PRACTICING COMPASSION AND EQUANIMITY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP[a]

Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging.  However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves.  It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which translates as  “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion.  Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.

Tonglenis practiced in stages:  first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere.  Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b]  For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away.  I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.  I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.

The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.

Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality.  Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal:  “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.  In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]

I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.

When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back.  I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot.  I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes.  Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy.  Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]

Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged.  As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him.  I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today.  His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent.  His father has been described as a “tyrant.”

It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism.  His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy.  As Dr. Justin Frank notes:

One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]

Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:

 “[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark.  It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow.  Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]

Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings.  May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”

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[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate.

[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.

[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997).  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.

[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016).  “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).

[e]David Smith.  “Mommy Dearest:  A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).

[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.”  Tricycle.

OVERCOMING JEALOUSY THROUGH JOY: A BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY PERSPECTIVE

Jealousy is a difficult emotion to experience, and even more difficult to admit. Jealousy has many faces: competitiveness, envy, resentment, insecurity and fear of exclusion.  Buddhist psychology teaches that leaning into the experience of jealousy and not trying to cover it up is the key to transforming it and creating compassion and connection.

Jealousy and the belief that we are not good enough

Jealousy flows from believing that we are not good enough just as we are. For example, I have noticed that my jealousy rears up when I feel judged or insecure.  If I’m not mindful, it becomes a swirling vicious circle.  I judge myself, compare myself to others and resent them for being better than me or having more than me.  I then become competitive and go overboard to try to prove my worth. To compound the problem, I then criticize myself for feeling jealous – After all, I’m a Buddhist and I’m not supposed to feel that way!

When I experience jealousy, I often shut down and isolate myself out of a fear of being found out as not enough. Not only do I disconnect from others, I disconnect from myself and my basic goodness and vitality.

Jealousy and the suffering of self-clinging

Jealousy is considered one of the “five poisons” in Buddhism, together with anger, desire, pride and ignorance.  They are considered poisonous because they create pain and suffering, both for ourselves and others.  The foundational tenet of Buddhism is that suffering is all around us, and that the cause of suffering is our clinging to a sold sense of self.  Jealousy and the other poisons arise from this self-clinging.

The Buddhist prayer called The Four Immeasurables is a powerful way to free ourselves from the suffering of ego-clinging. It is a simple prayer accessible to all:

May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

 It is important to remember that the term “all beings” includes ourselves.  Therefore, reciting The Four Immeasurables opens us to compassion for ourselves as well as others.

How to work mindfully with jealousy and transform it into sympathetic joy

Working mindfully with the tools I have learned from Buddhist psychology allows me to let go of jealousy.  When I feel jealousy arise, I first lean into the experience with my felt senses.  This allows me to stay with the direct physical and emotional experience and not get caught up in the storylines that keep jealousy in place.

By breathing in the painful sensations associated with jealousy and breathing out relaxation, I can create space around the experience and see it directly, allowing myself to relax and let go.[a]When I am able to do this, my jealousy transforms into compassion for myself and for the person who aroused my jealousy.

Each of the five poisons corresponds to one of the “five wisdoms” or antidotes. After experiencing the pain of the jealousy directly and mindfully, opening into compassion leads naturally to jealousy’s antidote, known as “sympathetic joy.” Sympathetic joy involves taking joy in the success or happiness of others. This corresponds to the third of the Four Immeasurables, where we pray that all beings experience “great happiness devoid of suffering.”

The Sanskrit term for sympathetic joy is mudita.  Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg defines mudita as “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.”[b]The cultivation of sympathetic joy is indeed a pleasure – It frees us from the suffering of our painful emotions.  In addition, rejoicing in others’ happiness actually creates happiness and satisfaction in ourselves.  In the words of the Buddhist master Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “When you rejoice, you really feel like you have a richness inside. Your good heart sustains your mind.”[c]

“Appreciative joy” is another translation of mudita:

Appreciation is taking the time to notice what’s already here, what we have right now in this very moment. This capacity gives us the inner strength to work with our suffering in a skillful way, and to stay connected to each other as we do.[d]

 When we practice appreciation for others’ happiness and success, we come to appreciate ourselves.  Consequently, the belief that we are not enough slips away, and our jealousy can dissolve.  Rejoicing in others’ good fortune also opens our hearts to others as well as ourselves. Our sense of connection and basic aliveness is restored.  We are well on our way to overcoming ego-clinging and suffering, and living a life of satisfaction and joy.

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[a]This corresponds to the “Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in his book “Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You (TarcherPerigree 2016).  The three steps are:  Mindful Gap (taking a breath and feeling the emotion directly), Clear Seeing (looking at the broader picture, including triggers and habits), and Letting Go (relaxing with our senses and letting go of any residual negative energy).

[b] Sharon Salzberg (1995). Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambhala Publications. p. 119.

[c]Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “Rejoicing:  The Antidote to Jealousy”, in “Uncommon Happiness:  The Path of the Compassionate Warrior (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2009).

[d]Mingyur Rinpoche, “You Already Have What You’re Looking For”, Lion’s Roar, March 2019 issue.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

HOW TO BE A MINDFUL ACTIVIST…AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND

There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years.  However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us.  We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world.  We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.

Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment.  Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.

These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings.  As the Dalai Lama has said:

“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]

 According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering.  One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us.  By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.

Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering.  If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree.  In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:

When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]

 Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.

Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout.  If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response.  This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma.  Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating.  For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.

Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:

  • Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
  • Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
  • Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
  • Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
  • If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.

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References:

[i]HH The Dalai, Lama (2018).  The Bodhisattva Guide:  A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (p. 140). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

[iii]Sharon Salzberg & Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Love Everyone:  A Guide for Spiritual Activists.  Lion’s Roar, August 18, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

UNCOVERING THE POWER OF VULNERABILITY: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

Most of us think of vulnerability as weakness. However, the word vulnerability simply means able to be open. By being open, we can clearly see ourselves and that world around us.  This panoramic view gives us the ability and power to grow, heal and be fully engaged in our lives.

We often think that if we are open and vulnerable, we will be attacked.  This is something most of us learn early on in life.  We come into the world as open and vulnerable babies, unconditionally loving ourselves and the world around us.  Then life gets in the way. We feel judged, misunderstood, rejected or abandoned, and little by little that open innocence begins to close. We close a portion of our hearts. We lose our spontaneity, basic aliveness and self-expression out of fear.

The first step of opening to our basic aliveness is becoming aware of the fears and self-beliefs that close our hearts. For me, mindfulness meditation was the key for unlocking my heart.

Through slowing down in meditation, and taking the time to get to know myself, I discovered my fear of being judged as unlovable. I became acutely aware that I had closed myself from my basic aliveness out of fear.  Slowing down and breathing into my heart in meditation, I had a direct experience of what felt like ice melting around my heart.  I experienced profound sadness and grief for the loss of the open heart and vulnerability I had as a baby and young child.  Over time, I was able to let go of the fears that held me back, experience compassion for myself and allow myself to be and be loved, just as I am.

So, I offer this guided meditation to you:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on a meditation cushion or in a chair with your feet on the floor. Make sure you are sitting upright in a relaxed fashion so your breath can freely move.
  • Bring attention to your breath – cool nourishing breaths in, and long slow breaths out, letting go of stress and tension with each outbreath.Allow yourself to slow down.  When thoughts come up, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath.
  • As you begin to slow down and relax, bring your attention to your heart center. Bring one hand to your heart. Breathe into your heart, noticing the hand touching your heart to rise with each inhale and relax with each exhale.
  • Continuing to breathe in this way, experience the sensations around your heart. In order to become familiar with and connect with your heart, ask:  If it had a color, what color would it be?  Similarly, if it had a size, shape, texture or temperature, what would that be.
  • Now, continuing to focus your attention on your heart, notice your emotions. Fear or sadness may arise.  Breathe into the emotional experience and allow your emotions to be just as they are, without getting lost in thoughts, judgments or stories.
  • End your meditation practice with the aspiration that you grow and heal, and in your growth and healing, may you be of benefit to yourself and all others.

It is my aspiration that this practice will help you understand with compassion the fears that have closed your heart, so that you can grow, heal and open with the power of vulnerability to yourself and your life.

 

 

© 2018.  Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRANSFORMING RESENTMENT ON THE SPOT

Resentment is a negative and toxic emotional response.  It arises when we feel that we are being treated unfairly.   Resentment can feel like anger, hatred or self-righteous indignation. If we bring mindfulness and curiosity to the situation, we can actually change how we react when we feel this way, and can transform our resentment to compassion, for ourselves and others.

Recognizing Resentment as a Habitual Defensive Pattern

It is difficult to change reactions that have become deeply entrenched in our emotional lives. For example, many of my clients have told me that their mothers were highly judgmental or critical of them. As a result, they developed defensive habitual response as a way to protect themselves against feeling hurt, ashamed or disappointed.  These defensive automatic responses then play out throughout our lives whenever we feel judged or criticized.

A knee-jerk automatic reaction of self-righteous indignation to feeling judged, criticized or mistreated is something many of us are all too familiar with. Kaumyo Lowe-Charde, co-abbot of Dharma Rain Zen Center,  notes:

[When we see things in right or wrong terms], we can simply notice how comforting and reassuring it is when we believe we are on the right side of those lines.  And, if  we persist in noticing, we may discover that the need to draw lines to create a right and wrong side, is rooted in fear.  If, in a given instant,  we can open up and allow ourselves to feel this fear, it will morph into something else— perhaps grief, compassion or remorse. And when that happens, we increase our capacity for choice.”

As Kaumyo Lowe-Charde says, our need to be right is rooted in fear. We are often afraid of opening ourselves to feeling hurt or disappointed, and hold on for dear life to our automatic defensive emotional responses. We develop tunnel vision, a narrowing of our perspective and ability to choose, which disconnects us from our basic aliveness. Our need to be right also disconnects us from the compassion and self-compassion that are our birthright.

Using the Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan to Transform Resentment

In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Heals You, Dzogchen Ponlop describes a “three-step plan” for working with difficult emotions. The first step is to take a breath and feel what you are experiencing emotionally without reacting. Ponlop Rinpoche calls this “Mindful Gap.” You may feel your resentment and self-righteous indignation as a tightening in your chest, for example. Just allow yourself to breathe into that feeling.

Taking this gap before reacting naturally leads to the next step, “Clear Seeing.” You can then broaden your perspective and feel the hurt, sadness, confusion or shame under the defensive response of resentment, and start to notice the habits that have kept you stuck. Clearly seeing in this way allows you to let go of the resentment, which is the third step, “Letting Go.”

Dzogchen Ponlop describes Letting Go as a “sigh of relief”:

“Letting Go turns out to be the opposite of rejecting your emotions.  It’s actually the beginning of welcoming them into your life just as they are – original, fresh energy….There’s a burst of intensity when everything is wide open and full of possibility.”( p. 77).

Being curious about and exploring our deeply entrenched habitual reactions helps us get familiar with them. As Ponlop Rinpoche notes (p. 75),

“Before you can kiss [your painful emotions] goodbye…you have to get to know them – to face their sharp edges and intense energies.

When we allow ourselves to get intimately familiar with the energy of resentment, we can, with practice, step by step, transform resentment on the spot into the healing power of self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.

 

 

 

 

 

© Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

 

 

“NOT ENOUGH”: A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE ON DEPRESSION

Many of my clients complain of depression and low self-esteem. They think that something “out there,” such as a new relationship or job, is going to make them feel better about themselves. When I tell them that what will heal their depression is self-compassion and finding satisfaction in everyday life, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. The ideas of self-compassion and a sense of satisfaction are that alien to them!

The most common complaint I hear from depressed clients in my psychotherapy practice can be summed up in two words: “Not enough.” A common plight of human beings is dissatisfaction, and may be expressed as “I’m not good enough”; “My partner isn’t good enough”; “My job isn’t good enough”… and the list goes on and on.

Spiritual Perspectives

From a Buddhist perspective, the poverty mentality of “not enough” is depicted as a hungry ghost, a being with a tiny mouth, skinny neck, arms and legs, and an enormous stomach. Because the hungry ghost’s mouth and neck are so small, not enough food ever reaches its huge stomach. The hungry ghost is always hungry. Because its arms and legs are so skinny, the hungry ghost is unable to hold on to anything. Nothing can satisfy the hungry ghost.

In the Tibetan Buddhist prayer of compassion embodied by Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, human suffering is described as being a state of “constant toil and poverty.” We are rarely satisfied with who we are and what we have accomplished. As a result, humans are in perpetual motion, seeking fulfillment and satisfaction outside of ourselves, but never finding it until we realize that we are whole and complete as we are, and that external accomplishments are simply the icing on the cake.

The theme of human dissatisfaction is common to all world religions. For example, in Philippians 4:11, it is said, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.” Timothy 6:607 teaches that “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we carry nothing out.”

As a Buddhist, I would describe godliness as Buddhanature, the wisdom and wholeness with which we are all born. The Buddhist teachings on Buddhanature are very helpful in developing self-compassion. Those teachings tell us that we all have Buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, we have difficulty experiencing it. An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky. The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we cannot see it. Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising above the clouds. Indeed, the sun was there the whole time, just like our Buddhanature.

The Practice of Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is a great way to develop a sense of “good enough” and satisfaction. I often suggest that depressed clients write down every day five things they are grateful for that happened that day. Some find this difficult because of what I call the “yeah buts” – a common refrain from depressed clients. They may say something to the effect of “yeah but, I don’t feel grateful about anything.” What about the fact that the sun is shining? Did you hear the beautiful song of that bird outside our window? It takes practice to observe and take time to appreciate the small joys of life, and get out of the tunnel vision of “not enough.”

Practicing gratitude can uncover and release the persistent negative self-beliefs that keep us stuck in dissatisfaction, for example, the belief that you don’t deserve love or happiness. Being mindful of our thoughts and appreciating the present moment are keys to healing depression and creating a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and appreciation in our lives.

 

 

 

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

THE SACRED EXPERIENCE OF LISTENING AND BEING HEARD

Many of my clients come to therapy because they have not been truly heard throughout their lives. Healing begins when the client feels heard by the therapist. When clients have an experience of being heard fully and without judgment by the therapist, they can take the experience of listening and being heard into their lives and experience the sacred space between themselves and others.

Being heard goes hand-in-hand with “active listening.”   Wikipedia describes  active listening as “a special way of reflecting back what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening…. Active Listening is a restatement of the other person’s communication, both the words and the accompanying feelings, i.e., nonverbal cues—tone of voice, facial expression, body posture.”

Instead of active listening, we often interrupt the speaker with our own ideas or agenda, assume we know what the speaker is going to say and tune them out, get triggered by the depth of what is being said and shut down, or get distracted by our own thoughts.

Active listening involves one’s whole being. It is not just passive silence, but a way of using body, heart and mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and to convey that he or she is being heard. This is done through means such as paraphrasing, reflecting back what you heard, asking questions, maintaining eye contact or nodding your head.

Active listening is a mutual act between the listener and speaker. We listen not only to the words, but also to body language, inflection, tone and other modes of expression. For example, if a friend is telling a story about a great experience visiting family, but her facial expression seems sad, there may be something that is not being expressed in words.

The best instruction I have received for active listening is two words: “Be curious.” Using the example above, the listener might ask “your face looks sad to me when you just told me about your family visit. Is there anything you are sad about?” It takes practice to not assume that you know what is going on and to not judge what you have heard. Asking questions in this way allows both speaker and listener to go deeper and develop closeness and intimacy.

Something sacred happens through active listening and being heard. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the “I and Thou” experience. A sacred space is created between two people when they truly listen and are heard. According to Buber, the ultimate sacred space is that between a person and God. In Buddhism, this can be the experience of our inherent Buddha Nature – the primordial wisdom and purity that exists in all of us at all times, but which we forget as we go through life and start to build defenses against being spontaneously present with ourselves and others.

Only by understanding that we are all in the same boat we call human life can we listen and be heard, with empathy and openness. Instead, we often view those with whom we relate as totally separate from us. We do so to protect ourselves from being seen, or to satisfy some agenda. Buber calls such an interaction “I and It” rather than I and Thou.

The experience of I and Thou can only be sustained when we are fully open and mindful, noticing when we shut down and protect ourselves or when we stop listening to another. Seeing when we shut down can be instructive. It can show us where we are stuck in not wanting to be close and intimate with others. By understanding the triggers that cause us to shut down and protect ourselves, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and be fully being present with others, without an agenda or guardedness.

I have always found it interesting that the words “heard” and “heart” are so similar. Our wounded hearts can be healed by the mutual experience of listening with our whole body, heart and mind and being heard. We can then experience the sacred space of I and Thou between us.  As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax has said:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely thatthe person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness. It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still. It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice. We listen with our being. We offer our whole listening body.[1]

 

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[1] Joan Halifax, in Gifts of the Spirit, by Philip Zaleski & Paul Kaufman (1997).

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

NAVIGATING LIFE TRANSITIONS

Supporting clients as they go through major life transitions has been a significant part of my psychotherapy practice. I am now going through several major life transitions of my own. This challenging time has given me the opportunity to contemplate where I’ve been in my life and what may lie ahead, and to use the tools I’ve learned for navigating major upheavals in life.

I have been noticing my intense emotions as I go through the challenges of getting ready to leave our home of ten years, anticipating a move to a new city, and redefining my livelihood as I make this move. What I notice clearly is that this is a grief process (using my grief counselor and psychotherapist lens), and that it is a challenge to the ego and the process of letting go and trusting, rather than trying to control the outcome (using my mindfulness and Buddhist practitioner lens).

Buddhist teachings emphasize that change and impermanence are always happening, moment to moment. However, knowing this intellectually does not help us avoid painful and confusing emotions. In fact, working with those emotions is necessary for navigating life’s changes in a healthy way.

 

The Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan

Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Heals You, offers a helpful and effective “3-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” for working with and navigating difficult emotions.

Mindful Gap

The first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan is called “Mindful Gap.” In this step, we zoom in to fully experience what we are feeling. As I experience the emotional ups and downs of my current transition process, I first zoom in on what I am experiencing in my body. It might be a tight clenching in my chest or stomach, or a fluttery feeling around my heart. I can then identify the emotion associated with that direct felt sense. That emotion is often fear. I then hold the feeling and breathe into it, giving it some space and letting go of the thoughts that are needlessly intensifying the experience of fear.

Clear Seeing

This leads directly to the second step of the Three Step Plan: “Clear Seeing.” In this step, we zoom out to get a panoramic view of what we are experiencing. In my current groundless state of uncertainty, when I zoom out, I see that my fear relates to not knowing what is coming next for me, as well as a sense of helplessness in knowing that I cannot control the vicissitudes of my current situation. Zooming out to clearly see the whole picture helps me let go of feelings of isolation, knowing that we all, at one time or another, experience the roller coaster of life transitions. Knowing this, I can have greater compassion for myself and less resistance to experiencing the intense emotions that accompany transitions in life.

I also realize that I am experiencing sadness and grief as I navigate my transition process, and let go of many of the trappings of my old life. I remember, based on my knowledge and experience of the grief process, that all transitions and changes entail grief, even those transitions and changes that are positive. We need to say goodbye before we can say hello again.

Letting Go

Saying goodbye to an old way of being is an example of the third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan, “Letting Go.” In order to move into the next chapter of my life, I need to let go of some of the trappings and self-identification of the current chapter of my life. Letting go is also a process of accepting what is. In my case, this includes accepting that I have no control over many aspects of relocating and redefining my career.

A Road Map for Navigating Transitions

William Bridges, in his seminal book Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes, talks about the transition process as a three step process: an ending, the neutral zone and a new beginning.

Endings

Our society does not respect and acknowledge endings the way that many other cultures do. Other than funerals and retirement parties, we have few rituals for acknowledging endings. We are told to “get over it” and not to “cry over spilt milk.”   Bereavement leave is often just a few days, and the bereaved must then put on a happy face and return to work. Our death defying medical culture values cure over comfort and dignified end of life care. The attitudes of our Western society do not encourage us to give ourselves the needed time to experience the fullness of the endings in our lives.

Bridges says that it is important to experience endings in order to fully move on to the next chapter in our lives. He states “the new growth cannot take root on ground still covered with the old habits, attitudes and outlooks because endings are the clearing process.” This clearing process allows us to relax into the neutral zone, the bardo space between the ending and new beginning, with a sense of spacious curiosity rather than anxiety and fear.

The Neutral Zone

It is a common human urge to avoid anxiety and fear by jumping from ending to new beginning. The “neutral zone” is the groundless space of not knowing, and is the most important phase of the process of navigating major life transitions.  Fully experiencing the endings in our life and grieving with appreciation what we are leaving behind can make the neutral zone a fertile time for self-inquiry. “For many people, the breakdown of the ‘old enchantment’ and the old-self image uncovers a hitherto unsuspected awareness,” says Bridges.

The “great emptiness of the neutral zone” provides us with an opportunity to examine our values and discover what is truly important to us now. Although most of us don’t have the opportunity to go on a solo vision quest, as do many American Indians, we can create a personal vision quest, taking time to be alone in silent retreat. Using time alone to meditate, journal or pray allows us to turn away from the outer world, turning inward to contemplate and ultimately discover what we want the next chapter of our life to be.

The New Beginning

Bridges describes the gap between the old life and the new as a process of disintegration and reintegration. Through this process we are renewed. Through renewing ourselves, with patience, equanimity and grace, we can discover what we want to create in the next chapter of our lives, our new beginning, with a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind.

 

References:

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.

W, Bridges, (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. www.bethspatterson.com. All rights reserved.

OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

STAYING SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD

The world around us may seem chaotic and downright insane these days. Here are some tips for remaining sane amidst the world’s seeming insanity:

Impose news and media “blackouts.” It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the ever-changing news these days. Imposing limits on watching television and looking at and interacting with social media is of critical importance.

Limit news watching to one hour a day. The 24/7 news media like CNN work by sucking you in. Resist the temptation to be glued to your television or digital news media, and limit watching to one hour a day.

Be aware of triggers and trauma. The insanity of the world around us can make us feel unsafe and distrustful. In fact, many of my clients have been reporting an increase in anxiety and reactivation of old traumas, due to the pervasive news of sexual assaults, deceptive practices, gun violence, racism, war…and the list goes on. It is important to understand these triggers and develop self-compassion around them. Professional support can help us heal and develop a sense of safety and trust.

Spend time with friends and family. When we are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed, it is so easy to isolate ourselves. Be sure to make time for the people in your life who nurture and support you.

Be mindful of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts of anger, fear, hopelessness and despair can proliferate automatically when the world around us seems chaotic. If we are not mindful about our thoughts, they can become epic novels! If you have a mindfulness meditation practice, make sure to practice and stay vigilant about discursive thoughts. If you do not have a mindfulness practice, there are many apps, such as HeadSpace that can be helpful.

Practice self-care. Stress is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Get a massage, take a walk in nature, cuddle with your pets and loved ones. This is particularly important for those of us in the caring professions. Do all you can to not take on the traumas and stress of clients or patients. Maintain healthy boundaries. Be mindful not to take on others’ stress or trauma by maintaining healthy boundaries. Get support from others if you are experiencing secondary trauma or overwhelm.

Practice staying in the present moment, moment to moment. Being in the present moment is like an oasis in the desert. Mindfulness isn’t limited to sitting on a cushion. Our time “on the cushion”, so to speak, prepares us for out daily lives “off the cushion.” For example, if you are washing the dishes, be present with that: Notice how your hands feel in the soapy water. Feel the sensations of your sponge wiping the plates. When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to washing the dishes. This can be done with any daily activity, such as driving.