Forgetting the self

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Dogen the 13th Century Zen monk/ philosopher, said;

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away”

It is pretty much his most famous quote. This is definitely not the kind of forgetting that means we stop caring for ourselves because we  feel we don’t really matter or even really exist (a feeling a lot of us have from not been respected, loved, listened to etc). And it’s not the kind of merging into others and losing ourselves in someone else that creates a sort of unhealthy dependence on the other. That is a collapsing into and feels different. As children if we don’t properly individuate and separate from our families/ carers, then this again is not forgetting the self. How can we forget the self if we never felt like we knew it in the first place?

Forgetting the self to me is the experience we have when the idea of self is seen as just that, an idea. But seeing through that idea does not drop us into a reality where we’re all one homogeneous soup with no distinctions. In fact it seems more that it makes us see the exquisite beauty expressed through the uniqueness of everyone, everything and each moment. But in this uniqueness we are simultaneously expressing our complete interconnectedness and interdependence. Shunryu Suzuki expressed it as; ‘not one, not two’.

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Indulgence, criticism and compassion

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Developing our compassionate voice or inner self can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. One of them being the way other aspects of our inner world can kind of sound a lot like compassion but are something else.

It’s pretty common for me to revert to a more indulgent voice or aspect when seeking for a compassionate approach to myself or a situation. You know the one – ‘Hey Ben, it’s ok, take it easy, you deserve that beer/lazy afternoon watching films/extra chocolate/ time gazing at naked ladies. What’s the big deal anyway? You need some time out to do something a little naughty but nice!’- Its a voice that I easily mistake for compassion.

On the other side is a more punitive and pretty harsh voice that motivates me to stay away from such things by scare tactics- ‘If you have that beer you will be proving yourself to be weak and out of control! You should go for a run instead!’- This voice is recognisable by words like ‘should’ and a harsh tone.

Sometimes my compassionate voice seems strong enough to mitigate these voices and take them down the spectrum of harshness or overindulgence to a kinder more genuinely supportive place. But often it’s not really strong enough to stand out of the shadows and speak for itself. So herein lies the practice; to keep reconnecting with that part of me that can motivate from a place of deep love and understanding.

‘Dear One, beloved Ben

I know how you care about drinking less, it’s important to you. I deeply care that you take actions that support your wellbeing. But I know it can be hard to change habits. We can do this together, you are not alone. Whatever happens I love you. Having a drink doesn’t make you a bad person and yet you don’t sleep so well and your next day is affected and I would love for you to have a fulfilled and energised day’.

So this voice is neither indulgent or critical. Its power comes from how it cares and sees the struggles of change and growth without judgment or ambivalence. It offers a path of growth through love. The only real sustainable path of change.

Fear of making ‘mistakes’

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So much of what we learn growing up is about what’s not said.

My folks never told me; ‘You can’t make mistakes son!’ Well not that I remember anyhow. But the sticky thing is they never said; Its ok to make mistakes and in fact it’s totally essential to living a fulfilled and productive life. Same at school and in fact, I would argue, society in general. Worse than that, they never owned up to their mistakes and so implicitly I learnt to do the same and it went toxic.

Even if we get half a sniff that its ok to make mistakes at all, it seems that there is some hidden message in society that it’s ok up to a point, say 25 years old or something, then sorry but you have to have it all nailed down by then!

If there is something more crippling than not giving ourselves and each other permission to get ‘it wrong’ and come a big cropper, I’m not sure what it is. It sucks the living joy out of life so fast it’s horrible. And if we don’t actively and clearly demonstrate to people that we love them even if they make a hash of something and in fact encourage them to do so then we are setting our loved ones up to live frozen by fear.

This goes for a 5 year old and a 75 year old. For me a fulfilling and vital life is one where we are always open to making mistakes and learning from them without getting too down on ourselves. Then we live in a world of constant newness and wonder and growth. Then we stay connected to our joys and passions, we learn to trust that only through life’s challenges, losses and pains do we really find out what we want and what we’re about.

This is a lesson I am learning now at 43. To say the world feels like a much less threatening place with this attitude is a major understatement.

Our political arena’s can often be a terrible example for our children. Politicians literally cannot admit to making mistakes, for fear of being seen as weak and torn apart by opposing factions. Businesses get obsessed with targets and profit margins and lose the creative spark that human failure ignites. It’s a terrible loss and one we need to push against by being willing to stand up for our rights to mess up!

Circumlocution and other gripes

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This is me going on a little rant. I know teachers of all traditions need to fulfil their ‘teacher ness’ and their humanness by making generalisations of what the spiritual path is about but…. it gets on my nerves sometimes that I see spiritual teachers just not freakin listening. You know what I mean?

So here’s the scenario. End of a good talk by said teacher and then a member of audience/student asks……blah, a question and said teacher just doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the question and instead of asking and clarifying whether they have a clear understanding of what is being asked, they revert to some default type response. If I am in the audience and have seen this teacher before I will have likely heard this response before. And in my view it comes across to me as the end of any real communication. Hopefully the student will pipe up and say something like … ‘er no thats not what I asked’ but unfortunately this is often not the case as the atmosphere of such occasions is generally not conducive to such honesty.

I came across a good word the other day; ‘circumlocution’, the definition of which is;

‘the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive’.

I see this as perhaps a fairly common ‘trick’ of the Guru type and it seems pretty harmless if hideously annoying and fraudulent.  More worrying is the the temptation to make grand sweeping spiritual statements in response to a question that some student has asked based on very little real understanding of what that person was really asking and what the particulars of their life are. That to me, is potentially very harmful and irresponsible. One persons medicine is another’s poison.

Really its not that difficult to ask someone exactly what they mean. To get behind the strap line and ‘easy’ verbatim response. To me its lazy human interaction to assume we understand what someone is asking. Mostly we need to inquire a little further to make sure we are on the same page. But it does take a willingness to be open and vulnerable and real and thats more challenging and risky than having some ‘clever’ ( probably well rehearsed) spiritual answer that will likely have all the devotees swooning in the aisles.

Bit cynical? Maybe, but there’s a place for cynicism in my world.

 

Sacred vessel

Come, butterfly It's late- We've miles to go together. - Matsuo Basho

Today I had my last session with a therapist, guide, wise women I’ve been seeing for years.

Words cannot express the gratitude I feel for this space and this person. There is a deep sadness and profound joy in me. I am off on the next part of my journey. I wonder how it will be without this sacred vessel that has held me and carried me so carefully and with such grace and kindness.

But good soul work is never lost. It comes along with us. I can now carry this sacred vessel with me. In my heart.

Thank you.

Caught somewhere in time?

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Are you most fixated on the past, present or future?

I am starting to realise that too much of one ‘time zone’ is probably a bad thing. A part of my healing has been seeing where I need to focus to take the next step in the process.

With Buddhism and Zen I developed a strong emphasis on the now/present. With psychotherapy I did a lot of work on the past and now I am facing my fears about the future.

In order to grow it seems useful to know where we need to focus our time perspective. Do I need to look at the past and do that healing and reflection? Do I need to practice really being present to be fully embodied in this moment? Or do I need to look to the future and dream and plan and visualise where I am going?

A balance needs to be found between all three and that balance may look quite different at different times in our lives.

Where does your balance need to be?

 

I don’t have to….

My maths ain’t great but I make that 4 words!

Hey no matter, the fact is this is really sweet and on the money. Here’s a few of mine I will soaking up in days to come.

I don’t have to:

  • Prove myself
  • Work out what a meaningful life looks like
  • Be relaxed, centred, peaceful, confident
  • Please others
  • Fix others
  • Fix myself
  • Be perfect
  • Have a wife, partner, child, family, career
  • Be nice
  • Be kind
  • Be compassionate
  • Be mindful
  • Be empathetic
  • Love my parents
  • Save the planet
  • Be a vegetarian
  • Love myself
  • Like my friends all the time
  • Know what the hell is going on
  • Get enlightened
  • Be a good boy
  • Be a bad boy
  • Be a man
  • Be anything

So if I don’t have to do or be…. anything….. then what?

Burning Fire

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Sexual energy is like a fire. Falling in love can be all consuming. I think it’s a shame when we are in it, to try and dampen it down too much, but at the same time it needs to be contained. A fire in a hearth is warming and nourishing. A fire allowed to run wild is dangerous and life threatening.

I have let love and sexual energy run amok at times and its hard to bring any clarity of mind, wisdom or compassion to a situation when this happens. Its like being possessed with a force that wants to burn everything in its path. Cleansing, exhilarating, blissful, passionate, transcending sexual love. Painful, intoxicating, destructive, overwhelming sexual love. Two sides of the same coin.

I might think I can handle it, playing with fire. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Like any peak experience it can be highly addictive. Ordinary life can feel so mundane and dull after being in the throes of an intense sexual love. Like everything it will come to an end and arguably the ‘real’ business of practising love starts.

Compassionate perspectives on Chronic Fatigue

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I want to write about chronic fatigue again. And I want to do it from a compassionate position. As a practice for myself and perhaps for others to reflect on how they might be looking at their own health issues or problems in life.

CFS has been part of my life for 13 years or so. I am now on the way out of its embrace.

I have spent a lot of time beating myself up for ending up with this condition. What did I do wrong and just how much off course did I get for this to happen? Questions like this. I think it can be so easy to blame ourselves or to blame the world, hell someone must be to blame, right? But like so many things in life the more I look at the huge amount of different conditions that have come into play to create my situation the more difficult it becomes to point the finger of blame. But most importantly I want to bring a kind perspective on this process. After 13 years of struggle and confusion I am at last finding that.

Hey Ben its been hard, really goddamn hard. Ive suffered a lot of confusion, anxiety, discomfort, frustration and anger. At times I have felt lost and alone and in despair. How can I ever feel anything other than exhausted? What must I do? Why me?

I think of Kristen Neff’s 3 components of self compassion

  1. Recognising that I have suffered
  2. Knowing that I am not alone
  3. Offering myself kind words. Asking myself; what is most supportive?

Recognising and allowing myself to feel my own suffering is not easy. The British nation is world renown for its ‘stiff upper lip’. We brush this stuff under the carpet and you know what? There’s no more freaking room under there. The simple and profound healing of really being with the felt truth of our difficulties has power beyond comparison, I kid you not.

I am absolutely not alone. This is super easy to say (or write) but it somehow seems to resist being truly experienced as the truth of the matter. There is something about suffering that makes me want to disappear into a little isolated world of disconnect, just when I need to connect the most. Thats adds suffering for me and I think for humanity. This  seeing our connection with other beings in our shared suffering is again, super healing and important.

Last but not least, some kind words and loving support. I did my best. I may have been on a countdown clock to cfs but i wasn’t to know this. No one thing or person is to blame  (especially not me). I may have even made things worse without realising, but I wasn’t to know this either. No one was there to tell me what to do. I was in the dark and the medical profession didn’t get it either. (they still don’t).

So my dear Ben, you have been through a tough time, you have learnt a lot and come out a wiser, kinder being. Thank all the powers that be for that.

May we all be kind to ourselves as best we can!

Shame, vulnerability and the wholehearted life.

 

A lot of people have watched this Ted talk. I reckon this should be shown in schools, churches, mosques and wherever across the world in every language.

Its such an important message.

We can’t selectively numb emotions. So if we numb our fear and vulnerability, we numb our joy and capacity to really love. Now that’s not just a terrible shame but a sure fire way to lead to a terrible mess.