Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

In my last post, I discussed the idea of someone finding your problem, your suffering, as pleasant. It’s a challenging notion to most of us, but, if you are going to accept it for one problem, I think you have to accept it for all of them.

Recently, I talked to a friend who seemed to be asking for help with her problems. She usually comes to me to get the hippy-dippy take on things. According to her, that’s my specialty, where she privileges reason and logic above all else. For the record, I actually am quite fond of logic and reason, when properly balanced with intuition and emotion.

Anyway, in discussing this idea with her, I brought up some examples of my own experiences of pain and suffering, like I discussed in my previous post. She embraced this reframing of problems—until she mentioned a problem of her own.

I gently suggested that she try to find a way to think of someone who would find her problem pleasant. At that point, she became defensive and certain that this problem and the suffering it has caused was something only someone who hated themselves could find pleasant. In other words, she missed the point, and interpreted that finding her suffering “pleasant” meant a kind of masochism born out of self-loathing.

Though I admit that it is a challenge to think of things that are the worst pain in the world (a loved one dying, fighting addiction, surviving terrible abuse, etc.) I don’t think that there can be exceptions if you are going to adopt these ideas as part of your spiritual/psychological practice. Kind of the whole point is that it challenges you to break out of what you think you know about your life and your capabilities and the roles you play.

And anyway, why would she get a magic exemption from having to do the tough, but healing, spiritual work that leads us to greater peace, love and equanimity? And further, why would you want that exemption, even if it existed, unless, of course, you were afraid to let the suffering go? A question to ask might be: Who do you think you are?

More and more, I think the goal of any spiritual journey (note I don’t say “religious journey”) is really the burning away of the trappings that keep you from revealing yourself as a luminous being that radiates love. The ego, the knee-jerk reactions, the devotion to material things over life, the compulsive/impulsive behavior that is born out of fear or anger. These things have to be stripped away.

So. Everyone suffers. You are not unique in this respect. It is true that everyone suffers differently, from different causes. And yet, you are not unique in what is asked of you, even in knowing that your suffering is excruciating to you.

So, on the spiritual journey, if you mean to take one: Yes, even your problem, no matter what it is, is something someone would find pleasant.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Someone Would Find Your Suffering Pleasant

In my yoga class last week, we got a handout on "Mahamudra & the Practice of Patience."

Here are the six points of the practice as listed:

  • This too will pass.
  • I cannot control this in the present moment.
  • I have put this and myself here.
  • There is somebody who would find this pleasant.
  • I can use this problem as a path.
  • We must be as gardeners.

All are worthy of contemplation, but the one that spoke to me particularly was the fourth, about finding something uncomfortable or upsetting as pleasant.

What a wonderful way to reframe pain or suffering, whether it be emotional, mental or physical!

I thought of the most physically painful experience I've ever had, which was childbirth.

No surprise there, except for I purposefully went into it refusing any drugs of any kind. Not because I enjoy pain or am some kind of martyr, but primarily because I wanted to be fully aware, fully functioning and, of course, because I didn't want my baby to be influenced by anything unnecessary. Millions have given birth without medication, and I knew it was possible.

It's a personal choice, of course, but in knowing this—knowing I didn't want pain relief—I had to do some serious work to prepare mentally for something all-consuming, painful and completely involuntary. There is no way to run away from childbirth. In classes and through reading and self-study, I worked with my breath and with pain-coping techniques. But above all, I had my mindset.

After that experience, I had no doubts about the whole "mind over matter" thing. Indeed, though each contraction was intense, overwhelming and painful, I never once countenanced the notion of getting drugs, because my mind was made up. (And a good thing I was prepared, too: my labor was so fast I would not have been able to have an epidural if I'd wanted one. Imagine if I had wanted one, and how great my pain would have seemed to me when compounded by dashed expectations!)

Still, it was painful. But thinking "Somebody would find this pleasant" casts the pain in a whole new light.

Who might find it pleasant? Someone who wants nothing more than to be a mother, but who is struggling with infertility or who has miscarried. Someone who has been paralyzed from the neck down. Someone whose body has been injured or is deformed such that a desired pregnancy is impossible.

Even in the moment, I knew the pain was for something good. But, what about pain nearly as bad, but that has no seeming benefit? A few months ago, I had kidney stones. (Misdiagnosed, so at the time I didn't know why I was writhing in pain.) It was excruciating--just horrible. I was so scared, because the doctors didn't know what was wrong with me. At the time, I had nothing positive going on in my head. But imagine if I could have at least tried to mitigate the clenching in my body and breath. Maybe I could have seen the pain as something positive: A body trying to let me know something was wrong--and therefore the chance to heal. If we didn't experience pain, how would we know to address whatever was causing such an insult?

At the furthest point, you can always look at suffering this way: Because of this suffering, I know I am alive. This requires that we look at life as a gift, no matter how tough. (I imagine that can be very difficult in very extreme situations, but that's a topic for another post. For now, it's worth thinking on as a thought experiment. How might even the worst situation be something we can be grateful for?)

Or from an emotional perspective: Remember the couple I discussed a few posts back? The pain of an impending divorce must have been overwhelming, depressing. But who might have seen it as pleasant? Perhaps a woman in Afghanistan, whose rights are so curtailed that divorce (no matter how terrible the husband) is not an option?

I think you can see the direction of these thought experiments.

So, I invite you: Look at your pain, your suffering, your problems, whatever they are, however transitory or permanent.

Now ask yourself, who would find your problem pleasant?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Please Do Touch

If you’re an American (or know one), you may already know how little affectionate touch we receive or give on an average day. Somewhere along the line, we decided, as a culture, that touch is meant to be romantic or sexual, and that was that. Touch became taboo.

I’m here to say fie on all that, and to encourage you to do the same.

When my son was nine weeks old, I took an infant massage class. With a small bottle of sweet almond oil and some basic instructions, I began figuring out how to give this tiny, wiggly human gentle, caring touch.

Now, a year later, not only does he ask for massage—carrying the little bottle of oil to me and signing “massage”—but I gladly give it. It is one of the most calming, sweet and peace-filled moments in my day.

I relax. He relaxes. He breathes more slowly, more deeply, and so do I. I feel boundless love and warmth for him, and he smiles the serene smile of a baby Buddha. It is divine and beautiful.

Of course, I feel good around my baby most of the time, but I know that this daily, affectionate touch is good for anyone, even (and maybe especially) those you are having difficulty with. (No, I’m not suggesting you offer your boss a massage, though if touch weren’t so proscribed in our society, we’d all probably get along better!)

What I am suggesting is that you begin with people you feel safest and closest with, and explain why. (So, don’t start hugging or massaging someone without letting them know your intent behind this new behavior.)

I think touch builds trust, strong bonds, and understanding, not to mention kindness and empathy and love. It is a form of nuanced communication that we hardly ever use, which is a damn shame.

This is a big button pusher for some people, because we’re so uncomfortable with it. But why should we be? I think exploring this is very worthwhile precisely because we’re so uncomfortable with it. My yoga class often does partner work, and it is always awkward at first. To help get around this, my teacher recommends touching someone with the idea that they can read your thoughts. So, if you’re thinking something lewd, or just being distracted or careless, that will come across. Good touch is open and honest and selfless and kind. It is given freely without expectation. By the end of partner work, usually everyone is much happier and relaxed and just grateful.

My son loves to give hugs. He just runs up to people, the dog (to her eternal annoyance), his stuffed animals, and hugs. It is innate. It is only through social conditioning that we squelch that need for human contact.

So, if you have a friend or partner you trust, start with more hugs. Play with the person’s hair. Massage tired hands and arms, or simply sit closely, head on the other’s shoulder.

Touch more. Be not afraid to utilize this great sensory gift. You will benefit. Your close relationships will benefit. You will be happier and more at peace when you meet this intrinsic human need.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Consequences of Delaying a Big Decision

Mostly, you have time to figure things out. But not too much time. Too much time is really just not making up your mind, dragging out the inevitable, and, in fact, just wasting time.

So, if you have a big decision to make, or even just a small decision that feels important, get to it.

To tell you why this is on my mind, I have to tell you a story.

An acquaintance I know professionally recently announced her intention to seek a therapist. In her fifties, with a preteen son, she was unhappy, especially with her marriage. She did not know if she loved him anymore, and was uncertain whether to split up and make a new life for herself.

This was about two weeks ago.

Two days ago, I got word that her husband, also in his fifties, went into the hospital after complaining of an odd pain in his back. The next morning, while in a CT scan, the as-yet-to-be-discovered aneurysm ruptured, killing him almost instantly.

Though I scarcely knew this woman, I am haunted by this. Of course, it is simply sad, as the unexpected end of a relatively young life always is.

But what lingers for me is the thought of how neither of them will ever have a chance to say a proper goodbye to each other, and most importantly, how he will never get the chance to find a new path, full of happiness and love.

I can’t speculate on how much happiness he might have had in his life. I didn’t know him. But he was in what sounds like a broken, unhappy marriage, regardless of whether there was fault or blame to be had.

One of my favorite mantras from my yoga practice translates as this: May all beings everywhere, including ourselves, be happy and free of suffering.

I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, what flaws you may have. All human beings—all of them—begin life as beautiful souls. All deserve happiness and peace. And unfortunately, some have a harder road to hoe than others, for a variety of reasons, both internal and external.

This is not to say that you are entitled to happiness and peace; in most cases, you have to earn it. But regardless of how you get there, as a human being, you do deserve peace.

So, back to this couple. Who the “good” partner or the “better” spouse was is immaterial. If the marriage was unhappy, each had a responsibility to end the suffering, either through authentic acceptance of reality (rather than a wishing it to be otherwise), a fundamental change of self (self-improvement to end a problem), or to end the marriage if it was irretrievable (letting go).

I am speculating, but my guess is that years of unhappiness went by in this couple’s life. Procrastinating. Searching after the cause of the problems, after faults and blame. And now fate has intervened. Some might say, “Well, the marriage is over now. Won’t the suffering be over, too?”

But the problem is that they left it up to fate (though unintentionally). The problem has been resolved in a sense, but without direct action. Without conscious decision. A passive, unsatisfying (and in this case, sad and irrevocable) solution.

This is kind of the worst-case scenario for not acting out of an honest, authentic sense of self.

So, what are the consequences to delaying decision-making? In a word, loss.

Loss of time. Loss of happiness. Loss of truth. Loss of self. Loss of authenticity and self-knowledge. Loss of agency. Loss of peace. Loss of a life.

Whatever decision you’re wrangling with, make your best effort to apply yourself to its completion. I know from personal experience that these things can take some time. But you don’t have forever. You have a little time, probably. But maybe not. You just don’t know.

But what you do know is that you can act while you are alive. If you are wrestling with a big decision, again, I say, do all you can to get to it. Don’t lose more time--and possibly your chance at peace--by putting off something you know you must do.

You deserve peace. You do. But you are also responsible for earning your peace.

Whoever you are, human, act! You are perfect in your ability to do so.