Friday, November 11, 2016

Light and Shadow

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."  ~ C. G. Jung

The 2016 election cycle has brought to light many disturbing aspects of the 21st century human psyche. Racism, mindless nationalism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and I'm sure the list can go on... What troubles me deeply is that these issues are not in the least unique to this election, to this century, or even this nation. These have been struggles that have been with humankind since hunter-gatherer days when differing clans, tribes, and villages saw each other as... well, the "other."

These traits lurk in the collective and individual unconscious in the realm of what C. G. Jung called the Shadow. It is that shadowy part of the unconscious that seems to hide from our conscious awareness, whether out of fear or shame or simply an inability to admit that we might not be the people we like to imagine we are. The unconscious is what we don't know about ourselves, and the Shadow is what we don't want to know about ourselves. Unfortunately, all that stuff we don't want to know is what may be giving power to our fears and subsequent reactions to those fears, often in the form of anger.

What good ol' C. G. used to advocate was that this Shadow material be brought into the light and then reintegrated into conscious awareness. It's what he called "individuation." Obviously this process is easier said than done. However, we can take micro steps toward this kind of individuation every day, because the unconscious and the Shadow are almost always at play (and I use that word on purpose; the Shadow is also the realm of the Trickster). This means we have ample opportunities in any moment to become conscious of what might be driving us unconsciously.

So let's stay with the driving analogy and apply this micro process of individuation to our daily experiences on the road. Have you ever noticed that you are suddenly, and perhaps senselessly angry at another driver for some small reason? This could be a little piece of the Shadow peeking its way out of the darkness and making itself known. Now is the time to get conscious! First of all, notice that the anger is probably the result of fear. After all, we are actually in a somewhat dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation on the freeway, so the limbic system (that part of the brain that senses threat) may already be on the alert. Let's say the person in the car in front of you suddenly comes into the lane in which you are driving without signalling their intention. There will be a rapid spike in limbic system activity, and this could lead to a fight or flight reaction that might manifest in anger.

The next thing to notice is how we might "add extra" to this situation. Is the person driving a car with which we have prejudicial associations? Maybe it's a gas guzzler (climate change denier), or perhaps an electric vehicle (tree-hugging hippie), or worse yet, a motorcycle (outlaw hoodlum). Maybe we flash on the gender of the driver. Or they have certain bumper stickers or window decorations that make a statement with which we don't agree. These, and so many more micro-Shadow moments are happening constantly. And they stop having any power as soon as we bring awareness to them.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that by bringing awareness to these micro-Shadow moments we can understand their origins (e.g., why do pickup trucks bother me so much?). Nor am I promising that it will stop us individually or collectively from being so reactive and lead to everyone "just get along." It's a step. A seed. You take one step, and then another, and pretty soon you've come a long way from where you started. You plant one seed, then another, and another, and someday you have an orchard that bears sweet, nourishing fruit. And who knows? Maybe by poking around in the darkness a little bit we can eventually find the light.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Three Refuges

"True love and prayer are learned in the hour when prayer is impossible, and the heart has turned to stone."
~ Thomas Merton

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had to teach a yoga class. I'm sure we remember that extraordinary moment in all of our lives when the unimaginable had actually happened. Like all of us, I was in shock; numb and not knowing where to turn. Not sure if I could give what my students required of me without breaking down.

The class was sparsely attended, which was not surprising. All of us looked like we had been experiencing basically the same emotions of grief, anger, and denial. We all sat in silence for a while. "There are three refuges we can seek in times of difficulty," I found myself saying. "These refuges are The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha..." And so began my first Dharma talk.

This past Tuesday, November 8, 2016, another unimaginable event occurred. The election of Donald Trump has been greeted by myself, as well as my loved ones, friends, colleagues, clients, and students, with disbelief, deep sadness, fear, and anger. It has opened old wounds and resurrected past traumas (one of my students said it was as if the man who molested her as a child had just been elected President). It threatens to divide us even further as a nation.

Yesterday, on the morning after the election, Kathy and I engaged in our usual morning sitting practice. As I have done countless times over the years, I reached for the Dharma as a lifeline, and my groping hand found The Three Refuges.

"I take refuge in The Buddha; the capacity for all living beings to awaken."
"I take refuge in The Dharma; the teachings of The Buddha."
"I take refuge in The Sangha; the community of those on the path to liberation."

Perhaps right now, as was true at the time of the Buddha, the most important of these is sangha. There is, even in the midst of this very difficult time, the opportunity for coming together in ways that are as unimaginable now as the election outcome was to us when we awoke on Tuesday morning. Tragedy brings with it the opportunity, if not the necessity, to share our grief, and to find our way forward, both individually, and collectively

The capacity to awaken (to become living Buddhas) resides in all of us. Even in those people who now seem to preach hatred, bigotry, and fear. Perhaps now we need to tend to our own inner Buddha a little bit more diligently. This might best be done through practices of loving kindness and compassion, both for ourselves, and for all beings whom we encounter.

Of course, the Dharma offers many doorways leading to liberation. For me yesterday morning, it was the Four Noble Truths. Yes, indeed -- I was suffering! The origin of my suffering was my clinging to wanting things to be different than they were in that moment, and abandoning this origin required the opening of my tightly closed fist. This action led instantly to a moment of cessation from the suffering, and the ability to see things more clearly. Once through the doorway of these three Truths, the Eightfold Path opened before me: wise effort, wise mindfulness, wise concentration, wise understanding, wise thought, wise speech, wise action, and wise livelihood.

My day progressed rather peacefully, all things considered. Most importantly, I was able to give what was required for my family, my therapy clients, and my students. By turning toward the difficulty, and by being willing to move into it just a little bit, liberation is always available (at least in drips and drabs).

Best wishes,