It is hard to stop a falling tree. Like the moon, it can’t be stopped – it pulls the tide high up against the shore in a coalition with the wind. The river finds its own way seaward, you don’t need to push it. It’s like stuff we deal with. Trees fall everyday. Sometimes, if you listen carefully, you can hear the crack of the break, the warning shout. But not always – and you come across the surprise on the dead man’s face. Perhaps a sideways glance, a step, through sheer luck, a near miss. Maybe even grace. The inevitability – that nature has its way with you. You can rage against the storm and the wind but, for all the noise – and dare I say bluster – , they are shockingly deaf to your mood. Best just sit and wait it out. As they say, often annoyingly, lean in and the tree dances to the moon, eyeing only the sky.
Strange how the body knows it is three in the morning. Like it wants to express something before dawn. It reminds of the title of a book – something about how the body remembers. As I sit here, my only companion silence – with no light yet from the east – it is on its way – the rage, on many fronts, smouldering. It is the hollow men again. Their vacuous words inflame. What sort of people do they think we are – was that Churchill? – to simply accept their lies. Mendacity on a national scale. They often take their bet on knowing most people go on with their human lives, deaf and blind or, perhaps for them, it is too much to bear. I hasten to say – sincere in trying to make their way. The obsessives, the fewer in a fever – maybe there are more – working with their outrage, some corralling it into words. Others in an anxious sweat, wondering out loud what the future holds. The bird song, the soundtrack, will land on our ears, the first aid for tired souls; and the coming rain – we have been parched for too long – greening the fields and valleys through which we will walk today.
South Coast, England, 6th June 2020
She declared that she found her bearings when she became lost. Strange that. In the storm at sea, with the night sky blotted out, you are alone, lashed by freezing waves. No point in raging against the thunder. You are hardly even a dot in the gun grey night of the universe. No matter how hard you try to get that perspective, the fear is writ large; finding the courage to carry on almost seems impossible. And then you are reminded: Wisdom says you are nothing. Compassion says you are everything. Such a thought is a homecoming of sorts.
The light in the November morning mingles closely with the night. It struggles to shed the skin of the dark. It stills me these days, the dread of it gone, this underworld, this shadow, this journey inward to some kind of light. And the understanding is different in this place, without the glare of summer's publicity. Here I can be quiet. No flashlights, no paparazzi of false revelation but a turning inwards, a beginning of a level of depth of insight, with the night touched by a pencil of light on a softer skin.
Please bear with me. It’s not been easy. You see the darkness was, well – how can I say – very dark. It was not my old friend – I’ve come to talk to you again – not in Paul Simon’s voice – although it hung around, keeping me company, hooded and brooding. Talking to me – and I could not shut my ears. It’s difficult to describe but – the best way, I think, is to say – there was no light. I only know this now because of the lightness of the breath that has returned and the bloodstream now flows – yes, that’s it – almost unnoticed. Oh, I nearly forgot. I knew I was alive because I could hear my heart in my ears. Loud, monotonous blood moving, pumping like water drums. Hanging around me, talking, reminding me of the darkness.
Yes, I know, I know. It sounds weird. You ask how could I tell? There was nothing extraordinary - the encounter was easy simply because of the long preparation before the moment. There was nothing trapped and hidden and instead it felt like a release. I was able talk quite openly as if I had known my shaman forever. I am being saved differently and going into the dark fungus and inhabiting its eco system, letting go all the time in the lines out loud where my shaman watches over me
This has been inspired by a talk I heard on the notion of anatta, the Buddhist idea of the not self. It is my feeble attempt to understand from someone who knows way more than me and I urge you to go to the original talk on the website which I quote below.
Martin Aylward in his teaching on the website Worldwide Insight * invites us to put aside ideas about self; we are encouraged to not take up a fixed position and instead he talks about freeing up the self. Interestingly though, he does not negate self and goes to some lengths to underline that in ordinary experience there is self, giving us examples of when self is paramount (we shut out the world) and when it plays less of a role because we open ourselves up to the senses whilst say, watching a sunrise or looking at a mountain.
The teaching centres on how we can learn to recognise, allow and make room for the sense of self and then inhabit the feeling of the hereness of ourselves. This is not about whether or not we have a self. Instead rather we begin to investigate the ambiguities and mysteries of the self because the sense of self is undeniable.
Aylward urges us to hang out with and investigate the ambiguity.
Here’s the thing. If we fill up our space with a sense of self, he says, it will become solidified; if we think about it the ‘I, me and mine, the question of how good or bad we are or how others see us’ makes us what he called ‘self-enveloped’. Robert Wright+, in the same vein, quotes Rahula, a Buddhist monk about how a focus on the self can be harmful. It is the source of all troubles in the world, he posits.
On the other hand we could experience a radical change to the idea of the self and tempt to switch the self away from the drama, the struggle and the messy old stuff of self. It is, Aylward says, very seductive to put this aside but not something we should do. He turns though to what he sees about the importance of where we are located in body, heart, mind and organs because this ground, location, this uniqueness of place is undeniable. He asks a series of questions:
- How am I, right now, right here?
- How is the one who appears here?
- What’s it like to be here right now?
So we frame it in the following way. If we fixate in our thinking of how we are then we become insular but if we lose the uniqueness of our hereness then we negate ourselves. All the time though we have a willingness to doubt, to keep alive our ambiguity and keep on finding out more about the vastness of ourselves. He emphasises how we are available to experience instead of being trapped in the world of the binary existence / non-existence. Ambiguity, he suggests, allows us a certain creative engagement. This, for me, is perhaps the key point about how we widen the lens if we are open this way.
Aylward continues by posing the question which I love because it makes such sense: how is this collection of habits I am emerging with right now? What habitual reactions are being brought up right now? How can I engage with this moment, this situation?
He gets me to think differently and looks at the following sentence – ‘you are beautiful just the way you are’ and turns it upside down by saying ‘you are not beautiful and you are not ugly’. Instead he says, ‘You are just the way you are’. Absolutely! Saying it this way opens up possibilities when you consider the questions:
- How are you right now?
- How and where is the experience landing right now?
This helps us to avoid rigid views about the self.Aylward offers practical advice on how to proceed. Naturally, he turns to meditation as the way towards a deeper insight by saying that this is the way to sharpen our curiosity about who, what, is here. In meditation we ask ourselves – How is the experience landing right now?
This, it is suggested, is the invitation to allow any experience of the appearance of self or what I think myself to be, the myriad nature of who I am:
right, wrong, angry, happy, clear, confused
In this way we become comfortable with all our expressions of our humanity and how we are full of possibility. It provides more room and space and we are enabled and willing to include more wisdom response.
The results are a more attuned and aligned self and, in the process, we don’t need to take things so personally and we don’t have to believe that as me any more. We start to see it as an expression of the non-self and the non-fixedness of self. In making room for our non-self existence there are more possibilities as we navigate in the world, remembering we do not exist by ourselves becuase we exist in a context.
So when we consider our roles as lover, friend, employee, meditator we exist for others in our various roles. Aylward gives the example of when we show up at work which I find particularly helpful. Here, we may squash ourselves into a particular role and then experience a kind of anxiety, righteousness or defensiveness in trying to protect, sustain or feel comfortable in the role because the role becomes representative of who I am.
Certainly our various roles reflect back to ourselves our very ambiguity.
The question is asked. Is there a way we relate to the role? Is there a friction in the role? Is the friction related to how we have picked up the role and made too much of it with the result we have hardened the view of the role of who I am, of who you are? Perhaps we have used this to see how we have taken ourselves to be. And these end up to be accumulated assumptions of who we are and really does say out loud, ‘I want you to show up in a particular way’. We cannot have an idea of self without being filtered through by an other but the chance for more fluidity means we can break out of fixedness and give us space about how we see ourselves and the other.
In living in the world and dealing with stuff there is the sense that a lot of contractions happen around yourself are that you blame yourself. Or that there is a competition to be a certain way.
Flip this on its head and show up in the world with the ambiguous sense of self, remembering everything is within yourself. When we accommodate all the senses of self, we begin to have a changed relationship with feelings of anger and aggression and help us to move away from fixed positions. Wright says the same thing: with this work you begin ‘to feel a new sense of connection with your fellow creatures and a new sense of generosity towards them’.
Aylward’s teaching turns towards our place in the world. He provides several examples. ‘He is wrong’, we say, makes us feel right and better. Anger with another can be habitual and reactive and SELF making. These destructive urges mean that we are locked into being a SELF and the other into a SELF.
If we flip this on the head and are more ambiguous and open to a full kind of experience and all those senses of selves we will no doubt have a wider view: all people are trying their best. We stop making them into a SELF that is wrong and bad because we are connected to the nature of self and aware that we are standing on the same earth. This is powerful stuff.
Appearances of senses of self allows room for a greater awareness that we are all experiencing and all feeling the same things like love and fear. Then – and this is an important then – when we do this we can stand up for ourselves and stand up for all the company of beings. Even those, yes, even those who are drawn into a rigid sense of self share the same earth.
Wright argues that we should think of ourselves as having the power to establish a different relationship with our feelings on the road to understanding our not self and, in many ways, Aylward says the same thing although, to my mind, he says it differently.
Aylward talks about the heart of our being which is knowing our non-difference and knowing ourselves in the company of everyone, making room for a myriad of selves.
This is important stuff as we go deeper and understand the way in which we exist in the world and how we relate to the other. I love the way he ends by quoting something from Ram Das, who acknowledged the difficulty of loving some people: do what you need to do with people, but never put them out of your heart.
This is called liberated activism and we now it seems we are grounded to be where we are.
+ Why Buddhism is True
I wrote this at a time that I was dealing with stuff and how we can have break-throughs. Dealing with pain can be startling and then something changes …
Bone-dry, sand-blasted soul-sahara. There is no escape to green springs, no oasis in the stinging dust-storm of things unexpected. And then the rains came: the footprint of the memory of pain was washed away until the next dry season. Now a time of colours flowered and the bone-dryness drip-dried into the forgotten.
I have begun to explore the idea of the ‘not self’ and, as I have discovered, and as has been reported by those who know better than me, it is a difficult concept to understand all at once. I strongly suspect any depth of knowing what it means will happen incrementally for me.
I may well forget everything that I have learned about the concept in the next week or so!
I have to declare at once that the way into an understanding of the ‘not self’ is through meditation and getting up close to stuff we do not like and feel uncomfortable with:
It’s that space where we allow our minds to observe the scary feelings we are experiencing such as anxiety, anger, sadness and grief – things that we want to run away from in an instant. Working on the ‘not self’ through meditation, I believe, ironically enables us to feel a detachment from it. (So I have been told.)
But we have to practice often.
There is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally.
The debate about whether the self exists is too complex at this moment for me to even begin to fathom. It is sufficient, at this stage, to get the idea of not identifying with the feelings around self and to gain a bit of clarity around the fact that the various parts of yourself that you are feeling are not part of you actually. Just writing this paragraph was difficult enough.
Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True? in a podcast with Dan Harris (10% Happier) says that we should start with problematic things about ourself.
Mediate on them so you don’t have to identify with them. Ultimately, you do not have to accept the discomfort that they have been causing you.
So if you sit with the feeling of being a ‘failure’ because you were told you were one by your father or mother or brother or whoever, you will find if you get close up to the feeling and scrutinise it you may well discover that this is not you, but someone else’s voice that you have come to believe is ‘you’.
Unpack it as you sit quietly and meditate upon it and, over the course of several sessions of working with this, you may well find that the feeling dissolves. At any rate it will lessen as you no longer identify with it.
Remember – you do not have to accept the discomfort that the feeling causes you.
I am obsessive and, as anyone with this condition knows, it is freighted with awful feelings.
Being obsessive can be positive however. It can mean that if I latch onto an idea such as the attempt to explain the ‘not self’, then it’s a good thing in many ways. I won’t rest until I get it as far as my intellect enables me to.
But, of course, being obsessive has its massive downsides. (Hello, understatement.) It is not fun really as you begin to believe the voice telling you to check things to see whether or not they are true. And you do this over and over … Well, they are only feelings that give rise to thoughts that are not to be believed. To buy into them causes untold suffering as I well know.
This work through reading and meditation (in a chair at the moment and not yet on a cushion) has been enormously helpful to me and has started to give me greater clarity. As Wright suggests – the lack of clarity about our thoughts, feelings and emotions can often cause deep suffering. Ah, yes, it is the lack of clarity. Metation clears the mind.
In the same podcast in which Harris and Wright are conversing, Harris says that there is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally. He argues that if you follow this guidance, “Then they will not yank you around as much.”
Being obsessed is being yanked around by illusions and delusions. Feeling a failure does the same thing and so is the idea of not being good enough and feelings of anxiety. Yank, yank, yank.
Of course, some feelings are correct but, often as not, they lead you up the garden path.
Meditation allows you to accept their guidance or let go of them, says Robert Wright.
And, slowly, we gain clarity about ourselves and our ‘not selves’ and begin to reduce our suffering.
I can see beyond the words now which is more important than not letting go.
‘Your best is not good enough,’ my father used to say and I once believed him.
I used to rail against him and decry this awful way of being – this scarcity culture – but after years of coming to terms with it and him, I have stopped railing and have let go.
In the letting go, I now see that he was making his own way in a context that was, for him, an over-correction for the upbringing he had where he was told by his mother that she would always provide him with a home, even if he failed.
This over-compensation was simply his allergy to his mother’s protectiveness. In his inadequate and limited way he was trying to make us resilient and robust, ready to face all the challenges – but the ‘not good enough’ approach has meant that some of his offspring have struggled with self-esteem.
I remember the scathing way in which he recounted his mother’s mantra, much like the way I used to be scathing about his.
Uncovering the context and working out why he would have said this sort of thing is a liberating experience. He was trying to inoculate us so we would not fail and he took the tough line. I wish that he had, instead, talked about failing and being vulnerable in a completely different way.
But he didn’t.
He made us afraid that we were never good enough and the damage was that we could never work out what ‘our best’ was. Learning our own limits and learning when we were at the top of our game might have been a better way to impart wisdom.
But he didn’t have a clue.
Although he is long gone, I now feel some sadness that he saw the world and success in such stark terms.
But that’s okay. I can see beyond the words now which is more important than not letting go.
© Rick Frame