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Shambhala Sun | July 2013

Now the Bad News

A young prince named Siddhartha was so shocked when he encountered the sufferings of the body that he went off to seek enlightenment. Today, the bad news of birth, old age, sickness, and death is still the impetus for awakening.




I was four the first time I saw a woman give birth. It was early evening, at a commune deep in the Siskiyou Mountains of California. I remember straining on my tiptoes and the jostling of elbows as we children, barefoot and half-dressed, peered in through the window of a one-room cottage. The grown-ups huddled around the birthing woman on the bed. My mother, one of two midwives on the commune, was somewhere in that huddle.

My memory is colored yellow by the candles in the room and infused with the smell of the wood-burning stove and the urgency of the assembly. I heard murmurs and songs from inside, the gurgle of the nearby creek, hoots and rustling from the woods, and the whispering of children as we fought for prime viewing space at the window. Then, without warning, our jostling was silenced by an infant’s sharp squall. We stared at each other, unable to fully understand where that sound could be coming from.

Almost thirty years passed before I experienced labor myself. By then, my mother was a fully certified nurse-midwife who had delivered hundreds of babies in homes, hospitals, and rural clinics. I’d attended a handful of births with her, as impromptu assistant and note taker, and recently been at a good friend’s side during the birth of her first child.

I was certain that all this experience would translate into me having an easy labor. It had taken my partner and me years to conceive. When we finally did, I’d thought the hard part was over.

Rachel Neumann is the primary editor of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and the author of
Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness.

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