Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nothingness and Richard Gere

...a reflection on confusions around 'non-self'

A few months ago I lay in bed watching Pretty Woman on my laptop. (Ok, ok...don’t laugh.  It’s a classic and besides, it has a Buddhist in the starring role so it’s practically the same as meditating). I’ve probably seen the movie five or six times, but for the first time I felt myself become teary as it drew to a close. 

You might remember the ending – a limousine driving through the grimy back streets of LA, with Richard Gere standing up through the sunroof waving a bunch of flowers.  He then conquers his fear of heights by climbing a fire-escape to fall into the arms of Julia Roberts.  Who wouldn’t cry?

But these tears were different. Reaching across to my tissues, I tried to articulate why.  I realised I was relating to Gere’s character - ‘He allowed himself to live,’ I thought. ‘He thought he was real.’ I sat on the side of my bed, crying, repeating over and over to myself - ‘He allowed himself to live.  It was about him.’

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what meditation can do to you.  It can have you blubbering at the end of a rom-com, muttering things to yourself that you only vaguely understand.  What did I mean that he allowed himself to live?  I didn’t really know, but it resounded throughout my body; ringing in my stomach and echoing down my legs.   After a while I laughed at the absurdity of having such a moment of insight – not sitting cross-legged on my cushion mindfully noting sensations in my fingernails - but watching a dated 80’s flick.

Over the next few days my meditation mantra became ‘this is real. I am real.’

Frustration. ‘Yes, this is real.’
Pain in my head. ‘Yes, this is real. I am real.’
Boredom. ‘Real...real.’

Day after day I repeated the same mantra and gradually I realised why I was doing it.  I’d fallen for what might be one of the biggest traps in Western Buddhism – confusing Anatta (non-self) with a type of self-hatred (not-self).  Just as resignation is a close evil cousin to acceptance, and numbness the same to equanimity, I saw that teachings of non-self can mesh with self-loathing and denial.

Anatta is one of the Buddha’s core teachings and is related closely to the teaching of impermanence.  All phenomena are in a constant state of flux; sensations arise and fall every second. In this sense, we don’t live for 50 or 70 years and then die, but are born, live, and die in each moment. So, what is this ‘I’ that I feel as I’m writing this?  It’s a conglomeration of thoughts, sensations, and emotions.

‘I’ is a thought about whether I’ve spelt ‘conglomeration’ correctly. ‘I’ is the feeling in my fingers as they type.  ‘I’ is a feeling of mild anxiety as I wonder who’ll read this piece and what they’ll think about ‘me’. Obviously, ‘I’ changes every second. Analysed like this, each second is empty of self – and this is anatta.

For me, anatta is a profound, head-wreck of a teaching - it makes my brain hurt just thinking about it. I can write the paragraph above, explaining the idea behind non-self, but I don’t have the experiential understanding of this concept (and maybe never will). Instead, as a beginner Buddhist, I latch onto it with my mind, interpret it through my own mental filters, and come up with a meaning that seems ‘logical’ to me.

For the first few years of practicing Buddhist meditation, anatta was interpreted through my particular filter of living with a debilitating illness, and blaming myself for having it. With no teacher to guide me, just a few books and meditation CD’s, I interpreted anatta negatively and judgementally.  It meant ‘get rid of yourself’ and ‘you don’t exist.’ It meant I should annihilate all thoughts and feelings...and then I might get well.

 I live with constant pain and fatigue, stemming from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a related sleep disorder. Having the energy to watch a movie like Pretty Woman meant I was having a ‘good-energy’ day. Most days, it’s a struggle just to get to sundown.  When I first got sick I thought I’d will myself to wellness through sheer determination and denial.  That was 14 years ago. Sheer determination didn’t work so well (I figured that out after...oh...just a decade), so now I’m onto meditation.

Of course, I’ve brought all my ‘determination and denial’ habits into meditation.  Circling around my illness, like buzzards over a corpse, are anger, blame, and shame.  When I bring attention to my pain there’s a constant diatribe in my mind, ‘Don’t focus on it, that’s just wallowing. If you were more spiritual this wouldn’t be here.’ It’s a constant mental drip-feed of negativity– and it all seems very justified.

With my very limited understanding of Buddhism, I interpreted anatta as an emphatic confirmation of that critical voice in my mind. ‘Ah HA!’ said the voice. ‘Even the Buddha said that you weren’t really real, that the pain isn’t real, that those feelings aren’t real.’  Like perfectly fitting jig-saw pieces, my habit of denial, and the concept of non-self, clicked together and locked.  Anatta became the external justification for my internal voice - it was spiritually santified self-hatred.

Buddhism then became yet another path where I was trying to work out what I should be like, and pouring myself into that mould.  It wasn’t about ‘me’; it was about being perfect, and perfection meant being empty.  The goal in watching my breath wasn’t to watch my breath, it was to jump over this shameful, ordinary, messy self into some pure ideal of non-existence. I was never sure of exactly how this would work; just that that’s what I was meant to be doing.

Every guided meditation I did that encouraged me to focus on discomfort as a cluster of sensations rather than a solid mass called ‘pain,’ was really saying, ‘see...this pain isn’t real!  It’s just sensation. You’re so weak for feeling this.’  Every dharma talk I listened to where teachers spoke about feelings and thoughts being ‘empty’ prompted a further anxiety, ‘Why do I keep thinking this illness is really happening, when these teachers I trust tell me it’s not?  Why can’t I get it?’ Any conversation with a fellow-practitioner about how they were ‘not getting into their stories’ resulted in me blaming myself for wallowing in my ongoing ‘story’ of suffering.

The pivotal shift came when I watched Richard Gere climb that rickety fire-escape.  ‘This is about me,’ I realised. ‘I am real.’  Over the next few days my mental constructs and my lived experience clashed.  My thoughts about what I should be doing on the spiritual path remained the same; I still believed that my thoughts, feelings and physical pain were ‘wrong’ and must be transcended.  But my experience watching the end of Pretty Woman gave me the visceral insight that somehow this journey was really all about me - and that it was imperative I search for  connection with my own ordinary, mundane life.

The clash between rigid beliefs and fragile experience was jarring.  My experience felt right, but my mind kept interjecting that my new little meditation mantra - ‘this is real’- was so very, very egoistic and self-absorbed.
Becoming aware of this inner conflict, I realised I couldn’t be the only person who had fallen into the trap of equating ‘non-self’ with ‘self-loathing.’  I couldn’t be the only one who had conflagrated shame and blame with anatta. Several months later I read the following from Jack Kornfield’s ‘A Path with Heart,’ and saw that this was true:
"Misconceptions about selflessness and emptiness abound, and such confusions undermine genuine spiritual development. Some people believe that they can come to selflessness by struggling to get rid of their ego-centered self...if we have a deficient sense of self, if we perennially negate ourselves, then we may easily confuse our inner poverty with selflessness and believe it to be sanctioned as the road to enlightenment.” (p. 203)
In a section titled ‘From no self to true self’ Kornfield goes on to say that the cultivation of a healthy, sound sense of self is essential on the spiritual path, and that “the development of self then leads to a more fundamental level, the discovery of true self.” (p.207) He says this progression isn’t necessarily linear; the development of self and the discovery of what lies beyond it can happen simultaneously.

It was such a relief to read this and realise that my growing sense that ‘this journey was about me’ wasn’t spiritually wrong, but was actually an essential part of the path.  Over the past few months I’ve realised that being 'a Buddhist' can be worlds away from being 'a Buddha’ - the latter being the lived, moment-to-moment experience of the concepts and teachings involved in the former. I still don’t intellectually ‘get’ anatta, or the four noble truths, but I’m less preoccupied with gaining any ‘getting’, and a little more concerned with living.
The voice of denial in my mind is still very strong, but I have more perspective on it. When I’m listening to discussions about ‘emptiness’ or ‘clinging to the ego’ I have some awareness of the clutch of tension in my stomach as I worry whether I’m too self-absorbed and attached to my physical pain.  Allowing these emotions and thoughts to  just be, rather than trying to annihilate them, still feels wrong but I can see this ‘wrongness’ with more clarity and believe it a little less. Overall, I’m more focused on my personal experience of meditation, rather than my mental understanding of abstract concepts. 

Now I’m just waiting for a day when I have enough energy to watch the latest big rom-com on DVD – Valentine’s Day.  Sure, it’s got Julia Roberts, but without Hollywood’s most famous Buddhist, could it possibly stand up to Pretty Woman?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Birthday Book Give-Away!

Hello lovely readers!

It's my birthday in March and as I was lazing around in bed yesterday I started thinking of what I wanted (a slow cooker and a voucher for my local art store - if any of my family members are reading).

Then...I thought of what I'd like to give, instead of get.  Having this blog, and the lovely, genuine comments I've received from its readers over the past 6 months has been a great source of connection and solace for me. So I'd like to give a bit back. I decided I'd buy a copy of the two books that I think have been most helpful to me over the past few years, and give them away.

Both books have fairly cheesy titles, but I've found them packed with great information and wise teachings.  They're both written by Buddhists, but they are firmly based on practical teachings which I think would be relevent to people from any spiritual background (or no spiritual background at all!) 

They are:

There Is Nothing Wrong With You  by Cheri Huber
Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach

If you click on each book title it'll take you to the Amazon page, so you can read some reviews and even have a look inside the book to see if you think you'd like it. I'm going to order the books  from my favorite bookstore, The Book Depository - a UK store which offers free world-wide delivery, so I can get the book sent directly from the UK to you.

If you want one of the books...
Send me an e-mail  :  emmacorcoran AT aussiebroadband DOT com DOT au
or, post a comment below.  

I'll post a comment to let you know when they're gone.

If you get one and would like to write a little review of it for this blog, you are very welcome (although, of course, not obligated!)

So, Happy Birthday, from me to you.

Check out the photo of my little lap-top buddy. I blu-taced him to my lappy and he looks so cute.  I love Ernie!


Friday, February 19, 2010

Guest Post - Meditation Retreat

This is a guest post, written by Kelly Sheets, a friend of mine.  Last year Kelly went on a week-long meditation retreat and kindly agreed to write a post talking about the experience.  I was really moved by the honesty of her post - I hope you enjoy it too. 

I’ve resisted the idea of going to a silent retreat for around 9 years. I was determined that I would go one day, but, at the same time I was scared to death. I felt so much fear that until this past summer I had told only one other person about my desire to go on a retreat.  I felt that if I didn’t speak it out loud then no one could hold me accountable and ask me why I had not yet committed. That simple yet powerful word: commitment.

I’ve been told so many times in my life by people around me that I could not commit. The small commitments?  Sure, no problem.  But, to things like relationship, marriage, children, a home...(you know, all of the big things!)... well, I was seen as a commitment-phobe.

Perhaps there’s been truth to that. But I decided this year after a nine-year, very committed, relationship that I needed some serious rewiring in my mind. I needed to re-evaluate why I was working so hard to commit to something that really was not working so well.

At about the same time I met a man who told me about a silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery not so far from where I was staying in Bali.  I wasn’t working at the time and could no longer find any logical reason not to attend a retreat.  Even as the last moments to back out approached I sat through my fears and got on a bus to the monastery chanting my new mantra all the way - 'I can leave any time I choose'.

That week of silence was the most profound week of my life. It was a week of hearing my true self and connecting within to that which I somehow thought was outside of myself. It was a test of my faith in myself to endure painful and scary feelings and sit through them. It challenged me to watch my ceaseless stream of thoughts and to observe how they are not actually me. I realised that I’m free in a most blissful kind of way when I don’t attach my identity to every thought that passes.

 It was amazing to be aware of the physical pain that I felt in response to my emotions and that when I held on even tighter to my feelings my pain became more and more intense. My first day and the next morning were brutal. I was so physically affected by my fears that I had nausea and diarrhoea. I cried intensely out of the fear that was eating up my core.

And then it was amazing. I realized that I felt safe in that monastery; safer in fact than I may have ever felt in my whole life. All of my needs were taken care of. I was surrounded by people who understood my need for silence and all of the difficulties that come with that silence, and I felt loved just for being there and trying to see life in a new way.

I saw that holding all these years of emotions and judgments about myself was causing me pain - lots of emotional pain which was becoming physical pain. I realised I had to stop stuffing in what I was feeling. As I realized that, I started to have profoundly clear moments of gratitude and love for life. I let myself off the hook and let go of some of my judgments. I allowed myself to see that I do not want children and that I didn’t want my relationship any longer - and those choices were both OK. Those were major blocks for me and commitments I do not need in my life.

 So here I am, back in my real - and sometimes perceived to be 'unsafe' - world. I’ve had to challenge myself endlessly since I came home to go into my emotions and to make a choice not to allow my fear and resistance to mask my real desires and needs. I’ve had to put voice to my feelings when I could easily stuff them inside. To simply recognize that I am having an emotion is an achievement for me at moments. Lately, I can see that I’ve allowed others people's opinions of me to become part of my identity and that by allowing that I have been suffering.

I’m working on feeling what works for me - how much emotion to put voice to, how much is
 mine to keep, and mostly, how the emotion feels in my body. I ask myself - where is my pain? Where is my discomfort? What is it that I am feeling there? Then, how can I acknowledge it and let it go?

If you are interested in doing a silent meditation retreat in Bali (or other parts of Indonesia) this website gives information about the teaching style and the schedules. 

The Brahma Vihara Monastery - in tropical Bali
Image from

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't worry - you're going sane.

Ahhhh...if only all doctors were so wise. A beautiful, whimsical cartoon by one of Australia's living treasures, Michael Leunig.  This is from his book The Stick - and other tales of our times.

Happy day-after-St Valentine's Day to all!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Big Sqeeze - a meditation on suffering

Tonight I have a bad case of what Pema Chodron calls 'the big squeeze.' (Don’t worry, I don't mean diarrhoea! This blog attempts to be honest but I wouldn't go that far.)
Pema Chodron, a Western Buddhist nun, uses 'the big squeeze' to mean the difficult issues and feelings that replay over and over again in our lives.  For some it might be fear and anger, for others dullness or boredom. I think 'the big squeeze' is such a great term, because it describes viscerally what it feels like when those really tough emotions come along. I literally feel like someone is contracting and clenching my gut when I'm feeling two of my huge squeezes - confusion and numbness.
So, tonight, up pops these big squeezes. The numbness makes my body feel sodden and thick, as though I'm soaked with water and weighed down. The confusion broils away in my stomach as I try to fight my way out from this heavy numbness. I decide to do a meditation that I hope will be calming, and perhaps help me sit with these two contradictory feelings - one dull, the other querulous and anxious.
I imagine the Dalai Lama standing in front of me.  I begin to name whatever I'm feeling, thinking or sensing. For every label I give, the Dalai Lama responds - ‘I’m sorry for your suffering.'
'Heaviness in my leg'
'I'm sorry for your suffering.'
'Sadness...leaden sadness'
 'I'm sorry for your suffering.'
'Annoyance...tinnitus in my ear is annoying me'
'I'm sorry for your suffering.
A few minutes into the meditation, the critical voice in my head rises up.  As soon as the Dalai Lama says, 'I'm sorry for your suffering’, a judging response pops up in my mind. I'm finding it hard to sit with the judgements without becoming anxious, so I pull my laptop over and start writing whatever the voices say in response to the Dalai Lama's kindness. Here's what I wrote:
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
get over it
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
you have to do it on your own
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
there's no help here
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
don't be pathetic, it's all downhill for you
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
other people have a harder life that you, don't feel sorry for yourself
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
this isn't real, you aren't real, this suffering isn't real
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
kindness is rubbish, it isn't real, don't be a wuss ( Aussie slang for 'wimp' LOL! )
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
you deserve this suffering, there's no way out
After the first five minutes (listed above), the kindness of the Dalai Lama starts to sink in, and my voices change in tone:
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
oh, someone is listening to me, that feels good
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
it's not my fault, i don't have to prove anything
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
i thought it was all my fault, could this really not be my fault?  Is that possible?
'I'm sorry for your suffering'
Could it be that this suffering is real?, Could I be real?
And, after fifteen minutes or so, that's where the meditation ended.  Because I'd written my thoughts down I thought I’d make them into this post. 

I don't think I'm so unusual in having these critical voices in my head; not everyone's sings exactly the same songs as mine, but no doubt most people have a top 10 selection that's on fairly high rotation. One of the things I find most extraordinary is that these thoughts are all sitting there. They're not hidden beneath ten years of psychotherapy, or a three-month meditation retreat.  All I have to do to push them into action is to say something that provokes them - ‘I’m sorry for your suffering.'

These thoughts are like looking at a forest of trees, and not being able to see the forest for the trees. I can't see them in my everyday life - because they're everywhere. They are the foundation of my belief system; the rock out of which my reality is carved.   That's what makes them so pernicious and powerful.

For now, it just helps to have more awareness of these thoughts - to let them dance their dance, and sing their song. And, in response, to say:

'I'm sorry for your suffering...I'm sorry for your suffering...' 

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on staying at the monastery

During January I posted a series of blog entries that were written while I was staying at the Santi Forest Monastery.  I thought for this post I'd write a short reflection on my time at the monastery, just to wrap things up.

One of the interesting things about having this blog is that I often sit down to write something with an idea of what I'm going to say, and it all ends up going in a completely different direction.  So, for this post, I deliberately haven't planned what I'll write - and I'm interested to see what direction my fingers take me!

Overall I'd describe my time at the monastery as - confronting, difficult, peaceful, slow, and sad. This is the third time I've stayed up there, usually for around three weeks at a time, and it is always a difficult time for me.  I get very envious of people who go on meditation retreats and say how rewarding or beautiful it was.  I sometimes think there's something wrong with me that I find it so very hard.

But, I try to remind myself that I have difficult things to deal with.  Because I've been living with this illness for well over a decade it's natural that in the first few years of really looking at my feelings and bodily sensations,  I'll find a lot of sadness and despair arising.  

Because I can't do normal, structured meditation, I've come up with my own structure for the day when I'm at the monastery. From whenever I wake up (usually around 8.30am) until 10.30am I lie in bed and either do a meditation, if I feel I can, or just drift in and out of an exhausted haze, trying to be with and recognise whatever sensations are there. 

At 10.30 I go up to have a shower in the communal bathroom, and then have lunch and help to clean up afterwards.  During this stay, I also had a little job, mopping the sala (hall) and setting up mats and bowls for the next day's lunch.  Then, from around 1pm until 6pm I go back to my caravan and either listen to dharma (Buddhist) talks, do some structured meditation, read a bit from Buddhist books, or rest.  

At 6pm, if I feel up to it, I go back up to the main house and have a cup of tea with the other residents. In the evening, I can do what I like - and I usually listen to an audiobook on my ipod (which has nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhism!)

So, that's my day when I'm at the monastery, and I do find it very confronting to be living so closely to my feelings, and my physical condition, without any distractions like TV, radio, family, friends, my mobile phone,  e-mail or the internet.

During this stay, I cried a lot, and felt a deep, dragging depression. It seemed like a heavy weight that I would carry with me everywhere.  There seemed to be no way to fight my way out from underneath the bleak despair.  I was really forced to feel it - day after day after day.  A couple of times, one of the monks at the monastery pulled me aside and said, 'What's up?'  He's a very perceptive person, and I suppose he could tell just by the way I looked that I was having a tough time. 

He spent quite a while talking to me, trying to get an exact feel for what I was struggling with.  He started off by saying, 'You know, it's good to try to just accept the pain, to allow it.'  I think I stopped myself before I actually rolled my eyes at him, but I'm sure I got my message across in what I said. 

'I know that! I know I'm meant to be accepting pain, moving towards it, allowing it...blah, blah, blah...all the books say it.  But, I can't do that, and that just makes me feel even worse, because I hate it so much.  All I feel is how much I don't want it to be there, and this terrible judgement for it being there.'

'Oh OK!' he said, 'So you already know that.  Well, then, what you need is  kindness and gentleness.  Forget all about meditation; forget about what everyone else is doing here.  That's not for you right now.  All you have to do is be gentle.  When you get up out of the chair think, 'Am I doing that gently?'  When you lie in bed, think 'Is this a gentle posture for my body?'  All you have to do is be kind to all of those feelings.'

He was a great support to me, and, after talking to him a few times I did feel like a lot of the fighting and resistance to what was happening subsided.  I was able to just allow the depression, sadness, and judgemental thoughts to be there, without fighting them so much or trying little 'techniques' to get rid of them.  It was  painful to allow these things to just exist.  

I laughed just then at writing 'it was  painful' - because this process is, unfortunately, not in the past - it is  painful.  And that's really what I've taken away from this stay at the monastery. I'm more able to allow difficult feelings to exist.

I got home and started to read a Stephen Levine book that I haven't picked up in about a year.  Stephen talks a lot about moving towards pain, and, since I've always had such trouble with that concept, I ended up putting the book down. I was judging myself too much (and feeling judged by Stephen!) for not being able to send my illness love, or accept it. 

But, after reading a few pages of this book after returning from the monastery, I burst into tears. I was reading a chapter about a  woman whose son had died.  Stephen talked about her including her grief in her heart, and all of a sudden I thought, 'I understand that, I know what he means.' And I had an awareness of how I was moving towards my pain - allowing it to tear my heart open.  I had a vision of me literally stepping into my illness.  

It was very sad, but also quite beautiful, because I had a realisation of how cutting myself off from my illness had cut me off to life.  Over the next few days I realised that although I think I'm 'getting no-where' with this meditation, and that my stays at the monastery are just a complete waste of time - things are slowly changing, and moving.

This is one of the more luxurious huts at the monastery
- I stayed in this one on my first visit.
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