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Finding meaning in dark days

There was a great podcast from Reggie this week. I don’t know who chooses the bits of his back catalogue to excerpt but it felt like it was masterfully matched to all the listeners in the UK trying to process the referendum vote last Thursday.

He’s talking to the 100 or so meditators on the Dathun winter retreat. He’s been away sick for a couple of days and clearly, there’s been some acting out. People seem to have freaked out and started writing angry notes, breaking the silence, spinning out of the space.

“This is what happens when we go deep”, he says in his basso profound voice that I love so much. When we open up through meditation to the depths then energy rushes up. And the thing about energy is, that it’s intense. And mostly we spend our whole life tensing our bodies and minds up to prevent that energy from getting through. When we do relax and drop down, the energy demands attention and it feels crazy.

we go crazy, throwing firecrackers, drinking full bottles of vodka into the night, shouting at people, calling them names

The habitual response to these energies from the depths is to either tense up again or to act out. We either go rigid and tough and our ego crashes back in with a big strong story: I am this, I am not that. Or we go crazy, throwing firecrackers, drinking full bottles of vodka into the night, shouting at people, calling them names.

The weirder the energy, the stronger the inclination to shut down or freak out.

But the energy of the depths is the only way forward, Reggie argues (and I agree). Staying the way we have always been is not working. The only way is down. Down to meet the crazy, disturbing, explosive energy of the Underworld.

If you thought, he goes on to say, that meditation was about going deeper and deeper into a state of peace, then you are on the wrong train. The deeper you go the more you connect to the fucked-up suffering in you, and then in your family, and then in your relationships, and then in your workplace and then in your town and then in your nation and then in the World.

Opening to the stuff you don’t like is the only way to really transform it into meaning

This is what Buddhists call the Boddhicitta Path or the Path of the Heart. The deeper you go into the depths of the heart the more connected you feel to your dark parts and the dark parts of every other sentient being on the planet. This is why Chögyam Trungpa always said, if there’s any possible way that you can avoid the spiritual path, then avoid it at all costs. Because once you start, this is your unavoidable destination: the pain of the whole World.

And this is not just stupid masochism. Engaging with the reality of pain and craziness is the only way to heal it. Opening to the stuff you don’t like (about yourself, about your partner, about Britain) is the only way to really transform it into meaning.

I’ve written before about the slight relief I felt when I started to look at the right-wing papers in the wake of the Brexit vote. And yesterday, I had a long conversation with a colleague of mine (who I like very much) who voted “Leave”. I admit that I had driven to work feeling anxious about spending time with this two-headed, poison-eyed monster and he seemed as edgy as I did. But we sat down and I asked him to explain why he voted that way. I didn’t argue or contradict him but I just listened. I don’t agree with a lot of what he said but the relief at approaching the Gorgon and realising that no one is going to turn to stone was palpable.

For people outside of the UK, this might seem all rather over-blown. But the last few days have seen a very troubling hardening of people’s views. People on Facebook de-friending everyone who voted differently from them; openly racist comments being made in the streets; everyone eyeing each other warily on public transport, “Which way did they vote?”.

Finding meaning is the only way to survive tough times

And I have really struggled to find purchases in my day-to-day. But driving back from work yesterday, I listened to a great “On Being” podcast which mentioned Victor Frankl, who famously said that finding meaning is the only way to survive tough times. Then I listened to Reggie and I felt that some meaning might be grasped out of Brexit.

Whichever way you voted and whatever happens, the vote brought some things very close to the surface. We may have been coasting along in our little Facebook bubbles and twitter feeds, but a whole half of our community were believing something radically different. There is a collective experience that living in a country together entails. You may not like the other half of the country, you may even despise them and their views, but they are nonetheless there. Hate them if you like, but don’t be surprised now that they exist.

Weirdly, we went down to the depths in this simple in/out vote and everything got dredged up to the surface. It’s there on view to the whole world. We may not like it but there it is. Half our fellow citizens feel that way. Retreating into shut-down or fizzing out into freak-out is not going to change that fact.

So how do we deal with the intense energy of the depths? We practice, says Reggie. The more fucked-up the energy, the more we sit meditation. The crazier the depths are revealed, the more we slow down and stop and feel that energy exactly as it is, without beautification.

And, he goes on to add, the Lineage (that is the positive forces of Life and the teachings) will give us exactly what we need to meet the most overwhelming and horrendous of depths.

I have done a lot of work sitting with my own personal shit-monsters and hidden-killers

So I have my sitting practice and the somatic tools that Reggie teaches and with them I have done a lot of work sitting with my own personal shit-monsters and hidden-killers; I’ve done a lot of work on how I project those horrible aspects out onto friends and colleagues and strangers; and now I have to sit with what I’ve been ignoring in my national depths, in the undercroft of Englishness, and Britishness. Like it or not I was born here and benefited from this community. I can’t just bail out because it didn’t do what I wanted it to do.

This is not accepting the racists or the cultural vandals but it is also not pretending they don’t exist or that they didn’t do what they did. I have to sit with it, and that is the meaning that I give to this strange time.

There is a figure in Tibetan iconography, Vajrayogini, who is a beautiful young woman with a vampire’s tooth and a razor-sharp chopping knife. Her purpose in practice is to chop everything up and slice through every single preconception we have about the world. She’s terrifying and gorgeous. And when she’s done everything is lying there, just as it is, ready for us to really connect to it and go on. No lies, no self-delusion.

Perhaps it’s Vajrayogini who has been at work?

I’d love to know your thoughts about meaning. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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