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Posts tagged ‘love’

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.

 

DNA – the human family

A few months ago a box arrived in the post. Inside was a clinical kit with a swab and a vile of liquid. The swab was for a DNA test and after rubbing it vigorously against my inside cheek it was deposited in the vile and sent off.  A month latter a large envelope was delivered. Inside was a book containing the break down of my DNA results.  Having grown up knowing that my relatives on my fathers side were Italian and Hungarian I was not surprised to find that the break down indicated DNA matches with central Europe and Southern Europe. What was surprising was to see I had only inherited 15% of DNA that matched with the British Isles.  Just looking at me in terms of DNA I have more in common with people living in central and Southern Europe than the UK!

Looking at my mother line the story becomes even more fascinating. The DNA match here is with people still living in Egypt. The  mother line tracing back much further to our origins in Africa.

Last week I was reflecting on the theory that we are all made of star dust. This week the reflection is again around interconnectedness, but now on the level of DNA. In this body, my body, there is DNA that is the same as people now living in Egypt, in Italy and Germany and Scandinavia. In fact I share more DNA with these people whom I have never met than with many people born in the UK. It is a reminder that we are one family.  That the divisions of national boundaries give us a sense of belonging, but that as bodies we are not  the product of just one geographic area.

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I find this a fascinating reflection. A reminder on a scientific level of the spiritual teaching of the Buddha and other mystics that on a deep level we are all one. And that to divide off against others through hatred and aggression or a sense of self and other is to be ignorant of our shared nature and unity.

If we add to this the reflection that we are all made of the same elements that were born in the furnace of stars that burnt bright billions of years ago, we have a potent message from science that is inviting us to reflect on the teaching that we are part of a whole.

Many teachers give their disciples the simple question to ask as they rest in meditation: “who?”, or “who am I?” This was a question that I asked myself as a child as I stood out in the garden looking up at the stars. “Who am I and what is the point of being here?” It felt as if there was something I had forgotten and needed to remember to make sense of it all. I thought that on becoming an adult I would be inducted into the mystery, but instead it became the root of my interest in Buddhism and spiritual practice. It was the question that I hoped to find an answer to through meditation. I’ve not found an answer…but I enjoy the question still!

From this scientific and rational exploration of DNA and the origins of the elemental table in the stars we have one lesson that we may feel more deeply in meditation. In answer to the question who am I we get the answer I am both me, unique in this moment, and I am everything and everyone…… and everyone is me.

It was for this reason that the Buddha emphasised compassion as a central part of his teaching: learning to care for others as much as we care for oneself.  And in the modern world where we carry guilt and shame to a degree that was maybe not as strong in the past, we must bring this compassion to ourselves as well, learning to hold our own suffering with a kindness that does not condemn us for being weak or a failure.

As I teach I meet so many people who feel a sense of self loathing, or lack of self worth. I hope these reflections help: for rather than feeling a failure, when we see like this we see that we are part of a whole process of the Universe coming to know itself through us. We are each a vital part of that process. It is like one wave on the ocean thinking it is irrelevant – but without it the whole pattern of waves that flows back and forth could not exist as it is both unique and an integral part of that complex pattern of shifting and changing waves across the surface of the ocean. And beneath it is the still vast ocean of which it is made but from which it seems a separate thing, just as the teachings say we are part of a vast stillness which is our true nature: we are it but we forget and get lost in being a wave dashing from one shore to another. As we meditate we have the opportunity to feel this deeper peace, the peace of the ocean which we – and everyone and everything is made of: our true nature.

If you are interested in the DNA test I used DNA worldwide but there are many other sites and some may even offer a better test so do look around.

We are made of star dust

I remember hearing this quote some time ago, perhaps even as a child, as the show it was from, Cosmos, was broadcast in the ’70s. It always made me think of the vastness of the Universe and yet the intimacy of it all – that in this body there are elements forged in the furnace of suns that once burnt bright billions of years ago.

I was not aware of how much truth there was in it and decided last week to research it and I have been amazed at the beauty of this teaching.

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The videos I’ve watched have explored the enormity of the evolution of life in the Universe. The early belief that all of the elements that are described on the periodic table came from the big bang started to be questioned in the 1950s when instead there was a new theory – that they had been created in the first suns that formed when the sea of hydrogen that at that point made up the universe first clumped together to form the first suns. Then as these early suns burnt they in turn created all of the other elements. As these stars then grew old and eventually imploded and then exploded more elements were created and scattered out into the universe in the way  mushroom spoors are scattered out. Seen like this life didn’t simply start on the Earth, but Earth (and any other inhabited planets we are not aware of) is the final expression of a process of life evolving that started with these early suns. For a more detailed description of this process click on the video below.

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What does this signify and why have it as a reflection in a mindfulness email?  For me it points to one of the central teachings of the Buddha: interconnectedness. The Buddha taught that it is only in our ignorance that we think of ourselves as separate egos, because we identify with our bodies as distinct and apart from each other. For him, seeing with wisdom meant seeing that everything was interdependent and interconnected: no one thing exists in isolation from anything else and nothing is born only from itself, but arise out of a complex matrix of conditions.

It is as if a wave on the ocean thought it was a distinct, permanent and seperate thing. But on waking up to its true nature it realises that it is both a unique expression of being a wave existing in the present moment and at the same time made of the ocean of which it is a part and which in fact it is: the wave merely appearing to be something separate and distinct whilst actually being intricately connected to the ocean.  The wave is simply the ocean knowing itself as a wave. And as such there is no difference between any of the waves, for they are all the ocean, and yet all unique.

The Buddha also emphasised compassion. A deep feeling of empathy and connection to the suffering of all other beings. If the wave in our analogy wakes up to being part of the ocean, then it immediately realises that all of the other waves are in fact, itself. That they are all unique and beautiful expressions in the moment of the one source: the ocean, which is what all of the waves share. They are at the same time unique and totally the same.

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If the atoms in me were forged in a star many billions of years ago how many other life forms have they passed through? How many worlds have they been a part of? How many animals and other human beings? This body is not mine. It is ours.  And as I  look at others if I start to see stars and the flow of life rather than just individual beings then each person is both eternity and a single moment: the ocean and the wave.

Right now this is poetry for me rather than a deeply felt insight. But I believe poetry opens the heart and can give rise to wisdom. When the rational mind stops trying to understand and find an answer poetry and the heart rest into the not knowing and find an answer in the question: who am I?

As science shows us, one answer is ‘I am the universe’. Feeling this in the heart takes it to a deeper level of insight. One which would lead to a love for all beings as part of oneself, just as the wave would love all waves when it woke up to knowing that it was an expression of the ocean in one point of time, manifesting in form as a wave. Just as we are the universe knowing itself in this moment of time manifesting as intelligent life in this moment of time, formed of atoms create by the universe in the seed houses of the stars.

Taking this reflection into the Loving Kindness practice can offer a way of opening our hearts to all beings: friend, neutral and difficult.

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New Year resolutions: rejecting what is wrong with us or celebrating our achievements?

 

As we approach the end of the year there is the all too often repeated ritual of making New year resolutions: made to be broken a few weeks into the New Year! Why is this? One reason might be that we try to create the ideal me in our resolutions. But this ideal me is not who I am right now so there is a conflict between how I am right now and how I think I should be, with the result that our resolutions do not celebrate us and what we have achieved but are like a teacher caustically saying “could do better” on our end of year report when we have done the best that we can!

Over the last few years I’ve suggested that we try a different approach. One that celebrates where we are whilst also acknowledging any change we would like to cultivate. Think of your life as being like a field you are tending.  There will be some weeds that left unchecked may choke the growth of the crop we wish to cultivate. The Buddha encouraged us to reflect on what  thoughts and actions lead us to greater calm, contentment and wisdom and which lead to suffering and sorrow. This is with the intention of identifying ways of thinking and acting that lead to our suffering, which then gives us an opportunity to choose how to act in ways that most lead to our well-being. But there is the risk of then trying to fix ourselves by making resolutions to be the opposite of the unwholesome self we have identified. In this way we are trying to get away from something rather than move towards what we are attracted by. The Buddha phrased it as seeing what thoughts and actions lead to greater peace and simply recognising those that lead away. Just as one would not touch a burning coal knowing it would cause suffering, the more fully one feels that certain actions lead to suffering one will pull away from them.

The dilemma is learning to open fully to the fact that certain actions do cause suffering rather than thinking they are a source of pleasure! Perhaps we eat more than is healthy for us. Or there is an addiction of some kind, or we sit at home on the computer rather than going out to the gym session or a walk in the park we know we ‘should’ do but do not feel drawn towards. If we then make resolutions based on what we should do, because it’s good for us, there is little emotional excitement in doing that rather than the thing we think we shouldn’t do because we know it is bad for us – but which we enjoy on one level!

How to make this switch from forcing ourselves through resolutions to do what is good for us but we do not feel an emotional pull towards and to cease to do the things we know are not good for us but we feel an emotional pull towards because they offer some sort of pleasure in the moment – even if afterwards we feel regret or shame? It’s something I’m still working on so I don’t have a definitive answer! The area I’ve been looking at in this regard is sleep. I feel great when I’m in bed and asleep by 11. I wake rested and early enough to meditate and do some exercise before breakfast. But so often I get caught up in distractions, looking at news reports on You Tube or checking Facebook, only to get lost in various posts and links to articles.

I might make a resolution to go to bed earlier, but this is trying to get away from the problem.  How might I turn it around to approach the solution, to approach a way of being that the heart becomes excited by?

The Ulysses Contract in Action

The first step was acknowledging it as something that was taking me away from happiness. I was talking with a friend after last week’s Monday class and we talked of the things we were doing that were habitual and difficult to change. Once the neural connections have been laid down for certain actions it will be the default mode of the brain to make that choice, whatever ours might be: to reach for food when unhappy, to associate bedtime with watching news and distraction, to be lived by an addictive behaviour unthinkingly. How much do we live our lives, and how much are we lived by our habit patterns? Did we consciously choose these habit patterns or are they the result of life circumstances that have shaped our behaviour, but not our true being? To start to be conscious of them is to start to choose how we wish to live our life, rather than just going with what we have unconsciously picked up along the way.

By having this discussion with my friend I was able to recognise my own unaware habitual behaviour through seeing his. It’s so much easier to recognise someone else’s self-justifying behaviour than see one’s own! But then he said something that really hit home for me. We were talking about the Ulysses contract or accountability buddy concept that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The idea that one makes an agreement with another which then ties one to the intended action though checking in with each other to say if we have done it, or agreeing to meet to do an activity together so it is not so easy to make an excuse not  to go. He said that during the week when he was feeling like acting on his habit he would think what would he say to me about my bedtime habits, and then turn that around to asking himself what is he going to do about his habit. Seeing how clearly he could see the unhelpfullness of my habits to me would then act as a reminder to him to see his habits more clearly rather than justify them. Likewise, I could think to myself, “what would I say to my friend about his habit” as I felt inclined towards clicking on You Tube late at night. It worked incredibly well. Often unhelpful habits arise out of a sense of loneliness and disconnection. By choosing instead to have it be a reminder to feel my connection with a friend who is also working on turning towards a way of being that is more nourishing for him it helped me to make a choice in that moment to turn the computer off and go to bed.

This has been the first week in a long time that I have gone to bed at 11pm regularly and it happened out of feeling a sense of commitment to my friend, wanting to be able to see him and say “yes, I kept thinking of you and it helped me to make a choice that was more in line with my wellbeing”. It has been said that as social animals we can use shame to our advantage – the things we justify to ourselves when done in private finding it harder to do if it means loosing face in front of another by admitting to them. So making this public to a friend and agreeing to check in with each other may help to remind us of what our deeper wish is for ourselves, rather than falling into the automatic pattern of following the habit. Once we have done this for a while it becomes easier to see that we are not the habit. That it is living us and we have a choice to see it, name it and say yes to an alternative way of being.

This sense of saying yes to a life I choose rather than passively living out a habit pattern that has become established and routine makes me feel much more attracted to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm, as opposed to making a resolution that just says ‘go to bed early!’, which feels like a parent telling me what to do. I then feel the consequences of waking up refreshed, having time to meditate and exercise and how this sets up the day. This then gives me more of a feeling of attraction to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm.

“Friendship with the wise is the Whole of the Spiritual Life”

An oft quoted statement of the Buddha’s is that “friendship with the wise is the whole of the spiritual life”. Friendship with others who are becoming more self aware and compassionate is thus vital to our own well-being. Talking openly about the unhelpful habit with such a friend helps in letting go of shame around the activity. How often do we beat ourselves up about a behaviour that we know is not good for us? But would we treat a friend in the same way? We would be kind, compassionate and caring for our friend. We might hold a boundary for them and question their actions but we would not condemn them as being stupid or a failure. If the habit is living us and is simply the result of experiences in life that have given rise to a certain activity then it is not who we are. As such there is no need to condemn ourselves for our over eating, porn addiction, binge drinking or whatever it might be. Instead by sharing it with a friend we see it as it is, a behaviour that does not serve us but keeps us trapped in a repetitive cycle.

When we look with compassion at ourselves and see that this way of acting leads away from the peace, contentment and well being we wish for ourselves we have the opportunity to acknowledge to another that we see this and in doing so we have their support in seeing who we truly are, which is not the habit, but a being who is spontaneously manifesting every moment in the moment. Just as the sky is not the clouds, even if it is totally obscured by them, in the same way we are not our habit patterns, even if they seem to dominate. Habit patterns were learnt, and exist due to the neural pathways they have burnt in our brain, but they can be unlearnt. The difficulty will be letting the neural pathway dissolve as the brain will tend to go with the easiest route. So we need to make new choices that lead to no longer using that old neural pathway. After a while those synapses in the brain will disengage and what seemed like an impossible habit to break will no longer be an active pathway. The short video below gives a beautiful depiction of how this process works and hints at why, once established, it is so hard to break a neural pathway.

Celebrating our Achievements

Rather than wishing we were our ideal self we can end the year celebrating our achievements. Spend a little while reflecting on what actions over the last year have, in however small a way, taken you towards a greater sense of well-being, peace and fulfilment. Perhaps you didn’t go to the gym 3 times a week and lose the weight you intend this time last year, but what have you done that has in some way been in line with your intention of caring for yourself? Perhaps you did a course, or became a little more healthy in some way it would be easy to discount if it does not match with the total transformation you wished for last New Year’s Eve.

You may not have established a 40 minute daily mindfulness practice, but you have remembered to stop and take a breath at times of stress, which you now see helps you to return to equilibrium. Building on this breath you can move towards the daily mindfulness practice from an appreciation of what you have already established rather than feeling a failure.

New Year’s Eve Ritual

In summary, as you prepare to see in the New Year you may like to reflect on the past year in terms of your achievements and let this inform your list of resolutions rather than it being a to do list of how to be a better version of you! As part of this you may like to reflect on the following two points:

1. What have I seen in my behaviour over the last year that does not take me towards peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have diminished my sense of self-worth?
2. What ways of being have there been in this last year that in some way, however small, have taken me towards a sense of peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have contributed to my sense of self-worth? Celebrate these and resolve to live more fully from these habits and ways of being in the year to come.

You may then like to create a ritual around this based on what we did in the monastery at New Year’s eve. Write both down on separate pieces of paper. Keep the ways of being that you wish to live more fully from in 2017. Put them somewhere special so that you can refer back to them regularly. With the things you wish to let go of find a way of burning this list. We used to have a large steel pan with a night light inside. Light the paper and put it in, and watch the unhelpful habits of the last year burn away.

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Opening to Joy – The Path to Awakening

Buddhism is often accused of being pessimistic due to the focus on suffering as the entry to the path of self knowing. It´s cettainly true that what attacted me at the beguining was this acknowlegement that there was suffering. And for a long time that was my focus – how to be free from suffering through the freedom of Enlightnement. But in doing this I forgot what the Buddha also taught, which was that joy is here right now when we relax into the present moment. This weekend I am visiting a Cuban friend who lives in Hamburg and on the flight over was reading Thich Nhat Hahh´s book Breathe You Are Alive which is a reflection of the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness. In this the Buddh talks about how as we bring our attetion to the body, feelings and thoughts and attend to the experience of the breath in our body we open to a deep joy. It is this joy that then supports the arising of insight and wisdom.

As I sit here using my friend´s computer there is Cuban music playing as he dances whilst he cooks. Listening to the music there is a feeling of joy that is uplifitng. And I´m struck that it was this quality that the Buddha spoke of as being part of the path to awakening. Not serious, introspective and severe reflection – but a lightening and opening through joy, bliss and rapture.

When I was ordained into the monastic tradition my name was Bodhinando, which translates as The Bliss of Awakening. There wasn´t much bliss in the person I was at that time! I was intense, serious and felt little joy. And I took the name as being a pointer and a challenge from my Abbot. That what needed to open in me was a heart full of  joy and bliss as exemplified by the founder of the lineage I was training in, Ajahn Chah.

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

How to rest into this state? One approach is exemplified in the teaching of opening to difficult emotions with a sense of curiosity. So often I can get lost in fighting these or looking for a way of escaping them. The mindfulness approach I learnt in the monastery was a patient allowing, a turning towards what is difficult, feeling it and knowing it. As Ajahan Sumedho, my Abbot, used to say “that which knows sadness is not sad”. Awareness of an emotion is simply awareness – it is not the emotion. It is like the sky knowing the clouds – it holds them, sees them for what they are but is never itself a cloud. This approach was highlighted by the being with difficulty meditation I learnt to teach as part of the 8 week MBCT course and a method of turning towards the difficult emotions I read in The Happiness Trap, an introduction to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: to accept what is out of your personal control, while committing to action that will improve your quality of life) by Dr Russ Harris. In this he has a detailed meditation on how to turn towards difficulty by feeling it as the sensations in your body rather than as a thought, and then breathing into those sensations.

To listen to a version of this click here

The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be.  In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.

Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know.  We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.

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Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance

This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and  emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being.  As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices for healing that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience and may find a peace that was never touched by the illness that can then nourish one in the suffering of physical pain.

The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now can be held. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff Foster gives you a feeling for this approach.

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Let the Inner Child Rescue You

Last week at the social after the class someone said that they had been interested in my comment in that week’s email about the change my mother saw in me as I went from a child into my teens – loosing some of my spontaneity and becoming more guarded and watchful. I thought this would be an interesting area to reflect on this week. I notice in myself a fear that in my core is something that is dark and wrong and that my self investigation will open me up to feeling this pain or fear or struggle. But looking back at photos of myself as a child I see a child full of energy, vitality and joy. Perhaps it is the adult who has learnt to look out at the world as a fearful place but deeper in me there is still this trusting, spontaneous energy just wanting to be able to express itself.

I’m currently reading ’10 smart Thing Gay Men Can do to Improve Their Lives’. In this the author, Dr. Joe Kort, references a book by Harville Hendrix, ‘Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles’. In this Hendrix describes how we develop a “fugitive self”, a part of us that has to go into hiding out of a belief that it it is not wanted by our parents or the society around us. If our parents give us the message we are loved as we are then we can express ourselves fully, but as we get messages from them or from our social circles or society that some things are not allowed then we send this part of ourselves into  hiding. So much so that we may forget we ever felt it and it becomes the ‘fugitive self’. Through being denied it goes into the shadow and what was once a joyful vibrant energy may start only to be able to find expression in risky behaviour, breaking rules, or is projected out onto others in terms of what we admire or condemn. It’s often said that what we most dislike in others is what we have denied in ourselves or made wrong in ourselves. Perhaps some of our issues with Chem sex and risky sex is the child trying to find a way back out to play, to connect and be spontaneous, when it has been buried so deep we no longer live from that energy.

If you had asked me to describe myself as a young adult in my 20s I would have said I was introspective, anxious, lacked confidence, and was socially awkward. I could not start a conversation, was convinced people thought me boring and that I had nothing of any interest to say. I would stay silent in groups and not know how to join a conversation. Trying to dance or be spontaneous filled me with horror. I admired people who didn’t care what others thought, who could just speak their mind and be themselves. Yet I also found them annoying – their self confidence and ability not to care what others thought seemed conceited and arrogant.

Looking back I can see how as a teen I started not to trust myself to act spontaneously. I knew there was something about my attraction to the other boys at school that was not socially acceptable and I feared slipping up – allowing this part of me to be seen. So I put up a false front. I started acting the part of me rather than living as me. And so the spontaneous and joyful energy that was there as a child started to be controlled, edited, questioned. Rather than simply being, I would ask myself how should I be in this moment and then acted my part.

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When I look back at these photos of myself I see a little boy full of fun and energy. I see a boy who was ready to play and even push the norms of social behaviour – getting my neighbour to dress up with me in my mum’s old evening dresses! I remember my mother telling me that his father was not happy about it but she felt it best that I get it out of my system now than be made to feel it was wrong.  Whilst I’m grateful for not being shamed out of doing it this comment did still give me a message that it was alright to do now but was something I should grow out of.

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By the time I was 11 this spontinatey had started to be replaced by a guardedness. It started to feel that I was only safe at home, where I could still let go and spend an afternoon dressing my step-sister as a Greek Goddess, but I could not let this self be seen outside at school, where I increasingly shut down and withdrew into myself. Fortunately my mum thought it was great and took this photograph out in the garden. But life was starting to be divided into my inner word where I felt safe and the outer world of school and society where I did not feel able to be ‘me’.

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Perhaps it is not that I have to rescue the inner child, but that I need the inner child to rescue me! To welcome that joyful and spontaneous energy back into my life. And to be happy for it to be seen. Over the 10 years since I left the monastery this is what I’ve been exploring and recently I do feel so much happier and more able to let go.

The theme for the Summer is falling in love with yourself. For my meditation this week I’m going to be looking at these photographs and feeling the joy and spontaneity I see in them and welcoming that back. Perhaps if you have photographs of yourself as a child look to see what energy is there that you might want to connect back to, to love that part of yourself that may have been hidden at some point as the ‘fugitive self’ – release it from the mind made prison and remember that as Blake says “energy is eternal delight” and welcome that energy back into your life.

The video below is of a song my massage therapist played at the end of the first few sessions of energy healing work. It put me in touch with the feeling of loving the little me the took on so many messages from the word that he was wrong, or made himself wrong as a way to explain why his father was not there – “if I had been a good boy Dad would not have left me”. Instead I can see that this little life force was simply what he was, a beautiful expression of life energy. And this energy is still here, just wanting to play, to find expression, to be free.

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