For several years now I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation, to help me live more comfortably with anxiety and chronic pain. It’s gradually led me into a new and refreshing outlook on life, as its Buddhist roots have inspired me (an agnostic – almost an atheist on bad days!) to look at other aspects of that ancient religion. I’m very attracted to the Buddha’s teachings on living this life now (rather than more metaphysical ideas about reincarnation, etc), and the growth also of a kind of ‘secular’ Buddhism in the West has made its central components of awareness and kindness/compassion a lot more accessible to me. Over the past two years, several books and teachers have opened up for me possibilities of self-compassion. Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic with its myth of Eden and doctrine of original sin, self-compassion feels almost like a revolutionary idea; I can’t begin to express how refreshing, almost lifesaving it is! All my life I’ve assumed that my own feelings were unimportant compared to other people’s – a belief that has led to a lot of pain and many regrets.
Like self-compassion, meditation is a practice I’ve always found difficult, even while recognising the benefits (which can be quietly revolutionary). I’ve suffered from anxiety since a traumatic nervous breakdown five years ago. But even when I’m not especially anxious, meditating alone can bring up uncomfortable feelings of unease and isolation. And I spend a lot of time alone, as my partner lives away from home for half the week and I’m too unwell to go out to work. And if I’m under emotional stress, these feelings make it even more painful to accept any other emotions that surface while I’m meditating. Recently I discovered that when I’m meditating in groups, the anxiety is much less and I’m much more comfortable. So for the past few weeks I’ve been attending my local Buddhist group (even though I don’t consider myself an out-and-out Buddhist), where I can feel included in the welcoming presence of other practitioners. This is really what Buddhists call sangha: a deep emotional refuge found within a community of friends on the ‘spiritual path’. A friend and I recently started a small sangha of our own on Facebook: a private group of friends, all with some kind of chronic illness, and all following Buddhist practices as a way of growing spiritually and living more positively with our ill-health.
My favourite meditation practice is one that expresses intentions of metta: another Pali word usually translated as ‘lovingkindness’, ‘friendliness’ or ‘kindly awareness’. I think I love this partly because it encourages a sense of connection with others, and therefore of safety, since our kindly intentions are directed towards others (even those we may not find it easy to like) as well as ourselves. But even this, when I practise it alone, sometimes makes me aware of feelings of anxiety, although they may be lessened. The intention of meditation practice is to help us be aware, non-judgementally, of our moment-to-moment experience, whether revealed by our senses or the internal experience of our thoughts and emotions. Any feelings of aversion that come up, any impulses to escape from painful feelings, are accepted non-judgementally as well. With practice, we can gradually become more at home with our experience – more at home in ourselves and in the world.
My difficulty, which must surely be shared by many, especially those who have been traumatised, is that I struggle to accept my feelings of physical pain and anxiety. It’s just too unpleasant and frightening. As Tara Brach says in her new book ‘True Refuge’, mindfulness meditation can involve the risk of re-traumatising if a sense of sufficient safety isn’t included. One option here is to practice, very gently, with the help of a compassionate and experienced teacher or therapist. But what do we do when we’re alone?
There’s a chapter in ‘True Refuge’ that affected me deeply when I read it a few nights ago, and which gave me a sense of hope – a way through the difficulty. Tara describes one of her therapy clients, Dana, who had been profoundly traumatised as a child. With Tara’s help, Dana managed to create a refuge for herself by thinking of several people she trusted and felt safe with, while she offered herself phrases of lovingkindness. Over a period of time, this practice had a deep effect on her feelings about herself and other people, and the ultimate effect was de-traumatising.
This, for me, is a deeply moving inspiration. Over the past few days, I’ve been creating my own ‘true refuge’, hoping ultimately to facilitate my acceptance of the feelings brought up in meditation without being quite as frightened by them. In the short term, just having a ‘safe place’ to offer lovingkindness, by repeating the phrases in a traditional metta meditation, is a gift that I can offer myself in the face of almost daily pain, anxiousness and isolation.
Here is what I’ve come up with. The places and people in my refuge are fluid and can change depending on what ‘feels right’ in the moment, so I’ve included several examples. I spent a lot of time thinking and listing examples; where and with whom do I feel most safe, secure and at ease?
My safe place: Rosebank, the childhood cottage of the writer Laurie Lee in the Gloucestershire
which Angie and I visited last summer. The cottage lies at the foot of a steep
bank covered in wild flowers. Near the top of this bank, but raised a little
above the flowers, is where I sit with the people in my refuge. village of Slad
Alternatives: a residential street I lived in for one year as a child, where I remember feeling very happy; and a fictional village called Sinshan, where Ursula Le Guin’s far future utopian novel, ‘Always Coming Home’ is set. This book deeply moved me and has stayed with me, even though I haven’t read it in nearly twenty-five years.
My safe people: my partner Angie sits at my left side with her arm around my waist. We love each other dearly, and she always ‘has my back’. Our black-and-white cat Tally lies curled up on my lap. On my right, almost touching me, sits a red fox – one of my favourite animals – and I rest my right hand on the fox, perhaps stroking it behind the ears. Next to the fox is a woman; sometimes she’s one of my close Facebook friends, and sometimes she’s Tara Brach herself. Sometimes she’s both of them! We can do anything in our imaginations!
As I sit on the flowered bank, or in the street, or in the imaginary village, with my partner, animals, friend and benefactor/mentor, I offer this simple metta phrase to myself:
May I be happy and peaceful.
The repeated phrase, which is a kind of mantra, varies. If I’m in a lot of pain or anxiety, it might be, “May I be well, and free of suffering”, or even Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase, “I care about this suffering”. Many people have a short list of phrases, but I’ve found that just one keeps it simple and I like that. After a few minutes of repeating this phrase, either silently or aloud, I might move on to the following traditional stages of the meditation: offering metta to a friend (or friends), a ‘neutral’ person, and then someone I’m having difficulties with. Sometimes I’ll just stay with the first two stages, or maybe only the first. It depends on how I feel, how much time I have, what feels most needed or appropriate in that moment. But I always try to keep that image of my safe place and people in my mind.
I’ve since decided that, apart from brief ‘mindfulness of breathing’ practices, and the occasional quick scan through my body to relax tense muscles, the metta meditation will probably be my main practice for the near future. I’m hoping that giving myself this refuge, as well as the other refuges provided by the Buddhist and Facebook groups, will help me in time to feel more comfortable with my inner experience. That I can eventually get in touch with the ‘felt sense’ of my emotions in my body, without being frightened into non-practice, distraction and what Tara calls ‘false refuges’ – over-dependency on medication, other forms of addiction, trying to control my experience or other people… I sense that it may be a long process. But I don’t mind so much about that now. I have a refuge which should help me, in time, to access the ultimate true refuge of compassionate awareness, which
Tara calls loving presence.
In the meantime, my companions on the bank of wild flowers in the English
countryside, will always be there.
I’ve already noticed other benefits of providing this refuge. The people in my safe place may be images in my mind, but they are also real people. And they are people who care about me: Angie, my friend, and Tara, who may not know me personally but has given me and hundreds of thousands of others a great and caring gift. So when I imagine them caring about me, it helps me to care for myself, and to bring a caring presence to my experiences in that moment – including difficult ones. The words ‘caring presence’, in the context of suffering, really mean the same thing as compassion. So providing this safe refuge is helping me to be compassionate towards myself.
The presence of these caring figures in my refuge also helps me to feel compassionate towards others. Bringing a caring presence to my own suffering reminds me that I’m not alone; just as my friends care about me, so I can care about them. The refuge reduces that sense of isolation which I often feel so deeply when I’m alone, and the disconnectedness that characterises so much of our experience of suffering. It reminds me that we all suffer. In the Dalai Lama’s words, “Everyone wants to be happy. Nobody wants to suffer.” The refuge that helps me to bring caring presence to my own suffering, helps me to offer that same quality to others as well.
Perhaps one day, it may also make it easier to be aware and compassionate towards the suffering of people I dislike, especially those who have hurt me. If a loved person hasn’t been present for us, if they haven’t accepted or encouraged us to feel at home with a part of our emotional experience, then that can be deeply scarring, especially if it was during the formative years of childhood. But in all likelihood, they haven’t been present with themselves either, because significant others in their own past didn’t allow them to feel at home in their own skin. So people who’ve damaged us have been damaged too.
But that’s not so easy for me right now. I haven’t yet managed to deepen my attention and bring caring presence to deep and raw feelings of emotional pain, such as I’ve recently been having in family relationships. When I tried to do that before creating my refuge, I was flooded with feelings of anger, hurt and guilt which felt too scary to stay with. Neither have I been able to focus deeply on the suffering of people in war zones, or who have lost their human rights; I tend to get caught up in anger, fear and helplessness, as I did before having to give up peace activism. It’s very difficult for me to bring caring presence to such intensity of feeling. As Tara and all great Buddhist teachers say, we need first to bring compassion to our own suffering; and by touching that tender place with a caring and accepting presence – not dwelling on it or wallowing in it – but simply by saying, “I care about this suffering”, we begin to recognise our kinship with the rest of humanity. Otherwise it’s like forgiving someone without first experiencing the ‘felt sense’ of how they have wounded us. The forgiveness is premature. We can’t truly forgive someone until we’re fully aware of what they’ve done to us.
So right now I have my hands full – or perhaps I should say, my heart full! – in learning to bring a caring presence to myself, and to those closest and dearest to me. And when it all seems too big, too difficult a task, I can remind myself that both awareness and compassion lie very deep in our evolutionary nature. Their potential will always be there, a true refuge that we only have to bring a caring attention to ourselves to find. Without condoning the times when we’ve hurt ourselves or others, we are not intrinsically bad people; we all have ‘buddha nature’. As
has said many times in her writings:
‘The very nature of our awareness is to know what is happening. The very nature of our heart is to care.’