Mary Liz Austin, who practices psychotherapy at the Center for Mindful Living, similarly helps clients see that “it’s the attachment to the outcome that really causes suffering.” Another favorite teaching of hers is Chodron’s aphorism “Everything is workable.” This means, essentially, that something good might come out of even the worst moments. “I’m having an experience right now with my father-in-law. He’s dying of cancer. It’s a shitty situation,” Austin says. “But what I’m seeing is that the fruits of this cancer diagnosis is everyone is by his bedside, everyone is showing amazing love to him, and that allows the people in your life to show up in a way that you see so much what matters.”
At times, it’s the meditation teachers who sound more like psychotherapists, offering practical tips for dealing with existential quandaries. Byrne, who also teaches meditation, wrote a book about the power of mindfulness for habit change. He uses mindfulness meditation to help people understand impermanence, another Buddhist teaching. The idea is to see your emotions and experiences—including anxiety or pain—as constantly changing, “like a weather system coming through,” he says. Everything, eventually, ends.
Cecilia Saad found this to be an especially attractive element of Buddhism. A close friend of hers was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and Saad was impressed by how calm she remained throughout her diagnosis and treatment. “We’ve talked a lot about her outlook, and she always goes back to her Buddhism,” she says. Now, when Saad is stressed about something, the concept of impermanence helps her to imagine that she’s already survived the event she’s dreading.
At my meditation class, the teacher read from her book in her even, perfectly unaccented voice. The book told us to consider that there are two reasons someone might cause us harm: It’s their nature to be harmful, or a temporary circumstance caused them to act in a harmful way. Either way, the teacher said, it doesn’t make sense to be angry at the person. The nature of water is wet, so you wouldn’t rage at the rain for getting you wet. And you wouldn’t curse the clouds for temporarily having a weather system that causes a downpour.
“When are we compelled to hurt people?” she asked, rhetorically, before answering: “When we’re in pain. It’s easy, if you see the fear, to have some compassion.”
She asked us to close our eyes and meditate again, this time while thinking about letting go of resentment toward someone who had harmed us. I shifted awkwardly and wondered how the burly guy sitting in front of me wearing a Lift Life T-shirt felt. I was having trouble focusing on resentment, and my eyes flickered open involuntarily. It was 30 degrees outside, yet most of the seats were taken. The fullness was uplifting. Still, it was remarkable that so many of us were willing to stumble through the freezing dark just to take in some basic wisdom about how to be less sad.
In Sunday school, when you opened your eyes during prayer, other kids would tell on you, thereby implicating themselves as having opened their eyes, too. That’s how people are sometimes, I thought: They’ll burn themselves for the chance to harm someone else. I took a deep breath and tried to have compassion for them anyway.