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Book Review: The Varieties of Religious Experience

VREThe takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.

First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.

This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.

After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.

In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!

Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.

This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality.  He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?

Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?

There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.

I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?

Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.

Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.

The Refugees of Mindfulness: Rethinking Psychology’s Experiment with Meditation

“Jill” is 32 and works as a lawyer in the southwest. She wrote to me explaining that during her meditation she sometimes feels a panic attack coming on and has disturbing mental images. She cannot control it and does not know what she is doing wrong. When we talk for the first time I ask her when it began. “It started a few months after my therapist taught me mindfulness…”

file000351809409Third wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the marriage of modern psychology and ancient buddhist meditation. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, and many psychologists and meditation teachers are enthusiastic about the development, seeing it as a blend of the very best of eastern wisdom with western psychological science. Third wave CBT goes under a variety of names such as Mindfulness-Based CBT (MBCBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are also less structured approaches and informal sitting groups springing up in clinics across the country. It is the rare hospital or clinic that does not have a meditation group these days. This has resulted in a historically unique situation. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers and counselors are rapidly becoming the vanguard of meditation in the west, introducing people who may have never meditated to the practice.

All these approaches have the common elements of CBT (recognizing and challenging maladaptive thoughts) and a version of meditation that goes under the moniker “mindfulness meditation” or sometimes just “mindfulness.” A review of the treatment manuals for DBT, ACT, MBSR and MBCBT suggest that “mindfulness meditation” is something close to a “soft-vipassana.” The person doing meditation in these treatment protocols is instructed to watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own without judgment. This leads to the insight that one does not need to believe in, or act on, thoughts or feelings. This is perfect for CBT, which emphasizes the importance of thoughts and beliefs as the drivers of mood disorders. I call mindfulness meditation a “soft” version of vipassana because it stops short of instructing the person to see that everything in awareness is coming and going and is not owned. It also does not emphasize the kind of intense or rapid momentary concentration that marks some vipassana techniques. Instead, clinical mindfulness focuses on relaxation and gentleness (but not samadhi) and points the person to watch thinking and emotional reactions. I would argue that these differences are a very good thing because, despite popular opinion, traditional vipassana would be terrible medicine for a person who is emotionally distraught, unstable, and unable to cope.

That last sentence may be a bit shocking to some. If you are like most people, you associate meditation, all types of meditation, with happiness, relaxation, and maybe even bliss. The idea that it could produce difficulty is not only counter intuitive, it is anathema to how meditation is presented in the west. If anything difficult does occur during the meditation the meditator is likely to feel that they are doing something wrong. If he or she goes to a meditation teacher the advice will likely be to just “let it go,” “drop it,” or my favorite, “thank your mind for it.” This is patronizing. It gives the false impression that if anything distressing does occur during meditation, the problem is one of technique or reactivity on behalf of the meditator. In reality difficult experiences in meditation, ones that are remarkably similar to the symptoms of many mood disorders, are so normal that the most ancient surviving meditation manuals in Buddhism go into great detail about them, categorizing them into six distinct types that occur in a specific order. Far from being a sign of poor meditation, they are actually described as a sign of deepening insight. In other words, the most ancient manuals not only affirm that difficult experiences occur during serious meditation, they posit that these experiences are supposed to happen. They are a definite sign of one’s movement along what the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw coined The Progress of Insight, and are known as the “dukkha nanas” or “insights into suffering.” This might sound bad, but the good news is that these more distressing insights only occur when one is well on the way and down the path. Meditators usually have to go through a lot of sitting time, develop strong concentration, and become very equanimous before they can enter into the later insights. For this reason it is unlikely that a soft-vipassana approach can get one very far beyond the initial insights and into the dukkha nanas. So in a clinical setting if you stick to the instructions and don’t overdo it, nothing unsettling is likely to occur. I do not believe mindfulness meditation is intentionally designed for this, but if it was it would be a damn clever modification of traditional vipassana.

Despite the limits of mindfulness meditation, there is a problem. A small number of people in clinical settings are unexpectedly good at meditation. With the barest instruction, some people are able to launch themselves deep into the rabbit hole of insights that vipassana is intended to produce. It is an experience that can be troubling and even destabilizing, particularly if one has no idea that it is coming. As third wave CBT has boomed in the past decade these people have become a significant minority in the meditation community. Introduced to meditation through therapy, they find themselves on an emotional ride to which they never agreed, encountering upheavals and difficult truths at the very moment in their lives when they are least able to handle them. That is bad enough, but much worse is that many of the well-intentioned clinicians who teach these techniques have no idea that anything troubling could occur.

Many of the developers of these approaches received their training in meditation through Zen, which eschews the more old fashioned stage-models of insight, and therefore does not formally recognize the predictable difficulties that arise (though every Zen teacher I’ve met is cognizant of them and is well-prepared to handle them). Additionally, for reasons too complex to go into here, traditional vipassana teachers in the west have elected to present the practice without much emphasis on the traditional stages of insight. And so, without intending to, they often leave the simplistic impression that there are no difficulties associated with insight, and that more meditation equals more happiness. The inspired psychologists who learn from these teachers come away greatly impressed with meditation, but with little to no knowledge of the dukkha nanas. They return to their clinics, offices and hospitals and find novel ways to integrate meditation into the treatments of unstable people. Most of these people get great benefit. Some have a different experience, one that is unsettling. And while many meditators may object to this characterization, pointing out that their own experience of dukkha nanas was not so difficult, I would argue that most people who go through it with little trouble are not in the midst of therapy or suicidal.

file1151340932146People who have had this unexpected experience are growing in numbers and are starting to share with each other and with more traditional meditators. They have come to call the dukkha nanas the “dark night” after the Christian experience (some teachers believe they may be in the same mystical family if not the same thing). They are sharing and seeking advice on internet forums and in settings such as the Cheetah House and Dark Night Project where they feel they will not be told to simply “drop it” but will be supported in gaining understanding. They are an unseen, and as yet unrecognized, growing minority of western meditators. Many have no sangha, no formal teacher, no texts or canon, no philosophy or anything resembling “faith.” They are frequently alone, searching the Internet for anyone like themselves, trying to sift through the overwhelmingly positive pitch for meditation for some nugget of information that can illuminate their experience. Like refugees with no home, they do not understand what is happening to them or why, and they often do not know what to do or where to go for help.

This issue is not abstract for me and perhaps my own experience will shed light on why I care so much. Two years ago I received the green light from my teacher to begin teaching insight meditation. I put up a website, told those who knew me what I was up to, and waited to see who would be interested.  While I made an effort to write in my own voice, which can be irreverent, what I presented was right down the middle vipassana. However, I did do one thing that was unusual and for which I am very grateful. I went against the common practice of downplaying the insight stages and instead put them front-and-center on the site. I did this because my teacher was clear about them with me, so I followed suit and was candid about them in my teaching. I made sure to include a rich description of the dukkha nanas and cautions to those who may be about to plunge into them. Unbeknownst to me this one gesture of understanding came to define my experience of teaching for the next two years, as the great majority of people who contacted me, and continue to contact me, are in the dark night. Most got into it through formal practice (amazingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much which technique or tradition). But I was alarmed when it seemed that a significant number, perhaps a third, learned to meditate from their therapist or from a group in a clinical setting. Sometimes they were actively suicidal at the time they learned to meditate. Interestingly, the majority never discussed their negative experiences while they were in therapy. Like the therapists themselves, they wanted to believe that meditation was helping, and so they dismissed what was occurring or blamed it on the thing that brought them to therapy in the first place.

As a psychologist this is more than a bit embarrassing, it is troubling. It is one of the ethical principles of psychology that no intervention is done without fully explaining the risks and benefits of the treatment. If an intervention could possibly cause distress, even mild distress, psychologists are ethically obligated to inform the person of this possibility and gain their informed consent before proceeding. Psychologists are not doing this when it comes to mindfulness meditation, chiefly because they do not know there are risks. But more and more people who have participated in it know that there are. This is not a situation created by malice, but by ignorance. Psychologists simply were not told this could ever happen, and were given the impression that the results of meditation were exclusively happiness, calm, and increased wellbeing. They are not to be blamed for this situation, as they have merely borrowed a problem that already existed in the way meditation was being taught to students in the west. It is a problem that continues and in some ways defines what “mainstream” meditation teaching is in the west.

While this is not psychology’s fault, it is only a matter of time before the consequences lay squarely on the shoulders of psychologists who teach mindfulness meditation. Sooner or later, those who teach it will learn about the progress of insight and the dark night. Either from writings like this or from patients themselves. When they do they will face an ethical dilemma about whether to continue teaching meditation in clinical settings. While meditation teachers can essentially “get away” with not telling people about the dark night, psychologists do not have this luxury. Ethically, we are obligated to acknowledge the risks and be cautious. This is not happening yet, but it is my sincere hope that those enamored of third wave CBT will examine not only the manuals and the studies, but look deeply into the descriptions of insight in the pali cannon. Even better, talk with meditators who have experienced a dark night, researchers who study it, or best of all dive into it and see what it is like. Psychologists might benefit most from going beyond mindfulness meditation, breaking loose of the manual, and seeing how far this practice can go. Then there might be more respect for the powerful, and sometimes life-shaking, changes that vipassana can create in the heart and mind. It is my hope that psychology will soon lose its infatuation with meditation, and begin to evaluate it as a tool for change in a more mature light, seeing both the promise and the dilemmas. Until this happens I expect the community of mindfulness meditation refugees to grow.

Self-compassion and Parenting: The Radical Art of Teaching Children to be Nice to Themselves

 

Metta meditation is a core practice for many people, and if you meditate or participate in a contemplative tradition, the concept of “self-compassion” is probably very familiar to you. Most versions of metta begin with one’s self as the object of compassion. As the well-known meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explained, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” The logic of self-compassion is very sound. If you want to be compassionate to others, you must be compassionate to yourself first. You simply cannot give what you do not already have. As Pema Chodron has explained “in order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.” Strong metta always includes the meditator in some sense.

While self-compassion has ancient roots in Buddhism, modern psychologists are only now discovering its importance for one’s psychological health. Researchers like Dr. Kristin Neff are finding that self-compassion can have a dramatic effect on one’s well-being, and the findings of her research are entering into mainstream publications. What psychologists like Neff are discovering is that the concept of self-compassion may not be just a warm-and-fuzzy idea, but a critical ingredient for living a whole and healthy life. Additionally, while psychology has traditionally viewed compassion or empathy as something akin to a stable trait, research is showing that it can be taught and learned (no big surprise to meditators). Dr. Neff proposes that self-compassion is actually a compound of three key processes: self-kindness rather than self-judgement, feelings of common humanity rather than isolation and mindfulness rather than over-identification with one’s feelings and experiences. Any meditator will recognize these immediately as core competencies in Buddhism. Whether they are parts of self-compassion can be debated, but a factor analysis of her scale shows that she may be on to something.

The single biggest objection to learning self-compassion is that it seems self-indulgent. Stopping to give yourself a break when you are tired, telling yourself that you’re only human when you make a mistake, or liking yourself despite your flaws may seem self indulgent at first glance – especially to someone that is unfamiliar with self-compassion. However, the research on self-compassion shows that it is associated with more personal initiative, not less. What might look like mild indulgence is actually a set of effective coping skills that lead people to be calmer, happier and more productive. People who practice self-compassion deal with failure with less anxiety, are more understanding, and have greater energy to work on the problems they face. Self-compassion means acknowledging failure and facing challenges honestly, while caring for oneself throughout. It is only indulgent when viewed from the perspective that what motivates us to succeed is fear of failure or punishment.

Meditation teachers who are also psychologists, like myself, are also taking notice of the emerging research and are beginning to recommend self-compassion as a valuable practice for virtually everyone. And in my psychology practice, once they have experienced the results of self-compassion for themselves, many parents are interested in fostering it in their children. In particular, parents and those who work with children are beginning to see self-compassion as a more skillful alternative to the intense focus on self-esteem that has dominated parenting guides in recent years.

While many parents want to teach self-compassion to their children the most traditional forms of generating self-compassion, like metta meditation, recitations and visualizations don’t fit well into most children’s lives. Can you imagine your child sitting still for 20 minutes and reciting a compassionate wish over and over? I didn’t think so. So the question becomes how do we teach what appears to be such an abstract concept to children? What follows are some concrete tips based on what I have learned from working with parents and children:

1. Label emotions, good and bad

Before children can skillfully work with difficult emotions and be kind to themselves they need to recognize what they are experiencing clearly, and having a word for the emotion goes a long way toward healthy coping. This is the childhood version of the skill adults call “mindfulness,” or clearly seeing one’s own experience in the moment. When a child is angry, sad, irritable, happy, surprised, jealous, etc. simply say “You’re feeling…” and label the emotion without judgment. Children will learn to do this for themselves and that is the first step toward doing something positive about feeling bad. Self-compassion is a natural outcome of self-understanding, so encourage your child to know him or her self well.

2. Show, don’t tell.

As Jim Henson once said, children “…don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Children learn to be a good friend to themselves when they see adults do it right in front of their eyes, so don’t hold back. When you’ve had a bad day, explain that you are going to do something nice for yourself to feel better. When you make a mistake tell yourself out loud that it is OK to make mistakes and that is how we learn. Most of all, don’t hide your frustrations and difficulties from your child, share them, but always share them with a strong dose of being good to yourself.

3. Acknowledge failure and difficulty

An important part of self-compassion is an honest acknowledgement of failure and difficulty. Simply noting aloud that the science project did not work out or that it was difficult to get through that dentist visit is the first step toward recognizing that problems and failure are a part of our common humanity. When a child is comfortable owning failure as well as success, and continues to like herself despite the failure, then compassion is encouraged. As with the argument of self-indulgence, some may see accepting failure as a way to encourage more failure, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing failure or difficulty as an anomaly in what should be an endless chain of perfection is the source of much frustration and needless suffering.

4. Point out and praise

When you catch your child being kind to himself, let him know that you like it. Praising your child increases the likelihood that he will repeat what he was doing when you praised him, and specifically tying the praise to self-compassion is even more effective. Simply saying “I like it when you are nice to yourself” when you notice self-compassionate behavior will go long way toward making your child more kind to himself in the future.

5. Make a meme of self-compassion

While children never remember lectures, they do remember sayings and aphorisms. A simple turn of phrase, capturing the meaning in a memorable way, will stay with a child for years. When it comes to self-compassion, here are a few: “kindness begins with yourself”, “be nice to everybody, and don’t forget you’re part of everybody” and “we take care of each other and ourselves too.”

Teaching children skills like these can be hard work and don’t forget that parenting is sometimes the perfect place for you as a parent to practice self-compassion. Society teaches us to judge ourselves harshly for the mistakes we inevitably make as parents, and to focus on our failings and worry about our shortcomings. Ironically, parents do a much better job when they are not preoccupied with how well they are doing and instead focused on enjoying their time with their child. When the judging thoughts come, practice some self-compassion for yourself. This will be a great model for your child and a great way of looking after the both of you.

In Praise of Tough-Love: A Therapist’s Take on Westernized Buddhism


One of the hardest lessons that I have learned in life is how not to be nice. Not that I’m a jerk or anything. After all, I’m a therapist and I put a high premium on the healing power of basic kindness. But when I started out in my therapy training, I was under the illusion that all I had to do was sprinkle the magic ingredients of “warmth” and “caring” and presto! People would see the way forward and get better. It took a little while, but I did find out that I was being more than a little naive.

A lot of my training in therapy has been one hard lesson after another that being “nice” to people is often code for avoiding the things that make them uncomfortable. Avoiding the uncomfortable often makes people’s psychological health no better, and in some serious cases can actually make it worse. Not that anyone should be downright mean, but there needs to be a brave moment where the “stuff” gets put out front. It’s vulnerable. It’s painful. I still hate doing it. But it is how healing happens. I’m a chronic “nice guy” who had to learn to get comfortable with making others uncomfortable. If I didn’t, therapy would become an empty self-serving exercise rather than a real opportunity for change. Time and again when I ask patients what helped them most in therapy they say something along the lines of “you were real with me” or “you really called us on our BS.”

In my life as a meditator, I’ve run into a parallel phenomenon: a whole army of “nice guys” and “nice gals” in the spiritual scene. Like me, they have an almost instinctive reaction to be warm and caring (a whole bunch of them are therapists too). We are big on things like “compassion” “right action” and “right speech”, which for many means speaking, acting and refraining from action all in a spirit of kindness. For the most part, I love this. I could do a lot worse than to be a part of a community that wants everyone to become happy and stay that way. But I’m beginning to suspect that there is a serious shadow side to all this niceness, and that we might be taking it way too far. Our obsession with compassion and right speech may have become our way of avoiding painful truths about ourselves.

Take a look at any best selling book on meditation and you’ll see what I mean. The language that is used is, well, “cheezy ” (right now I’m cringing a little at how mean that sounds, and that only goes to show how deep this problem can be with me). Hallmark has nothing on these books, in which the most common metaphors for meditation and awakening are  hearts, flowers, and rainbows (I’m not kidding – these are the most common metaphors used). My instinct as a therapist is to detect BS quickly, and my alarms go off in a big way to most teachers and dharma books. It makes me (and probably a lot of other folks) very mistrustful of a lot of the dharma as it is presented in the west. After all, this “hearts and flowers” approach is a historically new thing and runs counter to how the dharma was first taught. The Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment was: “Life is suffering.” Yikes! In other words, if he were on the teaching circuit today he would open with: “stop pretending that everything is hearts, flowers and rainbows, because it just isn’t.” He chose to make that the very first thing he taught. If that isn’t meant to make us uncomfortable then what is?

Buddhism started out with such a harsh and direct truth and got even harsher and more direct from there. The second teaching of the Buddha was that the cause of suffering is none other than ourselves. Life may be suffering but don’t blame life. The “self” that we all work so hard to improve and maintain (by being compassionate and nice) is where all of the problems of life really come from. It doesn’t get any more harsh and personal than that. If the Buddha were to try and publish this in the modern dharma scene he would be laughed right out of Borders and told to learn some compassion.

So if this is how the dharma started, how did the tough-love approach used by the Buddha get lost in a blur of hearts and flowers? My best guess is that we are doing to the dharma what so many people do in therapy: try to turn it around to serve the problem rather than call ourselves on our BS.

Tough-Love for the Self

Suffering happens because we believe that the self is real. The object of meditation is to wake up out of that. The focus on kindness and compassion to the exclusion of the harder truths of Buddhism can act like a lullaby that keeps us asleep, and we remain stuck in the dream of the self. We have only made the dream a nicer, gentler one. What is needed is an alarm to go off, a bit of a shock to our system that disrupts our dream and wakes us up. That is partly what Buddhism is intended to be, but instead of waking from the dream, we are often picking and choosing parts of the Dharma for self-soothing.

For enlightened teachers, this situation is increasingly awkward. One teacher (who will go unnamed) has a wonderful analogy about the pervasive weirdness in the western dharma scene: imagine that enlightenment is a full stomach and everyone is hungry. Now imagine that the people who are full aren’t allowed to tell anybody because people might get upset, so everyone has to guess who they are by how they act. People can kind of tell who they are because they act contented, rub their stomachs and burp. Now imagine that everyone who is still hungry goes around rubbing their stomachs, pretending to be content and burping in the whole-hearted belief that this will lead to a full stomach.

The situation with enlightenment is identical. Many people are trying to get rid of the suffering caused by a belief in the self by getting the self to act enlightened, or at least what they think is enlightened, which is, well, “nice.” Our obsession with niceness fools us into believing we are getting enlightened when we are not, and helps us to avoid confronting our own suffering. The roots of the self just grow deeper the more we try to act like a compassionate enlightened being.

Embrace the Grouch

What can be done? A good place to start would be to go back to basics and start with the first noble truth – that life is suffering. You’re human, you get angry, you get cranky, and you have a right to that. Don’t deny it, accept it as your life and really own it. Confronting this harsh truth about life is the bravest thing you can do and is your birthright as a human being.

Once you get comfortable with being grouchy (and it could take some time to de-socialize from niceness), ask yourself just what it is making you so unhappy in the first place. Investigate it, rather than try to deny or repress it.  Really dig into the truth of your dissatisfaction. You will see that the common denominator of all suffering is none other than your “self” or to be more precise, the concept of “me.” It is the self, the myriad identities and stories that make up “me”, that constitute the framework into which sensations and thoughts are sorted out as “good” or “bad” which leads to craving and suffering.

This truth can be seen just from a shallow intellectual perspective. Knowing it just won’t make a difference. Instead you have to do something about it, and that is where a practice like meditation comes in. If you do meditation right you will gradually pry your awareness loose from the “self.” Do it long enough and with a strong enough effort and you will pry it free completely, and that is what enlightenment is.

I speak from personal experience when I tell you that the freedom of getting even a little loose from the self is a far greater happiness than any that comes from being a “nice” or “compassionate” self. So don’t avoid it any longer. Embrace your inner grouch and then you can do the work of letting go completely.