Let (A Little) Go

I think that when we consider undertaking a new philosophy or approach, we always jump to the extreme case to see if it will pan out in the long run. If we’re contemplating going keto, we immediately think “but what if I’m at my best friend’s wedding — would I eat the cake??”. If we are pondering lowering out carbon footprint, we think “but if my family member were dying across the continent, would I fly to them?”. And similarly, when we think about becoming Buddhist and letting go of all attachments, we think “so am I meant to not love my children? Am I meant to let go of my parents? Should I not be sad if my cat dies?”

This technique is “optimising for the corner case”: we plan our lives around situations that will barely ever happen, if they even happen at all. We fail to take moderate action, because of fear of what our technique would look like at the extremes. This is a logical fallacy: plan for the typical case. What happens at the edges doesn’t really matter that much in the long run!

So rather than thinking about what letting go of attachment looks like in the extremes, think about what it looks like in the norms. What does letting go look like while driving to work? While making breakfast? While playing with your child? While talking to your spouse? Maybe you need to let go of expectations for your teenager (let go of the expectation that they will be organised, for instance). Maybe you need to let go of your expectations for your ageing parents. Maybe you need to let go of your expectations for yourself! You can’t be perfect. Let go of the image of yourself as a superhero. Just let go of that tiny thing, a million times a day.

The upside here is that letting go of these normal clingings will mean you’re in better emotional shape when the weird situations come up. If you have not been berating your teenager for being airy fairy for the last few months, they may be more present and supportive if your parent dies. If you have not been beating yourself up about not being perfect, you may be more able to handle it if something happens to your child that you need full mental presence to deal with. These micro-clingings (fury at others over not making a light, or getting cut off in the Starbucks line up, or fury at ourselves for forgetting things, or cutting someone else off in traffic (stupid! stupid!)) are exhausting! You need energy to deal with difficulties — but you won’t have it if you’ve clung to tiny injuries.

So let go of the little, normal things. Start local. Don’t worry about the edges – they will work out fine.

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Don’t Go It Alone

Buddhism, I believe, is at its heart the search for sanity. The release from neurosis, which is the ultimate cause (and symptom) of dhukka. Feelings are not the enemy: our reactions to our feelings are what turn pain into suffering.

By embarking on the path to sanity, we fall prey to insidious delusion: the notion that we are “really getting somewhere”, when later we look back and realise we were in momentary insanity. We can sometimes convince ourselves that we have gone so far on our spiritual path that we undertake manic actions: we give things away that we later realise we actually needed, we quit a job we actually kind of liked, we take on a task we can’t handle. We write checks that our future selves just can’t cash. We’re operating in a kind of punch drunk mindset.

Chogyam Trungpa put it well, and suggests that what you have really done is re-defined the concept of the dharma to suit your own bent psyche: “you adapted the message of this particular doctrine to your own needs rather than hearing the doctrine as speaking the truth. You are a spokesman for the doctrine for your own sake; therefore you have manufactured the truth of the doctrine.” (this is from Cynicism and Warmth from The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume Three)

Myopia and self-reference is anathema to progress. What Trungpa is saying is that you need someone to call you on your shit. We come to Buddhism because we’re a little crazy. We are worried that we see the world wrong, and we are right about that! But because our vision is clouded, we need someone outside our own heads to give us perspective. You need someone to say “Okay – so you feel enlightened today – now try getting stuck in traffic/going home for Thanksgiving/… What comes up for you? Let’s work through that!”. In the past, these people were Buddhist Gurus. They had the market on self-discovery cornered. But just like physics has migrated from the realm of philosophy into the realm of science, the quest for sanity, and understanding of the mind, has tracked a path from spiritual Guru to Therapist. The quest for enlightenment is more a search for mental clarity than spiritual magic. Most of us don’t expect the end-point of enlightenment to be suddenly seeing auras or more dimensions. We expect that we will be able to see situations without wrapping them in our own insanity and bias. That our own neurotic/psychotic needs won’t eclipse our sense of reason. This is what therapists are for.

Therapists can help you walk the 8 fold path. Therapists have direct tools, validated (I believe) by science, to address the “inner critic” — the voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible at everything (right thought); to help you identify your own delusions (right view, right understanding); to help you find your authentic purpose (right livelihood); to help you keep your actions and reactions authentic and not harmful (right speech, right action). Therapists can give you activities and exercises to do that will sure up your muscles of self inquiry and self control (right effort, right mindfulness).

Meditation is a key component: it will let you hear that your inner voice more clearly, and distance yourself from it so you can remedy the situation, it will let you watch your actions rise up, so you can pause before you cause harm, and it will teach you the superpower of calming yourself in times of stress.

But you need someone to shepherd you through the process of working with your mind. You cannot blindly lead yourself. You can’t get sane just by reading self-help books, and you can’t attain enlightened sanity just by staying in your own head. Or maybe you can, but it will certainly take longer.

Maybe a Buddhist Guru is what you need – but those are hard to find, and tend to have a lot of foibles. Therapists are everywhere, and many are rooted in mindfulness and will exploit meditation practice as a mechanism for self-inquiry and ultimately sanity.

So don’t go it alone. You need someone whose opinions you trust, who is outside your own mind, helping you along the way.

Steady Yourself

Moment to moment, how do we progress in the path towards growing up, towards being enlightened? Deepak Chopra, and most of the other Buddhist(ish) teachers suggest that “Present moment awareness” is a method for bringing enlightenment practice into every day life. Not saving meditation for special sitting occasions, when the stars have aligned, and you’re perched on a cushion in front of your special shrine. Instead, blend it into your mundane activities. Stay here, and now. But what are the possible mechanics of this?

This brings me to thinking about the times when present moment awareness would be brought into use. The examples are typically “while washing dishes”, or “while walking”. I find the intensity of focus almost strangely distracting while washing dishes. If I’m too connected to “the oneness” (as Lama Surya Das sarcastically put it), I’m actually not going to do a great job of navigating the sidewalk. Meditation, paradoxically, can be distracting! I know that means I’m doing it wrong — but what would it mean to do it right?

All the statues of the buddha have one thing in common – they are all balanced. They are sitting squarely. They look like human paper weights. The Zen teachers, and most of the meditation instructors, indicate that finding a proper seated posture is paramount in making progress in sitting meditation. You must become a human paper weight too!

But what is it you’re doing when you sit like that? What does it matter?

They key is that balance. Stoking the sense of balance. And also the sense of where you are in the space. The 6th and 7th senses: Proprioception (awareness of body in space) and Balance.

Sometimes my thoughts are so powerful I’ll feel almost pulled off the meditation cushion. By maintaining a sense of balance and place, I can recenter myself. I can feel where down is. It’s easier to do, the better the balance I have on the cushion. If I’m tipping because I’m uncomfortable, it’s actually harder to maintain the awareness of balance and space. When thoughts tug you off balance, rebalance again. Watch the tugging sensation from a balanced pose. Don’t let it drag you over. Chogyam Trungpa’s meditation instruction (whatever we may now feel about him as a teacher) was to focus slightly more on the out breath. I think he’s in good company with meditation instructors on that point. It’s in the out breath when we can really feel that downness. We can feel our body relax, and succumb to gravity a little bit. Up is a bit of an airy concept (ha!), but down is unambiguous. So: by exhaling and turning attention to that exhalation, we connect not with which way is up, but which way is down. We ground ourselves in here, and in now.

Balance can be regained moment to moment. This is how we bring our practice into every experience: Before washing dishes, make sure you’re squared up, centered on your task. Don’t wash dishes at an awkward angle (you’ll break one!). When you’re walking down stairs, feel yourself landing on each one. Don’t lunge forward. Notice if you’re leaning weirdly (I often am!). Sometimes the lunging and leaning is very subtle — my head is very slightly forced forward, with my forehead tensed up. Or I feel tension behind my eyes that I am moving into. I can gently ease that awareness back, into the portion of my head that sits on top of my neck, which then sits on my shoulders and hips. And if I’m standing, then sits on my heels, which are on the ground. By rebalancing in every action, we bring ourselves back down to ground, which has a natural effect of bringing us into now.

Balance as a proxy for sanity makes sense: Being unbalanced is the term we use for someone who is displaying insane traits. Feeling off kilter means we are not feeling like we’re stable, and suggests a feeling of derangement and momentary craziness. Dizziness (a loss of sense of balance) is directly related to anxiety: one causes the other, and vice versa!

Regaining balance only takes an instant, but it has profound effect. It improves the efficacy of every action, and takes the anxiety out of every interaction. If you can’t act with balance, don’t act. Rebalance first. Breathe until you regain the feeling of down. This is the act of an independently standing person. A real grown up.

Thoughts are Escape

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my journey to being a grown up is to face my feelings without reacting to them by transforming them into aggression towards others. My feelings of anxiety almost immediately spin around and become daggers pointed outward. Like a dog that feels attacked: it attacks.

I’ve had a lot of time to consider my deepest fears: that people will be mad at me; that I will not be seen as valued; and on and on. I’m becoming more familiar with the things from which I’m running away: the huge boulders causing turbulence in what would otherwise be a smooth flowing river.

Yongey Mingur Rinpoche of Tergar International points out in a video that he was crippled with anxiety when he was young. It would hit him in waves, even (or especially) when meditating. Gradually, he learned to watch his anxiety, the same way we are taught in meditation to watch our breath. Eventually, the anxiety just wasn’t there any more.

But what I’ve noticed is that my thoughts while meditating do not centre around those fears. They do not precisely characterise them. Instead, my thoughts are distractions from my fears. My inner dialogue may as well be a TV show I’m using to not look at how I’m feeling. My fears aren’t as robust as the Rinpoche’s anxiety — they run away and hide pretty fast. If I try to look directly at them, they just dissipate, like blown smoke. They’re of course lurking, ready to ruin nice moments, or to make me yell at my kids. But they don’t bubble up such that I could learn to dispassionately watch them!

Or so I thought!

It seems now that when a thought arises in my mind while I’m meditating, if I cast my mind around my body, I’ll be able to feel the physical feeling from which the thought is trying to distract me. I’ll think “I need to go do work task x”, and then I’ll look inside and see a kind of pull, or knot, at the pit of my stomach: an ache, usually not associated with any specific scenario. But the physical feeling itself is identifiable. And pretty strong. By not following the thought, the physical feeling stayed. So then I watch that feeling.

Maybe someday, like the Rinpoche’s anxiety attacks, the ache will go. For now, I guess, I’ll let it be. I’m hoping that by doing this, when these feelings arise in daily life, I can just be with them, rather than having escapist instincts. Those thoughts take the form of being impatient with my kids, or being surly with my spouse. Maybe I can feel the feeling, and not let it become the operator of my mind. Let’s see.

Tantrum Test

TLDR: A handy test for checking whether you’re being a grown up, on your path to attaining Very Grown Up Enlightenment.

Today I was stopped at an intersection, in the left hand lane. Lots of traffic in both directions. One car ahead of me at the light. I don’t like the left lane, because there are left turners. But this person wasn’t turning, so I was good to go. The right lane (and opposing traffic) looked like something out of an apocalyptic evacuation scene, so I was pretty thrilled with my lane choice.

Then it happened: the car in front of me suddenly turned on its indicator. IT WAS TURNING LEFT!

My blood boiled. I attempted to shoot death beams from my eyes, but alas, those haven’t been working lately. I “TSKED” a bunch. I didn’t scream “YOU ASSHOLE” but I wanted to. I didn’t do anger-spreading by giving him the finger or honking! But believe me, it was close!

It was at this moment when I heard a voice in my head say “WAAAAAH WAAAAAH WAAAAAH! I don’t WANT TO BE STOPPED! I WANT TO GO NOooooooOW!!!!”. in a kind of 2-year old tone. And I thought “Ah. I’m throwing a tantrum”. Grow up. Get over yourself. Let go of your childish expectations. Roll your eyes and smile.

So this is the tantrum test! If you have a reaction to something, and you can re-frame the reaction as a 2 year old stomping his angry little foot or writhing around on the floor having a hissy fit, then you’re not being a grown up. Take a breath. Chill out. Realise you need to let go of your expectations. Look at the situation, and assess your options.

My option right then, in that traffic, was to wait until the next light to get through the intersection. That ended up being fine. I could have jumped straight to “fine” without causing the heart damage of all the anger and resentment. Without the fantasy laser beams shooting at the other driver.

I’ll do better next time!!!

You’re Not All That

Yesterday I went to lunch with colleagues. I got seated at a particularly problematic end of the table. All the people with whom I have easy conversation were seated at the other end of the table. I was seated next to folks (with a couple of exceptions) with whom I have just never managed to get … let’s call it … social flow. I sat there while they discussed things that I knew nothing about, or things that I felt were flat out boring. They chatted in a way that meant that I could barely contribute, besides sitting there, trying not to be rude, and smiling like (I can only assume) a moron.

While I was sitting there grinning and nodding, I was also thinking. I had a lot of thoughts. Aside from the standard wishing for some kind of mandatory seat reshuffling, I thought about myself. I thought: “I am the most interesting person at this end of the table. All the other people are dullards”. Then as I watched them all converse happily about all these weird foreign facts, I thought “Oh shit – I’m the least interesting person at this end of the table! If I were more interesting, I would be able to chime in! To contribute! To add something!”. This morphed into “I am the least valuable person – if I left, nobody would care, and probably people would be happy for my absence!”. Which then shifted nicely over into “These people are assholes for not noticing I’m not involved in the conversation”. And finally winding up with “I’m out of my depth, socially in this group – I bet any of the people at the other end, if swapped over here, would do better than I’m doing – I’m a weirdo silent grinning freak”.

I think I had an existential crisis.

Then I came home and meditated. And this morning, I went for a walk in nature, doing some walking meditation, and then did some breathing meditation while sitting in a too-hot bath. And I had one of those “aaaaah!” moments. It went something like this:

“You were not the most interesting person at the table. You were not the least interesting person at the table. The concept of “interesting” or “not interesting” doesn’t even really exist. It exists only in your imagination, and its only purpose is to obtain imaginary self-definition. “I’m the most interesting person at the table”. “I’m the prettiest girl at the dance”. “I’m the smartest person in the room”. “I’m the dumbest person in the room!”. These are all imaginary. And these imaginary concepts can cause tremendous harm. “I’m the best driver on this road” can lead to hubris that hurts someone. “I’m the least liked person in this group” can lead to lashing out and alienating people. We act on these conceptions, and it’s almost never beneficial.

You’re not the most interesting person in the room. You’re not the least. You’re just a person. The other people are also just people. Yes, they have quantifiable traits: number of words spoken; height; age; hair color. But usually these quantifiable traits don’t actually affect us much. It’s the imaginary traits that we derive from those quantitative facts that provoke insane and irrational behaviour.

When we look at others, we don’t see their facts, we see our interpretation of their facts. We see our own bias. We see our own imagination. That person is an idiot. That person is a saviour. That person is who I want to be. If I had her hair, I’d be okay, because with her hair, she’s okay. None of that is real. And it’s the road to ruin.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually act out my insecurities at lunch. I managed to keep my crisis of self-ness to my self. But my existential ruminations and inward distraction likely did keep me from seeing opportunities to contribute, so that I at least could have enjoyed myself. I could have asked questions and been curious. Or I could have just settled in and listened to what they were saying and just had vicarious fun. Oh well. Hopefully, with this new perspective, I’ll be more ready for the next time I get stuck in a conversation about football.

Maintain Balance

Recently I was able to attend a talk by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. He’s the leader of the Tergar International Buddhism community. It was a lovely talk. And he took some questions! Someone asked how we can manage to find meditative space in the midst of our insanely busy lives. The recommendation was to meditate in little moments in between the insane times. Just got a kid to bed? Take a deep breath, and really feel that breath. Just about to eat? Another breath. Just whenever you have a moment, feel that moment.

The beauty was that what the Rinpoche described as meditation was so simple! He said “just be aware of your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.”. But what’s awareness? That sounds intense. So he held up his hand and said “do you see my hand?”. Everyone in the audience of course enthusiastically said “YES!”. And he said “That’s awareness”. Just seeing the hand. Not thinking about the hand. Just seeing that it’s there.

So the recommendation for moment to moment meditation was just remembering that you’re breathing at all, a few times throughout the day.

I’ve been doing this for the last week or so since the talk, and while yes, it’s true, it’s not very long, and the placebo effect of having gone to a lovely talk might still be going strong, I am going to claim that it’s making a difference! What I’ve noticed is that sometimes I will feel like I’m careening out of control, and that if I just really experience a single breath (or two, if there’s time – there often isn’t) I can kind of regain equilibrium.

This practice is helping me realise that typically I am really quite off balance! Like someone stuck in one of those illusion rooms, unable to figure out which way is actually up. When I was in one of those, after hanging onto the railing for a while for dear life, I remember closing my eyes (because they were totally deceiving me), and just feeling for the balance in my body. I was then able to figure out what up was, and make my way to the door – rebalancing every couple of steps.

I wonder if life is a little like one of those rooms. My kids tip the room; my work tips the room; my sense of obligation to friends and colleagues tip the room. I feel like I’m constantly off balance, trusting my eyes rather than my body. Sometimes the room seems very tipped indeed! To the point where I feel like I’m standing on the ceiling!

But the down is always down, and up is always up. And maybe we all have the capacity to tell which is which if we just breathe for a moment.