transitions, light & faith

from the dark

from the dark

“…or I can forgive and forget…Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…we always have a choice.” Character in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been shaken by a book. Stirred, certainly. Bored, frustrated, annoyed, informed, inspired – yes. But shaken? Not recently. And that’s saying a lot given the hellish six months of holding together body and soul. Or may be it’s just easier to be shaken when there’s no more resistance to what the universe decides to throw at you.

“Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.” Tom, one of two principal characters in The Light Between Oceans.

The story takes place on Janus Rock playing on the trope of the Roman god Janus, who presides over transitions and can see both past and future. Janus Rock is home to the main character, Tom who is its lighthouse keeper and later to Isabel his wife. Their transitions, as with most beginnings and endings, are turbulent, riven with loss that leads to secrets, and decisions that can be argued from both sides of one’s moral face. It’s a slow read, evoking the meticulous cleaning of the lighthouse light, its record keeping, the passage of time on an island between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Sea half a day away from the coast of Australia. But that steady unwinding of the tale only makes the ending more breathtaking.

Many of our moral judgments are made sitting on Janus Rock, between here and there, what I want to say and what I say, what I believe and what I need to you believe. We craft our stories with threads we summon from past and future – often at will and if only to gather evidence to justify a decision already half-made. We tell stories and tell them so well that we often forget what is truth and what is needed to be heard by the inner and outer senses. Or more correctly, we forget there is no real truth and that what we hear (inner and outer) serves only as the chinking that holds together a rather wobbly lighthouse tower.

gold center

center light

And in our story-telling we are so convinced that our intention is noble, protective, caring. These are beacons we send out hoping that someone will be saved, alerted to our edges. Because for as much as we believe we are good, well-intentioned, loving and caring, we are also terrified that we can do harm by the structure of our very nature.

My dear friend, Carole, over at the dot (Zendotstudio) has written an eloquent post about stories. She does summon the devil in me though with a poke about Eckhart Tolle. What I think of Tolle is my well-worn story perpetrated on anyone I think needs to be saved from the shoals of Tolle’s teachings. In fact, there are a number of characters in the convoluted political states of mindfulness, psychology, and Buddhism who have sent me tearing up the lighthouse stairs to set the beacon afire.

Yet lately, I have begun to tire of that long climb up the lighthouse. I’ve learned that a lighthouse beam is set at night and turned off during the day. Once set, it needs no further tending; it functions with equanimity, sending out electromagnetic metta to anyone who wishes to attend to their state of being. It really only needs us to act our discipline by polishing the lens, oiling the nuts and bolts, and turning it on and off at its assigned time.

There’s an element of faith in this. All this to-ing and fro-ing trying to keep shipwrecks from happening simply stirs up resentment when we are disregarded and as the character quoted at the opening of this post, it can be burdensome to keep those fires burning. In the end, it is a choice to see the rose glistening as the rainfall pauses rather than the soaked, muddy ground. It is a choice to see the wonderful fruition of all our hard work rather than what didn’t flourish despite our care. And making those choices generates faith in our commitment. And faith is so much lighter to carry.

As for Tolle, I had the cheeky rejoinder though it is true of psychology and meditative practice: I have come to realize that if I hold true to the hope of my own transformation then that has to be rooted in the hope of all beings’ transformation. Ole Tolle included.

mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.