Category Archives: self-loathing

What’s in a Name?

Lately I’ve been noticing how often people call themselves names: ‘stupid’ or “idiot”; or they describe themselves as ‘technologically challenged’ or ‘anal’, etc. They may start sentences with ‘I’m the kind of person who…’

What’s wrong with that? This is such a common human thing to do that it doesn’t seem problematic on the surface. Self-effacement is socially acceptable and even encouraged, unlike boasting, a sure way to lose friends. The boaster puffs up their personal identity in order to be admired, respected and safe. The person whose words are self-diminishing has a different strategy for self-protection: Perhaps to lower expectations? To put themselves down before someone else does? To gain sympathy? Not all the motivations have to do with impact on others. And probably only a small percentage of the put downs are said out loud.  Both the people who boast and the people who put themselves down may feel they are simply stating truth, seeing themselves ‘realistically’. Is that true? Or is it selective observation at best and distortion at worst?

As we practice mindfulness and become increasingly present in our experience, we can see how these autopilot statements lock us into a very limited sense of self. The words form a false construct — a painted shell — that camouflages our authentic being, disconnects us, and prohibits true engagement in life.

It is a good practice to listen for our own self-defining statements and to question them when they arise. This isn’t judging them, but seeing them clearly, questioning their veracity and motivation. In the last post, I talked about the faulty filter of fear. Can we see these ways we define ourselves as a part of that filter? If we say ‘I’m such an idiot’, there is clearly at least one if not a series of painful past experiences that bring us to this conclusion. It’s worth revisiting that past and investigating: Were we called a name by someone who was afraid in their own lives? We may doubt that the original voice of that name-calling was afraid, but what healthy happy person with no ax to grind goes around calling anyone an idiot? People who put others down are acting out their own unhappiness and insecurities.

Many of us over-manage our image like hyper-zealous stage mothers. And our running commentary gets in the way of people seeing us clearly. If this sounds at all familiar, are you ready for a little challenge?

Challenge

  1. Stop describing yourself to others! There’s no need to explain yourself. You may have your opinions, but let others draw their own. Live your life with wise loving intention and effort, and let the rest go.
  2. Pay attention to the unspoken but oft-repeated negative names you may call yourself. If you find one or more, take time to investigate, preferably after meditation, to find the source. Question the veracity with awareness and compassion. For example, you repeatedly call yourself ‘stupid’, you might think of times when you were smart.

veil-3

 

Exercise

Occasionally in class I share this exercise I created almost thirty years ago, when I was teaching meditation, but before I began studying and practicing Buddhism. It’s called ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’. If you’ve been following along the posts in this blog, you might see a correlation between the veils this week and the filters from last week. Clarifying our view of the world and ourselves is an ongoing valuable part of our practice. And as always, we’re simply noticing how we are in relationship to all aspects of our experience, not trying to push them away or change them. Try this exercise after at least a few minutes of meditation.
‘Dance of the Seven Veils, an Exercise in Letting Go’
by Stephanie Noble

Here’s a written version, in case you can’t play it, or just want to review:

The first veil is the you that is defined by material possessions. These possessions reflect your taste, your financial status and your values. Think of your home, your furnishings, your clothes, your vehicle — all the choices you have made that tell people who you are.

To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The second veil is the you that is defined by your achievements and your failures, your badges of honor and your battle scars. Woven into this veil are the titles you hold, the awards you have won, the degrees you have earned, the good deeds you have done, the pain you have caused, the guilt you bear, the struggles you have gone through. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The third veil is the you that is defined by your relationship with others. See the threads of your various roles as son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother, husband or wife, friend, lover, student, teacher, co-worker, employee, employer and citizen. To the degree that these roles define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fourth veil is the you that is defined by your beliefs, how you have woven together your religion, your spiritual beliefs, your political affiliations, your judgments, the angers and resentments that shape your judgments, and your assumptions about other people. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The fifth veil is all the aspects of you that you were born with: Gender, ethnicity, ancestry, physical features, and the most fundamental aspects of your personality. To the degree that these define you, they confine you.

Let them go.

The sixth veil is the you that is defined by your perception of your body as isolated and your skin as an encapsulation and barrier. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you.

Let it go.

The seventh veil is the you that is defined by mind, consciousness. It is the you that maintains resistance in order to exist as a separate consciousness. To the degree that this defines you, it confines you. Let it go.

The seven veils drift to the floor. For this brief moment, allow yourself to shine free of them.

Now who are you? Beyond the barriers of all your veils of identity, beyond the veils that create shadow, mask and distortion, suddenly all is clear. Who are you? You are one with all that is, an expression of the joy of oneness. You are undefined thus unconfined and expansive without limits. Yet completely here and now, always in this moment. Rest in this joyous light being.

Now you can dress in the veils. Take your time to take on each one as a light sheer manifest expression of being alive in this place and time:

This separate seeming consciousness — now lighter, sheerer, a softer way of being in the world.

This separate seeming body — now lighter, sheerer, able to dance with this gift of life.

This veil of personality and traits — now lighter, sheerer, more fluid and loving.

This set of beliefs — now lighter, sheerer, more insightful and open.

This set of roles in relationships — now lighter, sheerer, more ready to see the wholeness of being as you engage with others.

This veil of personal history loosely woven life lessons — now lighter, sheerer and full of kindness.

This final veil of possessions, no longer seen as self at all, but simply objects to use, enjoy, give, receive and maintain.

Once again you are fully dressed in all your veils, but now they are diaphanous and don’t weigh you down. Never again will you mistake them for you. The authentic inseparable you that is light energy source and receptor, transmitter and receiver. You that is released from the limits of fear and knows the infinite power of love. Behold your true self. One with all that is.

                                               – Stephanie Noble

 

After meditation, gentle investigation

investigationInvestigation as an important part of the Insight Meditation experience. After the practice of meditation, chances are we have cultivated a more spacious compassionate awareness that allows us to look at the nature of mind with less fear, judgment or expectation. In meditation, we practice just being present with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. After we meditate, when our thoughts ramble, rather than reminding ourselves to return to the breath or another physical sensation, we can add in some curiosity and follow the thread of that curiosity.

At some point we might notice that we keep having a recurring thought. Instead of simply accepting this thought as true, blocking it out or dismissing it, we allow ourselves to look more closely. I’ll talk a little bit more about the content of the thought shortly, but it is probably pretty mundane and easy to overlook. What makes it worthy of investigating is its repetitive nature. It’s a central player in the pattern of our thinking mind. It might even be driving the inner conversation.

So we do a little friendly interrogation, using simple questions — not to find fault or place blame but to shine a light on what is really going on. No crime has been committed here. There’s no need to rough anybody up.

As examples, I will use two types of repeating thoughts. Yours might be quite different, but the process is the same. One typical thought is a self-judgment or a judgment of a situation, as in ‘I am so dumb’ or ‘This is so lame.’ Another typical thought begins with ‘If only…’ as in, ‘If only I had/didn’t have/didn’t have to (fill in the blank) then I’d be happy.’

So, if you are reading this in a spacious state of mind and with a relaxed body, then I suggest you pause and think about something else (how often does a writer ask you to do that?) Just let yourself think your regular thoughts — what you plan to do today, what you did yesterday, letting your mind wander, even as you continue to pay some attention to overall physical sensations.

In this way you might notice if you start tensing up somewhere in your body. Now see if you can identify what thought or emotion is connected to that tension. What were you thinking about that seems to have caused your jaw or shoulders or some other body part to tense up? Spend as much time exploring this as you need. Even let it go, relax and release, and then return to allowing your mind to wander.

If nothing comes up for you, you might try triggering a thought pattern by completing one of the sentences:

“If only…”

“I am so…”

“_______ always happens to me.”

“He/she/life is always so…”

When a thought causes some tension and feels familiar, you can use it for your exploration, even if you think you might find a better one if you keep looking. This is just to give you the experience of how to do the exploration. You can do it again whenever you want.

The funny thing about the thought is that you might not even recognize it as anything but just the truth. Thus it is hard to spot! It is hidden in plain sight.

Naturally our first inclination is to agree with the thought, to build a stronger case for it with numerous examples that support it. It becomes what feels like a very solid part of our perceived identity. It is our story, and we tell it again and again. Even if it’s very negative, we still may cling to it. It’s not much, but it’s ours.

This well-developed story probably affects everything else we think or feel, the way a small amount of dye can tint a large body of water. Thus we are most likely making ourselves miserable, and quite possibly spreading that misery in all our relationships.

What to do, what to do! Having identified the recurring thought — and congratulations if you have! — we now can greet it with respect and kindness, as we ask “Is this true?”

“Is this true?” Hmm. There is likely to be some discomfort in questioning something we have taken for granted for so long. But at the same time we may begin to see that our tight clinging to it is uncomfortable. Just look at the way it causes tension in the body, and that’s just a part of the discomfort.

“Is this true?” Right off the top of our heads, we say of course it’s true. After all, we’ve bought into it all these years. Why wouldn’t we believe it to be true?

So we kindly and respectfully ask again. “Is this true?”

The investigation continues in this way, focusing more on the question, repeating the question again and again,  so that we are revealing layers of easy assumptions, smart-aleck retorts, grumpy mumbles and all the rest.. To each we say a silent respectful ‘thank you’, and return to our investigation. To respond in any other way is to simply get caught up in the tangle of thought we’re examining. (If this exercise is difficult to do on your own, find someone who is interested in doing it with you, preferably someone who has also just meditated.)

It can be challenging to remain respectful and kind. When we ask the question, we tap into our deepest wisdom, our inherent Buddha nature that we have accessed through our silent practice. In this way we can stay present with the experience. We may notice a rigidity setting in, a defensive posture, or another way that our fear of upsetting the status quo keeps us in its grip. We simply note the fear and give ourselves a little loving kindness and encouragement from our inner wisdom. (However, just a caveat that if this is too powerful and too scary, then find a qualified therapist, grounded in Buddhist psychology, to accompany you on this journey.)

Eventually there may be a slight shift and a different response comes up from someplace a little deeper, a little more heartfelt, a little more true.

We can also shift the questioning by going a little further and asking ‘How do I know it’s true?’ (You might recognize these questions as the core of the work of Byron Katie, a wonderful Buddhist teacher/author.)

This second question really challenges us to look at our assumptions. It makes us see the statement in full context. Where did this idea originally come from anyway? In this state of compassionate awareness and gentle investigation it is possible to see the thread that connects the recurring thought to something or someone in the past. We may even be able to hear in our heads the voice or the exact wording of the person who originally gave us this idea. Or we might recognize the traumatic experience in the past that continues to make us fearful. One member of our group said that she recognized the source, but that the original was even more insidious, that she had modified it to fit her better, but the content was still clearly there.

If we can identify the origin of the thought, then that’s a big leap forward in our understanding. If you can’t, It’s totally fine. Let go of expectation. But be open to the possibility that the origin might just waft up from the subconscious, sparked by something you see, read or hear over the next few days or weeks. And keep noticing that recurring thought, and each time it comes up, question it again in the same way. “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”

If you do see the connection — immediately or much later — then there’s another opportunity to question with spaciousness, respect and compassion, whether that original source was reliable. Whether it came from a parent, a teacher, a friend, an ex or a schoolyard bully, you can recognize in retrospect that they were not omniscient possessors of all wisdom. They were human with all the foibles of any other human. Chances are, if the statement being examined is painful (as in ‘I’m so dumb’) or circuitously sets us up for pain (as in ‘if only’ statements), then the source of the statement was also in pain.

Sometimes the origin is not some specific person but just seems to be part of the culture. Advertising activates a lot of fear-based ‘if only’ thinking. (I used to be in advertising. Talk about insidious!) There are a lot of people banking on us feeling badly enough about ourselves that we will succumb to their assurances that their product or service will fix us up.

We are often so busy in our lives that we just don’t take the time to make such investigations. We might judge it as self-indulgent navel-gazing. But wait. If we are telling ourselves something that is not true, that is from an unreliable source, and we are making ourselves miserable in the process, then isn’t it worth a few minutes that we otherwise might spend watching a ball game or reading a novel — trying hard to escape from that harsh judgment or nagging thought?

Of course it is. So if you have already developed a daily practice of meditation, you are cultivating awareness and compassion, that likely is improving your mood, providing more balance, and softening the way you interact in relationships. Now, consider making good use of that time right after meditation — while you do some exercise or simple quiet household chores or personal hygiene perhaps? Whenever you happen to notice a harsh thought arising, a put down, a wish for this moment to be different, celebrate that noticing! And investigate!

Meditation & Creativity: Process vs. Product

We have been talking about creativity and the challenges to getting into a free flowing creative mode. We are exploring the subject from various angles that have some overlap because different people resonate to different approaches.

Last week we talked about shifting from a limited exhaustable (and exhausting!) finite source into accessing the infinite, the bottomless spring of universal creative energy.

This week we will focus on another shift we need to make if we are to embrace and sustain creative life. The challenge here is to see ourselves and our creativity more clearly, because the myopic view prescribed by our culture gets in the way of being able to step into the flow of true creativity.

Prescribed by our culture? Yes. I spent a decade in advertising writing prescriptions, and I saw how advertising, with the goal of getting us to buy something, very effectively convinces us that we are somehow lacking. Since advertising is all around us, we have grown up under the collective cloud of believing that we are in need of improvement, that we are products ourselves.

We may be following a spiritual path with the hope of self-improvement, striving to get to the point where we can say, “There, now I can be happy with who I am.”

Even as we recognize the crazy fallacy of this idea, we don’t know how to opt out of it because we are so deeply habituated to believing we are lacking. We strive to gain self-acceptance, to weed out this faulty belief that we are a self-improvement project, only to find that we are even more deeply entrenched. It’s like one of those Chinese woven finger puzzles where the more you try to pull, the tighter it holds onto your fingers. Because pulling, the obvious choice, is not in this case the right effort.

In this same way we struggle to like ourselves just as we are until we can struggle no more. We give up, exhausted. In the aftermath of giving up our struggle, in the burnt out emptiness of our inner devastation, having given up the fight, having laid down our weapons, having surrendered to the impossibility of our struggle, then, in that stillness, we may begin to notice what is true in our experience right now. We may notice our body sensations, the sights and sounds around us, the emotions and thoughts that pass through us. Aha!

We have been practicing accessing this state of passive awareness, where we see clearly the hopes, fears and stories that storm through us. Perhaps we judge them, then notice the judgment. We bring as much compassion as we can manage to our own experience. And we create a compassionate space to experience whatever arises, even our least compassionate thoughts.

This practice of meditation is a practice. It is an ongoing process, and it is all about the process itself, in each moment, and not about some end product of liberation or enlightenment. Because the liberation that is possible is in each moment, not at the end of some path. The enlightenment is lost when we strive for it.

Now what does all this have to do with creativity. Well, as long as we believe we are products, how can we not believe that anything we create is even more of a product. And then, if we sell what we create, it is impossible not to take into account the marketing aspect of what we do.

But for creativity to truly thrive within us, if we are to access the infinite source instead of the finite depletable one, then we need to stay present in the moment of creating, present and fully engaged in the process.

The minute we think of it as product, we are projecting into the future. We are imagining other people looking at it, and that can send the chilly finger of fear into us, knocking us out of the infinite and into the fear-based finite shallow safety-seeking depletable mode. The infinite is only accessible from the present. Thinking of our creativity as a product knocks us out of the present. It’s as simple as that. The fear shuts us down, clams us up and maybe even causes us to abandon our passion.

In a poetry workshop I took with Prartho Sereno at College of Marin, we did many in class writing exercises to free ourselves from the confines of the finite source. And I found it incredibly helpful to remind myself ‘This is just an exercise.” I was freed of worrying about what I was writing being a Poem with a capital P and calligraphic script and all the other encumbrances that would make it a product to be read, discussed and criticized. So now whatever I am writing, I tell myself it’s just an exercise.

So what about marketing? Well, that’s just a different process. That’s a process that happens after we are done with a series of exercises in which we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The process of marketing is all about sharing a passion, communicating and opening to connection. Whether you are reading a poem at a mike, sending slides to a gallery or serving up your newest recipe to your friends, this too is process. Staying in the process we bring to it our full attention, noticing the fearful thoughts, the hopes and dreams, and having compassion for ourselves. Staying in the process, we nurture ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable. Staying in the process we remember that we ourselves are not products to be judged, that we are like drops of water briefly dancing above the oceans depths where we will soon return. Staying in the process we accept the challenge of sharing that which is joyful in us with a loving generosity to the world. This is what Buddhist teacher Philip Moffett so aptly calls “Dancing with Life.”

I have had a lifetime of struggles with this theme of product vs. process. But there are moments where the struggle falls away, where the process itself is so powerful that my resistance, my misgivings, my fears of failure and ridicule evaporate for a time. And when they rain down again another day, as they are prone to do, I bring as much compassion and awareness as I can muster. Again and again.

That is the practice.

Why practice metta meditation?

Sending metta (loving kindness) to ourselves and others has value whether or not you believe that it is effective! If you feel resistant to the idea of ‘transmitting loving energy,’ rest assured that this practice doesn’t rely on beliefs of any kind to be valuable.

The practice itself shifts our relationships with people in our lives, and it changes the way we think and feel about ourselves. It can release the tight patterns of self-loathing that may have rendered us poorly equipped to function in the world. So if you feel at odds with the world and even with yourself, neither ever being quite up to your critical standards, then this is a great practice for you!

Metta is a conscious focus, so even if it were only that it would be a benefit, keeping us present, training our minds to be able to concentrate. For those who have difficulty simply paying attention to the breath in meditation, metta practice feels more active, providing something to DO.

But it provides much more than that: Metta offers a tonal shift, a warm loving attitude that has the capacity to open our hearts, creating spaciousness in our thoughts, and developing the deep innate caring that may have been dormant.

Everyone is different, of course, but for many of us this may be a huge shift – especially in relationship to ourselves. Wishing ourselves well may be a totally new concept for us. “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from harm.” These words hardly seem unreasonable, but it is surprising how few of us allow ourselves to feel worthy of such simple blessings. We may be more inclined to put ourselves down, scold ourselves for our ineptitudes, our thoughtlessness, our forgetfulness, our lack of skill, generosity or guts.

As we practice, we begin to hear how we talk to ourselves, the names we call ourselves, the anger we feel toward ourselves. Now these habitual thoughts are seen in such contrast to our metta practice that we see them more clearly. We may never have even noticed the harsh tone of our thoughts. Without any real effort except the ongoing practice of metta, our awareness begins the shift. We may begin to sense a softening and an opening in the tangled knot of our inner lives.

We may find that our metta practice makes us more patient, less irritated with others as well. When driving we may be less likely to curse out other drivers, remembering that there are many, often painful, reasons that people drive badly, that we ourselves have driven mindlessly perhaps. A little metta sent to them and to ourselves eases our experience, and allows us to return more readily to our focus: driving the car!

At first glance, these simple blessings don’t seem to pack a lot of punch, but if you send metta to yourself and others with any regularity, you may be surprised how powerful this practice can be.