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Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

How changing your posture can change your behaviour

Some years ago I remember seeing a fascinating set of drawings of how chimps change their posture as they become increasingly distressed, sad or emotionally overwhelmed. The postures they adopt look very familiar – arms crossed, body hunched, making themselves small.

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Looking at this similarity it made me think of how at times of stress and powerlessness our bodies go into a posture that has its roots deep in our evolutionary body memory. At the time I also saw this cartoon, which says so much about the importance of posture

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It was a few years latter that I saw Amy Cuddy’s video on the importance of posture to our sense of well being. On seeing this it opened a new dimension on the importance of being present to one’s posture and its impact on our sense of self worth.

Amy Cuddy observed that some of her students adopted very submissive postures which took up little space, whilst others adopted postures that took up a lot of space. The students who occupied only a small space often came across as timid and uncertain, and some talked to her about wanting to drop out of the course and did less well in class whilst doing much better in their written assignments. 

Curious about this Cuddy conducted an experiment using 42 students. They  were told the experiment was to see the effect of whether electrodes were placed above or below the heart, but the real experiment was to have half adopt high power poses and the other half adopt low power poses for two minutes.

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Participants had saliva swabs taken before and after  to test for cortisol and testosterone levels and were asked to report how they felt at the end of the two minutes in these postures. The results showed that two minutes of holding a power posture led to an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol. In her talk below Amy describes how the power posture links us to the way alpha male chimps will stand and compares this to the instinctual behaviour an athlete displays on winning. Amy comments that even if someone has been blind from birth they still know to make the same gesture on winning.

 

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Having observed in the experiment how adopting a power pose could alter testosterone and mood Amy started to encourage her more reticent students to adopt the high power pose postures and to see what impact this would have. In the talk she describes this as ‘fake it till you become it’, noting that if we feel small and insecure adopting a high power pose can feel uncomfortable, but by consistently doing so over time we can start to feel it and act accordingly. 

Last week I looked at Mel Robbins’ talk about the power of shifting from feeling overwhelmed to seeing it as feeling excited. Amy Cuddy gives a similar insight into changing how you feel in a situation, by introducing the awareness of the impact a certain posture can have on how we feel. Linking the two approaches together could have a powerful effect on shifting the inner narrative about a situation: noting a low power posture and associated mood or self talk “I’ll never achieve this” etc, and then thinking 5,4,3,2,1, and shifting to a high power posture and seeing how this changes how we feel or think. 

As I researched this email I found there has been some significant criticism of Amy Cuddy’s original study and dismissal of her findings. I’m sad that some who was so eager to share her experience of how body language and posture can impact on our sense of self-worth has received so much vilification. In the end these things are there to be tried out and explored for oneself and if they work one can adopt them, if not let them go. Over the last few years since watching Amy’s Ted talk I have been conscious of my posture and of noting when my body goes into a low power pose and feeling in to what is happening, then seeing what happens if I shift to a high power pose. Perhaps it does not lead to an increase in testosterone, with some attempts to replicate her study having found it impossible to replicate this aspect of her findings, but I certainly find it alters my mood and how I feel about myself and brings a greater awareness to how I habitually hold my body and what this says about how I express myself physically.  It has also made me aware of the impact of posture on mood, noting how low power postures are associated with feeling unconfident and unsure, whereas by switching to a high power pose I immediately feel more at ease and confident.  I hope you enjoy playing with it!

If you would like to see her full 20 minute Ted talk the video is below. 

Panic Attacks, procrastination and fear: transforming panic into excitement.

A few weeks ago I was with a friend who showed me a video of Mel Robbins talking about how she had learnt to transform her panic attacks into an experience of excitement. In my work I am often asked what suggestions I have for applying mindfulness to panic attacks and I was keen to listen to this talk to see what she had to share and see how I might apply it in my own life.

I have never had a panic attack, but I was writing in the last email about the feeling of dread and anxiety on approaching an event where I have to meet people, and how this fear of socialising that I picked up as a teen seems to create a false narrative in my head about what I can and cannot do. Listening to her talk I could certainly see how I might apply it to these situations, and how people might use it if dealing with a panic attack.

In her talk she starts by discussing the limitations of motivativational thinking to get us to do things. She says: “we are not designed to do things that are scary, difficult or uncomfortable. Our brains are designed to protect us from those things, because our brains are trying to keep us alive. In order to change, to build a business, to be the best parent, best spouse, to do all those things that you know you want to do with your life, your work, your dreams, you’re going to have to do things that are difficult, uncertain or scary. Which sets up this problem for all of us: you are not going to feel like it….[because] our minds are designed to stop us from doing anything that might hurt us.” She goes on to say that as a result of this we all have a habit that holds us back, the habit of hesitating.

She then outlines how one technique the brain uses is the spot light effect, where the brain magnifies the risk of something in order to make us back away from doing it. She goes on to say “you can truly trace every  single problem and complaint in your life to silence and hesitation”.

Mel then talks about how the sensations in our body are the same when we feel excitement or fear, and that it is this similarity which enables us to reframe how we are interpreting these sensations. She gives an example from her own life: when she is about to go out and give a talk she can feel her heart racing, her palms a little sweaty, her breath racing. If she were to tell herself “I am anxious and frightened of talking” this would create a feeling of fear of going out on stage. Instead she focuses on the sensations as an expression of feeling excited, and this supports her as she walks out in front of the audience.

The root of this approach is based on the fact that the flow of adrenalin is the same if we are feeling excited, or scared. It is how we interpret it that then determines how we think and feel about the physical sensations adrenalin causes.

In her longer talk below Mel describes how she was at a low point in her life, waking up with feelings of dread, and how this would lead to her laying in bed, consumed by panic and anxiety, hitting the snooze button until the morning was turning into the afternoon.  One evening she saw a programme about a rocket launch, and as she watched the rocket take off she decided that was what she would do the next morning on waking, she would count down and launch herself out of bed before her brain had a chance to start thinking, working or catastrophising about the day.

As she woke up the next day she immediately started a count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then got up. Once she was up the debilitating anxiety that would otherwise have kicked in and kept her in bed could then start to be absorbed through becoming active: she started to face the day as it was rather than as it appeared to her as a thought as she lay in bed worrying about it.

Mel then started to apply this 5,4,3,2,1, approach in her waking life. On noticing that she was caught in an addictive behaviour – perhaps prevaricating before going to bed, or moving on to an activity she needed to focus her attention on – she would then say to herself 5,4,3,2,1, and at 1 move on to the activity she had been avoiding and stop the activity that she was wanting to move away from. 

“When you count backwards, you mentally shift the gears in your mind. You interrupt your default thinking and do what psychologists call “assert control.” The counting distracts you from your excuses and focuses your mind on moving in a new direction. When you physically move instead of stopping to think, your physiology changes and your mind falls in line.

The Rule is (in the language of habit research) a “starting ritual” that activates the prefrontal cortex, helping to change your behaviour. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that you use when you focus, change, or take deliberate actions.” (Ref)

I have started to use this as I wake up, and it really works. Rather than laying in bed with the feeling of dread of the day that is to come, which could easily lead to 30 minutes or an hour of delaying getting up, when I count back as soon as I wake up and swing myself up and out of bed then this mood that might have kept me trapped in bed immediately starts to dissipate, as instead I head to the bathroom, brush my teeth, get a glass of water and move into doing some yoga and meditation. I am also starting to explore using it during the day, at times when I notice myself caught in procrastination, hesitation and avoidance.

To find out more about her method I’ve included her interview below.

Using the 5,4,3,2,1 method for a panic attack

With panic attacks Mel uses the similarity between feeling excited and feeling fear to create a different way of focusing your attention and interpreting the experience. In a panic attack we have no clear trigger for why we feel panic, so there is nothing to move away from. All we have is our body telling us we feel panic and our brain has no idea why. Given that our brains purpose is to keep us safe by helping us move away from danger, this is the most terrifying thing for our brain: the experience of danger with no clear action it can take to escape.

As one of the participants on an 8 week course I was running observed, mindfulness helped them to stop panicking about the panic attack, and that in itself stoped it from escalating. But how to transform a panic attack? Rather than riding it out, which the mindfulness helped this participant to do, is there a way to actually transform the experience. Mel suggests that there is. 

At a time when you feel calm and at ease take a few moments to connect with an anchor thought you can use when a panic attack occurs. An anchor thought is an image/thought of a situation where you feel safe, grounded and excited. The example in the video the woman connects with is of seeing her grandchildren. 

On first noting the sensations of a panic attack count back: 5,4,3,2,1. Then connect with your anchor thought and say to yourself “I am so excited to….”what ever you anchor thought is. In the case of the woman in the video she would think “I am so excited to see my grandchildren tomorrow”. The effect of this is that it tells the brain the reason for the sensations in the body are not an unexplained terror, but a feeling of excitement at the idea of the thing you are about to do.

Perhaps you like going on a roller coaster, or bouldering, or feel exhilaration on going dancing or are excited to take your dog for a walk. Connect with one thing that gives you a feeling of excitement and that you enjoy which you can then focus on when the panic attack starts. This gives your mind an explanation to then enable it to calm your body down.

Think of the brain as a guard on watch at the city gate – suddenly the dogs start barking, the guard looks up with concern, ready to sound the alarm in case the city is under attack. If the guard sees no reason for the dogs barking he will become more agitated and alert, looking for any sign of danger. In the same way in a panic attack the brain is alerted by the body to danger, but there is no clear danger. All the brain can do is look for danger and attempt to remove you from an unseen harm which gives rise to increased alarm as there is no obvious escape route from an unseen danger. If the guard were then to see a cat sitting on a wall, he would suddenly know that the dogs were only excited by the cat, and there was no need for concern. In the same way, give your mind an image of being excited by your anchor thought and the brain can settle, telling the body it is ok, stand down the alarm signals, it’s only excitement at seeing a cat! 

If you experience panic attacks and use this method please let me know how it works for you. As I have not been able to apply it to myself I would like to hear if it does help you interrupt a panic attack, as I will then be more confident to share it more as I teach. 

We are meeting again this Monday. Looking forward to seeing you there.

For details of the next 8 mindfulness week course starting on Thursday 3rd May click here

Autopilot behaviour – what keeps you trapped in old patterns?

We all know the feeling – we are on our way home from work, following a familiar route, as we get near we suddenly realise the thing we had intended doing on the way:  the place we meant to stop off at or even the person we were supposed to meet! Autopilot can be as extreme as this or simply be the automatic routines we have created in our days: our morning routine, our route to work. It can also show up in our patterns of thinking and responding to situations.

Some autopilots serve us, but others can be based on old messages and scripts that have become our distorted truth. Perhaps we have a limiting belief about ourselves or our abilities. Perhaps we hold back from certain things thinking it is not for us. We limit the flow of our spontaneity.

Learning to notice these autopilot behaviours and thoughts is the first stage in letting them go. As we meditate we become better able to be present to our thoughts and feelings, and there’s a natural process of recognising these. As you sit in meditation, simply notice the unedited flow of thoughts and responses to thoughts. Notice if any of these seem to fall into patterns of belief about yourself. It can be really helpful to then discuss this with people who are open to exploring deeper self-awareness – with a therapist if you have one, or close friends, or in a group.

The first week of the 8 week mindfulness course explores autopilots in more detail, and it then forms the basis of the whole course, bringing awareness to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Seeing how we can let go of those that do not serve us. If you are interested in exploring this more, there are still places available eon the Spring course.


 

“This course was very powerful and has been life changing. It has really helped me to focus on the ‘Here and now’ rather than getting caught up in ruminative thinking. I have a tendency to worry about the future and about events that have not yet occurred and this was making me feel very stressed. Applying the techniques and mindfulness strategies I learnt on the course I feel better able to cope and although I still feel anxious this tends to diminish more quickly.”

Kensington Council 8 week course participant, 2016


 

Thursday evenings

May: 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st

June: 7th, 14th, 21st

Silent practice day. Date to be confirmed.

Time: 7.00 – 9.40 pm

Venue:

Chadswell Healthy Living Centre

Lower Ground Floor, Chadswell
Harrison Street
London
WC1H 8JE

MAP

Nearst tube: Kings Cross

£295 (£200 concessions for unwaged, students and those in need)

Booking confirmed on receipt of full payment.

To book email: nick@evolvingminds.org.uk

Call: 07910 224 560

For more details of the course click here

To sleep perchance to dream

Lucid Dreaming – step into your mind and explore!

As a child I always struggled to get to sleep and it would take ages before I was finally exhausted enough slowly to sink into sleep. As a result I was very aware of entering sleep and I could hear the dream scape as I started to rest into the first stage of sleep, known as the hypnagogic state. Whilst still aware of my room and that I was laying in my bed, I would also hear voices and sounds at a distance, as if a radio were playing at a distance – but it was inside my head! I loved this sound as it meant I knew sleep was near after hours of rolling this way and that in my bed unable to sleep. Then the images appeared, flickering into life like a magic lantern show at a fair as dusk falls. It wouldn’t be long before I was then fully immersed in a dream.

Frequently as I dreamt I would be aware that I was dreaming, and when this happened I used to sit down in the dream and cross my legs as if going into meditation. I knew that if I focused in a certain way I could then rise up into the sky and once there I would stretch out horizontal to the ground and fly. I loved these flying dreams, and the feeling of awareness in the dream. They stopped once I became a teenager, but I remembered them fondly.

There was one curious experience that accompanied these flying dreams throughout my childhood – probably from the age of around 8 to 10. After dreaming of flying and the feeling of awareness in the dream started to pass I would wake up, dress, have breakfast. The day would proceed as normal until at some point something happened that was not as it should be. Often I would go to turn on a light and it would not work, after flicking the switch a few times I would realise I was still dreaming – and so the morning would start again as I was once more in my bed waking up! Sometimes I got all the way to school before this waking would happen! It tended to happen about three times before I was finally properly awake.

The result of this was that I never knew if I were really awake! Or if in a moment something would happen to make me aware that I was still dreaming. Even now I sometimes wonder if this has all been one long dream and in a moment I may wake up as a child again in my bed at 108 Cambridge Road!

A few years ago I became interested in lucid dreaming and started going to an evening workshop where people would share thier experiences of lucid dreaming. If you have not experienced this, it is the state where you become conscious whilst dreaming that you are in a dream. Once conscious you can continue to dream, but are able to decide what will happen in the dream rather than just have it happen to you. One common theme in lucid dreams is for people to choose to fly.

As I listend to people talk and read more about lucid dreaming I realised my childhood experiences were all related to lucid dreaming. A common experience for people who have had a lucid dream is to have a series of what are called ‘false awakenings’, where they wake up and go through their day until something does not follow the laws of physics as we know them in the waking world and there is the realisation that one is still dreaming.

I felt very excited to realise that I had had so many lucid dreams as a child and it made it feel more possible to reconnect with it as an experience as an adult. It was also good to know that my confusion over regular multiple awakenings was simply a result of becoming lucid.

In a significant way these false awakening prepared me to embrace Buddhism. I had spent my childhood with the feeling that life was just one long dream that one might wake up from at any time….so when I then came across a teaching that basically says just that, then it fitted with this experience.

 

 

 

 

Lucid Dreaming and Awakening

Why should this be of any relevance in a mindfulness email? The dream group I attend is run by a Buddhist who practices in the Tibetan tradition, and for Tibetan Buddhism the dream world is as important as the waking world for practice. It is taught that if you can take mindful awareness into sleep and become lucid you can make great progress in learning the true nature of your mind and you have all night to meditate, so if you cannot find time in the day you can still meditate whilst you sleep! In fact meditating in your sleep is said to be a lot more powerful than whilst awake, as there are no distractions of aching body parts or time constraints. Unfortunately I cannot say if this is true as it is one thing I have not done in a lucid dream!

I’ve found that lucid dreaming offers a chance to explore the shadow side of one’s subconscious. I had a nightmare one night where an old man tried to kill me. The following night as I fell asleep I determined that I would become lucid and meet him again. As I slept that night I did become lucid and as I was flying through the air I remembered that I had had a nightmare the previous night and that I wanted to meet the man from it. In a moment I was no longer flying, but was in a visitors room in what I knew was a prison. I heard footsteps and a metal door opened. Two guards were holding the man and they looked at me as if to say “are you sure?”. I nodded and they released him. The man ran at me and grabbed me, his fingers had become metal talons ripping into my back. But I held him and thought “do what you like, this is a dream and you cannot hurt me, and I have you now…it’s you who are not going anywhere.” As I held him he eventually exhausted his rage and started to shrink. Eventually he was a small boy and he started to cry as I held him.

I do not know what this was related to, but on waking I felt so full of energy and alive. Talking with my dream teacher, Charlie Morley, he said that after resolving shadow issues in a dream there is often a feeling of energy, as all the effort of keeping something hidden and locked away could now be let go of.

The Buddhist approach to lucid dreaming is that it enables one to see that the nature of all phenomena is that they are mind made. In our waking state we feel as if we are looking out at an objective reality – although in fact it is a world created by our brain in response to the light waves entering our eyes. We are looking at a picture created by our brain to make sense of this information. But in a dream we see this directly – we look at an object and see it simply as something made by the mind. As such dream objects in a lucid dream can be fascinating as they seem to glow with light and be so real they look almost more real than anything seen in waking life.

Central to the Buddha’s teaching was that conditioned things are impermanent but in some of his teachings the Buddha also seems to suggest that this conditioned reality that we live in is itself an illusion.  This is evident in the way he describes our psychophysical body, which is often referred to as the five skandhas or aggregates: form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness:

“Form is like a lump of foam, feeling like a water bubble; perception is like a mirage; volitions like a plantain trunk, and consciousness like a magic trick, so explained the Kinsman of the Sun (a name used to refer to the Buddha)” ( S. iii. 142).

From the Diamond Sūtra or in Sanskrit, Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, we find this verse:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

In the Samādhirājasūtra we find the following:

Know all things to be like this:

A mirage, a cloud castle,

A dream, an apparition,

Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

Being able to observe the mind made nature of phenomena in the dream state is said to help one to then recognise the same process of the mind creating an appearance of reality in our waking state. Tibetan Buddhism also teaches that there is the unborn and uncreated nature of mind that is intrinsically clear, luminous and pure. This nature of mind is timeless and always here – we just forget to experience it. It is said that it is easier to awaken to this in a lucid dream, letting our usual sense of self dissolve away and instead resting in our true nature.

Or you might just like the idea of being able to go flying!


How to Lucid Dream

If you are intrested in lucid dreaming the flowing few tips may help:

1.  If you notice anything unusual in the day look at your hand and turn it over quickly or flex your fingers, asking yourself “am I dreaming” If you do this regularly you may start to do it in a dream when something unusual happens, at which point your hand will change as the dream mind cannot recreate a hand making quick movements, so it will gain extra fingers, or the fingers will grow, at which point you will know you are dreaming.

2. Start keeping a note book by your bed. When you wake up jot down any dream fragments you remember. Over a few weeks you’ll start to remember full dreams.

3. As you become more familiar with your dreams you’ll recognise certain familiar themes that recur. For me it is looking at my mobile  in the dream but it not working. As a general rule technology does not work in dreams – looking at a phone the numbers will not make sense, or a television will not turn on. Light switches do not work either, as it is too hard for the dreaming brain to create the effect of light suddenly flooding a space. So any time things do not work you can ask if you are dreaming – if it is a dream you may then have the realisation that it is a dream. I became lucid several times thorugh looking at my mobile and asking myself why it wasn’t working, I then had the thought “ah, of course this must be a dream!” and then became lucid.

4. Following on from this, as you fall asleep you can remind yourself that when you dream of a particular event that you have recognised as part of your regular dream world you will recognise that you are dreaming. I used to regularly have dreams of being on a train or going to the Palace to have tea with the Queen…well why not!!? 🙂 So as I fall asleep I can say to myself ” tonight as I dream if I am having tea with the Queen I am going to recognise that I am dreaming”….or whatever your familiar dream scape might be.

5. Another way is to practice staying in the hypnogogic state for as long as possible. Rest attention on your breath, slowly ease into sleep, keep awareness focused on the breath, and notice the sounds and images as they start to appear – if you do this with relaxed focus you’ll be able to then take this awareness into the dream state. I’ve not been able to this as an adult, but it’s what I did as a child.

6. As you fall asleep decide what you will do when you become lucid. The most common reason for loosing lucidity is that you have no clear intention once lucidity arises and it slips back into being an ordinary dream. Perhaps you would like to meet with the Dali Lama. Or fly with a flock of swans. Or visit an emerald city at the bottom of the ocean. You can create whatever you want in a lucid dream, so feel in to what would excite you. You can also invite the subconscious to meet you: speaking into the dream space something like: “what do I most need to know right now”. A character may then appear and you can have a conscious conversation with them – perhaps they will represent something you are working with right now….if you are not sure, ask them who they are or what they represent and have a conversation with your subconscious!

When you do become lucid you’ll feel such a buzz of adrenalin and excitement you may wake up after a few seconds. To counteract this as you recognise that you are dreaming and start to feel excited, focus your attention on your feet and feel the ground underneath you. At the same time take slow deep breaths. This will slow your heart beat down and stop you getting so excited, as breathing deep in your dream body also makes you breathe slowly in you actual body. As this happens you’ll find your dream body really comes alive and instead of being a slightly disembodied ‘seeing’ which is often the sense of oneself in a non lucid dream, your body will start to tingle and feel amazingly vibrant and alive as if it is made of energy and not flesh – which in the dream state it is!

I recommend Charlies monthly meeting for discussing dreams. I am going this Sunday. You can see details here

You can also buy his books here

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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