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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On Writing: Creativity, Practice, and Style

I’ve recently been thinking about the art of writing. For a long time, I’ve thought of myself as a lackluster writer. This thought holds sway in my mind because of some negative feedback I got from a couple professors I had back in my college days. However, thinking back in a more detached manner now, I realize that their perspective came from an evaluation which only valued a particular style — moreover, a style with a fairly narrow scope and a somewhat anti-creative bent. The style that flows forth for me when I simply write, simply let creativity manifest itself on the page, is not readily that style. You know what, though? That’s fine, and I’m not necessarily a bad writer because of it.

A couple weekends ago, I went to an author’s reading. The author was Neil Gaiman, a famous writer of the magical and fantastical. He took some questions from the audience about writing, and he focused on one thing: to succeed at writing, simply write and put it out there. We live in a time when communicating your message with others is easier than ever. This doesn’t mean that you’ll make millions off of your creative works, but is that really success with writing? Isn’t the purpose merely to communicate with others? You can write, write, write away and get that message out to others across the globe. His feedback on “writer’s block: Feeling stuck? Don’t know what to create? Create something else and come back to what you’re stuck on later. There are always more things that need to be written.

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I thought this was really wise counsel. For myself, one of my points of feeling stuck in the creation of this blog has been two-fold: 1) at times, I don’t know how to complete something that I’m trying to write – the thoughts and analyses getting stuck in the process of creation; 2) I have absolutely been certain that I am horrible at poetry – getting even more negative feedback in the past. Eventually, however, I moved past these blocks by just starting to write poems, tersely putting the ideas on the page and deciding to put them out there whether they are any good or not. In many ways, that process of creative writing was the impetus that got this blog started, but I’ve gotten bolder with these stylistic experiments over time, and almost always, when I doubt my writing, or more particularly, my style, those posts get the most feedback and the most likes.

Where am I going with all of this? It’s simple enough. Let me use one more metaphor: growing up, I had a “runner’s build” – lanky with strong legs. I never imagined that I would have any upper body strength, but when I reached my 20s, I started spending time at the gym, doing calisthenics, and challenging myself to get better at pullups and pushups. Now, I have big shoulders and arms from all that work. My point? If you want to write and be creative with words, go do it. Try different things. Write academic analyses, but also try writing a haiku poem from time to time. Work with meter and rhyme, but also explore powerful ideas. Try being creative in any way you feel interested without worrying about others’ feedback or your strengths or weaknesses. With time, you’ll get better at it, but it’s not about self-absorbed concern about you and your excellence – it’s simply about the act of creating; practice the excellence of your style and form, and it will get easier to write often, deeply, and well.

 

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Final Entry: Letting Go of Letting Go

I’m closing out the year with this final entry in this series of posts that has both informed my spiritual development of this year and the course of this blog as well. I’m closing this narrative with a long set of connected thoughts about letting go–both my own and some quotes that have inspired me. This year is done, and this chapter in my story comes to a close as well. May this inspire those of you out there who have also gone through heartbreak.


What is the perfection of wisdom? Let’s look at some important elements that are the core of our practice as well as our lives. In face-to-face study, a student expresses agony over a relationship that ended two years ago and asks me how to let go. What is letting go?There is a little toy called a Chinese finger-trap. You put two fingers into it, then try to pull them out. But you can’t extricate your fingers from the trap by pulling: it’s only when you push your fingers further in that the trap releases them. Similarly, we think of letting go as doing something: throwing things away, ending a relationship, getting rid of whatever’s bothering us. But that works no better than pulling our fingers in order to extricate them from the trap. We let go by eliminating the separation between us and what we wish to let go of. We become it.

Do we let go of anger by saying good bye or going away? Of course not! That doesn’t work. The way to let go of anger is to enter the anger, become the anger rather than separate from it. If you even hold on to the notion of having to let go of it, you’re still stuck. In a famous koan, a monk went to Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen and asked, “What shall I do now that I’ve let go of everything?” Chao-chou said, “Let go of that!” The monk said, “What do you mean, let go of that? I’ve let go of everything.” Chao-chou answered, “Okay, then continue carrying it with you.” The monk failed to get the point. Holding on to letting go is not letting go.

We don’t get rid of anger by trying to get rid of it: the same applies to forgetting the self. To forget the self means to become what is, become what we are. How do we let go of a painful relationship? Become the person we wish to let go of, become the pain itself. We think we’re not the person, not the pain, but we are. Eliminate the gap between subject and object and there’s no anger, no loss of relationship, no sorrow, no suffering, no observer sitting back and crying, “Poor me!”

The Chinese finger-trap is solved by going further into the trap, and the same is true of letting go: Go into it. If you avoid the situation, it only gets worse. Totally be it; that’s letting go. Similarly, when we sit, it’s not a question of trying to do something. Don’t sit there saying, “I have to accomplish this. I have to attain that.” Just let go and be what you are, be this very moment. If you are breathing, just be breathing, and you will realize that you’re the whole universe, with nothing outside or external to you. The beautiful mountain–that’s you. Anger, lust, joy, frustration–they’re all you: none are outside. And because there’s no outside, there’s also no inside; altogether, this is you. This is the meaning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s “I alone am!”–Bernie Glass, from Infinite Circle

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I intended to write this post a couple months back around the time of my birthday, but I never got to it, and I can only believe that it wasn’t ripe. I was reading the book quoted above around the same time, but this quote means so much more to me reading it again now. This is my last Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entry. After all the steps in the spiritual path of heartbreak, I’ve finally reached the realization that continuing these narratives is not fully letting go. It’s time to let go of letting go. That’s the step forward on the path of the spiritual heart. That’s the tender vulnerability that was described in the first entry. We come full circle: nothing outside.

Let my birthday journal entry, Morning Pages from a couple months back, serve as an intention in this step forward:
“Well, 33! Made it!
I’ve been thinking of this particular one for a while. As a teenager, I loved the Smashing Pumpkins’ “33”. It is now my theme song for a year, I suppose. That’s odd, in a way, as it’s a romantic song about another person making existence beautiful:
– ” You could make it last, forever, you.”
Clearly, after the year I’ve had, I just don’t feel that way about anyone, and I wonder if I ever will again. In many ways, I totally don’t respect those concepts of romance, especially as a guiding light in the life of a person. Well, maybe I can transform that into something less deluded–transmutation.
That reminds me: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just that. I want to handle my story around the heartbreak of the end of my relationship in a very particular way. I don’t want to cast her as a monster or villain. I don’t want to cast myself as hero or victim. It simply was. It was, however, not justified–another story that explains away–no matter what came after. Again, it simply was–the complicated interweaving of sharing life and love with other people. In the end, she simply decided that she wanted something different. That’s all.
In the end, this suffering has been, as is suffering in general, useless. That’s actually one of the best philosophical essays I have read: Levinas’ “Useless Suffering”. Explaining away my pain–to myself or the explanations of others–is ultimately an unwillingness to sit with, see, and genuinely feel the agony of a broken heart. Again, it simply is, and any meaning or story that makes it OK or gives it a telos covers it over and masks it. There is beauty in the rawness, and the only use is to sit with it and be inspired to compassion for others, to aim at liberating oneself and all sentient beings from such anguish.
So, no, I won’t cast stones. However, I will transmute–that earlier thread of connection–the love I reached for her into this compassion for all. I’ll blow the lid off of the Love of an Other that completes my Self and move to a warmth for all that exists. May I step forward on the path for the benefit of all sentient beings.”


Tonight–before writing any of this or reading these quotes again–I sat down and did a mantra meditation with mala in hand, counting–bead by bead.

Om mani padme hum.
Om mani padme hum.
Om mani padme hum.



108 times
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I focused my attention on Kwan Yin/Avalokitesvara/Chenrezig/Kannon–the listener to the cries of the world, bodhisattva of compassion. As I repeated the words and contemplated Avalokitesvara with his hundred arms–reaching out to touch the lives of all sentient beings, I felt my own loving-kindness swell, and I flashed on those who have done me pain, who have stoked my anger or sadness… I realized, as separation of I/Them dropped away, that They are I and I am They. Her face flashed by amidst others, and I saw tears and felt her fear, her anxiety. I embraced her feelings with loving-kindness. Many others flashed by as well. Among them all, my own face flashed up, my angry, sad face, tormented by delusion, struggling with all the cares of being human. I compassionately embraced this too. As Glass Roshi said in the initial quote above: “Anger, lust joy, frustration–they’re all you: none are outside. And because there’s no outside, there’s also no inside: altogether this is you.” — For a brief moment, I sat in this compassion and wisdom, in this karuna and prajna

Then, like always, my mind flitted back to ordinary shenanigans–always room for more practice.


After meditating, I lay down and finished reading a graphic novel, weathering a slight stomachache. The closing words rang true and inspired me to sit down and write this entry. We shall close with them:

I can’t give you your hope. You have to grow your own and hold it through the seemingly endless darkness. The true task–to find joy in the small things we can count on.

When we stop taking pleasure in the basic experience of being alive, beat-by-beat, we lose everything that makes life worthwhile. We must relish in every sight, every touch…
… Every memory. My daughters playing in the garden. Johl kissing my neck. Marik’s elation at a new invention. These memories are enough to light my darkest hour. To face whatever awaits above. We all of us carry burdens that seem too heavy. … Losses we can’t conceivably move past. The things that once gave purpose to life. It is all too easy to give yourself over to the traumas of the past–allowing pain to define us. There is a medicine for that–hope and perseverance. Light brings light. And no matter what we face there is one thing we can control: our outlook. It’s not about ignoring the pain or mindlessly believing things will simply be better–it’s about finding the joy in participating. And when the weight of the past pulls us low we must find the strength to release it…
…and finally give ourselves permission to start over.
-Rick Remender, Low: Volume 2, closing passage

 

The character, Stel, finds the hope to start fresh, letting go of the past, but she doesn’t do this by running away from it–ignoring it–or by blindly believing that the future will make everything right again. She’s neither lost in the pain of the past nor in a dream of a hazy, euphoric future. She’s faced all of her ghosts by sitting with everything as it was and as it currently is. She’s fully taken on her pain, her burdens. She realizes that in becoming them, the weight of the past drops with the permission to start over. That permission is always at hand, right now. It merely takes the warrior’s courage to let go: to fully be here as we are. That’s what starting over is. This may begin with holding on to the wonders of golden experiences, but this sagely wisdom fully blossoms in participating joyously in every moment of life, even the most painful or burdensome. This is wrongly called “hope” because it’s not about that belief in a future deliverance; it’s actually “faith”–trust in and no separation from all that is. This is recognizing the basic goodness of existence, and it is a clear step forward to liberation: happiness that does not rely on the conditioned.

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May this light the path to letting go of heartbreak for those who need it.

Gassho!

Gratitude and Affirmation During Times of Loss and Pain

In recent weeks, I’ve received aspersions to my character, questioning of my intelligence, and other undeserved negativity. I’m a radiant, awesome, deep, heartfelt, kind, and insightful being, always pushing myself to improve, learn, love, and grow. I’m working through all this and trying to move beyond, despite all the loss that circles through my life.

I feel that this is an opportunity to affirm and express my gratitude:
I’m grateful for seeing that we all are lost from time to time but that the way out is to admit it and work through with humility and vulnerability, to reach out to any involved and those you hold dear. Self-righteous proclamations and stubborn intention just continue a lost path. I feel the call here of Socrates saying that he is wise for knowing that he knows nothing – question what you know. Don’t assert it. Being reminded of this is one of the greatest lessons.
I’m grateful for friends and being reminded that they are those who challenge you to be virtuous, i.e. live up to your excellence (à la Aristotle). They are willing to point out the things about yourself that you aren’t willing to hear and love you in spite of yourself sometimes (as we all sometimes struggle and act poorly). They do so much more than just support you. They are partners in your life’s changes. As such, they keep you honest and authentic to yourself and your path. If you are not open to their criticism, your friendship is not as empowering and vibrant as it could be.
I’m grateful to be reminded that you should not make decisions out of fear and pain. Even when life throws you hard challenges, choose from a place of love, hope, faith, and intention for what you want to work toward. Do not choose from a place of fear, desire to numb pain, and what you want to run away from. Choose hope, not despair.
I’m grateful for all the self-care routines I have developed over the years. Loving others and the world starts with taking care of yourself.
I’m grateful for my personal strength. It’s amazing what you can make it through if you’re willing to face it.
I’m grateful for my health, my heart, and my short time in this mysterious and beautiful existence. It’s really difficult to affirm our lives at times, given the struggles we undergo. It’s so easy to want to escape it all, but in the end, I choose to stand tall and proud, and like Sisyphus, I aim to affirm my lot and love my fate.

Be Well!

Gassho!

I couldn’t have said it better myself.