Monday, November 06, 2006

On Bodhichitta, Shadow Work, and Alchemy

This is from a Shambhala Sun article by Pema Chodron, Stay with the Soft Spot, in which she talks about Shantideva's The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (this was preview of her recent book, No Time to Lose, on Shantdeva's text).
It isn't easy to say what bodhicitta is. If you looked it up in a Buddhist dictionary, it would say something like: “The heartfelt longing or wish or aspiration to awaken fully, so that you could benefit sentient beings.” The aspiration is vast, because you wish to awaken not partially but fully. It’s vast because you wish to awaken so that you could benefit not just a few, but all sentient beings. And you aspire to benefit all beings not just at the relative level of housing and food and fear and abuse, but also at the absolute level of helping them help themselves so that they too can wake up fully. Full-blown bodhicitta is the global perspective that wants all beings to fulfill their potential. It is based on a growing confidence that all beings have the potential to wake up fully.

Shantideva says, “Virtuous thoughts do rise, brief and transient, in the world.” We’ve all had this experience: you're walking along, you're complaining and judging everyone, you feel like you're on a steady diet of poison, you’re driving everyone crazy—especially yourself—and then, BAM! Like a flash of lightning in the dark, something gets through your self-absorption. Sometimes it's just a car backfiring, or maybe it's a dharma teaching, but it wakes you up out of your self-absorption and you see that the sun has come out, the sky is beautiful, and there are birds flying across it. Suddenly the world is very large. Everybody knows the experience of being completely self-absorbed and then something gets through. That’s a flash of bodhichitta.

That flash, though, feels fragile and fleeting. Meditators describe it often: “I felt like every time I meditated I was waking up more, and then I seemed to lose it." That’s the fragility Shantideva is referring to: there’s a flash of lightning, you suddenly understand that the sun is always shining, but then the clouds cover over it. At some point, though, something shifts and you begin to have confidence that the underlying quality of your being is open and warm and radiant. You know that the sun is always shining.
Later, using grief as an example, she says:
Take grief, for instance. Grief is completely pregnant with bodhichitta—it’s full of heart, love and compassion. But we tend to freeze or harden against grief because it’s so painful. We bring in the clouds. In fact, we're good at bringing in the clouds and keeping them in place. We’re good at fixating on them.

But when you practice the teachings that say, “Stay with the grief, see it as your link to all humanity,” you begin to understand that grief is a doorway to realizing that the sun is always shining. You begin to understand that the weather is transient like clouds in the sky. You begin to have more trust in the underlying goodness—the underlying “sun quality”—of your being.

In this way, any experiences you have, particularly very strong emotions, are doorways to bodhichitta. The trick is to stay with the soft spot—the bodhichitta—and not harden over it. That’s the basic bodhichitta instruction: stay with the soft spot.
[Emphasis added.]

I have been doing a lot of shadow work of late, seeking out my destructive subpersonalities and trying to understand them. I think now it is time to get back to Buddhist practice, to trying to transform lead into gold.

Elsewhere is this fine article, Chodron uses alchemy as a metaphor for the work of bodhichitta. Now she's talking my language. I spent years studying alchemy both as an historical artifact and as Jung's metaphor for the individuation process. I think it's an apt metaphor here as well.

Part of shadow work is trying to bring the shadow material into the light of consciousness where it can no longer be hidden from view and, thus, exert unconscious influence on behavior. In alchemy this is equivalent to working with the nigredo, to cooking out the impurities in the psyche.

In bodhichitta practice we are doing the same work, but rather than seeking to remove the impurities, we seek to sit with them and get to know them. It is very equivalent to the shadow work of bringing things to consciousness. The end result, however, is the same as in the alchemical process -- the shadow material is neutralized and no longer can act on us without our knowledge.

The reason I keep coming back to Pema Chodron is because she infuses the process with a compassion that is lacking in the psychological models. It feels important to be gentle with ourselves as we unearth this material. For people like me (strong inner critic and strong pusher), there is a definite need to not push too hard and to not feel too much pressure to do it right. When seeking the soft spot, we need to be soft in doing so.

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