Jewels from the Dragon’s Jaw

Jewels from the Dragon’s Jaw
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 10, 2016

Each of us has dragons we must face in life. In the old stories, dragons – both in the east and the west – are guardians of great treasures. In the west the stories are about slaying the dragon while in the east the stories are more about outmaneuvering it. Either way, the dragon represents the obstacle, the challenge. We all have dragons we must face in life.

The dragon represents difficulties we must face. In Carl Jung’s early concepts of the Dragon archetype, the dragon served as the arch-nemesis of the Hero. Whatever it is you seek, the Dragon is the ultimate challenge to accomplishing that goal. Over the years, the concept of the dragon archetype has adjusted in response to different cultures and contemporary experience.

Author and contemporary Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes: “Medieval defenders had to slay their dragons; modern ones have to take their dragons back home to integrate into their own personality.” Perhaps our dragons are not to be conquered at all, instead we are to face them and learn from them. 

What are the dragons in your life? Where are you broken? What are then trials you have experienced in the story of your life? Addiction? Mental illness? Physical disability? Chronic pain? Loneliness? My focus today is on chronic illness, but the lessons carry across the lines. What are your dragons?

Rev. Erika Hewitt, from our reading this morning (The Inherent Wholeness of Every Being), says we each have an inherent wholeness. Despite the ways in which we are each broken, there is a wholeness. I was at a conference last month in which the leader kept emphasizing our wholeness. She would say ‘none of us are broken, we are all whole.’ But I looked around the room of people I’ve known – some for over a decade – and I saw a lot of broken people in the room. I knew the conference leaders point and she wasn’t wrong about the wholeness, but we will never get anywhere spiritually if we refuse to acknowledge our brokenness.

It reminds me of a quote from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” Our dragons can be guides through our brokenness toward our inherent wholeness. In her book The Rhythms of Compassion, Gail Straub writes

The most difficult parts of our story are frequently the greatest teachers. These difficult pieces are often where we feel most alive and most in touch with the beautifulness of the human condition.

Or as Rilke once said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” So let us consider our dragons. My title for this sermon comes from the last two lines of a poem by Zen master Setcho Juken: “Here in the Dragon’s jaws: Many exquisite jewels.”

But consider: being caught in the jaws of our dragons is exactly what we fear most, whatever the names of our dragons. Depression is a dragon that held me for long stretches of time. I have had loved ones caught in the teeth of chronic illness and pain, addiction, anxiety, and other hidden disabilities. It’s awful.

I bring no praise for suffering or encouragement to just get over it. No. What I bring is a call to face it. When I was actively living with my depression I was spending a significant amount of energy on not being depressed, fighting against the dragon, striving to overcome it and win. It occurred to me later that part of my fighting was against the simple fact that I was depressed. Author Byron Katie once said “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time.”

So one step toward ending the suffering is to face and embrace the dragon you are struggling with. This doesn’t end the illness or the depression, the addiction, pain, anxiety, or any of that. But it is a way out of the suffering. Buddhism’s first Nobel Truth begins here. All life is Dukkha.

The pure teaching of that First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that reality is filled with the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows. But the first Noble Truth focuses on the sorrows, the suffering. And the Noble Truths that follow say there is a way to be free from the suffering. If you have fibromyalgia, for example, ‘facing the dragon’ will not stop the muscle pain or fatigue. But the accompanying suffering can be managed.

Yesterday, after I had written that prior sentence I almost gave up on the sermon: “managed.” The suffering can be “managed.” Over the years I have grown familiar with the concept of my loved one’s suffering being “managed.”

There is the struggle to figure out what is wrong, the atypical symptoms, being handed off from specialist to specialist, and finally receiving a diagnosis with the recommendations of how the suffering of my loved one can be “managed.” It always felt like a letdown. There is no cure, no end, no cessation of the difficulty; only techniques, some more medication, another change in diet … all to help “manage” the illnesses.

Here in the dragon’s jaws, I am caught and tempted toward despair, powerless to change reality; except … except perhaps the reality of my own mind and outlook. And that is no small thing! And I am reminded that ‘though I am caught in the dragon’s jaw, there are many exquisite jewels.

The difficulties she endured (This, again is from Gail Straub in her book The Rhythms of Compassion) The difficulties she endured… gave her the qualities that make her a gifted healer: an uncanny resilience, a rare spiritual wisdom, and a profound empathy for the human condition.

One possible set of jewels that can be found: resilience, spiritual wisdom, and empathy.

I would like to claim I have uncovered empathy as a jewel from my time with the dragon of depression. I have had many of you reflect back to me a concept I often offer in my prayers and sermons: be gentle with every soul you meet – everyone carries their own secret struggle. Empathy is a matter of learning to see the struggles of others. You may not know what another person’s dragon is like, but you know dragons enough to know it is difficult.

In a similar fashion, this same perspective allows us to take joy in another person’s joy. Empathy works on both joy and sorrow. Sometimes it is hard to be sick, to be limited in what you can do because of your body or your illness. If you used to love doing gymnastics or yoga, if you used to be able to go to concerts or shows, if you used to be able to attend college – but now your body will not allow it or your mind will not grasp it – it is hard to let go and learn to live within the limits of what’s left. And it is hard to watch others enjoying the things you used to enjoy. The Buddhist practice of Mudita is the practice of sympathetic joy – of taking joy in the joy of others.  Mudita is one of the four “Brahma Viharas,” or sublime states.

Buddhism often falls into lists and this is one of them. There are the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and here are the four sublime states: Loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. Many people who know a little about Buddhism will recognize a few of these. Loving-kindness and compassion are regular topics discussed by Buddhists. Equanimity is a readily recognized benefit of Buddhist practice. But that fourth one: Mudita – sympathetic joy! It is not on the average person’s list of Buddhist qualities or what they know about Buddhism. Toni Bernhard calls Mudita a great antidote to envy.

Toni Bernhard is a wonderful Buddhist author. Her book How to Be Sick has been immensely helpful to me. She writes about faking Mudita, or pretending to be happy for someone else’s good news. But she says this “fake it ‘til you make it” model works very well in this case. It is perhaps better to say we are cultivating sympathetic joy rather than faking sympathetic joy. We are working on it, it is our practice, we are cultivating it.

Oh, I love the ocean; I hope you have a great time there. How delightful you can attend the opera performance, I can only watch a DVD of last year’s opera because my dragon has me housebound this week.

Envy is like a poison. But we can cultivate sympathetic joy for release. It is part of learning to live within the limits of what’s left. Empathy and sympathetic joy are jewels that can be found in the dragon’s jaw. And this is true not just for you who live with a chronic illness or two. It is not just true for people who have a Buddhist outlook on life. It is true for all of us. Every soul has experienced brokenness. We call can cultivate those experiences into empathy.

Consider how a common non-committal greeting is: “How are you?” People usually offer a standard answer of “fine, great, okay, pretty good.” For someone with a chronic illness, mental illness, or addiction, there is a desire to answer honestly, because the pain and difficulty and struggle is isolating. Someone asks ‘how are you?’ and occasionally the honest answer just pops out, “rotten, in pain, worse, putting up a good show.”

As a minister it is fairly common for people to respond honestly to the ‘how are you?’ question when I ask it. I try to ask ‘how are you today?’ when I know it is someone who suffers chronic illness. This is one of the things the basic 12-step addiction recovery has gotten right: “One day at a time.” Today I am sober. Today is harder than yesterday. Today is better than yesterday. Today I am in pain, but no more than usual. How are you today? It is a small change, but it helps keep the conversation both honest and not overwhelming.

In keeping our focus on today, it allows for the transient and impermanent nature of life to be acknowledged and honored. Impermanence is another major Buddhist notion that Toni Bernhard talks about in her How to Be Sick book. She has an amazing job with the Buddhist concepts of “no-self” and the “Wheel of suffering” as they relate to chronic illness. But of all the pieces that I found helpful, it is the way she offered impermanence as a tool toward equanimity that I found most fruitful.

When she first got sick, Toni Bernhard thought it was temporary. She made excuses for her body, kept trying to push through and will herself to get better. She kept attending Buddhist retreats and learning about impermanence, but fought against accepting the impermanence of her own health.

She eventually settled into her new reality and found equanimity in the uncertainty of life. In her book she talks about the broken-glass practice, which I learn of years back. I also find it a great lesson of compassion and engagement despite uncertainty and brokenness. A meditation master named Ajahn Chah offered this wisdom: 

You say, “Don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? It will break sooner or later. If you don’t break it, someone else will. If someone else doesn’t break it, one of the chickens will! … Penetrating the truth of these things, [we see] that this glass is already broken. (from How to Be Sick, by Toni Bernhard, p35)

The glass is already broken.  When your hand slips one day and the glass falls and breaks, you can let it go “because you saw its brokenness before it broke!” (ibid) Everything is transient and impermanent. This makes the glass more precious, not less so. It helps us to cherish the activities our health allows until such time as our limits no longer allow them.

What lessons have you learned in the jaws of the dragon? Perseverance perhaps? Equanimity instead? Or have you learned to somehow do both? What jewels do you find in the dragon’s jaw? Did you find empathy and compassion as I did? Even compassion for yourself? What treasures have you uncovered? Patience? Wisdom? Resilience? Through your brokenness have you discovered your inherent wholeness?

Poet and mystic Jalal-Udin Rumi says “Our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures.” May you find the ways today to greet your dragons with equanimity. And though you find yourself caught in the very teeth of the beast, I call to you to look deeply for the jewels, the exquisite jewels that await your discovery there in the dragon’s jaw.

In a world without end,
may it be so.