The Green Acorn

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The Green Acorn is a beautiful metaphor for things in life that need more time in order to be ready to grow into their fullness.

I am aware in my own life that some things cannot be rushed. They need to be ‘grounded in reality’, or in this case literally put in the ground to wait for the right moment.

A maturation occurs and the acorn browns and splits allowing it to germinate and produce the beginnings of that powerful oak tree to be.

It’s hard to be honest enough with ourselves to admit when things we love and desire so much need grounding and maturing. Perhaps in this life we will see and stand under the shady, protective branches of the Oak Tree, perhaps not.

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A bit a Rumi

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“I said: what about my eyes?
He said: Keep them on the road.

I said: What about my passion?
He said: Keep it burning.

I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?

I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

 

The ‘how am I doing?’ narrative.

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I have noticed something in recent times that has come as a really pleasant surprise.

I am spending a lot less time and energy wondering how I am doing or measuring up. I could include comparing myself to others in this too. I think this is one of those instances that when I notice that it is less dominant in my life then it becomes clear just how dominant it was before.

I am sure this a result of an accumulation of different conditions and re-wirings that have been going on for a long time through therapy, personal reflection, meditation and so forth.

Somewhere in me now there is a kind of knowing that I belong here on this earth. I don’t have to justify my existence by constantly aspiring to match up to some ‘ideal’ that I will never achieve. I am good enough. Haven’t spent most of my life feeling not ok this is a really lovely shift.

This doesn’t mean I am jealous free or no longer insecure at times, but I do feel more ok with these experiences and less like they make me a ‘bad’ person.

Just normal human happenings. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Love, pain, joy.

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There are some experiences in life that literally have pulled me out of my dozy slumber of believing that I can control it, with such force that it feels traumatic. But this painful and scary awakening can be very important. In my case these ‘wake up shocks’ have eventually led to a softening, a humility and a more compassionate acceptance of myself and others. Hard won gifts for sure, but gifts that I am incredibly grateful to receive.

Many years ago I read somewhere that ‘Our humanity is measured by our capacity for suffering’ On some level I remember feeling both horrified and compelled by this when I read it. On first glances it seems terribly depressing. That somehow life is all about suffering. But many years later I don’t see it that way. (although I am not sure it’s great to get into measuring our humanity too much!)

Life is full of suffering, yes, that’s really hard for us in our culture to admit. We seem to be deeply fearful of suffering (and set on fixing, fixing, fixing it) and yet somehow obsessed by it.  We can try to run away from our suffering but unfortunately, in my experience,  this has sad and deeply problematic outcomes.

The reasons we run away are many and complicated and perhaps I might have a go at that one another time. But suffice to say for now I can clearly see how my ability to be with the difficulties, losses, sadness and frustrations with some degree of openness and warmth has led me to a deepening connection to others, myself and life.

We don’t need to go looking for painful stuff (trust me its right with us any time we care to look under the stone), but when its there if we are willing to feel it and offer ourselves some compassion (a skill that can be practised) we give ourselves the wonderful chance to connect to the real joy of life too.

Busy is the socially accepted norm

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It seems to me that our society is in love with being busy and that if you don’t fit this busy person model then you are not ‘normal’ and in need of fixing.

I see it everywhere; subtle and not so subtle reinforcements of this societal norm. Often it manifests as the way everything is promoted to save time or to fit around our busy lives. One such thing is Mindfulness meditation, an increasingly mainstream concept and practice. It’s offered in a bewildering array of apps, books and online content, all of which seems to be designed and marketed for people with really busy lives. This assumption seems to permeate marketing and societal messages generally; Yes we know you are terribly busy but…. just buy this or do that and you’ll feel calmer/ have more space, feel more relaxed.

I feel a huge pressure to fit into this norm. And that I am somehow failing by having lots of space in my life. It makes me feels like this space is literally a sign of how I am not making the grade.

On an existential, psycho/social level I think the message is this; If you don’t achieve lots of socially accepted things then you are not a valued human being.  I remember telling someone once how much less than the norm I did and she literally didn’t know what to say!

We are all unique, completely one off creations, great magical works of art and beauty that transcend the need to justify our existence by fitting into societal norms around what is valued. But this can be hard to feel deep in my bones when the world keeps trying to tell me that my value is based on what I do and what I achieve.

I think it’s great to do and achieve, but there is something rotten and festering at the heart of this assumption that we need to justify our existence on this earth.

My sense is that a lot of illness is down to this often unacknowledged pressure to fit in. It feeds into illness in a number of ways; Firstly it pushes people to do more than they are really wanting to thereby leading to ill health. Secondly I believe that our bodies have a wisdom that will literally give us a socially accepted way out of the busy paradigm by making us ill. On some level our subconscious/body wisdom knows the least shameful way out of doing things we don’t want to do, is to get sick.

One thing that I believe could radically undermine this whole stuck, self perpetuating mechanism is a Universal Basic Income. If everyone received enough money to live at a basic but reasonable level, just by existing, the whole underlying connection between our value and what we achieve, especially around work, would be challenged on a profound level. More on that another time methinks…

The Ever Decreasing Tunnel

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Right now I am facing the ‘ever decreasing tunnel’.  It’s not an easy place to be as it has this tendency to get tighter and tighter until my whole bodyheartmind feels squeezed and constricted. I get unpleasant sensations in my heart, belly, throat and jaw, mostly tension, heat and prickly feelings. Emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually I feel ‘on the brink’ of something when the tunnel affect is happening. Also I feel anxious and on edge.

There is a desire to distract myself from the experience and self medicate, unsurprisingly as it really affects my whole being in a difficult way. I feel toxic and low as well as fatigued and foggy.

So what helps and what’s it about?  As I alluded to earlier when I have these experiences they tend to be the build up to a shift or release, a letting go and some kind of cleansing, healing experience. Of course I don’t know for sure if this is going to go the same way.

I suppose I believe on some level that this is life wisdom at work. And that this intelligence requires that I allow it to take its course and not get into numbing, medicating or disassociation behaviours. This is easier said than done and sometimes I can’t help but distract. I would in fact say that this can be the compassionate thing to do, as being with this discomfort for long periods can become a real grind on the heart and soul.

It so happens that this time I am also without a mobile (cell). My phone broke yesterday and so I am out of contact and without internet also. I actually think that this is part of the conditions that helped birth this most recent tunnel (birth canal?)

I find it re-assuring that I have been in similar places a number of times before and, as far as I can remember, they have all led to this release or letting go experience. So with this in mind I have learned to soften into it somewhat and trust that this is an unpleasant but necessary part of my process.

That doesn’t stop it from being scary, as like I said I just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Of course we don’t really know that for anything in life, even if we like to kid ourselves that we do.

Certainly it helps to unhook from the internal judge around feeling so tense and on edge. For me the valorising of relaxation as something we ‘should’ all be aiming for can really lead to a shaming experience around feelings like I am having right now. Yet life is about movement and one such movement is the tension, release movement that underpins so much of what we need to function; walking, running, breathing, heart beats, death and birth. Certainly my experience is that birth and death are not a once in a lifetime process. We can have many ‘greater/lesser’ births and deaths throughout our time on this earth.

The genesis of my Inner Critic

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I am spending some time reflecting on how this part of my internal world runs right now and it doesn’t feel very nice. On some level I am much more comfortable looking at how it harrangs me and my life than I am acknowledging how it judges others. I think that says something straight away as the way to really uproot it at source; Self acceptance and self compassion!!

My Father is very insecure. Looking back now I can see how the whole family dynamic was dominated by taking care not to shine, be happy, feel ‘too good’ about yourself or what you were doing because it might wound my father’s low self esteem further.  It seems we all learnt to revolve like little planets around the sun that was his wounded self.

Also I think I was very aware on an intuitive level that my Mother was deeply stressed and anxious. The response is then of course to repress any feelings or reactions that may cause more stress. Anger, fear, sadness. Therefore I grew up in a environment where I was pushing down so much of myself to maintain the status quo and not jeopardize my position within the family unit. This is such fertile ground for my inner critic to grow big and strong because shame and harsh self judgment are really powerful ways of managing and controlling these ‘unwelcome’ emotions and experiences. I am only just starting to acknowledge that I have, until recently, been so associated with this way of being that I have not been able to differentiate between me and this voice/energy of harsh judgment.

Society too is driven by an intense critical energy, comparing mind and perfectionism. The whole world of capitalism is based on the engine of ‘not good enough’ so we keep spending money. Its deeply intertwined with our whole culture.

Right now I am trying to gently create some space around this energy (inside and out) so I can in fact see that Mr Critical is not in fact the whole of me, nor the whole of the way the world works either. This is hard for a number of reasons. one of them being that just how unpleasant it is to look at this trait and what impact it has on my life. This is sometimes called ‘Backdraft’ after the firefighting terminology for the effect of when you open a door that has been containing a fire and it bursts out with explosive energy. It’s a painful but essential part of the process, bringing this negativity bias into the light and giving it a good airing!!

Then with awareness and acceptance I can start to create some distance between me and this energy. Gradually adjust my approach to myself, others and the world.  I know I am not alone with this.

Also I think it’s good to recognise the infinite number of conditions that come together to create a powerful inner critic. No one person or situation is to blame.

Some of the approaches that I am exploring are:

  • Self compassion meditations as devised by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer
  • Challenging thinking CBT style.
  • Trying to catch it before it takes over. Mindfulness.
  • Seeing that I am more than my inner critic
  • Recognising my innate value as a human being that is beyond what I do or don’t do
  • Seeing the difference between discriminating and choosing what feels right and judging myself or others
  • Exploring the difference between acknowledging issues or concerns with my own or someone else’s actions and attacking mine or anothers core self worth or value
  • Doing more of what I enjoy and feel good about as a gift of self love to myself, rather than acting from a place of obligations or should
  • Seeing that self acceptance is there as soon as I separate from the energy of self criticism and judgment
  • Bringing increased awareness to the critic/perfectionist as it manifests in our world and not buying into it  (Advertising, news, work feedback etc)
  • Small acknowledgments as I go through my day about things am I am pleased about. E.g. That was a tasty and nourishing meal I just made myself. Thanks! Or; Well done for getting that tax return done. Changing seeing only the things that didn’t work out so well.
  • Really soaking up the positives in the world too. Sometimes so easily missed or that just skim the surface of our experience. Yes the cheesy, cliche, sentimental stuff! Go on let go that cynic for a while!

I wish us all well on this journey. It takes courage.

Forgetting the self

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Dogen the 13th Century Zen monk/ philosopher, said;

“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away”

It is pretty much his most famous quote. This is definitely not the kind of forgetting that means we stop caring for ourselves because we  feel we don’t really matter or even really exist (a feeling a lot of us have from not been respected, loved, listened to etc). And it’s not the kind of merging into others and losing ourselves in someone else that creates a sort of unhealthy dependence on the other. That is a collapsing into and feels different. As children if we don’t properly individuate and separate from our families/ carers, then this again is not forgetting the self. How can we forget the self if we never felt like we knew it in the first place?

Forgetting the self to me is the experience we have when the idea of self is seen as just that, an idea. But seeing through that idea does not drop us into a reality where we’re all one homogeneous soup with no distinctions. In fact it seems more that it makes us see the exquisite beauty expressed through the uniqueness of everyone, everything and each moment. But in this uniqueness we are simultaneously expressing our complete interconnectedness and interdependence. Shunryu Suzuki expressed it as; ‘not one, not two’.

Indulgence, criticism and compassion

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Developing our compassionate voice or inner self can be tricky for all kinds of reasons. One of them being the way other aspects of our inner world can kind of sound a lot like compassion but are something else.

It’s pretty common for me to revert to a more indulgent voice or aspect when seeking for a compassionate approach to myself or a situation. You know the one – ‘Hey Ben, it’s ok, take it easy, you deserve that beer/lazy afternoon watching films. What’s the big deal anyway? You need some time out to do something a little naughty but nice!’- Its a voice that I easily mistake for compassion.

On the other side is a more punitive and pretty harsh voice that motivates me to stay away from such things by scare tactics- ‘If you have that beer you will be proving yourself to be weak and out of control! You should go for a run instead!’- This voice is recognisable by words like ‘should’ and a harsh tone.

Sometimes my compassionate voice seems strong enough to mitigate these voices and take them down the spectrum of harshness or overindulgence to a kinder more genuinely supportive place. But often it’s not really strong enough to stand out of the shadows and speak for itself. So herein lies the practice; to keep reconnecting with that part of me that can motivate from a place of deep love and understanding.

‘Dear One, beloved Ben

I know how you care about drinking less, it’s important to you. I deeply care that you take actions that support your wellbeing. But I know it can be hard to change habits. We can do this together, you are not alone. Whatever happens I love you. Having a drink doesn’t make you a bad person and yet you don’t sleep so well and your next day is affected and I would love for you to have a fulfilled and energised day’.

So this voice is neither indulgent or critical. Its power comes from how it cares and sees the struggles of change and growth without judgment or ambivalence. It offers a path of growth through love. The only real sustainable path of change.

Fear of making ‘mistakes’

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So much of what we learn growing up is about what’s not said.

My folks never told me; ‘You can’t make mistakes son!’ Well not that I remember anyhow. But the sticky thing is they never said; Its ok to make mistakes and in fact it’s totally essential to living a fulfilled and productive life. Same at school and in fact, I would argue, society in general. Worse than that, they never owned up to their mistakes and so implicitly I learnt to do the same and it went toxic.

Even if we get half a sniff that its ok to make mistakes at all, it seems that there is some hidden message in society that it’s ok up to a point, say 25 years old or something, then sorry but you have to have it all nailed down by then!

If there is something more crippling than not giving ourselves and each other permission to get ‘it wrong’ and come a big cropper, I’m not sure what it is. It sucks the living joy out of life so fast it’s horrible. And if we don’t actively and clearly demonstrate to people that we love them even if they make a hash of something and in fact encourage them to do so then we are setting our loved ones up to live frozen by fear.

This goes for a 5 year old and a 75 year old. For me a fulfilling and vital life is one where we are always open to making mistakes and learning from them without getting too down on ourselves. Then we live in a world of constant newness and wonder and growth. Then we stay connected to our joys and passions, we learn to trust that only through life’s challenges, losses and pains do we really find out what we want and what we’re about.

This is a lesson I am learning now at 43. To say the world feels like a much less threatening place with this attitude is a major understatement.

Our political arena’s can often be a terrible example for our children. Politicians literally cannot admit to making mistakes, for fear of being seen as weak and torn apart by opposing factions. Businesses get obsessed with targets and profit margins and lose the creative spark that human failure ignites. It’s a terrible loss and one we need to push against by being willing to stand up for our rights to mess up!