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Turning to embrace what we want to reject

Last year I started to explore lucid dreaming. This is a state where one becomes conscious that one is dreaming and is able to make conscious choices in the dream, knowing that it is a dream. One night I had a nightmare, which is unusual for me, but this one was very frightening.  An old man was running out of the woods towards me and I was terrified as I knew he wanted to kill me. I was laying on the grass and couldn’t move. I screamed and this woke me up, shaking still from the experience.

The next night as I went to sleep I made the determination to meet this man again but this time in a lucid dream, where I would be conscious and know we were meeting in a dream. As I slept I dreamt, and as I dreamt there was a moment of looking around and thinking “I’m dreaming!” At this point I jumped into the sky and went flying for a while and then I remembered my dream from the previous night and made a request to the dream world “please let the meet the man from last night’s dream”. In  moment I was no longer in the clear blue sky but was in the waiting room of a prison. I could hear heavy boots clanking on a metal walkway, echoing through a huge space. The door flew open and two prison guards were holding the man from the previous night’s dream.  They looked at me as if to say “Are you sure you are ready for this?”. I nodded and they let him go.

In an instant he was on me, rushing to grab me and claw at my back with fingers that were metal talons.  As he tried to rip me apart I put my arms up and held him.  It was he who was not going anywhere as I tightened my embrace! I thought “do what you like to me, this is only my dream body, you can’t hurt it in any way”. And I stood there holding him as he struggled and raged. Slowly he started to run out of rage and slumped in my arms.  As I continued to hold him and embrace him he shrank and became a small child and then all that I was holding was an intense sense of sorrow, pain and loneliness.

The dream finished at this point and when I woke up I felt revitalised and full of energy.  It was as if I had met some part of me that had been locked away a long time ago, a sadness or experience that at the time I could not face.  Locked away in the darkness it had gone wild. It hated me for denying it and wanted revenge. By meeting it, holding it and bringing compassion to it that could shift and change, until once again it was simply sadness felt in the moment.

How does this relate to our waking life and practice?

Blocking and Drowning in response to Resisting the First Arrow

Last week I was reflecting on the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows: the first arrow being any experience of pain right now, mental or physical, the second arrow being shot when we do not want to be with this first pain. The first arrow is something that cannot be avoided – we hurt ourselves or something goes wrong. Our response to this may be either to turn to this first arrow and embrace the suffering contained within it, and then to let it pass or we may resist feeling it – “why has this happened”, ” this is so unfair”, “it shouldn’t be like this”, “I can’t stand this pain”. Then we fire the second arrow of resistance. A friend of mine describes the first arrow as necessary suffering – it’s just there and is as it is, and the second arrow as unnecessary suffering – the struggle we add to the initial suffering.

To summarise from last week, if we are caught by the second arrow due to resisting feeling the initial suffering we may resort either to blocking it by:

  • resisting feeling it,
  • becoming restless and unable to stop
  • using  addictions to try and avoid feeling what we don’t want to feel.  The obvious ones: drugs, sex, shoping and television, but also being addicted to certain ways of thinking or relating to the world.
  • being busy and trying to control the world.

Alternatively we may drown in the onslaught brought on by the second arrow through:

  • feeling overwhelmed,
  • exhausted,
  • feeling dull and lethargic,
  • depressed and full of self pity as we catastrophize about the situation or our life
  • feeling increasingly isolated and withdrawn.

We may feel just one of these or move between blocking and drowning.

To avoid shooting the second arrow requires learning to stay with the first arrow, the original pain or turning back to face it again if it has been denied in the past. In this way it is the same process as in my dream: choosing to face that which we fear, but knowing we can do that from a place of awareness, compassion and self-care. As life presents its difficulties it may not always be possible to stay with the first arrow, but as soon as we notice that we are lost in drowning or blocking we can then apply the remedy: turning to face the first pain.

How to do this? Reach out to friends rather than withdraw into isolation. Share how you are feeling and it may start to seem less overwhelming. A friend might bring a different perspective. If you stay isolated with your thoughts going around in the hamster wheel of your mind it can start to seem too much to ever cope with. Talking with fiends helps to put it in perspective.

Alternatively, you may like to find a therapist you trust if it’s a matter you need to talk over but you don’t want to share it with friends. Through therapy you can learn a new way of relating to your inner world and it offers a form of conscious relationship that helps you change your inner sense of what relationship is and once this is changed it will change how you relate to others as you come into relationship with them rather than repeating the old unhelpful patterns.

The mindfulness practice and loving kindness will also help as you can sit with what is there without judging and hold it with kindness, rewiring the neural pathways in your brain as you do so.

Below are two practices I’m exploring at the moment at times of difficulty or painful experiences to help with embracing the first arrow rather than shoot the second:

Self compassion practice

A method I often use is the self compassion practice.  It only need take a few minutes but it is a powerful way of becoming present to oneself in the moment. This was taught to me by Barbara Bexhill and to listen to her guiding the meditation click here

Three step self-compassion meditation by Barbara Boxhall
1. Stop and notice: recognise what is happening in terms of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Turn towards the difficulty and open to it by gently acknowledging “yes, this is a difficult moment”
2. Acknowledge shared humanity: now reflect that “difficulty is part of life” and consider that “just like me there are very likely to be other people right now who may be feeling  just as I do right now”.  Allow this to give you a sense of being connected to others rather than feeling isolated.
3. Meeting the difficulty with kindness: Gently say to yourself “may I meet this difficulty with kindness”.
In stage three consider how you might be kind to yourself: you may choose a nourishing activity if time permits, making a cup of tea, taking a bath, giving yourself a hand or head massage. Alternatively and to keep the experience in the moment you can do the following:

  1. Place your hands on your heart (or rest on your forearm if in public). Feel this contact.
  2. Tune in to the breath and imagine it moving through the area of the heart.
  3. In your mind, say something kind and gentle to yourself: “Yes, this is a difficult” “It’s OK” “I love you” Choose something you feel comfortable saying to yourself and that feels kind and gentle.

Breathing in pain, breathing out its remedy 

A second practice I am starting to explore is from Pema Choron’s book ‘Start Where You Are’. In this she describes the Tibetan practice of lojong. The book describes this in great detail and how to awaken the compassionate heart, but the core message I have taken from it is of breathing in that which we find difficult or painful, perhaps seeing it as black smoke. Then holing it in our heart with kindness and reflecting that just like me there are many other beings feeling this right now. Then breathing out the antidote, imagining that this is white light going out into the world. One then continues to do this, imagining that one is not only breathing in one’s own pain, but that of all beings, and in breathing out we are not just trying to eradicate our pain, but that of all beings.

This week has been the most painful of my life. Someone I know has been arrested and charged with murder and this has led to both seeing him in court at the opening day of the legal proceedings and being questioned by police about how I know him and what I know about him.  There has been the sorrow and pain I feel for the family of the victim, the man who died and for my friend, and this has felt excruciating.

Over this time I have been using this practice when I remember it. Sometimes the feelings become overwhelming. But then I remember to centre myself, breathe in the pain and sorrow that is both mine and all of those involved, and breathe out compassion and kind concern for myself and all those involved, seeing as white light radiating out into the world.

Similarly you might use it if you are feeling lonely. Breathing in the sense of loneliness and breathing out the wish for people to feel connected and loved. Doing this I realised I needed connection after going to the police station to be questioned and I called a friend. I was able to spend the rest of the day with him, giving me a feeling of being held and loved.

I’ve started to do this as I travel around as well.  Seeing people on the tube or a homeless person sitting the street I can feel overwhelmed by the pain in their face and seeing so much suffering as peoplel try to live their lives. Perhaps this is why we learn to not notice such people! But now I have a resource. I can breathe in the pain and breathe out hope.

Because this practice is connected with the breath it is something we can do in a moment. And it only takes a moment to change how we are feeling.

I’ll explore these two practices further this Monday.

For more information about lucid dreaming work click here

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