‘Internal/external’ evaluation.

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I have often looked to the external world to get my sense of value.

This is not surprising. As I wasn’t encouraged or supported by my family or school or society generally to listen to my inner voice/feelings about what felt right. I actually switched off to my internal experience and became all about what the world thought of me.

This is a terrible place to be. Really no sense of trust in my own truth. No connection to the feelings and emotions that would be able to guide me. So completely at the mercy of other peoples opinions and societies parameters as to what being fulfilled and happy looks like.

Its important to process the worlds feedback,  but if we have no real way of processing this information through our own internal systems of evaluation then we are just in reaction to everything out there. With no real foundation of assessing if it resonates as true for us.

What I mean by the internal systems is not so much our thinking/rational mind or our conditioned narratives about what is right and good for us. No, I am talking about our intuitive body wisdom. Physical responses to the world and our feelings. This is not the world of cliches and trite regurgitated wisdom and idioms.  This is a world where generalisations and binary, dualistic thinking gives way to subtle ever changing intuitive responses. It includes all the emotions, feelings and experiences that come through us, not disregarding or brushing anything under the carpet. This takes courage, it takes a willingness to let go this fixed idea of who we are so we can respond from our most creative and vibrant spaces.

 

 

Hazy moon

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 Though we find clear waters ranging 
           to the vast blue sky in Autumn;
 
    How can it compare to the hazy moon 
            on a spring night; 

    Most people want to have it pure white, 
    But sweep as you will, 
            you cannot empty the mind. 

           —  Keizan Zenji, Denkoroku, Case 6

 

Comparing mind, status and jealousy

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I  was out with a good friend the other day and she was talking about how she finds the british are obsessed with status. (she’s not from round ere’ originally).

I guess I hadn’t seen that so much before and I agree. It seems we feel most comfortable talking about what we have achieved. Be it work, family, relationships, interests or whatever. Its a strong trait in the spiritual life too. Its being interested in the goals and outcomes.

She went on to say how its a bit of a turn off for her and she is more interested in the process and experience of life. How does/did it feel? The textures and details.

I am the same. Although I get caught up in the whole desire to prove my worth, actually when I look at my preference I would like to get inside the process of life more. And am not so fussed about the external appearances.

I suppose its a way of feeling ok about ourselves and creating a strong sense of identity. By talking about what we do and what we achieve in life it helps us to establish ourselves in the different contexts we find ourselves in.  But its easy to get into a kind of hierarchical feeling around this stuff. Thats the comparing mind. It wants to know how we measure up.

I remember telling people over the years that I work as a cleaner. I remember the twinge of shame that came with it. I also remember some people looking a bit shocked and changing the subject. How easy it is to judge people and ourselves on ‘what they/we do’. How easy is to judge people/ourselves full stop. Its normal and we all do it.

One of the Buddhist precepts is around approaching people on even ground. That is we learn to see through the apparent ‘better than’/ ‘less than’ dichotomies, whilst maintaining an appreciation of difference.  Easier said than done. Jealousy, judgment and fear are all parts of life too. For me accepting my jealousy etc has been essential in it not having as much power. But even jealousy has something to tell us if we are willing to give it space and kindness and not get into self hate/denial.

Our emotional world is a more volatile and tender space. Talking about what we do is far less revealing than talking about how we feel.

Thanks to E. xx

Attachment

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The business of attachment gets a hard time in Buddhist circles and I think its a term that is in need of looking at carefully.

Actually the more I read and practice and reflect on my own life the more I come to sense that healthy attachment is really necessary for wellbeing.

As I understand it, mammals major evolutionary wirings come down to creating a safe attachment to our families, partners etc as the basis of physical, emotional and psychological health. Its the very thing that defines us mammalians a different from other species. We are so defenseless for such a long time that we totally rely on this attachment to keep us safe and protected.

What does it look and feel like? For me its around a sense that we can trust those who are caring for us/ closest to us, to be there  when needed (and not just physically). This obviously changes as we get older but maybe not so much as we think. John Bowlby was the the guy as credited with defining what healthy and poor attachment was. And made the case for its wide reaching impact.

It makes sense to me that if we come to feel that early in life our caregivers are not there for us when we need them, (emotionally, physically,  even I would argue spiritually), this can have very profound and potentially long lasting ramifications.

I have really struggled to create long lasting and secure attachments and I think some of this is down to how I didn’t feel securely attached to my family. I can see how some of my attraction to Buddhism may have been around how it seemed to be saying the very thing I have not really had in my life was actually a ‘bad’ thing! And I am sure there is plenty of this going on in Buddhist circles, in various forms.

Attachment theory suggests that if our connection to  our caregivers was poor then we tend to take one of two paths in our lives to cope. We avoid connection (at least in any kind of depth) or we get really needy/ clingy in our connections, (anxious attachment). Actually I think it can manifest in many subtle versions of these two aspects. Often these behaviours are so part of us we can’t see them at all. (although others might).

I think  it was Barry Magid (Zen Buddhist teacher, Psychoanalyst and author) who said that avoidant types might well look like ‘very good buddhists’. Not getting too attached to anyone or anything. I have often felt like a fish out of water in the buddhist world being someone who was more of the anxious attachment type.

In the world of therapy it’s considered very normal for a client to help heal their attachment wounds by  creating a re-parenting environment with the therapist. With Buddhist teachers there seems to be a default position around someone who displays a needy or anxious attachment pattern, to perform some kind of emotional distancing maneuver.  For some this may feel very painful. For others it may seem like ‘business as usual’ so really quite comfortable and reassuring. Either way I would argue in most cases it reinforces the childhood wound.

As Buddhism starts to integrate more with the western psychological approaches this seems to be becoming a more well understood dynamic and is slowly changing.

Buddhism asks us to look at the truth of reality. The truth that nothing is fixed; not ourselves, our desires, our relationships, our world. But in this world of animal connection and the world of human love we need to feel some sense of security and reliability to be able to really bond and form relationships that will support our communities, our wellbeing and produce healthy and happy children.

I think actually the non-attachment that buddhism talks about and the healthy attachment the John Bowlby talks about, are sort of in the same ball park. They both result in our ability to love and be vulnerable and yet not too controlling or fearful. The key word here is ‘healthy’ attachment. We need to be clear that there is such a thing (as well as unhealthy attachment). But thats not alway how its being role modeled/spoken about by buddhist teachers and in buddhist communities.

Body wisdom

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Our bodies are very wise.

If we live in a world where we disconnect from ourselves, each other and our environment then we will get sick, mentally, physically and spiritually. Our bodies will tell us the truth.

Some bodies are very well attuned to the situation in ourselves, in societies and in our political/economic/spiritual paradigms. These people could be said to be beacons of needed change. They offer us insight into the heart of the issues that trouble us in this time.

Its not black and white but I would say it’s time we started to see symptoms like depression, chronic fatigue not only a personal issues only for individuals to deal with but a societal issues that we all need to engage in.

Every individual can do this work in their own lives, connecting in deeper, doing healing. But we need to feel it as part of a collective experience too. As a society and a culture our paradigms need to reflect the inner work that is going on with those people who are so deeply attuned to the painful disconnect that exists right now.

Thomas Merton the trappist monk and deep spiritual thinker, used the metaphor of sensitive bodies as being like trees. They take in the Co2 (disconnect, hate, suffering) of the environment process it and send out nourishing air (love, connection, compassion).

If there is too much Co2 then these trees (bodies) will get sick. Sensitive beings with their sensitive and wise bodies are a treasure. A treasure that like our trees, need to be nourished and loved so they can help detox our world.

They (I could say ‘we’) are also like an early warning system. Telling the world thats it needs to change if it is to continue in healthy and sustainable ways. We must listen to our early warning systems.

broken/mended bowls

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We are all broken bowls. There is no escaping the fact that life will break us in one way another. The question is, what do we do with this truism. How do we respond?

The broken bowl metaphor is another that came out of the mindful self compassion course i did recently in scotland. When a bowl is broken the practice in Japan is to pour gold into the cracks to make the bowl more beautiful than it was before. In fact there is a long tradition of these bowls being worth much more than the original ‘perfect’ ones.

What is the gold we pour into our broken lives and hearts? Compassion.

There is nothing other that can make our brokenness transmute into a more valuable, more beautiful beingness than compassion.

 

Safe containers and the inner child

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If we have developed safe containers in our life. Internally and eternally then I feel we are then in a position to really allow all our experience to manifest.

The business of practice Charlotte Joko Beck said, is building a bigger container. So we can allow more of life to express itself in us and our lives. For me mindfulness is a important part, we need to be able to bring our attention to what is happening. But on its own it hasn’t been enough for me. The compassion/kindness aspect has been absolutely fundamental.

In a way I feel our most beautiful and intimate experiences come from a sort of childlike capacity for wonder, awe, vulnerability and connectedness. We bring our inner child into our adult life. But this is hard to do as the inner child is easily hurt and must be made to feel safe. If its been hurt and mistreated in your life then it will go into hiding. Only with gentleness, love, kindness, warmth, time and attention will it venture forth from its protective layers (often manifesting as anger, numbness, ill health, addictions, rationality, busyness etc).

Its taken me a long time. Around 20 years of trying different practises, therapy, meditation, shifting my life to more and more stable and loving places, geographically, financially, spiritually and so forth. But its worth it. The inner child starts to feel like the situation is safe and can gradually come out to play again. With it they bring the ability to cry, to love, to connect, to feel vulnerable, to play, to experience pure joy. Unmitigated by adult temperance and limitations. Its raw and scary and wonderful.

For me nature is my inner childs playground and when I immerse myself in nature it feels most at home. My body feels softer, lighter, freer. Playfulness and joy come easily and spontaneously. There is no thought. Boundaries and concepts drop away. Meanwhile the adult in me can wait and come back to the fore when needed. Its role to take care of the inner child and make sure it stays safe.

Self compassion and kindness is the absolute bedrock of creating a space that inner child can express itself. It’s self parenting. Its unconditional love. It can be fierce and protective.

As I have developed my inner compassionate voice and self acceptance my safe container has developed to a place where my creative, spontaneous, loving, vulnerable child self can feel held.

My inner child needed to express as lot of hurt and pain and it was (and still is) quite ill. But times are changing and as I have felt and expressed these painful experiences, found my safe spaces, inside and out, more and more its feels an increasingly healthy and present aspect of my being.

 

Safe containers

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I have just been on Holy Isle, off Arran, for 5 days. Its where the Mindful Self Compassion Intensive is held. Its a stunning backdrop to an stunning course. Not to mention a whole load of really lovely people.

Much has come out of this process but one of the main ones is seeing increasingly clearly the importance of a sense of safety in our core, our bodies, as a prerequisite to an ability to stay healthy and happy in life.

The blueprint for this sense of safety is laid in our early years. According to current neuroscience (see Paul Gilbert; The Compassionate Mind) we have 3 self regulating departments in our brain. Each one has a role to play to help us maintain a good balance of motivation, relaxation and safety.

The are;

  • Drive/achievement
  • Fight/flight/freeze
  • Soothing

Now as I understand it, physically and emotionally ‘good enough’ environment growing up means we are likely to be able to move between these part of our brains easily. We connect to our desire to achieve in life and feel excitement at fulfilling our goals. Our defense mechanisms kick in when we feel scared and we know how to protect ourselves. Finally we can ‘switch off’ and feel calm and relaxed, rejuvenating and healing ourselves.

Emotionally or physically ‘unsafe’ environments growing up and/or trauma of some kind (acute or long term), can send these self regulation departments all out of whack.

A loss of connection to our soothing department will inevitably lead to an overreliance on the drive and fight/flight departments. But how long can the body/brain do this before it starts to breakdown? We all need to spend time in the replenishing healing state of the the soothing department.

For me it took until my 30th year and then my body couldn’t cope anymore.

Neuroplasticity is telling us now that we can re-wire back into the soothing department later in life. For me that has involved finding ‘safe containers’. Gradually over time I have discovered what these feel like, look like and where to find them. Being places where I feel I can be emotionally authentic and be around others doing the same, is a crucial part of the mix that helps me feel safe. I just get this ‘aaahh’ relief, kind of feeling.  The Mindful Self Compassion course seems to me to be specifically designed to help us access the self soothing for ourselves and is supportive in creating spaces (internal and external) for safety and emotional authenticity.

My sense is that when we have places and people we feeling emotionally and physically safe around, then our bodies and minds start to develop their own ‘internal safe container’. (we are starting to access our soothing department more and more easily). This then means we can take it anywhere as its inside us. And we can cope with situations that are more challenging without feeling overwhelmed (fight or flight) and turning to some high to cope (drive)

Intimacy

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I think the truth of the matter is that I have been conditioned to experience sexuality and erotic love as the only real place of intimacy. And the rest of life is… well not a place for real intimacy. Wow! What a bum steer that was. It creates all this pressure on relationships to deliver on connection that is really there all the time. In us, around us, part of us and everything.

What is intimacy? For me its not putting all these barriers between ourselves and everything else.  This is work that can take time. Dissolving, softening, healing. Not to be rushed. Seeing our intimate connection to all life.

‘Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fully understand the true character of all things’

Buddhism is a relational practice, life is a relational process.

Highly Sensitive People

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High sensitivity is a label. Some may find it helpful, some may not. Some people think it creates an unnecessary and false line between ‘normal’ and ‘sensitive”, I get that. Yet labels can be life changing in a good way.

The label Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was coined by psychologist Elaine Aaron in the mid 90’s. She has done some research that seemed to indicate that a good percentage of the population (and a good percentage of the animal kingdom too), are just wired up to have increased responses to the environment. Their nervous system is just very highly tuned. Like a very precise instrument.

As far as I am aware this is now being showed to be a good piece of research and is becoming more widely accepted as more evidence continues to back this up.

For me it was a deep recognition of something in myself that just felt ‘right’. And what a relief it was! Lots of things started to fall into place.

As a minority (15-20%), HSP’s can be marginalised by, what seems to us, a frantic and overstimulating culture. Often we are seen as ‘people who need to be fixed’ so we can do more and ‘fit in’ better. Many HSP’s end up sick mentally, physically or both.

This is my experience. I think amplified by the fact of my gender. Boys/men are really not encouraged to be sensitive. Its seen as a female trait. A weakness in men. And thats the cardinal sin, weakness.

Like many movements the HSP movement is trying to establish its credentials in the mainstream and fight for a place to be recognised as something valuable and positive. As a group of people who have been misunderstood and our qualities diminished or seen as ‘less desirable’, it’s not surprising that there is a swing to heavily emphasise the positive and unique qualities of HSP’s. This can get people’s backs up! I’ve seen it. ‘Were all sensitive, don’t you know!’ This is true, but some of us are  physiologically, genetically, neurologically more sensitive, but its not we have a monopoly on sensitivity. You could say its like a superpower with many great benefits (and challenges), but we all have our own superpowers, everyone.

I feel strongly that as a society if we took this label on and worked with it as something to inform how we bring up and educate our children, a lot and I mean A LOT of ill health and underachieving and low self esteem will be wiped out. Its going to take a while, but I think it will happen. Meanwhile I have to learn to accept that for some people right now, its a label too far.