Saturday, January 30, 2010

The World Honored One

I was working with a veteran firefighter from South Boston who came into our PTSD treatment program at the behest of his superiors to obtain help from the ravages of alcoholism. He was told by his Chief that if he didn't straighten up, he would lose his job - one of the few things in life he still values.

He arrived at the program completely intoxicated and spent the next five days in our alcohol detoxification program.

It turned out that he had recently gone on quite a  binge after being laid up at home with a work related injury to his foot.

His usual daily routine is to work hard all day as a firefighter and then drink Jack Daniels all night until he passes out. He told us that when he is at work he doesn't think about any of his demons and once he is home with his buddy, Jack Daniels, Gentleman Jack keeps those pesky demons a way.

Because of the nature of the injury to his foot he was prescribed a form of medication that prohibited him from drinking. While he was healing his bum foot, he was home, out of work, alone, with nothing to do but hang out with his thoughts, feelings and emotions. He was also in constant pain from his injury.

Once the foot finally healed and he was taken off his prescribed medication, he headed straight for the nearest package store and picked up a gallon of Jack. He drained it by the time he went to bed that night - the first day of a multi-day alcoholic binge that ended with his arrival at our program.

We were talking one afternoon and I asked him what he found valuable about family. He confided that he had never been married but really admired his brother's family and wished he too would have married and started a family like his.

At that point he really began to open up and told us his story. It turned out that he met the love of his life as a young man - the women he intended to marry and spend the rest of his life with. During a two year stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War, he received a "Dear John" letter from her. She wrote to let him know she found someone new to take his place.

When he got back home from the war, he discovered she got married and had a child with this other guy. He was so heartbroken that he never married himself and spent his entire adult life living alone. He had many relationships over the years but never found anyone who could take her place in his heart.

Recently however, through a simple twist of fate, he encountered his true love - some 40 years later. It turned out she had only stayed married for two years after which time her husband left her. She raised her son on her own and never remarried. All these years they had been living separate but somewhat parallel lives only miles apart in South Boston.

The two youthful sweethearts had found their way back to each other after all these years. It was his hope that they might be married after all and have the family he had always dreamed about.

There was only one hitch in this plan: his alcoholism and binge drinking. He knew, that he really had no chance with her if that was all he could offer her this time around. He felt stuck like a hub of a wheel that can't turn. In sanskrit, the word for this is dukkha.

Knowing that drinking is often just a form of self medication, we began to explore the notion that the booze was just a way to anesthetize himself from his own internal mental experience. Booze was a way to avoid the internalized life experiences that haunted him: his painful thoughts, feelings and memories of the past.

We explored how well the "drinking cure" had worked for him over these many years. It was quite clear that the booze worked well as a short term fix, however, it never permanently removed those memories from his internal landscape. They always came back sooner or later - often with a vengeance.

Psychologist Steve Hayes is quoted as saying, "Life is a choice. [Difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, etc.,] is not a choice. Either way you go, you will have problems and pain. So your choice is not about whether or not to have [difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, etc.,] Your choice is about whether or not to live a meaningful life."

In the first case of the Shoyoroku (The Book of Serenity) compiled in the 12th century in China, we are presented with the following koan:

The World-Honored One Ascends the Platform

One day the World-Honored One ascended the platform and took his seat. Manjusri struck the gavel and said, "When you realize the Dharma-King's Dharma, the Dharma-King's Dharma is just as is." At that, the World-Honored One descended from the platform.

The term "World-Honored One" is another term for Buddha. Buddha means "The Awakened One." What did he wake up to? The nature of reality as it is.

We can be a drunk, a soldier or a saint. We are who we are in this moment. And we can choose to change who we are in this moment. Whatever we choose, that is reality as it is.

No matter what life we choose - we remain from the very beginning all the way through to the end, "The World-Honored One."

Coming or going, ascending the platform or stepping down from it - the truth is just like this.

Where would you like your life to take you now?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Put It All Down

Master Kyogen said, "Its like a man up a tree hanging from a branch by his mouth; his hands cannot grasp a branch, his feet won't reach one. A man under the tree  asks him, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?" If he does not respond, he goes against the wishes of the questioner who will take his life. If he answers, he will fall to his death. At such a time, how can you respond?"

I met a Vietnam Veteran who was enrolled in a PTSD program at a VA hosptial in Augusta, Maine. He was in his mid sixties at the time and seemed somewhat reluctant to fully participate in his treatment. He told me his story during intermittent breaks in the program schedule.

At one point he said to me that he could not stand being around civilians. He had spent his entire career in the military and apparently had no use for anyone other than soldiers, preferable combat soldiers. During his service in Vietnam he was on a Swift Boat. The Swift Boats were made famous by the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry. Swift Boats were small Navy gun boats which patrolled the in-land waters of Vietnam. One of the most dangerous jobs of that conflict.

This old salt still carried several pictures of the Swift Boat he served on in Vietnam which he kept on his person at all times. He shared them with whomever he encountered - showing them off as if they were  pictures of his beloved grandchild. He told me that he was divorced and estranged from all his children whom he had not spoken to in years.

When I asked him what he did with his free time when not in the hospital he said straight up, "Most days I drive around in my pick-up with a case of beer and a loaded shotgun  deciding whether or not to kill myself."

Life can be an incredibly hard and unforgiving teacher. She can serve up experiences that are deeply traumatizing - terrifying beyond conception. So traumatizing that the memory of these events becomes permanently seared into the minds of those who experience them. It's as if these memories are fused so tightly with the mind that those who have them can no longer experience them just as memories. Rather, they become reified as permanent characteristics of their personal identity.

Rather than experiencing a traumatic memory by saying to themselves, "I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am a baby killer," they reframe the thought as, "I am a babykiller." Life can become a dark and deeply troubling endeavor when one is walking this earth condemned by the belief that "I am a babykiller."

Once this conceptual slight of hand has gained preeminence in one's thinking a continual lifelong struggle often ensues. This struggle takes the form of guilt, self-loathing, depression, anxiety, etc., etc., etc. The individual is now engaged in a psychological tug of war with their very own personhood.

In time, the struggle intensifies and a negative sense of self permeates one's consciousness. The person begins to feel as if they are living their life confined to a phone booth of their own making: shut down, closed in, isolated, and alone with no hope for relief or escape. They become the man hanging by their teeth in Master Kyogen's tree.

They find themselves in a psychological tug of war with themselves they can't win. It's as if they are on one side of the rope and their negative self evaluations, judgments, condemnations, etc., are on the other end of the rope trying to pull them into an unfathomable pit of despair. The more they pull on the rope to resist being dragged into the pit, the more their negative mind stuff pulls them toward the pit.

This struggle with internal negative experience can go on for years, decades, the rest of their lives. Those who live life stuck to their negative self stories can not see a way out of this trap; ergo the beer, the pickup and the shotgun.

Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn was known for his pithy Zen sayings. Often when a student of the Way would ask him a question about life he would respond by saying, "Put it all down."

There is a way to be free of this struggle with our own internal experience. Can you see it?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hey - Is that a beard your growing?

Does this man look like he has a beard to you? Yes? If so, why did Wakuan say, "Why does the Western Barbarian have no beard?" What's going on here?

Most folks looking at this picture would be rather puzzled by Wakuan's question. They might think to themselves, "But he does have a beard ... what do you mean WHY?"

From the perspective of our usual way of understanding our world - of course the Western Barbarian has a beard. Its as plain as the hair on your chinny chin chin!

Viewed from another perspective, the Western Barbarian not only has no beard, he also has no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind ... in fact, there is no such thing as the Western Barbarian.


That's right. Viewed from the perspective of the interconnectedness of life, also known as the Dharma, "beard", "Western Barbarian", "eye", "ear", "nose", "tongue", "body", "mind" or any other "thing" that you verbally describe is simply a verbal label. What it is describing cannot be captured in a word, ten words or by language itself.

Why? Because everything owes its very existence to, well actually, everything else. Yep, that's right. Nothing can exist on its own. There isn't anything we could point to or name that is not part of the interconnectedness of all life. The Western Barbarian's beard is the interconnectedness of all things. Call it a beard if you want to, you could just as easily call it a popsicle, if you get my drift.

The interconnectedness of life is another way of saying that we are empty - empty of any permanent, unchanging nature. We and all things in the universe are a manifestation of the interconnectedness of life which is always present and always changing (I knew there was something different about me today!). Yes!

It is in that sense that we can now understand why the Western Barbarian has no beard or anything else for that matter. We can also understand that whatever can be said about anything will unfortunately be only a verbal representation of something that in fact is no thing. Not nothing - no thing. There are no things, only processes - ever changing processes - alive processes. Words and language are just tools that help us relate all this relating - a kind of skillful  means like a finger pointing at the moon when someone asks, "where is the moon this evening?"

So if you think you are a "loser", "abuser", "alcoholic", "criminal", [insert your own self loathing descriptor here] because you or someone else has labeled you as such - your wrong. You are, in fact, a unique manifestation of the entire universe: past, present and future.

You are perfect and complete just as you are and, as Shinryu Suzuki Roshi used to like to say, "you have some things you could be working on."

The bad news is that as long as you stay ignorant of this truth; i.e. believe you are separate from all things,  you will continue to act in ways that cause you and others to suffer.

Ouch! Did you just cut yourself shaving?

By the way - love the beard!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gimme the Finger

Zen Master Gutei Chikan was famous for his One Finger Zen. Whenever he was asked about the Way he would simply raise a single finger. His attendant, a young boy, often imitated Master Gutei by raising his own finger when visitors to the monastery asked about Master Gutei's teaching. Hearing of this, Master Gutei summoned the young attendant to his room where he took out a knife and cut off the boy's finger. As the boy ran screaming in pain from the room, Gutei called out to the boy just as he reached the door. When the boy turned to look back at Master Gutei, the old monk raised his finger. In this moment, the boy realized his True Self.

What did the boy realize? He had imitated Master Gutei's raised finger many times. Why was the sight of the old master's finger on this occasion the stimulus that broke open his mind revealing his own True Self? If you are looking for an answer in Gutei's finger, you have missed it.

Working with people who struggle with addiction, one often has the opportunity to see the many ways that denial becomes a barrier to recovery. Pain is a powerful motivator giving rise to myriad forms of avoidance. One form of denial is to assert early and often in treatment that one will never use again. For example, I often hear folks say on the second or third day of treatment things like, "This program is great, I know now that I will never take another drink."

Folks who have been in recovery for years immediately detect that a person who utters such a proclamation, so early in treatment, has not yet made recovery into something of their own. They are just mouthing what they think the treatment team, their families, employers, etc., want to hear.

One can go in an out of treatment programs for years carrying on like this. When the drinking gets too bad, just check into a program, take the pledge, say all the right things, get discharged and before too long, start using again. One can become really skilled at fooling others into believing that their recovery is genuine. They can fool everyone except those who have walked the difficult path of recovery.

The good news is there is a path out of addiction. The bad news is that it is painful - plain and simple. Paradoxically, it is often when one is in the deepest throws of that pain that the path to recovery finally opens up right in front of you. This is sometimes known in the business as "hitting bottom."

Gutei's attendant thought he demonstrated an understanding of Gutei's Zen by raising his own finger. When Gutei cut off the boy's finger all he knew in that moment was his pain. It was all encompassing. It was real, right here, right now.

When Gutei raised his finger in response to the boy's pain, the young lad suddenly understood his own Way. He had made Gutei's Zen and the Zen of all the Patriarch's his own.

Gutei's teacher, Master Koshu Tenryu, was once asked by a monk, "How does one escape from the three realms [of desire]?" Master Tenryu replied, "Where are you right this moment?"