I am not going to discuss whether or not Buddhist’s believe in a soul or no soul (anatta). But instead, try to describe what would seem to be a temporary black-out of my practice. A feeling of unsettledness, loss, emptiness, lack of direction, and confusion. Where is my faith (saddha), the conviction and confidence in my practice and my path when I need it the most? In any of the theistic religions, this would be the equivalent of feeling as though God has abandoned you. But since I have no such belief, it feels even more secluded to experience this void and isolation. And as a Buddhist, there is no one to pray to for answers, only my Teachers to turn to. But with what question, other than to say I am lost.
The Temple and sangha seemed like the wrong place to be, as what I was experiencing was unexplainable. No one there to help, and my presence could only offer sadness and unwholesomeness.
With increasing feelings of hopelessness, I returned reluctantly to the cushion. Having come from the cushion on a daily basis, I expected no resolve in sitting once more. But with no other avenue in sight, I saw it to be my only possibility of gaining, perhaps, a little clarity and relief.
What I found on the cushion was exactly what I was experiencing off the cushion. It was me, by myself.
Oddly, I felt no anger toward myself or anyone else. No one had harmed me or offended me. And I did not even see anything to run away from. Perhaps I have gained the wisdom to understand that running away still carries with it the self wherever you go.
And as hours turned to days, I observed that I was not experiencing unhappiness. But there was something that was not in balance. Like an internal gyroscope had gone slightly off axis, yet not enough that I was falling over. And it was in this bit of clarity, that I realized there were so many stories. And while I had progress in letting many of them go, there were still many more that haunted my subconscious. Replaying these fragments over and over like a broken record. So perhaps I was getting somewhere, if only to see bits of my discomfort. And with this, I could connect again to my own mind and what was transpiring in this darkness.
After who-knows how many days in this dark state, I finally was able to communicate somewhat with a monastic. And first with a compassionate and wise ear, was the dear Bhikkhuni Vimala. And with the gentle and loving listening power that she possesses, I began to hear my words reflect back to me. Ego, self, and perhaps most important were the revealing of my own character flaws. The “fixer”, as Bhikkhuni pointed out. My desire to make others happy, and care for them. But in doing so, not always being mindful of best practices toward the self. And, even more harmful in my opinion, are the expectations that I often attach to good acts (kusala) that I may offer to others.
Instantly, I could see that these perceived good and wholesome acts (kusala), were actually the opposite (akusala) because of expectations and attachment!
While I cannot say that I felt much better at this point, I was glad to be gaining some wisdom and understanding.
The next day, having allowed time for all this to sink in, and spending more time on the cushion, I asked to speak to the head monk, Bhante Sujatha.
My meeting with him was anything but what I expected. Typically, I end-up feeling like I should have known the answers because he makes it so simple and clear. Often feeling a bit foolish actually for taking his time and troubling him with issues that only required a little more wisdom and understanding.
But this occasion was different. In very few words, and a few short stories, he explained that I should make it personal. And this is not like most of us would think when we think of taking something personally. Quite the opposite actually. His explanation is about seeing our own actions and thoughts as they apply to us individually, without distraction or concern of what any other person will think, say or do. Right action is simply right action. And we must have a clear understanding of our own minds and intentions if we are to put Right Action into play.
If our actions create a story or baggage that we carry forward, then it is not something done with understanding or virtue. It is only by being completely mindful of that particular moment, acting wisely with loving-kindness and generosity, then moving on. The thought is gone, the moment is gone. But this must be done personally, and based on your own individual nature and skill. Lest you find yourself experiencing your own dark night of the soul.
May you be well, happy and peaceful.
Agati Sutta: Off Course
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“There are these four ways of going off course. Which four? One goes off course through desire. One goes off course through aversion. One goes off course through delusion. One goes off course through fear. These are the four ways of going off course.”
If you —
transgress the Dhamma,
your honor wanes,
as in the dark fortnight,
“There are these four ways of not going off course. Which four? One does not go off course through desire. One does not go off course through aversion. One does not go off course through delusion. One does not go off course through fear. These are the four ways of not going off course.”
If you don’t —
transgress the Dhamma,
your honor waxes,
as in the bright fortnight,