There is no magic formula, it's just doing the basic things much better than anybody else.
- Joachim Low
Be grateful for your mind weeds
- Shunryu Suzuki
What is the Buddha? Dried shit on a stick!
- ancient zen koan
Have you ever felt - like I often have - that you're stuck in a rut? That no matter how hard you try you can't seem to move forward; that you never seem to make good on your plans. You talk (or think, or plan) all the time about the important things you're going to do but never actually get anything finished, sometimes not even started. You go from thing to thing, project to project, job to job, relationship to relationship...never settling on one, never really fulfilling anything. Never really succeeding, just trying different things, leaving everything half finished. Do you ever fear that this is going to be the pattern for the rest of your life?
Of course, you're not alone. It's a very human feeling, this 'regret for the future', heavy with existential dread. Sometimes you even might wonder what it will take to break out of this cycle of incompleteness. It's tempting to think that perhaps something dramatic is needed, something 'life-changing' after which you will be a new person. You'll fulfill that long-held dream, master that something, be all that you can be, find love. But then it's difficult to know what could focus our energies in this way. Knowledge just isn't enough. Books? If anything they deepen the malaise, like re-reading a map without ever setting foot into the territory. No, it's going to take something 'experiential' to snap us into focus. Not necessarily dangerous, but probably something difficult where we'll be exposed. But what?
I was in such a state of mind a little while back when a friend suggested I enroll on a course he had recently been on. I vaguely knew of this program: some kind of personal development franchise, developed in the United States in the early 90's, but which was now worldwide and was, apparently, enabling millions of people to fulfill their potential. The course was offering nothing short of the 'transformation' I was desperate for, though I was a little skeptical - it seemed a little commercial and a friend who had tried it warned that it was just a pyramid scheme. Or was he just being cynical? Was I? Was this not just another symptom of the fear holding me back in life? This course might be just the kick I needed to get my life on track. Meditating or running alone for hours at a stretch were all well and good, but real life is about other people. I needed that exposure.
So I signed up. It was going to be three long, tough days standing in front of other people and sharing, but if I stuck with it a breakthrough was all but guaranteed. How did it go? I finished the first day feeling inspired. I was seeing areas in my life where I was being inauthentic, where I was holding myself back because, basically, it suited me that way. I was aware of relationships I had left incomplete and where I was being insincere with other people, where I was pretending to be someone. However on the second day doubts crept in about both the methods and the motivations of the organizers, and I ended up walking out during the third day. What had happened? Had the old, cynical version of me sabotaged my progress and made me quit just when I was about to have my own 'breakthrough', my own transformation? Was this just me retreating to my comfort zone, doomed to languish in my old ways, unfulfilled but at least safe?
Perhaps, but more that anything what made me leave the program was the realization that we were being 'sold' a breakthrough, 'sold' a transformation, both financially and as a means to getting other people to enroll on the course. The methodology had been perfected over the years to get the absolute maximum results: from the coach's 'Big Sell' at the start ("this course will transform your life"), to the 'Shock and Awe' lectures ("you are living a lie, you are all inauthentic!"), to the fear mongering ("if you don't reach out to your loved ones, they may die without knowing that you loved them"). The lack of peer-to-peer interaction kept our attention focussed on the coach, allowing him to control the process. The arduous schedule drained our will to resist. Finally we were - as a sign of commitment - expected to do the heavy lifting of recruitment and marketing.
I won't deny that the process was able to elicit genuine experiences from some of the participants. Some were astonishing. People were letting go of psychological baggage they had carried around for decades. They were healing relationships and putting traumatic events into the past where they belonged. Or at least it seemed so. Participants who had experienced abuse for instance were told to accept that 'it happened' and then let go of what they were 'making it mean to them'. This was all well and good, but as I wondered by which process they were going to be helped to do this, they were already returning to their seats and the next participant selected. These were vulnerable people; being applauded by 120 other strangers for sharing is one thing, but what other support did they have? Certainly, owning up to, and in a sense 'owning' past trauma is vital. The course gave participants a chance to put ugly stuff into the past and to be free(er) from it. It's a great feeling letting go of past hurt. However in that rush one is easily suggestible and naturally keen to get others to partake, and this was clearly being used for commercial ends. This was psychotherapy as a production line.
Of course, there have always been gurus and movements and religions happy to take your money in return for 'liberation'. You could argue that, well, if it works then what is the issue? The issue is that when anything is marketised like this, then the problem becomes more valuable than the solution. This is as true for healing and self-development as it is for, say, healthcare. A lot of energy gets spent in finding problems, in convincing you that there is more wrong with you than there is right. There is also no end to the process. This program for instance draws one into a never-ending cycle of seminars, enrollment nights and advanced courses. It falls into the trap of being about the 'next step', about non-acceptance of who you are - because you're not there yet - and about finding the perfect life and enrolling others in order to sustain it. Moreover, any doubts about this process become about your weakness, your lack of commitment and you could even expect a public shaming if you questioned it .
Despite this, there were some useful ideas there, and while these were not original (as claimed by the organizers) it was worth revisiting them. We learned about the constant mental chatter that inhibits our capacity to be present to the world, to be able to listen. Indian philosophers knew this as vikalpa: thought forms, judgments, the 'monkey mind', always rabbiting away, separating us from others, from the world. What is more, much of this rumination is about being right and others being wrong, about this is good and that is bad, I like this but don't like that, either/or, black or white. In Zen Buddhism this in known as 'dualistic thinking', and much of Zen practice such as meditation and koans is designed to help us get beyond these restrictive dualities; to move beyond our own opinions, our need to be 'in the right'.
I also became aware of the importance of committing to one's word. All too often I'll say something I don't really mean, or make a vague commitment I have no real intention of fulfilling, or just say things to keep people happy and to stop them bothering me - that hey-how-are-you-fine talk that is often a way of keeping people away, or I gossip about people and say things that I would never dare say to their face. Committing to one's word is there in Buddhist 'right speech' and also with the idea of being 'impeccable with one's word'; one of Miguel Ruiz's Four Agreements. Here it is not so much about being always completely honest and never telling a white lie (a risky strategy at best!). For me it is more about doing what I say I'm going to do, and not saying I'll do what I'm unlikely to do; about being less vague and non-committal, about expressing myself a little more honestly.
It was also worthwhile being told to stop falling back on the idea of 'someday'. Someday I'll get this done, I'll send that application, I'll call that person and so on. The mystic Georges Gurdjieff said that most of us drift through life automatically and inauthentically and part of what allows us to do this is what he called 'the disease of tomorrow': our constant dreaming of 'someday' and putting things off until 'tomorrow'. And of course the disease of tomorrow also has us worrying about it. In either case my falling back on, and anxiety about, tomorrow is something I need to keep in check. Another valuable insight (but again one you'll find a lot in 'ways of liberation' writings such as Alan Watts, Krishnamurti or Toni Packer) is that much of what we do and our mental processing is pre-occupied with our need to 'look good and avoid looking bad'.
Finally, it's worth mentioning a key tenant of the course. The concept of 'rackets' comes from Eric Berne, a Canadian psychiatrist who developed the theory of transactional analysis, and wrote Games People Play. The idea is that we all have 'rackets': unwanted yet persistent patterns of behavior that we play out again and again. For example it might be that 'I'm indecisive' or 'let others decide for me'. These rackets hold us back, we don't like them, but the reason they persist so much is because - perversely - we get something out of it: a 'payoff'. I am indecisive because, frankly, it suits me to be like that - it's comfortable, I don't have to work so hard, and it allows me not to take too much responsibility. Everyone has slightly different rackets and being able to identify and move past them is crucial because, ultimately, they are the things that hold us back, the reason we get stuck in the rut.
Ultimately I left (well, quit) the course feeling better than when I went in. I woke up to some uncomfortable realities and got a sense of why I'm leaving so much half finished. And of course there was the grim satisfaction of managing to withstand nearly thirty hours of progressively intense psychological manipulation. This is not to belittle those who completed the course and genuinely got something from it; I just thought it was a shame it became so manifestly about marketing. However, more than any of this there was a deeper realization that my life is a bit of a mess and is unfinished business. But that is okay. In fact, that is the point. The knobbly organic carrots in the picture above are no less tasty for being odd shapes. The imperfections are part of who I am. Making them 'wrong' doesn't make them go away, it just makes them more wrong!
Transformation - 'intentional change' shall we say - can only really come about once we see ourselves for who we truly are. And to see ourselves this way requires 'radical acceptance', seeing which is not clouded by judgment or opinions. In Zen it is said that the moment you realize that you're getting carried away, that you're behaving in ways you don't intend, then that realization is itself the essence of mindfulness. I may be incomplete, but then the moment I realize this then I am 'completely incomplete'. No need to fix things. Moreover why should life's messiness be a problem? It is still life. The Chan Buddhists of ancient China knew this. Their Buddha could be a golden statue or 'dried shit on a stick'. For them it didn't matter. So, my life is a bit messy. There is unfinished business. My career remains a work in progress. I have yet to master any one particular thing. But that is all okay. Give me that over glassy-eyed perfection any day.
H James, 2018