As I witness progress the clients I work with make along their therapeutic path, there comes a point where our discussions uncover less new insights and attention switches to their “remembering”. We may have been talking about a certain relational dynamic and how they contribute to it and the following week, the same ‘complaint’ has arisen. “Ah yes, we were talking about that last week…I forgot”…followed sometime later with the lament “how do I remember?”. There are some clients who never learn ‘to remember’, and we therapists can get interested as to why some clients don’t seem to have a psychological minded-ness and what that might tell us about their developmental path and what was not provided at critical points. However, most people take time to integrate new understanding in to their lives…and it can be frustrating “to know” the blind spots, yet they remain only on the periphery of day-to-day awareness.
I experienced something similar last week: a couple of situations at work and in my relationships triggered a familiar, childlike reaction in me. It was only a few days later that I realised what had happened, and what I had forgotten to remember. It took the reading of a Buddhist teaching to bring that re-remembering and the “doh!”. Thankfully, I could apply some humour – to see myself fall in to the same ‘hole in the sidewalk’ came with a light-heartedness…but its not always like that. The frustration and pain of doing the same thing over and over again can be excruciating. One client shared with me recently how she has had to resort to post-it notes around her house with key reminders from our work together, but even that isn’t full proof “In order to remember, I have to remember my post-notes!”
On the Buddhist path, we have post-it notes – what are called the Lojong slogans. Originating in India, the 59 lojong proverb-like phrases are a key feature of Tibetan Buddhism. The slogans are considered the root practice in mind training – each phrase is designed as an antidote to mental habits that cause suffering. They are integral to the path of the bodhisattva; as they provide pithy and succinct reminders of how we look at our own minds and how we then relate to others and to our lives. The slogans are designed to do the very thing that psychotherapy does – to help clients / practitioners take their in-session / on-the-cushion learning and realisations out in to the world; or in the words of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, integrating the teachings so well that we have literally “mixed the mind with the dharma”.
I’ve written about the current hiatus in the Shambhala lineage, the Buddhist community founded by Chogyam Trungpa in which I study and practice. Whilst I and my sangha sit with the uncertainty of what is happening many of us are ‘going back to basics’ in our practice. The situation has also been pointing to me a need to reflect on the “why and what” of the path, the intention of sitting and how we can then serve others. Going back to the study and practice of the lojong slogans has felt timely for me. It feels a good use of my time, a practice that is integral to the path of the Bodhisattva and not just ‘padding out time’ whilst we wait to see what happens to the Shambhala path and community.
Yesterday morning, I started study of the lojong with a few Shambhala friends. I spent time on the cushion contemplating the first slogan: “First, train in the preliminaries”. These preliminaries are also known as the four reminders. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher, proposes that in daily life we try to:
1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life.
2. Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone.
3. Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; what goes around comes around.
4. Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will suffer. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness.
And this is where it feels so relevant to how I started this post. In my work, seeing how clients can forget to remember their knowing; in my own life, forgetting to apply what I know; and how we can make this re-remembering a deliberate practice. Looking at the four reminders, I felt a deep connection to how precious my own life situation is: to know I am safe enough to look deeper in to my Self; to appreciate how short life is and how important it is to make the most of the time we have to “wake up”. I am safe enough to view life a bit like an experiment – to take a step back, to see what dynamics I get involved in and how I create / contribute to them. And in knowing I am safe enough, I can extend that helping hand out to others so they can do the same. The third and fourth reminders invoke in me the importance of moving out of a ‘small mind’ (where the pre-occupation is a self-centred one) and seeing the common predicament we humans, we fellow-travellers, find ourselves in. I remember Michael Stone teaching once there is no point on working exclusively on your own awakening…it would be very lonely.
I held these four reminders in the background of my awareness as I worked with clients all day yesterday. The backdrop served up a sense of deep appreciation for life, and we really are “all in the same boat’. With renewed faith, I ensured I gave those clients a sense I was there, in that boat, with them. Not pulling on the oars (they have to do the work themselves), nor was I telling them how or where to row (they have to realise their life direction). I sat alongside, letting them know I was there and understood how hard their life challenges were for them.
I continue the lojong practice this morning: today’s phrase being “Regard all dharma as dreams”. This is the “post-it” that reminds us that everything we experience in life is fleeting, like the content and stories of our dreams. Situations often feel real – by that I mean, our reactions to those situations feel very solid and just. But what if we could view them as more dream-like? To let our emotional world ebb and flow, and have faith that everything passes? I sometimes ask my clients, when they feel gripped by an event in their life, “will this matter in a week, a month, a year?”. It isn’t to dismiss our pain – that experience IS real. Rather, it is to drop the stories, our projections, to notice how our mind has constricted around a situation. We cannot control what life brings us: but we can control our responses to it.
As I write, I wonder how this will support me with my client work today. There is that understanding from my own life – how I can solidify stories, beliefs, projections of who others are and what I expect them (and life) to be; and then I can hold the wisdom of these lojong slogans. To know the challenge, yet have faith in the wisdom of loosening our grip. Helping my clients loosen the grip on the stories; to help them understand WHY they hold on so tightly. In some ways, this relates to my blog last week – the more we can trust our sense of “home”, to feel at home in our bodies and minds, the less we need to grip on to external situations or other people for our sense of “okayness”.