In my first post, Practical Zen in a Nutshell we saw that Zen consists of a fourfold practice comprised of 1) Meditation; 2) Mindfulness; 3) Letting go of attachments; and 4) Being in touch with our true nature. Having fleshed out meditation, mindfulness, and letting go of attachments in a series of previous posts, we now turn our attention to our true nature.
This, of course, leads to our first question, what exactly is our true nature?
I believe that at our core, we are all spiritual beings whose essential nature is love, compassion, and kindness.
But wait, you say, how can that be? How can our true nature be love, compassion, and kindness given all the horrors evident in the world, with wars, terror, and violent crimes of every kind occurring every day?
To that I say that unless a person is born somehow genetically deficient such that he or she is incapable of compassion, all the acts of unkindness and cruelty that we see are either learned behaviors that are facilitated or encouraged through family, peers, and immediate culture, or they are the result of the trauma resulting from systematic abuse.
On the other hand, all the acts of love, compassion, and kindness that we also see in the world (often in droves following acts of cruelty) all stem from that which we are at our core, beings whose essential nature is love, compassion, and kindness. The diamond-like quality of our true nature was there when we were born, and has always been there. Unfortunately for far too many of us, as we will see, our life circumstances covered that diamond in mud. Yet no matter how much mud is caked on – we have only to rediscover the diamond beneath.
A common belief
That our true nature is comprised of love, compassion and kindness certainly isn’t just my idea. Buddhists believe that our true nature, which is also referred to as the Buddha Nature, is one of a pure luminescent mind and is characterized by love and compassion.
The Judeo-Christian belief is that mankind is created in God’s image. And what are the characteristics of God? Love, light, compassion, kindness, and joy, just to name a few. If we are created in the image of God whose nature is love, compassion and kindness, we would be an inaccurate image if we did not at the very least have as part of our essential nature the aspects of love, compassion, and kindness as well.
The Hindu belief system is another example as they believe that a free, pure, and perfect spiritual entity (Atman or soul) resides in each of us.
But why is all of this so important? We’re about to see.
The shame of toxic shaming
The reason why it is so crucial to understand the teaching about our true nature is that without it we have no understanding of our true identity and that leads to a flawed understanding of who we really are at our core. What do I mean by that?
As I alluded to above, far too many of us were raised in dysfunctional families and circumstances. In fact, because no human being is perfect, every family is dysfunctional to one degree or another. For those of us who were raised in a family that fell towards the heavily dysfunctional side of the spectrum, or whose peers were particularly cruel, what resulted was what John Bradshaw in his excellent book Healing the Shame That Binds You calls “toxic shaming”.
Toxic shaming results from abuse of various kinds including physical, sexual, or verbal abuse – and this is not just limited to our families – our peers growing up can be notoriously mean in order to escape from their own feelings of shame-based inadequacy.
So, in effect, what happens when we’re the subject of toxic shaming – and here is the key – is that we internalize that toxic shame and it becomes our identity. Toxic shame becomes who we are.
Anyone who has ever suffered from low self-esteem (aka, feeling like a loser) can attest to that feeling. No matter how hard we try, no matter what image we try to project to the world, in our hearts we feel like shamed losers. I’ve heard it said that it’s like a t-shirt where the image you want to portray is on the front of the shirt, but on the back it just says “Loser”.
Eric Berne, the Psychiatrist who created Transactional Analysis, said that we are born princes and princesses, but the civilizing process turns us into frogs.
Toxic shaming, no matter what the form or source, results in a shame-based identity, and a shame-based identity is an enormously painful thing to live with. Way too often the result is all kinds of self-destructive practices and addictions in order to try and relieve or mask-over the painful burden of shame. In Buddhist terminology, we end up in the throes of the Three Poisons of Ignorance, Grasping, and Aversion.
The importance of our true nature
You can begin to see then, how our true nature of love, compassion, and kindness – the diamond-like quality of our true nature – gets covered over with the mud of toxic shaming through the socialization process, to the point that we begin to believe that we are the mud and not the diamond.
Therefore the reason that the understanding of our true nature is so important is that we can make a fundamental shift in identity such that we no longer believe we are the mud, but understand that we are the diamond – a diamond whose essential nature is love, compassion, and kindness.
So what lies at the heart of practical Zen is to understand and be in touch with our true nature as our true identity and our default way of being.
But how the heck to do we do that?
How to be in touch with our true nature
The way to be in touch with our true nature is to first understand and believe that our true nature is who we are at our core. Once we truly understand that we are not our shame, and that our true nature is one of love, compassion, kindness and peace, then we can meaningfully practice the first three of the fourfold practices of practical Zen which we’ll look at now to see where our true nature fits in.
First, in meditation, we pay focused attention to the anchor of attention (our breath), while maintaining a compassionate, non-judgmental and spacious awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Then when we are distracted from the anchor of attention we let go of the distraction and/or attachment and come back to the breath and to our true nature of love, compassion, and kindness.
Second, as we practice mindfulness in our everyday lives, we pay focused attention to what we’re doing or experiencing in the present moment while maintaining a compassionate, non-judgmental and spacious awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Then when we are distracted from what we’re doing we let go of the distraction and/or attachment and come back to what we were doing and to our true nature of love, compassion, and kindness.
Third, we constantly practice letting go by repeating the phrase let go, let go, let go whenever we find ourselves feeling anything other than peace, or simply taken away from the present moment.
As I said in my post, Letting Go: The Path to Peace, any time we find ourselves feeling anything other than perfect peace, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s because of an attachment to a desire. If you trace that feeling of discontent back, you’re guaranteed to find an attachment to a desire.
The solution? Let go, let go, let go – so that we can return to our true nature of love, compassion, and kindness. When we let go of attachments, we are not left with empty voids in our hearts, but rather are returning to the beauty and serenity of our true nature.
Letting go is the path to peace – and peace is also an essential aspect of our true nature.
Our true nature is that part of our humanity which at its core is comprised of love, compassion, kindness and peace. We all have it (yes, even the worst of us).
Unfortunately, the toxic shaming so often involved in the socialization process, and too often including abuse of various kinds, covers over our true nature like mud over a diamond. That shame then becomes our identity and manifests in ugly ways, including all kinds of addictions in order to mask the pain and make us feel better, and in what is known in Buddhist teachings as the Three Poisons of ignorance, grasping, and aversion.
It’s only when we make the shift in identity from the mud of toxic shame to the hidden diamond of our true nature that we can begin to discover the joy and peace that can be found within and, if needed, begin healing from any abuse.
This shift in identity is in many ways the starting point for the practices of meditation, mindfulness, and letting go of attachments which will keep us in touch with our true nature so that our true nature not only falls into its rightful place as our true identity, but also becomes our default way of being.
We’ve now completed our look at the fourfold practice of practical Zen, but stay tuned because there’s much more to come in Zen and the Art of Everyday Living.