Beginner'the mind is a special BDG project bringing together insightful essays written by American students who have taken experiential learning courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify themselves as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with Buddhadharma. All share reflections and impressions on what they'learned, how it has impacted their lives and how they could continue to engage in teaching.
Surya Anna Bromley wrote this essay for his course in Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy at George Washington University, a private university in Washington, D.C. surya graduated with a BA in International Business, with a focus on development and sustainability. She is passionate about public access to nature and likes to take long walks. She currently teaches English in Thailand and continues to learn Theravada Buddhism.
Self-compassion: learning to hear myself
On the morning of May 12, 2021, I woke up. Something was a little off. My right ear was clogged and I couldn't hear anything. I assumed it just needed to "pop" and then the feeling would go away. But as the day progressed and nothing changed, I started to worry. I went to a pharmacy where I got ear drops but it didn't help. Since I had to go home in a week, I decided to wait until I was home, then went to see a doctor who gave me decongestants, which didn't help either.
A month later, I was diagnosed with Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SNHL), a form of sudden deafness. My right ear is deaf for all intents and purposes. There is no identified cause or cure for this disease. Suddenly, at the age of 21, I found myself looking for a hearing aid. In the many doctor's offices I visited over the next few months, I was always decades younger than other patients. I felt cheated by my body. I was dealing with issues I hadn't expected to be dealing with for many years, despite taking care to exercise, eat, and love my body. I had thought that these ingredients would be enough for him to flourish as I wanted and expected. Accepting my fragility continues to be a difficult journey.
For months after my diagnosis, I mourned the hearing loss I took for granted every day until it was gone. I was angry at my body for the harm I felt it had done to me, for the experiences it had tainted, like sitting at a noisy table or in a crowded bar that I was trying to keep up with. the conversation. I couldn't accept this change or let go of this thing I had no idea I was clinging to.
In the spring of 2022, the endless series of doctor's appointments continued as I searched for solutions to my predicament that might allow me to hear my classmates and friends with clarity again. At the same time, I started the last semester of my senior year at George Washington University, where I enrolled in Buddhist meditation and philosophy as an elective. We started reading about the meaning of suffering (Skt: duhkha). According to Buddhist psychology, the main cause of suffering is attachment. Our perceptions build our realities, and these realities are unstable and constantly changing, I have found accepting the fleeting nature of life and letting go is necessary but incredibly difficult. This is especially true when our personal identity is involved.
Buddhist philosophy also emphasizes the interdependence of all phenomena. Realizing how interconnected we are can remind us that we are not alone, but this can be hard to accept, especially when we are going through experiences of isolation. Geshe Thupten Jinpa, former Tibetan monk and translator of the Dalai Lama, writes in his book A fearless heart (2015) that compassion is the answer to alleviating not only our own suffering but also the suffering of others. But as my journey has taught me, learning to cultivate compassion, especially towards oneself, can be difficult.
Western cultures face additional challenges. Growing up in America, we are taught to set goals, mostly related to status and material accomplishments, and we are judged on our abilities to achieve them by grades, acceptance, and perceived success. I grew up in this culture and therefore see myself as a success-oriented person who strives to live a prosperous life. Yet all of these are outward indicators and say very little about a person's well-being. Faced with this new personal struggle, I could not set myself a goal that would bring me contentment when completed. I needed a new approach.
Compassion is seeing the suffering of a being and wishing that this suffering ceases. However, it is also imperative to focus on the liberation achieved through the cessation of suffering and not on the pain itself. (Bhikkhu Analayo, 6 years old) Moreover, my own experience has taught me that self-compassion is much more difficult. The way our culture ties self-esteem to material success means that we tend to take responsibility for failures, even when they are beyond our control. This often leads to anger at our suffering and the feeling of having been unfairly wronged, when in fact suffering is simply part of life. Being compassionate with yourself means accepting that suffering is inevitable. Pain and disappointment are a part of life, and when they happen, we need to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding in order to learn from any mistakes we may have made.
When I was first diagnosed with SNHL I was told that if I had gone to the ER when I first lost my hearing they might have been able to bring it back with an injection steroids in the eardrum. However, as I waited, the diagnosis came too late. I was furious and blamed myself for not having acted sooner. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what was going on or the right course of action. I've rationally accepted that I'm not to blame, but deep down I still have a hard time forgiving myself.
To be human is to be imperfect, to suffer and to make mistakes. The sooner we realize how much our suffering connects us to the rest of humanity, which has suffered, is suffering and will continue to suffer, the sooner we can consider ourselves part of the human community. After losing my hearing, of course I was upset, but I tried to keep in mind that there are so many people whose suffering is greater (which is true) and that my suffering was minimal (which was wrong). I found myself oscillating often between feelings of anger, fear, and sadness, causing myself greater anguish by abusing or ignoring them. My confusion about these emotions made it easier for me to keep them to myself. Yet in this I deprived myself of being able to see how my suffering relates to people around the world – it could be someone who has suffered my type of hearing loss, which is rare, or someone another who feels angry, lonely or scared; all the emotions that I periodically experienced.
I felt hatred towards my ear, a part of me, because it had failed. I was angry with myself that I couldn't move on and be fully happy and present for this wonderful year, my senior year of college, that was passing. Basically, we all need love, attention and to feel heard. Yet it is difficult to share the experiences of his suffering because it forces us to be vulnerable and deal with those things that hurt us, whether external or internal. One way to empower ourselves is to practice mindfulness, which reminds us to receive our feelings with a non-judgmental mind, without trying to suppress or deny them. When we forget to pay attention, we can start to identify too much with the challenges we face.
One of the side effects of my hearing loss is that I have tinnitus in my damaged ear. This means that the ear produces a range of noises that do not actually occur. Most often it's a sustained ringing – as one of my doctors said: I have “a whole orchestra in there”. It doesn't constantly make sounds but it's frequent enough to get annoying. I discovered early on that sometimes making a noise near my ear, like a popping or tapping near the opening of the ear canal, helped distract my brain and allowed it to pass the tinnitus noise. Over time, however, my soft tapping almost turned into claps due to my frustration. I clung to the idea that my hearing loss was a personal failure and then acting hatefully towards myself only made my suffering worse. By confusing our flaws or just bad luck with our self-esteem, the problem begins to encompass our whole being, instead of seeing it as an isolated event. Acknowledging our pain and letting it go with an open and compassionate mind can change our relationship with ourselves. But how do we do it?
I looked towards meditation. The first thing to keep in mind is that Buddhist meditation techniques can take time to practice and accomplish. While still a novice, I find the following two Buddhist practices of cultivating compassion resonate with me.
First, compassionate meditation practices begin with giving oneself compassion or loving-kindness and extending it outward in ever-widening circles to one's loved ones and ultimately to all beings. (Jinpa, 120) However, as stated earlier, for many people in the West, self-compassion may not come naturally, while compassion for loved ones may seem more accessible. The practice of repeating a phrase expressing love and compassion for someone we love not only reminds us of that person, but also our connection to the larger world. If we are in pain, it can help us take a break from that pain and give our body and mind space to relax and feel the presence of compassion within us, even if we are not quite ready to direct it to ourselves.
Second, if our physical being is what most needs our compassion, a meditation on death might be more helpful in increasing our awareness and appreciation of ourselves. In the West, death is a generally avoided subject, but in Buddhism it is recommended to reflect and meditate on our own death. One could visualize a body after death and reflect: “this body is also of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from this fate”. (Satipatthana Meditation, 189) Mortality is something we all have to deal with, and if we can do so with compassion and mindfulness, it can help us better appreciate each day. The impermanence of my capacities and my being is one of the main causes of my own suffering. As a healthy young person, I never expected to have to face the reality of my own frailty for many years. Yet suddenly I found myself unsure of my body's abilities and realized how precious each of my senses are. We cannot prevent disease, decay, or death, but we can prepare for their inevitable events that affect our lives. It can also help us remember not to be too hard on ourselves in the face of our own flaws. We only have a limited amount of time and we don't control most of it. Our delicate bodies deserve compassion and care.
These practices have helped me to accept my ever-changing body and mind. Trying to act with compassion helps me focus on others and not be consumed by myself; it allows me to forgive and take care of myself, and reminds me of all the people in my life who supported me through this difficult time. Reaching out to my friends and family, being vulnerable with them, and acknowledging the challenges of this change in my life has been difficult. I'm not far down the road yet, and I often still struggle to afford the gift of compassion. But I hope that by sharing my story, others will strive to create a space of compassion in their own lives, for themselves and for those around them.