When someone pushes our buttons and we react in our habitual ways, it’s uncomfortable and disconcerting perhaps, but it’s also an opportunity for an adventure in self-discovery.
A few weeks ago in the lesson titled ‘Taking Refuge, Taking Root’ I used the analogy of a plant rooting, and I talked about how we might contract around a hard rock, believing it to be solid ground and how we need to let our roots flourish and expand in the rich soil in order to ensure healthy growth for the plant of our being.
So what is the rock in this analogy? What is this hard thing that we contract around, that we cling to, believing it to be the ground that will support us? It is our identity, our solid separate sense of self that we hold onto as if it is the source of life, without which we would disappear.
We will not disappear if we loosen our tight hold on this rock of identity. But when we begin to see that it is just a rock and not the ground itself, we can release our grip on that hard contracted sense of self, that collection of ideas about who we are. This awareness that there is a rock, that there is a holding tight, a contracting around our sense of identity is in itself a hard truth to grasp. If we are not our thoughts, our beliefs, our personality, our way of being in the world, our skills, our traits, our strengths and our weaknesses – all these things we have learned about ourselves over the years – then who the heck are we?
With our tight grasp around the rock of identity, we are too contracted to consider the possibility that we are not who we believe ourselves to be. It’s just too scary. It’s just another threat that makes us feel we will disappear.
We all know these perceived threats that seem to be the cause of all our pain by making us contract even further. We are familiar with them, whether we acknowledge them or not. I’ve come upon a collection of early poems from my twenties, and in between all the love poems there are poems that clearly speak to an awareness of these threats.
POEM: At the Door
Let them all come in
Open the door gently
so they won’t fall on their faces
but let them all come in
Careful now, don’t crush the hand
that seeps under the door sill
Don’t stab too hard
the key into the hole
through which an eye’s been
Yes, let them all come in
I’m just too tired to listen
to their scratching and their whining
I want to see their faces
and be done with them
– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976
In this poem I am clearly in a state of exhaustion from fighting with these threats and I just want to get it over with, to stop locking the door against whatever it is that so desperately wants in. Sometimes we arrive at the door of our awakening with just that state of exhaustion after all other avenues of escape have been tried. Other times we rush to open the door because wherever we are is so excruciatingly painful that we finally have no choice but to see what’s behind the door of the unknown we had previously resisted.
In the second poem, written soon after the first, you can see it is in fact two poems in one. Read through the whole poem first, then reread only the words in bold. Because at the time I only had a typewriter to work with, I used a colored pencil to highlight the words of the poem inside the poem. (In the printed version the poem is justified into a block of type but I couldn’t achieve that here.)
POEM: Calling Card
but shut the door I know
its voice but not its name
I say I am not yet ready for
the peace pipe pale light
waiting & shut the door. It
calls out wanting compromise
& Trust when I know if I let it
in for tea it would steal
me away. Even as we chat
it would pocket my tongue
leaving me there with
no way to call for help No
that door must not Be opened
though There is no end to its
knocking, though I must Live
always with Knowing that the
day no doubt will come when
the door shall come unhinged
and all my choices are gone
– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976
In this second poem there is still the sense of the perceived threat but there is also the full awareness that what is waiting outside the door is not just the rambunctious scratching aspects of perceived identity that need to be faced, but also the patient inner wisdom that is always there ready to be heard when we are ready to listen.
When we open to the creative process, we often find a way of exploring concepts that might otherwise be threatening. So whatever utensils for creativity call to you – a paint brush, a pen, a pair of scissors and a stack of magazines, remembering and recording dreams or any other creative means, allow yourself to pick it up and use it as a means of self-exploration. Let go of any idea that it needs to be ‘good.’ We are not talking about products to be marketed but about the means to allow our inner wisdom to communicate with us.
Clearly, these two poems are both ways for my inner wisdom to tell me it was time to open to whatever was on the other side of that door, and I began meditating not too longer after these were written. I’m glad that I wrote the poems down, and even collected them and kept them, though I just recently found this notebook of collected early poetry, long buried.
We all have ways in which our inner wisdom speaks to us, but we don’t always listen, and if we hear it we don’t always believe it. Even if we believe it we might not remember it when we most need it. Making note through the creative process in whatever form it takes is a way of formalizing our relationship with our inner wisdom. We might not know what it is telling us but we are heeding its call, and we then have a way of living with the record, letting ourselves wonder about it, letting it inspire us to further exploration.
Unless of course we get all caught up in turning our art into currency to make us feel safe in the world, thinking it represents us. It doesn’t! Our inner wisdom speaks through us in this way, and we are free to share our art with others because it is universal in nature. But it is very easy to contract around our art and compress it further into the rock of our identity, so that instead of allowing it to have its relationship with others, to reach them if they are open to it, we believe our art to be our face in the world, and we suffer in our sense of self if people don’t respond to it in the way we hope they will. Sometimes artists contract around their art identity and lose touch with the inner wisdom that sparked its creation originally. Instead of listening to their inner wisdom, they listen to ‘the market.’ This is a loss for the artist and the viewer, reader or listener because there is no deep connection, only an uncomfortable agreement to stay on the surface of things, ignoring the loud knocking and scratching sounds coming from ‘the door.’
Do you have a felt sense of what or who threatens your tightly held perception of personal identity? For most of us it is made much clearer at the moments when someone or something ‘pushes our buttons’ by making us feel unsafe — unloved, invisible, disrespected or unworthy, even if that was not their intention. As painful as they are, these moments are potentially gifts for inner exploration. As we develop the ability to be present with experiences and the emotions they evoke, we can begin to use skillful inquiry and insightful noticing. Buddhist meditative practice invites us to be present with what is, and sometimes purposely evoking strong emotion in order to bring up the strong sense of the false identity, the illusion of a separate self.
Our body is our greatest instructor in this. We can feel intense emotions in our body. In the way it holds tension, pain and illness our bodies can give us insights into what residue from the past we are compressing into that rock of false identity.
Sitting in meditation or simply in a quiet moment, we can access a specific bodily sensation. Resting our attention there, we first let go of any desire to change it, to make it better, to make it go away. This is an opportunity to learn something. Why would we rush past it, even if it’s painful? We sit with our pain because it holds the key to our ability to awaken and grow to the fullness of our being.
First we can simply be with the emotion, noticing where we feel it in our body, then we focus on the physical sensation, noticing what images and emotions arise through this open curious attention. We might ask a question, “Why do I feel this way?” We may hear the words of a parent or teacher scolding us. We may see a scene from our youth. These are actually associated with the pain. They are the clues to how we learned to identify ourselves in this way.
These are moments in our young lives where we believed what someone else told us about ourselves or about the world without taking into account their own human frailties, fallibilities and fears. Now as adults who don’t believe everything we hear from every source, we can be present with them again and we can see them more clearly. We can see how an exhausted and perhaps frustrated young mother gave us messages that spoke more of her feelings about herself than about us. We can see how a young lover’s betrayal tattooed us with a sense of being unlovable or unattractive when he or she was simply steeped in misery that had nothing to do with us. Seeing this, we don’t need to turn on ourselves for having been gullible. We were young! We were learning about the world and ourselves from every source available. We had no way to discern whether a source was valid, whether what we heard was true or not. Horrible things are said in moments of anger, in moments of intoxication that were false but felt true to us at the time, and we took these things in and we fabricated our identity around them and now it is the rock that we cling to full of both the things we like to believe about ourselves and the things we are ashamed of. We all have this! And, as was mentioned by one of the students in class, it is really valuable to realize that horrible things, untrue but hurtful and believed to be true at the time things, have been said to us all. And while part of what we can do is to be conscious enough to not say such things to others, especially to children who will take it so to heart, the other part is to become conscious enough to see how much of what we hold to be us is really just this rock we are clinging to, believing it to be us.
These insights may give us great ‘aha’ moments where we begin to understand how we contracted around that hard rock of identity. The story revealed may be very compelling. We may fall a bit in love with it and we run the risk of wrapping our roots tight around it as well, recognizing all the ways we have been wronged, and getting into an orgy of naming and blaming rather than moving through the story to the clarity of the message that ‘We are not this.’ Having found we are not this, we may simply fall into the belief that “We are that.’ still seeing the identity thus created as solid. Sometimes we just apply whitewash through positive thinking. We tell ourselves we are good when we had thought ourselves bad. Thus we are still stuck clinging to the rock.
So we need to be aware that these discoveries are not the end of the exploration. We take these new found associative images and insights and pursue a form of inquiry. We take the horrible thing that was said to us, that we have held tight within us all these years, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true?’ No matter how much power we vested it with at the time, we now see that the source of our belief about who we are has nothing to do with us. The source, whether a parent, teacher or playmate, was unreliable. He or she was operating without true knowledge or understanding, with no clairvoyance and certainly only temporal power over us. We have the power to reparent ourselves, not to weave a new tale of who we are, but to hold ourselves with great compassion and strength to be present with all of these stories and see them for what they are.
This is a huge breakthrough! Because we have just begun to see the contraction and the clinging roots as unnecessary. Now we have the opportunity to release into the rich soil of being and grow in ways we have never allowed ourselves to do before.
So when in a relationship someone pushes our buttons and we sense our habituated patterns of reactivity arising, we have a choice. We can follow our habituated patterns mindlessly, letting them take us on a wild painful ride — lashing out in anger or retreating in self-pity, for example — or we can say ‘Thank you for providing such a rich dharma lesson!’ Well we don’t have to say it out loud, but we could! And then we can give ourselves some time to be present with the pain, to feel it in the body, to notice associative images and emotional memories, and to do exploratory inquiry.
This is the opportunity that we are offered again and again, at the push of a button.