“Sponsoring your shadow” is a term coined by the psychologist Stephen Gilligan. With luck, you learned to do this somewhat in childhood.
My grandson couldn’t sit still when first in school. And as with all children of that age, he had no language or other sponsorship skills for feeling states (such as being tired, hungry, lonely, or angry). Over time he learned to recognize and "sponsor" his own feeling states, and he became "re-spons-ible." And he became even more re-spons-ible when he was able to understand, with his teachers and parents help, what “dysgraphia” meant and talk openly about it after 2 or 3 years of frustration about not being able to keep up with his reading.
All of us have experiences or behaviors that arise that are neglected, ignored, or put down. These pre-sponsored or hidden parts repetitively assert themselves, whether we like it or not. The smoker who I talked about before yearned for support of a non-judgmental presence to sponsor her. I modeled this for her so she could sponsor her hidden part. She had a surprising insight into the sense of deep release she had been feeling when she let go of everything and just smoked.
Each time our hidden parts are rejected, they manifest themselves in increasingly troublesome and disruptive ways. We have a tendency to use whatever means necessary to defeat or destroy those habits or behaviors which we seem so negative. On the other hand, when we sponsor our hidden parts, we are able to let go of fake smiles, impulses to harm, fears, numbness, and even addictions.
“Negative” parts of us have been dammed up. As we learn to release the dam, we experience a vitality and authenticity which is free of pretense or posturing; what I referred to in my last piece using Dogen’s term “whole being Buddha Nature.” But this is easier said than done. My student, who was a secret smoker, said that for her first two years at Zen Center, she felt she needed to hide her smoking or leave.
The more you try to get rid of any repetitive experience or behavior beyond your control, the deeper it becomes entrenched. All this means is that it has not yet been sponsored. Instead of dissociating from that part of ourselves we don’t like or trying to get rid of it, we have the opportunity to sponsor it with gentleness and kind attention. Some of our parts may be contradictory, but all have a place within “whole being Buddha nature.” All this term means is that when we tap into the connectedness between all of our parts, including those we have hidden or dismissed we live as a Buddha, someone who is awake to the interconnectedness of everything internal and external.
I encourage my students to be curious about unsponsored energies, disturbing experiences, and behaviors that they find overwhelming. This often catalyzes a process of radical acceptance of even our darkest energies. As Stephen Gillgan suggests, the fierceness that reveals itself as temper tantrums in a toddler can, if sponsored, turn into fierceness in righting wrongs or sticking up for ourselves or others. Without sponsoring, these same tantrums are likely to manifest themselves as rage, passive aggressiveness, or violent impulses throughout our lives.
Recently, I led a study group at Zen Center on creativity. We looked at how artists are able to tap into creative energies that come from some place deeper than their cognitive self. They receive those energies and cultivate a relationship with them, not “controlling”, but midwifing them into creative form by sponsoring them. But many artists do not learn how to pay attention to the parts under the surface in a meditative way so they can integrate them into their daily lives.
In my “Zen and Creativity” class, I aided participants in both sponsoring their shadows in whatever form they took and using the tetralemma to return to their original wholeness. This process is somewhat different than the focus on “positive” thinking present in so much religion and modern psychology. Obsessive “positive thinking” makes us more agitated, self-absorbed, and ineffective. Instead, maybe the problem, itself, is the only real doorway to the solution. What seems to be a terrible experience, with effective sponsorship, can be a springboard into genuine happiness.
Jack had “nagging doubts” that he could ever go deeper than chatter, chatter, when he first began practicing meditation at our Zen center. Over a two- or three-year period, I helped him to welcome both his doubts about and his chatter within his meditative experience and learn to look at them with innocent curiosity. At some point Jack noticed a tender presence within his heart that had been ignored for his entire life---a presence that was calm, centered, joyfully alive.
If we are doing “bare awareness” meditation on a consistent basis, opportunities will continually arise to do this. And as we explore and embrace our parts with increasing depth, we sense the connections between each of our parts, whether they have been hidden or in full view. As you open up to Whole Being Buddha Nature, you may be surprised to feel a deep sense of equanimity, regardless of what is happening in the external world. Through thoroughly sponsoring your shadow, you may even settle into a lightness of being wherever you are... so called "enlightenment."
The goal of meditation practice is to see beyond so-called “conventional reality” which we create through filters. Filters are necessary and important to living a meaningful, well-balanced life. However, the memories and beliefs which make up these filters cloud our ability to see and act from a spaciousness and freedom far beyond their limitations.
We develop constellations of memories and beliefs over time which create and solidify certain sub-personalities. Through our meditation practice we learn to open and close each filter, so we no longer experience constipation of thought, feeling, and emotion and are no longer captured by any of our sub-personalities.
As we become adept at doing this, so we can experience what Dogen calls “Whole Being Buddha Nature,” the feeling of being joined to all life. We do this by shining our flashlight in the dark recesses beyond the boundaries of our conscious mind and any of its filters. It’s a simple, really. All it requires is persistent effort, without a hint of evaluation or criticism. If we are at all judgmental, our evaluation filter impedes the natural deepening of the process.
Some practitioners have been asking me what I mean by “sub-personalities.” Through our sub-personalities we identify with a certain way of being and feel inadequate when the situation radically changes. One of my distinct sub-personalities is defined by being in a position of leadership. What happens when I step down, as I did almost 2 years ago from a leadership position, which has defined me for almost 60 years? Can I experience this as an opportunity to move beyond the confines of that role?
Two of the sub-personalities most of us have is the good self and the bad self. I worked with a student a while ago, who, after she began to trust me, admitted that she was a somewhat secretive smoker (her bad self), but was able to do all of our Zen center activities without smoking (her good self). I supported her in bringing both sides into full awareness. I encouraged her to fully embrace her bad side, including its various features, including the shame that she felt about her addictive habit. She was able to acknowledge that smoking gave her great pleasure, gave her a break from whatever she was doing and had a calming, relaxing effect, which was quite delightful. She then moved through one side to the other, including the underlying sensations of both, exclaiming, “if I just pay attention to my sensations, there’s no good side and no bad side.”
We might look at problems or disturbances as evidence that "something is waking up." On the one hand, they can be very destructive and result in depression, acting out, or other problematic behaviors. On the other hand, they may offer us hidden opportunities for major growth. Most of us have known someone who was able to experience significant positive change only after dealing with death, divorce, illness, or addiction. The psychologist Stephen Gilligan refers to this as “sponsoring” the difficulty.
A good spiritual teacher is someone who is able to sponsor his or her student (from the root “spon,” “to pledge solemnly”) whatever difficulty they are having so that they can learn to sponsor themselves. Helen Keller wrote more than a hundred years ago about a mentor who came into her life after she had been without sight or hearing from birth. Her first seven years were ones of anger, self-absorption, and frustration. In her autobiography she writes, "The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects." She transformed her life and went on to distinguish herself as one of the most intelligent, inspirational, and humanitarian persons of her time.
During my own first 21 years, I had periods of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. But then I met my root Zen teacher and he supported me for several years until I developed the ability to sponsor myself.
Regardless of our past wounds or traumas, we can each tap into a quiet joy which is not of time or space; a joy which is just as present even in a year like the last one as it was when Buddha tapped into it more than 2500 years ago.
As a Zen teacher, my goal is to help you open up to this quiet joy, sometimes called “enlightenment.” Buddha’s teaching about a path to do this has three simple parts: understanding/wisdom; and the two legs of ethical behavior and meditation. We begin with our initial understanding that the small self is a component of a huge, interconnected web of being. We then exercise the legs of ethical behavior and meditation to transform our initial understanding into a wisdom which we come to embody. But no one ever completely embodies this wisdom. Instead, it’s a spiral: by exercising the leg of ethical behavior as well as the one of meditation over and over and over, our trust in the process becomes more and more rooted in quiet joy and a deep and authentic wisdom emanates from that joy.
The 12th century Zen teacher Hong Zhi refers to this as “the illumination of the empty field.” By exercising our ethical and meditative legs repeatedly, gradually we release our need to be anyone or anything than who or what we are already. We are no longer frozen into gazing at an image of ourselves as young the Greek god Narcissus, did, when he became captivated by his image in a stream. And we no longer need to use others to enhance our self-image in the way a monkey does in Basho’s 17th century haiku:
year after year-
on the monkey's face,
a monkey's mask
That’s not to suggest we shouldn’t try on and become adept at using different masks/images. I worked with a student I will call Bob for a while. Bob was a successful attorney, fiercely competitive and argumentative, both at work and at home (not entirely unlike my own father). When he had to attend a family reunion, his wife encouraged him to put his best face on, smiling more, being friendly toward everyone, and biting his tongue when necessary. At the reunion he did his best to stifle the urge to argue or debate, but when he got home, he was frustrated and exhausted because this had been so difficult for him. He and I discussed how healthy it was for him to try on a new mask even if it had been difficult. And as he continued with his practice, he began to see that he didn’t need to live within the confines of any single mask or persona.
The fiercely competitive and argumentative face that Bob generally wore he developed as a child and adolescent to feel safe in a world that often seemed hostile. Most of us learn what monkey faces work best for us- whether it is a naughty or nice one, a competitive one or a cooperative one-to project a sense of adequacy or even competence, even though we may be feeling anything but. The ones that work like Bob’s did for him, become solidified through conditioned learning. But for the family reunion, Bob put on a very unfamiliar face, a friendly mask, and a smile to cover his clenched teeth.
The famous 10th century Zen master Wu Men continually asked his students to show him their original face before they were born. My hope is that as you continue to exercise the two legs of the Buddhist path (ethical conduct and meditation), you too will open up to the face behind your face, the face behind all the faces. Maybe during a meditation retreat, you will suddenly experience something deeper than any of your different personas- something more alive- a sweet spot: the luminosity of Hong Zhi’s empty field.
I have talked a lot about the two Japanese teachers who helped me shed my masks and live more authentically: Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. But a third teacher who helped me just by being himself was a Chinese teacher named Tu Lun. I remember Tu Lun for his radiant ear-to-ear smile and brilliant saffron robe. I started gravitating to his small meditation room in his apartment when I was getting a little bored with Suzuki, who seemed to say the same thing over and over again (which any good Zen teacher does).
Tu Lun was not boring, he was exciting, and a little trippy. One night he pulled up the top part of his robes and proudly showed us his scars from burning moxa on his chest. Another time he talked about living in a cave and being visited by a wolf, who spoke to him and showed him images that led him to come to the U.S.
Tu Lun told us that he knew nothing about the U.S at that time, but following the wolf’s lead, was able to stow away on a boat coming to San Francisco where the Chinese population had been increasing dramatically over the previous 20 years. Unfortunately, he spoke only Mandarin and in those days most of the Chinese immigrants to San Francisco only spoke Cantonese. But my friends, Betty and Shirley, Chinese Americans who were fluent in Mandarin, translated the weekly talks he gave. His stories mesmerized me, and his delightful and childlike transparency warmed my heart.
I remember him talking from a book of teachings by Lin Chi, the founder of Rinzai Zen and extolling us to follow Lin Chi’s advice to, “let the person of naked flesh come forth.” He and Suzuki were from very different cultures and talked about Buddhist practice very differently, but they shared a lightness and effervescence I had never experienced with any of my Stanford professors. Hanging out with either of them I found delightful and refreshing. Both seemed to have shed their masks or personas, so they could just be who they were.
I yearned to put the different personas or masks I had learned to wear aside and just let the person of naked flesh come forth the way they both seemed able to do. When I asked Tu Lun about this, he suggested I meditate on the Wu Men question, “What was your original face before your parents were born?” I did that but I found it hopelessly confusing. My frustration from his continued insistence that I do this coupled with having heard all his stories two or three times, resulted in the fading of his luster.
I still couldn’t sit in right posture or quiet my chattering mind in either teacher’s meditative space, but I returned to Suzuki’s. At least he spoke English and I could be part of a community of meditators surrounding him, not the case then with Tu Lun. I re-committed myself to twice daily meditation as well as regular retreats and continued to long for the childlike naturalness that I’d witnessed in both to these teachers. More on that next time.
[As an interesting side note, during the years which ensued, not only did Suzuki become a major force for the development of Zen in America with the establishment of both Tassajara Zen Monastery and Green Gulch Practice Center, so did Tu Lun, as he went on to create, the City of 10,000 Buddhas in northern California, which has trained scores and scores of monks and nuns over the last 50 years.]
As practitioners of meditation, our goal is to enable our chattering mind to slow down and sink into our hearts, so we are no longer imprisoned by a single point of view or feeling. I call this opening up into Heart-mind or Buddha Nature.
Any time we are experiencing a di-lemma, we are caught between two thoughts, beliefs, or points of view. In tetralemma practice we first move beyond a single point of view to experience its opposite. Then we embrace both, and finally, we let go of both.
This is referred in Buddhist literature as opening up to emptiness or sunyata. Emptiness, however, is just another limiting word. The most apt Sanskrit synonym for sunyata is a-svabaha, “without own being.”
As the early Mahayana scriptures continually remind us, we can only appreciate that nothing has its “own being” by realizing specifically that there is no light, no dark, no birth, no death, no thing to be named and no one to name it. There is only the dynamic interbeing of all life.
Nagarjuna, the master of tetralemma practice, suggests a simple method for liberating us from our fixations: looking carefully at how we use words so we can be aware of the contradictions that are always present. For instance, in Zen there is the well-known koan, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” But this statement has an inherent contradiction. The answer is, Yes, because all things have Buddha nature and at the same time No, because all things have no nature. Solving the koan is simply dismantling the structure that holds the statement together. We could even say that all koan practice is about dismantling the contradictions we face every time we think or speak so we can appreciate no-thingness- or a-svabaha-interbeing, itself.
Nagarjuna’s method is to analyze things so closely we are no longer stuck on any one thought, feeling, or belief. “Emptiness” then, becomes a perception or practice, not a belief, since as Nagarjuna says, “To believe in emptiness is the biggest mistake of all.” One who clings to words is dead, one who attaches to sentences is lost.
Yet in daytime it is light, at night it is dark. My name is Tim and my wife’s is Linda. How can this be so? Interbeing manifests itself in infinite ways. Language and linguistic conventions are a necessary and valuable component of life. And an essential part of being human is becoming well trained in one or more languages. In English grammar, we’ve got “I, you, standing, sitting, here, there.” The grammatical demands of some indigenous cultures (as Benjamin Whorf suggested in the mid-20th century) seem different, since each grammatical scheme reflects inter-being in a different way.
Nagarjuna points out the distortions that are inevitably existent when we are captured by any linguistic convention. How can there be a “here” without a “there?” How can there be a “there” without a “here?” How can we distinguish here from there? Where does “here” begin, where does “there “end?
In his discussion of “Fire and Fuel” for instance, Nagarjuna methodically goes through the tetralemma: 1) Fuel cannot be fire and fire cannot be fuel, 2) Fuel cannot not be fire and fire cannot not be fuel, 3) Fire cannot be dependent on or independent of fuel, and 4) Fuel cannot be dependent on or independent of fire.
Here’s an experience a friend of mine had with a Japanese Zen teacher many years ago in which he seems to employ Nagarjuna’s teaching.
My friend went to Japan because he wanted to practice at a monastery where he could immerse himself in Zen meditation and not be distracted by the ceremonial component which has supplanted meditation in so much of Japanese Zen. Instead, he wanted to focus on shikantaza or “just sitting,” to fully open to heart-mind. He found just the right place, one that emphasized long periods of “just sitting.” However, he didn’t realize that he would be there during tourist season, a time when the monastery welcomed and took care of guests. Much to his dismay, he was sitting less than we did even at our home Zen center in San Francisco because of all the rituals associated with serving guests.
He complained to the teacher, reminding him that he come all this way to practice shikantaza. The teacher responded, “Oh, you have big misunderstanding of shikan. It’s very important, but it takes many different forms, not only shikantaza, but shikan wash dishes, shikan serve guests; all are just as important.” He meant that whatever activity you do, just fully engage with that single activity without judging or evaluation.
My friend sighed to himself but did his best to follow the teacher’s instructions. One morning, he mistakenly went through the wrong door after breakfast and there was the teacher reading the newspaper in his little alcove, and at the same time listening to the radio and sipping coffee. My friend was aghast and blurted out, “What are you doing? I thought you said whatever activity I do, just fully give myself to that activity, so called “shikan.” And the teacher replied, “Oh, you still have a big misunderstanding. Right now, I’m reading the paper, drinking coffee and enjoying music on my headphones. It’s all shikan.”
This is a good example of the Middle Way as taught by Nagarjuna and his successors; the empty middle way, in contrast to the historical Buddha’s Middle Way, which is living your life between the extremes of asceticism and luxury. Instead, living between these extremes is inadequate. Not living between them is also inadequate. Living between them and not living between them is inadequate, too. And finally, neither living between them nor not living between them is also inadequate. What’s left is the wonderful freedom of Interbeing.
During my years as a psychologist/counselor, I helped many people who were in distress both set boundaries and maintain them once they were set. As a Zen teacher I help people move toward healthy boundarylessness, which means increased intimacy, a feel of connection with the world around them. But this really can only happen when we establish and maintain good boundaries.
I began a serious meditation practice at a time when meditation was considered weird within mainstream society and by my family. I had to continually set and reinforce my boundary with my father in particular, in order to stay on the path. Over and over, I reminded myself how important it was to honor my deep desire to devote my life to tasting a timeless stillness and helping others do the same regardless of how my parents viewed me.
During the last 25 years, I have been teaching both the two traditional types of middle ways from the Buddhist tradition (which I will not touch on here) and a middle way which emphasizes authentic engagement. I help practitioners develop a sense of agency, including setting and reinforcing boundaries which are neither too loose nor too tight, strong but permeable.
Unfortunately, most of us come from families in which boundaries were either overly rigid or poor and even non-existent. If we grew up in families with rigid boundaries, often relationships with parental figures were cold and distant or authoritarian with little affectionate exchange. On the other hand, in families with poor boundaries, we never knew when we were going to get “slurped up” by our parent’s needs, desires, or expectations. And in some cases, we may have experienced swings between these two extremes.
If you had an experience as a child of being enmeshed with one or more parents, as an adult you may have felt a need to severely cut ties to work on establishing boundaries. And once those are firmly in place, we have an opportunity to practice being permeable. With permeable boundaries we feel free to be ourselves and feel a natural empathy with others. As I often say, the more we learn to just be who we are, the more we feel undivided from each other and all life.
If we want to be truer to ourselves, we need to notice how we inhibit allowing ourselves to live with a simple naturalness. There are three main ways we do this.
First, we get fixated on the image we present to others, hiding behind a protective mask or false persona.
Second, we may feel too paralyzed to assertively express ourselves because we are afraid of being rejected.
Third is staying in relationships when there is a lack of shared core values just because we think we “should.”
Here are some things we might do to move toward being more authentic:
Notice why you are holding back from just being who you are. Generally, there’s an underlying feeling of inadequacy which can take many different forms. During my first year in college, I felt I wasn’t smart enough. So, I concealed my insecurity by blowing off my classes, and I almost flunked out. Maybe you are feeling unsafe and think you will get hurt if you show yourself just as you are. Maybe you simply feel inadequate, but don’t want to show that to others.
Learning to be authentic includes learning to discover and live out our deepest values and aspirations and to trust our deepest voice. We know we are doing this when instead of getting caught by some superficial role or identity, we feel generally at ease with ourselves and undivided from others.
Learning to be authentic also includes repeatedly letting go of things that the mind is telling us we want. Our psyche is no longer organized around craving and grasping, because our energy is focused on living from our deepest sense of being. You may be surprised to fall into a feeling of spaciousness and freedom that is far more satisfying than any object you have sacrificed of let go of.
Finally, being authentic means recognize your feelings as you’re having them. If you can’t recognize your feelings, how can you possibly be who you really are?
Of course, admitting that you don’t know how you feel is also authentic. To paraphrase Tara Brach, all we need to do is radically accept any and all emotions, images, as well as both positive and negative self-talk that arises. It’s impossible for us to be authentic if we don’t have compassion for our confusion!
Here are a few tips to increase your authenticity:
1.Make a list of what causes you to act or feel inauthentic. It almost always involves either feeling that we need to conform to others’ needs or expectations and/or needing to hide our true feelings about someone or something. Make the list again ten days later, comparing, it to the first list. And do this every ten days for as long as is helpful.
2. Practice moving beyond any limiting belief, even the belief that you are not authentic. This practice derives from what has been called, the second middle way or the “empty middle” in Buddhism which grew out of the teaching of the 2nd century sage Nagarjuna. Our conventional thinking can only embrace one side of an issue. To activate this second middle way we first move beyond whatever belief or feeling we have to its opposite. Then we embrace both. And finally, we let go of both.
Here are some simple practice instructions for exploring this within yourself:
Many people are anxious about what’s happening in our country now. How about opening up to your own feeling of anxiety as you take two or three breaths? Then release. Next, take two or three more breaths and open up to the truth that since you are able to absorb yourself in reading this blog, you are also not anxious.
Open up to this freedom from anxiety as you take two or three breaths.
Now open to both your feeling of anxiety and your freedom anxiety as you take two or three breaths. Once you have held both of these in balance, release again. Now you are ready for the fourth component of tetralemma practice, letting go of both anxiety and no anxiety and just being present in your body, allowing all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations to just be just they are.
According to this core Mahayana Buddhist teaching every difficulty we have involves tension between pairs of opposites. And if we practice with all 4 sides, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies may even become lovers. We have a pretty simple choice: do we want to make friends with all life, or just one half of it?
3. Practicing bare awareness of how you are with whatever issue come up. All you do, in this case is say "Yes" to whatever negative thought or emotion is arising and if you can’t identify the thought or emotion, say yes to your confusion about this. When the issue is sufficiently explored, the negative energies tend to resolve themselves. Once this acceptance is total, a natural humility is bound to grow out of it.
The more we practice any of the above techniques, the more we enjoy permeable boundaries and naturally live and act from our deepest heart. In my second and last blog on boundaries, I will talk about them from a meditative point of view.
When we sit without moving in meditation, we are forming a very tight, boundaried space. During meditation retreats we may spend hour after hour just sitting looking at a wall. This practice can be both difficult and positive as long as we are not replicating a childhood experience in which an authority put us in a contained space to punish us. If we practice in a self-punishing manner, our negative energy may propel us (literally or metaphorically) into the unhealthy sense of boundarylessness I was talking about in my last blog. This is a space in which we have totally suppressed both our own needs and aspirations.
In Nothing Holy About It I talked about Buddha’s student, Patacara, who experienced a great trauma and fell into unhealthy boundarylessness. Due to Buddha’s guidance, she was able to move from total despair and powerlessness She was able to develop good boundaries and immerse herself in a steady meditation practice. At some point she moved to a higher form of boundarylessness in which her small, chattering self cracked open to a joyful spaciousness. We call this enlightenment.
But we need to release any fixation on or infatuation with this type of experience, however. As we continue to mature spiritually, we experience boundaries and boundarylessness as two sides of the same coin. Many years ago, my first teacher pointed to the mis-arranged shoes I had placed at the door to his room and calmly said, “You have attained so-called “enlightenment. Now please take care of those.” He was illustrating the well-known Zen statement, “First mountains are mountains and rivers. Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. And at some point, mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”
A Zen master, if there is such a being, is simply someone who has strong and yet totally permeable boundaries and naturally lives and acts from her deepest heart or heart/mind.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher