Seeking Out Those Who Push Your Buttons

Even though, to my regret, Ram Dass doesn’t really have a theory of polishing the mirror, he does make some helpful suggestions throughout his book called (well) Polishing the Mirror.

Like this one: “There comes a point where you really want to clean up your act. You start to look for the fire of purification. That’s when it gets very interesting, because suddenly you’re looking for those situations that push your buttons” (p. 95).

That does it for me. I mean: he’s right on the money. For one thing, there does come a time when you start to take the line–“Everyone and everything is my teacher”–very seriously, quite literally. Until that time, it seemed like a nice saying to remember now and again. But oh boy now does it strike you with the slap of truth.

For another thing, you’ve come to see more dirt beneath your fingernails. You didn’t know that said dirt was there because you were either thinking that you were all clean already (yup, been there) or because you were focused on scrubbing off the mud caked all over your face. At this point, you experience the subtlety of dukkha (dis-ease, misery), and in a way it hurts even more. Or affects you even more anyway.

And for a third (and this is the real kicker), you start to relish encounters with people and creatures and situations that really push your buttons. Well, relish may be a bit of an overstatement, but welcome may not be.

And why, pray tell? Because if you were to use your sadhana (or spiritual practice) to see through whatever is pushing your buttons, you’d be that much closer to the Source. Being that much closer, you’d be content. Being more content, you’d be less apt to perpetuate suffering in others. Perpetuating less suffering in others, you’d be doing your part to breaking the karmic spell.

So, yes, by all means when you’re ready (and you’d better be ready!), go on and see who and what is pushing your buttons. It won’t be pleasant or enjoyable, but it’ll sure be a trip!

‘Rich, I Think I’m Going To Die’

This passage is oh so very touching. Listen closely:

My mother was dying in early February, 1966, in a hospital in Boston. I was sitting at her bedside. By then I had been working on understanding my own consciousness for some years. She was sort of resting. I was in a kind of meditative mode, just being spacious and aware and noticing what was happening as the relatives and doctors and nurses came into the hospital room and said, “Gertrude, how are you doing?” I listened to the cheery tone of the nurse. I realized that my mother was surrounded by a conspiracy of denial. I watched people coming into the room, all the relatives and doctors and nurses saying she was looking better, that she was doing well, and then they would go out of the room and say she wouldn’t live out the week. I thought how bizarre it was that a human being going through one of the most profound transitions in her life was completely surrounded by deception. Can you hear the pain of that? One woman came in and said, “The doctor just told me there’s a new medication that we think will help.”

Nobody could be straight with her because everybody was too frightened–all of them, everybody, even the rabbi. Mother and I talked about it. At one point, when nobody else was in the room, she turned to me and said, “Rich?” I’d just been sitting there–no judgment, no nothing, just sitting–and we just met in that space.

She said, “Rich, I think I’m going to die.”

I said, “Yeah, I think so too.” (Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from your Spiritual Heart, p. 86.)

While reading it, I almost cried. I can feel her pain, one that is surrounded by such interpersonal and institutional deception. Our death-phobic American culture insists that one is always doing better, that no one will ever die, and that, if one is quite ill, one must “keep fighting.” And then when that one is gone, he is forgotten as the rest of us keep on.

What’s worse that one’s tragic, ugly death is how it seeds terror in the hearts of those still alive. And what may be worse than that is that one doesn’t know that one needs to talk about that terror because one often doesn’t know that it’s there.

“Here today, gone tomorrow,” it’s said breezily…

It’s in this context, one that I trust you, dear reader, can readily recognize, that Ram Dass’s story summons forth our heart. And much more. Much, much more. It summons forth our need for courage, for resolve, and, above all, for the deepest, most searching curiosity.

“Curiosity above all?” Yes, we should care about discovering or rediscovering a cosmology that will help sentient beings die well, with grace, with lightness, with a peace redolent of saints and sages and saviors. We can’t simply focus on the process of dying; we need to reconsider–today, right now–the cosmology that will make peaceful death possible.

I rest in the nondual teaching, which states that we come from the Source, are temporary manifestations of the Source, and return to the Source. Accordingly, physical death is not outright disappearance but expansion into Boundlessness.

‘There Is More Ache In Life Now….’

There is more ache in life now, more poignancy in the eyes of a beloved, more pouring out of the hridayam.

While it’s true that years of deep daily meditation will make you calmer, it’s truer to say that it will crack you open. Like an egg. Thump! Deep and wide. You can hear and feeling the splitting open, I tell you, and here everything comes running, gliding, dripping out. Just like that. Sweet and warm, so viscous and sticky.

You see because the encrustations and the filters, the means of maintaining separation all start to go. And then what’s left? This heart-open sensitivity. More, on behalf of others, becomes cry-worthy.

It’s like growing new feelers. Like tuning into a totally different, subtler channel. Because all this was already here before, but now it’s disclosed without being spoken of.

Almost everybody, save for those enlightened beings, is suffering in some way or another, and that suffering, more and more, becomes evident, available, in a way on display for you. In this breath, the intimation of death. In the next one, beauties more beautiful, flowers more perfect, trees in need of care.

My wife tells me that I’m becoming funnier. “I told you I was funny!,” I reply jokingly. It only took me 10 years to make my case. They say the key to marriage is patience.

Life, amid the life-aches, beats on with greater simplicity and intensity, its ever-present immediacy. “Look at me,” it says. “I’m just about to…” “Just about to what?” “Look and see.”

I do.

Are All Negative Emotions Traceable To The Inner Child?

Dear reader, I’d like you to test a hypothesis. It is this: all negative emotions can be traced back to the inner child.

Preliminary Remark #1: The Scope of the Hypothesis

I need to be specific about the scope of this hypothesis. Negative emotions are, in the sense in which I’m speaking of them, only ever ego-centric. Therefore, the hypothesis is not concerned with experiences of melancholy that is in concert with a deep understanding of anicca (or the impermanent nature of phenomenal reality), of poignancy (as when one sees a hawk with a young bird too quiet, though still alive in its talons), or of heartache (while in the presence of a dog that has been abused). Melancholy, poignancy, and heartache are not examples of negative emotions in the sense in which I’m speaking of them here.

Preliminary Remark #2: A Broader Metaphysical Point

Interestingly too, the Source–the ultimate nature of reality as it is in itself–is utterly without emotions. The Source, as itself, cannot experience sadness, anger, or fear. And when in The Upanishads it is said that the Source is ananda (bliss, joy, or abiding happiness), it is not implying that such is a passing phenomenon. Rather, “bliss,” “joy,” or “abiding happiness” is a linguistic approximation for the state, or stateless state, of eternal peace: wholly peace, peace without exceptions. You could say that the nature of the Source just is peace. Not for nothing, then, did the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh write of being peace.

Therefore, we’re presented with a conundrum, aren’t we? If tat tvam asi (“Thou are That” in the ultimate sense), then, by golly, where do negative emotions spring from? We already know that they must spring from the ego-self, but from what kind of ego-self exactly?

The Inner Child

I’m putting my money on what Jung called the inner child. I take it that the inner child, as an arising ego-self phenomenon, can be articulated in the following way:

  1. “I feel hurt.”
  2. AND “I am expressing this hurt in the form of… [negative emotion X].”

Take what strike me as the most common negative emotions:

–Those concerned with actual loss to the ego-self (here we think of sadness, despondency, the blues, despair, and so on).

–Those concerned with potential or perceived loss to the ego-self (fear, anxiety, nervousness, worry, etc.)

–Those concerned with some injury to the ego-self (anger, vengefulness, rage, irritation, peevishness, petulance, and so on)

–Those concerned with the ego-self’s shrinking (shutting down or checking out)

In all of these cases, I submit that the sadness, fear, anger, or shutting down can be reduced to “I feel hurt.”

So, Who Feels Hurt?

Use your “felt sense” (Gendlin) to investigate who feels hurt–who in particular. This may take some months or years of somatic investigation.

If, in the end, your inquiry chimes with mine, then you’ll find that there is a “something” that feels small and vulnerable. In fact, you’ll need to specify precisely how this something manifests. “This anger is arising from the inner child, and the inner child is, very specifically, feeling helpless or powerless as well as existentially alone.” Of course, the last sentence is trying to give a linguistic account of what can be felt more immediately and intuitively. One can “develop the knack” for intuitively feeling the inner child.

If my hypothesis is correct about how negative emotions stem from the inner child, then it becomes easier to more readily see negative emotions as “not not really real” insofar as they arise on behalf of the inner child while also welcoming the inner child and integrating it as needed. Finally, by this means one can more swiftly continue the existential inquiry into the true nature of the Self.

(Note that I’m not arguing for spiritual bypass. Quite the contrary. The inner child, to be taken seriously, is then merged with The All. In this way, the inner child is a “throughway” or “Dharma door.”)


In sum, the above psychological inquiry (“Cleaning Up”) is in the service of the existential inquiry into who you are. Seeing that the inner child is “not me, not mine” (the Buddha) but, of course, without dissociating from this process we call the inner child allows the existential inquiry to continue to unfold.

To put the point bluntly: I know who, or what, I am not. Then who, or what, am I?

The Third Focal Point Of Karma Yoga

About karma yoga, the younger-ish and groovier Ram Dass writes in the amazingly 1970s spiritual-cultural artifact Be Here Now (1971) that the witness, a third focal point, is key:

Using the stuff that makes up your daily life as the vehicle for coming to Union is called karma yoga. It is a most available yoga, and at the same time a most difficult one. It is difficult because it starts with an action which you ar initially performing for an end of maintaining your individual ego, and it overrides or converts that motivation into one of service to the higher Self which transcends ego.

In order to perform karma yoga, there is a simple general principle to keep in mind: bring a third component into every action. If, for example, you are digging a ditch, there is you [in the relative sense–AT] who is digging the ditch, and the ditch which is being dug [to wit, ‘the object’–AT]. Now add a third focus: say, a disinterested person who is seeing you dig the ditch. Now run the entire action through his head while you are digging. It’s as simple as that. Through this method you would ultimately free yourself from identifying with him who is digging the ditch. You would merely see a ditch being dug. (“Cook Book for a Sacred Life” in Be Here Now, p. 66)

Karma yoga is the path of selfless acting or selfish giving. It’s easy to get stuck, as Ram Dass knows well, since taking credit for doing is such a habitual move in the ego game.

Therefore, we need to give everything up to others (or to God), and, what’s more, we need to adopt the standpoint of the witness who is simply observing the unfolding action.

Then, it becomes clear, what you don’t quite see is a “ditch being dug.” You, witnessing awareness, just see digging processually, naturally unfolding. Just a process within and as and none other than the larger cosmic process.

They say: karma is a real bitch. Doesn’t have to be, friends.