The Trauma of Everyday Life


Reflections of Mind

When my father was dying from his brain tumor, I realized that I had never had a conversation with him about anything spiritual. He was a scientist and, while he was proud of my success as a writer, he never expressed any real interest in the kinds of things I was thinking about. I was reluctant to engage him in too much discussion, knowing that he was not interested, and that seemed fine with him. When it became clear that his malignant brain tumor was inoperable, however, and that his days were severely numbered, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t try to talk to him about what I had learned from Buddhism. This was a challenge, not because of his tumor, which was deep in the right side of his brain and had not affected his cognitive abilities, but because I needed to find a way of talking to him in plain language, without recourse to concepts he did not believe in. I called him on the phone from my office, not knowing that several days later he would slip into a coma from which he would never emerge, an unintentional infection from a brain biopsy several weeks previously taking its iatrogenic toll.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, my father, although a physician, successfully avoided the subject of his own mortality for much of his life. This is not an uncommon strategy for dealing with death, and there are many sutras in the Buddhist canon that show the Buddha confronting it with whatever persuasiveness he can muster. In one such sutra, known as the Simile of the Mountain, the Buddha asked a local ruler, King Pasenadi, how he would feel if a huge mountain were to come bearing down on him from the east, crushing all living beings in its path. He conjured the mountain expertly, making the king imagine a gigantic mass moving inexorably toward him, rolling over all things. Then he repeated the question but had the mountain coming from the north, then the south, and finally the west. By the time he was finished, the poor king, ostensibly secure behind his fourfold fortifications of elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry, was being crushed from all sides. This is what death is like, the Buddha trumpeted. It’s coming, you don’t know from which direction, and you are powerless to stop it. He seemed almost gleeful.

Why was this such a profound teaching for the king? Even now the words retain their threatening power. Don’t we know all this already? Is death really such a surprise? The Buddha suggested that we do not really know it, even though we may mouth the words. The tendency toward denial runs very deep. We don’t actually think it can happen to us. Or rather, we can’t actually imagine it happening to us. The Buddha’s incantation brought the reality home, at least for an instant, for King Pasenadi. The king inclined his mind toward the truth, brought it into his explicit awareness, and became receptive to the Buddha’s teachings.

One of the most obvious reasons for avoiding the reality of death is that we do not know how to deal with it. The Buddha, in helping King Pasenadi see the impotence of his fortifications, was making this very point. We think we have to erect barriers to it or find weapons to fight it, but this does not work very well. The Buddha discovered a softer approach, one that he was urging the king toward. In his recovery of implicit relational knowing, as personified in his five great dreams, he found the key to navigating the inevitable traumas of life, including that of death.

My father already had the mountain on top of him. He had worked until he was eighty-four, until he got lost one day driving the same ten-minute route home from work that he had taken for the past forty years. The mountain, in the form of the tumor, was already inside his brain. As he was not used to facing a challenge he could not overcome with his intelligence, there was an air of resignation hovering over this, our last conversation.

“You know the feeling of yourself deep inside that hasn’t really changed since you were a boy?” I began. “The way you have felt the same to yourself as a young man, in middle age, and even now?”

My father voiced his assent. I was trying to summon the place of intrinsic relational knowing for him. It is there, in our own subjectivity, although it is difficult to describe. We know ourselves from the inside: We have an intuitive feel for ourselves that is outside thought. And we relate to other people, indeed to the world, from this place. Most of the time, in our active and harried lives, we gloss right over it, but it is there in the background and we return to it in our private, unscripted, moments: when listening to music, taking a walk, or going to sleep, for example. In my mind I was remembering one of my Buddhist teachers asking me to find “what” (not “who”) was knowing the sounds I was hearing when I was meditating. “Can you find what is knowing?” he would often question, as I turned my attention to the sounds of the meditation hall. The very effort to find “what is knowing” (although it was impossible to find) opened up a peaceful oasis of calm awareness in which I learned to abide. “Even though we can’t find what is knowing, knowing is there,” my teacher would say. This affirmation was a traditional Buddhist way of bringing implicit relational knowing into explicit awareness. “Knowing is there.” It was impossible to refute.

My father, as best as I could gather, seemed to understand what I was getting at.

“It’s kind of transparent, that feeling,” I went on. “You know what it is, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. You can just relax your mind into that space, though. The body comes apart but you can rest in who you have always been.” Death is like taking off a tight shoe, I wanted to tell him, but I wasn’t sure he would believe me if I went that far in the conversation. Yet I thought, with his scientist mind, he might just sense the possibility of investigating what I was suggesting. If the Buddha was to be believed, there was a place of lucidity from which even dying could be observed.

“Okay, darling, I’ll try,” he replied. I wondered for an instant if he was being patronizing but decided he was not. He often called me darling, and I was glad for it, in the end.

The stance I was suggesting to my father was akin to what the Buddha found in his dreams, the one that parents use to know what their infants are going through, that infants use to sense their parents’ attunement, and that people continue to use to relate to one another empathically. This implicit relational knowing is immediate. It operates independently of language and opens a window into what is. It oriented us at the beginning of life, when our parents were our major lifelines, and it can be accessed even in death. The Buddha found that it was critical to his process of awakening and he deployed it, just as I hoped my father might, not only when he was dying but in his final struggle for enlightenment. Implicit knowing usually takes place outside awareness. It is generally nonconscious, operating on its own neurological pathways. Buddha found a way of resting the mind in its true relational nature, of bringing implicit awareness out of the darkness and making it conscious. As dramatized in the story of his enlightenment, he then discovered that old patterns of reactivity, stored as they are in implicit memory, could be deactivated when held in the light of unspoken knowing. Under the rubric of bare attention and mindfulness of mind, this became the fulcrum of the Buddha’s method of mental development.

In his recovery of implicit relational knowing, catalyzed by his childhood memory and elaborated in his five great dreams, the Buddha found the key to navigating the inevitable traumas of life and death. He did not make his method up out of the blue; it was already there in embryonic form in his mind, hidden away in the vestiges of the earliest relationship of his life, but the Buddha had to go through a lengthy process to rediscover it. Buddhist masters ever since have had to come up with creative ways of communicating the simple bearing I was trying to help my father find. Its very simplicity often makes it difficult to grasp. The Thai forest master Ajahn Chah, whose metaphor of the glass as already broken so captivated me when I first heard it, had a particularly clear way of conveying it. In describing the Buddha’s method of evenly suspended attention—in which all phenomena, be they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, are related to without clinging or condemning—he gave a wonderful description of the stance the Buddha learned to deploy.

In our practice, we think that noises, cars, voices, sights, are distractions that come and bother us when we want to be quiet. But who is bothering whom? Actually, we are the ones who go and bother them. The car, the sound, is just following its own nature. We bother things through some false idea that they are outside us and cling to the ideal of remaining quiet, undisturbed.

Learn to see that it is not things that bother us, that we go out to bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and brings understanding.1

Ajahn Chah framed his discussion in terms of the minor irritations that arise in silent meditation: the bothersome noises, sights, and distractions that make meditation challenging, but he was also, by implication, talking about the major irritations of old age, illness, and death. When he said that every experience reveals truth and brings understanding, he was not excluding the most traumatic ones. For Ajahn Chah, the ability to see the world as a mirror, to relate to it with the attunement, engagement, and care that a parent naturally showers upon an infant, was the greatest accomplishment.

In his teachings on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha laid out his perspective in starkly beautiful terms. “Monks,” he said, “this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent, for acquiring the true method, for the realization of Nibānā.2 His approach was informed by his recollection of childhood joy under the rose-apple tree when he was at the height of his austerities. His memory created the conditions for a compassionate approach to his predicament; it began the process by which his mother’s benevolent energy was gradually returned to him. In his previous attempts to free himself, the Buddha had oscillated between his two primary strategies. In the first, under the guidance of his two well-intentioned teachers, he had sought meditative transcendence. In this approach he unconsciously mimicked that of his frightened mother, who needed to leave her body in order to tolerate her bliss. In the second, he was driven by the belief that pain and deprivation could purify him of attachment, setting his spirit free. Both strategies suffered from a split, a dualism that envisioned freedom as lying somewhere outside his everyday, ordinary experience. The Buddha’s memory reoriented him, and his dreams gave him the means of knowing ordinary experience in a different way. Rather than being driven by a desire for escape, the Buddha learned to see the world as a reflection of mind. It was this capacity, evoked in him as he worked through the trauma of his mother’s demise, that enabled him, in his final enlightenment, to see through death.

In the mythic retelling of the Buddha’s awakening, the central narrative speaks, in symbolic form, of the Buddha’s use of implicit relational knowing to see everything as a reflection of mind. In the classic version of the story, on a late-spring day not long after his five dreams, the Buddha settled himself under a fig tree close by the glistening Neranjara River and vowed not to get up until he had attained nirvana. Sitting down under the tree was no easy task, however. In the legends that have grown up over the years, it is made clear that the Buddha had to find the exact spot to sit upon. He was still in the process of zeroing in on his method, of finding the place of internal balance from which he could relate without strain. He tried the southern side of the tree first, but the earth began to shake as if to dissuade him. He went to the western side next, then the northern side, but the earth protested at those locations too. Finally, he settled himself on a grass seat on the eastern side of the tree. The earth was quiet there—he had found the “stable spot”3 from which all Buddhas reach enlightenment. “My body may shrivel up, my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve, but I will not move from this very seat until I have obtained enlightenment,” he was reputed to have declared. This stable spot was the one Ajahn Chah was referring to, the one that does not go out and bother things but sees everything as a reflection of mind.

From this spot Buddha had to face his demons. He was challenged in a series of dramatic encounters by his alter ego, Mara, a famous figure in the Buddhist world. Mara is often depicted as a devil—an embodiment of evil, death, or darkness, a kind of Buddhist version of Satan—but this is not quite right. In South Asian cosmology, Mara was actually a godlike figure, a lord of the Desire Realm, whose efforts were directed at keeping the Buddha from freeing himself from the cycle of death and rebirth. As the lord of desire, he represented the forces of clinging or craving that keep people attached to the world. Because of this, he was also intimately bound up with trauma. In psychological terms, Mara represented the Buddha’s ego, “that desperate longing for a self and a world that are comprehensible, manageable, and safe.”4 As ego, Mara represented the endless attempt to shield oneself from the inevitable traumas of this world. One of his nicknames was the “drought demon” because of the way he tried to hold back the waters of change. Mara was roused by the Buddha’s discovery of his “stable spot.” He assailed the Buddha with all kinds of trauma, trying to dislodge him from his seat of stability, much as an infant’s ruthless attacks on a parent threaten her poise and self-confidence.

From the stable spot of his newly recovered implicit awareness, the Buddha was attacked by waves of Mara’s forces. There are many versions of the story, depending on which sutras are consulted, but all contain three essential elements. Mara attempted to defeat Gotama with three basic strategies: “armed attack, assertion of superior merit, and attempt at seduction.”5 The Buddha described this series of encounters as the deepest struggle he ever had to face: more difficult than anything he went through even at the height of his austerities. Yet he had found the perspective that enabled him to survive. Not going out to bother the forces assaulting him, he was able to see them as psychical reflections. “Only when Buddha was able to experience the desires and fears that threatened to overwhelm him as nothing but impersonal and ephemeral conditions of mind and body, did they lose their power to mesmerize him.”6

In most versions of the story, the forces of aggression came first. Mara appeared to the Buddha as a warlord mounted on an elephant commanding a legion of threatening troops.7 He unleashed army after army, ten in all, their psychological equivalents portrayed as the following: sensual desire; discontent; hunger and thirst; craving; lethargy; fear; doubt; restlessness; longing for gain, praise, honor, and fame; and extolling oneself while disparaging others.8Mara hurled nine storms at the Buddha-to-be—of wind, rain, rocks, weapons, embers, ashes, sand, mud, and darkness—but the Buddha had found an “unconquerable position,” an “immoveable spot”9 from which to experience these assaults, and they rolled off him, as a child’s attacks melt under the indomitable resolve and patient love of his parents. Mara’s arrows of aggression turned to flowers, his rocks to garlands. The rains failed to wet Gotama; the winds failed to ruffle his composure; the embers, ashes, sand, and mud turned to blossoms and incense; and the darkness faded into Gotama’s light. In later versions, developed in Mahayana Buddhism, the “immoveable spot” where Gotama sat became known as the vajrasana, or “adamantine throne, in reference to its unshakable stability.”10 The relationship of this diamond seat to the mind of the mother was not only implicit: As the story continued, it became ever more clearly portrayed.

Mara’s next attack was his most devious. It went straight to the heart of the Buddha’s trauma and required him to reach deeply into himself to manifest what his dreams had awakened. In the most famous scene of their encounter, Mara directly challenged Gotama’s sense of self-worth by asking him to prove that he was deserving of enlightenment. “By what right do you claim this seat?” he asked him. Pointing to his own armies, Mara claimed them as witnesses to his own superior standing. He was obviously an important figure, a celebrity in his own right, with legions of followers at his beck and call. “Who will be your witness?” Mara demanded. Gotama, who was clearly alone with no one to speak for him, appeared to have no good response. What kind of answer could he come up with when his whole approach had been based on a solitary pursuit? Having abandoned his family and friends and been forsaken by his five ascetic companions, to whom could he possibly turn to testify on his behalf? Mara’s challenge was aimed directly at the most vulnerable aspect of the Buddha’s psychology. If we understand Mara as the Buddha’s shadow, then his question was really the Buddha’s own question about himself. Deep down, the story suggests, the Buddha had unfinished business, even at the very brink of enlightenment. He was still missing something in himself, still grappling with issues of self-esteem, still trying to understand his delicate nature, still suffering from the unworthiness Mara was giving voice to.

The Buddha had another epiphany at this point. He talked about it in retrospect in language that once again evoked implicit relational knowing, as if he had remembered something long forgotten, salvaged something he did not know he had lost. There are many ways to interpret these words of the Buddha, of course, but there is no question his breakthrough involved a resurrection of forgotten feeling, a recovery of an unknown boundless presence at the heart of his aloneness. “Suppose a man wandering in a forest wilderness found an ancient path, an ancient trail, travelled by men of old, and he followed it up, and by doing so he discovered an ancient city, an ancient royal capital, where men of old had lived, with parks and groves and lakes, walled round and beautiful to see, so I too found the ancient path, the ancient trail, travelled by the Fully Enlightened Ones of old.”11

When asked by Mara to produce a witness to his self-worth, Gotama reached out and touched the ground with his right hand. “This earth is my witness,” he replied and, as if in agreement, the earth roared and shook. (“And as the Bodhisattva touched the great earth, it trembled in six ways: it trembled, trembled strongly, trembled strongly on all sides; resounded, resounded strongly, resounded strongly on all sides. Just as the bronze bells from Magadha ring out when struck with a stick, so this great earth resounded and resounded again when touched by the hand of the Bodhisattva.”)12 In many of the early representations of this famous “earth-touching gesture” (or bhūmisparśa mudrā), the trembling of the ground was given anthropomorphic form. The upper body of an earth goddess, named Sthāvarā or “the Stable One,”13 emerged from the ground and bowed to Gotama with her palms together. As if the symbolism of touching the earth were not enough, the artists who later told the Buddha’s story made it concrete. A mother figure appeared and affirmed her connection to the Buddha, erasing his last vestige of self-doubt, testifying to his inherent worthiness, and frightening Mara away.

In a fascinating account of the role of the earth goddess in Buddhist iconography, the scholar Miranda Shaw traced the evolution of the deity’s representations in Buddhist art. She pointed out that in some versions of the story, the earth mother appeared not once but twice. In her first appearance she bore witness to the Buddha’s virtue and scattered Mara and his armies. They then regrouped, and she emerged for a second time, now with a thunderous roar, threatening gestures, and a powerful quaking. Thus, two complementary aspects of the mother were embodied: In one she was a nurturing figure and in the other she displayed her aggression. In addition, Shaw pointed out how intertwined the mother and the Buddha’s seat of enlightenment were. The base of the Buddha’s throne intersected her womb in the first sculptures to emerge in Buddhist culture. She was the “stable platform”14 of his awakening. Over later years she was portrayed as wringing rivers from her hair, washing away the forces of Mara with great cascades of water pouring down from the top of her head. She could also be seen offering the Buddha a spherical vessel in her outstretched arms, a symbol not just of fertility and abundance but also of the pregnant void of Buddhist emptiness.

Mara’s third intervention involved his seductive daughters. While they were sometimes reduced to personifications of lust, his offspring were actually goddesses who Mara insisted use their “thirty-two kinds of feminine wiles”15to divert the Buddha from his course. But this, too, was to no avail. The almost-Buddha found that he could experience not only his aggression but also his desires as reflections his mind did not need to go out and bother. In the words of the contemporary Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor, “this does not mean that Buddha was either unaware of these thoughts and feelings or that they no longer occurred for him. Rather than deleting them, he discovered a way of being with them in which they could gain no purchase on him.”16 The daughters of Mara, unsuccessful in their attempts to seduce the Buddha, became transformed by his presence. Just as the arrows of aggression became flowers and the rocks garlands, the forces of seduction lost their edge. The daughters returned to their father and yielded their places to eight goddesses who sang the Buddha sixteen verses of praise. Even desire could not divert the Buddha from his course.

The Buddha’s enlightenment unfolded in the three watches of the night following upon his defeat of Mara. In the first watch, it is said that he remembered all of his previous existences, hundreds of thousands of them, recalling his name, race, parents, and caste, the food he ate, the length of each life, and the happiness and unhappiness he knew. The entire spectrum of his personal continuum came into view. While his awakening was also an awakening into selflessness, this did not mean that he lost the sense of his own subjective individuality. In fact, as his sense of personal trauma dissolved, as he connected with the maternal energy his implicit memory had unknowingly kept him apart from, his own existence across time became clear. The present became thick with the past and his sense of “stretching along between past and future,”17 the “unifying thread of temporality,”18 returned. While the traditional accounts are redolent with his recovery of past lives, in psychological terms the recovery of the first watch of the night speaks of the Buddha’s recognition of just that sense of subjective knowing that I was attempting to communicate to my father on his deathbed. From the stable spot of self-observation under the Bodhi Tree, with the earth mother as his witness, the Buddha was able to see things as they were. First and foremost, this involved seeing the vast horizon of his personal subjectivity. His individual flow of personhood revealed itself without obstruction.

In the second watch of the night, the Buddha understood what the therapist Robert Stolorow has called “the unbearable embeddedness of being.”19 He viscerally grasped the “inescapable contingency” of everyday life and began to formulate his theory of karma to explain it. “Moved by compassion,” one of his biographers has written, the Buddha “opened his wisdom eye further and saw the spectacle of the whole universe as in a spotless mirror. He saw beings being born and passing away in accordance with karma, the laws of cause and effect.”20 This vision, held in the compassionate embrace of his mindful awareness, helped guide the Buddha toward his final goal. Attuned to all of the unbearable affect of the relational world, he had no need for any kind of defensive fortifications in the face of it. As Stephen Batchelor has written, “When the stubborn, frozen solidity of necessary selves and things is dissolved in the perspective of emptiness, a contingent world opens up that is fluid and ambiguous, fascinating and terrifying. Not only does this world unfold before us with awesome subtlety, complexity, and majesty, one day it will swallow us up in its tumultuous wake along with everything else we cherish. The infinitely poignant beauty of creation is inseparable from its diabolic destructiveness. How to live in such a turbulent world with wisdom, tolerance, empathy, care, and nonviolence is what saints and philosophers have struggled over the centuries to articulate. What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you.”21

Batchelor’s description of the Buddha’s opening brings to mind a reaction to my cell-phone meditation that I heard about secondhand. One of my friends told me that after hearing me lead the meditation she went home and told her husband about it. Her spouse, a highly accomplished but troubled man who had struggled deeply with addiction for much of his adult life, burst into tears when she described it to him. She was surprised by his uncharacteristic response—it was not his habit to burst into tears. He was withdrawn from her and had become increasingly isolated and unemotional. When she asked him why he was crying, he said that the idea of letting life in, listening to it and accepting it was so much the opposite of how he was living that he was overwhelmed. The amount of pain he imagined in the room both moved and unnerved him.

His response, while extreme, highlights the radical nature of the Buddha’s approach. As he said immediately after his awakening, it really does go against the stream. In our efforts to manage our own traumas, in our attempts to suppress them or make them go away, we close ourselves off like my friend’s husband had. We shy away from our own pain and we certainly shy away from the pain of others. We feel filled up already and afraid of being further contaminated. And we are so busy managing our own stress that we forget the humanity—the compassion—that brought my friend’s husband to tears.

The paradoxical nature of the Buddhist stance is evident in the traditional descriptions of his awakening. On the one hand, dissolving the stubborn solidity of self and other opens up a flow—and a compassionate awareness—that can outlast destruction, much as the mother’s survival of her infant’s rage does. On the other hand, the surrender of the self into implicit relational knowing also reveals the impermanence that will eventually consume one. It was this paradox that the Buddha’s final insights resolved. In the realizations that dawned, he came to fully appreciate the inexhaustible body of bliss that had so frightened his mother at the time of his birth.

In the third watch of the night, the Buddha understood what he later articulated as the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, the bliss of its cessation, and the path to its relief. He stared straight into the fire, saw that everything was burning, and, in the process, felt the flames of craving blowing out. In no longer resisting the imperfections of life, he saw it transform. Nirvana dawned just as the morning star first appeared. “Done is what had to be done,” the Buddha declared. And then he uttered his famous statement about the eradication of ignorance, “Oh, housebuilder! You have now been seen. You shall build the house no longer.” Later on, when describing his new understanding, the Buddha phrased it something like like this: “What other people call happiness, I call suffering. What other people call suffering, I call happiness.” With the fire of craving blown out, the Buddha realized what has come to be called the wisdom that goes beyond wisdom. In keeping with the metaphor of intrinsic relational knowing essential to the psychology of the Buddha, the Tibetan name for his metawisdom (Māhamudrā) translates as “the Great Embrace.” The knowledge that goes beyond knowledge is relational. In the third watch of the night, the Buddha saw clearly that we all have within us the means of dealing with trauma. As one important sutra has put it, “If we are not hampered by our confused subjectivity, this our worldly life is an activity of Nirvana itself.”22

Fifteen hundred years after the life of the Buddha, his teachings moved to Tibet. One of the Indian Buddhists who brought those teachings there was a Bengali monk named Atisha, born in 980 CE, who was one of the most accomplished masters of his time. Once asked by his Tibetan followers to summarize the Buddha’s realizations, Atisha gave a famous response. It is denser and more comprehensive than what I was able to say to my father, but at its heart was the same implicit relational knowing that became the Buddha’s diamond throne. Its combination of wisdom and kindness defines the Middle Path.

“The highest skill lies in the realization of selflessness,” said Atisha. “The highest nobility lies in taming your own mind. The highest excellence lies in having the attitude that seeks to help others. The highest precept is continual mindfulness. The highest remedy lies in understanding the intrinsic transcendence of everything. The highest activity lies in not conforming with worldly concerns. The highest mystic realization lies in lessening and transmuting the passions. The highest charity lies in nonattachment. The highest morality lies in having a peaceful mind. The highest tolerance lies in humility. The highest effort lies in abandoning attachment to works. The highest meditation lies in the mind without claims. The highest wisdom lies in not grasping anything as being what it appears to be.”

Still looking for something more, his followers had one additional question. “And what is the ultimate goal of the teaching?” they asked.

“The ultimate goal of the teaching is that emptiness whose essence is compassion,”23 he responded. Even though we can’t find what is knowing, he might have said, knowing is there.

In bringing implicit relational knowing out of his unconscious, the Buddha healed the rupture of the beginning of his life. Having solved his own problem, he did not disappear. His own trauma alerted him to the traumas of others. For the rest of his life, until his own death from food poisoning forty-five years later, he shared his understanding freely. Aligned with that emptiness whose essence is compassion, he showed others how to be mindful of their own minds. Resting in awareness, seeing the world as a mirror, he helped people know trauma, not only as trauma but as a bearable, if inevitable, consequence of an unstable world. Experienced as a reflection of mind, even trauma could be enlightening.

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