Aging forces us to face transitions. There are particular stages in life that we hear the most about - the terrible twos, our 21st birthday, the mid-life crisis. But our whole lives consist of passing through stages and transitions, some that we plan for, others that we pray for, and some that we never asked for and never in our wildest dreams, ever dreamed of, some joyful, some undramatic, but most of them difficult and troubling. Most transitions are filled with obstacles, unfamiliarity, uncertainties, stumbling blocks, frustrations, and fears. Uncertainty causes anxiety, and transitions are inherently uncertain. There is no way to approach a transition without uncertainty, without some amount of anxiety. We think of entering into change as risky.
Recently while contemplating a transition of my own, I read this ancient dialogue from Buddhist tradition, quoted by Robert Aitken in The Original Dwelling Place:
Tao-hsin made his bows before Seng-ts’an and said, “I beg the compassion of Your Reverence. Please teach me the Dharma way of emancipation.”
Seng-ts’an said, “Who is binding you?”
Tao-hsin said, “No one is binding me.”
Seng-ts’an said, “Then why should you search for emancipation?” Hearing this, Tao-hsin had great realization.
Robert Aitken wrote, “The delusion that he was bound was the bondage of Tao-hsin. Freedom from the bondage was Tao-hsin realized. It sounds simple, but better men and women than any of us here have sweat blood to make this great transition from the self center to the multicenter, from the me world to the compassionate world of Kanzeon.”
There are many many ways that we bind ourselves. Usually a transition consists of several stages: a period of increasing unhappiness and frustration, a period of evaluation, exploration of options, development of a plan, and then implementation of the change. Adjustment to the new circumstances, follows the transitional period, and then here is usually a plateau. Transitions and plateaus often come in 3 and 7 year cycles. There are practical, psychological, and spiritual transitions. Seng-ts’an was referring to a special perceptual and spiritual transition.
Without real growth work, we feel hindered by blocks and barriers that we allow to bind us. First, our very personality and character structure can bind us. For example addictions, passivity, negativity, the tendency to make judgments, fearing the judgments of others, compulsivity, obsessiveness, hysteria, and co-dependency are all possible ways our personalities can hold us back. Second, emotions such as depression, anxiety, doubt, discouragement, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, or shame can bind us. Third, fears bind us: fear of weakness, inadequacy, or failure, fear of isolation or loneliness, fear of dangers or risks. If we don’t understand our own tendencies, motivations, and patterns of behavior, it is a tremendous handicap in going forward.
Usually if we haven’t grappled with what is binding us, eventually we come to a point when the discomfort, unhappiness, or pain in the status quo is so great that we are forced to move forward even when we are fearful. A client sent me a card recently with a quote from Anais Nin which expressed what my client had experienced herself: “....and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
In order to free ourselves, each barrier needs to be named and addressed separately. We need to take that one aspect at a time, bring it into full awareness, wrestle with it, share it with someone special, explore it in a journal, even work on complex aspects with a therapist. Sitting with these feelings in meditation can contribute to developing the ability to let go. Change requires attention in each moment, the will to try new behaviors, and facing and working through the fear and anxiety that is aroused. This effort requires taking responsibility moment by moment throughout our lives. Whether we choose to go forward or come to a place where we feel we can’t not go forward, it is through determination, discipline, and diligence that we forge our way through all the forms of bondage.
In Zen Buddhist retreats, or sesshins, a verse is recited as dusk falls and the room darkens and becomes still, at the very end of each day. A senior practitioner cries out from another room in a deep and booming voice:
I beg to urge you, everyone
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;
each of you must be completely alert:
never neglectful, never indulgent.
Our lives are ultimately brief, and we must remain constantly alert to the task. As Robert Aitken said, “greater men and women than you or I have sweat blood to make this great transition. This is the great transition from the me center to the multi-center. From the me world to the world of compassion”. We face the psychological challenge in our lives to develop an unblocked free strength of self. In addition to that we can also face, if we choose, the even greater and sacred transition from a focus on self - to an empathic and compassionate stance towards others. He is addressing this experiential, spiritual transition that can take place through contemplative prayer or Zen Training. This is our ultimate and truly sacred transition.
Developing the capacity for empathy and compassion and freeing ourselves from our own bondage, allows us to be capable of being available to others. This is the sacred transition - the great integration and the great transition that has to be made deep into the psyche, the spirit, and into every cell of the organism. Our hope can be that before we die we can learn how to set ourselves completely free. No one is binding us. In these ways -- we prepare ourselves -- for the greatest transition of all.