Monday, November 29, 2010

Being a Loving Parent to Your Delinquent Qualities

Feeling tired, but not ready to sleep yet last night, I turned on the radio to discover a rebroadcast of this interview with the Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. As the program went on, I found myself more and more interested, and then was sad to hear that he had died. This morning, I discovered he died in his sleep at age 52, entirely young in modern terms. I barely knew his name before 10 o'clock last night, and yet somehow I wish he were still around, but also thankful for whatever he did give to the world before going.

Here is a quote that seems quite pertinent to my life right now. Perhaps yours as well.

"If you try to avoid or remove the awkward quality, it will pursue you. The only effective way to still its unease is to transfigure it, to let it become something creative and positive that contributes to who you are.
Nietzche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. Rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life…..One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities"
— John O'Donohue (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom)

If you're like me, when you look at yourself, you probably see a lot of those delinquent qualities. Everything from little quirks that feel awkward to larger patterns that seem to be grave flaws. Even if you're also good at noticing what's going well, and/or what qualities are beneficial, it still can be challenging to really face this other stuff, and let go of any agendas for it.

How often have you embraced your habit of interrupting others during conversations, or your pattern of dating people who aren't "good for you," only because you hope that the embrace with change it? Or how often have told others you are "getting better" with taking risks not because you actually are, but because you hope that saying it will help bring the change around?

Agendas are tricky things, but whatever they are, they are not the qualities present in a "loving parent." After awhile along the path, things like avoidance and acting out are easier to spot. You might still do them, but you tend to know you're doing them - or see it much more quickly than before. Those are gross agendas. But the more subtle ones, like the two in the questions I posed above, they're not as easy to spot.

Transfigure is an interesting word.

to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to : transform outwardly and usually for the better

In a way, it sounds like another attempt to lie. To deceive. When I saw that definition, an imagine of a friend of mine sitting with a plastic smile on her face during an event she didn't want to attend arose immediately. That smile was about hiding; she told me as much.

But when I reflect on transfigure further, it brings to mind the ritual of placing one's robe on before meditation. The rakusu, the kesa - they symbolize the buddha within, and the way of being a buddha in the "outer" world. (Outer and inner are really just distinctions of the relative world.) Placing the rakusu on my head, I chant the following, and then unfold it and place it around my neck.

How great, this robe of liberation
a formless field of merit,
wrapping ourselves in Buddha's teachings
we free all living beings.

The rakusu is just a piece of sewn cloth, and yet if you look at that verse, it's also a transfiguring. Ordinary being to Buddha. With nothing excluded.

I don't particularly like

the longing for a healthy, long term romantic relationship
the indecision over next steps in my professional life
the feelings of inadequacy around being unemployed
the awkwardness of being a non-driver in car-centric culture
the lack of calling towards meditation retreats I'm experienced as a somewhat "seasoned" Zen practitioner
the lack of connection I feel with the Thanksgiving and Christmas season
the desire for light in this mostly dark time of year
the conflict avoidance I still give into sometimes
the lust and desire for sex and the loneliness behind it
the failures to "stand up for myself" in certain situations
the desire to "fit it" or at least not stand out
the attachment to political views and anger that sometimes comes from it
the fears of failure and the risks not taken because of it

but putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

And I can put that rakusu on in every moment if I choose to - but more often than not, I simply don't choose to. Or I put it on out of a desire to hide behind it, to look holy or spiritual instead of whatever it is that I actually am. The line between these is sometimes very thin - a place worthy of investigation.

How do you work with delinquent qualities? Certainly, many of you reading this blog could say meditation, but what a pat answer that would be. All of this I've seen about the rakusu is from my meditation practice, from putting it on my neck over and over again. But it's in the details that one locates the loving parent.

* Sculpture is "Trans-Figure 1" by South African artist Dylan Lewis.


Was Once said...

We all have dislikes in ourselves, and quite a few on your list sound like me, but I bet most people could at least find one. Being a loving parent would also mean focusing on the good qualities instead.
That was bold to list your faults, so what I see is you are honest person with precious human birth.

Algernon said...

I was encouraged early on not to go in and try to change all my faults, but rather to examine that impulse itself: what new model would I be using for myself, why that one, and who was going to do the "improving?"

So I would simply pay attention as I noticed myself stealing other people's time, weedling for certain kinds of attention, organizing certain priorities around gratification more than need, and more. I would watch that play out and notice how it affected other people. After a while, some of these things I just didn't want to do anymore, and I stopped doing them but it wasn't about being a "better person" or banishing my "bad" qualities. Something shifted, and that was enough.

That's still my personal practice. It's probably an unending process. In marriage, with such closeness to my wife and child, the ripples from what I do and what I am grasping are very clear.

Nathan said...

"It's probably an unending process." I agree with this. Which I think also allows some looseness around it all.

"I was encouraged early on not to go in and try to change all my faults, but rather to examine that impulse itself: what new model would I be using for myself, why that one, and who was going to do the 'improving?'"

It's interesting when I consider my own practice, and the messages I received early on. Even though there was the same emphasis on examining your life, and not trying to "fix" it - I also think the way our sangha was at the time, how people were almost hyper-driven at times to display dedication to practice above all else, seems to have muddled that message for me. I came wanting to "fix" things, and then entered into a community of folks that seemed to want great achievement as practitioners...

It's only been in the last few years that I've come to a place of less striving, less condemning of the rough parts - and more presence with it all.

Was Once - "Being a loving parent would also mean focusing on the good qualities instead." Right. There are times when focusing on the beneficial is exactly what's called for.

Anonymous said...

How do we approach changing ourselves if embracing our qualities won't actually change us? I relate to a lot of what you listed you don't like in yourself. Still I can't help but want to work with mine, learn to do things differently or not feel overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy or panic.

Do you have any suggestions on this matter?

Nathan said...

Hi Anonymous,

The tension between effort and non-effort is something I've been focusing on a lot lately. Because I think it can be easy to slide into acceptance = giving up territory. Which in one sense, is true. You're giving up trying to be something you aren't. But in another sense, just giving up isn't what's called for.

I experiment a lot. If, for example, the internet goes out and I feel myself getting ticked off, I'll watch my breath. Or silently chant. Or laugh at it, even if it doesn't seem funny. I make a bit of effort to bring in the methods and Buddhist teachings I have been trained, and then see what happens. Sometimes, there's no effort. I'm spinning off and a line from a sutra appears in my mind, or I just go to my breath.