Fear & Loathing, Elections and Zazen

The title of this essay uses a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, the self pro-claimed gonzo journalist from the 1960’s and 70’s who wrote about the 1972 Nixon campaign in his book entitled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.  On the day before election day 2020, we have our own version of fear and loathing to deal with. If you are anything like me the last weeks (maybe months and years) have not been so calm, not so rested. Some of the feelings I have experienced were jumpiness, skittishness, worry, anticipation, wanting tomorrow but not wanting tomorrow, doubting, sarcasm, hurt, physical pain, anger. Did I miss anything that you have felt?

Yet as much as we have had these feelings, I know that very few of them are what I would call firsthand feelings—feelings and reactions that arise from a specific event right now. If my computer were to fall off the desk and onto my toe, the pain would be firsthand. And likely the same event would create secondhand feelings as I berate myself for stupidly not paying attention to where the computer was perilously situated. Firsthand is the immediate reaction, secondhand are the stories that our mind make up about how and why we are feeling what we are feeling. Blame and shame are always secondhand feelings. Our mind loves to latch on to stories. The neural pathways that sense experience are different from the ones that process information. As they are processed, they become stories; the immediacy of the present disappears and they become timeless. For that reason, these secondhand versions of what we think are feelings are embellished over time and stick around longer.

Present experience and story-making are often simultaneous. To become aware of my experiences, my teacher once asked me to log good and bad feelings as they arose, and take notes on them, including what stories were attached to the feelings. On the fourth day, after I was accustomed to doing this, I fell during my figure skating. With my practice of noting my feelings, I was able to watch myself as I fell. Physically, I tripped on my toe-pick and fell pretty hard twisting my leg. But the amazing part was in the few seconds it took from me from being upright to being splattered on the ice, I was able to watch my mind make up a story. The story that I made up was that I fell and twisted my ankle, could not skate for months and then gained twenty pounds during the time I was off-ice and I was never able to skate as well again. I imagined this in full color and details in the few seconds before I hit the ice. Down on the ice, I started laughing about the absurdity of my thoughts (and my friends were worried that I had a concussion since I was laughing so hard.)  I got up, took a short break and in minutes was back on the ice and my leg was fine. If I was in a zen koan, that would have been my moment of enlightenment.

But beyond firsthand and secondhand feelings, there is a third even deeper layer—trauma. Trauma is the painful, uncompleted story that we hold onto and keep stored away in our body. Trauma is created by events we cannot fathom and from which we have not healed. Trauma comes from situations beyond our control, whether they be random unusual events—a tree limb falling on us, or events that we are powerless to control—abuse, poverty, racism, homophobia, disease, violence, loss and grief, war—horrors that were foisted on us.

Our powerlessness is key to understanding why trauma exists in each of us.  Even though the particular causes and conditions are usually different, our inability to control those circumstances and prevent harm from happening to us, cause our body to try to wall off what happened. Despite the lasting and negative nature of that trauma, I believe it is a bodily reaction that allows us the space to physically heal, to hide or forget the pain, and to attempt to move on with our lives.

Trauma freezes the story and also freezes our mind into believing that the exact same past is about to repeat itself. While the story yearns to be released, our body and mind keep it caged in, with another story that the trauma is too painful to experience and look at. Yet the body keeps sending the signals that the story is still there through disconnected feelings, exaggerated reactions to different types of events and more often through retriggering by unrelated events.

Going back to the election for a second, the polls say Biden is ahead and according to fivethiryteight.com this lead has been maintained for months now in key states. Despite the factual statement that I just made, I bet already many of you have just thought, “the polls looked good the last time.” For many of us, this story of the polls, the disappointment of the last presidential election is now tucked away deep in our bodies and our minds. No matter that the causes and conditions of today, are not the causes and conditions of 2016. Many of us are stuck in 2016 unable to see what is present today. Stuckness is symptom of trauma. If we can recognize the stuckness, or the blocks in our energy, we can affirm we are dealing with a traumatic reaction.

Even if the story trapped in our bodies is not about the last election, enough has happened in our country in the last four years, to initiate other traumas. Racism, anti-LGBTQ policies, maltreatment of immigrants, fires, hurricanes, and other adverse climate events, white nationalism, gun violence, unemployment, disregard for human life and the pandemic—all have the potential of scarring us. Add in the more personal traumas—deaths of people we love, relationships that withered away, lost jobs, difficult workplaces, health issues and injuries and it is a wonder that we are still standing upright.

In addition to stuckness, another outward symptom of trauma is the way it affects how we view or express our world. Many of us seem perfectly fine, but when we talk about the last four years, sarcasm, defeatism, powerlessness, and Hunter Thompson’s word—loathing, reign supreme. For half of my life, my go-to habit energy of dealing with the difficult, the unponderables and trauma was sarcasm. I tried to pretend that nothing could harm me because I had already anticipated the bad things before they happened or that I was too hardened to be affected by them. Sarcasm was an attempt to prevent myself from feeling the hurt and pain when I did not have enough emotional experience to more directly face the hurts and challenges. My healing and loss of sarcasm started after I came out. As I started to feel and express real feelings, I was also able to examine the trauma that many queer people carry with them, trauma that comes from having innermost desires and experiences crushed and denied by families, friends and society.

Our minds deal with these body blows in many different ways. We can try to ignore them; we can try to insulate ourselves from them; we can collapse into them; we can give up. None of these reactions are healthy.

We know that Zazen and meditation can help us get into our bodies. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the two aspects of meditation—vipashyana and shamatha. Vipashyana is going deeper for insight.  I think we are all familiar with that. The second aspect is shamatha or stopping. Hanh calls shamatha fundamental—if we can’t stop, we cannot have insight.

We need to stop our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness. Through mindfulness, we are able to stop the forward-leaning motion and pay attention to the now, to become calm. Our question is then, how do we stop and become calm? Calm can’t be willed. Also true calmness can’t be created when trauma and fear is active. Calm cannot necessarily be gained through metta and positive thinking. I understand that this last statement might be very controversial. Let me go a little deeper in to Thich Nhat Hanh’s discourse to explain.

Hanh discusses the five stages of calming in his book—The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

  1. Recognition. What is this powerful emotion I am experiencing? Can I name it while it is occurring? If so, that is recognition. Even though I might react out of anger, most of the time, I do not know I am angry until I hear something come out of my mouth that is inappropriate or hurtful. We can do a body scan to find what part of our body seems to attract energy or more block energy. However, when trauma causes the blockage, it is often hard to feel emotions. Trauma is surrounded by a dense fog of confusion and pent up energy. Since it repels casual inquiry in a protective mechanism to prevent us from re-feeling the fear and deep emotions, we often come away saying we can’t feel anything. Honestly, I spent years in that state.
  2. Acceptance. The second stage can be accessed through mindfulness training. We accept what is present. Oh, I am tired, angry, sad; we learn to accept what is there at the moment. However, it is harder to accept trauma or the energy around trauma, since we are loath to want to touch or visit it. Again by its nature trauma is unacceptable and hidden away.  Part of its story is we cannot accept the trauma because what happened in its nature is unacceptable.
  3. Embracing. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we embrace powerful negative emotions, such as anger, as an adult would embrace a crying child. I love this beautiful metaphor. With mindfulness, we can feel and be fully aware of the feelings. In a baby, these feelings are expressed not only in its cries but in the contortions of the face and entire body. Despite the intensity, we know that by embracing the baby, the child’s feelings can loosen up and dissipate Yet, can we embrace the fullness of hard emotions?  To resolved traumatic emotions, we need to do the same. I ask you to try to imagine surrounding your arms around the trauma, letting it be what it is without trying to change it.
  4. Looking deeply. As we embrace the emotion with mindfulness and calm, we can look at what are the causes and conditions of this emotion. With our screaming baby, we may realize that they are hungry or have a full diaper. At this stage with trauma, in our guided meditation, I invited you to attempt to go deeper into the trauma to find the story that was there. The story that you might find is not necessarily what originally happened and is whatever the story is now. The original event causing trauma has by now morphed into something completely different. By looking deeply, you can see what that might be now.
  5. Insight. The final step is react to the what you found and determine what can you do differently. Can you mitigate the anger or hate? What conditions do you need to do that? We can change the diaper or feed the baby or just rock the child and give comfort to them. With trauma, insight allows us to change the story we have within us, to create the new story of how we overcame the trauma and how we healed ourself.

Thich Nhat Hanh instructs us that the final aspect of shamatha is rest. Meditation is rest. Calm purposefulness is rest. Time allows us to rest. If you have a pet, you might have noticed that when they are injured, their reaction is to lie down and rest. They may forego eating for sometime period as their body heals. We need to allow ourselves the time to heal whether it is minutes or when we are visiting our traumas, it may be years.

Stopping, calming and resting are preconditions for healing, he tells us.

How do we do this in practice? A month ago, Daigan Gathier shared his techniques for going into the body as Zazen. Today, I would like to walk you through a somatic technique that my teacher Kiku Christina Lehnherr taught me. This guided meditation allows us to approach those areas of our body that we have noticed are hurting or blocking energy with the third, fourth and fifth steps of embracing and looking deeply, hopefully leading to insight.

I will share a story from my own recent experience. I recognized that I was feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions and sadness. There was nothing specific that seem to cause the emotions. In my morning sitting, I did a body scan and very quickly found a spot in the center of my chest that prevented me from breathing deeply and easily. (I say I quickly found this place, because it often is the place that comes up first for me, although over the years, its immediacy has lessened.)

I recognized I had some emotions, specifically sadness, and located it in my body. In order to embrace it and look at it deeply, I had to prepare myself. For me this means making sure I am safe. One method that we can use is to identify something in our immediate environment that is beautiful or brings out feeling of happiness or love.

Another that works for me is tying an imaginary belay rope around my waist. This is what mountain climbers or rock climbers use to assure that if they slip, they are safely held up. So when I go into parts of my body, where I am afraid of what I may find, I tie a mental belay around me so if I am overwhelmed, I know I can be lifted to safety. Maybe there are other ways that you can imagine to protect yourself.

Photo by Yente Van Eynde on Unsplash

I imagined myself being lowered into this part of my body where I felt the blockage. As I landed, I was standing outside a thick fog bank. Sometimes, all I can do is to stand and watch the mists shifting. I imagine my arms are stretching around this fog bank. I don’t try to anything else but embrace it; to let it fill the circle that my arms create. I try to feel the emotions that are shifting around. If there is fear or anger, I try to hold them as well as I can. If I start to feel overcome by the intensity of emotion, I go back and remember the place of beauty or serenity that I looked at before I began the meditation. If needed, I will open my eyes briefly to look at it to remind me of the safety and beauty within me.

Photo by Enache Georgiana on Unsplash

On this particular occasion, as I embraced the pain and sadness that were emerging, I felt secure enough to walk into the mists around me. A wise person once told me that curiosity is the opposite of fear, so even as I felt fear, I tried to think of it as curious. What was this thing that was causing such deep emotions in me? As I walked in the mists, I recognized my pediatrician’s office, the fish tank, the stack of Highlights magazines, the cat clock on the wall whose tail swished back and forth with each tick. As a young child, I used to see this doctor every two weeks for allergy shots for asthma until I was fifteen.

As I walked around the office, I saw the photograph above the receptionist’s desk. It was a small forlorn puppy with a thick hemp rope loosely tied around its neck. I remembered how I was attracted to this photo as a child. As an adult, I realized that my child Alan saw himself as that sad puppy tied down unable to be himself, unable to run free. Memories of feelings not being who I really was rose up in me. As a child I never felt I fit in and experienced the world differently than other people. I felt alone. Years later when I came out, I would finally realize that this feeling of difference was about my sexual orientation. While I pondered the sad puppy, I was struck that my pediatrician would have such an unusual picture in her office. As a lesbian practicing medicine in the 1950s and 60’s, was she weighed down by how she had to act and her denials of who she was? As a child, I only knew she was unmarried. Years later, I figured out the rest. But in this moment staring at the puppy, I wondered did she feel the same? And, curious that I was carrying around this remnant of memory in my body.

Curiosity allowed me to experience this scene without trying to make sense of it. I noticed that the heaviness that I had felt earlier had lifted. I somehow understood that I didn’t need to hold onto this story any longer. While I remember it enough to tell you, the story has little energy in it. But the sadness that I felt that day, conjured up this memory and visiting it through mindfulness and somatic feeling, freed it up. The knot is my chest diminished and I felt able to breath more easily again.

Sometimes we want to keep attached to our traumatic stories. When we do, it tells me that insight has not fully bloomed. Other times, like this one, as in a dream, we experience our bodies and just let it go. I honestly didn’t need to process this anymore than I did. I was surprised by what I saw and perhaps the feeling of surprise is a feeling of energy being released and the story disappearing. As I said earlier, this particular part of my chest is most often where I feel blockage and shortness of breath. Did it come from my asthma or were there causes and conditions in my family that brought this on? Whatever the reasons, over time by paying attention, this blockage seems to appear less and less. I took this last visit as another loosening up and letting go. If I had not been looking for an example to talk about today, I likely would have forgotten about it already. By using the type of mindful inquiry and body scan I have described, we are not trying to resolve things psychologically this way (although that may happen); we are trying to heal ourselves somatically and energetically. First and foremost, Zazen is a body practice.

Going back to today, the day before election day, I am suggesting that each of us visit what we are carrying with us right now. Is what we perceive as fear and loathing, about the state of the country or about conditions in our own body. While I do believe that our individual and collective mental state defines what is happening right now, I also believe that by looking into our traumas, we can begin to create a path to feel more authentically right now.

By recognizing our traumas, we can begin to separate those feelings from events taking place now. When I cannot do that, and my original traumas are retriggered, I will tend to turn to loathing, passivity, and anger in dealing with current problems because of the deepness of those traumas. However, when I can recognize that new emotions arise all the time from new events, those offer different opportunities for movement and change. My fear of how LGBTQ rights may be eroded under this current administration, can be channeled into action, rather than dwelling in traumatic unchangablity and defeat.

With your next breath feel what is in this moment. Feel your humanity, your power and your energy. Then take another breath and another. We are practicing the way of stopping, insight and healing. There is nothing else we need to do.

This essay is based on a dharma talk I gave on 2 November 2020 to the San Francisco LGBTQ Sangha. You can listen to the talk here with the passcode of 73ye!f&

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