You Don't Have to Know (Tales of Trauma and Transformation / March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
You Don’t Have to Know
JOHN TARRANT discovered that not knowing is the best—and maybe the only possible—response to suffering.
Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave—
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds
When my father was
dying I flew home to see him. The streets were bright with autumn
sunlight; in the hospice his room was small and windowless (as soon as
someone else died he would get a better room—information that made me
consider the other patients with an appraising glance). His body,
overwhelmed by inward forces of chaos and unregulated cell growth, gave
off animal smells. He seemed to be struggling up to the surface of a
pool, in pain and at the same time overmedicated. He gazed at me and
pretended not to know who I was. I pretended not to know who I was
either, we laughed, and that opened a gate to our last time together.
think of moments of pressure and difficulty as like that—as gateways,
the beginning of a journey. Everyone around my father was anxious and
sad, and I started to feel that way too. It seemed obligatory, even
courteous. As I got to know him in his dying self that week, he was
often in pain, sometimes afraid, and I could feel helplessness rising in
easy to forget to be curious, and to grab an off-the-shelf knowledge,
something like “This is awful.” Not reaching for off-the-shelf
understandings, though, is an important skill.
Visitors were often cheerful. My father, though, didn’t want
to be told he was looking fine (it all depends on what “fine”
means) or treated with anxious kindness. He would play the
role of the dying man if he thought that was requested, but
when the visitor left he would shrug and go back to his conversations—about when he swam horses across the river, and how
he kept trying to make his marriage make sense but didn’t ever
find a pattern to it, and sometimes about how discouraged he
got in the long night hours. Small details and large meanings.
He was just dying, and wanted to live it as far as he could, with
whoever showed up. He didn’t like to have a lot of painkillers on
board because he wanted to be there for his life.
The whole of the ancient, master teachings on suffering come
down to this: Suffering is the notion “This isn’t it,” and its variants, such as “I can’t bear this, it shouldn’t be happening,” and “I
have to know how this will turn out,” and “What if it gets worse?”
Freedom, waking up, and fearlessness come down to the
simplicity of “Wait a minute, what if this is it?” and its variants
“no need to bear it” and “I don’t know.”
The thing to do at the beginning of a journey is to take a
step. Any step will do. I have another hospice story: A friend was
dying, a family doc in his thirties with a young wife and a young
child. I flew in to see him too, and as I walked down the halls of that hospice, I heard voices announcing my arrival. I began
to feel grief and a terrible, jittery obligation to make things better. I couldn’t imagine what I could say to help. It became hard
to breathe. And as I walked down that hall full of good people,
all of us wanting suffering to be relieved and feeling at a loss to bring that about, it was clear that I didn’t even know if my
friend would be coherent, or what I would say to him if he were,
or if there was any way to help.
This not knowing was a good thing, because it was possible
and true and the only door out of the building of pain. Anything
else wasn’t possible or real. I burst happily into the hospice room,
and my friend asked me to listen to music with him (Richard
Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”). He delivered a rhapsody on oxygen,
he offered me a swig, and I agreed: Oxygen is a fine, fine thing.
And now, the famous story of Bodhidharma—the red-haired, blue-eyed, pierced and tattooed barbarian from
India—and Emperor Wu of China:
“What’s the first principle of the holy teaching?” asks the
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” says Bodhidharma.
“Well, who are you then?”
“I don’t know,” says Bodhidharma.
There’s a layered quality to suffering and intense emotion. As you become interested, a tiny, elf light appears in the darkest dungeon. That’s the gate of emptiness. As you
become more interested, you walk deeper into the forest and
everything looks different. Sometimes it becomes joyful right
away, but it doesn’t need to. It’s become a path and that is
So, no first principles, but a few rules of thumb can be fun:
1. You don’t have to know.
2. If you take a step, any step, and feel about, you’ll find ground.
3. Whatever happens is your journey; what to do is given.
4. It’s for your benefit, honorable reader. It’s for you. No one
was ever given another now.
5. Curiosity saves the cat.
6. The question “What is this?” is a koan and always reveals a
7. No need to bear it.
8. When we want something to be over, we lose compassion
for ourselves, now.
9. What if there’s nothing wrong?
10. Not having a first principle.
My father and I still talk sometimes, in dreams and in the
spaces opened by a koan. We talk about the weather, what I
have in my garden, how my daughter’s doing.
We’re all hurtling through our lives, and the planet is hurtling through space without a seat belt. We have to discover
successively more freedom inside the terrible things that have
happened and the terrible things that certainly will happen,
and the whole of it is also a mysterious splendor, full of kindness, welcome, and cups of tea.
John Tarrant Roshi is
director of the Pacific Zen Institute. A frequent contributor to the
Shambhala Sun, he is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light
Inside the Dark.
The Gift of Connection (Tales of Trauma and Transformation / March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
The Gift of Connection
It was just a pitiful privet hedge in the front yard of a house in the suburbs. But it saved MARGARET ROACH from darkness.
“Be up, be doing” was
how my mother began each morning, calling us from our twin beds. It was
apparently an adaptation of a line from Longfellow, one not so
different from her own mother’s daily invocation that I still hear
echoing in my mind’s ear, too, even now: “Busy hands are happy hands,”
Grandma Marion used to say.
was in my mid-twenties when my mother stopped reciting her version of
matins, or doing much of anything unsupervised. Early onset Alzheimer’s
was the fate of the young widow, barely fifty years old, and so began a
period of great difficulty for our tiny family.
home, something’s wrong with Mommy,” my sister said in a call to
California, where I was living. I packed up and resettled in the East,
in my childhood home, precisely, to puzzle out what we—my sister and I,
for there were no other relatives left, no “grown-ups” to rely
could change the facts, nor the outcome, and so our efforts were mostly
aimed at compassion and understanding. But such situations often take
more victims than merely the identified patient, and that was one place
where we could maybe, just maybe, beat the odds.
more days than not close to home, I craved distraction or some personal
occupational therapy, and took to reading books on gardening, a subject
I knew nothing about. If not for the pitiful privet hedge that ringed
the suburban house’s front yard, I suspect I would have fallen all the
way into darkness, too. Instead, spurred onward by the same locomotive
mantra as my female forebears and suddenly armed with a pair of
loppers—a word, and a tool, unknown to me previously—out I went to set
one of those books, there had been a drawing of a hedge like ours:
leggy and overgrown, offering more see-through than privacy. The next
illustration, labeled “figure 2,” showed it all cut down (that’s where
the loppers first revealed themselves to me), and in figure 3, a new,
thick if somewhat lower version arose from where the sorry one had been.
Drastic circumstances and drastic measures, yes, but—hallelujah!—a
chance at transformation.
strangely seductive chapter “How to Rejuvenate an Aging Shrub or Hedge”
drew me in; I didn’t hesitate or think it through. If I’d given any
thought to the cycle of commitment I was engaging in, I would never have
made a single pruning cut as the book detailed.
followed the instructions, which cleverly left out the part about what
in the world you do with the remains of more than a hundred lineal feet
of seven-foot-tall shrubs, once they have been cut down to maybe a foot
high. No matter; I learned to bundle them with twine and set them out
for the trash, a few each garbage day, and this became my mission, and
my meditation: lop, gather, bind, drag, discard, repeat.
a moment in my life that seemed to offer only lasting despair—things
that could not be cleaned up, nor brought back to a state of vigor and
growth—I got what has become a lifelong connection to the natural world.
In it has been the chance to bear witness to many births, declines, and
deaths over the decades—the greatest of privileges and a daily window
into my own ephemeral existence.
meteorological and nuclear havoc rocked Japan in March, 2011, I had
trouble making sense of things and felt especially tentative and raw.
When I confessed that “out loud” online, a reader—a compassionate,
commiserating stranger— quickly reminded me of the Shaker wisdom “hands
to work, hearts to god,” and I was grateful. That day, another late snow
had just melted, so I grabbed a rake and went outside to have at it,
while grappling with all the impossible thoughts.
is how it begins: modest and uncertain. But from a check of the deer
fence to the first cutbacks, each expedition outside is a little more
ambitious and farther ranging, creating widening circles of clean.
Sometimes making sense of things just comes down to doing something,
anything, outdoors. In the view out the window, there is always some bit
of hope—or at least the chance to get in life’s rhythm, to get busy.
Margaret Roach is the author of The Backyard Parables (reviewed in this magazine), as well as And I Shall Have Some Peace There.
Every Day a Reprieve (Tales of Trauma and Transformation / March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Every Day a Reprieve
JOSH KORDA knows
he is not cured—he never will be—but through honesty and diligence he
enjoys a daily reprieve from depression and addiction.
I woke up sweating,
gulping for air. I was in the grips of a panic attack, my stomach
cement hard yet churning. In my mind, movie screens played horror films
in a loop; the images in this multiplex were darker than Dostoevsky.
been sober for six years, but it didn’t matter. My new marriage was
surely destined to fail, the small house we’d purchased in Brooklyn
destined to crumble. My skills were worthless and would, without doubt,
leave me unemployable. Everything about me, an inner verdict announced,
was phony and shallow. Friends and family would turn away once my true
nature was exposed. I had the feeling that countless eyes were piercing
through me and locating something pitiable.
awoken into what was eventually diagnosed as “a major depressive
episode.” What was the root of it? A childhood spent in a household
where rage was routine, violence not unknown. I recall the terror of
being awakened from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. and dragged by my ankles into
a bathroom for a cold shower—the drunken voice of my alcoholic father
berating me for being “unclean.” I also remember the sounds of my mother
pleading to be freed from a room into which she’d been locked as
there were the feelings of low self-esteem brought on by my own drug
and alcohol addictions and the years I’d spent in society’s
margins—living in squats, waking up late for job interviews, receiving
dire head shakes from doctors and concerned friends.
six years of sobriety were thanks to meditation practice and numerous
twelve-step meetings, but my sanity was a patchwork affair held together
by diversions: work, relationships, family dramas, and creative
projects. I raced from one preoccupation to the next, never
acknowledging the hollowness in my chest, the tightness of my stomach,
and the sense of meaninglessness that pursued me. This denial had
finally caught up to me. That’s why my wife found me shaking in bed in a
patiently guided me to our primary care physician, followed by an
appointment with an Upper East Side psychopharmacologist, who was as
polished as a TV weatherman. He had an immaculate suit—down to the
breast-pocket hankie—and his broad smile conveyed the impression of a
life spent entirely free of doubt, much less depression. I emerged from
his office with a stack of prescriptions: sleeping meds,
antidepressants, mild benzos for panic attacks, and mood stabilizers. I
spent the following months alternating between medicated numbness and
self-hatred. There was a great deal of healing that needed to be done.
self-care during this period consisted of weekly visits to a variety of
Buddhist centers, daily twelve-step meetings, and morning meditation.
Perhaps this routine would be more than enough for most people.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me.
morning sits were grinds. Instead of observing them, I was intent on
resisting my obsessive thoughts. Instead of listening to the entombed
fear, I wanted to numb myself. I was falling into the trap of using
meditation as a form of avoidance instead of acknowledgement and
healing. I cannot conceive of a less skillful strategy for a meditation
did the twelve-step groups have to offer? Unending variations of “Pray,
go to meetings, read the literature, do service,” proffered smugly by
true believers who—armed with quotes from the “big book”—dutifully
insisted that clinical depression was repayment for lack of effort.
my desperation finally motivated me to seek my own solutions. I located
a Buddhist therapist and found our sessions a safe space in which to
share my thoughts and feelings. Session after session, I practiced
locating my fears as they arose not only in my mind, but in my stomach,
chest, and shoulders. I contacted the long-buried feelings of a
terrified five-year-old boy and learned to console him and provide him
with a new sense of security. I rekindled my studies in the Pali canon
and sought out retreats with monks who seemed to embody the kindness and
balance I so desperately needed. I stumbled across the Buddhist teacher
Noah Levine, then starting the New York chapter of Dharma Punx, and I
attended every class, barraging him with questions and objections, while
he remained unruffled and accommodating. Slowly, I stopped seeking the
shelter of external distractions and turned toward the despairing,
I could sit and ask myself, “What does it feel like to be rejected? To
feel unloved?” I’d watch an array of sensations and memories arise and,
though the trembling in my stomach felt like it might take over my
entire being, I found that my mind was always a little larger than the
feeling. I wasn’t as vulnerable as I feared. I practiced an
unconditional form of compassion that could greet any inner demon that
arose, no matter how ugly and intrusive.
Kathy and a couple of friends, I started a meeting group that focused
on real-life challenges and solutions, rather than stifling evangelism. I
sought out new, wise friends who could listen to suffering without
trying to dismissively solve it. Meetings are still very much a part of
my recovery, even after more than seventeen years of continuous
sobriety, but I consider my Buddhist practice and community to be the
foundation of what sanity I can claim for myself today.
never think of myself as “cured” or “entirely free” of depression or
the possibility of panic attacks and disabling anxiety. Rather than
avoid these experiences in my dharma talks, I discuss them whenever
appropriate, as the fear of remission diminishes when it’s addressed in a
supportive environment. And, similarly to my alcoholism and addiction, I
view depression and anxiety as the inevitable results of a
consciousness that doesn’t take time to turn inward and listen to what
needs acceptance. My sanity, like my sobriety, is a daily reprieve born
of effort and diligence, rather than a birthright. And, quite frankly, I
wouldn’t have it any other way.
Josh Korda has
been the teacher at New York Dharma Punx since 2005. He has also taught
at New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and New York Insight
Nothing is Wasted (Tales of Trauma and Transformation / March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Nothing is Wasted
If you use your difficulties to create art, says RUTH OZEKI, it will give them meaning.
When you’re a writer
or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult
situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and it’s
the artist’s job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude
might sound a bit cold and calculating, but it’s not. Quite the
opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a
means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and transform our
suffering into something meaningful.
death of my grandmother was a painful and difficult situation. My
mother didn’t want to go to Japan for the funeral, so I went instead. I
arrived too late for the cremation, but in time for the interment of my
grandmother’s remains in our family plot at the temple cemetery. On the
morning of the ceremony, my aunt took me into the living room where my
grandmother’s urn was waiting. Using a pair of disposable wooden
chopsticks, she picked out three or four of my grandmother’s white bones
and put them into a small Tupperware container. This she sealed and
then handed to me, instructing me to take the bones home to my mother.
This tradition, called honewake—“dividing
the bones”—is pretty common in Japan but not in America, and fulfilling
my aunt’s wish was not easy. My mother, while ethnically Japanese, had
spent most of her life in the United States. She had no use for these
old Japanese customs, and in addition, my relationship with her was
strained and difficult at the time. When I called to tell her that I had
brought her mother’s bones back from Japan and wanted to take them to
her, she did not sound happy. So I dropped the subject, and the little
Tupperware container ended up on a shelf at the back of my closet. Years
passed, and my grandmother’s bones, this skeleton in my closet, began
to haunt me. Finally, I decided the only way to deal with the situation
was to turn it into an art project.
I made a film called Halving the Bones.
I bought a camera and filmed myself and my mother as I finally
delivered the bones to her. We talked about our family, our history, my
grandmother, and death. During the editing, I continued to interview her
and ask her questions, and when I finished, we watched the film
process brought us closer, so much so that later on, when she was
diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she agreed to move in with me and my husband
and allowed us to take care of her, and then to be with her when she
died. I don’t think any of this would have been possible if we hadn’t
made the film together. I realize this was a ridiculously complicated
way of dealing with what ought to have been a fairly simple problem. I
could have just gone and talked to my mother. We could have gone into
family counseling. But that solution never occurred to me.
I started writing novels about the difficult situations in my life.
When I was confused about workplace ethics, or sad about the deaths of
my parents, or angry about corporate malfeasance, or anxious about the
Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I used the long process of writing
stories or novels to sit with my discomfort and investigate it deeply.
I’d ask myself questions: What
does this feeling feel like? What kinds of stories am I telling myself?
What would that person think or do? What would it feel like to be
inside his mind? Her skin?
Writing is not unlike meditation in this way. In meditation, you become
intimate with your stories in order to see through them and let them
go. In writing, you become intimate with your stories in order to let
them go, too. But first you must capture them and make them concrete.
no need to be a professional artist or writer to transform difficult
situations into creative work. Poems, or journal writing, or quilts, or
collages, or songs need never be made public. They can be utterly
private, because in privacy is where the work is done, even for the
so-called professional artists. Humans, all of us, are boundlessly
creative beings, and as long as we recognize this and give ourselves
permission to respond to our difficulties artistically and intuitively,
not just medically or practically or rationally, then we can access this way of transforming suffering into something meaningful, which may benefit us all.
Ruth Ozeki is a bestselling novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, will be published in March by Viking.
When Ego Meets Non-Ego (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
When Ego Meets Non-Ego
Western psychology and Buddhism—together they offer us a complete diagnosis of the human condition. ANDREA MILLER talks to Tara Brach, John Welwood, and Barry Magid, three psychotherapists who are combining them into a powerful path to love and fulfillment.
The open sky, the
scent of pine, the smell of sea—summer in Cape Cod felt to Tara Brach
like her true home. As she was growing up, the family’s summerhouse
filled with relatives and friends, and later in her life with spouses
and new children. For her, happiness was the shared haven of the beach,
diving into the waves and somersaulting underwater.
one day in 2005, two carloads of friends and family had to go to the
beach without her. For twenty years Brach’s health had been mysteriously
and painfully declining. Now she had a diagnosis: an incurable genetic
disease affecting her connective tissue. She could no longer run or bike
or swim or walk on sand. Watching the cars pull out of the driveway,
she cried with grief and loneliness. The ocean would never again be her
realized that even if it wasn’t right now, eventually I was going to
lose everything,” Brach recalls. “We all are. So how do we find the
inner space of wakefulness and tenderness that’s big enough to hold it
the face of our suffering, many of us turn to quick, numbing
fixes—alcohol or television, overeating or shopping. But these never get
to the root of our discomfort; their effect doesn’t last and ultimately
they may make our problems even worse. In contrast, Buddhism and
Western psychotherapy attempt to provide a comprehensive model of the
mind and to address human suffering at its deepest level. While Buddhism
and Western psychology can conflict or complement each other in myriad
ways, today a growing number of professionals are appreciating the
synergy of the two disciplines. Tara Brach, Barry Magid, and John
Welwood are three prominent figures who believe that together Buddhism
and Western psychotherapy offer a complete package for mental
well-being, clear seeing, and healthy relationships.
asked what she views as the essential common ground between Western
psychology and Buddhism, Brach says it’s their understanding that
suffering comes from the parts of our being that are not recognized and
embraced in the light of awareness. “What the two traditions share,” she
says, “is shining a light on the
rejected, unprocessed parts of the psyche.” Brach is a clinical
psychologist, the founder of the Insight Meditation Community of
Washington, D.C., and the author of Radical Acceptance. The inspiration for her new book, True Refuge, was her illness.
she was mourning the loss of her physical abilities, she became aware
of a profound longing to love life no matter what. “I wanted the
awakened heart,” she says, “which would allow me to embrace this
world—the living world, the dying world, the whole thing.”
calls that kind of acceptance and inner freedom “true refuge.” It’s
true, she writes in her book, “because it does not depend on anything
outside ourselves—a certain situation, a person, a cure, even a
particular mood or emotion.”
to Brach, true refuge has three gateways: truth, love, and awareness.
“Truth,” explains Brach, “is the understanding or realization that comes
out of being present with the life that’s right here and now. Love is
bringing presence to the domain of the heart, the domain of
relationships, and the realization that arises out of that is
interconnectedness. Then awareness is when we bring presence to the
formless awakeness that is right here. When we discover the refuge of
our own formless being, that’s awareness waking up to itself.”
“Truth, love, and awareness” is Brach’s secularized articulation of the three jewels of Buddhism—the teacher, Buddha; the teaching, dharma; and the community, sangha.
She’s opted for this nonreligious language because she feels the search
for true refuge and its three gateways are universal. In the context of
Buddhism, truth is dharma, love is sangha, and awareness is Buddha. But
in Christian terms, claims Brach, “the Father is awareness, the Son is
the living truth of this moment-to-moment experience, and when awareness
and moment-to-moment experience are in relationship, there is love,
which is the Holy Ghost.”
help us connect more deeply to our own inner life, with each other, and
with the world around us, Brach teaches a technique called RAIN. This
acronym, originally coined by Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald, stands
Recognize what is happening;
Allow life to be just as it is
Investigate inner experience with kindness; and rest in the
Natural state of awareness or nonidentification.
her own life, Brach began regularly implementing RAIN when she realized
how much separation she created between herself and others whenever she
judged, resented, or blamed people or situations, even subtly. To
explain how RAIN is practiced, she offers an example from her own life:
Brach went on holiday with her family and found herself “down on every-
body for all their different neuroses, even the family dog for begging
at the table.” So she put on her parka, headed outside for a walk, and
started with “R,” recognize. Annoyed, irritated, blaming—she recognized
how she was feeling. Moving on to “A,” she allowed those feelings to be
there, without adding more judgment. Then she engaged in “I” and
investigated the tight knot in her chest. “I asked that tight knot what
it believed,” says Brach. “And its views were that nobody was
cooperating with my agenda for having a harmonious time and I was
falling short. It believed that my son is the one who’s not doing
such-and-such and it’s my fault that so-and-so is not getting along.”
breathed into the place that was upset and sent a message of gentleness
and kindness inward. That enabled some space, some tenderness, to open
up inside. Then the “N” of RAIN—resting in the natural state of awareness—was able to unfold effortlessly. Now when she brought to mind the
different members of her family, Brach could still see their neuroses
but no longer felt aversion or judgment. These family members were her
invites a shift in identity, says Brach. It helps transform an angry,
blaming person into a tender presence that gently holds whatever’s going
on. “That’s the gift of Buddhism,” Brach concludes. “The whole fruit of
our path and practice is to wake up from who we thought we were, which
is usually separate and deficient in some way, and to rest in the
vastness of heart and awareness that is our true nature.”
When couples come in to see psychotherapist John Welwood, they often begin by complaining, “We’re so different.”
guess what?” says Welwood. “That’s called relationship.” Both globally
and personally, we tend to feel threatened by difference. Yet it’s
possible to celebrate it and learn from it.
Welwood is a longtime Vajrayana Buddhist who is the author of groundbreaking books such as Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships and Toward a Psychology of Awakening.
Like Brach, he believes that humanity’s fundamental problem is that
people are disconnected from their true nature. He adds that while this
is a spiritual articulation, it is also accurate psychologically. He
believes that this disconnection from our true nature happens in
relationship, starting when we are children.
up, we are dependent on parents and other adults who are themselves
disconnected. Through neglect, abuse, or simply lack of attunement, they
transmit disconnection to us. “This is the beginning of relational
wounding,” says Welwood. “The child doesn’t feel fully seen, valued, or
loved for who they are. Now, you could say, ‘Well, it’s an imperfect
world and nobody gets the ideal love,’ and that’s probably true, but not
getting it does leave psychological scarring.” For some people, the
wounds are minor and readily workable; for others, the wounds are deep
and lead to complete dysfunction.
wounding creates a sense of deficiency inside, which we try to
compensate for by proving that we really are loveable—that we really are
good or strong or smart. Theoretically it is possible to heal these
wounds without the help of a therapist, but practically speaking, says
Welwood, “it’s not realistic—just the same way the spiritual path isn’t
easy to do on your own.”
healing power of therapy, he asserts, lies largely in the relationship
between the therapist and client. It’s so rare for us to experience
being truly seen and related to by another human being that the
therapeutic relationship “is like stepping into a healing bath,” he
says. “You’re suddenly in an environment where it’s all oriented toward
supporting you, hearing you, being with you, valuing you. Because that’s
so much needed in our body and mind, we soak it up.”
is therapy’s focus on me and my personal story at odds with the
Buddhist teachings of no-self? Welwood doesn’t think so. Most of us
believe in a false self—the conditioned separate self or ego structure,
which defends itself against threats and is a purely conceptual
construction. When Buddhism says there is no self, that’s what it’s
referring to. But then, says Welwood, there is the true person. Open and
boundless, it grows out of the understanding of no self, yet has the
capacity to lead a full, personal life that’s attuned to relative
you just live in the realm of no self,” asks Welwood, “then how do you
work with relative situations? The essence of our humanness is
relatedness. If you’re in a human relationship, you’ve got to process
that relationship. You and your partner have got to talk about what you
each like and don’t like, what is hurtful, and what is most important or
meaningful to you. From the point of view of pure being, there’s no
self and no other—there’s just being. But on the level of the person,
you’re different than I am. If we’re going to be able to relate to each
other, we really have to get know each other. That’s part of learning to
be in a relationship.”
asked why intimate relationships so often press our buttons, Welwood
turns the question around. “What is the button?” he says. “The button is
our relational wounding. If your buttons are pressed, the question is,
what is getting triggered? So instead of focusing on the other person
and what they’re doing to you or not doing for you, focus on what aspect
of the wound is getting touched.” If you understand how things that
happened in the past are feeding your feelings in the present moment,
then you might find the situation to be more workable.
in Welwood’s words, can be like a crucible or alchemical container in
which substances are mixed together and transformed. In marriage as a
conscious relationship, the container is the commitment to stay with it
no matter how difficult it is, the willingness “to bring awareness to
whatever is going on, rather than acting out your conditioned patterns
from the past. You take everything, all the challenges in the
relationship, as opportunities to become more fully awake, to become
more fully present, loving, and giving.” The transformation generated
between the two people leads to a deep transformation within each of
critical ingredient for healthy intimate relationships is a realistic
sense of their limitations: relationships cannot in and of themselves
fill the hole of love created in childhood. In Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,
Welwood teaches that we need to learn how to be there for ourselves and
recognize that our lives are held in an absolute love. To tap into this
love, he offers this six-step exercise:
(1) Settle into your body. Sitting or lying down, take a few deep breaths.
Turn your attention toward some way in which you feel cut off from love
in your life right now and see how that lack feels in your body.
Without trying to get anything from anybody in particular, open to the
pure energy of your longing to feel more connected. Deeply feel the
energy in this longing.
See if you can feel the longing in your heart center and soften your
crown center, which is at the top and back of your head.
Notice if there is any presence of love available now. Don’t think
about it too hard or fabricate what isn’t there. But if there is some
love or warmth at hand, let it enter you. Give yourself ample time to be
with whatever you’re experiencing and keep in mind that the presence of
absolute love may be very subtle, like being held in a gentle embrace.
(6) Instead of holding yourself up, let love be your ground. Allow yourself to melt.
came up with this practice because of his own needs. Working with it,
he quickly felt profound changes— so much so that he believed he’d never
again need love from people in the same way. “I experienced a new kind
of trust and relaxation in knowing that I could have my own direct
access to perfect love whenever I needed it,” he writes. “My investment
in grievance diminished, along with tendencies to expect others to
provide ideal love.”
this practice did not prove to be a panacea—nothing is—and Welwood
eventually found himself slipping back into old relational expectations.
It did, however, leave him with the genuine knowledge that something
else was possible. “This served as a polestar,” he concludes, “in
guiding me toward seeing what I still need to work on to free myself
people ask Barry Magid what the difference is between psychoanalysis
and psychotherapy, he wryly asserts that psychoanalysis doesn’t help
dovetails with the idea of no gain in Zen,” says Magid, who is a
psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist, and the founder of The Ordinary Mind
Zendo in New York. “Psychotherapies in a broad sense can be thought of
as problem-solving techniques and are very useful as such. In contrast,
Zen is not a technique and is not a means to an end. Zen may literally
be the only use- less thing we do, and this uselessness is actually the
essence of Zen being a religious practice. We experience the moment,
our- selves, and life itself exclusively for its own sake, and this is
the basis of reverence.” Zen is an expression of who we are.
psychoanalysis—the classical technique developed by Freud—is an
open-ended process in which we stay with our experience without any idea
where it’s going to lead. This is the opposite of self-help or
self-improvement. Yet paradoxically, it’s profoundly transformative.
Once we really give up trying to change, real change can occur.
to Magid, both Zen and psychoanalysis stir up feelings—good and bad—and
offer a stable container in which to face them. on the analysis side,
the container is the analyst-client relationship. In the zendo, the
container is the structure, the set- ting, and the sitting. Zen students
literally sit still with whatever comes up, whether it’s physical or
emotional. Both disciplines, in essence, are about staying with a bigger
range of experience than we usually want to tolerate; they just do it
in two different contexts.
Magid’s opinion, “No matter what anyone says, the reason we come to
Buddhist practice is that at some level we’re doing it to get rid of an
aspect of the self we don’t want to deal with. We might say our aim is
to become wiser and more compassionate, but usually what we really want
is to get rid of our anxiety, our vulnerability, our anger, and those
aspects of sexuality that are troublesome. Practice then becomes a way
of having one part of ourselves fighting another—one part is trying to
throw another part overboard in the name of selflessness.”
people practice meditation in this way, says Magid, “something about
them ends up feeling dead. They feel like they’ve practiced for a long
time, but have failed because they’ve never been able to get rid
of...fill in the blank.” Yet practice isn’t intended to get rid of
anything. Practice should be a way to let everything stay just as it is.
In his book Ordinary Mind,
Magid says practicing zazen for the purpose of affecting change is like
exercising because you think you’re overweight. If your motivation is
to squelch an aspect of yourself that repels you and to actualize an
image of yourself that you desire, then you will have to exert continual
effort. Yet if you practice or exercise because you feel that doing so
is a natural part of the day and because somehow it makes you feel “more
like yourself,” then no gaining idea will be necessary to motivate you.
Magid sees it, neuroscience has been used to fuel the idea that
meditation is a means to an end, and he finds this worrisome. “If we
think that what we want is to be in a particular brain state, then
meditation becomes a means to get into that state, and we start asking
if meditation is indeed the most efficient means,” he says. “Maybe we
start to wonder if we couldn’t just bypass a lot of that really boring
sitting by taking the right pill. And now we’re down a road of thinking
that what we’re trying to do is get into a particular subjective state
and stay there. But in meditation—and in analysis—we’re trying to learn
to not prefer, to not cling to any one state. Similarly, happiness or
enlightenment is not something that takes place in our brains. Happiness
and enlightenment are functions of a whole person living a whole life.”
in the face of depression and anxiety, Magid does not eschew
medication. The real issue “is what someone needs in order to sit still
and stay with their own experience. If someone is obsessively ruminating
or chronically anxious, that blocks any other kind of experience.” So
the use of Prozac or another medication may allow some people to
experience states of mind beyond the ones they’re stuck in. “I think
people are often worried about not being able to do it all on their own
or being dependent on medication,” Magid adds. “But nobody’s doing
anything on their own. There’s no such thing as autonomy. To enable us
to practice, we all rely on the group, the teacher, the tradition—all
sorts of things. If for some people medication is what enables them to
practice, I have no problem with it.”
Beck, Magid’s late teacher, received the Japanese name “Joko” from her
Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, yet she did not continue the practice of
giving students Buddhist names. Magid, however, has adopted the
tradition—with a twist. In a ceremony, he gives his students not a
special, foreign name, but rather their real name. The one they already
use every day. This is his reminder that practice and ordinary life are
one and the same.
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