September 25, 2014 § 2 Comments
I note within myself something that may benefit others and wish to share that today.
There are times when I tense up and feel a bit anxious, usually over nothing of consequence. It’s an automatic reaction that probably dates back to childhood; perhaps to times when I might have done things my parents or teacher would disapprove.
To give you a better idea of this, recall a time when you thought you lost your ID or wallet. Do you recall that sudden feeling of, “Uh? Oh!” As if you’ve just had all supports taken away and fallen into a big hole in the pit of your stomach? Well. That’s the feeling I’m talking about but usually not so extreme.
A Buddhist might say this feeling reflects attachment to the sense of self, symbolized by the ID or wallet. When this identity is suddenly taken away we may feel suspended in air without any ground to walk on. One suffering PTSD knows this feeling in a very extreme form. Most, however, are acquainted with it as tension and a wish to withdraw when criticized, given a look of disapproval or something small of that nature.
Our reaction to personal criticism, to use that example, begins with tension but may end with anger, fear, depression or any of a variety of responses depending on how deeply attached we are to the self. The reason for this is clear. Criticism of the self is a negation of self.
If you think yourself artistic, popular or attractive and someone comes along and criticizes those qualities, that criticism is equivalent to having a hole punched in your self-image: a hole that reveals your self to be empty.
Meditation can help ease the tension and meditation should be used to bring stability to one’s thoughts and emotions before progressing onto any deeper forms of discipline. But there does come a time when progress depends on facing the truth about your true nature.
Emptiness is your true nature.
That may sound quite unappealing. In fact, most would prefer to spend their entire lives filling the emptiness of their true nature with things, thoughts and activities than to actual come face to face with it. But you can use those holes in the self, if you want to know your Self.
The key is found in the simple affirmation that emptiness lies behind your feeling of discomfort and tension.
Now. Usually when we feel discomfort we automatically begin to deny and withdraw. So it may take a bit of time to slow that reaction down to see that what is really making you uncomfortable is your own emptiness revealing itself to you. But if we stop our automatic reactions we can learn to feel at ease with our holes. Eventually we will even be able to recognize our true nature as emptiness and be comfortable with that. And when we are comfortable with emptiness, have we not transcended the self?
September 16, 2014 § 9 Comments
Many have seen a movie where the principal character is suddenly thrust into the role of pretending to be someone they’re not. Tension builds as each new plot twist has the protagonist coming ever closer to being found out. The tension that underlies this storyline is palpable evidence of a common human experience: we fear being exposed as something other than what we pretend to be.
For many this fear is something that lies only at the periphery of consciousness. For others it is the source of a daily tension that leads to anxiety disorders, depression or even addiction to ease the psychological suffering. Still others report it as that feeling of “something is wrong” that led them to a spiritual path.
In Hakuin’s painting, “Blind Men on a Bridge,” this feeling of tension is aptly portrayed as three blind men edging ever closer to falling off a bridge into the abyss below. This painting represents a Buddhist view of how anxiety may grow as we begin to release the idea of self and recognize our true nature to be emptiness.
To some, this release of self may be felt like a raw nerve exposed to the elements. Pema Chödrön, in her book, “The Places That Scare You,” describes it as a soft spot, “a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound.” Of this soft spot she writes, “It is equated, in part, with our ability to love.”
Whether experienced as a raw nerve or a vulnerable soft spot, this doorway to our true nature is something we’d rather not enter. We prefer the security of that which we know, so when the warning tensions arise that we are about to be found out, we shut the door.
We never really escape the door to emptiness. It lies immediately behind the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are. So whenever we are confronted or questioned, the door opens a bit. Then we react by withdrawing, physically, or through emotions of anger, depression and anxiety. And when, over the course of time the tension becomes too much, we may then escape through craving and addiction.
Yet, if through mindfulness and meditation we learn to withstand the unease of leaving the door open just a bit, we can overcome our discomfort. A discomfort born out of the uncertainty of living without the icons of who and what we thought we must be.
When we leave that door open and accept our inadequacies, embarrassments, anxieties, loneliness and fear, we begin to love the self, not for whom we pretended to be, but for who we are. And in loving our self this way, we begin to love others. We see in them the same uncertainty and unease that we found in self and recognize there our common humanity.
To quote Zen Master Hakuin from his Zazen Wasan,How near the truth yet how far we seek, Like one in water crying “I thirst!” Like a child of rich birth Wandering poor on this earth, We endlessly circle the six worlds. The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion, From dark path to dark path We’ve wandered in darkness— …And if we turn inward And prove our true Nature— That true Self is no-self, Our own Self is no-self— We go beyond ego and past clever words. Then the gate to the oneness Of cause and effect Is thrown open. Not two and not three, Straight ahead runs the Way. Our form now being no-form, In going and returning we never leave home.
September 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
Each of us carries an inner image of what we think we should be. In most respects we consider this image to be the real us, even if it does need a little work. So when the world tells us a different story we often react with a lot of tension and distress.
We can alleviate this distress by accepting the new reality or rejecting it. Which avenue we choose usually depends on how much it conflicts with our core beliefs or, to put it another way, how tightly attached we are to our image.
A slight adjustment to the self-image can usually be done with little trouble. Yet every alteration is a reminder that the self is not as real, or permanent, as we like to believe. When this idea finally takes hold in the unconscious mind, a crisis of identity arises. Questions that one does not always accept into consciousness arise, like, “If I am not who I thought I was, then who am I?” “If my beliefs are false, then on what ground do I stand?” “If I am not real, then what remains but emptiness?”
The moment a person questions the foundations of their being there begins an existential crisis. Yet this moment often comes unawares, and is often precipitated by a trauma, leaving the man or woman so confused over the true source of their overwhelming distress that they attempt to alleviate it through avoidance and denial. But this strategy only prolongs the crisis and often prevents it from ever being resolved. Unresolved, the individual sinks ever deeper into despair, depression and anxiety with addiction a real possibility.
Denial that manifests as a fruitless clinging to the self lies at the core of any existential crisis. Many such crises can be temporarily resolved by accepting a more realistic view of the self. Buddhism, however, takes the stand that replacing one self-image with another never truly ends the crisis and that it can only be resolved with the realization of no self.
To realize no self is to realize emptiness.
To the mind in crisis, emptiness is perceived psychologically as a vast, frightening space in which there is no ground to stand and no security found. It lies behind the broken images of self and all negative judgments of self-worth. It is the one thing the mind seeks to avoid yet the one thing that will set it free. Not knowing this the mind engages in self-protection strategies based on isolation, mistrust and withdrawal; with the result that the world becomes smaller and smaller as the mind denies more and more.
Buddhist practice is designed to steady the mind so that it can come face to face with emptiness. Through meditation and mindfulness the mind is trained to stay in the present moment, such that when emptiness appears in its psychologically frightening aspect, the mind will not deny or be overwhelmed by it.
Yet what happens when one accepts emptiness? Consider these words by Jim Bedard in “Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen.”
“I began to fall. But unlike the heavy sinking sensation I had experienced over the past few months, it was a buoyant feeling of release and letting go. My body felt weightless and unburdened. An unraveling began in my chest as if a large knot were becoming undone, and I merged into the One Mind of all beings. Tears of joy ran down my face and soaked my gown. This is impossible, I thought. How is it during the most difficult time of my life I can be so full of joy and gratitude? Whether I lived or died seemed to matter little. In my true Self there was neither birth nor death. All things in the universe are none other than my own Mind. Indeed, the universe unfolds as it should.”
Finding release in one’s True Nature is a journey of Self-discovery that begins with the willingness to open up to new possibilities. The path evolves by disciplining the mind to accept subtler and subtler definitions of self until the final release into Emptiness. It is a path few are on, and fewer still complete. Yet the path is always there, waiting.