In order to truly practice and live a spiritual (or “conscious,” if you like that term better) way of life, you must be willing to take a kind of personal responsibility for whatever is happening inside you at any given time.
It is a universal understanding that all of our feelings, reactions, and judgments have absolutely nothing to do with the other person. No one can make us feel anything unilaterally. It is the ideas, stories, unhealed pain and interpretations we make, about what was said or done, that cause us to feel whatever we feel. Something within us is in fact reacting, but that is our work to do.
This is why one person’s joke is another person’s insult. It is the insulted person’s internal pain and interpretations that make the joke offensive. The less pain we carry, the less reactive we are to others, no matter what they say. Their provocations, even if malicious, even if ill-intentioned, are an opportunity to go within and see what is reacting to their words.
Recognizing this, we see that there is no reason to retaliate for harsh words, no reason to get defensive, no reason to send our emotional poison (as don Miguel terms it) to anyone else. When we feel upset, or emotionally reactive, or “triggered” (as the cool kids now call it) by something, it is not the time to lash out. It’s not the time to create new rules of conduct. It’s not the time to get righteous, or set boundaries, or hit them back. It’s not the time to heap an avalanche of insults at them, trying to destroy them entirely.
Instead, it is the time to take a pause, a “sacred pause” as one of my friends calls it, and to figure out what you feel and why. What are you really reacting to?
Start with the assumption that anger is fear, and ask yourself in that moment “what am I afraid of here?”
Internally, you must first figure out what your upset is about, whether it really has to do with the other person, what you would honestly and truly like to be done about it going forward, and whether you still feel the same way after your mind and body have returned to a peaceful state.
When you have done your internal work, when you have reached your emotional neutral, that is the time to discuss your feelings with the other person. Calmly, without lashing out. Otherwise, if you don’t know the real reason you’re so upset, and you don’t know what you want done about it with certainty, then attacking another person, discharging your negative feelings, and expecting the other person to address it in any satisfactory way is foolishness. They can’t possibly address the turmoil inside of you, if you haven’t addressed it and understood it yourself.
There is a very special woman in my life; someone I am blessed to call my dear friend, who has worked as an ER nurse for forty years. As I’m sure you can imagine, she has seen it all and heard it all. She’s not quite Mother Teresa (given her wicked sense of humor and sarcastic tongue), but she’s pretty close. She is the master of the sacred pause. She believes that words cut like knives, and no matter how many times you apologize later, you can never undo the pain you caused once you’ve verbally attacked another. She is thus very careful with her words; a character trait I greatly respect.
When she feels upset, or angry, she puts up her hand, closes her eyes, purses her lips, and shakes her head no. This is a signal to everyone around her that it is time to slowly back away. And they do! It’s wonderful. She doesn’t send her angry feelings to another. She doesn’t explode. She doesn’t carelessly fling insults around. She has the internal composure of a zen monk. She then takes the time to process whatever she is feeling, and decides rationally on the best course of action. It’s truly admirable.
And so, I encourage you, the next time you’re feeling some negative emotional thing, take a sacred pause. Before yelling back, before hurling profanities, or even just judgmental words, before clicking reply and moving full steam ahead in order to “let’em have it;” just take a moment and figure out what’s really happening. Blaming “them” is easy, but it’s not the truth. It’s not what’s really going on. Your anger or reactivity is coming from within you. Take an honest look. You’ll thank me later. 🙂
Along the spiritual path, the instruction of letting go seems to show up constantly. There are so many different kinds of letting go, different things that need to be released, that the words become something of a mantra after a while.
Sometimes letting go means releasing layer after layer of our self-concepts: peeling away who we thought we were, to welcome the reality of the person we actually are. Sometimes we have to let go of our hopes and wishes for how something should go or should be, so that we can make space for accepting how it really is. We might be letting go or surrendering to the moment, to the now, to the feelings and circumstances in the present.
Other times we might have to let go of dreams, fantasies, concepts, relationships, places, or jobs. We might have to let go of fear, let go of worry, let go of control, let go of illusions of safety or permanence, let go of attachments… The list is almost endless. There is a lot of letting go.
Letting go of our past is one of those list items. It can be very scary; not just to our own mind, but to those around us as well. We come to identify with, and rely deeply on, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us. Letting go of our victimhood, our suffering, our guilt and pain, is a really significant matter.
Making the choice to set down all the baggage, and look with fresh eyes, loving, honest, and compassionate eyes, can be daunting. The willingness to see the truth as it is, and then to forgive ourselves and others, to release everyone from the grudges, the debts, and pain, is a hugely important step to take for the healing process. We can’t have love, peace, and joy, while also holding on to our egotistical pride, anger, and self-righteousness. Here we let go of our self-importance, the lies we use to comfort ourselves, and our shame and our defenses. We free ourselves of all those heart-heavy items.
The ego won’t like it; I can assure you of that. Once the pain is processed through fully, the heart and soul are eager and ready to forgive. It’s most often the mind and the pride that stand in the way. The ego doesn’t understand or value the payoff of forgiveness. It imagines that it will only be happy when perfect vengeance is achieved. This isn’t true, but the ego doesn’t know that, so it creates resistance. That’s why letting go is a pro-active instruction – we have to overcome the egoic resistance and set down all our weapons and balance sheets.
When you make the decision that the time has come, you will see how quickly and easily all those things actually dissolve. A tiny little crack is all it takes to let the light come rushing in. We can set down the stories, release ourselves of all those burdens and misunderstandings, and let our love shine again.
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?“
The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!!
They sound something like this:
“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.
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).