I was talking to a friend yesterday about how I have done absolutely everything I know to do to move my life forward. I have prepared as much as possible. I have looked logically at my situation and done that which is rational. And I am still stuck.
I also found myself praising one of my flakier New-Age-y friends because of her intuition. Why? Because she is everything I am not: intuitive, free-spirited, highly spiritual, etc. She has a tender heart and a very sweet spirit.
I realized that I have come to the end of my logical rope. And so I am looking for alternatives. Even though I would likely not follow all of her advice, she still possesses what I call the “admiration factor”, that intangible quality where you look at someone and say to yourself, “I want what they have. What do I need to do to get it?”
I have forsaken my feelings so I can follow logic and reason. Part of that comes from my church years. If you go to many churches long enough, you will never trust your feelings and probably never figure out what they are in the first place. Welcome to my world.
But last year, my life stopped. I realized that I was stuck taking care of a house and a husband indefinitely and not knowing the basics of home-ownership or caretaking. Everything came to a screeching halt and I was left feeling overwhelmed and befuddled. What the _____ just happened? It all happened so gradually that I didn’t see it coming. I was in need of some serious help.
And I found out the hard way who was there for me when the chips were down versus those who just said they would be but had no real assistance to give.
My life was too much and I had no spare energy to devote to social pleasantries. The pretense was over. I found myself saying, “I am so done with _____” all the time.
That granted me a level of freedom I had never had.
Now I can explore my feelings freely. I have done all that I know to do logically and now it is time for me to explore all those socially unacceptable feelings. Now that I no longer attend a feeling-negating church and can learn to trust my feelings (because they are a million times more reliable than any of the crap theology I was indoctrinated in), my life can expand and become infinitely more interesting. It’ll be interesting to see where this leads.
I had an epiphany yesterday: My sense of surreality in dealing with some people and situations comes directly from feeling like they are responding to something other than the real me.
Have you ever read The Invisibile Man? It might be from Ralph Ellison. I read it at least a dozen years ago. I had previously attempted to read it about five or six years earlier, but found it annoying. It seemed disjointed to me. When I picked it up again, it dawned on me. That’s the point! The book goes from one weirdly unrelated scenario to another in the life of this black man. The way this man is treated has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with him. Rather, it is all about other people’s reactions to who they think he is or should be. People are not seeing him at all, only their own projections. The way they treated him was not personal, in the sense of good or bad being directed at him as a distinct individual. Once I got the point, the book was quite engaging.
That’s why I felt like the email from Barry’s sister was oddly inappropriate, but could not initially figure out why. Nothing she said was bad or wrong—just irrelevant to my concerns and urgent issues. It would be kind of like knowing that someone’s home was just destroyed by a fire or hurricane and then emailing them happy birthday wishes. The only response is, “Huh? Really?” I said a lot of emotionally-laden things this past summer and her response was, “Happy birthday!” She is not responding to the real me at all. Whatever relationship I have with her is not reality-based.
I can get along fabulously with people, if I just tell them what they want to hear. I concluded this summer that such relationships are generally not worth the time and effort required for their maintenance. I am at a point in my life where I would truly prefer for someone to get in my face and scream, “I hate you, you f*****g b***h! How dare you speak to me like that!” than to send me birthday wishes. Then I would at the very least feel heard, like my message had gotten through even if it were not well received.
This sense of surreality has presented itself forcefully. For example, a few weeks ago, I almost got run off the road. The person simply cut into my lane as if I did not exist. Later that day, a lady (I thought was looking directly at me) almost ran me over with a shopping cart in the parking lot of the grocery store. Nothing personal.
I also had the same issue at church—and it was part of why I left. The very first Holy Week Wednesday I attended, a couple of Greek teenagers stepped on my foot. They didn’t apologize because they did not notice me. I did not exist in their world. They literally did not see me. Later, the priest would treat me like crap, but I knew that, since he treated everyone like crap, it wasn’t personal.
That’s the point: sometimes, things need to be personal. Sometimes, when things are not personal, it gets difficult to imagine why I should continue maintaining a relationship with a person or organization. If my presence is not noticed, perhaps my absence won’t be, either.
Zen is part of how I try to ground myself in reality. I notice my breath, my feet, my heartbeat, etc. This is part of the antidote to living in my head, spinning around in my thoughts while being oblivious to the outside world. Zen is the fount of authenticity.
I confess that I have presented many masks to the world. Often, when people are not responding to the real me, it is because I have never shown it to them. I remember, in my early 20s, wondering if there even was such a thing as a “real me.” I acted one way at school, another at work, another with my husband, another with my friends, and a completely different way with my parents. I felt like I had multiple personality disorder. The concept of integrity was nonsensical at the time.
Back then, it was simply survival. I had to do whatever was necessary to get the rent paid, get good grades, get along with my dysfunctional family, get along with Barry’s dysfunctional family…I do not regret the many masks I wore back then because it was absolutely essential. Without any real social skills, pretense kept me fed and warm.
But now I am pushing fifty. The pretense was mandatory in the past, but just feels icky today. The repression of my feelings that was needed back then can only create unwanted physical and emotional symptoms now. I crave authenticity today. When I don’t get it, I feel it, and it feels deeply offensive.
Today, I went to a respite care place to find out about how to get help with Barry. I broke down and cried at just the prospect of getting some relief. It will likely cost a lot of money. But the alternative is for my life to not be worth living. Just to be seen and heard was huge. To have my needs acknowledged at all was profound.
What I got out of today was that I have to do whatever it takes to take care of myself, even if it costs a pretty penny and drains us of some of our savings.
I don’t know who or what I am, still. But I do know one thing for certain: I would rather have the real me rejected than to have the fake me praised or to just not be acknowledged as existing. Go ahead. Hate me. Just hate the real me.
I’ve been reading an article by Pema Khandro Rinpoche from the Spring 2015 issue of Buddhadharma. It talks about disruption.
“The Tibetan term ‘bardo’, or ‘intermediate state”, is not just a reference to the afterlife. It refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives….Milarepa referred to this disruption as a great marvel, singing from his cave, ‘The precious pot containing my riches becomes my teacher in the very moment it breaks.’ This is the Vajrayana idea behind successive deaths and rebirths, and it is the first essential point to recognize: rupture.”
This sudden sense of displacement is real and there is social support for people undergoing such obvious trauma. A plane dives into the ocean or mountainside and the grief-stricken relatives are supported by family and friends. That makes sense.
But the world I live in is different. Most of my losses are more gradual. Barry’s health and our income did not vanish in one day. The issue was gradual; it was only my emotional realization that was sudden. The pot did not crash to the floor. Rather, it imperceptibly developed cracks and gradually leaked water until it was bone dry and useless. Then I desperately needed a drink and had nothing.
I see this everywhere both on TV and in my life. On one hoarding show, this lady had a Jacuzzi and wanted to give it to someone who needed water therapy. The haulers came to donate it only to find that vermin had chewed out the insulation to nest within it. Also, when I still attended church, in one of the last sermons I heard, Fr. Mark said that the church had 200 families. That startled me because he had told me the exact same figure a decade earlier, when attendance was at least a third higher. There is no way he was correct both times. Reality had changed dramatically, but his perception had not changed one iota. No rupture, just a slow leak.
I am accustomed to churches living in a fantasy world. That is part of living in the Midwest. Churches live in the past. Whatever.
However, I won’t go for a Buddhist version of Fantasy World, either. I do not currently reside in Shambhala. I have always greatly appreciated the nitty-gritty Buddhist understanding of suffering and how to deal with it compassionately and realistically.
Right now, I am reading The Method of No Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination by Sheng Yen. On page 47, he talks about just doing whatever you are doing wholeheartedly. “You should approach the task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future, but once you start the task, focus on the present.” You are not left stranded in the Eternal Now of McMindfulness. The past and future are taken into consideration before commencing with the task at hand.
Many years ago, I was chronically overwhelmed and did not deal with many things. “I just can’t handle this now,” was my refrain. I knew I would have to deal with things “later.” Guess what? Later has arrived. Karma cannot be evaded. Cause-and-effect still rule.
What I am running into now is the lack of social support for even acknowledging the slower, equally real, changes of life. Denial is more powerful than crack. If I say something someone else is not ready to hear, I am informed that I am mistaken and exaggerating the problem, assuming one actually exists. Pardon me for warning you of the oncoming train. I am so gauche. What was I thinking? Never fear. I won’t be making that mistake again.
My Buddhist problem is simple: How do I handle changes honesty and mindfully without using discursive thought? Is it even possible?
I have been wrestling lately with “the present moment” versus planning for the future, or maybe it is “spontaneity” versus “discipline.”
My stumbling block is McMindfulness, where the focus is incessantly on the present and the pretense (perhaps “pretense” comes from the same root as “present”, just as “shrub” and “bush” and “brush” seem to have the same letters rearranged to give a final similar result) that this moment is all there really is. I understand that if you don’t use the present moment well, odds are that your future won’t be that great, either. I see that every day in the people I know. To some degree, the focus needs to be on what you can accomplish today with the resources currently at your disposal.
However, our sensory-overloaded culture keeps saying, “Relax. Enjoy the moment. What’s all the fuss about?” There is a word for that: ignorance. It is rightly called a “poison” by Buddhists everywhere.
Ironies abound here. I was looking at an article on Buddhism Now regarding the Dalai Lama focusing on the present moment, saying that there is no future or past without the present. It seems that the people pushing this “present moment living” are also the people who have consciously, deliberately developed vast reservoirs of spiritual discipline. Another example is the Taoists out there, memorizing vast quantities of their scriptures so that they can “spontaneously” respond to a given situation properly. That’s not “spontaneity.” That’s called “training.” Any HR manager will tell you that. All HR professionals know, through experience, that people do not rise to the level of expectations placed on them. Rather, people fall to the level of their training. Martial arts are also built upon the same unfathomable depths of discipline to enable their practitioners to respond properly in stressful situations. The only way to behave harmoniously in a variety of circumstances is to have already made a strong, conscious choice to behave according to previously-chosen principles. This is hardly my definition of “spontaneity.”
I have some of the same misgivings relating to spiritual experiences that people attribute to The Universe, God, or whatever. Let’s just be honest. Most spiritual environments are designed to invoke certain feelings, such as beauty, clarity, holiness, warmth, community, peace, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Who wouldn’t rather be in a clean, beautiful, warm room/building/whatever (as opposed to a dirty, cold, ugly place)? I, for one, am always trying to declutter my house and clean it better to make it more inviting. I am only advocating truth-in-advertising. As an Orthodox Christian, I could look up whatever Sunday it was (such as the fourth Sunday of John, e.g.) and know precisely what scriptures would be read and what the hymns of the day would be. It was no secret, and there you go. However, in the Protestant world, there was a huge pretense of spontaneity and everything being a “move of God”—even as absolutely every detail was orchestrated and choreographed within an inch of its life. All details were manipulated and canned. The artificiality was palpable. I actually found the in-your-face predictability of orthodoxy refreshing and, uh, unpretentious.
My point is that I feel a certain confusion when I hear about how primary this moment is, as compared to all other moments, and then turn around to find my current choices being constrained by prior, poor choices I made years ago. My future choices are, likewise, being constrained by the quality of my current decisions. Maybe my issue is simply the fact that I am middle-aged now and routinely live with the good and bad consequences of previous choices. I want to take young people by the collars and try to communicate somehow to them that they will eventually have to live with the consequences of their choices from today. I have seen, personally, how a time comes to us all when we can no longer make choices. We have to accept the fallout or fruits of previous attitudes and actions. Our ability to make new choices has passed and we are left with what we did or didn’t do years ago.
There is a very steep price to be paid for stupid spontaneity. My friends and I are all paying it. This is the amount due for living a life with the attitude of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?”
“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.
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.
“The misuse of absorption can lead to denial.” Jack Kornfield, “Bringing the Dharma Home”, page 19
I’m not sure if there is a difference between absorption and concentration, but everyone I have ever known, including myself, has misused concentration/absorption for the purposes of maintaining denial.
How can you not? Sometimes, reality sucks and there isn’t much that a person can do about it. Focusing on the problem does not necessarily empower a person to implement a solution, particularly if the problem belongs to someone else. Compassion makes a person care about others, but it doesn’t always enable the carer to fix the concern.
I have obsession issues, not that anyone could tell. (Ha ha.) Once my brain figures something out, then I want to understand how that thing impacts every other area of my life and the lives of others I care about. In other words, once I find a new dot, I want to see how it connects to all the others. And then I’m off….I’m living in my head. And sometimes, particularly when my reality is unpalatable, living in my head is a relief.
But that’s the problem. I’m living in my head, not dealing with my current situation (by distracting myself with some issue of irrelevance to my daily life), and time is going by. My life is slipping through my fingers because I’d rather focus on anything else rather than dealing with the current reality.
Reading female self-help authors is revelatory. A woman will write a book about empowering other women and realize that they are not practicing what they preach. The next thing you know, they are divorced. I am thinking specifically about Melody Beattie and Sarah Ban Breathnach (sorry if I mangled the spellings, it’s been a while). They feel time passing and are not willing to let their life slip by being unhappily married or in a relationship with a practicing addict or whatever. Divorce isn’t a guarantee of happiness, but if you’re already unhappy, there may not be a lot to lose through divorce. At some point, it becomes time to take your own advice. Integrity demands it.
Sometimes I wonder if OCD is the ultimate absorption/distraction. People think they want to let go of their obsessions, but their obsessions serve a purpose—distracting them from their current misery.
I saw it as a Christian. I saw churches obsessed with politics and abortion while their young people fled the icky, manipulative political sermons of the pastor. I saw one woman go to Joyce Meyer events, ignoring the fact that her son was flamingly gay. I have a sister-in-law that will tell you all about the evils of diet pop, while her husband (my brother) kills himself one beer at a time.
I don’t want to fall into the same ditch as a Buddhist. I don’t want to use any religion as an escape from reality. Mindfulness has been my savior at times. Feeling my breath. Listening to what people are saying and comparing/contrasting that with their actual behavior. Feeling the sun on my skin. Taking my husband’s no’s seriously. I want to deal with reality, not develop supernatural concentrative powers. Escape is easy and time (life) slips away minute by minute.
Maybe when your options are gone and you can’t do anything anymore, concentration can be handy. Distraction may not be such a bad thing when someone else is changing your diapers. I don’t know. I just know that I don’t want to live like that now.
Reading about concentration versus generalized mindfulness, I saw in “Bringing Home the Dharma” (by Jack Kornfield) that a misuse of concentration can be related to denial. I have found that to be true.
But that still leaves the people not in denial the decision as to whether or not to “honor” the opinions of people in denial. This a moral/ethical issue with far-ranging consequences. It is so much easier to go along with denial than to confront it. However, once one starts to feel the reality of impermanence, the willingness to blindly go along with denial can evaporate like the morning dew.
I am dealing with a very weird situation. My husband Barry’s mind is not really present much, but his spirit is clear and understanding. He is refusing to eat more, in order to increase or even maintain his weight. Given that his dad was heavier than Barry is now when the old man died, Barry’s prognosis is not good. But his mind hasn’t connected the dots yet. I think he assumes he will live at least a few more years. His spirit has told me clearly in moments of extreme lucidity, “I am tired. I am done. Please don’t try to save me.” His exact words were, “Why couldn’t you listen to my no yesterday? Leave me alone.” And yet, when I mentioned that I thought he was going to die, he told me I was being “negative.” This is a very serious disconnect.
I still have to make choices, which will please some levels of Barry’s mind/spirit, while equally offending others. It now comes down to my conscience. I need to be able to feel good about the choices that I am making now ten, twenty years from now.
One problem with denial comes from unscrupulous people that can use these mind/spirit disconnections to their advantage. Another name for denial is “blind spot.” Some people have blind spots the size of Texas. Greedy people can come in and take advantage of the situations. Churches get ripped off regularly because they do not have the proper financial safeguards and blindly trust the wrong people. I’ve seen that over and over.
Another problem with denial is the cultural enforcement of it. To enforce denial, leaders have to prevent (how?) members from thinking for themselves and connecting the dots on their own. It didn’t work for Enron and, eventually, everyone finds out anyhow. And then the consequences are far-reaching. Even before the inevitable end, the smarter members of the denial-ridden organization will try to speak up and/or leave. “Good riddance,” the leadership says to the people that they will no longer have to deal with (and that belief can be a form of denial itself because, once a person leaves, the leadership now has zero authority of the leaver). So the smarter people with the higher integrity quietly leave…The organization loses its prestige and credibility and notices nothing.
Concentration is no excuse for a lack of mindfulness. I don’t care if I ever achieve any of the jhanas. Absorption is no substitute for being connected to reality.
“I find it fascinating that Buddhist practitioners barely acknowledge the existence of childhood trauma and what may be needed in order to release it. I feel fortunate that I got through it and was able to release some of the traumatic energy that my body held frozen inside. My breaking down had been a breaking through. Someone had seen me and held a space for me to come undone.” Edward Brown, “Being Shaken,” p. 59, “Buddhadharma”, fall 2014
I understand where Brown is coming from. I can’t sit still, either, especially in the evenings when I sometimes have restless leg syndrome. It is unbelievably annoying.
To me, the real issue is the fact that life itself is traumatic. Barry and I go to the neurologist Monday. I am concerned about his losing weight because I’ve read that it is a sign of end-stage Huntington’s. What if he lives another six years? I need to know the doctor’s expert opinion because the prognosis determines my plans. If the doc thinks Barry will be gone within two years, I would probably stay in Michigan until his end. On the other hand, if he could still be around six years from now, then this is probably the last winter we will stay here. He will need to live somewhere without stairs that does not freeze over six months a year, due to falling issues.
I hate dealing with this stuff. It is so morbid. But it’s the truth. Reality is traumatic sometimes. What is the most compassionate response? I have no idea.
One of my attractions to Buddhism has always been its realism. Part of my problem with Christianity was its otherworldliness. I was dealing with a cancer-stricken husband, going to school, and trying to work, while the women in my church wanted me to help them make baklava for the fall bake sale. No kidding. Their concerns were so irrelevant to me that going to church felt like a farce. You want what? Seriously?
I hope to find a compassionate sangha once I leave Michigan.
Part of what I want to do with my life is to create that space for people to come undone. Life is not always pretty. But it is always real.