This dharma talks explores finding ground in groundlessness and why its important to keep our hearts open to compassion for all. This includes lessons from my own personal experience and from spiritual and civil right leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr and John Lewis.
The election is over but for many the fallout continues. Many have shed tears, have experienced anger and fear and have shared their voices and mobilized into action. Just after the election, Leonard Cohen died, a great voice of love, loss and dharma. His words and songs have rung out over the last several days as people have listened to and shared their favorite songs and quotes. Many are so applicable to where we find ourselves at this time, and his words are also timeless. One that particularly resonated for me at the moment is “if you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be drowning every day.” This is not an easy practice, but in one sentence it brilliantly sums up dukkha and freedom from dukkha.
The day after the election I was heartened by a spontaneous act of love and kindness in our old neighborhood, the 12 South area, at the Islamic Center of Nashville. I have known the Islamic Center to be a wonderful part of the community. President Rashed Fakhruddin in particular has been a strong organizer for shared community, Interfaith connections and events. He has also been an outspoken voice for prevention of abuse against women.
A mother and son in the neighborhood took their chalk and wrote on the sidewalks in front of the Islamic Center. In her words: “This morning Hudson and I took our chalk down to the Islamic Community Center on 12th. We wanted to tell our neighbors that we love them and stand with them. A lot of folks stopped by and added their own messages of love. It was great to meet people and work together. To my Muslim friends and community members: I stand with you now, and if things do get worse, I will stand with you then too.” May we all stand with those who need our support.
Over the last month or so, my dharma talks have largely reflected my experience of the political climate. These talks have been focused on finding a skillful response to the situation, internally and externally. It is not always easy. Some of us may have to ask ourselves, “how do I digest broken glass?” “How do I stand where there is no ground?” When we truly experience groundlessness, new ground emerges. But even then we can’t cling. As the ground shifts, the appropriate response may change as well, it is not fixed. This fluidity, the recognition of impermanence, is vital to clear seeing in each moment and wise action.
My talks and blog posts over the last month have reflected the unfolding of events as I saw them. I’m not one to simply hand out cookies or bromides of hope (even though many of you know I do give out chocolate chip cookies after daylong retreats). I do suggest we do our best to take a courageous, no blinders look at what’s going on both internally and externally and to the extent we can, find a way to contribute and to keep compassion and kindness alive in our hearts.
I recently had a delightful time with Adam Hill, who interviewed me at Radnor Lake for his podcast, Soul Story. This is part one of two episodes.
“Lisa discusses her connection to nature, personal loss, and her initial encounter with meditation. Following a beginning scare with an unguided kundalini practice, after many years Lisa built up the courage to follow her intuition and join a zen meditation practice. We discuss that time in this segment, as we walk with Lisa through her first steps on the road to becoming the meditation teacher which she is today.”
This dharma talk was inspired by a woman named Marta Beckett who was a professionally trained ballet dancer in New York City. When her car broke down in Death Valley she saw an abandoned old theater and listened to the call of her heart and renovated it. She danced there many years with little to no audience until she was discovered. In the talk I explore how we can devote ourselves fully to our path with love and commitment, rather than seeking results, even when the terrain seems barren. In this way, we open to greater possibilities as unexpected and wonderful surprises often appear along the way.
This dharma talk focuses on the aggregate of thought as it applies to perceived limitations we may encounter in our meditation practice. The main focus of the talk is in working with trauma and I tell my own story about my cabin in the woods — the most difficult time of my life.
This dharma talk focuses on how releasing self identity can open the door to forgiveness and free us from bondage to our past.
I attended a meditation retreat last weekend on the subject of identity. It offered immediate lessons I want to share, because I think they offer a very useful framework for looking at how we function in the world. Beyond that, though, the retreat gave me a lot to think about, some in the light of the recent post on “The Problem of Taking Yourself Too Seriously“, and more deeply on giving and receiving love. I think these lessons, if you are able to move towards them, have the power to change your world.
Examining Our Identity
Lisa Ernst, a Buddhist teacher from Nashville who led the retreat, delivered several talks on identity. She set up a framework of a two-layered identity which she described using the analogy of clothes:
- Outer Identity: Like our everyday clothes, “business casual”, sportswear, monastic robes, or formal suits, this is the identity we wish to show the world. It is how we want people to think of us;
- Inner Identity: This is our private identity. Like our underwear or sleeping attire, it is a personality we show only to a handful of intimate people. It is the person we think of as the “real” me.
We believe that the inner identity is our core and has some level of permanence to it, and that our outer constructed identity is one over which we exercise control, one which we can shift, if not quite at will, then pretty close to it. But actually, as we will see, the outer identity is far from under our control, and the inner identity is a lot less permanent than it might seem.
Tension in Identity
How do your inner and outer identity compare? Are they pretty similar or very different? Do you allow the world to see your strengths and weaknesses? To extend the clothing metaphor, do you allow people to see your dirty laundry?
The whole point of the inner/outer identity bifurcation in this analysis is to acknowledge that you don’t bare all your secrets to the world, that you reserve some for yourself. The outer identity is both a mask to protect parts of you that you don’t want to allow to be hurt, and also a practical persona that serves your external purposes in the world. For example a cheery, professional demeanor is an expected norm in a business meeting and will allow you to close the deal or wow your management with a presentation far better than allowing your sloppy, maybe somewhat crass or course inner persona to emerge.
It’s perfectly natural and even healthy for there to be differences between your inner and outer identities, but what happens as the difference between the two stretches? If your outer identity is vastly different from your inner, then it takes a great deal of effort to maintain it, and that effort creates stress. On top of that tension – which is palpable to those observing the outer persona – you will not be able to keep the two completely separate, and at times the inner identity will surface.
By way of example, I’d like to contrast my life today with that four or five years ago shortly before initiating divorce proceedings, ending an important business relationship, and severing the relationship with my spiritual teacher. You won’t be surprised to know that I was under a lot of stress back then! So while I think I manifest the same external identity today as I did then, the inner identity – the identity we think of as fixed – was very different in important ways. What today is peaceful and at ease, four or five years ago was swirling confusion and anxiety. So the gap between the external and internal identity back then was far greater. I thought I was pretty good at sustaining my outer identity when I was in a business meeting, but those with whom I interacted knew that something was wrong. For example there were far fewer “buy” decisions back then, largely, I am convinced, because the people I spoke to subconsciously registered the inter-identity tension in me.
The Arising Of Ego
When you take your inner identity to be permanent, you create an ego and you can become attached to it. But if you let yourself get attached to your identity, you can become stuck on it and create a problem. You move into the territory of taking yourself too seriously!
When we see someone with serious physical or mental condition who smiles and laughs, who delivers motivational speeches, who inspires and encourages others, we praise them and think them remarkable. They probably are remarkable, but beyond that they are people who have not allowed themselves to get stuck on their injury, their condition, the labels of their lives. They have not over-identified with such matters as their permanent self. Rather they have chosen to see possibility and opportunity. And in that they are a lesson to the rest of us. They are an inspiration that however tough it might be to look beyond what you see as your permanent inner self, it is possible to transcend it.
Don’t Completely Lose the Ego
A word of caution or acknowledgement before we move on: while it is important to hold the inner identity lightly and not to let it calcify into a fixed ego, equally it is important not to let it go completely. Just as functioning effectively in the world requires an outer identity that fits with the environment, so the outer identity must be founded on some inner core, some inner identity. And it is important, also, to examine the ego and see those elements that pop up from time to time. For example, you may occasionally express impatience or control tendencies that come from an inner anger, though without looking closely you may never have realized the source. And that anger itself could be a mask for some deeper identity which you don’t know.
The Importance of Falling Apart
If you take the long view, you can see the arc of your life from infancy through childhood, youth and adulthood into old-age and death. You can see that the outer identity you assumed as a teenager is very different from your outer identity as a lover, a business person, a parent – or whatever roles you move into through your life. And you can similarly see that your inner identity has shifted over time, perhaps as a result of being the victim of a horrible personal invasion, an illness or accident, or conversely as a result of a wonderfully intimate partnership which gave rise to children, grandchildren, and a vastly different world than you had ever imagined could be possible. You know that your identity shifts over time. But it is nonetheless all too easy to find yourself holding on to your inner identity and not wanting to let it shift.
But when you hold on to inner identity you allow do not allow your “real” self to shift with the shifting circumstances of your life and of your understanding. To hold on to your identity, your hold it down and wrap it up. You do not allow yourself to grow and open. You do not allow yourself to flower as a human being.
Healing and Love
We all want to receive unconditional love but most of us, in some way, have had this withheld from us. Most of us feel damaged in some way and want to be healed. And most of us look to relationships with others to heal us. Whether we had an abusive father or an alcoholic mother, whether it was parental expectation of academic or sports success or it was, we all carry forward scars that we want healed.
Identity is a practical tool in the world, but it is also a way of protecting our hurt, of hiding our damage, maybe even hiding it from ourselves.
Healing can be extraordinarily difficult, for the pain and suffering may be immense. It may be that you are not truly ready to deal with your suffering, and that is fine. But if you think you are, then know that it can never be truly healed from outside. The only way of healing your hurt is to allow yourself to be with it without judgment. And before you can do this, you must first see your suffering, which in turn requires allowing yourself, your ego, that scaffolding you have created to protect yourself, in a sense to fall apart.
We all want to receive unconditional love, but in doing so we misunderstand. What we need is to give unconditional love. We have been raised to believe that our love must be validated by another, but that is not true. Your love need only be validated by yourself. If you can allow your identity to soften, you can start to see this. And once you do so, all the rules change.
To visit Gareth’s informative and reflective blog go here.
This is a one minute contemplation on the breath and how our ideas of inside and outside are illusory:
by Lisa Ernst
New dharma talk on finding peace and and open heart in the midst of life’s challenges and heartache.