Softness in a Culture of Punishment

My favorite voice in Buddhism is a lesser known Zen “guide” named Cheri Huber. I discovered her ten years ago while staying at a monastery in Central California, between my sophomore and junior years of college. The monastery doubled as a resort in the summer and while I was there I was assigned to the Cabin Crew (housekeeping) for work practice. It was slightly grueling, dirty, hot, mostly outdoor work, pushing very heavy barrels in the dirt from room to room and changing sheets and adding hospital corners with the doors and windows open. The first crew head I had was Gary; then came Allison. Allison introduced me to Cheri Huber. Allison wanted to be a Zen priest and talked to me with immoderate compassion about the days I missed work due to laziness, negligence and fear.

Once, I was desperate to throw this basket away. We used baskets to make kits of toilet paper, towels, etc. for each room. This basket was falling apart. The handle was unraveling. I asked Allison, “Can we just throw this thing away?” Instead of saying, “Yes!” or “No!” (I expected an emphatic answer, either way) she said, “Come, sit.”

We sat on a bench near the Cabin Crew “headquarters” (a closet), under a tree. She held up the basket and looked at me. “What’s wrong with this basket?”

“It’s messed up. It’s broken. It’s ugly. It’s annoying to use. It’s useless.” The list was endless.

“Are those things you feel about yourself, maybe?”

I knew what she was doing. As without, so within. “I guess so.”

“Can you help me help you accept this basket?”

She already was. Just voicing my anger was enough. Allison picked an inanimate object through which to work Zen magic on me, which, at best, is shockingly gentle. I found myself hugging that basket at the end of the conversation, and was able to accept it as a dysfunctional (my projection) part of cabin crew life.

I’m not surprised Allison liked Cheri Huber. She mentioned a book called There is Nothing Wrong With You and even though I felt the title was enough to explain the book, I checked it out of the Zen center library. It looked handwritten, with illustrations all over the place. It seemed like the kind of book you could read in an hour, if you didn’t want it to work on you. I came from a very intellectual school where many of my classmates would have turned their nose up at such a childish and elementary-looking book. But I didn’t care. I was miserable. Besides, I liked things that looked like they were for children, that could be understood by children, even. The idea that something had to be above their grasp to be worth thinking about made me mad at the world.

In that book, Cheri Huber dismantles how our “social conditioning,” also known as ego, knows no other way than to punish us to whip us into shape. But, in many cases, the reason why we are not in shape is all of that punishment. The voice of self-hate, which Huber says is interchangeable with ego, will tell us we won’t survive without a glass of wine and then verbally beat us up when we have one. It is the world’s meanest bully and hypocrite, and it lives conveniently in our heads. It is slippery, but she says that, “If the voice is not kind, it’s not God.”

Cheri Huber taught me that life could be walked through without violence. When people hear violence they typically think of school shootings or the bombings in Aleppo or police brutality. But to me, violence starts with denying, or judging, oneself. That leaves little you crestfallen, with no way to become happy again. Since you believe the judgment, you start to turn it outward. Huber says self-hating and other-hating are the same thing. The first part is invisible to most people. Most of us become aware of the voice of our self-hate when it becomes unbearable. Some of won’t do anything about it even then, because changing our patterns seems scarier than staying in them. That is the problem most of us need to confront–the way we lie to ourselves in order to stay stuck.

I have tried for many years to do that. I find that my same habitual violence–judgment of self and other, attacking self and other–stays, but it changes. It has to put on different costumes and try different ways to stay alive. And I find as I observe it, it is like a child playing dress up, happy I am looking at it, happy that I care.

If you chose to sit in one place and pay attention to your breathing instead of heeding the frantic voices in your mind, what would happen would probably be a mini-implosion in your psyche. Except, you would not die. You would watch the implosion, and in so doing, realize that you are not the thing that is imploding, that is running around screaming, “The sky is falling!” and telling everything and everyone in sight to run. That, I think, is an energetic manifestation of a trapped feeling that brought about a belief, often, “I’m not loveable.” If that were true, it would be terrible indeed. But it’s just a sad little child who mistook the cruelty of another for the truth about themselves.

I read about a man in prison who took the Bodhisattva Vows. That means he took a vow of nonviolence. In prison. He could not leave his cell, because the vows he took prohibited from acting even in self-defense. Instead, he sat on his bed and meditated. The freedom and the vulnerability that would bring is almost unthinkable to me. It is, I believe, what is required of us if we are to live in a better world. We must become very courageous. We must be willing to see friends where we want to see foes. Seeing foes is an egoic mechanism set up to protect you, but that doesn’t mean it tells you the truth. On the contrary, the ego constantly lies. It is an outdated system that was built to help you survive other people’s egos. Naturally, its survival is predicated on seeing and defeating enemies.

Can we look upon our flaws without punishing ourselves? That is a necessary step in radicalizing the human heart. Because if we are to discover that there is nothing wrong with us, we must first accept all the ways we have been acting out, believing that there is. And that even in that, we have been doing our best, acting lovingly and divinely, even, because, as Cheri Huber says, our true nature is “goodness.”

3 thoughts on “Softness in a Culture of Punishment

  1. I love the quote, “if the voice is not kind, it is not God.”
    This piece coincides with what I have been thinking about which is basically feeling bad for not feeling great. By that I mean that even after therapy and sobriety I still have inner voices castigating and criticizing.
    Non-violence starts within.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights and wisdom, Alma. It’s helpful to hear some of the same a-ha’s I have had echoed in yours. I’ve been trying to expand my Buddhism knowledge as of late. It seems the more I learn, the less I know. It’s humbling. I appreciate you being vulnerable and sharing.

    I think you may enjoy this (free) workshop I signed up for in November. You can jump in at any time. You get a different “teacher” and lesson each week. And, the best part, a community of like-minded people to plug into.

    I hope you’re doing well and staying healthy!

    xo, Tina

    Liked by 1 person

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