Throughout the past six months, I’ve been immersing myself in a lot of Buddhist spiritual writings, and I’ve been fortunate to latch onto two important lessons that have been immensely powerful in my healing journey. The first is coming to terms with unwanted, messy, and painful parts of my past, and learning to embrace them as catalysts of change rather than simply bury them in shame. The second, and by far the most difficult to practice wholeheartedly, is to nurture empathy for myself and others—this means learning to “be with” rather than “be there for” someone else who is struggling.
In May, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma, particularly survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I’ll never forget her telling me in our first meeting that in order for me to start feeling better about myself, I would need to “let go of the storyline”, in other words, learn to let the trauma simply exist for what it is, and not give it a life-force that enables it to reign as a continual theme reverberating throughout my life. Buddhists believe that suffering is universal, so it is a teacher to be met with grace rather than with resistance.
I was explaining to my wife how there have been many times during the past few months when I wished I could shove that “genie” back into the lamp and go back to the time before I disclosed the childhood sexual abuse. The predicament I’m in is that I’m currently in limbo—a can’t go back, nor do I want to go back, and the prospect of the emotional energy involved in continuing on this path feels daunting and overwhelming. American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes this feeling in our lives as the “big squeeze”. “We find ourselves in that place again and again, usually we want to run away: sometimes we want to give up the whole thing. It’s like burn out; it feels extremely uncomfortable and you can’t wiggle out of it…It feels impossible for us to buy our situation and impossible to throw it out."
What’s really at play here is that I’m becoming more self-aware, and I’m not being subjected to anything that wasn’t always there with me; however, the difference is that now I’m acknowledging the presence of these feelings. Life is simultaneously beautiful and wretched. The beauty emboldens me and inspires me to move forward—it’s very addictive, and I’d love to wallow endlessly in this part of my life. The harsh reality is that the wretchedness is inescapable, and in the Buddhist tradition, something to be welcomed because it softens our hearts and humbles us. As Brene Brown would say, true connection comes when we are at our most vulnerable, not when we are soaring above everyone else.
So, how do I go about nurturing an acceptance of the pain, or wretchedness, that may pass my way? Again, if I turn to the teachings of Pema Chodron, I see that the answer may lie in one simple word--patience. According to Pema, “Paitence is not learned in safety. It is not learned when everything is harmonious and going well. When everything is smooth sailing, who needs patience? …There is no cultivation of patience when your pattern is to just try to seek harmony and smooth everything out. Patience implies willingness to be alive rather than trying to seek harmony.”
That last sentence encapsulates every period of discord in my life—every time I felt overwhelmed, inconsequential, or trapped. I’m starting to realize that my idea of “harmony” is completely out of whack with the universe’s definition of harmony. For me, “harmony” looked like tranquility, with little or no friction in my life. Every time something, or someone, came into my sphere that caused me to question myself or caused me to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I recoiled immediately and frantically tried to get back to that place of utopian “harmony”. What I ended up doing was creating a lot of unnecessary internal strife, as I pushed away everything unpleasant. There has been much written as of late, by such visionaries as Brene Brown and Sheryl Sandberg, about the importance “leaning into discomfort”, but this is not a new concept. In the “Compassionate Life”, the Dalai Lama expresses the value of being able to accept the problems we encounter in this life that prevent us from fulfilling our goals. “If when these happen, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face these difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that not just we but everyone has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and our capacity to overcome troubles. By remembering the suffering of others, by feeling compassion for others, our own suffering becomes manageable.” I’m starting to accept that just as we can’t choose our family, we are powerless to choose our teachers—sometimes they arrive in the guise of goodwill and progress; other times cloaked in pain and discomfort.