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My parents met against all the odds. My father was born in Sweden, my mother in the Philippines. They lived 6,000 miles apart. They were born during WW2. The way they met was that their schools arranged an English exchange: for them to learn English through letter writing. They loved sharing their curiosity about the world and about different cultures; they exchanged photos that they’d made themselves. After three or four years, they started to fall in love without even having met. As soon as my mother finally made it to Denmark, Dad hot-footed it over after about 5 years of letter-writing, immediately proposed the same day, and my parents have now been happily married for almost 50 years.
So I thought love is this easy ideal of a man and a woman meeting, having three healthy children, and everything works out wonderfully. They made it look so easy.
I spent the next 20 years of my life following this ideal and trying to match it with what I’d seen when I grew up.
When I was 17 I put out a penpal advert, because I thought I’m going to meet somebody in exactly the same way as my parents, because that’s obviously the way it works. Unfortunately all I got in return for the advert was pictures of penises and an invite to Florida from a middle-aged man that I’d never been in touch with in my life.
Eventually I did meet a tall dark handsome stranger, who was a very kind man; but unfortunately we weren’t matched. The thing is, I didn’t care about that; because I had this ideal, and I was going to make it happen no matter what. Sadly after seven years we had to split up, because we finally had to acknowledge that we weren’t getting on. At the same time, I was working with developing countries and with charities. I’d also grown up in a lot of poor countries. My heart was breaking in more ways than one. I no longer had faith that the world was a good place to be. I was close to 9/11 when that happened; I was very close to the London bombings when they happened four years later. At the same time, two people who were the closest to me said that they hated each other and never wanted to see each other again. My sister was in a near-fatal accident, and my heart just absolutely broke. I thought, “I don’t want to be in a world like this.” I just thought, there isn’t any point. It’s a very dangerous place to be, because if you’re depressed at the same time that you think that, you might well consider suicide. I thought, “I don’t really want to be in this life. But I’ll give it one more chance.”
I’d heard about a Zen monastery which is in England.
It’s run by 25 English monks, both men and women 50/50. They run it in the Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition. All we did all day, apart from gardening and cooking, was hours and hours of meditation. When you meditate, what you do is you turn down the volume of everything that’s going on inside you, as well as everything that’s going on outside. You don’t engage with media, you don’t engage with your usual opinionating and your thoughts, worries, concerns. It’s all happening, but you dive underneath that as if into an ocean. When you dive into an ocean, as people who’ve tried that [will know], everything outside becomes quiet and you go into a totally different world.
So I did that; and when I did that, what I came across was absolute abject terror. There was a layer of emotion that was utter fear. Not for any particular reason; it was like a primal fear that we’re born with already. If you listen to a baby crying [as if] in terror, there’s not necessarily any particular reason; it’s just there, it’s an instinct. I realised that what I’d been channeling in my usual surface irritability, that I’d been carrying in what I thought was my personality, was that fear that was coming up.
But I had to persevere, because there wasn’t really any way out. There was suicide, or find a way that I could live with the way that the world was and the way that I was. So I kept going, and about 7 or 8 months into meditation, I came across something utterly unexpected that I [hadn’t even known] existed. The only way that I can describe it, is love.
It came to me in the most unexpected way. I was gardening with a nun. She handed me a tiny little plant, about five millimetres. It had two little leaves, standing. It was light green, I remember it so well – and it was beaming. I’m not even exaggerating about that; it looked like light was emanating from it. This was only because I’d been turning down the volume on everything else, that I noticed this tiny little thing. It said, “I am extremely precious. I am life itself. And it’s your responsibility to take care of me.”
Normally I hate gardening; I grew up in a city and didn’t care about stuff like that. But I felt I had no choice but to honour it. So love exists in things, plants and nature; not just in people, and not just in romance. There’s something that Buddhists call ‘Indra’s Net’ that connects all of us, and all things. It means that everything that we do affects other people – even the tiniest little thing.
Once I took care of an elderly friend at the monastery. Her feet were very painful, so I was putting band-aids on them. I found myself in this posture of supplication. I was kneeling, and I realised that that is what love is: taking care of other people’s tiniest needs, if you can, if they need you. And always looking out for that.
There was another nun, who said “How are you?” I’d never been asked “how are you” in exactly the way that she did. The difference was that she really meant it. She waited for my answer, and she really cared what my answer was. She wasn’t saying it just to get something from me. I’d spent so many years in London that I wasn’t used to somebody actually caring about such little things.
So the nature of love with Indra’s Net, that network, is that it doesn’t come from us. It comes through us. We can’t control it, necessarily. It comes through us, both emanating from us, and something that we can receive. Receiving and giving is the exact same action. In helping my elderly friend, I was also receiving something.
If you look for the evidence, you’ll find it. My father wrote a letter to me at the monastery. He did his usual thing which was argue with me on a philosophical point. It always felt like a punch to the stomach; it felt like “Dad, you’re not acknowleding my reality” and it made me incredibly angry. I grabbed the letter, scrunched it up and unfolded it, scrunched it up and unfolded it, then took it to a Zen master and said “I’m so angry with my father, what can I do with this anger?”
I thought he was going to tell me to go and meditate or something. But he said “well think about, why did your father really send you that letter?” I realised, well, it was to connect with me. Why would he do that? Oh – he loves me. In less than a minute, I’d turned around this aggressive emotion into realisation of connection.
I was able to do that afterwards as well, when I went back to London, in very aggressive confrontations with complete strangers. It turns around. A lot of people obviously are quite desperate in London, and they’d often they come up to my face. Usually I’d be really defensive and angry, and I’d try to push them away or something. But when I let them come up close and really try to find out what it was that they wanted, that was all they wanted. They just wanted to be heard. They didn’t actually want to hurt me. I think far too often, we’re very defensive and we imagine that people want to hurt us when they don’t.
You can also find evidence in the tiniest things like a little butterfly landing on your shoulder to show you that you’re not alone. Or there’s a social forum called ‘askreddit’, where seven million people write questions to each other – just because they’re interested in each other. That’s the only reason.
I went back to London after about a year in the monastery, and it felt like there was this gigantic hand following me everywhere, protecting me. I don’t believe in such things; I’m just telling you how it felt. I like to test things, so I’d go from city to city and country to country to see if it’s still there. And it was. That nature of the net that I was talking about was protective.
Unfortunately though love doesn’t fix everything, as everybody here will know. There was still pain in the world, and there’s obviously still conflict and war, both individually and politically. Life is imperfect. As Leonard Cohen says, “there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”. But these atrocities that so many people – probably all of us – are capable of, they’re actually just a twist in the fabric of love. It’s a misunderstanding by people who’ve only gone as far as that feeling of terror, and don’t realise that there’s something underneath it, that’s much greater than that.
For those of us who do know, we can choose to do that and act from the place of love rather than the place of terror. We can choose to judge things in terms of how different we are; or we can choose to judge things in terms of what we have in common. It makes all the difference.
The other thing that makes all the difference is to tell your truth to somebody who really knows how to listen. I’m training to be a counsellor, and as a trainee counsellor you have to go to a counsellor as well. I’ve learned to tell her about the things that I find the most shameful in myself. Things that other people have done to me, that I’ve been carrying all this time; things that I’ve been wanting to do to other people that I thought were awful. I had such guilt. I’m only telling you this because I know that every single person has that darkness in themselves as well. And that’s ok. It’s normal. And when you tell somebody, the act of telling somebody is almost like an alchemy. It transforms the feeling to something that you realise is actually ok. But I can say this, and it sounds like a textbook. It’s not until you actually do it, that it works. You should try it.
So after all of that – coming back from the monastery and spending several years back in London – I met my “true love” in my late 30s.
The way that true love is often defined is “two souls are as one”, and that’s really how it felt. But it’s completely unpredictable. We had totally different lifestyles, completely different backgrounds, and I certainly didn’t expect to meet him in my 30s. I thought I was going to meet him when I was in my teens and have lots of kids. But things don’t work out the way you think they will, and the key to true love is in the word “true”. It was when I was honest with myself, let go of an agenda and stopped trying to make things happen, that love could actually happen. Otherwise, I was just pushing it away.
There are also many more souls in the world than just two. If you try to choose, “I’m going to like this person and not all of those other people. I’m not going to be loving towards that tribe, that community, that country or that political group”, then you’re actually shutting your heart off. Your heart only has “on” or “off”; you can’t choose to only love some people and not others. So if you decide to be in a loving relationship, you have to also be open to everybody else and vice versa. [I don’t mean] in an open sexual relationship, I’m talking about another kind of love!
Buddhists talk a lot about the “false self”. I think of the individual self as a crusty eggshell – that’s how it feels to me! Which keeps me away from other people. It isolates me. Whereas the fact is that we’re actually much more like blobs in a lava lamp. Waxy globules that are going along in a stream of lava-type liquid. If you think about a lava lamp, these blobs are always forming and unforming, and they change as they go along. They don’t have any preferences about it. They don’t point at each other and say “that one’s different”, or “I’d rather be like that”, or “I’d actually rather be over there”. They just go along with that flow, and that’s how human beings actually are. We have much less choice than we think. Of course there’s still wisdom, and there’s still good choices; but if we went along with the way things are, things would be much easier for us.
If you also think about the lava lamp in terms of these blobs forming and unforming, I don’t know how many people have experienced grief and loss here, but a lot of people will have the feeling that when somebody dies, it’s not over. That’s not the end. The only real thing there is change, not necessarily living and dying as we think of it. It’s much more fluid than that.
Love isn’t some kind of magical thinking. It’s grace. And you honour it by letting go of the opinions that separate us; by honouring gentleness, both in yourself, and particularly in people you don’t like! That’s the greatest challenge. And also by telling your truth.
I’d like to end with a poem by 13th century poet Rumi. It’s quite a well-known poem, but it bears repeating:
Optimism is the difference between thinking “you never know, let’s give it a try”, and giving up and thinking “what’s the point” and “it probably won’t work out anyway”. Actually it isn’t optimism so much as the truth. It’s true that you never know what might happen, and that you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a try. If it then doesn’t work out, nothing real has actually been lost.
It’s hard to follow the news without despairing or being influenced by it in a negative way. It’s good to be informed but please go carefully with it, as you would with a strong substance. The more aware we are, the more sensitive and open-minded; and the more sensitive and open-minded, the more pain we are able to feel. Unchecked thoughts can easily spiral into cynicism and despair – which are helpful to no-one. These are some pointers which I’ve found helpful:
- Focus on what you can do day-to-day. Don’t despair that you can’t do more: you are doing your best. All the responsibility in the world does not rest solely on your shoulders. It’s shared with 7 billion people.
- Don’t let news sites dictate your mood. It can get addictive, and not in a good way. Unless your job depends on it – and sometimes even when it does – it’s ok to miss it for a day or even more. If you want to feel fulfilled, spend your time doing stuff which makes you feel fulfilled, far more often than you do stuff which makes you despair (hello, news).
- When I read a newspaper, it seems to me that the world is full of terrible things. But when I look in front of me, for the most part this world here and now does not reflect that at all. Do your own investigating, and look for the whole truth. For survival reasons, the human brain has severe negativity bias; fight it with the good stuff. Consider, how many people led good lives today? Certainly far more than people who were killed. Always notice and dwell on the kindness and thoughtfulness which is happening around you. It doesn’t make great newspaper copy, but it’s great copy for your brain.
- Your life is much greater than the thoughts in your head. As you read the news you imagine the horrors going on in the world. But even if the horrors themselves were real when they happened a day or two ago, your images of them are not. Focus on building up that which is real to you: community relationships. Community initiatives. Your family. Your passions. Your immediate environment. This is your life, and if it isn’t good already, it’s certainly got the potential to be.
- If you were profiled in a newspaper headline, it’s unlikely that all the positive things you have to offer would be given a fair mention. The same is true of entire countries. They aren’t what they look like, minimised into a story from a judgmental distance – so don’t waste time judging them. Unless they’re war zones, if you can, travel there to enjoy them instead.
So much of the way news happens in our lives has the effect of creating conflict, separation and harsh opinions. Notice how that feels in your body as you read or watch the news, and make a decision not to be led by it.
Yesterday I was asked by a young Buddhist, “what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self, when you were just starting on the path?” I answered,
Zen doesn’t mean that nothing matters. Money matters, work matters, every little interaction matters. Throw yourself into work – I mean, don’t get a heart attack over it, but you’d probably enjoy being an apprentice in TV – try it. It sounds superficial but it won’t be forever, and you’ll learn the skills you need such as working with fun teams of people, selling your ideas, and taking care of yourself materially. Don’t judge things and people so much – what’s the use? One day you will find that you were only judging yourself. The world really looks like the way you are inside.
That shit about never taking “no” for an answer? That’s only true when you’re on the right path. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that you’re on the wrong one.
There isn’t always a right answer. Sometimes you’ll just have to muddle through, so you might as well enjoy the scenery while you’re there.
Don’t go to university just because everybody else is – wait until you really want to, or until you’ve found a subject you love. You’re passionate about literature, right? That’s ok – you can study that. This is going to sound horribly elitist, but once you feel that you’ve got some measure of your shit together, try Oxbridge and the Ivy League, because you’ll regret if you don’t even try it. You’ll be meeting some really fun people from Yale, for instance. It doesn’t matter if the courses seem narrow-minded or aren’t vocational enough – you can make the time yours and do a conversion post-grad afterwards. Do more research before making such an important decision. You don’t want to be going to university forever. By research I mean keep looking until you find something that sounds really exciting to you. What would you do if you weren’t worried about the future? Don’t listen to dad – he loves you, but he has his own unintended agenda and he doesn’t know everything. The important thing with something like a degree is that you find something that you can go deeply into and enjoy. Then you will do well. Otherwise you will be acting against your own heart, and that won’t go far. Trust me. Trust your own intuition.
Travel is not more important than work. I’m not saying don’t travel, but also don’t try to walk in your parents’ footsteps – you are not them, and the world has changed. Make a base – not necessarily geographically, although that can help. Concentrate on making a living, then from there, you can find ways to travel. Doing it the other way round won’t work for you. Try not to chop and change so much. A little boredom won’t kill you. I’ve got some radical news – it doesn’t matter whether you become Secretary General of the UN, or a plumber. Choose something you enjoy doing, in the sense that you can throw yourself into it completely, but be open-minded about what that might be – especially at this stage. What matters is that it is your job, that you take pride in it and that you do your best. The thing is that no matter what you do, you will touch people’s lives. Don’t underestimate the value of that.
When you have ideas, don’t dismiss them or hide them because you’re afraid. Take them as seriously as you would take anyone’s ideas. Be proud of them and bring them forward. You are talented. Use it to serve.
Don’t go out with people just because you feel lonely. Everyone you sleep with will forever be a part of you, in a way. Choose wisely and learn self-discipline. But don’t get too uptight or earnest! Have fun and let your hair down, too. Yes I know this advice is contradictory – that’s how things are. That’s why it’s hard. But it’s worth it, I promise, and you can do it. Persevere and do your best. Then rest in the knowledge that your best is enough.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you make mistakes, don’t cover them up – own up, and then move on. Please be humble – but don’t suffer low self-esteem. At your age, simply aim to be cheerful and to learn. Find mentors at work and absorb everything you can from them. People are basically kind; there is nothing to be afraid of. If you approach enough people honestly and humbly, some will agree to take you in as a trainee. This is an amazing and limited opportunity – treasure it and give it everything. Don’t worry about your doubts or your future. It will work itself out so that you don’t have to.
Make criticism your friend. It will often be clumsily given, but in your own mind you can make it constructive. People will give you feedback that you can use to become a better person. Whether you’re given criticism or a compliment, say “thank you”.
Be kind and generous even if the world is falling apart around you, but don’t bend over backwards to make people like you. Some people will like you, some won’t. That’s the way things will always be. So the sooner you learn to march to the beat of your own drum, the better. Do the thing you think is right, and then if the landscape changes up ahead, it’s ok to adjust. Don’t judge things in black-and-white.
Treasure your body. It seems invincible, but you only have one, and one day it will age. You will be grateful then that you care for it now. I don’t mean weird spa treatments or that you have to run a marathon – you know what I mean. I know you are angry, but don’t take it out on yourself. Don’t hate where you come from; be proud. There is no one quite like you. The purpose and great challenge of our lives is to be ourselves completely – but you can’t second-guess what that is. You have to nurture yourself, and let it unfold gently. That process doesn’t end until you’re dead. So you’ll need to develop some patience and steadfastness.
The world is complicated. There are people directing charities who are self-centered a-holes, and there are bankers who are kind and selfless. If you’re wondering why I took bankers as an example, it’s because in future people are going to really hate them. Human nature typically needs someone to blame. Keep seeing through it.
There is an honourable British tradition known as “taking the piss”. Learn it and use it liberally, particularly take the piss out of yourself.
As you’ll already be aware, some people will try to take advantage of you. The fact that you’re a woman can sometimes be hard. Remember that such people are the minority. It’s true that almost everyone has an agenda – but that agenda is simply that everyone wants to be loved. It’s just that it expresses itself in twisted ways sometimes. There will also be people – even friends inadvertently do this sometimes – who try to put you down, sometimes in the smallest most insidious ways. Never ever believe such stupidity. God knows you’re not perfect, but you are also brilliant and full of heart and potential. That stuff that mom used to say about how they’re only jealous, and you never believed her? It’s time to start believing her. You’ve got a great instinctive defense system – trust it. Tell people where to go, when they deserve it. Don’t let anyone or anything get to you. Don’t dwell on the upset that arises, it will only hurt you.
In a heartbeat friends can become enemies and vice versa. Despite appearances, consider everyone a friend at heart. It’s a bit of an art to do this without being a doormat. You’ll figure it out. Don’t be afraid to be close to people. Whatever arises – and I mean anything at all – you can learn to handle it.
Yes there is “true love”. It will be almost everything you hoped it would, and more. You will know beyond doubt when it happens. But you can’t make it happen, it won’t look like you imagine it will, and it won’t miraculously make everything ok. So don’t waste your time going looking for it. You need to get on with your life and enjoy whatever you have now. Sometimes it will feel like you have nothing. But that won’t be true. Look carefully and find your passion again, even then. Especially then. I know Zen seems to say that passion is not the way to go, but if it’s about passion for life and you have an honest heart, it is.
Don’t be angry at life for always throwing you a new challenge. You like to think that if life stood still, we could all be happy and safe forever. You imagine that there would be no loss or pain. But if life stood still, there could be no change. Change is movement, and movement is life itself. Do you see? Without constant change and learning, we’d be dead. So embrace each challenge. I’m not saying “embrace it” because it’s the nice thing to do; I’m saying it because ultimately you have no choice, and because it’s the path of least pain.
You can enjoy fashion without being vain, and stuff without being greedy. So long as you keep your priorities straight, do it for fun, and remain willing to let go, such things help keep people like you grounded and happy. You weren’t meant to be a monk, so stop trying to act like one. Art, theatre, music and dance aren’t superficial – they’re fun and they’re important to you. There’s a film in which angels can’t see colour, and yearn to experience the passion that only the ups-and-downs of human life can give. You can tread where angels can’t. Savour it and experience it fully. Don’t stop going on your wild adventures. There are lots of worthwhile things to discover.
At the same time, don’t neglect the dishes. Try to get enough sleep most nights. Don’t make a habit of drinking too much coffee. Smile every day. Wear sunscreen (yes I’m serious. You’ve no idea.) Keep your promises, even if others don’t. Enjoy the little things: they add up. Moderation is your friend. It’s underrated. You will be very surprised at how deeply, earth-shatteringly not-boring moderation is.
Your heart will break, more than once. I’m really sorry. I wish that weren’t so. If it’s any consolation, vets have a saying that if you leave all of a cat’s bones in the same room, when you turn your back the bones will uncannily find their own way back together and re-assemble themselves in perfect order. Hearts are like that too. I know, it feels like the world ends – but in the end, you will be ok. Other and better chances really will come to you when the time is right. Remember what I said about true love? Nothing that is real, can be lost. Trust, breathe, walk tall, and keep going. If you want to sometimes curl up and sob your heart out, that’s ok too. But don’t wallow.
Sometimes you will wonder if there is more to life. The answer is yes, a million times yes. When you feel like it, find a Zen monastery that you can learn from. Enlightened people exist all over the world, right now. It’s not mythical, a thing from the past, or only in Japan. It’s possible for everyone, and it doesn’t conflict with ambition or with ordinary life. Actually it’s a part of ordinary life – of your life.
Change your life for no one. Zen masters have important stuff to teach, but they don’t know everything about you personally. They would say as I will: follow your heart, continue to sit still within yourself, and know that you are loved – especially when it looks like you are all alone.
A short version of this post was published in The Huffington Post.
Did you hear my latest interview on BBC Radio London? Mixing Faiths – in interview with Jumoke Fashola
Meggan Watterson is an Ivy League-educated Master of Theological Studies, Master of Divinity, and a self-declared “freelance mystic”. Her book ‘Reveal’ was recently published by Hay House.
Watterson sees her role as one of reclaiming spiritual awareness for women. A valid question would be why it’s specifically women’s spiritual awareness that needs reclaiming. She doesn’t shy away from explaining this, drawing from a plethora of well-documented references both modern and historical. In a nutshell, allegedly the majority of world religions are dominated by men, and consequently women the world over have lost confidence in their own power and abilities.
While the bibliography is as well researched as you would expect from a Harvard graduate, this is not a scholarly book; it’s a work designed to inspire and elevate in a very personal way. Rather than being about religion, it’s written from a point of religious fervour. As such it’s a gutsy work. Livelihoods have been lost over public declarations of being overcome by “the Divine”, although to be fair there is also a bestseller market for them. Reveal straddles both the educated and the New Age markets; littered with original anecdotes about women in religion, think The Da Vinci Code with a high IQ.
Watterson’s writing style is exactly as you would expect from – and I don’t know how to say this without sounding judgmental, but I promise you I am not saying this sarcastically – a white, privileged upper-middle-class American woman from San Francisco. Her writing is full of energy, uncompromising imperatives, and revealing personal examples – all of which I find wonderful and inspiring. The reason I mention her background is that at times, it’s also what makes her advice more difficult for me to relate to.
For example, the two main personal experiences which she delves into at length are about trips taken in her 20s to Christian sites in Europe. The thoughts which went through my head included “it’s easy for you to be a pilgrim, if you can afford to take a flat in the upmarket area of Paris” and “what have I got in common with a 20-year-old?!” She refers to her “dark night of the soul” as a night when she had an anxiety attack in her apartment, triggered by the fact that she was alone for the first time in years. While I appreciate that she felt deeply and gained genuine insights from that experience, it is hyperbole to compare it to the original experience of St John of the Cross.
She also claims that there are signs everywhere when you are on the right path of your calling. This may or may not be true, and is of course difficult if not impossible to prove. The signs she got are, typically, seeing a possum outside her apartment two nights in a row after having thought of something that was shaped a bit like a possum. I believe she wrote these examples in order to inspire, but unfortunately they only make me raise my eyebrows. I would have preferred the examples to be followed with a note such as “who knows if these things were really related or not; the point is that it helped me see…” etc., rather than being stated as if they were factually and objectively true. The nuance won’t matter to some readers, but it would help win over skeptics. I’m not even a skeptic myself, in the sense that I already believe her point, but when she stated that the events were absolutely factually related – or that “we all carry a memory of being burned at the stake” – to me trust in her as a reliable narrator was lost. Which is a shame, because I think she is a reliable narrator, in the sense of telling the truth as she knows it, and not being crazy. All that is needed is to make clear if an event is objective or subjective.
So have women the world over really lost confidence in their own power, as a result of the majority of world religions being dominated by men? To an extent, I would say this is true. It may even have been one of the original reasons for the fact that women in general have lower self-esteem than men. But the situation has diffused and moved away from religion. Now that most westerners are no longer regular church-goers, and in many areas the majority is atheist or agnostic, I don’t know that it’s useful to blame patriarchy or religion anymore.
But I do think that this book is useful. While I’ve written this as a critique, the good bits – and there are plenty of them – make Reveal well worth enjoying.
Read this if: This excerpt intrigues you
Don’t read this if: You break out in hives at the mention of Patrick Swayze and Jesus Christ in the same sentence
Favourite quote: “Imagine putting down all that baggage you’ve been dragging around and then filling a tote bag, a little red one, with love. Imagine travelling with just that – and nothing else – wherever you go. “
Watch Meggan Watterson on TED X Women
Question: In my lifetime, I have seen what I perceive as an inordinate amount of abandonment. Starting at about 3 years old with my own father and continuing in a pattern throughout my lifetime, I’ve been purposely abandoned by the people closest to me. The ones who didn’t physically walk out of my life were unable to be present for a child, and it’s been said that’s another form of abandonment. I can provide more details but I don’t think that’s important.
I’d like to know what might be going on with my karma and how and why abandonment has become a major theme in my life. I can’t help but wonder if I’m bringing it on myself, though I don’t really think that could be true for my childhood self.
Is there a lesson I’m failing to learn? What can I do to prevent this theme from continuing on in other lifetimes?
Whitney, Massage Therapist
This is a subject close to my heart. An adopted friend of mine also shared this sense of abandonment, and it was serious enough to propel him to become a monk. I will never forget one of the last things he said before leaping into the folds of the monastery, “Until I face this karma, the same thing is going to happen to me over and over again.”
So it’s wonderful that you’re asking the question. In my experience, he was right. Different relationships and situations through the years seemed to play out the same pattern. Between the ages of 4 and 34, more often than not, my friendships and relationships followed the same routine: I’d be alone, I’d meet someone and be close to them for a while, then for a myriad different reasons out of nowhere, they would turn away. Over and again.
Finally after ordaining in Buddhism I learned that whatever the cause is, and whatever my current situation is, I’m going to have to completely accept it. And stop telling myself stories about what the situation is and why. You may be familiar with the oft quoted parable of the arrow:
“The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys
There are insights to be had, and there is something we can do about it. But as you’ve probably already figured out, speculation has a limited effect and if used in the wrong way, it can even be destructive.
I learned that to some extent, I was actively carrying this situation with me. Thinking of solitude made me feel lonely, and the feeling of loneliness perpetuated more loneliness. Thinking negatively of my past made me feel like a victim, and needless to say, victims don’t make a lot of friends!
In other words – was I abandoning myself?
I resolved to come to each situation and each morning afresh, not expecting anything from any particular day. Maybe this day I will meet lots of people, maybe I won’t; who knows? Maybe this new friend will stay, maybe she won’t. My only job is to give myself to the current situation, whatever it is. If I’m alone and feeling lonely, okay, so be it. If over a long period of time I’m with someone and feeling lonely, and experience shows that it isn’t possible to reconnect with that person, I may have to move on.
Running from any feeling will perpetuate it, so I allowed all feelings to stay for as long as they wanted. I didn’t perpetuate them or expect anything in particular; I just observed and accepted as they came and went, without trying to manipulate anything.
This may sound like a passive approach to life, but it turned out not to be. When I stopped trying to make things happen one way or another, I learned that they happened by themselves. In fact, it’s the “stopping trying” that allowed them to unfold for the better. For example, if you’ve deeply accepted solitude, that gives you a genuine confidence which attracts people. If you’ve trained yourself to not desire a specific outcome to an event, then from your point of view, every situation is ok.
What is abandonment really? Is it someone leaving, whom we think shouldn’t have? The “rights and wrongs” of this are clear when it comes to parents and children; most of us agree that parents have a responsibility to do everything in their power to be there for their children. But when you’ve grown up, your responsibility is to yourself. Whether you were abandoned in the past or not, dealing with your feelings and caring for yourself is now your responsibility.
That’s not to say that Buddhism is about forgetting your past completely. It can help to reflect on how an abandoning parent was a victim to the pattern too. Even when we create destruction in our wake, each of us is doing our best. This doesn’t remove accountability, but it does help to release your death-grip on “how things should have been” and “what people should have done”. We have to accept that it is not an ideal world with ideal people. As in the parable of the arrow, what we think about how things should have been is completely irrelevant. The life-saving question is, what can realistically be done now?
In terms of adult relationships, many make and break commitments. Few people have supreme willpower, we only have limited knowledge of ourselves at any given time, and to top it all, things happen to everyone beyond their control. I can promise to do my best, but ultimately I can’t guarantee anything. Even among married spiritual masters, the divorce rate is as high as anywhere else.
There are things we can do to limit the chances that we’ll break commitments. For example, get to know yourself as well as you possibly can, and be upfront about your limits; and get clued up about codependency so you don’t find yourself making promises for all the wrong reasons.
What can we do to limit the chances that we’ll be abandoned, though? Getting clued up about codependency helped me here, too, and supplemented what I was learning in Buddhist practice. I had thought that someone (or several people) left me who shouldn’t have left me. This idea of “what should have happened” was however my judgment, and the judgment created the idea of abandonment. Once I’d learned how to be ok on my own, it was no longer possible to abandon me. Abandonment ceased to exist. Without the story, when we stop playing roles and stop thinking about what we want and don’t want, all that’s really happening is that people come and go.
I might decide to trust someone, and I could be wrong. The worst that can happen is that I would have liked someone to stick around, and they don’t. Because I’ve learned that I’m ok on my own, there is ultimately nothing to lose. The simple knowledge that I’m ok, takes the pressure off people to have to be a certain way around me; which makes them more likely to be happy to stick around.
So it’s radical acceptance and self-nurturing which break the pattern. Be patient and play the long game; most of us have spent a lifetime establishing a pattern of thinking about the past, so it won’t go away immediately. This is one of the problems with many modern self-help directives: they give the impression that we can simply will our way out of our past. But the fact is that after you stop engaging with it, it hangs around for a while. Expect the pattern to re-emerge several times, even while you’re doing the right thing. Keep the faith that you will come out the other side.
I hope this helps; please add comments below if you’d like to question or ask anything more. All best wishes and please keep in touch.
When a great man dies, as Nelson Mandela did last night, it is tempting to share your feelings and say what you think about it. You want to honor a great hero, a good man, and an inspiration for our times. Immediately after the news, social media was awash with touching tributes. Memes with Mandela’s face and a quote were hastily assembled and posted.
It is normal human nature to express what we feel, and to a large extent, of course it’s good for us. It helps us stick together and support each other, as the human community that we are.
And it isn’t for me or anyone else, to tell you how to grieve. Grief finds its own expression, unique to each person. Some people crave silence, others need to wail; most of us do both at different stages of our process.
But I want to say please remember, that expression is not the only way to love and honour a man.
Expression is, in fact, one step removed from feeling. It may feel simultaneous, but if you were to slow things down, it would become clear that you cannot fully go inside to connect with feeling, and direct expression outwards, at the same time.
Fully connecting with feeling takes everything you’ve got. It takes your whole heart. It’s why every religion worth its salt emphasises silence and contemplation.
In a subtle way, we in fact often use expression as a way not to feel. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy, side-stepping reality, while still thinking that – and looking to others like – we are engaging with it.
Today and maybe tomorrow too, I want to lower the flag. I want to honour his memory by feeling fully what his impact on my life was. My heart feels full and overpouring, grateful that he gave himself to us and showed us what a worthwhile life looks like. There are no words for love.
“Tons of my problems come back to the fact that I’m constantly thinking about myself, and what other people think of me, and whether they think I’m weird or strange or ugly or whatever.
I hate that my mind is constantly, constantly focused on myself. I can’t escape the fear of everyone potentially judging the Christ out of me at every turn and it makes me nervous and scared.
I feel like if I could only get away from this, I would be okay. How can I do that?”
Eireannach, 19 (Ireland)
What a lovely question. I honestly think it’s wonderful that you’ve identified and decided to step out of what might be called self-consciousness. Many choose to perpetuate it for a lifetime. They may try to feel better by treating it with pride, inflate it into egotism, and don’t realise that they’re perpetuating it in a way that’s making them unhappy. You, on the other hand, have decided to identify and step out of it early on.
Self-consciousness – if you’re happy to call it that for now – is a natural human condition. I’ve met some great and wise teachers, and yet having gotten to know them, I’d happily bet that even they suffered from it. Typically children are un-self-conscious until they reach pre-puberty; then it enters, along with the psychological maturing process. Suddenly we are painfully and minutely aware of our existence. Where once we would have run wild and naked down a beach in joy, instead we may turn inward and cringe in the shadows.
The extent of this development varies culturally; some cultures are more self-conscious than others. It serves a purpose by creating a contemplative space in which we can examine what we’re made of, and how the adult world works. It’s a good time for extroverts to temporarily become introvert, and re-assess what role they’d like to play in that adult world. The following is an analogy, but sometimes it can feel like breaking out of an egg: very sensitive, as if the lights are sometimes too bright, the things people say too harsh.
In response it’s easy to feel defensive, go into overdrive, and either over- or under-express ourselves. As a teenager I would swing from being the life of the party, to being a depressed recluse. Take the time to learn to hear and meet your own needs, before emotions get out of hand (although when they do, it isn’t the end of the world). The rich emotional tapestry of daily life is changing and will never look the same; take it slow, get to know it and learn to get comfortable with it.
Remember to be your own best friend through this. Whether we like it or not, acceptance, gentle guidance and patience are the only things which have ever worked, when we want to change. It’s tempting to try shortcuts and it’s common to beat ourselves up, but such tactics only slow us down and prevent development.
One reason I liked your question was that I always ask myself, where is the question coming from? It can only be your place of selflessness, that wants to rid itself of self-concern. Self-concern wouldn’t want to rid itself of itself. So the fact that you asked means that you’re already coming from a place of generosity and connection.
Sitting still for a moment, allow yourself to feel the feelings that gave rise to your question. You said you felt nervousness and fear, for example. Remember to breathe, and without deliberately thinking, let yourself feel nervousness and fear of judgment completely. (It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you.) Locate the feelings in your body, and describe how they feel to yourself. Butterflies? Pins and needles? Shortness of breath? Every few minutes relax any tense muscles and breathe calmly, and realise that relaxation is something you can choose to do anytime you want.
The trick is to relax into it and explore the feeling, and it will dissipate. If you relax as a distraction away from feelings, they will only keep coming back.
This is the meditative aspect of guiding yourself to grow out of what feels like a constricting shell. You can do it wherever you are, and anytime you feel something coming up again. It might be several times a day.
There’s a practical or ‘worldly’ aspect to it, too. It differs from person to person; you’ll need to find yours. It could be a combination of lots of things, and usually changes as you grow older.
It’s one or all of the following: a project, hobby, job, passion, sport, activity or service, which you find attractive enough to want to immerse yourself in completely. It’s likely to be challenging and a bit scary, but something that you feel much better for having done. (So it isn’t drugs or gambling ) For some people it’s having kids, however it’d be a bit drastic to go that far only for the sake of self-liberation! For me it’s been travel, study, dance, learning filmmaking, and creating challenging work projects. (This was over a 25-year period – I haven’t been busy always.)
Giving yourself to a bigger cause, or working in a group, is a great way to lose yourself, and it serves both you and them. And believe me, you’re not too “weird” to do anything you want. The weirder the better, even; are there not a plethora of weird role models at the top? True, there are those who call others “weird” like it’s a criticism. That’s their insecurity and not a reflection on you, since they don’t even know you. The original meaning of “weird” is “destiny”. Once you know what you yourself want, what others think will roll like water off a duck’s back.
The other joy in pursuing interests you’re passionate about, is that you eventually meet people who feel the same as you. It might take years, but when you do meet them it feels like coming home to your “tribe”.
I used to be excruciatingly shy and self-conscious, to the point where if I realised I was walking the wrong way down a street from where I wanted to go, I was too frightened to turn around because I thought that people would laugh at me for it. So I’d walk all the way around the block, and then stealthily side-step into the right direction when nobody was looking. I also spent many years alone because I felt too much like an alien to know how to make friends!
The thing that first brought me out of my shell was finding people interesting. At the same time I had absorbed myself in hobbies I enjoyed doing, so a couple of people found me interesting in return. When they reached out to me, I dared to venture a stumbling conversation. Friendships developed, but I was still frightened and massively defensive (and as a result I could be verbally aggressive, as can be common with teenagers.)
Without realising it, I styled my appearance accordingly: aggressively “attractive” according to how I thought people wanted me to look. If you’re a young woman and you’re somewhere where everyone really is looking at you no matter what you wear, it’s near impossible not to be painfully self-conscious anyway.
My way of facing my fears was a bit extreme, and mixed in with my love for travel and people – I took up work as a model. While I wouldn’t recommend that, the theory works for everyone: it might be a drama class, singing class or anything in which you have to express yourself in a group at some point.
Other major things which helped me was working for charities abroad, and serving at a monastery. Again, these may be too extreme for some, but the simple practice of spending most of my day serving others was tremendously helpful in letting go of self-concern. Wherever you are, there will always be places and people which need your help.
It isn’t all about creating big dramas; the little things add up too. Make small social steps for the day which you wouldn’t normally do, like talking to the local grocer, dressing differently, getting a shoulder massage, or smiling at a stranger just because you feel like it, without expecting any particular reaction in return. Share a secret. You might even dare yourself to play the fool, just once, by being silly with friends or in public to see what happens. Playing the fool is one of the most generous and fun things you can do. In my experience it makes people laugh with you, every time.
My point in mentioning my experiences is to show that it’s possible to change from being very self-conscious, to being happy talking on stage in front of hundreds if not thousands of people. I’ve learned that it really, really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as long as I know myself and that I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m not doing it to please anyone else; I’m doing it because I’ve figured out what’s important to me. The fear that being open would make me completely alone was unfounded; in fact it had the opposite effect.
Very few people over the age of five are completely un-self-conscious, and to a degree it’s healthy to keep some of it. Don’t think that you have to change yourself completely, just because one thing is making you uncomfortable. Nobody expects you to be perfect. The difference is in your perspective, and perspectives change with practice.
Hi, I’m an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from France, from the suburbs west of Paris. I remember your article about staying in a Zen temple for a year. I am looking to do something similar. Could you tell me how you set that up, what you had to know beforehand, and that sort of thing? Thanks a lot,
That sounds exciting I’ve had similar questions from different people who are interested in longer stays, so I’ll give you the long answer, and hopefully it’ll answer them too.
Once I realised that I wanted to commit completely to studying Zen, it felt urgent. I rang up the first good monastery I heard of and said “I want to go there immediately!” The monk on the phone sounded bemused and said calmly, “well why don’t you start by attending an introductory weekend next month, then we’ll see?”
I was annoyed that he wasn’t taking me more seriously. There I was, ready to give my whole life to the Dharma, and he was suggesting a pesky beginners’ weekend? My ambition, I felt, carried more gravity than that. So why was I not being welcomed with open arms?
As the monk knew and I eventually found out, the answer is simple: you’ve got to start somewhere, and a weekend is a good start. The equivalent of my fantasy would be if someone with no experience decides they want to work in TV, so they ring up the BBC switchboard and expect to be given a job.
I’m not saying that this is what you think, and it doesn’t sound like you want to be ordained as a monk. It can be helpful to remember all the same, that even from a practical point of view monasticism is one of the most serious vocations there is.
The entire monastic community is signing up to work side-by-side with you day and night, seven days a week. In many temples there’s no privacy at all, and you eat and sleep in the same room together. In a relatively closed and sensitive community, every personality has a magnified effect on all the others and vice-versa. It’s a pressure cooker. If one person gives up, messes up or leaves – which happens as often as it does in any other job – it feels like a serious blow to everyone who is left behind.
So it’s safe to say that they’re going to want to get to know you before signing you up to a longer stay. Along I went to the introductory weekend, at a temple that someone had recommended.
The first question
The question to ask yourself after the introduction is not “do they like me”, but do you like them? Not in a sentimental way, but rather, do you trust them to be reliable teachers? Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Does the kindness and compassion they preach show in their day-to-day actions? Are they genuinely humble and yet confident? How do they handle conflict or disagreements? Do you feel respected and at ease? In some places (sects in particular), the question to ask yourself is are they manipulative or trying too hard to impress you?
Trust your gut feeling on whether it’s the right place for you. This can be tricky because most of us have mixed feelings when we start spiritual training. I was suffering and confused when I started out, and projected my pain everywhere I went. As a result, the main impression I got in my introductory weekend was that everyone was irritating!
However, despite this I could tell that the teachers knew what they were talking about. All my questions were answered with care. If a teacher didn’t know the answer, they were happy to admit it. Both teachers and long-term students seemed content and relaxed, and yet they weren’t going around boasting that I needed them or that theirs was the best school among all schools. There was no pressure on me to join, and there certainly wasn’t any pressure to pay donations.
A common complaint among beginners is that they don’t get as much access to the teachers as they would like. Again, this is something that builds up with time and patience. As in any school, beginners are often assigned junior teachers, and senior students then see more of the senior teachers. You wouldn’t expect to immediately get regular meetings with the abbot, although in smaller priories where there are only two staff, that’s more likely.
After the introductory weekend I signed up to a week-long retreat, which went equally well, although it was hard. I was learning so much and felt like I couldn’t get enough, so I started to attend as many week-long retreats as I could. Gradually over several years, I got to know the monks and they got to know me. It was a very slow process, because the monastery isn’t a social club exactly, and most of the time we don’t say anything at all.
After about five week-long retreats, I still felt that I would benefit from staying longer-term. So I spoke with the Guest Master and then the Abbot to explain why I felt that way. Together with other senior monks they then considered my progress so far, and whether they agreed that I would benefit. It wasn’t a case of whether I was “accepted” or not. It felt more like we were all considering together whether a longer stay was the right path for me at that time, and if so, if that was the right place for me to do it.
All I could do was be honest about how things looked to me, and then be open to the views of the hosts. It didn’t help to be attached in my mind to the idea that I had to stay “or else my life will be directionless”. Be confident that there are always other paths. The way to find the right one is to accept that you don’t know the whole picture, and to be willing for any of those paths to be the ‘right’ one.
To get back to how the admin worked: I asked to stay for nine months simply because my gut feeling was that that’s how long I needed to stay to learn the practice. The abbot responded, “Maybe. Start with three months, then we’ll see.” Every week, I reported back to let him know how things were going. My reasons for residency were reviewed a couple of times during the stay, and eventually it felt like the right time to leave.
Other temples have long-term residential structures worked out and you can apply formally, but the spirit of the process is similar. These days almost all of this info is easily available on temple websites. At the very least, there’ll be a phone number you can ring and ask them about how to get started. The most comprehensive online directory is Buddhanet, or you can simply google e.g. “Zen” and your area. If you ask enough people for their advice, you’ll soon figure out which places have the most solid reputation.
Do you need to know anything beforehand?
The less the better, I can imagine some teachers saying They taught us everything we needed to know at the introductory weekend, and on the website they said what things we might need. (Working clothes, toiletries. Obviously.) What I’d also learned to bring is a rather pedestrian list:
- A blindfold, to help me sleep on bright summer nights
- Earplugs. We shared a large room and people snore.
- Insect repellent in summertime
- Smart but comfortable clothes. Some people wander around in tracksuits, but I feel more respectful in trousers and a shirt.
- Wet tissues to clean up fast, because often there’s little time between a work period and a talk.
- Small packs of tissues to salvage my hayfever with, and pockets in all my clothes to keep them in.
- Shoes that are quick to slip in and out of, since we take our shoes off when popping in and out of the cloister. You’ll also need a pair to get muddy in outdoors.
- For long stays: small things you might want to gift to new friends, e.g. small packs of chocolate or little souvenirs.
- My friend Jason is very fluffy coming back from retreat just now, and would like to add that men tend to forget: a razor, nail scissors, dental floss and tweezers.
What I realised I didn’t need was
- Books – the emphasis was on practice, not reading, and we were encouraged to take a break from what we normally do (for me, that’s reading.) There are books there, as well.
- Computers and a phone. It’s liberating to take a break from these things we enslave ourselves to every day. The temple was out of range anyway, and there’s a guest phone when you need one.
- A stinky deodorant. It’s really embarrassing at close quarters. Stinky sweat is embarrassing too, of course. See “wet tissue” entry above and bring toiletries that don’t smell.
That’s enough about deodorants. What about the intellectual stuff?
From a point of view of zazen practice, I’d suggest that the less you know the better. Some of my fellow trainees had taught Buddhism for 25 years, but it was all intellect-based so they felt that they had to start from scratch. What the monastery does is point you back to your sitting cushion, and you don’t need anything to do that. They even supply the cushions (or chairs, for the many trainees who can’t sit on the floor).
One of the things that surprised me the most was the other trainees. In my solipsistic mind, I’d imagined that they’d all be like me – i.e. in their 30s, single-minded in a sort of masculine way, flown in from all over Europe, and dressed in black. But there were all sorts. Most were actually easy-going retired men and women from the local area. Don’t be disappointed if it isn’t what you expect
Another piece of advice I’d give myself in retrospect is, don’t take everything that all teachers say to heart. Not even masters are necessarily clued up about how emotional psychology works. Insight into the Dharma is not the same as worldly awareness, and understanding compassion doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to put your interests first. I gratefully soaked up every word of every formal Dharma talk; but there were things said in between to trainees personally, that were not always on the mark. Ultimately the only person who can know you and stand up for you, is you. Concentrate on your own training, while being kind to those you find yourself working with. Keep a non-judgmental and humble beginner’s attitude, but at the same time, trust yourself.
I hope this answers your questions. If not, please ask more.
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