Friday night, I went to a play put on by a tiny theater company here in Columbus called Available Light Theater. It was based on a book written by a woman named Cheryl Strayed who wrote an advice column. In the play we see the actors play the parts of letter writers, and one actor plays the part of the advice giver, Sugar. The letters ranged from a bit silly to every day problems to people seeking relief from horrible, gut-wrenching pain.
Last night, I was reading a book and these two characters in the book are in a relationship. Both people have trouble sharing their problems with the other - not wanting to hurt their partner - but they notice that as they do it, they feel better.
As I watched the play, transfixed, and wept with the rest of the audience, one theme was more pronounced to the others. Last night as I read my book I noticed that same theme.
What I’m talking about is how shared emotional labor is beneficial and yet solitary emotional labor is at best lonely and at worst heartbreakingly harmful.
The advice-giver, Sugar, reads letters and as she replies to them she suffers along with the writer. At one point she cries out in grief and on the way home I said to my date “The last time I heard that anguished, keening cry is when I made it myself when my best friend died.” Sugar feels an echo of the pain of the letter writer. The couple in my book - when they share their troubles, the listener feels that same echo of the pain of their partner.
But I don’t want to talk about the pain of the letter writers, who were real people who wrote real letters, or of the fictional couple in my book. What I want to talk about is magic. I’m sure that someone who knows more about psychology or brain chemistry than I do can tell you what’s happening and that it’s not magic, but I think it is.
I’m talking about the magic that occurs when emotional labor is shared. When someone comes to me with a problem, and we talk through it, they learn a little and I learn a little, and we both leave that conversation knowing a bit more about ourselves. And both feeling a bit better, hopefully.
The amazing thing about this transaction is that nothing about the problem is different. The situation with all of its difficulty is the same. When I first came to Buddhism and was working on my anger I would tell myself “the thing is going to be the thing whether I’m angry about it or not.” What’s different is that now we know someone understands.
In Buddhism we like lists. Four noble truths. Hinderances. Aggregates. Eight-fold path.
The simplest, shortest list is to me the most profound. The three jewels of Buddhism, which are Buddha. Dharma. Sangha. We take refuge in these three. First to the historical buddha and to our own buddha nature. Second to the teachings of the buddha, our commitment to lifelong learning. And third to our Sangha. Although we sometimes think of the practice of Buddhism as a solitary activity, sangha is listed as among the most valuable instruments of those who practice. Sanga is made up of Our family. Our friends. The people in this room. The other Buddhists in the city we live in. Other pragmatic buddhists. Buddhists in the United States. Buddhists around the world. Teachers who impart knowledge, and students who learn from us.
Although the original buddha started the whole thing, and the dharma is vast and varied, our sangha, however we define it, is our mirror. The people in our sangha reflect back to us our experience so that we can view it in a different way. A way that is gentled by friendship and brought into sharper focus with another’s logic. With a fresh point of view that is more clear and less critical, we can begin to accept circumstances so that we can formulate a plan -or sometimes just realize that we’re flawed and that’s ok.
Our challenge that we take up when we start this journey is to try to see things as they really are. Which is really hard when we’re mired in hurt feelings or anger or expectations. The discussion after the dharma talks that we have in this room have taught me more about working through those things into the truth than a lifetime of reading books about the dharma ever could.
At is best, sangha shows us that we are stronger and more resilient and more valued than we would ever be capable of learning on our own. And that, to me, is magic.