Waking Up from the Trance of Unworthiness: Part Two

images-4I am loving this Sounds True audio/video series on self-acceptance. For those who learn better by reading, here is part two of a rough transcript of the session with Tara Brach, Ph.D. (I watched on one computer, paused it as I went, and dictated into my phone.) I am breaking it into two posts, as it got a little long. You can still listen to this interview online here. And if you didn’t read part one, you can do so here.

Tara’s first book Radical Acceptance helped me so much on a personal level, and I frequently recommended it to my clients over the years. Her newest book is called True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. I have already read it once, and I highly recommend it.

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Tara Brach, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Tara has been practicing and teaching meditation since 1975 and has led Buddhist meditation retreats at centers throughout North America. Her audio programs with Sounds True include Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame and Finding True Refuge: Meditations for Difficult Times

Tami: Do you think our trance of unworthiness has something to do with our contemporary society, or is it something that’s always gone on?

Tara: I think both. We are hard-wired to feel separate and to look for  something to go wrong. It’s called our “negative bias” and it’s designed to keep us safe. But it’s a very quick step to thinking that something is wrong in the environment to thinking, “I’m wrong.” So there is a deficiency mind-set that comes with being human.

But there’s also a cultural component. Particularly in the West, we have very few natural ways of belonging in which we can experience our basic goodness. We live in a fear-based culture that over consumes and is competitive. We are not invited toward feeling contentment. We’re not invited to relax and say, “This moment is enough.” That would stop the economy in its tracks. Our culture feeds the sense that I should be better. I should be more.

images-7The tend-befriend aspect of our wiring is there, too. It’s just not as well cultivated, and it takes training. But once we get that we’re suffering because we are at war with ourselves, there can be a very deep, sincere commitment to embracing our own being and embracing life everywhere.

One way to wake up the “compassion neural networks” is the idea of conscious community: A place where we share our vulnerabilities; we mirror back each other’s goodness; we take inevitable conflicts and turn them into deeper understanding; and we listen deeply. There is a sense of belonging to each other.

Tami: Do you still struggle with self-acceptance in your own life? Do you still go into the trance of unworthiness?

Tara: Yes. Sometimes I will find I am in a bad mood and I’ll scrape below the surface and I realize I’m down on myself. Sometimes I feel I’m falling short as a friend or in caring for my aging mother.  Or I think I wasn’t as present for a talk as I would’ve liked to be. Sometimes if I know I’ve hurt someone, it can feel very “sticky.” The difference between then (say 15 year ago, although it’s been a gradual shift) and now is there is less lag time. I more quickly recognize that I am caught up in the trance–in the thoughts and beliefs of an unworthy self. The other difference is that I recognize the thoughts and feelings, but I don’t believe them as much. The feelings are there and the thoughts are there, but the sense of who I am beyond the self that I am judging is much more alive and accessible. I know that there is a loving heart, a being here, an awareness that isn’t so identified with the unworthy self. But I still have to find my way back.

One of the ways I find my way back, and I talk about this a lot in my teaching, is by thinking about this metaphor:

Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by macinate via Flickr Creative Commons

Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. You think the dog is cute and you approach the dog, wanting to pet it. It suddenly snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you may feel some fear and anger. As the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and suffering. (I also wrote about this story in the piece, Leaving Judgement Behind.) You go from being angry, to this poor thing.

I pause and get that in some way my leg is in the trap. The thing I’m judging is coming from a place of pain. Then I soften and I can be present with feelings  and offer kindness to myself. I’m able to loosen the grip and arrive more fully at that sense of who I am when I’m not trapped in the trance.

Tami: I want to tell people about this tool of RAIN that you are known for. Will you explain it?

Tara: When we’re stuck in the trance,  we may have a vague sense that we are there, but it’s so hard to get out that state. We get reactive and we stir things up more. So this acronym of RAIN is this easy to remember handle. When we’re caught in the trance of unworthiness, we can say to ourself, “OK, just pause.”

R, is to recognize what’s going on. All those thoughts of unworthiness are going on right here.

A stands for allow it to be there. We don’t try to get away from what’s going on. We deepen the pause.

I  is for investigate. We investigate with kindness. We bring a gentle attention to what’s going on. This is where we start loosening the grip. For example, when I turn on myself for being “the sick person” I sink below the feelings– I get under the story line– and I realize I have this core belief that if I’m this bad at being sick, I’ll never wake up and be free…I’ll never be enlightened. I can really feel the fear in the body.

N stands for not-identified with the unworthy self. It sounds like a dry concept, but it’s very freeing and liberating.

So RAIN is a way to detangle the trance. And it really comes down to a mindful awareness with kindness.

Tami: In classic Buddhist teaching we are taught that we are not this solid self that we think we are. How do you understand this paradox that we have to accept and be kind to ourself, when there may not even be a self there?

images-3Tara: I make a translation and think of it that what we are accepting is the life that’s right here. In actuality, what we are accepting is this feeling, this hurt, this sadness, this fear, this anxiety, this whatever… We are embracing the lived experience. What happens is that when we do this, the sense of the separate self dissolves anyway. All of us are doing this together. We’re all doing this project of embracing the life that’s right here–it’s pleasantness, it’s unpleasantness, and in doing so, we get the liberating realization that we are way beyond any story we might’ve told ourselves.

Read Part One of Tara’s interview.

 

Waking Up from the Trance of Unworthiness

images-3

I am loving this Sounds True audio/video series on self-acceptance. For those who learn better by reading, here is rough transcript of the session with Tara Brach, Ph.D. I watched on one computer, paused it as I went, and dictated into my phone. I am breaking it into two posts, as it got a little long. You can still listen to this interview online here.

Tara’s first book Radical Acceptance helped me so much on a personal level, and I frequently recommended it to my clients over the years. Her newest book is called True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. I have already read it once, and I highly recommend it.

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Tara Brach, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Tara has been practicing and teaching meditation since 1975 and has led Buddhist meditation retreats at centers throughout North America. Her audio programs with Sounds True include Radical Self-Acceptance: A Buddhist Guide to Freeing Yourself from Shame and Finding True Refuge: Meditations for Difficult Times

Tami: What was happening inside of you, and in your teaching, that got you in touch with this idea, this need for radical self-acceptance?

Tara: I realized that my deepest suffering was a sense of not being enough, and when it was very bad, even a sense of self-aversion. I saw it in my students and clients.

I believe that the sense of not being enough is the most pervasive suffering in our society.

I had a friend in college who was reading “Learning to Be Your Own Best Friend” and I thought,  “Oh my gosh, I am the furthest thing from that.” And it was even more than that—it was that I didn’t trust myself.

We don’t recognize what I call “the trance of unworthiness”–how much we are trapped in the sense of falling short. And usually it’s on every front in some way. It’s a background noise that’s always saying, “How am I doing now?” Usually we find there’s a gap in how we think we should be and our moment-to-moment awareness. In that gap, we feel like we are always not okay.

noname-1A palliative caregiver told me that the number one grief of the dying is that they didn’t live true to themselves. They lived according to the expectations of others, but not the truth of their own hearts. At the end, there was the sense that, “I didn’t live this life true to who I am.”

If I did a show of hands and asked how many people speak unkindly to themselves, every hand would go up. But I think what we don’t realize is the overall sense we have that, “Something is wrong with me,” and how it pervades our day. It contracts everything. It’s a deep feeling of being flawed and deficient. It’s a trance that imprisons our moments in a way that we’re not aware of.

Tami: What do you think wakes people up from this trance?

Tara: The suffering. For example, if you’re in a relationship and you realize “I can’t really be close to anyone.” If someone got to know me, they’d reject me.

The pain is a wake up to explore how we begin to stop the war against ourselves.

So it’s the suffering that starts as the wake up.

Tami: How do we learn to trust ourselves?

Let me give an example. A woman came up after a class and told me that she didn’t deserve to accept herself because she was not being a good parent to her five-year-old. She was yelling at her all the time and being critical. It’s true, her behavior wasn’t ideal. But I asked the woman, “Do you love your daughter?” She said, “Of course, I wouldn’t be so upset if I didn’t love her.” Then spend some time getting in touch with that feeling of loving your daughter, I told her. That you can trust. (Editorial note: I believe it was implied in the way Tara described the story that eventually radical self-acceptance gives way toward aligning your behavior with what is in your heart.)

We can’t trust our ego self. It is unreliable, out-of-control, striving, and afraid. A true sense of trust comes from connecting with the deeper part of our self, and that takes paying attention.

noname-4Often the pathway to acceptance comes from pausing when we feel unworthy. Training in learning to pause when you feel the suffering is critical. Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. So the first step is to pause.

Next, you have to deepen attention–to get underneath the thoughts and determine what is going on in the body and in the heart.

You have to bring awareness to just how painful it is. I call it the sense of “Ouch!”

It’s helpful to put your hand on your heart. All you need is the intention to be kind to that place of suffering. You can’t manufacture feeling kind, but you can say, “I want to be able to be gentle to this place that feels so bad.” Then there’s a shift. The shift is a move from the unworthy self to a compassionate presence that is witnessing the unworthy self.

In the past decade I have had bouts of sickness that have been very humbling. I can feel irritable and self-centered, and then I start not liking myself for being a “bad sick person”. I think I’m not being spiritual in how I’m being sick. The Buddha called it the second arrow. The first arrow is being feeling sick, and then the second arrow is feeling unworthy because I’m judging myself for not being a good sick person.

In part two, Tara talks about how she deals with her own feelings of unworthiness, the importance of conscious community, and how to use the tool called RAIN.

Curiosity is the Key

medium_7380729644These are notes I took from Monday night’s session of  The Self-Acceptance Project presented by Sounds True. It’s not a word-for-word transcription, but it will give you the basics. It’s still online and free, so check it out.

In this episode, Tami speaks with Dr. Harville Hendrix, the creator of Imago Relationship Therapy. Dr. Hendrix is the author of the classic book Getting the Love You Want.

I have never read any of Dr. Hendrix’s books, so I’m not as familiar with the concepts he discusses. It was very interesting to listen to him. In some ways, he sounded very behavioral, talking about gathering data and letting the data change your beliefs about yourself. In other ways, he sounded psychodynamic, talking about excavating the self and looking back into your childhood to see where self-limiting beliefs may have originated.

My notes are in order of what he said, but they don’t seem as organized as those I took while listening to Kristen Neff, Ph.D. (click her for those, Compassion and the Self-Critic.) I may come back to this and try to develop this better, but for now I just wanted to get them out there (and not be perfectionistic!).

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The important thing is to think about is what function the negativity serves, and to process that information. Everything we think and do serves a function in our psychic economy. He believes there is some sort of causality in whatever we do. He gave an example of a graduate student who was working on a dissertation. The dissertation was actually finished and the person had received positive feedback from people on his dissertation committee. It is ready to turn in (and has been for months) but the person waits and keeps saying it’s not good enough. The self put down, the statement of  it’s not good enough, prevents the person from experiencing any relational transaction with the professor in which his fears might come true. He is fearing the possibility of negative judgment. Now where does the self put down come from? Usually people can trace it to something early in their lives. Ask yourself other questions such as “What is it related to?” or “What is it protecting your from?”

The second thing is to move out of the limbic system of the brain—the part of the brain where we are always looking for bad stuff to happen. There is a neurochemical response in which cortisol is released and  permeates the sensory system. This makes you feel like you’re in a dangerous state. We have to move out of that system and accumulate data and assimilate the data that is not  congruent with your beliefs. He said that positive affirmations never helped him. The data helped him.

Positive affirmations never helped me. The data helped me.

He also said there is a connection between the quality of our relationships and how we treat ourselves. He said reality is relationship. Reality is connection. If we don’t have a sense of safety in our relationships it’s very difficult to have internal safety.

He also talked about the power of ambivalence. He said when we are in the state of ambivalence our brain doesn’t know what to do. When it’s not engaged in a directed activity, it gets anxious. So ambivalence feeds on itself. When we move from the state of ambivalence to commitment, our brain knows that it has to go to work. If you want to grow you have to become intentional. You have to get on the train and then the brain engages. You collect data and then sort the data. The ambivalence protects the person from some fearful imagined outcome.

He talked about letting love in and rejecting compliments:

1. If I let in the compliment that I did well in, it will establish expectations that I will always do well, and that will be too taxing.

2. People are always insincere.

3.  If I let love in, it will cause me to have to release the architecture of my self-concept.

Again, you have to understand where the defense comes from, and then collect data over and over again in small amounts until you can’t deny the evidence anymore. At some point this will release the defense.

When we change our self-configuration, we have to be open to being a “bigger” person. This opening up can create anxiety.

In neuroscience terms, the brain likes to know what is coming next. If we let love in, we have to be willing to live in mystery. When we are aware of our connection with the rich tapestry of life, we live in joy. When we are not living in joy, something has triggered our anxiety and makes us experience ourselves as separate.

Unique and the Same

I’ve had ideas swirling in my head all day. My thoughts seem random, yet connected. I’m not sure how to express them in a coherent fashion, yet I feel compelled to write.

I was talking to Greg about how sometimes I want to feel unique and special.  And yet, at other times, I want to feel I’m not alone. This dilemma makes me recall when I’ve been in therapy and the therapist tries to “normalize” my experience by saying, “I think everyone feels that way.” Sometimes this can feel validating, and at other times, it feels dismissive. Why is this?

Greg said it reminded him of a poster he once saw that says: “Remember that you are unique, just like everyone else.”

After this philosophical discussion, we ate dinner, not really talking. Thank goodness I’m married to another introvert who is comfortable with silence.

I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write, so I went downstairs to walk on the treadmill. I watch DVDs while I’m walking, and I’m on Season 2 of Mad Men. In the episode I was watching, Don Draper is having marital problems, and he is visiting with an old friend who offers some sage advice: “The only thing keeping you from happiness is the belief that you are alone.” What a great line! I thought this was surely a sign I needed to go upstairs and get busy writing.

Still, nothing came. I decided to do my meditation practice for the day.

This is week 4 of Sharon Salzberg’s Meditation Month and the focus is on Lovingkindness meditation. In this type of meditation, you focus not on your breath, but on certain phrases such as: May I be safe; May I be happy; May I be healthy; May I live with ease. You then extend these phrases (along with heartfelt intention if possible) to someone in need, then to someone you may know only casually, then to someone who you find difficult, then to people everywhere.  (For more details on this type of meditation, click here).

The person who popped into my mind when it was time to think of someone who may be in need was a previous client of mine. She had a child with a very rare and complex health condition. The condition wasn’t visible to others, so she was often given standard parenting advice that simply did not apply to her situation. Well meaning people would say things such as, “That’s just normal teenage stuff” or “You just have to use tough love.” These statements, meant to help her feel less alone, actually did just the opposite. She often told me she felt isolated from others, and that she was “crazy.” She seemed to feel better in our sessions when I found a way to validate her experience that, yes—her situation was different and unique. Somehow, paradoxically, that is what helped her feel less alone.

Looking back on it now, I wonder if I could have done more if I had helped her realize that somewhere (although not necessarily in her peer group), there are other mothers with similar challenges, going through similar painful circumstances. Would that have helped her feel less alone? It’s so easy to second-guess myself, but I  really don’t think I would have done anything differently.

Well, I’ve thoroughly confused myself further, and probably you, as well.

If I can come up with any take-away points, they’d be:

  •  Life is hard. It’s okay to acknowledge that fact.
  •  We’re all in the same boat.  We all want to be happy. We all want to suffer less and be at peace. It’s not always easy to find that place. I’m learning that meditation can help.
  • We’re not alone, even when we think we are.
  •  I need to use the word “AND” more. We are unique AND we are the same.
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