Some years ago, I discovered that I had to have a tooth pulled. Big deal, right? Yet I was astonished at the intensity of my reaction. Most nights I found myself awake at 3:00 a.m., tormented by thoughts of mortality. My poor old tooth prompted fears that growing older would mean a future in which I drop limbs like a diseased tree. Before long I’d be old, old and frail, old and alone!
I mentioned these nocturnal worries to a friend, taking care to present the subject with humor so I didn’t seem like an hysteric. Metaphysically minded, he mused that perhaps I had manifested this tooth trauma. I wondered, is he right? Could a better mindset have saved my tooth?
Well, maybe (though I strongly suspect it would have been easier to avoid the bad dentist who failed to cap it after a root canal). But even so, it seems to me that we miss something in trying to inoculate ourselves from life’s difficulties—it’s a bit like believing in a false Santa Claus, groaning beneath the weight of unearned gifts. Alone with my sundry tooth terrors in the wee hours, I eventually found something else in my heart–something better, stronger, more life-sustaining than fear: compassion.
I found a lot more empathy for people coping with pain, loneliness, and troubles much more profound than my own. Pema Chodron calls this compassion “the awakened heart,” akin to the bodhichitta. Feeling what we feel, the negative as well as the positive, is a doorway to the complex hearts of others.
My poor tooth is long gone, but my early-morning mind still finds plenty of worrying thoughts to obsess over. The truth is, these are tough times. Lots of us are scared, and angry because we’re scared. Where is the extended family who will look after the dying aunt? How will the new graduate pay off his student loans, or the recently laid-off 55-year-old woman find a new job? Will our newly-elected leaders lead us straight off a cliff?
It may sound strange, but whenever my 3:00 a.m. self taps into this atmosphere of shared fear and pain and hopelessness—really surrenders to it—I’m immediately calmer. Suddenly I’m sharing in the world’s fear and pain and hopelessness, not just dealing with my own lonely messes. In those moments, I glimpse an alternate vision of end-of-year divinity–not a claymation Saint Nick with a bulging bag of toys–but a kind, accepting, glowing Buddha.
Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to encounter these luminescent, warm-hearted, Buddha-like souls in real life—the avuncular elder, the wise grandfather, the fun-loving friend who never met a stranger—and it’s as healing as a comfortable nap in front of a roaring fire. Interestingly, these are never people whom life has spared from difficulty and fear. In fact, it’s because they’ve faced life’s problems and retained hope that they reassure us we can do the same. “We all get older, we’re frail and afraid,” their manner implies, “but it will be okay as long as we help each other out. We just have to be there for one another.”
Maybe my friend has it right, and I attracted that sad, wrecked tooth into my life—not as a punishment for thinking negative thoughts, but as a gift of knowing. At this Full Moon, I hope you feel genuinely happy, loving, and at peace. But if you find yourself tangled in the odd moment of sadness, regret, or loneliness, I wish you the confidence to let your own pierced heart awaken. Feel everything that you feel, even negativity and fear. When our lunar hearts are opened at this Cancerian Full Moon, let’s leave them open and let them teach us, soften us, and bring us closer to one another. Our awakened hearts can draw us, gracefully and naturally, into the joyful light of the Moon, setting us aglow with the comfort, hope, and merriment of our own Buddha natures.