Friday, July 16, 2010

Self Protection

How do we protect ourselves from the unwanted influence or pull of another? Is it through emotional or psychological walls, breathing in white light, or carrying a big stick? Is it locking oneself in the bathroom, taking self defense classes, or wearing a seatbelt? All can be valid depending on the situation and individual involved, but I find myself wondering if this is the main question we should be pursuing. Life, as The ARC Institute teaches, is made to challenge and help us grow. We come across such challenges everyday in people who try, for example, to control us or disregard our boundaries— sometimes in annoying ways, other times in a more threatening or physical manner. We can do our best to physically protect ourselves but an emotional component tends to piggyback on this unwanted influence—we take it personally, end up capitulating, or react in other ways that doesn’t quite serve us. For example, while we can avoid spending time with a “needy” friend who pulls on too much of our energy, do we suffer guilt as a result? Is it easier to have self anger than to say “no” for continually giving in to the financial requests of a family member, and do we end up taking on too much responsibility for another person’s emotions because we feel sorry for them?

How do we protect ourselves from taking on other people’s issues or ignoring our own needs in favour of another? How do we take care of our self in the face of challenging people and events? I feel the best way to care for one’s emotional self, whether through a boundary invasion or a pull on one’s energies, is less a wall, an infusion of white light or a defensive reaction than in nurturing a strong sense of Self.

When I think about a strong sense of Self, I reflect on the following:

When a rebel army took over a Korean town, all fled the Zen temple except the abbot. The rebel general burst into the temple and was incensed to find that the master refused to greet him, let alone receive him as a conqueror.
"Don’t you know," shouted the general, "that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?"
"And you," said the abbot, "are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye!"
The general's scowl turned into a smile. He bowed and left the temple.*

We can look at this in esoteric terms and say that the abbot believes in an eternal soul but I don’t feel we have to take it that far. For me it is more a metaphoric tale of the abbot’s strong sense of Self. He doesn’t bow down to physical might or relinquish his power. Instead, he emanates a sense of Self that quietly states to the general, nothing you can do can take away my power.

Self is the core of who we are. The capacity to have a strong sense of Self resides in all of us, regardless of age, situation or mental capacity. It is our authentic being-ness—that which remains untouched through the countless traumas, big and small, that incur in life. It is what gets us through the tough times when brawn or brain can do no more: the metaphysical spinal fluid that courses through our body, illuminating our inner power.

When Self is strong, we are resilient to life challenges. We see them as gifts and as a way to understand ourselves better. For example, if a friend becomes too needy we can reflect on whether this need is temporary or chronic and how much time we are willing to give either way. We can delve deeper into our psyche and ask what needs of our own are being met (by giving too much) and how the friendship could be strengthened by making it a more mutual give and take. If we share space with an angry coworker we can state our boundaries and say, “enough”, letting them know it is not appropriate to be venting in such manner. In Self, we can be compassionate to others but firm in knowing where our responsibility begins and ends. As such, we can respect their position (or not) but have the boundaries to avoid taking their issues personally.

When our codependent parts are at play, our sense of Self is not as strong. We allow people to negatively affect us: we do things we don’t want to do; and expend energy in ways that do not serve us. In this state, we don’t feel entitled to personal boundaries or the expression of our feelings. Alternatively, we hide behind psychological walls or bully others to avoid showing our vulnerabilities. Rather than gifts, our codependent parts see challenges as an external force that requires drastic solutions: rigid control and reactive anger or isolation and capitulation.

Self, however, is like a muscle, one that needs to be exercised to be at its optimum. For Self to be strong, we must recognize, appreciate and listen to what our body tells us, and validate our emotions. In the practice of body awareness we know how our body feels when it is centred, and how it feels when it has been thrown off or affected by another. And, while a strong Self is compassion to the idea that it will be thrown off centre throughout the day, it is secure in the knowledge of how to regain a balanced state. Self is neither rigid, judgmental, nor afraid of change. These attributes allow a person with a strong sense of Self to creatively respond, rather than react to life, thus transforming challenges into the gifts they are.

Building a strong sense of Self is not a one-time goal but a life-long journey. I remember first feeling my own sense of Self many years before I ever heard of or understood the concept—many years before I even started building upon this inner power. I was on Mt. Baker’s Skyline Trail in Washington State. It was a drizzly, grey day, with low cloud and poor visibility. I was ahead of my hiking partner and decided to sit down on a rock and wait for her. As I sat, a feeling of primordial strength came over me: of being one with the rock, the moss; the fine droplets of mist. I felt calm and capable; unafraid and in charge of my life. Although the feeling did not last, over the years I was able to come back to that feeling in times of doubt and fear, when life challenges seemed to overwhelm and I felt only emptiness. It was that small glimpse of Self, so many years ago, that got me through and enabled me to begin practicing a lifetime of lessons in self awareness, self trust and an acceptance of who I am.

• Reprinted from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2002. From Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane’s Bill, by L. Stryk, T. Ikemoto & T. Takayama

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