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Posts from the ‘Self-Kindness’ Category

Kindness Challenge: Cutting Out Criticism

I’ll admit it, a part of me does like to have a good moan. About the food that isn’t quite right in a restaurant, or the film that doesn’t live up to my expectations, or how someone else has done something that’s had an unfortunate impact on me.

And I know I’m not alone. Social interactions (whether online or in conversation) are littered with comments and opinions that are critical, judgemental or of a complaining nature. Our internal dialogue might have this flavour too, if we’ve learned to turn judgement against ourselves as self-criticism. We’re most likely conditioned into this habit, especially if we grew up with it. And I really think that’s what it is – a habit, and therefore something we can condition ourselves out of too.

I know that in my own experience, this tendency is a reactive, aversive energy. It arises when my needs aren’t met, or I don’t like something, or even just to fill an awkward silence. Sometimes it’s a defence mechanism, when I feel hurt or vulnerable. It can also get triggered when I’m seeking validation.

I can’t help wondering, if we all reduced this aversive energy, what would fill those spaces in conversation (or in our life) that the judging and complaining used to occupy? Maybe that’s why we find this habit so seductive, because it covers over a fear of just being with our naked experience, without having to paper it over with our preferences and reactions.

So I’ve set myself a challenge to notice when I’m moaning, criticising or complaining about someone or something. It’s probably more often than I think. Especially when I look at things from someone else’s point of view rather than my own.

I say noticing because I have no intention of transferring the judgement onto myself if (when) I fall into the same old trap. Awareness is the starting point for change, so I trust that it’s enough for now.

Maybe that noticing might plant the seeds of something else that could fill those spaces if I cut out criticism. Because alongside the part of me that likes to find what’s wrong, another part of me can see the world through kind eyes, and find what’s good to appreciate. I just need to get out of the way more often to let that part of me fill those spaces.

And if this post itself comes across in any way judgemental, please know that isn’t my intention. Life isn’t easy, and we all make judgements (it’s an important part of our survival equipment). We can grow our awareness without attacking ourselves for being human.

On that note, when I do find myself acting out an old habit and need to see that through kind eyes, I always find Portia Nelson’s poem reassuring.

You might also like:

Choosing Love Over Power

Outgrowing Old Habits, Learning New Superpowers

It appears I have a new superpower – being able to get my needs met. How? By asking.

That sounds ridiculously simple, but for me it’s been a long and complex journey.

Like many people, I used to find it tricky (to say the least) even to express my needs, never mind to get them met!

Many years of meditation and awareness practice have helped me discover some interesting emotional patterns of mine that can lie hidden in everyday interactions.

Like that acknowledging the existence of my own needs can activate feelings of guilt and shame. Which in turn can switch on some anger and frustration. And then that can express itself via a certain defensiveness when I need to ask for help or compromise. As you can imagine, that isn’t often conducive to someone else wanting to help me!

Or rather, that used to be the way it often went.

Something very interesting is emerging. Having worked closely with those parts of myself in self-kindness meditation – the part that feels shame, the angry part and the scared, defensive part – I’ve been able to soothe these bits of me so that they don’t need to ‘act out’ so much. When these parts need emotional security, I’ve learned how to meet that need myself, instead of project that onto other situations where emotional security can’t actually be found.

As my awareness has deepened through meditation practice, I’ve also taken advantage of therapeutic support to help me integrate what’s been discovered. My therapy of choice recently was Somatic Experiencing, which significantly deepened my body-based mindfulness. Through this process my nervous system has calmed even further and begun to feel much safer.

It’s important to be aware, I think, that mindfulness isn’t all about the brain, that our whole body nervous system is involved when we begin to grow our awareness, and out-grow old habits.

As a result of this process, I’m learning that the world isn’t as hostile as the younger me had experienced. From a place of deeper trust, I can take a chance on expressing my needs openly and gently, and seeing what happens.

This doesn’t mean I always get what I want. But it does mean that I more consistently ask for what I’d really like. The defensiveness has gone, because my nervous system feels safer. I’m also less attached to any particular outcome: I’d like to get my needs met, but I know that if that’s not possible, it’s not a personal attack. So how I’m asking has changed a lot. And more often than not, I do get what I need. In fact, people will often go out of their way to help me, even when they could easily say no.

To quote one of my favourite Rolling Stones songs, ‘You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need’.

Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I considered how we’ve become disconnected from our embodied experience as human beings.  The more that modern culture has prized (and praised) a ‘left brain’ approach to living and learning, the more we’ve lost touch with the wisdom of our right brain/body.

By contrast, research on hunter-gatherer people suggest that they are more ‘whole-brained’, or I might say ‘whole-bodied’.  People who’ve lived with and studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures have shared some fascinating insights into a way of life that appears to support better wellbeing than we enjoy in contemporary western culture.  So what might happen if we were more connected to our right brain/body? (When I use this phrase, I mean the whole body).

We might add less stress to our experiences. The thinking mind can be a great tool, when it’s the right one for the job. But when we have an unpleasant experience, we often add an extra layer’ of difficulty with thoughts that escalate our distress. This is sometimes called ‘discursive thinking’ in the meditation tradition. If we can stay with our experience in the body, the difficulty tends to pass through quicker and with less suffering. (This is often taught in mindfulness courses).

We might be more present-moment oriented. Instead of constantly thinking about what resources (money, possessions, relationships) we need to store up for the future, we might concentrate more on what we need for just now. Of course it may still be important to provide for the future. But perhaps we can balance this by inhabiting trust, and by having more modest ambitions. If we have fewer wants, these are more easily satisfied and we are more likely to enjoy the wellbeing of being happy with what we’ve got right now.

We might enjoy work more. I was fascinated to read that in a hunter-gatherer culture that still exists today, they don’t have a word for ‘work’. They cheerfully get on with a range of necessary activities, but they don’t label any of these separate tasks as ‘work’. This seemed to mirror a discovery I made myself about not labelling activities as work – I found it really liberating, as it began to erode a belief I’ve picked up that work has to feel hard and unpleasant if I’m doing it right! My post 3 Things We Can Unlearn To Boost Mindfulness. was largely inspired by my own changing relationship to the division between ‘work’ and ‘play’.

We might stop chasing ‘happiness’ as a goal. In our culture, we seem to have created a mythical destination called ‘happiness’ that once reached, we can dwell in permanently. But in reality, we all experience a constant flow of feelings that arise and pass. Being able to enjoy present-moment feelings of joy or peace, without trying to nail them down, is to experience true wellbeing. I reflected more deeply on this in an old post Finding Happy Ever After – Right Now.

We might feel more whole, more fully human, and more at ease with ourselves. Research tells us that suppression of emotions reduces wellbeing rather than improving it. I’ve seen the enormous value of self-kindness practices in helping people to re-connect with these cut-off parts of themselves, and the confidence and resilience that then emerges. I’ve learned in teaching these practices that our right-brain imaginative capacities are a huge ally in accessing this capacity: often people feel unsure about how to connect with self-kindness, and then discover that in using their imagination, they can find a creative ‘way in’.

We might be more peaceful. In my own experience, the more connected I am to all parts of myself, the more I can connect with others peacefully, without the need for defensiveness or control. I find it fascinating to reflect on the escalation in human conflict since we started farming and separating ourselves with territories that we need to defend. For me, the concept of the Love Mode vs Power Mode is really helpful, which I touched on here.

We might regain our connection to the earth and halt some of the damage that we’re doing. I’m by no means innocent of engaging in non-eco-friendly practices, but my awareness is growing of the ways I can reduce my own impact on resources. Perhaps if we collectively felt more connection to our environment, some large-scale care for it might become possible.

As to how we find our way into these changes… I’ve known for a while that meditation helps the right brain/body to come back online. I haven’t just read the theory, I’ve experienced an explosion in my own sensitivity, curiosity and creativity (all ‘right-brain’ traits) as my meditation practice has become more established. And of course I’ve witnessed the journeys of people who come to my classes.

I suspect that the practice of meditation helps us attain more balance by calming down the left brain that wants to be constantly figuring everything out verbally. In the meditation space, there is more room for the wisdom of body sensations that we are usually cut off from. It’s not a quick path, but it’s one that (I believe) can gradually lead to healing and wholeness, not just for ourselves, but also for the natural world that we are a part of.

If you want to explore meditation, you can find my recordings on this site under Meditations and Mini-Meditations

Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing – Part 1

This pair of posts draws on some (very) ancient wisdom that could be so valuable in our modern times – to help us re-connect to a kind of wellbeing that we’ve lost touch with.

I’ve become fascinated recently by how ancient people lived. I don’t just mean going back a couple of thousand years. I mean the hunter-gatherer culture that goes back tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Many of the books I’ve read recently which appear to be about different areas – parenting, education, meditation and psychology – all seem to point to the same thing.

Which is that with the birth of agriculture, we began to lose our sense of connection – to the earth, to ourselves, to each other, and to our ‘right brain’ that mediates these connections so powerfully.

Anthropologists suggest that in hunter-gatherer cultures, people experienced much higher wellbeing that we do in modern culture. I’m not ignoring that certain hardships may also have been more prevalent in those environments, or at least that some of the advantages of modern life weren’t available. I’m not wishing to romanticise their experience. But a few things have really got me questioning the received wisdom of our own times. What can we learn from those ancient people?

To start answering that question, I’m going to first mention more contemporary idea. I first stumbled across the idea of the ‘right brain’ when I realised that my son’s style of learning doesn’t fit the current dominant model: he likes to learn in a very embodied way, with a passion for storytelling through enactment, visual resources and hands-on exploration of geometric shapes. He reads very fluently, but contrary to the phonics-type step-by-step model, he learned to read the big, apparently complex, words first. He plays with numbers in a very creative way, but doesn’t enjoy learning by rote memory. When I stumbled across the theory about brain hemispheres, I began to appreciate his wonderful learning style more fully, and to see the joy and wonder that emerge when he follows his deep curiosity.

The basic premise of the theory is that we have 2 brain hemispheres, left and right, and that some of us tend to use one side more than the other*. The left side is associated with logic, language, planning, analysing and step-by-step learning. The right side is associated with creativity, intuition, imagination, spatial abilities and ‘bigger picture’ learning. This is a huge simplification – there are also other attributes for each side, and we tend to use both sides in combination.

Recent science has found that the right ‘brain’ is actually the right hemisphere of the brain plus the whole of the body (not just one side). It’s all linked up. The vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain figures somewhere in here (you’ll have heard of ‘gut instinct’). I read somewhere that we actually have more receptors for messages that are passed from the body to the brain, than the other way round. This certainly made me reevaluate the importance of the information that our sensitive bodies can pick up.

In modern culture, we’re encouraged to rely heavily on our left brain skills, and so we disconnect somewhat with the right brain/body. We literally become disembodied, and lose the ‘body wisdom’ that in ancient cultures would have equated success in the world of hunter-gathering. Stressful experiences can lead us to dis-connect further from the body: to escape uncomfortable feelings, we may seek refuge in numbness or mental strategies such as explanations or evaluations.

You might think that right-brain skills aren’t as relevant in our world as they might have been to our ancestors. But in withdrawing into the left-brain, we also disconnect from the emotional energies that are associated with the right brain/body. When we disconnect from emotional parts of ourselves (even the ones we might not like, such as vulnerability, fear or anger), we feel less whole and our wellbeing gets compromised.

This is where practices like mindfulness, self-kindness and meditation can help us to re-connect with the lost parts of ourselves, and rediscover wholeness and greater ease of being.  In the second part of this blog, I suggest some ways that our experience could be enriched by greater connection to our right brain/body, and also some thoughts about how to actually make that happen.

*I should say that much of what I’ve written here about left/right brain theory is a gross simplification, and possibly includes my own interpretation of information that could be read a different way. I’m also aware that some studies would appear to disprove some of what I’ve shared, but I’m a strong believer that ‘truth’ is what we find in our own experience. I can appreciate too why there might be resistance to the idea of our bodies being at least as wise as our brains.

If you want to learn more about the brain hemispheres and modern-day disconnection (and see what seems true for you personally), you might like the books or websites of these authors:

Reginald Ray on body-based meditation (his book ‘The Awakening Body’ is a good starting point)

Peter Levine on how the nervous system processes stressful experiences (‘In An Unspoken Voice’ is a very comprehensive book)

Cindy Gaddis on the ‘right-brained’ learning style

Peter Gray on hunter-gatherer cultures (you can find his blogs about education on psychology.com)

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

This is one of my most popular posts, and has featured on the Huffington Post and Everyday Mindfulness…

For an awfully long time, I believed that I could only be happy when I’d changed something about myself. For example, when I was more calm and confident, or when I stopped making mistakes and always got everything right. Only once I’d become that other person (I believed) could I stop feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then, several years back I went through a bereavement which changed all the relationships in my life, not least the one I have with myself. Here’s what I learned that helped me finally let go of self-attacking.

In my 20s, I’d tried endless self-help books in an effort to become someone else. I hated that I always felt anxious and lacking confidence. I was determined to rid myself of these defects so that I could finally be happy. In my early 30s I discovered mindfulness, which helped me enormously in recognising that my thoughts weren’t necessarily facts.

Mindfulness got me through the seven miscarriages I had before our son came along. But when he was a toddler, I suffered another loss, this one particularly traumatic. During the aftermath, things got very messy. I knew that friends were finding it hard to be around me. In truth, I found it hard to be around me. I felt like I couldn’t rely on anything, my anxiety shot up, and my reactions to others were unpredictable. I wanted friends to support me even though they didn’t have a clue how, and I was very sensitive to well-meant comments.

Sadly, this led to the breakdown of some friendships. In the past my response would have been to blame myself. My self-talk would have sounded something like this: “see, you’ve chased everyone away because you’re handling this really badly and you’ve become a horrible person.”

But I turned instead to compassion meditation. Not only did it (eventually) help me to heal some of those rifts, it prevented me from attacking myself.

I remember sitting in meditation one day offering myself the phrase ‘May I have ease of being’. Suddenly, the phrase became ‘May I have ease of being, just as I am‘. Not ‘May I have ease of being – when I’m perfect’, but right now, just as I am: messy and heartbroken and chaotic. This learning for me was huge. I didn’t have to wait till I was getting things right to feel OK about myself. I could love and accept myself right now, because being human is hard.

I no longer believe that we have to fix our perceived defects in order to be happy. We can be content just as we are, even when parts of our experience are difficult. And we can wish that others too have ease of being, just as they are.

When we can bring this gentle acceptance to ourselves and to others – no matter how human or unskilful our behaviour, we can let go of the added burden of (self-)criticism. This means we can use that energy elsewhere: for compassion, support and love. How would you use this extra energy?