Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Thing You Fight The Most

“The Holy One directed his steps to that blessed Bodhitree beneath whose shade he was to accomplish his search. As he walked, the earth shook and a brilliant light transfigured the world. When he sat down the heavens resounded with joy and all living beings were filled with good cheer. Mara alone, lord of the five desires, bringer of death and enemy of truth, was grieved and rejoiced not. … Mara uttered fear-inspiring threats and raised a whirlwind so that the skies were darkened and the ocean roared and trembled. …

The three daughters of Mara tempted the Bodhisattva, but he paid no attention to them, and when Mara saw that he could kindle no desire in the heart of the victorious samana, he ordered all the evil spirits at his command to attack him and overawe the great muni. But the Blessed One watched them as one would watch the harmless games of children.”

~ from Buddha, The Gospel by Paul Carus

Jungians love parallels. We love myths and stories that seem to have strong parallels in the stories of a different, or several different, traditions. When there are clear similarities between different stories, we think, “Here is something true.” For Jungians, such a parallel is a validation of the psychological truth of a story. This way of thinking is similar (though, not identical) to the search for replication in the scientific method. The results of a scientific experiment are considered valid if they can be replicated in further experiments. In the study of myths and stories, when distinct traditions show a strong correspondence of image and theme, it suggests that these stories describe an important universal truth about the human experience.

It’s not that individual differences between religious and mythological traditions and the stories they tell are not important. Far from it. It’s just that when there is a striking similarity between stories, it’s a signal to pay attention, a signal that says here is a truth about human experience that has such an intensity to it that very different peoples of very different backgrounds and beliefs have felt it necessary to make a record of it. As Jungians we think, “Wow. Human beings all seem to tell stories of a god or gods (for instance). God is clearly a central concern of human existence.”

The story quoted above is an account of the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment and his subsequent temptation by Mara, “lord of the five desires.” There is a parallel to this Buddhist story in the Christian tradition. Jesus, having just been baptized by John, having just seen the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove, and having just heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my beloved Son,” is driven by the spirit out into the wilderness where he is subjected to a series of temptations by Satan.

In both of these stories there is an event in which the transcendent or divine order breaks through into the ordinary realm. “A brilliant light transfigured the world” or “the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended.” Both stories tell that the divine realm responds approvingly. In the Buddhist tale we read, “the heavens resounded with joy.” In the Christian tale, God himself declares that he is “well pleased.” And in both of these stories, this transformative and transcendent event is followed by a kind of negative movement. The devil—Mara or Satan—tries to undo what has just happened.

These stories describe the defining, transcendent moments in the lives of Buddha and Jesus, but they also present an image, albeit on a cosmic scale, of both the gifts and the perils of the spiritual path. It is hard to imagine that these accounts with their heaven-rending imagery could have anything to do with the lives of ordinary human beings. Let’s face it, very few of us will ever attain the status of a World Redeemer. Ordinary, everyday enlightenment is tough enough and will probably elude most of us on this go around. Jesus and Buddha both seem to brush off the devil without much effort, but if even these transcendent figures must face temptation, how much more will this be the case for those of us struggling on The Way.

Years ago, I was the supervisor of an after-school daycare program. Anyone who has spent any time with large groups of children knows how hard it is to maintain order and, even more, to maintain one’s cool. I would often get disturbed at how often I would lose my temper and act in ways that continue to embarrass me almost twenty years later. Many times I would promise myself that today I would be “totally zen.” I was not going to let little things bother me and I would remain calm and collected. Without fail, it was on those days that the kids would be particularly bad—screaming, hitting, fighting. It was as if they knew I was trying to stay cool and decided to put me to the test. It was a test I rarely passed. Usually, before the day was out, I’d be shouting, too, yelling crazy things like, “If you don’t pick up that Lego you’ll never be allowed to play with any of the toys ever again!”

Today, I am very conscious that there is, too often, a discrepancy between who I imagine I am during times of prayer and meditation and who I am at other times. The phone rings, but I refuse to answer it because I don’t want anyone disturbing the “spiritual” state that I have just achieved in my meditation. Or, I am sitting in prayer, asking to be a force of love in the world and my daughter calls me, demanding a drink of milk, and I growl at her, “I’ll be there in a minute!” Hardly the voice of love. Or, I will be tempted away from meditation and prayer altogether by the TV, the internet, or some compelling new app on my so-called smartphone, eventually crawling into bed with a vague feeling of emptiness and disappointment. These things are relatively minor, it’s true, and there are other, more serious things I do that I am not proud of, but I’ll spare you a lengthy confession.

Alan Watts once said that a person must be very careful about making New Year’s resolutions because the devil would be sure to find out about it and put a stop to it. It seems that our best impulses are always in danger of being cancelled out by our worst impulses. The early Desert Fathers of Christianity used the image of a war with one's own heart. Some schools of Buddhism have pictured a whole universe of demons that must be overcome on the spiritual path.

In Jungian psychology, it has been observed that the first “layer” of the psyche that must be worked through is usually the personal unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that Jung termed “the shadow.” The shadow includes all those aspects of someone’s personality that are not compatible with the image that they have of themselves. For those whose interests tend toward the spiritual, this is often some form of aggression or anger that does not fit in with the conscious idea a person might have of being a peaceful or loving person. Jung once famously said that enlightenment is not achieved by imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.

And maybe this is the important point in the stories of the temptations of Buddha and Jesus. They tell us that temptation is a constant presence on the path to enlightenment and the greater the light we may attain, the greater the shadow will be. Even the great World Redeemers are not free from temptation. If we do not stay conscious of our darkness, we may never experience our light. How many times must we see a “family values” advocate, like Mark Sanford, admit to an extra-marital affair, or a corruption crusader, like Eliot Spitzer, become corrupted, before it becomes clear that the things we fight against in others might best be addressed in the privacy of our own hearts?

“You always become the thing you fight the most,” says Jung.

It’s not that I believe that we should all feel ashamed about our human failings, but simply that we should admit and accept that we have them. I believe it is important to try to be good, but dangerous to believe too much in our own goodness. Acceptance of our own darkness makes us more compassionate to the darkness in others. And in my own life, I know that when I let go of my airy self-righteousness and get back down to the solid ground of compassion, I feel I am getting closer to the light.

I figure it was not for nothing that when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he made sure that they included the phrase, “lead us not into temptation.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Place We Cannot Breathe

Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

(Ecclesiastes 7: 3-4)

Today marks the first anniversary of the day that my wife discovered a lump in her left breast. Since last year’s Labor Day, I have watched Allison undergo two surgeries, eighteen rounds of chemotherapy, and thirty radiation treatments. It was only last month that the whole year-long process finally came to an end.

Because I was needed at home to take care of Allison and our two kids, it was almost impossible for me to take the time to visit my sister, Carla, who lives in California, and who was diagnosed with ALS almost two years ago. I have watched from a painful distance while my beautiful and irrepressible sister has all-too-rapidly lost more and more control over her own body.

This has been the year that I became acquainted with sorrow.

I have learned two things this past year. First, I have come to know first hand the sustaining power of faith. To watch the two women that I love most in the world suffer the way they have, and to be helpless to rescue them from what they’ve had to endure, has been unbearable. At times, I have been deeply depressed. Throughout this year I have had to find a way to keep going, despite the desire to pull the covers up over my head and disappear.

I am a psychotherapist and my job is to care for people who are in emotional pain. I would take care of people all day, come home to take care of Allison, be the primary caretaker for our kids on those days when the nausea was so bad, my wife could barely lift her head off her pillow, and try to maintain for my kids an energy and a routine to make sure that their lives stayed stable and secure. When I could, I would try to be there for my parents and my brother as they worked to come to terms with their grief over Carla’s illness.

I tell all this, not to complain or feel sorry for myself, but to give a sense of how completely overwhelming it all was, and how impossible it was to manage all this on my own meager emotional resources. What kept me going through all of this, as I said, was faith. More precisely, it was the practice of faith that I found sustaining and nourishing. Prayer, meditation, lectio divina, weekly attendance at church—these activities often left me refreshed, re-energized, and even, at times, happy. I have come to understand that faith is not so much a system of beliefs, as it is an engagement with life and its source; a relationship with God that you work on, as you would with any relationship. Through my practice of faith I have discovered a place where I am not alone, where I am enlivened, where I am restored.

The other thing that I have learned is the truth of the verse quoted above from Ecclesiastes. Sorrow, or grief, as paradoxical as it may sound, is a more certain path to happiness than is mirth.

This verse is not saying that it is wrong to be happy, or to laugh or have fun. It is saying that as a means toward a full and honest engagement with life, mirth is insufficient. Mirth as an approach to life tends to deny the struggle and the darkness that is a part of being alive. As a result, those who rely solely on mirth become more susceptible to that darkness. The reason this is so is because difficulty and sadness come into every life and mirth is simply unprepared to do that kind of emotional heavy lifting. The capacity for sorrow or grief, on the other hand, does not deny the possibility of happiness. On the contrary, grief can teach us the preciousness of life and, therefore, it creates the possibility for true joy. Here is how the poet, David Whyte, images this idea:

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

One of the things that I admire about both my wife and my sister, is that they have the courage to confront their griefs and, as a consequence, they are two of the most vital and joyful people that I know. At her last doctor’s visit, Allison was told that her status was N.E.D., that is, no evidence of disease. She is trying, however, to learn how to live in her new reality as a cancer survivor, a reality that will require her to be ever vigilant about her health for the rest of her life. Grief and mortality are realities from which she will never be completely free, even at those times when they recede so far in the background as to almost disappear.

ALS is a fatal disease from which my sister will not recover. She faces her reality with an honesty that is raw, heartbreaking, inspiring, and frequently funny, in her amazing blog, called Carlamuses, that chronicles her experiences. This is how Carla describes life with ALS:

“You aren’t either in an untenable situation that you can’t imagine anyone else being able to bear, or in a situation where your circumstances allow you to see what a miracle life is and what a blessing it is just to be alive, sucking oxygen on this gorgeous planet. They both exist for me everyday, albeit the percentage of frustration has definitely increased as the disease has progressed.”

If there were a way for me to take away the sufferings of either of these amazing women, I would do it in a second. But that is not possible. What is possible is to not hide from my sorrow and grief over them, because to do so would be to hide from them as well. By allowing my grief, I also allow love to be present. And I allow myself to be present to the two of them right here and right now. Yet, even though I believe that the capacity for sorrow gives one access to joy, it does not mitigate that sorrow. Suffering is still suffering. It does mean, however, being more completely and authentically alive. And though it may seem an obvious thing to state, I think it needs to be said that while we are living, it is so important to be alive.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To Sleep Perchance To . . .

Who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

~ Rumi

Last night I was watching an episode of Nova ScienceNow about sleep. One of the studies that they reported on showed a strong link between learning and sleep. The study showed that the learning we do during the day is consolidated and strengthened during sleep. So, when people learn a simple action, like typing a particular sequence on a keyboard over and over again, and are asked to perform that sequence as quickly as possible, they eventually hit a natural plateau at which point they can’t type any faster. After a night’s sleep, when they are asked to perform the sequence again, they begin the task typing at a faster pace than the one at which they had stopped the night before. Somehow, during sleep, the ability to perform an action just learned is improved. Some kind of practice, some kind of learning, is taking place while we sleep.

That, in itself, is pretty amazing, but I found myself wondering, “Who is doing the learning? Who is doing the practicing?” It’s not the person. At least, not the part that we would recognize as the person—the conscious, willing, striving, reflective, rational part of the person. In fact, the person doesn’t even know it’s happening. You could say it’s the brain, but that doesn’t really explain anything. How does the brain know to do that? Is the brain conscious of what it’s doing or is it just an automatic process? But if it’s just an automatic process, how could it have such a clear and meaningful effect on our conscious existence? Is there another consciousness beyond our daytime consciousness?

As a Jungian, I shouldn’t find this idea very surprising. Jung was very clear that our consciousness was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The rest of the iceberg is the vast realm of the unconscious. Even though I am a Jungian by training and by temperament, sometimes these ideas reassert themselves with their original force and impact. The sleep study explored on Nova does not, necessarily, prove that there is an unconscious, but it gives pretty compelling evidence in its favor.

So much of what happens in the mind and the body happens without the participation of consciousness, of the ego. “I” don’t heal my own cuts and scrapes. “I” don’t digest my food. “I” don’t make my dreams or consolidate my own memories during sleep. At times, it seems like the ego is, at best, capable of assisting natural processes that are occurring on their own, or, too often, interfering somehow with those processes. Much of the time the ego is simply an observer of what is happening in body, mind and soul. (The role of observer is probably an extremely important one, related to assisting the natural processes, but it is too humble and passive for us in this day and age of grandiosity).

I don’t have any earth-shattering conclusions to make about all of this, except to say that if the brain, or the unconscious, or the soul, or whatever you want to call it, is so powerful, then maybe learning to get out of the way is the most important thing that we can do for our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. This is hard to do, since the ego tends to prefer to harbor grandiose fantasies about itself. We like to believe that we are the masters of our own fates. But as the Tao Te Ching teaches:

The reason you have trouble is that
you are self-conscious.
No trouble can befall a self-free person.