The crises of community life

This is very good. It applies to all kinds of communities: families, friends, workplaces, intimate relationships, social groups, societies; wherever one human being encounters another human being. I like the suggestion the crises are inevitable and necessary, and that one can surf the crises, rather than run away from them, and thereby emerge into reality …

“There are four great crises of community life. The first comes when we arrive. There are parts of us which cling to the values we have left behind. The second is the discovery that the community is not as perfect as we had thought. The ideal and our illusions crumble; we are faced with reality. The third is when we feel misunderstood and even rejected by the community. The fourth is the hardest: our disappointment with ourselves because of all the anger, jealousies and frustrations that boil up in us. If we are to integrate into community we must know how to pass through these crises. They all imply the losing of illusions and the gradual welcoming of reality as it is.”

~ Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p136

Image: Sudden shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake, Hiroshige, 1857


Scratching the itch

I wanted to view the three months of comp preparation as if it were a spiritual retreat and so it was. I didn’t have to try too hard to make the leap. Just as on a spiritual retreat, everyday life recedes, as well as some of the sleep-walking involved in that mode. Start messing around with eating patterns, new levels of physical and mental exertion and soon everyone begins coming face-to-face with themselves.

Many days, I walked to the gym, the path dark and cold at 6am, and to keep myself company I’d listen to one of my favourite Buddhist audiobooks by the wonderful nun, Pema Chödrön. The teaching that had the biggest impact on me during this time is shenpa.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word that can be (poorly) translated as “attachment”. Pema says it’s much better to translate it as “being hooked” as it gives a more vivid and accurate picture of this experience that is common to all human beings.

Shenpa is the involuntary reaction – the tightening, the contraction, the itch – that occurs when something hooks us. It could be a look, a word, an absence of a word, a thought, and boom we’re hooked. What normally happens is that we then scratch the itch. We scratch using one of our habitual ways of scratching; Buddhist thought proposes three of them: we numb out, we crave or we use aggression (against others or ourselves).

My habitual ways of scratching are numbing out and blaming myself (an example of aggression towards myself). During comp preparation, I also saw I use spending money as a way of scratching; something about the handing over of money lessens the itch for a fleeting moment. With my newly shenpa-attuned eyes, I could also see many examples in my team members of the different styles of scratching.

Addictions of all kinds – food, alcohol, drugs, blame, criticism, gambling, and thousands more – are examples of shenpas.

Of course, each time we scratch the itch we make the shenpa stronger. There’s a momentary lessening of the original discomfort, the original unpleasantness or unsatisfactoriness we were trying to get away from, but then the itch returns stronger and more insistent.

What is there to do? Pema says we can train ourselves to stay with the itch instead of scratching and trying to get away. We can train our nervous systems to be with the discomfort or unsatisactoriness, while at the same time being gentle and friendly towards ourselves and our inclination to flee, to scratch. This is essentially what sitting or walking meditation is doing: training one in staying.

This is the training within the training that I’ve taken on during this comp preparation period and that I want to share with everyone.

To read more about shenpa and Pema’s wonderful teachings, I recommend starting with her audiobook, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. With her lovely, easy voice, she’s at her best in audiobook form.



The sanity we are born with

I’m reading The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology by Chögyam Trungpa. In my view, Trunga is a genius and his genius lays in understanding human being. The incisiveness, freshness and audacity of his insights is extraordinary, and it’s communicated in language the great prose stylists of literature would envy.

When he first arrived in the West in 1959 aged 20 after fleeing Tibet, Trungpa saw that Buddhist thought and practice would come to the West through psychology, and he had an enduring commitment for the rest of his relatively short life to the meeting of Eastern meditation practice and the Western psychological paradigm.

I’m going to be sharing some of his insights, and today I kick off the series with the following gem, one that disrupts the standard Western view of health professionals at a single stroke.

“The basic work of health professionals in general, and of psychotherapists in particular, is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives.” (p137)

That is, the basic work is not the so-called patient, it’s the health professional themselves.


The basic misunderstanding

People tell me, “You’re so positive”. If I’m on the ball, sometimes I explain that what they’re responding to in me is happiness, not positivity, because the two are worlds apart. I also hear people saying things like “I’m striving to be a better person”. This gives me a pain in my heart for them, and for myself. They don’t realise they are already fundamental goodness, already fundamental soundness and perfection.

Here is Pema Chödrön on the matter of this basic misunderstanding …

“The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness and shut-down-ness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, then we would be happy. This is the innocent, naïve misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.”

~ Pema Chödrön, Awakening Loving-Kindness

Image: IAMI by Eugenia Loli


Hiding from pain

This is everywhere in our society, and also in me: the absence of unconditional friendliness towards ourselves

“Some people come to community seeking consolation from the pain of feeling unloved by responding to whatever demands are made of them. Unconsciously there is a thought pattern: ‘If I satisfy your need then you, or the community, or God will be grateful, will appreciate my existence, will love me.’ Ultimately this can never bring true fulfilment or true growth. It is important that we are attentive to this response, so easily disguised by generosity and goodness. We must help each person to live more and more clearly and deeply from an inner confidence of being loved by God just as they are.”

~ Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p132

Image: Up in the Sky, 1997, Tracey Moffatt

To subscribe to daily thoughts from the publications of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and winner of the Templeton Prize in 2015, go to his website:


We don’t need to change ourselves


“But loving-kindness, or maitri, toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.”

~ From The Pocket Pema Chödrön by Pema Chödrön, pages 12–13 (available from Shambhala Publications)