Both And

sit thereLike last Monday morning, I took myself to the beach for an early morning meditation. I sat on the thousands of pebbles, in front of a big sea, and under a vast sky. Everything in the external was highlighting magnitude and space; and I used those external markers to point to the space within, the vastness of my own mind. In Buddhism, this vastness is often described as ‘emptiness’ – not in a conventional ‘nothingness’ way, but rather speaking to the potential that is. An aim for practitioners is to learn how to rest in this vast, potentiated awareness. For those of us in the West who are more in tune with our ‘doing’, this spaciousness can be at the very least challenging, and to some of us, it can be terrifying. Even now, nearly a decade in to my ‘career’ as a meditator, there are times when I can feel the compulsion to get out of the space arise deep from within, to get up off my cushion and do something. The antidote is said to be to keep opening to anything that arises – so I resolve to stay on the cushion and allow that compulsion to be felt. Slowly, I notice I am less compelled to ‘doing’, and I am allowing more ‘being’ in my life. Its a well-worn habit though, some 4 decades ingrained.


In this past week, I have been reflecting on opposites such as doing and being. Many of them arise in the Buddhist dharma, and polarities are at the very core of Gestalt psychotherapy too. The ability to integrate opposites is the key to well-being and wholeness. Unless I embrace my anger, I cannot be truly calm; if I cannot accept my vulnerability, I cannot own my full power. Reflecting on these ideas follows on from what I blogged about last week – the news that again, a patriarchal system has led to the abuse of power. Now, I am no expert on patriarchy, matriarchy, and feminist thought. I merely want to bring forward the parallels in systems, societies and human beings – too much of one energy without balance from the polarity leads to dysfunction. In other words, the answer to patriarchy is not necessarily matriarchy: but rather it is about bringing masculine and feminine energies and traits in to balance. Is this the answer for Shambhala? Like I say, I’m no expert – and things are still unfolding in our community. I am no clearer on my path of practice within the lineage; but this situation is benefit by making me reflect upon balancing of qualities.

open space

I found the way out of my childhood dilemma with the strategy of doing: accomplishments, achievements brought me an identity, gave me strength, and won me attention from caregivers (family, teachers, managers). But as any ‘do-er’ will tell you, such action orientation is exhausting and cannot be carried on adfinitum. As I reach mid-life, there is a yearning to slow down…but it is hard. And in the first part of that journey, I found myself trying to ‘do’ the ‘being’. It took a lot of energy just to remain still – whether that be in meditation, resting on holiday, or even early in my therapy career in bringing my presence to the client. Resting was equally exhausting as doing.

I am still very much learning to truly rest in to being; to surrender means to give up the need to do, to relinquish an identity, to give up whatfeels safe. When I first started the Shambhala path and was introduced to ‘open awareness’ practice (essentially looking out to the horizon, and rather than focusing on the breath or another object, just noticing what comes in to awareness) I tuned in to a quite violent anxiety in my chest. Being in that amount of space, without instruction, without an anchor…well, it was too much space. My mind tried to rescue me by throwing me thoughts like someone would throw a buoy to a drowning person. Every thought had a planning and controlling energy – I was reaching out for ground, for certainty. I couldn’t rest outside of structure and form.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the view recognises that enlightenment comprises both feminine and masculine aspects. Females don’t just possess feminine qualities and males don’t just possess masculine qualities: They are inherent and co-emerge within all of us, continuously. The feminine principle is defined as wisdom and emptiness, which is space. The basic nature of the feminine principle is awareness: open, free and ever-present. The masculine principle on the other-hand is defined as skillful means and compassion. We could therefore say that the feminine is space, the masculine action: and both are needed. Western psychotherapy agrees. I mentioned the Gestalt view on polarities earlier on. Jung also emphasised this in his psychology and he explained the importance of males recognising their anima, and females embracing their animus. The key to understanding of these principles is not to see them as either / or but rather as both / and: a non-dualistic view.

Synchronising, harmonising both elements. Take my morning meditation on the beach – I needed the masculine energy to formulate the plan and to put in into action. Without the masculine, my alarm at 6am might have rung out and I might not have responded with vigour and motivation. Harnessing the masculine allowed me to experience the space on the beach in the early hours of the day. Likewise, in the therapeutic environment we create structure and form – the therapeutic container. And this facilitates a space in which the therapist and client can surrender, play and be creative. Athletes know this too – the coach prepares the training plan, and they can relax in to its manifestation: job done!

However, too much masculine without the co-existence of the feminine creates problems – and not just the patriarchy I alluded to earlier. An athlete with too much drive gets injured; a therapist with too much certainty and knowing doesn’t allow the client to develop their own intuition; and a meditator with too much technique applied doesn’t relax back in to the body. Too much masculine – rigidity, too much feminine chaos.

As well as my own reflection on these two qualities this past week, I am also fascinated as to how the imbalance can arise for my clients. How might the maternal wound lead to a lack of trust in the feminine? How might fatherly ‘betrayal’ lead to overcompensation with the masculine? And then, how do we use the therapeutic relationship to recognise and heal the imbalance? I’ve been more curious about how my clients place male and female figures in the sandtray if we are working more creatively. I’m also thinking about how this associates with what John Welwood speaks of as “becoming” (the horizontal movement we attain through psychological work) and “being” (the vertical dropping down in to our true nature always available to us and the work of the spiritual path).

And overall, I am reminded how out of any life situation there is so much one can learn. Until now, I hadn’t had the opportunity, or maybe more accurately the need to consider much of this. I’m certainly grateful that I am meeting this wisdom now.

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