Elizabeth Lesser's Broken Open Toolbox
When we have been through a trial and survived it—or better still, transformed its terrors into revelations—then we begin to approach other adversities with a different attitude. Change and loss may still knock us off the horse, but soon we are back in the saddle, stronger and wiser than ever. As life progresses, and we continue to transform and refine our consciousness, we gain more insight and humility, greater strength of character, and deeper faith in the meaningfulness of life.
But how do we do this? How do we transform terror into revelations? How do we stay sane and courageous in the midst of a trial? Throughout this book I have described the process of transformation as a journey of brokenness leading to openness, descent to rebirth, fire to Phoenix. Difficult journeys are best taken in a sturdy vehicle, or at least with a trusty guide and a helpful toolbox. In this appendix, I offer a toolbox of practices that have helped me on my journeys of descent and rebirth.
The practices I use most often to stay on track during a Phoenix Process are meditation, psychotherapy, and prayer. These tools continually encourage me to keep my heart open and my mind awake when I would prefer to shut down or go back to sleep. The practice of meditation has helped me develop a steady heart and a less reactive and agitated mind. Psychotherapy has opened me to an inner world of cause and effect. At a critical time in my life, it pushed me to take responsibility for my own happiness—to stop waiting for that elusive someone or something to mend and define my life. Prayer gives me solace and strength; it is a reassuring companion on the road. Together, these tools have helped me become an alchemist. They have shown me how to transmute pain into growth.
Other tools have helped me as well. Storytelling in group settings is one of my favorites. Telling our story helps us feel connected to others as we go through difficult times. When we sit with fellow wayfarers, sharing our trials and revelations and listening to theirs, our struggles seem less like personal vendettas and more like myths in the making. Writing in a journal is another tool that I use. It is often easier for me to be honest with myself in the privacy of the written word. All sorts of artistic pursuits, like writing or painting or singing, are alchemical. Physical exercise and movement—including sports and yoga and martial arts—are also basic to transformation. They keep us strong and lively; they bring our revelations all the way down into the body.
But the tools that I come back to most consistently, and the ones that I am best able to describe here, are meditation, psychotherapy, and prayer. I may have come through many of my dark nights without them, but I do not think I would have done so as quickly, or as fully, or with as much good humor.
Sometimes these tools—especially meditation and therapy—seem tedious and boring; at other times they can be intimidating and challenging. We may want to give up. But the hard work demanded by a Phoenix Process, and the courage required to break open and stay open, are worth every moment of struggle. The payoff is enormous: We come into the liberating presence of our authentic self.
The meditative, psychological, and sacred practices I offer here cannot be learned just from reading a book. They are best done with a teacher or therapist, and they may take several years of practice to bear fruit. Please use the brief instructions here to introduce you to a method that you can develop more fully in your everyday life, or to inspire you to revive an ongoing practice.
I have been a student and practitioner of meditation for thirty years. I still find it difficult—at times boring and at other times confrontational. And I still find it valuable—nourishing, expansive, and illuminating. Sometimes I meditate every day; sometimes I go months without ever sitting on my meditation cushion. I have taken short meditation courses and spent most of my time waiting for the evening or weekend to be over. And I have gone on long, solitary retreats and surrendered to the practice, emptying myself of worry, falseness, restlessness, and complaints. Without hesitation, I can say that meditation practice has made a remarkable difference in my life.
People are attracted to meditation for a variety reasons, including these:
- to relax, physically and mentally;
- to keep the heart open and soft;
- to accept life on its own terms;
- to feel more alive, connected, and content;
- to find inner peace; and
- to make contact with other realms of consciousness, what some call the divine or God.
Meditation is a matter of slow and steady experience. It is not a cure. It is not a set of moral values. It is not a religion. It is a way—a way to be fully present, a way to be genuinely who we are, a way to look deeply at the nature of things, a way to rediscover the peace we already possess. It does not aim to get rid of anything bad, or to create anything good. It is an attitude of openness. The term for this attitude is mindfulness.
Buddhists call mindfulness meditation maitri practice. Maitri is often translated as "unconditional friendliness." Meditation is the practice of unconditional friendliness toward whatever is happening in the moment—the moment during which we sit in meditation, and all the other moments of life, whether things are going well or falling apart. Meditation helps us and an internal witness with which to view external events. This might sound like a small, easy matter, but it is not. In fact, discovering and developing an inner witness may be the most important act of our life. Being able to observe ourselves honestly, with acceptance and friendliness, trains us to do the same with others at home, at work, and in the world.
We may be drawn to practice out of suffering, but meditation is not just for pain relief. It is also about joy. It is like a magnifying glass in the hands of a child on a sunny day. He holds the glass steady; the light concentrates on a spot on the ground; a dry leaf goes up in flame. Meditation can be a magnifying glass that lights the fire of happiness in our hearts. All of the conditions for happiness are available to us at any moment. Our job is to hold steady, to concentrate, and to allow our natural warmth to be released. Over time, mindfulness practice sensitizes our capacity for joy so much that even tiny physical and emotional pleasures can bring great happiness. When our minds are quiet and our hearts are strong, we see that the whole world is full of grace.
But how is this possible? How can sitting still teach us to relinquish suffering and embrace grace? The Buddha was reluctant to use words to answer this question. Instead, he just said, "Come and see." Or, as my friend who is a Jesuit priest says, "Everything gets sorted out in the Great Silence." Describing meditation is difficult, and it can make one sound like a moron, or a phony, or a shyster. "There's a two-thousand-year tradition of finding it impossible to describe," says Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses meditation and psychotherapy in tandem. The difficulty of talking about meditation lies not only in its experiential nature but also in the fact that the meditative experience takes us deeper and deeper into realms where language and even thought lose their potency.
There are some teachers and authors whose words come close to describing meditation. In this beautiful passage, the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen counsels meditators to cultivate patience in their practice:
A woman in one of my workshops asked me if when she meditated she could concentrate on an image that brought her peace.
"What image?" I asked her.
"I like to imagine flowers by a pool of water," she said. "I like to picture myself sitting there, hearing the lapping of the water on the shore, seeing the flowers in the sunshine."
I hated to rain on her sunny glade, but I had to. "If you like to do that, you can," I said, "but that is not mindfulness meditation. When you are in a flower garden by a pool, be there. But when you are sitting in meditation, be exactly where you are, doing exactly what you are doing. Be in this room, sitting in meditation. Close your eyes, feel your body, observe your thoughts, experience your breathing. If your body aches, be with it. If you are tired and cranky, be with that. Don't layer flowers on top of a bad mood. Don't use a peaceful pool as a Band-Aid over your anxiety. Be right where you are and who you are. Why? Because if you can do that, then when you are really by a pool, gazing at a beautiful flower, you will be fully present. You won't be worrying about what is going on at home or wondering if there is a nicer pool somewhere else. And when you are with a person you love, you will really be with him—you will be less distracted, less judgmental. When you are at work, you will show up for those around you; you will bring the gifts of attention and equanimity. And when you are confused or unhappy or sick, you will stop fighting your feelings and just rest with them for a while. You will then know what you feel when you are feeling it, what you think when you are thinking it. You will know the peace of being present to whatever is happening.
"Don't visualize yourself anywhere but where you are," I told the woman. "Be exactly who you are, wherever you are. That is the practice of meditation."
You can see why meditation would be so useful during a Phoenix Process. It helps us sit in the flames long enough for transformation to occur. It encourages us not to bail out before the lessons have been learned. It helps us ride out the common experiences of fear, anxiety, and depression. Can meditation cure us? No, but it can give us a platform to climb up to whenever we want to survey the scene. From that perspective, we get to see how we are not our depression—or our fear or anger or sadness—but that these are merely states of mind, conditions of the heart. Meditation shows us that we are something much stronger and vaster than our passing thoughts and feelings.
Meditation practice is truly a refuge during times of crisis and change, but we can find this out only for ourselves. Past the restlessness, agitation, and confusion of our daily consciousness, there is a state of clarity and fearlessness deep within. It is always waiting for us. Each time we sit in mindfulness meditation, we can touch on that deeper state. And then we practice again the next day. And we continue to do it until one day it begins to do us.
Since I have studied a variety of meditation practices, from teachers and cultures all over the world, one might think I have a highly ritualized and complicated meditation practice. But actually my practice is simple. While it is surely informed by all of my study and experiences, I would be mocking the real meaning of meditation if I represented it as an exotic journey. Immersion into many forms of meditation has led me deeper and deeper into the most essential core of all of them: mindfulness—a nondenominational form of practice that teaches moment-to-moment awareness, a kind of falling in love with naked reality.
Posture in meditation does not refer only to a straight back. Posture includes the whole body. The body and mind are inseparable in meditation, and a relaxed and energetic body creates a beneficial base for meditation practice. Trungpa said that by working with posture in meditation, "you begin to feel that by simply being on the spot, your life can become workable and even wonderful. You realize that you are capable of sitting like a king or a queen on your horse. The regalness of that situation shows you the dignity that comes from being still and simple."
I use Trungpa's checklist of six body parts—seat, legs, torso, hands, eyes, mouth—as I sit down and assume a meditative posture. I elaborate here on each point:
1. Seat: It is best to sit on a arm pillow on the floor or on a arm-seated chair. If you use a chair, sit forward so that your back does not touch the back of the chair.
2. Legs: If you sit on a pillow, cross your legs comfortably in front of you, with your knees resting on the floor if they can. If you sit in a chair, put your feet flat on the floor, knees and feet hip width apart.
A straight back, open heart, and relaxed body will help your meditation practice immeasurably. A straight back will lead to dignity and courage. An open chest will nurture acceptance of life. A relaxed body will remind you to go easy on yourself, to treat your meditation practice as a gift instead of a chore.
4. Hands: Sometimes, when meditation gets very quiet, our concentration coagulates in the hands. It sounds strange, but you may experience this yourself. It's not uncommon, as your exhalation dissolves outward, to feel as if all that is left of your body is your hands. Therefore, it is good to position your hands in a way that is both grounding and meaningful. You will notice in statues from a variety of religious traditions that the deities or saints hold their hands in intentional ways. These hand positions are called mudras in the Tantric Buddhist tradition—physical gestures that help evoke certain states of mind.
One frequently seen position is the forefinger lightly touching the thumb and the other three fingers flexed outward. Another common mudra is one hand resting in the palm of the other, thumbs touching. Many people like to meditate with their hands in the Christian prayer position of palms together, fingers pointing up. Some people meditate with their hands simply resting, palms down or upward, on their knees.
Each mudra evokes a specific quality that you can experience yourself merely by experimenting with them. For example, resting the palms upward on the knees indicates receptivity—openness to whatever comes your way. Hands placed downward on the knees produce a grounded feeling in the body, a sense of balance and strength. My personal favorite hand position is where the thumb and index finger touch and create a circle. There is something about the thumb touching the finger that reminds me to be on the spot in my concentration, yet delicately so. I gently extend the other three fingers and rest my hands on my knees. This position keeps me steady and balanced. I attach the words on the spot to the mudra and use both the position of my hands and the intention of the mudra to bring my mind back to meditation when it wanders.
5. Eyes: Some meditation traditions recommend closing the eyes during meditation; others suggest keeping them open and directing the gaze downward, four to six feet in front of you, focusing on a point on the floor. Some suggest keeping a soft, unfocused gaze. I meditate with my eyes closed. You can experiment and see which way affords you the best relaxation and concentration. If you find that closing your eyes makes you sleepy, keep them open. If you find that keeping your eyes open is distracting, close them.
6. Mouth: We hold a lot of tension in the jaw. Let your jaw drop right now. Open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out, then close your mouth. Massage your jaw area from your ears to your chin. Now notice the difference. You can do this often during the day as a way to release tension. During meditation, it is not unusual for tension to gather in the jaw. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends smiling slightly, while you meditate, a great way to keep the jaw soft. Or you can drop your jaw and open your mouth several times during meditation.
Understand that the pain or tension you may feel in your body as you meditate is both physical and psychological. If you experience pain, constriction, restlessness, or all of the above, do not be alarmed, and do not take the attitude "no pain, no gain." Adjust your position slowly and mindfully as many times as you want during a meditation session. The point of meditation is to be relaxed and awake. Therefore make sure you are comfortable, and at the same time sit in a way that keeps you alert.
At a meditation retreat I heard Thich Nhat Hanh answer a man who said he experienced pain in his shoulders and neck the minute he sat down to meditate. Thay asked the man if he felt that same pain the minute he sat down to watch television. He said that he did not.
"How do you sit when you watch television?" Thay asked.
"I usually sit on the couch, with my feet folded under me," said the man. "But after a while I may switch my position and stretch out my legs."
"How long do you watch television?"
"Oh, about an hour."
"Do you stay awake for the whole hour?"
"Yes," said the man.
As you sit down to meditate, approach the experience lightly so that your body relaxes, just as it would if you were about to slip into a bath or settle down before the television. Then choose your hand mudra, close your eyes, straighten your back, and at the same time soften your shoulders and expand your chest, so that your posture is also one of gentle openness.
Breath, posture, placement of hands, eyes open or shut: all of these techniques form the container for meditation practice. But none of them eradicates the absurd quantity and aggravating intensity of the thoughts that flood the mind when we sit down to meditate. Please expect this. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, pleasurable ones, disturbing ones—they will come and go as we sit in meditation, watching our breath, maintaining our posture. They are the weather of the mind. Our goal in meditation is not to get rid of thoughts. Rather, the goal is to abandon identifying with each thought as it comes and goes; to watch the thoughts as we would watch the weather from an observation tower.
Feelings also arise during meditation. They often rush into the empty space created when we slow down and sit still. At every retreat I have participated in, there are times when crying can be heard in the room. To an outsider it would appear strange to see a room full of people sitting in meditation on the floor or in chairs, some upright and silent, some bent over, crying softly. A strange sight, indeed. But a beautiful one also. There is something so noble about the pure expression of feelings. When drama or sentimentality is absent, tears are like a healing river moving freely through us. "The answer to anger or sadness or other negative states," says Thich Nhat Hanh, "is not to suppress or to deny them, but to embrace them with mindfulness like a mother with a baby." Suppressing feelings in meditation, as in daily life, is like blocking a stream with sticks and mud. Blocked emotions eventually gather enough pressure to break through the dams we construct. Better that they find their way out in the safe environment of meditation than in other situations, where we may be forced to act on them in thoughtless ways.
Guilt, doubt, anger, despair, and other forms of self-judgment are common visitors in meditation practice. So are our convictions, biases, and beliefs. The purpose of meditation is to step boldly into reality, just as it is in the here and now. Therefore, it is helpful to sweep the mind clean of belief systems. Strong opinions can be signs of our passion and intelligence, but sometimes they spring from that part of ourselves that wants be right, and that holds on tightly to familiar explanations. The ego wants to be a "Republican" or a "Democrat," an "American," or a "European," an "Arab" or a "Jew." It wants to judge things as right or wrong. It wants to be "for" something or "against" something. It does not want to delve more deeply into the full picture of reality. Thus, an opinion about the world can become a foe to mindfulness meditation.
Inevitably some members of the class will take umbrage at the poem. One person will say, "My opinions about injustice in the world are what drive me to do good work." Another will ask, "If I don't form opinions, how will I know what is true and what it false?" Like many mystical poets, Seng Ts'an had a sense of humor and liked to overstate the case, just to get a laugh. He knew that opinions are not necessarily evil. He just wanted us to loosen the grip of our judgments, even for a few minutes, and give the whole truth a chance to reveal itself. Meditation is an opportunity to do exactly that.
As you establish a meditation practice, remind yourself every now and then why you are doing it. It is easy to fall into a rote form of practice or, even worse, to feel self-righteous or trendy just because you take a few minutes out of your day to cultivate a quiet mind and an open heart. Remind yourself that you are practicing so that you can be a peaceful person, so that the truths you discover in meditation become the way you live your life. After a while your practice will show up everywhere—from driving the car to reading a bedtime story to your child. Meditation is not separate from life; it is practice for mindful living.
One warning about meditation: Do not use it as yet another way to judge yourself. Meditation can be difficult. While it hones some of our better qualities, it also holds up a mirror to some of our worst. This is one of the reasons we do it: to see ourselves clearly; to love ourselves, warts and all; to crack through the hard crust of the personality until the gem of the self is revealed. Let your resolve to meditate spring from your longing to break open into life, not from enmity toward yourself. Let go of the burden of self-judgment by returning, over and over, to your most basic self, just as you are, with an attitude of forgiveness. Soon you will and yourself forgiving others, and forgiving the world itself.
1. Place and Time: Find a private and relatively quiet place where you will not be disturbed by people, children, telephones, et cetera. Choose an amount of time you are going to meditate. Set a timer or keep a clock close by. Begin with ten minutes, and work your way up over a few weeks or months to a half hour or forty-five minutes.
2. Seat and Posture: Assume a comfortable posture, sitting cross-legged on a pillow on the floor or on a simple chair. Keep the spine straight, and let your shoulders soften and drop. Do a brief scan of the body, relaxing parts that are tight. Relax your jaw. Choose a hand position and gently hold it.
3. Beginning: Close your eyes (or keep your open eyes focused gently on a spot on the floor). Take a deep breath in and let it out with a sigh. Do this three times. As you sigh, release anything you are holding on to. Remind yourself that for these few minutes you are doing nothing but meditating. You can afford to drop everything else for the time being. The pressing details of your life will be waiting for you at the end of the session.
4. Breath: Bring your attention to your breathing, becoming aware of the natural flow of breath in and out of the body. Observe your chest and belly as they rise and expand on the in-breath, and fall and recede on the out-breath. Witness each in-breath as it enters your body and fills it with energy. Witness each out-breath as it leaves your body and dissipates into space. Then start again, bringing your attention back each time to the next breath. Let your breath be like a soft broom, gently sweeping its way through your body and mind.
5. Thoughts: When a thought takes you away from witnessing your breathing, take note of the thought without judging it, then gently bring your attention back to your chest or your belly and the feeling of the breath coming in and out. Remember that meditation is the practice of unconditional friendliness. Observe your thoughts with friendliness and then let the breath sweep them gently away.
7. Pain: If you feel pain in the body—your knees, for example, or your back—bring your awareness to the pain. Surround the area in pain with breath. Witness yourself in pain, as opposed to responding to the pain. If the pain is persistent, move gently to release tension, and return to your posture and breath. You may need to lean against a wall or the back of your chair, or you may want to straighten your legs for a while. Avoid excess movement, but do not allow pain to dominate your experience.
8. Restlessness and Sleepiness: If you are agitated by thoughts or feelings, or if you feel as if you cannot sit still, or if you are bored to distraction, come back to your breath and your posture again and again. Treat yourself gently, as if you were training a puppy. Likewise, if a wave of sleepiness overtakes you, see if you can waken yourself by breathing a little more deeply, keeping your eyes open, and sitting up tall. Sleep and meditation are not the same thing. See if you can be as relaxed as you are during sleep, yet at the same time, awake and aware.
9. Counting Breaths: A good way to deal with all of these impediments to concentration is to count your breaths. On the in-breath, count "one," and on the out-breath, count "two." Continue up to ten. Then begin again. If you lose count at any point, start over at "one." As thoughts and feelings, pain and discomfort, restlessness and sleepiness arise, allow your counting to gently override their distracting chatter.
10. Discipline: For one week, practice meditation each day, whether you are in the mood or not. Even if it is for only five minutes, commit to a regular practice. See how you feel. If you notice a difference (or even if you don't), commit to another week. Then consider joining a meditation group or taking a retreat and receiving more in-depth instruction and support in your practice.
I first learned to meditate when I was nineteen years old. I was terribly restless. The practice did not come naturally to me. At times I hated it. But I kept at it anyway. I did this for a variety of good and bad reasons. A good reason was that I sensed great power in the practice. I was aware that you can't get something for nothing, and I wanted the something that meditation promised: I wanted inner peace and a vaster perspective on life and death. A bad reason I continued with my meditation practice was that I felt duty-bound to please my meditation teachers—even to please God. I thought that if I meditated every day, I would be acceptable in God's eyes; if I didn't, I would be courting exile. I think many people adhere to all sorts of religious practices for the same reason and, in doing so, never really mine the deep treasures locked in the mystical heart of the great traditions.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties and had been in psychotherapy for a few years that my meditation practice became more natural and flowing. Oddly enough, therapy cleared the way for a strong and genuine meditation practice. I went into therapy because my marriage was in trouble. I discovered in therapy that the compulsion to please my meditation teachers was also at work in my marriage. Apparently, I was doing a lot of things just to please other people, and had been ever since childhood with my parents. The revelation that psychotherapy afforded me—that a life lived in order to please others ends up pleasing no one at all—changed my life dramatically. It began the process of what Norman O. Brown—one of the fathers of modern psychology—said therapy aims to do: "to return our souls to our bodies, to return ourselves to ourselves, and thus to overcome the human state of self-alienation."
Before diving into the world of therapy, I want to make a distinction between pleasing others and loving others. Pleasing another person is not always the same as loving another person, and vice versa. Pleasing another person is often about avoiding the conflict that might ensue if we tell the truth about our feelings, needs, fears, and dreams. Loving other people might involve pleasing them, but it also involves being honest with them about who we are and what we want. It does not mean getting what we want all of the time; it does mean having the self-respect to express our thoughts and feelings, and the nobility and compassion to afford that right to others.
Therapy has been faulted for its excessive focus on the needs of the self, and for putting forth an ethos by which an individual has more responsibility to himself than to his family and community. This has not been my experience. My years of therapy have helped me become a more loving mother and mate, and a more engaged member of society. Yes, the initial work I did in therapy was self-reflective, and it did push me into periods of "selfish" behavior. But in the end, self-reflection helped me become a more generous person; it led me back out into the world, and into more mature and giving relationships.
People like to make fun of psychotherapy. Cartoonists and comedians and pundits of all sorts take shots at it every day. The jokes can be funny and understandable, but because my own experiences in therapy have been close to lifesaving, I wonder why therapy, of all things, takes so many hits. People brag about going to the gym to stay healthy, eating well, and losing weight on this or that diet. They boast of their college degrees and show off their advanced thinking by talking about books they are reading and lectures they have attended. People are proud to admit they belong to a church or temple or mosque or meditation group. They readily give credit to their reliance on a trusted pastor or rabbi.
It may not seem wise at all to awaken the Giants. There is a certain logic in not picking scabs off childhood wounds. It may seem prudent to leave unexamined our current dissatisfactions, deadness, or unfelt feelings. Our lives may be hanging too close to the edge: Move one little pebble and a landslide could bring everything down. Isn't there too much at stake? The job, the family, the marriage, the complex layers of daily life? Better to keep to the known path—one false move and the pebble dislodges, the cliffside disappears.
What I learned in the safe and sacred room of my therapist's office was that the same energy I was exerting to keep things from being revealed could be used for a far more exciting and rewarding struggle: to return my soul to my body, to return myself to myself. After that, anything would be possible. And when I finally could bring my whole self—including my rich, wild, tender, and powerful emotions—into meditation and other spiritual practices, I was better able to understand and integrate what had seemed out of reach before. The combination of meditation and psychotherapy became for me a potent brew for transforming trials into revelations.
There are many forms of psychotherapy for a wide variety of psychological issues. Some people come to therapy because they feel too much, others because they feel nothing at all. Some people enter into psychotherapeutic work to bolster a weak sense of self, others because their powerful ego overshadows their ability to have loving relationships. All come to develop what is called "emotional intelligence."
Some people respond best to traditional psychoanalysis, done under the guidance of a psychiatrist. Other people love Jungian analysis because of its focus on dreams and the mythic dimensions of life. During the twentieth century, pioneering schools of psychology sprang up in America, creating a Renaissance-like revolution in the field. There are far too many kinds of therapy—including talk therapy, body-centered therapy, family therapy, and art therapy—for me to discuss them all here. For the vast majority of people interested in pursuing psychotherapy, talk therapy with a wise and responsible therapist is the most effective method. But some people—especially those with specific issues, like sexual abuse, addiction problems, and serious depression—are in need of other forms of therapy.
Psychotherapy is by nature a highly personal matter, without a one-size-fits-all formula for success. I suggest that, if you feel drawn to therapy, you do some of your own research through reading and talking to trusted friends. You may need to shop around for a while before you find a therapy and therapist that match your unique needs. My own therapy began with fits and starts before I found the best method and, more significant, the right therapist. This was not a well-conceived, strategic process. At first I had mixed feelings about being in therapy. I didn't know what I was looking for, and since one of my biggest issues was trying to please other people, I spent some fruitless months under the guidance of a therapist who was terribly wrong for me. I was so afraid of hurting his feelings that I stayed on even though I felt uncomfortable in his presence. Finally, after gathering the courage to leave and then asking around for the names of other therapists, I began work with a man whose skill and compassion helped change the course of my life.
During the difficult time of my divorce, I spent four years going to therapy once a week. My therapist helped me to slowly unravel the strands of my story—dipping back into childhood, examining my marriage, looking honestly at my behavior at work and with friends. In my own time I developed the desire to stop looking to others for salvation or for blame, and to take responsibility for my own happiness and success. This is what psychotherapy did for me. Other people will come to therapy with their own specific needs and discover parts of themselves that have gone missing for years. I found a more powerful and self-confident person through the process of therapy. Others may find a more empathetic person, or a less fearful person, or a more hopeful and lively person. Whatever it is that wants to live within you—whatever is sleeping and has perhaps been sleeping since childhood—can awaken through slow and steady work with a wise therapist.
Working with Teachers, Therapists, and Healers
Working at Omega Institute has put me in contact with some of the world's most influential psychological thinkers and spiritual teachers. I am grateful for the mystical, intellectual, and therapeutic wisdom that I have absorbed from being around these people, but you may be surprised by the most important lesson I have learned. By knowing many of Omega's teachers, I have come to understand that everyone—the saintly guru, the erudite scholar, the compassionate psychotherapist—is an imperfect human being with neuroses and problems and rough edges not unlike yours and mine. From rubbing up against the human dimension of the so-called enlightened ones, I accept now that the point of life is not to reach perfection but to befriend the fact that human beings are works in progress.
Wise leaders and healers understand this phenomenon of power. They lose their taste for having power over anyone and instead make it their mission to empower others. The world is moved by these kinds of leaders. We call them our heroes. But even they are not perfect. Take people like Carl Jung, or Albert Einstein, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa—whomever you admire—dig a tad below the surface of their great work, and you will find real people. You will find men and women who bear typical childhood scars, who struggle with personal relationships, and who fret over the small things even as they move mountains and inspire the multitudes.
I am grateful that this insight has been ground into me through my work. It reminds me, over and over, not to be seduced into thinking that someone or some group has the answers to my questions. Teachers, therapists, and healers are there to help us heal ourselves. As long as we remember that, and do not expect the impossible, we will be doing ourselves a big favor.
I have seen many people come to Omega looking for empowerment and self-realization, and leave having given their power and selves away to a guide. (I will use the word guide here for any kind of therapist, healer, religious leader, or spiritual teacher.) But I have also seen people forgo the rewards of therapeutic work because of the mistaken notion that a guide should be a fully perfected human being. When you decide to begin working with a guide, remember that you are working with a man or a woman who has unique strengths and also normal human weaknesses. It is understandable that you would want your guide to possess all the wonderful qualities you find lacking in yourself. But this may not be the case. Sometimes the most compassionate and helpful guides are those who are only a few paces ahead of you on a healing path. Who better to lead you through the woods than someone who has struggled with similar issues?
A good guide tries to get his or her own personality out of the way. An inexperienced or self-interested guide does not. A good guide is always turning the focus away from himself and back on the student or client, always reducing the work at hand to its most simple, personal, and intimate dimensions. Good guides are not miracle workers. If they suggest they have special powers to heal you—or if the people around them prop them up as magicians—I would think twice about working with such teachers, counselors, or therapists. Oftentimes the most effective guides are what I call extra-ordinary people. They are extraordinary healers because they are profoundly ordinary people who are comfortable with their humanness. They are extra-ordinary.
Dr. Bennet was a brilliant and well-trained therapist. He also was a humble and tender man. All of these are good qualities to look for in a guide.
Psychotherapy is a powerful process. If it works well, we emerge with a stronger sense of who we are in our body, mind, heart, and soul. We gather skills to help us move with less fear through the fires of life. We create a firm foundation that can support our talents, endeavors, relationships, and quests. Combined with a spiritual practice like meditation, therapy can help us develop happiness, humanity, and mastery in life. And yet, for all of our spiritual peace of mind and our psychological sanity and strength, there remains the fact that we will never quiet all our anxieties or tame all our neuroses. We are, remember, bozos on the bus.
And that is where prayer comes in.
Sister Alice Martin teaches gospel singing at Omega. I have taken her workshops because I love to sing, and for me singing gospel music is like diving into an ocean of bliss. Sister Alice is an electrifying singer, songwriter, and gospel choir leader. When she walks into a room, you sit up a little straighter. When she directs a group of people singing, you never take your eyes off her. During her workshops, in between leading the group in song, Sister Alice talks about prayer. "Prayer is about being hopeful," she says. "It is not a phone call to God's hotline. It's not about waiting around for an answer you like, especially since sometimes the answer you're going to get is no!"
My favorite advice about prayer from Sister Alice is this: "If you are going to pray, then don't worry. And if you are going to worry, then don't bother praying. You can't be doing both." When I stop and listen closely to what's going on inside my head, I often hear the buzz of worry, like the drone of bees in a wall. That's when I remember Sister Alice's words of wisdom. What would I rather being doing, I ask myself, worrying or praying? I usually choose praying. It's a lot more fun than worrying.
Sometimes I pray using other people's words. Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes prayer feels to me like the last resort, an act of throwing up my hands and saying, "You take over now!" Sometimes it feels like a cry of hunger or thirst. Rumi says, "Don't look for water. Be thirsty." Prayer is allowing ourselves to be thirsty; it is a longing for something we just cannot seem to find. The Sufis say that our longing for God is God's longing for us. In this way, prayer is like a conversation between friends separated across time and space.
One of the reasons I love prayer is that it is an antidote to guilt and blame. If we are unhappy with the way we have acted or been treated, instead of stewing in self-recrimination on the one hand, or harboring ill will toward someone else on the other, prayer gives us a way out of the circle of guilt and blame. We bring our painful feelings into the open and say, "I have done wrong," or "I have been wronged." And then we ask for a vaster view—one that contains within it all the forgiveness we need in order to move forward.
Sister Wendy Beckett, a marvelous Roman Catholic nun best known to the world from her books and television shows on art criticism, says this about prayer:
You can find prayers everywhere to help you move beyond "the pleasures of guilt," and to stimulate conversations with God—poetry and song, hymns and common prayers, your own language of longing. Here are some words taken from a variety of traditions that help me enter into a state of prayer.
This is what you are to do: Lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. And so, diligently persevere until you feel joy in it. For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love. But learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For, if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud. But if you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.
I keep this prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh on my bed stand and sometimes say it aloud when I awaken in the morning:
Waking up this morning, I smile, Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.
When I am worrying a lot, I take a few minutes to slow down, breathe quietly, and silently repeat this prayer from the fourteenth-century English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich:
All will be well, And all will be well, And all manner of things Will be well.
This little portion of Psalm 19, from the Bible, is a constant prayer of mine:
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
O Hidden Light! Shining in every creature;
O Hidden Love! Embracing all in Oneness;
May each who feels himself as one with Thee,
Know he is also one with every other.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is best known as the medical doctor who brought death and dying out of the closet in American culture. She created a curriculum for medical students and sat with hundreds of dying people. Her faith in prayer is legendary. She says, "You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose." The only thing we can really ask for when we pray is the ability to trust in that greater purpose. We pray to have our hearts opened and our purpose revealed. We pray for gratitude when our life is good and for faith when it is not so good. We pray to trust that our pain is a gift with "a very, very specific purpose."
There is no right or wrong way to pray, and no one tradition that is favored in the heart of the Great Spirit. Vóclav Havel, the former Czech president and a man whose life has asked him to break open over and over again, expresses for me the true meaning of prayer. He says, "It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out." We will know if our prayers are working when we are blessed with that kind of certainty. The fruit of prayer is the realization that life is an eternal adventure, and that we are explorers, always changing, always learning, always breaking open into new vistas of clarity and peace.