Why are people living with a feeling that something is missing, that they should change and correct themselves and what they are it is not enough? Why does it feel not enough?
Roshi Sunya Kjolhede: Ah, yes, because they don't know who they are, because most people see themselves as lacking. And why? Because you could say it's all our conditioning, our culture and everything but there’s something deep in us that says we are not whole, not complete. What is that? Good question. What do we do about it is the real question. Of course, that sense of lacking is running the show. It’s causing us to destroy the ground we stand on, quite literally. It’s causing us to consume everything, so that rainforests are vanishing and the coral reefs are dying, oceans are warming and becoming acidic and so on. So it is a very important question but the real question is not so much ‘why?’ as ‘what do we do about it?’
So what do we do about it? How do we step out of a story of being a separate, isolated, limited entity and a delusion of being a separate ego? How do we step out of that and inhabit a very different story, based on our own deeper experience of being whole and complete. The problem is of course that everybody is trying to fill up that sense of lacking in all kinds of ways; with all the ways we have: buying things, addictions of all sorts, eating, eating disorders and the need to get rich, as rich as possible at every one else’s expense. How do we quiet down enough to get in touch with this real beauty and wonder of our own being? There are different ways to do that but it takes quieting down not just running faster and faster, trying to fill it up. We surround ourselves with thoughts. Why do we think so much? It is like somebody talking to themselves all day long. We wrap ourselves in thoughts and then we feel so isolated and cut off. We never feel satisfied. So how do we quiet down the mind? It seems to me that it is the key.
It is often said in various spiritual teachings and in psychology that we have to accept ourselves. What do you think about it?
R.: The question is what are we accepting? Are we accepting a very limited view of ourselves that is based on our past experience and the images that are reflected back to us from others? Are we accepting this picture of ourselves that we have come up with when in fact we are always changing? What self are we accepting? Certainly, it's no help to be judging ourselves. In my experience most people now are really knotted up with self-dislike and even that is not saying enough – often with self-hatred. It's an epidemic now. Self-loathing is another word in English that says it. So this critical mind turns in all directions. We criticise ourselves, we criticise others and it’s a very painful way to live, not just for ourselves, obviously, but for those around us.
Accepting our feelings that come up, accepting the thoughts that arise, whatever they are - well, what does that mean? If it means just being open to them, recognising them, seeing them without judgement – yes, that’s certainly a step toward health. But if it means just tying oneself to a very limited self-image and saying: ‘well, that‘s just the way I am‘ and not looking deeper than that is really restricting oneself. It is like someone born in a huge mansion - glorious, beautiful mansion with all kinds of rooms, beautiful treasures in it and all these wondrous places - who has been living in a dark closet in the basement.
We don’t realise the wonders that we are really heirs to. We have to step out of this closet and the closet is very much this thought-filled mind. So, yes, it is a good question: accepting that in this moment I am feeling this way and these thoughts arise but what’s deeper? What’s deeper still? Who is it that’s aware of all this? It is a basic human question. Who or what is conscious of this? It’s a whole lot deeper than we can imagine.
People reading your answer might ask: but who is it?
R.: Exactly! That’s exactly the question. It is not something you could put into words but something that could be experienced. Yet we have to experience it for ourselves - it’s not something anyone can give us because we ARE already this. Until we quiet down this heart-mind-body enough we will just be caught in thoughts. How do we get underneath the waves of thoughts to discover these silent, shining depths?
Does it mean that thinking is wrong? People who try meditating often say that they have problems with arising thoughts.
R.: That’s right, many people say: Oh, I can’t meditate, I have too many thoughts. Well, who needs it most but somebody whose mind is going on like this? When our mind is totally out of control it is a very difficult way to live. So those of us who have very active minds more than others need to quiet down, find that deep peace that is underneath. Certainly there isn’t anything wrong with thoughts. It’s not about judging, grading or assessing.
The question is how do we want to live? Do we want our lives to be constantly mediated through this numbing cloud of thoughts, to live under constant anaesthesia of thoughts? Or do we want to really live? It is like those words of Stephen Leacock: ‘life - we learn too late - is in the living, in the tissues of every day and hour’. What a pity to look back on a lifetime and realise that we haven’t really experienced it, that we’ve always been caught up in our
own thought-world. But the reality pokes through here and there, giving us clues about what’s real.
It is very popular now to think that being here and now. Is it a doorway to being happy?
R.: Well, if we are not here and now then where are we and when are we? But this can be another soundbite, another expression that makes us feel comfortable as if we knew what to do. But what does it mean? What’s here and now? If we see it, it’s just one dot. One dot and this is the here and now. We’re not seeing the whole picture. The here and now connects the whole time and the whole space. It’s all unfolded, right here. This here and now – what else do we have? But we are responsible, in a sense, in a beautiful sense, not in just some heavy sense, to everyone and everything.
Modern science talks a great deal about this interconnection of everything. It is like the Indra’s net, the old Indian image of this beautiful net of Indra that spans wider than the whole universe. Everything is connected and at every point where two of the threads meet – which makes me think of the Strings Theory – there’s a jewel and that jewel reflects every other jewel and so it is a kind of a holographic image of the universe that’s ancient but so much confirmed by the latest science. One shaking of the net, one part affects everything else. And that’s us. That’s the here and now. What’s outside of the here and now? Including all time and all places.
I think that a lot of people say: I’m just going to be right here and now, I’m just working to be here and now. But it can be a way to merely lower the anxiety. It can be a way to run away from that interconnection and the responsibility that we all have to all life in this potent moment. So be aware of saying: I’m not going to think about all this, I’m just going to be here and now. But here and now has an incredible depth, it’s not just some surface thing where we ignore others.
People who undertake psychotherapy, participate in various workshops or practice certain spiritual ways are at some moment frustrated and disappointed as despite some results it doesn’t bring the feeling of wholeness and fulfilment. And now they are reading about here and now, about the true self. What can you advise them?
R.: Reading… as long as we are in concepts, we’re not going to be satisfied. Concepts just don’t go deep enough. They don’t transform our lives. The wholeness has to be directly experienced, not just read about. Readings are not a substitute for the actual experience. All these things could be so helpful but at the same time the question is how do we really break free of our deep narcissism. I use this word generally to cover a lot but that self-partiality, that self-absorption that we are so addicted to. So how do we really step free from this, how do we truly open our hearts.
A path to this could certainly have plenty of disappointments and frustrations in it. Psychotherapy is helpful in so many ways for making it possible for us to move ahead in our lives but it doesn’t question the basic premise of the separate self. It’s about healing this individual self, and it’s great, but it doesn’t take us past that, so we need to go deeper still to another level. It’s not just a gradual transformation but really waking from the dream of being a separate self. That’s radical and revolutionary and part of us won’t accept it or really resist it.
Why does this resistance appear?
R.: That’s because we have our own inner status quo. Even the most revolutionary cultural rebel is carrying in him or her this holding to some kind of familiar territory. Part of us resists a real change, dramatic transformation. It is like a revolutionary and a counter-revolutionary – one begets the other. As we open more, it seems to me, there is a counterforce. The deeper we go, the stronger it gets because part of us is afraid of a real change and frantically opposes it.
Maybe it is because of the idea that the change will not bring what it promises but rather make it worse? A lack of faith, some perceived risk. Maybe we need some proof of what is going to happen?
R.: I think it is really an important point because it is about trust, as you say. The trust that isn’t just there, it has to grow in us through navigating through these deeper waters. We gradually develop this trust. Most people don’t have it initially because part of us really believes in this sinful self, that we are bad and we are not worthy and that there is something wrong with us. Our defences have evolved to protect that centre, to keep that from coming out in lots of ways. We’ve learned to function looking away from this dark place at the centre of our being, given our culture, our Christian-Judeo viewpoint, most people will see it as something really dark and bad instead of this huge potential - like the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way, which is necessary for the galaxy to exist.
So we resist going into that unknown, for lots of reasons, but there can be huge fear connected with that, fear of what we’ll find and it shaking up for the whole organism. But the thing is that our life force is tied up exactly here. By always squashing it, pressing it down and burying deep we don’t allow this power, this amazing potential and power within us, this energy, to come forth and be activated in our lives. And that takes us to the question of why are people so tired.
R.: It’s amazing how much energy thoughts drain out of us. The times when our minds are busiest, we are preoccupied and worried, are the most exhausting. So as long as we live like that - and how many people don’t live like that now with all the stress, making enough money, doing things right and all of that? - as long as people’s minds are caught up like this we’re sapping our life force. To say, we’re using up all the fuel deep in the Earth, all this oil getting used up – we’re using it up right here in our own being. Destruction and degradation of the Earth and the oceans and the air is so mirrored in what we do in our own organism, in our own being. All of it is reflecting back and forth. We need to work on healing at all of these different levels. If we don’t heal ourselves we are just going to recreate the same kind of illness with the same kind of dysfunction in whatever we come up with next. Our own dysfunction is going to be evident in that.
Can you say something about how helping or serving others can make our life happier?
R.: We always listen to studies that people are happier if they’re doing something for others. Of course, that’s a pretty concrete way to crack out of our eggshell of self-absorption but the thing is our definition of self has to change. It’s because it’s not really true. When we imagine that the self is just this body-mind and it ends with our skin we’re set up for suffering. So when we help others – so-called others – we’re participating more fully in this truth that there is no separation. We are allowing our connection to function in our lives – how could we not be happier when we do that? So it seems pretty obvious that this would be a happier life because we’re living more in the truth of who we really are, which includes all these others.
Often women work for the benefit of others, take care of the family, children neighbours and everybody else but they are still unhappy and even burned out. Isn’t it a contradiction?
R.: Well, yes. There is living in connection with others and responding to what needs to be done but there is also the other side of being caught in a system where - particularly women, it seems - are carrying the burden of the society. It’s like a dysfunctional nuclear family. If it’s just a very small group of people, as a nuclear family, we still feel cut off. We need a connection with a larger group – such as in the idea expressed in saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, which villagers used to do and then children belonged the whole village and there was a sense of different kind of help and connection. Now it gets more and more compressed into nuclear families where - in our societies at least - there’s less and less support, financial, emotional, support for people’s care and it often falls on the women to do everything. Of course that’s the side of wanting to be good, wanting to please everyone, that’s part of our dysfunction. That’s obviously not a healthy thing.
So it is our attitude when we’re helping that’s important.
R.: Exactly! We can get into a trap if we’re thinking ‘I’m going to be compassionate. I’ve got to save this person’. If you’re thinking that you need to save someone then it’s them who need to be saved from you. That mission to save or to help is really based on that separation idea. Real compassion is just a natural outflow. It’s sometimes called compassion-less compassion because you recognise that that person is you too and you take care because it’s a natural thing to do. It’s like one hand taking care of the other hand. It’s not ‘me’ and ‘you’, which really leads to all kinds of problems that we have been talking about. And we have to be centred in our selves we have to feel whole and healthy and not totally exhausted, really take care of ourselves. If we just overdo it and get totally exhausted, how can we help anyone?
Be compassionate to ourselves.
Yes, right. Not making this distinction so that we just have to give everything to everybody but recognising that it means this body-mind too. It’s a part of the whole web.
Interview by Sandra Beczkiewicz in January 2015 in ZBZ "Bodhidharma " Zen Center in Warsaw. Text written down by Filip Szymborski and translated into polish.
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