Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Guru? Gurwho? The Search for a True Teacher

The very desire to be ready means that the Guru had come and the flame is lighted. It may be a stray word, or a page in a book, the Guru’s grace works mysteriously.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

As a psychotherapist, I often find myself in the company of clients who are seekers.  Whether they're looking for a way to cope with grief, depression, a broken relationship or the countless other problems of modern life, the often unstated plea is “Tell me that you know what I should do with this.” 

Despite my therapeutic bag of tricks accumulated over the past thirty years, what I have to offer is essentially two things; a supportive listening ear and feedback.  Feedback, for the uninitiated, is a form of advice that is provided in a way that it's not really advice. Ideally, it is provided, at least in therapeutic circles, only when asked for, with true empathy, and with the understanding that the person receiving it may not like it.  

I have to confess that I love giving feedback and as I grow older in my profession I hear myself talking more than in the past. Let’s face it, simply listening to someone’s story and nodding with the polite, "I see, go on," can only be so helpful.  Feedback, to nourish again, is the mechanism by which the therapist holds up a mirror to the client and says, “How does this look, anything you want to change?”

There was a time when it seemed that, through this feedback mechanism, psychotherapists were going to become the go-to gurus of the New Age.  The promise of psychoanalysis, and the science of the mind, was that there would finally be someone who could both explain who we are and what life is all about. The nova-gurus would provide the answers to all the biggies; "What does it all mean? What’s my purpose?  Why does it hurt so much?  Is there some way out?"

The guru shine began to wear off when those in search of understanding often left their therapy sessions with the realization that their therapists were just as screwed up and they were.  This is, in fact, the case and any honest-to-goodness therapist will readily admit this to his or her client.  
At the heart of this seeking is the basic need to find someone to point the way so as to not get lost.  But who do we ask? Who do we follow? Who is a true teacher? It was so easy when we were young because the role was clearly defined.  The adult world had already labeled everything for us; teacher, professor, coach, etc. and had even given each an official stamp of approval; Master’s degrees, PhD s, licensed, certified, board approved.  How blessedly simple it all was.
But these days how do we know if we’ve turned our life over to the ring leader of the circus we call life, or the clown? How to distinguish between foolishness and wisdom? Is the person we're following taking us somewhere, or are we just moving in circles?  It’s enough to drive a person insane and into a psychiatrist’s office looking for and antidote to the madness.

Believe it or not, it is a very simple matter to determine a true teacher.  Fortunately, a litmus test has been devised by countless people before us.  Since you may not have the time to read through the experiences of these ancient and modern seekers, I will give it to you in a reduced form. Feel free to consider this as advice or feedback, whichever feels better:

Q. Do I need a guru?

A. You do as long as you think you do.

Q. Is it true that when the student is ready the teacher will appear?

A. Yes, but you don’t get to decide when you’re ready.

Q. Is it possible that the teacher will arrive and I will not recognize him or her?

A. Yes, this happens all the time since often the guru takes the form of something other than a person. (My personal realization of this came during cancer treatment when I was desperately waiting for a guru to show up only to realize that it had already arrived in the form of the cancer itself.)

Q. How do I know if I have found the right teacher?

A. Watch yourself. If you find that you turn to gold, that your suffering has been transformed into peace, than you have surely touched the philosopher’s stone.

Q. When will this endless search for answers end?

A. When you stop asking questions.

Q. Why is it that the guru just doesn't tell me what it's all about rather than putting me through all types of challenges?

A. For the same reason that the Good Witch didn't just tell Dorothy that she had the way back to Kansas on her feet all the time; you won't believe the truth until you’re ready to hear it.

A. When will I be ready for the truth?

Q. When you no longer have the need for the lies.

Q. What is the guru's ultimate goal?

A. To point out to you that you never needed a guru and to send you back to yourself.

Q. Any final hints as I head into Guruland?

A. A simple twist on Dorothy's mantra will work, "There's no place not home.  There's no place not home."

Monday, February 17, 2014

Synthetic Mindfulness: The Science of the Silence

You do not need to leave your room. 
Remain sitting at your table and listen. 
Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. 
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
 Franz Kafka

I have to confess that the increased interest in the practice of mindfulness worries me.  This is due, primarily, to the fact that the Western influence on this ancient practice is beginning to show signs of a familiar transformation.  

Predictably, meditative practices that arose from Eastern cultures had to go through a metamorphosis upon reaching the West.  It was also a certainty that a technologically advanced culture would feel compelled to both understand the mechanics involved in meditative states and try to one-up natural processes.  This is most evident in the field of neuroscience which has taken a great interest in meditation, which a mere decade ago was relegated to New Age stores, the back halls of Yoga studios and the occasional, post-hippie, Baby Boomer Retreat.

With the blessings of the Dalai Lama himself, neuroscientists have turned their inquisitive eyes toward the ancient art of learning to be still and observing one's thoughts with a nonobjective heart and mind. Studying real time scans of the brains of those engaging in these practices, researchers are putting an official stamp on their benefits and suggesting ways to fine tune the process.  Daily we are greeted with tips on how to meditate our way to building brains that will resist aging, improve mental flexibility, sharpen our focus and, as one author has suggested, Learn to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

Applying the scientific method to something that is essentially an art form is giving rise to something I call synthetic mindfulness.  This mock version of mindfulness looks like the real thing, but, in fact, is a hollow shell made for mass consumption.  Think the meditative version of the Happy Meal.  Sure, it smells good, but what is the nutritional value?

Essential to the process of taking the rich creamy butter of the meditative arts (I must remember not to write when this hungry) and reducing it to the thinner, easier to digest, margarine of mind exercises is the removal of the spiritual roots of the practice.  Mindfulness advocates themselves are guilty of the oft-spoken phrase, “This has nothing to do with spirituality,” in order not to send their new devotees scurrying for the doors.  It is no surprise that once this vacuum was created, science would arrive to fill the void and give the fact driven mind something to chew on.  This truth is even lost on many meditators, as they miss the irony of having to scientifically prove the benefits of trying to stop thinking, itself a misunderstanding of the meditative process, simply to satisfy the thought addicted mind.  Eastern oriented gurus try to counter this misunderstanding with the phrase, “Meditation, it’s not what you think.”

The reason the West craves mindfulness-lite is due to our basic misunderstanding, promulgated as divine truth, about spirituality itself.  The dualism inherent in Western thought is the division which these ancient practices seek to repair.  Seeing through the illusion of separation from the oneness of all things, to include a material versus a spiritual realm, is at the heart of mindfulness practice.  To make matters worse, the competing and often openly clashing teachings of religions serve to widen this gap. Intentionally or otherwise, they have created an imaginary journey from the material to spiritual planes.  This journey, we are told, is a heart-rending, soul-scathing trek which only the few, the brave, and/or the chosen will ever complete.  No wonder so many people will sit on the meditation cushion only after it is confirmed that there is not one whiff of the other-worldly, save the occasional incense, within arm’s length.

The good news is that even this leaner and meaner version of mindfulness is proving beneficial.  This is due to the fact that even occasional forays into mindfulness states result in decreased stress and an increase in well-being.  Regardless of the brain circuitry involved, removing the obstacles to the free flow of thoughts works like removing rocks and boulders from a moving stream; the white waters of chaos give way to deep pools of calm.  There is no need to understand this process, any more than there is a need to understand the mechanics of digestion in order to enjoy a fine meal.  As a matter of fact, if you want to ruin your gastronomical adventures, get in the way of this finely tuned process and indigestion will be your reward.

All meditative practices are, in their purest form, yoga.  Not yoga in the twisting oneself into a pretzel sense, but in the true meaning of the word, which is union, as in a complete whole.  The restoration of that which the mind has pulled apart is the real journey of mindfulness and there is nothing extraordinary about it. It is however, as Zen teachers point out, extra ordinary and inherently paradoxical.  Thus the Zen riddle: “How do you find that which you never lost?”

Undoubtedly, science will continue its fascination with the brain mechanics involved in mindfulness practices. As it peers deeper into the firing of synaptic nerves and pushes back the boundaries of our ignorance it will inevitably discover great wonders. Many of these will have a positive impact on our day-to-day lives.  As a result, many more people will take up the practice as a form of brain training.  Sadly, many of those will go on to drop the practice once it fails to live up to its infomercial hype.  At that moment, paradoxically, they are ripe for finding that which has eluded them as the ceaseless search for cause and effect is dropped.  By surrendering the need to know, they move effortlessly from the science of the brain to the silence of the mind.  In this stillness there is simply being, no additives, preservatives, or imitations; the real in reality.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Letting Go of "Let Go."

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. 
When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need. – Tao Te Ching

I have to confess that after thirty years in the mental health profession I have grown somewhat leery of psychological catchphrases.  Sure they make good headings on posters, coffee mugs, calendars etc. and as personal mantras they can even have a stabilizing and healing effect. However, much of the time, these Neo-Freudian one-liners have all the sincerity of political sound bites and the illuminating power of an itty-bitty book light.  One of the reasons we continue to use them is that quipping, “It is what it is,” is far easier than trying to untangle  someone's life when your own feels like a ball of yarn at a kitten festival.  

One tried-and-true piece of sagely advice that seems to have stood the test of time, unlike “Heal your inner child,” is “You just need to let go.”  I know this to be the case because up until very recently I would find this phrase slipping past my therapeutically pursed lips when dealing with clients who were clearly still holding on to past hurts.  When I was not uttering this incantation, I would hear my clients say it with more than just a hint of self-deprecation as in, “I know I should let this go, but I can’t.”  

I had a professional epiphany recently as a result of the very personal experience of being a cancer survivor.  Four years into cancer recovery, I found that I was still trying to figure out how to let go of the experience of being a cancer patient.  This experience was being led by the four horseman of psychological suffering; grief, stress, trauma and anxiety and I could tell they were leading to places I did not want to be.

Then, one day, it happened.  I noticed a space where once there was only a crowd of fears.  I didn’t remember dropping anything, there was no emotional exorcism of the cancer induced demons; there was just a gap, a silence, and a peace.  

With this new perspective, it occurred to me that the reason we can’t make ourselves let go is that it is not a process in and of itself, it is the result of earlier actions.  In the same way that the garden grows from our having tilled, fertilized and watered, letting go is the fruit of awareness, acknowledgment and acceptance. It is within the nature of all things to move on; however, there is clinginess to the human condition that often seeks to delay this inevitability.

Imagine the ripened apple trying to resist the pull of gravity.  It would be shear apple-madness to try and hang on.  As far as we know, apples don’t have that choice. The human dilemma is that we do and as a result we end up cycling through the seasons withering rather than risking renewal.

Since it’s certain that, despite our efforts to thwart nature, our own personal day of harvest by the Grimm Reaper will arrive, why not enter willingly into a new relationship with life?  What if we became aware of what was happening inside of us, acknowledged that it was an internal experience that was causing the suffering, and accepted that whatever happened, or is happening, could not have happened otherwise?   The answer is that when we become aware of our attachments, acknowledge that they are creating our suffering, and accept their impermanence we find that, even in-spite of the self that still feels the need to hang on, we move into the state that the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls Letgo.  This is not a state of doing but one of being. In that state there is a space that surrounds our suffering and in that space there is peace. 

I often hear from people who have gone through great personal challenges, both mental and physical, that they have no idea how they did it.  They will often look back with amazement on their certainty at the start that they would never make it.  This has been both my professional and personal experience as a cancer survivor and the wisdom I share with my clients who are struggling with letting go. My new catchphrase is, “Let go of your need to let go, pay attention to what is happening now and life will move on, you cannot stop it.”  Not as pithy as “Hang in there, baby,” but much more useful.

Letting go of letting go is an art form not a science.  As such, it improves with practice.   While our first attempts may not be masterpieces, we can create great beauty even if we have to start with the psychological equivalent of paint by numbers. It is okay to have someone else show us how to stay within the lines as much as possible.  Even if you stray, when you stand back far enough, i.e. gain perspective, everything looks like it should. Some other ways to bring this about for ourselves are:

1. Take a moment to reflect on all of the things in your life you have already let go of.  Feel free to start with the fact that you no longer sleep in a crib or crawl on all fours and move on from there.
2.  Realize that even on a good day your conscious attention only caught hold of about 10% of what was going on all around you.  You are more like Teflon than Velcro.
3.  Accept small things first before going after big game.  The traffic jam, the rained out picnic, and the countless things that frustrate and annoy are all opportunities to practice acceptance.
4.  Be mindful of the times you pick something back up that you had previously dropped.  Notice when that old resentment arises, that sense that life is not fair knocks on your door, or the “Nothing ever goes my way,” mantra rents space in your head.
5.  If you find that you have become flypaper and everything that enters your field of awareness sticks, it might be time for professional help. If you really want to flex your acceptance muscle, accept that you might need the help of a trusted other to give you feedback, as in “to nourish,” so that you can once again thrive.