Healing and Transformation

I met a beautiful person. She was so perfect to me.

Later I found it she was chronically depressed.

It seemed I wanted her to be perfect. She wasn’t.

She was living in her head and engulfed by sadness; she was cynical, cold, and detached because of her emotional overwhelm. However, I could see her potential was grand and wonderful. I wanted to be there for her. I wanted to help, to reach and touch her heart, and maybe to save her from drowning in an emotional swamp. I wanted so much to sing to her in her darkness, and hear her sing back to me in my darkness.

Did I see more of myself in her than I wanted to? Was I being called to go deeper into the forest – or face the storm head-on without shrinking? Carl Jung wrote something that I find intriguing and particularly relevant, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”

I believe that it is in the questions, in the void, in the unknown, that I am unfolding.

As an empath, and I say this without intending any judgement, it felt like she couldn’t breathe, and I felt like she would swallow me down with her—not out of selfishness, but out of need or desperation.

As a man, I felt called to serve with honour and duty. I felt an innate desire to be strong for her. This instinctive yearning was triggered deep in my soul. Was that a bad thing? The alarm bells were ringing, and my manhood was being tested. I was feeling like a man that wants to be needed.

Responsibility and having something to live for is valuable. Some have even argued that meaning is the key to human fulfilment. It is inherently unsatisfying to live without purpose. Men want to help women, and the neediest ones need our help the most. They call to me to stand up for them.

Discernment is essential. Did I walk away and send love from a safe distance—or dive in deeply and attempt to save her? And by saving her, save myself!

I chose to step away to preserve myself, out of self-care and self-respect. I chose not to sacrifice myself for her needs.

Even the nicest-intentioned people are sometimes best kept at a distance. Did I make the right call?

We do have the right to choice – to choose our lessons – to choose who we are in-relationship to. If we feel like we are drowning, then we have a responsibility to do something about it. Hillel the Elder taught in Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14,“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

We have to strike the balance between serving ourselves, our values, self-respect, honour and dignity—and serving our community, creating a perfect symphony between the relationship we have with ourselves and our relationship to others. There is an integral connection between the tadpole and its environment, and fellow tadpoles.

Many of the great spiritual teachers have reflected on human beings as being fish in the ocean, all connected to this essence called life (the water), yet also feeling separate from it. If the ocean is love, then we are the fish swimming inside.

In this way of thinking, is there any real separation? Or are we really all the same? As Yogi Bhajan puts it, “I am Thou, Thou is Me, Me is Thou.”

If we feel connected, are we wise to step away, or is it even possible to disconnect if we are innately connected? It’s like cutting off our life-force, or removing a fish from the sea—it would merely drown. Yet the sea is the ether of love. It is that which some call God. Disconnection is impossible.

I am reminded of an ambiguous poem by the British poet Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving but Drowning,’

“Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning…”

This line stings. What was Smith referring to? (The subject) was possibly ignored, and drowning in his emotions and nobody was listening?

All writers, at least on some level, write about themselves. When she was a young girl, Stevie Smith’s father left her family to join the North Sea Patrol. In her prose, she seems to hark back to this abandonment and sense of loss,“…I was much too far out all my life.”

I keep questioning myself, asking how I could have acted differently:

Should I have listened closer? Should I have reached out my hand?

Was there an intrinsic betrayal?

I’ve always believed that beneath conflict and dysfunctional relationships, is merely hurt and painful feelings, or what one may call, the ‘pain-body.’

Hidden between the cracks of one’s ego identity that is desperately holding on to us being right (and the other person wrong), is the loving, authentic soul.

I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. Ultimately, we all need to make our own choices.

I believe that underlying all our experiences, is the gaining of wisdom and the lesson of unconditional love. This love extends to others, just as it extends to ourselves. For in the end, as Rumi wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

In relationships, sometimes the healthiest act of kindness is to walk away. Not because we are distancing ourselves from another (or our self), but because we are needing to get closer to who we are—to know ourselves. Clearing the swamp can be the most loving thing we can do for ourselves.

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Via FondoxDo you call yourself “spiritual?”

Is that a religion? What does it mean?

Does it mean you judge people because they don’t understand how elevated you are—because that’s what you are now, elevated—above other people?

Swami Satyananda taught (regarding the uncertain concept of the immaterial):

“Spiritual life begins with a question: Who am I? Where have I come from? What is my path of arrival? What will be the dock of my departure?”

This seems a more authentic way of being spiritual in that it merely acknowledges the important existential questions.

We need to keep coming back to our origin: where have we come from? Honour that part of our journey, and then see the expanse of our lives in terms of where we are going to end up. How will we depart this earthly venture?

Basically, ambition and success have become the new “en vogue” spiritual movement. This is spiritual materialism, and bypasses the essential question, “Who am I?” Yet, the ego self says: “It’s just a creation anyway, so who cares; I’m going to play this game!”
We also need to acknowledge our identity is made up by the conditioning of our parents and society, and finally, us—until we kill our ego, and kill who we thought we were. Or, simply, recreate ourselves. Superficiality and ceaseless spiritual shopping sprees avoid the real work.

It seems spiritual notions are causing a great deal of judgement and confusion in our modern world. People who have studied yoga, become yoga teachers, meditate, visit ashrams in India, study religions, become teachers, or devotees, or who simply read a few spiritual books are still wracked by judgements and insecurities, and their woundedness continues. Their shadows grow longer, their darkness ever more repressed.

They want to escape themselves—but they can’t. They fail, and they’re angry.

They divert their anger at people who are “not as spiritual” as them, who have not suffered like they have—the people who have had less tragedy, who can’t relate to their lofty status.

I’ve often been told, “You can’t understand me as you haven’t been (fill in the gap) like I have been, so your opinion is meaningless.”

The woundedness has become a reason to push people away, so we don’t have to face the awkward truth of being so uncomfortable with our wounds that we can’t bring another close. When we feel unlovable, we push people away. It’s like we don’t want to be reminded of this feeling of being unloved, even though the more we push people away, the more unloved we are.

Toko-pa Turner writes in ‘Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home’:

“While the New Age has awakened many to the power of creative intention, it has simultaneously pathologized the so-called ‘negative emotions’ and stricken them from our social palette of acceptability. We live under a kind of hegemony of positivity which emphasizes pleasure over pain, gain over loss, happiness over sadness, and the creative over the destructive. We are taught to ‘rise above’ things like anger, anxiety, sadness—and by whatever means necessary, stay in bliss and light. This kind of bypassing is dangerous because it teaches us to not only dissociate from the multiplicity of ourselves but from the magnificent spectrum of life itself.”

There is a bypassing of conscience here. I have felt judged because I ate fish, that I’m not spiritual enough. A conscious person would never eat flesh after all. One day everyone will be raw vegan as that’s the most spiritual path—or breatharian, because we can live off air and sunshine.

Maybe I’m not on your level, I’m sorry.

I do breathe the same air, walk on the same earth, and drink the same water. Sometimes I don’t even meditate at all. Some days I do no yoga or stretching. Some days I’m just bone lazy. I’ll admit it, I am not perfect (surprise, surprise).

I am just so tired of all the judgement and hypocrisy from so-called “spiritual” people or “conscious” people who go around telling people they are looking for a “conscious” man or woman. Run away.

The worst judgement I’ve experienced lately was at the hands of a “conscious woman” who on repeated occasions got mad at me (no apologies if she’s reading this). One time because I said “Come to India” on my Facebook feed and she thought that meant I wanted to travel with her. When I admitted that wasn’t my plan, she become furious. I wasn’t on her level.

Another time she asked me about her profile picture on Facebook—what did I think? I told her it looked a bit serious, “I would love to see your beautiful smile.” She was so angry—seething. I wasn’t appreciating her radiant light. She admitted to me that it was her “spiritual ego”—and urged me to appreciate her spiritual ego—because I needed to honour that part of her.

All I got from the exchange was that she is above reproach and can throw her fury around because it’s just her “spiritual ego.” Who could be worthy of such a towering spiritual being?

Spiritual bypassing happens when people can’t be real with each other—or themselves. It’s an escape from the self, an escape from being raw. Pretending is easier than facing the truth, that the person who stares back at you in the mirror is a human being like everyone else.

Perhaps for our real “spiritual life” to begin, we must first ask the questions:

“Who am I? Where have I come from? What is my path of arrival? What will be the dock of my departure?”

Maybe we need to just remove this “spiritual” concept from our vernacular and identify in a different way. The old religions seem unable to hold people to their narrow worldview.

So, the new age has taken people hostage—and these people are the new “spiritual.” Let’s just be human. Being human is more than enough for me!

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backlit_beach_dawn_dusk_landscape_light_ocean_outdoors-1052313.jpg!dVipassana is known internationally as a silent meditation retreat program. What is the philosophy behind this program?

In the Buddhist tradition, vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (Sanskrit: विपश्यन) is to see into the nature of reality or as the official Vipassana website claims, it means to “see things as they really are.”

अत्तदीपा विहरथ अत्तसरणा अनञ्‍ञसरणा।
धम्मदीपा विहरथ धम्मसरणा अनञ्‍ञसरणा।।

“Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge. Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.”
— Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya, 16.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, vipassanā refers to insight into the trinity of understanding the nature of reality in Buddha’s discourses, known as the Three Universal Truths:

  1. annica (impermanence)
  2. dukkha (suffering or better translated as unsatisfying)
  3. anatto (no self or the realisation of agelessness or non-self)

Whether the retreat and program initiated by S.N Goenka in the tradition of his teacher, the Burmese Government Minister, Sayagyi U Ba Khinis strictly-speaking Buddhist is a moot point. Sayagyi U Ba Khin was the first Accountant General of Burma.

The process of Vipassana in this tradition, places the centre of awareness on bodily sensations. This consciousness of the rise and fall of the breath, and the changing nature of sensations, becomes a meditation on annica(impermanence).

This philosophy subscribes to a belief that inner harmony comes from the observation of somatic experiences, and the more one observes oneself (essentially sits with the self), the more the mind becomes still, pure and harmonious. And in turn, the more the mind stills, the more we become free from our suffering.

The Buddha taught Śamatha(calm abiding) in tandem with Vipassanāto reach Paññā(wisdom). These are required for a wholesome meditation practice. In the Pāli canon, both these mental qualities are the pathway to developing a still mind.

Śamatha is the practice of calming the mind and its ‘saṅkhāra’ (mental defilements, agitations or formations संस्कार). Śamatha is usually taught via single-pointed awareness or breath-mindfulness founded on śīla (morality).

In the modern Vipassana teaching, the philosophical focus always returns to annica(the changing nature of phenomena) as the gateway to nirvāṇa (Pali: nibbāna) — the liberation from suffering.

What did I learn from my Vipassana retreat?

How do we face our suffering and feel it without removing ourselves in drugs, alcohol, television, or mind-numbing foods?

Would I do it again?

I’ve subsequently sat two more retreats in this tradition. I regard it as a prelude to exploring authentic Buddhism, and finding a saṅgha (community). I feel like in many cases, because of its Draconian approach, it puts people off Buddhism for life, and often turns them off meditation too.

The focus on suffering in Vipassana seems more distinct than in other Buddhist traditions, with the exception of Zen Buddhism. I prefer a “softer” more Western approach for mushy people like me! I would also advocate the importance of having a writing pad or journal so you can write down your thoughts. Whilst sensory deprivation is helpful, writing things down is essential to clear the mind, otherwise, one constantly recycles or regurgitates the same thoughts for 10 days — often a shopping list of items, which can easily be written down. I also prefer having some reading matter.

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Blue Mountains, Australia, 2010, I was enrolled in the most dreaded thing on my bucket list—my first Vipassana.

Vipassana is a 10-day retreat in which participants take a vow of silence and are strongly encouraged to follow the program’s strict laws which include meditating for at least 10 hours per day, abandoning all communication devices including all electronic devices, relinquishing reading/writing/exercising/touching or even eye contact. Any religious practice or symbol is strictly forbidden, even including yoga. Even jewellery is forbade. Participants sit on the floor, and are expected to be especially vigilant in not moving (unless overcome by discomfort) whilst exploring sensations in their bodies.

Hung up on every empty wall, the schedule stares you in the face. It’s more like a glare really.

4:00 Wake up gong. I found it almost impossible to abandon my warm bed in the cold and dark of 4am. Isn’t the darkness best left for sleeping? If I made it to the toilets, it was an enlivening experience showering under the stars.

4:30-6:30 Meditation time. I would usually wander around in my mind, and courageously gather myself in a heap in the hall, covered by blankets and a scarf. Shivering, I would grab some quality meditation, before slumber usually gripped my so strongly that a nap was the inevitable result — yet I would hold on for as long as possible, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t snore and embarrass myself.

6:30-8:00 Breakfast. Usually huddled around the food, warming my hands on the toaster and kettle, I would gather some warm food, usually the same options — oatmeal topped with seeds and stewed fruit, toast with peanut butter and a warm tea. Most participants looked like they were exiting a bomb-shelter having not slept much, exhaustion and cold written on their faces, yet relieved to see the light emerging.

There was always some time after breakfast for another nap, or toilet visit.

8:00-9:00 Mandatory meditation in the hall. Three times a day, group meditation sittings were held, where the energy was focused and steadfast, and there was a real drive to have the best meditation. In these “strong determination,” sessions, any movement was discouraged. Disturbances were generally kept to a minimum during these times. The sun was beginning to warm the hall by now, and with the shivering dampened, and a full stomach, there was a renewed sense of vigour and hope about me. My best meditations were always during this timeslot, as I was physically comfortable and still relatively fresh at these times.

9:10-11:00 Meditation. This time would drift away slowly, with meditators soldiering on in the rooms or listening to an audio recording of Goenka’s instructions in the hall. He would conclude these sessions with chanting, which to untrained ears sounds peculiar at best.

11:00-1:00 Lunch break. Lunch was usually tasty and all-vegetarian. There was a basic salad and an interesting vegetarian dish. Usually a generous portion of cheese available, and even dessert. Lunch was enjoyed in silence (like everything else), it seemed to be a worldly pleasure that took on increasing importance to meditators as other pleasures were reduced or taken away completely. There was also a trend of mindful (slow) eating, and some curious and eccentric behaviour from participants, from praying over their food, to eating in slow-motion. Everyone developed noticeable habits and most people liked to sit in the same place every day. The most sought-after positions were taken outside, with the mountain views popular.

After eating, I would always go exploring the property and finding ways to stretch and exercise my body, even though all practices (even stretching) were illegal according to Vipasanna-laws. A quick sprint here or there, or a couple of press-ups kept me sane! The body is severely depleted and in-constant pain sitting all day, and one has to steal stretches whenever one can get away with not being detected by the Vipasanna police force.

Capturing the energy of the sun was a real god-send at a place like this. Participants were desperate to feel some rays on their meditation-parched skin.

1:00-2:30 pm Meditation in the hall or room. This was often a below-average time for me. When not meditating, I would take a nap or do some stretching. This time was set aside for meeting with the teacher, if you had a question. All questions would be answered with the same understanding, compassionate tone and essentially the same answer: “Just observe it. Keep practising.”My questions ranged from how to deal with sexual thoughts (or frustration), how to manage bodily pain, distracted thoughts, or repeated thoughts about past experiences and making plans for the future.

I realised that the questions were pretty much irrelevant as the answer would always be the same – just keep observing your breath, be steadfast, be diligent in your practice.

2:30-3:30 pm Group meditation in the hall. The second group session of the day. All would be in attendance.

3:30-5:00 pm. Meditate in the hall or in your own room. This session was always the hardest, fighting fatigue, excruciating body pain and never able to find a comfortable position.

5:00-6:00 pm Tea break. A pleasant break from the routine. New students were allowed a pleasant snack of chocolate, fruit, cheese and tea. Repeat students were allowed just tea. This was a great time to be outside walking, stretching and enjoying the setting sun. If I could fit in a shower, this was a great time to freshen up.

By about the second day, one’s body would already be adjusting to having one main meal early at 11am. The problem would be that one would naturally over-indulge to get through the day.

6:00-7:00 Group meditation in the hall.

Another mandatory setting, usually I had a little bit of resolve if I had had a decent walk and/or shower, yet energy levels were dropping as well as motivation to keep going. My mind would start to wonder over all the things in life I wished (or fantasised) about doing.

7:15-8:30 Discourses. Each evening, we would sit down to watch a video by the teacher, Goenka. Although a little out of synch with modern life, the age-old Buddhist teachings are still helpful and inspiring. Goenka’s unconventional oration in parts, was entertaining and a fresh break from the meditation routine. His usual message (take-away), again, was, “If anything arise, just observe. Keep practising diligently.”

8:30-9:00 Meditation. There would be an audio explaining the technique for the following day, and then practice for about 1/2 an hour.

9:00-9:30 Question-and-answer session. By this stage, most people trundled off to bed.

9:30 Bed time. My body was always aching by this stage, and Goenka’s characteristic words were usually echoing in my head, like the phrases he particularly enjoyed repeating, like “perfect equanimity.” Eventually fatigue would take over, and I would sleep deeply.

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