This week’s offering I’ve purloined unabashedly from a book written by one of my favorite wisdom teachers called, Stepping Out of Self-Deception. Rodney says it all in ways I wish I had: it’s our own mind, body and brain that we must pay perpetual primary attention to …
As a child I would make rock candy by supersaturating sugar water and letting it cool. I would insert a string in the liquid, and the crystals of sugar would form around the string. The string is analogous to our suffering. The sense-of-self needs the string of our contraction to form itself around. We remain in solution with that shaping element of conflict. Selflessness requires an ongoing exploration of conflict and where we are forming around conflict moment after moment, just as the sugar water does with the string. We learn to investigate when we feel the slightest tension or resistance in the body, speech, or mind.
Emotions cue us toward that investigation. Thought is often a reaction to an emotion and is an attempt to justify the experience of an emotion. As thought attempt to explain why we are feeling what we are feeling, they further seed the emotion by tagging the emotion to someone or something responsible for giving it to us. The emotions then feeds off the explanation, which drives more emotions and eventually more thinking. These explanations and accompanying emotions compound themselves into a new tale about what we must do to get out of the emotion. These separate emotional incidents usually feed upon, and further feed, a general overall attitude contained within the story of our life. This attitude forms into a perceptual orientation to life and reinforces a conditioned way of perceiving others and ourselves.
Emotionally Circling The Circle Game
Circular thinking is a case in point. Most of us have had the experience of going around and around in our thinking without conclusion, and yet we often do not perceive that the thinking is being driven by an unnoticed emotion. The thinking is trying to solve the emotion, but the emotion is unconscious, so the thinking continues to spin out of control. An emotion is not caused by an external event; the mind assigns an emotion to an external event. The confusion is resolved with we focus on the emotions and let it be what it is, while at the same time releasing the need to think our way out of the emotion.
There is no single cause for any event. Events arise dependent upon many factors, with everything in the universe colluding to make a single incident occur. The Buddha speaks about it this way: “Just as, monks, when rain descends heavily upon some mountaintop, the water flows down along the slope, and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these being filled fill up the pools; these being filled, fill up the ponds; these being filled fill up the streams; these being filled fill up the rivers; and the rivers being filled fill up the great ocean.” In this way, the Buddha states, each event is the supporting condition for the next arising.
For example, the obvious condition for snow is a particular weather pattern that holds the right composite of temperature, humidity, and air pressure. The conditions that lead to those factors are infinite, including the subtle air-currents create by each of us as we move through space. Given that, which of the infinite conditions will we blame as the causal factor? Everything influences everything else because everything is interconnected. A recent bumper sticker said it this way: “Blame it on the butterfly in Argentina.”
Desperately Seeking Pleasant
The mind becomes desperate to get away from the implications of having an unpleasant emotion. We say, “You make me angry.” Saying this, the anger does not incriminate us. In fact, if I can get rid of you, my problem with anger will be solved. Even though many of us are sophisticated enough to intellectually know “you” do not make “me” angry, our emotional intelligence operates from this premise.
When we believe, “You make me angry (or make me anything else),” the world is severed in two. This leakage of blame around every unsettling emotion creates havoc with the rest of our life. The emotional reaction is an unobserved contraction of pain that leads to further divisive interactions. When not investigated, these externalized reactions become the forerunner of all projections, hatred, prejudice, envy, jealousy and aggression.
During my time as director of a hospice program, we had a patient, Louise, who was a Holocaust survivor and the object of medical experimentation during her captivity. Louise came to us in the final stages of her liver cancer with considerable ascites, a condition where large quantities of fluid build in the abdominal area, often with significant discomfort to the patient. This requires a physician to draw the fluid out of the abdomen with a large needle, and as the needle moved toward her midsection, Louise went into post-traumatic distress from her years of imprisonment. With hospice staff on either side calling her back to the present, “Louise, you are here, come back, stay here Louise, feel my hand,” she was able to endure the episode.
Louise’s mind created its momentary reality from the pain of the past. The latent memory of her terror as a young woman was unleashed during this process. The ambiance and context of this outpatient procedure was completely different than the memory, but the emotional linkage between the two was fixed within her mind. The mind’s projection was so strong that Louise was reliving the horror of her youth. With persistence, the hospice staff was able to call her back to the present. As she oriented herself to the reality of Now, her emotional drama became less convincing.
In THIS Moment, Everything is A-OK
Everyone knows the power of projection when we are afraid. Fear is being afraid of what might happen, not of what is happening. Emotions have their own logic, distant from the truth of the moment. The here and now does not argue with the emotion’s rationale; it quiets the emotions by taking away the story line that is essential for emotional escalation.
In a less obvious way, the mind also contracts around pleasant emotions. The contraction due to pleasant situation is even less noticeable because we are not trying to avoid the pleasure but instead indulge it. In avoidance, we are attempting to speed time up and get over the problem, and when we indulge we are trying to slow time down and wallow a little longer. Either way we are not allowing the moment to move as it naturally does, and that is the definition of suffering.
In pleasure, as in pain, we often project the emotion outward by saying, “You make me happy,” and then hold that object accountable for maintaining “my” happiness. Meanwhile, the emotion is changing in intensity and tone, becoming something other than what it was, and at a certain point we become disenchanted with the object or person for letting us down.
Romantic love is a good example of this dynamic. During a romantic involvement we often become attached to the person because we project the loved person as the reason for the arising of love in us. We think our love is coming from him, and if we lost him we would be severed from love. Since the state of love is so compelling, we attempt to possess the person responsible for “giving us” the emotion of love, rather than allowing the love that is intrinsic to our being to blossom free of any attachment.
Radical Accountability demands sealing off any and all projections and being fully accountable for our inner life by closing down all escape routes. This is an essential understanding for a free mind. We refuse to allow the mind any leeway or option to externalize its problems. In radical accountability we say, “I pain myself I frustrate myself, and I depress myself,” because any leakage away from total accountability invalidates the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and its cause. Interconnectedness is impossible when we fight external influences because we think they are causing our emotions. The less projection, the less we suffer, and the more connected we become.
Once we seal off external blame, there is still the temptation to blame “me” for the events occurring. “I” am the responsible party; it is “my” entire fault. These thoughts will be quickly reinforced by whatever remains of our self-inadequacy. The self would love to reinforce that weakened image with this argument, but having become familiar with how the mind creates the sense-of-self from emotional reactivity, awareness refuses to rebuild this once-powerful image.
With Radical Accountability all emotions are observed as experiences only, pointing nowhere, implicating no one, and signifying nothing. Though it is no one’s fault that we have an emotion, it is still essential to hold the emotion fully within awareness without wavering. Emotions need observation and allowance, not our analysis or fixation. The story that accompanies the emotion dies with accountability. The story was never true to begin with; we needed it to provide relief from the pain of being “me.” Though we did not know it at the time, sustaining the story’s untruth through inattention was causing even greater suffering than if we had allowed the pain to express itself in awareness. Radical accountability begins to shift our focus from the horizontal plane of complaint and argument to the vertical plane of open wonderment.
~ Rodney Smith, Stepping Out of Self-Deception, Shambhala Publications, 2012. Posted with permission.