“If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering.”
“No mud, no lotus.” Thich Nhat Hanh.
When things are tough and you can’t see the light, the simple mindfulness wisdom of a zen mantra can be the torch that shines the light. If you’d said that to me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.
But the words “No mud, no lotus” became my mantra after spending many weeks on the meditation cushion in austere ashrams all over Asia.
It was a lotus flower that brought a smile to my lips on those interminable days I spent in my self-imposed prison. For many weeks I slept in a tiny cell with only a very thin mattress on the floor. It was my last chance to find a way out of the mud.
My rock bottom was as murky as the pond I passed each morning on my walking meditation. My rock bottom even tasted like mud.
Every morning I left my cell at 5 am to practice walking very slowly on a 10 metre stretch of ground, taking exactly five mindful in- and out-breaths to lift and set down each foot. Backwards and forwards, for 30 minutes, over and over. To my restless mind and body, walking meditation felt like another level of self-imposed torture.
What I really wanted to do is jump and scream and shout. I wanted to let the world know about my pain. But I’d tried the kick-the-furniture-and-wail therapy and it had only dragged me further into the mud. The drink-as-much-red-wine-as-you-can therapy had been equally unsuccessful.
The only way to get out of that mud and to find some kind of inner peace – I wasn’t even expecting joy – was to practice silent meditation to let the mud settle so that my mind and heart could become clear again.
The beauty of the lotus flower was a welcome distraction from the tedium of walking meditation. I’d deliberately take my time to turn around at the end of my 10 metres to take in the beauty of the newly opened petals of the lotus flower.
I was surprised by the effectiveness of this simple practice. Over time it made me SEE that beauty and purity continued to exist in the world despite my inner turmoil and my haggard, rumpled face.
It also made me accept that the beauty of the lotus flower springs from the ugliness of the mud beneath it. I’d grasped the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. We can’t run away from suffering. No mud, no lotus.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book that gave me my mantra, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering:.
“Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud.
We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”..
I am sharing this with you for two reasons:
Not mud no lotus, no suffering, no joy.
I know how easy it is to despair and loose all hope when you’re stuck in your personal rock bottom – and make no mistake, we will all get there at some point in our lives. I also know that running away from our pain does not work, even when it feels overwhelming. Getting in touch with our suffering and accepting it is what will generate compassion and healing.
Silently reciting the words ‘no mud, no lotus’ helped me remember that everything in life passes. And it’s still my favorite mantra today when things get tough. I’ve learned that being stuck in the rock bottom will pass. I know that it’s possible to find joy again after loss. But joy too comes and goes.
Mindful awareness, without judging what happens, just being curious and engaged, from moment to moment, from one breath to the next, is a way to accept that things are tough when they are.
How to get back into writing when you’re not feeling inspired:
The other reason I am sharing this is to show you how easy it is to get back into writing when you’re feeling uninspired.
I wrote this in my writers group as part of a 10 minute free-writing exercise. One of our members had gotten a lotus tattoo on her wrist and it seemed the perfect writing prompt.
I’d been feeling disconnected from my writing after a trip to see my family. Writing with my group, allowing the pen to lead the way, out of nowhere this memory popped up and suddenly I was back on that meditation cushion. And just like that, I was also back in my book, smack bang in the section about why I’d chosen silent meditation over therapy to deal with grief.
Sharing this here feels vulnerable. But I am slowly letting go of the perfectionist. If I want to write my memoir about my time in the mud and how I dug myself out again, I need to learn how to be vulnerable. I need to share my writing, rough and raw as it may be.
BONUS WRITING PROMPTS
Here are some writing prompts for you.
• What does the lotus flower represent to you?
• What does the mud the flower grows in represent?
• What does the flower ‘going to sleep’ every evening, tightly closing its petals and ‘waking’ up each day symbolize?
• No mud, no lotus, no suffering, no joy. These simple words imply the ying/yang balance of everything in life. What do they mean to you today?
Set you timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Be curious and let the pen lead the way. Most importantly, allow yourself to write junk. You can always polish it later. The important thing is to be open and you might just find the clues, the missing link or the story that needs to be written.