Feel Helpless? Good. That Means You’re Feeling!

I recently recorded a video in which I shared what I do when I feel helpless. I shared it because I figure that I’m not the only one feeling helpless, at least occasionally, when we look at the world situation, particularly climate change and the dire predictions for our future. In the video I share how the way I deal with such an emotion takes me from a place where I feel helpless to a place where I realise that I’m not actually as helpless as I think I am. In the video that’s a kind of esoteric place – for want of a better word – but that’s not the end of the story. What I find interesting is how the sense of empowerment gained through working with an emotion in that way can help me find ways to help on the level of action in the physical world.

Emotions in Buddhism & Rigpa

This story begins with allowing myself to truly feel that helplessness, trusting the wisdom in that and allowing the results of feeling deeply to naturally unfold. Too often in the past, I’ve given no credence to my emotions and not taken note of their message. Aspects of Buddhism can be misused or misunderstood in a way that diminishes the importance of paying attention to our emotions.

There’s a lot of helpful advice and teachings in Buddhism about dealing with emotions in a way that trains us not to get caught up in them, but if we’re someone who comes to Buddhism with a childhood training in repressing emotions, then these teachings can be used to continue that repression – especially if it’s in the interest of your teacher to stop you from listening to or acting on what you emotions are telling you.

In Rigpa, for instance, we were trained to watch Sogyal abuse others without having a reaction. If something ‘arose’ in us in reaction to his bullying, we were taught to ignore it, told to just ‘let it go’. Never were we allowed to consider that that feeling might have an important message for us – like, ‘Hey, wake up; this guy is abusing those people.’ No; emotions were to be mistrusted. Essentially, we were taught to ignore our emotions and see their expression as an indication of a lack of spiritual progress.

That isn’t what the Buddha actually taught, however. The basic meditation instructions are to neither repress nor indulge thoughts and emotions, but to simply watch and they will naturally pass. Some teachers – such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche – teach you to acknowledge feelings as part of the process of letting them go. In Rigpa, that part was missed out, and so ‘letting go’ easily became pushing them away or squashing them.

The mindfulness of feeling is an important part of Buddhist training, but it wasn’t something we spent much time on in Rigpa. We learned about it, practiced it for a bit and then ignored it, probably because having us all aware of our feelings wouldn’t serve Sogyal’s purpose. More of us would have left earlier had we listened to the feeling in our gut telling us that what we saw wasn’t kindness; it was verbal abuse.

chenrezig.jpg

Having emotions doesn’t mean you’re stupid

Even this wise quote from Shantideva can make you think – if you’re someone with a tendency to repress – that being unhappy is a problem. That you’re stupid because you’re unnecessarily feeling helpless or sad or whatever.

“Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy about something if it cannot be remedied?”

Shantideva. Chapter 6, vs 10 of Bhodicharyavatara

I know that quote well. I’ve used it as a guide ever since I first heard HH Dalai Lama say it. It’s very useful in reminding us that there are simply some things that we can do nothing about, and accepting that fact is necessary for our own happiness. I can’t help vote Trump out and that doesn’t make me feel helpless, and I can’t stop a wildfire racing towards me, but that does make me feel helpless, no matter how pointless that feeling is according to Shantideva.

So to break out of the tendency to repress, I need to remember that it’s okay to feel something uncomfortable or even get upset, and HH Dalia Lama demonstrates this – I saw him weeping on a video when he heard about the way some teachers were abusing their students. I have to remind myself that it’s not only okay to feel however you feel, it’s also healthy and even wise – if you pay attention; it’s not foolish if it’s over something you can’t do anything about.

I can’t do anything about Trump, but I can still weep for all those people who died because of his negligence. If it throws me into a deep depression, that’s something else, but if we have a way to express our feelings in a healthy way – even if it is over something we can do nothing about – then they will naturally pass. It’s going over and over the same issue in our minds that will keep those emotions around and cause long term issues, not simply feeling it in the moment without indulging or repressing. And the feeling of it doesn’t mean you’re paralysed by it, not if you watch it with awareness, then it can lead to surprising realisations. Not allowing ourselves to feel, however, that is a problem. Now I’m learning the wisdom of acknowledging what I feel.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Breaking the pattern of repression

I have to consciously make an effort to pay attention and overcome my training from childhood and Rigpa in order not to rush to the ‘letting go’ stage. I have to allow myself to feel it and acknowledge it and then allow it go, rather than actively ‘letting it go’ which becomes more of a pushing it away. And if anyone suggests that there’s something wrong with me having a feeling of any kind, I have to remind myself that whatever I feel is okay, no matter what it is, and no matter what caused it. My psychologist emphasises this point – she also teaches the grounding techniques I mention in the video.

It’s interesting how insidiously the application of the teachings we received infiltrates our way of being. To overcome that warped application, we have to:
– know the actual teachings (neither indulge nor repress our emotions, and pay attention to them with mindfulness);
– understand in what way we were taught to apply them was twisted – it became repression/dissociation in the service of enabling an abuser;
– watch for negative attitudes – that displaying emotions indicates some lack of spiritual maturity – and habits – such as the habit of ignoring them – when they arise in ourselves;
– and notice when and how other’s reactions to our emotions affects us – perhaps making us feel bad about ourselves.

So that’s the background for this video. For me to be so public about feeling a feeling was quite a challenge.

Feeling helpless can lead to action

If you watched the video, you’ll see that the process of feeling and watching that feeling with awareness takes me to a place where I recognise that I’m not quite as helpless as I might feel. But even on a relative level, sometimes being unhappy about something that you think you can’t remedy pushes you to find a way to actually do something.

But since this post is long enough already I’ll go into that in my next post.

Does any of this resonate with you? What’s your relationship to your emotions these days? Has it changed since your time in Rigpa?

Spiritual Practice or Spiritual Bypassing?


in the early 1980s, psychologist John Welwood coined the phrase spiritual bypassing to refer to the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and fundamental emotional and psychological needs.  When I first came across this term, I didn’t think it applied to me, but when I looked at my reaction – or lack of it – to the verbal abuse I witnessed while in Rigpa, I realised that I had certainly been bypassing my discomfort – and in a very active way.

Active repression

I had been taught to bypass any feelings of discomfort or disgust in response to anything Sogyal did. Remember being told not to think too much, to let our feelings just rise and fall away without paying them any attention, to not ‘go there’, to see our reactions to the verbal abuse we all witnesses as just our ‘judgemental mind’? Any kind of normal reaction, like horror, disgust or even concern, were seen as a lack of a stable mind – an attitude I’ve unfortunately also seen in the response of some lamas to those who speak out about abuse or show any kind of emotion due to the abuse.

Of course, we’re not supposed to repress our emotions, but that’s what I did, and I suspect that a whole lot of others did as well. Why else (apart from the brainswashing discourse of, ‘Oh he’s a crazy wisdom master, what you’re seeing is love, not anger’) did we sit unreacting and with blank faces?

Jeff Brown: Spiritual Graffiti

Meditation isn’t the answer to everything

My daughter used to say to me, ‘Oh, Mum, you think everything can be solved through meditation.’ I don’t think that way now, not now that I’ve seen it used to make people pliable so they can be more easily controlled and manipulated, and not now that I know that even with the right kind of instructions, it can be used to set aside issues that we really do need to face and deal with.

I also used to think that Buddhism was the answer to everything, and perhaps if we could hear the Buddha himself speak to us it might be, but not the way some teach it–especially in Tibetan Buddhism. Teachers talk about our emotions as ‘poisons’ and ‘enemies’ and refer to psychological methods of examining our problems as some kind of inferior activity, while teaching us to simply ignore our problems under the guise of ‘watering the seeds of joy’. But pretending issues don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. Look at Rigpa’s track record with Sogyal’s abuse. If we hadn’t tried so hard to ignore our feelings – the ones that were sending us a very valid message that something was seriously wrong – Sogyal would have been stopped a long time ago.

I think we need a more balanced approach. We need to be able to look at our issues, and sort them out without getting stuck in them. We need to honour the wisdom in our emotions – like physical pain, negative emotions are, after all, telling us something is wrong – but that doesn’t mean that we’ll roll around in our emotions ad nauseum or deny the role our own thoughts, beliefs and perceptions play in our happiness and suffering. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We can choose the middle way.

‘To me, spiritual bypassing is fundamentally about taking a so-called absolute truth — such as “everything is okay” — and using it to ignore or deny relative truths — such as the grief we feel when we lose a loved one, or the shame that arises when we fail at something important. On the personal and interpersonal level, sometimes everything isn’t okay. And that’s okay.’

https://upliftconnect.com/spiritual-bypassing/

Let’s not delude ourselves

When I discovered Tibetan Buddhism, I found it all so wonderful, inspiring, and heart-warming, and the practice made me feel so calm and just plain goooood. But if all we’re doing by buying into any religion is spiritually distracting ourselves from our feelings while thinking that we’re walking a healthy spiritual path, then we’re just deluding ourselves.

So what to do about it? Ask questions of any teacher who seems to be straying into this area in their instruction, and take control of your own path by tuning into your body and feeling what’s there to be felt. Your body doesn’t lie. It knows what you might be unwilling to feel.

‘We need to remember that spiritual practice and emotional growth are not about achieving a particular quality of feeling (“good”). Being a human being on a spiritual journey isn’t about getting cash and prizes all the time, it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you? ‘

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/emotional-sobriety/201110/beware-spiritual-bypass
I filmed this a while ago, so I don’t remember exactly what’s in it, but it includes my experience of spiritual bypassing in the Rigpa context and a method for avoiding spiritual bypassing in our meditation.


What about you? What’s your experience? Do you think you might have used Tibetan Buddhist practices to spiritually bypass some issues? And what does knowledge of spiritual bypassing mean for our spiritual path going forward?


If you’d like a more private place to chat, you can join the Beyond the Temple Facebook group for discussions not about abuse but about your ongoing spiritual path, or if you need to talk about your experiences of and healing from guru abuse or about Rigpa’s ongoing bungling, ex-Rigpa students can join the secret What Now? group, (apply via the contact form here, and tell us about yourself and why you want to join the group). And if you’re not a Rigpa or ex-Rigpa person and need support related to abuse in Vajrayana you can join the Survivors of Vajrayana Abuse and their Allies group.  Note that you will not be added to these groups if you don’t answer the questions.

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