Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing Violence: Thoughts on Authenticity and Spiritual Bypassing

Here in Minnesota, we woke up to over 16 inches of fresh snow on the ground. Most of the city was shut down last night, and people are trying to dig out today. Me? I was out taking pictures, including the one above of my street.

So, I was interested to see what might come of the last post, which isn't my regular writing style. In particular, what I am curious about is the ways that we can write authentically about difficult, disliked patterns and ways of being in the world. Friday's post was about aggressiveness. Competition. Excessive effort. Turning one's spiritual practice into a contest. And also the voices in our heads that can arise from such energies.

Peter left the following comment, which I can imagine was how others felt that read the post:

I enjoy the energy in your post -- but find all that hard-ass, motherfucker language of little interest. too testosterone-laden and agressive for my taste. neither meditation nor blogging (nor living for that matter) is a contest.

i find that there's enough suffering in the world, without creating more under the guise of practice.

First off, those like Peter who are regular readers of this blog know that I'm not given to tossing foul language around carelessly. Most of my writing steers clear of it because it's not necessary for the situation. I actually tend to respond in a similar way to profuse cussing as Peter did to this particular post. Adding cuss words to angry writing tends to bend both the reader and writer towards more anger. And adding cuss words in other kinds of writing often just causes distraction, confusion, and/or aversion in readers.

However, one of the weaknesses, in my opinion, of much spiritual writing out there is a failure to express the fullness of experience, and then use that expression as a way in to understanding the deep truths of this life. What I find is that the bluntness, rawness, even nastiness that sometimes litters our minds and even our actions gets abstracted, shunted, even turned aside out of a belief that presenting such stuff will just cause more suffering. Or is categorically wrong, a no-no for people on a spiritual path.

Let's take a specific example from Friday's post.

Zazen posture seems to be a big deal for a lot of people. Those who can't do the full lotus posture often spend months and even years trying to emulate it, thinking that this it is a requirement for awakening. And when the body inevitably gets sick and/or old, there's a certain amount of grief and suffering that comes up for those who are attached to sitting full lotus, and now can't.

Being in a group, especially during retreats, can ramp up this kind of energy. I've experienced this myself. You've been doing zazen all day, your entire body aches, and yet you look around, and most everyone else is still in full lotus, or half lotus. And what do you do? You stay in lotus, even though you're literally on fire with pain.

What's the mind look like under these conditions. Well, it's probably something like this: Better do full lotus motherfucker - none of that half-assed seiza bench shit.. If you are honest, that's what it looks like. Maybe your mind doesn't have the cuss words, but the aggression that brought you to keep sitting when you really shouldn't includes an aggressive, sometimes really nasty narrative. There's no getting around that.

So, here's the thing. How do we write about such experiences?

How do we convey them authentically, embedded in the teachings we've been given, so that others might gain some insight?

Maybe more importantly though, how do we stay true to where we are at, express fully where we are at, without minimizing or exaggerating?

Because what I see in myself, and also in so many others doing spiritual writing, from the most beginner student to the most seasoned teacher, is a tendency to dance around the heat of that which we collectively have deemed taboo.

Anger. Hard-assed aggression. Violent thoughts. Rage.

These are some of the experiences that we "spiritual types" avoid, minimize, cloak in psychological or other abstract language. And why? We're triggered. We're afraid. We don't know how to handle it. The teachings tell us these things are destructive, cause suffering, and shouldn't be indulged in.

And it's absolutely true that violence, rage, aggression, excessive anger - all of that is destructive, suffering producing, and blinding us from our inherent wisdom.

Yet, I also think it's no coincidence that these very same places tend to be the most common shadows of people who are in religious and spiritual communities, or who have committed themselves to such a path. We have a sense of the destructiveness of those various forms of violence, and yet instead of truly facing it within our selves, we do all sorts of bypassing and then wonder why we can't seem to be open around conflicts that appear in our lives, our communities, even online.

Consider, in contrast, something that is more palatable to work with. Like grief. Or guilt. Or fear.

I have heard some amazingly beautiful, detailed talks linking deeply personal experiences of grief to profoundly universal teachings about grief. No mincing words. No avoidance. Just raw experience, which is then transformed into wisdom, and in doing so, is an expression of compassion for all of us who also are experiencing grief.

The same doesn't seem to be true when it comes to working with violent tendencies. Grief is embraced by spiritual types, whereas rage, for example, is almost universally rejected from the beginning. And that's the problem. It's rejected from the beginning, instead of taken in, fully experienced and documented, until it drops away.

It is any wonder there is so much war and violence in the world.

I'm fiercely interested in how I, and others, might navigate this territory more honestly, more clearly, exposing enough of the rawness to ourselves and others without falling into the swamp of it. What did the mind of the man who was shaking his fist at that bus Friday afternoon look like exactly? Who was that "me" which came and then went, but will come again and again if it goes unexamined?

Because just saying he was angry, he was indulging in anger, he was attached to an outcome, he was this he was that - just saying that doesn't cut it. It cuts what IT was off.

Last night, I was snowed in. I listened to a podcast interview with Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, during which he describes a practice called "Dark Meditation." Essentially, it's going into complete darkness and staying with whatever comes up. After the interview, I went into my bathroom, covered up all the entry points of light, and sat for an hour in the darkness. Very interesting. You know your body is there, the bathtub is there, the toilet is there - but you can't see any of it. And it doesn't take long before you start feeling disoriented, not in an awful way, but in a "what is this experience" kind of way. The natural curiosity each of us has, but which often is blocked, comes forth rather easily from the darkness.

Where is the natural curiosity towards the violent, rage-driven aspects of our lives? Why is it that instead of curiosity, so often what arises in response to "internal" violence is guilt, shame, and/or fear?

What was so interesting to me about writing that post on Friday was that when I began, it was mostly going to be about calling out the aggression and attacks I saw in The Zennist's and Uku's posts. And yet, as I wrote the post, it became clear to me that doing that wasn't really fair or helpful. In fact, not only that, but it would have been reproducing the very patterns I'm talking about here. Take a look at these guys. Talking shit about their fellow practitioners. Look at how angry their words are. We should be kinder to our fellow practitioners. Blah. Blah. Blah. All of that is true, but it's only part of the story. I'm like them too. You are like them too. The only difference is that I didn't put a post out like that.

So, what's behind the desire to shame them? What is it about angry and/or violent writing, angry and/or violent thinking, that either seductively draws us in or makes us run far, far away? And what can we do about it?

That's what I became interested in while writing that post Friday. And this post is a continuation of that, in it's own meandering way.

p.s. The Blogisattva Awards are out. This blog won the Best Achievement Blogging Opinion Pieces or Political Issues award. Thank you all for the recognition. But mostly, as I said Friday, seeing all those Buddhist blogs located in one place, where anyone can access them and drink in the wisdom, experience, and folly, is really excellent. Bows to us all.


NellaLou said...


zendotstudio said...

Well maybe this is just stating the bloody obvious (to quote Monty Python) or maybe it's towing the Buddhist line but it is my experience that anger arises in everyone and practice is about what you do with it. Anger has been my gateway into practice and I have to say by spilling it out, in my experience that it simply creates more karma and suffering. And I have found the trail it leaves behind is long and painful.

Expression of anger seems like a personal indulgence to me. To feel it in the body has been the best way of dealing with it for me.

I sometimes find foul language amusing in writing if it is well placed. It's emphatic if used well and doesn't necessarily have to express anger or violence.

Nathan said...

No doubt - letting anger, rage, etc. spill out just causes suffering. Repression also causes suffering.

Experiencing this stuff coming up bodily has been the best way for me as well.

But how do we write about practicing with it? How do we teach ourselves and others more honestly, with clarity how to work with these energies and patterns?

I was listening to that Reggie Ray interview and he was talking about how these "complexes" - I think that's what he called them - would take over while he was sitting in the darkened cabin on retreat. And I can imagine at least a few of those involved anger and rage tied to some patterns and/or beliefs built in the past. And one thing I wondered, as I listened, was how he might instruct a student to work with that stuff if I got so intense that the person was worried about "loosing it."

Because it seems to me like the basic instructions of returning to our breath, or koan, or mantra, or labeling the pattern, or whatever is being used tend to get over-ridden by rage and violent patterns. So, being more explicit, and maybe trying to map out certain markers that come with violent patterns, could be of great service. I've seen a little bit of this before - Ken McCleod's teaching comes to mind. But mostly I think we end up abstracting.

I mean, what is anger? What is rage? When I label something anger, is it true, or is it generalizing about a multifaceted, ever-changing experience?

Our teacher started working with these questions during a recent class, but we didn't dig in deep enough with them. The questions just sparked my curiosity - and here I am, go on and on about it.

Brikoleur said...

I liked it. Language has few tools as sharp as well-used invective, and you used it well.

FWIW, I think your writing has improved a lot over the past year that I've been reading your blog. From where I'm at, you're writing much more freely and openly now than then, both in terms of form and content. There's way less fretting about how it'll come across and way more just saying what you think, damn the torpedoes. Keep up the good work!

Wiseass Zen said...

Congrats on winning, even if I don't always (in fact almost never, we are opposite on the political spectrum) agree with you, at least you articulate your positions very well

Nathan said...

the writing feels more free flowing from this end as well.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Another great post Nathan! The way you express yourself and your views it fantastic. I wish I had that ability. I agree, sometimes you have to just talk plainly about things, matter of fact, for the message to be clear.

It's interesting as bloggers as we write about things to see the responses people have to the discussion of the topic. I did a video blog yesterday called "Do you like me?" about how we all have this inclination to be liked and feel important. I had a couple of people write me reassuring me that I'm a good person and that they value me. While it's lovely to hear that, I wasn't raising the topic because I'm struggling with this idea such that it affects me. It was a contemplation so I discussed it openly, which most people wouldn't do. That's not an easy thing for people to admit to, that they have an internal desire to be liked. In the same way, people don't like to admit that they were angry and to talk about it, they feel in a sense it makes them a bad person and there is a sense of shame around it. But this is the human condition, fraught with the struggles of the ego. We have to talk about to it and learn to practice with it.

The other side of the coin though is virtue and knowing what is and isn't Right Speech. Knowing the right context to use that language is important but I don't feel you language was without context.

Keep up the great work.

Jagaro (Dean Crabb)

Nathan said...

Hi Dean,

Yeah, I was wondering how people would respond to that post of yours.

"I had a couple of people write me reassuring me that I'm a good person and that they value me. While it's lovely to hear that, I wasn't raising the topic because I'm struggling with this idea such that it affects me."

This has happened to me before as well. I've written about experiences where I have been struggling with something, use that as an example to explore the larger, more universal dynamics involved, and I have gotten the same reassuring kind of responses.

It's wonderful that people care, and I do the same on other blogger's posts, sometimes probably making the same mistake. But it's an error out of compassion, which I'll take over a lot of other things.

I also think there are times when whatever I wrote wasn't quite clear enough, so that such responses like "Hope you're ok" or "You're a good guy" actually are appropriate, given what they know.

That desire to be liked is a tough one. I still have issues with it, although less so than in the past. It's probably pretty hard to find someone who doesn't have some challenges with wanting to be liked. At least, it seems to be a very abundant experience from what I have seen.