Monday, December 7, 2009

Blaming the Past as a Pastime

Barry over at Ox Herding said the following in his current post:

My teacher recently said to someone, "You're like the drunk driver who hits a person in the crosswalk, then jumps out of the car and exclaims, 'I was mistreated as a child!'"

Of course, all of us make mistakes, and fall short of commitments and obligations. That's the human way.

But how often do we blame our failures on the past, rather than working with what we're up to in this very moment?

This is a real trouble spot for us, isn't it? I know for myself that it has been at times and, after some time practicing Buddhism, I found that I have added a new layer on it in the form of blaming things on karma I can't figure out how to change. There's a need to really pay close attention to how you merge the conditions that came together to make the "you of now" and the way you choose to act and move within the now. It's a subtle point; I miss it plenty of times every day. But if you believe that the past that brought you here determines who you are, you're in trouble.

This is the problem I see with some forms of psychotherapy, as well as the way some of us in North America (and other places) are placing too heavy an emphasis on psychological languaging - such as the overuse of the term "ego." I think it can make us lean too heavily on focusing on those old stories, which is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for an awakened life.

Let me give an example. I had a period of deep struggle at my job this fall, during which every day was exhausting, and I was on the edge of simply walking out. Much of the time during that period, I believed the following:

1. The lack of caring and desire to connect that I had displayed towards most of my co-workers was irreversible: that I had burned those bridges completely.

2. No matter what I did, it was never good enough.

3. I couldn't say what I thought about anything because it would upset people too much.

Lots of all or nothing thinking there, and I can certainly trace some of it back to the past, my childhood, past jobs, even the past dynamics of the current job. In fact, I did some of that tracing back during the past few months, and I have to say, it really didn't help that much.

It was only when I started just staying with what was there - "Ok, I'm tense. I'm having generalized, fatalistic thoughts, I'm struggling to breath deeply" - it was only then that something happened. Actually, I still don't know what really happened. I just woke up one day and felt fine about it all. I'm still looking for my next career, but I don't feel the same madness when it comes to my current workplace.

Think of it this way. A person could spend weeks and months on end examining the room in the photo above and determining all of the causes and conditions that led to its deterioration, and maybe that might give some useful ideas for building stronger buildings in the future, or maybe not. One of the problems with this approach is that your examining old wood, nails, glass, and other constructions that have a specific structure that interacted with a specific environment during a specific time period. in many ways, it's not really repeatable, even if you use very similar materials to rebuild the place. The same is true of your life, isn't it?

So, the same person above could take a different approach. They could simply open their eyes, see the condition of the building, and then decide what is being called for now. If your job is in historical documentation and building preservation, maybe the first approach would be appropriate. But otherwise, it seems like an awful lot of energy to expend on a project that might result in little or no insight at all.


spldbch said...

I think it's important to recognize patterns we've developed over time and sometimes to even understand where they came from. Then we need present moment awareness to catch ourselves in the act as we find ourselves repeating these patterns.

Great post!

Barry said...

Thanks again for the pointer to Ox Herding!

As I read your post, two thoughts came to mind:

- Buddhism and psychotherapy actually work on different aspects of mind. Psychotherapy, in my experience, focuses on understanding and adjustment. Buddhism focuses on transformation and (in Zen) on immanence.

- Blaming strikes me as a subset of storytelling, the self-narrative that runs pretty constantly in most of us. As you note, present-moment awareness of body and mind can cut through this storytelling. This is when practice can save our lives, sometimes quite literally.

Thanks again, Nathan!


Algernon said...

Barry's post is good, so is yours, and great comments. Why subscribe to Buddhist magazines when this blog is free? (*Ducks*)

Barry's distinction between the processes of psychotherapy and Buddhist practice sounds pretty good. One place where they come together (at least to touch) is how going into the story and figuring out its structure can help "cut through" or lay to rest the beliefs that keep confusing and hindering us (i.e. "whatever I do, it will never be good enough" -- a statement that contains at least three mythologies).

And by working with a keen-eyed teacher, the Zen student can see into the very process of story-making and where it comes from, that we may let that rest or use it as the situation requires.