Turning Toward the Pain – part 2

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We had our fourth meeting of the SC group yesterday and talked about dealing with pain. I read out an excerpt from Christopher Germer’s book, the mindful path to self-compassion, and I want to print it here again.

From the moment of our birth, we’re on a quest for happiness. It may take no more than mother’s milk to satisfy us in the first days of our lives, but our needs and desires multiply as we age. By adulthood, most of us don’t expect to be happy unless we have a nice family, a good job, excellent health, lots of money, and the love and admiration of others.

But pain still strikes even under the best of circumstances. Billionaire Howard Hughes found himself desperate and alone at the moment of his death. And our circumstances inevitably change; one person’s marriage may fall apart, another may have a child with a developmental disability, and yet another may lose everything in a flood. People differ from one another in the amount of suffering they endure over a lifetime, or in the type of suffering, but none of us gets off without any. Pain and suffering are common threads that unite all of humanity.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we’d like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. For example, if a car accident lands someone in a wheelchair for life, the first year is usually the toughest. As we learn to adapt, we typically return to our former level of happiness. We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.

A new approach is to change our relationship to pain and pleasure. We can step back and learn to be calm in the midst of pain; we can let pleasure naturally come and go. That’s serenity. We can even learn to embrace pain as well as pleasure, and every nuance in between, thereby living each moment to the fullest. That’s joy. Learning how to spend some time with pain is essential to achieving personal happiness. It may sound paradoxical, but in order to be happy we must embrace unhappiness.”

 

Turning Toward the Pain – part 1

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I am writing once again about pain. I talked about it a bit in the “SC Group Session 2” post. When we begin to think about the concept of self-compassion and then think about how it applies to us, we often meet some pain that has been buried. When we wake up to the fact that we lack compassion for ourselves it often seems to bring up a painful sadness.

Compassion has two parts to it. The first is to acknowledge that there is pain. Here it is. Right now. It requires us to sit with how we are feeling even though it is not all that comfortable.

Pain creates a conflict between the way things are and how we’d like them to be and that makes our lives feel unsatisfactory. The more we wish our lives were different, the worse we feel. … We can measure our happiness by the gap between what we want and how things are.” (Christopher Germer, the mindful path of self-compassion)

I have been practicing for a while now, to sit with my pain. When I can. Sometimes I know I’m not able and that’s okay. I think then that I’m not ready to face whatever truth is there. Not yet. But when I am ready I just let myself feel the feeling. I like to try to describe it. Where is it in my body? What does it look like? Does it have a colour? Does it have a form? Does it have a temperature? Does it move, have a pulse or rhythm to it? Does it have a sound?

Doing this helps me step back from the pain and not feel so absorbed and overwhelmed by it. It makes me feel less afraid of my pain as well. I am beginning to recognize specific types of pain in specific parts of my body. When I need to cry a lot and deeply, my upper chest, just below my shoulders grows tight and aches. When I feel anxious that’s usually in my stomach, and very deep fear resides lower in my gut.

Holding emotions back I can feel in my throat as it tightens. As if afraid I might blurt out something that I don’t really want to hear. It’s quite amazing when we look at pain in this way. Pain as information about something. Something that needs fixing or healing, that needs attention, that needs me to do something with it. Transform it.

Really, pain is simply a sensation of a certain intensity. Boredom is painful to me. And it has quite an intensity. Fortunately it happens rarely. But from boredom all the way to deep excruciating grief and loss it is all pain that we must live with. The more we can turn towards our pain, accept it and even embrace it if possible, the more we are liberated from it, the less stuck we are, the more we can move on with our lives.

COMMON HUMANITY

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You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the ocean in one drop.” Rumi

I have been writing, lately, about the three components of the Self-Compassion model (see menu at top). The first component is self-kindness rather than self-judgment. I broke self-kindness down into three parts as well – the Self-Critic, self-talk and gestures.

https://afriendtome.wordpress.com/2017/06/26/self-kindness-the-self-critic/

https://afriendtome.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/self-kindness-self-talk/

https://afriendtome.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/self-kindness-gestures/

Today I want to talk about the second component – common humanity.

I think the core issue here is our sense of shame and how it makes us feel outcast and separate from everyone else. We have all grown up with people expecting certain things of us. Often we adopt those same expectations. However, the problem with expectations is 1) when we fail to meet them and 2) what we are left with in the aftermath.

Most of us are not taught how to deal with our failures and mistakes. Many of us have learned to simply beat ourselves up as a consequence. Yet here is where self-compassion is needed most. We need to be convinced that we are not inadequate or of less worth as a human being when we fail or make mistakes. We need to learn and know it deeply that it is simply human to make mistakes and fail at things. As one comedian put it – I don’t fail. I simply succeed at finding out what doesn’t work. It’s funny and … it’s true. if we could look at our mistakes and failures as the means of figuring out how to make something work. That’s all.

The second part is the aftermath of our failures and mistakes. Shame. Deep, horrible shame. The feeling that we are the only one who is a ‘loser’. Everyone else is fine. It’s only me that is ‘wrong’. That is what many of us believe because that’s what we were told growing up. And we have come to believe it. I am different. I am a reject, an outcast, socially unacceptable. I have no right to exist along with all these other fine people. I am a defect.

When we feel ashamed, we not only fear that people will lack understanding of and kindness toward us, but we also start criticizing and attacking ourselves. What happens then is that our sense of self becomes focused around a shamed identity and feelings of shame with oneself.” Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert, PhD and Choden

So, common humanity is about putting aside that shame, not accepting it is as reality and seeing ourselves, instead, as human beings having common human experiences. So many human beings feel inadequate and ashamed of who they are. It is a worldwide epidemic and creates all kinds of problems. When we can let go of some of that shame and recognize that right now I am having a similar experience that is felt world-wide it can be liberating. It might be a sense of loss or grief. It might be sadness or elation. It might be excitement or even mania. But it is human and it is worldwide. We are part of this whole ‘thing’ called humanity.

When we can connect with and accept our humanity we are connecting deep within ourselves. And that always helps us connect more deeply with others as well.

 

THE SC GROUP – MINDFULNESS

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Mindfulness has to be experienced to be known. It can’t be expressed adequately in words. A moment of mindfulness is a kind of awareness that comes before words, such as the twinkling of stars before we call them the Big Dipper or a dash of red at the door before we recognize it as a friend wearing a new red dress. Our brains go through this preverbal level of awareness all the time, but we’re normally too caught up in the drama of everyday life to notice.” Christopher K. Germer “the mindful path to self-compassion”

Our focus this week was on the third component of the Self-Compassion model (see menu at top), mindfulness. This is my favourite because I find that practicing mindfulness on a daily basis gives me such good ground to walk on. A more solid foundation in an ever-changing world. It anchors me to my experiences.

Being kind to myself and remembering that I am simply having a human experience, the first two components in the Self-Compassion model, help me in times of trouble. But mindfulness is something that is available all the time and adds to any experience I am having. It’s amazing that we humans don’t spend more time being mindful but somehow we strayed and got caught up in our thoughts. The worst part is that we believe those thoughts to be real – THIS IS REALITY. ABSOLUTELY.

But it’s not. Our thoughts can confine us and imprison us so well and do great damage to everyone. However, when we are mindful it’s as if we are stepping back a little and looking at things from a bit of an outside perspective. It’s the opposite of taking things for granted.

A great way to practice mindfulness is in the shower. We are using a lot of our senses then. We can

  • Listen to the water hitting the tiles and the tub and our skin;
  • Smell the soap and the shampoo and feel the extra oxygen in the air;
  • Feel the water on our skin, the temperature of the water (I love it hot, hot, hot), the sensation of water hitting our skin
  • Look at our body and see – hey this is me. all me. no one else

I practice mindfulness whenever I walk down the street. Sometimes I focus on my feet meeting the pavement or even the tiredness I feel on my soles, or I focus on my breath, or on sounds around me. That is one of my favourites. Listening to a car go by, the sound of a lawn mower a block away, children playing, birds. At those moments nothing is being taken for granted. I am able to appreciate and feel grateful for these sounds of life.

There’s a very important thing to remember about mindfulness or we will put ourselves in a lot of pain. We need to be as nonjudgmental of our experiences as possible. Whatever we are feeling or thinking, whatever is happening needs a voice that says “It is what it is. This is what is happening right now and that’s all. There’s no good or bad, right or wrong to it. It simply is.”

Definitions of mindfulness

the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment-by-moment” Jon Kabat-Zinn, very well-known mindfulness teacher

awareness of present experience with acceptance” Ronald Siegel, mindfulness teacher

Mindfulness is knowing what is happening while it is happening no matter what it is” Rob Nairn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SELF-KINDNESS: GESTURES

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I have been talking about self-kindness in my last few posts. Self-kindness vs. self-judgment is the first component of the Self-Compassion Model (see menu at top). I have broken it down into 3 topics – Self-Kindness and the Self-Critic, Self-Kindness and Self-Talk and now Self-Kindness and Gestures.

What I mean by gestures is two-fold. Let me give you an example. I often don’t like getting up in the morning and facing last night’s dishes. However, I don’t really like doing my dishes in the evening either. (Okay, okay, when exactly do I enjoy doing dishes, if ever? Somewhere in between those times of course. However, that’s not really important here). I have decided that if some evenings I could see my way to doing those dishes that I would be making a kind gesture towards my ‘Morning Self’. Now I have a new reason for doing dishes at night. But … I don’t put any pressure on myself to do them in the evening so I can later beat myself up because I didn’t do the dishes. I have built into this practice that it is only when I feel so inclined to do the dishes. There is no expectation whatsoever to do them the night before. After all my “Evening Self” is usually kinda pooped and just wants to relax.

So when I feel I can do those evening dishes, and I do think about it knowing that it will be easier on my poor Morning Self, I do them. And if I don’t feel like it my Morning Self says ‘Hey, I get it. When you don’t feel like it you don’t feel like it. Don’t worry about it. I am fine about doing them in the morning.” Overall, this makes doing dishes change from being a chore to one of a possible gesture of kindness towards myself. And even identifying these two parts of me – the Morning Self and the Evening Self – I create a dialogue within. As well, it’s not a conflict between these two parts but rather them working together for the benefit of all of me.

The point is we can create gestures of kindness for ourselves. We do them already every day but don’t recognize them as gestures of kindness. Whenever we take care of a need that we have we are being kind to ourselves. Taking a bath, relaxing and reading a really good book, making a wonderful cup of tea. These are the simple gestures we can do everyday. Also, when we are more conscious of them as gestures, when we think of them in terms of a conscious act of kindness towards ourselves we might begin to recognize the self-compassion that does already exist in us. We don’t need to go looking for it.

Soothing ourselves is another type of gesture we can do especially when we are in emotional pain. Putting our hand on our heart and speaking soothing words to ourselves can be soothing and comforting. “Caer, I know you are in a lot of pain right now. I’m right here with you. I am sorry you are hurting so much now.” We can also hug ourselves. We can do this in private of course but just wrapping our arms around ourselves when we are hurting can be quite soothing as well. And we can say the same comforting words then.

Crying can also be a gesture – one of compassion for the sufferer. In our SC group when someone cries and yet tells me they feel no compassion for themselves I wonder who the tears are for then? Who are they sad for? Crying seems to be a release of something held within for too long. It’s absolutely an act of kindness towards ourselves to feel our sorrows.

 

 

 

 

 

DON’T PUSH THE RIVER

 

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The other day I had two disappointments, both hurt for a while, and yet I did not drop into a funk of ‘unnecessary suffering’ after either of them like I usually do. I am in the process of learning how, and practicing, to be more emotionally resilient, to go with the flow, to not push the river. I am beginning to recognize more clearly within myself how often I shrink from experiences especially if they involve uncomfortable emotions like anger, fear, betrayal or disappointment.

I am learning to give my painful feelings names and to visualize them. This helps give me a bit of distance from them making it easier to cope with the feelings. For example, I was all set to go to my favourite Gulf Island. My best friend has a place there and we have been visiting it for about 20 years, mostly in the warmer months. I hadn’t been there since last September and I was really missing it so I was anxious to get there. We had already tried two weeks ago and when we got there, there was a power outage and there was no hot water, no phone, no internet and it was pouring rain. We returned to the city the same day leaving me very sad (I cried) and disappointed. So this week was another try. However .. the ferry broke down and sailings were cancelled for a few days. Which meant I didn’t get to go. Big disappointment again!

Okay. I was hurting a lot at this point. So I acknowledged I was in pain and I wanted to do something about it. That is what compassion is all about – acknowledging the pain and trying to alleviate any suffering. So I pictured what this pain looked like and I saw a wooden stake (don’t ask my why) piercing my solar plexus. I felt the acute pain of disappointment. I then recognized that I felt angry. At who? At the universe actually. At all the powers that be that have conspired against me to keep me from getting to the island. I shook my fist at the heavens and then laughed. I just suddenly saw myself and it was funny. That helped a lot.

Later that same day I experienced another disappointment. I won’t go into the details but I did visualize the wooden stake again, felt the acute pain of the disappointment, then just sat with it for a bit. Eventually it began to shift and I was able to think clearly about what to do next.

At the end of the day, I felt amazed and impressed with the whole process. I felt like I had been on a surfboard riding out the waves of my emotions. I hit some hard waves that day but I did not crash. I stayed ‘on board’. That is emotional resilience. When we can ‘bend’ with whatever is happening, with whatever we are feeling, and allow it to happen. Naming the pain and even visualizing it helps give some space from it.

I think that emotional resilience is the thing that can give us the most sense of control in our lives. Rather than trying to force things and ‘push the river’, we settle into acceptance and ‘going with the flow’. It’s easier in the long run and it’s powerful. It’s like mastering that surfboard and riding those huge waves of life.