This month’s newsletter explores three essential wellsprings of resilience, well-being and equanimity: WISE GUIDES, WISE UNDERSTANDING, WISE SELF. May you find these reflections and resources resonant and useful.
For over 30 years, Stephen and Ondrea Levine have served as Wise Guides to thousands of people coping with the bewilderment, pain and disorientation of losing someone they love to death, or of dying themselves.
Last Saturday many people shared their experiences of being helped by the Levines at “The Heart That Holds It All: Transforming Loss, Death and Difficulty into Grace”, a benefit sponsored by Spirit Rock Meditation Center for the Levines, now facing serious health problems themselves.
One woman told of melting into Ondrea’s arms at a death and dying retreat, held in such conscious, compassionate connection that she found the strength to cope with her son’s suicide just weeks before. Another young man told of the support he received from the Levines’ books and tapes during the year he took off to care for his girlfriend dying of leukemia.
The bottom-line take-away Wise Understanding of the day was: anything is workable, anything at all, not matter how overwhelming or disorienting, when we can access the Wise Guides, the Wise Understanding, and the Wise Self that help us trust the wisdom and compassion of our own awakened heart.
We all need role models, mentors, teachers, wise guides to turn to in times of confusion, despair, lostness. People whose own lived experience and wise understanding has gifted them with presence, patience, openness, truth-telling, integrity and compassion.
We may seek insight, wisdom, sage advice from a Wise Guide. In truth, their reassuring presence is as catalytic to our coming to our own wise understanding as the content of their message. Indeed, research has shown that the caring relationship between a therapist and client contributes more to a positive therapeutic outcome than the particular therapeutic modality used.
How To Find Your Own Wise Guide
“Some teachers are rascals and coyotes who trick and surprise their students; some are harsh task-masters trying to whittle down ego and pride; others teach more through honoring and encouragement, nurturing the best in a student; some teachers lecture like a professor; others can melt us open with their love and compassion. The greatest and simplest power of a teacher is the environment of their own freedom and joy.”
– Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
I have found the surest way to find Wise Guides who can work well with my own temperament and conditioning is to begin with people I trust and ask them who they trust. I continue to ask people who they trust until I meet someone or several someones I resonate with on an intuitive gut level. Our relationship with Wise Guides evolve as we evolve. We may seek the counsel of a Wise Guide for several days or several weeks in a row. We may settle into ongoing explorations over several years. Eventually we may check in only once in every few years.
Because our brains are hardwired to process information through language, symbols and mental representations as well as through direct experience, we can access Wise Guides through books as well as in person, as exemplified by people at Saturday’s daylong being helped by the Levines’ books and tapes through many dark nights of the soul. [See Books and Websites below for resources.]
I experienced this myself as I was dealing with my father’s failing health and increasing dementia. I read a chapter of Jack Kornfield’s “A Path With Heart” every morning to ground in Wise Understanding before launching into the challenges of the day. Jack served supportively as a Wise Guide years before I actually met him.
At least once a week, a therapy client will ask for a book recommendation – has anyone written an instruction manual on how to do this? I have my favorites that I suggest again and again:
The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, by Harriet Lerner
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges
Healing the Shame the Binds You, by John Bradshaw
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, by Alice Millar
The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zinder Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, by John Gottman
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, by Suu Johnson
[see the Resources page of my website for more road maps of Wise Understanding.]
I remember the enormous relief I felt when I discovered the Wise Understanding of attachment theory that provided such a clear road map of how to relieve the suffering inherent in patterns of coping we label as personality disorders. I could re-frame these “disorders” as the inevitable outcome of certain kinds of conditioning that came from certain kinds of relationships with the people closest to us early on. No shame, no blame. Now I could understand the why’s of dysfunction and actually help clients re-conditon those patterns of feeling, dealing and relating into patterns that were more flexible, adaptive and resilient.
How To Access Wise Understanding
There are so many traditions and lineages of Wise Understanding available to use now. What the Buddha told his own followers applies to all of them: don’t take my word for it; see for yourself.
We can inquire moment to moment: does this path or practice clear my mind or cause more confusion and de-railment? Does this path or practice open my heart or cause it to contract in fear or prejudice? Does it expand my horizons to include more people in my field of concern or does it promote self-absorption.
In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield suggest finding one path of healing and awakening and sticking with it for awhile. It’s not so much the content that’s the magic, though the truthfulness and integrity of the content makes some paths more productive to follow than others. It’s the process of immersing one’s self in the practices over time that bring us to and steadies our experience of our own True Nature, our own Wise Self.
We all carry within us a deeply felt sense of intuitive knowing, a gut-felt “truth” sense of when we’re centered, aligned with the deepest truth of our deepest nature, and when we’re “off.”
The Wise Self is an archetypal metaphor for this deep intuitive knowing. We cultivate the Wise Self through exercises such as the one offered in Exercises to Practice below.
The Wise Self becomes an embodied experience and expression of all the wholesome qualities of our universal True Nature: courage, integrity, patience, compassion, equanimity, generosity, etc. And becomes the compass to guide the actions of our personal self as we navigate the hiccups and hurricanes of our ever-changing lives.
How To Access the Wise Self
Please see Exercises to Practice below.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy,
And a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
I’ll share with you a story of losing my way and needing to find my own compass that illustrates the Wise Guide, Wise Understanding and Wise Self all in one experience.
I lost my way one summer when a run-of-the mill understanding between me and a close colleague escalated into a full-blown rupture: accusations, renunciations, a refusal on her part to repair. I was completely dumbfounded and out of my depth. Whatever I did to deflect her hostility, soften her anger, call her on her contempt, was to no avail. She insisted on ending the friendship forever.
Even though I was already an experienced therapist and meditator at the time, this sudden rupture blew right through my capacities to process this irrevocable loss. I plummeted into a devastating sense of abandonment and despair that I knew was out of proportion to the loss that triggered it, but I couldn’t find my way out of the black hole of shame and grief I had fallen into on my own.
I knew enough to call on my Wise Guides and mentors to help me abide in this suffering without pushing it away, to feel the feelings fully without drowning in them, to help me remember “This, too, shall pass,” to help me find my way “home” and eventually make sense of what had happened.
One of the most helpful of these conscious, compassionate connections was the hour my friend Bonnie spent with me on the phone. [Bonnie and I had met 8 years before in her first Year To Live group based on the book by Stephen Levine. You’ll find Bonnie’s story of finding equanimity in the midst of cancer treatments this spring in the May 2008 newsletter.]
Bonnie listened, cared, and gently repeated the traditional loving kindness phrases that hold the bigger picture. “May you be safe from inner and outer harm. May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.” May you be resiliently healthy in every realm. May you have ease of mind and heart.” Over and over and over. Bonnie’s reassuring presence and the Wise Understanding of the phrases re-connected me with my own inner goodness. Bonnie reminded me that once upon a time I had deeply known and trusted that inner goodness. That I had many times experienced the Wise Self that is “naturally creative, resourceful and whole”, and that I would again.
My friend and mentors as Wise Guides couldn’t resolve or dissolve the pain of my loss for me, but they could remind me of the Wise Understanding that could inform my Wiser Self of the practices to resolve or dissolve it myself. I had the compass again to come to terms with an irrevocable ending and open my heart again to new beginnings.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
I first learned this exercise to access a sense of the Wise Self at the Coaches Training Institute; the exercise itself is an interesting elaboration of Voice Dialogue flavored by Zen Buddhism. It is presented as a guided visualization, one of the most powerful tools we have to tap into our own intuitive knowing.
Find a quiet time and space where you won’t be interrupted. Allow 20-30 minutes to complete the visualization.
Find a comfortable position to sit quietly. Allow your eyes to gently close. Breathe deeply a few times into your belly to allow your awareness to come more deeply into your body. Become aware of breathing comfortably. Become aware of relaxing into a gentle field of benevolence.
When you are ready, imagine you are standing on your favorite beach near the water’s edge. Imagine the details of the scene and your presence there in vivid detail. When you are ready, imagine yourself rising up into the air, floating up above the beach, traveling across the water, traveling however far you need to travel to land on another beach in another land. This is the home of your Wise Self. The imaginary figure that embodies the deepest aspirations and highest fulfillment of your self, the well-spring of resilient, equanimity, and well-being.
Imagine yourself walking toward the dwelling of your Wise Self, whatever home or cabin or garden seems fitting. Imagine yourself walking up to the door of this dwelling; imagine how your Wise Self greets you. Do they come out to meet you? Do they invite you in? Do they shake hands or bow or hug you? Notice how old your Wise Self is, how they are dressed, how they move as you walk with them.
Imagine yourself sitting and talking with your Wise Self. Notice their presence, their energy and how it affects you. Imagine you can ask your Wise Self how they came to be who they are; listen carefully to their answer. Ask your Wise Self what helped them most along the way. Listen carefully to their answer. Ask your Wise Self what they had to let go of to become who they are. Listen carefully to their answer.
Imagine you and your Wise Self standing and merging into each other. Your Wise Self is embodied within you. Notice how it feels to inhabit your Wise Self from the inside out. Notice how it feels to experience your Wise Self within you. De-merge, you coming back into your body and your Wise Self coming back into theirs.
Your Wise Self will offer you wise advice to take back with you when you leave. Listen carefully to this advice from your Wise Self. Your Wise Self will offer you a gift, an object, a symbol to remind you of your Wise Self when you leave. In your imagination, receive this object into your hand and place it somewhere in your clothing for safekeeping. Your Wise Self will let you know their name; listen carefully to this name and remember it well.
When you are ready, imagine how you thank your Wise Self for the time you have spent together; imagine how you say good-bye. Walk back to the place where you landed, then imagine yourself again rising up into the air, floating back across the water to come down again on the beach where you started. When you have settled yourself back on the beach where you started in your imagination, become aware of your surroundings and slowly open your eyes.
As with any use of our imagination to access our deep intuitive knowing, the more you practice experiencing your Wise Self, the more reliably you will be able to embody and act from your Wise Self as you respond to the challenges and difficulties of your life. Imaginative exercises such as this one do change the neural circuitry of our brains, creating new, positive habits of mind that become genuine resources in coping with anything, anything at all.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
This month’s recommended reading:
The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, by Jack Kornfield. Bantam, 2008.
[Also available on CD’s through www.soundstrue.com]
Jack Kornfield is one of the leading teachers of Buddhist meditation in the West, a renowned Wise Guide. Jack begins his latest book, The Wise Heart, with an exploration of our original goodness, and then presents an incredibly clear, comprehensive distillation of the Wise Understanding of Buddhist psychology with wit, warmth, and wisdom.
A Year To Live: How To Live This Year As Though It Were Your Last by Stephen Levine. Random House, 1997. This book leads the reader through a series of meditations and experiential exercises that use imagining that we know we are going to die within a year to wake up to the preciousness of the life we have now. An excellent way to evoke our own Wise Understanding of conscious living and dying.
Attachment in Psychotherapy by David Wallin, PhD. Guilford Press, 2007. David Wallin presents a skillful integration of the road maps of attachment theory, intersubjectivity, neuroscience and mindfulness to help readers develop a Wise Understanding of the journey from a wounded “me” to a healthy “I” to experiencing an awareness beyond the personal that we could call the realm of the Wise Self.
This month’s recommended websites:
Useful references to the practices of vipassana or “insight” meditation, the lineage of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which sponsored last Saturday’s benefit for Stephen and Ondrea Levine
The Zen Hospice project has been in the forefront of deepening our understanding of death and dying for the last two decades. Frank Ostaseski, founder of Zen Hospice, was one of the keynote speakers at last Saturday’s benefit for Stephen and Ondrea Levine.