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Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

I was listening to Soul Music on Radio 4 this week. The song was one I did not know: Sandy Denny ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’, which she wrote when she was 19. It’s a very poignant song about the passing of things and how we experience time and loss. The programme brought together various people who had been touched by the song and at the end David Eagleman was interviewed. He is a neuroscientist and has studied time and how we perceive it, his interest in this growing from an experience he had as a child. He described how as a child he fell off a roof and as he did so had time to consider if there was anything he could grab hold of and also to think that this must be how Alice felt as she fell down the hole – before hitting the ground.

Latter when David Eagleman studied physics he worked out how long it had taken him to fall, and was astonished to realise that what had seemed like a long duration in terms of his thoughts and observations, had only taken .8 of a second. This reminded me of my experience of being knocked off my scooter as a 17 year old. I was going along happily making my way home when a car pulled out of a side road in front of me. I saw it and knew there was no way to avoid hitting it side on as I pulled on the brakes and tried to swerve to avoid a direct hit. I hit it side on and was thrown over the car onto the opposite side of the road. As this happened I had the most bizarre experience of time seeming to stop and be vast as I felt my self in the air. I remember seeing my whole life as a film, playing in front of my eyes. And I had the thought “it’s not time to go yet I have things still to do”. With this I felt a thud as I landed on the road. I sat up, my chin bleeding. I looked around, and said “I have the most frightful headache!”.

The rest of the day proceed at normal time, with the trip to hospital, going into surgery for my chin to be stitched. Recovering. But I was left, as with David Eagleman, with a sense that time is not what we think it to be. In the space of a second I felt that I had had time to review my whole life – all 17 years it at that point, so not so much – but still more than I would usually be able to remember in a second!

Now as a 46 year old man I notice how for both myself and friends we all have the experience of time passing so much more quickly than as a child. I remember how as a child the long Summer holiday really did feel as if it was a universe of time – it seemed like a vast expanse of weeks, full of adventure and long summer days. Now I reach the end of the year and wonder where 12 months have gone!

David Eagleman addresses this as well in the programme and what he says has really fascinated me. His interest in time has led him to study how we perceive time and he has found that there is a reason time seems to last longer as a child. Children are learning about the world – it is all new and full of wonder and surprises. The brain is still building up its template by which it will read the world so is constantly learning and taking in new information to assimilate and file. As an adult we’ve learnt the rules and patterns that govern our perception of the world and so are not laying down new memories. As a result of this there is less for the brain to do to process and store each day and thus less of a sense of time being long and expansive as each day is like the last and passes without note or novelty.

Think of it as going on a journey for the first time. You look at the landmarks, orient yourself, notice how to navigate your way along the route. But once this has become familiar after several journeys, you soon slip into auto pilot, not even needing to pay that much attention to where you are going in order to arrive. I remember this experience even as a child – for some reason the route to my Uncle’s always seemed longer on the way there, whereas driving back always felt faster – although it was the same time and same route. What if our life is like this – having become familiar with it, it just goes by quickly?

David Eagleman suggests that to give ourselves the sense of living longer – or at least slowing down the perception of how fast time is passing – through seeking novelty. If we give our brain something new to learn or do it will once agin have to store new learning, memories and experiences, making the perception of time slow down. I remember on an 8 week mindfulness course we were talking about auto  pilot, which is the theme in week 1. Some people really reflected on how they had fallen into automatic ways of behaving and started to take a different route to the station on leaving work. They said how amazing it was to walk a new route after years of always going the same way, and how much more enjoyable it was to have this sense of novelty. Perhaps as well as finding new routes in our outer life, though walking different streets to get to a familiar destination, we can also take new routes in our life: learning a new hobby, trying out a new way of being, or as  mentioned last week finding a new way to start our day – for me this has been by dancing in my room rather than our usual routine of starting the day!

 

The other place you can notice this relativity of time is in meditation itself. On any Monday evening there will be those who feel that the 25 minutes of the sit went by so quickly. Whilst for others the sit will have seemed to be an eternity. In that sense there is no such thing as 25 minutes. There is only our perception of time in the present moment. And that changes depending on how we are relating to the present moment as it arises in our experience. Wanting an experience to be over, it seems to go on for ever. Wanting it never to end, it seems to go all too quickly. This makes boredom in meditation a very valuable place to work. All we are doing is sitting, resting our attention on the breath – so there is nothing really to object to in this experience. But when the heart-mind does not want to settle in the moment there is a sense of struggle and this can give rise to a feeling of boredom or irritation: either way the desire is the same: for the meditation to be over. By sitting with this experience it is possible to learn that time exists as a perception and changes when I change how I am relating to my experience in the present moment. Become interested in the sense of boredom and suddenly instead of the time dragging until the bell goes it will pass quickly.

This applies in our our life as well as our meditation practice. There is a fantastic scene in Metropolis where a worker is waiting to be relived from his shift. As he looks at the minute had of the clock it seems to last an eternity before clicking the last minute to the end of the shift. I remember this experience myself when I was working as a customer service assistant on London Underground. Standing at the gates looking at the clock for the last five minutes of my shift seemed to last longer than all the hours I had worked! So this seems to point to a paradox. If we take what David Eagleman has said about time seeming to last longer when we approach things with a fresh and questioning mind but that it also slows down when we are disengaged and bored. Perhaps the difference is the sense of alive engagement. In boredom and the feeling of life passing by too quickly there is a sense of not being fully present in the experience of living. In both an engaged and curious exploration of life through being fully in the moment and the experience of life being novel and new through finding ways of living that step out of our routine habits, there is a sense of aliveness in the moment.

 

Mindfulness or Heartfulness

Do not try to become anything.
Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
When you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
Resist nothing.
If you haven’t wept deeply,
you haven’t begun to meditate.Ajahn Chah, Thai Forest Monk (1918-1992)

I first read this quote some years ago but it was only recently that I came across this version with the final sentence: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” I was reminded of this quote on visiting the monastery where I used to live last weekend. One of the monks was talking about the importance of listening into our bodies and opening to our emotions as a source of wisdom, rather than having an intellectual understanding of our experience. Reading the first part of the quote is inspiring, but it may support the sort of view I had when I started to meditate that I needed to escape from what I was feeling, as if there was some basic true identity that could press emergency release and be blasted out in the life shuttle of Enlightenment from the mother ship of ego, suddenly floating free and blissful in the enormity of space.

What this quote above and the monk’s teaching at the weekend emphasise is that practice is about turning in and feeling fully: letting go through embracing, the core koan of our practice! A koan is a Japanese Zen teaching phrase that is seemingly contradictory, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “what moves – the flag or the wind?”. The koan is known only when the rational mind finally surrenders and stops trying to make any logical sense of it. In the same way the logical mind tends to think in black and white: reject what is not wanted, then I’ll feel good. Hold onto what makes me feel good so I feel even better.

This tendency of the mind to grasp at, or reject, thoughts about the past or the future or the present moment and to fall into a sense of an identity that seems fixed and real for the time it is there, but evaporates like a mist to be replaced by another identity and then another as the day progresses is the basis of Ajahn Chah’s teaching above: mindfulness is the art of resting into that gentle allowing and knowing that notices without attaching or rejecting. But as well as this noticing it is also a knowing that fully participates in the experience and fully feels what is there, whilst not getting lost in it or rejecting it. In this sense the awareness that arise from mindfulness practice has been described as a participant-observer, as opposed to the dissociated observer that looks on from a distance. This is an important distinction, as the tendency to associate mindfulness with looking on from a distance only adds to our separation from being fully present in our life.

This may in part be due to the use of the word mindfulness to describe this way of being. We associate mind with the brain and so think of mindfulness as looking down from our head or from a discrete intelligence that is separate from what is being observed. Perhaps it helps if we look at the Buddhist word for mind, chitta, which means both mind and heart. So we could as easily talk of heartfulness instead of mindfulness. In this practice we are learning to hold all of our experience in an open heart, that observes and feels and witnesses.

The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness was described by the Buddha as “the middle way”.  It is the middle way between the extremes of grasping and rejection, between wanting to exist forever as an identity (grasping onto what we are enjoying) and wanting not to exist (resisting an experience and wanting it to be over). Mindfulness has been described as the art of feeling an emotion without being the emotion: feeling sad without being sad, feeling happy without grasping at happiness and wanting it to last forever, but instead enjoying it as it arises and allowing it to pass as another emotion arises to be held. Or bringing compassion to a difficult emotion as it arises to be greeted by awareness at the door of perception. In this way we come fully into being alive in the present moment, rather than dwelling in thoughts about the past or anticipating the future or not wanting the present moment to be as it is.

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These thoughts about past and future often arise unwilled by conscious thought and a Harvard study found that we spend around 47% of our time is spent in distracted thinking.  This means nearly half of our waking life is spent not being present or fully awake. If we are spending half of our life caught in such unproductive thinking patterns it’s not surprising we can experience a sense of frustration, sadness and worry! It’s almost as if the thoughts are thinking themselves and we are just swept along in the flood!

From popular ideas about meditation it would be easy to think that mindfulness is about switching off – stopping these unwanted thoughts through a deliberate effort of will to silence the mind and find peace. After all if it is these thoughts that make us feel bad then surely we need to stop them to feel good? This is the ‘doing mode’ approach to the dilemma: trying to fix the problem by an act of will. The ‘being mode’ approach is to open to what is there, to hold it with curiosity, to feel into it and allow without getting swept away in the thought. As we start to meditate we may feel discouraged when, a few minutes in, we’re beset by thoughts and distraction. Then the mind starts its commentary – “this is impossible”, “I can’t stop thinking – this isn’t working”, “I’m no good at this”, “Perhaps if I go away to a monastery I’ll do it but not in my busy life”. And so we tick it off as something we tried but that didn’t work.

Whilst we may have moments of the mind being still and calm as we meditate the main value of mindfulness practice is the ability to learn to be present despite the busyness of the mind rather than mindfulness being a means of stopping thought: thus mindfulness is the ability to be present with our mind as it is, not how we think it should be. This may mean mindfully attending to the breath whilst also being aware of a busy, worried or anxious mind.

My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would often comment, the thought “I don’t want any thoughts” is simply adding another thought into the already busy mind! The paradox is that a practice intended to bring peace actually just creates another self-identity: the one wanting to be a calm meditator! And so we sit with thoughts like: “I hope I can get calm”, “when will I be peacefull”, “I was peaceful in my last sit I hope I have that experience again”……Instead through mindfulness we learn to bring non-judgemental attention to what is here right now: noticing thought but then avoiding the duality of getting pulled in to it or rejecting it. In this way mindfulness practice is more about embracing what is there and holding it in the heart of awareness. It is not a process of dissociating and rising above thoughts and feelings but of being fully present to them, to how it feels in the body to experience them and to witness how they arise, stay a while and then pass away, which may open us to a deep sense of peace that isn’t dependant on silence or absence of thoughts but that can exist within the busyness of mental activity. It’s like finding the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane when one had spent one’s life trying to stop the hurricane.

The eye of the hurricane: knowing

As you engage with this mindful presence there can be a sense of ‘knowing’ that is a gentle witnessing of what is there. This witness is not separate from what is there, but fully engaged, just as the awareness that arises whilst you pay attention to the sensations in your toes as you do the body scan is not a separate witness, but comes into being as a result of meeting the sensations. In this way we shift beyond the duality of observer and observed when there is simply a unified experience of sensation and that which knows the sensation. In the same way with thoughts, when we shift from an idea of a separate intelligence that is looking on at all these thoughts and instead know that our sense of identity is arising from witnessing the thoughts as they arise there can be a subtle sense of calm that arises. The knowing itself is calm, even if what it knows is busy and distracted thoughts.

A traditional teaching metaphor for thoughts in meditation is that they are like clouds in the sky. When we think we need to get rid of thoughts to be calm it is like the sky thinking it needs to get rid of the clouds in order to be the sky. The sky always has the nature to be clear and untouched by whatever storm is blowing through it. In the same way this capacity to know is always present, always clear, but by focusing on the clouds of thought we are like the sky that has forgotten itself and instead thinks it is the storm clouds. The sky does not need to destroy the clouds to feel its open spacious and clear nature, so in the same way we do not need to destroy thoughts to rest into our own clear, open and calm capacity to be present, to be the knowing.

I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.

The Importance of Feeling Part of a Community for Emotional Well-being

This Friday I was listening to Thought For The Day on the Today programme. It was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking and his theme really caught my interest. He referred to the work of Susan Pinker, who had visited an Italian village to explore why it had more people living over 100 years of age than anywhere else in the world. She discovered that although poor and living in harsh circumstances they lived in a close knit community where no-one was alone as family and friends where all there to offer support and contact. No-one was left alone for long. As a result of this close emotional and physical contact the body’s natural response is to release oxytocin, endorphins and neuro-peptides that support the immune system and aid recovery. In contrast isolation increases stress and reduces life expectancy.

This village in Sardinia is an example of how we lived before industrialisation, consisting of shepherds and farmers and extended families living close together. With industrialisation close knit extended family groups started atomising into isolated family units living in separate houses increasingly far apart from each other. So that now the old are no longer mixing with the young, but are put into homes, lined up in chairs like tomb stones. But, in the early stages of industrialisation people still had their community around them, people they would chat with: friends in the street or meet at discussion groups, parties and social events. In our modern post-industrial service economy technological world families now live scattered across continents and although technology has given us a means of being in touch with innumerable people many of us have little real connection with others.  It is as if we have retreated into a virtual world of connections. Our friends are icons on a screen and words typed silently from within our head, their reply taken in as silent symbols representing speech which are turned into words silently in our brain.

E.M. Forster brilliantly foretold this dystopian future in his short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which is an amazingly prescient imagining of a world where real human connection has all but died and humans only connect via a screen. Written in 1909 it imagines a world where humans have retreated to underground cities, due to the earth above being for some unspecified reason no longer being habitable. Here they live in isolated rooms, never leaving and communicating only through the technology that sustains their lives: the machine. In one quote Forster states: “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti (a lecturer and mother of the hero of the story) nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” The people who lived in the machine no longer communicated face to face but from monitor to monitor. Talking through the machine that supports their lives, her son says to her: “I want to see you not through the machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh Hush!”, said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine.”  Decades before computers existed Forster imagined the internet and a world of disconnected intellects, living isolated in their room whilst connected to many thousands: “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

The result of this world becoming a reality in our own time can be an intense sense of isolation, no matter how many hundreds of friends we have on Facebook, or followers on Instagram or Twitter, or how many watch our blog on You Tube. Or how many chats we have going on dating apps. The sense of loneliness can feel overwhelming sometimes. When we do finally meet an elusive sex date from an app it can feel so fleeting and the longing for real intimacy may only partly be satiated as they rush away without time to hold or cuddle – fearing this is a step too far into intimacy. So I find in casual sex there is often a sense of contact through the body but not from the heart. And as this need for real contact is not met, it can lead to a desperate search for it among more random contacts, as one hopes that the next one or the next will take away this sense of loneliness.

I long for the days as a teenager when a friend would just telephone me and we could connect through a conversation….and then arrange to meet, for the need for face to face meetings is all the more important for our sense of well being than verbal conversation, and for me much of my sense of dis-ease arises at times when I feel isolated and lonely. I do experience a healthy solitude: it provides space to reflect, nourish myself and have a sense of my own being. But I feel the need also to have time spent with others, for we are social animals, descended from chimps, who for most of human history have lived in small and closely knit social groups.

As much as I may enjoy casual sex dates it seems to me these need to be the iciing on the cake, the cake itself being a social network, friends and social groups. Eating too much icing just makes you sick after all! I am also exploring my antipathy to really going deeply into a committed relationship. My fear of being rejected by another man, my uncertainty as to whether I can believe that another man has the capacity to really love me. For those of us who are gay as we grew up our love interests were often unattainable, distant and most likely perceived as a threat and this can be carried over into how one perceives men as an adult. The teenage me feeling desire for another male who was both wanted and feared: the boy I looked at in the shower  after sport, whilst dreading that he might see me looking, or that the other boys might spot where I was looking and ridicule me. That early experience of sexuality being mixed with the unattainable man and the fear of having him. This seems to play out for me as an adult in living in a world of gay men who are both very sexualised and yet withdrawn from wanting to make a commitment – myself included.

Pinker adresses this in her book ‘The Village Effect’, which I have not read but have just ordered for delivery. In this, according to the info on Amazon, Pinker writes of our need for close social bonds,  and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

 

What is your village? Where is your tribe? Who forms your close social network?

Over the 12 years I’ve lived in London I have felt intensely alone at times, but I have also been lucky to meet and become part of social groups that overlap but are also distinct in what they offer. Before living in London I had an even more direct experience of living in small communities: in the monastery I had 6 years of living with a close knit network of monks and nuns and lay practitioners. We really were a village. In Northumberland there were around 8 of us living together as a community: working, socialising and meditating together as a unit. Then in Hertfordshire at Amaravati I lived in a larger network of about 30 people.

In Cambridge as a young man in my 20s I lived and worked in a community of about 40 men and women, living in a community house with 8 other men and sharing my room with a close friend. The idea then was very much to go beyond personal ownership of space and possessions so sharing a room was both practical as it meant a small terrace house could hold twice as many people. But it was also with the intent of letting go of personal ownership of things. It did create a really close network and with my room mate, which was never a sexual relationship, I experienced a really close bond as we talked about life and practice at night before falling asleep. In the morning we would all meditate together, as we did in the monastery. Then in the evening one of us would leave work early (we all worked in the same warehouse, importing  and distributing ethnic gifts) . That person would cook a vegan meal and we would sit at a table together talking and chatting as we shared the meal.

On leaving the monastery and coming to London 12 years ago I looked for something like this. At first going into Soho and ‘the scene’ I hoped to be embraced by a big gay family. Being skinny, poorly dressed, with a bad hair style and so shy any attempt to dance looked like cold spaghetti tangling itself into a knot I found little solace in the clubs and bars. In fact I learnt what it is like to be invisible. The cool gay elite treating me like the cool boys at school had treated the unwanted and unwelcome gay boys we once all were.

 

 

Finding My Tribes

Then I started to find my tribes. Tribes can be an emotive word, so to clarify by tribe I do not mean a group that defines itself in opposition to another group, but a place of connection, shared interests and mutual care and support.  My discovering my tribes in London started with meeting Bodhi and going to Five Rhythms Movement Meditation. I was introduced to this in the monastery by a close friend and we used to whirl around in our robes during the Family Camp. Going to Five Rhythms was in part the one connection I still had with the monastery, along with my daily meditation practice. At first going to what I saw as a dance group was an experience of absolute fear. Tangled spaghetti trying to dance is not a pleasant experience!! But slowly I realised that it was a space where I could go and move and not be judged. A space where I could move with the sense of stuckness and explore this. In fact I realised it was not dance, it was a movement practice. When I let go of the idea of trying to dance and instead allowed myself to move with the rhythm of the music and my own heart then I could let go into the inner rhythm of my own body’s response to the music and I’ve found this intensely liberating. I’ve also met a group of men and women with whom I enjoy spending Friday evenings, both at the session and afterwards at the meal many of us go on to share together. This led to going on a Summer retreat last year in Greece, led by Bodhi and another teacher called Alex. It was an amazing experience of connection, and I gained much deeper friendships from that which have lasted since and nourish me to this day.

Later on I met Darren, first as a life coach, but this led on to participating in The Quest. I found this to be a powerful experience of exploring issues relating to my childhood and the buried experiences and emotions of growing up gay. This was a one off course, but with some follow up events and my main sense of expanding my tribe here was to make a deeper connection with Darren and to move from him being a life coach whom I saw professionally to a heart friend and brother along with Bodhi.

More recently I have gone to two of the  Loving Men retreats, the New Year celebration in Wales for gay, bi and trans men. This has been a fantastic space to explore living in a community that we rarely create for ourselves in the busyness of the large urban centres we inhabit. It is a space where what is possible as a community of men becomes apparent: living from the heart, softening, opening to an ease of connection and expression of  affection for our friends when we are no longer afraid of what others will think if they see us holding another man’s hand or leaning against a friend’s chest as we listen to a talk or watch a show.

Last year I went to the Queer Spirit Festival organised by the Radical Fairies of Albion. I became friends with Shokti years ago, who is very involved with the Fairies, and had fluttered around the edge of Fairy gatherings without ever fully landing. But last Summer I did by attending the Queer Spirit Festival in Wiltshire and it was such a magical experience. A place inviting those present to be fully self-expressed, to let go of fear and shame and to allow life to be fun and playful and connected. I’m really looking forward to the next Festival which is taking place in July, details of which are below in the community notice board section. Since last Summer I’ve started going to more Fairy events and last night was at the full moon drum circle in Vauxhall, which was an amazing experience. It was a chance to reconnect with friends I know through the Fairies, to move with the rhythm of the drums and be aligned to the rhythms of nature through being conscious of the moon cycle as I used to be in the monastery, where our rest days fell on new, full and quarter moons.

When I was at Loving Men this New Year, I met Phoebus who runs a fortnightly discussion circle called Open Connections and  since then have been attending these regularly. They provide a space where it is possible to explore through discussion issues relating to sex and relationships. I’ve really enjoyed connecting again to the sort of open space for discussion I used to have when living in my first Buddhist group where I used to go on regular retreats and have heart circles with other practitioners. To explore this further I took up the opportunity of being in a closed group for 10 weeks, which I am still in the midst of, having two more sessions to go. Meeting with three other men with Phoebus facilitating, this has been an incredible space to open to the vulnerability of having the conversations it is so easy to avoid. A space to be honest, vulnerable, connected. A space to express anger and annoyance and have it held. A space to see the beauty of another gay man who initially annoyed the hell out of me, but my heart warming to him as we melted the hard armour of our egos in the furnace of honest disclosure.

And of course there is the Monday mindfulness group! Which I set up with the intention of creating a social space where gay, bi and trans men could meet and socialise in a relaxed space away form the pressures and demands of clubs and bars. Through this I have met other heart friends, without whom my life would feel very empty and cold. And it has been a delight to hold a space which enable other gay/bi/ trans men to meet and make their own connections. There have now been 1000 people come to the class over the 7 years it has run. Each week around 260 men read these emails, so as you read this you are connected, in a subtle way, to all of them.

Growing out of these connections I am now working on a weekend workshop with a friend I met at the group which will combine mindfulness practice with therapeutic insights specifically addressing issues of loneliness and isolation which may then give rise to symptoms that are treated as an illness or addiction rather than held as something needing compassion and self-care. This will be available once we have got it finalised. I also plan to run more week long retreats where we can start to go away together of yoga and mindfulness retreats and build our own sense of a closer community, as well as having our social events here in London.

I am also working on an idea for a group where we explore more connection and intimacy for those who are happy with touch and sensual contact. In this I’ll bring in the work I’ve done in exploring gay tantra and Eros through Andy Saich’s excellent sensual massage workshops and I’m looking forward to attending a workshop on Exploring Intimate Touch he has helped to facilitate, taking place in July, to continue this exploration of connecting more deeply with myself and Eros energy. This new group will also draw on my connection with Kai Helmich who has really introduced me to the power of somatic body work for healing and who has challenged me to bring this into the work that I do.

Through attending all of these I now have a feeling of being held. I have a network of friends, some of whom I met in these groups and who I see there, others who are outside of these groups. The feeling of having a village is certainly there as people who goto these groups overlap so I meet and recognise people as I move from one group to another, as well as meeting people who are unique to each group.

These may not be what will form your Village. But this is an invitation for you to consider what is your village? And if you do not have one how might you explore these and other groups to get more of a physical connection to others, rather than the virtual connection of apps and social media.

To read The Machine Stops click here

Full details of the groups mentioned above and others that I know but may not have attended are below.

For a full list of sports, social  and recreational groups in London, compiled by GMFA click here  This  list is a few years old now so may be out of date in parts.

 

Marrying the findings of the new field of social neuroscience together with gripping human stories, award-winning author and psychologist Susan Pinker explores the impact of face-to-face contact from cradle to grave, from city to Sardinian mountain village, from classroom to workplace, from love to marriage to divorce. Her results are enlightening and enlivening, and they challenge our assumptions.
Most of us have left the literal village behind, and don’t want to give up our new technologies to go back there. But, as Pinker writes so compellingly, we need close social bonds and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

To buy click here

How Do We Choose The People We Fall In Love With?

This New Year I went to Loving Men in Wales. I was looking forward to my second visit there and the opportunity to socialise and enjoy the company of around 80 gay men, attending workshops and activities over the few days of the retreat. Being single there was also curiosity about who would be there and if romance and dating might be possible. I’ve started to realise that I am a total romantic and believe in the notion of love at first sight so it wasn’t surprising that early on the first day on seeing a man there whom I was intrigued by and attracted to I was keen to start talking with him. Over the rest of the day we got on pretty well and after a dance in one workshop and a few cuddles and intimate chats my romantic heart had already flown high on the excitement of first meetings, and in my heart he was my next boyfriend, if not future husband!

Being a Romantic has its dangers though, most notably this tendency to open quickly to another in the hope they will be ‘the one’ rather than taking time to get to know them or see if they really are available. So when he told me at the end of the day that he was already dating, and that although we were both living in London this was not the start of anything other than a friendship, the reality came crashing in on my fledgling hopes, breaking their tender wings, sending them falling to the ground.

As we chatted about it I commented that this was like Groundhog day, for the same thing had happened last year, when I had seen and fallen for a man who then turned out to be unavailable as he too was dating – although I didn’t find that out until I returned to London. The man I met this year commented on this, saying how it was interesting that over the two years I had been drawn to men who were unavailable both times – out of 80 men! Not only had I chosen them but there was almost a wish to then stay in the sweetly familiar place of loss, longing and melancholy that this then aroused in the days, weeks and even months after the meeting. The man I met this year even challenged me by saying that if he were available I would be the one to run, and there is truth in this, as I focus on the unavailable man with longing but as soon as someone is available it feels unfamiliar and overwhelming and I can have a wish to run away.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members”

It’s almost as if I have the attitude expressed by Groucho Marx in his letter of resignation to the Friars’ Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members” but apply it to relationships: I don’t want someone who wants me but will try with all my might to get in with someone who does not want me. It’s as if I see the person who wants me as a fool for offering love to such an unworthy object as myself, whereas the one who is aloof and withdrawn is immediately desirable as they confirm my own inner belief that I am unworthy, so they must be a good judge of character and desirable!

By being absent the unattainable man gives me the familiar feeling of longing that I had for my father, who was never there, and just as I hoped as a child that if I were to be good enough my father  might want me again, so I hope now that if I show myself to be patient, generous and attentive enough the unavailable man will do what my father never did: return to me and want me. With this hope lies the longing for the deep pain of rejection by the father to be taken away by his replacement figure: the unattainable love interest.

Perhaps there’s even the hope that if I can get the unavailable person to love me then I may not actually be so bad after all. But in contrast someone who is available for love, who sees my qualities and offers love doesn’t feel familiar and does not fit any pattern of relationship that means anything to me. It’s as if those of us with low self esteem have internalised the thought that only those who treat us as badly as we think of ourselves truly see us. While those who treat us well are seen as fools, or dull, or boring, or are just not seen and thus they can’t possibly be worthy of consideration as partners as they so clearly do not see us, at least according to our perceptions of how we are.

 

How we choose the People we Fall in Love With?

 
This experience at New Year has started a process of reflection this year, combining therapy, mindfulness practice and self reflection.  As part of exploring this theme I came across this fascinating School For Life video on how we choose the people we fall in love with, from which all of the images in this weeks email are taken. The video describe how as a culture we have shifted from a time of arranged marriages and alliances to the notion made popular in the19th Century of Romantic love: the belief our hearts will guide us to our one true soul mate. Unfortunately Romantic love does not necessarily lead to greater happiness, and may result in more pain as ‘the one’ turns out to be not so ideal: having an affair, rejecting us sexually, becoming no longer attractive…..

Why is this? As the video explains, it is rooted in how we have learnt to recognise love. As a child the way our parents or those who matter to us relate to us creates a template of what love is, and how we recognise love from others.  It is as if we start with a clean window but over the years it gets cracked and dirty or overgrown with ivy and weeds until the way we look out at the world is determined by what we can see through the window, which is not actually how the world is but is how we see it through the distortions of the window. Hence we fall in love with others who give us a familiar feeling of how it is to be loved, and care for us in familiar ways and this may not be what is best for us or even what will make us happy. We may overlook the nice guy, seeing him as boring, whilst being attracted to the man who will ignore us and make us feel unvalued. The example in the video is of a little girl ignored by her father who goes on to be attracted to men who ignore her as her experience of being loved is of a man who is self-centred and leaves her on the edge of his attention. In this way we do not fall in love with those who are good for us, but who care for us in familiar ways.

 

Not only do we feel attraction to the people who love us in familiar ways, we may overlook those who would be truly good companions just because they do not feel familiar or even feel too right…..it is too easy to get their attention, they seem ‘too keen’, which is our way of justifying ignoring them when in fact it may just be they are emotionally well balanced and are giving us an unfamiliar experience of being seen as worthy of attention and love. If we have low self esteem, such people showing us approval and love may seem a little too right, or feel a little too unfamiliar to seem right, and we reject them as potential partners.

 

 

This self awareness does not mean we then fall into a pit of despair, blaming our parents for having messed up our chances for love and fulfilment. As a conscious adult we can chose how to investigate this dynamic and once seen clearly make conscious choices about how we will relate to these old patterns of how it feels familiar to be loved. There is even an opportunity for compassion as we bring to an end what may have been generations of family habit patterns of relating to loved ones by becoming fully conscious of what has been passed on to us, which was passed on to our parents by their parents from their parents.

One way is in therapy. I had an experience of this recently, when I went to my therapy session after missing the preceding one due to confusing the time and being an hour late. As I approached the session after the one I had missed I felt a sickness in my belly and fear. I explored this as I stood on the DLR on my way to the session. I felt a familiar anxiety that my having ‘failed’ though missing the last session would mean my therapist would be angry with me, would loose patience, tell me off and would no longer want to work with me.

On arriving he did want to talk about why I had missed the last session and I spoke of how I had felt as I was on my way to the session. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t tell me off. And he is still working with me. Slowly, in this way a new pattern of relating emerges where it is possible to be questioned and challenged if my actions have impacted on an agreed meeting, but without the message that I am a failure, or am going to be rejected. The limbic brain is then able to slowly reprogram its experience of what relationship is: rather than one of being at the mercy of an angry parent whom one has to please at all costs, there can be a sense of relationship being a more welcoming and nourishing place of equals.

 

 

As well as therapy, there is also the investigation we can do in the privacy of our own home and heart. The value of therapy is it involves us in a relationship with another person, and as the saying goes “we were wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”, we heal when we discover that there is a relationship where our weaknesses and foibles are held with care and love rather than being condemned. We also heal as in the relationship we are each able to reflect back to the other how the others actions are experienced, helping each person to explore more deeply their habitual ways of relating and behaving. But if like me you are not in a relationship or therapy is not for you, due to cost or inclinations, the video offers a lovely suggestion for self-reflection that can be doe on your own at home.

 

An exercise in self reflection:

Setting aside a good amount of time and taking paper and pen reflect first on what sort of people attract and excite us, and which put us off. Then trace these qualities back to the people who first loved us in childhood and ask how much our impulses really are aligned with things that will make us truly happy.

As we do this we may, for example, notice that we tend to be attracted to the bad boy type, overlooking someone who would treat us well. Perhaps we remember that a parent always ignored us, or was stern or judgemental and we realise that this energy of being ignored or belittled is our sense of what love can feel like – but that does not mean it is what love is.

During meditation and with the awareness that this cultivates we can also notice what our inner dialogue is like. How do we talk to ourselves? What sort of world do we weave into being through our thoughts? What is our place in that world? Are we at the centre being adored? Or are we at the edge being ignored? How does this inner drama impact on how we then interact with the external world? Does our inner drama become the way we make sense of the outer world, leading us to look for scenarios and relationships that confirm the world view we have come to believe in? If we think we are unlovable do we sit alone in our room lamenting how cruel and lonely the world is? If we believe we deserve to be the centre of attention are we out jumping into a party or a social engagement as we read this? It’s as if a drip of water has worn down a groove in the rock, once we could have been anything but now we live within the narrow confines of this groove of how we believe ourselves to be.

By exploring this we can start to open up to other possibilities of being loved, that right now feel unfamiliar. It may be that we are limited to being attracted to certain types because of things that happened to us in our past, but as we bring awareness to this we can start to question the certainty we feel when we believe we have met ‘the one’ when in fact they may simply be ‘the familiar’ which we equate with how it is to be loved. On meeting someone who does not bring up this familiar feeling, or whom we consider to be wrong or boring despite objectively having a lot going for them we may question if that necessarily means they are not suitable just because they do not feel familiar  – or in fact does the lack of familiarity perhaps suggest that there is something here that we do not have in our emotional lexicon but that could in fact be a healthy experience if we were to open to it. The next time we want to dismiss someone as being too keen, or too good, or too boring or unexciting asking if that is just because they do not feel familiar.

If you have enjoyed this theme the 5 minute video below outlines it in full detail. All images in this email are from this video.

 

Learning through cartoons

I read an article in the week saying that teens learn better from comics than text books. I was fascinated by this, and it makes sense if it is true that the brain thinks in pictures – a comic or graphic depiction of conceptual information meets the brain in its own language, rather than having to convert concepts into ideas.

I had a look for illustrated mindfulness and found this artist. So for this weeks email I’ll hand over to a visual communication. To see more of his work visit Tumbler or his illustrated mindfulness posts on The Huffington Post

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