Fundamental Darkness

Fundamental Darkness


Last month one of my best friends attempted suicide. She had taken a bottle of pills in the middle of the night. The next morning she called me from hospital, shaken to her core that it had come to this. For many years she suffered from addiction to alcohol but had been sober for the past 6 years. Unbeknownst to me, however, she had fallen back into substance abuse. The impetus was the breakup of a relationship, one she’d put on an air of not caring too much about, but when he was the one to break-up, a delicately veiled wound was uncovered. A wound that had been created by circumstances out of her control, her family having abandoned her, 2 by suicide, and 1 of natural causes. She was the lone survivor of her immediate family and had developed a “negative core belief” of herself that had not been formed into words yet but had been validated by her ex breaking up with her. This brought up feelings of abandonment once again and it shook her to her core.

I love this woman with all my heart and, having lost my sister to cancer 20 years ago, she feels like a sister to me. I want her as my sister, she’s real and I love that, no layers of BS to navigate through to see her true self, bearing things bravely, sharing her struggles with brutal honesty, the truth was the truth, even if it was punishingly hard to hear. I counseled her through the break-up, but when you have an open wound of such magnitude, and someone pours salt in it, the reaction is magnified beyond comprehension.

The following weekend was her birthday and she did not want to spend it alone.  Ramona drove to my house Friday evening with her 2 dogs. We soaked in our jacuzzi and I denied my deep desire for a glass of wine… tea for two was sweet and appropriate. She slept in our guest room and asked if I would stay with her until she fell asleep. Like sisters, we lay in bed talking, sharing thoughts and trivialities and, without her knowing it, challenged my inability for this level of closeness.

After she fell asleep, I tiptoed to my bed. The next morning I taught her what I know to be the most powerful Buddhist mantra, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, one I have been chanting for 32 years. She was open but reluctant. I had taught my sister to chant before she died, even though she was Christian, she had said it made her feel closer to God. 

Photography by Gail Albert Halaban

Photography by Gail Albert Halaban

We wrapped up, as Ramona had to leave to teach a yoga workshop in Hollywood. That’s the thing about being a teacher, you show up, even if you’ve had one of the worst weeks of your life, because assisting others only helps to elevate your own life condition. She wanted to teach it, it’s where she leaves behind the voices in her head, it’s her meditation. She emphatically accepted my offer to support her in the workshop as soon as I finished with my pre-scheduled Buddhist women’s leaders meeting at my home.

As Ramona was leaving, the Buddhist women were just arriving, they went over to meet Ramona as she was getting into her car. I reassured Ramona I would get to the workshop as soon as I could and watched her drive off with her dogs.

The four Buddhist women walked with me into my home. I explained who Ramona was to me and what had transpired. The floodgate of my emotions burst through as I was talking, no longer having to be strong and assuring for Ramona, the weight of almost losing another “sister” was calamitous.

As is typical at the start any Buddhist gathering, we chanted together for a good 20 minutes. I chanted for Ramona to change this poison (delusion about the absolute dignity and respect for her life) into medicine, a medicine she would be able to use to inspire other women going through similar challenges when she’s  fully out of the woods. I also sent the intention that she would organically come to know what her negative core belief is.

We finished chanting and it was on to business. The Buddhist women and I belong to a world peace organization called Soka Gakkai International (Value Creating Society). The organization is made up of people who hate organizations, but there has to be unity to be effective, so we meet, grapple with ways to take care of the members who practice, and those who don’t. We create meetings where ultimately every voice is heard, not just one voice, but all voices expressing, sharing, questioning real life struggles, while being deeply encouraged  armed with the timeless Buddhist concepts and teachings.

When we sat down to discuss things within our Buddhist movement for peace, I could feel that I was still emotionally charged. I had been preparing thoughts and ideas of how yoga and our particular style of Buddhism can co-exist in a way it never has before. Determined to present well, I believe I came off condemning, even slightly belittling, since my emotions were running high. When emotions are high, no one hears you and people tend to get defensive... which is exactly how it went down. I felt I was being dismissed by one of my leaders and for the rest of the meeting I sat biting my lip so as not to lose it completely.  After all my studies of both Buddhism and Yoga, I needed my passionate view to be heard and contemplated; instead it felt like a slam down. It hit deep because my negative core belief I hold of my self is “I’m not worthy” and it was just validated, again.

Photography by Michael Wolf

Photography by Michael Wolf

At the end of the meeting I ran upstairs to change clothes to practice yoga with Ramona and started weeping. The Buddhist ladies waited for me to come back down. I did not say much more than goodbye since I was visibly shaken. I knew I needed time to process rather than make a cause to slander a Buddha’s life, which is a very grave offense. As Buddhists we believe every single person has a Buddha nature, making the cause to slander yourself or another is huge, I did not want to implant that effect into my life. Cause and effect is strict…karma can be wonderful, and also a real bitch.

As I headed down the freeway to meet Ramona, I felt slighted and undervalued, my wound had been re-opened, pulsating and raw, compounded by what had happened with Ramona. I was questioning myself: How could I be so out of touch? Missing the warning signs of suicide?  Why did my attempt to relay something so meaningful to me fall flat? Does the universe just pile on more layers of shit just when you’re down? Does it sense an opening? A crack in the armor? “Lets let her change some deep stuff,” it says, and it orders up a double-whammy for you. There I was in full force blaming, victim mode.

The freeway eventually came to a standstill. What is normally is a 50-minute drive took 2 and a half hours… a recycling truck had spilled its contents and was scattered across all lanes. What is my environment telling me now?! Take your time… a lot of time, a powerful pause… Looking at the garbage strewn everywhere I slowly composed myself and stoked my life force with my mantra in the car. I had to pull myself together for Ramona. I turned from despair to appreciation for the time I was forced to have, a nod to the universe. I called my son in Chicago, as he also had a close friend attempt suicide recently, and I think for the first time he recognized me as a hurt, vulnerable woman, being able to express deep concern because he knew all too well.

Ramona was gracious and appreciative that I did not turn around and, albeit very late, still showed up. She also sensed my sadness when I told her what had happened. Her insight, understanding, and compassion was such that she was the one now soothing me. All I wanted to do was hug the pain out of her and throw it in that overturned garbage truck.

My most meaningful female relationships seemed to be hanging by a thread. Innately I knew I had to look deep inside my life and ask myself what it was in my life I needed to face. Why am I not connecting fully with the dearest women in my inner circle? The common denominator was ME.

Photography by Michael Wolf

Photography by Michael Wolf

I decided to go and see my “Zenchi shiki” which means a good friend in faith. She is a dear friend, the one I can call at 3 am who wouldn't hesitate to come right over. I trust her with my life. When I went to her house, just looking in her eyes made me feel like I’m in the bosom of truth itself. We hugged and my eyes welled up. It’s here that I feel the safety and the nurturing where we all can heal each other from. We speak the same language. Everyone should have a Zenchi shiki, one who will tell you the truth without sugar coating.

Within the first week of practicing Buddhism I learned that when you encounter someone with whom you are having challenges with, chant for that person’s absolute happiness and either the situation will change or they will leave your environment. I know this and encourage others in similar circumstances, but when someone rubs you the wrong way, it’s easy to forget.  To love people, or humanity in the abstract is easy. To feel compassion toward real individuals is difficult. Once I was able to focus intently, things became solemnly profound.

My Zenchi shiki likened it to two people in the mud together, wrestling away, throwing sludge at each other, but when one starts to elevate their life condition by chanting or praying for that person’s happiness, you are no longer horizontally present to be hit by the slinging mud. When they are ready to have a civil conversation they will elevate to you, most likely because you have changed with a glimmer of compassion for them.

I carve out a sizeable time in the morning to chant, for me it’s like brushing my teeth. My prayer became so focused, so intense, I wished I could always chant this way. Nichiren Daishonin says, “Pray as earnestly as though to produce fire from damp wood or to obtain water from parched ground.” That is the kind of prayer that moves mountains. So I prayed intently with a sincere heart for Ramona’s happiness as well as for the Buddhist women whom I thought had devalued me.

I arranged for another meeting with them and they were more than happy to accommodate. It was 10 days after the original meeting and I chanted for the wisdom to express myself clearly. The follow-up meeting was unemotional, beautiful, and powerful. I expressed myself calmly and clearly and the outcome was 100% different, for the better. The leader who had said those things at the previous meeting, the things that had stuck so sorely in my mind, did not even remember saying them. I have learned that when what seems like normal conversation lands in the open gaping wound of my negative core belief, what is being said is as if they had a bullhorn to my ear.  This time, we heard each other clearly and I felt her compassion for me. The dialogue was open and is still ongoing. I’m very hopeful and appreciative to be in the realm of such magnanimous women.    

Ramona has since moved out of state. That is not what I wanted, not at all, but she is truly happier in her new home. I reach out often to her, I miss her, and I miss how she challenged my intimacy barriers.  We remain great friends.

I truly believe that if we can uncover this negative core belief we each hold at some level, we can avoid the despair of hopelessness. My short experience in finding mine was truly the best thing that could have happened.

6 years ago I spent a solid 5 months on the couch in a deep depression. I could not believe it was depression; I was the happiest person I knew! But all tests came back and that’s exactly what it was. It hit me where I lived and robbed me of all energy. I felt like I had a 101-degree fever for 5 months, unable to play tennis or do yoga, and was floored by the strength of it. There was no “getting over it” as I once thought others suffering with depression should be able to do. I did not want to medicate, I wanted to find out why. I went on a Buddhist retreat to Florida with that intention and it was there that I learned about negative core beliefs, or NCB. I chanted 3 hours straight to find out what mine was. The women’s leader there told us that if we find out the root to our suffering like the trunk of a tree, we can uproot it at its source instead of continually whacking off the ‘branches of distraction’ that are our problems. 

Photography by Olivia Arthur

Photography by Olivia Arthur

When I uncovered my NCB “I’m not worthy” I realized that this was the message I received growing up. Nobody’s fault, that’s just how I interpreted the messages around me. I told the woman running the retreat that I knew what mine was and she said, “Now you have to go and re-educate the little girl inside you." My passion is encouraging youth, so just as I would with any little girl, I imagined holding my face in my hands and telling her, “You are the most worthy girl on the planet, you can do anything you put your mind to.” This wise Buddhist woman went on to say that unlike popular belief, we don’t attract our opposites, we attract the people who validate our negative core belief. That hit me hard, only to come to find out I was also validating my husband’s NCB, 10 years of relationship therapy saved!    

I returned home and yes, my depression was 100% gone and has never come back. Those who were typically critical of me, no longer found an open wound for criticism to land in,  it just rolled off. When I feel affected, I know it’s time to do some maintenance work, but I can catch it.  I have great appreciation for having gone through this experience. It was incredibly empowering. In addition, there would be no other way for me to relate to others going through the same challenges and so… my wound became my greatest gift.

There is another Buddhist quote from Nichiren - the Buddhist sage from the 13th century - who says, “Illness give rise to the resolve to attain the way.” From this perspective, I hope Ramona, myself, and all others can find the resolve to turn their wounds into their greatest gift.

Photography by Michael Eastman

Photography by Michael Eastman

Fundamental Darkness By Dawn Stillo 

Cover Photography by Gail Albert Halaban