Thursday, December 01, 2011

ARTICLE ~ I Let Go - No 9


I let go, I turn aside, I put down
all agreeable or painful memories
relating to what I have done
or would have wished to do in the past
relating to all the episodes of my past activity.

I am packing to leave a place where I've been staying with a group of friends. I'm stuffing things into my holdall in a hurry, roughly throwing a seemingly odd selection of items into it. My friends wait impatiently upstairs for me to get my act together. Finally I pull the zip up, and put the bag down whilst I go find my friends, to tell them I'm ready. When it comes time to leave the gallery we are now in, there are many similar bags strewn in parts of the room. I start searching for mine but cannot find it. The bag contains important things such as my most treasured paintings and writing. What follows is a relentless, exasperating and ultimately fruitless search to find where the bag now is.

I have dreamt this dream, or a variant on this dream many times over a number of decades. Each time there is an important bag to be found. The emotional impetus is to find what has been lost. The dreams have their own individual 'feeling tone' related to what has been lost and why it has to be found. This can be driven by a nostalgic urgency to rediscover, be confused or bewildered by conflicting pulls, be disorientated in unfamiliar surroundings, or be driven by an unspecified existential anxiety. What does the bag mean?

Though I cannot recollect these previous occasions in minute detail, I believe this type of dream does happens at specific times in my life. When I find myself in a place of unknowing. For what ever reason, my faith or spiritual compass has become unreliable or unreadable. I look back over my shoulder to the past as a way of regaining my bearings, or reconnect with something I seem temporarily to have lost sight of. I believe it really is as simple as that. The dream puts me through the mangle of emotional distress, and out I come pressed flat on the other side. Perhaps this is in order to wring some sense out of me, or to demonstrate the barren futility of looking backwards with sentimental eyes.

Whether its real, nostalgic or a dream, we cling to a sense of our personality and its history as a drowning person does to a buoy. To have no memories at all, would feel like we had lost all sense of who we were. It seems its important for us to know where we've come from, in order to have continuity and meaning in the present. What we've done in the past, who we've been, the successes and failures, its pleasures and its pain, all contributed, for good or ill, to who we believe we now are. Our self-image, our self-esteem, our self-confidence rest on the imperfectly remembered foundations of what we've previously experienced. These memories are so frequently double edged ones, simultaneously telling us who we are and who we are not. What we can and what we cannot be. What we are capable of achieving and what we are not capable of achieving. In this way memories can be both a blessing and a curse, the very act of definition placing a limitation. Inverting the commas, inserting the closed brackets and full stops.

We cannot avoid having 'agreeable and painful memories' they are the psychological outcomes, the sifted residue of every experience we've ever had. Well, perhaps not the original experience itself, but more the emotional responses we've subsequently had to that original experience. Falling off a bicycle and cutting ones leg, is an undoubtedly painful experience. We make this sense of personal injury more acute if we subsequently self-recriminate and punish ourselves over a perceived personal failing, or remonstrate internally or actually with someone else whom we see as the cause of our emotional pain. All our feelings, whether agreeable or not, are twofold; they have a physical and a mental companion. The Buddha referred to these as the twin arrows that cause us to feel pained; first by the event and then our response to it.

Its worth noting that our emotional reactions to an event, whether we felt hurt or pleased, is often the only thing we end up remembering. These subjective recollections based on our feelings, are seldom about the objective facts of the original situation at all. Retrospectively we self-justify how we have responded by turning these feelings into a incontrovertible hard fact, where even the the irrational can be rationalised.

Imagine there is a friend whom you work with. They appear to be evading your company. Don't stop to talk to you, turns away or ignores you when they pass in the office corridor. It would be very easy to feel hurt and to take it personally, to start assuming what the motives are behind this behaviour. Perhaps you've done something to upset them, or maybe they want to dump you as a friend because they think you're boring, or they're just trying to further their career and see you as holding them back – after all they were always quite selfish and looked after No1. It doesn't take long to actively cultivated a dislike, if not a hatred for them. Then one day, they confide to you that they've been struggling to come to terms with having a quite serious illness. Suddenly this fact puts everything you've experienced into a different perspective. Your assumptions we're not based on fact at all. They came more out of personal negativity, weak self-esteem or mild paranoia, which perhaps now you can take responsibility for – and rightly feel ashamed of. There was no rational basis at all for what was assumed.

The first of our verses refers to two events that these 'agreeable or painful memories' emerge in response too – 'what I have done or would have wished to do in the past.' In other words, what we wanted to happen, and what actually happened – the dream and the rather more mundane reality. Sometimes what is dreamed of and desired, does actually happen. We generally find that an agreeable experience, and this causes us to feel to some degree of personal pleasure or happiness. Sometimes what is dreamed of and desired, doesn't happen. Mostly we find this disagreeable, and it causes us to feel pain, disillusion and unhappiness. There is the desire, then what actually happens. Our response will be coloured by to what degree our original desire was fulfilled or not. If we find ourselves experiencing huge amounts of emotional suffering, then the source of it will rarely be found in a single event, but in our general expectations of life. Our desires and cravings for a specific, pleasurable outcome.

' The tragedy is not that we don't get what we want, but that we do get what we want, and then we're stuck with it, and very often we find that it's not what we wanted at all.'1

Counter intuitive as what Sangharakshita is saying may sound, he is pointing us towards two really fundamental human delusions - that we think we know what we want, and believe reality can be conformed to our desires. Every time we do get what we want, our confidence in this delusive tendency is revived and reinvigorated. Even if the number of times we're disappointed with the result, or not getting what we want vastly outnumber the times we do. What is it that would keep a gambler betting on racing horses when they lose nine times out of ten - can it just be hope springing eternally?

A child might go to bed every day ardently wishing for a wonderful new toy for their birthday or for Christmas. A starving man in a drought stricken country might kneel to his gods, fervently praying and wishing for rain and food. A woman might not be able to start her day before she's checked what her stars say on an astrology website. A young couple wanting good weather for their wedding, keep looking at the Met Office advance weather forecast for reassurance. We travel hopefully, but rarely confidently. All sorts of people, from vastly different backgrounds or cultures, act on the basis of superstitions, they carry talismans, wear lucky clothes or shoes, or perform certain ritual behaviours in an attempt to determine or fix a wished for outcome. We can hold a strong belief in the power of our thoughts, that the depth of our heartfelt desire can determine the conclusion we want. We can do this without fully realising its what we are doing. I certainly have had a version of this view right into my adult life. Ironically, after all my years of wishing and hoping and still not getting what I wanted, it wasn't the inadequacy of wishing where I placed the blame, but on myself and the inadequate feebleness of my wishing. This contributed in the long term to the cultivation of a view of myself as someone 'who never got what he wanted.'

I let go
I turn aside
I put down
what I have been
or would have wished to be in the past

1 - Taken from Peace Is A Fire, By Sangharakshita , published by Windhorse Publications 1995

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