A BUDDHIST APPROACH TO WORKING WITH PAIN:   FROM SUFFERING TO LIBERATION

I have been pondering how to use my Buddhist practice to work with suffering when my chronic pain flares up.   The Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths came immediately to mind.  These teachings provide a roadmap for living a life free from suffering.  Experiencing my  pain directly, without judgments or resistance, has allowed me to use the Buddha’s roadmap on my journey from suffering to liberation.

 The Four Noble Truths

In his first teaching after attaining liberation, the Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths:  the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path to liberation from suffering.

The First Noble Truth recognizes the existence of suffering. We humans will do everything we can to resist or deny the existence of suffering.  Paradoxically, resisting or denying the existence of suffering only increases our suffering. Recognizing the existence of suffering, without additional thoughts or denial,  is the first step to letting go of the suffering that accompanies my chronic pain.

The Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering, is clinging to things – especially ourselves – as real and permanent.   My knee-jerk reaction when my pain flares up is self-pity.  My self-centered thoughts and negative judgments increase my suffering.  When I let go of my thoughts and focus instead on the direct experience of my pain, there is an immediate sense of relief and spaciousness.

Focusing on the pain itself, rather than clinging to it as something unique to myself, leads to the cessation of suffering – The Third Noble Truth.   Working directly with the energy of physical pain has become my path out of the suffering that accompanies my pain. This path is related to the Fourth Noble Truth, the path to liberation from suffering.

“Don’t Shoot the Second Arrow”

The Buddha’s teachings on the “two arrows” has also been extremely helpful for me. When we experience physical or emotional pain, it is like being shot by an arrow.  According to the Buddha, the first arrow is not problem.  After all, we all inevitably experience pain of all kinds in our lives.  The problem is that we then shoot ourselves with a second arrow with our thoughts,  judgments and resistance to the initial pain.  According to Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Donald Rothberg[i]:

According to the Buddha, our reaction [to pain] is equivalent to being shot by a second arrow.  We can call this second arrow suffering. Suffering arises because when we experience pain … we typically react by lashing out, at ourselves and others.  We believe somehow that this will dispel or mitigate the pain.  We act in such a way that a second arrow is shot, at us or others, on account of the pain of the first arrow.  When we act so that the second arrow is shot, we ‘pass on’ the original pain.

When I “lash out” at the perceived injustice of having a chronic pain condition, I am shooting myself with a second arrow.  My mindfulness practice allows me to notice my thoughts and judgments as they arise, let them go and return to the object of my meditation.  When I’m experiencing pain, I allow that to be the object of my meditation.  As thoughts and judgments arise, I notice them lightly and return to the direct experience of pain.

Working Directly with Physical Pain as a Path to Liberation

Here is an exercise for working directly with pain to alleviate the second arrow of suffering that often accompanies it. This exercise can be used for both physical and emotional pain.

  1. Focus on the pain and breathe into it.
  2. Explore the pain with a sense of curiosity:
    • Where  is the pain located?
    • How big is it?
    • What’s its shape?
    • If it had a color, what color would it be?
    • Is it hot or cold?
    • Is it static or does it move or vibrate?
  1. As you explore the pain in this way, notice how it shifts and moves. This is a good reminder that everything is impermanent.
  2. Remember that we all experience pain during our journey on the Four Rivers of Life — birth, old age, sickness and death.

When I work with my pain directly in this way, I am fully in the present moment. My thoughts, judgments and resistance are gone, and so is the suffering that I’ve added to the pain with those thoughts, judgments and resistance. In that present moment, I am liberated from my suffering.   As the old adage goes, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

 

Reference:

[i] D. Rothberg & J. Kornfield (2006).  The Engaged Spiritual Life:  A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston:  Beacon Press.

 

© 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

HEALING PANDEMIC GRIEF:  WHO AM I NOW?

Now that the pandemic has entered a phase, I am contemplating healing pandemic grief.  I am asking myself many questions:  What will my life look like as things get back to “normal”?  Can I really go back to the way things were?  What have I learned from this loss that I can carry forward in my life to be of benefit to myself and others?

As grief educator Ken Doka has said, “Whenever we experience a loss…it helps to recognize that loss and grief have changed us.  We cannot go back to the way we were before. Our situations are different.  We are different as well.”

Instead of pondering what is widely called the “new normal”, perhaps it is more beneficial to contemplate the “new me.”  Indeed, who am I now?

I have been learning so much about myself during this pandemic, spending more time with myself without my usual distractions.  On the one hand, I see my neuroses more clearly, and I don’t always like what I see.  On the flip side, I have learned to be more patient and compassionate with myself, neuroses and all.

I am also seeing more clearly what is important to me now, and what I want to bring forward into my life, both for myself and others, as I move into the post-pandemic world.   As Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard says:

What we need is the willingness to look honestly at our wants and our choices and ask ourselves, does this make sense—not just for me, not just for now, but for everyone and for our future?”  What sort of “normal” do we want to return to when the worst of the pandemic is behind us? Stepping forward from this point, what kind of world will we co-create?”

At the beginning of the pandemic, I made all kinds of grand plans: to read those 1000 page dharma books, meditate for three hours a day, and on and on.  After berating myself for a while for not living up to those expectations, I’ve decided to let myself be.  Spending time with my cat purring in my lap, looking at the birds in my backyard, pulling weeds in my garden…This is all practice too, and has been so freeingIntentionally sitting and letting myself be bathed in all of my senses is the best meditation practice of all.

Practices for healing pandemic grief:

There are times when I am afraid that I will drown in profound grief and anxiety, hopelessness and despair.  I’ve also found ways out of these intense emotional states that have lifted me up me when I am afraid of drowning in them.   Here are some practices you can use:

  1.  Connect with gratitude. If you are finding this difficult because of your grief and despair, at the end of the day, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day.  The little things count most, like hearing a beautiful birdsong, seeing a plant bloom, smelling a delicious meal before tasting it.
  2. Connect with your senses. Intentionally tune in to all of your senses – touch, sight, smell, sound, taste, with whatever you are doing.
  3. Contemplate interconnectedness. We often feel that we are a single identity, alone in the world.  The truth is that we and everything around us is interconnected.
  4. Express your appreciation. We often take the people in our lives  — including ourselves — for granted.  Letting them know you appreciate them opens our hearts to ourselves and to them.  After all, we are all truly interconnected.
  5. Memorialize your self-discoveries and new intentions. Use this time to notice how this time has changed you.  Journal, paint or draw about who you are now, and the world you want to create for yourself and others going forward.

 

© 2020. Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAVIGATING PANDEMIC-INDUCED GRIEF

I’ve been wondering why this second month of the Covid-19 pandemic feels so much harder than the first month.  As a grief counselor, I’ve observed that the second month of grief after a loss is often much more intense than the first month.  Does pandemic-induced grief fit this pattern?  The answer is yes.

In the first month after a loss, the bereaved are busy with making funeral arrangements, visits from friends and family, receiving telephone calls, sympathy cards and casseroles.  There is also a lot of busyness with wills, death certificates and the like.

Similarly, in the first month of sheltering-in-place, we were busy buying toilet paper, making disaster plans, finding or making face masks, figuring out how to stay connected via Zoom, and navigating grocery shopping.

After the first month following a death, the phone is quieter, the cards and casseroles have stopped coming and we are somehow expected to be back to “normal.” The bereaved are left to navigate this new land without their loved one. They wonder if they are handling their grief in the “right way”, and may be feeling anxiety in the face of not knowing what their new life in the “new normal” will look like.

Likewise, in this second month of pandemic shut downs, much of the doingness of the first month is over.  We have stocked up on toilet paper and grocery staples.  We have figured out how to stay in touch with our friends and community via Zoom.  Like after a death loss, we are left with the question “now what?” We wonder when, and how, things will change in the post-pandemic “new normal.” We are fearful and anxious, with more questions than answers.  It feels like a big void, where we are seeking ground in utter groundlessness.

The Tasks of Mourning

William Worden’s task model of grief[a] provides a useful road map for navigating pandemic-induced grief. There are four tasks in this model, the first two of which are relevant now: (1) accepting the reality of the loss, and (2) working through the pain of grief.

Task 1:  Accepting the Reality of the Loss:  The first task of grieving is to accept, both intellectually and emotionally,  the reality that a loss has occurred.  The task in working with pandemic-induced grief is to acknowledge the reality that life has changed.  I find myself reminiscing about life in the “good old days” before the pandemic – the ability to come and go as I pleased, getting together with friends, hugs and freedom from fear. Although I am confident that much of my prior life will be restored, I am coming to realize, both intellectually and emotionally, that it won’t look the same.

Task 2:  Working Through the Pain of Grief:  I imagine that most of us would prefer to skip this task, for fear that our pain will overwhelm us.  Nonetheless, working through the emotions of grief is critical for healing from pain.  Failing to do so may manifest itself as physical illness, substance abuse to numb the pain, or result in depression or complicated grief.

 Here are some tips for working through the pain of pandemic-induced grief:

  1. Take care of your body.Eat nourishing foods (with the occasional indulgence), limit caffeine and alcohol, enjoy a soothing bath or shower.  Exercise.
  2. Remember to breathe, deep diaphragmatic breaths.
  3. Allow yourself to cry (and drink lots of water as crying is dehydrating).
  4. Express your feelings through journaling, art or movement or talking with others.
  5. Appreciate nature. Listen to the sound of a bird, notice the trees and flowers blooming this spring.
  6. If your feelings are overwhelming, speak to a trained grief counselor or psychotherapist.

“Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

In the words of author Stephen Levine, “tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”  Through experiencing the pain of own unique grief, we can tap into grief’s universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and our world.

 

[a] Worden, J. William (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Professional. New York:  Springer Publishing Company.

 

(c) 2020 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

BEFRIENDING THE INNER CRITIC

We therapists often advise our clients to ignore or reject the inner critic.  That’s a little like trying to ignore a pebble in our shoe.  What if we can do something productive, like removing the pebble from our shoe?  Ignoring it just doesn’t work. What if we were to actually listen to and befriend the inner critic instead of ignoring it?

My meditation practice has helped me separate myself from my inner critic.  Through increased awareness, I started to pay attention to that loud voice, rather than it simply being background noise. In fact, I named my inner critic “Bertha.”  I have usually told her to go away when her voice gets loud. Nonetheless, in times of stress, Bertha comes around more often, and telling “her” to go away just makes her voice louder.  It’s like that pebble in a shoe that gets more and more irritating until we do something about it.

Be Grateful to Everyone

 Befriending my inner critic has been a transformative and empowering experience.  It started with asking myself: What if Bertha is trying to be helpful but just doesn’t know how to communicate kindly and skillfully?

I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist mind-training slogan[a]:  “Be Grateful to Everyone.”  In her seminal book, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living,[b] Pema Chodron notes that this mind-training slogan is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves we have rejected.  When we meet someone who pushes our buttons, instead of pushing them away, this slogan teaches us to welcome them in, knowing that they are triggering a part of ourselves we don’t like.  Tibetan Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche notes:

If we can shift our focus from our rigid, narrow and habituated points of view, we will empower our ability to embrace situations in a new way so that every situation will start to seem more workable….We should endeavor to think good thoughts about people who have…made our lives quite difficult at time and try to turn those negative situations to our spiritual advantage, so that we become wiser and stronger.[c]

Of course, Bertha is not a real person, but I find this teaching very helpful in working with that part of me that is self-critical.  As a result, I have started listening to my inner critic with compassion and curiosity, like I would with a young child who doesn’t yet have the skills to express her needs.  Instead of immediately rejecting Bertha, I have started exploring what she is trying to communicate.  For example, if Bertha reproaches me for being forgetful or clumsy when I’m stressed out,  I can thank her for encouraging me to slow down and take a breath.  Befriending my inner critic has helped me embrace parts of myself I have rejected, in a way that empowers me rather than causing  harm. I can then actually be grateful to Bertha,  for reminding me to be self-compassionate.

 

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[a] There are 59 slogans for training the mind to cultivate lovingkindness and wisdom, as a way to bring the Buddhist teachings into everyday life.  The Tibetan term is “lojong”, which means mind-training, or heart-training.

[b] Chodron, Pema, Start Where You Are:  A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston:  Shambhala Publications.

[c] Traleg Rinpoche (2007. The Practice of Lojong:  Cultivating Compassion through Training the Mind. Boston & London:  Shambhala Publications, pp. 96-96.

 

 

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

DIGITAL DISTRACTION:  HOW WE USE OUR DEVICES TO AVOID DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

Digital distraction is everywhere these days.  I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.

How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions

I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire.   With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.

Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me.  I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.

I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.

Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt

Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety.  For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse.  As a result,  Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.

Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.

Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games.  She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.

How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others

Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime.  As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.

I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.

The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap.   When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.

From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment.  This is Clear Seeing,  the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan.  Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself.  For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?

The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go.  Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.

Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment.  My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.

 

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[i]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.

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

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.

 

 

THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the 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.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling for you”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

_______________________________

[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

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 out-breath. 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.