Folding it all in

I’m in that strange bardo state commonly known as ‘jet lag’ having arrived back from a visit to Canada; Nova Scotia to be more precise…or to be right on the dollar, Halifax Shambhala Centre. Shambhala is the organisation originally formed by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And while Shambhala has a history peppered with controversy, the community of practitioners survives – and I was taking part in a community event that has been a few years in the making. The ‘abhisheka’ I attended was the first of its kind for over 10 years. While I felt some ambivalence about flying over, it was an opportunity therefore I felt I couldn’t miss…

…and I am glad I decided to go.

“Spiritual stuttering” aside (a common trait of the enneatype Six process with which I identify), my ambivalence spoke to the enormity of the threshold I would be stepping over, let alone the investment time wise (being the end of a long, energy sapping term, and mid-marking season) and financially (a second transatlantic trip in the first half of the year). Right up until the moment I landed and greeted by some of my sangha at the airport, I was still struggling to get fully behind my decision. Seeing their faces and their delight to see me dissolved much of my remaining anxieties and resistance: at the very least I was to be having 5 days with ‘kindred’.

A growing awareness of how different a world I feel I inhabit has been dawning of late. Speaking with more senior Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners, it seems to be a common experience that the path stretches out the polarities of wisdom and confusion. Having entered the Vajrayana world five years ago, my progress amounts to feeling more neurotic YET also more aware and ‘sane’. I don’t think I was quite prepared for this ‘success’! I shared with my meditation mentor before heading off to Canada how thin a veil separates the ‘normal’ world and a realm of chaos and fragility. To straddle both worlds – these two manifestations of psyche – can be quite daunting to experience; and difficult to share with others.

And so this was my ambivalence – to step on a plane was more than about flying to the other side of the world; it was as if to visit a  ‘strange’ / alternative world. But when I landed, when I gathered with my friends, when I visited the Shambhala centre, THIS became the sane land, no longer strange.

The Abhisheka is an empowerment ritual for a new practice to be conferred on a student. The one I attended in Halifax was in order for me to have the right to practice a particular sadhana or liturgical text. For the past five years ago I have been preparing myself for this empowerment through the preliminary practices of  Ngondro: four practices designed to prepare the vessel to receive the Vajrayana teachings, ‘proper’. Having participated in the abhisheka, I have the ‘yidam’ that will now (in all probability) be my practice for life. Let me introduce my new ‘dance’ partner – Vajrayogini…quite a looker, no? 

My non-Buddhist friends have been intrigued yet gracious in their support. It is no mean feat to describe my motivations and explain what I have been through – partly because so much of the Vajrayana is secret (for example, I now have a new name that I cannot share with anyone except my Vajrayana sangha). I must confess, there were times during the 5 hour ceremony last Friday when my ‘conventional reality’ self piped up “What on Earth are you doing here?”. Furthermore, the 5 years leading to this point have endeared and prepared me for this less conventional, or ‘ultimate reality’. I straddle both worlds – mad / sane; which way the label is attributed dependent on which side of the dividing land I stand in any one moment. Before the trip, Halifax was strange; when there, back here was. Likewise, the ceremony was both odd and quite ordinary. Vajrayogini has the job of helping me dance with such non-duality.

As Buddhist teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche explains, the difference between samsara and nirvana is like the two sides of the same hand. Samsara is an outward-looking mind, lost in its projections. Nirvana is an inward-looking mind that recognises its own nature.

Vajrayogini has a job on her hands! Her task is to help me fold all this in. It is one thing to recognise and allow the ‘both / and’ quality; it is another to release even the straddling and see life ‘as it is’; a permeation through both. I am aware of the energy taken up by the back and forth, mind trying to decide which is the “sanest” world view. During the ceremony, everything seemed crystal clear, transparent, no doubts. And yet, to come home and live this view is not easy – when not surrounded by community to remind me; and trying to explain to another circle of (equally dear) friends what I am doing and why.

I find myself trying to find good metaphors and analogies; I liken the visualisation of this wrathful, red deity to techniques in sport psychology – as a tennis player I would visualise Steff Graf’s forehand, Stefan Edberg’s backhand; and now I visualise my true nature, awakened or ‘buddhanature’. And yet I know I use such parallels almost like a protest too. “I am not going mad; this is not weird, honest”…and I know I can trip myself up. Using such words as “weird”, or “strange” doesn’t help my Self and folding all this in. I absolutely know how much wisdom this path has; and that ‘faith’ is what matters.

I am encouraged when my descriptions seem to land and make sense to those with whom I share. Furthermore, my confidence also gains traction when I read accounts of something similar in the psychotherapeutic texts. As part of the research for my current book writing, I have been ‘on tour’ with the humanistic pioneers – Rollo May and James Bugental accompanied me on my transatlantic flights*. There were so many resonances across their writings and the Vajrayogini teachings. In brief, both traditions focus on being and subjectivity

When we are dealing with human beings, no truth has reality by itself; it is always dependent upon the reality of the immediate relationship.” ~ Rollo May, The Discovery of Being

“Our true identity is a process, not a substantive thing. Thus we are continually changing. The effort to remain unchanging is crippling and results in a smaller life.” ~ James F. T. Bugental, Intimate Journeys

In his book “The Art of Psychotherapy”, Bugental calls upon the psychotherapist to bring forth the client’s subjectivity: to help them recognise that their version of the world is one the world they create. May argues that we (therapists) can only do this when we focus on our client’s being.

The practice of Vajrayogini highlights our relationship to the world through the sense gates (visuals, sounds of the mantra, the touch and movement of mudra) and the arising reaction to our experience. It is a detailed phenomenological exploration, one that would leave any humanistic therapist in awe! In other words…

Subjectivity is the knowing of our wisdom and confusion. This is the work of psychotherapy. In relationship with a reasonably sane (congruent) Other, the client can explore what is like to be them; the therapist’s job is to support their experiencing, their being.

Knowing that wisdom and confusion are not different (i.e. they are co-emerging) is the ground of our being. This is where practices from the Vajrayana are so powerful; they expose our subjectivity, and help us differentiate conventional mind from pure awareness** (this is symbolised with Vajrayogini stamping on the head of ego!)
It is now a few days since I penned the first draft of this blogpost; and its always so valuable to walk away and come back afresh to my attempts to feel my words onto a page; and to appreciate how much my writing practice helps me work things through. The back and forth interplay between my Buddhist and therapeutic practice helps so much too – both are reinforcing the lynch pin, the common denominator: experiencing. As I walk the Buddhist path, and as I deepen my scholarly study of psychotherapy, something is steadily crystallising for me…and I deeply appreciate how these paths continue to take me to new and challenging places – within and without. 


* note to self: question the sanity of reading books on anxiety when a few thousand feet above the Earth in a 737; far too tiny for transatlantic travel in my opinion!

** I used an analogy with a client the other day which seemed to help distinguish these two: looking at a fish tank, the activity of mind (thinking) are the fish, whereas the space of the mind is the water.

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