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Anxious, avoidant and secure: common thoughts, emotions and reactions

The last two essays have been a summary of the information about attachment models in adult relationships from the book Attached. In this essay I’ll continue to explore this dynamic.

To summarise the three types of attachment:

1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

A few people are anxious/avoidant, but this is more rare.

As I’ve read this book it has been like a map of my inner world laid out. Theories which might be abstract resonate so much with my experience of intimacy and I have recognised patterns of behaviour that feel so personal but from the perspective of this theory are simply how a person with anxious attachment will respond to intimacy. In Buddhism a central reflection is that the sense of being a unique and fixed individual is a misconception. Our sense of self arises from the interaction we have with stimuli from the world around us and from how we interact with our thoughts, which creates our perception of the world.

Recognising that the patterns of mental activity that feel so personal are in fact a pattern shared with many others helps to lessen the belief that this is somehow uniquely my experience. Certainly it is what I am experiencing, but it is not unique to me. Seeing this helps to lessen the emotional charge that makes it feel so much like a personal failure to have these ways of responding to a situation.

One area that particularly struck me was the description of typical thoughts, emotions and reactions for each type. See if you recognise yourself here!

Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the anxious type

Thoughts:

  • Mind reading “that’s it, I just know they’ve had enough of me and will never want to see me again”
  • I’ll never find anyone else.
  • I knew this was too good to last.
  • All or nothing thinking: I’ve ruined it all, there’s nothing I can do to mend this.
  • I knew something would go wrong: nothing ever works out right for me.
  • I have to see him/her right now.
  • S/he’d better come crawling back asking for forgiveness or they can forget about me forever.
  • Perhaps if I look really gorgeous or act seductive things will work out.
  • S/he is so amazing why would s/he want to be with me anyway?
  • Remembering all the good things your partner has ever done or said after a fight
  • Recalling only the bad things your partner has ever done or said during a fight.

Emotions: sad and/or fearful, resentful, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, jealous, despairing guilty, self-loathing, rejected, uncertain, misunderstood.

Actions:

When an anxious type fears a loss of intimacy they will seek closeness and this may well manifest as acting out to try and get the reassurance or attention they long for. These are protest behaviours, similar to a child having a tantrum to get its parent’s attention. These behaviours are automatic and are not considered actions but a knee jerk response to the fear of abandonment. They occur when your anxious attachment has been triggered by your partner’s real or perceived withdrawal of affection or availability:

  • Excessive attempts to re-establish contact: Calling, texting or emailing many times, waiting for a call or text
  • Withdrawing: sitting silently “engrossed” in the paper or some other activity, turning your back on your partner
  • Keeping score: noting how long it took for them to reply to a text and leaving it exactly the same amount of time.
  • Acting hostile: Rolling your eyes as they speak, getting up and walking away while they are talking.
  • Threatening to leave: “we’re not getting along, I don’t think I can do this any more”. Rather than being a true expression of a wish to separate this comes from a place of wanting your partner to say how much they love you and will never leave. You’ll be devastated if they actually agree with you!
  • Manipulations: acting busy or unapproachable, ignoring phone calls, saying you have plans when you don’t.

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Common thoughts, emotions and reactions for the avoidant type

Thoughts:

  • All or nothing thinking: I knew s/he wasn’t right for me, this proves it!
  • Overgeneralising: I knew I wasn’t made to be in a close relationship!
  • S/he’s taking over my life, I can’t take it!
  • Now I have to do everything his/her way; the price is too high.
  • I need to get out of here, I feel suffocated.
  • If s/he were “the one” this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.
  • When I was with (the idealised ex) this wouldn’t have happened.
  • Malicious intent: s/he’s really out to annoy me, it’s so obvious…
  • S/he just wants to tie me down, this isn’t true love.
  • Fantasising about having sex with other people.
  • I’ll be better off on my own.
  • Ugh s/he’s so needy! It’s pathetic.

Emotions: withdrawn, frustrated, angry, pressured, unappreciated, misunderstood, resentful, hostile, aloof, empty, tense, contemptuous, scornful, distrustful.

Actions:

When an avoidant type feels their partner is too demanding of their attention they will seek distance. They require solitude and a sense of their own autonomy in order to feel comfortable. If they are dating an anxious person this need for space will often be pressed in on by the anxious type’s need for reassurance: wanting to text, to hold hands, to cuddle up. In response to this perceived neediness of the partner and to re-establish their own space avoidants will use deactivating strategies to keep their partner at a distance or to disengage from them. One thing the author says is that avoidants do want intimacy, but they find it hard to admit as for them intimacy means being overwhelmed by the other so their actions are intended to allow for just as much connection as they feel comfortable with, whilst maintaining a feeling of distance and independence. For this reason avoidants rarely date each other as there is nothing to bring them together.

  • Saying (or thinking) “I’m not ready to commit” – but staying together nonetheless, sometimes for years.
  • Focusing on small imperfections in your partner: the way s/he talks, dresses, eats or…..and allowing it to get in the way of your romantic feelings.
  • Pining after an ex-girlfriend-boyfriednd, thinking that they were the one you should have stayed with and comparing your present partner unfavourable to them – (the phantom ex)
  • Flirting with others – a hurtful way to introduce insecurity into the relationship.
  • Not saying “I love you” – while implying that you do have feelings toward the other person.
  • Pulling away when things are going well (e.g. not calling for several days after an intimate date).
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future, such as with someone who is married.
  • “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
  • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy – to maintain your feeling of independence.
  • Avoiding closeness – e.g. not wanting to share the same bed, not wanting to have sex, walking several strides ahead of your partner.

The emotional advantages of dating a secure partner

For the sake of brevity I am not listing the traits of the secure type. Basically they will not take on the blame for what happens and stay open to the other rather than becoming critical or acting out. I was talking to a friend who took the test and come out as secure. As we talked about the different dynamics of the anxious type he said that if someone comes across as needing contact to reassure them after a few dates: holding hands, texting etc, then his response is to find it endearing and sweet. Very different to the avoidant who will see it as an imposition and will disengage. This short conversation with my friend confirmed the author’s assertion that an ideal partner for an anxious type is a secure:

As an anxious type you:

  • want closeness and intimacy  and a secure person is comfortable with this and will not push you away.
  • are very sensitive to any signs of rejection and a secure person is very consistent and reliable.
  • find it hard to tell your partner directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst a secure person sees your well being as a top priority and do their best to read your verbal and non verbal cues.
  • need to be reassured and feel loved and a secure person feels comfortable telling you how they feel, very early on, in a consistent manner.
  • need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship and a secure person is very stable, they also feel comfortable with commitment.

Anxious and avoidants find it difficult to create a relationship that nourishes them both as there is a conflict between what they are both looking for. As an anxious person you:

  • want closeness and intimacy whilst avoidants want to maintain some distance (emotional or physical)
  • are very sensitive to any signs of rejection whilst an avoidant sends mixed signals that often come across as rejecting.
  • find it hard to tell them directly what you need and what’s bothering you whilst the avoidant is bad at reading your verbal and non verbal cues and don’t think it’s their responsibility to do so.
  • need to be reassured and feel loved whilst an avoidant tends to put you down to create distance.
  • need to know exactly where you stand in the relationship whilst an avoidant prefers to keep things fuzzy.

Last week’s essay looked at actions avoidants and anxious people could take to work with their tendencies. The main one for an avoidant is to find a secure partner, as a secure person will be comfortable with exploring the dynamic and talking things through rather than going into protest behaviour as the anxious type would do. Alternatively, if an avoidant and anxious person are dating, for it to work both the avoidant and anxious partner need to become very self aware and recognise their dynamic and how that impacts on the relationship, and to then reach a compromise that works for both partners.

Working with the challenges of being in an anxious-avoidant relationship

The final chapter in the book covers how people can work with being in an anxious-avoidant relationship. It may be you have identified that your current relationship is this type of dynamic and want to work with it. The key points the author suggests are:

1. Clarity: write out a list recurrent patterns in your relationship and the situations that trigger them. Write down your reactions and thoughts. Identify if your actions and those of your partner are secure, anxious or avoidant and reflect on how you loose out by going along with your habitual strategies (if you are not secure). Use effective communication with your partner to resolve any conflicting desires you both have in the relationship.

2. Using effective communication to choose the right partner or to communicate with your current partner. As this is a chapel in itself, I’ll leave it to be the topic of next week’s essay.

If you have not yet taken the test it is below, or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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Anxious, avoidant and secure: the three relationship styles anyhow to work with our type.

I posed the question last week “why do I always fall for the same sort of man”, or rather, why do I always end up having a familiar experience: chasing after someone who is not interested or running from someone I feel uncertain of but who is interested in me? As I’ve read more of the book I recognise both elements of the avoidant and anxious in my romantic encounters. Secure seems to show up in how I navigate friendships and difficulties within these, unless I get triggered by the other person being unavailable to talk and I go in to anxious.

One answer the book gives to why we go for familiar types is that it enables us to perpetuate a certain view of ourselves and of life.

Avoidant’s tend to date anxious people because it confirms their belief that people are going to be more demanding than they want and that they need to remain strong and hold people away in order to maintain their independence.

Anxious people often feel an excitement on meeting an avoidant as it triggers a feeling they have come to associate with falling in love. An avoidant will give subtle signals right from the start that they are not fully available and this will trigger the heightened worry and flutter of wondering if the other person is going to want them in the anxious person. In contrast meeting a secure person there is none of this avoidance and the secure person is making it clear they are available, like you and want to go further. This can feel so unfamiliar that the lack of feelings of anxiety about being not wanted can be interpreted as there being “no spark’, or that the person is handsome but dull.

Secure people are more likely to enter into and sustain relationships whereas avoidant people are more likely to leave relationships.  This means the number of secure people in the dating pool is lower and the likelihood of an anxious person meeting an avoidant is much higher. Avoidant’s tend not to date each other.

The book gives a detailed description for each type and how to bring awareness to their pattern. The following is a brief summary.

What I found most helpful was the author’s clear belief that none of the types have to feel wrong or need to fix themselves. There is a very compassionate attitude of recognising what one’s pattern is, how it serves one and how to recognise when situations are triggering one to act in ways that do not lead to our deepest fulfilment.

Tips for the anxious attachment type

1. Acknowledge and accept your true relationship needs.
This does not mean sending 100 texts a day or trying to move in on the second date! It means recognising that as a person with an anxious attachment style if your needs are not met you cannot be truly happy in the relationship. This means not allowing people to make you feel guilty for being “needy” or “dependant” but instead recognising your need for intimacy, availability and security.

2. Recognise and rule out avoidant prospects early on
Growing out of this recognition of our own needs, rather than chasing after avoidant people and trying to adapt to be attractive to them, the author suggests we learn to spot the signs of an avoidant and then recognise that a relationship with them will very likely consist of us trying to push closer as they try to hold us away.

To help with this recognition the author gives the following ‘smoking guns’ that indicate someone is avoidant:

  • Sends mixed messages about commitment and their interest in you
  • Longs for an ideal relationship – but gives subtle hints it will not be with you
  • Desperately wants to meet “the one” – but finds fault with the person they are with
  • Disregards your emotional well-being
  • Suggests you are “too needy”, “sensitive or “overreacting” – invalidating your feelings and making you second guess yourself
  • Ignores things you say that inconvenience him/her
  • Addresses your concerns as in a “court of law” – responding to facts without taking into account your feelings.
  • Your messages don’t get across

3. A new way of dating: be your authentic self
Express your needs. In talking of the anxious type the author says it is important to recognise that an anxious person has a need for intimacy and deep connection with their partner. Recognising this means you can show your need for connection early on and do not need to try to adopt a false persona of being aloof and independent in the early stages of dating, pretending that you do not want to reach out and connect in the name of playing it cool! All that will do is give a false message to a potential partner which will then result in you developing a relationship with someone who may not be ready to respond when you eventually show your real desire for greater contact and intimacy.

4. The abundance philosophy
A classic thought of the anxious attachment type is “this is the only one for me” or “I had better accept them as no-one else will want me”. It means shifting from the belief that meeting a suitable partner is unlikely to a belief that there and many potential partners out there. Rather than focusing all of your hope on one person, which will trigger the fear of loosing them and consequently make you act out more on your anxiety the author suggests you recognise there are many people you might potentially meet and to date a number of people at any one time so you do not fixate on one person. If someone then starts to go cool, rather than this triggering your attachment system which will make you want them even if on a logical level you know they are not right for you, if you have other dates at the same time you can more easily let go of the person who is distancing themselves.

5. Give secure people a chance
As mentioned earlier, secure people can seem dull to an anxious type as they do not trigger the feelings that are associated with the early stages of falling in love that come when dating an avoidant. Rather than making an impulsive decision to ditch someone because it feels too flat, give it time, perhaps it is just that you are not getting the usual mixed messages and avoidance behaviour that usually makes you long for someone.
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Tips for the Avoidant Attachment Type

In contrast to anxious types who will activate their attachment system when faced with an avoidant to try and get closer, avoidant’s will deactivate their attachment system and keep their partner at arms length.

1. Recognise when you are turning to deactivating  strategies

  • saying “I’m not ready to commit” but staying together
  • focusing on small imperfections in your partner
  • pining after an ex (seeing them as the lost love of your life in hindsight, even though when with them you saw all of their faults)
  • flirting with others – to introduce uncertainty into the relationship
  • Not saying “I love you”
  • Pulling away when things are going well
  • Forming relationships with an impossible future – ie someone who is married
  • “Checking out mentally” when your partner is talking to you.
  • Keeping secrets and leaving things foggy – to maintain your sense of independence
  • Avoiding physical closeness – not wanting to share the same bed, have sex, walking ahead of your partner.

2. De-emphasise self-reliance and focus on mutual support
Giving your partner a secure base will make them feel more secure and thus leave you free to have the independence you want when they can rest in a sense of trust that you’re there fo them. An example of this was a man who resented his wife texting him at work. He felt too busy to respond. But his lack of response led to her feeling more anxious and sending more texts and then being angry or silent when he got home. They talked about this and recognised their patterns. The husband reassured her he did think of her often, but did not have time for a conversation by text. The agreement they reached was that he would send a standard text each time he thought of her: “thinking of you”. Receiving these reassured her and reduced the need to text him.

3. Find a secure partner
An anxious attachment type will exacerbate the avoidant’s desire to escape. Being with a secure person will reduce the behaviour that would trigger this, resulting in less defensiveness, fighting and anguish.

4. Be aware of your tendency to misinterpret behaviours
Recognise your tendency to assume a negative intention behind your partner’s behaviour and instead learn to trust that they have your best interests at heart. In the texting example, the husband was convinced his wife was trying to undermine his performance at work by stressing him with texts all day, rather than recognising it was her way of asking if he was aware of her because she loved him and wanted to matter to him.

5. Make a relationship gratitude list
Recognise if you are tending to think negatively of your partner on a daily basis. This is not to blame yourself, it is simply how the avoidant style works – to create distance from intimacy through finding fault. To work with this tendency of your mind, start to make time at the end of every day to think back over the day and recognise at least one way your partner contributed to your well-being that day, however small that might be, and reflect on why you’re grateful they’re in your life.

6. Nix the phantom ex
When you find yourself idealising that one special ex-partner stop and acknowledge that you found faults in them as well when you were together.

7. Forget about “the one”
The author distinguishes between the unattainable ideal of “the one” who meets all the criteria on our check list, and of meeting someone in their imperfections but finding that they are a match for us and become special to us.

8. Adopt the distraction strategy
As an avoidant it is easier to get close to your partner if there’s a distraction – taking a hike, going sailing, preparing a meal together etc all allows you to let your guard down and makes it easier to access your loving feelings.

The book contains a lot more detailed information on this and a chapter for secure types – but as they tend to have balanced and easy ways of relating there is lesss to say!

If you have not yet taken the test it is below, or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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Why do I always fall for the same type of man….

In 2015 and 2016 I went to Loving Men in Wales. I loved it as an event, and the feeling of community, friendship and ease. It gives a feeling of what it can be like to live in a world where we are connected, and as gay men can enjoy a playful sense of ease and company. I also left each weekend with a deep pang of unrequited love, having on both occasions met a man who for various reasons was unavailable, but for whom I built up hopes that he might be.

The result was then spending the first months of the New Year struggling with a visceral feeling of loss, of pining for what never was but I had hoped might be and shame at feeling I was being weak to be so preoccupied with a man who it seemed showed little interest in thinking of me or having any wish to have any further connection. In fact with each man we did meet in the weeks after returning from Loving Men, and with each I felt them retreat from the eagerness of my desire to have more connection.

Once again, I then blamed myself for being too keen, for not playing it cool, for wearing my heart on my sleeve and being needy, invasive of their boundaries. So this year I decided that I would avoid Loving Men and go away to a space that was just for me, a 10 day silent retreat. On my way there I saw a man on the train who looked as if he was on his way to the retreat. As we got off I asked him if he was going to the meditation retreat and he was. We struck up a conversation and shared a taxi to the venue. In the remaining time left before going into silence we had a great time chatting. He’s straight so I was not worried about any unrequited love….or so I thought!

As we went into silence I noticed a curious dynamic in relation to this man and another. Someone had arrived just as we went into silence who I did find attractive, and as fate would have it he was placed to sit immediately behind me in the meditation hall, so I saw him each time I went in to meditate. The centre divides men and women into separate rooms and men and women are seated on separate sides in the dining room. This is great if you are straight, as it reduces the impact of seeing someone you are attracted to. Doesn’t really work if you are gay!

So over the time I sat meditating and in the stillness of the silent time between meditations I was present to a familiar dynamic. With the man I had met on the train, once we were in silence I became so anxious that I would be too much in some way – that I would be making eye contact when he just wanted to be in his own space or that I would impinge on him in some way (I noticed that I am at ease looking and smiling at people I know, but once on retreat this can feel awkward as we all withdraw into a more personal space. Also I noticed a fear of not being wanted once it was no longer possible to find out through a few words that someone was feeling friendly). With the man sitting behind me, I saw how my mind wove a story of desire and hope – that at the end of the retreat we would talk, he would turn out to be gay, we would meet and realise we were destined for each other. Exactly the story that fuelled my hopes with the two men at Loving Men, a belief we were meant to be together that in the end turned out to be not an intuition but an empty dream.

The end of the retreat brought two lessons. The man behind me, who I had anticipated talking with once we came out of silence, left immediately the silence was lifted and I never saw him! The man I had met on the train and had worried I was going to be too much for, had chosen me as his meditation buddy! I had noticed we tended to be at the same table after a while and had our drinks together in the breaks. This had helped me to relax around him and feel at ease. He then told me at the end that he is a diver and when diving you have one person as your buddy who you stay close to. He chose me.

Apart from showing how my mind got distracted during the retreat, how is this relevant? It actually was a perfect example of the dynamic I had just been reading about in a book about relationships and the dynamics that can happen between people. The book is called Attached, and it describes how people fall into three broad groups when entering relationship:

1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

A few people are anxious/avoidant, but this is more rare.

The following list of traits for each type are from pages 65-66 of ‘Attached’

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And a few suggestions about how to work with your type:

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The book describes the different dynamics that can arise as these three types form relationships. It talks of how anxious types will often enter a relationship worrying that the other person will lose interest, that they will do something wrong to scare the other person away and take the blame if things do not work out. Avoidant’s will be concerned that the other person will become interested too quickly and so will give mixed messages – seeming to show interest whilst at the same time not replying to messages quickly and being ambivalent about committing. Secure people will not play games but be straight forward, showing if they like you, being open to commitment and ready to talk about anything that concerns them in the relationship rather than using it as a reason to pull away or play games.

What can happen is that anxious people create a template of what it feels like to fall in love – the worry, the heightened sense of uncertainty, the fear of rejection leading to the delight when the other seems to want you, but followed by fretting about why they have not replied to a text. The result of this template is that when an anxious person meets an avoidant it feels like love, because it feels like a familiar experience of what falling in love is like. Whereas meeting a secure person can feel flat – there’s no edge or drama, and so an anxious person can overlook the people who would be best able to give them a feeling of security as they chase after all the avoidant people they are drawn to.

Avoidant’s are drawn to anxious people as it fits with their script that people will become too demanding, needy and that they risk loosing their independence so in the end they need to drop this person in the hope of meeting the right person at some point in the future. It is not that avoidant’s do not want a relationship, but they can have an overly romantic idea of what their ideal partner should be like and so tend to be critical of the people they meet.

What I like about the book is that it does not make any type wrong and does not seek to fix anyone. It encourages you to be aware of your patterns and see how these interact with others, and to recognise that certain parings will be more likely to provide a feeling of security and being held by one’s partner than others. It does not say the neediness of the anxious type is wrong, just something that easily gets triggered when the partner is withdrawing or giving mixed messages, whereas with a partner who is ready to be fully present this dynamic occurs but is pacified by their willingness to hold. This can literally be the willingness of your  partner to take your hand when you want to hold there’s, rather than the avoidant’s response of shaking it off.

Avoidant’s are also looking for love, but have learnt to feel frightened of being overwhelmed. So for them if they recognise that always being attracted to anxious types will not be very likely to lead to a relationship they can relax in they can instead look to meet secure types – but they need to be ready for the challenge a secure person will offer of calling them out on their tendency to pull away. The secure person will not take the blame on themselves as the anxious person does when the avoidant pulls away, instead they will name what is happening and start a dialogue around it.

This is a brief synopsis of the points covered in the book, but if it has interested you or you recognise your type already I recommend reading it. “Know thyself” and you no longer have to live out unconscious dramas and stories. The self test form is below if you would like to find out your type. Or for a more detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

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Balanced Effort

This Christmas and New Year I wanted to get away for a break and to refresh my meditation. A student at the group I run at UCL told me of the International Meditation Centre near Bath and I booked myself on to their  10 day retreat. I have been in London 12 years now since leaving the monastery and have not been on any long retreats in that time, so this was a very welcome return to a structure that was very like my life in the monastery. The morning bell went at 4am and we were mediating at 4.30 for the first of many 1 hour sessions during the day.

Apart from the first and last day we were in silence throughout. There were about 80 of us on the retreat, evenly split between men and women, yet the silence made it feel very spacious and took away the need to try and connect and talk, instead giving a feeling of a lot of personal space.  

The meditation itself was intense. We were sitting between 7 – 8 hours each day. With plenty of gaps! You can see the schedule below. This really gave the chance to drop much more deeply into the practice. Following a more intensive meditation schedule thinking can really recede to the periphery and there is a tremendous sense of spacious awareness, a feeling of light and open attentiveness, the mind being calm and bright, honed to a single point of attention in the moment.

When the mind stops jumping into the past and future, there really is just this spacious present moment, that is not a fixed point in time, but an aliveness in the vibration of this energetic field of being. 

The retreat really helped me to drink deeply from the joy of a calm mind. My body feeling alive and vital, mind calm and heart happy. 

Leaving the retreat felt the hardest part of the whole experience! Retreats are what they are: a leaving behind of our usual life. They are not a way of living. Even in the monastery we did not live with this intensity all the time, we had to maintain the infrastructure of the monastery, which meant working as well as mediating. The skill of meditation is learning how to bring the lessons from these deeper immersions into the practice back into one’s daily life.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few experiences from the retreat. 

 

Balanced effort

The first experience is the story told in one of the sessions which illustrates right effort. It was a Buddhist retreat so they were quoting from the Buddhist scriptures, which contain a plethora of stories from the time of the Buddha. This story concerned a monk called Sona. As a young man he lived a very luxurious life, so much so that he had fine down on the soles of his feet from never exerting himself. A king once asked to see this and marvel at his fine feet! Shortly after this the young man met the Buddha and became a monk.

Suddenly he left his life of privilege, wealth and ease and concentrated on the training of a monk. He was determined to gain insight. He was living in a hut in the forest, and used a track outside to do walking meditation. Reflecting on his meditation subject as he walked. His delicate feet were used to walking on silk, not the forest floor, and his walking track was soon covered with blood from his lacerated feet – but determined to see the profundity of the Buddha’s teaching for himself he kept walking. In his sitting meditation he strained for insight, but it did not come. Eventually he thought it was to no avail and he decided to leave and return to lay life. 

The Buddha saw this and came to Sona, concerned for his well fair, knowing that if he pushed himself too hard his mind would not be able to soften and be receptive to the intuitive knowledge that was there like a bud waiting to open, but which could also wither in the intensity of his wilful effort. 

The Buddha spoke to him in the following dialogue:

“Sona,” he said, “I have heard that you are not getting good results from your practice of mindfulness and want to return to the lay life. Suppose I explain why you did not get good results, would you stay on as a monk and try again?”

“Yes I would, Lord,” replied Sona.

“Sona, you were a musician and you used to play the lute. Tell me, Sona, did you produce good music when the lute string was well tuned, neither too tight nor too loose?”

“I was able to produce good music, Lord,” replied Sona.

“What happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?”

“I could not produce any music, Lord,” said Sona.

“What happened when the strings were too slack?”

“I could not produce any music at all, Lord,” replied Sona

“Sona, do you now see why you did not experience the happiness of renouncing worldly craving? You have been straining too hard in your meditation. Do it in a relaxed way, but without being slack. Try it again and you will experience the good result.”

Sona understood and stayed on in the monastery as a monk and soon attained awakening.

As you sit in meditation remembering this story can be a really great way to check in with the quality of your own effort: is it too wilful, or too unfocused, or is it in the middle – balanced and just enough?

This was a living part of how the retreat centre worked. In the first few days the retreat leader told us to notice the quality of our intention as we sat. Were we sitting with forced determination not to move? Were our knees hurting but from pride we would not move as we wanted to be seen to sit for the whole hour? He said that we are here to train our mind, not our body. If we find we reach a point where sitting is done with gritted teeth – then it is time to stand and move, he even invited us to go to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and have some cake!

This was a very different approach from what I have come across in other retreat centres, and it encouraged a softness that made it easier to rest into a deeply calm and focused attention. The teacher said that when effort was too much from sitting with gritted teeth, then there would be a lot of ego in the sitting, which would mean a lot of thinking. So this approach only makes for more thinking and distraction.

It did help! Giving myself permission to move, shift posture, make myself comfortable, allowed for a relaxing into the practice that then made it easier to sit in a stillness that arose from being present rather than as an effort of will. 

If you would like to have a more in depth experience of meditation I recommend the centre. They run 10 day retreats at the end of very month. Their next starts on the 19th January. For details click here

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