Monday, June 19, 2017

BACK TO BASICS

Someone important to me asked me yesterday if I was happy and I gave the wrong answer. I started waffling away about happiness being the acknowledgement and acceptance of who I am...

Wrong answer. Or at best a detour. The more truthful, direct and authentic answer is that I think I know how to find happiness, even though I don't always succeed. What I have come to understand from my still limited grasp of the dharma (my "beginner's mind"!) is that I can find happiness if I learn how to release myself from suffering; and that the cause of my suffering is clinging--both to the addiction to everything my mind tells me I want or need in my life, and the compulsion to avoid all those things that cause me fear, hatred, or disgust. I need to learn to recognize when these reactive patterns arise, and let them go.

Reactive patterns may arise in the form of thoughts, emotions, or actions. A reactive thought might be, for example, the familiar "I'm not good enough." A reactive emotion, the disgust that arises at the sight of something that revolts me. A reactive action, loading up my plate with food I don't need at the breakfast bar. Simple stuff, really.

A more complex reactive pattern, as I see it, takes the form of the egos I create for myself, the images of who I think I am, or want to be, or might be, in the eyes of others. I spent many years, for example, under the spell of the "writer," and suffered accordingly when I failed to live up to the complex image I created around this concept. Once I learned to recognize the "writer" as nothing more than the construct of my ego, having no relation to my personal reality, I was able to free myself from his spell and get on with the business--and the pleasure!--of just writing. (Though I must confess that the writer does insist on coming back to inflict me with suffering, once in a while!)

So this thought occurred to me yesterday, on Father's Day, a little too late to answer that question more thoughtfully than I did: another one of my ego constructs--and one that is particularly powerful and resistant to rational analysis--is the image of father whose absolute duty is to ensure his children's happiness and protect them from anything that might cause them suffering in their own lives. It's an obviously impossible task, one to which I have notably failed in many ways to live up, and my failure has caused more suffering in my life than I can say. I note that this is one aspect of my ego to which I continue to cling.

So these are the basic questions to get back to: what is causing my suffering? What thoughts, feelings and actions do I persist in repeating over and over again, despite the suffering they cause? What thoughts, feelings and actions no longer serve me, and what can I do to let them go? Consciousness is a good part of it--recognizing these things for what they are. Reactive patterns do their damage precisely because we are for the most part unaware of them. Also, acknowledging them for the way they might have served me in the past--for how else could they have become the reactive patterns that they are today? And perhaps, in meditation, learning simply to breathe them away.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

STILL LEARNING

I made a mistake yesterday. I allowed myself to be seduced into a situation that resulted in a continuously ringing telephone. It did not stop ringing yesterday and has continued ringing since early morning today.

It started innocently enough, with a communication (via email? social media? I forget) suggesting that I could easily access information that would allow me to determine if my monthly mortgage payments could be significantly reduced. I took the bait, and clicked. And having taken the first step down this rabbit hole, I found myself venturing further with each click--because now, I would not want to have wasted the already invested time!--until I finally reached the page that wanted me to choose a mortgage company. Where I balked, realizing I'd been tricked into this from the start. I clicked no further.

Since then, of course, every mortgage company in the United States has my email address, my telephone number, and probably every other piece of personal information about me since the date of my birth. And the phone keeps ringing several times an hour.

I ask myself the Buddhist questions. Was it my greed that led me into this commercial trap? It's not exactly greedy, is it, to want to reduce one's monthly mortgage payments? That's common sense, surely, and the Buddha never asked us to sacrifice our common sense. Right Action? It's true that I acted impulsively, without the benefit of mindfulness, without thinking the thing through to its (highly predictable!) consequences. Right Understanding? An imperfect grasp of reality...? True enough.

So I'm left debating these things and noticing, of course, not for the first time and surely not for the last, that my least actions have consequences. I'm left wondering what the wisdom is, in this particular case. I know there's something here that needs to be learned. But... there goes the phone again.







Friday, June 2, 2017

BECAUSE HE CAN...

Along with everyone who thinks-like-me, I was appalled by the event yesterday at which Tr*mp announced America's withdrawal from the Paris Accord. First, it was not simply what he did, it was how he did it, summoning a select audience to applaud his performance under the hot sun. It was clearly a carefully produced reality television show, promoted with endless will-he won't-he teasers and staged to feature himself as the lead actor in the drama. It was a shameless act of self-promotion in a matter that has consequences for the entire planet.

In this context, the withdrawal itself was little more than a petty act of spite. As numerous commentators more informed than I have pointed out, the stated rationale about jobs and economic repercussions was based on an economic study that has been widely discredited as biased in favor of energy corporation interests. Worse still, he resorted to the now familiar whine about "unfairness"--as though America were not the most prosperous, the most blessed with natural resources, of all the nations that signed the agreement. It is unbecoming, to say the least, for this country's president to so pitifully play the victim on our behalf--and this in front of nearly two hundred far less privileged nations that found their way clear to committing to a communal effort to save the planet from our destructive humankind.

This is, however, only the latest in this president's seemingly senseless acts of destruction. He is intent, clearly, on reversing everything achieved by his predecessor--from the historic, desperately needed national health insurance plan to the acknowledgement of the "dreamers" and the designation of national heritage sites. He acts like a spoiled, ill-tempered child who takes pleasure in destruction for its own sake. Pundits spend hours on television parsing his words as though they carried some intentional meaning, but more often they are spontaneous, ill-thought verbal ejaculations unworthy of examination or analysis; or searching for intelligible motivations for actions prompted by the president's gut rather than his head.

There's an element of guile, an element of childish spite, too, in his actions. He is possessed of a kind of reptile intelligence that glints, at times, through his small eyes. Perhaps for some long-internalized psychological reason, he has an obsessive need to assert himself, as though he were always driven by an inner fear, a sense of insufficiency, a feeling that he has something to prove to himself and those around him. Which is why, perhaps, he appears so often to act for no better reason than... because he can.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

GOING DEEP: A Book Review

by Benjamin Moss and Judy Prince

Be it said from the start that I am not the target audience for this book. The target reader is the therapy practitioner intrigued by the potential of hypnosis and looking for another tool in the therapeutic toolbox. The book is a concise, experiential and eminently practicable manual in the art of hypnotherapy. If I were a therapist—I’m not—I would value its detailed, easy-to-follow scripts and its no-nonsense do’s and don’ts. Everything you need to know is here, wrapped in a manageable and attractive package. As one who values brevity and concision, I’m impressed by the amount of practical wisdom that fit snugly in its ninety or so pages.

That said, even as a layman with no professional application for its contents, I enjoyed the read and learned a lot from it. I came to it with some presumptions about hypnosis from which Moss and Prince speedily disabused me. No swinging timepieces or crystals here, no spooky instructions to “Go to sleep!”, no invitation to weird or untypical behaviors. No regression to childhood experience or prior lives. Moss, the hypnotherapist of long years of experience and Prince, a psychotherapist who came to him originally to learn the practice, are at pains to distinguish what they do, for both the reader and their clients, from the “going to sleep” model. For them, its all about relaxation, gentle guidance and suggestion; the hypnotic state they describe is one of deep concentration and awareness, in which the relationship of trust between practitioner and client is at once intimate and respectful, deep and compassionate without being probing, intrusive or domineering.

What struck me most, in reading The Gift of Hypnosis, was how closely the experience resembles in both skill and intention a practice I myself have been following for more than twenty years: breath meditation. The practice described in these pages is in many respects identical to a guided meditation in which the voice leads the process and suggests a path to follow. Meditation of course is usually less specific in its purpose: hypnotherapy intends to address particular problems—the fear of public speaking, for example, the cessation of smoking, or the improvement of self-confidence or self-esteem. Both skills, or arts, however, (I see them as both) seek the relief of suffering—in part, as the authors point out in a final chapter, by learning non-attachment. Both are a way of going deep into the human psyche, beyond consciousness, and tapping into the limitless and usually unrealized power of the subconscious mind.

It surprised me that Moss and Prince remain so pragmatic in their approach. Romantic that I am at heart, I was expecting something, well… more Jungian in their exploration of the potential of hypnosis, a greater access to the domain of myth and archetype. Thinking back on what I read, though, I realize that what the authors so usefully provide is no more nor less than a gateway into the life of the mind. What interests us in stepping through that gateway may vary greatly. Psychotherapists will, I’m sure, want to take advantage of the access it offers to the past, or to that poetic, let’s say spiritual landscape of dream and mythic narrative where ultimate meanings are opened up for exploration. Others, though, will be satisfied with its potential to arrive at a kind of inner peace and a more balanced sense of self.


The "gift," of course, works two ways, as this small book makes clear. It is not only what is received by the beneficiary, it is also the skill of the practitioner. And, too, the book itself is intended as a gift, as the authors make clear in their introduction. For myself, The Gift of Hypnosis brought me to this realization: not only is the practice related in many unexpected ways to meditation; in some ways, too, the practice of meditation may be a benign form of self-hypnosis. Something, surely, on which to meditate!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

HYPOCRISY?

An interesting question came up after the bi-weekly meditation session at my house this past week. I had suggested at the beginning of our sit, in conformance with the metta practice I have learned over the years, that participants send out wishes of compassion and goodwill to all, including those we dislike or mistrust. In this context, at this point in our history, the name of Donald Trump comes inevitably to mind.

So do we send out wishes of goodwill to a man who represents everything we dislike and whose transparent and consistent lying fosters anything but trust? One of our participants balked at the prospect. She thought it would be hypocritical to wish well for a person she despised--and with good reason, amply provided by the man himself. Should she have felt compassion for, say... Adolf Hitler? And in any case, would the goodwill she sent out have any discernible effect? We all thought, probably not.

Thinking back on our discussion--it was not an "argument," because we weren't at all in disagreement about the man who sits, to our mutual dismay, in the Oval Office--I began to wonder if "hypocrisy" was quite the right word. Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the moral values we embrace before the world, and the words we speak or actions that we take. My own core values, and those that inspire the metta practice, include compassion and the Buddhist injunction to "do no harm."

Do I feel inner resistance to sending out compassion to a man I judge does not deserve it? Yes! It's hard to do without an inner reservation of some kind: fingers slyly crossed behind my back! Some part of me definitely does not wish the man well. Some part of me wishes passionately for what I believe to be his deserved comeuppance. And that part, too, derives from what I believe to be another set of core values: justice, equal opportunity and treatment for all human beings, respect for the natural environment, and so on. Is it hypocritical to bypass these in favor of the others? Do some core values stand in open conflict with others?

I think not. I think they are consistent with each other. What's inconsistent with the whole package is to blame others who transgress them. That's where hypocrisy lies. If I extend compassion only to those I judge deserve it, I liken myself to those in political circles who truly believe that health care should be available only to those who've earned the right and the ability to pay for it. Compassion, I have to believe, must be bigger than myself or those for whom I feel it. Compassion has to be unreserved or it becomes, well... uncompassionate.

In meditation, then, if I'm to abide by the value of what it is I'm doing, I need to get past those obstacles in my mind--judgments, reactive feelings--that prevent me from finding that "bigger" place from which to exercise compassion. It also helps to remind myself that compassion can be as healing for myself as much as others.