Over the last few weeks I have shared from some places of struggle and it has been so heart warming to have had people responding to the group email with their own messages of support and care. Receiving this support reminded me of a teaching I heard early in my involvement with Buddhism. When I started out I saw the path of liberation as being about a solitary journey to ever deeper self-awareness and freedom. And I liked this myth of the solitary spiritual warrior when I started meditating in my 20s. But then I heard this teaching relating to the Buddha and Ananda, a monk who accompanied the Buddha throughout his life as a teacher and up until the Buddha’s death:
One day Ananda, who had been thinking deeply about things for a while, turned to the Buddha and exclaimed:
”Lord, I’ve been thinking- spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!”
The Buddha replied: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!”
(Samyutta Nikaya, Verse 2)
In this context spiritual friendship means a close and ongoing connection with others who share ones sense of purpose and calling. Later when I lived in the monastery a therapist from the Karuna Institue visited to do some therapy work with a group of us and he said something which I have remembered ever since: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. We do not fix ourselves in isolation. It is only when we are with others that we can explore experiencing where we were wounded in relationship and find a new way of relating to the unhealthy patterns of relating to ourself and others in a way that they may be held and allowed to heal or become more creative.
“We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”
Where I was wounded in relationship may be familiar to you:
- the boy that learnt to hide his spontinaiety, after being laughed at for taking a doll into school, for being so useless at football, for not fitting in with the boys and preferring to play with the girls at break time – skipping rather than football was my choice!
- The boy that wants to be part of something larger, but withdrew when that larger whole sought to ridicule him.
- The laughter of boys at school as a teenager as they called me “gay”, the start of the belief there was something wrong with me, that if I could just find the ‘right’ way to behave so that others wouldn’t spot this then I could hide this fatal flaw. And so the defences went up. Spontaneity was a danger. Becoming guarded and wary of how I showed myself was essential to survive.
As a result by the time I was an adult I only felt safe talking one to one with others. Being in a group overwhelmed me. I could not control the dynamics of a group discussion. And I did not know how to join in with the flow of conversation. In my 20s I attended many group study retreats for the Buddhist group I was involved with. I would spend a week sitting in these sessions saying nothing. It felt safer to be invisible than to speak. By now it was not that I could not join in. When I did join in people listed and even enjoyed what I said. But the neural wiring in my brain just did not allow for an ease of entering a group discussion, for so long the default mode had been to withdraw, watch, listen and asses. Even now going into a space where I am not leading it brings up a moment of fear: I will have to be me, judged as a fellow participant, not the leader of the group.
It’s been a while since I was in a group discussion of this sort and at the New Year Loving Men retreat I decided to goto one. Phoebus, the group’s facilitator, explained how this session and the sessions he runs in London for gay and bi men work. He talked about how the sessions had a duel intention:
1. To discuss the theme, which relates to a different aspect of sexuality in each meeting
2. To explore and make conscious the dynamic of how we are in the group.
The value of the second point is that how we are in a group will very likely mirror how we interact in the world, in groups and our everyday life and helps the process of bringing awareness to the hidden and unconscious patterns that have become established in directing our behaviour. As the quote from Jung below states, it is only by bringing into the light of awareness that which is in shadow that we can start to act freely rather than be a puppet dangling on the strings of habit.
It was with a little trepidation, and some excitement, that I approached my first of these meetings in London last Tuesday. Phoebus was there to host a discussion on online dating/hook up aps, how we use them and our experience of them. With the other men there we started to talk about our experience and how we present ourselves in this virtual world. It was a great opportunity to bring what is often a private and hidden part of one’s life into a public space. I enjoyed the conversation, but as the session went on I noticed my self feeling less able to talk and how Phoebus would invite me to join the conversation at times, which reminded me of how I used to be in groups and how the facilitator would need to draw me in.
During the session I noticed my internal reaction to how I was perceiving someone else in the group, but did not feel comfortable to bring that into the space: I had to be good, not cause trouble, be the one who keeps the peace rather than stir things up. This is my pattern: to be concerned for others and their feelings rather than myself, while inside I’m not happy at all. Talking with the facilitator afterwards he reassured me this was exactly the sort of thing that I could bring into the discussion – so that between us we could explore the roles we were taking on in the group, roles that we would naturally slip into whenever we are in a group or social setting.
“You’re so dull, no one wants to listen to you”
I find this to be a fascinating opportunity to explore how I relate to groups, to being with others, and finding my voice. My inner critic still tells me I’m boring, that I have nothing to say that my only point of conversation is meditation and after this niche area is set aside people will see how dull I am. My self critic tells me I’m a failure, and that no matter how someone may like me to start with they will soon see through that show of confidence and reject what they see. I see how this belief originated in my unhealthy childhood friendship with a boy that would befriend me one day and drop me the next, only to make me a friend again before dropping me again. This went on for years until I unfriended him aged 9 and never spoke to him again for the rest of our school life together!
This belief that people will see me as not worth their friendship is at least conscious now and I know not to believe it. It’s the propaganda machine of the mind churning out its vitriol. But as I mentioned at the start it is in relationship that we heal, not in isolated introspection. The search light of inner awareness can bring what is in the shadows into the light, but to relearn and remake those neural pathways in the brain takes engaging with a group, a community, with “spiritual friends” where new patterns may be learnt or built up.
I’m therefore looking forward to attending more of these workshops. And I hope I may see some of you there for an opportunity to share in discussion but also in supporting each other to heightening self-awareness and to letting go of the patterns that do not serve us – or to celebrate behaviour that supports us but which we do not see. When I told a friend I fear being a failure as a meditation teacher, he looked at me, said “you’ve run a meditation class for gay/bi men for all these years. You’re a success. So don’t believe that anymore” And with that I saw that he was right, in purely objective terms, and that I just kept crashing on the rocks of self-doubt by listening to the siren’s song of self-deprecation.
Whilst I was reflecting on the theme for this week I listened to Jeff Foster’s 6 minute video below where he explores how to relate to self-blaming thoughts through becoming the compassionate witness holding the pain through untangling the thoughts from the feelings rather than trying to silence them or escaping them through addiction: “When you can hold a feeling you’re no longer controlled by it”. He makes the important point that these thoughts of being wrong or a failure originated as a child as a way to protect oneself – it was safer to blame oneself as it was too dangerous to think mum or dad is bad or wrong, which would make this world too unsafe to endure. By opening to holding what is there we can see that we are neither a failure, nor are we a success. We just are.