The short lessons we read from The Pocket Pema Chodron before my dharma talk and discussion, is often in sync with what I had planned to talk about or whatever came up before in our meeting. This week we read #87 ‘Our Predicament is Workable,” that starts with the sentence “The dharma can heal our wounds, our very ancient wounds that come not from original sin but from a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.”
‘...a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.” What does that mean?
We talked about how on a personal level there are many patterns that we operate with in our lives -- patterns of thinking and behavior -- that we see as our way of being, part of who take ourselves to be. We let these patterns define us even though we don’t know where they come from or how they were woven.
On a collective cultural level, we have been weaving certain traits as well, reacting to events such as climate, landscape, famine, drought, war and other threats to our well being. These culturally inherited or co-created traits also become part of our personal pattern. International travel is useful to help us see beyond what we believe to be ‘human nature’ when it’s really just our own localized set of patterns at work. We can see other nation’s collective patterns more clearly, without needing to judge them or prove one is better than another. Viva la difference! When we see how much variation there is between cultures and between individuals within cultures, we are less inclined to believe that there is one way of seeing the world or any given situation. This frees us from having to defend the particular thought patterns we are most familiar with, nor do we need to disparage them. We can simply begin to see them as a little more free-floating, a little less intrinsic to our very being.
Through mindfulness meditation we make the space to begin seeing these patterns more clearly as they arise and act out as passing thoughts or emotions. We can compassionately look at them, and at the defensiveness, shame or judgment that may arise with them. They are just patterns. As we give our minds the quiet to settle down and become spacious, we may wonder about some of the things we notice.We can perhaps focus our thinking mind, struggle to analyze these patterns and come to some conclusions. But what is this analysis and what are these conclusions but more judgment, blame and assumption? More of the same patterns?
In the space we create through our meditation practice, we can wonder in a more open creative way. For example, we can simply put out the question, “Is this true?” and then allow for our quiet attention to let the ‘answers’ arise in our awareness.
I shared with the sangha an experience I had soon after starting to meditate 30+ years ago. I was questioning an ongoing troublesome pattern I recognized, a place in my life where I tended to go dead. I asked “Why am I like this?” Then I let the question go (probably because I had asked it more in despair than in any expectation of finding an answer!) and I relaxed, resting a little longer before getting up to go about my day.
Because I was relaxed but noticing, three different vivid images of events from my past floated one by one through my awareness. I remember thinking how odd it was that these long forgotten memories would just show up like that, yet here they were. Because they came in a series, I looked for a common thread, and realized that each one offered a memory of getting shut down around this very area of concern, making me turn inward and go dead.
‘Oh!’ The answer was there as clear as if a spotlight and a close up lens had been offered up for purposes of self-exploration and discovery. This is what creating a meditative relaxed open attention to the present moment can offer up, if we are willing to stay present to notice.
A sangha member shared her own exploration of a particular knot of fear-based pattern that troubled her. She could see that the reaction that became her pattern was learned at an early age. Like most of our patterns, she saw how it made sense at the time but now, as an adult with other means and with the power of autonomy, she could respond with more skill to challenging situations.
This is part of the insight process. We notice, we question, we gain insight. And then what? Well, if we just stop there we can either develop a pattern of judging our patterns, or we can stay open and allow awareness to soften the patterns, releasing us from them. But there is something else we can do if we are wanting to continue the process a little further within a meditative self-exploration.
If we have our younger self in mind, we can compassionately reparent the child within. What does this mean? Well, especially if we are parents or have taken care of children, it is fairly easy to see our young self with a great deal of tenderness and compassion. (Whatever harsh views we hold about ourselves, certainly we can allow that as small children, no matter how we behaved, we were worthy of being loved, being held with compassion. Even the person we were in our early twenties, before the finishing touches were put on our brain’s judgment functions scientists have now discovered, can be reparented, forgiven for failures of judgment, etc.)
Whatever it was that we didn’t receive from our parents or guardians -- love, kindness or permission to be ourselves -- we can give ourselves now. We may find within us the voice of the parent that may have withheld love, been overbearing, forgot to praise or was constantly scolding or abusing us. Whatever our relationship with those who had power over us, we can fairly say they did the best they could at the time, because that’s true for us all. We each of us hold within us a set of patterns that, if we are not able to get conscious, dictate our behavior. If there is no room for forgiveness, then let that be a known knot within us, a knot that we can hold with compassion for now.
We can recognize that the still-active voice within us that replicates the parent’s voice can also be held with tenderness. It is what we have to deal with now -- not the actual parent, but the internal parent voice. (So often we feel we need to have a conversation with our elderly parent, or feel we have lost the opportunity after they die, when really it’s this inner parent that is in charge now, and it’s an inner conversation that needs to happen!)
We can hold this inner parent voice with compassion, treat it with respect, listen to its concerns, and work with it in the same way we have worked with other voices or aspects of self, all of which are knotted fear-based patterns of thought-emotion that can be seen now that we are creating an open spaciousness within our minds.
In our meditation practice we have the paired intentions to be fully present and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. With these two intentions we have the very tools we need for skillful inner exploration and insight,
When we have insights, it is often useful to make note of them. Caveat: This can turn into a compulsion to write down everything, which turns it into something different and sometimes short circuits the process. But if some words stay with us and make a profound difference in our lives, then writing those words down and keeping them close might be useful.
I have this note to self that I wrote on a retreat pinned to my bulletin board:
I have nothing to fear
I have nothing to hide
I have nothing to prove
I have something to give.
This was a realization I had on a retreat. At the moment I wrote it, it was not a hope of a way to be but my actual experience of being. Up on the board, glanced at on occasion, it refreshes me, strengthens me, puts me back in touch with myself.
Of course what I wrote down is not always true for me. I don’t use it as an ‘affirmation’ but a way to find the truth of the current moment. I can say those words and question. Is that true?
At a recent reading an accurate statement was:
I have nothing to fear, yet I’m afraid.
I have nothing to hide yet I feel the weight of the effort to keep something buried inside me.
I have nothing to prove yet I feel myself striving to be something other than what I am.
I have something to give, yet I withhold it for fear it is not good enough.
That was the truth in the moment I wrote that statement. To work with it at the time I asked questions:
What am I afraid of? (Always a great question whatever the situation!)
What am I hiding?
What am I trying to prove?
What do I have to give?
At any given moment the answers will arise differently, so I will not record them here. This is just a reminder, a suggestion, of how to work with an insight that has captured the crux of a knotty pattern within. We each have areas that are particularly knotty, patterns however created. When we have an insight that shines a light on the knot, that makes more space between the knotted threads, that makes it easier to see the threads from more angles so we can see where the threads come from and how the tangle got so tight, then we have the opportunity to sit with it and allow it to inform us.
Can we take the time to allow the process to unfold? Can we let it arise without forcing it, without jumping too quickly to grab an easy answer and claim it as proof of our enlightenment?
May we be relaxed but alert, open in mind and heart, awakened to the moment, filled with a sense of universal kindness, able to hold whatever arises in an open embrace.