The cost of forsaking ourselves
When we come to practice we will inevitably have all sorts of ideas of what we want to get out of it, how it might change us, the person we would rather be, different and even better than the person we are today. All this is to be expected. We are hardwired for achievement and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Our predicament is in how we relate to these expectations of ourselves as we embark on the path towards awakening.
If we hold too rigidly to our expectations we risk getting into a game of tug of war with ourselves. There is the part of us that wants to wake up, and the part (or more likely parts!) that wants to stay the same, even when we know that our current way of operating in the world is ultimately unsatisfying. The familiar is safe, it’s what we know. And even when we sense there may be a different way to be in the world, when we sense we have more potential than we realise, the power of the familiar seems to draw us back into comfortable patterns of thinking, speaking and acting. So almost as soon as we’ve set an intention to give up habits that are no longer serving us, we are back at it again. We wake up in the midst of the messiness of that moment and can’t help but feel we’ve failed.
This sense of failure can lead to a hardening in ourselves against those parts of us we feel have let us down. Perhaps we have a bit of a temper, or are susceptible to giving into critical thoughts of ourselves or others. Maybe we are aware of jealousies, resentments, or contempt in our hearts. Or maybe we have low self-esteem, are full of doubt, or struggle to find the confidence in ourselves to get to the cushion. All these mental states come from within us, are a part of us, both condition us and are conditioned by us. But we don’t like them, so we make an enemy of them. We banish these parts of ourselves, caste them away, turn from them, in the hope that by ignoring them, they will go away and finally leave us at peace.
The trouble with the strategy of banishment is that it leaves us little opportunity to recognise the deep sensitivity beneath our misguided attempts to be the rulers of our own experience. Life simply keeps unfolding, and we actually have very little, if any, control over most of what happens to us. As we begin to practice, we also start to see this more clearly. Life is unsatisfactory.
This can be a deeply painful truth to swallow, and so in a desperate plea with reality, we try to manage our lives, be the directors of the drama as it’s unfolding, tell the world, others and ourselves how it, they and we should be. And we shut out, abandon and caste away all things, experiences, people and parts of ourselves that do not cooperate. We also apply this strategy to our practice. We try to be the curators of our own awakening.
Our deep sensitivity to the nature of reality, when rejected in this way, can never be fully felt, which is all it really needs and wants. When we turn our backs on our sensitivity, we deny ourselves the purity of that raw, and incredibly real sensation of coming into contact with the way things actually are. That raw sensation is actually full of potential, brimming with possibility, if we could only muster up the courage to get close enough to know it.
You may be wondering, but what is the true nature of reality? Reality, as we perceive it, is made up of ourselves, things outside of ourselves, and the world in which we and those things appear to exist. And what is the nature of ourselves, things and the world? They are both impermanent, and completely unpindownable, indescribable. They are empty of any separate existence from the rest of reality, and therefore completely interconnected. Finally, they have no meaning in and of themselves. The meaning they hold for us exists only in our minds. This may seem nihilistic, but the potential in seeing this clearly is also to see clearly the way in which we then cling to ourselves, things or the world as permanent, separate, and full of meaning, which is our greatest mistake.
This doesn’t mean that life doesn’t have any meaning, just that we mistakenly ascribe meaning where it doesn’t exist. Suffering then arises when those things, people, places, experiences, even our own bodies change or cease to exist, because we have clung to them, invested all our hopes and dreams in them. A mind free from suffering relates to reality as simply an unending stream of phenomena passing through our moment by moment experience.
But until we are awake, we will experience reality as painful, so we spend our whole lives running from the very thing we so desperately want to know! Because to know it, would also require that we come into contact with the parts of ourselves protecting us from it, all those coping mechanisms that defend us against our own demise, or in the space of practice, tell us there is something wrong with us, we’ll never get it right, we can’t possibly understand, there is no point in trying, it’s everyone else’s fault, and whatever your own unique version of that story is.
Practice truly begins when we are finally able to drop the rope in that epic game of tug of war, make friends with ourselves and rest in the space opened up by that one radical act. We begin by turning towards and welcoming back into our awareness all the banished parts of ourselves. They will appear as thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that are deeply familiar to us, and perhaps quite painful.
As they appear, rather than suppressing or running away from them, we can now be with them. In this meeting, we may even thank them for protecting us for so long. We might get curious about what wisdom they have to offer us, listening deeply to what wants to be known and felt by them. We do this with a great deal of trust in the transformative power of awareness and allow that meeting to change us.
Most likely, as we start to integrate these abandoned parts of ourselves, there will be both a sense of relief and an awareness of the tension we have been holding all along, which was initially masked by the struggle. A tension built up through a bracing against reality.
When we are ready, and with a great deal of love and patience, we can begin now to turn towards that tension, wherever and however it is showing up in our direct experience. It may be that we encounter a deep wrenching in the gut, or a tightening around the heart-center. We may find that we’ve been clenching in the throat and jaw.
Whatever the sensations, the practice is simply to meet them with an open curiosity, begin to edge into what they are actually like, notice the thoughts or emotions that arise as we do this and also witness them fully, as the tension begins to release. This can happen both in a matter of seconds during a single meditation, as well as over many years and hundreds of sits.
If, as we work in this way, we begin to feel overwhelmed, confused or dismayed, we can always choose to broaden our awareness. Return to sensations of grounding in the body, particularly in the legs, pelvis, buttocks and feet. Include sounds, and any sense of stillness, spaciousness or peace in our experience. We can learn to also meet these sensations with love and curiosity and dwell in them, even enjoy them, and allow them to resource us. Then, when we feel ready, we can begin again.
And when the tension does begin to release, not as a result of any kind of forcing on your part, but simply as a result of this way of being with, the practice is to stay with what wants to unfold and be known in that space. The potential to touch into our deep sensitivity is always inherent in any moment of release and opening.
What we are learning here is that when we aren’t holding so tightly to an idea of ourselves, others or the world, our true selves are finally given permission to emerge and be known. The cost of not doing so, is a life half-lived, by a made up person among make believe things in a make believe world. I’ll take reality over that any day.