relationships

How to live without causing fear

We evolved to be afraid.

The ancient ancestors that were casual and blithely hopeful, underestimating the risks around them – predators, loss of food, aggression from others of their kind – did not pass on their genes. But the ones that were nervous were very successful – and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain.

Consequently, multiple hair-trigger systems in your brain continually scan for threats. At the least whiff of danger – which these days comes mainly in the form of social hazards like indifference, criticism, rejection, or disrespect – alarm bells start ringing. See a frown across a dinner table, hear a cold tone from a supervisor, get interrupted repeatedly, receive an indifferent shrug from a partner, watch your teenager turn her back and walk away . . . and your heart starts beating faster, stress hormones course through your veins, emotions well up, thoughts race, and the machinery of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing kicks into high gear.

The same thing happens in the other direction: when you send out any signal that others find even subtly threatening, their inner iguana gets going. That makes them suffer. Plus it prompts negative reactions from them, such as defensiveness, withdrawal, counter-attacks, grudges, dislike, or enlisting their allies against you.

Thus the kindness and the practical wisdom in the traditional saying, “Give no one cause to fear you.”

You can – and should – be direct, firm, and assertive. Without needing to fear you, others should expect that if they break their agreements with you or otherwise mistreat you, there will be consequences: you reserve the right to speak up, call a spade a spade, step back in the relationship if need be, take away the privileges of a misbehaving child or the job of a dishonest employee, and so on. But this is simply clarity. Rocks are hard; you don’t need to fear rocks to take their hardness into account: I know this as an aging rock climber!

Much of the time the fear – the anxiety, apprehension, unease – we trigger in others is mild, diffuse, in the background, maybe not even consciously experienced. But studies show that people can feel threatened by stimuli they’re not actually aware of. Think of the little bits of irritation, caustic tone, edginess, superiority, pushiness, nagging, argumentativeness, eye rolls, sighs, rapid fire talk, snarkiness, demands, high-handedness, righteousness, sharp questions, or put downs that can leak out of a person – and how these can affect others. Consider how few of these are necessary, if any at all – and the mounting costs of the fears we needlessly engender in others.

Think of the benefits to you and others of them feeling safer, calmer, and more at peace around you.

Assert yourself for the things that matter to you. If you are sticking up for yourself and getting your needs met, you won’t be as likely to get reactive with others.

Appreciate that the caveman or cavewoman brain inside the head of the person you’re talking with is automatically primed to fear you, no matter how respectful or loving you’ve been. So do little things to prevent needless fears, like starting an interaction by expressing whatever warmth, joining, and positive intentions are authentic for you. Be self-disclosing, straightforward, unguarded. Come with an open hand, weaponless.

As you can, stay calm in your body. Get revved up, and that signals others that something bad could be coming.

Slow down. Fast talk, rapid instructions or questions, and quick movements can rattle or overwhelm others. Sudden events in our ancient past were often the beginning of a potentially lethal attack.

Be careful with anger. Any whiff of anger makes others feel threatened. For example, a crowded and noisy restaurant will suddenly get quiet if an angry voice is heard, since anger within a band of primates or early humans was a major threat signal.

Consider your words and tone. For example, sometimes you’ll need to name possible consequences – but watch out, since it’s easy for others to hear a threat, veiled or explicit, and then quietly go to war with you in their mind.

Give the other person breathing room, space to talk freely, a chance to preserve his or her pride and dignity.

Be trustworthy yourself, so that others do not fear that you will let them down.

Be at peace. Know that you have done what you can to help prevent or reduce fears in others. Observe and take in the benefits to you – such as others who feel safer around you give you less cause to fear them.

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Hug your inner monkey!

Monkey looking in a mirror

To simplify a complex process, your brain evolved in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

This post is about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

In ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. Today, feeling understood, valued, and cherished – whether as a child or an adult, and with regard to another person or to a group – may not be a life and death matter (though studies do show that survival rates for cancer and other major illnesses are improved with social support), but it certainly affects one’s happiness and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition, and nurturance – or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal, or shaming.

Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it’s important to “hug the monkey” (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.

How?
Try to routinely get a basic sense of feeling cared about. Basically, imagine being in the presence of someone you know wishes you well; it could be a human, pet, or spiritual being, and in your life today or from your past; the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect as long as you matter to this person in some way, such as liking, appreciating, or loving you. Then, based on the fact that this person does care about you, open to feeling cared about in your body, heart, and mind. Savor this experience and really take it in. Help it sink down into you, all the way down into young, tender layers of your psyche . . . and really far down into those ancient primate parts in you and everyone else that desperately need to feel bonded with others, included in the band, recognized, and valued.

Next, get a sense of your own caring nature. Think of someone you naturally care for, and explore what caring feels like in your body, emotions, thoughts, and inclinations toward action. In the same way, explore related experiences, such as being warm, friendly, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, protective, acknowledging, or loving. Here too, really know and take in the sense of what it is like for you to “hug the monkey” in other people.

Now imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself that is involved with caring both for others – and for yourself. My own committee includes the plump fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, an internalized sense of my parents and others who’ve loved me, spiritual teachers, Gandalf, and tough-but-kind coaches on my journey through life.

Who (or what?!) is on your own committee? And how powerful is this committee in terms of caring for you compared to other forces inside your own mind? Since the brain is a giant network with many nodes, the psyche has many parts. These parts often coalesce into three well-known clusters: inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent. (Another way of describing these three clusters is: vulnerable self, attacker, protector.)

In most people, the inner nurturer-protector-encourager is much weaker than the inner critic-pusher-attacker. So we need to build up the caring committee by frequently taking in [link] experiences of feeling cared about – and then to call on and listen to this committee!

So – get a sense of parts within you that want to feel seen, included, appreciated, wanted, respected, liked, cherished, and loved. Everyone has these parts. They often feel young, soft, or vulnerable. As you open to hearing from them, notice any dismissal of them, or minimizing of their needs, or even disdain or shaming. Ask your caring committee to stick up for these parts, and to tell them their longings are normal and healthy.

Imagine your caring committee soothing very young parts of yourself … praising and delighting in older parts of you … offering perspective and wisdom about tough experiences you’ve had … reminding you of your truly good qualities … pulling for the expression of the best in you … hugging you, hugging those soft longing parts inside you, giving them what they need … and feeling down to the soft furry little sweet monkey inside you and every human being, holding and loving and hugging it.

And meanwhile, your young, yearning, vulnerable, or bruised parts – and even your inner monkey – can feel that they are receiving what they’ve always needed, what everyone needs: recognition, inclusion, respect, and love.

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Mindfulness and meditation make a marriage

Like many who are drawn to the Bay Area, Chanda Williams Möllers, a yoga teacher and engineer, was looking for change. Within weeks of her arrival from New York in 2007, she made her way to a San Francisco meditation group affiliated with Spirit Rock. She also started a master’s program that in time led to her recent position as wellness manager at PG&E.

Life was going swimmingly. No boyfriend, but she had developed dating criteria. A potential partner would have a spiritual practice, a supportive family and work he enjoyed. An added bonus would be if he was from a different country. “Americans are too often consumed with consuming,” she explains.

And right there at the meditation group, she met a foreigner: Jurgen Möllers. From Germany, Jurgen had come for a postdoc fellowship at UC Berkeley and stayed on, becoming a personal historian. He’d launched his own company, Storyzon, which produces books on family and corporate histories.

The two were “sangha buddies” for quite some time before Jurgen hatched an idea. Jurgen taught meditation classes at the San Bruno jail. He asked the “joyful” Chanda to team-teach, joining their yoga and…

Read the rest of this article…

meditation expertise.

During the month of planning, the two found more than a professional relationship taking hold: They went to the opera, the beach and the symphony. Chanda came to understand that Jurgen was looking for more than a colleague.

So, as it turned out, was she.

At Orr Hot Springs in 2008, Chanda, in a gesture of mindfulness, asked her beau if anything she could do would bring him more happiness. Jurgen had been secretly carrying a ring for weeks. “Yes,” he replied, pulling a woven ring box from his pocket. “Will you marry me?”

A flummoxed Chanda

stood up, sat down and basically did a dance of confusion before accepting – though at first she hesitated to look at the ring. “It was so unexpected, I wondered if maybe it was a joke,” she says. The supportive Orr community caught the drift and gathered in celebration.

Later that year, the two traveled to northern Germany to visit Jurgen’s family in the small, conservative town in which he’d been raised. Despite their different backgrounds – Chanda is from Flint, Mich. – it was increasingly evident that both their values and families were incredibly similar. Flint, says Chanda, is as far from California woo-woo culture as is rural Germany. “But we are not so different,” says the soft-spoken Jurgen.

In 2009, they married in Jurgen’s village, the first interracial couple to have done so. True to their values, their honeymoon was spent volunteering at Clouds of Hope, a South African orphanage. Chanda taught yoga, while Jurgen worked on writing the history of the remarkable woman who started the organization.

“We get along really well,” Chanda adds. “And we don’t fight.”

“That doesn’t make for a great story,” adds the personal historian, “but it’s the truth.”

On their meditation practice:

Chanda: “Being mindful of our actions is the foundation of our relationship.”

Jurgen: “And the mindfulness extends also to each other.”

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How to de-stress from work worries

meditatingThe Vancouver Sun has a nice, although brief, article on reducing stress.

1. Exercise. It helps to release stress, as it improves overall physical and mental health, and improves sleep. This could include any type of activity or meditation, including yoga, tai chi or even a brisk walk to the store.

I don’t know if meditation strictly counts as exercise, but certainly both physical exercise and meditation are very valuable in reducing stress.

2. Focus on building a strong support network. Relationships are vital to coping with stress throughout the year.

Buddhist teachings place a lot of stress on building a sense of community, with an emphasis on spiritual friendship, lovingkindness, and sangha (spiritual community).

3. Unplug. Slow down your pace by taking a break from all the emails, text messages, meetings and information overload – even if it’s for short periods at a time.

Of course meditating is one way to unplug, and retreats are an important way to take a break from the stresses of our normal lives and recharge our batteries. Avoiding multitasking is also very helpful at reducing stress. “Uni-tasking” has been shown to be more efficient.

4. Keep an appreciation journal. Taking stock of all the good things going on in our lives helps us to regain perspective.

Appreciation is a key component of maintaining positive mental states. In Buddhist practice it’s called mudita or empathetic joy, where we focus on the positive. Sometimes we practice what’s called “rejoicing in merits,” where we consciously name the things we appreciate about ourselves or another person.

5. Re-prioritize. Make time for your passions and explore new ones. Learn to play guitar or learn a new language – find a hobby of personal interest.

It’s crucial that we nourish ourselves. Too often we focus on giving our energy at work and at home. When we get exhausted we often make things worse by numbing ourselves with alcohol or television. True “self-metta” helps us to get in touch with what we really need, and that includes nourishing ourselves through creative pursuits. In the long-term, this is necessary in order that we can keep giving.

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Breathe in, breathe out, fall in love

A New York Times article about the phenomenon of “Vipassana Romance” (falling in love on retreat):

At that point in my life I had never attempted a full day of meditation. I was chain-smoking my way through a series of boyfriends because I had no idea how to be alone. I hated the cold spot in the bed and the empty hangers that rattled in the closet. Which is why I started meditating. I thought I’d try wading into loneliness the way you enter the sea, easing myself into the bone-chilling cold a bit at a time — first toes, then calves, then legs.

Today would be the first time I’d plunge in all the way. I was terrified. But after meditating Vipassana-style for a few months, I also knew how to handle that terror: I would place my fear in a display case, as if it were a diamond, and shine a spotlight on it. Breath in. Breath out. And so this is what I did for hours, until I itched with boredom.

Eventually, I allowed myself to spy on the other people in the room, their shoulders wrapped in blankets, hands fallen open, faces drained of expression. That’s when I noticed him several pillows away: a lanky man in a button-down shirt, his blond hair dangling over a delicate ear. It was hard to make out his face — I was sitting behind him — but I could see that he wore wire-frame glasses that were Scotch-taped at the joint. His corduroy pants had gone bald at the knee. His wrist peeped out of the sleeve, endearingly bony and frail.

Read the rest of the article…

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The ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ phenomenon

When the film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, I was irritated by the film’s ‘token’ inclusion of a deaf character and two gay men. A lesbian friend was less judgemental. She was just thrilled that a mainstream film featured a gay relationship.

Reading Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, and seeing the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, I think I know how my friend felt. The ideas are flawed, but to see Buddhism portrayed positively in popular culture is a delight.

The story – if you don’t know it – is of a thirty-something woman, unsatisfied with her affluent New York life, who goes travelling for a year in search of self-fulfilment. Her quest is successful: she stuffs herself with pizza and pasta in Italy, experiences a spiritual epiphany at an ashram in India and meets the love of her life in Indonesia. Then she writes a best selling book about the whole adventure and earns a small fortune. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘aye, there’s the rub.’ Reviewers have criticised both film and book for their ‘rich girl goes shopping’ tone. Not so offensive as regards pizza and pasta perhaps, but less credible when it comes to spiritual enlightenment and finding the love of one’s life.

Besides, can the quest be genuine when Elizabeth Gilbert is doing it partly for material gain? Can it be genuine if squeezed into a twelve-month space, not to mention a book that has to have a beginning, middle and end? When we see Julia Roberts in character on the bathroom floor sobbing over how her life doesn’t fulfil her, should we be sympathising, or saying ‘get over yourself’ and saving our concern for the earthquake victims of Haiti? Furthermore, most of us aren’t able to leave hearth and home to go ‘find’ ourselves. Does that mean there’s no hope?

These questions pop up uncomfortably again and again as one reads, or watches Eat, Pray, Love, to the extent that the book (very well written) and the film (a visual feast) both become something of a guilty pleasure.

But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The film, and to a greater extent, the book, have merit.

There’s a tradition known as New Journalism, which started in the 1960’s when New York Times journalists decided that to write about something properly, you had to experience it. They went to Vietnam, lived with Hell’s Angels or shadowed rock stars for months in order to get that all-important inside view. And they wrote about their findings in the first person. The ‘I’ viewpoint entered mainstream journalism.

Elizabeth Gilbert is writing in that tradition. We may carp at the circumstance of her quest but it is courageous – she leaves the familiar behind in an attempt to open herself to experience – and as such, it’s a metaphor for all our quests. She may be writing primarily about herself, but she offers that self up as the everyman/woman self of the privileged Westerner on its relentless search for happiness. This comes over more clearly in the book than in the film, in the searing honesty of the line-by-line writing. The book is less simplistic, containing complicated episodes that the film omits. And Gilbert’s unflinching self-analysis has chimed with many readers, perhaps because she articulates Western malaise so well. We have so much: why are we still unhappy?

A friend of mine claimed recently that he’d like to read a novel that wasn’t written by a writer. He was distrusting the craft of story, with its the inevitable distortions. And yet, as Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ We have to bear in mind that Eat, Pray, Love is essentially an art form: a story, not a description of reality.

A spiritual epiphany doesn’t happen on demand, in an ‘it’s Tuesday, so it must be enlightenment’ way. A few months meditating in an ashram and learning from spiritual teachers doesn’t guarantee anything. But it might act as a springboard. Spiritual insights do happen, and although in reality you can probably have them without leaving your own home, if we view Gilbert’s quest in the spirit of story and of metaphor, where one thing stands for another, we may be able to see her work in a more generous light.

Having said all that, the story would undoubtedly have been more interesting if she had returned home overweight, broke and having discovered that the love of her life was a serial womaniser – and still had taken it all on the chin, with equanimity. That would have been an epiphany worth witnessing.

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Auntie Suvanna: Seeking love in the wrong place

strictly ballroom movie poster

What do you do when your heart says “yes” to someone who’s determined to break it? Auntie Suvanna’s wisdom and compassion manifest in advising a woman who’s looking for love in the wrong place.

Dear Auntie,

I have been practicing Buddhism for several years. However, I keep getting caught in the Shempa with this particular man. I am 60 years old and divorced for 8 years. I met this man 3 years ago when I started dancing. He was attentive and pursued me for a short time (I won’t go into details) and then dumped me in pursuit of a 31 year old (30 years his junior) who had emotional problems and confided in him. He told me at first that she was only a friend who saw him as a father figure, but I later found out that they had a sexual encounter. I did not speak to him for about a year but did see him all the time at the dances. But, it goes on.

Because we both love dancing and there is no other place to go, we see each other almost every week. After some time, and given the fact that the girl has moved to California, my rapport with him has been better. Recently, I have seen him a few times under the guise of him wanting to “practice” dance. This has led to a few for lack of better words (since he is now 65) sexual encounters, after which he is very pleasant and then goes his merry way. He calls me his “friend” and best dancing partner he has ever had, and then of course, goes on to take another woman to the dance the next week. I have not been with anyone else, although there have been a few opportunities.

I am ashamed that I can’t keep away from him and always seem pleasant and friendly towards him. I know it has to do with not feeling loved by my father and there are thoughts in my head that if I just am…pretty enough, good enough…then…all of this I know intellectually…I have sent myself Loving Kindness, but, still I am left with this shame that I can let myself be treated so poorly. Because he edges himself into my life as my friend…and because I feel I have no rights since he makes no commitment and I go along with it, I am trapped by my feelings. He is now pursuing someone else at the dance and I see the same MO taking place. I feel that he really wants her and a relationship with her. This of course only makes me feel like chopped liver. I do not want to give up dancing, but seeing them together breaks my heart. I need practices to help me with this. Please!

Seeking love in the wrong place


Dear Seeking Love:

Several years ago Auntie had the idea to write a humorous Buddhist advice column. Since then, the sad relationship questions have been pouring in…well, trickling. So, again, duty calls, and humor will have to wait!

Anyway thanks for all the detail – that is helpful.

Unfortunately the answer for anything that we want to run away from seems to always be to go more into it. There are several angles we could choose. One is how the man feels about other women. Another is how he feels about you. Another is how you feel about him. And finally, how you feel about yourself. Maybe you can guess which one Auntie is going to pursue.

You described how you feel about yourself in terms of shame, I have no rights, I am not pretty enough, and I am chopped liver. What is shameful about loving someone or being fond of someone who does not give you what you want? We are addicted and we chase after sources of suffering. This is being human. There is the idea in Buddhism that the cup is already broken. This applies to the heart as well. Your father maybe helped break it. It was maybe half broken when you were born. Other people probably chipped in. Seeing this and being creative with this is our work. Some level of satisfaction may be achieved when we can lean this far into craving and despair.

You know yourself pretty well and perhaps already know this. This man is not the cause but the occasion of your pain. Yes, many men your age like younger women. And many women much younger than you like older men. But beyond all that, beyond all conceptions of who is a victim and who is not, and who has the power and who does not – seeing for a moment through the veil of craving – it looks like this man is helping you see the vulnerability and tenderness of your own heart. And you don’t want to see that, and none of us do, and yet it is part of our life.

To the degree that you’re acting like you’re ok with the situation, you are participating in it, you are helping create it. Perhaps he doesn’t want what you want. He thinks of you as an FWB (Friend With Benefits). There’s nothing wrong with what he wants, and there’s nothing wrong with what you want – on the other hand he doesn’t know what you want. You are withholding information, trying to protect yourself, but this only makes it more lonely and painful. You cannot protect yourself from the truth, from how you feel, from desire. If you feel bad about yourself, the best thing you can do is be honest.

In terms of more formal practices…Are you familiar with tonglen? Especially what Pema Chodron calls ‘Tonglen on the spot’ — for chopped liver-ness and shame. Just don’t count on it getting rid of the pain. Don’t use getting rid of the pain as the motivation. Let your motivation be that you want to more deeply understand and appreciate your life.

I also suggest not just practicing formal loving kindness meditation, but actively putting more work into deepening friendships and expressing more love in your life. Really being kinder to yourself and to others. For some of us, this might mean going into therapy and/or talking about issues with good friends.

Auntie’s friend Paramananda suggests chanting the Green Tara mantra.

It also could be useful to reflect on the third precept:

I undertake to abstain from harming [even myself] because of sexuality.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment [and straightforwardness], I purify my body.

I haven’t actually read either of these books but perhaps they could help: Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire and Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance.

I hope this has been of some use. If you feel like giving an update later, please do!
Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Relationships: your emotional signature

pen, accompanied by a paperclip bent into the shape of a heart

How do we get unstuck from our emotional patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously? Ponlop Rinpoche explains how awareness and acceptance can help us out of our emotional ruts.

You would certainly recognize your signature on a piece of paper, but do you know your own emotional signature? We all have one. It’s our predictable way of reacting to situations. Your friends probably recognize your emotional signature better than you do. When you get into a fight with your partner, for example, they can predict just how it will go. They know if you’re likely to slam a door, storm out of the house, or call your mother. They know if you’ll be processing the argument for days or immediately shut down and clam up. How do they know so much? They know because they’ve seen it all before. Our behavior may seem spontaneous to us, but to those who know us, we’re not too surprising.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit.

Why don’t we pay more attention to understanding our own patterns? We may have a solid financial plan worked out that will buy us a house, pay for our kids’ college and our retirement, but we don’t give much thought to getting the most benefit out of one of the most precious resources for happiness — our emotions. Often, we just leave it to chance.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit. We have our daily routines all worked out. It’s how we keep our busy lives simple and convenient. We don’t have to decide every day whether we’ll walk to work, take the bus, or drive. We even fall in love and handle our relationships in predictable ways. Just as we have our daily routines, we have habits of thought and feeling that keep our emotional life simple. We don’t have to guess who’s going to pay the bills and who’s going to spend most of the money (although we may talk about it a lot). We have our own special ways of telling our partner, “I’m annoyed with you, don’t talk to me,” or “I’m bored, so I’m not really hearing anything you’re saying.”

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions.

When we’re hurt, scared, furious, or jealous, we don’t have to figure out how to show it. Our emotional triggers are set; they go off in the same ways again and again, carrying us to the same places every time. If we have a habit of blaming, we accuse. If we have a habit of withdrawing, we disappear. If we have a habit of controlling, we threaten. Everyone else we know may be able to predict how our patterns will play out, but we’re often blind to the process. Even when we can predict how we’ll react, it usually doesn’t change the outcome. There’s a popular saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We resist the idea that this anger or this jealousy isn’t justified. We may not like it, but we don’t see how to avoid pulling the trigger.

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions. Emotions are a fundamental part of who you are — an expression of your basic intelligence and creative energy. When you can explore and get to know them without reacting immediately to their energy, they can be a source of wisdom and compassion. They can open your mind and your heart. They can lead you beyond your habitual patterns into new emotional territory. They can teach you generosity, patience, and courage. It’s only when you don’t allow yourself to feel your emotions or when you distort their energy that you can get into trouble with them.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state.

When we operate primarily on the basis of our habitual patterns, we run into problems. At the first flash of emotion, we move so quickly into our habitual ways that we completely miss that first moment. It was so authentic — it could have told us so much. But we never even saw it or felt it. We’ve already lost touch with the fresh, creative energy at the core of our being and skipped to our usual way of expressing our anger or jealousy. The regrettable words have been said, the door has been slammed.

We’re also very judgmental of our emotions. If we think they’re too raw, if we think they’re impolite, we try to dress them up with positive thoughts and make them more respectable. When we manipulate our feelings this way, consciously or unconsciously, we’re trying to get them to match up with our familiar emotional signature. But that’s just another way to lose our connection to their vitality and wisdom.

The Message of our Emotions

If our partner hurts our feelings, offends us or shocks us, we can’t even name the intense emotions we feel at first. The feelings haven’t yet formed into anger or any other solid emotion. For a moment, we’re suspended in a space of pure openness, where anything is possible. If we can just stop and remain in that space for a moment — without any answers or judgments — we have a chance to connect with the wakeful qualities of our emotions and hear their message. Especially in crises of the heart, our emotions are the first responders, but if we jump to conclusions too soon, it’s like we’re ignoring their instructions. They’re trying to tell us which pathways are clear, and where the emergency exits are (this way to insight, that way to humor — and if all else fails, leave before you do something you’ll regret). If we don’t pause and listen to our emotions, we might just end up running back and forth inside a burning building.

We don’t have change everything … we can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we’re stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it’s like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world’s brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what’s on the other side of the mountain.

How do we get unstuck from these patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously?

We don’t have change everything about who we are and what we do. We just have to bring awareness to our thoughts and emotional reactions. We can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment. That’s where we hear a note of music and feel its life force. It’s where we enjoy a laugh, soothe our aches and pains, and feel our heart opening.

Everyone’s emotional signature is different, but we all share the experience of being alive. We all know the joys and sorrows of love and hate, hope and fear, altruism and self-centeredness. And we all instinctively know that life, despite all its challenges, is precious. So, it just makes sense to look into the life we have and find ways to make it as meaningful and happy as possible After all, we don’t throw money away or put artwork in the trash with our junk mail! We take great care of our personal assets, and one of our most valuable and misunderstood resources is our emotions. To become free of the unhappiness they can cause in our relationships, we only have to respect and accept our emotions, moment by moment, and be willing to work with them.

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Zen priest couple share love and much more

“She’s very easy to love,” Greg Fain, 53, says from the couch at the San Francisco Zen Center, where he lives, works and shares his life with Linda Galijan, 51. Both are priests here at the mother ship of American Zen practice; they teach meditation and hold various service positions in this large spiritual community.

“Greg cannot hold a grudge,” Linda replies. “He’s just not able to.”

Often during the telling of their story, these two circle back to their genuine appreciation for each other, and for the path they share. “Our practice comes first,” Greg says, “and from that our relationship is naturally supported.”

Their is “practice,” both explain, the routine of meditation and service within a community to which they’re dedicated. Practice, Linda continues, includes a commitment to compassion and the relief of suffering. It also includes being an early bird: Morning meditation begins at 5:15.

Neither seems surprised by the course their lives have taken since 2000, when they first became involved. Both were students at the Berkeley Zen Center and were sharing a ride to a San Francisco event, when, as Greg puts it, a light went on.

“Greg’s face lit up” says Linda, who was driving. (mid-Bay Bridge.) “But I felt it, too.” It was, they both say, a kind of love at first sight – though they had previously seen each other at the zendo. Yet there was a glitch.

Greg was due to move to Tassajara, a Zen monastery east of Big Sur, in only a matter of weeks. He did so, and there, in the center’s one phone booth, he made nightly calls to Linda, often shivering in the cold in his thin robes.

“Plus, 9 o’clock is like Zen midnight,” Greg jokes, explaining that the couples’ conversations cut into precious sleep time. (At Tassajara, wake-up is around 4 a.m.) For two years, with frequent visits, the two grew closer. Finally, in 2002, Linda moved to Tassajara as well. “To practice Zen,” she says, correcting an assumption that she moved for Greg.

In 2005, well after both had been ordained as priests, the two married at the Berkeley Zen Center, in full robes.

“Many relationships start here,” says Linda, a former psychotherapist. “The practice provides good relationship skills.”

“We do fight,” she admits, and Greg laughs. “But on any given day, our relationship is not about whether we happen to like each other; there is a larger container that is more reliable than that.”

This month, the two will spend their anniversary in Japan, at the monastery from which their tradition sprang. “We’re really Zen nerds,” admits Greg, noting, with a smile, that it is quite possible that they’ll be housed in separate rooms.

On what they admire about each other:

Linda: “Greg has an amazing ability to let go, to be present with an open heart.”

Greg: “Linda doesn’t do anything by halves. She devotes herself to everything she takes on, including the relationship.”

[Louise Rafkin: San Francisco Chronicle]
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Nine ways that a meditating brain creates better relationships

Psychology Today: It’s never too late to have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood

Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”

The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can re-wire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections which support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.

As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional well-being, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results. (I mentioned them in my previous post, Mindfulness Meditation + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships.) I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.

So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.

NINE WAYS THAT A MEDITATING BRAIN CREATES BETTER RELATIONSHIPS

When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, MD, I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions.

Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.

In a way, it’s like re-setting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the “ON” position. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.

2. Emotional resiliency.

Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.

Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.

3. Better, more “tuned in” communication.

Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you — they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff — is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for well-being.

That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well. (More on that in another post.)

4. Response flexibility.

We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just “set us off.” Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.

The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference — creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.

5. Improved empathy.

There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat, or mind-reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).

Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.

6. Improved insight (self-knowing).

Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.

When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to — what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are.

Through meditation practice, the brain gets re-wired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.

7. Better modulation of fear.

If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.

It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas which change in response to mindfulness meditation.

8. Enhanced intuition.

There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of “gut feeling,” usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned “off’?

Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body — our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on — are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know — what we can refer to as “intuition.”

Becoming emotionally “smarter” — by using the extra information from your non-brain parts — enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.

9. Increased morality.

In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?

The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift — something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.

An impressive list! It does take practice — and the practice is simple, but not easy. (Of course, with all of these benefits, there may be some other personal work to be done, if deeper unresolved issues are involved — meditation alone doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for dealing with old wounds and their influences on you.)

The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes with as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.

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