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Posts tagged ‘suffering’

Meeting the Inner Critic

When I pay attention to my inner dialogue and how I talk to myself I’ve sometimes thought that if I spoke to others in the way I do to myself I soon would not have any friends! Who wants to hang around with someone who after a minor incident turns to them and says “idiot”, “how can you be so stupid!”, “what’s wrong with you?”, “when will you learn?” etc – fill in your own favourite you use with yourself!  This inner critic is the mind’s attempt to guard against danger, having stored previous examples that were registered as mistakes and are therefore to be avoided again.

The problem is, that when the brain was being formed the examples we internalised would often be statements from exasperated parents who would snap at us out of their place of wounding, rather than talking to us as mature adults. You spill coffee in the back seat of the car. A parent shouts at you “you stupid boy”. If we could reason with the parent we might say, as one little girl did in an example I heard, “I’m not stupid, I’ve done something stupid.” Most of us don’t have the perspicacity of this girl to challenge the statement, instead we take in the meaning that spilling coffee marks us out as being stupid. In future any similar incident will be flagged up as a danger to be avoided and if we do once again spill coffee the inner critic will immediately supply the criticism.

Looking on line for more on this issue I found the following webpage which outlines seven types of inner-critic and gives a simple definition of it: “The Inner-Critic is the part of you that judges you, demeans you, and pushes you to do things. It lowers your sense of self-worth and makes you feel bad about yourself.”

Jay Early, PHD goes on to define seven types of Inner-Critic:

1. Perfectionist
This Critic tries to get you to do things perfectly. It has very high standards for behaviour, performance, and production. Sometimes it prevents you from creating anything for fear it won’t be good enough. Sometimes it makes you work forever trying to perfect something.

2. Inner Controller
This Critic tries to control impulsive behaviour that might not be good for you or others, or might be dangerous. It tends to be harsh and shaming when you slip up.

3. Taskmaster
This Critic tries to get you to work hard or be disciplined in order to be successful or to avoid being mediocre. It can cause over-striving and workaholism.

4. Underminer
This Critic tries to undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem so you won’t take risks that might be dangerous, or so you won’t try and fail, or so you won’t get to big or powerful or visible and therefore be attacked or rejected. It makes you feel worthless.

5. Destroyer
This Critic makes pervasive attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It shames you deeply. It believes you shouldn’t exist.

6. Guilt-Tripper
This Critic attacks you for some specific action you have taken or not taken in the past or for repeated behaviour that has been harmful to others or violates a deeply-help value. It makes you feel guilty and will never forgive you.

7. Moulder
This Critic tries to get you to fit a certain mould or be a certain way that comes from your family or culture—e.g. caring, aggressive, polite. It attacks you when you aren’t and praises you when you are. If the mould doesn’t fit who you are, it constantly makes you feel inadequate.

Jay Earl goes on to say: “Despite the pain they cause, each type of Inner Critic is actually trying to help you or protect you from pain, in its own distorted way. By determining which types of Inner Critics you have, you can more easily get to know them and find out what they are trying to do for you. This makes it possible to develop a cooperative relationship with the Critic and transform it into a positive resource for you.”

 

 

As I sit in meditation it becomes a place to experience all of this. When I went back to visit my Abbot at the monastery in Northumberland where I spent my first three years of training we spoke about this. He talked of how the practice is about learning to be with the chaos of our inner world. Mindfulness is not about getting calm and making the mind quiet. That is to mistake the final flowering of practice with the early stages of practice. Mindfulness can help calm the mind and its story telling – but to see through the story teller completely means sitting in the eye of the storm as it plays itself out. 

Learning to be with the inner critic but not to believe it is part of this process of being with the chaos. 

Loving-Kindness practice gives us the chance to bring some kindness to our experience and to explore wishing ourself well whilst mindfulness practice offers the chance to sit with bare attention, experiencing the storm winds of ego identity, but with the opportunity to let go of this identity and recognise it for what it is: “a story told by an idiot, signifying nothing”. Perhaps Macbeth’s words are a bit harsh, but we can recognise that these inner worlds of thought identities have been created by the meaning making machine of the mind and only have the power to harm if we believe them to be objective truth and take them on as a legitimate criticism of who we are. 

The first stage is to be able to name the inner critic rather than take it as just an objective inner commentary. So looking at the list above, see if you recognise any as your own habit patterns of thought.  Then as they arise see what it is like to start naming them rather than believing them. 

We’ll return to this list next week to continue to explore this theme of naming the inner critic and defusing it: no longer letting it stick to us with the belief it is who we are, but recognising it as a habit pattern in the mind that gets triggered to play its familiar refrain, but just because it feels familiar this does not mean it is true or even relevant. 

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Loving ourselves…with a little help from our friends

Last week I was away in Spain on a dance retreat so was not able to send a group email. Thank you to Andy Butterfield for taking the class. I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the different perspective he was able to bring by teaching from his experience of practice.

Whilst on the retreat I was exploring in my meditation and through the dance the feeling of being connected to friends.  This ties in with a new approach to the Loving Kindness meditation that I read about recently and will be exploring in the group on Mondays over this month.

One of the things I have heard consistently over the 27 years that I have taught meditation is the difficulty some people feel in being able to connect with wishing themselves well in the Loving Kindness meditation. It can feel forced or artificial to make this wish for oneself, or the inner critic that says one is being self-indulgent or selfish can arise, making it hard to feel a real sense of self-care.

On the retreat I had a chat with someone who told me how grateful he was for the practice, as he had been  able to use the reflections as a recitation during a time of emotional turmoil, repeating the phrases over and over as a wish for himself:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

Connecting with the phrases as a wish for oneself can allow the heart to find its own way of opening to this feeling of self-care. I know someone else who has said that when in a depressive episode she cannot practice mindfulness as it is too much to sit with the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, but she can practice loving Kindness, wishing herself to be well, telling herself she cares for herself and wishes for her happiness.

Hearing this I realise how important it is that we have a feeling of being able to turn to the Loving Kindness practice as a resource rather than dismiss it as the practice we cannot do. Over this month the theme of the emails will be around self-care and self-love so that we have a consistent opportunity to explore this aspect of the practice.

Rather than always feeling we have to move away from the broken person we feel we are, how would it be if we stepped towards being the whole being that we are? We were not born broken or self-sabotaging. We learnt not to like ourselves. A baby does not feel it does not deserve to be loved, it does not hold back its cries feeling it should not bother anyone or that it should wait to be seen. We learn the belief that “I do not matter”, or “my needs are not important” or “I should not be a bother” or “I can only be worthy of love if I am serving another/ am funny enough/ have a good enough body….” or whatever our inner script may be.

Over the dance retreat I was able to feel how strongly I feel my needs do not matter, feel the fear of reaching out to connect, the belief I am too much and will only swap the other if I do try to connect, the fear of being rejected and the hope of being noticed. In one exercise we danced with rejection. Our partner had to ignore us as we danced. It was so painful. At first I danced with freedom and ease, in the flow of my dance. Then seeing that my partner was ignoring me I tried to attract his attention, dancing closer, my movements becoming more exaggerated. But still he looked at his nails or looked thorough me.

Then, without any thought about what I would do next my dance suddenly changed. My movements became small, timid, afraid of causing offence. I came close to my partner, trying to be in contact with his body as he ignored me. My hands coming to rest on my chest in a self embrace that did nothing to mitigate the feeling of panic at not being seen. I then stayed in this slow, small, constricted dance hoping if I were quiet and good enough my partner might then choose to notice me. In the space of five minutes my body was able to relive my experience of being a child who was not seen, and I felt the impact of making myself small in the hope that whatever it was I was doing wrong would no longer cause offence and I would once more be loved.

Over the rest of the retreat I stayed with this sense of making myself small and also of seeing how I could connect out to others. In one session I lost any feeling of being able to dance freely and was standing, with my arms around myself, my eyes closed, my head hanging down. My legs wrapped around themselves. Stuck to the spot. Feeling alone. Isolated. Not wanted. Incapable of connecting out……..

Then the most amazing thing….the sensation of fingers brushing against my head, neck and back. Then a hand giving support, then two hands resting on my back, coming down to my waist, inviting movement in my hips and back. And like a tightly curled bud my limbs released and moved and opened and expanded from their tight constriction until I was once again in the flow of my dance.

The dance facilitator then said “now leave your partner and return to your own dance”…I had not even heard that we were to go into pairs, and realised that someone had come to me as I stood in my paralysed state, daring to reach out to someone who looked so alone and cut off. I looked around and it was the friend I was on the retreat with and I felt such a rush of gratitude and love for him in that moment. If I remember nothing else from the retreat it will be the feeling of his touch waking me from a place of constriction and being closed down.

 

I then took this into my morning meditation. Using the new method I had read about recently I imagined myself between two friends. Rather than trying to start by wishing myself well I connected with the feeling of wishing my friends well. For so many of us it can be easier to wish another well rather than ourself! But it starts to open our heart to that felt sense of wishing a being to be happy and well.

Once this was connected to I then returned to myself. Feeling myself between these two friends who wish me well. Starting to turn this loving attention to myself. I can be so hard on myself: feeling I will only be worthy of love when I have worked on myself, sorted out this or that defect. Become a better person. But my friends love me right now. Your friends love you right now – as you are. They may see faults, after all we all have our quirks, but they are not saying “I will love you and be a friend in a years time once you have sorted out your addiction/quirk/behaviour trait” They are your friend right now because they embrace you as they find you. Opening to this in the meditation gives a chance to let go of the narrative that I will only be worthy of love in the future, and recognise that right now I am loved as I am, which is the unconditional nature of Loving Kindness.

You may like to try this approach in your own meditation. It need only be ten minutes: five minutes of sitting imagining yourself with a friend on either side: expressing your love and care for them in your own words or using the phrases:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to you.

Then when you feel ready have a sense of your friends at your side, wishing you well. See if you can feel a sense of your friends loving you as you are right now, warts and all. Starting to wish yourself well, using your own phrases or the Loving Kindness phrases, feeling them in your heart rather than thinking them:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be free from suffering and pain
May all good things come to me.

I’m looking forward to sharing and exploring this in the class over the coming weeks.

If you would like to explore the Five Rhythms movement practice that is led by Bodhi who co-led the dance retreat I was on in Spain details are below: 

Click here for more info

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Saying No to be able to mean your Yes

As we approach Queer Spirit Festival 2017 I am reminded of the year that has passed since the last event in 2016. One of my most powerful lessons there was to discover that it was ok to say no to certain things during various workshops. There were a few occasions when I had a choice to stay and endure something or say no. On one occasion I was in a pair to work with someone with whom I did not feel comfortable working. On another I was in a workshop when someone I knew came in and I no longer felt comfortable being in the space sharing personal information, so I said to the facilitator that I was leaving to go to the dance tent instead. I then had the most amazing dance and was so glad that I had left. This marked a real shift, as in the past I would have worried that leaving would impact on the facilitator and would have stayed in order not to cause any upset or bad feeling on their part – ignoring how I felt.

Over the last year I have had a number of occasions to recognise the power of a no. I remember all to well the impact of not saying my no and instead giving a dishonest yes. When I was 20 I visited Italy and spent seven weeks traveling from North to South. Whilst in Rome I found a gay night club – pre internet I really can’t remember how I even found the information to locate it, but I did and wandered in at the end of a day of sight seeing. A man whom I did not in any way find attractive started talking to me as soon as I arrived and sat me down at a table after buying me a drink. I spent the whole evening with him wanting to leave but fearing hurting his feelings. I imagined how I would feel to have someone say no to me and how upset I would be and I felt I could not impose this on him so preferred to endure the discomfort myself.

At the end of the evening he asked me to go home with him. Following the same train of thought I said yes, when inside I was screaming no. And so I found myself in the middle of Rome with a man who was obese and I did not find attractive in any way, in his bed, hoping he would just want to fall asleep. He did not. The next day I went back to my hotel and saw a scab on my chin – his bristles had been so rough that  they had cut my chin as we kissed and for the next two weeks I had a thick scab. I remembered that I did not like the feeling of him kissing me, but I was not able to stop it or pull away. Again, it was easier to say yes than assert a no. So that was the end of any adventures on the gay scene in Rome!

At University a year after the experience in Rome I met a man I found incredibly handsome. I was involved with an older man at the time whom I did not find attractive (notice a theme here) but had not been able to say no to when he made his advances. This older man lived back in Cambridge where we had met and I was now in Hull but I felt that we were still boyfriends and that I was not free to meet anyone else. The man I met at University was someone I would have dreamt of getting to know and dating – and he actually pursued me. But in a spirit of misguided integrity I said no to him as I was already involved with someone else.

It was a few months  latter that I  finally reject the older man by becoming celibate as a way to bring the sex part of the relationship to an end. Again I was not able to say a clear no….I preferred to stop having sex altogether as a way out of the relationship than say I wanted to stop being with him. In the same way I had left the University I went to in London the year before in part to get away from an older man who had become keen on me when I went to Act Up: it felt easier to drop out and find another University than say no to his attention or hold my boundaries with him.

It’s OK to say no!

Now as I approach 47 I have finally found that it is alright to say no, and to say yes to what I want. The world does not fall apart when I say no. People do not die, or hate me….and if they do, that is their business to process if my reason for saying no was authentic rather than intended to hurt.

I was on a massage and intimate touch workshop a few weeks ago and was partnered with a man who reminded me of a man who keeps occurring in my dreams and who scares me. The thought of working with this man in real life who held such a strong reminder of a dream image was just too much. But I had to take a breath for a moment to step into that place of saying “I can’t work with you in this exchange”. I felt terrified – of hurting his feelings, of not being good, of seeming selfish or mean. But once said he took it well and we went to the organiser who then reallocated us to different partners, and we then had a good session with our new partners in the exercise.

The same happened at Queer Spirit last year, where there was a woman I could not work with in one workshop. By saying no she then got a partner who could enter into the exercise fully, whereas if I had given an inauthentic yes we would both have had a frustrating experience as I would have held back and resented being there and she would have felt this reticence.

In this way, saying no may be the most generous and kind thing to do if it opens the space up for a more authentic connection to occur.

 

Having stepped into saying no, I am starting to discover my yes in a more assertive way. Last Friday I was feeling a bit down and sad and alone. I was walking to my local shop which is near a friend who lives nearby and I was thinking how I would like to see him. Rather then sending a text, as I might often do in the past, asking how he is in the hope he may reply and suggest we meet, I simply said I was feeling sad and wanted a hug….was he free?

This was a new approach, as in the past I would feel I was imposing by making a request, I should wait for it to be offered – but then my communication would have an edge of being manipulative as I would seem to be enquiring about the other person when really wanting some attention for myself. This way of directly asking felt cleaner and more direct, and I trusted that he could say yes or no according to how he was – I did not have to try and shield him from my need, fearing it was too much to ask. He replied immediately saying “come over”. We had a great evening chatting, and the hug was very welcome, and I left feeling nourished.

This connects with the theme from last week’s email of seeing the house builder: the story teller in my mind says I will overwhelm people with my needs and that I should be self-sufficient and not make any demands. The subtle and covert ways by which the story teller then goes about trying to get his needs met then can have the unintended consequence of making people feel uncomfortable as silent and unspoken contracts are made that if I care for you you will care for me. Rather than feeling that they are receiving unconditional care people may feel a dissonance as this care seems to be based on setting up a contract that implies a return of something unspecified. Certainly my story teller has had a habit of regurgitating the thought “how can they not be there for me after all I have done……” and it is a painful house to live in that is built by that story. I’m pleased that I am starting to see that house builder and no longer letting him construct that edifice of self-identity so much.

If you are someone who has always been able to hold your boundaries and say yes or no when you need to this may all sound strange and unfamiliar. But you will very likely know people who give you signals you find confusing. If you can say no when you need to you may find it confusing when a friend says yes and then seems to resent the thing they have consented to! I hope this reflection helps put you in touch with the sense confusion and the desire to be good and please the other person that is behind this complex and confused communication.

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No More Mr Nice Guy

A few years ago a friend recommended a book he had read, called ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’. I recently bought it and have found it fascinating to read. The images below give a brief over view of the text:

 

This may not resonate with you, but as I read it I recognised so much of my own habit patterns of relationship. The saying that stuck with me from the School for Life video I shared a few weeks ago about why we fall in love with people who are not good for us was that “we fall in love with people who love us in ways that feel familiar” (my emphasis). Add to this that we relate to others from our habit patterns of dealing with toxic shame and feeling that we are wrong and need to be perfect in order to be loved and it makes getting into a relationship a mine filed!! 

This is not just an academic concern. Each time I have become involved with someone romantically in the last 12 years it has been as a rescuer. I have sought to be very good, to serve their needs and hope that they would then give me what I need. But each time the relationship has broken down, as the connection has not been an honest or truly healthy or nurturing one. Instead it has been based on a secret contract that perhaps each is responsible for co-creating, but my part in these codependent relationships has been to act from the unspoken contract: “if I look after you, then you have to be there for me even when I do not say in what way that needs to be”. This way of relating just built up resentment when the other person didn’t keep their side of the secret agreement I had imposed on the relationship. I would cook, clean, give massages and be solicitous, I would listen and be gentle, send kind texts and always agree. Then I would boil with rage when they did not reciprocate with unconditional care – after all of my unconditional love! 

In No More Mr Nice Guy the author describes how smothered the partners of Nice Guys feel – all the flowers, kind texts, loving attention – it all feels too much, as if they could never repay the debt that they feel is secretly being built up. 

I’ve found that men who are emotionally healthy back off from this dynamic – and I am left feeling sad as I wonder why another man has become a spot on the horizon “after I was being so nice to him”. Or people are attracted because they have a need to feel adored. But his doesn’t make for a healthy relationship.

Thus, I cannot offer anything that insightful right now as I feel that as a personality I am still locked in this dynamic. But, the power of mindfulness practice is the ability to bring a curious and honest observation to the dynamics of self and to be open to change. Buddhism teaches ‘no self’ which is often taken to be nihilistic, being seen as a statement that there is no-one here to be called ‘me’ and thus no self. But it can also be taken in the sense that we are only ever the story we tell ourselves of who we are: habit patterns that have fossilised into an identity, but that this is not a fixed or eternal thing. The less I attach to these habit patterns and try to defend them as being right, the more fluid they can become, and it is possible to allow change to occur.

On a scientific level this relates to the plasticity of the brain. Whereas it was once thought that once the brain and personality were formed that was it for life, it is now known that the brain is plastic – that it is capable of reforming as new choices are made that create new neural pathways and allow old neural pathways to fade. 

Something like therapy or reading books that raise self-awareness are offering that chance to form new neural pathways as they hold up a mirror for us to see our unaware automatic actions for what they are and make new choices, forming new neural pathways.  

I’ve nearly finished my first reading of No More Mr Nice Guy and plan to read it again and do the exercises it contains to see what difference this can make. 

To buy the book click here

If you would like tread a free online PDF of the book click  here

There is also a Meet Up group that meets in London on the last Friday of the month to meet and discuss issues that arise from the book. For details click here 

 

 

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Mindfulness or Heartfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eye of the hurricane: knowing

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

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

I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Finding My Tribes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read The Machine Stops click here

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

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

 

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

To buy click here

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