Saturday, April 18, 2009

How the Light Gets In

It is popular at the moment to bemoan the state of the economy, the financial and emotional upheaval that seems to be everywhere. I find myself wondering how to make use of this in my spiritual practice, and how to use the rampant fear and anxiety to develop compassion and wisdom.

Bernard Madoff stole billions of dollars from people who trusted him. We respond in various ways to this story. Some of us think those people who gave Madoff their money were stupid, or greedy, or got what they deserved. We reject them. We reject Madoff, and feel angry with him for hurting people. Some of us grow frightened about our own money, and worried that our financial people are cheating us. We try to figure out how to keep our money safe, to hang on to it. We worry about spending or buying. Some of us couldn’t care less. Those people, that amount of money ? We can’t relate. We barely know, maybe haven’t even heard of Bernie Madoff. We aren’t really noticing that stuff. Life goes on.

These are a few examples of reasonable, ordinary human responses. These, and most of our habitual responses, fall into three categories, known as the three poisons: rejecting, grasping and ignoring. That’s pretty much how we humans react to our perceptions of the world. If you observe your mind closely, you will see this is true. It is also no big deal. The only problem with responding habitually is that we miss out on the real experience: the opportunity to connect deeply with ourselves and each other.

The “poisons” are also medicine, and hold the key to their own antidotes. Each of them is a clue to how we can deepen our relationship with the world as it is, how to open our hearts. Each time we notice ourselves rejecting an experience, thinking we should be feeling differently than we are, or believing things should be happening some other way, this is our opportunity to practice patience. We could remember to bring compassion and a friendly curiosity to that moment. When we find ourselves trying to cling to and protect what we like, and hope to keep forever, this is our signal to offer up generosity, to cultivate contentment, to rest at ease. When we notice – and we do notice eventually, it is our nature to be aware – that we are in denial or ignoring what is happening around or within us, this is a chance to realize our innate wisdom, the insightful and awake qualities we carry within us, everywhere we go.

We can use these moments of aversion, attachment and ignorance to remind us to empathize and feel compassion. To fully feel how scary it is to lose all that money, how painful to have one’s trust destroyed, how frightening to walk around in a bullet-proof vest because your actions caused people such pain they might want to kill you. To wonder, is it a relief to be found out and stopped? To wonder what it might be like to (perhaps) be resting in security, only to have it all fall apart in seconds.

We could allow ourselves to feel the pain of the whole situation, up to and including the pain of hoping for any kind of security in this life, while knowing – and seeing it demonstrated – that it can’t really be found. This is a difficult task. We might prefer to keep our judgment and illusion, to remove ourselves and run and hide. But we’d miss out. For these are the times we have an opportunity to connect with the deepest heart of our humanity.

Everyone is looking for the same things: happiness, peace, safety. We all want to love and be loved. We cannot hope to accomplish any of this with our minds cast down and our hearts clamped shut. We can only hope to touch these things, these common goals, by breathing in and breathing out, noticing that we are breathing and so is everyone else. We can notice our thoughts and feelings, our judgments and preferences, our stances and habits and reactions, and we can meet them with a tender, open curiosity. We can look beneath those habitual, automatic responses and wonder what it is like to be connected to all those other beings on the planet, every single one. Breathe in the suffering we each know, breathe out the wish to end suffering, and let our hearts crack open, together. As Leonard Cohen noted, that’s how the light gets in.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I am forever telling people (including myself) to be a little friendlier to themselves in times of stress.

What does that mean? When I say friendliness, kindness or compassion, I am not talking about some vague, spiritual shouldism of how to behave. I mean our innate, natural human response to any being in pain (yelping puppy, crying child), the organic heart-sense we offer freely to anyone who needs it, except, usually, us!

We don’t have to invent kindness, learn it, or even think about it much. All we really need is get out of our own way. With a little intention, practice, and an adjustment in our field of vision, we can include ourselves in our own natural circles of kindness.

How it works:
When we begin to have awareness of how we cause ourselves problems – through ways we act or think, or beliefs we hold – many of us come down hard on ourselves. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t do that or think that or feel that. We object to whatever we have noticed. This awareness is tender, a hidden part of ourselves we are just beginning to communicate with. A harsh response is only going to send our awareness scurrying away. It won’t heal the pain, and it won’t “cure” the behavior (thought pattern, feeling…). If we are trying to understand something about ourselves, we won’t get there through being mean.
If we berate ourselves, we resort to mindlessness to manage the pain and fear of berating ourselves, and we don’t get any further with our investigation. We become our own least cooperative witness.
True mindfulness – the path to developing deeper relationships with ourselves and others, healing our pain and enjoying our lives – requires us to meld awareness with compassion. Otherwise we are just grimly staring ourselves down.

What to do?
  • Take a step back from what you discover about yourself. Let it be simply information. You are not your thoughts, you are not your behavior.
  • Meet everything about yourself with kindness, and a friendly curiosity. Ask yourself, “How does this work?” rather than “Why the heck did I do that?”
  • Consider how you would speak to a friend having a hard time, or a small child who fell and skinned her knee: There, there, it will be okay. Let this be your mantra.
  • Set your intention to befriend yourself no matter what. Befriend even the harsh voice that says you’re not doing it right, you’re supposed to befriend yourself, you idiot! That voice really needs love!
Why bother?
If we keep berating ourselves for our feelings and thoughts, we will keep hiding from ourselves. Hiding increases our feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. It is unnecessary to suffer this way. If we show ourselves kindness, we blossom. Connecting with ourselves connects us to the world at large, which could use more kindness and connection.

As we go, so goes the world.

When we stop judging ourselves, even for a moment, the possibility of happiness arises. Our hearts begin to open. Acceptance of ourselves, as we find ourselves to be in each moment, is the kindest gift we can bring. It is all we want, after all, and all we really, truly need.