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We are the peace we seek

In last weeks class I was talking about a Buddhist principle known as Buddha nature. This is the teaching that every sentient being has the quality of awakening as their true nature. As much as it may feel that we are searching for peace or freedom or liberation, what we are really doing, according to this teaching, is seeking to come home to ourselves and who we really are when we are no longer caught in the fight with thoughts and feelings and instead be the space in which they are arising.

The sense that there is a me that has to fix this suffering is so strong, and it creates an idea of me in time, where right now I am a mess but one day I will be sorted out and free. What the Buddha nature teaching points to is that right now we are the freedom we seek, but we do not see it. It is like a fish swimming around asking every sea creature it meets “have you seen water?” and they all say “no”. Finally this little fish goes to the wise fish living deep in the ocean in a dark cave and asks this fish “how do I find water?” The wise fish tells the fish who seeks: “you are water, water is in you and around you and is nowhere else but here right now”. The little fish feels bewildered, thinking “how can water be here right now, there’s nothing here that I can see as water, I better carry on searching to find someone who can really tell me how to find water” and with that swims off through the water that this little fish cannot yet perceive.

Wanting to find peace, escape the suffering of our thoughts, be free – it is like the little fish looking for water, not believing that it is here right now. The teachers I know and respect all point to this same teaching, that we are already the freedom we seek. The capacity of knowing, presence, awareness….whatever we call it….that is the awakened state. But we want it to be special. To be amazing and transforming. But if instead we can open to the magic of resting into the state of being that is open to this present moment as it is and embraces it with compassion and sees it with wisdom, then perhaps that is the opening to freedom.

The Buddha said that:  “There is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, and therefore there is an escape from the born, created, formed, originated. If it were not for the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, created, formed, originated, but because there is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there is an escape, there is liberation from the born, created, formed, originated” (Udana VIII.3). According to this text Enlightenment, or the state of  freedom, is unborn – therefore it is out of time. It is not a state we reach at some point when we are good enough or have put in enough effort to create it. It is here right now because it is timeless and therefore always present. We just have to wake up to who we really are.

 

 

This teaching has been my inspiration since I cam across it 20 years ago and I enjoy finding teachers who point towards the truth of this in their own teachings. The video below is by Jeff Foster and he speaks to a contemporary audience, but in a way that seems to resonate with the Buddha’s words above. At one point he says: “you are not trying to free yourself from thoughts and feelings, you are the freedom….freedom is your nature”. He goes on to talk of the metaphor of the sky, which allows the clouds and different weather events to occur within it: being the space that allows this without being the weather. In the same way if we can start to connect with our ability to know our experience without having to be identified with it or fight it we can be like the sky: allowing fear, sorrow, anger, joy and happiness to arise within our experience but without labelling it ‘mine’ to be held on to or got rid of. It is known, welcomed and allowed to arise and pass away according to its nature. 

This is the way Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master, taught meditation: to be the one who knows, the participant observer who is both witness and the experience being witnessed. 

In the 7 minute video below Jeff Foster describes the state of allowing that resonates so closely with the Buddha’s description of the unborn state of freedom and Ajahn Chah’s teachings.  He talks of the difficult emotions as being like a child standing in the doorway of the present moment. So often we slam the door on that child saying he does not belong here. There should be a different child standing in the door. We try to ‘let go of’ the difficult thoughts or feeling, which Jeff says is basically an expression of not wanting them, of being in deep resistance to the thought or feeling. Instead by releasing from the idea of release we are simply present. Sadness is not asking to be let go of, transcended or heeled. All these thoughts and feelings are asking for is to know if there is room for them. So often we say no. Ending this struggle means turning towards whatever thought or feeling is arising and knowing it as it is. That which knows is calm and peaceful: presence is peace and freedom, even if what it is present to is chaos. 

This is the challenge for me now in my practice: how to let go of the desire to reach Enlightenment, let go of the thought I can fix myself and be free from any unwanted thoughts and emotions. Instead open to being the space for whatever is arising to exist, and pass away according to its nature…..without then making being present a goal! I enjoy listening to Jeff teach as he speaks to that in me which recognises the truth  of what he shares. I hope you may find the same, or have your own teachers who help you connect to your innate wisdom. 

 

The hydra of self-critiscm

Continuing with last week’s theme of the inner critic I return to an image I’ve spoke of before in the class: the Buddha surrounded by Mara’s army. 

To be precise it is an image of Prince Siddartha in the moments before he attained full enlightenment and became the Buddha. As a Prince he had left his home in search of awakening and his journey finally led to sitting underneath the Bodhi tree contemplating the nature of existence: that it is impermanent and devoid of any eternal self or soul and that the nature of all phenomena is that they arise upon conditions and have no essence separate to their part in the flow of life. 

As he contemplated thus and approached a point where his mind was ready to let go of its dualistic perspective of self and other and realise the ‘thusness’ of existence he was confronted by Mara and his army. Mara represents all of the unwholesome states of mind and ways of thinking that keep us lost in delusion and pain. It is said that Mara’s army attacked the Prince and shot flaming arrows, but that as they reached him they turned in to flowers and fell around him without causing harm.

After his enlightenment Mara still appeared to the Buddha, but the Buddha would always smile and say “I see you Mara” and Mara would then disappear. 

This is a beautiful image. It suggests to me a mind that has found peace in the middle of all the negative thought processes. They are still there but no longer touch the enlightened mind as it is no longer fighting them or believing in them. Thus, the enlightened mind is not a state separate from the world, it is an ability to be at peace in the middle of the world. 

In this way the first stage of releasing from the inner critic is to be able to turn and face it and say “I see you”

 

The 7 inner critics that were listed last week are like Mara’s army. They turn on us, ripping apart our inner peace. But they only have the power we give them. If we can start to sit in a place of calm self-awareness in the middle of them all perhaps these two may turn into flowers falling around us. 

Listening to our stories we may find a time comes when they suddenly loose their power – we have heard them so often we really can’t take them seriously any more. But for this to happen we have to attend fully to them and listen, and notice the repetitive nature of them. Otherwise they beguile us with an apparent newness and uniqueness each time. 

I realised a while ago that my central dilemma was anxiety. Not any particular thing but just the tendency of anxiety itself. At any one time there would be some thing that seemed so overwhelming. It seemed that if only this could be dealt with then a weight would be removed from me and I could be happy. Then I realised that if this anxious thought were to be magically removed another would arise to replace it, like the head of a hydra: as soon as one is cut off another two grow to replace it.

Cutting the heads off does not work, but keeps one busy with the hope I will one day be fixed if I keep cutting off enough heads – but they just grow back! Instead, by taking a step back it can be possible to look and see what is really there: the pattern of attaching to the struggle. Then I saw it was not the individual problems that were my dilemma, but the attachment to the hydra of anxiety itself. In fact I did not want the monster to die, for it give me a sense of the familiar and was a life pattern I identified with! I just wanted to keep cutting off heads as this gave me a sense of purpose. 

Learning to stop the fighting and frantic cutting off of heads of perceived problems and instead stepping back and taking in the whole issue of the tendency itself to be attached to anxiety helped me to stop struggling with myself. Now when these worries arise I am better able to recognising them as the hydra of anxiety and can remind myself of the Buddha’s example: “I see you”. At other times I talk to friends about my problems….. and they remind me to recognise what is happening!! Or talking things over with my therapist this becomes more clear. 

Over this next week see if the things you struggle with are your own hydra heads, growing to replace whatever you had thought you had cut off through some previous exertion to improve or deal with an issue of addiction or negative self-talk. Then see if you can take a step back, centre yourself and breathe. What is it like to simply acknowledge what is here: “I see you addiction”, “I see you fear”, “I see you pride”. Feel the power of these negative scripts, but instead choose to rest into the stillness of knowing it for what it is: a product of the mind seeking to create a sense of its own identity, importance and permanence, a coping mechanism that was learnt early in life as a way of trying to make sense of things. Recognise instead that all of this theatre of the mind is impermanent, has no fixed centre of self and is always in flux.

To do this we ned to bring deep compassion to ourselves, and have the support of friends and a network of structures such as therapy or supportive groups. Notice if you are struggling on your own and see how you can reach out to others. 

Meeting the Inner Critic

When I pay attention to my inner dialogue and how I talk to myself I’ve sometimes thought that if I spoke to others in the way I do to myself I soon would not have any friends! Who wants to hang around with someone who after a minor incident turns to them and says “idiot”, “how can you be so stupid!”, “what’s wrong with you?”, “when will you learn?” etc – fill in your own favourite you use with yourself!  This inner critic is the mind’s attempt to guard against danger, having stored previous examples that were registered as mistakes and are therefore to be avoided again.

The problem is, that when the brain was being formed the examples we internalised would often be statements from exasperated parents who would snap at us out of their place of wounding, rather than talking to us as mature adults. You spill coffee in the back seat of the car. A parent shouts at you “you stupid boy”. If we could reason with the parent we might say, as one little girl did in an example I heard, “I’m not stupid, I’ve done something stupid.” Most of us don’t have the perspicacity of this girl to challenge the statement, instead we take in the meaning that spilling coffee marks us out as being stupid. In future any similar incident will be flagged up as a danger to be avoided and if we do once again spill coffee the inner critic will immediately supply the criticism.

Looking on line for more on this issue I found the following webpage which outlines seven types of inner-critic and gives a simple definition of it: “The Inner-Critic is the part of you that judges you, demeans you, and pushes you to do things. It lowers your sense of self-worth and makes you feel bad about yourself.”

Jay Early, PHD goes on to define seven types of Inner-Critic:

1. Perfectionist
This Critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It has very high standards for behaviour, performance, and production. Sometimes it prevents you from creating anything for fear it won’t be good enough. Sometimes it makes you work forever trying to perfect something.

2. Inner Controller
This Critic tries to control impulsive behaviour that might not be good for you or others, or might be dangerous. It tends to be harsh and shaming when you slip up.

3. Taskmaster
This Critic tries to get you to work hard or be disciplined in order to be successful or to avoid being mediocre. It can cause over-striving and workaholism.

4. Underminer
This Critic tries to undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem so you won’t take risks that might be dangerous, or so you won’t try and fail, or so you won’t get to big or powerful or visible and therefore be attacked or rejected. It makes you feel worthless.

5. Destroyer
This Critic makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It shames you deeply. It believes you shouldn’t exist.

6. Guilt-Tripper
This Critic attacks you for some specific action you have taken or not taken in the past or for repeated behaviour that has been harmful to others or violates a deeply-help value. It makes you feel guilty and will never forgive you.

7. Moulder
This Critic tries to get you to fit a certain mould or be a certain way that comes from your family or culture—e.g. caring, aggressive, polite. It attacks you when you aren’t and praises you when you are. If the mould doesn’t fit who you are, it constantly makes you feel inadequate.

Jay Earl goes on to say: “Despite the pain they cause, each type of Inner Critic is actually trying to help you or protect you from pain, in its own distorted way. By determining which types of Inner Critics you have, you can more easily get to know them and find out what they are trying to do for you. This makes it possible to develop a cooperative relationship with the Critic and transform it into a positive resource for you.”

 

 

As I sit in meditation it becomes a place to experience all of this. When I went back to visit my Abbot at the monastery in Northumberland where I spent my first three years of training we spoke about this. He talked of how the practice is about learning to be with the chaos of our inner world. Mindfulness is not about getting calm and making the mind quiet. That is to mistake the final flowering of practice with the early stages of practice. Mindfulness can help calm the mind and its story telling – but to see through the story teller completely means sitting in the eye of the storm as it plays itself out. 

Learning to be with the inner critic but not to believe it is part of this process of being with the chaos. 

Loving-Kindness practice gives us the chance to bring some kindness to our experience and to explore wishing ourself well whilst mindfulness practice offers the chance to sit with bare attention, experiencing the storm winds of ego identity, but with the opportunity to let go of this identity and recognise it for what it is: “a story told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Perhaps Macbeth’s words are a bit harsh, but we can recognise that these inner worlds of thought identities have been created by the meaning making machine of the mind and only have the power to harm if we believe them to be objective truth and take them on as a legitimate criticism of who we are. 

The first stage is to be able to name the inner critic rather than take it as just an objective inner commentary. So looking at the list above, see if you recognise any as your own habit patterns of thought.  Then as they arise see what it is like to start naming them rather than believing them. 

We’ll return to this list next week to continue to explore this theme of naming the inner critic and defusing it: no longer letting it stick to us with the belief it is who we are, but recognising it as a habit pattern in the mind that gets triggered to play its familiar refrain, but just because it feels familiar this does not mean it is true or even relevant. 

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Loving ourselves…with a little help from our friends

Last week I was away in Spain on a dance retreat so was not able to send a group email. Thank you to Andy Butterfield for taking the class. I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the different perspective he was able to bring by teaching from his experience of practice.

Whilst on the retreat I was exploring in my meditation and through the dance the feeling of being connected to friends.  This ties in with a new approach to the Loving Kindness meditation that I read about recently and will be exploring in the group on Mondays over this month.

One of the things I have heard consistently over the 27 years that I have taught meditation is the difficulty some people feel in being able to connect with wishing themselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation. It can feel forced or artificial to make this wish for oneself, or the inner critic that says one is being self-indulgent or selfish can arise, making it hard to feel a real sense of self-care.

On the retreat I had a chat with someone who told me how grateful he was for the practice, as he had been  able to use the reflections as a recitation during a time of emotional turmoil, repeating the phrases over and over as a wish for himself:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

Connecting with the phrases as a wish for oneself can allow the heart to find its own way of opening to this feeling of self-care. I know someone else who has said that when in a depressive episode she cannot practice mindfulness as it is too much to sit with the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, but she can practice loving Kindness, wishing herself to be well, telling herself she cares for herself and wishes for her happiness.

Hearing this I realise how important it is that we have a feeling of being able to turn to the Loving Kindness practice as a resource rather than dismiss it as the practice we cannot do. Over this month the theme of the emails will be around self-care and self-love so that we have a consistent opportunity to explore this aspect of the practice.

Rather than always feeling we have to move away from the broken person we feel we are, how would it be if we stepped towards being the whole being that we are? We were not born broken or self-sabotaging. We learnt not to like ourselves. A baby does not feel it does not deserve to be loved, it does not hold back its cries feeling it should not bother anyone or that it should wait to be seen. We learn the belief that “I do not matter”, or “my needs are not important” or “I should not be a bother” or “I can only be worthy of love if I am serving another/ am funny enough/ have a good enough body….” or whatever our inner script may be.

Over the dance retreat I was able to feel how strongly I feel my needs do not matter, feel the fear of reaching out to connect, the belief I am too much and will only swap the other if I do try to connect, the fear of being rejected and the hope of being noticed. In one exercise we danced with rejection. Our partner had to ignore us as we danced. It was so painful. At first I danced with freedom and ease, in the flow of my dance. Then seeing that my partner was ignoring me I tried to attract his attention, dancing closer, my movements becoming more exaggerated. But still he looked at his nails or looked thorough me.

Then, without any thought about what I would do next my dance suddenly changed. My movements became small, timid, afraid of causing offence. I came close to my partner, trying to be in contact with his body as he ignored me. My hands coming to rest on my chest in a self embrace that did nothing to mitigate the feeling of panic at not being seen. I then stayed in this slow, small, constricted dance hoping if I were quiet and good enough my partner might then choose to notice me. In the space of five minutes my body was able to relive my experience of being a child who was not seen, and I felt the impact of making myself small in the hope that whatever it was I was doing wrong would no longer cause offence and I would once more be loved.

Over the rest of the retreat I stayed with this sense of making myself small and also of seeing how I could connect out to others. In one session I lost any feeling of being able to dance freely and was standing, with my arms around myself, my eyes closed, my head hanging down. My legs wrapped around themselves. Stuck to the spot. Feeling alone. Isolated. Not wanted. Incapable of connecting out……..

Then the most amazing thing….the sensation of fingers brushing against my head, neck and back. Then a hand giving support, then two hands resting on my back, coming down to my waist, inviting movement in my hips and back. And like a tightly curled bud my limbs released and moved and opened and expanded from their tight constriction until I was once again in the flow of my dance.

The dance facilitator then said “now leave your partner and return to your own dance”…I had not even heard that we were to go into pairs, and realised that someone had come to me as I stood in my paralysed state, daring to reach out to someone who looked so alone and cut off. I looked around and it was the friend I was on the retreat with and I felt such a rush of gratitude and love for him in that moment. If I remember nothing else from the retreat it will be the feeling of his touch waking me from a place of constriction and being closed down.

 

I then took this into my morning meditation. Using the new method I had read about recently I imagined myself between two friends. Rather than trying to start by wishing myself well I connected with the feeling of wishing my friends well. For so many of us it can be easier to wish another well rather than ourself! But it starts to open our heart to that felt sense of wishing a being to be happy and well.

Once this was connected to I then returned to myself. Feeling myself between these two friends who wish me well. Starting to turn this loving attention to myself. I can be so hard on myself: feeling I will only be worthy of love when I have worked on myself, sorted out this or that defect. Become a better person. But my friends love me right now. Your friends love you right now – as you are. They may see faults, after all we all have our quirks, but they are not saying “I will love you and be a friend in a years time once you have sorted out your addiction/quirk/behaviour trait” They are your friend right now because they embrace you as they find you. Opening to this in the meditation gives a chance to let go of the narrative that I will only be worthy of love in the future, and recognise that right now I am loved as I am, which is the unconditional nature of Loving Kindness.

You may like to try this approach in your own meditation. It need only be ten minutes: five minutes of sitting imagining yourself with a friend on either side: expressing your love and care for them in your own words or using the phrases:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to you.

Then when you feel ready have a sense of your friends at your side, wishing you well. See if you can feel a sense of your friends loving you as you are right now, warts and all. Starting to wish yourself well, using your own phrases or the Loving Kindness phrases, feeling them in your heart rather than thinking them:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and exploring this in the class over the coming weeks.

If you would like to explore the Five Rhythms movement practice that is led by Bodhi who co-led the dance retreat I was on in Spain details are below: 

Click here for more info

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