Recently, a friend was reading me an entry from a novel he is writing. In this entry, the protagonist reflects on the side of her that has views of herself and those around her that are not based in reality but in the perceptions of a child. That gets her in trouble because of the actions and reactions these views continue to cause. She refers to that side of her as “little Marie,” herself as a child.
When I heard those words, I literally sat there stunned. A central truth had been revealed to me through my friend’s writing. The part of my ego-mind that has to do with self-image is not some ephemeral specter in my mind, it is “little Ronnie,” myself as a child.* And it is because of the insecurity of that child that my ego-mind has been so receptive to all the messages it has received about life from family, peers, and the larger culture. I resolved then and there to meditate on little Ronnie the next day.
As I meditated on little Ronnie and felt his pain as it developed through his childhood experiences, I came to two realizations. The first is why my ego-mind, the little Ronnie within me, acts as it acts. When little Ronnie experienced as a young child (age 5-8) what he interpreted as being unloved and what he correctly saw as rejection by some of his peers, he developed a defense mechanism pattern to protect himself.
He determined that if he could not receive people’s (specifically his father’s) love because he was unworthy or unloveable, he could gain their respect through hard work and excellence. And if he was going to be rejected, he was going to reject first ... the “better the dumper be than the dumpee” perspective ... and walled himself off from most everyone other than those few he felt a close affinity towards, saying that he was better than them.
And when he arrived at the age when sex stirred within him and his desire to be loved added a sexual element, he decided after many unhappy attempts that if he couldn’t have the real thing (and he couldn’t trust it even when he had it, so insecure was he), he would receive validation and at least the pleasure of intimate contact through casual sex. He felt that this would somehow protect him when a relationship ultimately failed ... and he/I became a sex addict.
These were all actions that the little Ronnie within me took to protect himself and me, not knowing that these actions were in fact very harmful to our wellbeing (of course striving for excellence is not in and of itself negative, but when that striving comes from a lack of equanimity, then it is a craving, unskillful and harmful) and would continue to negatively impact my attempts to find peace and happiness for most of my adult life. And that is why my ego -mind is so impervious to my efforts to surrender it to my true Buddha nature and to not follow the path it wants to lead me on. My ego-mind, little Ronnie, is in fact trying to protect me, never mind how misguided and harmful his perspective may be.
And so, while our ego-mind may indeed be our tormentor and give us bad advice, it is not some droid-like our-of-control function of our brain but instead our childhood selves trying to protect us, with tenacity. Pima Chodron’s advice about having compassion for your thoughts as they arise should thus be even more compelling.
The second realization is how to ultimately free ourselves from our ego, possibly even to the extent that our ego-mind ceases to arise. When I was meditating, I thought that what I needed to do was practice tonglen towards little Ronnie. That by receiving his pain and giving him my love and compassion he might be healed, and if he was healed then he would see the truth (e.g., that all five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence), drop his “protective” efforts, and be one with our true Buddha nature.
Later that day, I recalled my following Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice regarding practicing tonglen on myself many years ago, in what for me was a breakthrough at-home retreat. Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, suggests, for the purpose of this exercise, dividing yourself into two aspects … one is the aspect of you that is whole, compassionate, etc., the other is the aspect of you that has been hurt, that feels misunderstood, bitter or angry, “who might have been unjustly treated or abused as a child, or has suffered in relationships or been wronged by society.”
As you breathe in, the first aspect opens its heart completely and receives all of the other aspect’s pain and suffering. As you breathe out, the first aspect gives the other aspect all its healing love, warmth, trust, and happiness. In response, the other aspect opens its heart to this love and all pain and suffering melt away in this embrace.
When I followed Rinpoche’s advice that day many years ago, it was a breakthrough because it resulted in not just removing the power of my sex addict, but stilling its voice so that it ceased to arise with any regularity. It’s still there, I’m still recovering, I feel it at times, but it’s more like a whisper from far away.
And now I know why. Because I practiced tonglen on little Ronnie ... he was the “aspect that has been hurt” ... and he was healed. I continued this practice for a while after the retreat but at some point for some reason I unfortunately stopped. And so, while my sex addict has remained quiescent other aspects of my neuroses have remained active causing me, as the reader of my blog will know, not-infrequent suffering amid a general pattern of peace and happiness.
I know the healing of little Ronnie will be a long-term process. There is no quick fix, just like my healing and learning to walk the path is a long-term, incremental process. And so I will return to practicing tonglen on myself, on little Ronnie. And we will see.
But I have also discovered that practicing tonglen on little Ronnie is one thing, focusing on my "failings" that result from the wall that little Ronnie built … that I don't offer joy to everyone … is another. That just feeds my thinking mind and drags me down, regresses, takes me back to a place where I do not accept and love myself as I am.
And so while practicing tonglen I must also remain clear that little Ronnie is the past, he is no more. I am living in the present aware that this is the only reality and that all else is thought, and thought is empty, not the truth, not reality, and only leads me to frustration, fear, and negativity. I am aware that my life is the way it is right now because it's just the way it is, and I accept myself as I am and love myself unconditionally and have compassion for myself.
*Note: Little Ronnie is a later stage of development than the picture of the smiling toddler filled with love and feeling nothing but love from his family, totally innocent, in which, as I related in an early post, I saw reflected my true Buddha nature.