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Posts tagged ‘suffering’

Identifying the different types of critical self-talk

Over the last month I’ve been reading ‘Loving Ourselves’, the Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem, by Kimeron N Hardin. It has been fascinating and the latest chapter has been really helpful in identifying negative thinking patterns and how to work with them, so in this weeks email I’ll be sharing these with you.

In last weeks class I was reflecting at the start of the session that learning to meditate can bring great peace, but also make us more aware of what we had previously been ignoring. In this way it’s like the stones that rise up out of the ground as the rain slowly causes them to appear at the surface. These negative patterns of self-talk and the associated low self-esteem have been here throughout, but at times as we meditate and bring more self awareness to our inner dialogue and feelings it can seem as if things are getting worse as we all of a sudden hear our negative script much more clearly, and feel the negativity we direct to ourselves more astutely.

For this reason it can be beneficial to have some ways of working with difficult thoughts and feelings. In meditation we simply learn to note what is there, open to it and come back to the breath. There can be a process of opening to the awareness that is able to hold what is there in an open embrace and this can feel very peaceful. I certainly find meditation is a refuge for me in this regard. A chance to sit still and at peace. But there are times when the thinking mind takes over and thoughts and emotions run riot. As this happens it helps to bring a reflective curiosity to the process of the mind, thoughts and feelings.

 

Identifying Self-Talk

The following is a summary of chapter 10, from ‘Loving Ourselves’ by Kimeron Hardin.

As we bring awareness to thoughts in the moment we begin to notice patterns of thinking that arise without any conscious will on our part. Such thinking is called automatic thoughts. To recognise thinking as automatic thought it is useful to identify the five characteristics of such thought:

1. Brief  self statements or images: automatic thoughts often have a quality of being only a few words that express a belief about ourself that is taken as a statement of truth, such as “stupid idiot”, or “It’s too much”, “I can’t cope” or an image that has the same implication as these words – seeing yourself failing, or being told off. These thoughts arise spontaneously and with no deliberate effort.

2. Experiencing automatic thoughts as true: such thoughts often arise out of beliefs planted in our mind as children at a time when we could not evaluate the truth or veracity of an opinion. They are now heard as if they are objective truth, rather than as an opinionsimply because they are so familiar and have been part of our inner self-talk for so long. This automatic nature means they can happen immediately when a trigger event occurs. For example, if you were regularly told you were stupid as a child when you spilt something then on spilling something as an adult the self-talk is immediately ” I’m so stupid” and this is taken as true. Rather than questioning why one has such a thought as opposed to the more objective recognition: I’ve spilt something, how do I clear it up?

3. Automatic thoughts are often extreme and include rigid rules hidden in the words used: when you notice thoughts containing words such as should, must or have to this is an indication of automatic self-deprecating thoughts. “I should have learnt by now”, “I must pull myself together”.

4.They seem to have always been there: These thoughts pop up so quickly we often forget to challenge them or we forget information that contradicts them. In fact, the thoughts occur so automatically we forget to see them as opinions that have been learnt, and forget we were not born thinking in this way. 

5. Automatic thoughts often group into themes:  as we bring awareness to our thinking we may start to notice that the thoughts that arise whilst being specific to a situation actually fall into common themes that often form the backdrop to our negative self-view or ways of talking to ourself. 

Common themes for self-talk

As you read the following see which you recognise as your own self-talk themes. 

1. Overgenralizing

Words often used in this way of overgeneralising: all, none, everybody, nobody, never, always.

“I’m a failure”, “I can never get anything right”, “Nothing ever works out for me”

People who have this style of thinking often believe that they absolutely cannot make mistakes, or that they have to be perfect. When a mistake happens they feel they are a failure or that they are destined to keep repeating the same mistake forever. This way of thinking tends to take a single event and make sweeping conclusions about life form that one event,

When caught in overgeneralisation one will tend to take a negative event as a pattern of one’s life and make global, labelling statements about oneself and others, places, or aspects of one’s own life, all based on a single encounter or experience.

Sub categories of overgeneralised thinking are:

i) Polarised or Black-or-White thinking. 

Words often used in this way of thinking:

Always Never Perfect
Impossible Awful Terrible
Ruined Disastrous Furious

People who think in this way tend to limit their perspectives of a situation to two alternatives. This way of thinking ignores any element of grey, and instead sees life as consisting of opposites: right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. This type of thinking is very common in depression and is related to the fight or flight mode of survival. Grey thinking requires an ability to hold uncertainty: “maybe this, maybe that”. When faced with a life or death situation we cannot have a maybe, we need a clear decision to fight or run. Uncertainty would create  hesitation and increase the risk of being killed. Hence, when we are under stress we feel the need to make a clear either/or decision rather than hold the uncertainty of a maybe. 

“The more we polarize our thinking the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m a terrible person!” or “She’s perfect; she’s a saint!” or “I’m just a failure!” oversimplify life and cause massive emotional swings. Few marriages, holidays or jobs were ‘complete disasters’ but had different elements within them.” Ref

As a child we might fail in an exam and then think: “I’m so stupid, I’m never going to get anywhere”. Or we could think “Maths is not my strongest subject, but I have done well in English”.  Or we might have a pattern of being attracted to unhealthy partners and think: “I’ll never meet anyone who is good for me”. But if we have some supportive friends we could think “I’ve met three boyfriends where it ended badly, but I have been able to make some good relationships with my friends”.

The following gives an outline of situations where we might fall into black and white thinking and offers another perspective on how one might think:

  • Can I be basically an intelligent person and still do something stupid?
  • Can I love my children and still get angry with them sometimes?
  • Can my partner love me but sometimes be insensitive?
  • Can one part of my life be difficult and other parts be easier and more enjoyable?
  • Can a part of my life be difficult now but in the future get easier?
  • Can some parts of an experience (such as a social engagement or vacation) be awful and other parts of it be OK? Ref

ii) Filtering

People who think in this way tend to see life through a filter or lens that distorts their perspective known as selective abstraction. This refers to a way of thinking where we pay attention only to the negatives in a situation rather than seeing it in its entirety, which might enable us to also see some positives. This type of thinking leads to feeling overwhelmed in a situation because you only see the downside and not the resources you may have to help you out of the situation. The words we use in this form of self-talk suggest that the situation has no solution, and that one has no control over it. 

An example would be someone with low self esteem going out one evening to a club or to a party and not meeting any one. The self-talk might be something like: “I’m so unlovable/ so completely unattractive”. Whilst overlooking the people in one’s life who do like one, or dismissing past relationships that have meant something even if we are no longer in them now.

At the end of a relationship this type of thinking will often manifest as: “Now they have left I have nothing” , which then initiates strong feelings of loneliness and heartache. Rather than seeing that you have your friends, social network and your own qualities to attract a new partner when the time is right. 

iii) Magnification or minimisation

This involves exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. So instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, which you minimize, you magnify your perceived failures. An example would be if someone offers you a compliment, you vehemently deny the positive and focus on the negative. Ref

iv) Disqualifying the positive

Here you only look at the negative even if someone tells you differently, you continue to deny it. Here’s a possible conversation between two people showing this distortion:

John: “I’m no good at sports.”

Sam: “What about the time you scored the winning touchdown?”

John: “Oh that was just luck”

Sam: “But even the coach said you displayed skill.”

John: “He was just being nice” Ref

2. Catastrophising or Fortune Telling. 

This is the tendency to predict the worst possible scenario for any possible outcome. A catastrophiser will tend to focus on worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they are to actually happen, leading to a state of perpetual anxiety and worry. 

Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms:

The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation. For instance, if you’re a salesperson and haven’t made a sale in awhile, you may believe you are a complete and utter failure and you will lose your job. In reality, it may only be a temporary situation, and there are things that you can do to change this situation. Another example is believing that if you make one small mistake at your job, you may get fired. This kind of
Catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”

The second kind of Catastrophizing is closely linked to the first, but it is more mental and more future oriented.This kind of Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “It’s bound to all go wrong for me…”). Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong. Ref

3. Must and shoulds

Must and should modes of thinking arise out of applying absolute rules for living on oneself and others. This may happen without one even being aware of the process. When we or another does not follow the rules, by mistake or intentionally, it can make one irritated, angry and judgemental. The rules were often learnt as a child and may be irrational or unreasonable but were accepted by the child without question.

For example one may have learnt the belief: “good boys are quiet and don’t cause any disruption”. As a child and in one’s family unit this may have resulted in behaviour that was in line with this rule receiving praise and love. But as an  adult, being at a party where one is quietly causing no offence, but wanting attention, one might become intensely irritated with the “loud” and “arrogant” man who is the centre of attention as he jokes, is mischievous and breaks all of one’s rules for what is required to be good and liked. 

To find your must and shoulds, consider what type of people most annoy you and reflect on what it is about their behaviour you so dislike. What did you learn as a child that may have made you feel that such behaviour is wrong?

4. Personalising

This way of thinking makes everything always about oneself. This might be through always comparing yourself to others: “She’s so much more intelligent than me”, or “my body is nothing compared to him”. Another way of personalising is to always assume that you are the source of other people’s problems, or the cause of a negative event. 

An aspect of this way of thinking is mind-reading: thinking we know what other are thinking and that it is all to do with us.

A friend of mine had a powerful experience of seeing through this way of thinking. He was in a store about to pay for some items. He saw the cashier looking him up and down in a way that he took to be critical or with dislike. He reflected that he did not know what the other person was thinking and even if they were feeling negative he did not have to respond in the same way. Their negativity might have nothing to do with him, and he was aware his thoughts were his own subjective perception of the situation.

In the past he might have made a caustic comment or put the person down based on believing the truth of his perception of the situation but this time he just smiled and said hello. The cashier then chatted and in talking revealed that she had been wondering where he had got his coat as it looked perfect for her son and she would like to buy one. What had looked like a critical looking up and down was someone’s thinking face! 

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.

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