they become part of our merit. Both our accumulated and innate goodness helps us during dark nights of the soul, when we feel lost, when emptiness has gripped us again. Even if we have experienced all-pervasive-love-andawareness, and know it well, when we don’t find our direct access to it, the love and support from others can remind us.
In this way, a community that upholds integrity, practices generosity and meditation can provide the needed friendship from which awakening can take place. Sometimes this awakening is the relief that we are OK; that we have the right to exist. We feel warmth, affection and love. We can manage our vulnerability and deal with our anxieties better. We can tolerate our feelings of not belonging. We are not paralyzed by fears. Other times, insights can illuminate where we are holding on to fear and can support our letting go. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the heart’s infinite capacity for love and our part and place in this loving field – a very different experience from fear. In all of these ways, loving isn’t just a good thing, a noble thing or the right thing to do. Acting from love and moving towards love is the key to being deliciously alive.
The blessing of living as a nun in our modern world today is that we have a lifestyle and teachings entirely focused on awakening. We are supported as we work to let the veils of confusion fall away and return to the deep and profound love and belonging that is freely available in awakening.
The ‘no man’s land’ where I live, was eventually identified as the thoroughfare to the crown jewel of the city – the Garden of the Gods, where half a million tourists visit yearly. Recognizing its value and seeing it had slipped through all judicial cracks, they found the motivation and resources to invest in it.
My own experience of living in ‘no man’s land,’ has not yet fully resolved. I oscillate among considering physical moves that might support more connection, reflecting on areas of growing up I still have to do, steeping myself in the experience of wholeness, love and belonging that comes from letting go, and developing friendships with the people and groups surrounding me. The crown jewel I return to comes when I recognize that everything belongs even the feeling of not belonging.