Hallucinations

 It’s so easy to feel like a failure when my emotions run high. I throw myself away on others, and when that fails – it always fails – I am left with that emptiness, bereft of my connection to myself. I feel that emptiness and fear in my heart, and I tell myself that I don’t want to burden others, but that notion that I am somehow a burden just creates a sense of shame. And the emptiness and shame combine to form a perfect storm. I am caught in a whirlwind of self-blame and helplessness, and even though I know I will eventually get out, the situation just seems like another confirmation that I am damaged, that I am just not as functional as other people.

My strength comes from staying with my heart and staying in the present moment. After years of meditation and heart-centered practice, I am finally getting better at seeing through the whirlwind and coming back to my heart. But it’s still hard to see through the self-induced hallucinations. I noticed this particularly today in a conversation with a friend of mine.

He’s one of the shiny people I mentioned in an earlier post. We met and spent some time together last week. I wanted to enjoy his company and share some of the victories I’ve scored in the last few weeks. I wanted him to be proud of me. But before the meeting, I could feel the nervousness mounting, and by the time we sat down, I was already stuck in the fear of abandonment. I thought I was still fine, but I wasn’t paying attention. Before we could even say hello, my desire for approval had already turned to fear of abandonment. Everything he said in that meeting got stuck in that filter of fear. I had thrown myself away. In the midst of my anticipation of another person I forgot to tend to myself. And that’s the problem with desire and fear. When I am anticipating, I am not present; I am not here with myself. Later, looking back on the conversation, I felt injured. I was certain that my friend had been harsh towards me. All I remembered was the hallucination, not the attempt to reassure. We talked again today, just a few lines in chat, and I remembered his continued availability to me. I feel like I shouldn’t need this from him, and I resent that I still want it, but he has actually been there all this time, working with me despite the discomfort he must feel as the object of fear and attachment.

There was something interesting that I noticed in my feelings toward my friend: it was so similar to a friendship I had a long time ago. One of the hallmark traits of people who have suffered childhood trauma is the tendency to idealize and then denigrate the important people in our lives. Looking back, I could see how every interaction with my old friend also came through that filter – that need and fear. Neglect and imbalance in early childhood caused me to expect abandonment later on in life.

And now, as I see through the anger and fear, I can already notice my mind turning back towards idealization. My friend has always been faithful to me, he’s a wonderful teacher… Forever, forever, forever… Relief turns to desire, and the cycle continues. And the reality? Somewhere between the idealization, the fear, and the dissatisfaction is a person I think that maybe I still have not met. And maybe that person is myself.

After years of meditation and tending to my heart, I am starting to see through this, but it’s an ongoing process. What does life look like beyond this? I have glimpses of humor and an ease of communication. As I find more space in my mind, I find myself writing to you, my friends, instead of just to one shiny person. I find that I have more energy for the tasks that I need to do, that I want to do. I find that I have more patience and joy interacting with everyone. And I find that loving myself is possible, that I can touch my heart. And, incredibly, I am finding my way out of the whirlwind.

***

Speaking of seeing through – I have a retreat starting Sunday evening. It’s my first solitary retreat! Yay! I’m looking forward to being on my own during the full moon Christmas this year. So I won’t be around for a couple of weeks. I wish everybody a warm and happy holiday season. Be good to yourselves. Peace on Earth; good will to all.

Wearing Away

 

A tiny piece of my heart is here with these flowers.

Riding in the car on the Grand Concourse today, I saw a flock of pigeons flying up and across the street. I watched them as they flew, and I felt my spirit go up into the air with them. And suddenly I realized something – everything we genuinely meet carries a bit of us away with it. It’s like water wearing away at a stone. The edges are smoothed and eventually a hole is created in the middle of hard rock. For every true encounter, we get closer to the day when our heart is revealed: empty of constructs, with its hardness worn away into fertile silt, and ready to be fully occupied by whoever we meet in the present moment.

Meditation practice can become that true encounter with ourselves. Waking up in our daily lives, the fruit of meditation, is the genuine encounter we have with the world around us, with all of phenomenon. And when we are truly hollowed out and available, our heart can be filled with the joy of others, with joy for others. Then we are truly joyful because being joyful is not contingent on our own circumstances but on the joy of all beings, which is an infinite resource.

Spend time with the phenomenal world. Look at a tree in the breeze; watch the leaves move, dappled with sunlight. Let your eyes follow a flock of birds as it whirls around in the sky. Feel the wind across your skin; smell the air. Let the joy of a flower in bloom penetrate your heart. Even as our spirit goes out in these tiny moments, it expands to fill the entire world, and the joy of everything becomes our joy.

And yes, I know there are moments when joy is not available. There are moments when sadness overtakes us, and we cannot feel a connection to others, not even a flower. When that happens, touch your heart. It’s ok. Even in sadness, try to love yourself. The rest of the world will wait for you.

Profound Trauma; Primordial and Finite Brilliance

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“How can you live in the moment if you are too busy warding off what is? What is, is the suffering inherent to being a human being. You must accept the fact that your heart is breaking all the time.”   ~Ram Dass

I was sleeping off a difficult night, several weeks ago. I fell on my left knee, hard, bruising it badly and scraping it badly enough that laying with it on the mattress was uncomfortable, so I’m wasn’t getting good sleep, and at 9 in the morning I seemed to want more of it. Dad walked past the bed, and I heard him close the apartment door. Then I heard the outer door to the building slam – a heavy door with an old hinge that slams loudly whenever someone lets it close on its own. And I had a memory:

It is my birthday. I am eight years old. Dad and I went out to the movies several hours ago and had some of my friends with us. It was a good day. Now I am home, and one of my pet guinea pigs has died in my absence. I was worrying about them for days, and now I am badly grieved. These guinea pigs may be the first creatures I’ve cared for, and now one of them is dead, and I feel an unarticulated sense of self-blame. I feel the senselessness of the death of this creature. I am starting to come apart in a way that will eventually become so familiar to me, but which right now is still new.

Dad needs to go. My birthday has fallen on a Friday, and that’s the day he goes out in the evening. It’s something he needs to do. I don’t attempt to understand why he needs to do this; I just accept it as a matter of course. I don’t think it odd that I am not inquisitive about this, but the dysfunctional family is known for a culture of secrecy, and mine has been no different. Dad tries not to play into that, explaining things to me all the time, so maybe I don’t feel I need to ask about anything and maybe anything that he doesn’t explain is just something I don’t need to know. All of this is left not verbalized, of course. So when Dad tells me that he needs to go, I understand, or think I do, that this is a necessity, and so while he offers to stay, I let him go.

He leaves, and in the middle of my bedroom, I fall apart. I sob and keen for a long time. I feel, for a moment, the full weight of my fear and sadness of death, and the abandonment that started a long time ago when I was only four or so and Dad left in the night to see his girlfriend. I cry as loudly as my body wants to – a full body experience. Eventually I cry so much that I am numb, drowning in my snot and in dire need of a handkerchief to clear me out so I can breathe again.

Later on in life, after a painful session in which I wanted so badly to somehow obtain nourishment from my therapist – a nourishment I could not even articulate, much less satisfy.

At 30 years old, I am distressed. I return home from a session in a darkening state of mind. The storm clouds are gathering in my head; I can feel the pressure within my forehead and the flushing of my cheeks. I start to cry before I make it halfway back to my home, and when I get home I sit and start to weep openly. I am sobbing here in my living room; crying out a fear that I have not been fully aware of in years. The pain fills me like a vessel and I overflow. The room might be filled with the thunderstorm, but it’s all me; all the rain flows from my own eyes. The fear that forms in my head can only form two statements: Mommy doesn’t love me. And, I’m going to die. I know this as a very young self from my past, an infant self that may have split off when I was only one or two years old.

Mark Epstein, a popular author who blends Buddhadharma with psychological insight gives a beautiful insight on trauma:

I once had the chance to speak with a renowned Thai forest master named Ajahn Chah directly about all this. […] We asked him to explain the Buddhist view. What had he learned from his years of contemplation and study? What could we bring back to share with the West? His answer touched my own sense of residual trauma, my own fear of everything burning. Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

The Trauma of Everyday Life

Impermanence runs through the core of our existence – a basic truth: the end, the break. To stand outside time is to see that all beings, ideas, and objects, in their unique brilliance, are as broken as the glass fallen on the floor – our existence is a non-dual whole with our nonexistence. As fundamentally aware beings, we must feel this. The untrained mind must be in a perpetual state of darkness just to function in the face of existential dread. This basic dread must exist in the body as a state of panic for our bodily existence: this is evident in other creatures – the more primitive the being, the easier it is for us to observe the primary state of hyper-vigilance. We scurry from stimulus to stimulus, rebounding from frightening stimuli and searching for and consuming pleasurable stimuli. Despite evolution and sophistication, we never quite lose this profound hyper-vigilance – we sublimate it, we split off from it, but the fear of destruction drives our continual search for pleasure and avoidance of pain – it also drives a fundamental rift in our consciousness: we don’t think of our death. And by ignoring our eventual death, we turn a blind eye to a fundamental truth of our existence.

If we are aware of our frailty then there is an awareness that holds that frailty. More profound than our fear is that awareness, that basic wisdom. Although we feel driven to flee from our fear, we have a duty to ourselves to settle into the body and face our fear. Our brilliance may even be inextricably tied to the finite nature of our existence. Like the changing patterns in a kaleidoscope, our beauty may be tied to our unique nature. There is something poignant, something that pulls at the center of our being, a pang in the heart, when we see a flower or the smile of our friend and contemplate the reality that this moment will never come again.

Devotion

Om Ah Hum
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Tail of the Tiger, 1971, by Robert Del Tredici
What is devotion? It seems to be central to the Vajrayana path, but what is it? Devotion is stressed in Shambhala. When we come close to a shrine, we bow. We offer incense, light, water, sometimes food, tea, and other stuff to pictures, with the understanding that what we are offering to is not mere pictures, but a representation of something deeper, more real than the pictures on the shrine. As beginning practitioners, we are told that we are offering “to the universe” perhaps, or to all beings. But the pictures are of our teachers or even of deities that we know are not actually real. What is the point of this?

Who are we offering to; what are we bowing to?

I came into the path with a sense of intense devotion to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: a great teacher who died more than twenty years before I had a chance to know he existed. I had read about him, and about how crazy he was, and I felt a sense of kinship. Upon entering Shambhala, the school he founded, I felt a sense of coming home. I looked up and saw the pictures of Rinpoche on the walls, and I interacted with the people there, and I felt that I was in Rinpoche’s mind. Even if he was not physically here, I felt that his mind continued on, and was broader than his body or his existence in time. And there is evidence that Rinpoche has had a huge effect on the popular culture, as well as founding a school that is international in scope. So, at least in that way, his mind continues on. Perhaps our minds intersect with his mind.

Early in my path at Shambhala, I took refuge in the three jewels: a vow that recognizes that all of existence has a kind of ephemeral quality that leaves me stranded with nothing to cling to. The three jewels: the Buddha as the example of how to undertake the path of enlightenment, the Dharma as the actual way the path works, and the Sangha as the community of other people on the path, are acknowledged as the only source of refuge in an existence that is fundamentally groundless. As a refugee, I work with the contemplation that former objects of devotion are not really useful – gods, lovers, organizations, are not solid, not able to be grasped or depended upon.

Lately I have been thinking about Padmasambhava a lot. He is considered the Buddha of Tibet. A teacher suggested I contemplate Padmasambhava as a way to work with difficulties I have with pain when I am traveling – I get aggressive around taking public transportation because my body is in pain. Rather than trying to grit my teeth and get through the situation on my own, he suggested, I could place my desperation onto someone else: specifically a Buddha who is thought of as being able to offer skillful means in any situation. “We practice following your example.” There is a kind of understanding that in leaning on Padmasambhava, I am actually leaning on the person I would be if I were not obstructed by my neurotic need to get a seat on the train. In tantric terms: I already am that person, I already am completely capable of dealing skillfully with the situation. I just don’t see that. There’s actually a sort of understanding that devotion to Padmasambhava is the same as devotion to my enlightened self (which already exists), as well as devotion to my teacher. It’s all the same.

I have also been working with my heart, developing a sense of fidelity to myself, a sense of positive self-regard. In short, I have been falling in love with myself. More on that practice here. The basic idea is that before I can give myself to others, I have to love myself, and that love has to be embodied. I have to actually feel that love. I can’t just say “I love you, Jinpa.” I have to work on that.

Devotion is work. Like meditation, in which we continually have to come back to our attention, devotion is a conscious decision to focus our love somewhere, and the discipline to continue bringing our love back whenever we stray.

And, with all these different focal points of devotion, there seems to be a question of fidelity. To whom am I actually devoted? Where has my love and regard been focussed all this time? Between Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Padmasambhava, all beings, and my own heart, not to mention my actual Teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, there seems to be a lot of devotion going around. I think the key to all of this is realizing, through practice and contemplation, that all of these objects of devotion are connected. In this interdependent existence, all loves are the guru. If I can love wholeheartedly I think I will find that love reflected back to the source.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a seminal figure in twentieth-century Buddhism and founder of this magazine, died on April 4, 1987. In this 2011 Shambhala Sun feature, Barry Boyce surveys his vast body of teachings and their lasting impact on how Buddhism is understood and practiced.

Falling in Love with Myself

Lennons_by_Jack_Mitchell

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
– John Lennon 10/9/40 – 12/8/80

A bit more than three years ago, I was sitting in a tiny luncheonette in Harlem with a teacher of mine. He told me that day that I should fall in love with the world, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. What baffled me at the time was the question of how. How could I fall in love with a world filled with baffling and often stupid people, petty annoyances, irrational limitations? I knew that I could get past all that somehow, that people weren’t all that stupid, and that the irritations of life were born from my own irrational fear. But I couldn’t see how to look past that fear to the brilliance that I knew was there. I took it on faith, at that moment, that it was somehow possible, but I didn’t really trust it deep down.

I’ve been in love several times, passionately, deeply, in love. I loved the feeling of letting go of the usual constraints of my life: the irritations and fears, the limitations, the petty little things I thought I needed to get along. When I was in love, everything worked better. I was healthier, the world was brighter. What I didn’t like was the desperation and pain of being in love with someone I couldn’t have; and that is, unfortunately, what always happens with me. I don’t know how it is for other people, but I always fall in love with people who are unavailable. Perhaps it’s related to my childhood difficulties, but that’s speculation best left for another time. Maybe your experience is different; maybe it’s abusive relationships, or a series of relationships gone stale faster than the ink can dry on the marriage papers. It’s all the same: we rely on these relationships to fulfill us, and they always fail to do so. All we have in the end is ourselves.

What baffled me was how to transfer that love for one person onto a more attainable object. And what I have learned so far, or perhaps I should say, what I have glimpsed, is a love that I can have for myself. After years of sitting in meditation as well as reaching into myself, touching my own heart, I have started to feel how it could be. I have begun to settle into a sense of love for myself. It’s not as dramatic as being in love with some special person; it’s deeper – more tangible. When I stop to feel, I can touch in to a deep well of peace within my center and a warmth in my heart.

How does it work? All it takes is a few minutes a day to settle into the body, feeling the seat beneath you and the ebb and flow of the breath. Place your hand over your heart and think of someone you love – not the person you should love or the person you wish you loved, but whoever makes you smile right now. It’s ok to love who you love, and if that person is not you right now, that’s ok. Love you for loving who you love. Love is universal, so it will work out in time. Give it time.

Being in love is a powerful force, and it’s satisfying to focus that where it can do some good rather than continuing on the same old road of failed relationships. I always hoped that I would some day find the key, the special magic word or insight that would change my mind and free me from the pattern of unrequited love. What I discovered is that it takes time. I had to make a point of loving myself every day, and sometimes I didn’t even feel it. But it didn’t matter because after continually working on this practice of loving myself, eventually I could feel it. The key, the magic formula, is repeated application and patience. You are worth your time.

I always thought that someday I would find a solution to the problem of falling in love, that maybe I would figure out how to fall in love with the right person. What I have found is that I am the right person, right here and right now. Will I ever fall in love with the right partner? Will I ever manage to fall in love with the world? I don’t know, but somehow it doesn’t matter because I am falling in love with myself right now, and that seems to be the most important thing.

Today, on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, a man who asked us to imagine living life in peace, I would like us to imagine falling in love with ourselves. Imagine love. I think if we do, we can find peace.

This Moment is Precious

My hell-spawn. They're always so cute when they're asleep.
Sweet Kitty

I read somewhere that Trungpa Rinpoche was not fond of cats, and that there was an idea that domestic cats were the only creatures that didn’t recognize the Buddha’s enlightenment. I don’t know about all that; I’ve been convinced for a while that my kitties are little protectors, here to remind me to practice. One of them seems to always come around when I am sitting, and the other is such a true, pure, annoyance that she never fails to bring me up short, smack against my irritation and thus the expectations I have that fuel my suffering.

But anyway, today has already shown me sorrow. An acquaintance committed suicide recently; I just found out about it this morning. Her daughter was a friend of mine who died two months ago, and was a source of inspiration for a great many people. I wrote about her in a recent post. She seemed to be carrying the torch for her daughter, filled with inspiration for her legacy. Perhaps it was too much. I wish I understood. But understanding now would not help her, or me. What matters is not shutting down.

So here I am, looking at my kitty lying on the bed. She’s a sweet girl, even if she is incredibly annoying. Perhaps that’s just part of her character. Somehow it seems important to notice this moment, and the pulsing of the furry sides as she breathes in her sleep. It seems that the thing right now is to remember that this life is finite, and brilliant, and that this moment will never come again.

So, please, just this moment, open your heart and notice. Feel how precious it is, and how finite.

Frustration

So, I have been avoiding the reason I started this blog. I meant this to be a process of opening my heart to you, and I have instead been offering you lessons. Circumstances inspired me to share a few insights here. Honestly tho, I suspect these will not be nearly as helpful as it would be if I were to simply open my heart.

So, falling in love: yes, I have a habit of falling in love with men who are not suitable for me. The last one was a therapist; the current one, well, I won’t mention him. It’s not important who, but they are generally therapists, professors, mentors – people with brilliant minds. I used to go for more attainable targets – brilliant men who were peers, but I always managed to wind up infatuated with men who disdained me or took me for granted. So, eventually I stopped falling in love. I made a conscious decision to stop. I was frightened and hurt, so I withdrew into myself to avoid being in further pain, and because I felt I was causing discomfort to others.

Then I found myself in therapy with the beautiful Isaac – a blonde-haired angel with a cupid-bow mouth, a phenomenal intellect, and a wicked sense of humor. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but God laughed and there Isaac was. He was a bit of a bad boy, willing to curse in session and unflinching in the face of my own vulgar sense of humor. He truly admired my intellect, opening to my mind in a way that most people don’t. Or perhaps it was that I opened to him in a way that I don’t normally do. When I found myself falling in love with Isaac, I allowed that love to blossom, telling myself that it was in service of the therapy. I opened myself to the experience, hoping that I would somehow learn what it was that I was looking for in my infatuations.

Falling in love opened me up to my life in a way that hadn’t happened in years. I suddenly found a capacity for tolerance with the irritations of life that I hadn’t had. I found a strength, and spontaneity. And my creativity opened up, as well as my drive to learn. In other words, I started to live again. The problem was that even though I had found a source of strength and joy, being in love was also a source of truly painful frustration. I could not bear the limitations of the therapeutic relationship. There were not enough minutes in the session to share what I wanted to share with him: everything. There was so much of me and so much of him, and only a tiny window through which to communicate. I wanted to give him all of me or else find a way to consume him whole. I could do neither. That he was a separate being who existed outside of me was intolerable. Clearly there was something going on here that was bigger than the usual attraction one might have for a potential mate. Anyway, Isaac withstood my attraction and provided me a place to vent the frustration associated with it, but my desire for all of him stood like a wall between us. If I couldn’t have all of him, or give him all of me, I didn’t want to communicate with him in any way.

In the wake of that relationship I found myself in a quandry. How could I have that feeling of being alive? How could I be that open again, but this time without being so painfully attached to someone who I could never have? What was wrong with me?

The relationship with that therapist was frustrating and painful, but being in love opened me to a range of experiences that I could not otherwise have investigated. Without that relationship, without that person willing to allow my attachment, I don’t think I would have discovered the mindfulness practices that have been so helpful to me lately.

But that’s a story for another time. I feel as if I have somehow missed the boat in this posting, as if I haven’t quite said anything useful. But I will keep trying.