Friday, March 31, 2017

“We don’t have to sort all our garbage before we throw it out”

Before a purification ritual I attended a few years ago with the pagan community, one of the priestesses pointed out, “We don’t have to sort through our garbage before we throw it out.”

Those of us who have been through lots of Freudian talk-therapy find this exceptionally difficult to do at first. Don’t we have to bring all the old traumas to the surface, dialogue with our inner child, confront and seek closure with our abusers, and “solve” everything first? Aren’t we negating some part of ourselves, or ignoring our deeper problems, if we say we can “throw out” our past traumas and disempowering belief systems?

I used to think so; then I realized a few years ago in my work with holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon that there’s a lot more to our healing process than talking about and trying to “solve” our problems.

While it’s important to understand our problems and stressors so we can learn any important messages or use the growth-opportunities they present to us, we really don’t need to repeatedly dissect every single trauma or abuse or self-doubt for years and years before we can release it. Many of us have already done more of this than we ever needed to in therapy, and now the next step for us is to learn how to release the energies from these old hurts that still haunt our lives.

In my previous post, I introduced some energy-work concepts which conventional therapists are not trained in. I was first introduced to the idea of grooves by Cindy Dillon, whose approach as I understand it is emptying from the grooves our old negative beliefs and energies, and re-filling them with positive energy and new beliefs we are trying to integrate into our lives.

A few weeks ago I heard a different approach to this concept from a life-coach named Dal Bouey [pronounced boy-AY], so I’ll present that now so you can decide for yourself which of these two ideas resonates more with you, or if some combination of them is apropos to your life.

Dal echoed the idea from the pagan priestess I mentioned above, using plumbing problems as an analogy. When a building develops plumbing problems, the plumbers come in and realize that the surface issues in the sinks actually stem from a much deeper problem in the pipes underground. The plumbers realize that not only were the pipes not installed correctly in the first place, they are made of substandard materials that leak and deteriorate much sooner than pipes in a commercial building should.

The business-owner is then horrified to find out how long the repair or replacement process will take, and how much it will cost, while the plumbers spend weeks or months excavating and studying the system to figure out how to fix it, and risk damaging the foundation of the building or the integrity of the earth around and under it in the process.

Did it ever occur to these plumbers to just lay new pipe? Dal asked. What if the plumbers decided instead to close off the valves to the underground pipes that can’t be fixed in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable cost, and lay better pipes just above them, using correct installation practices to assure that these pipes don’t develop the same problems as the old pipes?

Not only would this process give the business-owner a whole new plumbing system for less than the cost of fixing the old system, it disturbs the building and the earth around and under it far less than extensive excavation and rework of the old system would.

For people who have only just started their self-healing work, these ideas may need to be worked up to. For those of us who find ourselves with nothing new to say about our old issues, then it is likely time to start digging out the old grooves and re-filling them with new material. Or, if we feel that the old grooves are just too damaged or too deep to keep what we don’t want from falling back into them, we can figure out how to close them off and dig new ones to a more manageable depth.

Image: “Enchanted Tree Congress” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker

Monday, March 27, 2017

Integrating the karmic storehouse with our health and wellness journeys

Let’s think for a moment about what our lives would be like if we realized we no longer have to carry the soul-stains from all the things we thought—or were told—are “wrong” with us. Think of what it would be like if we decided to release ourselves from all the negative stereotypes we’ve ever been held to, the misunderstandings people assumed because they didn’t understand our behavior in certain circumstances, and any limiting diagnostic labels we’ve ever been boxed in with.

This is easier said than done, of course. It’s easy for us to make suggestions to other people, and often we’re quick to suggest the very changes to others that we struggle the most with ourselves. This is one reason I decided it’s more helpful to present my readers with some kind of alternative-thinking about my topics rather than say “This is right and here’s why and how you should do it,” or “This is wrong and here’s why you shouldn’t do it.”

Thus, even though I disagree with certain diagnostic labels in mental health, I’m not going to waste time arguing they are “wrong” and disempowering for everybody. I only speak from my own experience, and as I said last week, such diagnostic labels never gave me anything I could use.

My intention for therapy was always to learn how to become independent of the need for such assistance—not just hold me over until my next “refresher” sessions. The methods of the therapists I saw, plus their strong promotion of antidepressant medications, actually made me more dependent on them. When I realized this, I decided that going back to a conventional therapist was no longer of any use to me.

No therapist ever asked me questions or did bloodwork before prescribing a drug to see if there were nutritional imbalances or other issues we could address first. Many years later, with the help of holistic health specialist Cindy Dillon, I found out I did have nutritional deficiencies that affected my mental and physical well-being, as well as other issues that were resolvable with homeopathic supplements. For example, taking a certain “fish oil” supplement has resolved the nutritional deficiency that led to the excessive muscle-pain I experience when I’m stressed out, and a hormone-balancing supplement from Standard Process stabilizes me more than any anti-depressant drug or mood-boosting supplement I ever tried.

I also didn’t realize that a particular problem I had was a side-effect of medication until I stopped taking the medication, and I wonder how many other people are similarly trading one problem for others and not realizing it. If they really compared any benefit they get from medication against the side effects, the pros and cons of the drug may actually cancel each other out, making the medication a zero-benefit option after all (as was the case for me).

Another thing I’ve learned from Cindy Dillon is how to use my spiritual practice as part of my health-promotion and empowerment skill-set. Most therapists aren’t trained to help clients use their spiritual practice in this way, so it isn’t necessarily fair to hold this against them. It does, however, make them less equipped to help those of us who need more than talking about the same issues over and over again to help us finally break out of the ruts we’ve been stuck in, or fill our “containers” (to use Cindy’s term) with more positive and empowering energies and beliefs.

I like the idea of thinking of our old patterns as grooves or tracks we’re stuck in, or as a container that we can explore and learn to replace the contents of. For me, these concepts are synonymous with the Buddhist concept of the karmic storehouse, which some people call their karmic “basement”: Just talking about our problems and trying to fix our lives with intellectual exploration and behavior-modification simply don’t go deep enough to help us change our deepest karma that has hindered us from being able to change our lives. Working with ideas such as grooves and containers and changing our core belief systems is energy work, and that’s what’s helped me actually find the door to my karmic basement after being stuck for years at the top of the staircase to it.

I’ll continue these ideas, as well as present another approach I recently heard about working with the groove and container concepts, in my next post.

Image: Diamond-heart detail from “Nothing Without Love” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

Monday, March 20, 2017

Finally seeing light after over a decade of clinical endarkenment

One of the main purposes of practicing Nichiren Buddhism is to expand our life-condition. A lovely description of the inner feeling of enlightenment is that “it is like lying on your back in a wide open space looking up at the sky with arms and legs outstretched. All that you wish for suddenly appears. No matter how much you may give away, there is always more. It is never exhausted.” Josei Toda said this to his disciple Daisaku Ikeda, and then encouraged him to “Try and see if you can attain this state of life” (as cited in Living Buddhism, February 2017, pg. 13)

What this means is that, regardless of our life challenges, the sheer quantity of our responsibilities, and tasks we must accomplish, we have the limitless energy of the Universe on our side, and chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and practicing Nichiren Daishonin’s teachings are how we develop our ability to tap into that energy to live the lives we want and help others do the same.

This is the purpose of religion, both Toda and Ikeda—and before them Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi—insist, and this is why my Buddhist practice has helped me close the gaps in what I learned before Buddhism about personal growth and breaking free of early conditioning I’d been held back by—conditioning reinforced and perpetuated by mental health diagnostic labels and the idea that I required prescription medication to minimize the severity of my lows.

Finding out in 2010 that this simply wasn’t true was more liberating and empowering than anything any therapist ever said to me. In 2010 I stopped taking medication for depression because I could no longer afford it as a broke college student; while I was still worried about how quitting an antidepressant cold-turkey would affect me, I had a conversation with my friend Christa S. which finally shed some light for me after over a decade of clinical endarkenment.

Christa, who is trained in psychology and chaplaincy work, commented on the overuse of certain diagnoses that, instead of helping people improve their quality of life, actually lock them into the idea that they must adapt to their conditions rather than overcome them.

(It’s important to note that we were talking about people like me; people whose conditions involve psychosis or are severe enough to require crisis intervention were beyond the scope of our conversation.)

What if, Christa said, instead of labeling as life-long depression, we see it instead as something more like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which has lasted many years because the person hasn’t finished healing or hasn’t learned what they need to know to overcome it.

Christa’s idea made a lot more sense than the clinical rhetoric about depression ever did. One reason why is that PTSD acknowledges the condition is a response to something, and that I have the power to change how I respond, instead of the implication being that something is wrong with the chemicals in my brain that may never be completely right.

Events in my life triggered me to get stuck in that life-condition at an early age; I wasn’t naturally like that. I’ve always had a more moody personality and a low social-saturation point, but those are personality traits, not clinical problems. They do make it require more effort for me than for more naturally-outgoing and cheerful people to maintain a high life-condition—Again, though, not a clinical problem; and this challenge has actually made me able to understand and help certain types of individuals that people who’ve never plunged to those depths don’t know how to relate to or help. (If you’re familiar with archetypes, think wounded healer.)

Christa’s idea helped prepare me for working with Cindy Dillon, whom I met in 2012, when I started applying her holistic-health approach to developing a higher life-condition as my norm without pharmaceutical products or diagnostic labels. I wrote extensively about what I’ve learned from Cindy last summer.

I’m still a work in progress, of course, and still have lows. These lows are fewer, shorter-duration, and milder than before, and I’m not afraid or discouraged by them anymore, nor do I worry there’s something “wrong” with me or that I’ve failed by having them at all after everything I’ve learned to counteract them. This takes a lot of effort and courage, so it’s all the more apropos that Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes and helps us develop courage for handling our life-challenges.

Image: “RainbowWind Dancer” by Karla Joy Huber, 2005; Microsoft Paint and Microsoft Photo Editor

Monday, March 13, 2017

“Have you ever thought of looking at it this way instead and seeing how that feels?”

(This is part two of the series I started with February 27’s post)

Yesterday, after not sleeping well, I just wanted to cancel the whole day due to lack of interest. After a few minutes of puttering around trying to motivate myself enough to keep from going back to bed, I decided to myself, Forget this--I'm going to raise my life-condition, right now. Making the determination that I deserved better than to feel as crappy as I did, I sat down in front of the Gohonzon to do a vigorous morning gongyo with an emphatic focus on breaking myself out of my funk. And wow, did it work.

Have you ever prayed and felt your spirit suddenly tap in, a true mystical experience right there in your living room while doing something you do every day and which sometimes feels simply like part of your routine? It’s like finding an internal battery you didn’t know you had, or a light-bulb in your soul suddenly switching on when you hadn’t even realized how dark it was in there.

This gongyo was one of those for me, and it brought to mind one of my favorite inspirational quotes, from T. Davis Bunn’s novel The Book of Hours:

“. . . [Y]ou must develop prayer as a regular discipline. You must make it a constant in your life, and not just a sometime act. Prayer will grant you a very special distance, allowing you to step back from life and view everything more clearly—both the internal and the external, both the good and the bad. . . . Little by little, relinquish all that separates you from God. Your grief, your woes, your fears, your worries, your unfulfilled desires. Not every time of prayer will provide consolation or fulfillment. But only through the preparation of this discipline will you become ready for that holy moment when it does arrive. You must be brought face-to-face with the shadowy vista within yourself where God is not. Then you shall be ready to climb the glorious Jacob’s ladder toward the miracle of a heart renewed in God.” (pg. 242)

I first read this novel over a decade ago, when I practiced God-centered religion. What it says about prayer still resonates deeply with me even now that I’m a Buddhist, and if I was to re-write a Buddhist version of this quote I would change it minimally.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’m not usually one of those outgoingly cheerful, exuberant kind of people, even at times when people would expect me to be, such as when sharing about getting my work published in a popular inspirational book series. I wrote in that post that I actually felt glum the day of, and when I did emotionally register a sense of accomplishment it was still more of a quiet “Wee :)” rather than a loud and celebratory “WEEEE!!!”

I’ve always had difficulty managing extremes. This doesn’t mean I never have them, but I do try really hard not to. In contrast to walking on air all day long and having a party to celebrate an achievement, I choose instead to pace myself and stay more in the middle-range. If I do that I’m more likely to maintain emotional equilibrium throughout the next few days instead of crash when I have to go back to the mundanity of dirty dishes or my workweek or dealing with the logical challenges of car repairs.

This can be perceived as a lack of enthusiasm, reluctance to be happy, or a “bad attitude” by outgoing people who like big celebrations and who don’t get freaked out by being the center of attention. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood this kind of misunderstanding caused me a great deal of distress, and led me to misunderstand myself and feel like I needed to force myself to become an “extravert” so I would have better social outcomes.

Over the years, I’ve met other people who’ve had similar experiences, many of whom are still questioning themselves. This sort of self-doubt leaves us particularly vulnerable to the disempowerment of being put into diagnostic boxes by well-meaning therapists or other health professionals.

Over the past few years I’ve been introduced to better alternatives to the limitations of medical labeling, which I wrote about last summer. There are a few ideas that didn’t make it into last summer’s “Holistic Health and Buddhism” series, so I decided to share them now in my next couple posts.

As with that series, my point is not to argue with mainstream doctors or their patients that they are “wrong;” my intention is to say, “Have you ever thought of looking at it this way instead and seeing how that feels?"

Image: “Deep Thought by Candlelight” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Sumi ink

Friday, March 10, 2017

The main point of interfaith is uniting people, not uniting religious institutions

I attended the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation last Sunday with my best friend Dan M, who has always been passionate about not only studying but personally experiencing the religions he encounters. Before I decided in 2015 to dedicate myself fully to Nichiren Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai International, I did much the same thing. 

Ironically, my personal introduction to Nichiren Buddhism had nothing to do with interfaith involvement—I was introduced to it by my favorite Starbucks barista. The local SGI did participate in the World Sabbath a few years ago, and even had the audience say “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” but I had completely forgotten this by the time I heard Tony say it. The chant sounded familiar, and it wasn’t until months later than Dan pointed out why: We did hear it at an interfaith event.

My interfaith involvement started out with me as a spiritual seeker wanting to experience different religions; in 2016, I shifted my focus from the religions themselves to unity in diversity without the labels. By “without the labels” I don’t mean separating the religious contexts from the people, because that would negate one of the most important aspects of people’s sense of self. It would be just as counterproductive as saying “race doesn’t matter,” because our experience as part of our racial, cultural, and religious communities is a—sometimes the—dominant factor in what makes us who we are.

I’m not the only SGI Nichiren Buddhist involved in interfaith work in southeastern Michigan, but I might currently be the only “regular.” As such, I see my role in interfaith relations as a bridge-builder—not only between Nichiren Buddhism and other faiths represented in this network, but between people of God-centered and people of non-theistic religious practices.

I use the term “non-theistic” minimally because I don’t like defining things by what they are not; I use it here only to help clarify the context I’m using the word “humanistic” in. Non-theistic means a religion that does not involve “God” by the conventional monotheistic definitions, and thus humanism fits into this category. Humanism is a spiritual practice that is motivated by benefit for humanity, not for praise or promotion of God or a particular God-based religion.

As I said in my previous post, one of the misconceptions about interfaith involvement is that people think this implies an immersion-experience in different religions. While some level of religious literacy is useful, such as knowing enough about a religion to know what it is not (which is particularly important regarding Islam these days), people’s misconceptions about interfaith relations often stop them from participating at all. The truth is that unless the interfaith event is a house of worship tour or a seminar about specific religions, such immersion isn’t a necessary component of interfaith involvement.

Another misconception, which I’m hearing more and more lately, is that there is no room in interfaith for people in humanistic or polytheistic spiritual practices. As I said in my previous post, I can’t fully empathize with people who’ve never had a God-centered practice, because I did used to practice God-centered religion; that being said, I do see why some people may feel turned off or alienated by the God-focus in certain interfaith events.

That may mean that events such as the World Sabbath are simply not their style; that doesn’t mean they can’t still find their place in interfaith work. An alternative to this is, instead of simply expressing disapproval of the lack of inclusivity of non-theistic or polytheistic spiritual practices in interfaith programs, we can choose to represent our constituencies that we feel are lacking, whether Buddhist or pagan or something else I haven’t mentioned yet.

My experience at this year’s World Sabbath was an inner turning point for me. Previously I’d wondered how I still fit—and if I wanted to still be involved in—interfaith relations as a Buddhist. In Nichiren Buddhism, we are encouraged to find our own way of supporting kosen-rufu, and I realize now that this kind of inter-community bridge-building is my unique way of helping people form a beneficial connection with Buddhism.

So, if you’ve resonated with any of my words on this blog, then congratulations—You have formed a beneficial connection with Buddhism.

Image: “From Diversity to Pluralism” by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; mixed media

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Regardless of what we call it or how we see it, we are all part of "something greater than ourselves"

(The series I started with my previous post will continue next week)

Last Sunday I attended the 18th Annual World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation. I’ve attended the World Sabbath almost every year for the past decade, and this was my first time attending it as a Buddhist.

I’ve encountered a few misconceptions about what participating in “interfaith” really means. Some people assume that doing anything “interfaith” means they will be expected to immerse themselves in different religions, participate in blended worship, or feel pressured to develop a certain level of religious literacy or else be judged negatively if they are ignorant about other faiths represented. Some people still insist on keeping their religious experience mutually exclusive, meaning they don’t object to people practicing other religions nearby as long as a strict boundary is maintained between the religions.

To such people, Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Hindus and Baha’is and Zoroastrians and Jains all presenting prayer, song, and even dance as worship all in the same room within the same two hours is just too much to wrap their heads (or hearts) around.

That’s exactly what happened two days ago at the Jewish synagogue Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, though, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The World Sabbath was created in 1999 by the late Reverend Rodney Reinhart to foster not a blended religious community, but a celebration that our individual faiths—and the human community as a whole—are stronger together when we realize that “we are all part of something greater than ourselves,” as Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El put it.

While we have differing concepts of what that which is greater than ourselves is, we are all still undeniably part of that same whole, having come from the same origin and via the same manner of starting our human existence on this planet.

My experience at this World Sabbath was interesting because, as I said above, it was my first such event I attended as a Buddhist. While I have participated in interfaith programs since becoming Buddhist in 2015, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel at the World Sabbath since my personal faith is no longer God-centered. Many people have even asked me lately where Buddhists (and other people who are not monotheistic, such as pagans) fit into such interfaith events. That’s not an easy question to answer, and if we ask different people we’ll probably get different answers.

The most obvious answer that I can think of, and that I’ve heard from some other people, is that both humanists and polytheists have more difficulty plugging themselves in to programs such as the World Sabbath because of the religious emphasis on God. Some may fear judgment, and some may just simply have no interest in participating in a God-centered spiritual experience.

With this in mind, I was very pleased when Rabbi Miller referred to us being part of something “greater than ourselves” rather than taking that opportunity to refer to us all as children (or people) of God. Obviously the idea of us being God’s people was stated a number of times throughout the prayers and songs presented; it wasn’t said at every single opportunity it could have been, though, nor did I feel as though there was an overt implication that there was no room at all for people who don’t see God as a father or an androgynous personage of some sort.

For some people, this approach may not be conciliatory enough; for me, it was.

I used to practice God-centered religion, so regardless of the fact I don’t anymore, my experience and perspective are different than that of someone who was never God-centered in their practice, or who is uncomfortable with God-centered practice for any number of reasons.

I’ll discuss my perspective on this in more depth in my next post, in addition to why, as a humanistic Buddhist whose beliefs about the spiritual force of the universe have minimal (if any) theological common ground with most of the other participants, I still feel that my involvement with interfaith programs is important.

Image: "Interfaith Collective 2" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008 and 2015, Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker