Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Intent

Everyone always has ‘good intentions’ but the outward manifestation of these vary according to the degree of correlation with Oneness (the deep understanding that there is no separation between I and “the Other”). That is why judgment is always futile.

A Reason, a Season or a Lifetime

For those of us with families in different parts of the world, the summer holidays are a time for coming together. People travel to different parts of the country or even abroad as family members reunite for a brief while. I recently spent a month with my family in Toronto, Canada – four weeks that were equal parts enjoyable and challenging. Being with family is not always easy. Relationships are simple, but the ones that are the most precious and valuable are usually hard work.

The basis of all relationships is attachment. Attachment is a term used in varying contexts and has come to be (mis)understood as something one needs to get rid of in order to be happy or in a deeper spiritual state. I use attachment simply to mean the pull one feels towards something or someone. Attachment is natural, instinctual almost. We as human beings are uniquely drawn towards not only people, but also places and things. We become attached to ideas, beliefs, communities, and identities. The more intense the attachment, the more powerful the feelings associated with it. But attachment is not always positive. Sometimes it is fear-based, breeding anxiety or despair.

In Buddhism, attachment is defined as an attraction towards something that brings us pleasure or avoids pain. Since this pull is likely to cause anxiety and rigidity towards accepting “what is”, Buddhism offers the Eight-Fold path that describes a discipline, which enables states of compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance and equanimity. In Sufi literature, attachment to the self (ego) is seen as interfering with one’s ability to know and surrender to God’s will. Neither Buddhism or Sufism prescribe a pure asceticism or abandonment of social contact; rather they remind us to be aware or mindful of the anxieties and fears that are generated from the urge we have to pursue pleasure or avoid pain.

From a biological perspective, it is the bond that is enabled through eye contact, touch, and responsiveness that enables an infant to grow and develop. But the need for attachment is not exclusively for babies. Adolescents, while they push away from their caregivers, will do so in a balanced and calmer manner when they feel secure about the response they will receive when they come back. Adults are no different. We are social animals. We thrive on social contact, and research indicates, humans become sicker and die sooner if we are isolated from others.

People need people. Yet relationships can be stressful. It is the most common reason people feel depressed or anxious. Change, conflict, unmet expectations, the lack of understanding or acceptance, and loss can result in deeply damaging experiences. Anxiety, depression, or even traumas result from the way people interact with one another. Everyone I have ever met has at least one if not more relationships that are wrought with difficult emotions.

Learning to navigate the difficult emotions that are evoked through relationships is one of the crucial arenas for self-reflection and growth. Wayne Dyer aptly puts it, “What people do to you is their karma, how you react is yours.” No matter how a person behaves towards you, how you react to it is a choice.

The most common mistake we make in relationships is blame a person for how we feel or act in the interaction. “I screamed because you gave me a dirty look!” or “I feel annoyed because of your constant criticism”. In any given circumstance there are an infinite number of ways to behave or respond. Recently I asked a friend who is experiencing a challenging marital situation how he is coping, and he said, “my wife needs to put the marriage first, and then I will feel better.”  That shifts the entire responsibility of his state of being on her actions and reactions. How can any relationship move forward if one or both parties are blaming the other for how they feel or behave? This attitude is how 5-year-olds fight – “she started it!”.

The notion that we are free to behave any which way we choose regardless of how the other person is treating us disentangles us from a mess of complications. The truth is, how the person is behaving has very little, if at all, to do with you. It is more about their attitude, patterns, and habits. Take two people and confront them with similar scenarios ie being ignored by a family member. Chances are, they will both experience the feeling of rejection or neglect, but will respond in entirely different ways. The reaction most likely to cause harm is judgment, “She is such a self-involved person” or self-criticism, “I probably did something to deserve this.” What is likely to calm the upheaval, both internal and perhaps external, is curiosity, “I wonder why she is upset today, maybe I will ask her if it’s me or something else that is bothering her.”

At times, you may notice that a pattern of conflict is almost always repeated in multiple scenarios, not just a singular context. If you hear yourself say, everyone takes me for granted, or people are always taking advantage of my kindness – the common factor in how these people are behaving is you. Your attitude, beliefs, and habits are the common thread that weaves in a certain manner of relating.

More likely than not, somewhere in your subconscious, there is something that you are doing that is perpetuating similar patterns of behavior from others. Perhaps you believe that your self-worth is determined by how much you do for others. Perhaps you feel more powerful when you help others, but have difficulty receiving help.

Having said that it is your choice how you behave in response to someone’s manner of relating to you, is not to say that it is every easy to allow negativity to transform into harmony. That is where self-reflection, compassion, and equanimity play a significant role. Self-reflection creates a space to understand the dynamic, what it is the appropriate way to behave in the moment, given the context in the here and now. Compassion is kindness offered to both to oneself and the other, in terms of understanding and acceptance. Equanimity is a process of noticing what is – an openness to allow the person to be the way he is, and the relationship to unfold as it may. Equanimity entails abstaining from definitive judgments about the person, oneself, or how one will act in any future moment or scenario, building in a flexibility that allows situations, contexts and people to change.

Often we cling to notions of self, or imaginings of how a relationship should or ought to be for a sense of security and permanence. This only creates resistance from the natural ebbs and flows of life. And in that resistance we block a natural flow of people or situations. As the adage goes, “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime,” but we do not determine which is which. Our work is to learn, to grow, and to develop as human beings, and allow others the appropriate space and acceptance to do the same.

The sky above, the mud below (excerpts)

We live in a world with the sky above and the mud below. While we may reach for the stars, we’re grounded in the earth…We move forward by integrating opposites, not by embodying one while denying the other…This is an aspiration to a wholeness in which nothing is left out. We move forward in the world with all our capacities, all of our energy, all of our engagement, and all of our complexities and contradictions. Seth Segall

Things fall apart

She sat there with her face in her knees crying on the bench in the changing room. I saw her as I was washing my hands, and went over and gave her a hug.  We’ve all been there. Having a breakdown in the middle of the day, unable to keep it together despite our best efforts.  The moment that we feel life will never be the same. At the moment, I have three clients grieving the end of a relationship, and two troubled teenagers who are dealing with the end of the their family as they know it.  They all struggle with shades of a similar belief: that happiness is a thing of the past, and the end of the relationship marks the end of joy in their lives.  Be it a break up, a divorce, a death of a loved one, a parting of ways – they are often markers for change – life as you know it no longer exists.

The feeling of irreparable loss can be devastating and quite unbearable.  The “heartbreak” can feel quite literally like a stabbing or a shattering in the chest cavity, a painful or numbing throb beneath the breastplate.  The sensation of a hole that leaves a vacuum that can never be filled.  The temptation is to fill the gap or distract oneself from the loneliness so as to overcome the loss as fast as possible so the sadness is banished once and for all.

This ending can evoke feelings of hopelessness, anger, and a deep resentment towards life.   Or it may also trigger feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt.  Either way, these stances are resentful and blaming.  They breed fear and anger, misery and despair.

The fact of the matter is, nothing lasts forever.  Either by death or departure, all relationships come to an end.  It is the nature of things to fall apart.  And come together.  No matter how much we try to resist it. Do the trees try to hold on to their leaves?  Does the sky resist the setting of the sun?  Does the beach cling to the ebbing tide?  That is not to say that people should be more like trees and should carry on without experiencing the pain of separation. But it is easier to absorb and bear the pain of an ending if we make room for the grief by accepting it just as we do the monsoon rain or the falling leaves of autumn.

When in pain, there is tendency to narrate the self-story in a manner that highlights the tragedy and paints the trajectory to the point of the heart-breaking event.  Or it veers into the future and haplessly attaches a tragic conclusion to all upcoming prospects. When we suffer misery, we suddenly become bottom-feeders thriving on stories of misfortune or harbingers of doom.  Rather than making room for endings and sadness, there is a tendency to re-write our history to fit a tragic narrative.  Most all of us have done this at one point or another.  It is quite rare for someone to lose someone they love and suffer in passing moments, while carrying on with life with the same joy and spontaneity as before the loss.

It is almost like a child who cries and stomps his feet and runs in circles when the top of his ice cream cone falls off.  The adult knows, what is done is done, there is no point wailing and crying, but the child is protesting against the cruel Universe because the ice cream he wanted has now melted into pinkish brown algae in the cement.

As adults, we also rage against the Universe for propelling our ice cream towards the floor; except it’s not ice cream, it’s our sugary idea that love and relationships should be perfect and last forever. But like the ocean, love and relationships ebb and flow, swell and break, and can swallow entire ships in their vast open depth.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun writes, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy,” (in When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times)

In our efficiency-driven, technological mindset, we tend to believe that problems need fixes, and dilemmas need solutions. We demand that illnesses have cures and anything that is unfixable, unsolvable, or incurable is cursed. It is a rather revolutionary notion that healing emerges from making room for grief and misery.  Making room for pain entails actually sitting with and tolerating the discomfort in our bodies, rather than shifting positions or distracting our attention altogether. It means accepting pain as it is, rather than avoiding it or allowing it to take over the entire experience.

One of the most powerful means of allowing the sadness to flow and not be overcome by it is to maintain one’s attention on the here and now. That is, to keep our attention on how we want to be at this moment, without being caught in the riptide of emotion that sways our judgment and interferes with our perception.  Bringing attention to the breath and observing the rhythmic inhale and exhale can offer an anchor when faced with a tsunami of hot tears and gasping breaths.

Those of us who journal know that we have the ability to not only feel and perceive the world around us, but we also have the power to observe these feelings and perceptions as and when they happen.  Imagine yourself on a bridge and your thoughts and feelings are cars passing below. Notice the sensations in your body as you observe these thoughts, the subtle changes in breath and heart rate, the tensing or relaxing of muscles in the jaw, throat and neck, chest or fists – without trying to control them, just observe them as you would a parade of cars and motorbikes from a perch overhead.

Emotions are energy. They motivate us to burst into action or retreat and reflect.  Sometimes this energy emerges in response to conscious thoughts or awareness, but other times, we react unwittingly to triggers that lay below our consciousness.  That is why sometimes something seemingly insignificant will provoke a disproportionately intense reaction. The subtle changes in our bodies alert us to the triggers that evoke a palpable reaction, and help us make better choices in that intense emotionally-charged moment.

Rumi’s poem, the ‘Guest House’ urges us to attend to all the varying emotions, but understand that they are passers-by, and witness the lessons each one brings.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for a new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Lastly, understand that there is nothing that you did to deserve this love in the first place, so why blame yourself for the loss?  There was nothing you or anyone else could have done to produce this relationship which you so treasured.  As Rumi suggests, let your sorrow empty you of your fixed notions and ideas of what ought to be.  It is only by being open, a witness and a welcoming host to life’s offerings, pleasant or painful, that we learn and grow. It is this clearing itself that makes room for joy.