I am confused. I have read so many things about the Buddhist ideal of detachment and other things regarding being one (intimate) with whatever task one may be part of. If I give myself wholeheartedly to my task at hand, how am I detached?
Right now, I would really like some detachment. Taking care of Barry is taking a toll emotionally. I refuse to turn away. I am doing what needs to be done, taking one day at a time.
By throwing myself into my tasks, I am on an emotional roller coaster. The upside is that, no matter how depressed or angry I get, my feelings change. No feeling, no matter how distressing, is forever. I don’t think there is a way to live my life at a detached emotional distance, however desirable that sounds at times.
Is there a way to be intimate with and somehow detached at the same time from a task? Intimacy seems to be a Zen principle, which seems incompatible with my idea of the Buddhist principle of detachment.
“The truth about childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, and conceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday our body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child, who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.” Alice Miller, quoted in “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” by Jack Kornfield, p. 177
I read Alice Miller books twenty years ago, including and especially “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” recommended to me by my shrink back then. Her insights are powerful. She might be European. I remember how she described German pedagogy and showed how Hitler was no anomaly. What Americans considered inexplicable, she revealed as inevitable, given early-twentieth century childrearing techniques across the pond.
Enter American Buddhism. And Buddhism-lite. I’m talking about not just long, intensive meditation retreats, but also such things as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness is entering corporate America.
My suspicion is that we have opened a can of worms. We will have to finish what we start. Because there is NO going back.
You sit down to meditate. And issues immediately surface: anger suppressed for decades, fear never listened to, long-standing resentments, pent-up physical/emotional exhaustion from decades of caregiving, you name it. The idea of stress reduction now seems ridiculous.
Think of mindfulness in a work environment. The thin veneer of professionalism is stripped away and suddenly a worker realizes that they hate their job with a passion or perhaps they were sexually abused as a child and the memories come flooding in. The boss should do what exactly about any of this? Things could get ugly quickly.
Our culture is obsessed with distraction. I am part of it myself. The downside of it is the superficiality of life and the worthlessness of the activities so much time and energy are spent on. The upside is that these distractions keep us at least semi-functional drones in the professional arena.
But once the body is awakened, the pretense is over. If you hate your job, you can never pretend as effectively as before that all is A-OK. Once you feel that repressed rage, going home and having a nice, normal meal with the family is now out of the question. The issues must be dealt with. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Things will never be the same again.
But this could be a good thing. When one person deals with their issues, many issues can now be addressed. Problems now have the hope of being solved instead of denial ruling the day. Once things have permanently changed, it behooves all involved to make the changes as positive as possible. Now is the time for personal evolution. Not revolution—evolution. Growth. Development. Learning. Once one assumption perceived as permanent changes, they are all up for grabs. It starts individually, but it is hard to imagine the changes as remaining in the solely personal realm.
I’m starting to see acknowledgment of such things. I saw an article in a Buddhist magazine about Edward Brown’s first attempts to meditate and how he had physical shaking. Suzuki Roshi even confronted him about it. When Brown explained that he was trying to observe the movements with curiosity, Roshi was suddenly fine with Brown’s attempts to meditate. I have also seen a book for sale by a Buddhist author called “The Trauma of Everyday Life.” Buddhists are starting to realize that something is going on that must be addressed.
I get the impression that a whole lot more needs to be done. There need to be more Buddhist therapists. More re-integration emphasis after retreats. That kind of thing.
Also, businesses need to be more careful before opening that whole mindfulness can of worms. A corporate therapist (or at least a highly-trained HR professional with access to resources) needs to be on hand. If companies don’t want to deal with the human issues that will unavoidably arise, then they should build robots. Being human is messy.
“For minds obsessed by compulsive thinking and grasping, you simplify your meditation practices to just two words—“let go”—rather than try to develop this practice, and then develop that, achieve this, and go into that. The grasping mind wants to read the suttas, to study the Abhidhamma, and to learn Pali and Sanskrit, then the Madhiyamika and the Prajna Paramita, get ordinations in the Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, write books and become a renowned authority on Buddhism…” [emphases in original] Ajahn Sumedho, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”, p. 134, Jack Kornfield
This is part of what I want to avoid in Buddhism, having already “been there, done that” as a Christian. Part of me wanted to go back to some imaginary original purity. That’s how I ended up Greek Orthodox. The New Testament was originally written mostly in Greek and I wanted to be able to read the text as first written, not some dubious American translation. I took three years of modern Greek, which does enable me to understand the Greek NT surprisingly well (as well as being able to recognize some Russian words, due to Russian being invented by the Greek evangelists Cyril and Methodius).
I went to all that trouble for what? To be trapped in a patriarchal religious system inimical to independent thought and questioning. I intellectually and emotionally regressed to a frightening degree. I shudder at my infantilization. I am still crawling out of that hole.
I am now (and always have been) looking for transformation. Letting go is a spirituality all by itself. It is profound and immediate. It’s not easy, but it is effective. We can only do our best to be responsible. At some point, letting go is the only option.
I understand the whole “spiritual bypassing” concept. Don’t we all want to avoid our issues? At the same time, being obsessively intellectual quickly gets annoying. It only reinforces the very part of the personality that needs antidepressants to cope. Being intellectually impressive to others is small consolation for an enduring lack of peace.
“The Fifth Remembrance is “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” In the sutra we see clearly that living in the present moment does not preclude our thinking about the past or the future, but we must dwell in the present moment so that whenever we look deeply into the past or the future, we are free and we are able to overcome our fears and our sadness concerning these things.” “The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” © Thich Nhat Hanh
I like Thich Nhat Hanh because his way of speaking is full of common sense and compassion, things this world cannot do without. “Living in the present moment” doesn’t mean that no planning can occur. This quote says to me, “You need to make plans and start implementing them now because you will have to live with the consequences of your (in)actions later.”
Barry lives five minutes at a time. Part of that is the Huntington’s. Part of it, I suspect, is being retired. He doesn’t want the responsibility of planning and executing. That is fine—as long as you have someone else taking up the slack and handling all the responsibilities.
I was asking him about preparing an Advance Directive and making his desires official and on paper. His response? “I thought you already had Power of Attorney.” In other words, “You handle it, Cindy. I want nothing to do with any of it.”
Also, I realized I needed a printer. I had gotten rid of my previous printers due to toner issues and knew I would need one someday, but was in no hurry to get another one. I became aware that I would want to print out an Advance Directive eventually, not to mention resumes for job hunting. I told Barry that I was a little overwhelmed with going out and buying a printer. His solution? “Then don’t buy one.” Problem solved, but only in his mind. For someone that spends all his time watching TV, this is a perfectly appropriate resolution.
I’ve been trying to figure out what “living in the present” means when saddled with all the responsibilities. This helps a little. Thanks to a Vietnamese monk.
“Learning to live is learning to let go.” Sogyal Rinpoche
I am trying to throw myself into my current situation, that of taking care of my husband as best I can. I no longer feel as obligated to act as though everything is normal. Normal is so yesterday.
I feel like I am starting through the birth canal of my next phase. Things are going faster: more clarity as to my part and feeling less resistance regarding the progression of his demise. I don’t feel the need to push. Life speeds up of its own accord. I have felt stuck a long time, but not as much now.
I just finished “Being with Dying” by Joan Halifax, Roshi. She emphasizes the four abodes of loving-kindness, joy, compassion, and equanimity. Her method is all about not-knowing, bearing witness, acceptance, listening, that kind of thing.
I live my life and deal with the immediate pressing concerns of eventual death. Then I go to the mall (or anywhere, almost) and wonder about whether or not these other people are aware they are going to die. Watching TV can be weird, with its emphasis on pleasure and trivialities. Even commercials for schools come off strange because the whole concept of “career” can be irrelevant when making payments on your own grave marker. (Barry and I will share a grave marker and I started making payments in June.) Now, it’s more like, “I want to have a positive impact and do a job that is enjoyable and aimed at my strengths.” My “life goal” at this point, and this is a little sad, is to pay off my student loans someday. Life-and-death issues are in my face and I have little tolerance for the trivial anymore. A day or two ago, I looked at a catalog and thought, “I could use that item. Would that item be worth giving to someone else when I am done with it?”
Maybe I am bad at “living in the moment”, but I am now looking at longer and perhaps more eternal time periods. I don’t want to buy something I use once and send to a landfill. Knowing that I will be forced to surrender everything eventually, I want to pass on something worth someone else having.
I feel so much better. The therapist appointment went about as I expected. Everything got clarified.
My shrink was even like, “So…Barry…Your strategy as things go along is to not know what’s going on because it’s too overwhelming to know what’s going on when you feel like there isn’t much you can do about it. Is that correct?”
Denial is the strategy. Why do I feel so much better? Because it’s all out in the open. There is no room for misunderstanding Barry’s motivations. He doesn’t want to change anything, ever. When something happens, we’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it.
He can be in denial as much as he wants, but now the shrink knows that I am not unilaterally cutting off Barry’s chances of recovery. I am not confused. I am following Barry’s directives (or complete lack thereof). Barry is choosing his path and I am respecting it. If I were him, I might choose the same thing. I feel like I can love him now more freely, without risking myself legally and emotionally. I feel like I am on this journey to death with him, with only me seemingly aware of the end of the journey. It is not my journey, but I am the only one consciously on it.
I’ve been reading “Being with Dying” by Roshi Joan Halifax. She talks about seeing purely and bearing witness. I feel like I am more equipped to do those now that I am not as concerned about covering my butt legally.
It’s so strange how isolating dealing with a person’s impending death is when death is something that every human has in common with all others, human and non-human. It is already an odd trip.
If Barry knew what the appointment with our therapist is about, he would beg me to cancel. So I’m not telling him. And it’s harder than I thought it would be.
So I’m pretending things are normal, but for my benefit, not his as much. Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience doing one thing while feeling something completely different.
It’s one of the reasons I left church: I could no longer in good conscience go along with the church’s delusional financial and social structures. Life was forcing me to live in the present and the church was/is still stuck in the 1970s.
Here’s the rub. With Barry, and the church I went to, I wasn’t faking at first. I was trying my best to fit in and be supportive. When Barry was in better health, I really was comfortable and wanted him to be happy and comfortable. Likewise, when I became Orthodox (capital “O”), I was enthusiastic about its holistic vision. I was comfortable at first.
I changed. And I didn’t realize it. So I didn’t feel fake. The contradictions between my behavior and my changing feelings and beliefs were so subtle at first that I didn’t notice the increasing loss of integrity. The gap between my feelings and my behavior went from being a hair’s breadth to being the Grand Canyon. The misery factor increases exponentially at the slightest increase in distance. It’s logarithmic.
My love for Barry is real and unchanged. But I need real answers. I need to protect myself emotionally and legally. I refuse to continue bearing the emotional and legal burden of his unstated expectations. It’s not fair to me. I need a witness. The Huntington’s and potential cancer (or whatever unknown factor is causing the weight loss) have made dealing with these issues urgent.
Still, pretending, for any reason whatsoever, is hard. I want to be authentic. I’m even currently reading “The Authentic Life” by Ezra Bayda. As I get older, being congruent is increasingly important to me. The problem is that I change and don’t let anyone know sometimes, including myself.