Monday, December 27, 2010

Dark Tunnel Dukkha

For various reasons, this time of year tends to bring out the worst in me. Or that which I don't want to look at, have avoided, am afraid of, etc. This year, it feels quite fierce, given where I am in my life.

After three months of not working, I'm getting a crash course in how difficult it is to let go of external identities and desired support from others, and just be yourself right now. Here is a short list of what's been coming up for me over the past few weeks:

1. Lots of questions about who I am and where I am going.

2. Lack of confidence.

3. Fear. Lots and lots of fear.

4. Avoiding. Lots of avoiding.

5. Frustration with an inability to articulate what's going on to others.

6. Irritation with unsolicited advice.

7. Guilt. I mean, after three months, why don't you have something figured out?

8. Surprise. Why has the harsh critical voice suddenly returned with full force?

9. Anger. A more recently returned guest.

10. The usual seasonal depression, that came later this year, and which I thought I had a decent handle on, but now am swamped in again.

When I left my job at the end of August, my intention was to take time and listen deeply for what it was that my life was really calling for me to do. I had grown tired of doing what a lot of people do - keeping a job that slowly kills them because they're totally afraid of the economic and/or social consequences of leaving it without the safety net of another job lined up.

The thing is, it was always more than about work for me. All signs in my life had pointed to it being time to figure out a way to synthesize what I love into how I live more fully, on a day to day basis. This kind of thinking tends to be dismissed by the conventional world as pipe dream bullshit, and it might turn out to be just that, but I don't want to be on my death bed thinking "Maybe I should have taken a risk to do X."

Anyway, when I left in August, I didn't expect the following to occur.

1. Most of my "in the flesh" friends either growing extremely busy, or simply vanishing from my life all together.

2. The flickering in and out of my life old romances that stirred up various unresolved issues/griefs connected to them.

3. Discussions about what it means to be a dedicated lay practitioner at my zen center, and subsequent requests by a few students in a group I am a part of for added practice requirements (more retreat time and responsibilities for upholding aspects of formal practice at the center).

4. Frequently interrupted sleep patterns and various minor illnesses over the past month.

All in all, I'm finding that other than my immediate family, many of the relationships in my life are either dormant, strained, or disappearing. And I'm seeing how this has sent me spinning more often than I'd care to admit. Even though I have had wonderful people supporting me throughout my life, and know that the universe itself is always supporting each of us in a myriad of ways, it's also true that I have had to do a lot of things on my own. That from an early age, I was called on to be a responsible person capable of taking care of his shit. And what this did to me was create a pattern where I feel I should be competent or better in what I'm doing most of the time, otherwise something is way wrong. Intellectually, I know this to be a story, but deep down somewhere, this story is still fighting for control of my life. And in this time of not knowing about so much, it's rearing its ugly head pretty frequently.

The other thing about this pattern, at least for me, is that I have quite weak skills in asking for help or support. Years and years of having to do it myself, or thinking I had to do it myself, have left me in a tough position now. When you're not good at reaching out in these ways in the first place, and then many of those who you have developed a sense of trust with are not available, you're left to face your rotten skills on your own. In fact, whereas when I'm doing fairly well, I have a good sense of what I need and can usually locate it, or figure out how to deal without it. But being in this place of such fierce not knowing about so much, I also don't know what it is I really need. So, not only am I not good at reaching out for support, but I often don't even know what I'd ask for right now.

In posting this, I am not desiring advice on "what to do." Nor am I fishing for sympathy. I've had darker periods in my life, where not having the tools and insights of a spiritual practice meant swirling around in endless rounds of self-criticism and anger at others for not "getting me." That was worse than what I am experiencing now, even though what I am experiencing now feels like it's going straight to the core of my life. Much more palpable and scary than what I went through when I was younger, but the ride is less maddening you might say.

It's also been interesting to watch momentary impulses to post some sad-sack headline on Facebook, or to write some crying in your beer type post on here. I've watched a few friends use Facebook like that over the past few years, and I don't want to join that crowd. Some blogs get like that as well, where post after post is about the latest misery a person is experiencing, or how decision X or experience Y is another example of how "bad" a Buddhist they are. This is mostly just hustling for a self-esteem boost, and that's pretty damned tawdry if you ask me.

One of the reasons I dedicated myself to both zen and yoga practice is that both emphasize total liberation. If you stick with it, experiment with what you learn, and trust the process, major shifts do happen in your life. And even though there's endless talk about dropping all "expectations for any fruition" - especially enlightenment - I think it's foolhardy to believe that you'll just reach a certain point where you'll have a relatively comfortable "external life" supported by your practice. Actually, I'd say this is exactly what happens to those who seek out practice as self-help, which isn't a terrible thing, but certainly is limited.

When I received my dharma name a few years ago, I found myself pondering "devotion." And one of the things I have realized is that even though on the outside, my "practice" sometimes looks a bit slack, I have always, since I was really, really young, had a fire for uncovering the truth. At five years old, I returned home one day from school and told my mother the kids in class were boring. Why? Because they were mostly interested in playing around and picking on each other. They were being kids in other words.

I played too. It wasn't that I was some learning robot, always focused on serious stuff. But that little boy carried an old man's voice in his head from the beginning I think. Which made me kind of different. And sometimes caused trouble. Like the time I took my sister down in the basement to show her the pile of presents, and tell her there was no Santa Claus. She wasn't even five years old yet.

So, the leap to leave my old workplace, and more importantly, to live in this not knowing place is all about that devotion to the truth. To awakening. To liberation.

And this post is part update about where I am at, and also mostly an attempt to say that I'm not finding it terribly easy right now. Here in Minnesota, we keep getting piled on by snowstorm and snowstorm. I feel like the ground, buried in snow. Except the ground just accepts it, whereas with each additional layer, I'm fighting it more than accepting it.

Perhaps this will all change very soon, or maybe not for awhile. I don't know. I'm doing my best to trust the process. Some days that's easier than others.


ZenDotStudio said...

I have always found that I learn the most Dharma from those who are willing to be unflinchingly honest. And that is what I see here.

I have felt all these things that you list at some time. My body is my biggest teacher and through a recent bout of unwellness, experienced with awareness I felt like I was going a bit crazy. I felt the full force of samsara. I feel this too in your post.

Once you jump on the old Dharma train, you don't really have any idea of where it will take you. I didn't know this until I was on for the ride.

I have heard it said that advice is the antithesis of respect. And I know a rude one liner about where to find sympathy in the dictionary that I won't spell out here! I could email it to you if you haven't heard it!

Faith is something I often forget about when the going gets tough.

Thanks, Nathan, for this amazing and articulate post.

Dean Crabb said...

Nice post Nathan, honest and thought provoking. There are several things to comment on there. In some ways you remind me of myself about 10 or 11 years ago. Have you read my life story on my blog? I went through a stage similar to this. Without meaning to sound egotistical, I advanced really quickly in meditation. I had amazing insights and vision but my life was a mess. It made me realise that the insights are useless if they aren't integrated into a balanced human experience, which is what has shaped me and the focus on my blog. I'm not bringing that up to say this is where you are at, I just went off on a tangent there, but I do relate to your life stage.

The other thing I relate to, which comes across in your words, is the ability to express what is affecting you without being caught in it. I use to tell people "I'm feeling this and that" and I was often shocked at people's reaction, they were SO concerned about me but I felt perfectly fine. People just couldn't understand how I could be feeling something and expressing this without being caught in it. After a while I noticed two things, one that the "effects" in my life started to calm down and if they did arise almost nothing bothered me. When I spoke to my teacher about it he said a simple yet really profound thing "Ah, this is freedom". I struck me like a thunderbolt.

The other thing that comes across in your post is being comfortable with this unknown. This is something quite profound to come to terms with in the meditation practice. Everything is uncertain and we have to learn to be at ease with this uncertainty, with the unknown. Rest into it and realise "This too shall pass". This, as you express, requires faith but only at first. Once you've passed through the eye of the storm uncertainty, like anything else, becomes something that doesn't bother you. It's just the way it is.

One thing that helps me is the perspective of time. We sometimes get caught because we feel like "This will never end". Talking of faith, I found it helps to think "In 10 years time this will all makes sense". or "In 10 years time will I even remember this period?" It helps you feel more at ease with what is happening now.

Anyway, just relating some things from my path that seems similar to what you express. Really great post.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb

Nathan said...

Hi Carol,

Yeah, it sometimes feels like going a bit crazy, the energy moving around, thoughts whirling this way and that. And the upswells of illness, which for me have been of a nuisance variety, just enough to upset sleeping and cause a little physical irritation during the day. It's been a pretty wild ride inside lately.

Hi Dean,

One difference, perhaps, between what you went through awhile back and where I am now is that for the most part, the details of my everyday life aren't a mess. I'm fine financially. I get along well with my immediate family. My health hasn't been great lately, but I'm not falling apart in that way. I don't even have much relationship drama, or external conflict going on - mostly, just people appearing, triggering some old stuff, and then disappearing. Or people just fading away.

I was sitting in zazen last night before bed. It was my second session of the day. The first one I did before writing this post, and it was just thought after thought rising up through me, and then being replaced by another. So, I sat just watching it all. Before bed, I was sitting there, and someone was making noise outside my apartment. It sounded like glass breaking, but also easily could have been ice being broken off from the porch roof. Anyway, it was kind of late, and I was starting to worry about what was going on. I felt myself getting ready to turn around and look out the window, and I just stopped. The need to know exactly what was happening dropped off. The worrying dropped off. My mind basically went quiet. And I actually slept through the night last night without waking.

"We sometimes get caught because we feel like "This will never end". Talking of faith, I found it helps to think "In 10 years time this will all makes sense". or "In 10 years time will I even remember this period?" It helps you feel more at ease with what is happening now." This is totally true. Thanks for reminding me.

Metta to you both.


MeANderi said...

Nathan, there's nothing I can really add to the wonderful supportive comments above, but just wanted to lend my support here.

My experience has been that our "stories" are our life experiences. They are real to us as we move through them. And sometimes they do need to told, to be heard. In the telling, which you have done here with integrity and perspective can bring relief and release. Our "stories" are the catalyst, the vehicle to take us to "the core" of seeing the Truth. I hear that here. Your *life* has become your vehicle to take you deeper into the Truth...

My husband and I are going through a similar circumstance at the moment. It's a tough one emotionally, as you know. There are many dark places that arise that you didn't even know were there!

Sending warm heart hugs as you pass through this... Christine

Nathan said...


Best wishes to you and your husband. May you find your ways through. Thanks for the support.


Algernon said...

This is good honest "choking on the iron ball" writing, and though it is not fun to any degree, it is "okay" to be stuck like this. Thank you for straight and honest reporting that desires no advice and offers none. We are all choking. (I first typed "we're all in on the choke" but why reward you with a bad pun?)

Dean Crabb said...

"...and I just stopped. The need to know exactly what was happening dropped off. The worrying dropped off. My mind basically went quiet. And I actually slept through the night last night without waking."

Nice! Yes, we come to see the mind is just moving. Through meditation it becomes quieter and stiller, and we feel less of an urge to seek out anything "known" based on the movements that occur.

One thing I didn't mention in my first response is that I relate to the way you talk about relationships coming and going. This is something I've always noticed. I'm not sure if it's due to spiritual awareness of our sense of alone-ness created by ego, or my sense of self that wants to be liked, or because I've seen so many relationships come and go - maybe a bit of all three. But I've really only come to peace with this in the last year since I've moved down south away from everything. Does it really matter if I have friends or not? Well yes it would be good but ultimately we come into the world alone and leave alone, everything in-between is just transitory and eventually passes. That's not to say relationships are not fruitful and beautiful and important but we can also create a lot of internal struggle in ourselves by holding onto this. Quite simply we long to be liked and to be surrounded by people so we struggle with this when we aren't or when they pass. Ultimately we see in these relationships coming and going the same process of cessation we see in everything else and we struggle with it because we aren't at peace with this simple truth - all things pass. When we come to peace with this and see this truth we also come to peace with our relationships.

Anyway, just wanted to share what I've noticed around this.


Ji Hyang said...

trusting the darkness-- as we shared in relation to my recent post-- is both difficult and beautiful, like the process of birth. Perhaps you are in a birth process, a bardo realm-- and the essential thing really is to keep seeing how everything that appears is a reflection of mind. Remembering you are in prajna paramita, the matrix of all becoming...

And, we are all in this together in these transformative times.


Ji Hyang

dharmapiglet said...

Mate. I really appreciate your honesty. I'm also going through a period of major change and am noticing my aversive behaviour patterns arising strongly. In my case they are the usual three amigos- fear, anger & hatred. Yippee! I'm having a lot of intense "lightbulb moments" (thank you Oprah), mostly painful ones, surprise surprise.
And then I get into the blogosphere and see that there are so many people feeling these things as well. Actually I've just posted a big gushy blog about how much I appreciate the searing honesty in many of the blogs that I read. It is a form of generosity, to share yourself like that and as your comment-ers show, it means a lot to many people. I totally relate to your feeling a bit apart from the flock and driven to search for truth and meaning. I admire your courage in stepping off that ledge to see what's out there.
Metta & best of luck with all of it.

Nathan said...

Thanks Dharmapiglet. Wishing you the best during this challenging time.

"Ultimately we see in these relationships coming and going the same process of cessation we see in everything else and we struggle with it because we aren't at peace with this simple truth - all things pass. When we come to peace with this and see this truth we also come to peace with our relationships." Yes. Exactly. Buddha put a lot of emphasis on friendships - that brothers and sisters on the path are pretty critical in our lives. They might be family members, lovers, or friends, but deeply sharing our lives is a pivotal practice in my view. However, no matter what, these relationships will end (on the physical plane anyway.) They don't last forever. So, learning to let go gracefully, again and again, is also pivotal practice.

Ji Hyang - this is certainly a bardo period for me. I've felt that for awhile now.

Jomon said...

Appreciating your honesty, and bowing to your practice.