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Turning to embrace what we want to reject

Last year I started to explore lucid dreaming. This is a state where one becomes conscious that one is dreaming and is able to make conscious choices in the dream, knowing that it is a dream. One night I had a nightmare, which is unusual for me, but this one was very frightening.  An old man was running out of the woods towards me and I was terrified as I knew he wanted to kill me. I was laying on the grass and couldn’t move. I screamed and this woke me up, shaking still from the experience.

The next night as I went to sleep I made the determination to meet this man again but this time in a lucid dream, where I would be conscious and know we were meeting in a dream. As I slept I dreamt, and as I dreamt there was a moment of looking around and thinking “I’m dreaming!” At this point I jumped into the sky and went flying for a while and then I remembered my dream from the previous night and made a request to the dream world “please let the meet the man from last night’s dream”. In  moment I was no longer in the clear blue sky but was in the waiting room of a prison. I could hear heavy boots clanking on a metal walkway, echoing through a huge space. The door flew open and two prison guards were holding the man from the previous night’s dream.  They looked at me as if to say “Are you sure you are ready for this?”. I nodded and they let him go.

In an instant he was on me, rushing to grab me and claw at my back with fingers that were metal talons.  As he tried to rip me apart I put my arms up and held him.  It was he who was not going anywhere as I tightened my embrace! I thought “do what you like to me, this is only my dream body, you can’t hurt it in any way”. And I stood there holding him as he struggled and raged. Slowly he started to run out of rage and slumped in my arms.  As I continued to hold him and embrace him he shrank and became a small child and then all that I was holding was an intense sense of sorrow, pain and loneliness.

The dream finished at this point and when I woke up I felt revitalised and full of energy.  It was as if I had met some part of me that had been locked away a long time ago, a sadness or experience that at the time I could not face.  Locked away in the darkness it had gone wild. It hated me for denying it and wanted revenge. By meeting it, holding it and bringing compassion to it that could shift and change, until once again it was simply sadness felt in the moment.

How does this relate to our waking life and practice?

Blocking and Drowning in response to Resisting the First Arrow

Last week I was reflecting on the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows: the first arrow being any experience of pain right now, mental or physical, the second arrow being shot when we do not want to be with this first pain. The first arrow is something that cannot be avoided – we hurt ourselves or something goes wrong. Our response to this may be either to turn to this first arrow and embrace the suffering contained within it, and then to let it pass or we may resist feeling it – “why has this happened”, ” this is so unfair”, “it shouldn’t be like this”, “I can’t stand this pain”. Then we fire the second arrow of resistance. A friend of mine describes the first arrow as necessary suffering – it’s just there and is as it is, and the second arrow as unnecessary suffering – the struggle we add to the initial suffering.

To summarise from last week, if we are caught by the second arrow due to resisting feeling the initial suffering we may resort either to blocking it by:

  • resisting feeling it,
  • becoming restless and unable to stop
  • using  addictions to try and avoid feeling what we don’t want to feel.  The obvious ones: drugs, sex, shoping and television, but also being addicted to certain ways of thinking or relating to the world.
  • being busy and trying to control the world.

Alternatively we may drown in the onslaught brought on by the second arrow through:

  • feeling overwhelmed,
  • exhausted,
  • feeling dull and lethargic,
  • depressed and full of self pity as we catastrophize about the situation or our life
  • feeling increasingly isolated and withdrawn.

We may feel just one of these or move between blocking and drowning.

To avoid shooting the second arrow requires learning to stay with the first arrow, the original pain or turning back to face it again if it has been denied in the past. In this way it is the same process as in my dream: choosing to face that which we fear, but knowing we can do that from a place of awareness, compassion and self-care. As life presents its difficulties it may not always be possible to stay with the first arrow, but as soon as we notice that we are lost in drowning or blocking we can then apply the remedy: turning to face the first pain.

How to do this? Reach out to friends rather than withdraw into isolation. Share how you are feeling and it may start to seem less overwhelming. A friend might bring a different perspective. If you stay isolated with your thoughts going around in the hamster wheel of your mind it can start to seem too much to ever cope with. Talking with fiends helps to put it in perspective.

Alternatively, you may like to find a therapist you trust if it’s a matter you need to talk over but you don’t want to share it with friends. Through therapy you can learn a new way of relating to your inner world and it offers a form of conscious relationship that helps you change your inner sense of what relationship is and once this is changed it will change how you relate to others as you come into relationship with them rather than repeating the old unhelpful patterns.

The mindfulness practice and loving kindness will also help as you can sit with what is there without judging and hold it with kindness, rewiring the neural pathways in your brain as you do so.

Below are two practices I’m exploring at the moment at times of difficulty or painful experiences to help with embracing the first arrow rather than shoot the second:

Self compassion practice

A method I often use is the self compassion practice.  It only need take a few minutes but it is a powerful way of becoming present to oneself in the moment. This was taught to me by Barbara Bexhill and to listen to her guiding the meditation click here

Three step self-compassion meditation by Barbara Boxhall
1. Stop and notice: recognise what is happening in terms of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Turn towards the difficulty and open to it by gently acknowledging “yes, this is a difficult moment”
2. Acknowledge shared humanity: now reflect that “difficulty is part of life” and consider that “just like me there are very likely to be other people right now who may be feeling  just as I do right now”.  Allow this to give you a sense of being connected to others rather than feeling isolated.
3. Meeting the difficulty with kindness: Gently say to yourself “may I meet this difficulty with kindness”.
In stage three consider how you might be kind to yourself: you may choose a nourishing activity if time permits, making a cup of tea, taking a bath, giving yourself a hand or head massage. Alternatively and to keep the experience in the moment you can do the following:

  1. Place your hands on your heart (or rest on your forearm if in public). Feel this contact.
  2. Tune in to the breath and imagine it moving through the area of the heart.
  3. In your mind, say something kind and gentle to yourself: “Yes, this is a difficult” “It’s OK” “I love you” Choose something you feel comfortable saying to yourself and that feels kind and gentle.

Breathing in pain, breathing out its remedy 

A second practice I am starting to explore is from Pema Choron’s book ‘Start Where You Are’. In this she describes the Tibetan practice of lojong. The book describes this in great detail and how to awaken the compassionate heart, but the core message I have taken from it is of breathing in that which we find difficult or painful, perhaps seeing it as black smoke. Then holing it in our heart with kindness and reflecting that just like me there are many other beings feeling this right now. Then breathing out the antidote, imagining that this is white light going out into the world. One then continues to do this, imagining that one is not only breathing in one’s own pain, but that of all beings, and in breathing out we are not just trying to eradicate our pain, but that of all beings.

This week has been the most painful of my life. Someone I know has been arrested and charged with murder and this has led to both seeing him in court at the opening day of the legal proceedings and being questioned by police about how I know him and what I know about him.  There has been the sorrow and pain I feel for the family of the victim, the man who died and for my friend, and this has felt excruciating.

Over this time I have been using this practice when I remember it. Sometimes the feelings become overwhelming. But then I remember to centre myself, breathe in the pain and sorrow that is both mine and all of those involved, and breathe out compassion and kind concern for myself and all those involved, seeing as white light radiating out into the world.

Similarly you might use it if you are feeling lonely. Breathing in the sense of loneliness and breathing out the wish for people to feel connected and loved. Doing this I realised I needed connection after going to the police station to be questioned and I called a friend. I was able to spend the rest of the day with him, giving me a feeling of being held and loved.

I’ve started to do this as I travel around as well.  Seeing people on the tube or a homeless person sitting the street I can feel overwhelmed by the pain in their face and seeing so much suffering as peoplel try to live their lives. Perhaps this is why we learn to not notice such people! But now I have a resource. I can breathe in the pain and breathe out hope.

Because this practice is connected with the breath it is something we can do in a moment. And it only takes a moment to change how we are feeling.

I’ll explore these two practices further this Monday.

For more information about lucid dreaming work click here

Turning to face our pain – embracing what is there in order to be whole

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing with a friend a one day workshop we are putting together that will explore mindfulness and therapy. The central theme will be looking at how we can learn to hold with kindness the wounding that we may carry from our childhood relationships: learning to bring kindness and compassion to the parts of ourself that still struggle and are in pain. One of the metaphors my friend has referred to a number of times is the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows, and I was reading a book today that makes reference to this teaching as well.

The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain. She starts by quoting the original Buddhist text:

“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling they worry, agonise and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards by a second arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”

What the Buddha is saying is that the first arrow cannot be avoided – there is pain, whether it be physical or mental, and it has occurred.  But how we respond to that pain determines whether we then shoot the second arrow – the aversion to the pain, the desire to escape it or anger at it having happened, these are all thing we add to the experience of the initial pain and actually deepen and intensify it, as the Buddha goes on to explain:

“Having been touched by that painful feeling, they resist and resent it. They harbour aversion to it, and this underlying tendency of resistance and resentment toward that painful feeling comes to obsess the mind.”

We know the thoughts: why me, this isn’t fair, when will it end, how can I make it stop, this is too much……..And once this starts it takes on a momentum of its own, leading to thoughts and actions that may themselves be harmful to our wellbeing but which we justify in an attempt to get away from the pain of the second arrow, almost forgetting that this secondary pain is a result of our reaction to the first arrow.

“Touched by that painful feeling, the ordinary person delights in compulsive distraction, often through seeking pleasure. Why is that? Because compulsive distraction is the only way they know to escape from painful feeling. This underlying tendency or craving for distraction comes to obsess the mind”

It may not be that the source of our distraction necessarily gives us pleasure. Vidyamala Burch commented that she tended to be very argumentative, but she came to realise that arguing with people helped her to distract herself from her chronic physical pain, so she tended to argue a lot, not because it was needed but as a way of coping with severe pain. We may look for distraction in the any number of things: drink, sex, drugs, being busy, television, lost on the internet for hours, porn, eating for comfort, smoking, compulsively talking, doing good deeds for others, shopping…….and whatever else one might addd to the list! It’s not that these things are necessarily good or bad in themselves, but if we are engaging with them in order to avoid the feeling of pain then they can be compulsive and driven rather than something we have a choice over. And as the original pain has not been addressed we have to keep drowning out the ‘noise’ of our pain with these activities, never daring to stop as in the silence of not doing we are faced again with our pain. But as Jung says, “what we resist we persists, what we fight we get more of”. Drowning out the noise of our mental or physical pain with distractions will in the end mean it has to make more noise to make us hear it. We may then intensify the distraction. Going deeper into addiction, whatever our chosen addictive behaviour might be. The result is a decent into ever deeper levels of dissociation and emotional and psychological pain.  The Buddha described this process by saying:

“Being overwhelmed and dominated by pain (through resistance and compulsive distraction), the ordinary person is joined with suffering and stress.”

How did we reach this point of suffering and stress?  By not turning towards the first arrow when it struck, by wanting to avoid feeling that pain through firing the second arrow of aversion to the pain, wanting it to be otherwise, wanting to block out the feeling or not face it.

Burch summarises this process very succinctly in the following way:
First comes the experience of pain – the basic unpleasant sensations. This is what the Buddha called the first arrow and what I have termed primary suffering
Then you respond to the pain with aversion, resistance, and resentment.
Next, you seek to escape from pain by getting caught up in compulsive distractions and avoidance strategies.
Ironically, in your attempts to escape the pain you become stuck in a troubled state until, finally, you’re joined or fettered to suffering and stress, and this dominates your life and obsesses your mind. It is what the Buddha called the second arrow and what I describe as secondary suffering
(p23, Living Well with Pain and Illness)

She goes on to describe resistance as manifesting as either blocking (not wanting to feel the pain) or drowning (being overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s experience of the pain), resulting in either addictions or depression. Looking at this I recognise a tendency in myself toward blocking. As a child and teenager I learnt that it was easier to not feel, to stay busy and create a shell against feeling that which was too hard to feel.  The result was an unexpressed anger, being consumed with anxiety and a tendency to live in my head rather than be in my body. These are all things that as an adult I have been learning to hold and bring a kind attention to. Have look at the summary below of the two approaches to dealing with pain, and see if you recognise a pattern in your own life:

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two arrows

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How do we avoid this second arrow and this whole process of spiralling into addiction depression? We avoid the second arrow by learning to turn to the first with loving, compassionate and gentle attention. We learn to embrace our physical pain, our mental and emotional pain rather than fight it and wish it were not there. The Buddha taught the mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness meditation as a means to help us turn towards the present moment rather than run from it. As we do this we learn to approach our pain, to accept it, to breathe into it and hold it. Pain is part of life.  We are not failing if we feel pain, if we feel confused, lost, angry or upset.  But if we react to these feelings with dislike, wanting to push them away by loosing ourselves in distractions then the attempt to escape them may result in worse pain than the original first arrow.

How many gay men have lost themselves in chem sex rather than face the difficult feelings they have around intimacy, about the shame they internalised whilst growing up that made us think there was something evil or wrong at our core. Where does this chem sex addiction lead so many of us? Does it result in freedom and happiness, or lead ever deeper into a place of isolation and pain? If we turn to casual sex out of a desire for intimacy whilst fearing opening to another then we never connect with any of our partners as they are actually a shield to prevent us being open to anyone, to never be seen. Might it not be more healing to turn and face our loneliness, our fear of rejection and our struggle to emerge from the shadow of shame? This may mean going into the pain, the place we have tried to run from, but by embracing the source of our pain we can bring healing to it – and might even realise that it is not a terrible thing to be escaped from, but a raw and vulnerable part of ourselves that is asking simply to be held and loved. For all of us – gay or straight, it is this brave act of turning to face that which we want to run from that enables us to start to heal.

It is by meeting together as a community, with friends who will love us as we are, without judgement that we can heal. And that is what we can look to create for each other by learning to hold ourselves without judgement in the Loving Kindness practice, for only when we can truly love ourselves can we love others without judgment or expectation. The Dalia Lama quote above reminds me of the theme from a few weeks ago that has been the thread for the last few emails: “we are wounded in community and we heal in community” – let us meet together with whatever communities provide us with support to heal.

What happens when we feel out of relationship with another or a group? Healing hatred through love.

The theme over recent weeks has been “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. Last week I reflected on how the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching. The Loving Kindness practice was taught in response to some monks who were having difficulties with some tree spirits in the forrest grove where they had set up their residence. In the time of the Buddha people still believed that all of nature was inhabited by spirits and divinities so it was not unusual for the Buddhist scriptures to describe meetings between the Buddha or his monks and various nature spirits who lived in the tress or streams of the wilderness where the monks made their home. In an age when we like to show how much the Buddha’s teaching matches modern scientific findings there is little reference to this! And for many of us it may mean very little. But the story illustrates an important principle so is worth listing to even if considered a fable or symbolic.

The significance of the Buddha teaching his disciples to extend love to the tree spirits rather than feel resentment or anger illustrates the Buddha’s teaching which I reflects on in last week’s email: “hatred does not cease through hatred but by love”. He did not teach the monks to destroy or annihilate the tree spirits, but to radiate love to them, the very beings that were trying to frighten and disturb the monks in their meditation. This attitude is very contrary to many of our human instincts, which on seeing another as an enemy or obstruction leads to a wish to escape from them or anhiliate them.

And now we come back to the 21st Century and neuroscience! I was watching the excellent BBC documentary about the brain recently and in episode 7 it covered the very troubling and difficult issue of why we hate, and how genocide or inter-group violence can happen. What happens to a group of people that causes them to stop seeing another group as humans and instead be able to unleash untold misery and harm on their fellow human beings? What might we learn about our own individual tendency towards hatred and how to own it but not act on it by looking at what happens on a massive social scale when humans fall out of relationship?

The programme followed a number of experiments that were using brain imaging to observe what happens in the brain in different situations.

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The Pain Matrix

In the first experiment they looked at what happens when we feel excluded from a group. The experiment was conducted online by having three people play a game. Two of the participants were secretly part of the experiment so only the third person was actually being observed. At first the game of online ‘frisbee’ included all of the participants, but after a while the two who were part of the experiment threw it only to themselves and excluded the third. As this happened the brain scan of this third person started to show the activation of the pain centre located at the front of the brain. This is something normally associated with physical pain, but they found that the brain also experiences this exactly the same if it is a mental event arising form the feeling of being excluded.

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From this they deduced that if the experience of being excluded is felt as pain, then as human beings it is natural that we will look for a way of feeling included – by looking for a group of like minded people by whom we are accepted. This is great for our own sense of self-worth, but what happens when our group then defines itself by making another group ‘other’: less worthy, impure, unholy, or to to be despised?

The Loss of Empathy

The next experiment looked at exactly this. What would happen when people identifying with a specific group saw a syringe needle enter various hands? Each hand was labled with a group identity:

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People who identified with one of these groups then watched as the needle entered the hand of each person. The usual empathy response was that the brain would recognise that another was experiencing pain and there would be activity in this area of the brain, shown here by the sudden peak of activity:

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This is what happened when there were no labels. But as soon as the hands were labeled something significant happened. On viewing the needle go into the hand of someone who was in their ‘out group’ participants showed no activation in the empathy centre of the brain. The blue line shows the lack of activation compared to the green line which shows their response to the in-group.

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Their brain was literally no longer registering the other person as another fellow human being who was suffering and for whom they might feel empathy. Instead they were a blank, something rather than someone. Even the atheists identified more with fellow atheists and less with the other humans! So it is not just an issue of religion, but of identifying with a group and then not empathising with those belonging to other groups or groups who hold opinions contrary to your own.

The findings of this experiment were confirmed when a group of people were shown random images of people, including one of a homeless person. When people they looked at images of various people a certain area of the brain lit up connected with recognising fellow human beings:

But on looking a the homeless person there was a marked reduction in this activation in many of the participants:

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The top right hand image shows the lack of activation in the brain when looking at the homeless person compared to viewing other images of people. This showed that for these participants on the experiment they had learnt not to see homeless people as other humans: they no longer recognised them as a person, but could walk past them as a thing.

“Love thine Enemy”

Having looked at these experiments the programme went on to surmise that it is this process that is at work when two groups oppose each other in war or conflict. Having established your ‘in-group’ in order to feel safe and not feel excluded, this group may often be defined by an ‘out-group’ – those who hold opposite views and opinions, who worship different Gods, or worship the same God but with different rituals and dogma. If there is then conflict between these two groups the brain is capable of literally switching off from recognising the members of the ‘out-group’ as other humans, and instead see them as objects. And it is from this that the atrocities we see throughout history and right up to this present day can take place. When we no longer see another as a fellow human being, or feel their pain, then we are capable of doing anything to them.

This is where we return to the Four Divine Abiding meditations and the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha did not demonise the tree spirits, he did not say to hate them as they were obstructing the monks in their meditation and were ‘enemies’. Instead he taught the monks to be patient, forbearing and loving towards them. It is the same message that Christ shared, although historically this part of his teaching has tended to be conveniently forgotten by many throughout history!

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” Mathew 5:44

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Luke 6:29

What these teachers are telling us is that hatred does not cease through further expressions of hatred. Hatred ceases through love, and love enable us to see the ‘other’ as a fellow human being. The third stage of the loving kindness practice gives us the opportunity to locate the people who are our ‘out-group’. For us this might not be due to racial or religious distinctions, but by their position in society or in relation to how we see ourselves and our values and how we then despise those who hold different values or beliefs.

Learning to make the wish that others may be happy (the Loving Kindness Practice) have empathy for all who suffer (the Compassion practice) and rejoice in the good fortune of others (Sympathetic Joy practice) counteracts any tendency to feel contempt for some or lack of compassion for others. The Equanimity practice, the fourth of the Divine abiding meditations, encourages us to see that we all inherit the consequences of our own actions, so it is only for us to focus on our actions and wish others well, not to judge or condemn others. These four divine abiding meditations encourage us to explore seeing all those whom we know as simply human beings wanting to be happy and well, who fear pain and sorrow – just as we do.

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Learning to own my own hatred rather than project it out onto another

When I first learnt the Loving Kindness practice I had to learn to love my step-father. I saw him as bigoted and intolerant in his racism and homophobia. I hated him for his intolerance. Until finally I realised that I was simply hating that which I was feeling myself! I was intolerant of his intolerance and used this to justify feelings of hatred towards him, even hoping he would die. On seeing this the work became more internal. I couldn’t change him, but I could change how I was reacting and relating to him. As a result of this process I felt much happier. He also changed and softened in his outlook as we were not in conflict but in dialogue.

If you have someone or some group you know are your ‘out-group’ I invite you to explore holding them in the third stage of the Loving Kindess practice. Learn to recognise them as a fellow human being, with their own hopes and fears, their desire to be happy just as you wish to be happy and their sorrow at loss and pain just as you feel sorrow of these things. In this way we can create an opening for peace in our heart. And that is the only part of the world for which we have any direct responsibility. But as we plant the seed of peace in our heart it may grow and bloom and the scent reach others, influencing their thoughts and actions – and in tis way we may indeed create a kinder world. In the end it may be that you find that, as Jung says, those who annoy you shows you what we need to see in yourself.

To down load a guided version of the Loving Kindness practice click here

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