A common practice among Buddhist teachers is to send students off to face what they have the most difficulty with, their fears, their dislikes, their egos, their complacencies.
A student who craves company and dislikes being alone might be sent to live in an isolated hut on a mountaintop. A student who craves being alone and dislikes noisy interruptions might be sent to work in a busy kitchen for a few years.
Jack Kornfield, in A Path with Heart, describes how his teacher found the perfect solution to his tendency to fall asleep during meditation. He sent him to sit on the edge of a deep dark well. Fear of falling into the well kept him quite alert!
Those examples might sound strict, but such practices are meant to break the habits, desires, and tendencies of a myriad of conscious and unconscious attributes that we humans must contend with. In my experience, life itself finds plenty of ways to break us of our habits, fears, and desires—no other master teacher necessary!
It’s almost impossible to avoid having to confront that which we try to hide from. Trying to manipulate our lives so that we don’t have to face what we fear the most usually doesn’t work. In the end, if there is something we are trying to avoid, it finds its way to our door.
Recent events in my own life have put me to the test, tossing me out of my quiet life and into the maelstrom of navigating through the complicated world of bureaucratic reality. I have had to become an advocate for another person and, truthfully, I have always been good about jumping in and handling things succinctly when called upon. I like to get things done right the first time, quickly and efficiently, only too happy to jump right back into my nice little life once the mission is accomplished. In this case, however, in spite of my best efforts, my tendency for efficiency was not well met.
It soon became clear that I had no control. I had to acquiesce to the unfolding of life, sit back and patiently wait for a long series of events to unfold before resolution. It has been a lesson in patient detachment, learning to be available and open to the sometimes strange and unwieldy manner in which life unfolds. Giving up control does not mean not acting. It means always acting appropriately, in alignment with what is right, but knowing when to stand back, point made, and wait. In truly giving up control in this manner, it’s amazing to stand back and watch how things go down!
During the past few weeks, I have truly gone through my own strict Buddhist training, with Life as my master teacher. For instance, I give myself labels; we all do. I’m shy and quiet, I don’t like confrontation—I’m a peacemaker not an anarchist after all—and yet in spite of those labels I have had to rip them off and become their opposites.
I have had to break out of all the compartments I put myself into, the ideas of myself as this or that, and become whatever was needed. My personal journey over the past few weeks has been quite an interesting one. The other person, I realize, is secondary to the process, for I have taken quite a journey, with myself as the primary subject.
Life just won’t let us sit and be complacent. It constantly asks us to face our fears, to flow with what comes, to change, and it sure finds some interesting ways of doing just that! In my experience, the energy of the past few weeks—and perhaps even further back—has been unrelenting, and I have personally gone through quite a whirlwind, both within and without. But as I’ve learned, in acquiescing, in patient waiting while simultaneously making sure that what is right occurs as it should, positive outcome prevails. And in the process, I’ve learned a whole lot about myself—some very valuable lessons.
Perhaps there are some quieter and more gentle times ahead, as times of great force and change are often naturally followed by times of calm and rejuvenation.
Looking forward to enjoying some calmness, and wishing you all the same, Jan
We publish Chuck’s blog today. Look for Jan’s later in the week!
The deepest truth of the human psyche is that we are only partially rational beings. There are forces within and around us that act upon and through us without our conscious awareness. Reckoning and reconciling with these forces lies at the heart of achieving balance, happiness and fulfillment in this life.
Modern sensibility seeks to reduce our struggle with these outside forces to chemical imbalance and structural flaw in our brains, largely correctable through psychopharmacological input. As valuable and supporting as these interventions might be, they cannot, by any means, address the intense emotionally charged feelings and thoughts that daily barrage our conscious foothold in this world.
Psychotherapy has been charged with treating the “mental illness” we see violently acted out in mass shootings that we witness almost daily. Thankfully, the tools of psychotherapy have been greatly enhanced over the past several decades by the influx of mindfulness practices introduced to the world as a result of the Tibetan diaspora. DBT, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, owes its structure and methodology directly to mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness practice empowers us to gain control over our central nervous system and to generate neuroplasticity—a remapping of neural pathways—in the brain. The contribution of mindfulness and meditation practices, to our ability to stay focused and develop detachment from the destructive impulses and moods we experience, cannot be overestimated. Through the exercise of these tools we become grounded, able to function, and able to explore the deeper reality of who we are and who we are not. Without grounding, we are woefully ill-equipped to handle that deeper journey into our unknown selves.
Much more recent than the Tibetan diaspora has been the Shamanic diaspora of the teachings of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico through the published works of Carlos Castaneda and his cohorts and the public release of Tensegrity. Pragmatic tools have been introduced from these Shamans to enable seekers to journey into the deeper layers of self and reality.
In a recent Amazon book review of J.E. Ketchel’s The Man in the Woods, Gary Siegel, LCSWR states, “We have seen in recent times the integration of many concepts and approaches from Buddhist traditions into the mainstream of clinical work and psychotherapy. It seems to me that if techniques and awareness of Buddhism are especially well suited for things like acceptance, letting go, being in the moment, compassion and forgiveness, then the techniques and awareness of Shamanism – with their concourse with altered states of awareness, and dissociation would be perfectly suited for work with those very states that are the hallmark of trauma victims.”
In facing trauma, specifically, a seeker is challenged to reconcile with a highly emotionally charged event, or series of events, that has been stored in an altered state within the psyche. Consciously, the seeker may have little or no awareness of the contents of that altered state and may only feel the conscious tremblings or intrusions of this material through associatively triggered encounters in the flow of everyday life. From a Shamanic perspective, for healing to take place, a journey must be taken to retrieve and reintegrate the lost parts of the self encapsulated in that altered state. In addition, the journey entails the release of extraneous energy—outside energy, perhaps in the form of ideas and beliefs—that has held one’s personal energy captive in that altered state.
The Shamanic tool of Intent empowers the conscious self to engage the supports, dreams and synchronicities that initiate and lead the journey. Although stating one’s intent initiates the journey, the path will unfold outside of the control of reason.
Recapitulation is the very conscious reliving of past events. From a Shamanic perspective, reliving a past event means entering another world, a world one was once in but has subsequently left. The Shamanic practice of recapitulation enables the seeker to consciously—in the world of now—reenter an old world and take from it whatever part of the self splintered off while caught in an experience in that prior world. That energy is then brought forward and reintroduced into the self of now, where it belongs, freed of its prior entanglements. From a Shamanic perspective, this is total healing.
Shamanic journeying requires groundedness. As don Juan Matus put it, we need “nerves of steel,” if we are to journey into the unknown. Hence, the contribution of Buddhism, with its mindfulness practices, offers the perfect complement to the contributions of Shamanism with its journeying practices in healing. In fact, groundedness is a prerequisite to successful journeying. We must be able to stay present with that which once splintered us if we are to truly retrieve the lost parts of ourselves.
The Shamanic journey of intent, however, is unpredictable. Sometimes it pushes us into journeys we feel ill-prepared for. At other times, it gives us long stretches of respite to shore up our groundedness. In reality, Buddhist mindfulness and Shamanic journeying are perfect complements, the yin and yang of wholeness and healing.
Today, I follow up on last week’s blog, Wounded Children. I ask the question: What is suffering? And why is it so necessary?
I grew up in the Catholic religion. I went to Catholic schools and learned that Jesus wanted us to be innocent children, to be free of sin, yet the world itself did not support me in my endeavors. The world was full of sin and yes, suffering. I suffered as a child, as most children do. As much as I tried to live a sin-free life, there was no getting around sin, it was everywhere. I realized that everything, even breathing could be considered sinful.
In my weekly forays to the confessional, as often as I tried to articulate my sins, I found no actual release from them. Any absolution was momentary at best, because as soon as I walked out of the church I was back in sin-ville. As a child, suffering meant not only trying to find ways to deal with what happened to me out in the world, but, on a deeper level, it meant dealing with the fact that I would never be holy enough. I was a sinner and so I must suffer.
My child’s perspective was not all that far from the Buddhist perspective, which accepts that the reality we live in, samsara, is indeed an ocean of suffering. Samsara is an endless cycle of obsession and illusion, the more we try to escape it, the more it assaults us. Until, that is, we turn to it and ask: What is life trying to teach me? Why is it so necessary to suffer?
The Shamans of Carlos Castaneda’s lineage tell us too that this world is an illusion and that we are born to struggle with breaking through that illusion. They tell us that the world constantly assaults us in an effort to wake us up to this fact by presenting us with things that we want to push away and other things that we want to constantly cling to in our efforts to uphold that illusion. But in the end the Shamans contend, as do the Buddhists, that we must face the illusionary reality of the world and break it down, one illusion at a time. By challenging our perceptions, by challenging the way we think and act, and by challenging ourselves to face our deaths as new life, we offer ourselves the opportunity to break through the endless suffering of being human.
If we believe that all lives are meaningful, that our personal suffering and the suffering of everyone else in the world is important, then perhaps we might understand the necessity of it. Samsara, illusion, is endless. We are all being confronted with the truth of this as the revelations of sexual abuse swirl through the media, assaulting our personal illusions, coming into our homes on the nightly news. Our illusions are being shattered.
From a Buddhist and Shamanic perspective, this is very good. Such shatterings offer us the opportunity to view the world differently, to accept the necessity of suffering as a means of breaking us out of endless samsara. In my book, The Man in the Woods, I present the sufferings of my child self. It’s often hard for people to fathom that I suffered such abuse and yet survived the experiences. But I know that my own experiences are not all that exceptional. I hear stories of equal or worse horror every day, of abuse that went on for just as many years or even longer.
I am both humbled and hopeful as I hear the stories being told to me personally or by the media. And yet I know that, as people face their personal suffering, they are facing the shattering of their lives. But I also know that this shattering is the necessary breakthrough point to new life.
The universe itself is challenging us to face the reality of samsara and the necessity for it now. As a catalyst to shattering our illusions, constant exposure to the horrific reality of sexual abuse against innocent children is a mighty force. This exposure alone has the ability to change our world as we discover what has been kept hidden for decades, but even more deeply meaningful as we face our personal secrets.
When we are finally ready to face our personal suffering, we are ready to shatter the illusions that we have constructed in an effort to both get us through our lives but also to protect us so we could survive. When we face our inner turmoil, the suffering and the illusion of it, we face the fact of the world as indeed samsara, endless suffering.
On the bright side, in facing our personal suffering, in shattering our illusions about who we are, we begin to see the world differently. Suffering becomes understood as the means to enlightenment as the Buddhists present it and the means to accessing the warrior self as the Shamans suggest. In recapitulation, in deep inner work, in allowing ourselves to sit through the horror of the news, facing the truth of human suffering, we offer ourselves a new opportunity to evolve beyond this world of endless suffering.
Both the Buddhists and the Shamans use suffering and death as the greatest teachers and advisors. Both the Buddhists and the Shamans are aware of death at all times, preparing for it, using the challenges in this world to break through to a new awareness that we are all beings seeking enlightenment.
The reason we must suffer is the same for all of us. We are being challenged to grasp the truth of suffering as our greatest teacher, so that we may crack through it and make our deaths as meaningful as we want our lives to be.
In samsara we prepare for new life; in suffering we discover what that might mean. With each new life we are offered the opportunity to discover the illusions we steep ourselves in, that are presented to us in myriad ways by the world outside of us and by our inner reactions, disturbances, and challenges to that world. We are all here to live deeply meaningful lives—that I have no doubt about.
As I look around at the world each day and discover yet another reason to be disappointed in my fellow humans, to be distraught, disturbed and disgusted, I know I am being challenged to not turn off the television set. I am being challenged to face samsara and to ask others to face it as well. It is only through facing the onslaughts of horror that we can change the world.
We must face our inner darkness—mirrored unrelentingly, it seems lately, by the outside world—and ask everyone else to do the same. Suffering leads to enlightenment. I keep that in mind.
Last night I dreamed of being a child again, in a house where feelings and emotions were expected to be suppressed, kept tightly under wraps, oppressed by the dictum of the dominant force.
In the dream, I recapitulated the process of holding everything in, of tending to my feelings in the ways my child self had found to deal with them, but at one point in the dream I also snapped. I shifted out of the old obedient child self and ranted and raved at the oppressor. Soon I discovered that ranting and raving against the oppressor gave no real relief nor satisfaction, for it did not remove nor change the oppressor. In fact, my railings only sparked the oppressor to rail against me, to make me feel bad for having stepped outside of long upheld expectations, fair or not. In the dream I was made to feel the consequences of my actions, in the same way that my child self had once been made to feel them for breaking the rules.
In the dream, my child self soon realized that I could neither have an effect on the oppressor’s outburst, because the oppressor was not going to change, nor did I want to stay in the subservient role of being oppressed by this unchanging being. I soon turned away, saw the situation in all its clarity and let the oppression go on without me. It was okay to do so. In fact, the dream was a complete recapitulation process.
In true recapitulation fashion, I was able to immerse myself in an old situation, feel every aspect of it, go through all the questions that needed to be addressed—such as: Did I really want to do this again? Did I owe the oppressor anything? Who had originally decided the oppressive rules? Did I really want to uphold them? What is the reason that I am back here again at this time in my life?—and let the dream guide me to understanding who I was then, who I am now, and how far I’ve come.
In the dream, I was able to reassert that I am not willing to be oppressed, by anyone or anything that I do not agree with, that is not right for me. That may sound egotistical, but in reality it is only part of a process of actually learning to shed the ego’s attachments. For in shedding of ego attachments one learns that one does not need to participate in life according to the needs of others, either to be dominated or controlled by them or held back by their fears. In shedding of ego attachments one learns how to become an individual being. In shedding of ego attachments one learns what it actually means to love.
In recapitulating one is able to free the self from all the old rules that oppressed, held back, and curtailed the true spirit self, the part of us that holds the desire for life to be fully embraced and lived. In recapitulation one asks the question: Can I allow myself to live my life differently, according to my own needs, desires, wants and to extend those needs, desires, and wants beyond the ego self to eventually fully encompass the spirit self? That is the real challenge in life; to let the spirit self fully live.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl states: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” —From page 99.
Victor Frankl spent three years in concentration camps during World War II. His spirit took up an observer’s role, allowing him to have experiences that kept him alive. He took up his own unique opportunity to bear his burden, under the direct eyes of the oppressor. Like a true shaman he took a journey of suffering and returned from it transformed, never having let his true spirit self be defeated.
The Seers of Ancient Mexico would agree with him that we each have a unique opportunity to perceive our world differently and to live in it differently as well, to dare to take the opportunity that life offers to transform ourselves. The Buddhists also see suffering as the means of reaching enlightenment, for only in samsara, the ocean of suffering, life upon this earth, are we offered, with each new lifetime, the opportunity to transform ourselves.
It becomes our task to shift away from the oppressive rules placed on us by society and others in our lives, accept our aloneness as necessary and liberating. This is just the opportunity offered when we recapitulate. We don’t need to go into a concentration camp to suffer and meet our aloneness; we all have enough of those opportunities in our daily lives. This leads me to the next point I wish to make today: Recapitulation happens all the time. We do not need to do anything. Life itself places our recapitulation squarely in front of us each moment of each day.
In my dream, I saw a recapitulation opportunity, but, in a sense, I had to be willing to see it that way and not get caught in feelings of sorrow for my child self, to not fall into depression and self-pity. I was offered the opportunity to remind myself just how free I really am, not only of the past, but of the suffering that once oppressed me so deeply.
It was pretty clear to me that I was being shown an old world, one I have come far from, but one that still exists. In many ways I must still encounter it, even though I no longer wish to live in it. As I did in my dream, in waking life I must remember to turn away from the oppressor, to leave the house that is oppressive because it does not feed my spirit. This must become a conscious process, yet my dream is reminding me that I must not become complacent or smug about it either.
In the house of the oppressor we are confronted with questions that will help us move on to new territory, to new perspectives, to new ideas of self and life. We must repeatedly ask ourselves to go deeper into our aloneness and ask ourselves to truly answer the questions that arise.
Some of those questions might be: Why do I live in the house of the oppressor? Who is the real oppressor? Have I taken on the attributes of the oppressor? What can I do to leave this place that I feel so stuck in? Can I allow myself to leave the screaming oppressor without feeling that I am bad, neglectful, inconsiderate, unloving, selfish? Can I turn away from an old world and allow myself to enter a world of my own creation? Can I keep going into the aloneness that is necessary to encounter all that I must encounter in this life? And, in the end, can I simply love the oppressor for having set me on my journey, and accept that my destiny is now completely in my own hands?
Recapitulation is a tool to use as we set out on our own journeys of individuation. It may take us many years to discover that it is actually what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. It may mean that we must return to the house of the oppressor many times, even when we think we have left it behind for good, because it still holds something of value for us. In the end, can we ultimately embrace our suffering as our most valuable asset? In the house of the oppressor, Victor Frankl discovered the key to man’s inner spirit and to his own future as a psychotherapist and student of human nature.
What value do I find in my own suffering? I ask myself this question each day as I revisit my own past. My three-year shamanic recapitulation allowed me to revisit the first eighteen years of my life and find the reasons for the oppressive qualities I carried with me into life. I saw very clearly where they came from, how I had attached to them, and how I continued to carry them forth. I learned to remove them one by one, freeing my spirit, the true self who lay waiting for me to return and find her.
Here is to taking the recapitulation journey that we do not have to do anything to jumpstart, it is jumpstarted for us each day of our lives, we just have to notice how it comes. How does it come? Perhaps in dreams, encounters, feelings, sensations, memories, thoughts, repetitive behaviors; in our actions, reactions or no actions; in complacencies and avoidances; in our likes and dislikes; in our political and social views and opinions. What is mine and what is not mine? Who am I? Who do I want to be?
I want to be me, and I want to be okay with being me, without worry, without fear, without needing to uphold things I just do not believe in or need anymore. I hope these ideas help make the journey a bit more clear.