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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Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 9: Scar

Several months ago, as the end of my relationship began to unfold, I wrote a poem about having a scab over my heart (read it here)–inspired by one of my last visits to my ex, in which she and I (and cute cat in tow) acted as a family, saving a little baby bird that our curious cat had found. In the process, I climbed up on a neighbor’s roof, scraping my knee and leaving a nasty scab. The emotional treatment I got during this time period left a scab on my heart too, hence the poem.

Now, so many months later, I feel that change has come, but it’s only one letter of change: from scab to scar. Of course, I don’t mean to say that this change just happened today or recently, for that matter. No, healing is a process, and many changes are processes (by that I mean longer term developments). However, I’ve encountered so many times, in both everyday conversations and even in my masters psychology courses, talk of healing as though it’s a return to fullness to the same state as the way things used to be. However, the word “healing” and the associated concept are related to “health”, and “health” is ultimately an idea/understanding of physical well-being. Why is this important? Anyone who has lived much past childhood can likely understand/agree with the proposition that some wounds do not “heal” to be what they once were. In fact, most wounds don’t once we get past the abundant vitality of youth (though it may take some time before we realize that things didn’t “heal” fully). For instance, I sprained my ankle badly once in my late teens. It’s never been the same since, but for the most part, it functions well enough to get by without issue. That’s what healing is: a return to general functionality–well-being. It is not a cure. Curing is a complete eradication of ailment, which would apply mostly to disease; with a contagion, viruses/bacteria can be completely killed off. Healing has to do with the fact that we are unfolding processes of change on biological, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. With healing, there is a recognition of the organic nature of these becomings: time marches on, all of these changes are impermanent (in the sense of not being a final change), and even a revitalization does not mean that everything can be or is reversed.

Scar tissue is a particular example of this irreversible healing. I have a four-inch long scar on my lower abdomen where my appendix was removed as a child. Despite the initial pain of a cut that had opened all the way to my internal organs, the pain receded within a couple weeks, and I could do most things normally afterward. However, for a year or so afterward, I remember being unable to do certain exercises like sit-ups without excruciating agony after a few repetitions, and even today there feels like a slight imbalance between my right and left sides. While it may be minor, and perhaps, the difference is in my head, it has affected my experience, and the scar has had a long-term impact on my life.

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Years ago, I had a cut much like this one after having my appendix removed. What do the wounds and scars of heartbreak look like?

Scar tissue can be sensitive for a long time, and the muscle may mend but not quite to the strength of what it once was. Internal scar tissue can even cause problems for organ functioning, as it is different than the normal tissue around it.

So how about the scar tissue of a broken heart? Honestly, I can’t readily say. Very few days go by where I don’t miss her in some way–usually minor but sometimes greater. It’s the scar’s tingling, unique sensitivity–that of nostalgia. In fact, I dreamt of her recently, and though the dream was odd and painful, it left the rest of my day an aching knot.

The one thing about the healing that seems more certain is that I don’t feel the same way about romantic love. I’m not seeking it, and I have little interest in it. It seems primarily tied up with stories of self and finding completion in another. That’s the whole game of samsaric conflicts that I don’t need.

Plus, I reached a deep-seated love of absolute gratitude for my ex, foibles and all–not that this meant that I didn’t see and support how she could grow past her painful patterns; acceptance is not enabling such patterns. This is a regular point of confusion for people. Acceptance is not collusion. Just because it isn’t some sort of domineering attempt to force a person to change does not mean that it is a stance that enables a person to remain hurtful to themselves and others; true acceptance is seeing a person’s beauty and pain and trying to help them get past their pain out of love for their well-being. A mother loves her children with her entire existence, but this does not mean that she lets them do selfish and maladaptive things. Instead, she tries to steer them to the best path and growth for them, although this requires some discipline at times. The problem is seeing what should be done for that end of helping and loving someone else and what is being done out of one’s own selfishness… I’m not sure that healing can take me back to a state of opening like that–intense gratitude–with another person. It’s difficult to describe the overwhelming joy and gratitude I had for her in the last few weeks I was with her. I feel like this experience may never return, no matter how much time is allotted for healing. Instead, the tingling pain of a scar remains. Instead of actively seeking this type of love again, I’m cultivating love and compassion for existence now.

I don’t know what the future will bring, and I don’t worry about it. If romantic love comes my way, fine. If not, fine. I don’t seek it or deny it. I don’t worry about it. No attachment. Whatever arises. Meanwhile, the wound heals in its own way.


May this help others find their own peace with their scars.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 8: Reclaiming Shards of the Past

For the longest time, I’ve been unable to listen to one of my favorite songs. Why? During my time with my ex, it became a song about our relationship, and sometimes, even she called it “our song”. This song is “Your Hand in Mine” by the ever-magnificent Explosions in the Sky. This post-rock anthem has always tugged at my heartstrings, despite having listened to it hundreds of times.

After being dumped, the reminders of everything were just too much to listen to this song. At this point, it still plucked at those heartstrings but in a way that I could not bear. I’d just skip it whenever I heard it. Recently, though, I found myself listening to this song again one morning over my ritual cup of coffee. Not only did I listen to the song once, I repeated it numerous times, taking a simple joy in listening to this beloved song for the first time in a long while.

It’s very difficult to get past the emotion in such things. Most people try their damnedest to forget by covering up their past or running from it. That’s not really moving on though (See an earlier post on this here). That’s just as reactive as clinging to something, and running like that leaves unresolved issues, untended wounds seeping deep inside. It takes time and patience–a resolve and open courage–to face the terrors and tortures that you experience in life and sit through them, yet there is no better way to be authentic and to walk your life’s path with a compassionate and awakened heart.

I’ve also found an ability to listen to this song recently which has always symbolically reminded me of the connection of the love between me and her. Now, the pain of that connection is no longer frightening or anxiety-provoking. It just is. I can hear these songs and experience the joy and beauty of them along with residual feelings of pain and sadness. That no longer scares me. After all I’ve been through in the last few months. I can sit with equanimity through many more of life’s challenges; strong, courageous, and awake–the tender presence that gives birth to deep compassion.


Thoughts and emotions will always arise. The purpose of practice is not to get rid of them. We can no more put a stop to thoughts and emotions than we can put a stop to the worldly circumstances that seemingly turn for or against us. We can, however, choose to welcome and work with them. On one level, they are nothing but sensations. When we don’t solidify or judge them as good or bad, right or wrong, favorable or unfavorable, we can utilize them to progress on the path.
We utilize thoughts and emotions by watching them arise and dissolve. As we do this, we see they are insubstantial. When we are able to see through them, we realize they can’t really bind us, lead us astray, or distort our sense of reality. And we no longer expect them to cease. The very expectation that thoughts and emotions should cease is a misconception. We can free ourselves from this misconception in meditation.
In the sutras it says, “What good is manure, if not to fertilize sugar cane crops?” Similarly, we can say, “What good are thoughts and emotions–in fact all of our experiences–if not to increase our realization?” What prevents us from making good use of them are the fears and reactions that come from our self-importance. Therefore, the Buddha taught us to let things be. Without feeling threatened or trying to control them, just let things arise naturally and let them be.
When ego-mind becomes transparent through meditation, we have no reason to be afraid of it. This greatly reduces our suffering. We may actually develop a passion for seeing all aspects of our minds. This attitude is at the heart of the practice of self-reflection.
-Dzigar Kongtrül, “It’s Up to You”, pp. 8-9

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May this inspire you to find your own ability to let things be and to utilize your own experiences to increase your realization.

Gassho!

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal: Entry 7 – Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be (Part 2)

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Entry 7: Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be (Part 1)

Clarification: I’m splitting this piece into two parts. The first is my own personal experience of late, and the second is a related long quote that goes well with this, but I feel it best to let them both stand on their own, yet connected and in a harmonic resonance with each other.


Last weekend, I went down to the city I used to live in with my ex. I stayed with mutual friends–the first time seeing them in months. It was eye-opening. After all this time and change, I’ve still been carrying some ideas that this home has some elements that are the same, but like me, really, so much has shifted. I went, in part, to feel this connection again and to weigh the opportunity of returning there. It was odd, unhemlich really: some things still felt like the home I miss and love–homey=heimlich, but there was an overarching foreignness alongside this familiarity–unhomey=unheimlich: that bizarre feeling when the familiar is unfamiliar. The saddest part was how distant others were when I saw those other connections beyond the friends I stayed with. All of this made me realize that if I go back, it will have to be completely on my own steam and without expecting the familiar to be there. As sad as that may be, seeing things clearly, especially even the most subtle layers of desire and hope–unconscious ones, can be liberating. Seeing clearly what you are holding onto can gently open the hand, letting those things fall away.

The hardest thing was that I almost saw her. Even just hearing her voice from a distance brought up all the little idiosyncrasies about her that I still miss. I lost a partner and a best friend so many months ago with this breakup, and it is very often, still, that I hear her voice in my head, saying certain things just that particular way that only she would say them, or I can almost hear and see her responding to the goofiness that I regularly bring into the world.

Yet, the gusto of her voice, also recalled all those bizarre relationship-ending conversations, galvanized with that sentiment of self-righteousness, as though the point of this life-changing decision were distinguishing right and wrong. That voice, those eyes, that cold feeling of being disconnected from reality with overlays of denial… I’m glad that I chose not to go say hello. I don’t see any benefit in facing that now, if any of it remains at all. If that is the case, certainly she wouldn’t be interested either. She wanted my presence cut from her life, wanted me dead in a certain sense, and she’s never reached out again afterward. She could just as readily have walked down to say hello to me as well; the decision did not have to be made by me, and clearly, she didn’t want to. That’s fine. Ultimately, one of the largest parts of moving on in the kind of situation I’m in is accepting the choice of a person you love to not love you anymore. In a certain sense, it’s dying with grace. It’s letting go of the person you used to be.

I came back home to my life in the Seattle area, after this whirlwind trip, and I began the work week again. It was a bit jarring making this transition… For the week previous to the trip, I had been doing a Healing Bootcamp of sorts, described in The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, but I didn’t finish the closing of the last day due to leaving on my trip to see my friends and my old home. The middle of the relief program requires a journalling of the beginning, middle, and end of the relationship–piece by piece, and then, you write down points of gratitude for each of these stages and offer them upon your altar. At the end of the program, you perform loving-kindness meditation for your ex and burn the offered gratitude while stating that for now this relationship is over, and you are a better person for having experienced it.

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A simple altar that I set up for this recovery program — sans the written offerings described in this post

After returning from a trip of letting go, I belatedly did this final ritual–opening my heart with loving-kindness and burning the past with a cleansing fire. I stood on the bricks in the backyard, lighting each piece and feeling the warmth of the fire sharing my joy at the gifts I’ve been given (and was offering as gift over to the flames) but also burning them away–past and gone. Unlike a rebound or more aggressively “moving on”, this whole process was so kind, loving, gentle, yet affirming. It has been a completely mindful way of growing through heartbreak with acceptance, even gratitude, for pain and change. It’s not a denial of the past or the present in the slightest. On the contrary, it’s showing up for it: taking the path of the spiritual warrior–knowing that even this, maybe even especially this, is an opportunity for practice.

I still have a lot of healing to go, so there may still be several other entries in the Heartbreak Wisdom Journal, but this experience was definitely a turning point, and I feel some liberation from showing up to the person I used to be and tenderly, yet bravely, letting go of him.


Here is what I had to say about the ritual in my Morning Pages earlier this week:

I spoke to each note, reading them all aloud and emphasizing how wonderful each point of gratitude was but emphasizing also, like everything, these pass too. These moments were gone. The points of gratitude–the experiences–have shaped me. Their karmic consequences have begun blooming, yet, their cause, and the connection associated with them, has been severed and crushed. Now, it has also been burned. The fire was beautiful–flickering flames lapped at my words of gratitude, embracing them and celebrating them with the burning joy they deserved. Now, those words are dissipated, spread on the wind. Who knows what comes next? Not I.
This has given me some small amount of emotional clearance, yet there is much more healing to come.

May this help you find your own ability to let go of the person you used to be.
Gassho!

A Scab

I pulled a scab off my knee today.
The red, irritated skin underneath
Breathed with fresh life.
No longer a tingling itch
Behind a brown carapace.
No longer a patch of “skin”
Lacking the intimate
Sensitivity of touch.
I felt renewed, yet vulnerable
And aware of my frailty.
The skin was scraped away
In a moment – blood
Suddenly seeping out
Of an aching hole,
A surprising, spontaneous lack
Of a piece of me,
So minor and present
Merely moments before.
Now, two weeks later,
The red of the blood
Matches the newly born,
Red skin…

I now have a scrape on my heart,
A place of lack, ache, and emotions
Seeping through to fill the wound.
How long will this take to heal?
When will I peel back
The crystallized feelings
Finding a renewed, yet vulnerable
Heart underneath?