Simple Presence Takes Practice

5 Ways to Live the Zen Life
Caught Tail
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I really need to get a hold of myself…”

After I wrote This Endless Moment, I sent copies out for review and comment. One of my friends e‑mailed me with the idea of talking about what I am ‘in,’ as compared to what I have ‘learned’—in other words,

to talk about my process for dealing with my issues or problems.

OK. Here we go. I notice that my process, over the years, has not shifted much at all. I torture myself in one or two familiar ways—this is one of those slippery insights—we don’t have a lot of issues.

In general, there is:

The process—a single, overriding pattern or dysfunction—the ‘thing that doesn’t work,’

and

The content—the topic of the day—the details—how the current drama ‘presents itself.’

Because our minds are looking for complexity as opposed to Simple Presence, we resist the idea that the ‘many, many’ issues we think we have are the same issue, in different guises. My favourite way of saying this is, “Baskin Robbins has 31 flavours(content), and they are all Ice Cream (process).”

My ‘single’ issue is that I endlessly choose to create a sense of
dis-satisfaction, as in ‘never satisfied.’

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that “Life is suffering.” The word translated ‘suffering’ is dukkha, which is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘unsatisfactoriness.’ When you translate the statement as, “Life is unsatisfactoriness,” you see that the concept flows both ways.

On the one hand, we could say that life is unsatisfactory, in its intrinsic nature—that the nature of life is to suffer. On the other hand, we could look at the sentence and think, “Life itself is neutral, and I suffer because I choose to judge it unsatisfactory.”

Let me draw a word picture.

My internal, ‘how I am feeling’ thermostat setting—what I consider ‘normal’ for me—is what I describe as “Melancholy.” Now, I certainly have, for periods, felt differently. My deep nature, though, is to feel sad or melancholy—extremes in either direction are aberrations.

When I go off the rails, I first have a judgement that I shouldn’t feel how I feel, and then I look around to find something external to blame for how I feel. I thus move from melancholy (my nature) to unsatisfactory (my explanation and judgement.)

Here’s an example of me playing this game: one weekend, Darbella was wondering aloud about our upcoming retirement adventure in Costa Rica. She described really, really wanting to go, and how that was not yet happening. I listened to her talk about her imaginings about the future, and initially I maintained Simple Presence. I reminded myself that the future is never here, that worrying about it is actually worrying about figments of our imagination, and I suggested we discuss what, if anything, we could do ‘right now.’

So far, all well and good. Then, the ‘little voice’ of my ego kicked in.

The ego’s job is to maintain the status quo, to point out ‘our failures,’ and to assign external blame. Egos love misery. This time, my ego used lines like,

This is your fault. You should work harder. You should make this happen. Get a job. No one likes you anyway, and you’re not helping anyone.”

I felt my ‘self’ slide down an old and familiar ‘slide.’ I made myself quite miserable. Rather than sit at home and stew, I decided to get out of the house, and be miserable elsewhere. So we went for a drive to check out a restaurant we had been meaning to try. The town is a lovely place, right on Ontario’s Grand River, and is near where my first training placement was in 1981–82, as I studied to be a therapist.

We sat in a coffee shop, on a beautiful spring day, overlooking the mighty Grand, sipping lattes. Darbella talked some more about Costa Rica. Then, she asked me how my mood was.

I told her, and I really milked it. Since the town was a familiar place for me, I told Dar I’d been beating myself up about how little I’d accomplished since I was a student there in 1981. I told Dar that I was a failure—that, in ’81, I never imagined that I would be where I was today, woe is me. I whined about the miserable and broken state of everything and everyone in the Universe—and how all of it was entirely my fault. I won’t bore you with all the details, but as usual I concluded by stating that I was going to stop writing, stop counselling, close shop, and go live under a bridge.

Dar sat and listened. And gave me a hug.

This is my pattern—this is how I make myself miserable.

This time, the ostensible topic (the content) was money, bills, timing and Costa Rica, but it could have just as easily been about client numbers, publishing, or whatever. I took this ‘seed content,’ and escalated it—this is how I create the very familiar feeling of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ for myself—I take a neutral bit of content and awfulize it, add to it, and create more and more sadness.

Here’s the interesting part. I go off the rails by thinking that any of the things I am making myself miserable over are either ‘real’ or ‘true.’ Simple Presence is knowing that the game I play in my head is a part of my present reality. My reality is not found in the content—the details—the story I tell myself.

My reality is nothing more than the game itself, for as long as I chose to play it.

Back to the coffee shop. Rather than get into the ‘rightness or wrong­ness’ of the stories I was inventing, I needed to first notice, and then report the game itself. It was essential, then, that I shared what I was doing with someone—and that someone, for me, is Darbella. I do not do this to get her to ‘fix me’ (she can’t) or to make it all go away (she can’t, and there was nothing happening ‘right now’ that needed to go away—it was all a figment of my imagination.)

My job, using total honesty, was to share with Dar the story I was telling myself.

I admit freely that I am quite good at torturing myself. I am also quite good at letting go, exiting my stories, and getting back to ‘reality.’ And reality, for me, is often melancholy.

I have learned to communicate in the ‘here-and-now,’ even when my ‘here-and-now’ focus is on the stories in my head, which, by definition, are always about past and future. As I share my crazy-making internal theatre in the ‘here-and-now,’ as opposed to clamming up or placing blame, the edge comes off of the stuff I am telling myself.

Darbella and I listen to each other with little judgement and no need to rush in and fix.

Do I want to rescue? Of course! I love Dar, and do not like seeing her hurting. I recognize, however, that there is nothing I can do, inside of her head. That’s hers—I am curious, and not responsible for what’s happening inside of her.

I do not scare myself over Dar’s stuff, and so far, she hasn’t scared herself over mine. This is a skill that requires practice—sitting with another without judgement or the need to rescue. We prac­tice this all the time.

I am aware of what I do inside of me, and I stop ‘unsatisfactoriness-making’ when I choose to stop. And then, because I am me, I do the whole thing again. Do I want rescue? Of course! And I know that rescue is impossible.

The practice part is, ‘practice until you die.’ There is no cure for how we abuse ourselves—other than death, which finally shuts our ego up. There is only noticing our drama-making, and then shifting how we act.

Have a look at ‘all’ of your issues, and see if there is not an underlying theme of ‘unsatisfactoriness-making’ going on (hint: there is!) Notice all of your self-justifications, the blaming, and the finger pointing. Then, have a breath, and remind yourself that all of this is nothing more than a game you are playing in your head.

Hold yourself and your internal processes gently. Find someone with whom to share your games and dramas. Let him or her know that you do not expect them to ‘fix’ you, as you are not broken. Be honest. Be brave. Let go.

And be gentle when you do it to yourself, all over again.

This is important! You cannot think about something current. As soon as you try, your imagination takes over, and as you dissect the thought, the experience in the ‘real world,’ has passed. Thus, as time goes by, you are thinking about an event that happened further and further in the past. Therefore, your current activity is “thinking about the past.” The same thing happens when you imagine the future, except in this case, it’s pure fantasy.


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So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web’s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press
5 Ways to Live the Zen Life
Caught Tail

2 thoughts on “Simple Presence Takes Practice”

  1. I really really liked your article! How clean, clear, honest and oh so real! If you come to Costa Rica, give me a ring! I live here for 20 years.

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