For centuries, an enormous clay statue of the Buddha sat in Wat Traimit, a temple in Thailand. Its origins unknown, it had become something of a fixture. The temple monks would tend the statue, fixing cracks appearing in the clay as it dried in the heat. One day, a monk was repairing a particularly large crack and, peering into it, found a golden reflection. When the monks peeled back the layers of clay, a statue of solid gold that had been hidden away was revealed.
Buddhist psychology starts with the premise of basic goodness. We enter into the world in a state of perfection, or basic goodness, and remain that way until we leave it. While this may be the premise, things get murky because, in response to the wounding of our human experience, we lose sight of that basic goodness.
It gets lost beneath the layers of coping, defensiveness—and, in some cases, dysfunction—we develop in order to survive, both personally and socially. Peeling back those layers and revealing our authentic self, or an awakened heart, also means exposing our most vulnerable selves.
Surfacing our demons, digging deep into our neuroses, exploring our habit patterns and challenging our belief systems comes at a cost. Yes, we are closer to our true nature. Yes, we are more authentic. Yes, we are more vulnerable. We also become, to some degree, more defenseless, because we’ve given up our survival tools.
The layers of existential clay covering our personal Golden Buddha define our rapprochement, or way of being in the world. With those layers peeled back—or even just thinned—we no longer have access to our past means of navigating our experience. Instead, we find ourselves needing to re-learn how to be in the world, as well as how to continue to survive in it.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
John was angry. When he was finally deconstructed his anger, he discovered it came from fear—his fear of doing something wrong. He eventually realized his apprehension and resentment were grounded in a childhood narrative of less-than, which had shaped him into a perfectionist. His perfectionism, however, wasn’t just a garden variety kind of perfectionism, which involved the crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s. It was a paralyzing perfectionism, often preventing him from even getting out of the gate—never mind crossing the finish line.
Releasing his perfectionism allowed John to embrace his humanity, but it also meant releasing his resentment and, by association, his anger. The question then became, if he wasn’t the angry guy, who was he? More importantly, with his survival tools no longer in place—or, at the very least, diminished—how was he supposed to operate in the world?
The Personal Development Paradox
John’s experience represents one of the fundamental paradoxes of personal development. Our growth is sometimes regressive. In peeling back our layers of coping, defensiveness, and potential dysfunction—by returning to our authentic selves—we are going back to our beginning. That doesn’t mean returning to some state of infantile helplessness, but, rather, returning to the point where our original wounding ultimately coalesced into the touchstone of our personal Clay Buddha.
The construction of the Clay Buddha is different for everyone and, unlike trauma, isn’t an all-at-once kind of experience. Rather, it’s something that comes in bits and pieces, building up over time. There is a point, however, when our existential armoring becomes fully realized and, for those on the path of awakening—whether forced or chosen—that is the point at which we must start.
Part I: Here