By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
Humans tend to invest emotional capital in relationships, events and memories.
It is said that time heals all wounds, but that’s not exactly true. Some poor, sad people cling tenaciously to grief, anger and disappointment. You cannot un-remember things, or un-live the events that, though they may have happened a long time ago, continue to trouble you.
If you’re one of those people, that kind of baggage prevents you from reaching your full potential.
You’ve been told by your best friends, and maybe a therapist if you’ve taken things that far, that you have to find a way to “let go” of these things that trouble you.
But you can’t, can you? You can’t just “let go.”
You’ve tried, but they won’t go away; they continue to disturb your thoughts and peace of mind. You probably have post-traumatic stress. Breaking up, for example, is hard to do. Certainly it hurts to lose a girlfriend, but if a breakup continues to bug you months after its happened and she’s moved on, then you haven’t. Your negative feelings prevent you from being the carefree schnook you were before you met that that bitch Deedee.
Most people have psychic suffering of some kind. I’ve met people who have survived epic battles, or were raped, or they were messed up in a car crash, or lost a child. Indeed, some people have some pretty deep holes to climb out of. Others, maybe not so much. But you cannot compare one person’s miseries with another’s.
It’s a “you never know” thing and some people can be more sensitive than others. They suffer when their cat dies. When my mom died I took the opportunity to deliver a eulogy that was more a stand-up comedy routine, making up outrageous stuff like when she parachuted into Italy in 1943 and assassinated a Nazi SS colonel. People were so sad, but they perked up when I told them about my mom slitting that Nazi’s throat. Mom would have laughed her ass off.
People react differently to different things. One person can be horrified and another entertained by the same phenomenon. A woman I talked to previously, was plagued with thoughts of her own worthlessness. But when I spent an hour going over the mechanisms of what one does with the thoughts that pop into the head while meditating, I saw a light bulb go on over her head, and this plain, frumpy sourpuss turned into a beautiful woman when a big grin spread across her face.
Meditation is about dealing with your thoughts.
You get into easy meditation by just counting your breaths from 1 to 10 and then back down to 1, and when your mind wanders, gently return to counting your breaths. That thought that just zinged through your head was meaningless, but instead of cussing at yourself because you can’t keep on track, you blow it off and begin counting again at one. It’s hard at first, but it gets easier, and better, with time. Do it for only five minutes once a day—but do it every day. Some people like to start their mornings off with a meditation, others like to do it after getting home from work, still others put themselves to sleep that way, or multitask by meditating and doing something else (like moving their bowels) at the same time.
After you master the counting thing, and you are able to do it for five minutes without a random thought interrupting you, your need for counting fades away, and you can do more with this skill that you’ve developed.
But that’s not important right now. You have built a relationship with your thoughts that will allow you to separate those thoughts from the emotional reactions they cause. (Pffft!) A thought has no substance, you have thousands of them a day; they’re brain farts. They’re like bubbles in a glass of champagne. They’re here, they’re gone, so why fret about them when you’re supposed to be focused on your breath?
The ability to concentrate better through meditation practice means that you can concentrate better on the other things. There are fewer random, meaningless thoughts distracting you from what you’re doing, whether you’re sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed or building model ships in bottles. You can exercise some control over your thoughts by learning how not to think so much.
As you get better through practice, your quieter mind will deal with the crap you have to let go of in a more rational, reasonable way. This begins the process of insight meditation. It bring us to this conclusion: are you going to let the awful things that happened to you run your life and tell the world who you are? They’re only thoughts. And thoughts can’t hurt you.
You start seeing things in a new light.
It’s only a thought. “Yes, but it makes me feel bad.” Thoughts are brain farts, and you’re in the bathtub. Let them rise to the surface and pop. It’s hard to get there, and you must do some significant soul-searching. You’ll never get whatever it is out of your mind. But your brain gets progressively stronger through meditation, and if you stick with it, you will come to the conclusion that those things needn’t make you so sad or angry anymore. You have to work toward that goal. You do that by sitting still every day and trying not to think, which you can’t do, of course, but you’ve winnowed it down to the most important topics.
People who suffer because of their thoughts and memories can only help themselves. They’re stuck, and they’ll stay stuck until they can put some effort into changing their mindset. It’s hard, but Buddhist practice has proven this works since before Jesus was an itch in his daddy’s pants.
There’s more to it than that; the addition of the Buddha’s wisdom as a subject of contemplation for meditators promises “the cessation of suffering.” What that means is that it is incumbent upon you to make your mind strong and tough enough to deal with anything that comes your way. It is not unhealthy for you to keep your emotions at bay and out of sight. Rather, it shows strength and maturity. Divorcing your feelings from your reality helps you see reality, well, with more realism. Reality is an ugly thing sometimes.
You can have a conniption fit when ugliness presents itself, but if you’re strong enough, you can rise above anything.
Back in the day I asked my father why he didn’t have PTSD after all he’d been through in Korea and Vietnam. He simply said, “You just have to not let yourself think about that stuff.” That takes focus. The better you can concentrate, the easier it is to stay focused on things other than how you feel.
If you want it to heal, my mother always said, quit picking at it.
editor: Dana Gornall
He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”
Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.