Beyond the suffering mind lies love

In the last post, I quoted the following, “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments” (From The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer). It can be scary, those empty moments. We can fill the day with all sorts of distractions, but it is often in the empty moments, like after sleeping or on awakening in the middle of the night, or in a walk by oneself, or while waiting, or at countless other moments, when a small voice inside almost like one’s conscience reminds us of that which troubles us. At the moment, for many, it is things around the threat from pandemic illness, but it might be something else. We might, despite all we know and all our best efforts, find ourselves descending into the familiar pit of our suffering. We might scramble to get out, but the sides keep falling in and there we are, stuck with our pain. That can be when one despairs.

These times come to test us. They can keep coming until we find a way to manage them. For some it can offer a way through to greater peace, but for others it just keeps coming. There can be many reasons. It might be our own personal process that we are working through but it might also be circumstances outside of us. In troubled times in the world we may also feel the pain of others and it can seem as if it is our own pain, when in fact we’re taking on others’ suffering. Now can be such a time.

Using awareness of suffering

This is where self awareness is important, to be able to enquire within as to what it’s about, and to be able to discriminate between our own pain and that of others.

I’ve suggested before that these “dark nights of the soul” can be very scary, but they can also be instructive. It can depend whether we are willing to embrace the situation and see it through to the important understanding that it can offer.

It is also be useful to be able to have ways to release ourselves from that which is troubling us, and each might find their own way to learn what the pain is about and how to release ourselves.

Understanding the mind

The Buddha said that Pain is certain. Suffering is optional. Humans suffer, unless or until they gain a mastery over it. Then they can be the observer of pain but not caught up in it. This is where understanding the mind is important.

Left to its own devices, the mind can take us all over the place. It’s very powerful. We can go to the heights of elation and the depths of despair. We can make up all sorts of things, about other people, ourselves, what’s going on. You name it. If we let it.

The mind is very creative. What we we think, we are. What we focus on, we draw to us. It’s the law of attraction, like a magnet. So, if you or I keep focusing on something, it’s more likely to happen. If we let it. Hence we have choice. It’s an option.

Use mindfulness to manage the mind

So, it’s important to stop. Use the skills of mindfulness

  1. So notice what you are paying attention to. Become mindful of it. Notice you are thinking a certain thing. Become aware of it.
  2. Step back from it. Put distance between the thought and you. This is where the will is important.
  3. Notice it, like you are now the observer of it. As we say, witness it. Be the witness of your ego at work, but not caught up in it.

You are not your thoughts. You, and I, are so much more than our thoughts, the “sweaty ego”.

When we step back and witness our thoughts, we have true power.

The other side of fear is love. That’s who we are, in whatever understanding you have of that.

When we step back and become the observer, we let can love in.

This is why these dark nights of the soul are so important, to know the space beyond suffering.

Then rest in the witness. Rest in the awareness that you are love.

Choosing not to be consumed by fear

Is it feeling like the world’s gone crazy – a new virus, recession, climate change, Brexit, you name it – it’s all happening at once? The barriers are coming down and people are shutting off. Everywhere there’s a sense of doom and fear. How do we cope inside with all this?

Let’s look at some strategies for managing the situation for us ourselves inside. I don’t mean the practicals of living at present, and many of us are probably feeling stretched on that count alone. I’m thinking of how we are responding inside. How could the self aware, mindful person cope in a way that serves her or him, that gives empowered choices?

Being consumed by fear

The predominant emotion for many is likely to be fear, fear of what might happen, of how we’ll cope, of what harm we might come to, or might become of our loved ones.

Fear can be disabling. It can take over, cutting off the rational part of the brain, what Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence called “the amygdala hijack“. It’s the stress reaction, triggering the release of hormones which, while important in managing a real threat, can become habitual and harm our immune system, and thus our ability to fight off infection. This is how people suffering prolonged stress get sick. Thus it’s really important at a physical level to manage our stress levels.

Fear, worry and anxiety can take us over. We can get consumed by it, on and on, minute by minute. It can also be subtle, a background experience, lurking in the shadows, springing out every now and again, and, for some, paroxysms of trembling, gut-churning, shaking, pure, unadulturated fear. Or it can just hang on in there. “No, I’m perfectly rational and in control,” the rational part of us says, nose in the air, while actually deep inside, fear is active, perhaps exerting influences like being doubtful, a reluctance to act, a questioning, a hesitation, cynicism even. We can even live in a constant state of this low-level anxiety, outside of awareness but present. We might not know it consciously, but it’s there, eating away at our self-belief, our confidence, our faith, our certainty.

If I write these words, how do you react. “Everything will be OK”?

Did you believe it or not?

It’s a useful test.

The bottom-line negative emotion is fear

Fear is a fundamental emotion, what I call a bottom-line one, which is ironic in current circumstances. It’s what keeps us from inner contentment, from what some might call union with the One. At one level it’s there to look after us, to keep us safe, but in the ego’s grip it often becomes self-defeating. It can also lead us to make poor decisions, and take us where we don’t really want to go. Fear can take over our lives.

So, it’s really important to challenge fear. From a self awareness perspective, it’s where we need to get it, get that we’re doing this, running this number. No matter that you’ve been doing it all your life. This minute is the next moment of your life and time to make a shift.

So, I suggest challenging fear each time it arises. As with most of these practices, you might quickly forget this, but when you next spot it’s happening, challenge it again. Say “stop!”

What’s happening is that one is firstly becoming aware that it’s going on, that your (or my) mind is doing this, and secondly, it is to breathe and to step back and notice it, become mindful of it. This is where the practice of mindfulness is so useful. We literally teach ourselves to step back and be aware. Here you become the observer, the Witness. Thus you are no longer caught up in the mind’s stuff, which is where fear dwells. Thus we can get that fear is really F.E.A.R., False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s not who we are.

Engage the will

Here you can engage the rational part of the mind, in this case the will. Here you can exercise choice, and chose a different strategy. There are many.

You could instead, for example, set an intention. Whatever you are fearful of could be turned around into an intention for a positive outcome. Let’s say you are worried that you will lose money. You could could instead create an intention for the positive creation of what you need for your health, happiness, wealth, wellbeing and wisdom.

There is a further step. Once you are as the Witness, allow your self to be really present as the witness, in the moment, aware, still, at peace. This is where we get truly that fear is not us.

Fear dissolves. It just goes. It’s ephemeral, something that passes, along with all those negative thoughts. We are so much more than all that stuff.

So, know the space beyond fear.

Now is really an important time to meditate, and practice being mindful.

For further practice

I’ve put some links up for those of you who want to practice using meditation. There a practice meditation session, a meditation using the breath, one using a mantra and finally one using body awareness.

 

Start letting go of insomnia being an issue

Have you lain awake at night, unable to sleep, worrying, tossing and turning, keeping your partner awake, getting more and more churned up? If so, join the merry throng of people who have difficulties with sleep, insomnia.

Actually it’s huge today. According to the UK’s ONS, as many as 16 million UK adults are suffering from sleepless nights as a third (31%) say they have insomnia. Two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter (23%) manage no more than five hours a night

In fact a pattern can set in. The more you find you don’t sleep at night, the more it seems to set up an expectation that you won’t sleep. So, guess what, self-fulfilling prophecy, no sleep. I meet masses of people who think they “must” have their 8 hours sleep, come what may (can be tough if you or your partner has a baby, by the way!)

The one thing medics say not to do is to worry that you “can’t sleep”, because that’s more likely to keep you awake. Yet, as worriers know, that’s easier said than done, and you finding that as you lie awake your mind immediately goes to “I can’t sleep again” and off you go, stuck in being wide awake.

Well, there are things that can be done (see below), and they don’t necessarily involve sleeping tablets, which tend to get a bit addictive, like a “prop”, and leave you feeling drowsy the next day.

Letting go of insomnia

One thing that people don’t tell you is that this idea that you “should” be asleep is a bit of a myth. We probably learned it early on in life when our parents wanted us to get off to sleep so that they could have “their” time or because they thought we “should”, that it was “good for you”. Yet people often don’t have regular sleep rhythms and can be awake in the night quite naturally.

The point is to change your relationship with the issue, by not making it an issue. There is something in all this about acceptance of what is. There is probably something else you could do while awake. A friend of mind does the Times crossword at night, not my thing (too much thinking), but it works for him. The words “let go” and “surrender” come to mind, surrendering to it, rather than having it be a drama.

Also there is something important in all this about consciously managing your state, which is what can be learned from developing the art of mindfulness. The key is to learn to manage the mind and learn to let go of unhelpful mental activity and re-focus. The yogis learned this  thousands of years ago and mindfulness practitioners teach others to do it today. It is for example a very good time to meditate, when the world is silent and still. A good time to know more of your inner place of stillness. Quietening the mind is often a very helpful route to having better sleep.

Try the Sleepio programme

For insomnia sufferers, here is a very good online CBT (and mindfulness) based programme to help you let go of insomnia. It’s scientifically-based, and comes strongly recommended, such as by the UK’s NHS. Click here.

Where the mind goes, the energy flows

The mind is powerfully creative, even when we’re thinking negatively. What we focus on is more likely to happen, even those things we don’t want. Understanding the power of the mind has great potential, not only to help bring about the things we want but also to make less likely the things we don’t want. We simply need to be aware of what we’re giving attention to, and make sure that that is being done with positive intent.

On one occasion I was delivering some workshops in London, which involved a short tube journey from my accommodation to the venue. The last morning I came downstairs for breakfast at the agreed time to find that the breakfast room was in darkness, with the shutters closed and nothing laid out. I waited some minutes and noticed my agitation rising. “This will delay me”, I thought. Eventually I went and called up the people in charge and got my breakfast.

Then, when I got to the tube station, the train was delayed. Again I noticed my state of mind and this time found I was thinking that the longer I waited the more the station would fill up, the more crowded the train would be and somehow the later I would get to my destination. Eventually I got a train on another route and then found myself thinking the change I’d need to make would lead to more crowded trains, more delays, and so on.

At some point in this internal dialogue I began to get a grip. “Stop!”, I told myself. “You’re too focused on delays. Stop this! (Deep breath in, breathe out, and let go) My train will have plenty of room, there is plenty of time and I will get there in time. I am flowing calmly, easily and effortlessly through the mass of people”. And so it was, even to getting there 10 minutes earlier than before!

This process is one I am familiar with. I find that what I think comes about, provided my intention is clear, I sustain the intention, and my on-going thoughts are supportive of that intention. And provided that I let go of being attached to it happening, eg. letting go of worrying that it won’t happen. If, by contrast I get embroiled in some negative self-talk, events follow in train with that internal conversation.

It’s not an easy process and requires will and effort to sustain. But training the mind has great benefits. What is crucial is to become aware, using self awareness, and stop the negative flow. Almost literally to drop them. Learning to drop them takes practice, as does re-framing the thoughts so as to fufill the desired outcome.

We have that power. Studies of the brain have shown that changing thought patterns lead to the old neural pathways withering away, while new ones become established in their place. The power of the mind is hugely creative.

So what do you find happens to your mind if you let it “do its own thing”? How easy do you find it to shift your thinking into something preferable? How do you feel about changing your thinking and letting a positive energy flow through your life?

It’s hard overcoming low self esteem after a knock to confidence

It’s a big challenge for people at present in these difficult times, maintaining self belief, confidence and self esteem in the face of knock-backs and rejections. This particularly arises for job seekers, but it can also apply to the self employed and to those with financial difficulty, illness, injury or other challenges that life can seemingly throw at us. Overcoming low self esteem in the face of difficulty can feel like it’s too much, particularly if your self esteem wasn’t that great to begin with.

It doesn’t help when you get a bad day. If you keep getting bad hair days, it can feel like a pattern has set in. Even if you pull yourself back from the precipice, another setback can occur and it can seem like you’re back on a treadmill to nowhere. These occasions set you back and your confidence takes a drop. Then you start to beat yourself up and your self esteem falls. It’s a vicious circle.

Let’s say you’re a job seeker and you’ve been putting a lot of energy into job hunting, with not a lot of success. A bad day could be a string of rejections coming all at once, and calls and approaches you’ve been making seemingly getting nowhere. Then your health starts playing you up and you’re struggling to get going and make things happen. And it’s holiday season and those fortunate enough to be in work are taking their summer holidays, whilst you aren’t. So you feel even worse about yourself.

This is where in recession times developing your recovery and self belief skills are so important. The point of awareness is to really notice, become aware, that you’re going back down on one of those slides, and to say “stop”, and stop yourself going back down into a pit. This takes practice, I know, but we have to start somewhere, and as good a place as any is to recognise this keeps happening, and to work to stop it keep repeating itself. What reinforces the decline is low self esteem, because we can so easily slip back into a negative pattern. It’s like it’s the ego saying, “I told you so, you’re no good”. This is where we need positive things to be saying to ourselves to challenge this negative cycle, so as to to really take action on overcoming low self esteem. None of these negative thoughts are true in any case. They are mental contructs, things we’ve thought up, usually long before we were aware of what we were doing, as small children. It’s more illusion, maya, a function of the ego, not who we really are. The mind is much bigger than this.

There’s a big point here in recognising how powerful the mind is, and how it can lead us to great positivity when we take charge, manage these mental patterns, and over and over again re-focus ourselves on to what uplifts us.

So, when you get another rejection or another set-back, this is a clue to immediately re-focus on your task and take action, and not to allow the sirens of doubt to start to get a hold over you. Working on the mind in this way is like treating the mind like a muscle that needs strengthening. So too in these situations. When we’re in a positive, purposeful state, then we draw more positivity to us, and better things start to happen.

Where are you going?

When we’re stuck and “down in the dumps” it’s an important question, what’s the point of all this, where are we going? Apart from the stock, usually religious, “answers” which are other people’s ideas anyway but which you get invited to believe in and which you’re perhaps struggling with, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking…and (huge, deep breath!), what’s your idea of where you are going?

That’s more pertinent, since it draws it in to you, and away from the abstract and other people’s perceptions and closer to home and your goals, plans, intentions, dreams and purpose.

Crises of faith test our resolve, and can expose our gaps and our lack of thought to what we’re creating individually and where we’re going. Upheavals and change have this effect, to lead us to question what it’s all about, and to create new meaning. Existentialists would say that that is what we do with life. It has, they say, no purpose or meaning except that which we choose for it. So it’s down to us.

This was powerfully tested by Viktor Frankl, as described in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a survivor of Auschwitz and he describes in his book how he learned that a fundamental task of humans was to choose and make meaning. When, faced with the enormous privations they encountered, they ceased to do that in the camp, and gave up, they died.

That still might not deal with the crisis of faith. As St John of the Cross found, we can go through Dark Nights of the Soul, which can severely test us but have a healing benefit, since we can purge our ego and resolve long-standing obstacles to our growth. The point is to be able to see beyond the immediate to the bigger picture. Hence it helps to know where you’re going.

It also tests us to manage the mind and to teach us to “get off” the thinking pattern which is pulling us down. Which means you need to know what that is all about. Hence the vital importance of practicing awareness and witnessing, and finding these things out.

The art is one of exercising choice, to shift from anxiety about where you are going, to one of intention, purpose and action.

What you appreciate, appreciates

Recently helping someone to get their life back on track got me thinking about how much is possible when we deliberately focus on what we’ve got that we value, that we appreciate.

So, when you feel like it isn’t happening, that you haven’t got what you want, that things seem not to be turning out as you intended, try this.

Focus your attention on what you do have. Think about all the people in your life that you love, value and respect. Think of the things in your life that you value. Think of your positive attributes, of your skills and capabilities, of what you have accomplished. Think of places you’ve been to, seen on TV, read about, heard about. What’s around you that you value? Just look around at your world. What do you like about it? Then notice how you feel.

If you focus intentionally on what you have in your life that you value, that you appreciate, you create new value. Focusing on these things grows them. It’s a bit like counting your blessings, often said but not often practised.

I’ve seen this many times when working with people whose jobs weren’t going well, had to find another job, were impacted by some organisational transition, had to up-skill or move on, or were not performing well. Their self-esteem had taken a knock and the downward spiral was self-reinforcing. Often this was being accompanied by things going on at home, a divorce, a bereavement, and so on. As a result of the coaching, they would focus on what was positive in their lives, in their skills and accomplishments, discover new possibilities and build a much bigger future for themselves. Their self-esteem would grow and they would discover new confidence and capabilities. The re-focusing of attention is extremely powerful.

And this is the power of the mind: “where the mind goes, the energy flows”. We are extremely creative, much more so than we realise. This positive, appreciative focus is supported by the research of Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman. It is also to be seen in the work of Appreciative Enquiry in management consulting.

Of course the trick is not to go off into the negative about these things. Left to its own devices, the mind will start to find fault. That’s what the ego likes to get up, because its job has been to look after you, to maintain the limited perspective because it had been proven in earlier life experiences that it’s safe there. Not so. Taking a larger perspective involves challenging the ego. Just notice what’s positive, what you appreciate. Then watch it grow, supported by action on your behalf.