I was an undergraduate when I started hearing my classmates speak in reverent tones about Buddhism.
Suddenly everyone was reading Hesse’s Siddhartha and setting their watch timers for twenty minutes of meditation. Looking back at my fraught meditation sits, itching for my little alarm to go off, I can see that I completely missed the point. It didn’t stick, anyway, and I have a few theories about why:
1) I was trying to be Buddhist so I could fit into my peer group;
2) I didn’t have a teacher, a sangha (community), or dharma (accessible Buddhist teachings) to work with; and
3) At 19, I suspect I was too young and too egotistical to understand the First Noble Truth, that life is full of suffering, with any gravitas, let alone face my inner ugliness.
Many years passed; much suffering was felt.
In Spring 2009, my second semester at Union Theological Seminary, I enrolled in the courses “Paul Tillich and Buddhism,” and “Religions in the City,” both of which entailed introductions of varying depth to Buddhism. That semester I also took a small seminar, “The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius,” with Dr. Roger Haight, SJ, and I started attending Taize singing meditation at Park Slope Methodist Church in Brooklyn.
All of these contemplative practices collided in one axial season and my life changed. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hahn (The Miracle of Mindfulness and Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames were especially helpful) and also some Susan Piver, who is a very funny American Buddhist lady who writes about being Buddhist in a very humane and imperfect way.
Last summer I read a dharma teaching every morning by the Sakyong, Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche. I also began working with the Twelve Steps in 2006 and I have seen a lot of parallels between this healing framework and Buddhism, chiefly in the areas of transparency with oneself about one’s shortcomings and lack of skill, a commitment to discern and propagate “right view,” an acknowledgment of interdependence and relinquishment of the illusion of control of others and even oneself, a devotion to spiritual practice, and a commitment to help others. Armed with the Noble Eightfold Path, I have a to-do list of behavioral guidelines and a realistic sense of who I am, so I can start where I am, and maybe figure out how I got here too.
I grew up in an outrageously overachieving family and my achievements were always my currency for personal worth. I went to fancy schools, became a regionally well-known singer-songwriter with 8 albums to my name, and pushed myself harder and harder to get everything right. But the more I achieved, the more miserable and horrible and sad and angry I felt. The more distraught, desperate, and self-destructive I became. I look back at my twenties and I can only think of one word: imprisonment. My ambition, which was predicated on external approval and vocational success, was killing my joy; and my joylessness was killing my music. Nothing I did was good enough.
In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Han relates a story about a young man who began a meditation practice and soon thereafter abandoned it because it made him feel like he was an awful person. Before meditating, he was often anxious and depressed, but after practicing meditation for a few weeks, he found that he was full of bitterness, self-loathing and vengeance. Thich Nhat Han advised his student to continue practicing, because Thich surmised these feelings were not new to the student; indeed, the feelings had been long lodged in the student’s being and were finally coming to his consciousness. In persevering with his practice, the student found resources to face the impulses and sentiments that had been so uncomfortable, and learned to sit with them, to disperse them through investigation and compassion for himself, and finally not to identify with them. His practice, initially so oppressive, freed him from the imprisonment of aversion to emotions.
I relate this vignette because, put simply, I relate to it. Though I have been attempting contemplative practices for three years with increasing comfort, I have recently started sitting according to the tradition of Vipassana insight meditation. I find Vipassana insight meditation to be thoroughly uncomfortable. Throughout my last year, and especially during summer breaks when my schedule has allowed for more dedicated centering practices, I had been practicing what I now understand to be more akin to a classic Zen meditation: breath-focused and mind-emptying. But what I had interpreted as “improving” at this method was actually what Bhante Henepola Gunaratana describes in Mindfulness in Plain English as “sinking.” When I have meditated recently, I zone out and enter a dull and passive state of aversion where I pushed my thoughts out like windswept clouds or replaced uncomfortable sentimental surges with positive thinking and inner cheerleading.
Four weeks into a Vipassana practice, though I confess I have not yet cultivated a daily sitting habit, I have found myself dreading the descent onto my squishy pillow, because the insight practice launches me squarely into my own Pandora’s box. I’m far more aware of my tendency to be lost in angry fantasy, heroic fantasy, triumphant fantasy and despairing fantasy. I am at the tail end of a year-long breakup that I have habitually allowed to consume my waking thoughts. This month, as I have made firmer resolutions to wean myself off of my attachment to a relationship that is absolutely over, my Vipassana practice has guided me to understand the extent to which I devote mind-time to this relationship, and that the neural pathways of this unproductive obsession are deepening only through habit and reinforced beliefs about what this breakup has said about me, about my worth, about my choice of a partner, and about my future prospects. Luckily, sys Gunaratana, there is a “mental art of stepping out of [my] own way”: mindfulness practice.
There is a common thread to human healing as it is expressed by Alcoholics Anonymous, by Benedictine spiritual guides, and by Vipassana meditation techniques. All of these therapeutic systems exhort being here right now, fully present to every condition of the moment, including excruciating pain. In AA everything that matters only matters one day at a time. A wizened Benedictine nun I once spoke to about my spiritual distress insisted, “Every time you get confused and sad, look at your feet and say, ‘Here I am! I have everything I need!’”
And Vipassana meditation, as expressed by Gunaratana, guides attention through the breath to the fullness of reality, of the present moment. This meditation style has forced me away from the dull sinking of zoned-out emotional escapism and into the striated depths of my cavernous emotional life. Anger becomes an obvious front to fear; fear becomes an obvious front for loneliness; loneliness becomes an obvious front for restlessness; restlessness becomes an obvious front for unskilled constructs of low personal value and loveableness. That’s probably the baseline.
Here the why of psychoanalysis—why am I suffering?—can help unpack memories and embedded identity, and the how of Buddhism—here are eight handy suggestions for how to lessen and cease suffering!—work together in perfect complement. I am appreciating Vipassana meditation particularly because it seems an apt combination of the two processes—investigation of problems, and dissipation through non-identification.
Jack Engler also puts forward the two processes as complementary, since efficacies of spiritual practice and psychological healing are “multiply determined” and speak to the “full-spectrum” of characteristic adaptations, maladaptations and narcissistic/defensive delusions. (Engler, Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A Re-Examination of the Understanding of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism)
You know how when you read lists of symptoms of a disease you always feel like you have that disease? The more I learn about personality disorders the more I am positive that I have one. When I read the DSM IV’s description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder I adopt a “resident’s syndrome” and recognize myself quite readily in this category. Sometimes the revelations during my Vipassana practice, the hot surges of stagnant, apoplectic terror and self-victimization that blaze into my consciousness when I am sitting or moving through my day, confirm to my haunted imagination that my psychic structures are beyond repair.
Two Buddhist teachings have helped me to see the fallacy in this conviction: RAIN and anatta. Indeed, as Jack Engler writes, “narcissistic vulnerabilities aren’t unique to a specific character disorder…they exist across the developmental and diagnostic spectrum. They can coexist with relatively normal functioning in otherwise relatively integrated ego structures.” In other words, we all have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some of us have managed to do something about it. Some of us haven’t. All of us want to.
Jack Kornfield’s RAIN affect-insight method (from The Wise Heart) is a productive, pragmatic practice. It takes the meditator through a process of Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Identification with the array of thought processes encountered in meditation. I smile as I watch the rabid monkey of my mind (or, as the Sakyong, Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche calls it, lungta, the wild wind-horse). I am slowly learning to recognize and name affectations without judgment. Anger. Egoism. Fantasy. Planning. Pessimism. Daydream.
The next step of RAIN has been very important for me: acceptance. As long as I can recall, I have fought the conditions of my existence with a sharp rebuttal of “ought to,” generating endless reasons why reality ought to be other than it is, endless reasons why someone ought to feel a certain way about me, endless reasons why a professor ought to have graded me in a different way than they did. When I apply acceptance to the conditions that I recognize in my life and mind, there is no great showdown between ought to and is. There is only is.
Kornfield’s recommended tactic for investigating affect through body, feeling, mind and dharma further acquaints me with the striations of my mental processes, mostly with the fact that each of the sensations that seem so concrete when they first hit my consciousness are actually wraiths that disperse in the light. As soon as I pinpoint my affect with studied investigation, they get squirrelly and mysteriously transparent. When I narrow in on my anger or my fear, I actually have trouble staying focused on them long enough to dissect anything. They become, as Gunaratana writes, lighter and less dense. They dance away to the strains of anicca (the principle of the impermanence of everything). Indeed, all of the distractions of my practice that bear deeper investigation are far more comfortable acting as shadowy monsters sludging about in the periphery of my experience. Just enough to be a bother.
Finally, non-identification wrings out the last rainy dregs of heaviness and the illusion of my indelible depression or brokenness. Ever since I started learning Vipassana, my tongue is tied: how can I stop saying I am, I, me, mine, my mind, my sadness, I am hungry, I am always running late? No wonder Westerners have trouble with Buddhism: our very mode of expression is self-centered.
The fourth principle of RAIN, non-identification, is also predicated on the Buddhist principle of anicca: everything is impermanent, thus nothing can be successfully grasped and held permanently. Anicca and non-identification, when employed together with the concept of dependent origination/co-arising, give us anatta, the non-self, the second Buddhist concept that has helped me reconsider my self-diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. First of all, to claim a personality that can be disordered in the first place is to cleave to a Western psychoanalytic self-construct. Buddhism does not allow for an inherent, fixed self, and rejects the notion of permanently maladaptive personality tendencies, instead considering those who suffer interpersonally to be misguided by an excess of delusion and ignorance about the interdependent processes of being.
The original discovery of the Buddha is that reality is a social process, no element of which is either separate, independent, or of a self-established nature (svabhava). …No event in its privacy can ever be what it is. Indeed, the possibility of anyone or anything living out a private existence is an egocentric illusion. To be is to be related, and everything is a set of relationships reaching out to other things. (Nolan Pliny Jacobsen, Understanding Buddhism)
…the root of all self-generated suffering in the Buddhist view is attavadupadana, clinging to self or identifying with the construct of a singular self with its own separate or inherent existence, with all the anxiety, conflict, and underlying alienation that follows. … Long before postmodernism, Buddhist and other great yogic-meditative traditions evolved issues for deconstructing this construct of self, not so much to decide a theoretical or philosophical issue about reality but to liberate oneself from what today we would call pathogenic beliefs or dysfunctional cognitions. (Engler)
Of course, every human being has “growth areas,” but while Freud might consign such rifts between duty and desire, or between reality and fantasy, as a manifestation of inherent human inner conflict, Buddhism suggests that there are no indelible marks of personality.
As Dr. Pilar Jennings, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, says, “Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, because nothing is wholly individual.” As the ever-changing experience of being-in-the-world is wholly dependent on conditions and provocations in a succession of present moments, the mind’s habits as well are fluid, growable, changeable. When the aggregates/skandhas are subjected to mindfulness and a clearly defined goal, they can indeed cease to dominate life experience.
As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche advises, “By meditating you are slowing down the process. When it has slowed down, the skandhas are no longer pushed against one another. There is space there, already there.”
I know this because I’ve done it. It doesn’t mean my impulses are not there. It means, however, that I stop before I follow them, consider consequences and alternatives, and make clear choices. Though it’s taking the shape of Vipassana insight meditation this spring, I’m also practicing Freud’s method of “evenly hovering attention” and working toward an ethic of “choiceless reactivity” (phrases supplied by Dr. Pilar Jennings).
Whether I’m benefiting from eight years of psychoanalysis, or from Buddhist meditation and very recently the Vipassana tradition, I’m starting to see the difference between the two ways of thinking about healing.
Psychoanalysis (like, interestingly, Christianity) starts at brokenness. It gets busy fixing what has been broken by the difficult world, to the extent that this is possible, and adjusting inherent personality deficiencies and brokenness. Fusing broken parts into the authentic whole self. Brokenness is part of who we are, but we can minimize it to be more effective in the world. Someday, we’ll all be whole, if we work hard enough.
Buddhist paths to healing start at wholeness. They guide practitioners first toward getting rid of the illusion that it is possible to be broken. It says, we have always been whole and we will be whole until we cease! It restores resilience in an ever-changing, painful world, gently reminding us that though there is pain, there needn’t be suffering. It reminds us in a very logical, brilliant way that there will always be things we cannot control or understand, so stop trying and let go. It beckons, saying, we have always been whole, and we still are; we just have to get out of our own way.
Engler, Jack. “Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A Re-Examination of the Understanding of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.” Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an Unfolding Dialogue. By Jeremy D. Safran. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Gunaratana, Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Art of Power. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Jacobson, Nolan Pliny. Understanding Buddhism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986.
Kornfield, Jack. The Wise Heart: a Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology. New York: Bantam, 2008.
Trungpa, Chögyam. Glimpses of Abhidharma: from a Seminar on Buddhist Psychology. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
(Believe me, if you Google-image “brokenness,” all these Christian images show up. That’s how linked the two are.)
(Google-image “suffering”? You get terrifying video games, and Jesus Christ. Way to go.)