Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

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We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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Don’t believe everything you think

We’re rightly concerned about “Fake News” — fabricated stories created in order to sway people’s political choices or simply to sell online advertising. But our thoughts are often “fake news,” and similarly have powerful effects on us. Much of what we think isn’t true, and that’s especially true of the thoughts that make us freak out and cause us to become anxious, panicked, or depressed.

Our minds create stories. They perform the important function of taking fragments of information and turning them into narratives. Sometimes these stories are true and helpful — for example when our ancestors learned that eating a particular berry led to painful stomach cramps. Creating a story out of those two snippets of experience could literally be life-saving.

But we often create stories that are neither true nor useful. For example, when we’re in pain or sick, depressed or anxious, we commonly assume that how we’re feeling is going to continue forever, or that it’s going to get worse. We might tell ourselves that nobody cares. Those thoughts are stories, and they take already existing pain and add on top an extra and unnecessary layer of suffering — hence the expression, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

The worst thing is that we’re like gullible news-consumers; we tend to believe every thought that passes through our minds, often not even entertaining the possibility that they might be lies.

As you practice mindfulness, however, you can learn to be more skeptical. You can learn to notice whether or not a particular thought is true and whether it is helping you. One rule of thumb is this: notice what effect your thoughts are having on your feelings.

Do your thoughts spark feelings of joy, connection, and engagement? Or do they make you feel small and powerless, or push your emotional buttons until you feel that your mind is out of control, in a spiral of anxiety, depression, or anger?

In observing the effects that your thinking has on how you feel, it’s particularly useful to observe the area around the heart and the solar plexus, since these are the primary places our feelings are experienced. And when we talk about noticing feelings, we’re talking about observing sensations in the body. Often when you ask someone how they feel, they’ll say something like “I feel like a loser.” But “like a loser” is a thought, not a feeling. The actual feeling — the pattern of sensations in the body, might be something like “despondency” or “sadness.” Name what you feel. Let go of the thoughts.

If you find yourself noticing that a thought makes you feel unhappy, this can be a prompt not just to let go of engaging with it — dropping the story — but to investigate whether the thought is actually true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought true?”

Often the mind clings to old patterns, however, and so it’ll say “Yes, it’s true! Of course it’s true!”

So ask again, but this time ask probe a little deeper: “Is this absolutely true?” Asking a second time usually prompts us to find exceptions and counter-examples to the story we’ve been telling ourselves. It helps us to let go of old patterns of thought.

And another very interesting question for us to ask ourselves is this: “What would things be like if I didn’t have this thought?” (This is a question that the spiritual teacher Byron Katie is famous for.)

So a typical pattern might be like this:

We have a thought like, Nobody likes me. I’m always going to be lonely.

Notice that the thought creates unpleasant feelings.

Ask: Is this true? “Yes!” comes the response.

Ask: Is this absolutely true? “Well, I do have friends, and there are people I get on with at work.”

OK. Now we’re less attached to our suffering-inducing thoughts.

Ask: What would it be like not to have this thought? “Well, I guess maybe I’d feel less fearful of whether people liked me or not. Maybe I’d feel more confident. Stronger.”

Now you’ve begun to step out of your normal mindset — the trap of stories that you’ve woven for yourself — and have opened up to the possibility of change.

But it’s crucial to allow the insight “Not all of my thoughts are true or helpful” into awareness. We need to seriously take this on board, and start to be more skeptical about our thinking. Only then will we start to see how often our minds exaggerate or lie to us, creating stories that cause us to freak out.

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Mindfulness: enhancing the experience of the arts

Jessica Haessly, Post-Crescent: Mindfulness is the art of awareness, using the five senses (six if you count intuition), to bring attention to the present moment. Whether performer or audience member, whether making art or viewing it, we can benefit from bringing mindfulness to our experience.

When we practice mindfulness, we are not concerned with past or future, nor are we making judgments on what is happening in the moment, but rather we are simply observing the moment through sight, smell, sound, taste, touch and intuition. We may not use all senses in the …

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How meditation can do wonders for your sex life

Lea Rose Emery, Bustle: When it comes to the link between sex and meditation, it may be something that you’re a little nervous to explore. Even growing up with parents who meditated regularly, I still have a tendency to find it really intimidating. But with all of the health benefits of meditation— from reducing anxiety to improving sleep — it seemed time to get serious about trying it. Plus all of these potential benefits have to translate into the bedroom, right?

So I spoke to Khajak Keledjian, founder and CEO of Inscape, a new meditation center in NYC, about the benefits meditation can have to your sex life. And a lot of it comes down to the mind-body connection. “Stress and anxiety increases cortisol and adrenalin levels,” Keledijian says. “Within a couple days of starting to meditate, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop. This means even if you’re having an insecure moment during sex — like wondering if your partner is distracted… your body will be less likely to automatically trigger the fight or flight response. This helps you to stay in the present moment by responding instead of reacting, and allows for intimacy to last longer and distractions to minimize.”

Considering that feeling panicky or anxious during sex is a problem for a lot of people, it seems like a great solution. But there area few different things actually going on that make it so beneficial. Here’s what you need to know.

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Mindful eating: ‘Suddenly, you have power over food’

Jacqueline Howard, CNN: Mindful eating is rooted in the idea of mindfulness, an ancient practice that promotes being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and environment instead of living your life on autopilot.

When applied to diet, mindful eating involves focusing on chewing your food, taking your time, being in tune with when your body signals that you are hungry or full, and being aware of how your food appears, smells and tastes.
“Over time, eating can become habitual. … We don’t even check in to see if we’re hungry. It’s, ‘Oh, …

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None of us is broken

shocked woman

There are so many ways to freak out in response to life’s challenges, disappointments, and frustrations.

We can become anxious, and worried, and imagine catastrophic things happening — worst-case scenarios that make our hearts pound.

We can lose our tempers, yell, storm off, or simmer in resentment.

We can find someone else to blame, however indirectly they may have been involved in whatever it is that’s bothering us.

We can find ways to avoid the difficult feelings around the problem, by drinking, or binge-watching Netflix, or immersing ourselves in work, or comfort-eating.

We can make sure we don’t cross paths with someone we have problems with, or try to ignore mail that may contain bad news, or put off calling the doctor about some symptom we have in case we learn something unpleasant.

We can shut down and retreat into depression, blaming ourselves, telling ourselves how we’re useless and how things always go wrong and how nobody likes us.

We can go numb, and cut off from our feelings.

There are all these ways we can freak out in response to difficulties (and there are probably more) but they all have two things in common:

First, they create more difficulties for us. The mind can act as an amplifier system for problems. Often our reactions create greater difficulties than the original problem that gave rise to them.

Second, they’re all unnecessary. We don’t have to do these things. It may be hard to change, or scary to think about changing, but it’s possible to do so.

We all have the ability to become mindfully aware of how our minds act and the ways in which they can cause us suffering. We all have the capacity to let go of the thoughts and actions that constitute freaking out. We all have the potential to courageously turn toward the difficult feelings that arise in life. We are all capable of meeting challenges with a mind that’s calm and creative — a mind in which we spontaneously respond to difficulties in a wise and balanced way.

We all have that potential.

None of us is broken, in the sense of being unable to move to a way of being that’s more balanced and creates less suffering. All that’s happened in our lives is that we’ve learned and practiced habits that take problems and multiply them. Those habits have been inherited as part of the way our minds work, or have been picked up from our family, friends, or culture. And we can learn new habits.

Accepting this gets much easier when we recognize that habits depend on circuits in the brain, and when we recognize that the brain’s circuitry is not fixed, but is in a constant state of flux. Yes, if we keep exercising habits of freaking out, we’ll keep reinforcing those pathways in the brain. But if we learn to activate parts of the brain associated with habits such as keeping things in a wider perspective, regulating our emotional responses, maintaining positive emotion, etc., then those positive habits will get stronger, and the underlying circuitry for them will become etched more and more deeply in the brain.

With every thought that passes through our mind, every word we speak, every action we take, we are literally rewiring our brains.

This can end up with us becoming radically different — and happier — people than we once were. We just have to take the first step, and accept that we create who we are.

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Mindfulness: Authority bias and finding out who is really in charge? Changing our inner world

Sandy SB, Vajra Blue: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.”
Mark Twain

Mindfulness is becoming ever more popular and is in danger of being seen as a panacea for all the problems that trouble the human mind. Even when the practice is divorced from the other elements that form part of a spiritual path, it can be a useful tool for self management and helping to create greater contentment for our lives.

Practicing mindfulness can help us to work out …

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Can you be mindful and still feel angry?

Peggilee Wupperman Ph.D., Psychology Today: Mindfulness will not turn you into a feel-good Zen zombie.

If you struggle with dysregulated (addictive/impulsive) behavior, you might have heard that mindfulness can help you overcome the behavior.

In fact, you have likely seen numerous articles on how mindfulness can help you with pretty much every problem you have ever had (Dysregulated behavior! Anxiety! Relationship issues! Work stress! Ingrown toenails!). You may even have been pressured to practice mindfulness by friends or colleagues.

And you may be feeling a little irritated—or just plain angry…

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Mindful moment… Walk away your worries

Marianne Power, The Independant: Ok, so it’s back-to-reality-blues time. The tree is on its way down and the house is covered with its spines. The Hoover is snarled up with tinsel.

Boxes awaiting decorations surround you and every time you put on your trousers you regret that fourth tin of Quality Streets you ate. So here’s what you do: go for a walk in nature. The simple act of walking in a green space has been found to improve mental health, according to new American research…

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