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Posts tagged ‘suffering’

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:

Opening to Joy – The Path to Awakening

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

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

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

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

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

To listen to a version of this click here

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning to face our pain – embracing what is there in order to be whole

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing with a friend a one day workshop we are putting together that will explore mindfulness and therapy. The central theme will be looking at how we can learn to hold with kindness the wounding that we may carry from our childhood relationships: learning to bring kindness and compassion to the parts of ourself that still struggle and are in pain. One of the metaphors my friend has referred to a number of times is the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows, and I was reading a book today that makes reference to this teaching as well.

The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with 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 starts by quoting the original Buddhist text:

“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling they worry, agonise and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards by a second arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”

What the Buddha is saying is that the first arrow cannot be avoided – there is pain, whether it be physical or mental, and it has occurred.  But how we respond to that pain determines whether we then shoot the second arrow – the aversion to the pain, the desire to escape it or anger at it having happened, these are all thing we add to the experience of the initial pain and actually deepen and intensify it, as the Buddha goes on to explain:

“Having been touched by that painful feeling, they resist and resent it. They harbour aversion to it, and this underlying tendency of resistance and resentment toward that painful feeling comes to obsess the mind.”

We know the thoughts: why me, this isn’t fair, when will it end, how can I make it stop, this is too much……..And once this starts it takes on a momentum of its own, leading to thoughts and actions that may themselves be harmful to our wellbeing but which we justify in an attempt to get away from the pain of the second arrow, almost forgetting that this secondary pain is a result of our reaction to the first arrow.

“Touched by that painful feeling, the ordinary person delights in compulsive distraction, often through seeking pleasure. Why is that? Because compulsive distraction is the only way they know to escape from painful feeling. This underlying tendency or craving for distraction comes to obsess the mind”

It may not be that the source of our distraction necessarily gives us pleasure. Vidyamala Burch commented that she tended to be very argumentative, but she came to realise that arguing with people helped her to distract herself from her chronic physical pain, so she tended to argue a lot, not because it was needed but as a way of coping with severe pain. We may look for distraction in the any number of things: drink, sex, drugs, being busy, television, lost on the internet for hours, porn, eating for comfort, smoking, compulsively talking, doing good deeds for others, shopping…….and whatever else one might addd to the list! It’s not that these things are necessarily good or bad in themselves, but if we are engaging with them in order to avoid the feeling of pain then they can be compulsive and driven rather than something we have a choice over. And as the original pain has not been addressed we have to keep drowning out the ‘noise’ of our pain with these activities, never daring to stop as in the silence of not doing we are faced again with our pain. But as Jung says, “what we resist we persists, what we fight we get more of”. Drowning out the noise of our mental or physical pain with distractions will in the end mean it has to make more noise to make us hear it. We may then intensify the distraction. Going deeper into addiction, whatever our chosen addictive behaviour might be. The result is a decent into ever deeper levels of dissociation and emotional and psychological pain.  The Buddha described this process by saying:

“Being overwhelmed and dominated by pain (through resistance and compulsive distraction), the ordinary person is joined with suffering and stress.”

How did we reach this point of suffering and stress?  By not turning towards the first arrow when it struck, by wanting to avoid feeling that pain through firing the second arrow of aversion to the pain, wanting it to be otherwise, wanting to block out the feeling or not face it.

Burch summarises this process very succinctly in the following way:
First comes the experience of pain – the basic unpleasant sensations. This is what the Buddha called the first arrow and what I have termed primary suffering
Then you respond to the pain with aversion, resistance, and resentment.
Next, you seek to escape from pain by getting caught up in compulsive distractions and avoidance strategies.
Ironically, in your attempts to escape the pain you become stuck in a troubled state until, finally, you’re joined or fettered to suffering and stress, and this dominates your life and obsesses your mind. It is what the Buddha called the second arrow and what I describe as secondary suffering
(p23, Living Well with Pain and Illness)

She goes on to describe resistance as manifesting as either blocking (not wanting to feel the pain) or drowning (being overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s experience of the pain), resulting in either addictions or depression. Looking at this I recognise a tendency in myself toward blocking. As a child and teenager I learnt that it was easier to not feel, to stay busy and create a shell against feeling that which was too hard to feel.  The result was an unexpressed anger, being consumed with anxiety and a tendency to live in my head rather than be in my body. These are all things that as an adult I have been learning to hold and bring a kind attention to. Have look at the summary below of the two approaches to dealing with pain, and see if you recognise a pattern in your own life:

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two arrows

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How do we avoid this second arrow and this whole process of spiralling into addiction depression? We avoid the second arrow by learning to turn to the first with loving, compassionate and gentle attention. We learn to embrace our physical pain, our mental and emotional pain rather than fight it and wish it were not there. The Buddha taught the mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness meditation as a means to help us turn towards the present moment rather than run from it. As we do this we learn to approach our pain, to accept it, to breathe into it and hold it. Pain is part of life.  We are not failing if we feel pain, if we feel confused, lost, angry or upset.  But if we react to these feelings with dislike, wanting to push them away by loosing ourselves in distractions then the attempt to escape them may result in worse pain than the original first arrow.

How many gay men have lost themselves in chem sex rather than face the difficult feelings they have around intimacy, about the shame they internalised whilst growing up that made us think there was something evil or wrong at our core. Where does this chem sex addiction lead so many of us? Does it result in freedom and happiness, or lead ever deeper into a place of isolation and pain? If we turn to casual sex out of a desire for intimacy whilst fearing opening to another then we never connect with any of our partners as they are actually a shield to prevent us being open to anyone, to never be seen. Might it not be more healing to turn and face our loneliness, our fear of rejection and our struggle to emerge from the shadow of shame? This may mean going into the pain, the place we have tried to run from, but by embracing the source of our pain we can bring healing to it – and might even realise that it is not a terrible thing to be escaped from, but a raw and vulnerable part of ourselves that is asking simply to be held and loved. For all of us – gay or straight, it is this brave act of turning to face that which we want to run from that enables us to start to heal.

It is by meeting together as a community, with friends who will love us as we are, without judgement that we can heal. And that is what we can look to create for each other by learning to hold ourselves without judgement in the Loving Kindness practice, for only when we can truly love ourselves can we love others without judgment or expectation. The Dalia Lama quote above reminds me of the theme from a few weeks ago that has been the thread for the last few emails: “we are wounded in community and we heal in community” – let us meet together with whatever communities provide us with support to heal.

Learning to Love

 

I love this song – but this video has got me crying my eyes out! It reminds me that under all of the pain, there is still that bright young child looking out at the world with wonder and hope. Not just hope, but belief that the moment can be different, that things are never so bad one can only despair. And it reminds me of a therapist I knew who would always say “we are wounded in relationship…but we also heal in relationship”…and it’s only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to enter relationship – with friends, with lovers, with ourself – that healing can start to happen.

Mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness is about learning how to come into relationship with ourself, and with others.  Learning how to love.  We can do so much damage to ourselves with the hard, harsh  inner dialogue: “When will I learn”, “what’s wrong with me”, “I’m such a failure”, “all these years of self development and workshops and still I’m a mess”, “when will I be fixed” and so it goes on, just add your own favourite! The desire to be fixed, to be free, to be well comes form a genuine wish to be whole, but when it manifests as a desire to reject what is there in one’s experience right now then it does the opposite, for to be whole is to heal, and to heal means to embrace whatever is there right now with love – holding the worry, fear, pain or whatever it might be that we wish was not there. “I could love my self if only I weren’t such a failure/ so full of anxiety/ so stupid…….” Is this Love? Thinking we could love some perfect abstract form of ourself, but not the mess that we are? Or is love that which embraces us exactly as we are right now?

Mindfulness and living a life based on awareness is a reminder to stop and feel at such times.  Under the blame, the anger, the contempt is shame, and under the same is fear. Fear and shame do not need to be fixed or got rid of – they need to be seen, held and embraced. The unconditional aspect of loving Kindness means that we do not only love ourselves or others when we or they are doing what we think is right or when we are getting what we want.  It is a love that responds to self or other in the moment as that moment presents itself – not as we think we or they should be or ought to be. This may be a very different way of loving to what we are used. Praise and pride can masquerade as love as a parent congratulates you on your achievements, but if the feeling is there that that affirmation would be removed if you had got a lower mark or failed the exam then it is not love. Love would say “I love you as the being you are, and well done for passing your exams”. Vicarious living out of one’s own hopes and aspirations through others success and the need to be seen to have produced successful offspring or have a successful partner says “I love you for doing well”.

To return to the quote from my therapist friend: “we are wounded in relationship…and we heal in relationship”. We may have internalised a sense that “I am only of worth when I achieve/make others  proud of my success” We may fear rejection or be very proud. It is by coming into relationship with others that these get triggered and in our relationship with ourself that we can learn to embrace what is there, holding that which is in pain and wanting to be seen, heard, held. Our daily practice of mindfulness and loving Kindnesses creates the space to learn to embrace the moment as it is – but it is not for just in the meditation but something we bring to every moment. And then we may once more connect with that childlike sense of trust, love and vitality.

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