Thursday, 14 April 2011

What I've learned from Buddhists

For all the astonishing spread of Buddhism in the West in the last 40 years, Western misunderstanding of Buddhist concepts like 'non attachment' and 'acceptance' persists. This is not really surprising, so drastic is their difference from the notions many of us grew up with (I don't mean to imply that Judeo-Christian beliefs can really be reduced to this, or that Buddhism is any less subject, perhaps, to distortions in countries where it has been institutionalised): that life was mostly unacceptably vile, we did well to reject it and aspire to more, and if we aspired hard enough there might be something better - after death.

Acceptance doesn't mean having no problem with violence, pain, cruelty or injustice, not doing anything to oppose or alleviate them. It means accepting that they're already here, right now, in this moment, and there's nothing we can do to change that; that denial achieves nothing, so we'd better practice facing up to what is and doing the best we can with it. Facing up: the hardest lesson, especially if you're, like me, a classic example of what psychologists would call an 'avoidant' personality (my very earliest memories are of shutting down, pretending: I'm not here, this isn't happening).

Learning, through Buddhist practice, that bad feelings aren't going to kill me, they only feel as if they are, that the only way out is through them, has been a deeper lesson than I've culled from any intellectual learning or from psychotherapy, a slow lesson, and one I've only learned... oh, perhaps one percent of. But still, astonishingly deep. For one reason and another, I haven't done much formal sitting meditation or hung out much with Buddhists recently. But the lesson, this deep change in one percent of me, feels irreversible.

I was thinking about this yesterday. I woke up feeling dreadful, so full of fear and despair it took me two hours to get out of bed (I'm mostly just very tired, really - horribly, horribly tired). I felt so awful, got up and went to work thinking, can I cope with this and carry on? And, as the day went on, to my surprise, I felt better... much better... maybe turned a corner - felt this, I realised, not because anything had changed, but because I'd held the bad feelings, faced them, not shut down to them. I'd felt awful, awful, breathed into awful, still awful, more awful... and come out the other side, found some better energy, renewed resilience.

In all the years that I didn't do this, just shut down - I'm not here, not feeling this - there was no end, no other side to come out of fear, despair or anger. For this tiny bit of ability to feel the worst and not flinch, for the incredible perception that my mind has learned to occasionally do what it couldn't do before, I'm so enormously grateful.

7 comments:

Pica said...

Love this.

Sabine said...

Oh, it's a familiar experience and what a learning step it has been for me. But it hurts nevertheless...
Thank you for writing this.

Rosie said...

After reading about your interest in meditation in the past, I bought the book (mindfulness in plain English) and I too have found it helpful in trying to cope with the inevitable and accepting things that cant be changed...it doesnt change the pain levels, but it kind of provides a map, and the possibility of coming out the other side...so, thank you!

liliannattel said...

I think that is the most lucid explanation of acceptance I've ever read. I understood it on a gut level but haven't been able to put it so clearly myself. I think what you wrote about nothingness having no end, unlike facing and passing through, is key.

litlove said...

You are describing exactly the process I have had to learn to overcome chronic fatigue. It's dreadful, and I hate having to face my own negativity, but it does make a difference in the end. I send hugs - I know how very hard it is to do this, and how brave you have to be.

Rouchswalwe said...

My years in Japan brought me into daily contact with living, breathing buddhist belief (mixed with a healthy dose of Shintō). Now, when I am faced with a bad moment during the day, it is helpful to say to myself, when life knocks you down 7 times, stand up 8 times.

Fire Bird said...

oh yes, I know this lesson that has to be learned again and again. Was just thinking about how I didn't want to feel what I'm feeling today, wondering how to get round it, over it, away from it... ah yes, through it, of course. Of course.