The Iron Thing
Updated: Mar 19, 2019
I think I’ve been trying to write this post for a year, since I was at Buddha camp. But it’s hard to condense it into words. Mary Oliver writes, in my well-thumbed copy of The Leaf and the Cloud, about her forebears and tidying up their lives.
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.
It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried I will not carry.
My analogy for my fellow travelers at Buddha camp (a month-long meditation retreat at Plum Village in France) was that we all arrived with our suitcases full of suffering and unloaded them for all to see. A large draw of Buddhism is the prescribed path out of suffering. Because I was at the retreat the whole month, and got in touch with my suffering around day 10, I was able to step back slightly and observe others dealing with their own suffering. I began to call it the iron thing.
Nearly every day we three hamlets, or compounds, came together for lectures either by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Village’s founding monk, or Sister Chan Kong, his cofounder. Once a week all of the monks and nuns chanted before the lecture a mesmerizing and haunting song to the Bodhisattva* Avalokiteshvara. We listeners were instructed to contemplate the suffering of ourselves, our immediate friends and family, and then the whole world. The first week when they chanted, a swallow was trapped in the meditation hall and she couldn’t find a way out. The whole time of the singing, I was focused on the suffering of the bird and trying to call her to the open windows. But the second week, I was paying more attention. It was then that I began to fulfill my stated purpose of attending Buddha camp in the first place: to process my Romanian experience. As the music began, I began to think of the suffering that I had witnessed during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. And as the list grew and the memories flooded in, I began to cry—hard, convulsive sobs (controlled, of course as I was in a room with a few hundred people, though blessedly toward the back). I did not make a sound but I doubt I’ve ever cried so hard or for so long. I thought about each person I had met and the unfathomable struggles of many of them. So true that joy exists in that country too. But for many of the people I knew, it was hard won and surrounded by hardship. So I cried, for the first time.
Later that week I had a small ceremony very early in the morning, even before morning meditation. I made a list of everyone that I would sing for (you could say pray). I lit a candle and some incense and arranged flowers. I read my list the first time saying “I sing for …” The second time I read the same list but instead read, “I am…”: the mother who can’t feed her children, the motherless child, the girl abused by her drunken father, the man who drinks because he has no work and no hope, the boy deprived of oxygen who is now disabled, the mother who fights for her boy. And in this way, I was able to put down the iron thing.
And the question arose, how do we put down the iron thing but still honor that experience, the memories, the people? I had time to ponder this as I watched and listened to my new summer friends unpack their suffering. A very kind woman with two ethereal and sweet little girls talked frequently about her brother’s murder. In so many ways, she had come to terms with this and even made advances toward forgiving the killers—very admirable. But I could see that she had taken this very real point of suffering and made it a part of her identity, compounding the suffering and assuring that she could not put down her iron thing. Another woman had lost a child in infancy (years prior) and still carried around this heavy weight. I’m not suggesting that these are normal things that people have to bear; they must be extremely painful. But I do suggest that we choose to continue to carry them because we have not answered the question that I ask at the beginning of this paragraph. How do we put it down and still honor the love we have for the brother, the child? What kind of a parent will I be if I don’t continue to carry this iron thing that is the death of my child?
For that, I do not have the answer. I only feel, today, in the glorious summer sunshine a year later, that I have indeed put down my iron thing. I think maybe in my catharsis for the suffering I witnessed in Romania, I was able to lay aside all of my personal suffering (so much self-induced, as I think we can all diagnose) and be free of the iron thing. I just know that when I returned to the States I felt incredibly light. And even though I get bogged down in the daily minutia, I still in general have that feeling. Part of it is my imperfect meditation practice, part of it is the external shower of blessings of this past year, part of it is new eyes.
The result is finding myself in a place that I have read about in books, of having a better grasp on what is important—not intellectually but deeply and firmly in my soul. Not things, but people. Not results, but efforts. Not yesterday or tomorrow, but today. Oh yes, it’s always a struggle and so easy to get distracted. Maybe that’s why a bike ride along the river on a perfect day is so good for clearing out the cobwebs. But the feeling, the knowledge, stays longer and longer these days. I don’t fall back into old, harmful ways of thinking so much anymore.
The other result is that I find myself much more open to the suffering of others. I can witness it and sit with it and honor it without needing to carry it. I used to think that the gift we could give another person was to help carry their load. Now I see that the better gift is to help them put it down.
Do you have thoughts on this? It seems to be a worthy life-long discussion.
*Bodhisattva: In Buddhist tradition, a bodhisattva is/was a person who works to alleviate suffering. It may be analogous to saints in Christianity, of the story of the good Samaritan. Avalokiteshvara was a real person who was renowned for deep compassion and the ability to relieve suffering. Today, you can also call someone a bodhisattva if he or she goes out of the way to help someone and alleviate suffering. So for example, I labeled a kind woman in the Gare du Nord in Paris the Bodhisattva of Change-making. And I think I found a bodhisattva in the Elk Grove Starbucks. Maybe we could call them our everyday angels.