Tag Archive: Buddhism

Oh, shit

I’m at Kripalu on a weekend retreat with Stephen Cope. Stephen gave a (Dharma) talk tonight that combined beautifully, in his characteristic style, insights from Easter and Western psychology.

He quoted this psychiatrist from Harvard, whose last name I didn’t catch – Dan Boey (?), who, after a long career of practice, declared that humans need the following 5 self-maintenance functions:

The capacity to:
1) self-soothe
2) experience a stable sense of identity
3) feel the realness of experience
4) esteem the self
5) warmly love the self

Of these, the capacity to self soothe is the foundation upon which equanimity is built.

So, how does one self soothe? The obvious and popular answers are alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, Internet, etc. But, no, really, what are constructive, effective ways to self soothe?

Here Stephen cited another psychologist, Heinz Kohut (whose book, Self Psychology, I’d love to read).

According to Kohut, the capacity to self soothe arises from

being safely held and soothed by a non-abandoning love object.

This is similar to what Buddhist call “true refuge.” What can this “non-abandoning love object” be? Family, a parent, but also in Buddhism it is said that practice begins with refuge in Buddha (a teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community).

Stephen talked about lineages as safe havens. They are long lasting webs of relationships and knowledge that one can take refuge in without relying on one teacher who might disappoint. So, one way to lay the foundation for self soothing is to take refuge in a lineage. Here, lineage means a religious or spiritual tradition. But Stephen explained one can (and should) also create one’s own lineage: an enduring web of relationships. In Kohut’s terms:

The self is created out of this ‘surround of relationships’ that are evoking, sustaining, and affirming.

We create our own surround of relationships which in turn creates us. This is not unlike Mead’s symbolic interactionism, a theory I’m familiar with.

This surround of relationships can be made of individuals (friends, family, animals) and institutions, or “churches.” Stephen pointed out how most institutions, wether lay or spiritual, usually display their lineage with photos on their walls.

One needs many churches.

Don’t hang out only with you and your mind; that’s a dangerous neighborhood to be.

This explains… Well, everything:
– why I didn’t develop early the capacity to self soothe (or lost it along the way from using it up too early in life)
– why I need my friends so much more than they need me
– why I sit in a room alone, thousands of miles away from family, on what actually is Easter night in my lineage (which I’m not sure I identify with, but maybe I should start somewhere).
– why I need more cats
– why I’ve been consumed with loneliness lately (and by lately I mean the past 6 years or so)
– why I need my students so badly (temporary surround of relationships that disintegrates abruptly at the end of each semester)

Stephen gave us homework: to draw our web of relationships. Start with a blank piece of paper, put a heart in the middle (yours). Then intuitively position people (and animals) on that map according to how close they are to your heart. Then work at the web of relationships. God knows, I do work at it. But I tell ya, this is bad news for a Romanian immigrant living in Indiana.

Happy Easter, y’all.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. … Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech.

I hear he was a Buddhist.

Awareness of death and meditation on impermanence are big parts of Buddhism:

“A person wishing to ponder death need not go to a cemetery or a funeral home: death is occurring everywhere and at all times. Even the cells of our bodies are constantly being born and dying. All of us are inexorably moving toward physical death in every moment. Since every created thing is impermanent, everything we see, hear, touch, taste, love, despise, or desire is in the process of dying. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing that remains unchanged from moment to moment, and so anyone who tries to find happiness among transient created things is doomed to disappointment.” – from death and dying in Tibetan Buddhism

At the same time, nothing ever disappears. The natural world is a constant recycling process. The law of conservation of energy is at work. One of the most soothing things I ever read (or heard?) about death and dying is a comparison of human consciousness (the soul, if you will) to water: Just like water moves from liquid state (in your glass) to vapor, then rain, then back to liquid – just like water cycles to the world, so does the energy of the soul. Nothing is ever wasted. Nothing is ever gone. It’s just present in a different form.

And sometimes, what remains, is a legacy. Man, what a legacy!

portrait of Steve Jobs