Shedding what no longer serves us

Do you feel you could be holding yourself back from your full potential because of a belief you have about yourself or a story you've been telling yourself about who you are? What if that belief or story is no longer true for you... and you are free? You can reauthor these stories and live with more authenticity. John Welwood, psychotherapist, teacher, and author, says that we all live with some degree of dis-ease (absence of ease) that he defines as the cocoon function of alienation from ourselves in the face of pain.

Welwood says that dis-ease has three levels:

Level 1: The initial pain we feel as a result of a life circumstance. For example, if we experienced an unpleasant event as a child that was too much for our nervous systems to handle or understand, and the adults around us were unable to help us relate, we protected ourselves by shutting ourselves down (or contracting.)

Level 2: The contracting away from or trying to escape from the pain when it arises. It is a natural human preservation response to turn away from pain (in body, emotion, mood, etc.), thus causing a secondary pain of living in a state of contraction. By state of contraction, Welwood means that over time, an overall style of avoidance or denial develops, creating an identity that is based on grasping what we like in ourselves and rejecting what we don't like. For example, we might avoid anger by trying to "be a nice person."

Level 3: The energy vested in this contracted version of self. This creates a third kind of suffering that comes about in our story lines or the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about our life. These can be overt thoughts and beliefs, or ones that are unconscious, which have tremendous power. This creates a partial or contracted identity that is not the whole of who we are. It requires ongoing maintenance to keep up and defend an elaborate web of rationalizations to justify this avoidance (perhaps not consciously.)

These stories become self-fulfilling prophecies because we create a reality that reinforces the story and keep up behavior that provides an illusion of stability and permanence. It's likely that we're all walking around with old stories about ourselves that no longer fit for who we really are or that no longer serve us. There was a time that the story served a purpose of protection, but it's okay now to drop that storyline in favor of living with more EASE and truth.

How can we begin to do this work? Bringing mindfulness to ways in which we may have crafted these stories and how we support them can help us to live in a more authentic state. We can observe contractions we may be experiencing due to painful thoughts, feelings, or stories - some of which may be very old and longstanding. (These are called sankaras.) By naming these difficulties, we are open to whatever arises.  Mindfulness is a practice of NOT contracting away, but instead, bringing more attention and awareness to the pain, further exploring the cocoon and not trying to change it. The contracted part isn’t alone anymore; it is supported by mindfulness and maitri, or unconditional self-love. By slowing down and observing our own stories, we have the power to shed what no longer fits and reauthor our own lives.

If you'd like to read more about this concept from John Welwood, I highly recommend his book: Toward a Psychology of Awakening.

Maitri: 4 tips for loving yourself as you are

In keeping with the recent topic of self-compassion here on my blog, I wanted to write about the Buddhist concept of maitri. It's pronounced my tree. It is the Sanskrit word for "loving kindness," and while there are many translations, essentially maitri means unconditional positive self-regard or friendliness or lovingness to oneself. For many of us, the inner-critic has a loud voice.  Socially and professionally, I hear a great deal of self-criticism, self-defeat, and self-loathing from people. It's evident even in casual comments muttered under one's breath, like when making a mistake, saying "I'm so stupid" or when  learning something new, "I can't do this."

Maitri is not about self-indulgence or ego or even about being "a good person" – rather accepting all of who you are and loving thatunconditional is the operative word here. Belief that there is something in our nature that is basically good, and that does not buy the self-critical stories. It is NOT about giving ourselves excuses to avoid difficult things, nor is it merely cheerleading yourself along. It IS the willingness to see and feel into whatever is happening and let our experience be exactly what it is in any one moment. It’s not about becoming better – it is about dropping the struggle to be different from who and what we are. 

There are three parts to the practice of maitri:

  1. Precision – Being honest and specific about where your mind is, about your experience, about your suffering, about yourself
  2. Gentleness – Touching or meeting with kindness every single aspect of this truth
  3. Letting go – Releasing, exhaling, detatching, unplugging from the outcome

For most of us, this frame of mind is difficult to attain when we first attempt it. We  have so many constructs in our western culture that have taught us otherwise. It takes a lot of courage. So, when beginning the practice of maitri, here are a few practical techniques to get you in this mindspace:

  • It sometimes helps to envision at least one person or animal for whom you already feel gratitude, appreciation, and love right now, today. Really sit with the feeling of that love and notice its quality, its warmth, its texture, its images. Then make the switch and extend those same sentiments to the self.
  • You can also imagine this scenario: What would you say to your best friend calling you for help or advice with [insert your own issue of current distress/worry/suffering here]? Now, tell yourself those very same things in the same tone of voice.
  • Because I am a visual learner (no surprise there for an art therapist, huh?) another way I like to make this practice concrete for myself (and for my clients) is this: Find a photo of yourself as a childand keep it near you. I often ask people to tape one to the dashboard of their car or to their bathroom mirror or their desk at home or work. Remind yourself that you are still this child inside, and you can speak to yourself with the same kindness and tone of voice that you’d use to speak to the child.
  • Along the lines of visual ways to conjure maitri, I offer a multitude of art invitations or visual prompts to my clients as doorways into this way of seeing oneself. They may take many forms, including a self-portrait, a self box, a mirror project, a photography project, or a mosaic like the one you see pictured above in this post (an example of my own art around this topic.)  These pieces can be so powerful and healing in the context of an art therapy session. Come meet with me for a free consultation to see how we might work together on this.

You can read more about the concept of maitri and practicing maitri from the wise and humorous Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön. You may also enjoy this 5 minute video of her speaking about maitri.

If you missed my last post on the practice of tonglen (it just takes one breath!), click here. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter to be notified about forthcoming blogs.