Denial Is Tricky

Monday, January 11, 2016 - 5:52am
Photo by Bonnie Natko

Denial Is Tricky

One of the main conditions that causes suffering to become worse is denial. You know the feeling: we get in an argument with a friend, but pretend we are not angry and swallow a whole bunch of feelings until resentment bubbles to the surface in a different context. We notice a homeless person on the street and we turn away, convinced that ignoring him will effectively push our discomfort away.

At our core, we assume that hiding from pain will somehow keep us from feeling it. Of course, trying to shut our minds off to suffering effectively ensures that it will persist, in some form or another.

There’s something admittedly difficult about trying to help a situation that is so much bigger than us. This, I think, is a dynamic similar to the one that makes us culturally so averse to confronting our fear of death. We become so panicked at the prospect of opening up to fear that we end up clinging to it as though it were something more than our view. We think we are avoiding a thought that will limit us when, really, our fixation on avoidance is precisely what makes our world very small.

Many years ago, Joseph Goldstein and I were in Hawaii teaching a retreat together, when we confronted what felt like a near-death experience. One day, I was leading a meditation when I heard the phone ringing repeatedly from downstairs, where the retreat center office was located. Joseph was out of earshot, so I felt somewhat responsible for making sure someone answered the phone, which was clearly disturbing the students. But instead, I tried to ignore it and reasoned that a staff member would answer it eventually.

No one did, and the phone kept ringing. Suddenly, I had a strong feeling in my gut that something was wrong, so I ended the meditation session and answered the phone myself. On the other end was a representative from the Civil Defense Department of Hawaii calling to report that the largest tidal wave in history was expected to hit us that day.

At the time, I was shocked and in a state of disbelief — denial even. But I knew we had to move forward and make a plan to get us all toward safety. The woman from the Civil Defense Department explained that our center was an hour away from the nearest safe location, and we only had two vans. We were stuck. The woman instructed me to get everyone and their belongings to the highest point in the facility.

As we sat waiting for the tidal wave, Joseph and I led meditation to the group. Time felt dilated and unfamiliar as we sat together, essentially awaiting the possibility of death. During meditation, we were letting go of everything known.

Of course, I am grateful that nothing at all ended up happening. The tidal wave missed the island. The next day, everyone on the retreat was in touch with more profound feelings of gratitude, as we had all settled into a very vulnerable place of letting go.

Mindfulness is a very potent force in these times of fear. At one point in my life, I remember thinking that mindfulness only applied to the good times in life. In particular, I am thinking of an experience in Burma during the days when you could only get a one-week visa into the country. I spent money and traveled from India to study under very special teachers, when I developed a persistent, painful cough. I felt that I had ruined my experience. I was blaming myself for getting sick, and fixating on the misery I felt because of my cough: “I came here to get enlightened! Now I can’t even get any rest because I’m coughing. What a waste!”

When I complained to Sayama, the head teacher at the retreat center, she "comforted” me by telling me, “This will be good practice for when you die.” Like many times along my travels, I was shocked, and then greater understanding opened within me.

As someone who identified as a part of a “groovy generation,” I didn’t feel consciously that I was avoiding thinking about death. I thought I wanted to die “consciously.” I meditated on death as an idea in the abstract, but not once did I think about what physical pain I might feel in the process, or inability to do what I wanted.

Sayama was completely right. Her advice not only encouraged me to consider the parts of death I was turning away from, but also invited me to think about how I was allowing fear to limit my awareness in other aspects of my life. I was practicing meditation and ostensibly felt devoted to my spiritual journey, but I still was in denial. Anything that makes me uncomfortable just doesn’t have to exist, I had thought.

Denial is tricky. Sometimes, we think we are not in denial because we recognize the existence of an uncomfortable feeling, but still turn away from it. Our denial voice might say, “Of course I know I am going to die, but why think about it?”

We need not dig deep into all the possible physical maladies we might experience when we die — that’s not the point of opening up to discomfort. The larger point is that each moment becomes immensely powerful when we strip away various denials. We can recognize our fear of death, of change, of letting go of our attachments, and feel the discomfort of that recognition. By being honest with ourselves about our various forms of suffering, we don’t feel more suffering — we create freedom.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Is it really so unusual in the Buddhist world to find people who simply live their lives and don't suffer from self-imposed mental maladies? Who gracefully accept, without fear, that they are going to die. Or who accept their suffering and then move on in a healthy way?

Len, I'm assuming it took some work to get to that point, work that might be easy to forget once the work is done. If not, kudos to your enlightened parents who somehow conveyed and instilled total ease of life to you, and to all of the people who never broke you down, instilled the wrong ideas, made you self-conscious or self-questioning, and never having had to suffer a lifetime of bad habits or harmful habitual thinking that may have been born out of your surroundings. As the first Noble Truth is "Suffering Exists", and everything in Buddhism pretty much exists after that fact of life, I wonder how it's so unusual to accept that acceptance can be quite hard for people who are in all different places on a path that can be unique to the individual experience. That kinda seems like a form of denial to me.

Really thoughtful article. I hope someday I can be with my fears and create freedom. Even with meditating every day, I am still not close.

Tee: Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful response.

One part of me recalls the adage about when you only have a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Buddhism (and western Buddhism especially) seems to view life in terms of mental maladies of the self, the suffering they cause, and how to address & relieve them. When that's the main tool you have, maybe all of life ends up being examined in that context?

Other religions view life differently. In those religions, what Buddhism sees as central may end up as peripheral or even irrelevant. Topics other than suffering take center stage.

I celebrate that we have so many different paths available to us so that each of us can find the tools and process that best fit our needs, temperaments, issues, beliefs. I don't see any point in comparing or judging individual spiritual paths other than to find what fits me at a particular point in my journey. We are so fortunate in this time in human history to have access to so many spiritual paths and even to have the luxury of being able to shift paths as we develop in our journey. This has not always been the case. I have found benefit and wisdom from several spiritual paths and I do not feel a need to choose among them or to identify myself with any one of them. I am simply grateful for the support that I have received for my journey.

Sherry Ruth Anderson's book " Ripening Time: Inside Stories for Aging with Grace"

I've just finished reading this moving and insightful book about aging and the part denial plays in our process. Sherry Anderson encourages us towards the same places of recognition and acceptance as Sharon Salzberg does. ( Truly a 'dynamic duo!')

My grandfather taught me that "every curse is a blessing in disguise and it is part of our work in life to look for that blessing." What I have learned in addition was that "every blessing is a curse in disguise and part of our work in life is to look for that curse."

For me it was the other way. I wanted to die and seek it, welcomed it and played with my life in order to die. I had no reason to be afraid as I wanted to die. The only thing that made me hesitated was my two sons that I know would be suffering a lot and miss me the rest of their life thinking if there was anything they could have done. It didn´t feel right to leave them with that suffering.
I decided to try meditate, I had nothing to loose.
At first it didn´t work at all, I couldn´t understand how I would be abel to feel happy in sitting alone in a room and breath. I didn´t know what to expect. I´m very stubborn and tried and tried without results. I think I tried to much and put my focus on the outside, that something from the heaven would lead me, so to say.
But one day I was listening to a guided meditation with Sharon Salzberg, breath meditation, and when she said " just another breath, just this one, take just one breath and feel where in you it take place, one breath at the time, don´t think on the next, just this one." So simple as that. It helpt me to understand I still have a lot to give and take in life. I just need to take a breath and it will all be there inside me. The joy of life. It´s inside me and I lived and have something to say. Now I don´t need to do anything more than take a breath and be alive as long as I live. ( I´m not a fluent englishspeaker but I hope you will understand the meaning of my words. )

I appreciate the encouragement. My body is calling my attention to its aches and pains a lot more recently, and I've decided to try as much as possible to listen and be present with myself. But I have to say, it isn't that it is a pleasant experience that drives me - it's having tried NOT listening to myself and the even more uncomfortable consequences of that.... I'm not looking to be enlightened, but I sure do appreciate comfort and peace when they, usually unexpectedly and unexplained, drop by for a while.