There once was a king who had three sons. The first two were very attractive and popular and when they turned 21, the king provided each with a large palace within the city. The third son was a bit of a jerk. He was neither attractive nor popular and when he turned 21, the king’s advisers said to him, “The city is now full. Have a palace built outside the city for your other son. It will be strong and you can send some of your guards to protect it from the local thugs.” So the king did as he was advised.
A year later, the son sent a message to his father saying, “I can’t live here. The thugs are too strong.” So the advisers said, “Build another palace, bigger and stronger, 50 kilometres away from the city and send more guards to protect it.” So the king did as he was advised, this time sending 100 of his soldiers to protect it from wandering tribes.
A year later came another message, “I can’t live here, Father. The tribes are too strong.” So the advisers said, “Build another, bigger palace, 100 kilometres away. This one will be big enough to house 500 soldiers and will be strong enough to withstand anything.” So the king did as he was advised.
But a year later came another message, “Father, we’ve been attacked twice by a local gang, if they attack a third time, I fear for my life and the lives of your soldiers.”
So the king said to his advisers, “Let him come home and live in the palace with me. For it is better that I learn to love my son than spend all of the energy and resources of my kingdom keeping him at a distance.” *
Kara**, my psychologist, read this to me during a session a few weeks ago and straight away, I got it. I’d often spoken of the lengths I went to in order to keep everything hidden from those around me. I had become an expert wall-builder. If I build a wall, I’d tell myself, nothing else is going to get through and nobody will see what’s going on with me. I’m safe behind my wall.
So I kept building walls and I put on fronts and I numbed the pain with exercise and I retreated when I had to and I ran from things from scared me. And by “things that scared me”, I mean people actually knowing how much I was struggling. It’s no wonder I eventually fell in a heap. When you do all these things to survive and you’re doing them all day, every day, for years on end, it’s.. well, it’s fucking exhausting.
And here’s the other problem I found; when you build a wall to shut out some things, you shut out everything. When you run from one thing, you run from everything. When you try to numb some feelings with exercise, (or alcohol or drugs, as the case may be), you numb everything. You can’t selectively numb (with the exception of anger, Kara pointed out one day. Anger seems to lose none of its responsiveness). And I think it’s then that the people around you start to ask, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband/wife/partner/friend/daughter/son?”
These were habits and strategies I needed to rid myself of, so after hearing the story of the king, I went home and Googled the following phrase: how do I let go?
I started randomly clicking on whatever came up in the search results and then I happened upon this:
“She saw that all phenomena arose, abided and fell away. She saw that even knowing this arose, abided and fell away. Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground and nothing to lean on stronger than the cane she held. Nothing to lean upon and no-one leaning. And she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go, and fell into the midst of everything.”
The moment that Tejitsu, 18th century abbess of Hakujuan, Japan, learned to let go.
Well… okay, I thought. What the hell does that mean?
I had landed on an article about Buddhism and the more I read, the more I started to sit up and pay attention. Seriously, it was like being slapped in the face over and over again or maybe poked repeatedly in the forehead. But in a good way.
I soon learnt that mindfulness and meditation play a huge part in the practice of Buddhism and as these were two things I already had an interest in, I decided to read on. I read as much as I could over the next few weeks and listened to countless Dharma talks. I just couldn’t stop. And this is what I got out of it:
“To live is to suffer. Sorry Catherine, but it is. It’s part of being human. But there are things we can do to ease our suffering. Like letting go, or not getting too attached in the first place. And we can do this by accepting that nothing lasts forever. Nothing.”
When I went back and re-read the piece about Tejitsu, the 18th century abbess, it made a lot more sense.
Nothing lasts forever. Things arise, things fall away. You, me, the chair I’m sitting on, this computer, our beautiful planet, along with all my experiences and feelings – none of it will last forever. Today is all I can be sure of, so why would I not make the most of that?
“Darling, you can’t let everything seem so dark blue.”
– Lana Del Rey, Black Beauty
I think there’s a lot of self-punishment that goes with depression. You deprive yourself of the things you used to enjoy because you think you won’t enjoy them or that you simply don’t deserve to enjoy them. You avoid the people you used to spend time with and you stop doing the activities that previously gave you joy. My big thing has been avoiding social functions because I think I’ll be too awkward and boring to be around. When I transferred from general duties to intel, I actually missed my own send-off. I’ll only bring everyone down, I thought, so I just won’t go. So I sat alone at home instead, feeling even sadder than if I had have just gone.
And on and on it goes. It’s a hard pattern to break out of.
But I think at some point you have to allow some beauty back into your life. Listen to some music, read a favourite book, buy yourself a present, visit an art gallery, catch up with a friend for coffee or maybe a walk along the foreshore at dusk. To me, these things are beautiful.
“There is mad discipline and insane persistence on this path, but they’re in the service of something more fruitful than certainty, control and will. They’re in the service of availability. Whatever happens, you have to just keep showing up. Sit the meditation, attend the retreat, absorb the teachings, face the fear, feel the sorrow, endure the boredom, stay open to the disturbing and also the knee-bucklingly beautiful.”
– What is Enlightenment? by Joan Sutherland
Okay, forget the Buddhism thing for a moment, I know it’s not for everyone. Joan Sutherland is talking about life. “Whatever happens, just keep showing up. Face the fear, feel the sorrow, stay open to the disturbing and also the knee-bucklingly beautiful.”
So these are my goals for 2018:
- to be more open to experience, whether good or bad – no more walls
- to learn to just sit with those experiences – no more running, no more numbing
- to notice one new beautiful thing every day
Have a safe and happy new year.
(* the story of the king and his sons was taken from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, 2nd ed)
(** names have been changed to respect the privacy of those concerned)