March 30, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the last post I spoke of an experience I had many years ago in which my heart opened and all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. I had a general idea of what was going on at that time but recently a clearer explanation came to me.
The experience began with a seemingly innocuous statement from a security guard that no photographs were allowed in the area where I stood. Upon hearing this all the boundaries that my ego had worked so hard to establish over the years fell away. I was left feeling completely vulnerable and my nervous system a raw nerve without any protection or covering whatsoever.
I see now that some part of me felt as if the fundamental mistake that I believed myself to be had been revealed for all to see. It was this mistake, this original sin, if you like, that my ego had been working so hard to cover up all my life.
The belief that my own nature was a fundamental mistake began that first time I was hurt so long ago. Looking for an explanation to the cause of the hurt led me to the belief that I was somehow fundamentally wrong. There must be something wrong with me, I thought, or I wouldn’t have been treated so.
Now I don’t remember who had hurt me, nor does it matter. What matters is that being hurt is a universal event for all people. And from it the early beginnings of the human ego take shape as the developing mind seeks to hide its vulnerable spot beneath layers of defenses meant to protect it from further hurt. This is done by selectively denying the hurt-self, as I call it, while developing qualities that will compensate for its perceived weakness. Qualities that are essentially the opposite of these weaknesses.
Some of this ego development is simply a part of one’s normal development where perceived weakness is turned to strength. A child, for example, may find his social skills lacking and begin to study his popular friends to learn how to be more social. However, if this lack was the source of an early hurt, he may eventually find himself to be a very popular fellow but still believe that he is fundamentally a fraud. He may go through life with a deep fear that others may discover this pretense and that some catastrophic rejection will occur when they do.
The relationship between the ego and the hurt-self is akin to a house and the foundation on which it is built. On a firm foundation a house will be able to withstand a lot of stressors but where the foundation is weak the house may easily crumble. Similarly, an ego built upon trauma will easily fall when the stress is great, or even when there appears to be little or no outer stress. One should not conclude, however, that where there is no trauma an ego will stand firm. Each of us have our own particular soft, vulnerable spot and when that is exposed the ego can crumble quite easily.
The ego will do everything it can to keep awareness away from the vulnerable spot because that is the one place it cannot survive. There it begins to fall away and that feels like death to the ego. As it begins to dissolve the sense of separation from the outside world drops away. It is possible at these times to feel a sense of joy and union with the world, but it is also possible to feel very vulnerable, as I did in my experience. When that happens, it means the ego is still holding on, still trying to protect itself. It’s doesn’t want to let go because it fears this new open space, which is really life in all its immensity.
The ego wants to keep you from opening your heart to that vast open space. That space is all about you right now. To know it, all you need do is to drop your thoughts. How do you do this? Just turn your attention towards something simple. The branches moving in the wind outside your window. The sound of the cars driving by that come in waves like the surf. Your own breath. Any of these are doorways to this open space, aka., the present moment. Don’t look beyond these simple things for some grander sense of consciousness. Just stay with the awareness. And when the ego starts thinking again, just drop it, too.
January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
Meditation has been described here in August Meditations as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. Distraction was given in general terms as thought or thinking, the content of which is often dictated by underlying attachment and identification, the two main causes of suffering. Meditation may therefore be also described as the continuous waking from ego attachment and identification to what I call the hurt-self.
Now imagine a time in your youth when all things were bright and new. You were feeling pretty good about yourself and going about your business when someone came along and said or did something hurtful. This may have been your first encounter with hurt or one of many that didn’t bother you before but, for whatever reason, this time you held onto it. It stuck. This was a pivotal moment in your life for you had just identified as a hurt-self that needs protection and in doing so laid down the foundation for your emerging ego.
The significance of that moment lay in the fact that your awareness became confined to the ego’s narrow definition of itself as a hurt-self. Before this moment awareness flowed freely from moment to moment. After it, awareness came under the influence of the ego’s primary goal to maintain itself as it is or, to put it another way, to protect itself at all times. A narrative that ‘you’ were a ‘hurt you’ began as a way of keeping you safe, to which you began collecting instances of hurt to reinforce this narrative. When none were immediately available, past instances were recalled or ones yet to come were imagined.
With each new addition to the narrative the hurt-self became more and more sensitive, at times withdrawing into itself like a raw nerve touched by something sharp. This is what Pema Chodron calls the vulnerable, soft spot. It is the spot in your psyche that you don’t want the world to see and most want not to see in yourself. To accomplish this, you began directing awareness, yours and others, away from the spot. A persona or false self-image was created for outward appearance. While inwardly, you started burying the hurt-self through denial, an effort aided by feelings of shame and anger over what you believed to be your own weakness and vulnerability.
Ostensibly, these avoidance mechanisms were presented as a way to keep you safe. What was actually happening though was that the ego was keeping itself safe. This needs to be clearly understood. The ego is what it identifies with. If the attachment and identification to the hurt-self stopped, the ego believes it would stop or die. And to the extent that an individual believes himself to be the ego, he will naturally fear this death and want to keep his self-image intact and the hurt-self hidden. The result of these machinations is a self-made prison that limits awareness to seeing itself and the world through prison bars.
The bars of your prison are your own thoughts. Not sound, logical thought but the kind that is based upon the false premise that you really are the hurt self. And the corollary that you must protect that self at all cost if you are to survive in this world. Any problem arising from this false premise has no real solution because it is not based in reality. Following any such thought will lead to dead ends or be just plain gibberish.
Prison bars are numerous and vary from person to person but here are a few common ones.
- Thinking the same thoughts over and over again (Loop thinking, as I call it)
- Double-bind thinking, where two or more conflicting thoughts bind the awareness to an insolvable problem that by its nature creates an emotional conflict
- All or nothing thinking
- Catastrophic expectations
- Perfectionism and the belief that you must fix yourself
- Inner characters that tell you what to do and what not to do
- The persona or self-image that you present to the world
- Story-telling, wherein life events are made into a story that reinforces the hurt self
Thoughts such as those described above are all strategies of the ego that direct awareness into a maze of thinking that distort your experience so that you no longer live in the present moment but in your head. The only way to exit this maze is to turn your awareness towards what you’ve been avoiding. Meditation is a means to that end, but a word of warning.
The vulnerable, soft spot contains a lifetime of hurt. Where there is a history of mental illness or trauma it is better to seek professional psychological help than face it alone. For those with no such history, unraveling the knot in your heart will still be difficult. When times get tough, it may be of some consul to remember the words of Rumi who said, “That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.”
January 21, 2017 § 5 Comments
Meditation is the continuous waking to the present moment from distracting thoughts. This description implies a need to learn the difference between thinking and non-thinking. In practice this means we must be as the heron that has one eye out for food, while the other looks steadfastly to the sky.
It is a sad fact that the vast majority of humanity is so caught up in distraction that life seems barren without it. There is little of the light of the higher life in these masses who disdain the silence of meditation in a fruitless quest to satisfy their cravings.
Above the majority are those whose circumstance and desire has enabled this light to burn a little brighter. These are the quasi-intellectual, semi-cultured ones who often gravitate towards ideology and dogmatism. In these the conceit of ego often erupts in senseless disputes that may at times lead to political chaos and even war.
There are fewer still above these two lower levels who, though still possessing of ego, have learned to put it aside in favor of humanity. We may say of them that their stream of thought is actively dedicated to helping others.
For the most part, thinking dominates the minds of all who are led by ego and desire. In the actual day-to-day experience it plays out as an on-going dialogue and stream of emotion that is often described as a movie projected onto an inner, mental screen. To the greater mass of humanity this movie is fragmented and chaotic. The quasi-intellectual may have more of a story line but it is the rare few above them whose movies may be of ‘epic’ proportions.
For those who meditate and practice mindfulness it may take a long time before they can just observe their movies without being caught up in them. The individual suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder provides an extreme example of this.
For most of us, even when focused upon a simple task the mind plays a story that we soon find ourselves following. When we become aware of this we can usually drop it and return to the task. For the individual suffering PTSD, however, there is no end to the movie. Worst still, the movie doesn’t just involve the mind but has the entire body reacting to the horrific images being screened. And at the height of anxiety the movie may even jump off the screen into the outside world, leaving the individual feeling as if he or she were trapped in a theatre with no exit.
Whereas PTSD is produced by trauma, our movie producers are our culture, family, personal talents and other attributes that go into making us who we are. It is because our movies are so intricately involved with our identity that they are difficult to drop. And why when we persist on the path that a point comes when anxiety sets in. This anxiety is a signal that we are loosening the very attachments that make us feel safe and secure. Having pruned the tree of distraction, we begin to realize that we must leave its cool shade if we are to fully enter the light.
This is where many fail to progress to the next level that we may call Cosmic or Transcendent Consciousness. The ego, in sensing a Voice that says “I am I yet also Others,” fears the loss of its personal identity. So it hesitates. But if we continue to set one eye on the sky and the other on what lies below the surface, we will eventually see that we’ve been standing in an Ocean of Consciousness, all along.
September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
Meditation is the practice of continuous wakening to the present moment; a process that is aided by realizations, where the emphasis is on the word real.
At their core realizations are neither conceptual nor grand but humble, in the sense that they are a simple awareness of bare reality. When they happen there are no flashing lights or blaring trumpets. One just sees things the way they really are. Once seen, however, the effect on transforming an individual can be far-reaching. Yet the individual must not be sidetracked into a searching for these effects, for they come only after the realization.
Realizations are simple but hard to come by, as they require the mind to put aside its clutter of thoughts, feelings, truths and stories.
A few weeks ago, while recuperating from some surgery, I had the opportunity to observe a man who shared my hospital room. I noticed that his every activity was designed to manipulate others into considering his feelings before they did anything.
At first it appeared this man was just being self-serving but it turned out that he had suffered from spinal meningitis when quite young. Back then the doctors performed many painful procedures that to him seemed done without regard for his feelings. In the following years that assessment was woven into a story that became the truth of his life. When I met him, caring hospital staff surrounded him. But all he could see were the little things that confirmed his truth that no one cared.
To see what was really happening about him, this man would first have to be willing to give up his story that people didn’t care. We could imagine his initial struggle to do this would be punctuated with numerous examples of people not caring. If he were able to drop these ‘proofs’ he might see that there are some who do care. Of course, he would still believe some didn’t. To the Buddhist this is an example of dualism, the perception of things as opposing pairs of opposites.
To see the world, as it is, this man would have to drop his dualistic truth. In doing so he would come to see people as neither caring nor not caring. He might then expand this into seeing people as neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad. People would be just as they are, unadorned by labels.
The interesting thing about this process is that realizations come only after we have dropped our judgments, truths and stories. So, because nothing has been added, when we have one we are actually realizing nothing. We are just seeing what was right in front of us all along but which was veiled by the debris of our thoughts.
As realizations are seeing life stripped of thought, what is, is not what we think it is. And when we ultimately drop every thought, all that remains is bare awareness. Yet with the realization of bare awareness we realize that nothing, is everything.
August 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Practice is really about waking up to life. Your life, as it actually is each and every moment.
In practice ‘waking up’ is a continuous process of letting distracting thought go and returning to the present moment. Thought is typically described in Buddhist literature as thinking, where something grabs the attention and a thought arises that is followed by other thoughts. Becoming aware of an ache, for example, may produce a thought of adjusting the sitting position that is then followed by another thought of how moving will mar the practice. Other thoughts might then follow such as questions on whether one has any idea what practice truly is.
There is another way to describe thoughts that follow one upon the other and that is to call it a story. In the above example the collection of thoughts that started with an ache may become a story of low self-esteem and self-doubt. Or it may become a story of the practitioner as an honest seeker of the way. Whatever the story, becoming caught up in it takes one away from the present moment, which is the only place to find your actual life.
There is an advantage to rephrasing practice as dropping a story. Most inner stories aren’t actually told in words but arise all at once as a feeling with some vague images. As these feelings can be quite strong there is a tendency to seek a solution to them that necessarily creates more thought. When emotions and images are simply identified as a story, however, there is no compelling need to solve them so they are more easily dropped.
The average person isn’t usually tuned into what is actually going on in each and every moment of life. Moments are not seen for what they are but are wrapped in stories and vignettes that are constantly replayed as the day goes on. Convinced that these stories are real, he lives out life in what is at best a waking dream or, at worst, a state of complete delusion. We need only look at the actions of the terrorist to see the global effect of a deluded mind.
It is easy to see vignettes simply by watching our reactions to strangers or even words. Well-dressed strangers provoke a story that is quite different from those who are dirty and poorly dressed. Words like cancer, divorce or security provoke reactions of their own. We may think that because there is such a thing as cancer that our story about it is real. But the fact of something lends no validity to the stories we tell about it, any more than the existence of science makes a science fiction movie real.
In everyday life each moment is accompanied by a little vignette that is draped over what is seen and heard. These little stories are contained in broader stories that we call the story of our life. They are deeply embedded in the mind and shape how we feel and act regardless of what the situation may actually be. Yet for all the value we place upon this story it is, nonetheless, an empty work of fiction. It is not our true life.
In practice we find just how invasive our storytelling has become and how addicted we are to retelling our stories over and over again. Yet as we turn away from each retelling and return to what is actually happening, we start to realize their emptiness. Then, as our practice deepens to include the thought of self, we begin to see that who and what we believe ourselves to be is also a story. A false story that had us believing the fiction of separateness when, in fact, we are connected to all life. And when we start to drop that story, we start to awaken to our actual life that is Life, itself.
April 28, 2016 § Leave a comment
To walk with the soft spot is to reclaim the disowned self and openly acknowledge its vulnerability without trying to change or “solve” it. To do this, the psychological barriers that prevent contact with the vulnerable self must be peeled back. In doing so there is a risk of prematurely exposing the inner self but if we never do it our suffering will never end.
It is not difficult to imagine why the soft spot was disowned. It sensitivity to things like disapproval and criticism is easily felt. And if you add trauma to the mix this sensitivity may be raised to a level that is comparable to a surgeon’s scalpel probing a raw nerve! To avoid this suffering we isolate the soft spot, much like we do a broken arm with a cast.
The mental cast that keeps you safe is a psychological barrier that directs attention away from the soft spot. Often formed in childhood these barriers appear as subtle or intense urges to do or not do something. The inability to focus when feeling anxious is an example of how a mental barrier directs the attention away from the soft spot.
Psychologists have described the interplay between the soft spot and these barriers as an authority facing someone without authority (e.g., the ‘inner child vs. inner parent’ or ‘top dog vs. the underdog’). However one describes it, their interaction is marked by an inner conflict that seeks to deny the self.
A key form of denial is identifying the soft spot’s vulnerability as some essential flaw in your nature that must be kept hidden if you are to remain safe. Over time, openly admitting this vulnerability then becomes tantamount to exposing your self to direct danger or even death.
One could spend a lot of time analyzing the psychological results of believing the self to be essentially flawed. It’s clear that feeling unworthy might evoke feelings of depression, anger or anxiety. Certainly dysfunctional living results from trying to disown this seemingly flawed self. But such analysis is only useful to the extent that it enables us to remove the barriers that keep the attention off and away from the vulnerable self.
In meditation we have a unique opportunity to turn our attention to the soft spot and reclaim the vulnerable self. Initial attempts to observe the soft spot may be brief as mental barriers will turn the attention elsewhere. You may find yourself mesmerized by seemingly real dangers that only later are seen to be imaginary. In general, you’ll feel even more vulnerable as you begin to explore what lies beyond your barriers. This is normal and there will be times when it is better to step back rather than plunge into emotional chaos. Only you can judge how to best proceed.
As barriers start to fall we uncover the false connection between our sense of value and vulnerability. We find that it simply isn’t true that if some hardship befalls us that it did so because of some essential flaw in our nature. We find that if someone says something critical that it does not mean we are bad. And we see that what we’ve feared all along is the judgment that we are bad. But that judgment is false!
Up to this moment we have disowned the soft spot because we mistakenly believed that we could not make a defense against our own essential badness. Seeing this is not so, that we are not bad, we start to walk with the vulnerable self in our daily life. Our first steps will be faltering as we still are under the habit of denying our soft, vulnerable self. But as we strive to hold this self in awareness we slowly come to understand that the only way to protect self is to be self, vulnerabilities and all. And when we do, we discover that the vulnerable self is, and has been all along, the Venerable Self.
April 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
The Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother, Pema Chodron tells us that if we follow fear down to the core of our being we will ultimately find that it represents a fear of self; a fear of self’s innate vulnerability. She calls this the ‘soft spot’.
The soft spot reminds me of the Sacred Heart of Christ that is described, in part, as pierced by a lance-wound, encircled by a crown of thorns and bleeding. Christian dogma tends to the interpretation that Christ’s heart bleeds because of our sins, which suggests a connection to the concept of original sin. I mention this because it parallels the experience of the soft spot as a place of suffering that we wish to avoid, and as some fundamental flaw in our nature that we wish to correct.
The approach to the soft spot requires care for in it we find our deepest fears. Serious psychological damage can occur if the undisciplined or weak mind enters the soft spot. It is therefore important to strengthen the mind through meditation where, in its early stages, we learn not to follow thought but remain focused upon a single object.
When the mind has reached a certain level of discipline the attention can be trained on the soft spot. The strategies employed to protect this weakest and most vulnerable area then start to show. We may see, for example, how status or a sense of humor is used to cover deep feelings of fear, shame or guilt. The strategy most used, and which underlies all strategies, is denial. Over the years we have trained ourselves not to look at our soft spot because of the deep discomfort and fear that lay there.
As we learn to drop our strategies, we invariably feel the discomfort of the soft spot ever more keenly. We feel the fear of being vulnerable to illness, injury, disapproval or loneliness. We feel the shame or guilt over believing that it is somehow our fault that we feel this way. “Other people,” we think, “aren’t like this. So it must be me!”
As uncomfortable as these feelings are it is necessary to stay with them. Yet, at times when the feelings become too intense, it may be necessary to walk away for a while. You must use your own wisdom in this regard. But each effort puts us a little closer to being able to sit with our fear and neither come under its influence nor push it away.
As we hold this soft spot gently in the awareness we join Zen master Hakuin Ekaku who sat with his terror of falling into hell. We sit with Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We sit with the Buddha in those final hours before his great enlightenment when Mara conjured up hosts of terrifying demons, throwing spears, firing arrows and trying to burn him with fire.
If you do not turn from your suffering but, as Mumon wrote in the koan Joshu’s Dog, “enter this MU and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.” You can then enter any world as if it was your own playground and you will be free of life and death.
The ultimate freedom spoken of by Mumon does not come easily. Yet there are rewards along the way. Fear becomes more manageable and as we stay with our own vulnerability our hearts open to the suffering of others. Fear of illness may turn to compassion for the sick. Fear of loss may turn to a desire to help the poor. The willingness to open your heart to your own suffering, opens your heart to others. And all this starts with a simple willingness to sit with your own fear and vulnerable self as did the Great Masters of Old.