Life happens–despite whatever plans we might have been making, to paraphrase John Lennon. When we find ourselves upended by a change in our circumstances, our relationships, the ripples caused by the need to adapt or accept what wasn’t our choice can reverberate to our very core understanding and identity of ourselves. We are not ready. We can’t handle it. We are shocked and upset and overwhelmed. Much, if not most, of our reactions are based on old emotional conditioning, associations to old wounds which occurred when we had far less capacity to fully understand or process what was happening to us. And indeed, in earlier years responsibility rarely lay in our hands, though it felt that way.
And so, being creatures of adaptation to our (real or perceived) environment, we become habituated or adjusted to whatever limited response or meaning we created in the past. This can be partly understood by understanding the nature of the ‘default’ or ‘narrative’ network of our brain/consciousness. What Freud indelibly defined as Ego, the narrative network is the ‘story’ of who we are. It is the construct of ourselves that guides us through the world, contains our sense of self in relation to others; it monitors and scans the world for ways in which we need to respond or avoid situations. The alternate operating mode is the ‘direct’ network, which as it suggests, relates us to the world through the direct stimulation of the senses. It is our tactile and perceptual sense of being in the moment. We are now starting to better understand the continuum of anxiety and various mental ill-health disorders as they relate to the imbalance of these two interactive networks or modes of consciousness. As might be surmised, over-operating in the default network, to the extreme, would be associated with being completely immersed in our narrative story and any associated overreactions and thought-distortions: paranoia, schizophrenia, delusional thinking, etc. We cannot distinguish what is mind, and what is reality.
To some extent this is the fundamental predicament of the human experience. Being entirely subjective, we are constantly having to gauge our reactions and feelings against prevailing consensual reality. So when that consensual reality shifts, as in a relationship, job, our sense of security in our life or health, it can throw us into great disarray. But truly, for many of us, we are operating within a highly filtered and distorted world of illusion. This is referred to in Buddhism as Mara. More specifically, Mara is portrayed as a demon who tempts us from spiritual commitment towards our more base impulses. Fundamentally, the demon is our own inherent attachment to the notion of a fixed ‘self.’ From that perspective, this self needs to be placated, defended, to be ‘right, ’ to be protected at all costs. It keeps us stuck in the illusion of separateness and duality between self and other, between ‘us’ and ‘the world.’
When we encounter unexpected change, or change which manifested despite our persistent denial, it is this self that resists, reacts and becomes aggrieved. We become sharply aware that our entire identity has become shaped around this sense of entitlement and dishonour. But when we step back we realize that nature itself is full of impermanence, that we are part of a natural life cycle, then indeed it is our own fear and resistance that creates struggle.
One of the greatest figures in Tibetan Buddhism was the yogi and saint, Milarepa. Born to nobility, his relatives stole his inheritance as a young man, after which Milarepa is said to have exacted his murderous revenge viciously and cruelly upon a wedding party of relatives, thus setting off on a course of violent rampages. Such the story of his transformation goes that Milarepa, while walking along a road, encountered the great translator Marpa, credited with bringing the precious teachings of Buddhism from India to Tibet. Upon seeing Marpa, serenely having a drink in a field, Milarepa remarked: “Don’t you know who I am? I am Milarepa– murderer, scoundrel, thief and menace throughout this region! Why do you not tremble at my sight?”
Marpa replied: “Yes, I know who you are. And precisely because of your reputation I also know that you have equal potential in your self and your deeds for compassion and kindness, should you choose to humble yourself and alter your ways.” And thus, Milarepa began a gruelling and life-altering course of change under the tutelage of this great teacher, eventually emerging as a revered figure himself for the ages.
What Milarepa’s story teaches us is is that despite our actions, we all have the capacity for change. It is not what he have done, it is whom we choose to become. This is the gift of shame. When are able to engage vulnerability and encounter our own suffering, perhaps through our shame that we are struggling with changes, should have seen them coming, feel powerless, etc—or, in our regrettable actions against others, (and ultimately ourselves)—then we have begun the transition towards enlightenment. We can not undo what we have done, however we can also not un-know what we know, and this gives us tremendous potential to draw insight and compassion through our own vulnerability to transform our world. We are all familiar with the cliche ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Perhaps what is more apt is to remind ourselves is that: ‘In everything, through reason, we can find wisdom, meaning and letting go.’