Buddha and Byron Katie, I Respectfully Disagree With You
As some of you know, I just finished a 10-day personal retreat.
I started the day after Christmas and ended on January 5. Right before the Epiphany. I didn’t realize that until now, as I’m writing this, but the timing seems fitting. As legend has it, those were the 10 days that it took the three kings to reach the baby Jesus and to offer gifts of honor and gratitude.
During my journey, I had an epiphany of my own.
I was truly surprised to discover something that apparently contradicts one of the main messages of this blog – the idea that our thoughts are the key to liberation, that our mind can free us or imprison us.
As a card-carrying Buddhist, I ascribe to the essential teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the most essential of which is that our view creates our reality. My friend Sandra Pawula, of Always Well Within, just wrote a masterful post on this subject: “True Happiness Begins with the Right View.” Sandra has offered a great gift to us by breaking down Buddhist teachings into a clear, easy to understand language that many will be able to relate to even if you never feel the need to pick up a book on Buddhism.
Lately, I’ve been talking with another friend about the teachings of Byron Katie. Much like the Buddha, Katie created something called “The Work,” a process of inquiry that helps us to identify and question the thoughts that cause us suffering. She offers four questions to help us in this process (which I have found to be very helpful):
- Is your problem (or story) true?
- Can you really know it’s true?
- Can you find a peaceful reason to believe it?
- Who would you be without it?
For many years, I’ve been on board with this approach – that our thoughts create our reality.
But what I began to uncover during my retreat was another, co-existing truth.
During this period of deep inner exploration, I experienced that there are times when it’s not my mind that is bringing about suffering — it is an emotional and visceral experience that’s not connected to a belief or a thought.
To say more about this, I need to tell you a little about what it means to develop a relationship with our Inner Child.
Before I do that, though, I have to ‘fess up that I have a bias against therapy and a great deal of psychology, even though one of my earlier careers involved a lot of training and practice in psychology and counseling. My later education as an anthropologist helped to widen my lens significantly and I have often felt impatient with what I see as the rather limited view of a lot of psychological modalities which don’t take into account the social, political, and cultural constructs that we live in and that condition our lives.
So, whenever I’ve seen books or article about Inner Child work, I secretly pooh-poohed it.
I should have known better.
Anytime I pooh-pooh something is usually a great clue that I need to look at it more deeply.
Part of my own path this year has been working with Luisa Kolker, a therapist who is gifted in shamanic practices which can help us reconnect with lost parts of ourselves.
This is one place where this work intersects with my Buddhist views. Both hold a fundamental assumption that we come into this world as a precious and whole being. In dharma language, we would say this is our buddhanature. In fact, one of the early teachings I received in Buddhism is that we are required to have faith in only one thing: that awakening is possible. In other words, all of us are, at our core, already enlightened. I still hold this to be truth.
In a similar way, this Inner Child work is about recognizing the beauty and innocence of the child within us. It also acknowledges that all of us experience wounding, in one way or another, along our path of growing up. There is simply no way to avoid it in this human realm.
That Inner Child doesn’t just disappear. He or she is very much with us all the time, whether we recognize that or not. Our mental health can literally depend on how well we take care of that Child and are in a loving partnership with him or her.
In my own case, I began to see how I had disowned this aspect of myself. Literally. I didn’t have any photos of myself as a child and wasn’t interested in having them. While I love the children of my dear friends, I have never had a desire to have a child of my own.
So during this retreat, I spent a lot of time getting to know my own Inner Child. I had conversations with her to see how she was feeling and what she needed. I hung out with her and played with her. One of the most fun things I did was to watch a movie one night called “The Kid,” a flick starring Bruce Willis that brilliantly conveys the significance of your Inner Child and what can happen when you ignore him or her.
One morning, about mid-way through the retreat, I felt a profound sadness overcome me. I didn’t know what it was about. My usual strategy would have been to try to overpower it by doing something else or to de-fang it by thinking about it for a while to see where it might be coming from.
That would be the Buddhist/Byron Katie thing to do… deconstruct it to get to the core mis-perception or unhelpful view that I was holding.
In this case, though, I went with my Kid. Rather than trying to figure out what was going on, the Adult aspect of me simply sat with her. I got a warm flannel sheet and wrapped myself up in it, wrapped her up in it. I got a stuffed donkey and held it as well. The Adult part of me was simply present to my precious Inner Child, gave her love and comfort, and let her know it would all be okay.
During that time, I got in touch with how lonely I felt as a kid, or at least for some portions of my childhood. The storyline on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of that loneliness really didn’t matter all that much. What mattered was being aware of and present to that very physical feeling of sadness and loneliness that was overcoming me, at least for a period of time. And rather than trying to fight it off or analyze it, I practiced having compassion for it, as I would toward a good friend.
The feeling passed. Of course it did, as does everything (another core Buddhist “belief”!). My Adult knew this would be the case, and helped to hold that space of blessed impermanence for the smaller part of me that was lost in a pretty strong emotion.
In the end, it all came down to that: presence.
It wasn’t about understanding where the thought came from, it wasn’t a mental process. It was an emotional and physical one. So my own big epiphany was this:
We can’t always think our way out of our suffering.
The key to liberation during those times is presence, simply presence.
I feel a bit funny sharing all this with you in this post, as I tend to stay away from overly personal writing here because I don’t want to get so caught up in my ‘stuff’ that I am not connecting with each of you in some way. This blog is not meant to be a space of processing through my issues as much as it is a space for all of us to find our way toward liberation, however we define that for ourselves.
But in this case, I thought it might be helpful to share this process as I’m guessing some of you may be able to relate to it.
And I have to say, those 10 days made a real difference for me. I did take a photo of myself at the end… I didn’t have the foresight to do a “before” shot, but I am simulating one for you here and you’ll get the idea : )
Does this resonate for you? Have you done Inner Child work, and if so how has it made a difference in your life?
Next week: I’ll share more about how I designed my personal retreat, in case you want to do something similar for yourself.