Thursday, October 15, 2009

Looking at Suffering - Staying with the Soft Spot

This is another of those posts that really is not specific to men, but yet seems to me crucial to becoming a whole and complete man. So often, we have been raised not to look at our own suffering, but rather to suck it up, put it behind us, or "man up."

But this has a serious downside. What we do not face and embrace, haunts us. If we cannot acknowledge and process our own suffering, we are not likely to be capable of dealing with anyone else's suffering. This is known as shadow work in psychology circles, and it's a crucial part of growing whole.

Here is what Gil Fronsdal says in today's daily dharma from Tricycle.

Looking at suffering

In Buddhist practice, we investigate the nature of suffering. One of the first things we may notice is our relationship to it. We may discover how we tolerate, avoid, or accept suffering in unhealthy ways. We may notice our aversion to suffering, which creates even more suffering.We may also notice how suffering functions in our lives. We might be using it as proof of or justification for inappropriate judgments about ourselves: e.g., that we are blameworthy, inadequate, or incapable. Identifying strongly with our suffering can become our orientation to the world. Occasionally people hang on to the identity “I’m a victim,” and want to be treated by others as a victim. We can use our suffering to get other people to respond to us in ways that may not be healthy.

However, being willing to investigate suffering and to look at it closely and nonreactively changes our relationship to it. We bring a healthy part of our psyche to the experience of suffering. Instead of being wrapped up in our suffering, lost in aversion to it, or shut off from it, we simply ask: “What is this?”

- Gil Fronsdal, Tricycle, Winter 2002

Read the full article:
Living Two Traditions

Learning to be nonreactive is the hard part, but the more sit with suffering, the more open we can become to seeing it rise and pass away, the less reactive we become.

In this article from Pema Chodron, Stay with the Soft Spot, she talks about Shantideva's Path of the Bodhisattva, and how we learn to be with suffering, to stay with the soft spot of Bodhichitta in our lives - the flash of insight that shows us our suffering is little more than a passing storm, and that the skies will clear.
Bodhichitta—awakened heart or awakened mind—is something everyone has access to. It arises in everyone, and everyone has experienced it. The text says that it often appears like “a flash of lightning in the dark.” It’s like there’s an opening in the clouds. We sense that we're connected to something that wakes us up and makes our world feel bigger. It makes our heart and our whole being feel expansive; we feel confident and inspired. But, unfortunately, our habitual patterns are so strong that the opening usually closes again. We revert to our old ways of staying stuck in negative mind. We get hooked again in our old patterns.
Later in the article, she expands on how we work with pain and suffering, offering the example of grief. When she talks about getting "hooked" what we are really talking about is possession by a subpersonality. We are no longer in control, our mind has been hijacked by some non-integrated part of the psyche.
Take grief, for instance. Grief is completely pregnant with bodhichitta—it’s full of heart, love and compassion. But we tend to freeze or harden against grief because it’s so painful. We bring in the clouds. In fact, we're good at bringing in the clouds and keeping them in place. We’re good at fixating on them.

But when you practice the teachings that say, “Stay with the grief, see it as your link to all humanity,” you begin to understand that grief is a doorway to realizing that the sun is always shining. You begin to understand that the weather is transient like clouds in the sky. You begin to have more trust in the underlying goodness—the underlying “sun quality”—of your being.

In this way, any experiences you have, particularly very strong emotions, are doorways to bodhichitta. The trick is to stay with the soft spot—the bodhichitta—and not harden over it. That’s the basic bodhichitta instruction: stay with the soft spot.

How does this work? You’re going along, and your mind and heart are open. Then someone says something and you find yourself either frightened or starting to get angry. You feel the hair rising on the back of your neck, and something in you closes down. You’re on your way to becoming all worked up. At this point, you become unreasonable, and all your wisdom goes out the window. You’re hooked. This is what we work with as practitioners, as aspiring bodhisattvas: we have to be able to see where we get hooked like this. It’s easy to see. To interrupt the flow of it, though, is another matter.
When we can stay with the soft spot, or more simply look at our suffering, it begins to lose the ability to hook us and we are more free and open. When we get hooked, the emotion owns us, but when we can stay with the soft spot, stay with our pain and suffering, we can learn from our emotion rather than be owned by it.

In essence, we want to move from acting as the subject "being" the emotion, to become the self "seeing" the emotion as an object of our awareness. It seems like a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference.

As men, this all can seem like a foreign language in a foreign land. Emotions and psychological pain are not things we are taught to know and deal with. Broken bones and skinned knees are fine, we know that stuff, but we are not so good with the inside.

This is why we meditate, or engage in centering prayer. Any method that asks us to be quiet and pay attention to what goes on inside of us is a good thing. We might also journal, make art, create music. All of these are ways to engage the inner world, to learn who we are, to see the dark corners of the heart that we all wish to avoid.

We are not merely bodies and minds, we are also hearts and souls. To be whole men, we need to know those parts of ourselves so many of us have been taught to avoid or ignore. When we can do so, we begin to develop what Chogyam Trungpa called the tender heart of the warrior.
The genuine heart of sadness comes from feeling that your nonexistent heart is full. You would like to spill your heart's blood, give your heart to others. For the warrior, this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. Conventionally, being fearless means that you are not afraid or that, if someone hits you, you will hit him back. However, we are not talking about that street-fighter level of fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others. (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, p. 46)

1 comment:

PeterAtLarge said...

Great post, Bill! The title of one of the chapters in my new book, "Persist," is "The Bandaged Place"--which is where I think much of our creativity arises. Good things to you...