“We should appreciate what we are doing; there is no preparation for something else.” Shunryu Suzuki
I drove away in tears. It was a sunny day, filled with the sweetness of blue sky and wispy clouds and the promise of spring. Yet I had just deposited my aging mother at her new assisted living home. My dear, ornery, self sufficient-country-girl mother, who had worked full time long before it was fashionable, who had raised five children and canned peaches and tomatoes and made frosted Christmas cookies and lemon birthday cakes, who had cleaned the house from top to bottom each week and sewed my clothes and knitted our mittens and still found time to tend her beloved flower garden. I had left this mother alone, terrified, and, in her progressive dementia, profoundly hurt, betrayed, and confused, hitting me and screaming at me in rage. “I can’t do this!” I cried to the steering wheel and any gods who might be listening. “I can’t do this.”
Andrea said the same thing to me in our supervision session this morning. Stung by her agency’s changes to more evidence-based care, to electronic record keeping and insurance panels and efficiency demands, her work feels less and less like the human relationship and care that inspired her so many years ago. “I can’t do this; it’s too hard.” Any of us could say the same thing as we open our office doors to our suffering clients each day or as we simply browse the world headlines while sipping our morning tea. “I can’t do this; I can’t be with this.”
It is, of course, true. If by “being with this” we mean to fix the world’s pain or stabilize life’s constant change or alter the circumstances brought about by billions of causes and conditions beyond our personal control, none of us can “do this.” Indeed, this is the dukkha of which the Buddha speaks: the stress, unsatisfactoriness and downright suffering of this very human existence on planet earth. For me, as I look deeply, a part of me thought I could. I thought if I tried hard enough and studied enough,
If I got to be a good enough therapist and spoke sincerely and clearly enough to others, that I could get people to change and heal. Further, I unconsciously believed that if I pursued my own personal psychotherapy and if I healed myself enough or, later, if I meditated enough and went on enough retreats and listened to enough wise teachers, life would somehow work the way I thought it should. I thought I knew what healing was, imagining it to fit with my own mental conceptions of how I believed things in my world – or even how things within myself – should be.
The question brings us to the depths of both western and Buddhist psychology. To truly learn about healing, we have to be willing to touch into and to know deeply that which is NOT healed within ourselves. Once again, the way out is through. But what does this mean, really? I’ll go back to my relationship with my mother.
My young mother was, indeed, all of the wonderful things I spoke of. Nevertheless, generations of trauma in the families of each of my parents led to a darkness and anguish that surfaced in our family relationships all too often in my growing years. Like all of us in our ordinary human development, I closed off and closed down around what was to painful or too overwhelming for my developing nervous system to, alone, try to integrate. I developed strategies to try to avoid what was overwhelming and to cobble together a coherent and reliable sense of a personal self. (More on this later.) This worked fine (sort of) as long as I could avoid life experiences that touched into what I had learned to avoid. When my Mom started being irrational and abusive and violent in her dementia, my carefully constructed strategies were more than threatened. I spiraled into an anguish that had long since been buried.
So, like all of us at various moments in our lives, the invitation into the …”opportunity for the most relevant, sophisticated, inspiring, and useful inquiry you could conduct in your life” that Phillip Moffitt speaks of was not an abstract or romantic invitation. It was, indeed, an opening into a world of pain that had been held at a distance for decades.
While the specifics of our narratives will vary widely, along with the specifics of our strategies, each of us has developed strategies as we’ve grown that lead us to try to avoid rather than experience life’s difficulties. Psychologically, these are built on ordinary human and developmental processes. More deeply, these arise from what the Buddha calls “mental defilements,” along with our efforts to cling to safety (more on these later, also). Sooner or later, however, life brings us nose to nose with these unavoidable pains and our own personal mix of strategies of avoidance. We see them either by encountering the suffering of our own mental or emotional or behavioral responses or by having others – kindly or not – point them out to us. In our work as psychotherapists we try to help others to navigate these passages into more clarity and healing. We ourselves, however, are not immune, and our close proximity to others’ suffering provides us over and over and in many different ways, with opportunities to uncover, investigate and heal our own hidden and “stuck” places. Caring for my Mom through her dementia and her last days was just such an opportunity and, as it turned out, a truly profound gift for both of us.
Our journey, then, is one of learning to “…appreciate what we are doing.” we are invited, over and over and over and over, to let go of our ideas about ourselves and others and to love, cherish, appreciate even – indeed, especially – our difficulties. To sit still and to let them open us, to teach us and in that, to invite us into new dimensions of wholeness, clarity, kindness and compassion. Sometimes this means to open to a consciousness of what has long been held unconsciously in our nervous system. As we open and open still further, we find new layers of previously unknown consciousness: a spaciousness of awareness in which all is known and all is deeply well. The way out is through. There is no preparation for something else.