Hungry Ghosts and Birds of Appetite

Serving persons who are homeless is particularly demanding work.  In general, I do well in this environment – I like the clear stakes and the opportunity to be creative and nimble.  But I have gotten into a pattern of recurring overwhelm, and I am always looking for tools and practices for self-care over the long term.

I concluded a few weeks ago that I need to cultivate the virtue of equanimity – to maintain emotional balance through difficult situations.  Since the largely Western, more-or-less Christian sources of moral teaching I usually employ have relatively little to say about equanimity, I’ve become interested in zen.  But I dislike dabbling, and I need a reliable guide through this unfamiliar terrain, so I am reading Thomas Merton as a kind of compromise.  So far I am pretty impressed with zen and less impressed than I remember being with Merton.  I’ll keep reading.

At the same time, my professional interest in harm reduction brought me to Dr. Gabor Maté, whose experience runs closer to mine than Merton’s.  Reflecting on his medical practice among addicts, Maté maintains that pain – if not trauma – lies at the heart of all addiction, both the substance dependency of those we think of as addicts and the less stigmatized – even lauded – compulsory behaviors common to the rest of us (“workaholics” and others). Any addiction can provide escape from unspeakable life histories, while drugs’ effects provide access to ranges of feeling otherwise numbed by trauma.

This passage from Maté struck me most:

“The addict’s reliance on the drug to reawaken her dulled feelings is no adolescent caprice.  The dullness is itself a consequence of an emotional function not of her making: the internal shutdown of vulnerability (which is) our susceptibility to be wounded.  This fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped.  The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function.  The automatic repression of painful emotion is a helpless child’s prime defense mechanism and can enable the child to endure trauma that would otherwise be catastrophic.  The unfortunate consequence is a wholesale dulling of emotional awareness…
When we flee our vulnerability, we lose our full capacity for feeling emotion.  We may even become emotional amnesiacs, not remembering ever having felt truly elated or truly sad…” – In the Realm of Hungy Ghosts, 40-41

Though my own trauma toolkit does not include controlled substances, Maté’s words ring absolutely true.  More to the point, Maté leaves me skeptical of my pursuit of equanimity, which in light of his words is starting to look like a sophisticated justification to keep practicing emotional numbing, my coping mechanism of choice.  What little I have learned of zen clearly indicates that equanimity is not compatible with numbing.  Nevertheless, the temptation to numb means that I must proceed with caution.  If equanimity will serve me in this work, it must equip me to experience rather than avoid distress.

Perhaps I should frame equanimity as a skill rather than a virtue, something I can use when I need it and set aside when the time comes for intemperate passions.  From Maté, I am learning the importance of sitting with profound sadness.  Meanwhile, I will experiment with regular rituals of sadness and celebration as part of my prayer life.  Any worthwhile equanimity will have to make room for both of these registers, not seek a secure middle ground between them.

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