I recently attended a 3-day meditation retreat. This was a non- residential silent meditation retreat. Having had retreat experience before and also being a meditation teacher I thought that the 3 days would be a walk in the park. From both a stamina point of view and a personal growth point of view. By day 2 the retreat was moving along smoothly I had some very pleasurable sits sprinkled with some moderately boring and irritable periods. But this was not uncommon.
Little did I know that by that evening I would experience large amounts of anxiety. I realized that this type of anxiety was not the standard acute stress or even generalized anxiety symptoms that I get. It was deeper and the flavor of fear was more present. It may have even been existential anxiety. In the evening after the retreat had finished for the day. I had a small miss understanding with my partner and this brought up deep attachment wounds that really flared up as a result of this fear. I felt overwhelmed as if the world was going to crumble around me. Having left the retreat all I could do was walk around the block and calm myself down with self-talk. This retreat anxiety was bowling my already present trigger out of proportion.
After this incident, i decided to leave the retreat early and resolve the issue with my partner. I realized that judging my progress by how long I can sit or by how many retreats I have done is not the answer. As my partner said.’ Just because a retreat went we’ll for you last year doesn’t mean it will be the same this time around. I think this is very important to understand. I think my ego wanted me to finish this retreat because if I call myself a meditation teacher i SHOULD be able to do it. But in reality, If I was going to sit a retreat I really needed to be in a trauma-informed environment so I had the support to process any fear or emotional trauma that may have shown up.
But as the saying goes we live and we learn.
In the last year of my mindfulness practice I have had to learn humility. As the years go on we can lose sight of even the most basic principles of our spiritual practices. For me mindfulness and meditation have become apart of my life. Not to say that I live my life like a monk but the acknowledgment of the present moment is a day to day practice for me even if it is for only a few seconds or minutes each day and Meditation is second nature even if it is more of a routine than an act of personal transcendence.
This year had seen me really address the trauma in my life that I have not previously been ready to look at. This has seen me revisit my history with addiction, look at my co-dependant tendencies in relationships and explore my challenges with racism and privilege just to name a few areas of insight. But no matter how much work I do im continually reminded of the simple act of being humble. For me this means not knowing all the answers to my issues. In fact if I trying to figure everything out in my life I find that it comes from a place of needing security. Which in itself is a natural human driver, but when we are dealing with complex emotional and interpersonal issues sometimes the act of just being willing to look at things is all we can do.
I find that being humble and not needing to know all the answers. Or knowing that im still very much a student if not a novice in many areas of my life loosens up my self-judgement so I can experience and move through whatever emotions and realizations that I need to move through in the moment. This has been very important for me when it has comes to dealing with trauma in the body. Although there is a lot of of complexity when dealing with trauma. I find that the simple act of being ok with not being perfect of ‘fixed’ brings a sense of humility and compassion.
If im not embracing this attitude im always looking to feel the sensations and judgments from a place of trying to fix. This is accompanied by a sense of urgency because I don’t want to be where I am and I feel that I shouldn’t be where I am at this point in my life. So for me humility isn’t a passive act it is a practice that gives me a sense of agency. A catalyst to taking action to make the changes I want to see in my life.
I recently did a coaching session with a client who was experiencing deep levels of depression. I suggested to this person that he show himself some compassion. The client just looked at me with a vacant face. He said, “how can I be self-compassionate when don’t feel a thing inside, it’s like I’m empty”. My first reaction was to go off on my self-love speel. But i recognized that I needed to meet this guy where he was. I said “let’s just take the first step towards self-compassion. Let’s just get you to lighten up on your self”.
See when we are in very dark places there is usually a lot of self-judgment in the picture. We usually genrealise our lives and who we are. I’m unlovable, life is pointless, my best years are behind me. These are just some of the limiting generalizations we face when we are in a dark place. Moving towards self-compassion can almost seem unimaginable. But we can take baby steps towards it by simply lightening up on ourselves.
When I say lighten up I mean feeling into the idea that it’s ok that I’m not ok. It’s okay that I feel like this. We need to understand that our feelings are trying to tell us that something isn’t working in our lives and that’s ok. We don’t have to fix it all in this moment or even next month.
Surprisingly we find that when we drop the urgency to heal and lighten up on ourselves we move towards healing at a much faster rate. When we can accept that were not in a good place we indirectly soothe ourselves. Think for a moment the last time you had a good cry did you lot feel a little lighter or more grounded after it.
That’s because crying serves a function. it allows you to express yourselves and in some way sooth yourselves. The same can be said for allowing yourself to sit in your discomfort or deep depression. Don’t mistake this for identifying or even justifying your feelings. This simply means allowing yourself to be where you are. So I offered this idea to the client and he had a much easier time begging his journey towards compassion and self-love.
In my adventures into self-love and self-compassion, i have realized that being judgemental and self-critical is one of the biggest if not the most essential barrier to developing self-love. Having spent months trying to push myself to love myself i feel like i have come to a roadblock, a sense of burn out. I think I’m realizing that in order to fully accept and love myself i first have to make peace with my mind.
I’m starting to understand that in order for us to change our minds in this way we first must understand that the very strong and harsh criticisms that we give to ourselves is an attempt by the mind to self correct a perceived problem. For example, this could look like a self-worth issue we are trying to address by telling ourselves we are not good enough or we need to be more THIS or more THAT fundamentally the mind is trying to help us but unfortunately in a very unproductive way.
Now that i am starting to feel into this realization i see the value in honoring the mind and making peace with its efforts to try and self-correct a situation. Making peace with the mind free’s up mental energy that would otherwise be spent judging my judgments. This allows me to go easy on myself and meet my mind wherever it is in any given moment. I think this realization speaks to the deeper issue of self-acceptance because i really do feel that we need to accept ourselves before we can genuinely love ourselves.
Being A mindfulness educator I talk to people every other day about bringing their attention to the small moments in their lives. I suggest things such as observe what you are doing, become present to the sensations you feel in this moment and have a sense of curiosity towards what’s going on in this moment. But to be honest this sense of curiosity has been something that has eluded me in my personal practice. My recent realization is that the reason this sense of curiosity has been such an elusive quality to cultivate is simply beacuse I haven’t wanted to be curious.
You see my background with mindfulness came from the awareness teachings from the east such as Zen Buddhism and branches of Hinduism along with my passion for contemporary nonduality. the goal to become aware of ones consciousness is the hallmark of all these teachings. These teachings suggest that for one to become of their true nature they must see through the conditioned identity which some call the ego or persona.
In the last couple of weeks, I have realized that I have used this pulling away from identity or ego as a spiritual bypass. Meaning it has been something that has made feel comfortable believing in When life got hard. When the shit hit the fan i could always brush my personal stresses and trauma under the rug and reconcile that my identity and pain was a false illusion anyway.The last thing I wanted to do was become curious of my self worth issues or past traumas,
I thought mindfulness WAS awareness.
Well, it is! But when it comes to the self-development work of western mindfulness, curiosity is the element that allows us to ask the tuff questions to ourselves like. ‘Why do I think these thoughts when I visit my father’ or ‘why do I react in this way when my partner wants space’. This sort of personal development work wasn’t something I even wanted to consider as it would mean I would have needed to deal with my shit instead of being perfect awareness. One of the reasons why there was this gap in understanding is that eastern teachings use mindfulness to understand mans essential nature which is not the mind but conscious awareness. whereas western mindfulness uses this same inquiry method to understand and learn about oneself.
In A Nutshell:
The difference between western mindfulness and eastern mindfulness is the issue of identity. Eastern teachings aim to dismantle the identity while western mindfulness aims to understand it, accept it and love it.
After having gone through a messy breakup recently I have finally realized why mindfulness educators stress this sense of curiosity and I know why we all don’t want to really be curious. Because its confronting, overwhelming and it takes a good look in the mirror to practice authentic mindfulness. I can now see the gifts curiosity has to give us in our mindfulness practice. This realization is also accompanied by embarrassment and a bit of self-judgment as I’m still scratching my head as to why it has taken me so long to realize this.
Meeting our pain can be one of the hardest aspects of practicing mindfulness and meditation. Not only are we battling to withstand stress chemicals being released in our bodies. But we feel impulses to react to situations around us based on the strong emotions we feel.
We don’t have full access to the frontal lobe of our brains which is responsible for reasoning, perspective and rationalization, basically the qualities that make us civilized human beings. So how do we embrace these emotions without simply tolerating these them and trying our best not to meltdown? I find that meeting our emotions is helpful. Let’s face it fear is fear guilt is guilt, we can’t change the sting or depth of some of these emotions. But by meeting them we can avoid becoming to overwhelmed by them.
I have always assumed that by being mindful of strong negative emotions I would in some way dilute there potency. but I’m finding that’s not the case for me. I still get overwhelmed when the world feels likes its closing in on me as my fear paralyzes my perspective. By moving towards strong emotion we say ok to the emotion. We muster up the courage and look at it with a willingness. So does it make everything better.
Not necessarily but resisting strong emotions make the sensations feel like tornadoes rather than storms. For me reconciling my emotions is a constant work in progress. I have good days and bad days. Some times I stand and move towards and sometimes i run for the hills.
Self care is a pretty big word in the wellness industry. Self care refers to the ability to care and nurture oneself through self awareness. An example of self care could be taking a walk after a heated argument to calm down. Another example could be having a long bath or getting a massage after a very stressful day. Even having support networks to talk to can be self care.
But when does self-care become self indulgence? Looking at my own experience i know i am self indulging when there is an element of stubbornness to not deal with stressful situations and doing activities to avoid having to address uncomfortable issues.
Avoidance and stubbornness can be underlying issues dressed up as self care.
Practicing self compassion and self care means understanding what you need to nurture within yourself to deal with life. I feel that if we are honest with ourselves we can distinguish the difference between looking after ourselves and using self-care to avoid or resists the issues that we need to face in our lives.
Often while im working my day job i encounter very difficult customers. Lately i have noticed that my mindfulness and acceptance practice has allowed me to let go of alot of anger and this allows me to not react out of defensiveness to rude clients.
However i is still feel some self judgement in regards to even feeling the anger or frustration in the first place. This can be a common challenge when we meditate or practice mindfulness as we naturally judge our progress when we try to decrease our stress and negative emotions.
So let me say this IT’S OK TO LOOSE YOUR SHIT!!
If you were to suppress these emotions or deny them they could show up in another area of you’re life maby in the form of reaction or maby you would eventually blow up. So we have to accept our own humanity, the challenges, the jealousy, the anger, the boredom, we need to accept all of it to eventually be at peace with it.
In reality progress may mean stressing over something for 20 mins instead of 45 mins and i consider that real world progress. Not some altruistic fantasy that we may have of being somebody who never gets angry or fearful. Eventually we can get to a place were we can even let things go in minutes. But remember racing to get to that place may bring more resistance because don’t forget you have to allow yourself loose you’re shit sometimes.
Many of my clients have struggled with meditation in the past and by the time they come to see me they have either decided to give it one last shot before leaving the path altogether or they come with a renewed determination to MASTER the practice. To these clients i say leave all you’re expectations at the door and treat you’re meditation practice as an experiment.
Why do i say this?
well first of all if we know the judgmental nature of the mind we automatically set up resistance with the practice when we have expectations about what we are going to get from a meditation session. So naturally when the mind doesn’t cooperate we feel frustrated and that we are not practicing correctly. This resistance encourages more metal activity and hesitation about the practice.
But if we can leave all our expectations at the door we find that we are more softer with ourselves and our minds. This allows us to let thoughts come a go easier and we are less judgmental when we have particularly stressful metal states. Once we approach meditation in this way we find the mind begins to cooperate and we begin to feel the benefits of meditation.
So the paradox is this, we may need to abandon all our goals to actually realize them in our meditation practice.
There is a big difference between allowing an uncomfortable emotion to show up as apposed to tolerating that emotion. Tolerating implies some mild resistance to the emotion and putting up with it. However allowing implies some level of acceptance of the feeling and a letting go of it. Once we can allow uncomfortable emotions to arise in our lives we find that they subside much quicker and this allows us greater perspective and a reduces our base line of stress.
I know in my own practice i have spent a long time tolerating negative emotions but i have only recently began to fully allow and accept them. the difference is huge.