When I was living in the monastery a therapist from the Karuna Institute, a Buddhist psychotherapy centre, used to visit us to run sessions. He always said “we are wounded in relationship and we are healed in relationship” It was one of those things I’ve always remembered and that has felt true even without knowing more about it as a theory or where it was from. It is so easy to think I have to fix myself, this is my journey, I am alone. But this can lead to ruminating inside our head without coming to any conclusion or release. A friend of mine who is a therapist often reminds me that healing happens when we come into relationship – with friends, a therapist, family or a community. And it is through this sense of healing relationship with others that one is able to come into a healthy relationship with oneself.
What happens when we feel isolated from friends, family and community? In a world where we are both so public – through Facebook and social media – we are also very alone, as our family and social network gets more disrupted by distance, work and other demands. This loss of close friendships can be the most damaging aspect of our modern social life. I’ve been lucky in my life to live in communities for much of my life. Whilst at University I spent weekends at a Buddhist community in Leeds where I met with other young Buddhists and we would spend an evening together discussing our practice. There was a real feeling of closeness, love, brotherhood. On graduating I moved into a Buddhist community in Cambridge where I continued to attend a group of men who were seeking ordination. We met once a week to meditate together, share our experience of practice, encourage each other and listen. From here I went to the monastery where for six years there was only the community. The people I lived with were my whole life. We ate together, worked on maintenance projects together, socialised together and meditated together. In the Northumberland monastery there were 8 of us. In Hertfordshire around 20.
Not a lot of people to choose from, but a social network soon became established and without it I could not have lived there. I was not a solo practitioner meditating alone, I was part of a community, and I saw myself more clearly as a result of this – from the difficulties that arose in relationship I learnt about my shadow side – the parts of me that would react to another or project onto them. We all have this: a person reminds us of things we do not like in ourselves, or behaves in a way we have repressed and it causes us annoyance. I learnt as a child to start to be more controlled, less spontaneous and more careful or else risk my mothers anger. So now when I see people who are ‘boisterous’ I see it as wrong and feel annoyed – in part not liking how loud they are (in my opinion), in part feeling annoyed I don’t feel able to be so free myself! By not observing my own part of this it becomes easy to blame the other, to make them wrong and look down on them. In fact they are inviting me to look at a part of myself I have cut off from or denied. Engaging with the people in our lives like this in the third stage of the Loving Kindness practice can be very useful. Feeling into why it is their behaviour aggravates us, questioning why I might find them annoying when others think they are fun!
Seeing those we dislike as a gift to deepening self awareness and self love
This happened in the Northumberland monastery with a fellow novice. He was from Manchester, where he had worked as a gardener’s assistant. He was strong and direct whilst I was emaciated and tentative. I fancied him as soon as I saw him! He disliked me as soon as we spoke. I felt at times in awe of his blunt manliness, at times looked down on him. We were like this for a year or so, struggling to find any conversation, feeling awkward with each other. Then I started doing dream work. This novice started to appear in my dreams as someone who was angry with me. We were always arguing in my dreams. My dream work involved reflecting on the characters and objects in the dream, writing down words that I associated with them and starting to decipher the way my subconscious was using them as symbols or metaphors. With him I realised that he represented the manly, strong, direct and virile energies I had denied in myself to be a ‘good boy’ for my mother, and then as a man in order to be ‘spiritual’.
The dream work encouraged rituals to work with any learning that came though the reflections and so I decided to write a letter to this inner self, who was taking the guise of my fellow novice in the dream . I wrote a letter apologising for having cut him off, for ignoring him and making him wrong, for looking down on him and pushing him away. I asked that we could be friends and said that I needed his energy in my life. My way of posting the letter was to burn it in the monastery log stove, just as I used to send letters to Santa Clause as a child via the sitting room fire! And that was it, or so I thought. But after this a curious change occurred in the real life relationship. We started to talk and found we actually liked each other. The monastery was in Northumberland on the edge of moorland and we used to go for long walks chatting about our life in the monastery, sharing how we were feeling about it and what we were learning. He became a friend. And so, through relationship, there was healing – possibly for both of us as – I’m sure I represented the soft, vulnerable, unboyish parts of himself he had had to hide away in order to be a tough boy in inner Manchester.
It’s these unloved and unwanted parts of ourselves that we need to learn to hold with compassionate care as we mediate. They are the characteristics and energies we cut off from when we felt embarrassed by them, were told they were naughty or brought the disapproval of those we depended on for love and support. And one way I see the unloved and unwanted parts of my inner self is to see who I do not like in my outer life! Whilst I may not always become best friends with these people looking in to see why it is they annoy me can be more rewarding than just staying with the surface story of what is wrong with them.