“In the text The Straight Path, Zen Master Anzan Hoshin quotes the following from Zen Master Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, or How Everyone Can Sit:
Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Be before thinking. These are the basics of zazen.
The Sensei unfolds the meaning of this passage in this way:
This means: No opposites. Zen is not a matter of thinking (shiryo) or of shutting out thought (fushiryo) but of being Before Thinking (hishiryo). Before Thinking means to be prior to experiences in the same way that a mirror is always prior to what it shows even at the moment of showing it. We cannot be anything that we are aware of. We are always the context of whatever content arises. When we release all of our states and our avoidance and identification then we are always right there at the very moment that the world arises, right at this pointless point. Bring together every aspect of mind, everything hidden and everything obvious, and allow each to resolve itself into the knowing of it. This is zazen, the shikantaza of all Awakened Ones.” http://wwzc.org/dharma-text/thinking-about-not-thinking
Compare with: “Once the mind knows the way to alleviate its inner pressure, like Pandora’s box, it begins to let all the garbage up, and up it came in profusion! Thoughts and feelings, which had hardly been noticed at the time of their occurrence, now returned. Life had been so busy that there had not been time to handle them. The decompression process began to unfold on its own.” David R. Hawkins, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, p. 303
Letting Go is all about letting go of resistance to feelings. I see the same concept in “non-thinking” and shikantaza.
The urge toward health is urgent and undeniable. And sometimes incredibly inconvenient and neither pretty nor socially acceptable. What do you do when a lifetime of resentments and pain come up? Hawkins acknowledges this reality when he mentions “that there had not been time to handle them.” Trauma and modern life will do that.
People tell me that they can’t meditate because they think too much. I know what they mean, but they’re missing the point. The point is that we use thoughts (and every imaginable diversion) to avoid our feelings. And not all Asian-born masters understand American neuroses. And our culture needs to learn how to deal honestly with feelings instead of rewarding their repression.
I am going to deal with this stuff. I don’t care how long it takes. Nothing is more important. I refuse to feel like this the rest of my life.
There is no putting the toothpaste back in that tube.
I have been dealing with a lot of anger for the past six months. And my body is finding its own ways to express its feelings. It is almost funny.
I have had an infection in my right index finger for months. I pick my nails. (I tend to act in, not out.) Once in a while, I get an infection. This infection has morphed repeatedly. It is fascinating. Notice that when something is red and swollen, we say it is “angry.” This is no metaphor. It would be horribly painful, then a little pus would come to the surface and come out. Then it would feel a little better and change shape a tad. It has done this over and over. When I have been the most emotional, it has been the most painful.
But now my life is not in crisis mode; for the first time in months. I am able to relax and deal with the backlog of emotional stuff. Lo and behold, the healing is now occurring faster, The infection is almost gone. It never improved until I stopped being continually traumatized. Nothing I did helped. It was so stubborn. I could not fix it. Life had to become saner first.
I could not make it heal, but I could let go of my expectations of myself being able to handle everything.
I don’t know when the next phase of my life will begin, but I’m going to keep letting go of everything. Someday, I may not care about anything. After all, when you let go of everything, what really matters anymore? I don’t know, but I feel like I am becoming more fluent in my body’s language. It expresses what is within. And when that is dealt with, magically it feels better. Who’d a’thunk it?
In my quest for sanity, I purchased a book by David Hawkins, Letting Go. It is having real effects on my life, but I don’t know where this is headed. For me, I was just trying to let go of anything toxic because I don’t want to carry around emotional or physical poisons or unneeded stress.
The idea is to release whatever feelings you feel. Just feel them, accept them, and be okay with them.
It’s a very powerful idea, but with unintended consequences. In some of his earlier works, Hawkins has stated that just reading his books can cause sudden, unexpected shifts forward in consciousness. That sounds wonderful but abrupt. I think I’ve had it happen a couple of times. It has been greatly disorienting. But holding on to poisons is not exactly appealing, either.
This past Friday, I was feeling some uncomfortable feelings. I just sat with them. Then I felt better. Then I felt tired. How long had I been holding that stress? What would that stress have done to my body had I retained it?
Then something shifted. I felt it very quickly, clearly, and distinctly. I’ve only felt similar things when something has ended in my life: a relationship, my desire for a particular job, that kind of thing.
I still don’t know what happened. But I suspect it is transformative. My desire or need for something, what I do not know, may be gone. The need may or may not have been met, but part of me has moved on, regardless. At this point, someone may offer me now the thing I have let go of the need for (whatever it is) and the offer will seem strangely irrelevant. That’s when I’ll know what the shift was about.
Letting go is powerful, but I am not convinced that the person can always know what all they are letting go of. You find out later. Letting go of feelings entails a necessary loss of the illusion of control. Who wants to be out of control? But who really is in control?
I am volatile. Cheese me off and I am likely to go off on you right now, mercilessly.
I think I am starting to understand what is going on.
For my entire life, I have repressed my real feelings. They still came out sometimes, usually in the oddest and most inappropriate times. I have had little choice. As a young adult, I simply lacked the coping skills necessary to survive in the real world. No matter how bad my relationship with Barry, I would stick it out—because the alternative was living with my parents. My parents are basically good people with some issues (as we all have). My dad was a narcissist when I was growing up; he’s not as bad now. And my mom made endless excuses for my older brothers using drugs and alcohol. In her mind, they were “going through a phase.”
Yeah, right. A phase that lasts umpteen years. It is my opinion that addiction puts an end to a person’s emotional and spiritual growth at whatever age the addiction starts. In other words, a person who starts drinking at fifteen and continues for the next thirty years is a forty-five year old with all the emotional maturity of the fifteen year old.
I am the youngest in my family. I have always been treated as a child by people whose connection to reality is tenuous at best. There’s nothing quite like being condescended to by active alcoholics and addicts. And then I get criticized for having a bad attitude. For me, relationships have not been worth my time and energy because I tend to attract these chemically-dependent, narcissistic losers into my life and then I am totally unwilling to do everything on their non-reality-based terms. The need for repression is obvious for someone lacking the survival skills and confidence to handle the real world.
About a decade-and-a-half ago, I decided to take responsibility for my life. I started working and going to school. Then Barry retired and got cancer. I continued going to school until I got my MBA. Then I graduated. The Huntington’s progressed. The house declined. I realized I could not take care of Barry and the house simultaneously. My needs increased beyond my ability to meet them myself. I reached out for help and received no offers of genuine assistance, only fake politeness. The needs were urgent and real. The offers of help were not. The resources I thought I had so carefully put in place for precisely this moment in time turned out to be imaginary. Only the unmet needs are real.
And I exploded. All my unmet needs are right there at the surface. I am ready to tear off someone’s head. Where the hell did all these feelings come from? They’ve been there the whole time, but were necessarily repressed for survival purposes. Now that I have the skills and confidence that I could survive on my own (if ever given the opportunity to be anything other than a caregiver), a lifetime of repressed emotions is erupting.
I would love to re-repress some of this stuff. This level of rage has repressed for good reason. But it doesn’t work like that. I have lost the ability to repress anything.
Some of this is Buddhism’s fault. I have been meditating and letting go of feelings as they come up. Of course, I’ve tried to use meditation to not feel, but, needless to say, that doesn’t work long-term. Now I am facing my feelings and have nowhere to go with them. These emotions are not polite. The time for game-playing is over.
I have a shrink and now we are starting to deal with some of this stuff. When my car is not working, I have had an abnormal mammogram, Barry has blood in his urine, and the house has to be prepared for sale, it is hard to say to my shrink, “Let’s talk about what was happening in my family when I was 11.” When dealing with multiple crises simultaneously, I am lucky to function 5 minutes at a time. However, the past few weeks have had fewer traumas and so there is now the possibility of dealing with past stuff and not just the current crisis. Numbness has been absolutely essential for my continued functioning.
It is only now, at the age of 47, that I can start to deal with repressed stuff. I have looked online for hints as to how to deal with eruptions of repressed emotions. Everything seems to be about why repression is bad for you. Duh. I know that. But sometimes, repression is essential. What do you do when repression is no longer an option? Nobody talks about that.
Repressing Less, Feeling More
Getting honest with myself is having repercussions everywhere in my life, good and bad.
The upside of less repression is that I am losing weight effortlessly and, wow, am occasionally feeling (could it be?) joy.
The downside of less repression is that my reactions to situations are swift and powerful. I am accustomed to just not feeling things. Yesterday, my husband and I received an invitation to his daughter’s second wedding—in Mexico! Seriously? She is having the ceremony while on a cruise. Going would entail spending thousands of dollars on a cruise and, worse, would likely kill Barry. The issue is that Bailey knows her dad can’t travel. He has Huntington’s Disease and she knows it (and might get it herself because she hasn’t been tested for it as far as I know). If he could travel, I would take him. I could never deprive him of a wedding of his own daughter. I accompanied him to her first wedding. This is not the worst part of it, however. The zinger is that she sent this invitation to a ridiculously expensive wedding to the man she didn’t even send a Father’s Day card to. Her message came through loud and clear: I don’t really care about you and, by the way, could you please send me and my fiancé a very expensive present? I was instantly pissed off. It was such a slap in the face.
This is where I am losing my mind. I am tired of being burdened with the social obligation that I respect and honor other people’s asinine, bullshit, and profoundly disrespectful expectations. And when I fail to do so (deliberately and in good conscience), I am made to look like the bad guy. This is the kind of stuff that would have been instantly repressed this time last year. I now understand the upside of repression.
And now I don’t repress much of anything anymore. Part of it is that I don’t use emotional eating for repression purposes now. Also, you cannot repress something right there at the surface. It’s too late. Trying to shove down those feeling with an entire package of cookies can only leave me wretchingly sick and still pissed off. It would solve nothing.
I have used Zen to avoid feelings for many years. I have also wished to live in a monastery to focus on purely “spiritual” concerns. I now recognize that the main reason I’ve wanted to be a monastic is to avoid precisely these kinds of social/emotional issues.
I am realizing that I have an entire lifetime of repressed anger coming up. I have tried so many years to meet people’s expectations. Regardless of how ridiculous those expectations have been. Take the lid off a boiling pot and this is what happens. It’s all coming out now. I almost pity the person that gets in my way today. Holding things in has made me more socially palatable, but it has also kept unnecessary weight on me and emotionally deadened me for years. Other people liked me more—at the expense of my own self-respect and emotional growth. It was a truly sucky trade-off.
I will let go of this, too. Time will pass. Barry, for that matter, will pass as well. This will be “ancient history.” I will release the anger and also the grief that Barry’s daughter could ever treat her dad that way. I will release the heartbreak.
I’ve been doing a lot of letting go lately: of things, of expectations, and of relationships. It has been my attempt to be more Zen, letting go of things as they arise. And it has thrown me into a pit of grief.
I read somewhere that, when you truly let go of an expectation, you are okay with whether or not that thing or event happens. You are fine either way. I’ve done that a few times in my life and have discovered that when I let go of my expectation, the relationship is let go of simultaneously.
Relationships and expectations go together. Human relationships are based on expectations. Period. If, for example, someone said to me, “You know, I am fine with whether or not my husband is faithful to me. I am okay either way,” I would respond, “Wow. Your definition of ‘marriage’ sure bears no resemblance to mine. If my husband put my health in jeopardy through infidelity, I would be extremely not okay with it. Have you simply surrendered your self-respect from years of neglect?” I believe that all relationships have some level of foundational expectations. When the expectations are gone, so is the basis of the relationship.
The expectations come from very real needs. The ways of getting those needs can be negotiated. The needs themselves are non-negotiable, however. And people can sure waste a lot of time negotiating non-negotiables. When it becomes clear that a specific relationship will never meet Need A, the expectation is gone—along with the relationship. The need still has to be met and now you can look elsewhere to get that need met.
I am dealing with this with Barry’s family. My needs have been huge. This past year has been the hardest of my life. I have been dealing with multiple traumas simultaneously. They have pretended to be supportive. When I have actually reached out for assistance, I have been rejected. My expectations of getting my needs met through these people are gone. The basis of these relationships has been vaporized. I am still seeking to get these needs met. When it becomes clear that I am expected to give, give, give, and that the other person need only receive—in my hour of greatest need—it is time to move on. And I refuse to pretend that I am not wounded by their response. It has become clear that what they want is my reassurance that they are good people, without meeting the expectation that they actually are good people or are genuinely helpful in any way, shape, or form. It’s about their emotional needs, not my urgent crises. My refusal to reassure them and pat them on the back for their fake offers of help is deeply offensive to them. Good. Their offense is their only connection to reality.
I am also dealing with some of this with a friend. Her expectations of me were greater than I could meet while I was dealing with umpteen crises simultaneously. I let go of my expectations of her. It threw me into a pit of grief for a while. I didn’t realize that I was letting go of her. Then I started to feel so much better. I didn’t understand at first. I figured out that my feeling better was simply relief. I had stopped investing so much time, energy, and expectation into that relationship. My internal resources were freed to meet other needs. At this point, I cannot imagine going back. I had not realized just how much of my resources this friend was sucking up. To not have that vacuum hose attached to my emotional resources any longer makes me almost giddy with relief.
Human beings have needs: physical, financial, and emotional. This is normal. Occasionally in people’s lives, they are given more than they can handle. It may happen once or twice in a person’s life. It is not routine.
When overwhelmed, I and other humans may have nothing to give. The normal give-and-take no longer applies.
I feel the need to address “spiritual by-passing.” This is where you pretend that you have “transcended” a situation without addressing the fundamental need driving it. It is delusional at its core. I’ve done it with Zen. “I am letting go of everything,” I tell myself. When I start to do so, I discover that the foundation of all my relationships is gone. Letting go of my expectations does not address the unmet needs and now I am needy without genuine hope of getting those needs met. Absolutely nothing has been resolved.
I know that this is a phase of my life. It will not last forever. Someday, I will have more to offer. I am already at a place where I am less overwhelmed and can think more clearly regarding these issues. It’s kind of like my anti-depressant: I have no intention of being on it forever, but now is not the most realistic time to go off of it. I am letting go of the pretense of certain relationships meeting certain very real, non-negotiable needs. It is the relationships I am letting go of, for the purpose of getting my needs met in other, healthier relationships. The relationships are negotiable; the needs are not.