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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An Otherwise Hard and Dark Life

It started with an email.

It was polite and gracious. Not asking for anything, just a short note that stated how much she enjoyed reading my stuff. Heartfelt, it was one line that got me. One line that went:

"[Your books] afford me much pleasure in an otherwise hard and dark life."

I don't know her or her situation. Don't know where she lives, how old she is or what she looks like. It doesn't matter. That one line. A hard and dark life.

Darkness comes different shades.

I grew up in a stable family, a good home, and a safe community. I grew up with all benefits of an education and a capable body. Not disfigured, I maintained friendships and romances. With all of those gifts, why would my life become dark?

I don't know.

And that was the problem. I had no legitimate reason to feel hopeless and alone. Confused, scared and depressed. On paper, I was living the American dream. So why, then? Why would my life also feel hard and look dark?

There are children in this world suffering atrocities greater than the imagination. I recently read the confessions of a serial child molester and what he did to his 10 year old stepson for a year. Nightmares had nothing on that boy's life. What would he give to have my life?

And yet I still saw clouds, what I thought were clouds, for miles and miles. I saw no point to all of this, felt no value in life. Despite having a family and girlfriend-turned fiance-turned wife, I felt alone. I didn't have a right to feel this way.

And that made it worse. Because I did feel this way.

Depression has no bias. If someone hasn't experienced the weight of its gray sky, it looks like weakness, like petty self-centeredness. You just need to will yourself back to mental health. Right? Suck it up, pull up the bootstraps, get tough.

I got lucky.

I had good teachers, good counselors. I had good genes that didn't reach for an easy way out. I wanted to find a way through it. After years of  hard work--Zen retreats, group therapy, individual counselling--I slowly saw the sun. I realized, because of the work, that the sun was always there. I just needed to look toward it.

But, in the meantime, there is the work. There is always the work. And in the middle of the long, dark night--when the work is gritty, is sweaty and nasty and filthy--its nice to know someone else is out there, someone else has been there, and understands.

Understands the sun in behind the clouds.

It always has been.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Let It Be. And Then Some.

I learned Zen from Joko Beck in the early 90s. I had sat meditation with other teachers, but Joko made practice accessible. No wacky koans, nobody getting smacked with a stick. With Joko's practice, I understood how to do it. And why.

Kyosaku: the stick of enlightenment stings a bit.

The bones of her technique were thought-labeling.

An emotion, she described, is simply a bodily sensation tied to a thought. When we sit on the cushion, when we practice during daily life, we label our thoughts and experience the bodily sensations that accompany them. We rest in the moment, whether it be pleasurable, painful, angry, or happy.

We let it be.

This was life changing. Instead of running from uncomfortable experiences like embarrassment or shame or fear, I allowed the moment to unfold, remained present with the sensations and identified my thoughts. It wasn't easy, but for me there were no alternatives. Life, at that time, was not working.

I've always been resistant to the practice of positive thinking, of using meditation to feel good. It struck me as self-centered. The point of our life shouldn't be to feel good, but to serve life--allowing the moment to be what it is, to be present with the yuckiness, if that's what's there, instead of steering  toward something we like...those yummy feelings.

Rick Hanson's book The Enlightened Brain approaches practice from a unique perspective, tying spiritual practice to neuroscience. The physical structure of the brain, the way it's wired, affects how we think and feel. It colors our perceptions, forms our life. And our brain is neuroplastic. It can change, reshape.

Our mind can change our brain which can change our mind.

Hanson's guide to meditative practice.

We must be aware of thoughts and bodily sensations, to let down our defenses and allow the present moment to unfold. This is still the first step and, for most of us, very difficult.

I often find myself, in times of stress, ruminating on my misfortune, wallowing in self-centered thoughts. When I feel mistreated or wronged, whether justified or not, I spend a lot of time clinging to thoughts of anger and revenge.

Of being right.

But the active process of letting go of these attachments, to stop clinging to thoughts and feelings of vindication or self-centered sorrow, is as equally difficult as the first step. I like my little stories of power and revenge and victory.

Because they're all about me.

Let it in refers to filling the void, the emptiness that is left behind after letting go with something more productive. That's the key word, productive.

When I'm in a good space, I tend to have more space for all of life--the good, the bad, the ugly. I have more ability to use all the crayons.

This, in a way, is how I see "positive thinking" as a beneficial practice.

If I am practicing with a particular situation, let's say a difficult person, I can BE present with that experience. I can let GO of my reactions, but thirdly, I can fill that void with thoughts and feelings of compassion, of love. This, Hanson says, is the neuroplasticity of the brain at work.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. 

Practice is simple. And, for most of us, the hardest thing we'll ever do. But, honestly, what else are you going to do?