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My Many Confessions

July 23, 2018
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Photo by GörlitzPhotography via Flickr.com

I’ve often wondered what makes this blog work – for me, that is, not for you (I can never seem to get that bit right anyway). It began as a personal journal called “Buddhist in Nebraska,” an isolated journey into Buddhism shouted into the voids of the internet. Posts ranged from deeply person to opinionated to quirky. Each represented some kind of exploration, often naive but always worth writing about, at least to me.

When I moved from Nebraska to California, it was reborn in it’s current iteration, “Dharma Cowgirl.” I tried different things, writing more academically, more about Buddhism than about myself, more teacher-ly even. Yet there was something about that kind of writing that was never quite as motivating as the former, for all it’s lack of polish.

This small corner of the internet remained dormant for weeks or even months at a time. Meta-commentary cropped up, considering why that was the case and what I wanted to do differently, but little changed.

Last week, I shared about my struggles with a cyclical addiction to emotionally intense stories. In this particular instance, an addiction I’m a little embarrassed to acknowledge because it involves a piece of pop culture so regularly derided. But acknowledging that embarrassment, writing through it even, was an important part of the process.

Then a word popped up in another little internet corner I frequent. Someone at the Tea House blog wrote about a project called “Confessional Artists,” that explores the link between Buddhist spirituality and art.

I’d heard the term “confession,” of course. I mostly associated it with the Catholic sacrament now called “reconciliation,” in which one tells a priest their sins and repents. I’d even heard the term “confessing Christian” or “confessing Buddhist” used to refer to folks who both study a religion as academics and practice is as adherents.  However, even when applied to Buddhists, I felt like this as a Christian holdover and not really applicable to my situation.

Sometimes all we need to think about an old word in a new way is to see or hear it used by someone we identify with as a member of our in-group. So here was a fellow Buddhist using the word “confessional” in relation to Buddhist visual arts – and it’s not a far stretch from the visual arts to the literary arts. (Not that I consider myself a literary artist, only that I enjoy the practice of writing.)

The Tea House author also asked the question:

…what is the connection between a “spiritual” and “professional” calling, beyond the stereotypical image of becoming a priest or entering a convent?

This actually is a question I’ve given some thought – as a Buddhist chaplain. But what about as a writer?

I realized that, when it comes to my blog, confessional is just the right word. I was anxious about this for a long time. It seemed so very egotistical to write about myself so much. It seemed like the very antithesis of non-self (anatta). So I tried to do less of it and my writing floundered.

But I also know that many wise Buddhist teachers counsel that getting to know one’s self is a major part of realizing the truth of non-self. (I’m specifically recalling A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield, though I know there are other places I’ve encountered this teaching.)

As embarrassing as it was to confess I’d watched the Twilight movies twice in two days (more now), writing about that was strangely energizing and cathartic, as was writing about my love for solitude and long walks in the prior post.

I realize now that I am most inspired to write and frequently write best when I am writing confessionally.

One of the most read newspaper columns I wrote in college was a confession of my not-always-socially-acceptable feelings on the deaths of my grandmothers and a dear family friend. When I wrote my spiritual integration paper at the end of my clinical training as a chaplain, I was writing confessionally. That was a beautiful experience and well received by my peers and supervisors. One of my best read blog posts confessed that the angry atheist teenager had at last found something sacred in sharing the secret stories of others.

What makes it a confession? What’s the difference between a story, a personal opinion, and a confession? I think the Catholics may be on the right track here.

A confession is something you’d rather not tell anyone but you know you need to tell someone. So you tell a priest, a rabbi, a chaplain, your spouse, or your best friend, knowing they’ll keep your secret. Most people do it that way.

In June 2006, I had something to confess. I was a Buddhist in a very non-Buddhist place and trying to figure out what that meant. I chose to confess into the recesses of internet. I am not alone in this, as the proliferation of blogs and video-blogs and other forms of confessional multi-media can attest to.

Some of us don’t have a priest or a best friend, so we confess to strangers. Some do so with anonymity, either from overwhelming embarrassment or a genuine need for safety. Those who prefer anonymity have nothing but my empathy and sympathy.

I made an early choice (perhaps foolishly) to own my confessions, to own what I put out into the world, as part of the path to non-self (anatta) and as part of a practice of morality (śila). Never do something you’d be too ashamed to tell someone else, I innocently reasoned. Now I know some of the most powerful stories I’ve heard in my life were the ones someone was too ashamed to tell and some of the greatest strengths people gain come out of telling those stories (when they were ready).

I no longer see my personal writing as egotistical (though I’ve no doubt it can be self-absorbed). Partly, this is because I’ve also proved my chops as an opinion columnist, a technical writer, and an academic writer. I know I can write in other modes, and write well. This medium, though, the blog is for personal reflection. That’s always how it has worked best. When I give less thought to what my audience will get out of reading it and more thought to what I will get out of writing it, the words come out better. I see myself more clearly. Isn’t that what personal writing is for?

In psychology, there is a process called distantiation. The Social Research Glossary says it is “stepping back or distancing of the observer or reader from an object of scrutiny.” It is sometimes understood negatively as in alienation or “othering.” But in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it plays a positive role by overcoming fusion with one’s thoughts and emotions and gaining enough distance to mindfully observe one’s inner and outer life. From here, one gains the necessary perspective to make conscious choices rather than simply reacting uncritically to emotional flux.

This is the role of confession. Say the thing you’re afraid to say even to yourself. Say to it someone. Make it external to you through the medium of language. Then look at it very closely. Turn it over in your hands and decide what to do with it.

In the Catholic tradition, priests play a role in this through the ritual of reconciliation, by providing a safe time and space for confession, and helping parishioners determine what to do with what they have now externalized. Confession is perhaps the most formal in the Catholic tradition, but it is likewise familiar to others, even Buddhists.

When I was in California, I was often intrigued by the things people would tell Buddhist monks, nuns, and priests that they wouldn’t tell anyone else. The very nature of the religious vocation and the chaplain’s commitment to confidentiality draw secrets to us like magnets. And people leave lighter for having confessed. The practice itself, if not the meaning assigned to it (e.g. forgiveness of sins and all that), appears almost universal across human cultures.

So I’ll continue to confess to the wilds of the internet. I’ll confess silly things, like a minor Twilight obsession, and profound things, like finding the sacred in the space between two people, and everything in between. I’ll put words out there on screens and turn them over and over and maybe, someday, decide what to do with the ego they represent. Or maybe I’ll just let them go.

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