Dear Still Water Friends,
Reconciling With Our Personal Histories
Thursday, February 28, 2008
This Thursday evening, 28 February, after our meditation period, we will practice the Five Touchings of the Earth together. Then, we will explore ways this practice helps us to nourish our love and reconcile ourselves with the difficult experiences of our lives.
The Five Touchings are a form of guided movement meditation in which we physically assume a posture of surrender and release and then reflect on:
- All generations of ancestors in my blood family.
- All generations of ancestors in my spiritual family.
- This land and all of the ancestors who made it available.
- Those I love.
- Those who have made me suffer.
(The full text of the Five Touchings is available here.)
Recently I’ve learned the phrase "non-anxious presence," a key concept in Family Systems Theory. When we are embedded in a set of relationships in which others are acting out of their fears and suffering, there are basically three ways we can respond. We, too, can respond emotionally and be overwhelmed ourselves by fear, anxiety, sadness, and other difficult emotions. We can distance ourselves, physically or psychologically, as a way of restoring calm and stability. Or we can continue to be engaged in the relationships with a (relatively) non-anxious presence. According to Family Systems Theory, this last response, of non-anxious presence, is transformative of the relationships: it reduces the emotional reactivity of others, makes authentic communication more likely, and nourishes creative solutions.
I believe the term "non-anxious presence" is also a helpful synonym for mindfulness, especially the mindfulness we can develop through the practice of the Five Touchings of the Earth. Many of us grew up with and have stored inside of us reservoirs of suffering. We have had, at best, ambivalent relationships with our blood ancestors, our spiritual ancestors, and our land ancestors. Our close relationships often stir up our suffering and we respond reactively. We hold resentment toward those we perceive as having made us suffer.
When we practice the five touchings we are encouraged to calmly look back on our personal histories. With less anxiety, we are open to new explanations. Rather than focusing on how parents, ancestors, or institutions let us down, we are better able to understand their contexts and difficulties. We can look on them with the eyes of compassion. We can feel gratitude for their efforts and for the resources they passed on to us. With non-anxious presence we can reconcile with our own personal histories, so that our responses to those we engage with today reflect our current relationships and not those of the past.
There is below an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh on Embracing Our Anger which also explains how we can move from emotional reactivity to non-anxious presence.
Embracing Our Anger
Excerpt from a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 27, 1998 in Plum Village, France.
In psychotherapy, people advise us to touch our anger, to allow our anger to be, to recognize our anger. But the question is, who will take care of the anger, who will recognize the anger, who will allow the anger to be? What is the agent that does the work of taking care, of recognizing? In the teaching of the Buddha it is very clear—the agent that is taking care of anger, recognizing and embracing anger is a kind of energy we call the energy of mindfulness. When you are angry, you have to practice mindfulness of anger. Mindfulness of anger means to be aware that anger is in you as an energy, and to recognize it, to allow it to be. You embrace it tenderly with the energy of mindfulness. The best way to do that is with mindful breathing, or mindful walking. Usually when we get angry we don’t do that. We pay more attention to the person whom we think is the cause of our anger. But the Buddha advises us to go back and take good care of your anger. When your house is on fire, the most important thing for you to do is to go back to your house and try to put out the fire. The most important thing is not to run after the person that you believe to be the arsonist. That is what the Buddha recommended to us—to go home to ourselves and to take care of the fire inside. That is why during the time of practice of going back, recognizing it, allowing to be, embracing it, looking deeply if you do that, then you will not have the time to say or do anything. The Buddha recommended that we not say or do anything when we are angry, because that is dangerous. Go back and take care.
We have to be aware that our anger may be born from a wrong perception on our part. That happens often. The other person may not wish to make us suffer, to destroy us, or to punish us, but because we are not very attentive, we misunderstood him or her. That wrong perception is why we get angry at him or her, and we blame him or her as the cause of our suffering. That is something that can happen very often. That may be the first thing you discover when you look deeply into the nature of your anger. The second thing you may discover is that your seed of anger, the root of anger within you, is too strong. If a second person were listening to that sentence or seeing that act, he or she would not be as angry as you are, because the seed of anger in him or her is very small. You have a big seed of anger which is why you get angry so easily. Therefore the main cause of your anger is not that person. The main cause of your anger and your misery is that the seed of anger is too strong in you. We have to recognize that in many people the seed of anger is small, but in other people the seed of anger is very big. The seed of anger in you may be the main cause, and the other person may be just a secondary cause.
If you continue to practice walking meditation, and mindful breathing and looking into your anger, your situation, you might find out other things. Other kinds of insight can come, such as your realization that the other person who has done that or said that to you, suffers a lot, and does not know how to handle his suffering. That is why he is spilling over his suffering to the people around. Anyone who happened to be in his environment would have to suffer, because that is a person who does not know how to handle his suffering, how to transform his suffering. That is why, while making himself suffer, he makes many people around him suffer also. You have learned the Dharma, you know how to practice mindful walking, to embrace your anger, you now feel much better already, but he is still in hell. So while practicing walking meditation you might recognize that, and be motivated by the desire to go back in order to help him or her, because he or she is still in hell. When you feel that you have to go back to help him, it means that your anger has been transformed into compassion. Thanks to your practice of looking deeply, of mindful walking, of mindful breathing. The other person may be your husband, your wife, your daughter, your father, your mother…if you don’t help him, if you don’t help her, who will? So, if you are motivated by the desire to go home and help him out, it means that your practice has borne fruit, and you should be joyful, because you have been successful in the practice.