Filtering Experience

Something I’ve long puzzled over is the balance between allowing myself to accept undesirable states of mind–fractious moods, low spirits, unmotivated inertia–while also not getting so wrapped up in these states such that I wallow in them. Well, I say I’ve “long” puzzled over this, but really, it’s only been in the last five years or so. Before that, there was no question of balance: it was simply unacceptable to admit to myself I was feeling grumpy or sad or lazy. These feelings were noted only long enough to cue an inner reprimand of, “snap out of it.” However, what this really meant was that I turned all of my energy towards not appearing grumpy or sad or lazy.

Of course, not admitting you feel a certain way doesn’t take away the uneasiness  of the feeling; it just buries it under layers of insulation so you don’t have to look at it. And as the layers grow thicker and thicker, the uneasiness gets further and further removed from its original source.  This is fine, in a way–it makes it possible to keep up the operations of day-to-day living without stopping to fall apart with every little shift in mood; it protects us from the immediate experience of sometimes overwhelming pain; it keeps life feeling manageable. More and more, I’m in awe of our capacity for self-preservation.

However, there is also a way in which this elegant coping mechanism can act as an inaccurate filter to my experience. With this filter in place, I carry a vague sense of “I’m wrong…somehow,” or “something is missing.” In the last few years, as I’ve attempted to live a more examined life , I’ve found that these feelings of vague uneasiness not only leave me feeling less connected to myself but also to others. At times, I’ve thought to myself, “I know that I am loved, but I can’t feel it”; I’ve had the sense that the person loved is not really me but, rather, the person I’ve represented myself to be, someone who’s pleasant and joyful and hard-working–if they could see what a mess I actually am, they’d see I don’t deserve their love.

It’s only recently that I’ve made the connection between this painful distance I feel from others and the distance I’ve put between myself and the feelings I can’t accept in myself. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to watch these deeply ingrained habits dig deeper ruts. It can be painful, being able to see the little tricks my mind plays more clearly–sometimes I feel as though I can see just clearly enough to watch myself run in circles without being able to intervene. However, another thing the past few years have taught me is that realizations are only the very first steps of a long, winding progression towards perceptible, lived changes. Habits that I’ve spent my entire life perfecting will take some time to chip away at and then break. And just as I can now more clearly see the mess underneath all the layers of politeness and artificial smiles and industrious activity, every once in a while,  I can also see little gaps between how I feel and what is laid out before me.


The Trance of “Real But Not True”

Last night I accidentally erased six months worth of texts sent between my partner and me. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not *that* big of a deal. Sure, I sometimes indulge in looking back at a sweet message from a day or two ago, but I rarely scroll back through several weeks or months of everyday exchanges except to find some bit of information to reference, an address or someone’s phone number. Still, I found myself surprisingly distressed at the loss.

“I still have them,” my partner yawned as I curled up with him to go to bed, “and you probably have them in the cloud–I bet I could get them back for you.”

“I guess,” I answered, somehow not feeling convinced or comforted.

He quickly slipped off into an untroubled sleep, but for some time I lay there feeling vaguely uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down. In the dark quiet, my mind slid into mildly panicked thoughts–what if I weren’t able to recover them? What if something were to happen to my partner? Wouldn’t I wish I had these countless, mundane but faithful records of our steady, playful, rich  relationship. My heart ached just entertaining these thoughts. I felt my skin tingle with a “gut” feeling that I’d somehow jinxed myself, that perhaps the intensity of this moment was the universe’s way of preparing me for tragedy.

I do this a lot–well, less than I used to, but still more than I’d like: I get so caught up, so invested in a “feeling” that it seems more real than the world as it exists in front of me. Irritatingly, it happens most often when things are going especially well in life. It’s as though some part of me has never quite accepted that I might deserve good things. I always seem to be holding my breath, waiting for these gifts to be wrenched away from me.

My meditation practice has been helpful in learning to recognize that these thoughts, when they come up, are just thoughts, not pronouncements from a god I don’t believe in, not animal instinct of foreboding. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach’s phrase, “real but not true,” continues to be a useful one to invoke as a reminder that this feeling is real in the sense that it’s an experience I’m having but not “true” in any sort of factual way by virtue of the fact that any such fears are based on projections on a future that I can have no way of knowing at the present moment. Certain dreaded outcomes can be likely or even inevitable, but what can’t be known is what *exactly* my experience of that outcome will be. The suffering I am bracing myself for is imagined–whether it proves to be more or less painful than the reality, the experience itself will not be anything I can conceive of until I am in that moment. But still, even though I can label these experiences as such, I’ve spent my entire life worrying as a way of steeling myself up for the “unbearable” pain that’s just around the corner, and old habits die hard.

However, the thing about the unbearable pain  (when it arrives) is that, somehow, we always seem to bear it. As teacher Diane Musho Hamilton says, “Everything is workable.” This doesn’t mean everything will be “okay” in the sense that we will avoid loss, sadness, fear, and pain–all of these experiences are part of the human experience and inescapable–but instead everything will be as it is, and we will handle it, sometimes with grace and sometimes without. In either case, the suffering will shift subtly with each passing moment and will not be one solid block of pain but, rather, countless microseconds of more and less pain, of neutral numbness, of little hints of optimism and despair. And this “everything,” it applies not just to working through the suffering but also the bliss. There isn’t actually one way to approach what we like in life and another to approach what we don’t. Both must be accepted and not given undue bearing on our experience.

I’d like to say that a conscious acceptance of the neurotic nature of my mind is what allows me to step outside the fog of worry-ridden thoughts, but the truth is, more often than not, it’s the poke of the physical world that snaps me out of my trance. Last night, just as my mind was reaching a fever pitch, I found myself sitting upright with an abruptness that surprised even  me: inexplicably in the midst of this chaos, I remembered that I had not set my alarm for the next morning. Before I knew what I was doing, I scrambled out of bed and across the room to where I had plugged in my phone. “Babe, what are you–? I’ll sort it all out for you tomorrow, I promise,” my partner mumbled. “Come back to bed, try to sleep.”

Opening my mouth to explain, I looked up from my phone and over at the jumble of covers to see him extending his arms out to welcome me back. Involuntarily, I felt my lips curve into a smile, triggering a chain reaction relaxing the muscles in my face and shoulders. I finished setting my alarm, padded back to bed and nestled into the crook of his arm. And, for a moment, I lost myself in the pleasure of feeling my cheek against the skin of his chest and the sound of his steady heartbeat.




Inviting in a Crowd of Sorrows

Sometimes I feel as though I spend my life slipping into ruts and then struggling to climb out of them.

Each time I snap out of the trance of anxiety or fear or sadness, I look back on it and think to myself, “Oh, that again. How am I still falling into that trap?” However, when I’m lost in the fog of my distress, the threat feels so immediate, so inescapable that even when I pick up on subtle hints of familiarity, I have a hard time labeling this anxiety, this fear, this sadness as the same visitors who have come (and gone away again) countless times before.

And when I emerge from the fog, when I get to the other side, the path is almost always a familiar one as well: after a certain period of time feeling harassed by unwelcome feelings, I exhaust myself with obsessing over them, with wishing them away, to the point where I settle into a sort of numb acceptance of my discomfort, and it’s only then, after I’ve stopped struggling and relaxed into these feelings, that they pass.

But when they pass, it’s as though I’ve been given a new pair of glasses which I was unaware I needed until I had them resting on the bridge of my nose. The world looks sharper, colors more vivid, my experience more alive. To borrow from secular Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor, my focus shifts away from trying to solve the mysteries of the universe towards trying to penetrate them. In other words, rather than being driven to make sense of my experience, I feel moved to marvel at, to luxuriate in the senseless beauty of it all. In the glow of this fresh start, I am able to look back on the time I’ve “wasted,” dwelling in neurosis, with compassion and without regret–it seems clear that I needed to walk through that dark wood in order to appreciate sunlight waiting in the clearing where I then find myself.

This most recent cycle of discomfort into acceptance brought to mind Rumi’s often quoted poem, “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Of course, after navigating the ever more familiar path back to a place of contentment and joy with life’s mysteries, I can’t help thinking that “next time” I won’t have to suffer so much. “Next time” I’ll just be more patient with myself and cut right to the acceptance. Sometimes, when the afterglow is especially all-enveloping, I’ll imaging that I might even manage to feel gratitude as soon as I recognize that my demons have come calling as it signals that greater clarity is on its way…

That’s probably not how it will play out, however. Maybe I’ll be able to retain a bit more sanity in the face of my distress; maybe I’ll spend a bit less time spinning my wheels before I settle into acceptance; maybe I’ll navigate the cycle with a bit more confidence in my own ability to come out the other side. But these shifts will likely feel slight, almost imperceptible, while in the thick of my discomfort. Just now, it strikes me that perhaps my best chance at penetrating the mysteriousness of life is to work towards raising my tolerance for discomfort, rather than seeking to diminish it.

Slow and Steady Is the Pace

“How was therapy?” my partner asked me shortly after I sat down in the pub where we’d met for lunch.

“Good,” I laughed, pretty sure I knew what was coming.

“And? Any illuminating insights? Are you fixed?” he teased, leaning in for a kiss.

“Nope, still broken,” I replied cheerily. “But yup, some good insights as always–you know, nothing new–just more of the same.”


I’ve been in therapy for almost a year and a half now. I took the step initially after a particularly destabilizing breakup with a man I had cared deeply for, who also happened to be struggling with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. He had been on the edge of crisis when we met and just a few months into the new relationship, I found myself in and out of the emergency room, visiting him in psychiatric units after dissociative psychotic episodes, and helping him enroll in inpatient detox programs. I put my life on hold for six months while I did my best to help him navigate a nightmarish new reality as he confronted demons he’d spent a lifetime trying to deny or work around. Once he was finally in a stable place, I encouraged him to move back home to Oregon, where he is from, and finally allowed myself to take a step back. And it wasn’t until then, until he was out of the state and I was finally free to pick up my life again, that I started to fall apart.

To be clear, I’ve never been of the opinion that therapy is only for those with “problems.” It’s always seemed to me that this whole “living thing,” this human condition we all find ourselves in, is enough to merit enlisting the help of a therapist to help sort through the chaos. We each of us have our fair share of confusing/painful/traumatic experiences, even if they’re not extremes or so very different from what anyone else in this world has had to handle. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely why therapy should be for everyone–it’s a chance to open up to another person and find that everything one feels is so specific to them is actually so common that a psychologist can translate the inchoate feelings or habits into clinical language and confirm that these experiences are an observable phenomenon featured in the literature of the discipline.

However, having said all of that, it wasn’t until I had “a problem” that I sought help. In fact, just a few days before taking the leap, a dear friend had urged me to see someone to help work through all that had happened, and I said, “Thanks, but I’m really okay. The hard stuff is over.” The thing was…I’d been feeling great, on a high of relief that my now ex-boyfriend was halfway across the country and in the care of his family–I could finally relax, get back to living my life. And then, about a week after his departure, I went for a run and realized halfway through that I was having trouble breathing. I pushed harder, tried to breathe more deeply, but then found myself experiencing a choking sensation. Finally, I had to stop: my hand went to my chest, detecting a tight, sharp pain, and I did a bewildered inventory of what could possibly be wrong with me. Finally, the tickle of a tear sliding down my face snapped me out of my confusion as I became aware that I was sobbing, so intensely that my body was shaking with the effort of it. Maybe I’m not okay, intoned a fearful inner voice.

At first, there was a lot to wade through in my sessions. My therapist put no particular time limits on our meetings, instead allowing me to spin my ever evolving narrative until I either wore myself out or arrived at something resembling a bookmark for the week. He listened with compassion but was also completely frank when I asked for his opinions and insights. Slowly, I began to trust him not just with my pain and fears but also with my shame and anger, my unmentionables, the things that I had not dared share with friends and loved ones for fear of judgment. Each admission was met with matter-of-fact acceptance along with gentle observations regarding the harshness of my own judgement against myself. I began to feel less self-conscious, more sure that nothing I could say would shock him, and the more that I disclosed, the more I realized how much I’ve been holding back my entire life.

After six months or so, we were no longer spending much time on my initial motivation for seeking treatment but, rather, were exploring all the little big things that dealing with this particular crisis has unearthed. It turns out, I maybe did need to talk about my mother’s own struggle with alcoholism and premature death, maybe I did need to examine the patterns that have repeated throughout most of my romantic relationships, maybe the overarching struggle is not with others but with my own desire to be loved unconditionally, while fundamentally doubting that I deserve such a thing…but that’s another post (or fifty).

As I have relaxed into the commitment to longer term therapy, my sessions don’t tend to be particularly dramatic, and some weeks I walk in with little to report. Things are good; the waters are calm; my dreams are untroubled. Family members and even my partner have mentioned that they are surprised I still see my therapist. In their minds, it makes perfect sense that I might have needed a little help sorting through a stressful life event , but now, over a year later, I seem happy and well, more emotionally stable than many. “Oh, hun, you’re doing just fine–do you really think you need to continue?” my partner has said on occasion.

I don’t tend to say much to these questions except that I still find my sessions helpful. It’s true the urgency of the early sessions has dissolved, but I have come to think that it’s these more mundane ones that have been and continue to be the richest in terms of insight and growth. I am both stronger than I thought and more of a mess than I’d like to think. I both deserve compassion for what I have been through in my life and can recognize that I am by no means the only one who carries similar burdens. I am simultaneously unique and just like everyone else. These are things we all intellectually “know,” but, for me, there is something about the slow, steady pace of the weekly reflection provided in therapy which creates a space for these subtle truths to take root and actually enter my lived experience. For in this expansive, open space, I find the dark corners where I have been hiding ever since I can remember are becoming fewer and fewer. And it turns out, this is at once terrifying and liberating but, also, manageable.

Hanging Out With The Mess

“If we begin to surrender to ourselves — begin to drop the storyline and experience what all this messy stuff behind the storyline feels like — we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.” ~ Pema Chodron

The quotation above was one of the first I encountered when I first began studying dharma several years ago. I had heard a few teachers mention, “drop the storyline,” as advice for sitting with difficult emotions, and the well-crafted, pithy phrase stuck with me enough that I sought out the origins and discovered Pema Chodron, one of the most revered teachers and authors in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. It’s good advice: the further away I’m able to move from the narratives I create and the closer I’m able to get to the pure, felt emotion of the moment, the better able I am to catch my mind from becoming ensnared in negative thoughts that threaten to spin out of control.

I’ve used this technique to realize that flashes of anger are actually hurt feelings, to realize that anxiety I assigned to specific circumstances was actually much more deeply rooted in my general experience. I’ve watched the quality of the feeling shift subtly from moment to moment until the hard knot that had formed in my chest loosened just enough to give me a felt sensation of the solidity of my narratives crumbling. And along with these realizations, a side benefit that often emerges organically is that I’m better able to handle these emotions, better able to accept them, ease out of the scope of their paralysis, and move along with my day. I’ve come to think of dropping the storyline as one of my most effective coping mechanisms.

However, in the throes of some particularly intense worry, I recently found myself impatient with my favorite little mantra, stay with with the icy, gnawing pin-pricks of mounting anxiety without catastrophizing projections to keep me company. Pulling down a volume of collected dharma excerpts from my bookshelf, I ran across the quotation above, reminding me of the fuller context of the phrase I’ve come to use as shorthand for “getting on with it,” and it occurred to me that in my appropriation of “drop the storyline” for quick fixes of discomfort, I’ve been skimming over, just barely touching in with the the richest part of this practice, the chance to access and actually spend time inhabiting “the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.”

It’s true that there’s unquestionable merit in merely stopping to breathe through discomfort long enough to watch it dissolve. But if I’m able to hang out in the space created in that experience of dismantling my narratives, there’s also a wealth of bittersweet vulnerability that can give little flickers of felt connection to the currents of discomfort/distress/pain/ suffering which is intrinsic to this human condition. It becomes possible have compassion for my own confusion and recognize the confusion fueling the actions of others as the same burden.

The expansiveness of this space has no perceptible boundaries or familiar ground, which is both terrifying and freeing. It’s hard to stay with such a sensation, much less welcome it. But then, if I hang out a bit longer, I can see that even the perceived terror and freedom are potent, extracts of storyline, that they too can be dropped, And what is left is just open space where I don’t need to label my experience. This space doesn’t bar my thoughts or narratives–it has enough room to accommodate them all. It’s just that here, I can watch them float by with gentle curiosity before they are absorbed back into the nothingness from which they came…at least until the phone rings or I look at the time or I start to daydream yet another imagined storyline.

Sharing Our Lives With Ourselves

I’m currently in the midst of reading a book called Missing Out: in praise of the unlived life by Adam Phillips. Its prologue begins: “The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” Phillips goes on to assert, “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.”
It’s a compelling idea, that rather than striding forward newly reborn by the decisions we make, we actually take a little piece of that might-have-been self along with us to keep us company as we walk through life. It would make sense that the time we invested in *almost* going down a certain path would make its way into the path that we presently walk, no matter how far we’ve strayed. And what about all the time that slips away from us in the present, imagining who we might have been, where we might be now if only things had turned out a bit differently? Is that not just one more thing we are, in fact, “doing” with our present lives?
In examining my own communion with Phillips’s language, particularly the last line quoted above: “We share our lives with the people we have failed to be,” I must admit to a temptation to rephrase it, “We share our lives with the people we might have been.” It’s a subtle shift, and broadly says the same thing; however, the weight of disappointment that comes with having “failed to be” strikes me as bordering on reductive. I deeply connect with the sense of sharing my life with the past versions of myself who dreamed dreams that did not ultimately come to fruition, but many of those dreams are ones that I either am pleased I gave up or at least ones that I feel at peace with having let go. This doesn’t mean that I don’t carry little bits and pieces of that dreamer with me still. In rephrasing Phillips’s line to “We share our lives with the people we might have been,” it seems to me that a bit of space is created–these people we might have been, they are neither better nor worse than who we are in this, precise moment because they are mere imaginings of difference.
To add another layer of exploration, it becomes interesting to consider this idea within the Buddhist context.
If one of the main sources of confusion is that of walking through life with solid, fixed sense of self rather than engaging anew with each moment, is it a help or a hindrance to frame our experience of “now” as being shared with imaginings of past desires and future projections? From the Buddhist perspective, what happens (or doesn’t happen) is neither good nor bad: it’s just what is. In other words, if I lose my job, it may feel natural to regard this as an unequivocally “bad” thing: I may become upset, worried about my finances and career, feel either angry or rejected (or both) upon hearing the news. However, in reality, losing my job is not inherently good or bad. It is just a new development that will likely have both bad and good elements, neither of which can be fully anticipated in the present moment. It may be that I find an even better job, or it may be that I never ever find a job that I am as well suited for as the one I just lost, but ultimately it is impossible to say which path leads me to the “happiest” life because whatever didn’t happen, didn’t happen–there is only what did, and the only life you have is the one you are living.
And yet, part of developing prajna (wisdom), is surely recognizing patterns. Watching thoughts emerge out of nowhere only to dissolve into nothing is essential to the vajrayana practice; the key is not getting caught up, not mistaking thoughts for reality, not judging them as inherently “good” or “bad” but, instead, noticing, being curious, and letting them go. Perhaps the reconciliation between Phillips’s examination of the unlived life and Buddhism’s egolessness is a recognition that does not feed into the fantasies further, one that perceives and acknowledges without getting mired up in the implications. Perhaps there is value in taking the time to get to know our shadow companions as long as we don’t slip back into the shadows with them. At least then we know where the whispers are coming from, so we can acknowledge them, and let them go, maybe allowing us to get back to the business of living with a slightly sharper clarity in our perception.

Managing Life

I have not been sleeping well. It’s been about a week since I both slept more than six hours in duration or slept through the night without interruption. And while it’s certainly been exhausting and frustrating, it’s also been interesting. Since I’m someone who typically sticks to a fairly rigid early-to-bed, early-to-rise schedule, this change has represented a shift in my routine as well as my physical/mental well-being, and it’s proved to be an opportunity of sorts to observe the inexorable link between mind and body.

When I first started a regular meditation practice, I was amazed at how much it highlighted my tendency to operate as though I were some disembodied brain that only happened to be attached to a physical body that needed my attention–I’d sit on the cushion, following my breath, and inevitably, experience flashes of annoyance when a foot would fall asleep or my back would begin to ache with the strain of maintaining a new posture for extended periods of time. I remember thinking, if it weren’t for this physical discomfort, I would be perfectly content to sit here all day. And of course, in this idealized imagining of my contentedly meditating self, I’d then be free to get past the tangled mess of thoughts getting in my way. But as time went on, and I studied and talked with teachers, as I continued practicing, I gathered that the general consensus is the physical discomfort, the tangled mess of thoughts, are to be welcomed in the same spirit as feelings of ease or sensations of clarity. I say that this is what I have “gathered” as opposed to “learned” because I think I’m still feeling my way through what it means to truly accept these experiences of mental and physical discomfort as a vital component of ‘clear perception’ of reality.

Intellectually, I believe it: how could any sense of what is real not include the discomfort and the mess? However, in terms of how I experience my life, day-to-day, moment-to-moment, I still find myself tensing up to resist, attempting to rationalize discomfort in hopes that understanding will bring relief. Psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach has addressed such resistance with a process-based suggestion to recognize, allow, investigate, and non-identify (RAIN) with such feelings, and *sometimes* I find this to be a useful tool. Very often, though, I catch myself regarding acronymized strategies as a bit gimmicky and clunky, almost a distraction from what I’m actually trying to work with in my experience.

And this week of running on empty, of feeling a bit more irritable, a bit worn thin, I’ve had even less patience for the fancy footwork of managing my experience than usual. It’s not that I don’t still try to remind myself that my exhaustion is responsible for the more intensely felt peaks and valleys of mood; it’s more that because the lens through which I’m viewing my experience is more obvious, I actually manage less, give myself permission to fumble more. Somehow it’s been acceptable to feel grumpy for no reason or to say no to the demands of others in order to say yes my own needs. It’s also been acceptable to feel elated for no reason whatsoever and to be less surprised when this elation left me behind to go on its merry way.

Of course, along with this lack of management has meant giving myself over to experience the discomfort that comes with allowing one’s ‘reality’ to be cast in the light of shifting perceptions. If I don’t stop to remind myself why life might feel this or that way with particular intensity, then I’m opening the door to potentially “getting carried away” with myself, as my grandmother would put it. Interestingly, though, this loopy haze has actually allowed a safe space for exploration of the extremes I generally consider to be either self-indulgent or threatening. And it turns out…these extremes function just like any other thought: they arrive, bloom, and take hold until they disappear.

"I Learn By Going Where I Have To Go"

One of the things that has been interesting about embarking on the Buddhist path has been how much more sensitive I have become to the little shifts in my internal landscape of emotions and well being. As is common with novices, I think I had a subconscious expectation that my meditation practice would somehow stabilize my experience of life such that my ups and downs dissipated or even largely disappeared, leaving a smooth, almost untouchable, peace in its wake. And while I would say that I am not as reactive as I used to be–I’m not as likely to be derailed when my bus is running late or to feel overwhelmed by an exhausting workday–the more existential crises that come up as I navigate this life not only haven’t abated but have almost seemed to intensify in the last several years.

Of course, the crises themselves are not new: I’m just not running away from them *as much* as I used to, so my experience of them has become more heightened. Though I cannot characterize this intensity of experience as pleasant, it does somehow feel better, even easier, than the almost 30 years of denying these fluctuations to myself and others. For so long, my determined label of “happy” didn’t include the bouts of loneliness, anxiety, fear, disappointment that flashed through my experience, so I expended a lot of energy dismissing these feelings as self-indulgent, unfounded, not allowed. Establishing a regular meditation practice has meant making an appointment with many of these feelings every day and then recognizing them with greater clarity when they visit me off the cushion. I’m beginning to realize just how much my definition of “happy” necessitated resisting, avoiding, or denying all of the internal fluctuations that are part of engaging with one’s experience.

In Chögyam Trungpa’s classic text, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the original, unconditioned state of being is likened to that of a “cosmic mirror,” one that reflects the world exactly as it is, “from the gross level up to the refined level.” Looking in this cosmic mirror, or cultivation of direct perception of reality, actually allows us to relax with things as they are, freed from the pressure to dub what we perceive as “good” or “bad,” free to open ourselves up to a larger curiosity about this life we’re living. From this standpoint, if I find myself even more aware of the ups and downs I experience in any given day, I no longer have to worry about what these ups and downs mean with regards to my long-held title of “happy person.” If how I feel in any given moment is simply how I feel and regarded as yet another mysterious aspect of this human condition, then it ceases to be a threat to my well being and is, instead, just one more moment to be acknowledged and then let go to make way for the next moment, the next feeling.

Just as meditation gives us an opportunity to “practice” letting go of one breath by paying attention to the arising of the next, inevitable breath, paying attention to the fluctuations within our own emotional states gives us the chance to let go of the anxiety and concepts and depression that normally bind us (to paraphrase Trungpa). In line with this letting go is the Lojong slogan, “Abandon any hope of fruition,” which reminds us that we can’t experience reality directly if we are living in the constant hope that the future moment will be better than the one we’re in right now–the dream of the future distracts us from fully experiencing where we are, and how can we move forward with clarity if we refuse to locate our starting point?

It’s funny, in a way, how easy it is to slip into using the language of of journeys, navigation, losing and finding our paths, when attempting to articulate what it is to live this life, to “find ourselves.” These metaphors suggest that there is some specific point we’re trying to reach, even as we realize no such point exists. And yet, I have, at various times, a felt sense of being “on track” and also of being “lost.” Probably my favorite articulations of the space that is possible between the the illusion of a definite path and the aspiration of openness to uncertainty comes from the last stanza of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”:


  • This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
  • What falls way is always. And is near.
  • I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
  • I learn by going where I have to go.

These lines give me permission to stop regarding “this shaking,” as experiences that do not fit in with the stability I try to cultivate. Rather, I can think of these experiences as part of what anchors me, what helps me stay focused on what is here and sense when I slip away into mere imaginings. In so doing, I can relieve myself of the burden of knowing, exactly, “where I have to go,” for I can actually just “learn by going.” And who knows? Maybe someday where I am will actually be no different from where I am trying to go.

Answering the Knock at the Door

A couple of weeks ago, while reading Cormack McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, I stumbled on a passage that stopped me in my tracks:

“I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there were not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what.”
Two days ago, I read Sixteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart’s words, “There is a place in the soul — there’s a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.”
Yesterday, I listened to an interview with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, who referenced Meister Eckhart and continued the thought, saying, “What this means is your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you.”
When I pay attention, I find that it’s not all that uncommon for ideas to find me like this–gentle, persistent knocks at my door, interrupting whatever I happen to be preoccupied with at the moment. Each encounter with this notion of soul/spirit/identity has felt like a much needed pause in the messy, exhausting noise that’s been blaring in my mind these past few weeks. Each quotation speaks to related, all too familiar, anxieties that have kept me company for as long as I can remember: the question of one’s inherent worth, one’s vulnerability to the vicissitudes of fortune, and the sense that one can be robbed of oneself by the story that unfolds in this life.
There’s a way in which these claims of an untouched soul might be problematic from a Buddhist point of view, considering a large part of the path is dismantling the solidity of one’s sense of the self as being an unchanging, definite collection of aggregates. However, what McCarthy, Eckhart, and O’Donohue are describing is actually much closer to what Chögyam Trungpa called “basic goodness,” an essential nature that is not ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’, but rather “good” before any such duality, “good” by virtue of being free of layers of obscuring armor, “good” by virtue of being exactly as one is from moment to moment. It’s perhaps O’Donohue who fleshes out this idea best when he describes one’s identity as being separate from one’s biography. For if this is true, then there is nothing that I have done and nothing I will ever do that will make me deserving of love–I already deserve it, just as I am. If this is true, there is no turn of events that will threaten the soft, vulnerability of my heart–it’s part of my essential nature and cannot be destroyed. Therefore, in theory, I’m relieved of the burden of proving my worth as a human being, and I can recognize that my armor is actually useless and may be discarded.
And yet…
I’m still figuring out how exactly to answer these knocks. They answer questions I hadn’t realized I was asking and challenge deeply ingrained patterns that can’t be changed overnight. I’ve worn myself out, walking the cusp of change, losing myself in the tingle of the coincidence/fate of these encounters. But I’ve also seen enough to know these knocks can’t be discounted or ignored. These moments of realization, when I can feel  truth vibrating in my body, these are the ones in which I feel most in touch with the experience of being alive. But then life begins to crowd in, with countless tedious tasks, petty preoccupations, necessary obligations…and before I know it,  I see that I left my guest on the doorstep too long, that she decided to wander off into the twilight.
I can’t say that I blame her.



Divided Selves

I’m not sure when it happened. I can’t remember a ‘before’, but I know there must be one, a brief little pocket of time when my sense of myself was not divided into who I am and this other, outward facing ‘me’. Both a facade and an aspiration, this other ‘me’ is my representative to the outside world. She helps me navigate all the situations and interactions I must have in order to make my way through any given day. She smiles kindly when I don’t feel compassion, and She appears industrious when I am being lazy. She goes on five mile runs while I am eating spoonfuls of peanut butter, and She meditates while my mind races with anxiety.
I’ve not always thought of Her as separate from ‘me’. For most of my life I think I’ve assumed She was me, that the unkind, lazy, gluttonous, anxious me was the ‘other’ or even assumed those qualities were just little hiccups that were erased once I got back on track, back to the ‘real’ me. But the more I walk this path–one of cultivating mindfulness, of seeking to live an examined life–the harder it is to ignore the primacy of this shadow-me, the harder it is to reassure myself that, really, I am this compassionate, industrious, disciplined, awake ‘me’. It’s both a painful realization and a relief to openly contemplate the parts of myself that I have never been able to regard as acceptable. The picture is not pretty, which is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take as much effort to maintain. I prefer the intensity of feeling over the numbness of avoidance.
All of that being said, one of the aspects of this journey towards acceptance which continues to be destabilizing has been realizing just how deeply interwoven She, my idealized self, is in the fabric of my life and relationships. I’ve now spent over thirty years living through her. Hers is the face that all of those most dear to me recognize as mine. I sometimes feel as though all of the love I am blessed enough to receive does not truly belong to me because it has actually been given to Her: She is who they love, not me. The result is a bewildering sense of untouchable loneliness at times. I know that I am loved–not to recognize that would be to carelessly dismiss the depth of generosity and goodness that dwells in my dear ones–and yet, so much of the time I don’t feel as though I can claim it as mine, can’t feel the love so graciously given. If they could really see me, an insidious voice whispers in my ear, they’d see I don’t deserve their esteem.
Of course, just as real as my experience of shame and isolation are moments of genuine, authentic connection with dear ones who give me a brief glimpse of myself through their eyes. And in those moments, I have to wonder if they are seeing something I can’t see that’s just as true as all the weakness and muck I am terrified to reveal to them.  Yes, the self is far more rich and complex than the polarized extremes of thinking I’ve been indulging in, both in life and in this post. Who I am encompasses both my shadow-self and my aspirational self, and they flow into one another, shifting and changing constantly. I suspect that the more I am able to accept who I am, both the shadow-me and the idealized me, the easier it will be to embody my aspirations, and the less I will feel myself an imposter in my own life.
However, for the first time, I am beginning to understand I’ll never be able to erase my shadow-self, that this isn’t even the goal. Rather, I can aspire to develop a fluid acceptance which both contains and integrates these solid selves into a constant flow such that all the toxic solidity of my beliefs break down. Perhaps the most limiting of the many toxic, solidifying beliefs about myself I have spent my life feeding is the one that I am the only one who feels this way, that I am completely and utterly alone in my alienation from myself and others. I almost hope that I am, but I know that I’m not.