"Wide Open Space"
Like many Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk who writes simply while teaching profound wisdom. Yesterday I came across something he once said:
People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.
As I sit in my garden this morning, I reflect upon this simple, profound wisdom.
From the front entrance of my Desert Retreat House, I can look out onto the wide open spaces of the widely beautiful desert of California's Coachella Valley. As I look out at the desert on this day, I am reminded of a "wilderness story" from the Hebrew Scriptures. The story is iconic. It beautifully illustrates the wisdom articulated by Thich Nhat Hanh, about how we cling to our pain because it is familiar to us.
In the Book of Exodus, we hear the story of the Hebrew people who have just been freed from the bonds of oppression and slavery in Egypt. Having crossed over the Red Sea, the people find themselves in a vast wilderness, no longer in chains, no longer subject to their harsh slave masters. They are free at last!
The problem is that they aren't exactly sure what to do next or where to go. They know that they are on their way to a new Promised Land; but they have no maps, no roads or trails to follow, not even any provisions. How will they survive in the wild desert land?
They are told not to worry, and they will "reach their destination" if they follow two basic "rules of the road."
First of all no one is to travel alone. They are to stick with one another and help each other along the way (taking special care to help those who are having difficulty traveling - the weak, the old, the very young). Secondly, they are to trust in the abiding Holy Divine Presence, who will travel in their midst on their wilderness journey and guide them to the Promised Land.
Now here is where the story gets interesting.
This new-found freedom was scary and too much to handle for some of the people. They had been used to being taken care of by their slave masters. Back in Egypt they were slaves - beaten and oppressed, but at least they knew where their next meal was coming from. At least they knew what to expect.
Out there in the wilderness, everything seemed out of control - the way ahead wasn't at all clearly marked. There were way too many questions and not enough answers.
So a bunch of people packed up and headed back to Egypt to the bonds and chains of slavery.
They had a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they preferred suffering that was familiar.
As I sit in my garden this morning and reflect, it seems to me that most people probably know what causes them pain and suffering in this life. For the most part, people understand that suffering happens when the ego is unchecked. At some basic level, people know that suffering results from traveling alone in life.
Most people can identify their pain - grudges they hold, bitterness and a spirit of revenge, envy of others, manipulation of others in order to make it to the top of the ladders of life, the need for self- gratifying consumption of more and more things no matter what the cost. When push comes to shove, most people know what causes them to suffer.
However, knowing all this, they choose to hold on to the pain. They cling to the pain of an unchecked ego, choosing to remain in slavery rather than to venture out into the unchartered territory of freedom and trust. They choose to stay in Egypt (or return to Egypt) rather than make the wilderness journey of caring for others and trusting in the Power of Abiding Love. At least, the pain is familiar.
I look out at the wildly beautiful wilderness on this glorious December morning - Time to get out of Egypt. I'm off to the Promised Land!
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