My work often reminds me that a lot of people have, to a greater or lesser degree, some amount of confusion within with regard to their identity. And often the roots of that confusion are to be found in the messages received from parents when they were children. For the most part these parents did their best to love and provide for their children. However, having unresolved emotional issues themelves they inevitably conveyed mixed signals, saying or doing one thing, but unconsciously expressing in their energy or mood something else. In my experience, this sends the signal that the child’s emotional independence and autonomy are subtly not accepted. As a result the child grows into an adult with a clear internal message of not being fully lovable. This can then manifest itself in persistent anxiety that seems to be present without reason, in depression, self-doubt, repeated failed relationships or the belief that one has to push hard to achieve any sense of worth.

Jung reminds us that whatever we do not pay attention to, or is lacking within ourselves, we compulsively seek in the outer world instead. So when we encounter something or someone that corresponds to our archetypal inner schema, we can often rush to compulsive solutions for the inner lack. He went on to say, in his seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, The self is relatedness. Only when the self mirrors itself in so many mirrors does it really exist. . . You can never come to your self by building a meditation hut on top of Mount Everest; you will only be visited by your own ghosts and that is not individuation. . . .Not what you are, but what you do is the self. The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationships.

Putting these thoughts together, he seems to suggest that the lacks we inherit inside ourselves from our relationships with our parents can become manifest in the relationships we choose to have as adults. We can only travel with another person as far as we have travelled by ourselves. The stronger the dynamic is from childhood, the more likely it is that we will see it being played out in later relationships.

Our Substitute Life

We all follow some strategy to escape feeling the fears that silently run our life. Yet even when we know all about these fears, most of the time we don’t want to have anything to do with them. For example, do you try to maintain a sense of order and control, to avoid feeling the fear of chaos, of things falling apart? Do you try to gain acceptance and approval, to avoid the fear of rejection, of not fitting in? Do you try to excel and attain success, to avoid the fear of feeling unworthy? Or do you seek busyness in adventure or pleasure, to avoid the deep holes of longing and loneliness? All of these strategies have one thing in common: they keep us encased in our artificial or substitute life.

Perhaps this sounds pessimistic and discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it’s only by realizing the extent to which we are asleep—the extent to which we are driven by the vanity of our endeavors, the smallness of our attachments or the urgency of avoiding our fears—that we can wake up, out of our state of sleep, out of our substitute way of living.The essence of the practice life involves cultivating awareness.

Ezra Bayda


Berlin, like many of the great European cities, has its triumphal arch, the Brandenburg Gate, topped with a chariot and four horses, driven by the Roman goddess of victory. It represents a certain vision of human progress where victory is achieved by force and triumphs are celebrated in proud buildings. In this vision, we gather our strength, make our plans, apply ourselves and move forward. At moments like this, growth feels exhilarating, like a triumph, with all the elements moving together in harmony. We look up, we ascend and consciously move forward.

However, at other times. a different type of hard work is required for inner growth. A lot of people I encounter are struggling because of difficulties in relationships, family loss, health issues, and economic pressures. And through the course of a lifespan nobody can be completely immune from such burdens. We have all had periods where we have seen our dreams shattered and our life goals made more distant. It can feel like we are going backwards or nothing is happening. Or we have been with someone going through moments of pain, feeling their world come crashing down, and we have not known how to respond. There is risk involved at every moment of human life, simply because we are human. Our family relationships can cause us to worry. Our bodies may not function as well as they once did. Even in good relationships and friendships, in order to trust each other, we are required to live with a relatively high degree of risk. And sometimes that can be betrayed.

Elizabeth Lesser writes in her book Broken Open : How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow that moments of difficulty can be deep moments of growth: We too can reproduce ourselves from the shattered pieces of a difficult time. Our lives ask us to die and be reborn every time we confront change – change within ourselves and change in our world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self — the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey. This is the way to live a meaningful and hopeful life — a life of real happiness and inner peace.

The Brandenburg Gate model of progress and power, so esteeemed in today’s society, is not a reliable one on which to base our life’s work. Sometimes we are required to be an observer, as life’s direction moves in a way that we did not anticipate. We may not feel in control of the power that is being manifested. We need, at times, to descend, rather than ascend, in order to grow. However, as Heminway reminds us, we are often stronger at the places where we have been broken. The surprising nature of life’s path is part of its wonder, when we have eyes to see it. Life, as the animals in Narnia said of Altan, is “Oh no….not tame, but is good” As Lesser puts it, being broken is just one aspect of being open:

Over and over we are broken on the shore of life. Our stubborn egos are knocked around, and our frightened hearts are broken open – not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as we live. The promise of being broken and the possibility of being opened are written into the contract of human life.

The days I like best….

…are like today, filled with unexpected joys. Simple encounters. The kindness of friends. Good news. Real progress in plans.

Every day brings new experiences and change. Our practice is all about training the mind, and moving towards greater contentment that way. It means that we work on accepting whatever way things work out. However, when things go well, like today, the sense of contentment can be very deep. Practice works on how we see ourselves and life’s events. It helps us to see positive events as common, and positive aspects of ourselves as permanent. It allows us see negative events as mainly filtered through negative thinking, exceptions to the general rule, not affecting our sense of self. It gradually works on the fear which is always lurking in our lives and relases its grip on our actions and our view of ourselves.

Joy does not simply happen to us.
We have to choose joy
and keep choosing it every day.

Henri Nouwen

Repeating patterns

We all have well-established habits
of thought, emotion, reaction and judgement,
and without the keen awareness of practice,
we’re just acting out these patterns.

When they arise, we’re not aware they’ve arisen.
We get lost in them,
identify with them,
act on them
— so much of our life is just acting out patterns

Joseph Goldstein


I used the GPS once or twice in the past weeks to get to a destination on the other side of Geneva that I was unfamiliar with. However, I did not use it wisely, preferring to follow my own way for the first part of the journey, intending to pay attention to the GPS only for the last complicated bit. This succeeded in confusing the system as I ignored instruction after instruction. So for most of the journey all I could hear was “Turn Left …. Recalculating…turn right ….recalculating…. recalculating ……. recalculating…”. If a device could be said to be frustrated this one certainly was.

I could have done with some sort of system in Berlin. I did not know the city at all and the traffic was quite intense. I could pass the same landmark a few times from different directions without knowing where I was. Then I would see it and say, “Ah yes, there’s the Potzdamer Platz, I know where I am”.

For a lot of the time it can feel as if our lives are like a busy street full of traffic, with cars, buses and trams going in every direction. It can be confusing, even disorientating. Maybe sometimes we can move in a straight line, like on the highway taking us home, but although we get there faster we still feel as if we have been running. Things are moving and changing almost continually so it is hard to step back and get our bearings. I certainly like to think I know where I am going, on a straight line with a clear direction and a firm sense of inner coherence. However, life often slips through my fingers, as much as I want to hold onto it, and assume that it is in my control. I can go round in circles for a period. Worse, I can ignore a deep inner voice thinking that I now know the way better.

However, gradually, if I stop and step back, I see gaps in the traffic. No matter how fast things seem to move, I am aware of myself as the one who is travelling, underneath all the movement. I can step back and slow down. In reality, on a day-to-day level, I think I am like the confused GPS. I spend most of the time recalculating. And I am at ease with that. Starting over and over again seems to be to be the heart of practice. I have given up on the belief of a fixed consistency, pushing on towards a definite goal. I now can see that, even when confused, I am learning something from a different but still a sure kind of knowing. A kind of knowing that guides us when we are travelling blind, because many things in our lives do not become clear until much later. And, in the end, the way we travel is more important than the destination.