My work in caregiving, both in hospice and at Rikers Island’s jails, has brought me face-to-face with pain, sorrow, loss, terror, fear, frustration, and anxiety. Since shutting down is not an option—I have found that I cannot serve without feeling—I am well-steeped in the pain and suffering that arise when you maintain a connection to others while journeying together toward a greater sense of peace and insight in the midst of great difficulties.
This journey requires that I remain mindful of my own brokenness, yet flexible enough to remember that within this brokenness is perfection. As a teacher in the Mahamudra tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, whether at Rikers or when I am with someone who is dying, I remember that my mind is the same as the mind of Maitripa, Saraha, Milarepa, and the other great saints of the Mahamudra lineage. It is the same as the mind of every incarcerated person, every officer, every person at the end of life, and every caregiver.
What is the nature of this mind? The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, in his Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, tells us:
The ground of purification is the mind’s nature, a union of
What purifies is the great vajra yoga of Mahamudra.
What is purified is the stains of adventitious delusion.
May the result of purification, the stainless dharmakaya,
According to the Mahamudra tradition, the entire universe is a vast and ever-unfolding display of appearance that never ends and is constantly changing. It is reflected in the way we interact with the richness of all that arises. Whether it is the visual field of color and form, the tactile nature of physicality, or the emotional ways in which we interact with others, our life is a field of amazing, ever-changing appearance.
Typically, we spend most of our time less oriented to the flowing constancy of change and the artfulness of this tapestry. Thus we forget that this play of phenomena is also a constant display of perfection—a series of moments pregnant with enlightened nature that arise as they do.
Instead, in the act of forgetting the basic purity of our mind and the joy associated with recognizing its true nature, we create threads of narrative and explanation. We apply patterned ways of seeing and referencing what is naturally arising. This leads us further out of relationship with the true nature of mind and the way in which it arises.
Our suffering is a thread that weaves us all together.
Sometimes we land on narratives of pain and sadness, stories rooted in hard bone and soft flesh that feel real and permanent. At other times, the conflicting emotions caused by the three poisons (kleshas) of attachment, aversion, and ignorance make our experiences all the more difficult, all-consuming, and overwhelming. This is all too common when experiencing painful emotions like fear, loss, anxiety, and lack of safety.
This is part of the timeless story of what it means to be human. Our suffering is a thread that weaves us all together. Elsewhere in the Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer, Rangjung Dorje captures this point:
We mistake self-appearance, which has never existed, to be an
Under ignorance’s power, we mistake self-awareness to be a self.
Under the power of dualistic fixation, we wander in the expanse
May we get to the bottom of ignorance and delusion.
Real-time response to crises borne of violence has been a powerful teacher for me, whether it be in an ER or a jail facility where the atmosphere is charged with adrenaline and, on occasion, the residue of pepper spray. In moments like these, the arising of challenging emotions and the constriction of mind that occurs when I am stuck in my reactivity becomes a valuable teacher. Getting stuck is a way to experience wisdom, to make a friend, and to rest in awakening.
Awareness practices like zazen, vipassana, or lhaktong in the Mahamudra tradition expose all experiences for what they are—arising appearance, the very subject of our practice. The Third Karmapa’s words resonate an aspiration that highlights the potential of these practices:
May clinging to experiences as good be naturally liberated.
May the delusion of thoughts being bad be purified in the expanse.
May ordinary mind, with nothing to remove or add, to lose or gain,
Unelaborate, the truth of dharmata, be realized.
What does it mean to stop chasing, to stop and to look at our relationship to life’s challenges? Does the radical acceptance of awareness practices liberate our clinging and aversion to whatever arises? Can the cultivation of awareness liberate fear, illness, addiction, injustice, and violence?
It can. We can stop and rest together and learn to appreciate the richness of this very moment.