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It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

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It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

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Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

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Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

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You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

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It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

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When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

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Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

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When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

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One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

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“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

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Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

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But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

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If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

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So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. Enjoy!

Eyes - March 24 / Day 83

I finally finished Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which I’d originally reviewed here. When I wrote that review, I had read only the first half of the book. Now that I’ve finished the entire thing, I’m still thinking about it. Wave is a book you read slowly, then spend a long time processing.

Red ruffled

At first glance, Wave is a memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, but the book struck me as being several memoirs in one: or, more accurately, a memoir that recounts the cyclic and spiraling cycles of grief. Grief isn’t something you get over, as if life after loss could ever be the same again. Wave describes the way in which grief goes through its own seasons. In the first half of Wave, Deraniyagala is beside herself with sorrow, harassing the tenants who move into her deceased parents’ house and endlessly Googling ways to kill herself. In the first half of Wave, you aren’t sure whether Deraniyagala is going to make it: yes, her body survived the tsunami that claimed her kin, but will she survive the aftermath of that maddening loss, body and soul?

Dreams of trees

There is no clear dividing line between the first half of the book and the second: there is no clear corner that Deraniyagala turns. But in the latter parts of the book, the focus seems to shift from what Deraniyagala lost to what she shared with her husband, sons, parents, and the friends who remain by her side as reconstructs a life after unspeakable loss. Gradually, the book isn’t about a wave of destruction but a swelling surge of remembrance.


There are parts of the latter half of the book–most memorably, an account of a whale-watching excursion in the very ocean that swallowed Deraniyagala’s family–that are hauntingly beautiful, with Deraniyagala longing for her husband, Steve, and sons, Vik and Malli, who she feels should be on the boat watching whales with her:

I shouldn’t be on this boat, I thought, as I nibbled on a ginger biscuit to stop feeling seasick. Vik never got to see a blue whale. I shouldn’t be out searching for whales when Vik can’t. It will be agony without him. I’ll have hell to pay.

Tree shadow

Deraniyagala will have hell to pay, indeed: how can you do things alone that your lost family would have loved to have done with you? And yet on the whale-watching boat, Deraniyagala discovers that she is never alone. Not only are there whales, as blue and enormous as the sky, gliding through the water beneath her, but the persistence of memory means that Steve, Vik, and Malli are somehow gone but never far away:

As the first blow of a whale was sighted, our boat speeded up, and I was in our living room in London. Vik and I on the red sofa watching The Blue Planet. I could hear him catch his breath as two blue whales appear on the screen, impossibly huge even as the aerial camerawork dwarfs them in an infinite ocean. He twists his hair faster and faster as they cruise and dive.

Tree shadow

Whales are huge and mysterious, easily inviting awe. As much as Deraniyagala cannot stand seeing whales without her husband and sons, she experiences a moment of tranquility and calm in the presence of these huge, aquatic beasts: creatures who live in the very element that proved to be so deadly.

Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.

There is something inexpressibly beautiful in Deraniyagala’s description of remembering her dead family while listing to whales breathe: a moment both intimate and awesome. I felt a bit guilty for finding spots of beauty in an otherwise harrowing story, but perhaps that is what made Deraniyagala’s memoir so memorable. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human life is fragile, but that survivors are so resilient, and a cruel world is somehow so beautiful. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human bodies pass away but that love never dies.

Rain and waves

I’m currently reading Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka . Wave is a slim book, and so far, the most horrifying thing isn’t so much that Deraniyagala’s family dies but that she doesn’t. Given the evidence of history, I can easily imagine a fiercely cruel God who annihilates entire families, villages, and cities: Pompeii buried, or Haiti shaken. History has shown us ample instances where a bloodthirsty God doles out death as if lives were cheap, but who can comprehend a God who would kill all but one member of a family: the only one who escapes to tell the tale?

Cormorant on rock

As I’m reading Wave, I keep thinking of the Biblical story of Job, a man stricken by God. Job loses his material possessions, all ten of his children, and his own health, and at each stage of loss, he is informed by a servant who arrives with grim news: “Only I escaped to tell the tale.” The purpose of the book of Job, presumably, is to help readers grapple with theodicy: the thorny question of how a just and loving God can allow terrible things to happen. The answer Job receives when he hammers the heavens with the question “why” is more troubling than comforting, however. Confronted with the question of why suffering exists, God responds by basically saying “Because I Am.” God grandly reminds Job that He created the heavens and the earth, and Job has done no such thing. God is great, Job is humble, and the humble have no right to question ways they can’t possibly understand.

The line that always slays in me in Job is the repeated refrain each courier utters when they arrive with message after message of bad news: “Only I escaped to tell the tale.” (In its King James phrasing, “I only escaped alone to tell thee,” this is also the line that Ishmael utters at the end of Moby-Dick, after the great white whale has drowned Ahab and an entire ship of souls.) “Only I escaped to tell the tale”: what depths of horror and survivor’s guilt does that innocuous line express, knowing you were (by some freak of chance or fate) the only one to escape a deadly disaster?


This line keeps echoing in my head while I’m reading Wave. It would have been enough for God to snuff out an entire family in an instant…but wasn’t it a step beyond cruel to spare one alone to bear witness to God’s terrifying power? Deraniyagala herself doesn’t grapple with theodicy; so far in her memoir, in fact, Deraniyagala doesn’t mention God at all. Given the raw immediacy of loss, it seems easier—more humane—to focus solely on suffering rather than trying to reconcile that suffering with something as inconceivable as a loving God who allows such horrors to happen. When you’re clinging to some shred of sanity after inconceivable loss, the question “why did this happen” isn’t nearly as important as the question “how will I continue to face it?”

One thing that has always troubled me about the book of Job is how cavalier the ending is, when God casually replaces Job’s children as if people were interchangeable and God himself were the overseer of a warehouse stocked with replacement parts. Yes, God can snuff out an entire family and then reward the survivor with new kin…but do we really want to worship a God who behaves this way?


Compared to Deraniyagala, I think Job got off easy because he wasn’t there to witness his family’s destruction, being notified of his losses by various messengers who themselves experienced the traumatic events first hand. “Only I escaped to tell the tale,” each of these messengers says in turn, and that is the horror: Job is spared the trial of witnessing his children’s deaths, God choosing to traumatize some random servant instead.

Deraniyagala doesn’t directly witness her family’s death—one minute they were crammed together in the the back of a Jeep, trying to escape, and the next minute, everything was wave. Deraniyagala didn’t see her husband and children plucked from beside her, nor does she see her parents, who were back at their hotel, washed out to sea. But instead of witnessing her family’s deaths, Deraniyagala experiences the dizzying sensation of having her world turned into water as she churned through tsunami debris and came aground muddied, bloodied, and bruised. Is it better to see your family plucked from your grasp, or is it better to be blinded by a whirlwind of water and a surge of shock? It seems absurd to even ask this question.

Japanese screens

Unlike Job, Deraniyagala felt in her own body the brute force that killed her kin: she wasn’t safely elsewhere when the bad news came. Instead, Deraniyagala herself was the messenger who bore bad news, having to call her family with her own version of those ominous words, “Only I have escaped to tell the tale.” Why, though, the need for a messenger? Do we need to be reminded that death and devastation happen on a daily basis? Do we need to hear a litany of gory details? When the bodies of Deraniyagala’s husband and one of her sons were finally identified, for instance, she visited the site of the mass grave where their bodies had been exhumed and identified by DNA. Neighboring children who had witnessed both the burial and exhumation told her the details of both even though Deraniyagala herself did not dare ask for such information. Why would Deraniyagala want the image of tangled, naked bodies–including those of her husband and son–dumped into a hole by tractors and bulldozers? The neighboring children tell her not for her sake, but for their own, as if retelling a nightmare were enough to eradicate it.

We talk because we want to unburden ourselves of the past—we talk, in other words, in search of catharsis—but talking also commemorates a past that might otherwise slip away, forgotten. The more we tell a tale, the less we can forget it, each retelling etching it deeper in our psyche. So why would God require a witness to his devastating ways: why laden an innocent survivor with a lifelong obligation to tell and re-tell a traumatic tale like an ancient mariner waylaying hapless wedding guests? Let it be known: Job had it easy, and the dead have it easier still. The fate that is worse than death is not simply to outlive your parents, your husband, and your children, but to find yourself swirled in the very water that sucked them away, and then to bear ongoing witness to this tragedy. Only I escaped to tell the tale: this is truly the saddest sentence ever uttered.


At one part of her memoir, Deraniyagala struggles with whether to share her story with strangers: for instance, a woman on a plane who asks if she’s married and has children.

I steer clear of telling. I can’t come out with it. The outlandish truth of me. How can I reveal this to someone innocent and unsuspecting? With those who know “my story,” I talk freely about us, Steve, our children, my parents, about the wave. But with others I keep it hidden, the truth. I keep it under wraps because I don’t want to shock or make anyone distressed.

Deraniyagala understands (as only a survivor can) that once you tell people the full extent of the tragedy that has befallen you, you’re forever branded in their eyes, and they’ll never act normally around you. (In A Grief Observed, for instance, C.S. Lewis described the look he got from married couples when they found out he was widowed: it was a look of fear and dread as each partner wondered, “Which one of us will outlive the other and have to be alone?”)

We all suffer—we all know our lives will end in death after lives studded with sorrow—but we ostracize the individuals who remind us of this fact. The fate of a person who has faced sorrow and survived—a widow, orphan, or parent who has outlived children—is unthinkable, for empathizing with such sorrow requires an admission that we, too, could be similarly bereft at any moment. If death and unspeakable disasters are simply a matter of chance, then none of us is immune, and individuals such as Job remind us of this uncomfortable face. Sonali Deraniyagala’s story isn’t horrifying because it is statistically unlikely—what are the odds, we might wonder, that our entire family could be annihilated in a single afternoon—but because its basic storyline is so common. Parents, spouses, and children die every day, but we tell ourselves they don’t. To admit otherwise would sink us like a stone.

The images illustrating today’s post come from a set of photos I shot at the Museum of Fine Arts in August, 2009. Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is a devastatingly clear-eyed memoir, and I solemnly recommend it.