At retreats in Burlington, Vermont (1998), Amherst, Mass (2001) and later at St. Andrews, Scotland (2003), I was asked to speak about the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing—in particular the sixth:
Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at those we think are the cause of our anger.
This is what I said:
“I have worked with this mindfulness training consciously and unconsciously long before I knew there was a Buddhist precept about it. But I did not have a good understanding about anger or violence, and certainly didn’t have the appropriate tools to deal with it. I see this particular mindfulness training as an arrow directly into me. It does not provide a license for me to talk about anger in others or even in the world. It is an inward arrow to see deeply the causes and conditions of my own suffering, to realize that my anger and ensuing violence was the expression and symptom of a much deeper suffering. To release the energy of anger I knew I had to investigate and understand the underlying suffering, to find a way through the tendrils of anger that have trapped me in unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Only then could I find a way to be free of these patterns and offer the benefits of dealing with anger to help alleviate the suffering of others. When I look deeply into this training I see its connection to all the other fourteen mindfulness trainings. When I look deeply into its significance I do see anger and violence, but I also see an end to anger and violence. So I will talk to you about my journey with anger, violence and the mindfulness trainings.
When I was growing up as a teenager and young man I didn’t know what the source was for the anger and violence that was in me. I had a good family and school, wonderful natural surroundings but anger was there and it was expressed. I had two safety zones where I could let the anger out—the rugby field and the judo dojo. I remember as a young man how I used to play rugby football. This was quite a violent sport—or at least the way I played it was extremely violent. I also trained in the martial arts and competed in full-contact tournaments. I was very successful in both arenas. There were more skilled players, but none possessed the fury that I brought to these sports. I was ferocious on the rugby field and in the martial arts dojo. The fury and violence often stunned my martial arts teachers, my teammates, and if the truth be known, myself. The rugby field and judo dojo were safe places for me to leave my anger but it was not safe for my opponents or even for my teammates. Many black belts and senior martial arts students refused to spar with me, as they were afraid of getting hurt. My teammates on the rugby field were afraid of me for they knew I would knock them down if they got in my way. I would leave opposing players crumpled on the rugby field after I tackled them. In judo I remember being given the victory in an Oxford-Cambridge Blues match with my opponent unconscious on the mat. My sensei and teammates looked at me as though I was an alien being, as I brought street fighting into a noble martial art.
Violence also came out in my speech and attitudes to my parents—particularly to my mother. Something was clearly wrong and I knew it. I was intelligent and constantly reviewed my upbringing, but there was nothing to justify the anger I carried inside me. I thought a lot about this and about the recklessness I brought to life. I looked back over my social conditioning, my culture and experiences to examine any conditions that could account for my wildness and anger on the sports field and in my life. I didn’t come up with any clear answers or understandings and was quite confused. And so I stumbled through life, outwardly very successful but inwardly a disaster—the classic overachiever in scholastics, sports, and university debates. The cutting whit and sarcasm employed in the debating chamber was just a different manifestation of the anger and violence I left on the sports field. But I knew there was something very deep in me that I hadn’t addressed, that something was clearly out of place. I knew all this but couldn’t grasp the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle until much later in life.
I knew intuitively to look for an inward arrow to investigate my suffering, realizing full well that my anger and ensuing violence was the symptom of something much deeper. In my middle years as an adult, memories began to surface about being sexually abused as a child. Fortunately by then, I had received training from two remarkable people. One was a Native American medicine woman of the Ojibway Nation in Ontario, Canada. Her name was White Eagle Woman. There’s an amusing story about our first meeting. I was at an elder’s gathering and she summoned me over to meet her. I did so and was taken aback by her first words. She looked me straight in the eye and said: “I do not like you.” I said nothing in reply. Then she continued by saying that she had been instructed by her spiritual ancestors to train me and that we were to start next day. I discovered much later that I reminded her of the white man who had sexually abused her when she was a teenager. So our work together was mutually beneficial, as I do believe that she grew to quite like me. At least I hope so!
The other remarkable being was Thich Nhat Hanh who introduced me through his books to mindfulness practice long before I met him. It was years later before I met him at a retreat at the Omega Center in New York State. I was camping and torrential rains drove all the other campers to seek shelter, but I was on slightly higher ground and did not get flooded out. For several nights running I had a vision of Thay sitting in my tent beside me as I slept. This was much more than a dream and it confirmed for me the veracity of all that I had learned about the mindfulness trainings from his books.
White Eagle Woman saw in me the energy of my being raped and sexually abused as a child, buried very deep. She also saw that I didn’t have the strength or readiness to deal with the energy of this trauma. On reflection there were clear signs of this trauma that I wasn’t able to understand. Many years ago I used to teach university courses on Native American society. Whenever I lectured on the residential school system for aboriginal children in Canada I would choke up with emotion and outrage. The aboriginal children were abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by the priests, monks and nuns responsible for the schools. I used to think my emotions were because of the injustice and cruelty towards the children. That was only partly true. The bigger truth was that I was outraged at the cruelty and injustice done to me as a child, though I didn’t understand this at the time. My Ojibway medicine woman teacher provided me with training and tools for several years—shamanic journeys with precise attention to breath control, spirit quests and deep healing. She taught me how to experience the healing power of altered states of consciousness and trained me to move in and out of these states at will. She also transferred energies to me that I am not at liberty to talk about. The clarity of deep understanding was vital in this process—to see the whole picture. Eventually, understanding shone the light of awareness into the darkness of the abuse. I began to know clearly and understand the source of my anger, particularly towards my parents as I had unconsciously blamed them for not protecting me.
White Eagle Woman’s training equipped me to be fully mindful, so that when the crisis of childhood sexual abuse hit my awareness, I would know what to do. Indeed the crisis did hit. Once White Eagle Woman had transferred the tools and knowledge I needed, the memories I had buried since childhood began to emerge. I was of course devastated. I had a mixture of denial, outrage, fear and shame that this could have ever happened to me. However, I had the tools and contacts in place to deal with what was emerging from my memories. This preparation by my Ojibway teacher was careful and essential, for the relationship I was in at the time did not have the foundation to handle the situation and so it disintegrated. Thus an immense burden of suffering came crashing down on me. But rather than get crushed by all of this, I saw it as the beginning of understanding my patterns and anger, even through the grief of a failed relationship. I was determined to get to the root of it all and be free, so that I would cease blundering through life causing general havoc to myself and to others. The focus was on very precise breathing sequences in an altered state of consciousness during shamanic journeys to other dimensions and worlds. This was accompanied by engendering within me the energy of protection, understanding and forgiveness. This clarity was essential.
I also practiced the Mindfulness Trainings from Thich Nhat Hanh as best I could to help maintain a steady anchor in my life. They were my protection and greatly assisted in the process of eventually bringing compassion and forgiveness not only to my parents but also to my rapist. I had not met Thich Nhat Hanh at this time but I felt his energy of compassion through the words in his books. The wording of the mindfulness trainings made so much sense and I knew that as I looked deeply into each one of them I would touch some aspect of the Buddha’s awakened mind. At the same time this would touch aspects of my own potential for awakening. I used the mindfulness trainings as a compass to chart my way through this difficult part of my life.
In the many shamanic journeys I undertook with White Eagle Woman and also with an Algonquin shaman, I investigated the karmic patterns from previous lives and saw deeply how I participated in creating the events of my childhood. Now, language like “karmic patterns” can easily become confusing so let’s pause for a moment. The word “karma” means “action.” Contrary to the common usage in the west of “cause and effect,” karma is very profound but simple. Every action (including thoughts and speech) logically and in a balanced way causes other action. Just as throwing a rock in a pond causes ripples proportionate to the mass of the rock and the energy of the throw. Karma is simple and notice, no emphasis on “good” or “bad.” Action is just action. The good and bad labels and feelings come from us! Karmic patterns then are collections of actions and the follow-on actions that result from them. So I took part in these journeys in a visceral way that enabled me to release the energies of abuse from my body and mind. Yet I also found myself observing in a matter of fact way that was at times astonishing. This was deep looking, a complete investigation of the causes and conditions in the stream of life that had led to my abuse in childhood and subsequent anger. The detached observation was without fear and it enabled me to see how the karmic pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. This took several years, yet I began to understand how all of it affected my present life and caused me to suffer. I also journeyed to retrieve and reconnect to the wounded child in me who had been frozen at four years old, the age at which I had been raped. I had been taught to do this by my shamanic teachers and guides. Over time I was able to make it safe for that child and the adult me to eventually merge as one being.
Later in the process I saw deeply into my parents, into my favorite aunties—who all knew what had happened and who had kept silent. This was a family secret. They all saw when I was a little boy that I didn’t remember. They also saw that I spent so much time in nature and felt that I must be OK. Only I was not OK. Yet they kept silent and suffered greatly from this. By the time all of this surfaced in me, my parents were deceased and my aunties too. So I journeyed in an altered state of consciousness to talk to them many times. As I experienced them in the zone of no-birth and no-death, I told them that the energy of this suffering was released in me and if I could let it go then so could they. I told them I understood their silence, but that now there was no family secret to keep. I know their suffering released along with my own. I told them I forgave my family for not protecting me when I was little, and that I loved them all. And as I speak to you now in this meditation retreat, they are all with me, as is the energy of White Eagle Woman and many shamanic guides.
I also saw deeply into the man who raped me and began to understand the conditions and suffering that shaped him, realizing he had no one to teach and guide him. In journeys to meet him, I was surrounded by so much protective energy as I first observed him and my responses to him. I was totally surprised at the lack of hate in me, at the matter of fact manner with which I encountered my abuser. It was observation without emotion. I owe this ability to my practice of the Mindfulness Trainings and to my intensive shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Eventually during the shamanic journeys I could meet my rapist with just a small amount of compassion—not much, just a small amount. Yet with that small drop of nectar I was able to start forgiving. Now in my consciousness I can meet him with equanimity and without anger. Once I could do that with calm and clarity, then I was no longer a victim of the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. All of these steps and preparations through time allowed me to release and transform the major causes of suffering and anger in my life.
The understanding of the causes and conditions of anger, the deep and determined investigation of me, the steps into compassion, allowed the suffering to get smaller and the forgiving to get larger. I was fortunate to be trained by such a remarkable person as White Eagle Woman. She also initiated me into a life-long training in Native American healing processes and ceremony that I continued with to this day. Her training and my determination to be clear of the trauma eventually provided me with freedom. Throughout the entire process of investigation under her guidance I used the seed of mindfulness a lot. It’s now no longer a seed. It has grown into a beautiful and strong tree, deeply rooted within my body and consciousness. Throughout all of this I had such determination to bring my suffering to an end, to be free. I must have had very determined and strong ancestors—both in my blood and spiritual ancestors—for their energy, as seeds deep in my consciousness, were activated on my behalf. This determination and the ability to take refuge in my blood and spiritual families enabled me to transform the anger and violence within me. I do not cling to my past suffering, for I am not a victim of it. Nor do I consider myself a “survivor,” as that implies being caught by the experience of sexual abuse. I am no longer caught. Yet I do fully realize the significant education and insights received through the experiences of suffering and healing.
With this experience, and the mindfulness practices I have since learned, I counsel people in the methodologies and teachings I have received and used for myself. In this way, those that have suffered greatly from childhood trauma can take specific steps towards healing. Without my own suffering and healing I would not be in a position to do this. I am now thankful that I can bring protection and healing to children who have been harmed in a similar way. This was the hope of my medicine woman mentor and friend from the Ojibway Nation and the primary reason I talk to you about this. I am in deep gratitude to White Eagle Woman for giving me tools of healing and mindfulness.
There is, however, an even more subtle level. To the best of my ability I endeavour to follow Gandhi’s principles of ahimsa and the teachings on mindfulness. These are the guidelines and foundations for my peace and environmental activism. I am vegetarian—well mostly—and live very simply as an active ecologist. So are there seeds of anger in my consciousness after all of this process? Are they still there? Of course they are. It’s simply incumbent upon me to take care of them when they arise, to surround them with mindfulness and transform their potential to cause harm. It’s my job to ensure that I am not overwhelmed by their energy, that I embrace the seeds of anger with the tools and practices I have received from my teachers. Now it’s a different practice. I observe how seeds of anger manifest in my thoughts and know that my thoughts are capable of doing damage to myself and to others. But my practice has changed somewhat over the past two decades. It’s not so much a focus on anger and violence but an observation of the tricks of ego.
My practice now is to observe how my ego attaches to specific mental formations in order to take my consciousness into separation and illusion. That is the job of the ego. It cannot do anything else except attach to negative mental formations and drive them to distort and manipulate in order to separate me from my true nature. When I catch this happening in a train of thought—and I do not always catch it—but when I do I say:
“Hello my dear ego. Are you here again? Are you not tired of attaching to these old mental formations that you have used so often before? Why don’t you come and have a rest? Why not rest in the consciousness of my heart?”
The ego really has no answer to this. That’s what I do when I catch a train of thought filtered through anger and ego. I’m not always successful in catching it. But when I do I feel happy, really good, as the excesses of my wild mind are not translating into actions that can cause harm. Throughout this entire process the mindfulness trainings have been and still are an incredible guide for me. In fact, they’re more than a guide—they give me protection and provide a way out of suffering. The Four Noble Truths are there in the mindfulness trainings. The Noble Eight Fold path is also there. The awakened mind of the Buddha is there. When I look deeply into this mindfulness training I touch THAT. I do this with great gratitude.”
Then I stopped speaking and gently bowed to those listening.