Letting go – but not *too* much

Dealing with breakup pain, part twenty million:

I mentioned in a previous post that dealing with loss seems to come in stages. Grief is not grieving after one thing: rather there are many different things one has to come to terms with, all tangled up with each other.

The most recent pain I had in the last few days involved repeatedly recalling various good moments we had. It felt unclear to me what it was that I needed to do in order to absorb and integrate this pain: accept the fact that those moments were gone? But that didn’t seem to be it, and besides that was something that I felt I had processed already.

It turned out that it was kind of the opposite.

It was as if previously some part of my mind had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t have these kinds of moments with this person again. Now another part was saying something like “these moments were precious to us; and even though we are not going to have them with this person again, we wish to remember how good they were, and make sure that one day we’ll find something similar with some other person”.

The thing that the pain was calling my attention to, was in effect a reminder to not go too far in accepting my loss. A reminder to keep to thinking about the good moments and cherish them, lest I abandon the hope of finding something similar again.

And now that particular pain seems to be gone, the lesson having been learned and its message integrated to the rest of my mind.

No, I don’t think we need more existential terror

There’s a popular narrative that goes roughly like this: most of human history has been dangerous and uncertain, and that’s the kind of environment our minds work the best in. The reason why so many people these days are bored and depressed is because we’ve made the world *too* safe, we would actually be healthier and happier if the world was somewhat more dangerous and not so regular and boring.

I think that this narrative is intuitive, convincing, and mostly wrong, though it does have *some* truth to it.

Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an article which was arguing the above narrative, talking about a need for “mild existential terror”:

I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different possibilities: one, that mild existential terror makes us better off by itself. Two, that mild existential terror doesn’t actually contribute to well-being, but our work to protect against it historically did, and it’s us not needing that work anymore that’s the real culprit.

To take as an example one important component of well-being: meaningful relationships (not necessarily romantic). Hunting that tiger required working closely together, and being able to trust others in your hunting party – literally trusting them with your life. This facilitated – forced – the creation of very deep and intense bonds.

In contrast, these days it’s all too easy to drift through life without *needing* to form a close bond with anyone, because there are few existential terrors that we need to protect ourselves against by bonding together. But it’s not the existential terror, by itself, that causes the bonding. Inject some existential terror to the life of someone lonely and all you’ve done is make them even more miserable. Psychological research on people’s well-being finds the number and quality of close relationships to be one of the most important factors in well-being, not the amount of fear in their lives.

People can form bonds even without that terror, even quickly like with the “fast friends protocol” of just going through a series of increasing personal questions. Arguably the fast friends protocol, too, evokes a *bit* of fear by making people vulnerable to each other. But this is a mild enough fear that I wouldn’t put it in the same category.

Also, look at children: kids raised in healthy, loving homes, who’ve experienced the least amount of fear in their lives, tend to be pretty happy and content until they start getting thrown in unhealthy social environments (e.g. school) where they start developing worries and reasons for self-censorship and feelings that they’ll need to conform in order to fit in.

It’s the sudden appearance of existential fear that makes them worse off, not the lack of it.

When I was the most depressed, the problem was never “boredom”. The problem was feeling like I’d never achieve anything I wanted to, like I’d live in constant financial stress, like I’d never have a place where I’d feel I’d belong, like nobody would want me as a romantic partner. Again it was various kinds of existential fear that were hurting me, not the lack of them.

As I’ve started to recover, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that “being bored about life” isn’t really about having too few challenges. If you find things interesting, you’ll always discover new fascinating challenges. Rather the problem is in demanding too much of yourself, thinking that you need to self-censor in order to fit in, feeling ashamed about parts of yourself and wanting to suppress them. All things which cause you to (consciously or subconsciously) suppress your natural urges and your natural motivation to do things, and then you end up bored because you are not letting yourself be interested in any of the things that you are actually authentically interested in.

That, too, comes from a form of mild existential terror, the terror of not belonging unless you fit the mold X.

See also some interesting discussion on this on Facebook.

On tangled and layered grief

A thing you’d think I’d already have figured way earlier, but only became obvious to me after this latest breakup, is that there are stages of grief (other than the anger-denial-etc. ones).
 
A number of times, I’ve felt like I’d already gotten through the pain… Only for it to come up again, with me getting increasingly frustrated – “didn’t I process this already?”
 
Fact is, I think I did. It’s just that the way we talk about grief is a little misleading. Grief is not one big monolithic block that you just “get over” as one; rather there may be a number of different issues that are painful. They are separate but tangled up with each other, and you aren’t truly “over it” until you have processed them *all*.
 
Things that I’ve processed so far are at least:
  • coming to accept that this would never work as the kind of idealized relationship I’d been imagining as
  • coming to accept that while it working out as a *different* kind of relationship wouldn’t have been impossible earlier, it’s too late for that now
  • coming to accept that there were some simple mistakes that I made during the relationship that would have been easy to avoid and which could have made a huge difference to how things turned out; but which are pointless to dwell on now
  • coming to accept the loss of all the concrete good moments we had before things went sour, and the loss of that shared hope and excitement for the future that we had (this is the one my mind seems to be focused on working on right now)
As well as a few others that I think I’ve mostly gotten over, but which feel too private to mention.
 
I don’t know whether there will still be more. But it’s comforting to realize that I’m at least making progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

Meditation instructions for self-compassion

I really liked, and have gotten a lot out of, the self-compassion advice in the book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness.

First, on the general attitude and approach:

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.’ ‘If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.’ Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, ‘If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.’ ‘If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.’ And ‘If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.’

But loving-kindness – maitri – toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything, Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. […]

Sometimes among Buddhists the word ego is used in a derogatory sense, with a different connotation than the Freudian term. As Buddhists, we might say, ‘My ego causes me so many problems.’ Then we might think, ‘Well, then, we’re supposed to get rid of it, right? Then there’d be no problem.’ On the contrary, the idea isn’t to get rid of ego but actually to begin to take an interest in ourselves, to investigate and be inquisitive about ourselves. […]

This is not an improvement plan; it is not a situation in which you try to be better than you are now. If you have a bad temper and you feel that you harm yourself and others, you might think that sitting for a week or a month will make your bad temper go away – you will be that sweet person that you always wanted to be. Never again will a harsh word leave your lily-white lips, The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom. Someone who is very angry also has a lot of energy; that energy is what’s so juicy about him or her. That’s the reason people love that person. The idea isn’t to try to get rid of your anger, but to make friends with it, to see it clearly with precision and honesty, and also to see it with gentleness. That means not judging yourself as a bad person, but also not bolstering yourself up by saying, ‘It’s good that I’m this way, it’s right that I’m this way. Other people are terrible, and I’m right to be so angry at them all the time.’ The gentleness involves not repressing the anger but also not acting it out. It is something much softer and more open-hearted than any of that. It involves learning how, once you have fully acknowledged the feeling of anger and the knowledge of who you are and what you do, to let it go. You can let go of the usual pitiful little story line that accompanies anger and begin to see clearly how you keep the whole thing going. So whether it’s anger or craving or jealousy or fear or depression – whatever it might be – the notion is not to try to get rid of it, but to make friends with it. That means getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.

And then on the specific instructions for self-compassionate meditation:

The technique is, first, to take good posture and, second, to become mindful of your out-breath. This is just your ordinary out-breath, not manipulated or controlled in any way. Be with the breath as it goes out, feel the breath go out, touch the breath as it goes out. Now, this seems simple, but to actually be with that breath and to be there for every breath requires a lot of precision. When you sit down and begin to meditate, the fact that you always come back to that breath brings out the precision, the clarity, and the accuracy of your mind. Just the fact that you always come back to this breath and that you try, in a gentle way, to be as fully with the breath as you can sharpens your mind.

The third part of the technique is that, when you realize that you’ve been thinking, you say to yourself, ‘Thinking.’ Now, that also requires a lot of precision. Even if you wake up as if from a dream and realize that you’ve been thinking, and you immediately go back to the breath and accidentally forget about the labeling, even then you should just pause a little bit and say to yourself, ‘Thinking.’ Use the label, because the label is so precise. Just acknowledge that you’ve been thinking, just that, no more, no less, just ‘thinking.’ Being with the out-breath cultivates the precision of your mind, and when you label, that too brings out the precision of your mind. Your mind becomes more clear and stabilized. As you sit, you might want to be aware of this.

If we emphasized only precision, our meditation might become quite harsh and militant. It might get too goal-oriented. So we also emphasize gentleness. One thing that is very helpful is to cultivate an overall sense of relaxation while you are doing the meditation. I think you’ll notice that as you become more mindful and more aware and awake, you begin to notice that your stomach tends to get very tense and your shoulders tend to get very tight. It helps a lot if you notice this and then purposely relax your stomach, relax your shoulders and your neck. If you find it difficult to relax, just gradually, patiently, gently work with it. […]

The moment when you label your thoughts ‘thinking’ is probably the key place in the technique where you cultivate gentleness, sympathy, and loving-kindness. Rinpoche used to say, ‘Notice your tone of voice when you say “thinking.”’ It might be really harsh, but actually it’s just a euphemism for ‘Drat! You were thinking again, gosh darn it, you dummy.’ You might really be saying, ‘You fool, you absolutely miserable meditator, you’re hopeless.’ But it’s not that at all. All that’s happened is that you’ve noticed. Good for you, you actually noticed! You’ve noticed that mind thinks continuously, and it’s wonderful that you’ve seen that. Having seen it, let the thoughts go. Say, ‘Thinking.’ If you notice that you’re being harsh, say it a second time just to cultivate the feeling that you could say it to yourself with gentleness and kindness, in other words, that you are cultivating a nonjudgmental attitude. You are not criticizing yourself, you are just seeing what is with precision and gentleness, seeing thinking as thinking. That is how this technique cultivates not only precision but also softness, gentleness, a sense of warmth toward oneself. The honesty of precision and the goodheartedness of gentleness are qualities of making friends with yourself. So during this period, along with being as precise as you can, really emphasize the softness. If you find your body tensing, relax it. If you find your mind tensing, relax it. Feel the expansiveness of the breath going out into the space. When thoughts come up, touch them very lightly, like a feather touching a bubble. Let the whole thing be soft and gentle, but at the same time precise. […]

You may have wondered why we are mindful of our out-breath and only our out-breath. Why don’t we pay attention to the out-breath and the in-breath? There are other excellent techniques that instruct the meditator to be mindful of the breath going out and mindful of the breath coming in. That definitely sharpens the mind and brings a sense of one-pointed, continuous mindfulness, with no break in it. But in this meditation technique, we are with the out-breath; there’s no particular instruction about what to do until the next out-breath. Inherent in this technique is the ability to let go at the end of the out-breath, to open at the end of the out-breath, because for a moment there’s actually no instruction about what to do. There’s a possibility of what Rinpoche used to call ‘gap’ at the end of the out-breath: you’re mindful of your breath as it goes out, and then there’s a pause as the breath comes in. It’s as if you … pause. It doesn’t help at all to say, ‘Don’t be mindful of the in-breath’ – that’s like saying, ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’ When you’re told not to be mindful of something, it becomes an obsession. Nevertheless, the mindfulness is on the out-breath, and there’s some sense of just waiting for the next out-breath, a sense of no project. One could just let go at the end of the out-breath. Breath goes out and dissolves, and there could be some sense of letting go completely. Nothing to hold on to until the next out-breath.

Even though it’s difficult to do, as you begin to work with mindfulness of the out-breath, then the pause, just waiting, and then mindfulness of the next out-breath, the sense of being able to let go gradually begins to dawn on you. So don’t have any high expectations – just do the technique. As the months and years go by, the way you regard the world will begin to change.