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The Two Arrows: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

Over the last month I’ve had a number of experiences that have given rise to feelings of dejection and sadness. And as this drama in the heart-mind has played itself out on the stage of myself I’m reminded to return to a teaching I became familiar with last year, the two arrows.

There’s a Buddhist saying: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. This slightly enigmatic phrase is explored more in the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows where the Buddha compared the experience of pain to being struck by an arrow:  it is happening, it’s real and it hurts. But how do we then respond to this first arrow? If I respond to the initial stimulus of my upset by worrying, wondering what’s wrong with me for it to have happened, blaming myself for falling into habitual patterns or not doing more to act in a ‘better’, wiser, way or getting angry and irate I fire a second arrow.

So now I have the initial pain of not being able to date someone I want to, or not being invited to an interview for a job I applied for (and am currently working in, but had to tender for…adding to the sense of failure) If I then add the secondary pain of telling myself off, putting myself down or finding fault with myself, feeling worried about the furture, anxious about what will happen…..I then fire the second arrow. I have no control over the first arrow. As the saying goes “shit happens”, but I do have control over the second arrow, for that is what I create as a response in my heart-mind to the finial painful stimulus.

This tendency to self-blame seems to be rooted in low self esteem, a self-desarigin mind sate that is ever ready to find evidence of me being a useless and flawed human being, a “waste of space” as my mother would sometimes say to me as a child. Perhaps the child started to believe that if I am waste of space then perhaps I do not deserve to exist or take up space? And an unconscious pattern of thinking about myself gets created which is triggered when events seem to prove it true. Another familiar scolding was that I “did not have the brains I was born with”, so it’s not surprising that my inner critic would delight in using this as one of it’s recurrent themes: you’re so stupid, look at the mess you made of that, see I knew you couldn’t do it.

This isn’t to then look to blame my mother or whoever we hold responsible for our wounds – that would be firing another arrow, getting angry with a person who no longer exists – my mother is still alive, but the woman who was my mother in the 1970s is simply an idea now, a memory in my mind, echoing in this present moment as habit patterns of thinking that have created a neural patterning in my brand to respond in certain ways. The significance of the two arrow teaching is that in a pre- scientific age with awareness of the brain an dits structure, the Buddha is encouraging us to engage in a neural restructuring by choosing to hold our experience of the initial pain without going into the automatic pathways of resting to it. For me its to go into a sense of powerless surrender and silent anger. That’s how i was a child and it’s given with to my patterns as an adult. Other may have learnt to get angry, so will respond with rage to the first arrow. We all have our patterns. But by coming back to the primary pain, the first arrow, we have a chance to open to an experience of empathy and compassion for ourselves, for our suffering and to recognise that it will pass and is a temporary experience not something that defines who we are.

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The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain and she uses this teaching of the two arrows as the means to finding a deeper level of ease and patient forbearance when confronted by pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain.She gives a beautiful summary of her approach which I’ve found very helpful in my own experience of working with pain:

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In the chart below Birch shows how by responding to the primary pain with resistance we then fire the second arrow which gives rise to secondary suffering. This secondary suffering may take the form of ‘blocking’, where we try to deny that there is any pain, or ‘drowning’, where we are overwhelmed by it.

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How then do I  stay with the first pain and not shoot the second arrow? First, I acknowledge that I am firing the second arrow, that this is something I am doing in response to the initial stimuli. Then And then I turn to the first arrow itself. I can feel in and ask myself am I blocking or drowning?  In another teaching the Buddha talks of a man who has been shot by a poisoned arrow who will not have it removed util a whole list of questions about the arrow and who shot it have been answered  – who shot it, where did he come from, was he a noble, whats it made of, what feathers were used on the shaft etc. Clearly in this case the mad wold just want it removed. But when I am shot by the arrow of suffering how often I try to work it all out what it means, why, what it says about me, what was it’s cause?

As I mentioned earlier there may be causes from childhood for how I think now.  But I am here now, and my awareness of these conditioning factors point not at a never ending speculation about why, but the need to hold this present moment with compassion and patience. The first arrow is pulled out when instead of pushing it further into the wound, I bring kind attention to the pain through a gentle, compassionate holding of my sense of upset and disappointment. Holding the hope of the child for love rather than telling him he was a fool to expect anyone to want him or be available. Perhaps being abandoned by my father at birth made that wound, but right now I can let that wound fest, or apply the healing balm of self-care through acknowledge that hurts, that I feel lonely, and recognising that this is not just my experience but it is what I share with all humans.

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Community

Over the last few weeks I have shared from some places of struggle and it has been so heart warming to have had people responding to the group email with their own messages of support and care.  Receiving this support reminded me of a teaching I heard early in my involvement with Buddhism. When I started out I saw the path of liberation as being about a solitary journey to ever deeper self-awareness and freedom. And I liked this myth of the  solitary spiritual warrior when I started meditating in my 20s. But then I heard this teaching relating to the Buddha and Ananda, a monk who accompanied the Buddha throughout his life as a teacher and up until the Buddha’s death:

One day Ananda, who had been thinking deeply about things for a while, turned to the Buddha and exclaimed:

 
”Lord, I’ve been thinking- spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!” 
The Buddha replied: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!”
(Samyutta Nikaya, Verse 2)

In this context spiritual friendship means a close and ongoing connection with others who share ones sense of purpose and calling. Later when I lived in the monastery a therapist from the Karuna Institue visited to do some therapy work with a group of us and he said something which I have remembered ever since: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. We do not fix ourselves in isolation. It is only when we are with others that we can explore experiencing where we were wounded in relationship and find a new way of relating to the unhealthy patterns of relating to ourself and others in a way that they may be held and allowed to heal or become more creative.

“We are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”

Where I was wounded in relationship may be familiar to you:

  • the boy that learnt to hide his spontinaiety, after being laughed at for taking a doll into school, for being so useless at football, for not fitting in with the boys and preferring to play with the girls at break time – skipping rather than football was my choice!
  • The boy that wants to be part of something larger, but withdrew when that larger whole sought to ridicule him.
  • The laughter of boys at school as a teenager as they called me “gay”, the start of the belief there was something wrong with me, that if I could just find the ‘right’ way to behave so that others wouldn’t spot this then I could hide this fatal flaw. And so the defences went up. Spontaneity was a danger. Becoming guarded and wary of how I showed myself was essential to survive.

As a result by the time I was an adult I only felt safe talking one to one with others. Being in a group overwhelmed me. I could not control the dynamics of a group discussion. And I did not know how to join in with the flow of conversation. In my 20s I attended many group study retreats for the Buddhist group I was involved with. I would spend a week sitting in these sessions saying nothing. It felt safer to be invisible than to speak. By now it was not that I could not join in. When I did join in people listed and even enjoyed what I said. But the neural wiring in my brain just did not allow for an ease of entering a group discussion, for so long the default mode had been to withdraw, watch, listen and asses. Even now going into a space where I am not leading it brings up a moment of fear: I will have to be me, judged as a fellow participant, not the leader of the group.

It’s been a while since I was in a group discussion of this sort and at the New Year Loving Men retreat I decided to goto one. Phoebus, the group’s facilitator, explained how this session and the sessions he runs in London for gay and bi men work. He talked about how the sessions had a duel intention:
1. To discuss the theme, which relates to a different aspect of sexuality in each meeting
2. To explore and make conscious the dynamic of how we are in the group.

The value of the second point is that how we are in a group will very likely mirror how we interact in the world, in groups and our everyday life and helps the process of bringing awareness to the hidden and unconscious patterns that have become established in directing our behaviour. As the quote from Jung below states, it is only by bringing into the light of awareness that which is in shadow that we can start to act freely rather than be a puppet dangling on the strings of habit.

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It was with a little trepidation, and some excitement, that I approached my first of these meetings in London last Tuesday. Phoebus was there to host a discussion on online dating/hook up aps, how we use them and our experience of them. With the other men there we started to talk about our experience and how we present ourselves in this virtual world. It was a great opportunity to bring what is often a private and hidden part of one’s life into a public space. I enjoyed the conversation, but as the session went on I noticed my self feeling less able  to talk and how Phoebus would invite me to join the conversation at times, which reminded me of how I used to be in groups and how the facilitator would need to draw me in.

During the session I noticed my internal reaction to how I was perceiving someone else in the group, but did not feel comfortable to bring that into the space: I had to be good, not cause trouble, be the one who keeps the peace rather than stir things up. This is my pattern: to be concerned for others and their feelings rather than myself, while inside I’m not happy at all. Talking with the facilitator afterwards he reassured me this was exactly the sort of thing that I could bring into the discussion – so that between us we could explore the roles we were taking on in the group, roles that we would naturally slip into whenever we are in a group or social setting.

“You’re so dull, no one wants to listen to you”

I find this to be a fascinating opportunity to explore how I relate to groups, to being with others, and finding my voice. My inner critic still tells me I’m boring, that I have nothing to say that my only point of conversation is meditation and after this niche area is set aside people will see how dull I am. My self critic tells me I’m a failure, and that no matter how someone may like me to start with they will soon see through that show of confidence and reject what they see. I see how this belief originated in my unhealthy childhood friendship with a boy that would befriend me one day and drop me the next, only to make me a friend again before dropping me again. This went on for years until I unfriended him aged 9 and never spoke to him again for the rest of our school life together!

This belief that people will see me as not worth their friendship is at least conscious now and I know not to believe it. It’s the propaganda machine of the mind churning out its vitriol. But as I mentioned at the start it is in relationship that we heal, not in isolated introspection. The search light of inner awareness can bring what is in the shadows into the light, but to relearn and remake those neural pathways in the brain takes engaging with a group, a community, with “spiritual  friends” where new patterns may be learnt or built up.

I’m therefore looking forward to attending more of these workshops. And I hope I may see some of you there for an opportunity to share in discussion but also in supporting each other to heightening self-awareness and to letting go of the patterns that do not serve us – or to celebrate behaviour that supports us but which we do not see. When I told a friend I fear being a failure as a meditation teacher, he looked at me, said “you’ve run a meditation class for gay/bi men for all these years. You’re a success. So don’t believe that anymore” And with that I saw that he was right, in purely objective terms, and that I just kept crashing on the rocks of self-doubt by listening to the siren’s song of self-deprecation.

Whilst I was reflecting on  the theme for this week I listened to Jeff Foster’s 6 minute video below where he explores how to relate to self-blaming thoughts through becoming the compassionate witness holding the pain through untangling the thoughts from the feelings rather than trying to silence them or escaping them through addiction: “When you can hold a feeling you’re no longer controlled by it”. He makes the important point that these thoughts of being wrong or a failure originated as a child as a way to protect oneself – it was safer to blame oneself as it was too dangerous to think mum or dad is bad or wrong, which would make this world too unsafe to endure. By opening to holding what is there we can see that we are neither a failure, nor are we a success. We just are.

Surfing the Waves of Suffering

I woke up today feeling sad and scared. I’m waiting for a few things to become clear which is acting as a reminder of how life is uncertain and unpredictable. For the last year I have been teaching mindfulness courses at a London council to their staff. The 8 week courses have gone well and I have received constantly good feedback from participants. But there is a requirement that any ongoing work at the council has to go out to competitive tender so I had to submit my application along with others for the interviewing process……..The interviews took place yesterday and I was not invited.

This brings up the feeling of having failed – which objectively, as the task was to be invited to an interview, I have – but then this becomes a feeling in my gut that I am a failure. I feel slightly sick right now. And that belief is not true but it is corrosive. If I just stay with the objective fact: I submitted an application, I was not invited to an interview. I can then reflect on what is needed to make any future submission better able to communicate my skills and abilities in a way that an admin team would consider interviewing me.

I like the way the Buddha describes our human experience: life is like traveling in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. As comfortable as you try to get on the journey there is an unexpected jolt and a shudder at irregular intervals to throw it all into confusion.

I’m back where I was a year ago in terms of wondering where I shall find work and income. But I have a years experience of teaching and feel a confidence in myself I did not a year ago. As well as uncertainty about work other life patterns are presenting themselves in different arenas, especially dating and relationships. Jung said “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It feels as if some things are rising into consciousness now through various life situations. And it’s hard to sit with that, but I know it is needed or these patterns of behaviour and thinking/feeling will just keep playing out on the stage of myself, with me as the “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”…….I just hope that, unlike Macbeth, I do not finish my life believing that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As I sat in meditation this morning all I could feel at first was fear. And then sadness. Then I dropped into, or was embraced by, a deeper stillness that was calm and nourishing. But held within that gentle embrace was a hard fist of fear in my belly/solar plexus. Forty minutes of breathing into that and letting it be has opened it, but only so that I now feel it more fully. I find these feelings are like waves, and right now it feels like a huge one is rolling over me. It needs to be felt. And I know it will pass. But I hope to learn from it. But it’s so hard to welcome something that feels so hard to be with. However, I do believe Rumi when he invites us to “stand at the door laughing” and to welcome whatever difficulties arise as a guest to be treated honourably – to be held in awareness without judgement and allowed to be rather than trying to destroy the unwanted emotions as they come knocking at the door asking to be let in.

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I’m reminded to reflect on how dependant we all are on each other, how we are all part of this interconnected web of interactions. It’s this teaching of interconnectedness that drew me to Buddhism. The teaching that we are not islands unto ourselves, but one point in an interconnected matrix. My actions impact on others, whilst the decisions of others reverberate through the matrix and impact on me. One month I have a seemingly secure employment, circumstances change, staff change and a new agenda comes in and that security evaporates like mist.

I’m just grateful for my meditation practice, it is the one place where I can drop into an experience of freedom and joy that does not depend on anything from outside to create or sustain it. And thank you to friends who offer so much kindness and support. I was touched by the responses yesterday and to a message I sent out recently to the meditation group when people shared their own experiences. It reminds me that this is what unites us – living in a world that is uncertain, unsure and full of insecurity. May we all find our way to the bliss of freedom from suffering.

How to be Happy

I sometimes talk about Oxytocin in the class and the various activities we can engage with to produce it. Known as the love hormone or cuddle chemical it is quite self suggestive for how it is primarily produced – touch, loving contact, sex, and a deep feeling of connection to another.  It can also come from self touch, giving yourself a massage to have a sense of loving contact, given that we don’t always have others around who will give us a hug! I was thinking about this during the week as I have to apply a moisturiser after showering due to dermatitis. I can easily see this as a task to be got through before I can on with the day. But instead, this week I’ve seen it as an opportunity to slow down and give some affection to my body, having a sense of care as I apply it and enjoying the experience as a five minute massage rather than a chore.  What parts of your day do you rush through that might be more nourishing? Could your morning shower be a time to slow down and enjoy the touch of water and feel of applying the soap? Could you take longer to enjoy your first cup of tea or coffee rather than gulp it down and get on with work?

How might you nourish yourself through becoming more present in the everyday activities you already perform?

Enjoy the everyday: Perhaps your walk to to work could become a time for quiet reflection. I goto a school twice a week to volunteer as a reading assistant. I have two routes to go from the station to the school.  One is slightly longer and goes through Battersea park, whilst the other is along a main road. In the morning I need to get to the school directly so walk along the road, but after the session I have a choice.  Its been interesting to see how often my mind is in busy mode wanting to get straight home to get on with a task. But taking the extra ten minutes to walk through the park has such an impact on my sense of well-being and happiness it is worth being ten minutes latter home! One person I know found he could enjoy hanging his washing out on the line rather than see it as a chore…and in doing so nourished himself through being more open to his senses – the smell of fresh laundry, the feel of the sun on his skin, the sound of birds singing….

This principe of how we view our time is outlined in a story I read: a Buddhist teacher was collected by his disciple at an airport. The disciple asked if he wanted to go the fast or scenic route home. The teacher replied “fast”. On arriving at the home where they were staying the dispel rushed in to get on with arrangements. The teacher stopped him and asked “what are we going to do to enjoy the time we just saved?” How much of our life is spent hurrying taking the fast route, but never stopping to enjoy the time we have saved!!

Kindness Diary: Kindness has been found to be an excellent way of boosting oxytocin and a sense of well-being.  In one study a group of women were asked to write down every act of kindness they performed each day for a week.  But the end of the week their answers to a stress test showed they were 50% less stressed than at the start of the week. You don’t need to deliberately think of kind acts to perform, but simply bring conscious awareness to the kind acts you are already performing but overlook.

Gratitude diary: write down one or more things you feel grateful for from the day.  It can be very simple things, but noting them starts to orientate the mind to a sense of being nourished rather than a sense of lack.

Find exercise you enjoy: Exercise releases endorphins….but only if you have enjoyed it and felt it was effective.  Grinding out a few laps of the park or dragging yourself to the gym won’t release endorphins.  But doing it because you enjoy it or finding an activity you enjoy  will.

Volunteer: I’m volunteering twice a week as a reading assistant in a school. I work with the same three children over one year, seeing them each for 1/2 an hour twice a week. It’s a delight to see how they are engaging with the reading and enjoying the time we spend together.  And I am feeling happier as a result. Volunteering has been found to boost well-being and happiness. We are social beings and there is something powerful in knowing you are doing something for the well being of the community of which you are a part, doing it from your heart rather than for any financial benefit.

Meditate: the Loving Kindness practice will have an impact on your sense of well being if done regularly. The mind does not distinguish between what is happening and thoughts of an event.  Sitting and wishing a friend well and feeling happy for them will be as if you are with them and enjoying their company. The heart will feel warm and beneficial hormones will be produced in the brain associated with feelings of happiness and love. Whilst the mindfulness practice will help the body to regulate itself and switch off the stress mode of fight/flight or freeze and go into the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a highly beneficial state, where the body can rest, repair and rejuvenate. All it takes is ten minutes a day to start to have the life enhancing benefits of a daily meditation practice.

What’s yours? As well as these you may have other activities that nourish you and make you happy – a hobby, reading, gardening, mountain climbing, telephoning a friend, painting…..what activities can you think of that you might incorporate more into your life to bring a greater sense of well being and joy? How would you like to start your year?

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The Power Of Posture To Change How You Feel

This week we continue with the theme of self-love from the perspective of how to step into a deeper feeling of self worth through how we hold our body. When I first started running the classes over 7 years ago I gave out a handout of the cartoon below. It was the first time that I had seen anything relating to how posture affects mood, but it made me think how true it was. Good old Charlie Brown!

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Around the same time I saw this illustration showing how a chimpanzee changes its posture as it goes from feeling sad to dejected. And I was struck by how as humans we have the same tendency to close down our body and shrink into a smaller space as we get sad or feel powerless.

 

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A few years latter I watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the power of posture to change how you feel and finally these different elements all came together in her exploration of power poses and how they shift our sense of ourselves and even effect our body’s chemistry.

What she observed was that when feeling unconfident or powerless we tend to adopt the restricted posture shown above by the Chimps. In contrast when we feel elated or successful we adopt an open and expanded posture. Interestingly people who had been blind from birth and had never seen an athlete extend their arms out in victory do the same when they win a race. Amy suggests this seems to relate to our primate heritage, where those higher up in the power order take more space in the way they hold their body while those lower down or who feel powerless will signal this by making themselves small.

 

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In her talk, which is included below, Amy Cuddy talks about her motto “fake it till you make it”. She found that by adopting a high power posture it changed how she felt and how others perceived her. She taught this to her students who were thinking of dropping out of the course due to low self-esteem – telling them to start adopting postures that expressed confidence, even if they did not feel it. They then started to feel more confident in class.

There is a place for being fully present to the feeling of fear before giving a talk. Breathing into that and holding it. But if I were to then give the presentation holding myself small it would only add to the feeling of not being good enough. In contrast taking a breath, standing tall and with an open chest I already feel a little more able to give the presentation.

Moving from “not enough” to “Enough”

As I was reading ‘I love Me’ by David Hamilton this week he refers to Amy Cuddy’s work and how he had used it himself. He refers to the shift from the feeling that you’re “not enough” to one of feeling “I’m enough” and discusses what can happen when you pretend to be “enough”, even if you are not feeling it and how this can change the chemistry in the body through its impact on the nervous system, muscles and testosterone.

He gives an example from his own life. One Friday he was teaching maths to a class of students who had all been expelled from their schools. In the first lesson they destroyed him. They told him they were not interested in fractions and made it clear what they thought of him. Driving back to his school he stopped the car and cried it was so painful. He wanted nothing other than to get out of ever teaching the class again. But the head of department was away and he could not talk to her until Monday. A colleague challenged him, knowing he was writing a self-help book. The colleague suggested he see if he could use the methods he was exploring to change how he was in the class. Over the weekend he stood in power poses, imagined himself talking with confidence and authority to the class and used some self affirming affirmations.

On the Monday he went in to the class and there was a shift.  He held their interest and started talking about his work as a scientist. They became fascinated and started asking questions, saying it was ‘crazy shit’. He then made a deal that they could have 20 minutes of ‘crazy shit’ science if they had focused on the maths for the rest of the lesson. He was now confident and in command. By the end of the course they all passed with an A grade.

This might be an extreme example, but we can all use this when going for an interview, or on entering a situation we find challenging. What Amy Cuddy discovered through her research was that by holding a high power pose for two minutes it increased the amount of testosterone in the body, boosting the feeling of confidence, and reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Thus, spending two minutes somewhere private holding a power pose before going in to the challenging meeting, interview or situation may help to change how we feel as we enter it. As David Hamilton observes, Wonder Woman gives us a great example of a power pose, standing with her hands on her hips! Or it could be standing with arms up as if we had just won a race or even making the Usain Bolt pose. I was talking to my flat mate about this earlier and made the pose (for the first time ever)  and was amazed at how good I felt!

LONDON, ENGLAND AUGUST 5, 2012-Jamaica's Usain Bolt strikes a pose after winning the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

LONDON, ENGLAND AUGUST 5, 2012-Jamaica’s Usain Bolt strikes a pose after winning the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Even smiling will alter your mood.  As you meditate allow yourself to have a relaxed and gentle smile and just notice the effect!

None of this is intended to deny that we feel sad and in pain at times and next week I’ll be looking at how we can hold this.  But the Buddha taught that we are not a fixed self, that all that we experience arises upon conditions and by changing those conditions we change. So if we have got into a habit of being like Charlie Brown and facing the world with shoulders slumped, perhaps that helps to maintain that mood and way of being in the world. By changing our posture we are saying to our body that things are ok, that we can shift to a more confident mood and after a while of ‘faking it’ we may actually start to inhabit that way of being and it becomes our new reality.

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High Power Poses v Low Power Poses 

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In “I love Me’ David Hamilton makes the point that we were not born with low self esteem, we learnt it. Anything that has been learnt, can be unlearnt. We were not born feeling more comfortable taking certain postures. We have learnt to feel more comfortable holding our body in this way. From looking at the illustration above which do you recognise as your habitual ways of standing and sitting? And how does it feel to take on the opposite?

To shift from a low power posture to a high power posture may feel incredibly uncomfortable.  When I did it it was as if everything in me was saying you don’t deserve to stand like this, this is not who you are. The autopilot of personality was wanting to be left to present itself to the world as it had learnt to feel comfortable. But that came with a script of: “I am nothing, I don’t matter, who will listen to me…….” and to live form that script was too painful. It still is as I’ve not entirely learnt to inhabit a place of open potential rather than scripted limitation. But when I feel myself closing down, I open my body up and feel the difference. I invite you to play with this yourself. And if you notice you hold high power poses naturally, try holding a low power one for a few minutes, just to get a feel of the contrast and truly appreciate the way you have learnt to  hold yourself – but know how others are feeling who lack that confidence so that you may use your strength to empower others to find their own confidence rather than intimidate them.

If this has interested you there is a much more detailed discription of it in the 20 minute video below:

I love me – the science of self love

How uncomfortable does that statement make you feel? Or are you at ease with the sentiment of loving yourself?

The last two blogs have looked at creating new patterns through changing habits over 30 days and finding an accountability partner to help in this.  But as we engage in self development it is so important to notice the tendency to think I will be able to love myself when I am fixed.  We have an idea of how we should be and may not like who we are. If this is the case then there is a risk of always looking to a future version of our self that we can love but feeling that right now we are not lovable. And the people I trust tell me that freedom comes when we can rest into the deepest acceptance of who and how we are right now. To do this we need to turn to wards this moment and hold it fully with love and compassion. But if there is a pattern of not loving ourselves, or feeling we are broken and need fixing then our spiritual journey is sabotaged by the thought I have to make myself someone worthy of love, rather than I love me as I am.

Over my 25 years of teaching the Loving Kindness practice I have felt the benefit of directing this kind attention to myself and others and have seen how people struggle with feeling love for themselves. This last week I was teaching week 6 in the 8 week mindfulness course where we focus on the Loving Kindness practice.  As part of my own development I was listening to other teachers to get new perspectives on how to engage with the practice and I came across a new way of teaching it which immediately resonated.

Instead of moving on to the neutral and difficult person the practice focuses on oneself and a friend. Traditionally the Loving Kindness practice starts with thinking of a spiritual guide and directing Loving Kindness to them before moving to oneself. This gives a sense of being connected to another before dieting attention at oneself. But for most of us in the modern world we do not have a spiritual mentor so this stage is dropped. But this means we go straight into the wish for ourselves to be happy and well which many find hard to fully feel.

In this alternative version the practice starts with another being with whom we have an easy and uncomplicated relationship. This may be a child, a friend, a partner or a pet. Some people feel very lonely and may only feel a warm connection to a pet, and can feel this is not appropriate in the meditation. But the unconditional love a pet gives is exactly what we are looking to feel in this practice. Or we feel ourselves to be with a good friend, and see how pleased they are to see us.

We then wish this being well. And after a short period of this make the wish for both of us with “may we be happy…” In this way we get a feeling of connection. It is only then that we shift the focus to ourselves with “may I be happy” etc. And then rest in this.

I led this version in the class last Monday and people really liked it. On talking with my mindfulness supervisor she encouraged me to explore this approach. So many of us find it hard to really give ourselves love. In this practice we are given permission to fully explore this, without even extending it out to all beings. A Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that it is only when we can fully rest in this self love that we can then extend it to the neutral and difficult person, and from there to all beings. In a strange piece of synchronicity one of the participants on the 8 week course brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Loving Kindness practice in to share last week and it was there I read this advice. Then during the week I looked for a guided Loving Kindness practice and came across one that focused on friend and self without extending out to others and really enjoyed it.

Then on Looking at my book shelf this week I saw a book I’ve had for a few years and never read, ‘I love Me – the science of self-love’, by David Hamilton PhD. In conjunction with listening to the new guided meditation I’ve started reading this book and it is a great exploration of what harms self-love, and how to heal. So over the coming weeks this will be the focus of the emails and the class.

If you would like to buy the book it is available here or listen to him talk in the video below.

 

Ulysses Contract

Creating a new Habit, the 30 day challenge

Last week I was reflecting on how we might choose a new approach to our morning routine. As we are all aware it is so easy to think it would be a good idea to try something new, but actually to shift our behaviour means changing the old autopilot ways of behaving and creating new neural pathways in the brain so that the new habit becomes engrained.

It takes roughly 30 days to form a new habit (often 21 days is said, but around 30 to be sure!) It’s important that the new activity is done every day. If there is a break of one day we start the 30 days again so commit to fully engaging with your new habit every day even if only for a few minutes. The first 10 days may feel tough. The second ten we start to adjust to the new routine. The final ten we may even start to enjoy it and look forward to it.

Decide what you want to establish over the next 30 days and commit to it.

As the saying goes “if you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten” so over the next 30 days it’s your chance to shake up your autopilot way of being by creating your morning to be a time that nourishes body, mind and heart.

 

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The Ulysses Contract

To achieve this it can help to have an accountability partner. Someone to whom you tell your intention, and with whom you then check in each day to say if you have done it. This is also known as a Ulysses contract. Although it perhaps should be know as the Odysseus Contract! There is a story in the Odyssey of Odysseus (known as Ulysses by the Romans) coming to the island where lived the Sirens. Many sailors had perished on hearing the Sirens song, for it’s beauty made them loose their senses and they would plunge into the sea to try and reach the island, loosing their lives in the wine dark water. Or sailing their boats towards the sound they would be dashed on the rocks surrounding the island, their boats destroyed and their bones joining those of the many others laying there at the feet of the Sirens. Putting aside its patriarchal fear of the feminine, it’s a powerful story!

Odysseus wanted to hear this song and survive. So he ordered his men to tie him to the mast and stop their ears with wax. They were forbidden to respond to him in the madness that would descend on him as he listens to the Sirens song, and to keep rowing. As they approached the island Odysseus went mad at the sound of the singing but his men kept to their pact, ignoring his ravings to be untied or to steer the ship to the island. On passing he returned to his senses.

Hence a Ulysses contract is one where we make an agreement with another whereby they stand for our integrity by holding us true to our intention and word. Or you may simply like to call them an accountability partner!

I was told about the Ulysses contract concept by a friend when we were training together at the same gym.  We had an agreement to meet three times a week on set days and whereas we might have made excuses to ourselves not to go, we could not let the other person down. So over the year that we went we kept to our commitment of three times a week. On finishing this and returning to training on my own it became easier to miss days…or even weeks.

Another example from a few years ago is when for some months a friend and I sent a text each evening to say what our intentions were for the next day and if we had met the intentions we set the previous night. Setting your intentions at night helps to be prepared to wake up feeling purposeful and engaged with the day. The brain may even engage with our intentions as we sleep, helping us wake with a clearer sense of purpose. I achieved more in those months than before or after. Just through  feeling accountable to someone else. It’s so easy to make excuses to oneself. But the way our mind works we don’t want to tell another we didn’t do what we said we would. And if we don’t do it, no blame….we just acknowledge it  to our partner and reaffirm our commitment.

Looking at what you want to create as a new habit over the next 30 days. Is there any way of setting up a Ulysses contract with someone? Do you have a friend who would be happy to be an accountability partner through a nightly text? Is there someone who could join you in your undertaking – even if not physically together you could text to confirm you have done what you said you would as you do it or at agreed times. Have fun reprogramming your autopilots into something you have chosen to do rather than just do out of habit!

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