Up in flames, the idea that old pain resolves completely one day, and is replaced by some new version of being human, where the good moods stick around forever, and all obstacles can be met graciously, without a hint of faceplanting into frailty. Up in flames, this heart, this body-mind.
A friend told me yesterday he’d raped. Up in flames, the idea that those we love are somehow members of a separate, blameless category of humans. I've known this for a long time, of course, but there's a first time for everything. A number of friends over the years have told me they've been raped, but no one had ever come out to me before as having forced another human being into sex. Now what?
My standard Buddhist strategy for not going up in flames is to fall back on the section of the Seven Branch Prayer that places me solidly within a continuum of having committed, at some point among millions of lives, every kind of transgression possible:
I confess to all evil acts committed by me
From beginningless time until now,
Influenced by the defilements,
The five that ripen immediately,
The ten non-virtuous acts,
And many more.
Basically, the whole thing has been up in flames forever. Where’s the news in a little more horror?
That’s where I went first.
Next, what came up was the memory of drowning the sick bunny I bought in Hong Kong at a time of great loneliness. White, fuzzy, sweet: what could possibly go wrong? His butthole didn’t work. Or maybe the problem was elsewhere in his body, but in any case, the bunny never once shat in the week I had him. He got frailer and sicker, and I found his suffering intolerable. To make things worse, the weekend was coming – one of the long ceremonial periods connected with Chinese ancestral observances – and a typhoon was blowing in off the Pacific. My veterinarian friend couldn’t help. Friday night, storm raging, bunny held in my hand against my chest, I filled a red plastic bucket with water, and took it out into the back yard. I plunged the bunny into it, and held him down. My story had been that he wanted to die, but his scrabbling feet at the bottom of the bucket told me that the instinct for life was strong in him, and that I was the one who wanted this death. After he stopped struggling, I used a rusty old cleaver to dig a hole under the clementine tree, while the wind whipped around, the lightning flashed, and sheets of rain came down all around us. I placed the limp little body in the hole, and covered it with wet soil.
Afterwards, I felt tainted, separated from the continuum of life by sorrow, by knowledge of myself as someone who had both reached out to a helpless being – in Hong Kong the pet- and meat-markets were intimately connected with one another – two sets of wire cages containing the same species, at either end of a long, smelly row – and who’d in the name of release turned against him when things got hard. It took a long time to shake that sense of being marked by my actions, separated from the community of being.
I told my friend this story as a way to draw close to his sense of being marked and separated by the violence he had done. I told him about the Thich Nhat Hahn poem Call Me By My True Names, where the narrator sees himself both as the young girl who drowns herself after being raped, and the pirate who raped her. I did all these things, and yet, I could tell something in me still needed to go up in flames.
My friend asked, How do you learn to call someone by their true names?
Later, having completed my sewing and photography and writing for the day, I noticed I felt ill, awful, cramped, nauseous. Standing at the kitchen sink with my husband nearby, a powerful feeling came over me, accompanied by two questions:
What would their mothers have wanted me to say to you?
Did you hurt them?
I realized, in my responses to my friend's disclosure, I'd taken an above-the-storm view. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel: the horror of being forced, abused, disregarded. I sensed into this, as the pain in the back of my neck got stronger, along with the sense of being held underwater, like the bunny years ago.
I've learned not to try to shake something like this through distraction, when I have the space and resources to let it roll on through. Timothy kindly offered to do the dishes, and I went upstairs to fill the bath. Once in, once warm, once safely in that womb of release, I listened for what wanted to come, what wanted to go up in flames. Tears – not comfortable ones – but soundless sobs, racking, shallow breaths, shuddering through the body. I remembered my date kicking me across the room after prom, and no one saying anything about it, least of all me. It was all so awful – what was there to say? Plus we were all drunk, and drunk teenagers are by definition outside the law. Who could help, among these flames? I remembered helpless childhood sorrow at being the recipient of adult rages all out of proportion to anything I might have done.
I remembered, in short, all the times my body and being have gone up in flames, hurt, helpless, unhelped. But this time was different: I could intentionally go back to the feeling of the warm water for a break. I could remember my benefactors. I could feel what I was feeling as This is what hurts feels like. Everywhere, right now, are beings who are hurt. Since beginningless time, we have hurt others, and been hurt. May we know comfort.
So this is the gift I can bring back to my friend – the possibility of allowing himself to go up in flames, consumed by the hurt he has caused. How? By allowing himself to feel fully and consciously the hurt he himself has experienced in the course of his life. This agreeing to burn is how we learn to call one another by our true names, and I am afraid that there is no alternative, if what we really want to learn is compassion. That’s not at all an appealing process, I will admit. Who wants to be reminded of drowning a bunny, twenty-plus years ago, mid-storm, tears of horror and failure mixing with rain in the freaky light of some raging storm? Who, in processing past wrong deeds, wants to enter completely into the body and being of those whose integrity we’ve transgressed? None of us, really, but then, we have no choice, if we really want to heal.
Another Thich Nhat Hahn memory: in his quiet voice, somewhere in the midst of a long Dharma talk, he pronounces:
Because we have no choice,
We must risk our hands,
To stroke the tiger’s whiskers.
The day I arrived in the tiny nuns’ community in Devon, shortly after my novice ordination, a mostly-deflated mylar tiger balloon floated down from the sky to my hand. Here, honey, it said. You’ll be going up in flames, but the good news is, I’m worth all the burn.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.