“…the invitation of zen practice is to see everything as important. But to do so we have to have a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away. That is why it is so important to sit on a daily basis. To learn to hold tension, or impatience, or anger, or sadness, or whatever arises while we sit, without reacting. And to do this over and over again.
“That basic ability to keep a composure becomes a kind of staging area then to ask the questions like: What is this uncomfortable, unwanted experience showing me? What is it trying to teach me? Can I accept it?“—The North Carolina Zen Center — firstname.lastname@example.org
I subscribe to a newsletter from the NC Zen Center, and the above quote arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. I think that the author neatly expresses an idea I’ve been trying to get clear on.
First, I want to touch on something I have found very difficult to accept since I started therapy. It’s the fact that I can’t always trust myself. I imagine that most people are like I was before I began therapy; you have a basic assumption that you’re perceiving the world accurately. That, in general, you can trust your perception of yourself and the world you live in. What I’ve found in therapy is that a lot of my unhappiness and stress is rooted in inaccurate and unhelpful assumptions and reaction patterns. It’s humbling to have to admit; I might be wrong about the world.
This isn’t something that I admitted once and that’s it. It’s something I have to realize, face, and accept over and over again. A typical scene in a therapy session might look like this:
Me: I’m a horrible person. I am a failure. It’s clear that I need to quit this thing, because I’m ruining it for everyone else.
Therapist: Do you think there’s any chance that there’s a different perspective? What evidence do you have that you’re ruining that thing for everyone else? Yes, you made a mistake. Did anyone ever suggest to you that you must never make a mistake?
…and then I slowly start realizing that I’m doing that thing again. That thing that I could describe as having my BPD filter firmly in place. I’m so used to it that I don’t always notice it on my own. This is the fun-house mirror that I’ve been so used to looking in that I never realized that it’s a distorted vision of myself & my world.
Of course, I’m only in therapy for an hour a week. That leaves about 118 waking hours where there’s no one I can check in with on a moment to moment basis. 118 hours where my old dysfunctional reaction patterns have a chance to ease back into place.
And this gets us back to that quote at the top of this post. “(I) have to have a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away.”
One of the most uncomfortable things to do, sometimes, is to do nothing. When I’m angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or anxious, I want that feeling to stop. I want to feel better. Or at least, if I was self aware enough during those times, I expect that I’d want to feel better. Usually I’m just there being angry, embarrassed, frustrated, or anxious. Certainly, it’s not in my mind that I should just sit with that emotion.
My old pattern would be to strike out if I was angry, retreat & apologize if embarrassed, get angry if frustrated, and try to fix something if anxious.
I’m gradually learning a new pattern. I’ve found that if I can just pause, I can eventually get a little distance. With distance comes a chance at a new perspective. There’s nothing guaranteed here. Look at the qualifiers I used. gradually. if. eventually. a chance.
I am trying to build ‘a basic capacity to hold difficult experience without pushing it away.’ There’s nothing complicated about this. But it might be the most profound skill that I learn this year, if I can learn it.
PS: I think some people might be upset by the line “Can I accept it?” in reference to the “uncomfortable, unwanted experience” mentioned in the quote. I wouldn’t have phrased the idea that way. I don’t think that experiences are trying to teach us anything. I do think it’s often possible to learn from experiences. It doesn’t mean there’s a force outside of us trying to do something or show us something. Then there’s the idea of accepting things. That can be used by manipulative people to make us accept their control over us.
I don’t think the author was using ‘accept’ that way. I believe it’s tied instead to the idea that we can’t face something if we’re in denial. Until I accept that my emotional reaction may be based on a distorted interpretation of events, I won’t be able to change anything.