Life constantly asks us to meet fear with love. Not an easy thing to do. Recently, I spent the whole day talking about love with people I love and, little by little, we let each other peek into the caverns we live in and try to climb out of. And it became clear that experience always seems to lead us to the rim of how we know the world and ourselves and each other. At that rim, we sometimes shy back down into what is familiar, but sometimes we are led to break our sense of things and, like crabs crossing dunes, we find our way to the sea where all boundaries blur. - Mark Nepo
In his blog, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo writes about a particular challenge his borderline personality clients face after doing a lot of work in therapy. When I read it I was struck with how accurately it applies along a continuum to many of us who have done deep personal work or who have, through mindfulness practices, simply discovered they aren't who they thought they were. This is especially true for any of us who have experienced trauma. (Please know my intention is not to minimize the severity of suffering these clients face when I draw parallels from this description. )
There comes a time when they realize how ill they’ve been and sometimes the shame they feel is unbearable. They will retreat for a time to borderline ways of relating, where relationships and self-image are highly unstable, shifting between ideals and devaluation. It takes many months and even years before they can learn to bear the shame for the person they used to be; only then can they move on and continue growing. I actually think that anyone with a serious mental illness who spends years in therapy and changes dramatically must deal with the same issue.
Some people in long-term psychoanalysis will try to avoid this shame by developing what I refer to as a “superior post-analytic identity.” They have no reason to feel shame, they tell themselves, because they are now so much healthier and insightful than everyone else around them. I was very much this person in my 30s and early 40s. When I think back on my righteous post-analytic self, I still feel the sting of shame. I’m also proud that I finally recognized what I was doing, how damaged I still was in certain ways, and have continued growing since.
'They realize how ill they've been." Yes, if we have committed to a deep practice we will have to face how "ill" we have been. In Mindfulness we often refer to this as finally noticing that we've been asleep. I think that is a helpful metaphor but unless we sleepwalk not many of us do shameful or damaging things in our sleep. But we sure do when we live unconsciously. Lack of consciousness, present moment awareness, is the root of the suffering we cause. Shame can arise when we finally wake up.
In the West I hear many many references to the delightful, life-changing experiences of waking up to the joys of life through Mindfulness. I relate such stories also because they are true and because I want to motivate people to not just play around with Mindfulness, but to dedicate themselves to it. I would go through all of it again in order to experience life as I do now, versus "back then." But after the stories I often say, "Keep it in first gear if it gets really uncomfortable. Go slowly. It is our way to want results fast, to transform ourselves and our lives. Stay with mindfulness of body or breath anyway. Work to create stability in simple sensory moment to moment awareness." I go on to tell them that my job is to introduce the basic skills of mindfulness, the possible benefits, and to motivate them, but if they want to commit themselves to the path, they need the support of a master teacher* and a strong community. Period. I think the passage above goes a long way in explaining why giving this advice is so important.
In 2006 I experienced a real "break" from my identity, which unsupported, led to some treacherous times. "Treacherous" because I caused suffering unconsciously. I also made decisions that were not supportive for my own financial and physical wellbeing. It was indeed a time “where relationships and self-image were highly unstable, shifting between ideals and devaluation.” I had done a lot of spiritual and personal work in the years previous but I had become suddenly separated from the community that supported it along with most everything else that defined “me.” I did not know how to ask for support or who to ask it from. I was not a Buddhist. I did not like the style of therapy I had once tried. Once. I did not have money for retreats or workshops. And I was in denial about many things including past trauma and the fact that I was 40 years old and still didn't have my self together.
I did not know how to navigate the "shame" of what I had discovered about my "self" and how I operated. The proverbial "gig" was up and I had no way out. I had no new way to operate. No teacher. No therapist. No community. But I was very fortunate. I hit a bottom. A gradual two-year experience that started with the words, “I am not nearly as nice a person as I thought I was” and ended with surrender—alone and hungry in the woods.** The bottom has been my greatest teacher. It reversed my entire way of operating, just flipped it. I became receptive and in that state could feel and identify all forms of supports, including a fundamental sensation of ground. This led to many teachers, people, readings that continue to hold me practice.
That was 11 years ago. Before that I was in what a friend and I called my "pretend Buddha" stage. I think it has a lot of similarities to Burgo's “superior post-analytic identity". I think this phenomena is as common as mud in this culture that rewards the appearance of having it all together. Using guided meditations available to us and positive visualizations I think it's possible to keep the shame at bay. No one wants to hear about our shame. It's shameful to express shame! It makes us sound like children. Grown ups are supposed to make confident choices and live with the consequences with heads high. We aren't supposed to have regret and self-doubt at 40, 50 or 60 years of age. But the energy it takes to support this "superior post-awake identity" drains our lives of spontaneous vitality and real healing. It's not inherently bad. Let's not pile on more shame! It’s more of a transitional identity.
Donald Winnicott developed the idea of transitional objects and phenomena in 1951. I am not an expert, but I've come to understand his ideas were developed by observing babies' first discovery of not-me. For example, having an inner experience of connection and pleasure in nursing they might turn to a pacifier, blankie, or teddy bear as a creative expression of that experience and become addictively attached to it. They turn to it during times of stress and uncertainty. So to with us adults. For example, having an inner experience of ease, peace or love at a workshop or teaching we can turn to and latch onto a spiritual identity or any identity to basically hold the experience as "ours."
As we meet the stress, shame, sadness, pain, uncertainty revealed in our practice we can instinctively reach for the comfort of our own “blankies”. The closer we get to the rim of our pain the more we might actively build up our transitional identity so that we don't slide down into the pain. Knowing all this as it is happening is good! What parent would refuse their frightened baby it’s blankie? With clear awareness we can find refuge in our own transitional experiences, identities and objects when things get rough, knowing all along we are simply being kind to ourselves. Knowing that we are building up resources and courage for edging back up to that rim and maybe next time diving in.
When we recognize our transitional objects for what they are we don’t confuse them for who we are. This provides humility. If we’ve become addicted to them, our awareness can loosen their grip. There can be a rhythm as we move back and forth from the discomfort of sitting in and living our own messy truth, to the refuge of our own creative expression of what “not suffering” looks like. We want personal transformation now, but the reality has a lot more to do with this rhythm. The key is to allow it.
* “Master teacher”: We live in a time when thousands of highly qualified teachers are easily available to us. There is a teacher for you, for this time of your life. Not all teachers are for all people. If you can be clear with your intention I believe the right teacher will come. An example of intention, “Please let me see what I am not yet able to see.” And remember I am not limiting "teacher" to mindfulness teacher. It could be a priest, a life coach, a therapist, a very wise friend etc.
**”Alone and hungry in the woods”: I did my first four-day vision fast in 2007 during which I did crawl over the rim and down into a full experience of my pain and shame. It did not bring an immediate end to my difficulties but it gave me ground from which to stand bravely and squarely in them. This catalyzed many things that have increased my ability to of benefit to myself and others.