Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

January 8, 2011—February 20, 2011

January 8, 2011
The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as “a particular system of faith and worship.” Both religion and family are systems. Within the system of religion, transcendent and transformative spirituality can exist, carrying us beyond the particular system. Within the system of family, mudita, true compassion, egolessness can find expression, carrying us beyond that little family system. The problem is with the system, since all systems are rigid, limiting, culture-bound (and so, in most cultures, made by men). So while both religion and family should be vehicles to set us on the path to transcendence and transformation, they instead become confining spaces. The close family becomes the closed family. Religion, that should be the gateway to our most expansive experience of interconnection, becomes the barrier to identification with others.

February 12, 2011
In co-counseling today with Bettina a way occurred to me of reframing the sense that some people have that they are not lovable. What has happened to create that sense is exactly the reverse—it was the child who was lovable and the parental figures who were unlovable. They were unlovable because they were so caught up in their own distress that they could neither love the child nor receive love from her—if they sometimes seemed pleased by her expressions of love those expressions were pleasing to the ego and not received by the heart. For the child, the love she gave and her openness to receive love—so often disappointed—travelled through her heart, often leaving a path of pain. She was the lovable one, worthy of love and fully capable of receiving it. In their withholding, the parental figures were cruelly unlovable.

The adult who cannot shake her sense of unlovableness needs to take in deeply this reversal, as Bettina did today, able for the first time to feel how wrong her parents and stepmother were, how unworthy of Little Bettina’s love.

We also touched on the question of forgiveness in a new way. They cannot be forgiven for a simple reason—their crime was against Little Bettina, and she is no longer around to forgive them. Nothing they could do or say today can make it up to the little girl. She lives on only in Bettina’s heart, and Bettina’s work for now is to show that child how lovable she always was, not to forgive the unlovable ones. At a later time adult Bettina can appreciate what forces made them unlovable, can even see what turned them from lovable children to unlovable adults, can even someday feel lovingkindness towards them for the suffering that so distorted their capacity to give and receive love. To know that they were unlovable is not to hold on to hate and anger, except for the righteous anger that says, You had no right to treat that lovable child in that cruel way.

What makes this process congruent with a Buddhist path is that it corrects a delusion that the vulnerable child almost always takes on: If I had been better/ It wasn’t really that bad. It takes our adult self to intervene, to show the child that at last somebody sees clearly that she was always fine, that she did not deserve the abuse or neglect, that it was indeed that bad.

February 14, 2011
For Valentine’s Day: Yogic wisdom asks us to embrace the reality that our life contains ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. It seems helpful to bring this more abstract reminder to bear on our relationships, especially our lovers, spouses, partners, where the joys and sorrows often seem magnified by coexistence and by our expectations from them. The joys may be so intense that we begin to believe that they are the only reality, so when the sorrows emerge they are experienced as shocking intruders that have no legitimate place. We gain equanimity and peace in our intimate relationships by reminding ourselves in times of joy as well as sorrow that it is natural and true to the essential nature of life that our dear friend or lover will bring us an intermingling of joys and sorrows. As with the rest of our daily lives, the more lightly we hold our joys, the more we let go of expectations, the more our relationships can bring us the more peaceful, far more dependable fulfillment of bliss.

February 20, 2011
It becomes clearer to me that mental illness is not a category that separates some of us from others whom we can consider “normal.” A New Yorker article on Scientology explains in detail a system of beliefs and practices so complex and bizarre that it makes the most extreme beliefs and practices of any of the world’s religions seem perfectly understandable and attractive. At the same time, the article makes clear that Scientologists are people who function normally and often very effectively in society.

Today I listened to a radio journalist who has studied the Phelps Family—100 family members who constitute a church whose principal belief is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuals, and who travel around the country to picket at the funerals of soldiers, with signs declaring that God hates faggots. Before he investigated, the journalist, like myself, believed that the family were backwoods wackos. He discovered that out of Phelps’ 13 children, 11 are lawyers, and one is so successful in Tulsa that many people who do not share the Phelps’ views hire her. Like the Scientologists, apart from their belief and the practice it leads them to, they are apparently solidly mainstream.

I thought of Rick, who takes excellent and sensible care of his pets, his garden, himself, while he believes that Bettina has broken into his apartment and stolen his clothes, and comes to pound on our door shouting that Bettina and I will both go to prison.

Which beliefs—and the practices that follow from them—mark us as mentally ill? At what point do our beliefs become mental illness even while we seem, in other aspects of our lives, to be what the world calls “normal”?

I see now that the answers from Buddhism are: all of them and at the start. I begin to see mental illness as a spectrum and that each of us belongs on that spectrum—with each of us at different moments standing at different places on the spectrum of insanity. There are the Scientologists, the Phelpses and Rick, and I recall myself somewhere on that spectrum last spring (April 12, 2010), as I believed that my neighbor Elsie, who reminded me of my narcissistic family and Bettina’s narcissistic mother, must also be a narcissist, and must be behaving in the same self-absorbed, uncaring way towards her daughter. Caught in that belief, my feelings towards her were, however briefly, murderously angry. My practice kept one part of me in awareness, knowing all along that there was a kind of craziness that had entered by being, and still my belief ruled my feelings. By staying doggedly with the awareness and digging deeper into the source of my feelings, I could—after a week or so—free myself from that particular insanity. Without awareness, I would have moved closer on the spectrum to the Scientologists, the Phelpses and Rick.

At the very end of the spectrum of mental illness, are all the “normal” people carrying their less dramatic stories (Molly didn’t call me because of what I said Tuesday night, Jack is after my job) or their “normal” beliefs (every woman should have a mammogram, I am an alcoholic, this table is solid, the earth goes around the sun) without realizing that when we believe them with conviction and attachment instead of holding them as possibilities or probabilities we are denying the nature of reality (it is unknown) and join, if only for a time, the Scientologist, the Phelps family, Rick on the spectrum of mental illness.