Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

September 5, 2007—September 17, 2007

September 5, 2007
Leafing through the anthology Transforming Suffering, I came across a comment I had forgotten from a contributor, Stephanie Kaza. She points out that “the judgmental, dualistic mind adds unworthiness on top of inadequacy. It’s this dualism of good/bad that weighs me down, not the actual inadequacy. It has been important to realize that having inadequacies does not make me unworthy. Inadequacy is a fact of life; unworthiness is the added burden we construct for ourselves.” In the past couple of weeks before Bettina returned to work, we both were inadequate to the challenges of physical pain and its limitations, record heat, insufficient sleep, disruption of our routines, especially the lovely routine of our long walks, wanting to incorporate into our home life the positive changes we each experienced during our vacation, all while trying to meet the other’s needs. For me, at least, my sense of unworthiness emerged from my childhood storehouse as it hadn’t in decades.

I can see now how sweet and refreshing, how simple, really, if I could have only fully acknowledged inadequacy—which I did again and again—without the add-on of unworthiness.

September 7, 2007
I talked with Sande about how I have been experiencing the emergence of Little Cynthia, long buried in my storehouse except for occasional pop-ups when I am especially exhausted or in pain. She comes up as the little sister, in anxiety and sorrow.

This morning I did a metta chanting at home. At the end, I began to hold Little Cynthia’s sorrow to me, and found myself chanting, “I will not turn away from your sorrow, I will not turn away from your sorrow.

In staying with Little Cynthia’s sorrow, I could see how profoundly different this was from the “hook”—the shen pa—that holds us to ancient feelings as they arise.

When we are “hooked” we are pulled into a narrow windowless room of sorrow—or anger or fear or desire—where breathing becomes more difficult, and in that confining room the sorrow rules.

When we do not turn away, when we give sorrow the permission to go on as long as it wishes, forever if it needs to, we are not its slavish follower. We are inviting the sorrow, by the largeness of our compassion, to enter a larger space—close to our heart but a space that ultimately has no walls, that has the power to expand us rather than constrict us.

September 9, 2007
The other day, looking outside our apartment window I was amazed to see that the dead brown leaves of one of the branches of that now-famous ornamental pear tree were turned a deep scarlet red. I stood there marveling at this transformation—my mind couldn’t handle it. Of course in seconds I decided that somehow the low hanging summer sun shining through the leaves had created this glowing color, though I had to step outside onto the balcony to make sure. Still, the miracle has stayed with me, as if I were St. Francis seeing the fruit tree in bloom in winter.

Later I saw it as a koan:
“What color is a brown leaf when it’s red?”

That experience, that koan, the understanding that there is no color, the simultaneous understanding that there are thousands of possible colors belonging transiently to any one object at any one time—colors which emerge depending on whether it is you who are perceiving or the man across the street or a dog or the dog across the street or an insect or a lion—bring us face to face with the understanding that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

This is the kind of scientific/spiritual presentation that belongs in our curriculum of September 12, 2007. It’s not enough to tell children that insects see color differently from Us—which neatly keeps Us at the center of the universe and makes the insect the deviant. We need to present color from the perspective of the object itself, so that the children understand, not the oddness of insects, but the underlying reality of no color/a thousand colors.

September 12, 2007
Since September 7, I’ve given a lot of attention to Little Cynthia’s sorrow. I had believed I had processed my childhood enough, and mostly I think I have. But the past week has shown me that there was a chunk that I have never dealt with, and it has shocked me by its sudden appearance, triggered by the difficult time Bettina and I experienced after our return from vacation, when—because of an intense combination of causes and conditions—both Little Bettina and Little Cynthia emerged.

On September 7, by holding Little Cynthia, and by giving her sorrow the right to remain and not be hustled off, I was confronted that afternoon with a sorrow even earlier than that of the little girl. I felt an overpowering primal urgency to hold Little Cynthia as a baby. I was walking in Balboa Park, and if I could have gone home and grabbed a pillow I would have done so—not out of some therapeutic theory that that would be a good thing to do, but out of a sudden need that took my breath away by its force. The need was so great that, having no pillow, I went to the trunk of the car, grabbed a bulky package of toilet paper from the grocery store and sat in the driver’s seat clutching it awkwardly in my arms. The size, the plastic wrapping made the hug less than satisfactory, but the power of the impulse took me somewhere I’d never been except in my intellect, where I’ve known the unremarkable facts: that my birth, as a girl, was a huge disappointment; that my mother couldn’t breastfeed me, and more, that she belonged to the generation of women who were told by male doctors that a crying infant shouldn’t be picked up; more, I knew that she was not a woman who would have crept in to hold me in secret defiance of the experts. On September 7, I learned on a cellular level that my attention must go to the reality that, even from the very beginning of my life, I had been without love.

A day or so later, after chanting some metta wishes, I heard myself, without thought, and to my surprise, speaking aloud to Little Cynthia: “You were really brave.”

Such a thought has been entirely foreign to me—I’ve always seen my childhood so differently. However much I believed I knew that “nobody was there for me,” that the different attention to my sister and myself was scandalous, knew my anger, had transcended it with forgiveness, was, in fact, bored with my story so often had I rehearsed it, I have continued to feel some minor embarassment that while my sister, center of attention that she was, was tough, didn’t cry if she was punished, had “tantrums,” the images that came to mind when I thought of Little Cynthia were wimpy ones: a little girl crying a lot, pestering her big sister for her attention, feeling self-pity. As my sister used to say, “You’re nothing but a crybaby.”

When I realized I was on to something with that remarkable word “brave”, I called on my friend Mannie for co-counseling. The session with her transformed my childhood forever. I saw that Little Cynthia:

Couldn’t have tantrums to protest—that dramatic role was already taken by her sister. What she could do—and did do—to survive was to register her grief, through her tears, and to give herself comfort and understanding. What I have been calling “self-pity” was compassion, the compassion that nobody else was offering.

Banged on her sister’s locked door, “Let me in! Let me in!” knowing how important it was for someone to let her into their heart. But nobody did, so she wept for that. The only person to validate her feelings was herself.

Living in the arctic on frozen ground, could have become frozen herself—she often felt cold even in the Baltimore sunshine—but her tears of grief that nobody attended to, melted the ice and kept her emotional life alive (Mannie pointed out that it is possible that my mother, who said she never cried, was a frozen person).

Couldn’t, with the limitations of her attention disorder, and the absence of parental attention, have taught herself to paint or make model airplanes or embroider or play the flute. Hard enough to read and write, the activities most valued in her home. She did teach herself interpretative dance to express the emotions she had no other way to express. Her aunt, on a visit, said that Little Cynthia’s dancing “moved her to tears”, but the child that Little Cynthia was didn’t move anyone to notice.  

Was brave to keep attending to herself, to keep hanging in when nothing and nobody gave her the least clue about how to do it—how to be.

I see clearly now that while I have richly validated my adult self, I—like my family of origin—had never fully validated Little Cynthia. The evening after my session with Mannie, I wanted to share this important change with Bettina, and I was surprised to find a great resistance, not wanting to talk about it and even not being able to remember what I had uncovered. I told her that I would tell her about it “just intellectually”, without going directly back into the feelings. When I started, I began sobbing as maybe never before in my life, sobbing from the absolute core of my being. There was so much knowledge there, access to a larger reality. Later I could see that, by not validating Little Cynthia, I protected myself from knowing fully just how extreme the isolation, the emotional deprivation, of my childhood was. I was afraid to reopen the validation of Little Cynthia with Bettina because I was afraid of where it might, where it did in fact, lead me to: the opening of the vastness of that isolation and deprivation. These sobs were not the sobs of Little Cynthia. They were the sobs of the adult Cynthia, taking in for the first time with the fullness of compassion just what that icy world was like for this child.

Without the difficulties with Bettina, stirring up my childhood storehouse, I believe I would never have found my way there—nothing in my life as a single woman could, I think, have carried me back so powerfully to the feelings of childhood.

So how can we say which experiences are negative and which are positive? when we are moving “forward” and when “backward”? Whenever we move “backward” as I did a few weeks ago, surely that is our signal that there is something rich for us waiting to be learned that can sweep us “forward.”

September 17, 2007
Bettina and I have each given special attention to Little Bettina and Little Cynthia during this past week. It set me thinking about the Little Selves in each of us. Buddhists often speak of the “small self” as contrasted with the large self of buddhahood, but the “little self” is not often identified as being literally the suffering of the child within us—our responses to the painful conditioning, the fears of abandonment, the rages underneath our annoyances, the protections of our Little Sally or Little Juan.

When the suffering of our Little Selves is quickly and painfully activated, many of us—women, at least—tend to assume that everyone else suffers in similar ways. Often we become unusually protective of others, fearful to “hurt their feelings,” or otherwise to trigger in them the kinds of emotions that are so difficult for ourselves.

Of course it is true that many people we encounter may be reacting, like ourselves, to what others do and say with extreme pain that is residual from childhood. The problem is that those of us who are caught up in the pain and fear from the destructive forces faced by our own Little Selves often assume that others are triggered by the same words and actions as we are. But since we all had different childhoods, what activates the suffering of my Little Cynthia may not be the same thing that activates your Little Sylvia. I am very careful not to close a door loudly in your house because in my house my alcoholic father slammed the door on his way out, and a door closing loudly awakens fear in me, while you could care less about slammed doors, but feel a deep klesha because I interrupted you when nobody in your family let you finish a sentence and being interrupted fills you with anger.

We cannot anticipate the Little Selves in others. Still, almost all of us share one suffering from our childhoods—the suffering from the judgmentalism of our parents and others. If we can address our own Little Selves without judgmentalism, we are far more likely not to be judgmental of others. The more we relate to them from our Buddha selves instead of out of the suffering of our Little Selves, the less likely it is that we will awaken pain and fear and anger in others—without our feeling any special need to protect them.

When we relate to others from our childhood pain, whether we are protecting them or speaking harshly to them, we are actually not relating to them at all—they do not exist for us. We are relating to ourselves, and reacting to a mother, a grandfather, a sibling from our past, and so we create a field of confusion and unreality.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I think a good approach to our kleshas might be to go immediately to our Little Self and give her the best comfort we can offer. For example, if we are afraid to fly, and feel anxiety arise before we go on board, instead of talking to our adult self, “Look don’t be silly, you’re safer than you would be on the road,” we might recognize that the fear comes from the lack of control that our Little Self encountered, and offer her the kind of loving comfort and reassurance we would if we were traveling with a badly frightened little child. Because we are.