Samsara Cinderella and the Sanskara tarantella

 A particularly rewarding issue of Shambhala Sun (July 2013) came my way this week. There were well met passages from several articles. But one in particular invited my deeper personal consideration and comment. I excerpt here the final paragraphs of “Sicknessby Stan Goldberg. It appeared in a set of four essays: Birth, Old Age, Sickness and Death.  For brevity, I probably could have excerpted from this excerpt, but for clarity of context, I trimmed little.  He is describing his experiences with chronic disorder (sleep disturbance) and progressive disease (cancer).  I’ve put the most cogent passages for me in bold type.

As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” The writings of renowned Buddhist thinkers provided me with a map, but it didn’t reflect my territory. I took no solace in the concept of “letting go” or the ancient adage “draw closer those things you fear the most.”  I couldn’t get any closer to my cancer; it was so close that I couldn’t possible run away from it. And contrary to what I read, living in the moment wasn’t enlightening–it was emotionally and physically painful. I preferred thinking about a past pleasant experience rather than the pain emanating from the incision. Drawing the pain closer only resulted in needing more morphine.  In the past, I’d been able to derive comfort by unquestioningly following the words of great Buddhist teachers. Why not now?

… For me, it had to do with the severity of what I was experiencing. Though letting go of a publisher’s rejection of a book proposal wasn’t pleasant it was manageable since my life didn’t revolve around writing. But the stakes were entirely different when I would momentarily forget where I was because of the sleep disorder or exhaustion from the cancer treatments. Without asking me for permission, my body and mind had changed the rules for how I had lived. I appeased them by no longer going into the wilderness alone and relying on my iPhone for remembering even long standing, reoccurring appointments. Unfortunately, my cancer and sleep deprivation decided to be cute and began stripping away other components of my identity that I’d hoped were untouchable. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived with the sleep disorder and eleven years with cancer, I’ve learned that progressive illnesses are open-ended and dynamic. Just when you’ve accepted on change, another one occurs, then another, and on and on.

It’s natural for those of us who are ill to add guilt to our load when we believe (or hear others say) that it is possible to isolate our thoughts from the physical effects of illness through meditation and other techniques. Despite practice, I’ve found it difficult getting beyond the effects.  “Trying harder” hasn’t made it easier to remember an appointment or play a better game of handball. Maybe committed lifetime practitioners or someone with an occasional headache can send the effects of their illness to the back room of their consciousness. But for others, life isn’t that simple. Illnesses change identities. As mine progresses I ask myself, “Am I the person today I was yesterday. And who will I become tomorrow.” It doesn’t help hearing or reading that the “core” of my being is unchangeable. I interact with the world dressed in a history of experiences that’s as thick as a winter coat. I am in a what I do and believe. That’s my identity. It’s an amalgam of values, embarrassments, unskillful behaviors, defenses, triumphs, defeats, etc. Together it’s as complicated as a Texas Chili. 

Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to die, at least not soon,…I thought I had two choices: graciously accept the loss of my abilities as just another part of living or remain miserable without them It took me years to realize there was a third way:  adaptation.  Trying to find a direct substitute for the abilities or experiences that I could no longer enjoy wasn’t usually successful. Going to a nature preserve, for example, did not diminish my longing for wilderness. The thing is, I wasn’t grieving the loss of a specific activity but rather the feelings certain activities created.  I discovered that if Icould pinpoint the emotion a lost activity had generated, I could often recreate it in a totally different way. The feeling of serenity from being alone in the wilderness for instance was almost replicated by playing the japanese bamboo flute.

My life is different now than it was before I became ill, and this reminds me a little of the Buddha’s experience. Within the confines of his father’s compound, he thought the world outside the walls was similar to what he experienced in the palatial estate. But when he left, he found that it was a very different place. Those of us who move from relatively good health to living with chronic or progressive illnesses gain a similar awareness. Living with an illness is very different than what we thought it would be. 

Reading Stan’s essay stirred plenty in me. There was the comfort of solidarity and also the recognition of a person’s natural and tenacious attachments to certain states, feelings, and references, even to this life as we know it, and an identifying with the body.  I had impulse to shed light on where wisdom gleaned from my own experience shone on assumptions hidden in his words( but not acknowledged verbally). However, experiences with the the cascade of conundrums that is my own situation temper such presumption and stay my hand. 

Still, for myself, leaning into my own wall. I wanted to comment. In what Stan described, I wondered if there wasn’t still a persistent insistence on maintaining certain aspects of control or identity when one brings the fear or pain close. Those, of course, are the natural, primal roots of ego, wired for survival. 

In my own similar investigations, I would drop into the center of the pain and allow it as best I could to lose all meaning and interpretation, be returned to a phenomenon of pure sensation or energy. The eyes might roll back in the head and the body shudder and sometimes grip. But the observer was not attached (nor, though, was the observer distinctly separate from it, either, ; the former contained or pervaded the other). This practice, at times, yielded respite from the pain or fear’s clutches. It created space.  I continued this process for years, and I discharged plenty. Yet, there was still an agenda, and therefore, someone with the agenda, directing this inner work. It was still motivated by the preference for something other than “what is,” even a notion that my interpretation of “what is” might be the faulty.   

Moreover, sanskaras and thoughtforms persisted, and certain fundamental ones still loom and whine, throb and recalcitrantly resist dissolution, like a sandbar or ancient wreck in the murky depths at the core of me. 

So, while much has cleared, what is there has a feeling of permanence, impermeability, invincibility, and anger. And it fills the field with a sort PTSD fog that makes it hard to function, especially where I’ve let go of so much healthy identity. 

And, yes, having had chronic affliction or aberration for a long while, what identity remains seems quite molded to it.  A part of me won’t or can’t allow that change is possible; the mind does not know how to trust, nor to not expect certain symptoms, which, if they fell away tomorrow would likely be called back by the mind abhorring a vacuum. 

In meditation, this can all be witnessed in perspective, but, as Stan alluded to in his piece, negotiation of mundanities of day to day functioning are wired to an identity, which, when engaged, wakes the beast, wakes old story, wakes the pain, fear, and resistance that lurk in the tissues and neurotransmitter balance.

I can beat myself up with thoughts like: This is not who you are, or This is an intransigent addiction to victimhood. But what good does that do? The subconscious material still rooted in the identity of separation will not be redeemed with such judgements.  Instead, it would seem that acceptance, compassion, surrender and patience–the four virtues most shunned by the defended ego or a traumatized self– are the only recourse, the only unguent within reach. And the healing process feels asymptotic at best.  

There is a gap between the prodigious wisdom of the Tao-body, of the higher wisdom we cultivate through intellect and certain fair-weather practices, and the shrieking flakstorm of the wounded one, personal or collective, that lives in our tissues and is unleashed by trauma, illness, and other disruptions of our delicate, homeo-static house of cards.

I appreciated Stan’s honesty in his professions; it milked from me compassion for both of us.


Fly on the Wall becomes Window

           As I watch myself and others go through the throes of evolutionary growing pains, meeting the darkest, stuckest impasses and false identities lodged in our body-minds, I recognize that while there is an unique warriorship required of each individual that no one can cultivate for him, there is more need than ever to be mirrors for one another: to catalyze and witness each other’s process; to love it, to love us, when we can’t. 

I was not yet fully awake, and quite tender and uncomfortable in my own skin this morning, when I was lured to the computer to received a brief thank- you note from a friend. Yesterday had been his birthday, and, since I knew it had fallen while he was in a funk, a spasm of the bio-chemical and existential malaise that rhythmically visits him, I had sent an evening email hoping  “it was a good one.”  (He had, after all, been part of my last birthday, helping to make it an unexpectedly nourishing respite from my own very dark passage.) His reply acknowledged the friendships that supported him (including my own) and which had made for a lovely birthday, despite his “frame of mind.” 

I intended only a brief reply, yet the moment the gates opened, what flowed out was not just for him, but for myself, and probably for any other “me” laboring in the illusion of aloneness.

Many tangents clamored to be explored as I wrote. So I revisited the message later and have expanded the original (italicized) musings a little.


… I’m glad you could apprehend the beauty, even if you couldn’t feel it, or the whole of you become it.  The untouchable, indomitable spirit of wisdom, wholeness and innocence within each of us–who we truly are– is connected, entrained, I think, with that in every other one of us and with the pervasive, non-local mother beacon of that, an essential matrix of intelligence some people call God. This spark within is ever trying to find its way through and out of the maze of maya and fragmented mind to merge with itself–in others, in all.  That imperative fuels the longing that propels us forward, inward, outward, wherever we inuit it might be accessible.  The pressure we experience, the pain and conflicting emotions, are just a symptom of the stress this magnetism puts on any false solidities (identities, limitations, etc) in its way.  Sweet Excruciation. 

It is so much bigger than we think.   

Even intuition or apprehension of this does not spare us the labor pains.  As in the transition stage of labor, when you can neither stop the process nor push, the only recourse is surrender.  The natural process of labor involves alternating relaxation/dilation and contraction. The contraction may feel worse, but is active, essential, and productive, even when it feels interminable and utterly impossible, stuck.  We are finding our way through. And we are every player in the labor room, to others and to ourselves.  We are the breathing coach, the baby, the mother, and the midwife, who catches the babe in arms of sacred welcome.  That sweet welcome may not have featured in our most recent human birth, nor in our daily experience. But as we evolve-with intention, discipline and courage– we can choose to offer that to ourselves and others in any moment.

Isn’t that what we all want, really, to be met in every moment as if by a midwife catching us in arms of sacred welcome?  What if we made our mission to meet everyone and everything we encounter with that quietly-absolving welcome?  Everyone, and our world, is then redeemed.  


I’m in the thick of a blinding contraction, myself, at this writing, at once praying for a midwife and the strength and clarity to be my own.  

In the words to my friend,  I was surely channeling what I needed to hear more deeply myself,  but, I venture, also what I needed to say. “When two or more of us are gathered…” in the name of Truth, it is amplified, validated. Remembrance makes space for revelation and healing. The feedback loop of mirroring is perpetually two ways. Another may mirror for me what, in that moment, I have forgotten, but in witnessing another I also see myself (and the Self) more clearly. Sometimes our own energies and wisdom are bound up so that it requires another to draw it out of us, so that we can hear it more clearly as Truth and not just another red herring ricocheting around our confused, conflicted human heart/minds. In the meeting, we drink of unity and commonality rather than separation and aloneness.

A midwife’s welcome would be muddied if she thought it her task to fix the natural pain of the mother, or if she, for a moment, presumed she is making this birth happen or she alone knows or determines the babe’s destiny. Foremost, she must be willing to encounter what is presented to her with an open, humble heart and an unconditional welcome, a witness to the I AM, a good-humored doorman who receives, with a wink and a smile, a Being venturing across the threshold into the Funhouse of Doing.

I heard in the gallery, as I wrote to my friend, an objection that the cosmology I espoused at the beginning, explaining away angst as existential growing pains, does not take into account entrenched bio-chemical depression.  And I wanted to address that, but I don’t feel completely up for it in these musings. What I will say is that I do not believe that chemical depression is unrelated to, independent of, the evolutionary process. We know too much now about neuro-biology and elasticity to make such excuses.  I suspect it’s a sign of deep sanskara; and I do acknowledge that the soup of chemicals to which we are habituated has everything to do with how we meet life, how we perceive ourselves, our world and our options. I deal with this daily myself.  And I do not for a moment believe that very many of us could just, with a snap, overcome the undertow of these cocktails of self, which wash our tissues like the tide. Such events involve the mystery of Grace. But I do believe that awareness and intention to evolve, grow, see things differently, to dis-identify from our woe, to be free, do call in unseen resources to the evolutionary imperative, and change will occur, sometimes miraculously …Even if not entire liberation in this life.  What is required is the willingness to let go of the illusion of control, to meet discomfort unconditionally, changing the habits of assigning present sensations and conditions past meaning. That is a skill to be cultivated. It is the practice of compassion. It is forgiveness, wherein lies our own salvation and that of our world.