Excerpted from an episode of Tricycle Talks. Listen to the full episode here.
Your new book is called Untangled. What are these tangles that tie us up, and how do they limit our capacity for freedom and joy? The Buddha laid out a beautiful prescription and prognosis, which is that we get in trouble because we get tangled up in our own stories. For me, that’s definitely been true in terms of the story of being a victim, which I carried around for a long time. We get tangled up by the classical things that the Buddha talked about: the giants of greed, resentment, and ignorance. We can get so caught up in these veils that keep us away from the intimacy of life. The intimacy of life is always available, and yet these things must be reckoned with.
You position the eightfold path as the way to get untangled. Can you give us a brief introduction to the eightfold path? One of the things that’s so important is that we face what’s hard and uncomfortable and what seems impossible. Sometimes we get caught in what’s hard. Many people come to meditation practice and want it to be easy and are hoping that they’ll feel “better.” I feel that the eightfold path is quite powerful, as it’s really about ethics and wisdom and compassion, which seems like a pretty good prescription for how to live a more sane life.
The eightfold path starts with right view, and I see right view as looking back at our life to see how we’ve caused our own suffering. That requires the ability and willingness to be very embarrassed. I think some of us get there and we feel shame and then bury that and don’t change. It has been so important to me to keep humbling myself and realize what a jerk I have been to myself and to other people and to realize how I’ve transgressed and moved away from what I care most about. Right view is taking a rigorous and gentle look at [how we’ve transgressed] and having a healthy embarrassment.
There’s a huge difference between shame and embarrassment. Shame tends to move us away and almost ensures that our conditioning will continue in the same way. But I like to add “healthy” to embarrassment because sometimes we don’t see it as healthy. There’s a Japanese expression that has been incredibly important to me my whole life, which is “Fall down seven times, get up eight times.” When we move through the first step of the eightfold path, we have this opportunity to actually be humble, embarrassed, lively, and loving.
I see right view as looking back at our life to see how we’ve caused our own suffering. That requires the ability and willingness to be very embarrassed.
You mentioned your sense of being a victim and the attachment we can have to being a victim. That sense of being a victim can also bring shame. When we begin to emerge from that shame and see what we’ve done to others and ourselves, then we’re faced with the healthy embarrassment that you describe. It’s almost as difficult as the shame, but at least it’s generative and fertile. Is that fair to say? Totally. I feel like it’s just the willingness to be in an ongoing process of not getting it right. I remember writing a sentence in my last book that I had never said aloud in public that I realized I had held a lot of shame around. In some ways, it was a very simple sentence to say. The sentence was “I experienced physical and emotional and sexual abuse.” And I had never said it. It felt so powerful, almost like my cells rearranged when I said it—something about knowing that it was going to be published and public. I had been in therapy a long time and had a very steady practice and intimate relationship with my teachers and sangha. I had done a lot of work. And yet we’re never done. There was that little corner inside of my own mind filled with that shame of being a victim. I found that in writing this book, using the writing as a practice opened up things that I had never talked about before—and some things I didn’t even know. There was something about the act of writing and the physical expression as a practice that changed these spaces that I was so ashamed of, and I realized I could just say that this happened.
Did opening up about it serve to break the shame? Yes, and I also began to feel freer. There was a stillness. As a kid, I went to a karate studio, and the teacher, Sensei White, would say to us, “You will never be free until you’re still with your pain.” The pain of the shame was an added layer over the pain of my experiences, and I had kept it as a malignant thing inside of me, as if I had in some ways chosen it or wanted it or deserved it or as if I were fully responsible for it, which of course I was not.
Throughout the book, you explore how we can break out of our habitual thought patterns. How can breaking out of these patterns open us to wonder and awe? To me, it’s very ordinary. For several years, I worked in an emergency department. What was the most heartbreaking to me about working there was how often patients’ loved ones would come rushing in in a panic. I heard story after story like, “Oh man, we were in the worst fight this morning” or “I didn’t even speak to them as they were leaving.” We can get so caught up in our habitual patterns of “Eh, I’m in a bad mood” or whatever it is. A friend of mine recently reminded me that apparently, someone said to Gandhi, “You always seem to be in a bright mood,” and he said, “Well, who wants to die in a bad mood?”
That time in the emergency department woke me up in that way: What am I doing with my time? It changed in particular how I take care of my mornings. I never leave the house now without holding [my husband] Chodo’s face. Every morning, for the last 22 years, I hold his face in my hands and tell him how much I love him. To me, that is wonder and awe because every morning, I look at his face, and I really look at him, because I don’t assume that I will see him again. That has been such a poignant and ordinary entry into awe: looking at his face in the morning, even this morning, like, “Wow, I can actually see you.”
To me, that translates to each moment of our life. We can actually notice we’re getting caught up, ground ourselves, soften our belly, open our shoulders, and get upright. Those principles of zazen are fabulous and delicious instructions for how to enter wonder and awe. When I’m really in my body in that way, then I can be in the body of the world and connect in surprising ways.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.