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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
summer 2 0 1 7 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 67 Siddhartha emerged from his childhood strong and confident—so much so that he was able to respond to the appearance of the four divine mes- sengers and take immediate action. After his initial shock, he did not become overwhelmed or dissoci- ated; he did not go into denial. He was determined and set upon a course of action to be free. In short, he was psychologically whole. Siddhartha’s quest was not a struggle to develop a sense of self within conventional reality. We can now see that his quest was in fact meant to move his consciousness beyond conventional reality, to overcome existential suffering by realizing the deathless. The practices that he left for us reflect this ultimate goal. We can see his strong and healthy sense of self when he was able to listen to his own internal promptings, leave everything that he had known, and move ahead without doubt. We can also see it later on in his journey when, after spend- ing a number of years with yogis who were engaged in the practice of austerities, he realized practices such as fasting and self-flagellation were not going to solve the problem of old age, sickness, and death, and he went his own way once again. All along his journey, the Buddha had his low moments but did not give up. He did not become depressed, anxious, withdrawn, traumatized, or codependent. His sense of self was clearly healthy and intact. When I practice psychotherapy, I encounter peo- ple who have been exposed to suffering very early in life—before their minds can comprehend what is happening, when their bodies are still growing and vulnerable, and at a time when, for their optimal physical, emotional, and psychological develop- ment, they should be shielded from suffering. They may have experienced challenging family dynamics that include abuse, emotional neglect, and lack of nurturance. They may have parents who themselves were not parented and turn to their children to meet their emotional needs. Beyond the family, the culture itself presents us with violence, trauma, and systemic racism. Many people are far outside the palace walls. Children raised in this way may be unable to hear, let alone follow, their inner guidance, and be unable to act from love and wisdom. This can develop further into addictions, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other ailments. So many of us in Western culture wonder who we are, how we fit in, and what our purpose is; we struggle with a negative sense of self as we try to manage the impact of difficult early experiences. In short, we arrive at the doorway of spiritual practice with a very different emotional and psychological landscape than that of the Buddha-to-be. When we begin practice, we are struggling to overcome personal suffering that prevents us from fully living within the relative, not yet at the point of grappling with existential suffering in order to realize the absolute. Is meditation helpful for us, then? If it can’t fully heal psychological suffering, does it offer us any- thing positive? Does it have any healing aspects? The answer is a definite yes. Even if the Buddha did not come to meditation to heal, meditation does offer some respite from psychological afflictions. When we meditate and develop our concentra- tion through awareness of the breath, it frees us, even if only temporarily, from the thoughts and feelings that have been bombarding us. For some of us, it may be the first time we see that we are not what our thoughts say about us. We see that thoughts arise unbidden, are conditioned by fam- ily, teachers, and culture, and do not require us to identify with them. We come to see that we don’t have to be taken away by every thought form and state of mind; we learn that we can make choices in the service of our well-being. We see the mental ride that we are about to take, and we ask ourselves if it is a ride worth taking. As we begin to act from awareness rather than from identification with thought, we behave more skillfully toward ourselves and others. We learn ways to take care of ourselves, develop compassion, and practice with love. During longer periods of retreat and silence, the difficult psychological states that have been buried