Anxiety is a pretty common occurrence, especially in stressful busy lives. I suffered with anxiety for many years, as did many of my friends and colleagues. One of the first things I learned about anxiety, years ago, which was very helpful to me (particularly at times when I felt like I was losing my mind with panic), was that the thoughts you think in those moments aren’t true.
They are “anxious thoughts,” which arise from the aroused state of your body/brain in that moment. You don’t need to believe those thoughts, or magnify them, or engage with them when they are spinning out of control. You can just let them be, and they will go away when your body settles back to normal. This idea alone was incredibly comforting. Naming them, separating them, and discounting their validity, especially during an anxiety attack, can be helpful and stabilizing.
One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.
Pema describes encountering an experience of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate, while she was on a retreat. She struggled with it for days. Unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. Upon describing her experience and frustration to him, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” As soon as she heard this, Pema became instantly excited about her next meditation practice, no longer concerned with feeling it, she became eager to feel it. And after Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, but the feelings were gone.
“When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”
The teaching on negative emotions, like anxiety, in many spiritual traditions (in this case, the Shambala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism) is first to drop the resistance. Resisting the emotion (wanting it to stop, trying to make it stop, worrying that it will never stop) will only make it worse. Instead of focusing on getting rid of it, change your relationship to it. Welcome it.
I know that sounds crazy; why would you ever welcome anxiety?
Well, because the very disposition of trying to push it away makes it worse. The resistance exacerbates the situation and makes it last longer. And that will create new anxiety about having anxiety. The mind is brilliant at creating traps like this for you. It’s one thing to have a panic or anxiety attack which last for a short time, but the fear and anticipation of having one again, at any moment, can haunt a person all the time.
So, in order to “welcome it,” to work on dropping the resistance to it, when you feel it beginning, treat the anxiety with curiosity. This is a fantastic tool. Get curious about your anxiety. Instead of continuing the inner dialogue about how bad it is, or how much you wish it would stop, make it your Daikini’s Bliss, and drop your eager attention into your body to investigate it.
Try to locate the experience of anxiety in the different parts of your body. You could slowly scan each area with your mind, and ask yourself “do I feel anything anxiety related in my right foot? In my left foot? In my right leg? In my left leg?” Do this slowly, and concentrate on really investigating and feeling each area of the body. Continue going all the way up your body, until you’ve located the areas where you are experiencing the anxious feeling. (For me this is usually in my stomach, in the center of my chest, in the back of my head, and in my hands).
When you’ve found it in your body, start to articulate the actual sensation of it with words. “I feel a huge weight in my stomach. It feels like an anvil sitting in there, pushing downwards. It feels heavy, and it’s pressing on all the organs under it… In my chest, I feel outward pressure, like a huge pocket of air is trapped in my chest. It feels hot, and like it’s expanding…” Continue to tell yourself about the experience for as long as you feel it, in great detail.
You will notice that the more you focus your attention on the feelings in your body, rather than on the terrifying thoughts that triggered the anxiety, the quicker the feelings will subside. In essence, by dropping into your body, you are cutting off the story-line in your head, which is feeding the anxiety with fearful thoughts. And you are unhooking your attention from the scary thought stream, and redirecting the attention into your physical sensations. This is a form of grounding into the body and out of the mind, and staying fully present with the experience.
You can try this practice with any negative or unpleasant emotion, like anger, sadness, shame, guilt, etc. In my experience, this practice is an extremely effective tool. When you get used to doing this, you come to find out that you can actually enjoy the experience of any emotion, even the bad ones. The more you allow yourself to feel them, the greater your capacity and resilience to process them through. They don’t need to be suppressed or numbed. You can welcome all of your emotions, and get better and stronger at welcoming them, and really savor the experience of being human.
I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him.
I think that one of the problems with mainstream meditation hype is that the benefits are touted in order to sell the idea of it (usually for commercial gain), while the nuanced proper spiritual instructions are not included. It retains its form, but loses its substance, and so it doesn’t really yield what it promises.
Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about.
Carving out a tiny bit of time, in an otherwise hectic day, to sit still and calm the mind is not a bad idea, but that’s not what meditation is for. (Guided meditations can be like a quick vacation for a stressed out mind, but on their own they don’t do much.). Treating meditation as a discipline, trying to somehow master “not thinking,” or sitting still for long periods of time, has no real benefits. It is a forceful attempt at mind and body control, dominating the mental landscape by force of willpower. (That approach is fundamentally philosophically antithetical to authentic transformational spiritual and mystical practice. I’ll explain why in a minute).
Horgan is correct that meditation, as it is widely taught, does very little.
Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. Some people push themselves really hard to meditate, and then take great pride in their meditation practice, even turning it into some kind of competitive endeavor, which then only feeds the ego and moves them in the wrong direction.
It is what one does during meditation that leads to awakening and all of its benefits (or it doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most mainstream meditation instruction is the substantive practice of self-inquiry, which what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation.
The basic idea is that as you sit and try not to think, thoughts begin arising on their own. It’s one silly thing after another. The more you try to focus on not thinking, the more distracting thoughts come up to grab your attention. Laundry, dinner, errands, to-do list items you forgot, etc. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, without hooking into any particular thought stream. This has the effect of training the attention, which is like a muscle. The more you train it to stay put and not follow the thoughts, the better you become at focusing and wielding attention. The attention can then be directed (ie. follow this thought stream, but not that one), which is a useful internal tool.
What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t) is the realization that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go without you creating them. You don’t make them happen. As this realization slowly permeates your understanding, you begin to dis-identify as the thinker of the thoughts. You start to see the separation between you (the watcher), and the thoughts arising from somewhere else. And because you are not the one doing them, you begin to remove them from your sense of identity. You’re not really responsible for them in the way you used to be. You can watch them with a sense of neutrality, without judging them or being ashamed of having them. This creates a ton of internal space between the watcher and the thinker.
This leads to the realization that you don’t have to believe your thoughts, which is the ground floor of self-awareness, and the threshold into the inquiry practice (the real heart of spirituality). It’s also the beginning of a lot of other discovery work about who the “watcher” within you actually is…
The next crucial part is noticing that thoughts produce emotions. You start to understand that if you focus and hook your attention onto a scary thought stream, you actually begin to “feel” scared. And so by training the attention muscle (above), you can unhook yourself from a scary thought stream, and redirect your mind to something that isn’t producing feelings of fear in the body. This is huge!! Where you place your attention determines the emotional state you experience. This is a profound discovery for most people. Learning how to do this is the key to managing all kinds of anxiety and panic issues.
You can see how with proper instruction, at least up to now, meditation practice can lead to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence.
Then begins a deepening level of awareness and practice.
Having explored and familiarized yourself with the mental landscape a bit, dis-identified with the thinker, and trained the muscle of attention, now you can being exploring the source of the thoughts. Where are they coming from? Who is the thinker within? You begin to find that all the thoughts you have are perfect emanations of a vast network of subconscious beliefs you hold, about yourself and about other people. Now we are getting into a process called contemplative inquiry.
What you find out here is that if you bring those subconscious beliefs into conscious awareness, one at a time, you can begin changing them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind! As you change your core beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. That means you can change your internal landscape, and the emotional states you experience on the whole! You can reprogram the thinker, as it were, to change the kinds of thoughts he sends into your mind.
So as it stands now, when fear thoughts arise, your mind automatically hooks into that thought stream, and creates those emotions in your body and you feel fear. In order to calm down, you have to use the muscle of attention to stop, and redirect your mind by force, to something not scary, in order to stop the fear reaction in the body.
That takes effort, and usually by the time you notice that you’re scared, you are already pretty far down the rabbit hole, and are already hooked into that fear thought stream.
But if you begin systematically working with and changing the beliefs that are creating the fear thoughts in the first place… well, then you are experiencing a lot more internal peace and calm. The fear thoughts aren’t even arising, and your system isn’t feeling fear as often. You’re not wasting time or energy putting out internal fires trying to calm down, you are just generally more calm, because the fires aren’t erupting as often.
Further, when you start to see the internal mechanisms, and take account of the countless thoughts and beliefs that are just under the surface, you start to see that you are actually full of fears, and insecurities, and a deep sense of unworthiness (this is true for most of us). You begin to see that most of your words, actions, and behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask those perceived vulnerabilities.
That’s when your own self-love and compassion begin to emerge. Then you start to notice that other people are also just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a big scary world. That’s when compassion for others arises, and you become nice and kind to the people around you. You see their fears, and their out of control thought streams, and the underpinnings of all their bad behaviors.
The better you understand the workings of your own mind, the more compassionate understanding you have for others.
So by now, you have become more self-aware, more emotionally educated and intelligent, more able to self-regulate, you are experiencing less out of control anxious thought streams, and you are starting to feel self-love and compassion for others… All of this naturally makes you much happier.
It’s a process and a practice that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and begin noticing your thoughts to get all of this going. But without this deep nuanced understanding of what to do within, meditation on its own is pretty pointless.
This is a beautiful excerpt from The Art of Sexual Magic, by Margo Anand.
When I put aside my prejudices and looked at my deepest motivations and fears, I was surprised to be confronted by a rather sorry-looking individual, covered with bandages, limping along on a crutch, incapable of hurting anyone.
I immediately recognized him. It was me. It was my wounded self, a symbolic representation of all those doubts and fears about myself that I had so carefully hidden from public view for so many years. And when I looked a little closer at this injured being, my heart was deeply touched. I wanted to reach out and help him to heal, because I could see, beneath the bandages, that he was only a small boy, a helpless, wounded child.
Throughout the last few months of my work with my teacher, Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.
At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them, sometimes). I accepted that what she was telling me might be right, but I didn’t understand what to do with it.
What she was really getting at has a great depth of meaning. Despite it’s seeming simplicity, it is a very profound teaching, and it can be implemented in ever-deepening ways. I began to explore and think about how to understand and apply what she was saying to me.
The most superficial understanding is that the sentient beings we see around us, who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of our own unconscious beliefs. Conceptually, what our mind automatically sees in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we make about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold within ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In psychological terms, this is a form of projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.
The way this plays out is very interesting. I’ll give you an example.
There is a person in my life who is very dear to me, let’s call her Q. I care about her very much. And yet, when we are together, I often feel a distance between us; it’s full of agitation, and anger, and resentment. It’s as though something always seems to stand in the way of actually feeling that love, and acting in a loving way towards her. On the face of it, I recognize that it’s my own judgments and emotional baggage, but I couldn’t really untangle it further on my own. So Gaya and I got into the weeds…
The best and most expedient way into the structure of beliefs that govern my relationship with Q was to list all of the judgments I have about her – all of the things that seem to bother me about her, without holding back, without censoring how I really feel. I sat down with a piece of paper and really let Q have it. I wrote a long list of horrible things.
When I reviewed the list, a big glaring theme in all of my judgments about Q is that she is weak, needy, indecisive, irresponsible and helplessly dependent. When Gaya asked me if I’m any of those things, I vehemently shook my head, NO. I pride myself on being strong, independent, decisive, and in control. If I can do something myself, I will. And if I can’t, I’ll go to impossible lengths to figure out how to do it myself. The idea of needing someone, depending on someone, or being helpless in some way, actually makes me cringe.
I relayed all of this to Gaya, and then she said something that nearly knocked me off my chair.
She said “Think of all the things you do in your life to avoid being weak, needy, and dependent. Look at how hard you work, how you punish yourself, how you deny yourself compassion and tenderness, how you push yourself way past your limits, how you never slow down, how you never let yourself rest, how you won’t ask for or accept help that is offered to you – all in an effort to never allow yourself to be those things.”
It’s true. I’ve spent my entire life striving to never be those things. And I created all of these habits and patterns, all in order to compensate for not being allowed to be that way. The belief I have is that those things (which are just synonyms of vulnerability) are bad bad bad, and to be avoided at all costs.
I went all the way back as far as I could into childhood looking for how these beliefs and patterns were created. Obviously, as with all unbalanced traits, they were formed out of traumatic conditioning experiences. So I spent some time bringing those things into awareness and processing through some of the pain that created them. After I did that, my visceral feelings about vulnerability started to change.
Wisdom teaches us that vulnerability, weakness, neediness, and dependency are not bad things. They are human things. Sometimes they can become extreme and polarized, which is not balanced or healthy, but in moderation they are part of every human experience. Of course, it’s ok to be vulnerable. In fact, it’s a really good thing to have the courage to honestly express our fears and our needs, and it takes quite a bit of courage to allow others to meet them. Learning how to lean on others at times, and to trust them, and to be dependent when necessary is also very important.
Back to Q – it is precisely because I held these false beliefs about vulnerability, that I judged Q so harshly, and got angry at her when she displayed these qualities. (There is also an element of care-taking here; but that’s a separate boundary issue that isn’t really relevant at the moment. I just mention it because it’s a complex set of issues, not just one thing.)
So, if instead of sitting in self-righteous judgment about Q’s “undesirable” qualities, I can question my judgments and beliefs, and I can do my own work to resolve my negative feelings and mis-alignments, then I can stop being angry at Q when she displays those qualities. And more importantly, I can stop punishing myself, and ease up on all the ways I’ve been pushing myself in order to avoid being those things. I can even give myself a break. I can allow myself to be weak, needy, and vulnerable at times, and the more I do, the less emotionally agitated I become about Q.
Over time, as I work on myself, this brings me closer to Q. It extinguishes my critical sense of arrogant superiority, and it allows me to feel love more often and accept her as she is. Moreover, to the extent that her previously undesirable qualities lead me deeper into myself, triggering me and forcing me to find and repair what is unbalanced within me, I am grateful to her for being as she is. (And, if I had tried to make efforts to change her, back when I found her qualities maddening, I would have missed this golden opportunity to grow and learn).
A strange and unusual thing that happens during this kind of work is that as soon as I make peace with these things I see and dislike in Q, suddenly, somehow, she changes! Like she actually changes, and she stops being those things. It’s really quite miraculous.
And so, in this view, Q isn’t necessarily statically any of the things I see in her. What I see in her (what bothers me about her) is my own projection. My mind generates the image I have of her, which is my own reflection of what is out of proper alignment within me. The qualities I think I see are just what stands out to me in high contrast. Meanwhile, without awareness, my mind fools me into thinking and believing those projections are true, that that’s how she really is, and then I feel justified in hating and blaming her for being that way.
Spiritually, it’s as though those qualities are being magnified for me to see, and my emotions are responding powerfully to my views of her, all so that I can see my own imbalances and correct them. As I do my own inner work and make authentic changes in my consciousness, my reflection in others changes as well.
It turns out that human personalities aren’t any one consistent thing; they are ambiguous and rather fluid, with infinite universal potential.
And so, Gaya’s words about them all being mirrors is a handy way to understand and think about it.
As we courageously explore the rich depths of our consciousness, we sometimes come upon some strange and unexpected things. Sometimes fascinating, other times deeply confounding, these patterns are often well-hidden in the unconscious, and when brought up out into the light of awareness, they seem to defy rationality and contradict truth, wisdom, and expectations.
Wanting to be wanted is one of those patterns.
It is both very subtle, and very pervasive. Wanting to be wanted is a kind of egoic perversion of personal desire; it keeps us trapped in being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of our own.
Meaning, instead of recognizing, identifying, and asking for what we really want and need (often because we don’t know and our feelings are terribly jumbled about this), we focus entirely on being desirable, pleasing, accepted and wanted by someone else.
This is not confined to the sphere of romance or sexuality, but exists across the spectrum of identity. This particular pattern causes a great deal of emotional pain and psychological suffering. It turns out to be one of the central pillars of the ego’s operation.
When we find these feelings and motivations inside, when we explore them and admit them to ourselves, they seem wrong or deeply confusing. They fly directly in the face of sourcing love and approval from within ourselves; which is precisely the point! This is another lie in the mechanism of the ego. It seeks love and happiness externally by trying to please someone else, and earn their love and approval. The feelings and desire of wanting to be wanted prevent us, somatically, from living in our own integrity. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and digesting through the wounding that creates this particular set of feelings. It can be both very deeply and very broadly enmeshed in who we are and how we function.
For those unfamiliar with this internal experience, I highly recommend the book below.
Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many wonderful feminist leaders and thinkers. Her book does an amazing job of articulating how it all works, and distilling a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern approach to life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men).
Polly encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires, bringing their truths into the light, because it is only when we are aware of what we really feel and what we really want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world.
- “Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.”
- “Nor is wanting to be wanted the expression of a desire for intimacy or closeness. Rather, wanting to be wanted makes us feel as though we have no clear desires of our own. We focus on how to bring things under control by appearing in a certain way, speaking in a certain manner, implying our needs. Yet we never say directly what we want, and we may never actually know. We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are motivated by wanting to be wanted.”
- “[People cannot read your mind or guess what it is you want. C]lear and direct communication avoids the indirect message that other must intuit our desires. Attempting to evoke response from others without claiming one’s needs not only is confusing but carries the hidden meaning of danger… It is only when we speak directly, with a secure self-confidence, that we step outside this negative meaning of female desire.
- “The Renaissance metaphysician Paracelsus said that we cannot love something without knowing it, or know something without loving it. When we feel deeply loved, we also know that we have been encountered authentically, that we have been true to ourselves in the presence of the other and found that truth fully embraced and accepted. When we tell the truth to a partner or a friend, we are indeed vulnerable to being judged, blamed, or rejected. If we hide the truth in favor of protecting ourselves and appearing in a certain way, however, we may retain an illusion of control but we lose the possibility of being known for who we really are, and hence of being loved.”
All of that from just the first chapter!!
One of the most challenging aspects of love and living authentically is developing the courage to speak with truth. This is a really difficult area of work. It sounds easy, but it’s really not.
At the outset, the search for truth within can be a scary endeavor. To be honest with ourselves, to admit our real feelings and allow them into conscious awareness, can be terrifying.
Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths, aspects of our personality which are in conflict with who we think we are or should be. Most of us are afraid to really look inward, and to be honest with ourselves, to admit the truth to ourselves, because we might find some really shameful and unacceptable parts. We might find some parts that require us to make difficult choices or changes.
Naturally, none of us really want to endure feelings of shame or emotional turmoil, so most of us prefer to live in denial than to face the difficulties that truth presents. Denial has the appearance of safety and stability, and for a while it can certainly help keep things quiet.
For those of us who are courageous enough to go within, and to do this inner truth seeking privately and make peace internally with who we really are, life offers us the next great challenge and obstacle – other people!!
Sometimes admitting truths to ourselves privately feels ok and comfortable, and we can certainly build up resilience to face greater and more unpleasant truths as we go. But the idea of saying those things out loud to another, or asking that the needs we’ve discovered, or the feelings we’ve found, be accepted, respected, and honored by someone else? That can feel overwhelmingly scary.
The people in our lives, our most intimate relationships, can sometimes turn out to be the scariest places of all.
We might fear their shame, rejection, invalidation, or ridicule. We might fear that the other person will abandon us if they really knew the truth. Other times, we might be very concerned with the feelings of others, afraid of hurting or upsetting them with our truths, and so we become afraid of being honest, or telling them how we really feel. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationship dynamics with people who are psychologically fragile and explosive. They might often respond to our feelings or vulnerable truths in very harmful, toxic, and emotionally violent ways.
As a matter of course, in destructive dynamics like this, especially if there is a power imbalance, in order to stay safe, we learn how to subjugate ourselves and maneuver around others very carefully. We do everything we can, twisting ourselves into knots, just to avoid their psychological landmines. We learn how to coddle them and their insecurities. We learn how to cater to their unreasonable demands and manipulations. We learn that saying an honest and authentic “no,” or expressing contrary feelings can lead to destructive explosions and retaliations. We never know when we’ll step on some trigger with them, so we make ourselves really really small and unobtrusive. We tread lightly. We forgo our own needs and wishes. We speak less and less. We express ourselves less and less. We keep our truths, our opinions, and feelings suppressed, all in an effort to avoid upsetting them.
This is how we end up on “eggshells.”
Despite our best efforts, when we deny and silence our real feelings to avoid conflict with others, inevitably our resentment grows more and more. We end up feeling a variety of contemptuous feelings towards them, which then has carry over effects in all other areas of our lives.
But what’s worse than resentment is that instead of moving towards greater and greater courage in expressing our truths, these relationships drive us further into oppressive silence. We can feel suffocated in these dynamics, which don’t allow any space for our real selves to exist.
So part of the spiritual maturation process involves a kind of unshackling within these relationships, and a liberation of our authentic honest feelings. That requires siding with our feelings, making space for them to exist in our relationships, standing by them when they are attacked or disallowed by others, and learning how to express ourselves honestly to other people, especially if we are used to walking around on eggshells.
That’s part of the real terror of this process – working to wisely and prudently heal the shame and fear of being our authentic selves with others, even if that means incurring the wrath and disapproval of those who seek to keep us silent and small.
We have to slowly work to unlearn the eggshell patterns, and as we do this more and more, we begin to develop greater courage with speaking truth.
How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! You must love yourself before you can really love anyone else. They’re right, theoretically, but what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself?
How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, and pretending to love yourself, but genuinely feeling feelings of love for you, within your body?
It’s a process… Unsurprisingly, it involves self-discovery, self-awareness, and changing some internal habits.
It’s quite difficult to love yourself, authentically, when all of the dials and levers inside are set to self-hatred, criticism, shame, and unworthiness. So to correct the internal settings, the process begins with learning the internal landscape, finding all the self-hatred, and doing some work to shift into a more loving direction. The more adjustments we make, the more the real feelings of love can flow.
First, we have to listen.
There are many different practices that teach this kind of internal listening, but basically it means refocusing the attention to what’s happening inside at any given moment. We must learn how to listen to our thoughts and judgments, paying particular attention to the internal dialogue.
How do you talk to yourself?
Specifically, what do you say to yourself?
Are you mean and harsh with yourself?
Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?
One example of this is when I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would almost automatically grimace internally. I braced for a negative reflection, and with lightening speed my eyes would immediately be drawn to everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself too? Many of us do…
If you do this with your appearance in the mirror, or in whatever other manifestation you do this to yourself, try to make the shift to kindness for yourself instead of shame and criticism. Actively change the internal dialogue to a more loving tone. Look for the good things in the mirror, and accept whatever you think is “wrong” in that moment.
You can take a judgment like “I’m ugly because I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good, desirable, and authentically beneficial about being overweight. Really. Question and change the perception of being overweight as a negative, and turn it into an asset. Assume pride about being overweight, rather than shame, and investigate the benefits of begin overweight. (I assure you there are plenty!)
Beginning to change the automatic negative beliefs and assumptions about the reality of what we consider our imperfections is extremely important. This can become a rather radical practice, upending a lot of our previous beliefs about ourselves and others. Turning negative judgments about reality into positives, helps us with acceptance and stops the unending cycle of shame.
We have to learn how to treat ourselves more compassionately. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old? Find that innocent child still living within you. Treat yourself as if you were that little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love, with encouragement and tenderness.
Just doing this alone will shift so many things for you.
Second, study your enemy – the inner critic.
This part goes a little bit deeper, and opens the door into real inquiry and discovery.
In a relatively simple sense, there are two voices inside the mind – there is an inner judge (who dishes out criticism), and an inner victim (who is hearing and receiving the criticism). The inner judge says “you’re so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself! Everyone is laughing at how stupid you are,” and the inner victim hears and accepts the judgement, believing that it’s true, and sending feelings of shame into the body.
Most of us aren’t aware of the separation of these two internal perspectives, and we are deeply identified with a singular “me,” inside. As we begin to create the space of awareness and separation, and to see the distinct operations of the judge and the victim, we gain a lot more control about what goes on inside of us and how that makes us feel. In effect, we are working on dis-identification with the judge voice, and solidarity with (and a strengthening of) the victim voice, the authentic true self within.
To begin this practice – as you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). Find the source of the bad feelings, typically it’s a negative opinion that your inner judge has generated.
The negative opinions of the inner judge are not real, and they aren’t true. The inner judge is trying to criticize and shame us into perfection, so that we will be loved and accepted by others. The inner judge doesn’t understand how to source love from within. He is confused about where love comes from or how to experience it, so he pushes and berates us, thinking that that will turn us into perfect humans, incorrectly believing that that will make us feel love.
This entire mechanism operates on the lie that love can be sourced from outside, and that securing the love and approval of other people is the way to feel love and happiness. This is not true.
When we begin to see and understand the silliness of what’s happening inside, we can take the judge’s power away, and really begin to pursue self-love.
Most self-help advice stops there – bringing the inner judge (sometimes called the “inner critic”) into awareness, and then trying to dominate or silence him from within. This doesn’t really work. The inner judge is much more powerful than that, and the feelings of shame he produces in the body can’t be merely dismissed with the mind.
The only way to really combat the critic is to understand deeply how it operates, discover the sources of its power, and begin to dismantle it at the source with discovery, awareness, and acceptance.
Some of the more interesting parts of this work are that the thoughts of the inner judge are not arbitrary nor random! The judgments generated by the inner judge are the results of the standards of perfection we created long ago. It works almost like a perfect computer program inside. This is what’s known as our “programming” or “conditioning.” The standards of perfection, which live deep within, are the codes responsible for creating these critical thoughts.
They sound collectively something like this:
“When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, healthier, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.“
This is how we love and approve of ourselves only conditionally, only on account of having achieved something. There are tons and tons of beliefs and standards like this within, which not only feed the inner judge, but keep us from feeling our own love.
Our inner judge is always comparing us to some standard of perfection, and letting us know that we’ve failed, and thus making us feel ashamed and unworthy of love.
Here we encounter the second lie in the mechanism – no matter how much we try, how much we achieve, how much effort we exert, somehow according to the inner judge we always seem to fall short. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how “perfect” we become, the goal posts always manage to move farther away.
Just when we think that we’ve finally achieved some standard of perfection, and we will finally feel love and happiness, (earning respect, approval, or admiration from others), the inner judge manages to undo it. We remain in the never-ending hamster-wheel of striving for something we cannot ever achieve.
This whole psychological mechanism appears almost funny when we really see it. It’s foolishness.
The thing we are desperately trying to achieve or attain is already here, already freely available within us! It’s been here the whole time. It has nothing to do with our external efforts. It has nothing to do with how we look, or what job we have, what others think of us, or what’s in the bank account. Our own love and acceptance, the thing we most want to feel, is always available unconditionally within.
By bringing our standards of perfection into awareness, we become able to release them, to release ourselves from the prison of them, and actually feel better now! We can start giving ourselves love now, in the present, not at some future time.
So what are these codes, these standards of perfection? How do we find them?
They aren’t always self evident. It takes a bit of investigative work within. This is the real purpose of meditation work – to get still enough and quiet enough externally to begin watching and investigating the internal process. I personally am not smart enough to keep all of these things straight in my mind at once, so for me, writing it all down is essential. My meditation work always involves getting still and quiet, and then doing all of my investigative work on paper.
The practice goes like this: whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?“
You begin by asking “what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?“
- “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed.”
- “I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
- “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
- “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip or fall in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
- “I should be the kind of person who has a perfectly clean house at all times.”
- “I should be the kind of person who has perfectly behaved children.”
- “I should be the kind of person who has a dog that never barks or displays aggression.”
- “I should be the kind of person who is always stylish and well put together.”
This list can get quite extensive… Seeing it all down in writing, recognizing the internal hostility, recognizing how impossibly contradictory and untenable these standards are, begins a profound dismantling process. Most people are shocked the first time they complete this exercise. They can’t believe how awful and how ridiculous this list can be.
The more we do this, the more we recognize how silly these standards are (and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is), the more room we can make within for love. Seeing these standards clearly and honestly, we can begin to let them go, and accept who we actually are – terribly imperfect, flawed, vulnerable (often deeply wounded) humans, who generally have very little control over life’s ups and downs.
Bringing compassionate acceptance and tenderness to this subconscious process is how we bring light into the darkness.
I’ve been working my way through the Five Levels of Attachment by don Miguel Ruiz Jr. Although you can probably get through the book in one sitting, I’m taking my time with it. I will read a few pages, and then take some time to digest what it means. Then I go back and re-read a few pages, and find a new deeper understanding. The words resonate in very interesting ways.
I came upon an exercise in the book that I find very profound – The Labyrinth in the Toltec Tradition.
The instructions are pretty simple. The focus of the exercise is a taking of responsibility for our own lives, a letting go of egoic conditioning and limiting beliefs, and a healing method of forgiveness. We are telling ourselves the truth of how we created our own emotional pain, and we are creating the internal space for forgiveness. The results are very powerful.
And so without further ado, imagine yourself standing at the entrance to a large life-size labyrinth…
(I have condensed the excerpt for our purposes, but I encourage you to get a copy of the book. It’s excellent. Miguel’s words are in italics below).
As you enter the labyrinth, imagine it is a road map of your past that leads to your present moment in life. With every turn, envision a person, a moment, or a belief that you have used in some way to [limit] yourself. What or whom have you used to subjugate your own will in order to be accepted by yourself or others? When you hold that vision in your mind – a person for example – stop, envision him or her, and become aware of how their words have contributed to your [limiting beliefs] and say, “Forgive me. I have used your words to go against myself.” Although that person might have used his or her words and actions to [limit] you, or to cause you harm or pain, you are the one who ultimately said yes to the belief and allowed it to blossom in your mind.
Following the idea that we explored in the previous post about releasing the victim stories, it is important to recognize that you have caused yourself pain, by absorbing and believing the words and actions of others. Their intentions don’t really matter in this moment. This exercise is for you to see how you have contributed to your own pain, and how you can reclaim your power over your life and beliefs.
Forgiveness happens the moment you say no to carrying this pain, this weight, this hurt, and let go of it all…Forgiveness is the action that allows us to move forward in the labyrinth.
Continue through the labyrinth, repeating the same action of forgiveness as new people and situations come to mind – whatever person or wound hooks your attention at that moment. That is the next one you are ready to face and forgive.
As you reach the end… you will find yourself at the entrance to the center of the labyrinth. Stop here. Look at the entrance to the center point and envision a mirror. Walk up to that mirror and see your own reflection. When you are ready, repeat these words: “Forgive me, I have used your words most of all to go against myself, and I will no longer use them to hurt myself again.” The action of entering the center point of the labyrinth represents the moment you forgive yourself. This is the action of your own forgiveness and of reclaiming the power, or the impeccability, of your own word – of your own intent. You are worthy of your own forgiveness, as much as you are worthy of your own love.
At this point in the exercise, you have let go of the past by recognizing that the only thing that exists is this present moment. The labyrinth itself is now the past, and you can let it go as you forgive yourself. With awareness, you can now draw the knowledge from your past to make choices in the present moment. The labyrinth expands as you live your life, but the only truth is in that center, that present moment where you are alive. The labyrinth ceremony ends when you recognize that you are worthy of your own love because you are alive in this very moment.
This is one of the most beautiful exercises in forgiveness I’ve seen in a long time. I hope you try it.
There is life. And then there is the story you tell about it.
One of the most important steps in the shamanic tradition of the Toltecs is a taking of responsibility. While I’ve always considered myself a very responsible person, this is a different kind of responsibility. The tradition teaches that we must take ownership of our lives, of all the bad things that happened to us, of the stories we tell ourselves about those things, of the pain, and of the emotional wounds. This is the only path to true freedom and happiness.
After studying the basic tenets of the tradition, and learning the Toltec psychology, I embarked on the long, and sometimes scary, process of reframing my stories. As I looked at each painful experience of my past, examining my thoughts, feeling, and actions, I began dismantling the victim perspective. When I was done, I realized that I am no longer the victim of any of my stories.
I want to be clear that this isn’t about denying the truth of what happened, but it’s about finding the core negative beliefs that create the victim story. By removing the pity party dialogue, the right versus wrong dichotomy, and the negative judgments against ourselves and others, we are unshackled from the victim mind-frame and all the pain that comes with it. (If you’re familiar with Buddhist lingo, this is the second arrow of suffering).