On Being Not Good Enough

“The universe is shot through in all parts by a single sort of love…Those who hope to be reasonable about it fail… ”          Kabir                                                                                                                                                                                                            

“I’m a failure; I can’t do this work.”  In my office for a consult about a professional challenge, Joanna wilted into the chair.  Her client, a single mother with a drug addicted teenager, had collapsed into chaos, despair and hopelessness and it was contagious. The entire team – mother, social workers, nurses, teachers, foster care parents – was crashing in frantic accusations of one another and disjointed and scrambled efforts to save the child’s life. All demanded that Joanna fix things: get the daughter to change, get the mother to shape up as a parent, smooth the professionals’ many ruffled feathers.  All had different and conflicting views of what change might look like and how that change should come about. Joanna, caught in the middle as she tried to manage so many fears and expectations at once, massaged her aching stomach and was near tears. “It’s too hard.”

I know Joanna’s experience so very well, how it is to collapse in overwhelm. For me on those days, I can become so deflated and hopeless as I mentally search my agitated brain and my news feeds and my books and the internet and my spiritual practices for anything that might “work.” I can mentally compare myself to others as I imagine who among them might be that other person who – unlike me – would miraculously, heroically and (especially) single-handedly know just what to do without ever losing composure. I experience at those times my limitations, confusions, mistakes and failures, and can become caught in additional suffering as I mentally calculate the infinite ways that I am “not good enough.”   My mind can go down a “rabbit hole” of judgement, criticism, blame, complaint and comparison.

It’s true, I remember. In the ordinary ways of this ordinary human life, I am, indeed, “not enough.” I cannot personally “fix” life. In this, I am comforted by the times when the Buddha himself was unable to resolve conflicts or stop wars when others simply refused to be deterred from unwholesome behavior. With everything arising and passing away, he taught, with infinite causes and conditions shaping each moment’s experience, there can be no personal self who is separate enough, stable and solid enough, safe enough, to not ever know the sensations of our human vulnerability.  It can be hard. The Buddha invites me to pause, to receive and accept the details of life with great kindness and humility, letting go of my arrogance in thinking that I can somehow fix it all. The challenge is to release my struggle and know it all with clarity and kindness and patience and humility. And with a little help from my friends.

Joanna, an experienced and wise meditator, knew all of this. She came to me for a consult, not because I am different or better or smarter or immune but because she understood the power of relationship to help her to regain her footing. Wisely – and as the Buddha taught – she looked to our relationship to simply offer a breather: a loving and open space in which she might explore and release her identification with the contents of her mind and rest, with another, in awareness.

We talked a bit. As she narrated the bounty of internal and external details, soon Joanna simply stopped talking. She came to rest; she was quiet for a very long moment. She reflected:  “Wait; I’m caught on auto pilot here.Yes.  We paused together. She allowed our simple presence together to make room for a deepening. She paused still further out of the agitated contents of her mind and even out of reflection. She relaxed and opened directly to her breath and her embodied experience. She released her judgments. She let go of insistence that she feel good, that she understand, that she know immediately what to do next. She touched with undemanding awareness the somatic sensations of her body. “My stomach is heavy; it’s tangled; it hurts.”  She touched her belly, allowing awareness, quietly and softly, to simply settle there for some time.

We were quiet together some more. She released her stories, her criticisms of self and other and simply allowed a knowing: “It’s like this now.” She watched it spontaneously shift and change. “And like this now.” Pausing, relaxing, opening internally, opening externally, trusting, listening. There was virtually no speech, just awareness, a knowing of her direct, fluid, wordless somatic experience. “It’s like this now.”

As we sat with one another in this silent knowing, she experienced an unfolding: her mind’s and heart’s release. Her whole body softened. Her breathing deepened.  “I get it,” she said. We both knew that it was true; she “got it.”  In allowing my presence to support her, she was able to step out of the tension of her body and the agitation of her mind; she returned to a new stability, a new and more grounded clarity.  As an extra gift, she understood something new. She saw that she had been reluctant to simply rest in the space of a fully human and “not-good-enough” therapist who was, deeply, truly, “good enough.” She saw that she had been paralyzed by ideas of a “defective self,” and “defective others.”

As she released still further her belief in these internal stories, Joanna began to breathe even more deeply as she saw that she could know with care and compassion her clients’, her colleagues’ and even her own pain and chaos and she could still release what the Buddha called the “second arrow” of those extra negative mind states and judgments. In her job as psychotherapist, she could be present with the suffering of others’ identifications, constructions, confusions and sometimes not-so-skillful actions. Her own wise presence and wise action were still available.  She could experience the pain of suffering and she could still be a part of it all with more ease, more equanimity. She could open and simply receive deep wisdom. There was more clarity. There was more joy, even, in her mind and in her body. She could again be present.  She could respond. It was all OK. No matter how it worked out, it was all OK.

The Guest is Inside You, and Also Inside Me

“The guest is inside you, and also inside me;
you know the sprout is hidden inside the seed.
We are all struggling; none of us has gone far.
Let your arrogance go, and look around inside.

The blue sky opens out farther and farther,
the daily sense of failure goes away,
the damage I have done to myself fades,
a million suns come forward with light,
when I sit firmly in that world.

I hear bells ringing that no one has shaken,
inside “love” there is more joy than we know of,
rain pours down, although the sky is clear of clouds,
there are whole rivers of light.
The universe is shot through in all parts by a single sort of love.
How hard it is to feel that joy in all our four bodies!

Those who hope to be reasonable about it fail.
The arrogance of reason has separated us from that love.
With the word “reason” you already feel miles away.”




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