Making sense

emptinessI’ve been home nearly two weeks now, and I’m not sure if am any clearer as to what I have, might have, or have not been through. In some ways, how I feel now is reminiscent of how I felt before going away; and indeed have been feeling for maybe a couple of years. I notice a part of me that doesn’t feel I’ve been away at all. “Dathun? What dathun?” My spiritual friend reassures me “You will not nor can you ‘forget’ your dathun experience. It’s seeped into your DNA and you will never be the same again. Ever” So maybe its some kind of denial?

I went for a walk on the Downs with a good friend and therapist colleague yesterday. He asked me “what is the purpose of the denial? What is it trying to obscure?” (You have to love therapist friends). If something is being obscured, it is so by a veil, a cloak of emptiness. I feel deadened and quite melancholic. But like I said in my reply to my friend, I don’t know if emptiness is the obscurer, or if emptiness is the feeling I am trying to avoid.


And if I stay with the emptiness? I feel some sadness…and that actually brings some hope: sadness feels more ‘sacred’ than depression, more alive somehow. Maybe I wish my retreat experience was more profound, that it touched me deeper than it seemed to at the time. People around me seemed to be having bigger reactions to the depth and length of container – the profundity I touched in to was the extra-ordinary quality of the mundane. Boredom of my cyclical thinking, boredom of that boredom, and then a contentment as I accepted its presence and felt less need to change my experience.

That contentment reached its peak about 2 weeks in to the retreat; and on the day that many of the retreatants left for home (those doing a half-dathun), I felt open and expansive. I remember sitting that day and being so deeply content that I not only trusted the lineage, the teachings, the teachers that spoke of all beings have basic goodness or buddhanature…I felt it in my bones, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks. I was relieved to not be going home, to have another 2 weeks of deepening.

And this point in the retreat relates to another of my questions right now. In the second part of the retreat, we studied and contemplated the question “how can I help?”. I felt very ready to consider this: I was feeling inspired, I was feeling that I belonged, that this path was home for me. I had remained open to the teachings, and as I sat with my experience I realised how accurately the teachings were pointing to what I was going through. And now? I keep asking “how to live an inspired life?” in the face of the everyday, the grind, the expectations. This emptiness feels the polar opposite of the inspiration I had been feeling. Maybe that supports the idea that emptiness is the veil? Because somehow along with the emptiness there is a tinge of….something like knowing, yearning, longing…maybe its what Chogyam Trungpa meant when he spoke of a haunting quality of the path?

The denial would make it easy to go back to old habitual patterns; and I have been watching myself get tempted and in the act of getting trapped. Yet I know my strategies don’t work to ease my discomfort…I’ve tried for 40 odd years. On the retreat, where I could slow everything down and had heightened awareness I noticed the pull and was able to stay with the feelings. I didn’t need my habitual escapes, I trusted the practice: and I had all day to deepen the practice, to study…I was immersed. So another question, how much formal practice does one need to stay inspired, to stay confident that there IS another way, to resist falling in “the hole of the sidewalk” as Portia Nelson would say.

One of my ‘habitual acts’ to reduce dis-ease is reaching out for contact. Two years ago, pretty much to the day, I was writing about my experiences of ‘loneliness and a yearning to belong’ as part of my MSc dissertation research. This fuelled a curiosity to understand where that had come from. Retreat experiences and bringing therapeutic understanding have helped me work more consciously with the pull for connection. I’ve come to understand that my childhood left me with a lack of confidence in my ‘being’, and my identity got set up in ‘doing’. Not doing can lead to feeling empty, a lack of sense-of-self. A ‘neurotic’ pattern is reaching out to others to get confirmation I exist. It doesn’t take too much of a leap to see how my career path has been about helping others – coaching, teaching, and now a psychotherapist.

Rupert Spira quote

Yet there is a lot of sanity in my reaching out to others too – back to the retreat question “how can I help?”. Another current pondering is around the way of the bodhisattva: Jung wrote about the wounded healer, what about the wounded bodhisattva? How can I know if I reach out from wisdom or confusion? Or as Rupert Spira writes: there are two types of desire.

And its certainly not a wholesale need to be with others. Only certain others; others that I think will understand me, or even help me understand me. I’ve noticed in the past week as I have started to reach out and spend time with people (beyond my client circle) how sometimes I notice frustration in the foreground of my experience: I feel pressure to find my words, to be able to articulate the non-sense of my current experience and how it links to my retreat. The pressure to ‘know’ what I went through / am going through. With some people however, I let myself be confused, I don’t feel a demand to be getting it right: in fact their presence and witnessing is helping me find me. I spent a wonderful day in the company of my colleague and friend yesterday, someone with whom I walked alongside for 3h over the Downs. When he asked me “so, how was it?” I simply trusted to answer from a place of not-knowing, to find my words (as we found our feet in the mud). As we parted, I felt “whole”, even questioning “what are you so worried about Helen?”. That was an interesting question, what is the worry? With deep connection I felt alive again.

solitudeMy therapist friend works a lot with Jungian ideas, so he loved hearing about my dreams while on retreat. I told him before I went that I would keep track of my dream experiences, but after a few days I remember thinking “no need to remember the details, they are all relaying the same message: I feel excluded, and I deserve to be so”. Like the dream I had where I am trying to enter a member’s only gym; the doors are like the steel ones on the Paris metro. The people in front of me in the queue enter a digital punch code, yet I don’t have one. I press the button to speak to someone. The assistant speaks in French, I reply but he doesn’t understand what I am saying. I stay locked out, I don’t belong. I remember meditating later that morning, an image of a bonfire and a big wooden door came to mind. I’m thrown out, on to the bonfire. The door closes. When I shared this metaphor with my friend, we talked about the sense of being separated from God, the divine and of being the only one “left behind”. He told me of a Sufi response to this:

“I was a Treasure unknown then I desired to be known so I created a creation to which I made Myself known; then they knew Me.”

Quite beautiful. It speaks to a journey to which many of my clients allude.

On retreat, life is lived in community – being in contact is the default, and energy is used to withdraw, to find solitude. I found a good balance between what Paul Tillich explains as being-self and being-a-part. In this post retreat transition, I am back to experiencing a familiar struggle – to not end up lonely when alone: back home, life is lived in isolation – and energy is taken in making contact. I find this harder. How tempting to live the life of a hermit, to be on my own, to withdraw in to my working life (to use my client work as a link to humanity) or in to my books. I notice my black and white thinking, the search for certainty and ground. To withdraw avoids the risk of reaching out and not being met. Trying to live in the middle ground, neither black nor white, neither alone nor together, brings uncertainty, brings a loss of control. On retreat, living in community meant I was in control of when I needed aloneness – I could simply put on my walking shoes and head for the forrest. It reminds me of Winnicott’s writing on ‘the capacity to be alone’: how I need to completely withdraw to feel safe alone. I often note that when I want to be alone I fear being intruded upon. On retreat I would wake early and go to the kitchen for breakfast and reading time. I would often feel a contraction when another retreatant would come in, no matter who that person was. Thank goodness for the practice periods of ‘golden silence’, I was saved from having to connect when I had a desire to be alone. Does all this sound contradictory? It is, and maybe that’s okay?

I mentioned at the top of this blog that how I feel now is perhaps something of a process continuing for the past couple of years. I am slowly making sense of my aloneness, a contraction in to loneliness and a yearning to belong somewhere. I am also understanding where this might have come from in my childhood experience. Another ‘piece of the puzzle’ was realising on retreat how there is often a voice, or more accurately, a presence in much of my everyday experience. I noticed on mindful walking practice how often there was a “commentator” reporting back to me everything I was doing, seeing, experiencing. It felt like a ‘middle man’ between me and my experience, and how it was somehow preventing just a being in contact with experience. Its hard to put it in to words, but its like “I am seeing” vs the simple act of seeing itself. I had a realisation that maybe this presence was something of a companion I came up with in my childhood. Was my aloneness felt back then? Did my sense of being different to everyone in my family of origin lead to the invention of “friend” with whom I could share my awe and wonder of this world? Maybe my curious Little Professor in transactinal analysis terms.

land of great bliss

One day on the retreat, those of us who had taken the Buddhist refuge vow were invited to a morning of practice: in a way, renewing and re-connecting with our vow. This was an incredibly uplifting experience for me, something that stirred up a sense of inspiration maybe even sentimentality? A call back home if you like. The refuge practice is one of committing to the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). This experience, along with other times of group practices on the retreat, reminded me the importance of finding that place to belong. To have a container in which to make sense of our being and inter-being as humans. Another question arises, how to ensure I sustain connections with my Buddhist friends so as to hold my practice in what can feel an alienating world.


Its a few days after I started writing this blog post, and I feel I have shifted further in to my ideas and feelings. I even wondered about how relevant this post was to publish now! However, it feels important to do so. Firstly, there is never a finished, completed process. And the act of writing this post last week is an important part of where I now find myself. Secondly, reading back and thinking about publishing the ‘out of date’ prose, I see within it that desire to be known. Why write a blog on such delicate and intimate process? Yes, to be known; and yes to possibly help others who have felt something similar. And also, to commit to an opening up: I recently shared with a client of mine that I am vulnerable too. What has shifted for me is my ‘okay-ness’ with being vulnerable. I have spent much of my life trying to show “I am strong” and getting confused that to be vulnerable is weak. I like my vulnerability more now, it keeps me soft, human, approachable.

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