When the News Makes Us Miserable: Remembering A Fuller Presence and Larger Truth

People ask me regularly about how spiritual practice can guide us in responding to the state of our society. They tell me that while the teachings of compassion are alive and helpful in other parts of their lives, they seem out of reach when they read the headlines each day. In a recent e-mail from one of our DC community Spiritual Friends groups, members asked: How do we stay compassionate when it feels like so much harm is being caused to vulnerable people?Isn’t acceptance a kind of complacency? Isn’t “letting go” like condoning?How do we call on meditation practice when we’ve become fearful, angry and disheartened at the hatefulness and viciousness that is so evident in our society?I’ve had many waves of anger, fear, and aversion in reaction to the harm being perpetrated in our society. In my own practice, it helps to keep starting right where I am, not judging my own reactions, thinking “I shouldn’t feel this.” Rather than trying to let go of these feelings, I often reflect that “…

Soul Sadness: Grieving Our Unlived Lives

Marge, a woman in our meditation community, was in a painful standoff with her teenage son. At 15, Micky was in a downward spiral of skipping classes and using drugs, and had just been suspended for smoking marijuana on school grounds. While Marge blamed herself—she was the parent, after all—she was also furious at him.

The piercings she hadn’t approved, the lies, stale smell of cigarettes, and earphones that kept him in his own removed world—every interaction with Micky left her feeling powerless, angry, and afraid. The more she tried to take control with her criticism with “groundings” and other ways of setting limits, the more withdrawn and defiant Micky became. When she came in for a counseling session, she wanted to talk about why the entire situation was really her fault.
An attorney with a large firm, Marge felt she’d let her career get in the way of attentive parenting. She’d divorced Micky’s father when the boy was entering kindergarten and her new partner, Jan, had moved in…

De-Conditioning the Hungry Ghosts: Bringing Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Craving and Addiction

In Buddhist cosmology, one of the psychic domains that is described is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. The hungry ghost figures are depicted with scrawny little necks and huge bellies — riddled with powerful desires they can never really satisfy. Nearly everyone I know struggles with their own version of the hungry ghost syndrome.

In a very human way, desires are natural and wholesome. They are necessary for us to survive and flourish. The challenge is that, to the degree that our basic needs for safety, bonding, and a healthy sense of our value are unmet, desire contracts and we become fixated on substitutes. Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, or perfectionism, or approval, it catches and confines us. It creates tremendous pain and stops us from living from a deeper sense of presence and love.

William C. Moyers, well known for his work in the field of addiction and for his own poignant struggle with the disease, spoke at an MIT conference several years ago. He said:

"I have an illn…

Relaxing the Over-Controller: Letting Life Be Just As It Is

We are designed through evolution to protect and further ourselves. While this is universal, if you look closely at your life, you might find that the navigating ego goes beyond the call. Have you noticed how many life moments are devoted to navigating obstacles and solving problems? How often your mind is worrying about something, anticipating what’s around the corner, preparing for what might go wrong? I call this mind-set the Over-Controller, and the more we feel threatened, the more the Over-Controller is on duty. Recognizing the Suffering of the Over-Controller The suffering comes when our effort to be in control becomes chronic and we forget who we really are. The Over-Controller is addicted to doing. An image that comes to mind is Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill and then just watching it roll down over and over again. When we’re pushing the boulder — pre-occupied, straining to get somewhere else — we forget the consciousness, the tender heart-space, that is right in ever…

The Wisdom of "It's Not My Fault": Finding Freedom When We are Caught in Self-Blame

I sometimes think that the most basic truths are the ones that we most regularly forget, and one of them is: If we are turned on ourselves, we cannot love this life. The turning on ourselves contracts us. In those moments, we are disconnected from our inner life and from each other. We move through the day with an undercurrent of I’m not okay, but are unaware of how much it’s affecting our capacity to relax and enjoy our moments. The Second Arrow of Self-Blame In Buddhist teachings, the Buddha described two arrows. The first arrow is the natural experience that arises in this human animal that we are, for example: fear, aggression, greed, craving. The second arrow is self-aversion for the fact of the first arrow. We have the experience of being nasty, selfish or greedy, and we don’t like ourselves for that. That’s the second arrow. The Buddha says: “The first arrow hurts, why do we shoot the second arrow into us, ourselves?” And yet we do. He goes on to say: “In life, we cannot always c…

Soul Recovery: Healing the Shame of Trauma

In Shamanistic cultures, it is believed that when a person is traumatized, their soul leaves their body as a way to protect itself from intolerable pain. In a process known as Soul Retrieval, trusted community members surround the person with tremendous love and safety. In this sacred space, the soul is invited back in so the person can become whole. When Our Coping Strategies FailIn the simplest terms, trauma happens when our nervous system becomes overwhelmed and our most primal coping strategies fail. If we are unable to fight or flee what is attacking us, we freeze and disconnect or dissociate in a way that the unprocessed fear gets locked into our body. We become “stuck” in a biological state of stress, fear and reactivity, leading to chronic anxiety, depression, addictions and, often, the constellation of symptoms that we call PTSD. This process of disconnecting and living with reactivity to the unprocessed fear is not a rational choice. Rather it’s a coping strategy that is drive…

Radical Self-Honesty: Deepening Our Commitment to Truth-Telling

Throughout history, deception has been an effective survival strategy. Yet, like all primitive survival strategies, when deception becomes habitual and is not directly about survival, it prevents us from continuing growth. For each of us, to the degree that we are not real with ourselves or that we withhold important truths from others, we just cannot keep evolving. The Call for a Deeper Commitment We can see in our own lives and in the larger society how dishonesty poisons our world with cynicism and mistrust. One understanding that seems clear is that our future is threatened by these toxins — greed and aggression that proliferate when we are not facing and speaking truth. This suffering is calling for us to deepen our commitment to truth-telling and being real with ourselves and each other. Adrienne Rich writes: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word love — […]is a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. I…