No Mud, No Lotus is a well-known quote by the renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. When I first read this quote, it did not resonate with me. Sure, plants need dirt to grow, but what does this have to do with mindfulness practice? Well, today I listened to a talk by Tara Brach – Navigating Conflict with a Wise Heart – and I had an aha moment.
Tara opened with this quote and then shared how conflict is a portal to further awakening; how through the suffering (i.e. conflict or mud), we can grow like the lotus. In other words, every experience whether we label it “good or bad” is an opportunity for us to uncover our wounds, our unmet needs, attend to them and befriend ourselves. She describes personal conflict as “a clash of strategies to meet basic needs.” And that our primary strategy is blame, which typically is viewed outside of ourselves. As a result, “We get habituated to in some way creating distance because we feel the other has not been who they should be for us. We withhold affection. We criticize.”
Ah, yes!!! As I sat on my cushion listening to this talk and following her guided reflection and meditation on a conflict I’ve had recently with my partner, my heart broke open and tears fell down my cheeks. One of the reasons I began to practice mindfulness meditation was to address my inner conflict, which had been (and still does, while not as much) projected outside toward my partner. For over 2 decades of our relationship, I covered up and tried to meet my needs from the outside in only to be disappointed over and over again, only to continue to perpetuate conflict. This has not only challenged our relationship, but caused me to be stuck in the mud. I was mostly unaware of how to care for my unmet needs (my suffering) from the inside out, so that both my relationship and myself could grow like a beautiful lotus. As Tara shared, blame is a strong hook and whatever we practice grows stronger. This is true for me. Is it true for you?
Her guided meditation supported my access to the unmet needs that led to my anger, blame, criticism and rejection during a recent situation with my partner. In uncovering these needs, I was then able to practice what she calls the “U-Turn” – bringing attention to the hurt and unmet needs. This experience reminded me that I can access my mindfulness and compassion for myself, especially during these moments of suffering (the mud). While I may not condone the actions of my partner, I can choose to work with the conflict in a manner that is more effective for our relationship, for my own well-being. Tara reminds us that “our well-being is not hitched to how others act.” How liberating! Today, I needed to be reminded of this. We can forget or not notice when we are stuck in the mud and therefore get caught up in our fight. This stuckness was the impetus to me beginning to practice mindfulness meditation. And my relationship with my partner and children has grown out of the mud and into a lotus, and I practice daily as a means to tend to this garden.
Now, I admit that this is challenging because it requires that I continue to become aware of my habitual conditioning, the ingrained patterns of responding to personal conflict. This is where meditation can be extremely helpful. When we sit, even for just a couple of minutes, we pause or create a gap between stimulus and response, so that we can bring a gentle curiosity to the messages our body is sending us. If we sit and reflect upon a conflict and ask ourselves how am I feeling in this moment? where am I feeling it in my body? what is this revealing about an unmet need? do I want to feel respected, loved, etc.? how can I attend to myself right now? As Jack Kornfield often says, “The heart will know the answer.” It’s important to say that anger is not necessarily bad. It is a message, and we can listen to it mindfully so that we can choose what to do with this message. My anger toward my partner in that recent conflict was a message of disappointment, fear, and feeling unworthy of love. Instead of rejecting my partner or criticizing him (because truth be told – he does not want me to feel this way), I can attend to these unmet needs through self-compassion and then talk with him in a way that supports the flowering of our relationship.
As Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” Let us practice attending to our suffering with love and compassion so that we transform it into awakening.