The Shadow and Compassion

Recently, my dreams have seemed more erratic and emotionally charged. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  1. I misplaced my dream journal for a while, and even though I don’t write in it that often, it seems to have had an impact on my dream recall. When I found it again, my dreams suddenly were more remembered when I woke again, almost as though my dreaming process appreciated its reappearance.
  2. Last week, I underwent a bout of sickness that renewed my sense of mortality — my awareness of impermanence and gratitude for health are currently sharp.
  3. Recent events have made this summer feel like a charged examination of current cultural and social trends as well as the human condition.
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about The Heart Sutra and, therein, about the prajnaparamita teachings’ deep yet confusing pronouncements regarding emptiness and the view of no view.

Those dreams I mentioned have been all over the place. They’ve ranged from feverish problem-solving of work issues to brutal violence. The most unsettling thing about the violence, to my waking, analytical mind, was that I was perpetrating it, and although purposeful, it was still violence of the most disturbing and vicious sort — carnal murder with a blunt instrument of someone who wasn’t even fighting back.

My analytic, waking mind reacts to memories of this dream by lashing back, saying “I could never do that!” and “How horrible!” However, this judgmental simplicity covers over truths I know from both my academic and self-reflective studies. Furthermore, I recognize this quick reaction to be an attempt to shore up my ego-identity to fit a narrative in which “I” am a permanently righteous being, always wearing the white hat without any aberration.

Here are some truths I know to the contrary of my ego’s simplistic, self-defensive narrative: I know that the greatest finding of social psychology is that people do strange things when in strange situations. Study after study, ranging from Milgram to Zimbardo to Asch challenge our understanding of identity. Beyond that, my studies of Buddhism and existentialism make me question any simplistic appeal to an unchanging thing as the core of who I am. Even the most introductory of Buddhists should know that this is a concept to be cut through with Manjushri’s sword. Another truth: I’ve gone through enough life and have sat with my thoughts for hours in meditation, both leading me to know that I have a great capability for anger. If anything, it may be my greatest personal obstacle to overcoming reactivity for pure, responsive, and compassionate awareness. All of my experience in academics and in personal reflection lead me to know that I have a Shadow (as Jung would call it – but without the intended hard understanding of the term with a Jungian “Unconscious” at play).

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Knowing the truth of this Shadow takes me beyond the ego’s defense, and I have nothing to do but embrace these darker, incomplete, difficult feelings, for which I have a propensity. Those are all possible ways for me to be and feel, but seeing them, however, embracing their possibility even, doesn’t mean that I have to act out upon them. If anything, it allows me to potentially move beyond them to the compassionate awareness I just mentioned. Recognizing and accepting our feelings without repressing them or enacting them is a way to understand the emptiness of who we are and our connection to all other beings. Recognizing my own dark, destructive impulses allows me a point of connection with even the most pained or hateful of beings, giving some small ounce of understanding to see those current perpetrators in our world and hope to better understand how I can communicate with them to help them get beyond their own darkness.

When I think of this, I inevitably think of the closing section of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is shown to share the face of all people in Govinda’s mind — even thieves and murders. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, and if you’d like to know more about The Heart Sutra, I recommend Karl Brunhölzl’s The Heart Attack Sutra. If you’re interested in social psychology’s findings regarding identity, I recommend this episode (The Personality Myth) of the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. If you’re interested in a more Buddhist take thereof, check out the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really AreFinally, to read more on dream yoga itself, Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek is a good all around source.


May this help you see yourself as you really are and help you reach out to the world with compassionate wisdom.

Gassho!

 

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Autopilot

I’ve been milling this one over for some time. It’s kind of hard to nail down.

Mindfulness practice reveals an odd, even potentially unsettling truth about our lives. We don’t live much of it. What do I mean by that? We’re checked out, running on autopilot – far away from many things that we live through every day. Driving to work, all of a sudden we’re there – not remembering sections of the drive. Having conversations, we’re elsewhere, distracted from time to time.

Don’t take this as chiding, however. Mindfulness practice also reveals how difficult it is to attend to the moment. The mind flits about from one thing to the next. Monkey mind jumps from one thought and experience to the next, chittering away. We’re so used to it, that we don’t even notice it — not until one sits and really watches it happen, mindfully attending to thoughts as they arise and subside. Really attending is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s where the lively quality of seemingly serene practices like Zen reside: really being present is being fully alive in this moment in all of its experience.

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The trick? It’s not to wage war on the monkey mind. It’s to gently befriend it, slowly training it to be more present and relaxed. The training in itself is almost a non-training. You don’t whip the monkey into submission; rather, you reach out your hand and invite it to be here, not jumping from tree to tree. Over time, with repetition and dedication, not being daunted by the endless task, the monkey slows a bit, listens a bit more, sits with you with whatever is happening right now. It may only last a moment, but as the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

Better than one hundred years lived
With an unsettled [mind],
Devoid of insight,
Is one day lived
With insight and absorbed in meditation.
The Dhammapada – line 111 (Trans. Fronsdal)

With that in mind, even a few moments of such attentive absorption and insight are most valuable indeed.


May this inspire you to try spending less time on autopilot.

Gassho!

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: The Difficulty of Waking Up

Intention:
Tonight, I will remember my dreams.
Tonight, I will have many dreams.
Tonight, I will have good dreams.
Tonight, I will wake up within my dreams.
— Modified from Holecek, Dream Yoga

My dreams often go into strange places. A recent one rambled in many ways — across my last breakup, my hometown, home invaders, servants who looked like older versions of me, a daughter of mine (I don’t have any) in her 20s (impossible chronologically), vampire bikers, and an army of zombies and werewolves. Clearly, the familiar is mixed with the impossible, yet the mind skips along with the story, not pausing, not missing a beat. The question: Do we live our waking lives like this as well?

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As I work more on lucid dreaming, dream yoga, being an oneironaut, the more I realize how little of life is really lived, fully awake. Even in our daily lives, we float through our stories from one hazily projected attachment to the next, from one reactive entanglement to the next.

When this mode of existence comes so readily to us and is practiced again and again in our daily lives, is it any wonder how difficult it is to wake up, either in our dreams or in our “waking” life? Mindfully attending to this: just now. Pausing and really sensing. Letting the stories and reactions drop. There’s nothing simpler, but it’s anything but easy.


May this inspire you to explore waking up in your own life.

Gassho!

The Design

*Click*…
Right into place
The position of rest
Purpose relaxed
Yet poised
One click away
From action

The pen’s form
Serves its purpose
A design
Essence preceding
Existence
We seek the same
Purpose, aim, meaning
In our lives
Yet they remain
Always already
A design in progress
An essence unfolding
Both hidden and familiar
Emptiness coming into…
Emergence
Don’t grasp
*Click*…

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A View on Life and Death

A while back, I saw that it was a friend’s birthday on Facebook. I had not talked with this friend in years, having lost touch after moving to a different city. I warmly jumped at the occasion to say “Hello,” and reconnect. Flipping to the birthday notification, I typed out a heartfelt message, wishing him well.

A few hours later, I got a message notification from a person I didn’t know. He kindly and regretfully informed me that my friend had been dead for almost a year now. I was shocked. I had no idea. All I could do was thank this informative stranger and think back on my time with my friend, hoping that my message hadn’t caused any undue stress for anyone.

Honestly, I’ve encountered little death in my time. I’ve had pets die and a couple great grandparents, but I’ve had few instances of losing another person. This sudden awareness of the death of a friend I’d fallen out of contact with gave me pause.

Part of me wishes I could picture him in some serene afterlife, but honestly, this thought confuses me. I struggle greatly with the concept of a soul because it seems to be an attempt to assert an unchanging thing behind the ebb and flow of this impermanent universe. Every experience I’ve had, every thing I’ve studied, every fact and figure — all of it, everything points to transience. Suggesting a metaphysical permanence behind it all seems like an existential coping mechanism. Perhaps, there really is some great metaphysical Origin — Mind, Tao, Source, Idea (Eidos). If there is though, I maintain that it is a vastly different thing than is standardly posited with the term “soul” and its rather pastoral associations.

I’m left, instead, with some succor in knowing that whatever happens to us when we die, at least my friend is no longer the body he was here. He had longstanding chronic illness which made his life difficult and painful, leading (I presume) to a young death.

Ironically, isn’t this precisely our fear with death — not knowing who or what we will be when this body dies? As Heidegger puts it, it’s the possibility of one’s impossibility (or rather, of Dasein’s impossibility). Why must we posit an eternal ego to give this life and its experiences worth? As in the case of my friend — meeting with him for a few months in an intense period of my life makes his presence in my life all the more valuable for its rarity. Perhaps, I appreciate him all the more because relationships and the people who participate in them are impermanent — flashes of brilliance, fireworks on a summer’s evening.

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Rather than reach for life affirmation in the hereafter or for a Nietzschean, definingly transcendent moment for Eternal Return (a sublime life experience that grants you the fervor to say yes to this life, even if it were to be repeated infinitely), I think instead of life as something passing and therefore undefinably beautiful, rare, and unique. Much like seeing falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower – they all are similar in a way, but each burns differently, and each is beautiful and is to be savored in its passing, not a tragedy when it ends, rather one flashing, beautiful emergence, which is followed by others. I see no tragedy in living your life as something that will end and in so doing, making it shine while you flicker in the history of the Universe.


I plan to expand further on ideas about how to make one’s lifetime shine in my next post.

May this bring you peace and inspiration in being a timely being.

Gassho!

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: Dream’s Strange Happenings

I recently meant to write this down but forgot and now only vaguely recall an “Aha!” moment. It was something about the nature of being in the Dreaming however and its differences from waking reality. I don’t recall the what of this difference now though

Now, I’m sitting here, trying to recall, and I can only feel the strong disparity between these two realities. In dreams, I undergo all manner of strange things that don’t happen when I’m awake. I talk to people whom remain distant in my real life. For instance, a recent dream involved a long, heartfelt in person conversation with two work colleagues in another state, whom I’ve neither met in real life nor spent much time with in conversation.

Then, there’s the impossible — swapping genders or ages, seeing events from an out-of-body perspective, switches in the narrative, gaps in time, or sudden changes of location. With all of these, I accept the unreal as real without a hitch, yet when I’m awake, I question reality incessantly…

A note:

–Do I feel anything in dreams beyond sight, sound, and raw emotion? I feel like tactile sensations are limited at best, and I don’t recall smelling things in dreams unless some powerful smell is impacting my sleeping body that is then woven into the dream narrative. However, I don’t recall these senses as being part of the dream itself.

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I hope to dig into my journey of dreaming vs. waking. Recently, I’ve taken a turn away from lucid dreaming by changing my approach to reality checks from “Am I dreaming right now?”  to “Am I awake?” This has come from the realization of mindfulness: much of my waking life is on autopilot. Just as I walk along with the flow of dream’s unfolding, I travel similarly in my waking life. Even when I’m “awake”, I’m not actually woken. When asking “Am I awake?”, I take a moment to pause and check that I’m not actually in a dream, but I also take a moment to tune into emptiness’ dance that is waking life. Therefore, this question works on two levels, and the dream yoga practitioner, the true oneironaut, benefits from both.


May this inspire your own explorations of reality, dreams, and wakefulness.

Gassho!

Fear & Meditation

Disclaimer: I actually wrote this about 3 months ago, but it was in the middle of a dry-spell for posting, so I didn’t reflexively jump on to add it. Before that, I had thought of this topic and wanted to write about it several times for months but never got together the initiative to set it to paper. Here it is now.


One of the greatest changes that has come from my Buddhist practice in the last year or so is a new relationship with fear. I will have difficulty explaining the depths and nuances of this change, but writing is a dance with the indescribable that comes forth as artistry or a muddled attempt thereof in this case. Please, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, lend me graceful expression and smile with patience when I fumble through.

The best example that comes to mind is how I now experience spiders. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of spiders. How do you describe a phobia? It’s really difficult — in part, because not everyone has one. I know this because people have tried to logically rationalize me out of my phobia throughout my life. They speak to you as though this experience is based only on false premises, misapprehensions, that merely have to be rectified. Such a therapeutic strategy, while well-intentioned,  clearly does not understand the visceral and fundamental nature of this fear. You can’t just explain that the boogeyman isn’t real with a phobia because this isn’t based on some sort of belief. It hits fast and hard —  disarming thought before it can ever take place. Hence, there’s no chance to ever come to the conclusion that the little spider is tiny and harmless. Nope, its very existence is fear incarnate. There’s not even a gap to reach a judgment; there is merely and fully reaction. Pure reaction.

I remember moments from years ago when I noticed a spider near me in the room, and I either fled as quickly as possible, asking for help from friends and family or stood petrified, unable to escape this object of terror. That’s the part that’s really hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced a phobia. The object of horror is not something that is evaluated. It’s not a rational process in the sense of working through a line of reasoning. It’s more primal, more immediate. With spiders, it’s something about their shape, something about their movement. Their existence itself has been the embodiment of fear for me.

Let’s compare this with a recent experience with spiders after months of meditation and dharma study. About a week ago, I was in my garage. I plugged something into a socket in the wall. As I did so, the cord rustled some cobwebs along the wall below, and I saw a small black shape scurry through them. I looked down, and my immediate reaction was – “SPIDER!” I moved back just a bit, but then, I watched, transfixed. It had such a classic shape, and I leaned to the side to get a better look as it rushed to a small hole in the wood. I thought: “Wait! Is that a black widow?” Then, I paused, uncertain as I looked for the telltale splotch on its thorax. “Maybe, it’s a brown recluse,” I surmised, knowing that they live in this region in such conditions. I decided that I’d better be careful grabbing things off the shelves in the garage, but at the same time, I felt grateful to have seen this rare and beautiful creature as it lived in its dark, cozy corner. I wondered at what fear I must have caused it — invading its space as a giant with bright lights, even if only briefly.

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Notice, there was still a certain amount of reaction but only enough to readjust awareness to the situation at hand, and I still have the caution of knowing that I shouldn’t go grabbing and petting spiders. However, I am not terrified of them any longer. In them, I see the wonder of millions of years of evolution, of the entirety of the universe’s history. They are intricate and beautiful, a natural masterpiece and as wondrous as all of the mysterious unfoldings of existence.

How have I reached such a different perspective? Meditation. I’ve spent hours focusing on my breath, consistently unplugging from my stream of thoughts and reactions. I’ve never directly faced these particular fears in meditation although I’m an admirer of Chöd and would love to cultivate that practice. Instead, I’ve meditated on my mind and on impermanence. This has brought about a gradual dissolution of my reactivity in general. However, it is much harder to let go of anger and perceived slights of ego. That’s something I hope will find its own path of liberation with continued practice.


May this inspire others who have dealt with their own overwhelming fears, even if its merely a sporadically encountered phobia.

Gassho!

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