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.

Slow living

Happy New Year! I've gotten a slow start arriving into 2014, which feels needed after the fast pace of the holiday season. I've been consciously allowing space for myself to start fresh, establish resolutions, and set intentions for the year ahead. And in doing so, I have found a welcome openness and a space created -- which has inspired me to more formally embrace the idea of slow living as one of my intentions for the year. Authors Beth Meredith and Eric Storm define slow living like this:

"Slow Living means structuring your life around meaning and fulfillment. Similar to 'voluntary simplicity' and 'downshifting,' it emphasizes a less-is-more approach, focusing on the quality of your life. … Slow Living addresses the desire to lead a more balanced life and to pursue a more holistic sense of well-being in the fullest sense of the word."

Slow living might sound like an outlandish prospect in this fast-paced culture, which prizes and rewards busy-ness, efficiency, and multitasking. But to me, it is the very medicine such a culture so desperately needs to balance itself and come back to center. Slow living does not mean laziness, procrastination, or dragging one's feet. It is another way to say living mindfully, with conscious connection to the present moment, people, and environment.

Incase you feel the desire to simplify, connect, and wake up to each moment you are offered, here are a few slow living inspirations you might enjoy:

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.

Tonglen: You're just one breath away from self-compassion

We cannot have compassion for others until we have compassion for ourselves. This is often the step that's missed by those who say "I don't have time for myself. I am always giving to everyone else." To be with the suffering of others (grief, loss, fear, pain, etc) we must first be able to be with and stay with these feelings in ourselves. If we are helping others in their suffering without first being able to sit with and lean into our own suffering, can that be called authentic and wholehearted giving? Perhaps the other person does benefit from our gift of support, but if we skip this step of doing our own inner-work with suffering, we are missing a HUGE opportunity: to go deeper, to heal ourselves and others, to truly touch someone's heart with our own openheartedness, to share in our humanness and vulnerability. In the words of George Eliot, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

Tonglen is a Tibetan word  meaning "giving and taking." It is a way to connect with suffering -- that of others and our own. Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, says, "This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness." Yep, you can extend compassion to others or yourself in the time it takes to TAKE ONE BREATH.

Pema goes on to say, "However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment." So, that is when we take another breath for ourselves. Or if you know you are suffering, start with yourself.

Breathing in: acknowledge and touch that part within yourself that is experiencing suffering (pain, anger, hurt, jealousy, sadness, grief, despair, fear, etc.)

Breathing out: send that part of you a gift with your breath. I like to envision it as an internal kiss. Or a simple phrase like, "I see you." or "I love you." When I'm feeling more playful, I often imagine self-care types of gifts I could give to this suffering part of myself, like a bubble bath or dark chocolate.

With tonglen, your experience of your own suffering is a path to developing compassion for everyone.

Pema goes into more detail in the links below. I encourage taking a moment to read her very accessible and practical way of explaining this practice:

You can also learn more about Tonglen in Pema Chödrön book on the subject. Click here to find it on amazon.com.

Now give it a try on your very next breath: Inhale and touch that part of you that feels ___ in this moment. Exhale a gift to yourself.

Follow along as I post more practical ways to work self-compassion into your life over the next few weeks, by following me on facebook or twitter.