If You Want Simplicity, Give Up All Hope

I’ve noticed that there’s this way in which humans always seem to want to simplify life. This is a fine goal, but when it’s driven by ego or conditioning (read: the part of us that just wants everything to be easy and comfortable), just like any other ego-driven effort, it seems to go awry. It’s natural to want a rule, a guide, an easy algorithm for navigating it all. But it’s an immature wish, and leads people to be rigid and judgmental, and makes them chase gurus and dictators in pursuit of simple answers.

Our insistence that things be easy comes from the feeling that life is hard, which is based on another assumption that we have to keep track of lots of things and direct and control them all, or else life will be a disaster, or something. Most people haven’t even ever questioned what the “or something” is, or who/what needs to control everything in order to prevent it. If we check, the something is probably like “it’s dangerous”, or “I won’t get what I want”, and the person can’t be found who thinks those things, other than the nebulous “me”.

It’s pretty easy to fall into this trap of trying to invent a place to rest, as we’re naturally designed for survival, not happiness.

But happiness is possible. Simplicity is possible. It just doesn’t look the way most people assume it does. In fact, from the outside, it might not even be visible. Ego can’t visualize it because it can’t view life from the perspective I’m talking about. Ego will most likely tell you it’s dangerous to disregard its concerns, that the solution MUST be OUT THERE, instead of within.

True simplicity comes from an inner shift. A shift from pursuing comfort and stability by manipulating the external world, to radical acceptance and unconditional friendliness with self and life. When we can rest in the unfolding, even while watching the egoic mind squirm and doubt it’s indispensable-ness, and know that all we need to do is be present so we can respond with love and awareness to whatever appearance life seems to take in the moment, THAT is true simplicity. Without this shift, efforts to achieve true simplicity are futile.

And even after the shift, it may take time to be able to rest in that knowing with any consistency. But that’s why they call it practice. It’s tricky at first. People get stuck, big time, in all kinds of ways.

  • Sometimes they get stuck in spirituality, and preach or condescend to others who aren’t up in the floaty clouds with them. Or they may thing “this is it”, and they have no more work to do. This is another ego trap, the desire to avoid life’s messiness and stay blissed out all the time.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in fixing, in a hurry to get rid of all the conditioning or physical problems. More ego, always in a hurry to get somewhere. Ego can use anything as a foundation for pursuing its goals.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in depression or meaninglessness, and have no care for others or anything. Sometimes there’s a limbo after awakening to our true identity, and mind automatically assumes “this is it” and it will always be this way.

We don’t have to get stuck, though. If we are honest and present, we can keep moving through any storm. If we have truly seen through ego, we can always question the movements of mind and come back to a place of rest in our knowing (that the humanness wants to find a place to rest), no matter how often or far we fall off track. No system or plan can provide the kind of lasting peace I’m talking about. If we fully acknowledge we are dynamic living beings then we know that no plan can ever be flexible enough to cover all the eventualities forever. Seeing through ego starts with realizing that there is no hope for such endeavors.

Lasting peace becomes possible when we “give up all hope” of alternatives to the present moment.

NOTE: It’s normal for our humanness to seek safety, but excessive seeking of safety can also be a sign of unresolved trauma, as could the feeling that everything is dangerous. Sorting through what is spiritual journey and what is trauma/human stuff can be challenging, and therefore some find it helpful to have a skilled guide who understands both nondual spirituality, and how to work with traumatic stress. Contact me if you’d like more info about spiritual coaching or trauma resolution.

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Want to Feel More Alive? Be Quiet!

I am participating in an online conference for trauma treatment professionals and one of the speakers today (Bessel van der Kolk) referenced research that demonstrates that the part of the brain that allows us to take in experience – to experience … Continue reading

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2013 Meditation Challenge: Year in Review

I wanted to write this review right at the end of the year, but being the introvert that I am, time was necessary for me to look back and summarize the experience. It’s difficult to tease out the source of any change even in the best research, but here’s my go at self observation in relation to my goal to meditate 30 minutes every day for a whole year:

I meditated way more than I would have without the goal. I meditated almost every single weekday, and some weekends, some days more than 30 mins. I wish I had recorded a total. BTW, now there are apps like Insight Timer you can use for that, as well as for journaling about your experience.

I meditate every weekday morning without hesitation. It’s clearly a habit now, and the busier I am, the harder I work to make sure I fit it in. I’m even starting to wake earlier and meditate weekday mornings while the house is still quiet.

I could sit for virtually any period of time now. It’s not work anymore, but rather, supreme relaxation, and an incredible luxurious pleasure. If I have trouble settling in, I ask “what if I allowed everything to be as it is right now?”. (Thank you, Adya!)

I care little for form. I used to sit zazen on a cushion and sometimes still demonstrate for my classes, but in practice I just sit reasonably upright with good back support, with my legs elevated. I don’t want any music or guide, I don’t want anyone’s yacking intruding on my sacred, silent space. Thanks to Adyashanti and his True Meditation for releasing me from all these forms of control!

The ability to remain present has increased my joy and assisted my life in countless ways. I effortlessly remain present with my clients and aware of myself, which makes me more effective at my job. I am more present and effective in my relationships, my tasks, my exercise, my driving, and my own work on myself. I live my real life, instead of an imaginary life in my thoughts.

I have become more fully embodied than ever before. I fully inhabit my own body with an awareness I never had before 2013. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s an amazing experience. It’s like I was living in my body, but I wasn’t plugged in. I admit some of this is due to somatic experiencing work, but that also would not have been possible in such a short time without the learned ability through meditation to remain present to my own internal experience without fear.

I seem to be taking better care of myself in a more consistent way. I attribute this to relating to my humanness in a friendlier, more compassionate way. It feels and appears like an automatic outgrowth of practice, rather than from effort. I sleep, eat, exercise and rest, as well as offer comfort to myself just because the obvious need is there.

Others notice and comment on the calm they experience just by being in my presence. I swear, I am not trying to “do” anything, it’s just happening. Some refer to this a shift in vibrational frequency that occurs with meditation practice, but I don’t know. Whatever it is, people around me are witnessing it and commenting on it, and begging me to record bedtime stories for them (really!).

I am more comfortable being myself than ever before, in every way imaginable…less critical of my body, my physical appearance, my mistakes, and my flaws. It feels more acceptable to just be myself all of the time. Who else would I be? I can’t believe how much time I spent striving to project some desirable image I had of myself.

I am getting to live the lovingkindness meditation: May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with ease. Yes, as it turns out, I may!

And this is my loving kindness prayer for you:

May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy and strong. May you live with ease.

Perhaps you’ll make my prayer for you come true, whether it’s through regular daily silence, or some other means!

Namaste

Cynthia

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The Joy of New Beginnings

Celebration of Light

Celebration of Light (Photo credit: kslavin)

This is the time of year when we begin to take stock of our lives and make plans for the time that’s left. We often use the arbitrary tax year start date of January 1 as the beginning, the time we start our new life, execute our new plans for achieving the self we hope to become.

There’s something enticing about embarking on a new adventure. It’s the promise of something better, the gleam of possibility. And yet, for many, no sooner has the quest begun than it is finished. Every year I witness the suddenly new and enthusiastic crowd at the gym in January that gradually tapers off by mid February. Beginning is the easy part, clearly. But we all already know this.

A recent study indicates that one way to improve the chance of success in new endeavors is to not tell anyone about them, or if we do, to talk to others mostly about the hard work it will require. Otherwise, we get our boost from receiving recognition before the task is accomplished, and lose steam for following through with the hard part because we already got the reward. I thought this was enlightening, and also somewhat depressing news. So we are just a bunch of 2 year olds when it comes to motivation?

Another way of approaching this waning of good intentions is to examine more closely the difficulty in the middle part, after the excitement of beginning has faded. What is it that makes it so difficult to keep up the effort, to keep moving toward the goal?  It might be any or all of several things:

Superficial goals: Maybe we want to be thinner, or healthier, or make more money, but we haven’t addressed the underlying issue. If we want these things in order to feel better about ourselves, then the motivation isn’t likely to stick, because unconditional friendliness toward ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to get through the rough times in the change process.

Impatience: We’ve all heard that patience is a virtue, but we live more and more in an instant gratification world. I once read advice for entrepreneurs that said success comes from daily focused effort on the goal before there is any perceptible progress. How many of us can do this? Acting for any length of time requires a longer term focus. It requires a degree of faith and patience that must be fueled from the inside. It can’t be sustained under the strain of self doubt or self flagellation. Again, the unconditional friendliness principle applies.

Attitude: What happens when you give in to a craving for the first time, or you miss a workout, or lose your temper after vowing to you wouldn’t anymore? Do you beat yourself up at little, then start over, and repeat with increasing recrimination until you give up on yourself in exasperation? Giving up is then the sensible thing to do at some point, because no one can take that kind of punishment. But what if your perspective was one in which you believed you could begin again in any moment, no matter what? Can you imagine such a relationship with yourself and with life?

All of the reasons for giving up on our goals have in common the relationship with our humanness. Without unconditional friendliness as a starting point, our self-improvement projects are really just self-violence in disguise. As Pema Chodron says in Start Where You Are:

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty feeling that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here.

Or, as Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once said to a group:

All of you are perfect just as you are… and you could use a little improvement.

All we have to do is be able to hold these two truths at once. It’s about relaxing into the fundamental fact of our humanness. We will mess up. We can never be perfect. Because of this, we get to experience the excitement of vulnerability and the joy of the unknown. We get to be capable of great love, and great pain. We are absolute perfection because our unfolding can never be other than it is in this moment, and at the same time, our flawed human beingness is all hanging out at some points in the unfolding. We get to be on a journey where we have no idea what might happen next – supreme love or embarrassing the hell out of ourselves. Anything else wouldn’t really be living, would it?

It might seem counterintuitive, but when we can rest in knowing that our worth doesn’t come from anything we do, then everything becomes possible. We can always start fresh in any moment, and then motivation comes from a completely different place. We can keep renewing the excitement of possibility. Love compels us to keep trying to do better.

The mind will argue with this, of course, saying it’s not logical. The first step is to agree with the mind, that it does not seem logical. Next, just try it anyway, and find out for yourself. Ask yourself to imagine what it might be like to have permission to start over any time, with no end of chances. Then try approaching your new year’s resolution as if your existence is already justified, your worthiness already a proven fact without any self-improvement, and see what happens…

you might just discover the illogical is possible. You might stick to that resolution this time. And you might just discover causeless joy.

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More Self Compassion Practice

In a previous post I wrote about the practice of attending to one’s own physical cues as a starting place for cultivating a self-compassionate stance. This is often where we need to start if trying to tune in to and attend to our emotional life is too overwhelming.

If you tried the recommended exercise to notice and respond efficiently to cues for hunger, thirst, rest, and going to the bathroom, you might have noticed this is not a problem at all, or you might notice that you always delay all of your needs, or perhaps something in between those two extremes. Whatever you notice is good information about your relationship with yourself!

You might also have noticed internal resistance or certain thoughts that occur when you try to take care of those needs. Paying attention to the message in the resistance feeling, or noticing the thoughts can lead the way to a more self-compassionate life because once you are aware of the resistance to taking care of the body, you have an opportunity then to question it. How do you do that? Well, here are some suggestions for what you might get curious about:

  • What objections does the mind have to me taking care of the body?
  • In what way does it make sense to not take care of the body?
  • What would happen if I just surrendered to the need to take care of the body?

Often what people discover is that they have an irrational resistance to taking care of themselves, and unconsciously run themselves ragged. Examined closely, what could we come up with that could be more important than first attending to our basic needs? The truth is, caring for ourselves is not optional, because it’s just not sustainable. If we don’t care for ourselves in really basic ways, we break down: we feel upset more easily, more anxious, more tired, less resilient. I heard a wonderful expression recently for being too hungry: “hangry”. Doesn’t that just say it all? The basic care we provide for ourselves creates the physical, mental and emotional foundation for everything we do and want to do in the world.

Sometimes people will also discover outright violence toward the self, which then might require some support to sort through. Sometimes this is a result of trauma, or misinterpretation of biblical text, or some other experience which created over-harshness toward the self. Sometimes this self-violence is referred to as “the critic”, and can be debilitating if allowed to run amok without being challenged. This protective mechanism works overtime and keeps us stuck in a no-win vortex of self-hate and pressure to achieve.

If you feel you’ve mastered caring for the body and you’re ready to move to the next step, then try to imagine what it might look like if you moved to the next step of caring for your emotions the same way, and for the same reason – because the cue is there. Or, you can try the process listed below. It takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it can be nothing short of life-changing:

  1. First notice what’s happening. Give it a short label if you can: sadness, rejection, disappointment, anger, fear…
  2. Shift away from thoughts about the feeling and into the physical sensation of it, using the feeling of your feet on the floor or of the chair beneath you to stay grounded. Do this for as long as you need to.
  3. Remember that others have felt this pain, and someone, somewhere is also feeling exactly what you feel right this moment. See if you can feel that connection with unknown others who know your pain. Do this for as long as you need to.
  4. When you feel ready, ask yourself, “what is the compassionate response to the situation?”. Maybe you need to stop and take care of physical needs that were delayed, or maybe you need to soothe yourself in a healthy way (cup of tea, play with the dog, go for a short walk, read inspirational material, sing a song, find something that makes you laugh).

    English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

    English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not going to ruin the surprise, but something magical happens when you do this. You’ll have to try it to find out :). If you need support to help make sense of what you’re finding when you do these exercises, please contact me.

Take good care!

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Do You List?

Over time, I’ve experimented with a lot of different options and systems for organizing and managing my time. What I realize in retrospect is that I spent a lot of time on it which I could have used for other things. Even more importantly, I now see how such systems can be used for violence against ourselves.

Oh, it all starts out so innocently, as a wish to use our time more wisely. And it ends with beating ourselves over the head with the unfinished items on the list at the end of the day. And promises to catch up tomorrow. Add items to the list and repeat the next day. And the next day. And the next…ad infinitum.

I tend to use my calendar, planner and listmaking as prioritization and memory devices now, rather than as attempts to cram everything I ever wanted to do into one day. And still, the list can turn into violence. It’s quite magnetic to imagine perfection and then frame it as reality. But the cost to our well-being is great. The items still not crossed off at the end of the day prompt thoughts like: Why wasn’t I more efficient, disciplined, moving faster? I should have (insert self-judgement nonsense here). If only (insert inevitable, unavoidable event here) hadn’t happened. Oh, no, (insert worst imaginable, improbable consequence here) is going to happen!

These thoughts prompt me to realize I’ve fallen into the trap of ego, trying to achieve some imaginary goal or leap some completely arbitrary hurdle. When I realize I’ve been in the trance of doing or fixing, and relax again into being, I notice what it’s like to move from being in that hurried, agitated trance to being in the present, in sanity.

Time management matrix as described in Merrill...

Time management matrix as described in Merrill and Covey 1994 book “First Things First,” showing “quadrant two” items that are important but not urgent and so require greater attention for effective time management (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we make arbitrary lists and plans and then beat ourselves up for not finishing what might well be unrealistic, or have already become irrelevant, goals, this is the epitome of not being present for our own lives. Could anything be further from self compassion? Could anything be further from what really matters? How could we disengage from this cycle of violence to self? Sometimes it helps to look and really see how that urgency to “get it all done” inevitably becomes violence to innocent bystanders who we see either as recruits for or obstacles to accomplishing our imaginary urgent list items?

If nothing else, it can be useful to ask questions like:

  • what is the urgency about? where does it come from?
  • what is my busyness helping me avoid?
  • does my self worth rooted in being or is it dependent on doing?
  • what would happen if my schedule included breaks to regroup and ground myself?
  • what objections does the mind/ego raise to adopting a slower, more realistic pace?
  • what are all the costs of not being present?

What I’ve realized is that I will probably always feel the pull of achievement, but now I don’t have to get lost in it. I can revise my expectations to accommodate reality as needed, without having to get so beat up by the process. I can recognize the “should” for what it is: resistance to life, avoiding truth, and an attempt to control reality, which never leads to peace.

I see clearly how I feel less anxious when I’m not standing behind myself with a stick, trying to get it all done, “or else”. And little by little, I become increasingly comfortable with living in the real world. Which, ironically, is the feeling I was after the whole time with my to-do lists.  But you know what? I never found the feeling there, never found it at the end of striving, except as a fleeting glance. I only ever really find that kind of lasting peace right here, right now, in the present moment.

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The Rhythm of Life

rhythm

rhythm (Photo credit: max_thinks_sees)

I recently heard this theory of self care (boring word therapists use to describe the relationship to the self) that made a lot of sense to me and expanded my understanding of its importance. It goes something like this:

We start out in the womb, our every need met instantaneously, shielded from discomfort and continuously soothed by the rhythm of mother’s heartbeat. Then suddenly, we are thrust into the cold, bright, loud world, separated from the soothing sounds of the womb, and for the first time, we experience what it feels like to want, and can do nothing about it or convey the pain save for to scream. Little by little, the rhythm of mother’s heartbeat is replaced by the rhythm of caregivers’ response to our attempts to communicate our needs, and a rhythmic bond of trust and security develops. As we grow from baby to child, then teen and adult, the rhythm of caring for our needs is gradually transferred from the caregiver to us, and the healthy adult maintains this rhythm for him or her self ever after.

This would be fine in a perfect world composed of flawless human beings, right? Who gives a crap anyway…I’m alive and I manage to stay that way, right? Well, there’s a difference between surviving and thriving, but we might not have noticed. We take this rhythm for granted and barely realize anything is missing when it’s not there. Which is normal if it was unreliable to begin with, or we think our value lies in doing rather than being, or both. This is the reason that people look at me the way I used to look at therapists who said it to me – cross-eyed with something between disgust and exasperation – when I suggest that everything begins with taking care of themselves, and that it is the foundation for everything else they want.

It is essentially self-compassion that I am pushing, because it IS the foundation. Every spiritual and self-help book worth its salt suggests self-compassion in some way. This is because until we change the relationship with ourselves, essentially, no good can follow. Violence toward self becomes violence toward others, in ways both subtle and also big and obvious. Even our well-meaning help to others can be violence, because it isn’t informed by awareness, mindfulness, and compassion. Rather, it becomes a sort of “idiot compassion” that meddles and is foolish and hurtful.

We all have varying degrees of responsiveness to our own needs, much of which we learned either directly or as a reaction to something in the past. My experience, plenty of research, and my clients, all point to improved quality of life when shifting the relationship with self  to one that is gentler, kinder, and more based in reality. We may be feeling anxious and depressed because we aren’t even responding to our own basic needs, let alone our emotional and spiritual selves. What if we knew we could rely on ourselves to witness our own experience with kindness and support? What would that feel like? Society doesn’t generally support such a relationship, though, and in fact usually opposes it, so you have to put out some effort at first to get to this place of sanity. I recommend starting small.

So, if you make lists you can never complete, need coffee everyday to get going, or don’t eat regular meals, you could probably be more self-compassionate. Here’s your simple challenge and the one I’ve returned to myself and given my clients:

Begin to rebuild the rhythm for your own life by responding as much as possible to 4 simple needs without delay:

  • Hunger (true hunger, not feeding emotions)
  • Thirst (true thirst, not guzzling water or coffee all day out of habit)
  • Bathroom urges (yes, you just put the hot food on the plate, but stop and go anyway)
  • Rest (if you stop and think about it, you know damn well when you need to sit down and take a break from physical or mental labor, and I’m not talking about doing it in front of the tv!)

Give those a go, and notice what happens, what objections the mind raises, and also how easy it is to get in the habit of responding to your own needs with a bit of practice. When you’ve mastered these, let me know and I’ll give you the next assignment!

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