Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘addiction’

Loving ourselves…with a little help from our friends

Last week I was away in Spain on a dance retreat so was not able to send a group email. Thank you to Andy Butterfield for taking the class. I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the different perspective he was able to bring by teaching from his experience of practice.

Whilst on the retreat I was exploring in my meditation and through the dance the feeling of being connected to friends.  This ties in with a new approach to the Loving Kindness meditation that I read about recently and will be exploring in the group on Mondays over this month.

One of the things I have heard consistently over the 27 years that I have taught meditation is the difficulty some people feel in being able to connect with wishing themselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation. It can feel forced or artificial to make this wish for oneself, or the inner critic that says one is being self-indulgent or selfish can arise, making it hard to feel a real sense of self-care.

On the retreat I had a chat with someone who told me how grateful he was for the practice, as he had been  able to use the reflections as a recitation during a time of emotional turmoil, repeating the phrases over and over as a wish for himself:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

Connecting with the phrases as a wish for oneself can allow the heart to find its own way of opening to this feeling of self-care. I know someone else who has said that when in a depressive episode she cannot practice mindfulness as it is too much to sit with the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, but she can practice loving Kindness, wishing herself to be well, telling herself she cares for herself and wishes for her happiness.

Hearing this I realise how important it is that we have a feeling of being able to turn to the Loving Kindness practice as a resource rather than dismiss it as the practice we cannot do. Over this month the theme of the emails will be around self-care and self-love so that we have a consistent opportunity to explore this aspect of the practice.

Rather than always feeling we have to move away from the broken person we feel we are, how would it be if we stepped towards being the whole being that we are? We were not born broken or self-sabotaging. We learnt not to like ourselves. A baby does not feel it does not deserve to be loved, it does not hold back its cries feeling it should not bother anyone or that it should wait to be seen. We learn the belief that “I do not matter”, or “my needs are not important” or “I should not be a bother” or “I can only be worthy of love if I am serving another/ am funny enough/ have a good enough body….” or whatever our inner script may be.

Over the dance retreat I was able to feel how strongly I feel my needs do not matter, feel the fear of reaching out to connect, the belief I am too much and will only swap the other if I do try to connect, the fear of being rejected and the hope of being noticed. In one exercise we danced with rejection. Our partner had to ignore us as we danced. It was so painful. At first I danced with freedom and ease, in the flow of my dance. Then seeing that my partner was ignoring me I tried to attract his attention, dancing closer, my movements becoming more exaggerated. But still he looked at his nails or looked thorough me.

Then, without any thought about what I would do next my dance suddenly changed. My movements became small, timid, afraid of causing offence. I came close to my partner, trying to be in contact with his body as he ignored me. My hands coming to rest on my chest in a self embrace that did nothing to mitigate the feeling of panic at not being seen. I then stayed in this slow, small, constricted dance hoping if I were quiet and good enough my partner might then choose to notice me. In the space of five minutes my body was able to relive my experience of being a child who was not seen, and I felt the impact of making myself small in the hope that whatever it was I was doing wrong would no longer cause offence and I would once more be loved.

Over the rest of the retreat I stayed with this sense of making myself small and also of seeing how I could connect out to others. In one session I lost any feeling of being able to dance freely and was standing, with my arms around myself, my eyes closed, my head hanging down. My legs wrapped around themselves. Stuck to the spot. Feeling alone. Isolated. Not wanted. Incapable of connecting out……..

Then the most amazing thing….the sensation of fingers brushing against my head, neck and back. Then a hand giving support, then two hands resting on my back, coming down to my waist, inviting movement in my hips and back. And like a tightly curled bud my limbs released and moved and opened and expanded from their tight constriction until I was once again in the flow of my dance.

The dance facilitator then said “now leave your partner and return to your own dance”…I had not even heard that we were to go into pairs, and realised that someone had come to me as I stood in my paralysed state, daring to reach out to someone who looked so alone and cut off. I looked around and it was the friend I was on the retreat with and I felt such a rush of gratitude and love for him in that moment. If I remember nothing else from the retreat it will be the feeling of his touch waking me from a place of constriction and being closed down.

 

I then took this into my morning meditation. Using the new method I had read about recently I imagined myself between two friends. Rather than trying to start by wishing myself well I connected with the feeling of wishing my friends well. For so many of us it can be easier to wish another well rather than ourself! But it starts to open our heart to that felt sense of wishing a being to be happy and well.

Once this was connected to I then returned to myself. Feeling myself between these two friends who wish me well. Starting to turn this loving attention to myself. I can be so hard on myself: feeling I will only be worthy of love when I have worked on myself, sorted out this or that defect. Become a better person. But my friends love me right now. Your friends love you right now – as you are. They may see faults, after all we all have our quirks, but they are not saying “I will love you and be a friend in a years time once you have sorted out your addiction/quirk/behaviour trait” They are your friend right now because they embrace you as they find you. Opening to this in the meditation gives a chance to let go of the narrative that I will only be worthy of love in the future, and recognise that right now I am loved as I am, which is the unconditional nature of Loving Kindness.

You may like to try this approach in your own meditation. It need only be ten minutes: five minutes of sitting imagining yourself with a friend on either side: expressing your love and care for them in your own words or using the phrases:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to you.

Then when you feel ready have a sense of your friends at your side, wishing you well. See if you can feel a sense of your friends loving you as you are right now, warts and all. Starting to wish yourself well, using your own phrases or the Loving Kindness phrases, feeling them in your heart rather than thinking them:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and exploring this in the class over the coming weeks.

If you would like to explore the Five Rhythms movement practice that is led by Bodhi who co-led the dance retreat I was on in Spain details are below: 

Click here for more info

Saying no to the inner stories, so we can say yes to our life

Last week I was reflecting on the power of saying no to external events and a text conversation with a friend this week has reminded me of the power of learning to say no to the stories we tell ourselves.

The 8 week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course has a theme of ‘propaganda’ – the stories we tell ourselves so often that we come to believe them as objective truth rather than a subjective opinion. As the cartoon above suggests, it is so easy for us all to be going around with the same propaganda undermining us: the thought that it is only me who is not together, is broken and failed….whilst thinking that everyone else is together, purposeful and living to their full potential.

Having the privilege of talking to so many people in my role as monk and then mindfulness teacher, and reading the emails that some people send me in response to these weekly reflections I have been privileged in my life to see behind the public mask so many of us present to the world. Behind that mask what so many of us share is a sense of confusion, fear and struggle. Often this is rooted in negative scripts that tell us we are in some way defective or lacking, or do not deserve the success we have, or will be seen to be the fraud we feel ourselves to be.

Some people will have other more egotistical scripts, believing themselves to be amazing and wonderful, but this is still a fragile place to inhabit, as the moment this belief gets threatened the fragility of their identity easily cracks. People who have based their worth on being a high flying, high earning achiever can be the most  hard hit by loosing their job or position as they also loose everything that confirms their story of who they are. Rather than believing in themselves they believe in what their position says about them and loosing that position it can feel as if they have been destroyed. Unfortunately the number of suicides after executives or highly placed bankers have lost their position testifies to this. In contrast people with a low self-view are relatively comfortable with the world conforming this through a perception of failure!

It does not matter then whether our inner script is one of lack or superiority, believing in the script and the stories that get generated by it can be destructive for anyone and learning to say no to the story teller is the first step in finding a deeper freedom.

 

 

Reading self-help books and attending workshops can be a useful way of becoming aware of the scripts – but can in themselves become part of the story: the one who is seeking, who is broken, who needs to find the right person or book or teaching to fix them. The people I know who have found their own freedom have all at some point stopped looking outside and instead taken the teaching they have and turned inside to fully explore the implications of that insight.

The thought “I’ll read just one more book”, or “I’ll visit just this one more teacher” and then I can start to explore the implications of their teaching is all a way of the storyteller delaying the deeper investigation of what is keeping one trapped: one’s own addiction to the drama we have become familiar with. The friend I have been chatting with about this said it so well when he observed that he was addicted to his story. I’ve felt that with my own sadness at times, it’s as if I am addicted to a state of being and make choices that perpetuate that experience. Partly it feels comfortable to rest in the familiar. But there also  seems to be a feedback loop where feeding the familiar emotional drama is like any other addiction in the way it gives rise to a dopamine hit that gives a sense of reward, even if the addictive emotion itself is an unpleasant one.

The following information outlines this process, relating it to our ancient reward centre in the brain that assists in learning thorough giving a pleasurable experience through the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine when we experience something which seems beneficial to our learning or survival:

 

As the brain experiences a dopamine hit from turning towards this addictive behaviour it reinforces the feeling that this is a reward which encourages it to return to this behaviour more and more to get the reward again and again. So if our addiction is porn or food or buying shoes or feeling sad or self-blame the process is the same: our brain has learnt through a ‘pathological learning’ to identify that stimuli with a dopamine reward.

Thus we return to the principle of learning to say no to the story teller: the urge to return to a familiar experience, whether it be an addictive sense of feeling sad, or and external addiction of shopping, food or porn. The story will be that when I have this I will feel better. Even though that may then be followed by a feeling of shame at having fallen into a pattern again that we feel does not really serve us. But that remorse passes and soon we are back in the loop again of seeking the dopamine reward for our familiar pattern.

In this way these negative scripts have a double barb: they give rise to shame or a sense of not being fulfilled, yet by giving a false dopamine hit of reward they also mange to trick the brain into thinking they are beneficial by giving a brief experience of fulfilment followed by the crash of shame, and so we return to these activities again, in part to get away from the low feelings associated with the shame they have caused to arise.

Logically I can look at my addiction to sadness and see that it serves no purpose other than to keep me sad in a world that is perceived as half empty. But if by returning to this familiar place I get a dopamine hit that briefly tells the brain this is a beneficial experience then there is an encouragement to keep returning.

The benefit of mindfulness in this process is to learn to urge surf. This is a manfulness based approach to craving, where instead of trying to resist an urge one instead turns toward the experience of the craving with curiosity, and learns to sit in the experience, attending to it as one watches the breath and the body whilst meditating. In this way there is a beautifully paradoxical process of saying no by saying yes! We say “yes” to being present and allowing without judgement the urge or desire to be as it is, but this requires us to say “no” to acting on the urge in habitual ways so that we are able to sit with it and fully feel what it is like as an experience. In this way we can feel the discomfort within it, and also watch as it passes, without needing to get the hit of the familiar addictive behaviour to make the discomfort go away.

 

 

 

 

As I write this email I am hailing to apply the principles to my experience right now. I had a date today, someone I met on the Tube a few weeks ago. This was to be our second date, after spending three hours together last Thursday. But he canceled yesterday, saying he is too busy with work. This immediately took me into the familiar story: “I’m not wanted”, “why do I only find men who cannot commit”, “what’s wrong with me….what did I do wrong”. The discomfort of all of this then just makes me want to find a way to escape the pain: either through indulging in the comfortably familiar place of melancholy or in some porn as a simulated experience of connection and sensuality. But this is the old story playing out and putting its shadow over the events. He’s not said we will not meet, only that he is too busy today. It may be we never meet again, or it may be we have a date in a weeks time once I return from Queer Spirit.

My brain finds it so comfortable to go to the place of melancholy it immediately reads this as a rejection and a failure and bang, there is the dopamine hit of going to the familiar place of melancholy. Instead, by applying the urge surfing method in conjunction with Ajhan Chah’s teaching “unsure uncertain” I can stay with this as an experience and recognise that the catastrophising that makes me feel so bad is not based on what is happening, but my fear of what will happen. I can be with the sadness of a canceled date: that is real. But the feelings of failure and of calamity are based on a familiar story of lack being projected into the future and creating a certainty that is not yet born out by any events. A similar story played itself out last month with a new friend whom I was convinced had lost interest in becoming friends. Now we text every  few days and are intermittent workout buddies. The story bore no reality to what was to happen but created a week of feeling dejected and a failure. Then when I dropped the story and sent him a text he replied and we carried on from there, so in fact there was no rejection…it was just he had not sent a text and needed me to do so to pick up the conversation again. 

I hope this helps you reflect on your own stories and how to relate to them as stories and not truth.

Making The Unconscious Conscious

In a conversation I was having with a friend today about addiction he made the comment that in his experience his addiction had arisen from the desire not to have to feel the pain of being disconnected from others. To avoid the pain of feeling isolated and disconnected he turned to porn as an addiction to numb the pain of feeling alone. It could as easily have been sex, or drugs or work. In my case I’m starting to think I am addicted to sadness! By turning to our addiction it gives a sense of the familiar, and being able to loose oneself in this.

This reminds me of the teaching of the two arrows, where the first arrow is the immediate experience of suffering as it impacts on us: breaking up, an injury, loosing a job, ill health etc. The second arrow is what we fire by resisting feeling the first arrow: resentment, anger, sorrow etc. The first arrow we cannot avoid, it’s already struck us. We either stay with this primary pain or we fire the second arrow by resisting being with the first arrow and in doing so add to our suffering. Looking at it from this perspective one might say that addiction is the second arrow, arising from the desire not to feel whatever the first arrow might be, one possible cause being the pain of isolation.
.
.
Isolation, social exclusion and addiction

In a fascinating study from 2013 it was found that rats isolated during adolescence were more prone to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol as adults, and once established it was harder to extinguish.

A section of the study makes for fascinating reading:

On observing the rats that were isolated it was seen that “They are more anxious. Put them in an open field and they freeze more. We also know that those areas of the brain that are more involved in conscious memory are impaired. But the kind of memory involved in addiction isn’t conscious memory. It’s an unconscious preference for the place in which you got the reward. You keep coming back to it without even knowing why. That kind of memory is enhanced by the isolation.”

The rats in the study were isolated from their peers for about a month from 21 days of age. That period is comparable with early-to-middle adolescence in humans. They were then tested to see how they responded to different levels of exposure to amphetamine and alcohol

The results were striking, said Mickaël Degoulet, a postdoctoral researcher in Morikawa’s lab. The isolated rats were much quicker to form a preference for the small, distinctive box in which they received amphetamine or alcohol than were the never-isolated control group. Nearly all the isolated rats showed a preference after just one exposure to either drug. The control rats only became conditioned after repeated exposures.”

This repeats the evidence of the impact of isolation from previous studies looking at heroin addiction which suggest that the cause of addiction may have more to do with isolation and loneliness than the drug itself being inherently addictive. Rats that were in a cage alone soon became addicted to the heroin laced water rather than drink the clean water that was also available, returning to it until they died. Rats in a communal cage with plenty of food and play mates did not get addicted to it despite occasionally drinking the heroin laced bottle, preferring to go to the clean water instead.  Thus although they were exposed to heroin and drank it, that did not lead to addiction. Isolation seemed to be the core reason determining if the rats became addicted. Seen in this way people who are addicts may need to have this primary pain of isolation and loneliness addressed in order to help them rather than be punished or made to feel a social failure thus pushing them further into isolation and deeper into addiction.

Any of us who have experienced our teen age years as a time of social exclusion and isolation will know this feeling of separation, and the tendency to be more prone to addictive behaviour and for gay/bi men and women it suggests one aspect of why people in our community are more prone to addiction.

.

.

.

.

.To read the article on loneliness that these are extracted from click here.

.

Healing Through Connection

In addressing his own addiction my friend remembered when I discussed the example of the rats in a previous email and started to explore his addiction in relation to feeling isolated. He was able to shift his attachment to the addiction by  building on his connections with others and with himself: through giving time to his friendships, going to groups that provided a community, and therapy which helped him connect more deeply into himself so that he could bring into conscious awareness what had been unconscious. His meditation practice was essential for this process, but in itself was not enough. He also needed the therapy, connections to others through social groups and friends.

As a young man first learning to meditate I had a desire for my meditation practice to take me out of my pain. But in fact it seems meditation is really more about creating the opportunity to hold what is here and to become more whole through opening fully to what is presenting itself rather than trying to transcend the pain and float off into an Enlightened state of bliss. Through turning in and fully opening the heart then there may be a freedom that is amazing, but it is a freedom that arises form a deep inner connection, rather than a dissociated rejection of oneself. And this deep inner connection requires rich outer connections through friendships, community and someone who can hold one fully, with unconditional kind regard and without judgement – a therapist or if we are fortunate a very well balanced partner or friend.

.
.
Making what we don’t know we don’t know conscious

It has been said that there is what we know that we know, what we know that we don’t know, but also what we don’t know that we don’t know. It’s this last one that is most destructive, for it may be what everyone around us can see as part of our character or motivating impulses, but we are totally oblivious to it.

What we don’t know that we don’t know seems to be the cause of so much suffering as it keeps us going into familiar patterns that we then blame on outer circumstances. One way I’m starting to think I can see what is in this blind spot of the psyche is to look at what patterns of suffering keep repeating. For they are like a mirror through which I can see reflected back to me what is creating this habit pattern of acting in familiar ways so that I have familiar experiences. In a sense the outer event is the second arrow arising from my unwillingness to turn in and see the first arrow buried in the unconscious.

An example of this for me is my tendency to go for unavailable men. I was reading my diary recently and was reminded of yet more examples of men I had fallen for who then pulled away – time and again! The excitement of meeting, the thought this could be it, then a week latter the sorrow of writing about how they had not been interested after all. With one we got as far as spending the night together,  only for him to come back into the bedroom the next morning saying he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror as he stood in the bathroom  because he felt so bad. He returned to his church and I saw him a few more times but he was going full speed back into the closet as the ‘gay support group’ in his church helped him to go fully into denial.

For a long time I felt that I had bad luck in dating, then that gay men are just flaky and I’ll never meet anyone who will want to commit which led to a rejection of dating and a preference for more casual meetings. But more recently I’ve started to wonder what is it that this experience of going for unavailable men, of being rejected, gives me? It is a sense of drowning in the familiar experience of sadness, longing and abandonment. This then gives me something to fight outside of myself, the thought that if I can make the other person like me enough, or be good enough that they will want me, then the pain will all be taken away. But this ignores the source of the pain and recently I felt more deeply what this was: the unconscious belief that I am unlovable and bad.

It is this first arrow that I can do something with, rather than wanting the other to take away this feeling of being unwanted or make it better. By seeing in the reflection of the outer world my own inner dynamic there is a chance to bring ‘what I don’t know that I don’t know’ into conscious awareness. To realise that this is a choice I am making rather than just bad luck. It’s a choice I make to stay in a familiar place of longing through feeling not good enough rather than turning to this belief and feeling the pain of it, and then letting it go. It is a reality created by a child to try and make sense of the world, a reality made at a time when it was easier to feel I was wrong than feel angry at my father for not being there (he left when I was born and I never knew him). So although it is locked away and marked “danger do not enter” as an adult it is not really the devastating monster the child thought it to be. But to feel it I have to go through the wall of fear the child created. Even if this turns out to be more of an illusion than real it is still easier to keep turning away than face it.

For this reason this turning towards the primary pain of core beliefs cannot be done alone. I need support.  I need friends. I need spiritual companions. And the support of a therapist is making this so much easier, for they hold this process of letting the control strategies fall apart and the feeling of vulnerability from not knowing anymore what is the ‘right’ way for me to behave. As an example of this, at some point I made a reality that to get angry would mean people would leave me. I told myself I had to be very good. In a group therapy situation recently I had it reflected back to me that this was in the hope that my father would come and get me. I’ve spent my life trying to be good and kind and attentive so that people will always be there for me. Of course, it doesn’t work. For the people I feel romantically drawn to feel this silent demand – I’ll be good to you, but you must be here for me – and it puts them off. They also pick up that I am annoyed or angry, but I am the type to say “nothing, everything’s fine’ when asked what’s wrong. So communication breaks down. And as I get attracted to men who find it easy to express their anger they then angrily demand that I talk….but I withdraw into silence.

Thus, paradoxically, the more I try to be good so that people won’t leave me, the more they back off or I feel isolated and alone! I was recently challenged to speak my angry feelings by a man I like and had hoped to get to know better but then that wasn’t possible – another unavailable man!  Rather than talk to him directly about the situation and say what I felt I just tried to be nice, and hoped that eventually he would see what a good catch I am and would come and ‘rescue’ me from my loneliness – my dad would come and see I had been good enough to deserve his love once more. It didn’t work – he just got more distant. But he didn’t abandon me. He invited me to say what I was feeling, sensing that I felt some anger towards him. And in a small way I was able to speak this. Instead of pushing him further away, as I feared it would, it seemed to bring us a little closer – as friends at least even if not as lovers. At least he now knows what I am thinking!

What repetitive patterns do you see in your life? Do you have a certain type of man you always get attracted to, which ends in a familiar sense of upset or sadness? Do you follow similar patterns of behaviour again and again even though they do not make you happy? Might it be possible to use these as a mirror to look back at yourself, rather than rage at an unfair and unjust world? What might you see in your own shadow if you use this mirror of the familiar but painfully repetitive life experiences?

 

Turning to face our pain – embracing what is there in order to be whole

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing with a friend a one day workshop we are putting together that will explore mindfulness and therapy. The central theme will be looking at how we can learn to hold with kindness the wounding that we may carry from our childhood relationships: learning to bring kindness and compassion to the parts of ourself that still struggle and are in pain. One of the metaphors my friend has referred to a number of times is the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows, and I was reading a book today that makes reference to this teaching as well.

The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain. She starts by quoting the original Buddhist text:

“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling they worry, agonise and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards by a second arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”

What the Buddha is saying is that the first arrow cannot be avoided – there is pain, whether it be physical or mental, and it has occurred.  But how we respond to that pain determines whether we then shoot the second arrow – the aversion to the pain, the desire to escape it or anger at it having happened, these are all thing we add to the experience of the initial pain and actually deepen and intensify it, as the Buddha goes on to explain:

“Having been touched by that painful feeling, they resist and resent it. They harbour aversion to it, and this underlying tendency of resistance and resentment toward that painful feeling comes to obsess the mind.”

We know the thoughts: why me, this isn’t fair, when will it end, how can I make it stop, this is too much……..And once this starts it takes on a momentum of its own, leading to thoughts and actions that may themselves be harmful to our wellbeing but which we justify in an attempt to get away from the pain of the second arrow, almost forgetting that this secondary pain is a result of our reaction to the first arrow.

“Touched by that painful feeling, the ordinary person delights in compulsive distraction, often through seeking pleasure. Why is that? Because compulsive distraction is the only way they know to escape from painful feeling. This underlying tendency or craving for distraction comes to obsess the mind”

It may not be that the source of our distraction necessarily gives us pleasure. Vidyamala Burch commented that she tended to be very argumentative, but she came to realise that arguing with people helped her to distract herself from her chronic physical pain, so she tended to argue a lot, not because it was needed but as a way of coping with severe pain. We may look for distraction in the any number of things: drink, sex, drugs, being busy, television, lost on the internet for hours, porn, eating for comfort, smoking, compulsively talking, doing good deeds for others, shopping…….and whatever else one might addd to the list! It’s not that these things are necessarily good or bad in themselves, but if we are engaging with them in order to avoid the feeling of pain then they can be compulsive and driven rather than something we have a choice over. And as the original pain has not been addressed we have to keep drowning out the ‘noise’ of our pain with these activities, never daring to stop as in the silence of not doing we are faced again with our pain. But as Jung says, “what we resist we persists, what we fight we get more of”. Drowning out the noise of our mental or physical pain with distractions will in the end mean it has to make more noise to make us hear it. We may then intensify the distraction. Going deeper into addiction, whatever our chosen addictive behaviour might be. The result is a decent into ever deeper levels of dissociation and emotional and psychological pain.  The Buddha described this process by saying:

“Being overwhelmed and dominated by pain (through resistance and compulsive distraction), the ordinary person is joined with suffering and stress.”

How did we reach this point of suffering and stress?  By not turning towards the first arrow when it struck, by wanting to avoid feeling that pain through firing the second arrow of aversion to the pain, wanting it to be otherwise, wanting to block out the feeling or not face it.

Burch summarises this process very succinctly in the following way:
First comes the experience of pain – the basic unpleasant sensations. This is what the Buddha called the first arrow and what I have termed primary suffering
Then you respond to the pain with aversion, resistance, and resentment.
Next, you seek to escape from pain by getting caught up in compulsive distractions and avoidance strategies.
Ironically, in your attempts to escape the pain you become stuck in a troubled state until, finally, you’re joined or fettered to suffering and stress, and this dominates your life and obsesses your mind. It is what the Buddha called the second arrow and what I describe as secondary suffering
(p23, Living Well with Pain and Illness)

She goes on to describe resistance as manifesting as either blocking (not wanting to feel the pain) or drowning (being overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s experience of the pain), resulting in either addictions or depression. Looking at this I recognise a tendency in myself toward blocking. As a child and teenager I learnt that it was easier to not feel, to stay busy and create a shell against feeling that which was too hard to feel.  The result was an unexpressed anger, being consumed with anxiety and a tendency to live in my head rather than be in my body. These are all things that as an adult I have been learning to hold and bring a kind attention to. Have look at the summary below of the two approaches to dealing with pain, and see if you recognise a pattern in your own life:

.

two arrows

.

How do we avoid this second arrow and this whole process of spiralling into addiction depression? We avoid the second arrow by learning to turn to the first with loving, compassionate and gentle attention. We learn to embrace our physical pain, our mental and emotional pain rather than fight it and wish it were not there. The Buddha taught the mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness meditation as a means to help us turn towards the present moment rather than run from it. As we do this we learn to approach our pain, to accept it, to breathe into it and hold it. Pain is part of life.  We are not failing if we feel pain, if we feel confused, lost, angry or upset.  But if we react to these feelings with dislike, wanting to push them away by loosing ourselves in distractions then the attempt to escape them may result in worse pain than the original first arrow.

How many gay men have lost themselves in chem sex rather than face the difficult feelings they have around intimacy, about the shame they internalised whilst growing up that made us think there was something evil or wrong at our core. Where does this chem sex addiction lead so many of us? Does it result in freedom and happiness, or lead ever deeper into a place of isolation and pain? If we turn to casual sex out of a desire for intimacy whilst fearing opening to another then we never connect with any of our partners as they are actually a shield to prevent us being open to anyone, to never be seen. Might it not be more healing to turn and face our loneliness, our fear of rejection and our struggle to emerge from the shadow of shame? This may mean going into the pain, the place we have tried to run from, but by embracing the source of our pain we can bring healing to it – and might even realise that it is not a terrible thing to be escaped from, but a raw and vulnerable part of ourselves that is asking simply to be held and loved. For all of us – gay or straight, it is this brave act of turning to face that which we want to run from that enables us to start to heal.

It is by meeting together as a community, with friends who will love us as we are, without judgement that we can heal. And that is what we can look to create for each other by learning to hold ourselves without judgement in the Loving Kindness practice, for only when we can truly love ourselves can we love others without judgment or expectation. The Dalia Lama quote above reminds me of the theme from a few weeks ago that has been the thread for the last few emails: “we are wounded in community and we heal in community” – let us meet together with whatever communities provide us with support to heal.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

This week we come to the Second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering,

The Buddha left his life as a Prince to live as a seeker after truth after seeing that all those whom he loved, and he himself, would one day sicken, grow old and die. It was out of compassion for those he loved and hoping to find what he described as “the path to the deathless” that he left home. His wife had only recently given birth to his son, a future King if the Prince stayed and obeyed his father’s wishes to take on the kingdom after his death. But the Prince who was to become the Buddha saw that he could find a greater inheritance for his son, one that would not disappear in the sands of time but that was eternal, due to existing outside of time.

In the time of the Buddha there was already the notion of reincarnation. Death was not seen as the end, but just part of a never ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This was part of the suffering the Prince saw and that he wished to wake up from – the tendency to grasp at existence and the idea of I, me and mine that leads to ongoing rebirth into a state of suffering.

We may not believe in life after life now. But we see that we go through a number of incarnations in this life. We wake each day to inherit the consequences of our decisions from the previous day and as we age we become aware of inheriting the consequences of experiences and actions from the past that impact on us now even though the original self that experienced them is no longer here. Even moment by moment we see that we are coming into existence as our moods shift and change – you’re feeling happy at a party then someone spills their red wine on your new shirt and you feel upset and angry, in a moment one experience of selfhood has died to be replaced by another.

Hence, although we may not seek to end the rounds of rebirth from one life to another – we can identify with the Prince who was to become the Buddha and his wish to be free from constantly being held hostage by the past and our identification with what is arising in the present moment as being ‘me’ and instead be free in the moment through experiencing it with an open and non judgemental awareness of it as it is, rather than adding anything to it or wishing it were different which leads to suffering.

Why is there suffering? This is the central question so many of us ask and so many religions seek to answer.

What the Buddha saw and taught was that suffering is caused by three types of grasping:

1. Grasping at sensual desire (which leads to rebirth – the ongoing process of being someone wanting something)

2. Grasping at the desire to become (identity, being someone doing something)

3. Grasping at the desire not to be (rejecting identity, wanting to annihilate oneself)

In contrast letting go of desire and being at peace with things as they are leads to freedom.

.

How can this teaching be relevant to us and the question of how to be happy?

The Buddha does not say we are wrong to have sensual desire. We are in a body and as such we will experience pleasure. The suffering comes when we look to this sensual pleasure as being the source of ultimate happiness. If I look to sex, drink, drugs, food etc as being all there is to provide happiness then there may arise the feeling that I need more and more to touch the levels of pleasure they once opened me to. This way so easily leads to addiction. To searching for yet more intense ways to experience these pleasures until the pleasure no longer sets one free but has become a prison.

One’s life is consumed by the question “how can I get more?” More money, more sex, more exquisite music – whatever our sensual desire might be. And so we reach the point of eating that final wafer thin mint at the end of a gigantic meal of epicurean dimensions – and burst!

I’m sure we have all seen that following sensual desire as an end in itself has not led to happiness but to a deeper sense of lack and loss, of feeling that the hole we wish to fill is deeper and darker the more we run to the mirage of sensual desire.

This can open us up to a wish to change. But at this point the other two types of desire can hijack our real wish to be free.

We may pursue the desire to become: to become evangelical about what we see as our way of being saved – AA, religion, yoga, being a monk, being celibate etc. We seek to become the ideal student, to follow the teachings in a way that we become the best in our recovery group or a pure follower of the Buddha’s teaching. I did this by seeking to abandon sexual desire and embrace a life of celibacy aged 22. But in all of this there is still attachment – attachment to the idea of being pure, of being someone struggling to be better. There is still a strong sense of I, me and mine.

This struggle may then lead to the third type of desire: the desire for cessation, to no longer exist. We may come to a point where we see that our desires do not lead to happiness, that trying to be pure or become free does not work and so we just want to annihilate ourselves. This might be through suicide. It might be through following a spiritual teaching with the wish that we could disappear into the void and our suffering ceases. Still in trying to destroy ourself we are acting out of the idea of I, me and mine.

When I came across Buddhism I wanted to meditate to the point that I ceased to be, hoping that if ‘I’ disappeared then the suffering it experienced would cease. On one retreat I sought to challenge sensual desire by reducing my eating to a minimum. The result was that I went down to about 7 stone. (44KG). I then had even more suffering as I spent a year recovering my health! It was only after recovering and regaining some weight that I saw I had been lost in the desire to push away, to cease to be, in my attempts to challenge the desire to hold and posses, that this did not lead to freedom any more than grasping at the idea of becoming the ideal student and follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

Rather than this extreme of pushing away or grasping the Buddha taught the middle way. This middle way is the path leading to the end of suffering and is a gentle encouragement to be fully present to one’s experience, to enjoy what is there in the present moment and open to a sense of gratitude for what is in one’s life. With this attitude a meal or a caress from a lover can feel full and perfect rather than leave one wishing for more or better. Being mindful – fully alive to the present moment – can make that moment full and perfect as it is. This shall be the theme for the following two emails which will cover the final two Noble Truths:

The third Noble truth – suffering has an end

The fourth Noble Truth – there is a path leading to the end of suffering.

How to be happy: the four noble truths

This week we come to the question of happiness! The Buddha’s teachings assert that happiness is our true nature, that when all of the struggle, fear and worry are seen through there is simply luminous, clear consciousness – unborn, uncreated, outside of time and full of bliss, compassion and wisdom. For those of us not yet dwelling in that state we have what the Buddha described as the Four Noble truths – both a description of our dilemma, of the unenlightened state, and a guide to freedom from that state of struggle.

This week I’ll give an overview of the Four Noble truths and the reflections after the tea break will use these as a focus over the next four weeks.

The Four Noble Truths are:
1. There is suffering
2. Suffering has a cause
3. Suffering can be brought to an end
4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

Buddhism is often described as pessimistic. But essentially it is optimistic, even idealistic, as it believes that everyone has this capacity to awaken and be free from suffering. This capacity for freedom is innate in all of life and is not only for Buddhists! The Buddha offered a path that he considered most conducive to realising this freedom, but he encouraged his followers to be open to any other teachings that one experienced as leading to freedom and if they worked to use them.

Likewise he said to question everything he said, and not to take it on faith. Rather than saying “this is true because the Buddha said so”, he encouraged his followers to learn from their own experience so that they could say this is true because I have found it to be so. Buddhists are human so unfortunately Buddhism is not without its dogmas, as humans seem to like to belong to a group they can identify with, thereby excluding others as wrong and seeking security by following ‘the one true way’. But there’s the encouragement in the Buddha’s teaching to question this tendency and to be open to other faiths and teachings, seeing from one’s own experience if they lead to freedom or prolong suffering through keeping one rooted in greed, hatred and confused thinking.

1. There is suffering

This four fold examination of the human condition is based on the medical tradition at the time the Buddha:
1. there is a certain sickness;
2. that sickness has a cause;
3. that sickness has an end;
4. there is a course of treatment that can lead to the end of this sickness.

Thus, although the list starts with suffering, which gives Buddhism the reputation of seeing life as a place of unremitting pain, within this context we see that it does this with the intention of the essentially hopeful message: that for whatever ails you there is a cure. Having been cured you are returned to good health and it is this state of natural good health that Buddhism sees as our true nature; not the state of sickness that is an aberration from our natural good health.

Anyone hearing this teaching at the time of the Buddha would have recognised its cultural reference and seen the teaching as a reference to a doctor instructing his patient. Just as the patient then has to follow the course of treatment prescribed by the doctor and no amount of the doctor’s desire for the patient to recover will make them well if they do not follow the course of treatment, likewise the Buddha was not a magical saviour who could do the work for you, but a man who shared his experience of what had worked of him. It was then up to each individual practitioner to follow the prescribed remedy until returned to good health.

As we look at our lives we see that it is inevitable that we experience suffering: our bodies become ill and there is physical pain; the things we own and love can be lost or broken; relationships come to an end, and even those we love at some point will die and we experience the suffering of loss. The way humans can treat each other, with hatred, greed and lack of empathy likewise leads to pain, emotional wounding and suffering. Then there is the existential level of suffering. The still small voice in our heart that tells us that however good life is there’s something we are not seeing, a bigger truth that on seeing will make sense of life in a way our pursuit of success and gain can never satisfy. This is simply how it is. But this is not all there is.

If the Buddha only identified the malady but gave no cure then it would be a depressing teaching! Instead this is an acknowledgement and a reminder to notice and accept that we suffer. When we don’t accept this we can so easily try to run away from our own suffering through whatever we use to mask the pain: drugs, sex (or both together!), excessive work, or even an obsessive regime at the gym! We can feel that we are failures. That everyone else is sorted and happy but we alone have screwed up and are defective for not being totally fulfilled. Then we try to fill the emptiness, numb the pain, though activities which take us further into suffering.

Instead the first nobel truth is a gentle and compassionate acknowledgement that what we all share as living beings is the feeling of struggle, of loss, of fear, of sorrow on losing that which gives us security. The Buddha taught that everything that has a beginning has an end. As such there is nothing in this world we can look to that will not end, and if we base our happiness on these things it means we are always insecure as in our heart we know that everything is transient, impermanent, shifting – it’s like trying to build a house on shifting sand, the cracks will always be appearing: we then either spend our whole time trying to repair the cracks or simply realise that we need to leave the house. The rest of the noble truths outline how we see through the illusion that the dilapidated house is who we are and instead leave it to live the rich free life that exists beyond its confines.

The first step to happiness then, according to this teaching, is to accept the potential for life to bring us experiences that will give rise to unhappiness and to see it as simply part of how things are, rather than a perceived reflection on our failings or inadequacies. It is not that if we were more successful at living our life we would then never suffer or experience sorrow. Rather we accept that the nature of life is such that at times suffering will be inevitable. The Buddha described suffering as being like sitting in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. No matter how comfortable you try to make yourself in the cart it will give regular jolts as it goes on its journey.

To see a two minute animation of Stephen Fry outlining the Four Noble Truths as part of the BBC’s history of ideas series click here

Finally, so that we don’t end on only talking about suffering, the attached article explores how we can find more happiness in our lives through taking actions that encourage the body to produce its own feel good hormones.

.

How to be happy

How to be happy 1

%d bloggers like this: