I was eating my California wrap outside at a local coffee shop in Boston when without reason I began to weep. Tears began rolling down my face, which made me feel as if I were sitting in a steady rain. It was as if my eyes had suddenly sprung a leak or a nearby sprinkler had found me.
Initially I didn’t have any feeling, but within seconds after the tears began like a fountain, I felt what seemed like an inconsolable pain — a deep sorrow that grew in intensity. It was as profound and moving as any emotion I’ve ever had.
Within the space of a brief moment I had gone from enjoying my lunch at a sidewalk café on a beautiful late summer day in Boston to a crying, blubbering mess. What the hell was going on?
I could not pull myself out of this tailspin. It was embarrassing. I put my wrap down and immediately covered my eyes, rubbing them slightly. When I opened them, to my amazement, there were four or five other people in this outdoor café crying as well. Perhaps there were 50 people seated in this area: Ten percent of us were crying.
But where was it coming from? Nothing in my thoughts or experience seem to be bringing it on.
I just finished a morning at a lecture by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Harvard Medical School. He spoke eloquently about how Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the techniques he pioneered on meditation, had taken hold in many areas around the world from business to education; from therapy to medicine; and in physical and mental health. He highlighted the extraordinary number of researchers and research being done, and took time to highlight the work of Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading researchers on positive emotions.
There was some very interesting new material on how meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has been helpful in bringing about very positive changes for its practitioners. His topic was entitled Many Doors — One Room: The Deep Transformative Implications of Mindfulness, and he described the many meditation practices that could lead to transformation.
Dr. David A. Silbersweig, professor of psychiatry and the dean for academic programs for Harvard Medical School also spoke that morning on a neurobiological model of mindfulness. There were over a thousand attendees and his opening remarks presentation was just what we were hoping to hear: Evidence-based rationale for mindfulness. In other words — nothing to cry about.
The program was being sponsored by Harvard Medical School for two days on learning how to incorporate mindfulness meditation into psychotherapy. But we didn’t just come to hear about the latest research.
Day two would feature Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the most widely known living Zen Master. He is distinguished for his poetry and writing, as well as for his peace and human rights activism. His work on promoting inner transformation through mindfulness meditation has evoked worldwide inspiration. Martin Luther King, Jr., had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As I looked up from my crying jag I saw, and felt, Thich Nhat Hanh walking toward me. He was with a dozen or so monastics in their brown robes moving along the sidewalk toward the hotel. Hundreds of people were walking behind and dozens more alongside were taking photographs.
He passed within two feet of me and as I saw his deeply serene face my sobbing reached a depth I had not before experienced. It was then I caught the eye of one of the monastics walking near him. Her broad, infectious smile let me know two things: Yes it was he, and yes experiencing my pain was necessary for transformation.
I went back to the afternoon lectures, took notes and went out for a salad for dinner. I was back in my hotel room by seven o’clock, wrote down some notes for this article, and meditated. I was in bed by 7:30 p.m. and didn’t wake up for 12 hours.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s presentation, Healing the Heart with Mindfulness, explained that by being in the present moment we don’t get lost in our future or past thoughts. By cultivating just being with whatever is bubbling up and happening, by staying present we soften our heart and mind. Healing comes as a result of us holding our pain. In fact, he said mindfulness meditation was like a mother holding a crying baby until it felt safe and could calm down. He made a particular point of saying that we must be in touch with our pain directly through the mindfulness meditation because this will actually reduce our suffering while allowing us to experience joy and happiness. I’ve meditated for over 25 years but somehow I’d never let in this level of pain.
Later in the day he led over 1,000 of us on a walk through Boston to the park. I was midway in the crowd in this silent, walking meditation. It was interesting to hear the horns and the angry drivers who were stopped so we could cross the street.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a good 200 or more yards in front of where I was walking when he stopped and began doubling back toward the middle section of long line of walkers. We halted to curve around him as he kept walking. As it turned out, he sat down and began his mediation directly across from where I was, about 15 feet away.
The tears from the day before started up again. A moment after we sat the flood of tears gave way to that now-familiar deep feeling of sorrow. I stayed with it and in a surprisingly short period of time I could feel a wholeness and joy emanating from inside. I had closed my eyes for the experience and when I opened them Thich Nhat Hanh’s radiant smile was waiting.
I have changed my meditation practice since that day to allow for more acceptance of the uncomfortable feelings and have been finding a greater access to feeling more joy and happiness.
Perhaps my transformation can now begin.