Monday, January 18, 2010

The Trap of Self-Soothing

Over the weekend, I attended a teacher training at Insight L.A. Our guest speaker was Dr. Ronald Sharrin, a long-time zen and vipassana practitioner, practicing clinical psychologist, and teacher. During his talk about the Abhidhamma (the Buddha's detailed exploration of the moment-to-moment mental and physical phenomena that comprise the process of human experience), he said that we should be careful not to let our meditation practice become an exercise in self-soothing. 

As a psychotherapist who uses many of the tools of vipassana to help my patients, both individually and in groups, this required some clarification for me. If self-soothing is a bad thing, I asked, how does that coexist with the mandate to end suffering?

His answer was, basically, that self-soothing is not, in itself, a bad thing. It is when we use our meditation practice as a means of self-soothing that problems can arise. Most notably, a practice that is only about self-soothing will never lead to liberation. The searching after the self-soothing quality will always lead to attachment to it, and thus we are trapped by our desires that have produced a "sense of self." 

So how do we reconcile deploying strategies when we are suffering, such as returning to a present moment sensory reality, with this notion that self-soothing is a trap? We can do this by intentionalizing our meditation practice as a continued vehicle for deep introspection, and of facing and moving into those places where we feel afraid, angry, sad, and vulnerable. 

We accept whatever arises during our formal sitting practice just as it is, not looking for only those parts of the practice that feel good or bring happiness. If these qualities arise, we investigate them just as any other experience, but we do not cling to them or try to re-create them later. This will teach us how to be with anything that arises, and will lead to our being liberated from habitual tendencies, when they arise. It will not, however, end the habitual tendencies. They will continue to present themselves throughout out lifetime, thus the need for continued practice.

In our daily life, however, we often do not have the luxury of being able to stop and meditate when difficulties arise and need our attention in an instant. I believe that, to say to someone who is in the middle of an episode of panic, anger, or severe depression, that they should "turn toward it and go into it," is like telling a drowning person to just "be with the experience of drowning." As householders, not monastics, we need to have a flotation device at our disposal that can help save us from drowning in our habitual tendencies and suffering. And we need it fast.

We learn this strategy, of course, during our meditation practice through, 1) the repeated return to the object of the breath when the mind wanders, and 2) the rigorous practice of turning toward the difficult rather than trying to get rid of it. This gives us the chance in daily life to know when we are suffering, and then disengage for a moment from the thinking mind that creates the suffering by returning to a present moment sensory reality. 

Of course, the option is always available in our daily life for us to turn toward any experience and know it intimately, just as we do in our formal sitting practice. If this opportunity is there for you in a daily life crisis, go for it. I believe, as well, that we can utilize what we learn in our formal practice to help us extricate ourselves from difficult or overwhelming situations in our daily life. Then we always come back to our formal practice as the vehicle for liberation by being with and totally experiencing anything that arises - pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.


No comments:

Post a Comment