The Trauma of Everyday Life


Going Forth

While the use of emotional experience to develop the mind became the keystone of the Buddha’s psychology, this was not something he grasped right away. He had his own journey of discovery, one that has been memorialized in the stories of his enlightenment told over the centuries. His process was an interesting one. It began with a dramatic replication of the trauma he underwent when his mother passed away. This time, it was the Buddha who left abruptly. Just after the birth of his first child, he abandoned his wife and family to seek spiritual sustenance in the wilds of the Indian forests. His mind-set at the time of his “great departure” was radically different from where he ended up. It was much closer to Sharon’s tendency to distance herself from her sorrow or to my own dissociation from my anxiety than to the Burmese master’s understanding of the relationship of suffering to grace.

It took the Buddha a long time to figure things out. In his early life, as we have seen, he was clearly indulged. However we interpret the stories of his growing up—whether we imagine him protected behind the palace walls from any knowledge of death, illness, or old age, or whether we see him caged by conceit so that he could not relate to others who were suffering—it is clear that he was raised to not have to think about unpleasant things like the death of his mother. He was protected, as much as humanly possible, from the traumatic underpinnings of life. For a long time, he accepted this as the status quo and felt entitled to it. He liked his lily pools, his sandalwood, his Benares silks, and the white sunshade held over him. But at some point, the unreliable nature of material comforts began to reveal itself. Death, old age, and illness began to intrude, and the conceit he had grown up with began to seem objectionable. Gotama had a rather violent reaction. He left everything, in what has come to be called his “going forth,” and set out to destroy his attachments.

A famous story in the Pali Canon about one of the Buddha’s first followers, a rich merchant’s son from Benares named Yasa, explores this very theme. Yasa’s story, like that of the Four Messengers, has, over time, melded into the Buddha’s own biography, so that many people think the events described happened to the Buddha rather than to him. But the Pali Canon is very clear about it. Soon after giving his first discourse on the Four Noble Truths and just before his famous Fire Sermon, in the first flush of his enlightenment, the Buddha had a pivotal exchange with Yasa. Their encounter was a spontaneous one, the first he was to have with someone from the merchant class, and similar to one a contemporary therapist might have with someone suffering from panic attacks or phobias. It grew out of a sudden crisis in Yasa’s mind, an anxiety attack that eventually brought him face to face with the Buddha. Their exchange sheds enormous light on the revolution in the Buddha’s own thinking. For Yasa was struggling with something the Buddha had also wrestled with—and resolved.

Yasa, like the Buddha, was raised in privilege and delicately brought up. Like the Buddha, his family also had three houses, one for the winter, one for the summer, and one for the rains. For the four months of the rainy season, he never went down to the city, staying in his country house where he was entertained nightly by female minstrels. He had quite the life. One evening, Yasa and his attendants fell asleep early. While it was dark outside, an all-night lamp burned dimly in their room. Before dawn, Yasa awoke and saw the women sleeping all around him in various states of disarray, their images partially distorted in the shadows created by the burning light. One woman was sleeping with her lute under her arm and another with her tambourine under her chin, while a third had her small drum nestled beneath her. “The hair of one had come unfastened, another was dribbling, others were muttering. It seemed like a charnel ground. When he saw it, when its squalor squarely struck him, he was sick at heart, and he exclaimed, ‘It is fearful, it is horrible.’ ”1

Yasa went running out of his house, the dire images of the beloved female musicians disgusting him so. Not quite ready to abandon all vestiges of luxury, he paused as he was going out to put on his gold slippers and then proceeded to walk to the city’s edge, to the deer park at Isipatana, where the Buddha was camping with his five ascetic followers, newly enlightened after hearing his first discourses. The Buddha had risen before dawn and was pacing back and forth in the park, getting his blood moving while doing his walking meditation. When he saw Yasa approaching in the distance, his golden slippers shining in the early-morning light, he sat down and waited for his arrival. As Yasa approached the Buddha, he called out, once again, “It is fearful, it is horrible!” Obsessive rumination had taken root in his mind.

Over the years, I have seen references to this story many times. It is depicted in countless works of art and described, with various embellishments, in many versions of the life of the Buddha. Most often, though, it is told as if it were Gotama waking in his palace and seeing his own allegedly desirable attendants in a ghastly light. The episode is commonly portrayed as the immediate instigation for his abandonment of his wife and child, the Buddha’s first glimpse of the underside of carnal desire. I have always shied away from this tale because of its implicit condemnation of sensual desire and the way it disparages the women, making caricatures of them. I understand the ostensible teaching that lust disappoints, that beauty fades, and that addiction to sexual excitement becomes a misery, but I have a hard time, in many of the story’s iterations, with the disgust the protagonist feels upon seeing the slobbering sleepers. It comes too close to the widespread male fear of female sexuality, or to male disparagement of sexuality in general, to make me comfortable. In many versions of the story, for example, the artists take great delight in rendering the attendants as prostitutes, painting them lasciviously while having the virtuous male protagonist stalk off. The judgment involved has always seemed to me unworthy of a Buddhist fable.

It was not until I actually started reading the sutras for myself that I discovered that the common renderings of this story are not the original ones. The level of subtlety in the sutras is much greater. The Buddha, upon hearing Yasa’s panicked exclamations, did not support them. While he, too, during his phase of self-mortification, might once have responded similarly, he moved Yasa in a different direction. In an intimate conversation with the panic-stricken merchant’s son, the Buddha began to articulate his own unique understanding of the importance of curiosity, even in the face of the worst.

“This is not fearful,” explained the Buddha, “this is not horrible. Come, Yasa, sit down. I shall teach you the Dhamma.”

Yasa was immediately relieved. “ ‘This is not fearful, it seems, this is not horrible,’ ” he repeated, “and he was happy and hopeful. He took off his gold slippers and went to where the Blessed One was.”2 Then, according to the text, the Buddha laid out a sequence of teachings. He took Yasa through a condensed version of what would eventually come to be called Buddhism. At the core was an effort to reorient Yasa, to teach him an attitude toward the world that was not frightened or judgmental but was, instead, at once realistic and hopeful. The seeds of this attitude lay in the Buddha’s own transformational journey, in which he moved from a similar tendency toward dissociation to a stance based in relaxation, investigation, and curiosity, in which he abandoned the extremes of self-indulgence and self-judgment (and self-torture) and embraced the joyful kindness essential to human nature. As the text describes it, Yasa sat down to the side of the Buddha.

“When he had done so, the Blessed One gave him progressive instruction, that is to say, talk on giving, on virtue, on the heavens; he explained the dangers, the vanity and the defilement in sensual pleasures and the blessings in renunciation. When he saw that Yasa’s mind was ready, receptive, free from hindrance, eager and trustful, he expounded to him the teaching peculiar to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Just as a clean cloth with all marks removed would take dye evenly, so too while Yasa sat there the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in him: All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.”3 This image of Yasa as a clean cloth taking the dye evenly is important. It suggests, in allegorical rather than psychodynamic language, that he was no longer dissociating aspects of himself. There was no longer a split between his ego and his unwanted feelings; there were no wrinkles or tangles to obstruct the fluidity of the Buddha’s insights. And with this as a foundation, Yasa was able to tolerate the traumatic truth: All that arises is subject to cessation.

Yasa’s first response, that his vision was fearful and horrible, speaks to the traumatic nature of his insight. He saw something that broke through one of his core “absolutisms of daily life” and made him sick at heart. Perhaps he had the sudden understanding that the sensual pleasures he was relying on to support his ego were inherently insubstantial. Or maybe he was confronted with the pain of his own addictive craving. A careful reading of the sutra suggests that Yasa’s crisis was an existential one. It was as if he saw through the props he was using to avoid the traumatic underpinnings of life. His vision of his female attendants in disarray opened him briefly to the unstable nature of reality, but he could not sustain his insight. It frightened him and he cast about for someone or something to blame. Buddhist culture has unwittingly replicated his defensive maneuver. Why not blame the women? Or sexuality? Or both? In responding in this way, Yasa was actually mimicking the Buddha’s own initial tendencies, and this is undoubtedly why their stories have become conflated. He was making the same mistake that the Buddha had made, one that had taken him six years to correct. For the Buddha, too, sought first to deal with the trauma of everyday life by taking extreme measures. He also felt that things were fearful and horrible and that he was “not safe,” and he tried whatever he could find to make those feelings go away. But by the time Yasa came to him, he had established a different approach. He had found a way to make the experience of groundlessness nourishing rather than frightening.

On my most recent retreat at the Forest Refuge, a year after the one filled with anxious dreams, I had a moment that reminded me of Yasa. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch to make the comparison—it is not as though there were female musicians in states of disarray to frighten me in the middle of the night—but I did have an experience of the ground being pulled out from under me, and I could sense how unnerving it could be. It happened at breakfast toward the end of my week there. I had been craving toast for several days. The food had been remarkably good, but I had gotten it in my head that what was lacking was fresh-baked bread. It didn’t seem like such a big thing to wish for—the vegetarian meals just needed this one little touch to feel complete. On this morning, six days into my stay, the bread finally appeared. Granted, it was gluten free and made from chickpea flour, but it still looked good. I cut myself a slice, toasted and buttered it, took a little bit of apricot jam, made myself a cup of tea, and settled silently into my seat to relish it all. I was very mindful and lifted the toast to my lips to take a bite. It was delicious. I chewed and tasted and swallowed and noticed how I wanted the next bite before I had completely finished the first. When the sweetness faded and the remnants of toast turned to cardboard in my mouth, I was ready for more. I waited, though, remembering the instructions for mindful eating: Finish each mouthful completely before taking the next bite.

I have only a vague recollection of what happened next. I believe my mind wandered to the laundry I had to do the next morning. There wasn’t that much to think about anymore, but that didn’t seem to be stopping me. Would I do one load or two? Could I put them both in at the same time? My wife would be happy if I came home with all my clothes washed. The next thing I remember was that my toast was gone. “Who ate my toast?” my mind cried as I stared at my empty plate. And for a brief second, before the humor of the situation could take hold, the whole thing became a metaphor for my entire life. Ready to relish it and it was already gone. I was staring into a big, empty, devouring hole where my toast, and my life, used to be. “Who ate my toast?” I repeated once again as I swiped my finger at the few crumbs left on the plate.

I had an immediate identification with Yasa. “It is fearful, it is horrible!” I understood where he was coming from. He had seen the dark side of his female attendants and I had witnessed the disappearance of my toast. The yawning jaws of death were all around me and I had a choice. I could panic or I could return to my mindfulness. I decided to go for a walk.

In the early 1980s, a Dutch psychologist named Johan Barendregt wrote a paper on the origin of phobias that is relevant to the Buddha’s conversation with Yasa and to my lost breakfast moment. Barendregt proposed that phobias and related fears have their origins in intimations of groundlessness. Like Yasa glimpsing the traumatic underpinnings of life, or me staring into the place where my toast used to be, these perceptions of the impermanent and impersonal nature of things strip away the absolutisms of daily life that we rely upon. Such glimpses come unpredictably and in many guises. They may appear when people are smoking marijuana or traveling in a foreign country or listening to music or sitting in church. Most people cannot handle them and rush to replace them with something they can handle, even if it is an obsessive fear or anxiety. The beast we know is better than the one we do not. Barendregt quoted Rilke as wishing he had the “courage de luxe” to face up to “it,” and he went on to describe, in the behaviorist language he was comfortable with, how his anxious patients attempted to describe what “it” was: “What ‘it’ means is described vaguely and indirectly, because the very essence of ‘it’ is bewilderment. ‘It’ is the experience that one’s existing repertoire of categories of perception, thought and feeling—the systems and behavioral patterns that make it possible to organize one’s perceptions and respond meaningfully—no longer suffice, and that one is no longer able to assign meanings, see connections or act functionally; ‘it’ is the experience of disorganization or—to put it in perhaps too extreme terms—irrationality.”4

Barendregt’s conclusion was that most obsessive anxieties and fears are reactions to the terrifying intimation of one’s own insubstantiality. The situation in which the vision of chaos takes place becomes the focus of the fear rather than the vision itself. So someone like Yasa would become panicked at female sexuality because that was the setting in which his tenuous insight occurred. I might develop obsessive or compulsive rituals around food because my terror was aroused in the context of eating a piece of toast. We dissociate from that which seems unbearable and reorient ourselves around something we can conceive of. As Barendregt described his patients’ predicament, “This ‘it’ situation is so unreal, so absurd, that they desperately try to recover their bearings and find them in fear, which is preferable to the void of ‘it.’ Since their fear is itself a very negative experience, coping mechanisms are developed to channel and rationalize it.”5

When the Buddha sat down with Yasa, he helped him avoid this common pitfall. He countered Yasa’s obsessive anxiety and gave him the means to integrate his vision of depersonalization. Much as Sharon had hoped to keep her Burmese teacher, and herself, from the depths of her sadness, Yasa was trying his best to keep the impact of his revelation at bay. Fleeing from his disturbing insight, he came to the Buddha with his bruised ego firmly in the lead. In his repetition of the phrase “It is fearful, it is horrible,” we can see the telltale beginnings of a phobia. The Buddha, however, redirected Yasa, helping him to see impermanence, rather than supporting his fear of it. Notice that he did not tell Yasa that sensual pleasure was a defilement, as many Buddhists believe; he showed him the defilement and the vanity in sensual pleasure: the way people use sensual pleasure to avoid dealing with the truth of insubstantiality. There is an important difference here, one that is key to the Buddha’s teachings. Pleasure is not the problem, the Buddha taught: Attachment is. While this insight is now enshrined in the practice of mindfulness, it was not an approach that came easily to the Buddha. He had a lot to work out in the process of discovering it.

In his first forays into homelessness, the Buddha turned away from the preoccupations of family life. Just as Yasa could not help blaming his terrifying vision on his female attendants, the Buddha at first thought householder life to be the problem. Like Yasa, he seems to have had a moment of existential dread when the reality of old age, illness, and death could not be avoided. After leaving his wife and newborn son, he went to the forest to study with the most accomplished therapists, the most adept meditators, of his day and age. There was already a strong and well-established tradition of yoga, meditation, and renunciation in the forests of northern India, and Gotama set out to learn from the acknowledged masters of his time and place, people who had already rejected everyday life, with its emphasis on material acquisitions and sensual pleasure, and held it in contempt. There were essentially two types of practice available to him, one that used yoga and meditation to reach for the sublime and the other that relied on self-punishment to achieve a state of invulnerability. One reached for the infinite sky of the transcendental spirit, while the other sought to tame the restless and boisterous sea of the body and the passions. These two strains of spiritual striving have a long history in South Asia. They predated the Buddha by thousands of years and have survived to this day, long after Buddhism virtually disappeared in India in the face of Islamic conquest a thousand years ago.

Gotama rather quickly mastered the transcendental practices—he found two highly realized masters but left each disappointed with the scope of their accomplishments. Despite learning to stabilize his mind and evoke prolonged mystical states of oneness or merger, he was unable to find lasting relief in these oceanic meditative states. In some way, he was mimicking his mother’s flight to the heaven realm, leaving behind his earthly preoccupations for the exalted abode of the gods. These experiences reinforced his tendency toward dissociation by removing him even more completely from his body and everyday mind, but they removed him in a way that left his preoccupation with the traumatic underpinnings of life untouched. When he returned from the sublime states of meditation, he was still there, with the same profound sense of dis-ease that continued to torment him. Upon questioning his teachers, he found that they, too, had not been able to conquer their most fundamental fears. They could suspend themselves in states of hypnotic equipoise, but they did not emerge from those states any more enlightened than when they entered them. Each offered to have him stay and take over his role as guru, but Gotama was not so inclined. Like a well-analyzed patient of our own time who, while finally clear about the childhood origins of her neuroses, still loses her temper with her husband and children, Gotama became disillusioned with the traditional approaches available to him. He turned, in frustration, to the competing ideology of his time, that of self-punishment and self-mortification.

If a therapist were to comment on the Buddha’s going forth, he would most likely frame the commentary around the contrast between the Buddha’s self-described delicate nature and the violence of his leaving home and subsequent ascetic practices. Trying hard to be a good son, to satisfy the demands of his father and stepmother, the Buddha constructed a “caretaker” self that we might label as “false,” created for the benefit and protection of his parents but lacking in authenticity and therefore “delicate.” Winnicott wrote a case study in 1969 of just such a patient, who was dominated by a scream that could not be expressed. She, too, had dissociated her earliest feelings and was troubled by her broken dreams. “It is always true to say when reviewing one of this patient’s sessions that if she could scream she would be well,” wrote Winnicott. “The great non-event of every session is screaming.”6 The Burmese master who counseled Sharon was making much the same point. In encouraging her to cry her heart out, he was countering her inclination to make crying the “great non-event” of every meditation session. Like the Burmese teacher, Winnicott felt that if his patient could cry her heart out, her psyche would grow.

In a beautiful passage in Winnicott’s case history, dated though it might now seem, he described the theory behind much of his clinical work. “If we take the situation in which she is a child playing while her mother is occupied with some activity such as sewing, this is the good pattern in which growth is taking place. At any moment the child may make a gesture and the mother will transfer her interest from her sewing to the child. If the mother is preoccupied and does not at first notice the child’s need, the child has only to begin to cry and the mother is available. In the bad pattern which is at the root of this patient’s illness, the child cried and the mother did not appear. In other words the scream that she is looking for is the last scream just before hope was abandoned. Since then screaming has been of no use because it fails in its purpose.”7

Winnicott revealed something important about therapy in his case study. The best the therapist can do with a patient like this, he remarked, is to “give understanding.” Like the Buddha with Yasa, he did not take the position that the situation was fearful and horrible but instead made room for a feeling that had been, over the years, dissociated. A compassionate attitude toward the bad pattern “points toward” the good pattern that had been long forgotten. “Profound understanding leads of course towards screaming, that is to say towards screaming again, this time with hope.”8

Winnicott went on to describe how, some time into her therapy, his patient dreamed herself screaming and then began to notice significant relief in waking life. Much as I began to dream on my retreat, Winnicott’s patient, safely ensconced in her relationship with him, found that she was also able to remember, and make use of, her dreams. Coincidentally to this process, she reported being able to sing at a community event. Dreaming of screaming led to her singing. And Winnicott described how she was then able to speak up when he was late to a session. Her anger was no longer felt to be impotent but could be martialed in service of the therapeutic relationship. “We need to dream our scream for it to become real and we need to experience our dream as part of the real-izing process,”9 wrote Michael Eigen years later about this case.

Winnicott’s case study illuminates something critical about the Buddha’s path. While he was not yet ready to dream his traumatized self, the Buddha, without realizing it at first, acted out his trauma in the pursuit of self-punishment and self-mortification. Like Yasa running from his disturbing vision of sexuality the Buddha became consumed with how fearsome and horrible human needs could be. Winnicott’s case study describes how therapists now understand the evolution of this kind of shame. The raw vision of one’s helplessness and dependency, the feeling of groundlessness, as exemplified in his case study by the mother who was not there to hear her child’s scream, is too overwhelming to bear, too primordial to symbolize. It cannot be held by the mind. Something has to take its place, and this often takes the shape of a neurotic symptom or set of symptoms, a fear or a phobia or an obsessive determination to control one’s body or mind. A conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with oneself or one’s world, painful though that might be, is more tolerable than staring into the void.

The bulk of Gotama’s six years of wandering were spent in the company of five companions practicing austerities, the same five to whom he later gave the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and who then watched as he settled Yasa down and gave him hope. The general idea of their asceticism was that since pleasure led to attachment, the elimination of pleasure could break the hold of this illusory world and release one into the realm of pure spirit. By depriving the body of its everyday needs one could build up a kind of spiritual power or “heat” that could bring one into contact with the divine. If indulging one’s needs for comfort, food, safety, or sex led to bondage, then a refusal to yield to one’s desires must lead to freedom. Ascetic practitioners were widespread in the wilds of India in the Buddha’s time—they can still be found, as Allen Ginsberg discovered on his first trip to India, on the periphery of Indian society today.

One of the most interesting things about reading traditional accounts of the Buddha’s austerities is how aggressive he sounds. He is far from the delicate creature he once was. No longer clad in the expensive silks of Benares, he becomes as fierce as any matted-haired, fire-worshipping, snake-garlanded ascetic of his time. As the Buddha implied when he reflected upon his own delicate nature, he was raised in such a way that the most troubling feelings were kept apart from everyday life. As legend came to describe, walls were built around any intimation of death, destruction, or loss. In his ascetic practices, the Buddha turned all this around. If he had been shielded from distress in his childhood, he flung himself into it in the forest. One can almost hear a therapist like Winnicott describing the Buddha’s “ruthless rejection of his own female element,” with his “unwelcome male element threatening to take over his whole personality.”10

Ascetic practices brought Gotama’s aggression out into the open and gave it a means of expression. In making his own body/mind the object of assault, he found a safe object to attack, albeit one that was under constant threat of collapse. Gotama’s spiritual pursuits had him hitting his head against the wall of his own suffering, trying to find relief through the attempted destruction of his own support. His ideal during this time, as recounted in the Pali Canon, was to become like a “dry, sapless piece of wood lying on dry land,” ready, at the first opportunity, to burst into flames. The imagery is almost too perfect. Draining himself of all of what is called rasa in Sanskrit—the juice, flavor, taste, essence, or emotion of desire11 —the Buddha was hoping to become free of his human foibles. He was literally attempting to empty himself of the sap that ran through his veins, turning himself into kindling for one of the sacrificial fires so common to the wandering forest ascetics.

By subjugating his passions, keeping himself walled off from temptation, and deliberately challenging his body, Gotama hoped that he could drain himself of instinct and leapfrog into the divine. With the juice squeezed out, Gotama expected to make himself a pure vehicle, one free of earthly toxins and capable of spiritual sublimation. He was aiming to go directly from solid to spirit through his own personal alchemy of self-deprivation. He was said to make four times the effort of the other recluses, such that he came to be called Mahashramana, the “Great Wanderer.”12 The traditional texts of the Pali Canon are unsparing in their descriptions of his dedicated self-abuse.

I thought: “Suppose, with my teeth clenched and my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, I beat down, constrain and crush my mind with my mind?” Then, as a strong man might seize a weaker by the head or shoulders and beat him down, constrain him and crush him, so with my teeth clenched and my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth, I beat down, constrained and crushed my mind with my mind. Sweat ran from my armpits while I did so.

I thought: “Suppose I practise the meditation that is without breathing?” I stopped the in-breaths and out-breaths in my mouth and nose. When I did so, there was a loud sound of winds coming from my ear holes, as there is a loud sound when a smith’s bellows are blown.

I stopped the in-breaths and out-breaths in my mouth and nose and ears. When I did so, violent winds racked my head, as if a strong man were splitting my head open with a sharp sword. And then there were violent pains in my head, as if a strong man were tightening a tough leather strap round my head, as a head-band. And then violent winds carved up my belly, as a clever butcher or his apprentice carves up an ox’s belly with a sharp knife. And then there was a violent burning in my belly, as if two strong men had seized a weaker man by both arms and were roasting him over a pit of live coals.13

The Buddha goes on to describe how emaciated he became. Eating only a handful of food per day, his eyes sunk down in their sockets as if at the bottom of a deep well; his scalp shriveled and withered like a pumpkin left out in the wind and sun; his arms and legs like hollow bamboo stems; his ribs jutting out “like the crazy rafters of an old roofless barn”; his vertebrae resembling corded beads poking through his backside; his hair, rotted at its roots, dropping out in clumps when he rubbed his head; and his body falling over on itself when he urinated or moved his bowels; he was a wreck. His five fellow penitents were rapt in his presence—never before had anyone taken self-mortification to such an extreme. Gotama almost succeeded in squeezing himself dry. He likened himself to a stone breaking a raw clay pot or to a raw clay pot broken by a stone. Breaker and broken were almost one. His five friends’ exhilarated responses notwithstanding, his intrinsic capacity to elicit a thrill of bliss in another was almost extinguished.

At this point in the Buddha’s story something incredible happened. Nothing supernatural, just a momentary thought. As Winnicott once wrote, describing how he had mellowed as a therapist in his later years, “If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy.”14 A version of this happened for the Buddha. Unbidden, a childhood memory came bubbling to the surface of Gotama’s mind. Out of the blue, as if from nowhere, a lost moment arose. Stumbling over himself as he urinated, he was transported back to his youth. Barely able to stand on his own two feet after years of self-torture, the Buddha remembered himself as a boy, happily sitting under a rose-apple tree, the sun shining, a warm breeze blowing, his father some distance away working in the fields, and his own mind at peace. In some accounts he also remembered noticing insects, eggs, and worms cut up by the plow. He was overtaken, these accounts assert, by a “strange sorrow, as though it were his own relatives that had been killed,”15 and compassion for the hapless creatures arose in his heart. In all the accounts of this memory, young Gotama was soon filled with tenderness and settled into the beautiful day, “and a feeling of pure joy rose up unbidden in his heart.”16 Sitting under the jambu, or rose-apple, tree, he was suffused with this feeling, as if he himself were the tree with the sap rising within. It is also said in some later versions that the shadow of the rose-apple tree did not move as the afternoon progressed. The shadow remained still, sheltering the young boy as he sat cross-legged beneath it,17 marking the moment as a special one.

However peculiar to be suddenly overtaken by this memory at the height of self-mortification, even stranger was the fact that it made him anxious and afraid. “What is this fear about?” the Buddha wondered to himself, summoning the curiosity that was to become a hallmark of his method. “Maybe I should take a look.”

In the self-analysis that followed, the Buddha came to the conclusion that the joy that had arisen under the rose-apple tree could well be something unexpectedly essential to the enlightenment he was seeking. Up until the dawning of this memory, he was driven by the belief that he had to purify himself of all feeling and lift himself out of his human embodiment to connect with something greater than himself. The defense of dissociation was, up to this point, unconsciously guiding his approach. In my analysis, he was also driven by his mother’s inability to tolerate the bliss he brought her, an inability he must have internalized and used against himself, fueling his unworthiness. After investigating the memory, which was in some way a rediscovery of that very bliss, the Buddha changed his mind.

“ ‘Why am I afraid of such pleasure? It is a pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things.’ Then I thought: ‘I am not afraid of such pleasure,’ ” the Buddha considered, “ ‘for it has nothing to do with sensual desires and unwholesome things.’”18

This was the Buddha’s critical insight and the pivot point for his entire journey. It was the moment when he began to trust himself, when he stopped being seduced by the appearance of holiness and made himself, in his own words, “a lamp unto himself.” His memory is talked about as the foundation of his Middle Path, the route he found between sensory indulgence on the one hand and self-loathing on the other. It was a new discovery, one that Winnicott was intuitively following in his clinical work, where he was fostering the conditions for self-knowledge by “giving understanding” to that which could not be ordinarily conceived. It was the moment when the Buddha began to chart a novel course for himself, going against the grain of his culture while opening up a new formula for self-investigation. And it was the moment when the defense of dissociation cracked and he arrived at his understanding, in Winnicott’s words, “creatively and with immense joy.”

The implications of the Buddha’s discovery are relevant even in our time. There are certainly people, even today, who are torturing themselves with self-hatred or self-denial in an attempt to shake themselves free. Anorectic patients, for instance, refuse food with as mighty an intensity as the Buddha mustered, and it is often the case that they are refusing feelings as well, substituting an obsessive need for control for their more volatile emotional lives. There are less obvious variations on this theme. A recent patient of mine, a speechwriter in his late forties with a longstanding but private interest in Eastern spirituality, came to me for guidance in learning about Buddhism. He was surprised when I urged him to relax into his conscious awareness of whatever arose in his mind or body. “I thought the point was to get rid of that awareness,” he said. Like the Buddha before his childhood memory, he wanted an escape from himself, imagining that the release of meditation was akin to a good rest. He was disoriented at first when he found that meditation, more than anything, made him more alert to the natural world. Walking in the forest with his young daughter, he was touched by how alive everything began to seem. The rest he was seeking came as a heightening of awareness, not a diminishment of it.

The Buddha’s rejection of the extremes speaks to another tendency in our culture. In our flight from the traumatic underpinnings of everyday life, we have become the opposite of the abstemious Buddha. As I was prone to do with my toast on my retreat, we look to the accumulation of sensory pleasures to give our lives meaning. We have the ability now to consume anything we want, and this capacity far exceeds our actual needs. With so much at our fingertips, a kind of gluttony pervades our mind-sets. We are attached not only to our possessions and our passions but to our smart phones, our tablets, and our devices, obsessively consuming connection while, in the words of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, “avoiding conversation.” This is another manifestation of the rush to normal that the Buddha warned against. We want to be like everybody else. We don’t want to have to feel disease. We are wary even of the more subtle joys that arise unbidden when we get out of the way of ourselves. As Professor Turkle wrote recently in the New York Times, we want to be digitally in touch but often do so at the expense of a deeper conversation with one another and with ourselves. “I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod,” she wrote, “and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. So I say, look up, look at one another, and let’s start the conversation.”19

The Buddha would have agreed with Sherry Turkle. In the moment of his childhood memory he looked up from his smart phone and unhooked himself from his obsessive self-preoccupation. He, too, was trying to be like everybody else, or at least like the very best holy man he could imagine. But, lucky for him, he had a spontaneous experience that surprised him. He felt the fear that often provokes a phobic response, but his curiosity protected him. He looked at his fear and it did not make sense. He began a conversation with himself that continued for the next several weeks and that culminated in his enlightenment. And he continued that conversation for many more years, with Yasa as one of his first contacts.

While the Buddha erred on the side of self-denial, not self-indulgence, his core understanding pertained to both. Up until his childhood memory, the Buddha had not recognized that the seeds of liberation were already present within. The spontaneous arising of his memory provoked a recalibration of his psyche. It resolved his conflict over how to relate to himself. If the joy he remembered under the rose-apple tree was not a result of the blind pursuit of pleasure, if it had nothing to do with sensual desires, then it must be intrinsic to the Buddha’s own nature. If it was intrinsic to his nature, then there was no need to turn himself into a stone or a dry, sapless piece of wood, no need to erode the physical and mental substrate of his being. If this joy was a key to enlightenment, then his approach had to change. How could he use this remembered joy to guide him on his path? He could investigate it rather than trying to wipe it out: He could engage it in conversation.

The first thing the Buddha decided was that if he wanted to sustain his joy, he needed to eat. “It is not possible to attain that pleasure with a body so excessively emaciated. Suppose I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and bread?”20 At this point in the story, a maiden appeared, a young village woman named Sujātā, who brought him some porridge or rice pudding called kummāsa. The five ascetics who had been cheering him on grew disgusted when they saw him with her. They thought he had gone soft, lost his edge, become a convert to some other guru, the way we might feel when a respected professor suddenly discovers the New Age. “The monk Gotama has become self-indulgent, he has given up the struggle and reverted to luxury,”21 they cried. They left him and wandered on, searching for new inspiration. In the legends that have grown up in Buddhist culture over the years, this incident has taken on special meaning. As if to drive home the relationship between the Buddha’s childhood memory and the return of his lost mother, Sujātā is described in one famous text as having been the Buddha’s mother in five hundred previous existences.22 In another text she is remembered as a village girl who prayed to a local tree deity that she might give birth to a son. When her wish comes true, she brings an offering to the tree, sees the Buddha there, and assumes he is the tree god incarnate. In this version, the Buddha is recognized as having transformed from a dry piece of kindling into the essence of the tree itself. A psychoanalytic reading of the story would, of course, focus on the image of the breast. Sujātā’s feeding of kummāsa to the Buddha, in support of his childhood joy, evokes the short-lived mother-child union that drove his mother into retreat.

The Buddha, in the aftermath of his meal, did not swing back to an embrace of luxury. He actually resolved something. There was a middle way, he decided. While he did not have to be driven by his feelings, by his body, or by his thoughts, he did not have to eliminate them either. His understanding deepened and his tolerance for ambiguity soared. His whole approach to meditation took a radical turn. Instead of seeking to break his mind with his mind, he let the joy of his childhood memory and the curiosity it evoked infuse and inform his technique. He let it become the platform for his awakening. While not forsaking the self-inquiry he had already begun, he let up on himself. He noted that his pleasure-driven thoughts and feelings, if carefully observed, did not provoke him to act. Like bubbles in a stream, they would come to the surface of his mind and pop. By not identifying with them, by not being caught up in their content, he could have access to a deeper joy, one that bore a stark resemblance to that which he had stumbled upon, and then forgotten about, in his childhood under the rose-apple tree and one that went all the way back to the thrill of bliss he had evoked in his mother at birth. Later, after his enlightenment, he called this new way of relating “mindfulness.”

The Buddha’s discovery empowered him. In a short time, after walking to the site of the present-day Indian village Bodh Gaya and sitting under a large fig tree by the banks of the Neranjara River, he was filled with a rush of realizations. Primary among them was a fundamental shift in the way he approached himself. As one of his biographers, Karen Armstrong, has described it, he no longer had to pounce on his failings but could use his reflective awareness to become acquainted with how his mind worked, in order to “exploit its capacities.”23 His days of dissociation were over. In its place was a newfound ability, one very similar to that discovered by Winnicott when he broke himself of his need to show off his intelligence to his patients and learned to wait for the joy of their self-discoveries. “I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever,”24 wrote Winnicott. The Buddha found something similar. In enjoying his joy, he allowed his mind to unfurl. In a carefree gesture long celebrated in Buddhist traditions, upon finishing his milk rice the Buddha tossed his bowl into the river. It floated upstream, signifying the change in direction the Buddha now embraced, and then sank to the bottom of the river, nestling on top of the bowls of the three previous Buddhas from different eras, all of whom had had similar awakenings at the same spot. The clinking of one bowl striking the others was said to awaken the naga, or serpent, king dwelling there, alerting him to the proximity of yet another Buddha. This waking of the unconscious, as personified by the rousing of the serpent at the bottom of the river, was another way of describing the return of the Buddha’s dissociated affect. No longer plagued by a feeling of not fitting in, and no longer tortured by the belief in his own intrinsic badness, the Buddha-to-be embraced the thrill of bliss that had driven his mother to distraction. With this joy as his support and his humanity restored, his journey to enlightenment gathered momentum.

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