Nigel Wellings and Elizabeth Wild McCormick. Published June 2005.
On personal stories and waking up
“We do not possess an ego. We are possessed by the idea that there is one”
Wei Wu Wei.
Around twenty five years ago, had you been at the vast neolithic stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, you would have seen a small group of people padding across the wet grass and vaguely looking at the stones. If you looked more closely you would have also seen that one of the group is oriental looking, a man in his early forties, and all those around him have an expectant quality about them. The man is a Tibetan Lama, his name is Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche, and the people are his students, myself amongst them, who have brought him to what for them is a sacred site. The reason the students are expectant is because they believe that Avebury is a great temple and that despite its ruined appearance huge energies constellate here. We hope Norbu Rinpoche will also recognise this and perhaps give us a deeper insight using the yogic powers we imagine he possesses. However he just seems to be walking about and not saying very much. He does look cold. It is a bit disappointing.
Norbu Rinpoche seemed to revive in a tea shop in near by Marlborough, where he began an impromptu teaching that I no longer remember. However what has stayed with me is another, less obvious teaching, that came from the events of that day. I now realise that we were trying to build a bridge between our own Western spirituality and his Buddhism. A bridge that was neither fully articulated on our part nor probably of any interest to him. I now wonder what he might have been thinking and feeling as we walked him around? My new fantasy is that he was fully present with what ever was going on. That he was not interested in the meaning of the site and why it was special to us, but rather he was entirely attentive to his experience as it arose in each successive moment. Put simply he was just being mindful.
I chose this story because it revolves around a question that has engaged me for over thirty years, how can very different psychological and spiritual cultures come together to help us live our lives more fully? Or more specifically, how may we legitimately combine Western psychological work with a Buddhist path of spiritual awakening? On that damp and grey Autumn day all sorts of spiritual traditions were present within the people gathered there. Within the European students existed a very rich but unsystematic feeling for the magic of the sacred site within a mystical landscape and in some unexplained way a feeling of needing to find a spiritual home to journey towards. In Norbu Rinpoche, I would guess, existed something simpler and clearer. The ability to be present with the thoughts, emotions and sensations that he witnessed coming and going within him during his probably uncomfortable and confusing forced excursion. We were inhabiting a belief that we were separate from something spiritual, something we yearned for. He was inhabiting a knowledge that the very concept of spiritual can make a separation between us and the immediacy of where we presently are. The only place outside of our imaginations where we can ever actually be.
During the subsequent years I returned to these questions and invariably came away confused and with more questions than answers. I suspect that for a long time I hid in the easy route and said to myself and others that Western psychology and Buddhism were so different that there was little use in trying to find a meeting point. The first values everything about us that makes us unique and individual and the second sees these self same traits as no more that a temporary golden cage. However it simply became impossible to ignore the fact that despite all the differences these two disciplines that investigate our human nature and condition, that care about our suffering, also have much in common and each can enrich the understanding of the other.
This investigation begins with the experience and recognition of suffering. What we have found in our selves and those we have worked with is the immensity of our stored grief. In our workshops on initiations that life has given us there is often celebration, happiness and humour but there is also frequently so much pain it is difficult to bear. I am reminded of another time when a huge group of men had gathered together to mourn the losses in their lives. We had been sent off alone to reflect and see if there was anything we were carrying that it was time to let go of. A relationship, a marriage, a parent, a child, our youth, an idea of who we were. Finally we came together, late at night under a full moon. A fire had been lit and slowly, singing an agonisingly beautiful grieving chant, we moved towards the flames. Into these flames we were each going to relinquish parts of our out worn lives that were once life itself. As those at the front began to feel the enormity of what they were doing their feeling was communicated to us still at the back. Some began to weep, a few sob. We all continued to move forward, struggling to continue to sing, now supporting each other, literally, shoulder to shoulder, hands on backs. Without this it would have been unbearable. Our hearts were breaking, breaking open.
The Buddha’s word for suffering was dukkha which translates in different ways. Its simplest meaning is just discomfort, pain and suffering but when the Buddha uses it it gains a deeper existential meaning which includes experiences of imperfection, impermanence, emptiness and instability. Because of this it can also mean “all pervasive unsatisfactoryness” as in the feeling that nothing is ever quite right, that if only this or that were different it would be perfect. And finally it can also be translated as “anguish”. The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor does just this because for him the word anguish captures the very personal, deep hurt that often visits our lives. Within the experience of suffering the Buddha discovered three discrete parts. The first he called the suffering of suffering and by this meant acute experiences of physical and mental anguish. The suffering of getting older, of being ill and finally death itself and the suffering of driven desires, painful emotions, bereavement, grief and distress. The second he described as the suffering of change, the experience of life as a continuous process of separations that feels fine if we want to separate but is often unbearable when we do not. And finally the third, the suffering that simply seems to be intrinsic to being a person. An ever present subliminal suffering that perhaps Freud implicitly recognised when he described the “ego as the true seat of anxiety”. We could also describe this as the suffering of not knowing who we truly are.
There is a story about a woman who came to the Buddha to find a cure for her grief for a lost child. She could not accept that the child had gone. Apparently he asked her to go to every house in the village and collect a grain of rice from any home that had not suffered a bereavement. She came back with none. This story suggests that the Buddha was an expert on suffering knowing it was both universal and unavoidable, that it is part of the fabric of life, running right through everything like the warp of a cloth. This description may seem too extreme for many of us. We rebel when we remember all the times we have felt happiness and love. The times we were amused and entertained. Were we suffering then? This has caused some people to mistakenly think of Buddhism as a life denying philosophy but it answers this with the story of three doctors. The first over estimates the seriousness of an illness and believes nothing may be done to save the patient. The second under estimates the illness and declares all is well. The third recognises the illness and treats it appropriately and the patient is cured. Buddhism sees itself as the third doctor. The first is a life denying pessimist, the second a dangerous optimist and the third a simple realist. This doctor knows that not one of us lives a life untouched by suffering, a fact that demands addressing.
Hero, image of consciousness
I imagine people all over the world for thousands of years sitting around their fires, with the night at their backs, telling stories. These stories are made from their shared experience and speak of their understanding of the suffering that life typically contains and how the hero in each of us responds to it. Joseph Campbell, an internationally recognised authority on mythology, has gathered many of these tales and by charting the journey of hero through each of its stages has enabled us to understand where we are in our own lives. Like our ancestors around the fire, this helps us to know and name experiences that seem initially confusing, painful and overwhelming.
Hero’s journey always follows the same initiatory pattern; some form of leaving what is familiar, a descent into an unknown and often frightening place and finally return to a new life. In fairy stories, myths, dramas and religious and secular literature, many hero’s, women, children and men, are described making this perilous trip where no two journeys are entirely alike as are no two descriptions of what they find on arrival nor the gifts they bear on their return. This movement for us can happen in thousands of ways and may range in importance from the very simple, (facing a small anxiety successfully), to life shattering, (an unexpected and possibly unwanted change), to life transforming, (a personal insight or spiritual awakening). Often it is brought about by the stage of life we are in when it usually marks a threshold between one phase and the next. Childhood to adolescence, parenthood, middle age and death. At other times it comes to us from outside, an unexpected illness, a bereavement or change in life circumstances. And finally it may also represent profound psychological and spiritual transformations. The making and dissolving of a separate sense of self.
Here it is very important to remember that Campbell’s use of the word “hero” does not refer to males alone. Rather, hero represents more inclusively consciousness becoming conscious of itself and this then naturally applies to both men and women equally. Further more, from Campbell’s perspective, examples of brutish, phallic and power corrupted hero’s, often portrayed as hero’s on the way to transformation, are merely representatives of consciousness caught within primitive and limited identifications. The hero we know here is not just a brute with a club but, once transformed, a divine person. As such hero is us, all of us, in all of our guises and moods. And the movement of the hero through life, sometimes thrusting, sometimes spiralling and meandering, is a movement that we all make, each in our own way.
The story of Inanna
One perfect example of the hero’s rites of passage is found in the Sumerian myths concerning Inanna. Sumer was once where Southern Iraq is now and was made up of thriving city states. Over four thousand years ago, from this highly sophisticated urban and farming culture, a cradle of civilisation, emerged a pantheon of divine beings including Inanna, goddess of heaven and earth. Inanna’s story was found scattered amongst the desert sands on hundreds of baked clay fragments marked with curious chiselled cuneiform writing. These fragments have been pieced together by scholars and writers over many years and we now have poems that describe her adolescence, her marriage and her transformation as a mature woman. One such is the story of The Huluppu Tree, the original tree of knowledge and life, in which starts her love affair with the Sheppard Dumuzi who finally becomes her husband. These narratives, particularly The Descent of Inanna, which describes her transformative passing through the underworld, her death and rebirth, are uncannily modern in their content and still remain pertinent, demonstrating clearly that we have all been struggling with the same issues of death and renewal since the earliest times.
As this book progresses we will see how Inanna’s initiatory descent into the underworld perfectly illustrates the hero’s journey, the journey of psychological maturation and beyond. In her story she receives the call, dies, passes through a transitional phase, is reborn and finally returns. In doing this she gives us an insight into her journey, the journey of every hero, so that each of us, during our own journeys, might know the way better.
The Soul’s Journey
The psychologist, C. G. Jung, was also influenced by the image of the hero which he found in many of his own dreams and those of his patients. He called the initiatory journey of the hero the path of individuation and suggested that the purpose of our life is to tread this path consciously. He also noted that the path of individuation, the heroic unfolding of consciousness, always contained three interweaving aspects that run as a thread through out each stage of every initiation. The first is a sense of journey, the second is relationship to other and finally the third is making or discovering of meaning. Whatever our personal beliefs these three archetypal concerns always inform and guide us. They are what make us human and enable us to create the story of our life. They make soul and describe the transformation of spirit.
In front of me sits a person I have never met before whom we will call Eve. She has come to meet with me to discuss whether she should have psychotherapy, whether what I have to offer might help her feel better. She is nervous and so am I. I feel almost overwhelmed, as I always do at these initial meetings, by the enormity of the expectation and the task before us. She thinks I can guide her but I know that the only guide of any worth we will together find within her. In the language of myth we are poised at the edge of her descent into her own underworld of fears and new experiences. If she decides to come after today this may mean that she has decided to answer the call, accompanied by me, from herself to be herself more fully. But she may not, nothing is certain.
C.G. Jung described the experience of following what beckons us as integral to the path or process of individuation. In some ways this begins the moment we are born because everything within us immediately strives to find a way into the world that awaits us. However there is also another level to this that is more than our instinctual drive to survive. Later within our life events may conspire to bring us to an awareness that though we are small in the universe we may also connect to something vastly other. These types of experience make us more than simply an individual, the type of distinct personality that Western culture values so much, they demand that we open and connect with a broader and deeper life force that not only passes through us but every one else as well. Each of us has our own name for this. For some it may be loosely defined, perhaps just life or love, for others it will be felt as a personal God, Jewish, Christian or Muslim and for others still it will be formless, our true Self, our Buddha or awakened nature, ultimately ineffable. However we feel and conceive of this ground of being for some psychotherapists and all spiritual disciplines it is a shared truth that the unfolding of our connection to something greater than our self is the essential element necessary for any profound healing.
The experience of our journey arrives in many different ways but it inevitably involves meeting new experiences along the way that change us. Several years later I am continuing to meet with Eve and together we reflect upon the story of her journey. We talk about and feel the things that have formed her. Together we have discovered within her a child torn by warring parents, a teenager awkward and self conscious, mocked by an envious mother, a young adult sexually and socially liberated and finally an intelligent and creative woman obscured by self doubt and criticism. Each of these parts of the lost self has introduced its self into consciousness via a dream. Demanding attention they have drawn us into the pain at the time of their making and by staying with this pain we have both mourned the loss of that which could not be prevented and simultaneously reconnected to life possibilities that were discarded earlier along the way. Out of this comes sadness but no longer depression and where there was a creative wasteland now there are the first shoots of new growth. Her experience of the journey has been initiated by a return to places of emotional arrest. She has moved forward into the memories of her past and from these continued.
Relationship to others and to our self represents a fundamental and defining human quality. For all of us the ability to relate is in built and is the means by which we come into knowledge of our self and our place in the world. From the perspective of Western psychology nothing is more important. As infants in our mothering persons arms we immediately begin to communicate with different sounds, gestures and movements which demand appropriate responses. Gradually this preverbal language acquires words and we begin to speak and with this our world opens out and blossoms. Now very little is closed to us if we have the interest and if these interests are not blocked by external circumstance. If our experience of relationship in infancy and childhood has been good enough, giving at least some sense of emotional nourishment, trust, healthy dependency and safety, then as adults this will be translated into relationship with our partners and, if we have them, our own children. However relating to our outer world is often not enough and it is the journey of hero that leads us deeper into a relationship with our self. This relationship is in many ways the most difficult because many of us are afraid of our own experience, that is we are afraid of who we are. Turning to look into the mirror of consciousness takes enormous courage because we seldom like what we first see. Whether this be on a personal level where we meet personality traits that we wish we did not have or on a transpersonal level where letting go of our story of who we are is not as easy as first imagined.
For Eve, held within the therapeutic relationship with me, it becomes possible to slowly and carefully begin a deeper relationship with herself. Places of terror become less so, experiences of an alien and alienated self become more familiar. Jung called these aspects of the lost and unknown self the shadow because, obscured by the light of consciousness, they were hidden away in the dark. Initially often frightening or repugnant these toad like, monstrous parts of our self, once kissed with acceptance become new, redeemed resources. The shamed child, thoughtlessly ridiculed by the parent and now denied by the adult is found to be a fount of fun, curiosity and imagination. The father dominated woman who deferred to the husband, thereby remaining a child, takes up her authority and walks. Eve’s sense of self expands. Gradually she discovers parts of herself that are deeply feminine and differentiates parts of her self that have been defensively strident and aggressive from the positive masculine qualities of structuring and directing the way her life will go next. She meets the inner woman and man, which Jung called feminine soul and masculine spirit, anima and animus. In this way her relationship to herself becomes, while not necessarily or always more fun, more complex, more multifaceted and more rewarding.
Her identity that she has always thought of as “Eve” remains the same but not the same. She is subtly changed by the exchange between her conscious idea of herself and the flow of images and feelings that emerge from her unconscious life, particularly her dreams. This relationship between the known and the unknown has been spoken of in different ways. Jung envisaged it as a dialogue between the ego and the archetypal self and thought this the goal of our lives. From his perspective, it is this innate, preexistent self that is the initiator of all of hero¹s descents while at the same time being the fruit, the prize, the knowledge, that all the descents finally come to claim. More poetically still James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist, says that we have a Daimon who calls back to us through our lives from our death. It knows what we may become and it creates for us the life circumstances that will bring this potential to fruition. And finally, the mystical psychoanalyst W. R. Bion, offers us the letter O to represent the realness of every thing that he experiences as paradoxically inaccessible and yet everywhere. A universal ground of being that is ever present and from which the whole universe is repeatedly born in each moment. An experience of being, of O, uniting everything in what Buddhism calls “One Taste”.
This leads finally to meaning. Whether we believe that the universe itself has within it an intrinsic meaning, one that it is for us to find, or that it is we who bring meaning to chaos, either way finding meaning is essential. None of us can flourish without meaning and however painful our circumstances, as long as we can find some meaning within them, they remain possible to bear and work with. Once meaning is lost alienation, depression and despair occur and life becomes unsustainable. We know that this can happen to us both as individuals and collectively as communities. In the same way that a community when it feels defeated and dispossessed turns back upon itself destructively, taking false refuge in substance abuse and deadening distractions, so do we similarly self destruct when we feel our life is going nowhere and are overcome by a terrible emptiness.
Eve’s life, when we finally came to the point of completing our work together, did contain a meaning. The wounds to her sense of self, received at various points during her life, together spoke of not only of the hurt she had experienced but also of the direction she must tread. It was as if her Daimon was telling her that she must consciously choose at every step to throw off the self sabotaging attacks, the vicious critical voices, if she is to become strong in the expression of her qualities and talents. As is frequently the case, the complexity of Eve’s life became progressively simpler within the distillation of our work together. Several key themes emerged; the need to feel slowly and deeply with out hiding in a semblance of not caring. The need to take seriously creativity and not destroy it with perfectionism. The need to let others see her vulnerability. In all these the wound became the medicine, alerting us to places that demanded a hearing. This had become the myth of her life, the informing narrative that returned to repeatedly, never completed, gave her life an entirely unique shape and purpose. And finally, her growing reflective ability, using her feelings, had yielded the first tiny intimations of the spacious quality of consciousness beyond her personal story, intimations that she had only happened upon by chance previously.
This way of working described above reflects the richness of soul work. The willingness to embrace fully the life of the world around us and also the life of the psyche that reveals itself in the patterns of our life as well as our dreams, fantasies and the imagination. It requires the sensitive use of courage, application, honesty and also humour lest we become too important for our own good. It is a way of working with suffering that was brought into focus by the Romantic thinkers and poets of the nineteenth century who found in their suffering a path, already prefigured in Christianity and Judaism, that lead to a life of personal discovery and surrender to something greater. Their reaction to the perceived soulless uniformity and brutality of the industrial revolution and the overly rational thought of their age caused them to search for a way of being that honoured creativity and individuality. Suffering, approached in this way suggests that if when we suffer we can eventually understand this experience as an initiatory journey, that leads us into a deeper relationship with our self and others, then our suffering will be redeemed through meaning.
Building a bridge from West to East
Some years ago I came across the work of the psychotherapist and writer John Welwood who had spotted the connection and similarity between his own style of psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation. He recognised that our Western psychology uses reflection as its primary tool while Buddhist mindfulness meditation uses presence and that these two ways of knowing could be placed within a continuum in which we move from one to the other.
This continuum inevitably begins with our own personal story and the pain and conflict this story sometimes contains. Initially this story needs simply to be told and heard. Often it has never been heard before and cries out for a hearing. However after a while it also becomes apparent that our story is not entirely set in stone and that as we revolve around it we begin to see other perspectives that were not previously visible. Then the truth begins to dawn that our story is a narrative about our life, with us in the star role, in a perpetual process of rewriting. We literally create, at both conscious and unconscious levels, a feeling, an image, of who we are and the life that we inhabit. In fact we are continually creating our self. This understanding is accepted by Western psychology and Buddhism equally. Both recognise that that which we call “my self” is constructed out of our situation and maintained over a life time. However where they differ is that while we in the West value the creation of a self, supported by its narrative, Buddhism goes a step further and says that it is this same self that we must finally go beyond. Making a synthesis of these two views creates a continuum of psychological and spiritual development that moves between the pre-self of early infancy, the established self in adulthood and then finally, a dissolution of the belief in the solidity and centrality of the story of our created self. Like an in breath and an out breath, contraction and release, the expansion and dissolution of the story of who we are. Welwood, aware of this continuum of development, describes how we may ideally move through it, not just during a whole life time, but repeatedly as part of our psychological/spiritual work.
To understand this continuum unfolding fully it helps to exam ourselves in detail. If we look at how we are, most of us will find that we spend a large amount of our time, if not concentrating on a specific task, absorbed in day dreaming and automatic emotional reactions to internal and external events that touch us in some way. This day dreaming seems to be something we automatically do and consists of semiconscious, emotionally laden thoughts revolving around issues either in our past or future. Also on automatic is our emotional reactivity, the immediate responses and reactions to likes and dislikes, goods and bads, rights and wrongs. What is absent in this is that reflective part of consciousness that steps back and knows that “this is the experience I am having now”. This automatic, non-reflective way of being is our usual way of being. It requires no effort to simply go through our lives dreaming and then reacting to what ever comes along. Someone annoys me I get angry, someone makes me happy I laugh, someone threatens me I get scared, someone is hurt I comfort them. In many ways this is a good thing. Its advantage is its immediacy and if our childhood experiences of emotional interactions have been good enough then our fantasy world will be basically benign and our spontaneous reactions will be appropriate. We will be able to feel another’s pain and be gladdened by their happiness.
However to spontaneously react without reflection has its problems because many of our reactive emotions are unnecessarily self protective and are driven by fear. Just about all the great ills of our planet can be understood in this simple way. A person or a group of people see another or others as a threat that must be destroyed if they themselves are to survive. Once this belief gets a hold war begins, either the wars of our group with other groups or the war within our self where we suppress experience that is felt as a threat. Again, some of this defensiveness is useful. In the same way that the group does need to protect itself from a legitimate threat so do we as an individual need to defend our self against inner experiences that threaten to overwhelm us. Experiences of rage or loss or disorientation that are just too big. Yet if we are to keep our hearts and minds open it will be necessary to separate the times when we do not need to defend our self from those when we do. This requires that we are able to reflect upon our experience and know the unconscious forces that drive us.
The ability to reflect upon our experience is the first step to waking up. Psychological work and Buddhist teachings both ask us to look at our self and dare to see what we find. In psychotherapy what we generally discover beneath the surface is all the experience that we could not bear to feel because it was so painful. Very early feelings of fear, alienation, exposure and abandonment. Shame, humiliation, insecurity and inferiority. It is hardly surprising that we have hidden these away. In mindfulness meditation we find the same thing. The American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says of this that we imagine meditation is going to make us peaceful and then when the churning pond that is our mind settles what we find is that we can see right to the bottom and it is full of rubbish that people have thrown in. To stop this rubbish controlling us we need to become reflective. To be able to think and feel about our emotions. To be able to gain some distance which allows us some choices. To cease being driven by our reactive fears.
Waking using our thought
This reflective ability can be developed at several different levels. The first is when we consider something at a distance and are more able to clearly think. This ability is probably one of the defining characteristics of being human. No other creature is capable of standing back from its emotions and thoughts to the extent that we are. Being able to stop and ask do I really feel this? Is this truly what I think? This is an invaluable quality that enables us to draw back from acts of unconscious, pre-reflective violence and ignorance, either against others or internally, against our self. However our ability to be rational carries the disadvantage that we can be so rational and overly reflective that this in itself becomes a unnecessary protection against consciously experiencing our emotions. When this happens we need to move a little closer towards our emotions and use our ability to feel reflectively in addition to thinking reflectively.
Waking using our feeling
When we use our feeling reflectively we need the help of our body. In our normal way of speaking we use the words emotion and feeling interchangeably. However here I want to give them separate meanings so I can say that we feel our emotions. That is, feeling is a way to know about our emotions in the same way thinking is. Therefore when I ask myself what do I feel right now I can use my feeling, helped by locating it in my body, to recognise what my emotional experience is. Feeling inside I might find feelings of constriction and know from these that I am anxious or alternatively I may find expansive or fluttery feelings and know I am happy and excited. This type of reflection is very accurate because it takes its reference from our emotions directly and is in the present. While thoughtful reflection has the one drawback that it can become bogged down in a mountain of unnecessary detail, using our feeling, experienced through our body, using the “felt sense”, is immediate, truthful and to the point.
Reflecting upon our self using the tools of thoughtful consideration and feeling leads us deeply into an understanding and relationship with who we are and our personal narrative. In psychological work this is the goal. We discover places where we have never dared to enter the world, to inhabit our bodies, and parts of our self that were disavowed so that we might survive. We also discover that there are potentials within us that previously were hidden. The ability to love more fully, to engage in creativity, to withdraw in nourishing retreat. To be angry in a clean healthy way. However we also may find intimations that there is actually something beyond our narrative and it is this final possibility that Buddhism is concerned with and which represents the final stage of the continuum of consciousness.
Awake – Mindfulness
The means to discover this is by becoming what Buddhism calls mindful which is to be attentive to our experience, moment after moment, while letting go of any desire to change it in any way. An essentially simple activity but surprisingly difficult to do for more than a short period of time. As we have seen, thinking and feeling about our emotional experience allows us to build a relationship to our self and this relationship enables us to make our narrative more conscious and so allows us a choice over where we need to continue protecting our self and where we can afford to relax and let go. However if we take this a step further and become mindful we can begin to see that our sole identification with the narrative, our idea of who we are and our continuous attempt to protect and maintain it, is an unnecessary limitation that brings its own suffering. This move from reflection to the presence of mindfulness develops our ability to remain simply present with our narrative without identifying and becoming embedded within it. Effectively, by developing presence, the key quality of mindfulness, we become the attentive witness, in each successive moment, of the contents of our awareness. We begin to draw back from identifying with the emotions, feelings and thoughts that previously we had thought to be all we were. The experience of this can at first be quite surprising. It is as if we have been talking continuously all our life and then suddenly we stop. Previously we have only known our self through the continuous sound of our own voice and then we discover another experience which is not just different words but a huge deep silence which is the source of all sound. A silence that allows space for vivid experience of what is going on inside and outside of us when not obscured by our own chatter. An experience of a wholly different order. If we can then shift our identity from talking to being the talker, from the mass of sounds to the place they emerge from, we can begin to get a sense of who we most profoundly are. Knowing this we begin to awake and what ever our experience, however good or bad, we are no longer afraid to have it.
Underneath the Spreading Bodhi Tree
When I was in my early twenties and living in Bath, my girlfriend and I received a visit from a friend fresh from his Buddhist studies in India. When he arrived we went out to a favourite cafe and over tea I received my first lesson on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s profound teaching on our human condition. I can still vividly remember this many years later. In the busy every-day-ness of the cafe he spoke a truth that simply cut through everything less real then itself. “All life is suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment. The ending of suffering is liberation. Liberation is achieved through the noble eightfold path.” These bald statements seemed to bear down upon me like the beats of a drum, each one tearing away pretence and leaving me simultaneously vulnerable and real. Like liturgy, I found them impossible to resist; my life did contain much unhappiness, I did feel driven by emotional forces beyond my control, I could see that peace could be achieved if I could find a different way to be with this and finally I was heartened by the belief that someone else had found a way, where I could also walk, to make this real.
The historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, was born approximately two and a half thousand years ago in a small Himalayan kingdom in present day Nepal. Since that time his teachings have spread from India to Sri Lanka, most of the countries of South East Asia as well as China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea and Japan. In all of these migrations Buddhism has changed with its assimilation into each new culture. Now, as it makes its latest journey into the West, it is continuing to change as it encounters our culture which has become rich in psychological understanding. Whilst the religious trappings of Buddhism, the magical and mythical beliefs accrued from various Asian countries, may here falter, what remains unchanging is the essential Buddhist concern that we live a life in which we, in each moment, try to be as fully awake as possible. Nearly all Buddhist traditions can be said to agree on this central point and each offer ways that enable us to achieve being mindfully present with our experience of life and free of fear and the suffering fear brings.
Seen as such Buddhism is more a psychology than a religion. It invites us to make an experiment to discover who we most truly are. Its method is to employ the discipline of observing our own mind so that we may gain an immediate and non conceptual insight into its real nature. This path traditionally is seen as comprising three elements, the first concerns both discipline and ethics and creates a foundation of compassion and simplicity upon which the experiment may flourish. The second is meditation itself, the practice of mindfulness, which begins with the observation of our mind when we rest it for a extended period upon our breath. And finally the third is the discriminating awareness that this generates bringing into being the wisdom of knowing the true nature of mind. The clear seeing into the habitual and destructive patterns of our personal stories and beneath this to our basic clarity, spaciousness and generosity. Our Buddha nature.
Repression and acting out However this basic clarity, spaciousness and generosity is obscured in many of us by contracted emotions and thoughts seated in our fears and generated by our pain. (The different states of suffering described above.) This leads all of us to emotionally defend ourselves in two basic ways. We can either unconsciously deny painful emotions and thoughts so that we do not feel them. That is to cut off or repress them. Or, we can be so immersed in them that we lose all sense of who we are. While this may not sound like a way to defend our self strangely it is because when we are entirely identified with our emotions and thoughts it is as if they possess us and there is no longer an “I” who is in relationship with them. This is to identify with and act out of the emotions and thoughts. All of us frequently have both of these types of defensive experience, although each of us will favour one over the other. We know we are being repressive of our experience when we simply do not feel anything or when we need to fill ourselves with distractions so to keep the experience of our self at bay. Likewise we know we are acting out when we feel driven by emotions that take us over and compel us to act in ways that later we will find incomprehensible and alien.
Susan tells me that she is having a lot of trouble with her boss at work. She knows she is feeling something disturbing but she is not exactly sure what. Talking, it becomes clear she is feeling angry but is also ashamed of this emotion because she believes she should feel differently. Anger is an emotion that was not allowed in her childhood home and now as an adult she is inexperienced in its conscious expression and so fearing it must repress it.
Lawrence is also angry but suffers none of the inhibitions of Susan. He believes his girlfriends absence for the evening, while she visits friends, is a direct rejection of him. When she returns he has drunk far too much and greets her with a sulky and malicious silence. He has no understanding of his need to punish her for her imagined abandonment and simply acts out his rage and hurt without conscious reflection.
A third option for both Susan and Lawrence, and also for all of us who suffer in the same way with anger and other emotions, is to begin to allow ourselves to feel our experience fully without either hiding away in repression nor being compelled to abandon our self in acting out. The essential method to help us be fully aware of what we are feeling, thinking and doing in each consecutive moment, as we have already said, is called mindfulness which means to be present, to be aware, to be conscious, to be paying attention. By bringing us into a direct and immediate relationship with our experience, from the position of a disidentified witness, it allows us to feel fully what ever our experience is, and no longer habitually rely on the self protective and limiting closures of repression and acting out.
Craving, aversion and ignorance Once we start doing this we begin to gain an insight into the powerful forces that govern us. Looking into the now stilling waters of the mind we see three principle motivations in all our habitual patterns that drive our personal story. In Tibetan Buddhism these motivations are represented in a picture called the “Wheel of Life” which is a circular image of life from cradle to the grave and all the attendant psychological states, the heavens and hells of experience, that we can inhabit along the way. In the centre of this picture the three core motivations are represented by a pig, a snake and a chicken chasing each others tails in a seemingly endless dance. These three creatures represent the “three poisons” which are craving, aversion and ignorance (the last we may also think of as denial). And it is these three poisons that chain us to endless suffering.
This may be understood on two levels. On the first level craving speaks of all those situations in our life where we feel driven by desires and addictions. Aversion speaks of a spectrum of emotional experiences ranging between violence, rage and hatred to irritation, rejection and refusal. And finally denial speaks of the desire to not engage, to go to sleep and to avoid. In each of these it is clear how the poison becomes a motivating force within the mind, even in a very subtle way. Life is simply full of situations and experiences that we want or do not want or which feel so overwhelming that we simply cut off. Unconsciously reacting in this way not only does not guarantee any lasting happiness it can also enmesh us further and more deeply into a web of discontent and misery. Both Susan and Lawrence in their respective ways are poisoned by their needs to push away or hang onto what they are feeling, denying out of fear emotions of rage and vulnerability that they are too afraid to feel consciously.
On a deeper level it is also possible to see that the three poisons, these three core reactions, permeate great passages of our lives and are not simply types of painful or difficult emotion. We can see that each of us is driven by the compulsion to reaffirm our sense of who we are by craving self affirming experiences and that we also are equally driven by an aversion to experiences that threaten our sense of self. This is not just the instinct for self preservation that scans our environment for sources of physical and emotional danger. But more minutely, the attraction and rejection of every experience on the basis that some conform with our narrative and so support our sense of identity while others do not and so threaten it. This need to maintain the narrative is a reflection of the three poisons at the most profound level. It points to an all pervading anxiety that is seldom noticed but is always just beneath the surface of consciousness. Failure to notice this is the third poison, ignorance itself. We only have to suffer the forced change to something like where we live, what we wear and eat, or loss of those who speak the same language, to immediately feel our sense of identity threatened. Essentially, our hard won sense of self is a very fragile thing that is perpetually in peril from change and our need to defend it, contrary to what we feel, is merely to drink more deeply from the poisoned cup. Again Susan and Lawrence, at the deepest level are not only afraid of their own unrecognised emotional experiences but further more cling to their narratives of being a nice girl and a hard done by little boy. These narratives, however difficult or painful, are all the identity they have got and until they recognise something else within themselves they will be compelled to cling to their conflicted identity.
Transmutation However, contrary to expectation, the way to be with experiences of craving, aversion and denial is to realise that they in themselves are the path. Within our European Alchemical tradition is the paradoxical understanding that that which is least valued becomes the source of that which is most precious. In this way lead becomes gold and poison becomes the elixir of life. All the painful, difficult, messy, guilt laden and embarrassing emotions become the priceless means to open to ourselves more fully because it is they that we first find ourselves being mindfully present with. This is to embrace the Buddhist third option. Instead of hiding from our own emotions within a shell of denial, we can try to allow ourselves to simply remain present with our experience consciously, just as it is, a little longer and feel it more fully.
Jack tells me that he has just split up with his girlfriend. He is very anxious about the hole this will now make in his life. He has previously suffered clinical depression and is frightened of experiencing it again. We talk about how he might handle this new loss and he says his options are doing a lot more running and generally keeping himself busy or simply falling into a period of being utterly miserable. I suggest a third option. Could he allow himself to have the feelings of loss while neither giving in to the desire to distract himself nor falling into and identifying with them. Jack is intrigued by this and is highly motivated because he already knows that his two automatic reactions, repression and acting out, have not served him well in the past. He can only run so much before the thoughts and feelings catch up with him and he can only become subsumed in depression for a short time before it becomes unbearable and he seeks recourse in antidepressant medication. To find the third way he will need to feel and be present with his loss, his sorrow and his fear.
If Jack can do this he will have become able to turn his attention from his personal story line, his narrative, and refocus on the bare facts of his actual experience as it presents itself in each consecutive moment. He will become mindful. This is not to deny that working within the narrative has many advantages and rewards. Doing so Jack may well see that this new loss replicates an established pattern in his life that leads to new understandings about his past and possibilities for his future. He may find the loss breaks open his heart and softens him, increasing his sensitivity and compassion. All of this slow and tender reflective thinking and feeling will enrich and deepen his soul work and is as precious as it is unusual in our brutally defended age. From this hurt may emerge a greater ability to relate and from this unfolding journey, this rite of passage, new meaning will certainly be found. However if he is to open further, beyond his changing story line, it will be necessary to redirect his attention to his awareness of emotional experience in the moment that he feels it. Instead of contracting and closing he is invited to open, relax and feel. To stay with what he finds without thinking about it or trying to work out what it means. To not immediately try to understand it and weave it into his story. This just leaves the emotions as they are; hot and swimmy, clenching and churning, cold and hard. None are particularly good or bad, better or worse, wanted or unwanted. All are here for a period and then without effort from us, gone.