Start Where You Are

Hatred is never healed by hatred…by love alone is hatred healed … This is an ancient and eternal law.                                                                                                                                                                       The Dhammapada     
If you want to refine your understanding of clinging, desire-passion, and suffering, you can’t cling to words or texts. You have to look deeper into your present experience….it’s up to you to learn through trial and error which way of conceiving the path is most useful at any particular time in your practice.      Thanissaro Bhikkhu


There is an article this morning in the news about Conrad, a wealthy young “man-child” who had a meltdown on a recent trans-Atlantic flight. Reportedly, the twenty-year-old violated just about every standard of wise conduct and wise speech as he broke nearly every airline rule, verbally and physically assaulting airline employees and passengers in the process. The report continues that the young man maintained that his well known father would, once again, rescue him by paying any expensive fines.

Closer to home, in our professional offices, we hear these kinds of stories of out-of-control emotion and unskillful behavior pretty much every day.  My client, Ben, narrated just such a story.  “We were just ending a delightful four day visit,” he said. My five-year-old grandson, Evan, and I had gone fishing and had played in the park and read stories and built a little birdhouse together. He was almost ready to leave with his parents and three year-old sister. We were walking in the garden, enjoying the butterflies landing on the oranges and golds and purples of the fall flowers. All of a sudden, he ran from me and up to his little sister and socked her, hard, in the head, making her cry and causing quite a family ruckus.” The family’s tender leave-taking became filled with confusion, anger, punishment and tears.  “What happened? What is this? How do I be with this? My spiritual practice is about stress reduction. Do I just breathe? Be present and know the pain of it all? Accept it?  How can my meditation practice help me here?” Ben, genuinely and painfully puzzled, struggled for wisdom, clarity and a place to stand.  There is much that teachings from both western and Buddhist psychology have to offer here. So much so, that, like Ben, we often don’t know quite where to begin.

Maybe a place to start is with what’s arising: confusion. Our own minds often want to know. We want quick, definitive answers from somewhere that we can post, like magnets on our refrigerator, with pithy, simple instructions that point to clear cut strategies for understanding and for behavior across every circumstance. We wish we could use our respective psychologies in some abstract way to form opinions about how we, or our relatives, or the all the Conrads in the news should be acting.

Life, however, is more complex and, indeed, more paradoxical than this.  The Buddha, in particular, repeatedly invited us to use his teachings not as a dogma, but as a guide to deep reflection and experiential investigation.  What is most deeply true here?  Where is suffering? What is the cause of suffering? Where is freedom from suffering? What is the path?  There is an invitation, then, to start where we are. If we want to get to Toledo, we need to know whether we are starting from Cleveland or Bangkok or the International Space Station. Where are we now? What level of inquiry is this? Of the billions of variables present, which ones are most relevant and helpful? In what system is this dilemma embedded? Do we need the Buddha’s guidance at the ontological level of no-self? Do we need something from western psychology about psychological processes and development? Will inquiry at this relative level simply reinforce identification with a constructed self and cause us to overlook an opportunity for mindful presence and release of clinging? These are questions often raised at the interface of Buddhist and western psychology – and issues with which Ben struggled as he attempted to make sense of his own and his grandson’s emotions and behavior and to gain clarity toward application of his spiritual practice in this real-life dilemma. Ben and I inquired together into what sort of problem he was dealing with.

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Both Buddhist and western psychology agree that our human senses are constantly bombarded by billions of sense impressions that the mind then organizes according to the patterns familiar to its family and its culture.  From sense contact, perceptions and descriptive words form, which then evolve into – and are sustained by – the various mind states of narrative and emotion. In this way, a “self” is constructed with a memory of the past, a capacity to predict the future, and a set of internal algorithms about how to navigate life. Western psychology has much to say about the wholesome development of that self, particularly about the relational development of an integrated and coherently functioning brain.

The Buddha, however, spoke virtually not at all about the development of that brain through its various stages of growth from infancy to maturity in early adulthood. For the most part, the Buddha’s teachings presumed a coherent and balanced, fully developed, adult brain. I think this difference in western and Buddhist psychology may be the basis of some famous confusion about the psychological struggles of western students in meditation.  Jack Engler has written that Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw expressed puzzlement when asked how he dealt with his meditation students’ “psychological problems.”  A “new type of suffering,” Venerable Sayadaw reportedly said, quite amazed at the discovery: “psychological suffering”! Both Alan Wallace’s Tibetan teachers and the Dalai Lama himself have famously reported similar confusions.  So psychological suffering that is related to developmental immaturity or outright damage to the coherence of the brain may be overlooked in these traditions.  It also may be that such developmental issues and their resulting suffering are more strongly contained in the social structures and mores of extended family and community of some cultures and thus, less likely to surface in overt behavior.  In any case, developmental progress and/or problems in a not-yet well integrated brain seem seldom to be mentioned in eastern spiritual traditions.  Since Ben was puzzled over how to understand and respond to young Evan’s thinking and behavior, then, western psychology and the role of parent-child attachment is a good place to start.

We know from developmental psychology that young children learn over a long period of time how to organize and navigate those billions of sensory impressions bombarding them in every moment. They learn this in relationship with adults, whose minds, presumably more mature, coherent and integrated, enable those adults to be “bigger, stronger and wiser,” even under stress.  Such adults help young children discern which external data is worthy of attention, along with how to name it and place it in internal categories for future reference. With respect to children’s capacities to navigate emotion, adults do this by “reading through” the child’s own external behavioral cues to a deeper understanding of what lies beneath external signals.  Skillful adults, then, learn to respond both verbally and behaviorally to the child’s underlying message, which may well be discrepant from the manifest behavior. In this way, a sensitive and mature parent will understand a newborn’s cry in the middle of the night or a toddler’s fussiness at an evening picnic, or a teenager’s acting out, not so much by trying to silence the behavior but by reading and responding contingently to behavior in terms of its the underlying signals of hunger/fatigue/overstimulation/fear/displeasure.  In this way, like many animals, the “job” of adult humans is to help their young learn to integrate their brain’s capacities for complex and coherent physical, mental, emotional and yes, spiritual experience.

daffodils 6A bit of reflection on this principle of western developmental psychology with Ben led to insight. As he considered, he saw that the context was relevant and that Evan had been struggling with his own internal emotional experience. Their pleasant time with one another had been ending; it was time to say good-bye.  In retrospect, Ben “read through” Evan’s behavior and realized that he had been sad at the impending good-bye.  However, his grandson’s young brain hadn’t yet learned the many skills involved in identifying the emotion of sadness in his body, putting language to it and expressing it skillfully in words. So the adult’s task was to do all of this for him, reading the context, then reading through the cues, then giving words and voice to a deeper knowing, teaching him the language of emotion and behavior.  Even after his outburst, a few quiet minutes alone exploring with Evan could have helped him in this way to recognize and name his own internal experience along with the mismatch in his behavior –  and then to consider how to make any necessary corrections with his grandfather and his sister. “What are you feeling? What words could say that? What might you say now to your sister?”

With 20 year-old Conrad – as with so many other folks in the news today – we are at the disadvantage of distance but a few things from western psychology seem equally clear. Despite his physical age, Conrad’s developmental skill at reading and working with his own emotions appears to be at a very young level. He needs a parent’s – or a parent substitute’s – help. Without that more mature help, he is likely to continue in his deluded responses. He seemed to indicate this need when he reported that he would turn to his father to “fix things.” His Dad may need some coaching about the better kinds of wise help that a parent needs to offer in such a case. Nevertheless, for us, we start at a distance where there is not much to actually do.  So while our western psychology offers a small bit of understanding, in this circumstance, it is not really of much help.

Here, we can be supported by the even deeper awareness of Buddhist psychology as we turn awareness internally and deeply into our own hearts and minds. As we read of and witness Conrad’s suffering, what is our own response? Do we experience a reactivity of our own: perhaps the tension of a heart closed in aversion or blame or judgment? The Buddha invites us to investigate our own experience and to make wholesome choices in thought and speech and action.  Where is the end of suffering – in this case, our own? How do we contribute to less suffering in the world? What is the path? Here the teachings on cultivating patience, forbearance, kindness and compassion can inform us. Might we cultivate these qualities in our own responses? Might we forego further judgment, blame, aversion, unkindness, first toward ourselves and then toward any others?  How can this work with other external figures in the news: certain political personalities or radio celebrities, or the separatists in the Ukraine, or even the terrorists of ISIS?

We are invited in both traditions to tend to our own minds, to see what is true in this circumstance and to see what is needed to bring freedom from suffering, first in our own minds and then, as needed and possible, to others as well. In each of the above situations – and in every moment of life – we can cultivate the varieties of skillful means toward wise awareness and wise intention to help us remember what sort of problem – and at what level – our choices arise.  We are invited continuously to find and practice wholesome means towards the end of suffering in whatever forms are available to us and whatever forms are thus ours to do. In this way we cultivate freedom from suffering for all beings, at all times, everywhere.










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