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!

 

Giving Heart (Part 2)

Our worries may zoom around the state of the world. “What happens if the economy plummets? If the ozone layer keeps decreasing? If we have more anthrax attacks? If terrorists take over the country? If we lose our civil liberties fighting terrorism?” Here, our creative writing ability leads to fantastic scenarios that may or may not happen, but regardless, we manage to work ourselves into a state of unprecedented despair. This, in turn, often leads to raging anger at the powers that be or alternatively, to apathy, simply thinking that since everything is rotten, there’s no use doing anything. In either case, we’re so gloomy that we neglect to act constructively in ways that remedy difficulties and create goodness.

Thubten Chodron, Taming the Mind, page 129


In Giving Heart (Part 1), I wrote about the importance of taking up your political privilege to vote for the candidate who will protect life through fighting climate change, social injustice, and other inequities. I argued that this is important and an act of affirmation rather than one of cynicism. This is how to get beyond thinking in terms of lesser evils.

Today is election day in the US. If you’re reading this, go back to the first entry and think about it. Then, go vote. This is important. You’re extremely lucky to live in a time and society in which you have the privilege to vote. Go do so with the bigger picture in mind.

However, in this post, I’m transitioning to give heart from the perspective of the quote above as promised in the last post; this post will be about how to “create goodness” in the interactions of your life to move beyond hoping for abstract ideals and leaders to provide the world you want to live in. You can do your own part.

You are always here, already in a world with other people and other life. What can you do to be at harmony with them and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions? This is the question that should animate your interactions. However, it doesn’t mean being a pushover. Sometimes, the kindest possible thing is showing someone else how they are being selfish or harmful. Nor does it mean intellectually analyzing every choice you make; rather, respond to life holistically, trying to do so with openness and compassion. Try practicing that, and you’ll find your place in the unity that the poem points out: radiating wisdom and justice in your life rather than being lost in the deluded dreams of waiting for it to be realized in some system or political ideology.

As really analyzing this topic would take a lot more discussion, I’ll leave you with that question — “What can you do to be at harmony with the other people and other life you live with, with the universe, and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions?” —  to point you along your own way, and I’ll add a few quotes from various sources to inspire you in your engaged practice.

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From the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Red Pine)

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones

This excerpt from Verse 3 inspires me, always. Ancient commentators take the full stomach as sated desires – ruling people in such a way that they aren’t driven by yearning that leads them to steal, harm, and trample. There is definitely validity to this, but isn’t this so to a certain extent because the sage makes sure that others are fed and healthy? Isn’t the most simple compassion a taking care of others’ well-being in the most basic ways? Not that I’m exhorting you to sacrifice yourself, enable others, or only care about creature comforts, but there is a basic concern that could extend as wisdom through our engagement with others.

From the Dhammapada (Trans. Easwaran)

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time:
hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

There are those who forget that death will come to all.
For those who remember, quarrels come to an end. (Verses 5 and 6)

These lines come in the first chapter after twinned verses which explain that selfish thoughts and actions lead to suffering whereas selfless actions lead to joy. These lines both sum up the point and show that our time in life is short — there’s no time to lose in beginning to shape our selfless path of compassion right now.

Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas. (Verse 183)

This summation is cryptic in its advice but when remembered in lines with cultivating the path of selflessness, it becomes succinct and practical.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Trans. Robin Hard)

8.27. We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

This is key to all of these perspectives, I believe. The Buddha’s story is not one where asceticism is the answer: rather he reaches enlightenment after realizing that eating and nourishing his body is important too. Lao Tzu points out how feeding the bodies of all is important for the ruler. Last, Marcus Aurelius points out that we have to take care of ourselves, recognize our place in the big picture of what is, and realize that there are other people with whom we coexist — another relationship that deserves our care. All three of these sources would reverberate with this last set of reminders, and we might even question, to go very Buddhist, where the differences in these relationships arise. There may just be the one relationship of taking care, plain and simple.


May this give you heart to bring compassionate engagement to yourself, others, and life/the Universe as a whole.

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!

Reactivity

Careening –
Toward, against
Retreating –
Away, behind
Reactivity
On course?
No, bound

Locked, empty, and confused
Seeking to wrest control
From the jaws
Of existential angst
– A threat to overcome
A life overrun

Where is there to be found
A freedom from endless rounds?
– In letting go
In just this

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When you encounter difficulties, the feelings and stories that arise in reaction are just that, feelings and stories. They are whirlwinds of confusion, based not in what is happening now but in deeply held beliefs about you and your relationship to the world. Let them swirl — leaves in the wind. Sometimes you fall back into them and lose touch with the present, but a moment of recognition always comes. Right then, come back to your body, come back to your breath, and rest. The confusion, the stories and the feelings are still there. They continue to swirl, but you are not lost in them.

Just rest. Do not try to control your feelings. Open to all the stories and feelings as much as you can without being consumed by them. You will experience shock, disorientation, anger and self-blaming — reactive mechanisms that protect you from the full impact of what has happened. Sit patiently and let your system sort itself out.

As you rest in the confusion, bit by bit, you separate your confusion from the challenge you are facing. Still the impulse is to oppose. Ask yourself, “What am I opposing?” Then, “Do I need to oppose this?” And, finally, “Is opposing called for at all?”

When you no longer oppose what is happening in you, you are able to rest and see more clearly. What do you see? Look in the resting. Rest in the looking. In doing this, you are mixing awareness with what you experience and what you experience with awareness. Keep coming back to the clarity without losing the stability. Keep coming back to the stability without losing the clarity.

Learn to trust that clarity. Over time it enables you to act without relying on conceptual thinking or strategizing.

– In “Reflections on Silver River: Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva” by Ken McLeod

May this inspire you to rest in your confusion and find the clarity to act with freedom rather than reacting from your stories.

Gassho!

Dreams and Waking Life

Fantastic places
Strange situations
Wonder & Terror
Exquisiteness & Hideousness
Uncanny: familiar yet foreign

Yet, all of it,
Ephemeral
Wisps of nothing
Real?–Yes
Rife with meaning & emotion
But also,
Empty

The secret?
Waking life is the same
Transient, in flux
Not concrete,
An unfolding of myriad magnificence

The dream yogi begins,
Repeating a reminder:
“This is just a dream”
Both while awake
And while asleep

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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
.

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!

Experience in Meditation

What arises in this moment?
“Joy”?
“Agony”?
“Nostalgia”?

Can you openly be present to it?
Whatever it may be?
So many butterflies
And moths, flitting about…

Don’t react. Just feel–fully.
Just anger.
Just lust.
Just sadness.

No narrative yarns following these swarms.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
No attachment.

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May this inspire you to meditate.

Gassho!

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