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Tools for Self-Love

As we meditate it can sometimes feel as if things are getting worse rather than more peaceful. This is not because meditation makes us more uptight or anxious, but because we start to tune in more quickly to the worried thoughts and emotions that previously we may have been oblivious to. In the early days of meditation we may not be aware of some of this self-critical inner dialogue, but it can become more clear the longer we meditate. But just because we don’t notice it dose not mean it is not there – it’s just that the low mod or sense of upset we feel we do not associate with what we have been telling ourselves, instead we just notice we are feeling low or sad with no idea of why. In contrast, when we do start to notice the inner critic we are actually better able to stop the downward mood swing before it has become too established.

One method for understanding your self-talk is explored in the ABCD model. Each letter stands for a step in recognising and disputing negative self-talk.

A: the ACTIVATING event that initiates the self-talk. An example might be walking along a street and waving at a friend, only for them not to respond and to walk on past.

B: the BELIEF (or negative thinking) that this activating event initiates. Depending on our temperament we may take the blame for what has happened, blame the other, or be neutral. Thoughts such as “what have I done wrong”, “why do they not like me any more” will be common if we take the blame for what has happened. Whereas thoughts such as “how dare you”, “I hate you” will occur if we blame the other. Or with a more neutral mind we may consider: “perhaps they did not see me”, “that is so unlike them, I hope they are alright”, or even “silly fellow, forgot their contact lenses again no doubt!”. With all of these we have no evidence for the truth of our belief – it is presenting itself as an objective statement on the situation, but is in fact coming from our underlying way of seeing ourselves in the world at that moment: victim, aggressor or neutral observer.

C: the CONSEQUENCES of having that thought. These are the feelings that arise as a result of having the thought. If we have blamed ourself for our friend not waving back we may then feel anxiety, worry, remorse or dread. If we blame then we feel angry, resentful or resentful. Neutral thoughts may lead to the most calm state of mind, and that calm state of mind is a result of having neutral thoughts about our friend not waving back.

D: the DISPUTING self-talk that we can use to counteract the negative inner talk. If we have taken the blame for our friend not waving back we may have started to think “I’m such a bad friend” , “people always see through me”, “I’ll never manage to keep any lasting friendships”. Noticing these thoughts we can start to counter them by deliberately thinking in a way that brings in a different perspective. We may say to ourselves in this case “just because someone does not wave back does not mean they hate me…I need to find out first if they even saw me!”

Another example might be:

A: I spill coffee all over my new carpet
B: This activating event triggers the belief: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid”
C: the consequences of this belief is that I feel depressed and hopeless – lost in self recrimination.
D: to dispute the statement: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid” one might think, “No, just now I spilt coffee and it needs to be cleared up. This does not happen every time I have coffee, in fact this is the first time in years it has happened – so it is not true that I am always clumsy. If I were there would be a pool of coffee around me wherever I go and this is clearly not true!”

To fully engage with the final stage of disputing the self-critical thought one can use the process of thought stopping. Negative self-talk will often occur vey quickly when we are in a triggering situation and this will quickly lead to a downward tail spin as we are pulled into difficult emotions associated with the negative self-talk. In fact it is almost as if we go into a default mode where an event triggers a belief that then takes us to a familiar emotional landscape. In one way we feel comforted by the familiarity, but it means we can come to return again and again to a landscape that is harsh and difficult to thrive in: blame, self-deprecation, feeling guilt, sad or bad.

To interrupt this automatic cycle of events leading to familiar landscapes of belief, we first need to recognise what our habitual thought patterns are. Once we start to know the territory we can then prepare some alternative ways of thinking. You will need to work out your own according to what your habitual self-talk is, but here are a few examples:

  • “I do not need to be perfect. All humans make mistakes – and making a mistake does not mean I am a mistake”
  • “Relax and breathe. I can cope with this situation”
  • It is not helpful to think like this. I do not deserve to treat myself like this. This self-talk is just a bad habit”
  • “Even if he rejected me it does not mean I am unlovable – my friends love me, so I am lovable”
  • “I have value, regardless of what anyone says”
  • “Not everyone is looking for a cover model as a boyfriend” – useful when one thinks no-one will ever find one attractive!

It may feel hard to say these at first. We somehow feel it is natural and authentic and honest to say harsh things to ourself – but arrogant, false or disingenuous to say anything positive. In a latter email I’ll address the issue of core-beliefs and how these can make it hard to say anything positive to ourselves. But for now, explore going to your edge and recognise that discomfort may simply mean you are in new territory that does not feel familiar, but that does not mean you are wrong to be saying these positive things to yourself.

You may like to make your own list of pleasant, encouraging or positive thoughts that you can say to yourself when you notice you are caught in negative self-talk.

Interrupting the Loop: this final method is used when we feel we are in a repetitive loop of negative self-talk that keeps repeating like a needle stuck in a scratch in a record. When you recognise that this is happening gently say to yourself: “stop”, as you would to a good friend who is caught in self recriminations or blame. It is not a harsh “stop” but loving and gentle, but this may also find expression though  an assertive and firm statement, as you would to someone trying to cross you boundary. The idea is to say it emphatically enough that you interrupt the flow of thought.

If you find that you are feeling frustration building up as a result of the repetitive negative self- talk you can create an assertive “talk back” statement as a way to challenge the primacy of the negative self-talk. For example:

  • “stop blaming and catastrophizing”
  • “this negative garbage is not helping”
  • “these old messages are wrong and unfair”
  • “enough!”

Feel into what your own might be but remember, you are rebutting the old negative messages, not speaking to yourself in a punitive way. Then, after stopping the constant flow of negative self-talk you can insert an affirming statement.

If you have enjoyed this, you may like to look at the book that I am drawing from: Loving Ourselves, the gay  and lesbian guide to self-esteem, Kimeron N. Hardin

Identifying the different types of critical self-talk

Over the last month I’ve been reading ‘Loving Ourselves’, the Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem, by Kimeron N Hardin. It has been fascinating and the latest chapter has been really helpful in identifying negative thinking patterns and how to work with them, so in this weeks email I’ll be sharing these with you.

In last weeks class I was reflecting at the start of the session that learning to meditate can bring great peace, but also make us more aware of what we had previously been ignoring. In this way it’s like the stones that rise up out of the ground as the rain slowly causes them to appear at the surface. These negative patterns of self-talk and the associated low self-esteem have been here throughout, but at times as we meditate and bring more self awareness to our inner dialogue and feelings it can seem as if things are getting worse as we all of a sudden hear our negative script much more clearly, and feel the negativity we direct to ourselves more astutely.

For this reason it can be beneficial to have some ways of working with difficult thoughts and feelings. In meditation we simply learn to note what is there, open to it and come back to the breath. There can be a process of opening to the awareness that is able to hold what is there in an open embrace and this can feel very peaceful. I certainly find meditation is a refuge for me in this regard. A chance to sit still and at peace. But there are times when the thinking mind takes over and thoughts and emotions run riot. As this happens it helps to bring a reflective curiosity to the process of the mind, thoughts and feelings.

 

Identifying Self-Talk

The following is a summary of chapter 10, from ‘Loving Ourselves’ by Kimeron Hardin.

As we bring awareness to thoughts in the moment we begin to notice patterns of thinking that arise without any conscious will on our part. Such thinking is called automatic thoughts. To recognise thinking as automatic thought it is useful to identify the five characteristics of such thought:

1. Brief  self statements or images: automatic thoughts often have a quality of being only a few words that express a belief about ourself that is taken as a statement of truth, such as “stupid idiot”, or “It’s too much”, “I can’t cope” or an image that has the same implication as these words – seeing yourself failing, or being told off. These thoughts arise spontaneously and with no deliberate effort.

2. Experiencing automatic thoughts as true: such thoughts often arise out of beliefs planted in our mind as children at a time when we could not evaluate the truth or veracity of an opinion. They are now heard as if they are objective truth, rather than as an opinionsimply because they are so familiar and have been part of our inner self-talk for so long. This automatic nature means they can happen immediately when a trigger event occurs. For example, if you were regularly told you were stupid as a child when you spilt something then on spilling something as an adult the self-talk is immediately ” I’m so stupid” and this is taken as true. Rather than questioning why one has such a thought as opposed to the more objective recognition: I’ve spilt something, how do I clear it up?

3. Automatic thoughts are often extreme and include rigid rules hidden in the words used: when you notice thoughts containing words such as should, must or have to this is an indication of automatic self-deprecating thoughts. “I should have learnt by now”, “I must pull myself together”.

4.They seem to have always been there: These thoughts pop up so quickly we often forget to challenge them or we forget information that contradicts them. In fact, the thoughts occur so automatically we forget to see them as opinions that have been learnt, and forget we were not born thinking in this way. 

5. Automatic thoughts often group into themes:  as we bring awareness to our thinking we may start to notice that the thoughts that arise whilst being specific to a situation actually fall into common themes that often form the backdrop to our negative self-view or ways of talking to ourself. 

Common themes for self-talk

As you read the following see which you recognise as your own self-talk themes. 

1. Overgenralizing

Words often used in this way of overgeneralising: all, none, everybody, nobody, never, always.

“I’m a failure”, “I can never get anything right”, “Nothing ever works out for me”

People who have this style of thinking often believe that they absolutely cannot make mistakes, or that they have to be perfect. When a mistake happens they feel they are a failure or that they are destined to keep repeating the same mistake forever. This way of thinking tends to take a single event and make sweeping conclusions about life form that one event,

When caught in overgeneralisation one will tend to take a negative event as a pattern of one’s life and make global, labelling statements about oneself and others, places, or aspects of one’s own life, all based on a single encounter or experience.

Sub categories of overgeneralised thinking are:

i) Polarised or Black-or-White thinking. 

Words often used in this way of thinking:

Always Never Perfect
Impossible Awful Terrible
Ruined Disastrous Furious

People who think in this way tend to limit their perspectives of a situation to two alternatives. This way of thinking ignores any element of grey, and instead sees life as consisting of opposites: right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. This type of thinking is very common in depression and is related to the fight or flight mode of survival. Grey thinking requires an ability to hold uncertainty: “maybe this, maybe that”. When faced with a life or death situation we cannot have a maybe, we need a clear decision to fight or run. Uncertainty would create  hesitation and increase the risk of being killed. Hence, when we are under stress we feel the need to make a clear either/or decision rather than hold the uncertainty of a maybe. 

“The more we polarize our thinking the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m a terrible person!” or “She’s perfect; she’s a saint!” or “I’m just a failure!” oversimplify life and cause massive emotional swings. Few marriages, holidays or jobs were ‘complete disasters’ but had different elements within them.” Ref

As a child we might fail in an exam and then think: “I’m so stupid, I’m never going to get anywhere”. Or we could think “Maths is not my strongest subject, but I have done well in English”.  Or we might have a pattern of being attracted to unhealthy partners and think: “I’ll never meet anyone who is good for me”. But if we have some supportive friends we could think “I’ve met three boyfriends where it ended badly, but I have been able to make some good relationships with my friends”.

The following gives an outline of situations where we might fall into black and white thinking and offers another perspective on how one might think:

  • Can I be basically an intelligent person and still do something stupid?
  • Can I love my children and still get angry with them sometimes?
  • Can my partner love me but sometimes be insensitive?
  • Can one part of my life be difficult and other parts be easier and more enjoyable?
  • Can a part of my life be difficult now but in the future get easier?
  • Can some parts of an experience (such as a social engagement or vacation) be awful and other parts of it be OK? Ref

ii) Filtering

People who think in this way tend to see life through a filter or lens that distorts their perspective known as selective abstraction. This refers to a way of thinking where we pay attention only to the negatives in a situation rather than seeing it in its entirety, which might enable us to also see some positives. This type of thinking leads to feeling overwhelmed in a situation because you only see the downside and not the resources you may have to help you out of the situation. The words we use in this form of self-talk suggest that the situation has no solution, and that one has no control over it. 

An example would be someone with low self esteem going out one evening to a club or to a party and not meeting any one. The self-talk might be something like: “I’m so unlovable/ so completely unattractive”. Whilst overlooking the people in one’s life who do like one, or dismissing past relationships that have meant something even if we are no longer in them now.

At the end of a relationship this type of thinking will often manifest as: “Now they have left I have nothing” , which then initiates strong feelings of loneliness and heartache. Rather than seeing that you have your friends, social network and your own qualities to attract a new partner when the time is right. 

iii) Magnification or minimisation

This involves exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. So instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, which you minimize, you magnify your perceived failures. An example would be if someone offers you a compliment, you vehemently deny the positive and focus on the negative. Ref

iv) Disqualifying the positive

Here you only look at the negative even if someone tells you differently, you continue to deny it. Here’s a possible conversation between two people showing this distortion:

John: “I’m no good at sports.”

Sam: “What about the time you scored the winning touchdown?”

John: “Oh that was just luck”

Sam: “But even the coach said you displayed skill.”

John: “He was just being nice” Ref

2. Catastrophising or Fortune Telling. 

This is the tendency to predict the worst possible scenario for any possible outcome. A catastrophiser will tend to focus on worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they are to actually happen, leading to a state of perpetual anxiety and worry. 

Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms:

The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation. For instance, if you’re a salesperson and haven’t made a sale in awhile, you may believe you are a complete and utter failure and you will lose your job. In reality, it may only be a temporary situation, and there are things that you can do to change this situation. Another example is believing that if you make one small mistake at your job, you may get fired. This kind of
Catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”

The second kind of Catastrophizing is closely linked to the first, but it is more mental and more future oriented.This kind of Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “It’s bound to all go wrong for me…”). Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong. Ref

3. Must and shoulds

Must and should modes of thinking arise out of applying absolute rules for living on oneself and others. This may happen without one even being aware of the process. When we or another does not follow the rules, by mistake or intentionally, it can make one irritated, angry and judgemental. The rules were often learnt as a child and may be irrational or unreasonable but were accepted by the child without question.

For example one may have learnt the belief: “good boys are quiet and don’t cause any disruption”. As a child and in one’s family unit this may have resulted in behaviour that was in line with this rule receiving praise and love. But as an  adult, being at a party where one is quietly causing no offence, but wanting attention, one might become intensely irritated with the “loud” and “arrogant” man who is the centre of attention as he jokes, is mischievous and breaks all of one’s rules for what is required to be good and liked. 

To find your must and shoulds, consider what type of people most annoy you and reflect on what it is about their behaviour you so dislike. What did you learn as a child that may have made you feel that such behaviour is wrong?

4. Personalising

This way of thinking makes everything always about oneself. This might be through always comparing yourself to others: “She’s so much more intelligent than me”, or “my body is nothing compared to him”. Another way of personalising is to always assume that you are the source of other people’s problems, or the cause of a negative event. 

An aspect of this way of thinking is mind-reading: thinking we know what other are thinking and that it is all to do with us.

A friend of mine had a powerful experience of seeing through this way of thinking. He was in a store about to pay for some items. He saw the cashier looking him up and down in a way that he took to be critical or with dislike. He reflected that he did not know what the other person was thinking and even if they were feeling negative he did not have to respond in the same way. Their negativity might have nothing to do with him, and he was aware his thoughts were his own subjective perception of the situation.

In the past he might have made a caustic comment or put the person down based on believing the truth of his perception of the situation but this time he just smiled and said hello. The cashier then chatted and in talking revealed that she had been wondering where he had got his coat as it looked perfect for her son and she would like to buy one. What had looked like a critical looking up and down was someone’s thinking face! 

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

Saying no to the inner stories, so we can say yes to our life

Last week I was reflecting on the power of saying no to external events and a text conversation with a friend this week has reminded me of the power of learning to say no to the stories we tell ourselves.

The 8 week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course has a theme of ‘propaganda’ – the stories we tell ourselves so often that we come to believe them as objective truth rather than a subjective opinion. As the cartoon above suggests, it is so easy for us all to be going around with the same propaganda undermining us: the thought that it is only me who is not together, is broken and failed….whilst thinking that everyone else is together, purposeful and living to their full potential.

Having the privilege of talking to so many people in my role as monk and then mindfulness teacher, and reading the emails that some people send me in response to these weekly reflections I have been privileged in my life to see behind the public mask so many of us present to the world. Behind that mask what so many of us share is a sense of confusion, fear and struggle. Often this is rooted in negative scripts that tell us we are in some way defective or lacking, or do not deserve the success we have, or will be seen to be the fraud we feel ourselves to be.

Some people will have other more egotistical scripts, believing themselves to be amazing and wonderful, but this is still a fragile place to inhabit, as the moment this belief gets threatened the fragility of their identity easily cracks. People who have based their worth on being a high flying, high earning achiever can be the most  hard hit by loosing their job or position as they also loose everything that confirms their story of who they are. Rather than believing in themselves they believe in what their position says about them and loosing that position it can feel as if they have been destroyed. Unfortunately the number of suicides after executives or highly placed bankers have lost their position testifies to this. In contrast people with a low self-view are relatively comfortable with the world conforming this through a perception of failure!

It does not matter then whether our inner script is one of lack or superiority, believing in the script and the stories that get generated by it can be destructive for anyone and learning to say no to the story teller is the first step in finding a deeper freedom.

 

 

Reading self-help books and attending workshops can be a useful way of becoming aware of the scripts – but can in themselves become part of the story: the one who is seeking, who is broken, who needs to find the right person or book or teaching to fix them. The people I know who have found their own freedom have all at some point stopped looking outside and instead taken the teaching they have and turned inside to fully explore the implications of that insight.

The thought “I’ll read just one more book”, or “I’ll visit just this one more teacher” and then I can start to explore the implications of their teaching is all a way of the storyteller delaying the deeper investigation of what is keeping one trapped: one’s own addiction to the drama we have become familiar with. The friend I have been chatting with about this said it so well when he observed that he was addicted to his story. I’ve felt that with my own sadness at times, it’s as if I am addicted to a state of being and make choices that perpetuate that experience. Partly it feels comfortable to rest in the familiar. But there also  seems to be a feedback loop where feeding the familiar emotional drama is like any other addiction in the way it gives rise to a dopamine hit that gives a sense of reward, even if the addictive emotion itself is an unpleasant one.

The following information outlines this process, relating it to our ancient reward centre in the brain that assists in learning thorough giving a pleasurable experience through the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine when we experience something which seems beneficial to our learning or survival:

 

As the brain experiences a dopamine hit from turning towards this addictive behaviour it reinforces the feeling that this is a reward which encourages it to return to this behaviour more and more to get the reward again and again. So if our addiction is porn or food or buying shoes or feeling sad or self-blame the process is the same: our brain has learnt through a ‘pathological learning’ to identify that stimuli with a dopamine reward.

Thus we return to the principle of learning to say no to the story teller: the urge to return to a familiar experience, whether it be an addictive sense of feeling sad, or and external addiction of shopping, food or porn. The story will be that when I have this I will feel better. Even though that may then be followed by a feeling of shame at having fallen into a pattern again that we feel does not really serve us. But that remorse passes and soon we are back in the loop again of seeking the dopamine reward for our familiar pattern.

In this way these negative scripts have a double barb: they give rise to shame or a sense of not being fulfilled, yet by giving a false dopamine hit of reward they also mange to trick the brain into thinking they are beneficial by giving a brief experience of fulfilment followed by the crash of shame, and so we return to these activities again, in part to get away from the low feelings associated with the shame they have caused to arise.

Logically I can look at my addiction to sadness and see that it serves no purpose other than to keep me sad in a world that is perceived as half empty. But if by returning to this familiar place I get a dopamine hit that briefly tells the brain this is a beneficial experience then there is an encouragement to keep returning.

The benefit of mindfulness in this process is to learn to urge surf. This is a manfulness based approach to craving, where instead of trying to resist an urge one instead turns toward the experience of the craving with curiosity, and learns to sit in the experience, attending to it as one watches the breath and the body whilst meditating. In this way there is a beautifully paradoxical process of saying no by saying yes! We say “yes” to being present and allowing without judgement the urge or desire to be as it is, but this requires us to say “no” to acting on the urge in habitual ways so that we are able to sit with it and fully feel what it is like as an experience. In this way we can feel the discomfort within it, and also watch as it passes, without needing to get the hit of the familiar addictive behaviour to make the discomfort go away.

 

 

 

 

As I write this email I am hailing to apply the principles to my experience right now. I had a date today, someone I met on the Tube a few weeks ago. This was to be our second date, after spending three hours together last Thursday. But he canceled yesterday, saying he is too busy with work. This immediately took me into the familiar story: “I’m not wanted”, “why do I only find men who cannot commit”, “what’s wrong with me….what did I do wrong”. The discomfort of all of this then just makes me want to find a way to escape the pain: either through indulging in the comfortably familiar place of melancholy or in some porn as a simulated experience of connection and sensuality. But this is the old story playing out and putting its shadow over the events. He’s not said we will not meet, only that he is too busy today. It may be we never meet again, or it may be we have a date in a weeks time once I return from Queer Spirit.

My brain finds it so comfortable to go to the place of melancholy it immediately reads this as a rejection and a failure and bang, there is the dopamine hit of going to the familiar place of melancholy. Instead, by applying the urge surfing method in conjunction with Ajhan Chah’s teaching “unsure uncertain” I can stay with this as an experience and recognise that the catastrophising that makes me feel so bad is not based on what is happening, but my fear of what will happen. I can be with the sadness of a canceled date: that is real. But the feelings of failure and of calamity are based on a familiar story of lack being projected into the future and creating a certainty that is not yet born out by any events. A similar story played itself out last month with a new friend whom I was convinced had lost interest in becoming friends. Now we text every  few days and are intermittent workout buddies. The story bore no reality to what was to happen but created a week of feeling dejected and a failure. Then when I dropped the story and sent him a text he replied and we carried on from there, so in fact there was no rejection…it was just he had not sent a text and needed me to do so to pick up the conversation again. 

I hope this helps you reflect on your own stories and how to relate to them as stories and not truth.

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