“Neurotics are people who refuse to suffer,” said Carl Jung, referring to people who will engage in all manner of mental analysis, obsession, and delusion rather than actually experience painful feelings like grief, disappointment, and loss. Most of us are trained to think more than we are trained to feel or sense, and life serves up all kinds of opportunties to think neurotically–trying to think their way past the experience of being lost, not knowing which way to turn, suddenly losing interest or momentum. I’ve experienced this as a writer, getting stuck working and reworking a few paragraphs rather than forging ahead into the unknown. I’ve experienced it in the much larger project of seeking the best way to spend a life. What should I do next? What should I do so can I connect with reality in the most complete and vibrant way?
I’m thinking of these things because my daughter is home and debating about what to do after her senior year of college. But this state of facing the unknown–and trying to paper over the feeling that brings with all kinds of fretful thinking–is pervasive. When are concentrating on work, when the writing or studies are flowing along, say, or when we are meditating or practicing yoga or running or otherwise concentrating, we may feel as if we have left our cramped ordinary lives for a much larger world. But what happens when we leave that special state? As much as I thought I would never say such a precious-sounding thing, I’m beginning to realize that what we call a spiritual path or practice–and what we call life–really is a journey. A journey includes the call to adventure, the call to go find a better, larger world, and sometimes a refusal of the call to enter a new world. And after the initial marvel of it, it includes the need to scope out the territory, to find allies and guides, and also enemies.
Sometimes (often) neurotic (habitual) thinking is the enemy. Thinking cannot bear the suffering of being lost and finding a way. I once read somewhere the word “lost” came from a Norse word that means to disband an army (readers are welcome to confirm or deny). After we enter the special world, whether it’s morning meditation or a university, there comes a time when we must wander defenseless, not sure what comes next. The body might be willing to be here now like good old loyal dog but the head can be very unwilling or incapable of focusing on what on the present moment. It wants to skip ahead and think about the future, or think about what might have happened if only this happened and that didn’t happen. It might think everything would be better if there were scrambled eggs instead of granola or be restless and worried, or angry, or full of doubts. In other words, here we are seeking out a better, larger life and the head still wants to behave in the habitual neurotic way, running the show, filling every space. This has to be accepted.
The body seeks to protect us from being defenseless against a river of suffering that doesn’t seem to stop with me. It seems to stretch back in time, that was inherited with this body from our ancestors. It can be very frightening to think of facing and potentially expressing this much suffering (even for people whose ancestors were not savage Vikings). Thich Nhat Hahn has said that suffering and ignorance live in every cell of our body. It can be very frightening to feel that there is so much potential to hurt in us–even if you don’t worry that if you let it out you could go, well, Viking.
From a Buddhist perspective, all kinds of understandings and truths live coiled in us like icons waiting to be triggered or (to Thich Nhat Hahn) seeds waiting to be watered. When someone or something triggers an icon or seed of hurt or anger, a seed of anger or hurt will manifest in consciousness as the mental formation of anger. A formation is anything that is created by many conditions coming together. It can be a physical formation, a sensory formation, mental formation. As conditions arise that trigger these formations, the world we experience is created. There are moments when we sense this, especially moments when we are in between things, moments when we feel lost. This state can be extremely disillusioning. It can be like scenes in the movie The Matrix where Neo wakes up to the way reality is artifically generated.
How can we relate to such a state? What ally or guidance can help me–beyond the pale and repetitive mirage of thought? According to the Buddhists, the first steps on the path towards waking up are understanding and intention–we have to own the nature of reality and we have to resolve to be free in the midst of it. How on earth can we do that?
“But just as suffering is present in every cell of our body, so are the seeds of awakened understanding and happiness handed down to us from our ancestors,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. “We just have to use them. We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile…”
I don’t have such a peaceful smile, but I take his point. We can try, even for a minute a day, to glimpse what is really happening. While we are walking or eating or doing or not doing anything that puts us in that “in between” place, we can embrace what is arising–including neurotic thinking and the hurt or anger or fear that is under it–intending to investigate its true nature. What can carry us forward is the intention and understanding that there is bound to be more–that there must be more tobe discovered about reality than what is contained in our usual thoughts.
How can we be sure of this? According to discourses found in both the Theravada and Chinese Buddhist canon, the Noble Eightfold Path was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha during his quest for enlightenment. The scriptures describe an ancient path which has been followed and practiced by all the previous Buddhas. The Noble Eightfold Path is a practice said to lead its practitioner toward self-awakening and liberation. The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it. But isn’t it amazing to consider that he discovered it in this very body, in this very life? I mean, the seeds of enlightenment are in each of us. The way isn’t up and out of this mess that our life can sometimes seem, but down, down, down under the thoughts and into the heart of it.