I’m writing to suggest some traditional Buddhist techniques for healing. I haven’t seen much discussion of these here, and I thought they might be as useful to some of you as they have been for me. Caveat, I’m just a scholar and humble practicioner of this stuff as opposed to an Enlightened One! so I may not be speaking the final truth or the authorized edition (not there really would ever be one anyway….the whole system is amazingly pragmatic).
1. The essence of sorrow (among other things, but most powerfully for us) is attachment (or craving). This can be attachment to the past, to fear (which is attachment to scary things), or anxiety, or craving for love or attention. It can be attachment to the abuse itself: I have this in spades. Basically we live gripping onto the familiarity of habits of mind and body that arise out of the shock of our abuse, and we have terrible difficulty letting go of these habits no matter how they hurt us. They’re the terrifying but familiar, the comfortable horror.
There are many more things to be said about this, and I recommend Thich Nhat Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings for more on the essence of sorrow (which is the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism).
2. To assuage the sorrow you follow the middle path. This is a way of living based on finding a place inside yourself where the pain of sorrow cannot touch you and where you can openly and clearly see the path of the pain through your heart. To find this place (which I have found, and which is unbelievably useful for all of us), you meditate. And all this means in practice is to constantly come back to the present moment through attention to the details of daily life.
You can do the meditation as a special time in the day or as part of other activities. If you do it as a special time in the day, I recommend starting with very short lengths of time, say five minutes or so, and doing it in the morning and the evening. You can do it sitting in the lotus position on the floor, sitting in a chair…it doesn’t matter so much as that you really feel comfortable but not sleepy while doing it. Then all you do is begin by counting the breath. I usually count inhalation and exhalation and use a count of four. Inhale is one, out is two, etc, just repeating the count silently for the duration of the time. At first you will feel your inner dialogue screaming at you. When that happens, just notice the voice by addressing it with a simple word, like “thinking”, and let it pass. Never let it rile you, just let it pass. Eventually the voice will pass, and you will find a blessed space of total silence in your life. As the spaces lengthen, let the time grow. At the local meditation center we do it in 25 minute increments for two hours, and at the end I feel completely clean and empty.
You will find the silence enormously beneficial in all times of anxiety. The silence becomes a place you can go to where the peacefully silent present moment is the only thing alive. No past pain, no future pain or joy, just the moment and the minor joy of quietly being alive. The silence creates a shield around you, a centering calmness of heart and mind. It was in this place that I first really knew I could totally heal.
Even more usefully, you can practice mindfulness in any activity. Just remember to concentrate only on the activity and whenever extraneous thoughts intrude, just say, “thinking” and they will gradually disappear. If you stick with it in patience, I think I can actually almost promise the inner voice will disappear. This is a great way to drive, or do the dishes, or garden or watch a sunset. You can change behavioral habits through mindfulness, too. One of the best activities for mindfulness meditation is working out. You get the best workout ever combining the two.
After a time, the act of thinking mindfully becomes a kind of habit. That is one its greatest charms. For me, if I’m depressed long enough, I can’t help but start laughing at my own pain. I take myself far too seriously. And the pain will eventually end!
3. Another thing Buddhism teaches is that we create ourselves anew through taking in nourishment. This nourishment can be in the form of food, or in the form of images, or ideas. To end suffering one needs to lose one’s addictions to certain kinds of food by recognizing that eating that food transforms you yet again. This is especially true of things like porn which are also a kind of food. Each time you eat an image with your eyes, the image becomes part of you, changes you. But instead of getting fat, you get scared or depressed. Many of us know this from the pain that the ideas or images or acts recreate for us. My own patterns of mind lead to recreating the abuse. This is terrible food, as I’ve only recently fully realized. By taking in this food I essentially molest my own inner child, literally recreating all the feelings of abuse again and again. I have found this idea to be a bedrock for healing. I love my inner child, and I only want to feed him good food.
To stop eating the bad food, we practice mindfulness in the act of taking something in. For each thing that we plan to eat, we ask: is this healthy food or not? And if it is not, we set it aside. And if the desire to eat is terribly strong, we remind ourselves that this is poison and that we kill our inner children in small ways each time we eat again. Would you kill your own inner child? Of course not. And the mindfulness eventually has the power to really convince you not to do it.
This mindfulness practice is best done in concentrated ways. If you know you have a problem with acting out, for instance, you would invest the mindfulness exercise in a kind watchfulness for those triggers that make you hungry for that kind of terrible food. The mindfulness can help you be vigilant in a kind way and ready to recognize the poison. If you look at porn for unhealthy reasons, that food too is poison to the inner child. It recreates an abused person. It is the act by which we grow sick by eating our own pain.
Mindfulness combined with meditation creates a new inner person, a much deeper and more powerful self.
Lastly, another incredibly useful idea is to recognize fear and pain as the most powerful growth places in our lives. The wound is a site for connecting to the world and to being human. Buddhism teaches one to willingly reach out to that pain, recognizing in it the pain of all others who have so suffered. And then to mindfully love all of those suffering people whom our shared pain turns into brothers and sisters. Our pain is only and especially general human pain, never, never-ever suffered alone. Seeing it this way turns the pain from fearful suffering to compassionate understanding. I suffered a healing crisis this week, and I was so scared, and at some crazy deeply Buddhist level I was so happy to be so scared, because I knew that uncovered fear was one of the last dark places in my soul. A friend called right in the middle of this crisis, and I knew I had to face the fear, so I interrupted our conversation and spilled dark beans that years ago I would have hidden like a miser deep in the ground. Facing the fear with love in my heart for myself and all those other sufferers made it possible to love the fear itself and the growth I knew would come out of it.
The mindfulness practice can bring strength and power that you won’t believe until you try it and see it for yourself.
Some helpful books:
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Books by Pema Chodron (there’re all worth a look)
The Three Pillars of Zen
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Especially for those of us who can’t find a therapist, this stuff works wonders.
I hope it’s as useful for you as it has been for me.