Some time ago, one of my dharma teachers suggested the phrase, I have everything I need, as a mantra of sorts to return to when caught up in feelings of anxiety. At the time it sounded a bit hokey to me–the idea of stopping in a moment of anxiousness to say to myself, “Laura, you have everything you need” brought to mind Saturday Night Live parodies of the affirmations said to one’s reflection in the mirror. However, in the last several years, this phrase, “I have everything I need,” has become an incredibly powerful one for me. It’s no cure-all, but I’ve come to feel that the importance of the pause it necessitates in the throes of emotional distress. Even if I only connect to its theoretical truth, I usually notice a gentle release of tension in my chest, a small expansion that reminds me my experience is not as narrow as it feels in that moment. However, recently I’ve noticed that, while I have trained myself quite well to mentally pause for my little mantra, I’ve had a harder time genuinely engaging with it, re-investigating its weight rather than intoning it to myself on autopilot, turning a familiar practice into a tired exercise. It wasn’t until I was rereading part of Mark Epstein’s book, Thoughts Without A Thinker, that it occurred to me that there’s a way in which I have perhaps allowed this helpful little mantra to let me off the hook in terms of getting to bottom of those feelings, treating the phrase like a soothing balm to spread over a wound without first stopping to gently locate and remove the bits of dirt so deeply ground in–no wonder its effectiveness reduces with each flare up of infection.
In Epstein’s opening chapter, he describes the Hell Realms, a set of purgatory states of suffering that humans may be born into as a reflection of their karma. In psychological terms, he refers to these realms as “vivid descriptions of aggressive and anxiety states.” This time around, I was especially struck by his discussion of the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, whose inhabitants are visually depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of LIfe as: “phantomlike creatures with withered limbs, grossly bloated bellies, and long, thin necks… [who] while impossibly thirsty, cannot drink or eat without causing themselves terrible pain or indigestion [and] the very attempts to satisfy themselves cause more pain.”
According to Epstein’s translation of the realms from a ‘place’ into a psychological state, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts represents an attachment to the past, a state of “searching for gratification for old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed.” This assessment interested me greatly because, while I identify deeply with the compulsion to fill up the emptiness of ‘not enough’ by casting about myself for comfort–in exercise, affection, food, even my meditation practice–I have never considered myself to be someone particularly attached to the past. In fact, my experience of myself has almost always been a complete and utter preoccupation with the future, letting go of the past with a dismissive “I don’t believe in regrets.” And yet, what else could be at the root of this habitual rising of ‘not enough’ but “old unfulfilled needs whose time has passed”? What else could be behind such a hard, bright insistence on worrying over the future and staunch refusal to dwell on the past?
Though I have some leads, I don’t have concrete answers to correspond to these abstract questions for myself as of yet. I have the sense that, as usual, a seed which was planted years before is finally, just now, beginning to sprout. Fundamental to the foundation of Buddhism is the recognition that suffering is our resistance to a direct experience of reality, and by extension, ourselves. As I do my best to nurture my curiosity despite the anxiety and fear clouding my view, I take comfort in the Buddhism’s notion of interdependent co-arising: “the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage.” If this is true, then I do, in fact, have ‘everything I need’ to gently remind myself that I am not stuck with the burdens of my past so long as I aspire to look directly at my present, which includes acknowledging the origins of my habitual patterns.