Woulda Shoulda Coulda


A lot of suffering

By Brother Pham Hanh

Photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

As I was sitting in front of my tent and the sun was slowly rising, I looked at a spider web reflecting the sunshine. The spider had just caught a little insect and spun a little cocoon. I was drinking my tea and enjoying the moment. Well, part of me was enjoying the moment; my restlessness though had started to compose an article. So please enjoy the tea, sunshine, spider web, mindfulness and restlessness in this article 😉

I remembered talking with my dear elder Sister Diệu Nghiêm (Jina) one time in the Upper Hamlet. As a young monk living in the community, it is often a challenge to not get irritated with the Sangha (our community). As I shared about a difficulty, I do not remember what, maybe it was something the Sangha (“They”) had done. Like not cleaning this, throwing away that, or not taking care of this. It is funny when we talk about “the Sangha” it is always about “they”, meaning those people who are not me. She looked at me with compassion and said, “Ah, yes, woulda shoulda coulda – a lot of suffering.” What she said further I do not remember, but that sentence stuck with me and has become a Koan for me (like a puzzle) and a bell of mindfulness.

How many times in my life have I spent stuck on how I want things to be, thinking how things could have been if only this had happened and people would have listened to me. Or how things should be, if people just think. I know that I am right, why don’t they just see it!

It was only a few days ago that I went into the kitchen and saw a new mixer. The same mixer we bought some years ago was broken now, so it was replaced. Instead of appreciating the brothers for taking care of the kitchen, I became irritated. Only a few weeks previously, I had told another brother that we needed a new mixer, that the old one was not strong enough, was made for a small kitchen, and could easily break. We cook for a lot of people and we needed more professional material, so I found the perfect machine. That information had not been passed to the kitchen coordinator, so I went to him to say to bring that machine back. I also had sent him a strong email, explaining why and how to order a new one.

I see that the ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ is always about resisting what is.

As the day progressed I suddenly realized I was caught, caught in my idea and I was suffering because of it. I remembered Thay Phap Dung’s agreement with Thay Phap Do: if either of them were caught in their ideas in a meeting, they would make a sign. They would hook their front teeth with their thumb like a hook on a fish, and whenever the other saw that sign, he were not allowed to speak anymore in the meeting. He shared with me how frustrating that was (BUT I AM RIGHT!), but that it had helped him a lot.

I looked into myself. Yes, I was caught. Yes, I was suffering, and I had made the other brothers suffer. I recognized the tension in my belly, and I felt more restricted. So I let go of my idea, and relief came immediately. I went to the brother, and I apologized for my intense energy towards him. I also realized that my idea might be right, but that maybe his idea might also be right. I could not help myself though to suggest an alternative solution; habit energies are strong.

I was definitely caught in a ‘woulda coulda shoulda.’ When examining this, I see that the ‘woulda coulda shoulda’ is always about resisting what is. I also have experienced that this resisting starts with me with a feeling in my belly, which slowly goes up into my chest and I feel restriction in my heart, then into my throat. I can then be completely stuck in my head, and I forget my body. It is an unpleasant sensation.

It is only when I start holding my fear tenderly in my mindful embrace that the fear can calm down.

It is funny that we can spend so much time ‘resisting what is.’ We forget that what is—is and that we cannot change it anymore. Whatever has happened gave rise to what now is. The tea, the spider gives rise to this text. Without the tea and the spider, what now is, would be different. This is because, that is. That is, because this is. It describes reality as it is and still we resist. Why do we do that?

When looking into our suffering, it is difficult not to become a victim. They are doing this to me. I am not respected. I am not understood, etc. But this situation happened because I was in it. What did I bring into this situation? We need to start exploring the conditions. With my mixer example, I bring in:

  • The joy of wanting to make vegan cheese and the frustration of not having a mixer that is strong enough and goes fast enough.
  • The irritation that the mixer broke because it is made of plastic and that we had a leaking bowl for years.
  • The strategy of wanting a professional kitchen because a professional kitchen is able to take care of the need of the Sangha. When the need of the Sangha is met, I feel that I am taken care of, and I want to feel taken care of because I am afraid that I am not worthy to be taken care of.
  • The frustration of all the times I felt not being taken care of in the Sangha.
  • The idea that I am the older brother and as such, I can talk to him strongly. This use of power gives me the sense of being more important than him. If I am more important than him, at least I am more worthy than him.
  • My ability to think things through, which I inherited from my parents and my upbringing and culture. When I know better than someone else, maybe I then am also better than someone else, etc., etc.

But there is a catch, and we have to be careful. When recognizing unwholesome conditions, the habit of thinking black and white can become strong. We might then think: I have this motivation that is unwholesome, and we reject the whole motivation (and maybe our self as well). Just because something has some unwholesome elements, it does not mean the whole is; there are also wholesome elements. So try not to make the unwholesome parts bigger than they are. But the fact remains that I bring myself and all of this into the situation.

So why do we resist what is? Because something in us is suffering, and it is looking for a way to be healed and it has not worked. We have many different strategies to heal our suffering, but many of them are not very intelligent. When we start to look into our strategies and conditions we bring into the situation, we can start to find out that our strategies are not working and are causing more suffering for ourselves, as well as others.

I have the fear of not being good enough, which tells me I have no right to exist, which touches my fear of death and my desire to live. This fear manifest itself in my forms, but it cannot be solved by external conditions. It is only when I start holding my fear tenderly in my mindful embrace that the fear can calm down. I know that I am responsible for that, and nobody can do that for me. I also have experienced that recognition, and being taken care of by others helps my fear a bit, but that taking care of it myself really brings the relief I want.

My practice of woulda coulda shoulda helps me to get in touch with my resistance.

When I look into difficulties, I feel freedom when I recognize the conditions that I bring into them because I can do something with them and have experience of taking care of them, so I know that I will able to handle them and that I can solve that part of the difficulty. That is how I do not become a victim. The understanding how a situation comes about helps me to come in touch with my underlying feelings and helps me to practice with those.

I have practices with the feeling of not being good enough a lot. It has given me a lot of freedom. It is manifesting itself in many, many forms, and I keep on discovering new forms. The seed itself has grown much smaller over the years, and I feel so much better. I see more how it manifest, and I then take care of it as an old friend. I do not resist it anymore but am happy to find it when it is there. I know that my freedom is made from it. It is this what helps me to let go of my ideas because I have the experience, which is not knowledge or thinking, that ideas are not the solution to my fear, but embracing the feeling that the idea is based on is the solution.

I am far from a perfect practitioner. I still have restlessness when a perfect moment of mindfulness with sunshine, spiders and tea presents itself. But I know that is me, and that I am like that, because all those things happened to me in the past. If other things would have happened to me or if I would have done things differently, I would be another person and I could have been a better practitioner. But I am not, I am what I am, and that is okay.

I can still can do better. Just recognizing the restlessness and being with it is already changing me. Maybe next time I will decide not to engage with it and you will not have another article.

My practice of woulda coulda shoulda helps me to get in touch with my resistance. It helps me to take care of my underlying feeling and my strategies. It also helps to bring me back to the present moment. It also brings me more understanding. Just by being aware that I could have done things differently, it waters that seed. I know that next time when things happen, this understanding will also be part of me and I can do it differently. But for now, it is what it is.

A smile in gratitude,
Br. Pham Hanh

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  1. I read your comments and your concerns, and how you are embracing your fears. Thank you, you have helped to see that I need to embrace my fears. I have to approach my fears and stop avoiding them.
    I have started the practice on Mindfulness on dealing with my cluttered mind. Thank you for sharing,

    Much Love and Peace

  2. Thank you, Brother, i recognise a lot in this article and it is helping me profoundly. Liesbet


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