“Beauty Sleep” by Rachael Parker
The universe is a system which forgets itself and then again remembers anew so there’s always constant change and constant variety in the span of time. It also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism, giving an all-around view.
That is a way of getting rid of prejudice, getting rid of a one-sided view. Death in that sense is a tremendous release from monotony. It puts an end to all of total forgetting in a rhythmic process of on/off, on/off so you can begin all over again and never be bored. But the point is that if you can fantasize the idea of being nothing for always and always, what you are really saying is after I’m dead the universe stops, and what I’m saying is it goes on just as it did when you were born. You may think it incredible that you have more than one life, but isn’t it incredible that you have this one? That’s astonishing! And it can always happen again and again and again!
What I am saying then is just because you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape your body, doesn’t mean that you’re not doing it. Equally, if you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations, or galactifies the galaxies – you don’t know but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it just the same way as you are breathing without knowing how you breathe.
If I say really and truly I am this whole universe, or this particular organism is an I’ing being done by the whole universe, then somebody could say to me, “Who the hell do you think you are? Are you God? Do you warm up the galaxies? Canst’ thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades or loosen the bonds of Orion?” And I reply, “Who the hell do you think you are! Can you tell me how you grow your brain, how you shape your eyeballs, and how you manage to see? Well, if you can’t tell me that, I can’t tell you how I warm up the galaxy. Only I’ve located the center of myself at a deeper and more universal level than we are, in our culture, accustomed to do.”
So then, if that universal energy is the real me, the real self which I’s as different organisms in different spaces or places, and happening again and again at different times, we’ve got a marvelous system going in which you can be eternally surprised. The universe is really a system which keeps on surprising itself.
Many of us have an ambition, especially in an age of technological competence, to have everything under our control. This is a false ambition because you’ve only got to think for one moment what it would be like to really know and control everything. Supposing we had a supercolossal technology which could go to our wildest dreams of technological competence so that everything that is going to happen would be foreknown, predicted, and everything would be under our control. Why, it would be like making love to a plastic woman! There would be no surprise in it, no sudden answering touch as when we touch another human being. There comes out a response, something unexpected, and that’s what we really want.
You can’t experience the feeling you call self unless it’s in contrast with the feeling of other. It’s like known and unknown, light and dark, positive and negative. Other is necessary in order for you to feel self. Isn’t that the arrangement you want? And, in the same way, couldn’t you say the arrangement you want is not to remember? Memory is always, remember, a form of control: I’ve got it in mind. I know your number, you’re under control. Eventually you want to release that control.
Now if you go on remembering and remembering and remembering, it’s like writing on a piece of paper and going on writing and writing until there is no space left on the paper. Your memory is filled up and you need to wipe it clean so you can begin to write on it once more.
That’s what death does for us: It wipes the slate clean and also, for looking at it from the point of view of population and the human organism on the planet, it keeps cleaning us out! A technology which would enable each one of us to be immortal would progressively crowd the planet with people having hopelessly crowded memories. They would be like people living in a house where they had accumulated so much property, so many books, so many vases, so many sets of knives and forks, so many tables and chairs, so many newspapers that there wouldn’t be any room to move around.
To live we need space, and space is a kind of nothingness, and death is a kind of nothingness – it’s all the same principle. And by putting blocks or spaces of nothingness, spaces of space in between spaces of something, we get life properly spaced out. The German word lebensraum means room for living, and that’s what space gives us, and that’s what death gives us.
Notice that in everything I’ve said about death I haven’t brought in anything that I could call spookery. I haven’t brought in any information about anything that you don’t already know. I haven’t invoked any mysterious knowledge about souls, memory of former lives, anything like that; I’ve just talked about it in terms that we already know. If you believe the idea that life beyond the grave is just wishful thinking, I’ll grant that.
Let’s assume that it is wishful thinking and when we are dead there just won’t be anything. That’ll be the end. Notice, first of all, that’s the worst thing you’ve got to fear. Does it frighten you? Who’s going to be afraid? Supposing it ends – no more problems.
But then you will see that this nothingness, if you’ve followed my argument, is something you’d bounce off from again just as you bounced in in the first place when you were born. You bounced out of nothingness. Nothingness is a kind of bounce because it implies that nothing implies something. You bounce back all new, all different, nothing to compare it with before, a refreshing experience.
You get this sense of nothingness, just like you’ve got the sense of nothing behind your eyes, very powerful frisky nothingness underlying your whole being. There’s nothing in that nothing to be afraid of. With that sense you can come on like the rest of your life is gravy because you’re already dead: You know you’re going to die.
We say the only things certain are death and taxes. And the death of each one of us now is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety? Where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So in the same way is the person who regards himself as already dead.
Therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you will be a handful of dust, and that will be for real. All right now, act on that reality. And out of that…nothing. You will suddenly surprise yourself: The more you know you are nothing the more you will amount to something.
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“Beauty Sleep” by Rachael Parker
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of death as far back as I can remember, from earliest childhood. You may think that’s kind of morbid, but when a child at night says the phrase If I should die before I wake, there’s something about it that’s absolutely weird. What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Most reasonable people just dismiss the thought. They say, “You can’t imagine that”; they shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that will be that.”
But I’m one of those ornery people who aren’t content with an answer like that. Not that I’m trying to find something else beyond that, but I am absolutely fascinated with what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Many people think it would be like going into the dark forever or being buried alive. Obviously it wouldn’t be like that at all! Because we know darkness by contrast, and only by contrast, with light.
I have a friend, a girl, who is very intelligent and articulate, who was born blind and hasn’t the faintest idea what darkness is. The word means as little to her as the word light. So it is the same for you: you are not aware of darkness when you are asleep.
If you went to sleep, into unconsciousness for always and always, it wouldn’t be at all like going into the dark; it wouldn’t be at all like being buried alive. As a matter of fact, it would be as if you had never existed at all! Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state, as if you had never been. And, of course, there would be no problems, there would be no one to regret the loss of anything. You couldn’t even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be a simple – nothing at all. Forever and for never. Because, not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.
At this point you are probably thinking, “Let’s talk about something else.” But I’m not content with that, because this makes me think of two other things. First of all, the state of nothingness makes me think that the only thing in my experience close to nothingness is the way my head looks to my eye, and then behind my eye there isn’t a black spot, there isn’t even a hazy spot. There’s nothing at all! I’m not aware of my head, as it were, as a black hole in the middle of all this luminous experience. It doesn’t even have very clear edges. The field of vision is an oval, and because this oval of vision there is nothing at all. Of course, if I use my fingers and touch I can feel something behind my eyes; if I use the sense of sight alone there is just nothing there at all. Nevertheless, out of that blankness, I see.
The second thing it makes me think of is when I’m dead I am as if I never had been born, and that’s the way I was before I was born. Just as I try to go back behind my eyes and find what is there I come to a blank, if I try to remember back and back and back to my earliest memories and behind that – nothing, total blank. But just as I know there’s something behind my eyes by using my fingers on my head, so I know through other sources of information that before I was born there was something going on. There were my father and my mother, and their fathers and mothers, and the whole material environment of the Earth and its life out of which they came, and behind that the solar system, and behind that the galaxy, and behind that all the galaxies, and behind that another blank – space. I reason that if I go back when I’m dead to the state where I was before I was born, couldn’t I happen again?
What has happened once can very well happen again. If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again. I do know I’ve seen people die and I’ve seen people born after them. So after I die not only somebody but myriads of other beings will be born. We all know that; there’s no doubt about it. What worries us is that when we’re dead there could be nothing at all forever, as if that were something to worry about. Before you were born there was this same nothing at all forever, and yet you happened. If you happened once you can happen again.
Now what does that mean? To look at it in its very simplest way and to properly explain myself, I must invent a new verb. This is the verb to I. We’ll spell it with the letter I but instead of having it as a pronoun we will call it a verb. The universe I’s. It has I’d in me it I’s in you. Now let’s respell the word eye. When I talk about to eye, it means to look at something, to be aware of something. So we will change the spelling, and will say the universe I’s. It becomes aware of itself in each one of us, and it keeps the I’ing, and every time it I’s every one of us in whom it I’s feels that he is the center of the whole thing. I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. We all have the same background of nothing, we don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before again and again and again, not only before in time but all around us everywhere else in space is everybody, is the universe I’ing.
Let me try to make this clearer by saying it is the universe I’ing. Who is I’ing? What do you mean by I? There are two things. First, you can mean your ego, your personality. But that’s not your real I’ing, because your personality is your idea of your self, your image of yourself, and that’s made up of how you feel yourself, how you think about yourself thrown in with what all your friends and relations have told you about yourself. So your image of yourself obviously isn’t you any more than your photograph is you or any more than the image of anything is it. All our images of ourselves are nothing more than caricatures. They contain no information for most of us on how we grow our brains, how we work our nerves, how we circulate our blood, how we secrete with our glands, and how we shape our bones. That isn’t contained in the sensation of the image we call the ego, so obviously, then the ego image is not my self.
My self contains all these things that the body is doing, the circulation of the blood, the breathing, the electrical activity of the nerves, all this is me but I don’t know how it’s constructed. And yet, I do all that. It is true to say I breathe, I walk, I think, I am conscious – I don’t know how I manage to be, but I do it in the same way as I grow my hair. I must therefore locate the center of me, my I’ing, at a deeper level than my ego which is my image or idea of myself. But how deep do we go?
We can say the body is the I, but the body comes out of the rest of the universe, comes out of all this energy – so it’s the universe that’s I’ing. The universe I’s in the same way that a tree apples or that a star shines, and the center of the appling is the tree and the center of the shining is the star, and so the basic center of self of the I’ing is the eternal universe or eternal thing that has existed for ten thousand million years and will probably go on for at least that much more. We are not concerned about how long it goes on, but repeatedly it I’s, so that it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that when I die and this physical body evaporates and the whole memory system with it, then the awareness that I had before will begin all over once again, not in exactly the same way, but that of a baby being born.
Of course, there will be myriads of babies born, not only baby human beings but baby frogs, baby rabbits, baby fruit flies, baby viruses, baby bacteria –and which one of them am I going to be? Only one of them and yet every one of them, this experience comes always in the singular one at a time, but certainly one of them. Actually it doesn’t make much difference, because if I were born again as a fruit fly I would think that being a fruit fly was the normal ordinary course of events, and naturally I would think that I was an important person, a highly cultured being, because fruit flies obviously have a high culture. We don’t even know how to look at it. But probably they have all sorts of symphonies and music, and artistic performances in the way light is reflected on their wings in different ways, the way they dance in the air, and they say, “Oh, look at her, she has real style, look how the sunlight comes off her wings.” They in their world think they are as important and civilized as we do in our world. So, if I were to wake up as a fruit fly I wouldn’t feel any different than I do when I wake up as a human being. I would be used to it.
Well, you say, “It wouldn’t be me! Because if it were me again I would have to remember how I was before!” Right, but you don’t know, remember, how you were before and yet you are content enough to be the me that you are. In fact, it’s a thoroughly good arrangement in this world that we don’t remember what it was like before. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and if we remembered, remembered, remembered having done this again and again and again we should get bored. In order to see a figure you have to have a background, in order that a memory be valuable you also have to have a forgettory. That’s why we sleep every night to refresh ourselves; we go into the unconscious so that coming back to the conscious is again a great experience.
Day after day we remember the days that have gone on before, even though there is the interval of sleep. Finally there comes a time when, if we consider what is to our true liking, we will want to forget everything that went before. Then we can have the extraordinary experience of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a baby – whatever kind of baby. Then it will be completely new and we will have all the startling wonder that a child has, all the vividness of perception which we wouldn’t have if we remembered everything forever.
NEXT WEEK PART 2 OF “DEATH” by Alan Watts
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PART 2 — continued from last week
For a child to feel belonging, he or she needs to feel understood and loved. We each feel a fundamental sense of connectedness when we are seen and when what is seen is held in love. We habitually relate to our inner life in the same way that others attended to us. When our parents (and the larger culture) don’t respond to our fears, are too preoccupied to really listen to our needs or send messages that we are falling short, we then adopt similar ways of relating to our own being. We disconnect and banish parts of our inner life.
Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.
The trance of unworthiness, sustained by the movement of blaming, striving and self-numbing, begins to lift when we stop the action. The Buddha engaged in his mythic process of awakening after coming to rest under the bodhi tree. We start to cut through the trance in the moment that we, like the Buddha, discontinue our activity and pay attention. Our willingness to stop and look—what I call the sacred art of pausing—is at the center of all spiritual practice. Because we get so lost in our fear-driven busyness, we need to pause frequently.
The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a night-long encounter with the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. We face the shadow deities by pausing and attending to whatever presents itself—judgment, depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior. Because shame and fear often are not fully conscious, we can deepen this attention by inquiring into what is happening. Caring self-inquiry invites the habitually hidden parts of our being into awareness.
If I pause in the midst of feeling even mildly anxious or depressed and ask, “What am I believing?” I usually discover an assumption that I am falling short or about to fail in some way. The emotions around this belief become more conscious as I further inquire, “What wants attention or acceptance in this moment?” Frequently I find contractions of fear under the story of insufficiency. I find that the trance is sustained only when I reject or resist experience. As I recognize the mental story and open directly to the bodily sense of fear, the trance of unworthiness begins to dissolve.
There are times that the grip of fear and shame is overt and vicelike. At a retreat I led a few years ago a young man named Ron came into an interview with me and announced that he was the most judgmental person in the world. He went on to prove his point, describing how scathing he was toward his every thought, mood and behavior. When he felt back pain, he concluded that he was an “out of shape couch potato, not fit for a zafu.” When his mind wandered, he concluded he was hopeless as a meditator. During the lovingkindness meditation, he was disgusted to find that his heart felt like a cold stone. In approaching an interview with me, he felt caught in the clutch of fear, embarrassed that he would be wasting my time. While others were not exempt, his most constant barrage of hostility was directed at himself. I asked him if he knew how long he had been turning so harshly on himself. He paused for quite a while, his eyes welling up with tears. It was for as long as he could remember. He had joined in with his mother, relentlessly badgering himself and turning away from the hurt in his heart.
The recognition of how many moments of his life had been lost to self-hatred brought up a deep sorrow. I invited him to sense where his body felt the most pain and vulnerability. He pointed to his heart, and I asked him how he felt toward his hurting heart at that moment. “Sad,” he responded, “and very sorry.” I encouraged him to communicate that to his inner life—to put his hand on his heart and send the message, “I care about this suffering.” As he did so, Ron began to weep deeply.
In Buddhist meditation, a traditional compassion practice is to see suffering and offer our prayer of care. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we are with someone who is in pain, we might offer this deeply healing message: “Darling, I care about your suffering.” We rarely offer this care or tenderness to ourselves. We are definitely not used to touching ourselves, bringing the same tenderness that we might to stroking the cheek of a sleeping child, and gently placing a hand on our own cheek or heart. For the remaining days of the retreat, this was Ron’s practice. When he became aware of judging, he would consciously feel the vulnerability in his body—the place that for so long had felt pushed away, frightened, rejected. With a very gentle touch, he would place his hand on his heart and send the prayer of care. Ron was sitting in the front of the meditation hall, and I noticed that his hand was almost always resting on his heart.
When we met before the closing of the retreat, Ron’s whole countenance was transformed. His edges had softened, his body was relaxed, his eyes were bright. Rather than feeling embarrassed, he seemed glad to see me. He said that the judgments had been persistent but not so brutal. By feeling the woundedness and offering care, he had opened out of the rigid roles of judge and accused. He went on to tell me something that had touched him deeply. When he had been walking in the woods, he passed a woman who was standing still and crying quietly. He stopped several minutes later down the trail and could feel his heart hold and care for her sadness. Self-hatred had walled him off from his world. The experience of connection and caring for another was the blessing of a heart that was opening.
The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness. Whereas Ron was able to rediscover connection and loosen the trance of unworthiness by tenderly offering kindness to his wounds, we might feel too small, too tight and aversive to open to the pain that is moving through us. At these times it helps to reach out, to discover an enlarged belonging through our friends, sangha, family and the living Earth. A man approached the Dalai Lama and asked him how to deal with the enormous fear he was feeling. The Dalai Lama responded that he should imagine he was in the lap of the Buddha.
Any pathway toward remembering our belonging to this world alleviates the trance of separation and unworthiness. After his night under the bodhi tree, the Buddha was very awake but not fully liberated. Mara had retreated but not vanished. With his right hand, the Buddha touched the ground and called on the Earth goddess to bear witness. By reaching out and honoring his connectedness to all life, his belonging to the web of life, the Buddha realized the fullness of freedom.
We are not walking this path alone, building spiritual muscles, climbing the ladder to become more perfect. Rather, we are discovering the truth of our relatedness through belonging to these bodies and emotions, to each other, and to this whole natural world. As we realize our belonging, the trance of unworthiness dissolves. In its place is not worthiness; that is another assessment of self. Rather, we are no longer compelled to blame or hide or fix our being. When we turn and embrace what has felt so personal, we awaken from feelings of separateness and find that we are in love with all of life.
Tara Brach is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., and teaches throughout the United States and Canada. She is a clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Radical Acceptance: Living with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam).
---"Young Girl Struck by Sadness" — Pablo Picasso
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
That now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
In an all-embracing mind that sees me. . . .
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Our most fundamental sense of well-being is derived from the conscious experience of belonging. Relatedness is essential to survival. When we feel part of the whole, connected to our bodies, each other, and the living Earth, there is a sense of inherent rightness, of being wakeful and in love. The experience of universal belonging is at the heart of all mystical traditions. In realizing non-separation, we come home to our primordial and true nature.
The Buddha taught that suffering arises out of feeling separate. To the degree that we identify as a separate self, we have the feeling that something is wrong, something is missing. We want life to be different from the way it is. An acute sense of separation—living inside of a contracted and isolated self—amplifies feelings of vulnerability and fear, grasping and aversion. Feeling separate is an existential trance in which we have forgotten the wholeness of our being.
Never in the history of the world has the belief in a separate self been so exaggerated and prevalent as it is now in the twenty-first century in the West. In contrast to Asian and other traditional societies, our distinctive mode of identification is as individuals, without stable pre-existing contexts of belonging to families, communities, tribes or religious groups. Our desperate efforts to enhance and protect this fragile self have caused an unprecedented degree of severed belonging at all levels in our society. In our attempts to dominate the natural world, we have separated ourselves from the Earth. In our efforts to prove and defend ourselves, we have separated ourselves from each other. Managing life from our mental control towers, we have separated ourselves from our bodies and hearts.
With our Western experience of an extremely isolated self, we exemplify fully what the Buddha described as self-centered suffering. If we identify as a separate self, we become the background “owner” of whatever occurs. Ajahn Buddhadasa, a twentieth-century Thai meditation master, describes this conditioning to attach an idea of self to experience as “I-ing” and my-ing. Life happens emotions well up, sensations arise, events come and go and we then add onto the experiences that they are happening to me, because of me.
When inevitable pain arises, we take it personally. We are diagnosed with a disease or go through a divorce, and we perceive that we are the cause of unpleasantness (we’re deficient) or that we are the weak and vulnerable victim (still deficient). Since everything that happens reflects on me, when something seems wrong, the source of wrong is me. The defining characteristic of the trance of separation is this feeling and fearing of deficiency.
Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”
Almost two decades ago, author John Bradshaw and others enlarged our cultural self-awareness by calling attention to the crippling effect of shame. Since then, many have recognized the pervasive presence of shame much as we might an invisible toxin in the air we breathe. Feeling “not good enough” is that often unseen engine that drives our daily behavior and life choices. Fear of failure and rejection feeds addictive behavior. We become trapped in workaholism—an endless striving to accomplish—and we overconsume to numb the persistent presence of fear.
In the most fundamental way, the fear of deficiency prevents us from being intimate or at ease anywhere. Failure could be around any corner, so it is hard to lay down our hypervigilance and relax. Whether we fear being exposed as defective either to ourselves or to others, we carry the sense that if they knew . . . , they wouldn’t love us. A winning entry in a Washington Post T-shirt contest highlights the underlying assumption of personal deficiency that is so emblematic of our Western culture: “I have occasional delusions of adequacy.”
During high school, I consciously struggled with not liking myself, but during college I was distressed by the degree of self-aversion. On a weekend outing, a roommate described her inner process as “becoming her own best friend.” I broke down sobbing, overwhelmed at the degree to which I was unfriendly toward my life. My habit for years had been to be harsh and judgmental toward what I perceived as a clearly flawed self. My attachment to self-improvement transferred itself into the domain of spiritual practice. While I realized at the time that kindness was intrinsic to the spiritual path, in retrospect it is clear how feeling unworthy directly shaped my approach to spiritual life.
I moved into an ashram and spent twelve years trying to be more pure—waking up early, doing hours of yoga and meditation, organizing my life around service and community. I had some idea that if I really applied myself, it would take eight or ten years to awaken spiritually. The activities were wholesome, but I was still aiming to upgrade a flagging self. Periodically I would go to see a spiritual teacher I admired and inquire, “So, how am I doing? What else can I do?” Invariably these different teachers responded, “Just relax.” I wasn’t sure what they meant, but I didn’t think they really meant “relax.” How could they? I clearly wasn’t “there” yet.
During a six-week Buddhist meditation retreat, I spent at least twelve days with a stomach virus. Not only was there physical discomfort, but I found that I made myself “wrong” for being sick. Having already struggled with chronic sickness, this retreat made it clear just how harshly I had been relating to myself. Sickness had become another sign of personal deficiency. My assumption was that I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I feared that being sick reflected unworthiness and a basic lack of spiritual maturity.
In one of the evening dharma talks, a teacher said, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” For me this rang incredibly true. I had been hitting that boundary repeatedly, contracted by the almost invisible tendency to believe something was wrong with me. Wrong if I was fatigued, wrong if my mind was wandering, wrong if I was anxious, wrong if I was depressed. The overlay of shame converted unpleasant experiences into a verdict on self. Pain turned into suffering. In the moment that I made myself wrong, the world got small and tight. I was in the trance of unworthiness.
Several years ago, at a meeting with a group of Western teachers, the Dalai Lama expressed astonishment at the degree of self-aversion and feelings of unworthiness reported by Western students. I know many friends and students who have found, as I did, that even after decades of spiritual practice, they are still painfully burdened by feelings of personal deficiency. Many assumed that meditation alone would take care of it. Instead, they found that deep pockets of shame and self-aversion had a stubborn way of persisting over the years.
Carl Jung describes a paradigm shift in understanding the spiritual path: Rather than climbing up a ladder seeking perfection, we are unfolding into wholeness. We are not trying to transcend or vanquish the difficult energies that we consider wrong—the fear, shame, jealousy, anger. This only creates a shadow that fuels our sense of deficiency. Rather, we are learning to turn around and embrace life in all its realness—broken, messy, vivid, alive.
Yet even when our intention in spiritual practice is to include the difficult energies, we still have strong conditioning to resist their pain. The experience of shame—feeling fundamentally deficient—is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it. The etymology of the word shame is “to cover.” Rather than feel the rawness of shame, we develop life strategies to cover and compensate for its presence. We stay physically busy and mentally preoccupied, absorbed in endless self-improvement projects. We numb ourselves with food and other substances. We try to control and change ourselves with self-judgment or relieve insecurity by blaming others. We are so sufficiently defended that we can spend years meditating and never really include in awareness the feared and rejected parts of our experience.
Often those who feel plagued by not being good enough are drawn to idealistic cosmologies that highlight the sense of personal deficiency but offer the possibility of becoming a dramatically different person. The quest for perfection is based on the assumption that we are faulty and must purify and transcend our lower nature. This perception of spiritual hierarchy, of progressing from a lower to a higher self, can be found in elements of most Western and Eastern religions.
When we are in the process of trying to ascend, we never arrive and always feel spiritually insufficient. This was clearly the case during my first years of practice in pursuit of becoming a more perfect yogi. The temporary and passing states of peace or rapture were never enough to soothe my underlying sense of unworthiness. I felt continuously compelled to do more. An alternative face of such insecurity is spiritual pride. The very accomplishments—like improved concentration or periods of bliss—if owned by the self, reinforce a sense of a deficient self that is moving up the ladder. With either pride or shame, our awareness is identified as an entity that is separate and afraid of failure.
In my own unfolding, as well as with friends, clients and dharma students, an intentional spotlight on shame and unworthiness has been enormously revealing. Many people have told me that when they realize how pervasive their self-aversion is and how long their life has been imprisoned by shame, it brings up a sense of grief as well as life-giving hope. Fear of deficiency is a prison that prevents us from belonging to our world. Healing and freedom become possible as we include the shadow—the unwanted, unseen and unfelt parts of our being—in a wakeful and compassionate awareness.
NEXT WEEK — PART 2
---“Flowing Water” by zee buzz
"Whirlpools and Stagnant Waters" (excerpt) NOTHING SPECIAL
by Charlotte Joko Beck
We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life. In flowing forward, a river or stream may hit rocks, branches, or irregularities in the ground, causing whirlpools to spring up spontaneously here and there. Water entering one whirlpool quickly passes through and rejoins the river, eventually joining another whirlpool and moving on. Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river of life forms living things—a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants—then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow. The energy that was a particular whirlpool fades out and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.
We'd rather not think of our lives in this way, however. We don't want to see ourselves as simply a temporary formation, a whirlpool in the river of life. The fact is, we take form for a while; then when conditions are appropriate, we fade out. There's nothing wrong with fading out; it's a natural part of the process. However, we want to think that this little whirl- pool that we are isn't part of the stream. We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable. Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness. To protect the separateness, we set up artificial, fixed boundaries; as a consequence, we accumulate excess baggage, stuff that slips into our whirlpool and can't flow out again. So things clog up our whirlpool and the process gets messy. The stream needs to flow naturally and freely. If our particular whirlpool is all bogged down, we also impair the energy of the stream itself. It can't go anywhere. Neighboring whirlpools may get less water because of our frantic holding on. What we can best do for ourselves and for life is to keep the water in our whirlpool rushing and clear so that it is just flowing in and flowing out. When it gets all clogged up, we create troubles—mental, physical, spiritual.
We serve other whirlpools best if the water that enters ours is free to rush through and move on easily and quickly to whatever else needs to be stirred. The energy of life seeks rapid transformation. If we can see life this way and not cling to anything, life simply comes and goes. When debris flows into our little whirlpool, if the flow is even and strong, the de- bris rushes around for a while and then goes on its way. Yet that's not how we live our lives. Not seeing that we are simply a whirlpool in the river of the universe, we view ourselves as separate entities, needing to protect our boundaries. The very judgment "I feel hurt" establishes a boundary, by naming an "I" that demands to be protected. Whenever trash floats into our whirlpool, we make great efforts to avoid it, to expel it, or to somehow control it.
Ninety percent of a typical human life is spent trying to put boundaries around the whirlpool. We're constantly on guard: "He might hurt me." "This might go wrong." "I don't like him anyway." This is a complete misuse of our life function; yet we all do it to some degree.
Financial worries reflect our struggle to maintain fixed boundaries. "What if my investment doesn't work out? I might lose all of my money." We don't want anything to threaten our money supply. We all think that would be a terrible thing. By being protective and anxious, clinging to our assets, we clog up our lives. Water that should be rushing in and out, so it can serve, becomes stagnant. A whirlpool that puts up a dam around itself and shuts itself off from the river becomes stagnant and loses its vitality. Practice is about no longer being caught in the particular, and instead seeing it for what it is—a part of the whole. Yet we spend most of our energies creating stagnant water. That's what living in fear will do. The fear exists because the whirlpool doesn't understand what it is—none other than the stream itself. Until we get an inkling of that truth, all of our energies go in the wrong direction. We create many stagnant pools, which breed contamination and disease. Pools seeking to dam themselves for protection begin to contend with one another. "You're smelly. I don't like you." Stagnant pools cause a lot of trouble. The freshness of life is gone.
Zen practice helps us to see how we have created stagnation in our lives. "Have I always been so angry, and just never noticed it?" So our first discovery in practice is to recognize our own stagnation, created by our self-centered thoughts. The biggest problems are created by attitudes we cannot see in ourselves. Unacknowledged depression, fear, and anger create rigidity. When we recognize the rigidity and stagnation, the water begins to flow again, bit by bit. So the most vital part of practice is to be willing to be life itself—which is simply the incoming sensations—that which creates our whirlpool.
Over the years, we have trained ourselves to do the opposite: to create stagnant pools. This is our false accomplishment. Out of this ongoing effort come all of our troubles and our separation from life. We don't know how to be intimate, to be the stream of life. A stagnant whirlpool with defended boundaries isn't close to anything. Caught in a self-centered dream, we suffer, as one of our daily Zen Center vows states. Practice is the slow reversal of that. With most students, this reversal is the work of a lifetime. The change is often painful, especially at first. When we are used to the rigidity and controlled stiffness of a defended life, we don't want to allow fresh currents into awareness, however refreshing they may truly be.
The truth is, we don't like fresh air very much. We don't like fresh water very much. It takes a long time before we can see our defensiveness and manipulation of life in our daily activities. Practice helps us to see these maneuvers more clearly, and such recognition is always unpleasant. Still, it's essential that we see what we are doing. The longer we practice, the more readily we can recognize our defensive patterns. The process is never easy or painless, however, and those who are hoping to find a quick and easy place of rest should not undertake it.
That's why I am uneasy with the growth of the Zen Center of San Diego. Too many seekers are looking for easy, painless solutions to their difficulties. I prefer a smaller center, limited to those who are ready and willing to do the work. Of course, I don't expect from beginners the same thing I expect from experienced students. We all learn as we go. Still, the bigger the center, the more difficult it is to keep the teaching clean and rigorous. It's not important how many students we attract to the center; what is important is maintaining strong practice. So increasingly I am tightening up the teaching. This is not a place to be if one is seeking an artificial peace or bliss or some other special state.
What we do get out of practice is being more awake. Being more alive. Knowing our own mischievous tendencies so well that we don't need to visit them on others. We learn that it's never okay to yell at somebody just because we feel upset. Practice helps us to realize where our life is stagnant. Unlike rushing mountain streams, with wonderful water flowing in and flowing out, we may be brought to a dead halt by "I don't like it.... He really hurt my feelings," or "I have such a hard life." In truth, there is only the ongoing rush of the water. What we call our life is nothing but a little detour, a whirlpool that springs up, then fades away. Sometimes the detours are tiny and very brief: life swirls for a year or two in one place, then is wiped away. People wonder why some babies die when they are young. Who knows? We don't know why. It is part of this endless rushing of energy. When we can join this, we're at peace. When all of our efforts go in the opposite direction, we are not at peace.
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---Painting by Beverly Davis
What can an oak tree do to be more oak? More tree? Can it be less, standing there in the back yard silent before the sun? No, it can only be itself. Being is not something that can be improved or lessened; only found or hidden. A knife can be sharpened or dulled but it is still a knife. Its being does not define its usefulness any more than usefulness can define being. Usefulness can be honed but it does not change what something truly is.
We try to make it complicated, we humans. We gather titles like a stamp collection hoping to lick-n-stick something that will tell us what we are. I am a grandfather, a father, a son, a husband, a brother, a friend, a businessman, a photographer, a poet, a boss, a servant, a mower of lawns, a shoveller of snow, a walker, a biker, a vegetarian … the list goes on and on. Attempting to express what I am yields all these things yet none of them is me. At times not really knowing I express myself with all the focus of a blindfolded child swinging at a birthday piñata.
Then where am “I”? I cannot even point at my own flesh and say, “Here am I!” Since my birth nearly every living cell in my body has died and been replaced with new ones. Every molecule that forms me is borrowed from a previous existence of some other form. From the first two cells donated by my parents to the water I drink, the minerals and fuels I consume, everything is borrowed and will one day be returned to the blending of the universe to be used over and over. “I” must be found elsewhere than my ever-changing physicality.
My thoughts are no less, and indeed, considerably more ephemeral than my body. Like sunlight on the waves of the lake my thoughts glimmer and gleam, dance and dazzle but they are only reactions to stimuli. Voices in the mist chatting to themselves about whatever stirs them. Wind on the water, sunlight on the waves are an intriguing sight but nothing that captures our attention is really the water, only reactions to stimuli. We must be more than our chaotic thoughts if we are truly more than the changing wind and fading sunlight. It is comforting, and perhaps a clue, to understand that when the wind is still and the sun is down … the lake remains.
Everything in existence changes. Some things slowly like mountains and stars, some quickly like mayflies and the wind in the trees. Everything that is integral to our existence is mutable and temporary. That being true, where are we? If not our body, if not our thoughts, then what is it that we can point at and say, “Here! Here I am!”
Perhaps, the need to point is part of the problem and the ability to point is the heart of the solution. Naming and defining has been a part of the human paradigm since the Garden. But ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ so it is not the title or titles we cling to that define us. In wanting to point and breathe a sigh of relief saying, “Ah. There I am.” we try to objectify our existence. And fail in the trying. How do you know a knife is a knife and not a cup? How do you know a tree is a tree and not just a grouping of sunlight, water, earth and air? How is it that wind is wind and not rain? It is not just the names that define them. It is their place in the mozaic of creation, their purpose.
Creation is very much like a painting being expressed by the hand of God. Different pigments, different shapes, different forms of light and shadow all being applied by His brushstrokes. Pigment is only pigment until a master’s hand uses it to create beauty. When is red not a color but a flower? When it is placed on the canvas with purpose. And there is the light. We know a knife is a knife because we recognise its purpose. A tree is more than its constituent elements because its life and form have a purpose. We are beings of ephemeral thoughts and transient elements but we are more when we find our purpose.
The pigment does not decide to be a flower, or a sky or water. Its purpose is defined by its place in the Artists creation. We are more than the pigment of our existence.
Enamored with the sound of our thoughts we think thinking is us but who is listening? Aware of our body we see our place in the world and fear that it will die but who is aware? Who sees? Who fears? There is that which needs no voice, does not need to speak to be. There is that which does not need to see to be. The knife does not need to be cutting to be a knife. We are not in the voices, we are not in the seeing, we are not in the doing. As the presence of God can be found in silence it is important to know that that which is truly us is like Him. We must find the silence (“Be still, and know that I am God&rdquo and there, in the stillness where only being dwells we will find that the searcher has been found. In the Spirit of the Artist from who’s hand we are formed we will find our purpose. In the finding we should smile that we have been asking the wrong question all along. It is not “Who am I” or “What am I” or even “Where am I” but rather … Why.
By Larry Newman
January 24, 2013
WEBSITE: As We Awaken