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Posts tagged ‘suffering’

Making The Unconscious Conscious

In a conversation I was having with a friend today about addiction he made the comment that in his experience his addiction had arisen from the desire not to have to feel the pain of being disconnected from others. To avoid the pain of feeling isolated and disconnected he turned to porn as an addiction to numb the pain of feeling alone. It could as easily have been sex, or drugs or work. In my case I’m starting to think I am addicted to sadness! By turning to our addiction it gives a sense of the familiar, and being able to loose oneself in this.

This reminds me of the teaching of the two arrows, where the first arrow is the immediate experience of suffering as it impacts on us: breaking up, an injury, loosing a job, ill health etc. The second arrow is what we fire by resisting feeling the first arrow: resentment, anger, sorrow etc. The first arrow we cannot avoid, it’s already struck us. We either stay with this primary pain or we fire the second arrow by resisting being with the first arrow and in doing so add to our suffering. Looking at it from this perspective one might say that addiction is the second arrow, arising from the desire not to feel whatever the first arrow might be, one possible cause being the pain of isolation.
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Isolation, social exclusion and addiction

In a fascinating study from 2013 it was found that rats isolated during adolescence were more prone to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol as adults, and once established it was harder to extinguish.

A section of the study makes for fascinating reading:

On observing the rats that were isolated it was seen that “They are more anxious. Put them in an open field and they freeze more. We also know that those areas of the brain that are more involved in conscious memory are impaired. But the kind of memory involved in addiction isn’t conscious memory. It’s an unconscious preference for the place in which you got the reward. You keep coming back to it without even knowing why. That kind of memory is enhanced by the isolation.”

The rats in the study were isolated from their peers for about a month from 21 days of age. That period is comparable with early-to-middle adolescence in humans. They were then tested to see how they responded to different levels of exposure to amphetamine and alcohol

The results were striking, said Mickaël Degoulet, a postdoctoral researcher in Morikawa’s lab. The isolated rats were much quicker to form a preference for the small, distinctive box in which they received amphetamine or alcohol than were the never-isolated control group. Nearly all the isolated rats showed a preference after just one exposure to either drug. The control rats only became conditioned after repeated exposures.”

This repeats the evidence of the impact of isolation from previous studies looking at heroin addiction which suggest that the cause of addiction may have more to do with isolation and loneliness than the drug itself being inherently addictive. Rats that were in a cage alone soon became addicted to the heroin laced water rather than drink the clean water that was also available, returning to it until they died. Rats in a communal cage with plenty of food and play mates did not get addicted to it despite occasionally drinking the heroin laced bottle, preferring to go to the clean water instead.  Thus although they were exposed to heroin and drank it, that did not lead to addiction. Isolation seemed to be the core reason determining if the rats became addicted. Seen in this way people who are addicts may need to have this primary pain of isolation and loneliness addressed in order to help them rather than be punished or made to feel a social failure thus pushing them further into isolation and deeper into addiction.

Any of us who have experienced our teen age years as a time of social exclusion and isolation will know this feeling of separation, and the tendency to be more prone to addictive behaviour and for gay/bi men and women it suggests one aspect of why people in our community are more prone to addiction.

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.To read the article on loneliness that these are extracted from click here.

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Healing Through Connection

In addressing his own addiction my friend remembered when I discussed the example of the rats in a previous email and started to explore his addiction in relation to feeling isolated. He was able to shift his attachment to the addiction by  building on his connections with others and with himself: through giving time to his friendships, going to groups that provided a community, and therapy which helped him connect more deeply into himself so that he could bring into conscious awareness what had been unconscious. His meditation practice was essential for this process, but in itself was not enough. He also needed the therapy, connections to others through social groups and friends.

As a young man first learning to meditate I had a desire for my meditation practice to take me out of my pain. But in fact it seems meditation is really more about creating the opportunity to hold what is here and to become more whole through opening fully to what is presenting itself rather than trying to transcend the pain and float off into an Enlightened state of bliss. Through turning in and fully opening the heart then there may be a freedom that is amazing, but it is a freedom that arises form a deep inner connection, rather than a dissociated rejection of oneself. And this deep inner connection requires rich outer connections through friendships, community and someone who can hold one fully, with unconditional kind regard and without judgement – a therapist or if we are fortunate a very well balanced partner or friend.

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Making what we don’t know we don’t know conscious

It has been said that there is what we know that we know, what we know that we don’t know, but also what we don’t know that we don’t know. It’s this last one that is most destructive, for it may be what everyone around us can see as part of our character or motivating impulses, but we are totally oblivious to it.

What we don’t know that we don’t know seems to be the cause of so much suffering as it keeps us going into familiar patterns that we then blame on outer circumstances. One way I’m starting to think I can see what is in this blind spot of the psyche is to look at what patterns of suffering keep repeating. For they are like a mirror through which I can see reflected back to me what is creating this habit pattern of acting in familiar ways so that I have familiar experiences. In a sense the outer event is the second arrow arising from my unwillingness to turn in and see the first arrow buried in the unconscious.

An example of this for me is my tendency to go for unavailable men. I was reading my diary recently and was reminded of yet more examples of men I had fallen for who then pulled away – time and again! The excitement of meeting, the thought this could be it, then a week latter the sorrow of writing about how they had not been interested after all. With one we got as far as spending the night together,  only for him to come back into the bedroom the next morning saying he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror as he stood in the bathroom  because he felt so bad. He returned to his church and I saw him a few more times but he was going full speed back into the closet as the ‘gay support group’ in his church helped him to go fully into denial.

For a long time I felt that I had bad luck in dating, then that gay men are just flaky and I’ll never meet anyone who will want to commit which led to a rejection of dating and a preference for more casual meetings. But more recently I’ve started to wonder what is it that this experience of going for unavailable men, of being rejected, gives me? It is a sense of drowning in the familiar experience of sadness, longing and abandonment. This then gives me something to fight outside of myself, the thought that if I can make the other person like me enough, or be good enough that they will want me, then the pain will all be taken away. But this ignores the source of the pain and recently I felt more deeply what this was: the unconscious belief that I am unlovable and bad.

It is this first arrow that I can do something with, rather than wanting the other to take away this feeling of being unwanted or make it better. By seeing in the reflection of the outer world my own inner dynamic there is a chance to bring ‘what I don’t know that I don’t know’ into conscious awareness. To realise that this is a choice I am making rather than just bad luck. It’s a choice I make to stay in a familiar place of longing through feeling not good enough rather than turning to this belief and feeling the pain of it, and then letting it go. It is a reality created by a child to try and make sense of the world, a reality made at a time when it was easier to feel I was wrong than feel angry at my father for not being there (he left when I was born and I never knew him). So although it is locked away and marked “danger do not enter” as an adult it is not really the devastating monster the child thought it to be. But to feel it I have to go through the wall of fear the child created. Even if this turns out to be more of an illusion than real it is still easier to keep turning away than face it.

For this reason this turning towards the primary pain of core beliefs cannot be done alone. I need support.  I need friends. I need spiritual companions. And the support of a therapist is making this so much easier, for they hold this process of letting the control strategies fall apart and the feeling of vulnerability from not knowing anymore what is the ‘right’ way for me to behave. As an example of this, at some point I made a reality that to get angry would mean people would leave me. I told myself I had to be very good. In a group therapy situation recently I had it reflected back to me that this was in the hope that my father would come and get me. I’ve spent my life trying to be good and kind and attentive so that people will always be there for me. Of course, it doesn’t work. For the people I feel romantically drawn to feel this silent demand – I’ll be good to you, but you must be here for me – and it puts them off. They also pick up that I am annoyed or angry, but I am the type to say “nothing, everything’s fine’ when asked what’s wrong. So communication breaks down. And as I get attracted to men who find it easy to express their anger they then angrily demand that I talk….but I withdraw into silence.

Thus, paradoxically, the more I try to be good so that people won’t leave me, the more they back off or I feel isolated and alone! I was recently challenged to speak my angry feelings by a man I like and had hoped to get to know better but then that wasn’t possible – another unavailable man!  Rather than talk to him directly about the situation and say what I felt I just tried to be nice, and hoped that eventually he would see what a good catch I am and would come and ‘rescue’ me from my loneliness – my dad would come and see I had been good enough to deserve his love once more. It didn’t work – he just got more distant. But he didn’t abandon me. He invited me to say what I was feeling, sensing that I felt some anger towards him. And in a small way I was able to speak this. Instead of pushing him further away, as I feared it would, it seemed to bring us a little closer – as friends at least even if not as lovers. At least he now knows what I am thinking!

What repetitive patterns do you see in your life? Do you have a certain type of man you always get attracted to, which ends in a familiar sense of upset or sadness? Do you follow similar patterns of behaviour again and again even though they do not make you happy? Might it be possible to use these as a mirror to look back at yourself, rather than rage at an unfair and unjust world? What might you see in your own shadow if you use this mirror of the familiar but painfully repetitive life experiences?

 

Being Gay…..and not being happy

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article. Thinking it would be a short but interesting read I clicked on it and 20 minutes later I emerged knowing I had just read one of those seminal texts that shape the discourse on what it is to be gay and the search for happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing. The article gave me hope, and made me cry. I’m sharing the link here as I hope it will touch you as well if you have not already read it and give a way for us as a community to start to talk about the issues it raises around loneliness and self-harm.

I posted it on Facebook with some reflections on how I felt in response to it. I was a bit anxious about sharing, but I’ve been reading a number of books on well-being and self-love recently that all encourage authenticity as the key to self-worth and self-love: saying how you are and how you feel and being yourself rather than presenting an edited socially acceptable ‘Facebook’ persona. I was so touched by the responses I got from people to my Facebook post and it really helped me to feel cared for and held by my gay friends.

The thing that most struck me in the article was the statement that more gay men in Canada die as a result of suicide than HIV/AIDS. Consider that for a moment. If suicide were a communicable disease we would all be terrified of it. But it is a silent killer – one man lost here, then another, then another……..slowly building up until the toll is in fact worse than AIDS (statistics of gay suicides are not available in many countries, but Canada does keep them). And it leads to asking why is it that even younger gay men are still more likely to be addicted to drugs or to be depressed or to try killing themselves than straight men of the same age?

A section of the article really struck me and seems to answer some of this question:

“We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped,” says Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.

Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.”

Which raises the question: why? How can it be that just growing up in relatively safe environments, where some of the younger men have not even experienced direct homophobia or been physically abused for being gay, why do even these men show similar signs of post-traumatic stress to combat veterans or rape survivors?

Minority Stress

As part of an answer to this the article goes on to discuss the issue of “minority stress”. This is not a term I’ve heard before, but it makes a lot of sense. To quote from the article again:

“Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it.”

This was exactly my experience, and that of so many I know: the feeling of having survived childhood and adolescence as the increasing sense of not being a part of the male ‘tribe’ around me intensified. I still remember the intense fear I felt on going to the introductory session with the Cubs, being in a hetrocentric male world felt terrifying, it was not my world and on an unconscious level I felt that I would be seen through. We had sport on two days a week at my school, and I cried myself to sleep two nights a week in fear of what was to come the next day. Not just occasionally, but every week, for five years. I’m sure I am not alone there. I was talking with a repair man who came to my flat recently. He was straight, and loves to play football. I asked him about Rugby as he was tall and strong and looked as if he could play, and he said he hated it, he used to cry and not want to play it so his dad went in to his school and told them he didn’t want his son playing Rugby. How I longed for that sort of father! But as a boy who didn’t fit in with other boys at all, there was the sense that I needed to man up. Whereas this man saw his son playing football and being a regular boy, but who just did’t like Rugby so he acted for him.

These little moments of stress all build up, and the article outlines the impact of them on the body and future development:

“Growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty. A 2015 study found that gay people produce less cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress. Their systems were so activated, so constantly, in adolescence that they ended up sluggish as grownups, says Katie McLaughlin, one of the study’s co-authors. In 2014, researchers compared straight and gay teenagers on cardiovascular risk. They found that the gay kids didn’t have a greater number of “stressful life events” (i.e. straight people have problems, too), but the ones they did experience inflicted more harm on their nervous systems.

Annesa Flentje, a stress researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in the effect of minority stress on gene expression. All those little punches combine with our adaptations to them, she says, and become “automatic ways of thinking that never get challenged or turned off, even 30 years later.” Whether we recognize it or not, our bodies bring the closet with us into adulthood.”

The article goes on to say that healing this involves learning to bring awareness to the patterns, to recognise what was automatic but unaware behaviour and to bring kindness to oneself. I recently saw a report that the suicide attempts among teenage gay men in the US had dramatically decreased after same sex marriages were legalised. It was as if they had received a message from society that they were not alone….reducing that feeling of minority stress just a little through seeing that there were other men out there looking for love and that society now allowed that to be celebrated in a public ceremony.

Letting the Ice of Repression Melt

Right now it feels as if something is thawing in my life. A great continental ice shelf of repression and denial and I feel so much fear, anger and rage. Not actually feel it as right now it seems to be at a distance, but I struggle as I see it like some mummified remains of a monster appearing in the thawing ice….knowing, fearing, that on thawing it will come to life again and devour me.

This doesn’t feel very spiritual. And the fact that I sometimes feel so alone and that there are times that I reach out to friends and they don’t reply or respond and that that then pisses me off, but I try to be understanding and nice about it. Well even that I’m starting to get tired of. But I’m still too nice to tell them…..so the rage goes inside and eats at my gut like a rat in my belly or maggots and flies in my head. And then I see that I do it myself to others: being self absorbed, forgetting an arrangement to meet, only seeing others as a means to filling my sense of emptiness rather than a real connection from the heart.

In the monastery I had a good straight friend, but we fell out after several years of closeness. He told me he felt me to be selfish. It was so hard to hear as I thought I was being so kind and attentive to him. But I guess, looking back, he had a point. All my kindness and attention to him which he eventually rejected was not for him. It was so that he would not leave me. But as Jung says “what we resist persists, what we fight we get more of” and eventually it was this very energy of trying to keep his affection by not being authentic, but by showering him with kindness and attention that triggered his stuff and led to him cutting off from me to hold his own boundary and stop himself from being overwhelmed. And it’s a pattern I keep seeing. But like a car crash I see it happening but can’t stop it. I started therapy this Thursday, so it will be interesting to reflect on all of this in the sessions and feel into it more deeply. “Know thyself”, the key to freedom.

Reading this article was well timed and has added to my reflections on what is shifting for me right now. It talks of how as gay men we are less likely to have close friends over time, more likely to feel isolated and alone. Find it harder to build intimate relationships – romantic or social. And as social animals we can have food and water and all our other needs met, but without true intimacy we perish. But knowing this is not enough – I have to learn how to be intimate. That starts by opening fully to me and what is here. To be able to cry, and laugh and feel fully. To stop being spiritual and start just being. Easy to say. I don’t know how the fuck to do it. I’ve spent a lifetime being the good spiritual monk!

I realise that the idea of opening to another scares me. I fear that no man will truly be there for me, that they will all leave or let me down, that love is not truly possible, that I am not able to love another…..and why would any one want to love a mess like me anyway? So the work is on opening fully to self-care and self-love. And seeing that there are men out there who are wanting to connect from an authentic place, from the heart and who want to explore healing their wounds around relating through being in relationship. As part of this I looked online for images of male couples, and it was a lovely surprise to see so many from the past, as well as present. So I’m finishing with a montage of these, a lovely reminder that men have loved men throughout history, that we have sought each other out even in times of adversity when being gay truly was the “love that dare not speak its name”. They are our family, our ancestors, out tribe. Just as we are offering our healing to the gay men who will come after us and inherit the world we have created for them to live in. Here’s wishing you well in your own journey of self-love, self-care and deep heart connection with self and other.

To read the article in full click here

The images below are from two sites: Pinterest and Vintage Gay Couples

 

Keeping hope alive – and the epidemic of loneliness and suicide among gay men

You may be familiar with the myth of Pandora’s box. Pandora was the first woman, created by Zeus as a curse to punish what until then had been a society made up only of men for Prometheus giving them the power of fire. Pandora’s curiosity led her to open a box she had been told not to open and out flew all the evils that now blight our word – fear, anger, lust, jealousy etc.  All that remained in the box was hope. When we have been attacked by all of these evils we can always return to this one constant, hope.

But for some of us hope can also seem to vanish.

This last month two men I know have killed themselves. Both were gay. Both grew up in cultures where they were vilified for their sexuality. Both struggled in their lives. Stef turned to drugs and chem sex and lost himself in that to the point of ending up in prison for murder. The other I met when we were both monks. But he left the monastery a few years after me and then cut off all contact. It was only seeing a post on Facebook that I heard what had happened.

Stef came to the group looking for a way to find peace. He was a highly intelligent man. Sensitive and hurt by his families rejection of him for his sexuality. He left Italy for  London, in the hope of finding a more tolerant home. My monk friend was gentle, and quiet.  He came to the group once and led the most heart centred loving kindness practice. But growing up in apartheid South Africa he carried so much self-hate. Both men struggled with loving themselves and finding peace. In the end that led both to withdraw, isolate themselves, look for ways out of the suffering: through being good and ‘spiritual’, or loosing oneself in addictions, two extremes with the same root: low self-worth and shame.

It is my belief that there is nothing wrong or unnatural or unhealthy about being gay, but just as a child with brown eyes who grew up in a culture where brown eyed people were seen as evil would take that view in and loose self esteem, so to for us growing up in a culture that has only recently shifted to a more embracing attitude we carry the wounds of this disapproval and rejection. As a 20 year old in 1990 for me to have sex was to break the law. I enjoyed feeling that sex was a political act as much as an act of pleasure, but it made me very aware as well that I was in a society that treated me as different to my straight fellows who could legally enjoy sex at a younger age. I had abuse shouted at me as I cycled into Cambridge by van drivers. School mates made fun of me for being gay, before I even knew what the word meant. AIDS was used as a means to condemn me and all gay men as filthy and degenerate.

Even now if I am kissing a man in public I have one eye open to look for trouble. I was talking with a friend about this recently, how we can fear the threat of violence for as simple an act as taking our lover’s hand in the street or kissing a man good bye after a date. This is a lot to carry, a lot to place on a new relationship as we navigate not just when it is ok to kiss him, but if it is safe or the right place to do so! Or the feeling of upset when our date holds back from a kiss because there is someone standing there they do not want to see them kiss a man. Add to that the feeling of shame we may have internalised as we grew up sensing there was something wrong about us and it is no wonder the incidence of suicide, addiction and much higher rates of smoking occur amoung gay/bi men than straight men.

At New Year I had the realisation that although I look to men for love, I also fear that men cannot love, and that they will always walk away. How many of us have grown up with the subtle disapproval of male figures in our life, the slight withdrawing of affection and approval as fathers, teachers, school mates, realised there was something different about us? For me it was my step-father’s condemnation of me as a bit of a mother’s boy. The coldness from my school mates. The feeling of never belonging.

That is why I set up the group. To be a place where we can meet and create community and friendships.  Where we can share our joy and hope. Where we can speak freely and know from hearing others speak a familiar story that we are not alone.  That is why I share my struggles. I often get emails or have conversations after the group with men who are touched to hear another speak of the things they feel. To know that we are not alone is the most powerful healing. That I am not a solitary failure, but that this struggle acts to connect me to the human condition. That in suffering, and in joy, we find our shared experience of what it is to live in this world beset by the evils released from the Pandora’s Box of intolerance, bigotry and judgement.

When I loose hope, the world becomes a dark place. It is only the confidence that “this too will pass” that has kept me going at times of difficulty. I have had moments where I felt I would rather not live. But I found a way through. And I want any one out there who is struggling right now to know that once through this dark valley the sunlight one thought could never shine again does break through the clouds of depression. Keep reaching out, keep meeting others, keep talking and sharing. When it feels that all hope is gone – it is still there, it’s just that the flutter of its wings is so faint sometimes we have to listen attentively to hear it.

I recently started reading a new book that develops on the ideas in the Velvet Rage, called ‘Straight Jacket: how to be gay and happy’. After recent events it seems more important than ever to keep exploring this theme. Learning to love ourselves, to be able to be at ease in our own skin, to value who we are and the gift we are to the world. As gay/bi men we offer so much to humanity. It’s time to live each day as if it were Pride, to value who we are and what we offer: so much of culture, creativity and beauty that is part of our heritage was from the creative heart of our brothers. Before it was vilified for a man to love a man we served a role in societies throughout the world as the shamans, medicine men, healers and story tellers. We did not have our own families so we cared for the family of the tribe. My hope is that we can find a sense of real pride in being the unique part of humanity that we are, to share our gifts with the world and to be able to love and be loved. And as we all know, loving starts with ourselves. So we will continue to explore how to open to a sense of self-care and self love in the class each Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surfing the Waves of Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power Of Posture To Change How You Feel

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Moving from “not enough” to “Enough”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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High Power Poses v Low Power Poses 

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

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

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

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