There is nothing wrong with us
I was raised Catholic, taught that deep inside me from day one was a dark stain, my original sin. I was raised to believe that the only way for me to be absolved from this original sin was to give myself over completely to an unseen God who would forgive me and grant me redemption. This was hard for me because as a child I also had a deep and uninterrupted sense of innate goodness.
For most of my childhood, the tension between the stories I was told and what I intuited in my own, direct experience gave way to a deep frustration that culminated in seething anger and resentment in my late adolescence and early adulthood. Eventually, I lost touch with that sense of goodness, although now I know it never left me, but was only obscured from my vision.
At the heart of my frustration was the implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that all of my badness came down to my being born in the female form. It was Eve who had given into temptation, picking the only fruit she’d been told she couldn’t have in an undeniable act of self-destruction. It was Eve who had led Adam to bite into that apple, taking him and their whole world down with her. At that moment they were banned from paradise, the gates closing firmly behind them, leaving the rest of humanity to fight for survival in an unforgiving world.
All the suffering of the entire world, it was all her fault. By implication, it was also all my fault. And in order to make it up to men and the world, I would have to accept my lot in life. I would have to be a good girl, grow up complicit in my own oppression, realise my one and only purpose of serving my husband, bearing and raising children, grow old, die and hope to go to heaven.
That was literally what I was taught. No subtlety and no room for divergence of any kind.
The teen-ager within
I couldn’t understand the set up at all. It just didn’t make sense. How could something I had absolutely no control over, the body I was born into, be the basis upon which my entire existence would be constructed? Why did I have to pay for someone else’s mistakes? Someone who it wasn’t clear to me actually ever existed (formed by God from Adam’s rib?!), and who didn’t have anything to do with me? I smelled a rat.
Meanwhile I was a wild and tenacious child. I never accepted the excuses, rationalisations and pleas of the adults around me. “Because I said so” was a deeply dissatisfying answer to my “whys”? It wasn’t enough for me to simply say or do something because it was what the adults wanted. I needed to understand why. And for me, it was clear that if I could understand why, and I agreed with the reasoning, I would be happy to do what was asked of me. But the adults didn’t have time for that.
For my mother I became a constant source of frustration, not the sweet little girl I was meant to be. Unfortunately I was never afforded the opportunity to talk with her about my childhood. By the time I was 17 she was dead and I was clear I was neither Catholic nor straight. I would have to find another way to live in this world.
Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland School shooting survivor who is leading the youth movement for gun control in the USA, reminds me so much of myself when I was young. I too am a child of Latino immigrants. I too had a shaved head and had come out of the closet by the time I was 17. I too wanted to change the world. Watching her stand in front of a crowd of thousands at the recent March for our Lives rally, silent and crying, for a full six minutes and twenty seconds, has awakened the teenager in me, and she is pissed.
Finding the courage to feel
I have spent the last 20 years of my life learning to work with my mind, in particular my anger and my shame. I’ve meditated, sitting long retreats and sometimes crying like a baby for days. I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of groups, sharing our life stories and exploring the teachings of the Buddha in depth. I’ve reflected deeply on the nature of reality, what is unfolding in my direct experience, and how it’s changing me. And I’ve committed my life’s work to helping others do the same.
But in all that time, there still remains a feeling that there is something wrong. There is something deeply and inexplicably wrong. And for much of that time I mistakenly thought that it was me, that I was wrong, that this feeling of wrongness was mine, all about me, had everything to do with me.
A few years ago I was headed off to retreat. Reflecting on the intention I might set for myself as I entered into an intensive period of practice, I decided that I was sick of the part of me that thought she could conceptually understand and fully work out her experience. I wondered what it would be like if I didn’t immediately assume I knew what I was experiencing, and in particular, what I was feeling. I decided that whatever feelings arose, I was simply going to feel them, without trying to work out what they were or why I was having them.
A few days into the retreat I began to touch into what I had previously labelled the dreaded demon doubt. It came as a heavy sinking feeling deep in the gut. It was accompanied by feelings I usually associate with fear and anxiety. I decided to withhold my labels and delve deeply into the physical sensations, as unbearable as I thought they might be. I stayed with it, stayed with it. I let myself fully and completely know this feeling, this deeply familiar set of sensations that I had for so long experienced as my “wrongness.” These feelings, for as long as I could remember, had always had a message for me, and the message was, there is something wrong with me, deeply, deeply wrong with me.
But now, staying with the direct sensations and suspending any need to know, I began to sense into something that felt much more true. When I wasn’t pushing the feeling away, or using it to shore up this deeply held view about myself, what I found was a deep sensitivity. And when I allowed myself to feel into that sensitivity, and the “fear” that habitually rose up in response to it, it began to change. What I discovered in that changing sensation was that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. What I saw was that I had mistaken my deep sensitivity to suffering for a personal flaw. Finally I was able to step back and see that I was simply a being that experiences pain. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Touching into deep sensitivity, and the vulnerability of the human condition, began to open my heart to a tenderness so raw it felt like it might annihilate me. Suddenly, the hour upon hour of loving kindness practice I had slogged away at for years began to pay off. I could sit with my pain, and the recognition of the suffering of all beings, and meet it with acceptance, curiosity and a deep love. This was an inexplicable relief.
One thing that is clear to me is that the harm we cause, to ourselves and others, is all born of our deep sensitivity. To the deluded mind, this sensitivity is a threat to our system, because it is what receives our lives, with all its joy and pain, fully. Out of delusion, we react to the joy and pain with grasping or pulling away, making a self out of what we like and don’t like. These preferences proliferate into all sorts of false views, when what we sense is related to as me and mine, or not me and not mine. When clung to or pushed away.
When we touch into our sensitivity, the practice is to stay with it, just as it is. Familiarise ourselves with it. As we do this, we will begin to see clearly the stories we’ve allowed ourselves to believe about it. We’ve believed those stories because, as untrue as they are, they are familiar and known to us. Yet our stories do not serve us in the pursuit of true emancipation from our suffering. When we are able to see clearly that our stories are just stories, we find our deepest inheritance, this raw sensitivity, and we learn to be with it. The practice is to allow that seeing clearly and being with to change us, deeply and totally.
But there is something wrong
Now back to that reignited angry teenager. So there isn’t anything wrong with me, well that’s a relief! But there are still other beings who are not yet able to be with their own sensitivity. And they are acting from that deluded place. That delusion breeds fear and proliferates into hatred, greed and ignorance. All the world’s problems are born of that muddied, deprived place in the hearts and minds of us all. This is the wrongness, and what must ultimately be transformed. The sense of wrongness I sit with now is the tension of knowing that although I may have done a great deal of work to see through my own delusion, there is still an endless amount of delusion out there in the world reeking havoc and causing unimaginable suffering.
So, it is not enough to simply work on my mind, without also challenging myself to find a way to be in relationship with those who are not able or willing yet to look at their own. There is something calling me to keep stepping outside of my comfort zone and open to the world and all the suffering in it. Find a way to have compassion for all suffering beings, even those who cause great harm. And often the first step in getting into relationship with one another around the harm we cause, is to show our vulnerability, and the way we suffer at the hands of one another.
That is what I was reminded of watching Emma Gonzalez cry on international TV. I want to be that strong. Strong enough to hold up my pain and that of others, show it to the world and ask, “What are we going to do about this?”
There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with us. But there is something wrong. The inner work is in service of the outer work, and these are the edges I am most interested in traversing just now. Will you join me?