Why self compassion helps us more than ‘self esteem’

Self esteem in later years has been touted as the be all and end all to good mental health and raising healthier children, but is it really, or in our focus on raising self esteem are we really teaching that the true basis of self worth, (which involves acceptance of the fact we cannot always be the biggest or ‘best’ someone) lies in becoming more outer directed and narcissistic rather than inwardly compassionate and empathetic to our own and other’s common humanity which involves a spectrum of all kinds of achievement and non achievement?

It’s a question I have been thinking about, now midway through Christine Neff’s book on self compassion.   She explains how self esteem is often about feeling that our worth is based on measurable things or behaviour, rather than intrinsic sense not only of our own worthiness but of our limitations and foibles as well.  If we think we need to perform in certain ways in order to raise our self esteem and be considered ‘worthy’, accepted or deserving we end up becoming quiet  outwardly oriented, rather than a inwardly focused in sense of  inward security.    We can also become less compassionate.

In counter balance to this self compassion enables us to embrace the whole of our selves even when we may fail to reach goals or act in certain ways not associated with high self esteem.  Self compassion enables us to embrace ourselves in the tough moments and surround ourselves in a blanket of care when we may feel sore or hurting.

The three foundations of self compassion, according to Neff are :

  1. Self kindness.   A sense of being gentle with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental.   Finding ways to self soothe and tap into what Neff calls ‘the mammalian – system’.  Doing this has been proven by research to raise oxytocin levels (the hormone of love and bonding) which also raises feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness while helping us feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.  In contrast habits of self-criticism have been shown to trigger the amygdala and raise our blood pressure, adrenaline and production of the stress hormone cortisol, in turn activating our fight flight brain.  Self criticism also lights up different areas in our brain increasing our stress levels.  Self kindness and self soothing is demonstrated by saying kind soothing things to ourselves in times of stress.  This is really hard right now.  I am with you.   This will hurt for a while but in time the hurt will pass.  It involves tuning in with awareness to how you are feeling or being triggered at that moment, what you are observing, what you are needing and what you require.  When we are not being kind we ignore or dismiss these things maybe because that is what we learned to do as kids due to emotional abandonment, disconnection or neglect.   Working to change inwardly critical self talk is also a huge part of this first component of self compassion.
  2. Recognition of our common human experience.  So often in grief or depression a huge part of our suffering relates to the feeling that we are so deeply alone in this experience and so very far from human aid or care.  This may on many levels be the truth of how it was for us as children in homes where there was not much emotional care or presence or if we are trapped in relationships with non empathic, abusive people.   Post traumatic stress and complex PTSD can also make us feel so alone and terrified at the same time, terrified to reach out only to be hurt again.   We may feel that unlike the rest of the world we are less than or not entitled to care, concern or belonging, when really the truth is that others also struggle with these same feelings as us and we are all worthy of care love and concern.  Such feelings of isolation can then go along with the development of globally negative views about humanity and the state of things.  While it is true that there is so much suffering in the world, the truth is that there is care and kindness too.  However part of a deeply depressive non self compassionate mindset is that we are alone in this, we keep our focus only on the negative as well as those things that hurt, we fail to trust and reach out and understand our interconnectedness and in this state of mind our focus on bad feelings grows.  On the other hand when we realise we are part of a wider humanity in which suffering is an intrinsic part of life we develop more radical acceptance and are more likely to take steps to improve things at the same time as being fully aware of the global nature of suffering.  In reaching out to share or care we move past our disconnection or deep feelings of not belonging.
  3. Mindfulness In self compassion practice mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and non-judgemental acceptance of what occurs in the present moment, including our so called ‘negative’ or difficult states of mind and being.  To give ourselves compassion we have to notice that we are suffering rather than be reacting to our suffering by distancing and dissociating (all of which we cannot notice when we are not being mindful).  “We often fail to recognise feelings of guilt, defectiveness, sadness, loneliness, and so on, as moments of suffering that can be responded to with compassion….When your boss calls you into his office and tells you that your job performance is below par, is your first instinct to comfort yourself?… probably not.”   Being conditioned to ignore our pain, according to Neff means that we are physiologically programmed to avoid it. “Because of our tendency to turn away from pain, it can become extremely difficult to turn toward our pain, to hold it, to be with it as it is. ” When we do this we shut ourselves off from our true emotions and we also lose our ability to learn at a deeper level about the deeper nature of our experience and reactions.  In mindfulness we develop the ability to turn toward our pain, suffering or other bodily sensations becoming aware of them while not exaggerating them.  For example, we can become aware when an emotion such as anger is occurring for us by noticing we are clenching our jaw, feeling heat rise in our body,  feeling a desire to lash out.  In her book Neff gives the example of a man who endured long term emotional abandonment by his mother.  His therapy involved becoming aware of his acceptable anger without lashing out or acting it out in rage on his mother.  With the use of mindfulness as well as the loving presence of his therapist he was able to feel and understand the basis of his anger and become attentive to what it was saying.  He was also in time able to see how his mother’s abandonment was not necessarily associated with a lack of love for him but was due to her doing what she thought was necessary.  He was able to share his real feelings with his mum in such a way that he expressed them, rather than depressed them and they were heard.  Mindfulness was central to this process.  “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”  (Marcel Proust, quoted on P. 118 of Self Compassion)

Mindful ways of working with pain are shared in detail in chapter 5 of Christine Neff’s book, which I highly recommend, she also goes in to more detail about the two other basics of self compassion I have shared in this post.  I have been using a lot of the self compassion practices myself lately,  I used them today when I went for my yearly breast cancer follow up screen check and I was able to calm myself when the therapist left the room for a long tme leaving me alone after telling me I may have a cyst in my breast.

I do believe that self compassion in my own case is far more important to me than high self esteem.  Self compassion gives me a way to be with what is occurring in love and acceptance.  It helps me understand myself and others better.  It is a practice I am very grateful to have found.  It is a practice I want to share more about in upcoming posts.

Self compassion helps us to understand that we are lovable as we are, even if we don’t achieve big things, it teaches us that its okay not to be perfect, to mess up and make mistakes.  It isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour but it is a way of allowing ourselves to soften and go more gently not only with ourselves but also with our fellow humans as we recognise how much we all struggle in the earthly sphere of life where there is often suffering and things are far from ideal and perfect.  It can also encourage to keep growing and be kind in that process rather than self punishing.

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

One of the most healing balms we can apply in life is acceptance.  Its so hard to hear at times that we need to accept painful things that have happened, most especially abuse or the failure to be protected by those we thought ‘should have’.  However what has happened to us has happened and for some of us, perhaps, left deep scars or even a festering wound really as these kind of wounds have not yet formed scar tissues until a way along the journey.

I think at times we can compare our pain to an open wound.  We so suffer unconsciously from what happened to us that is not yet fully known yet leaves its bloody foot prints upon us.  This is where applying unconditional loving presence towards our hurting, painful or contracted places can help.

Christine Neff talks alot about the equation that heads this blog in her book on Self Compassion in the chapter on resilience.  What she says, and what many Buddhist teachers teach, is that it is really our resistance to our pain or things we wish did not nor did not want to happen that causes us even more suffering in the long run.  I know for myself when things don’t go well or I hit a brick wall my immediate response is to try to find a way to more through it or react, that is when I need to pause and bring my energy back deep within in order to move it in a more helpful non resistant direction.   I do this a lot on the road when driving and getting stuck behind a very slow moving car.  I pull back and slow myself even more in this situation.   But I can also see situations in which I did not do this in my personal life and my not accepting and fighting against the certain thing I didn’t like I made things far harder for myself.  That said there is a time to fight for things that are within our power to change when it would be for our own or another person’s good.

We are in the long run human and our reptilian brain does cause us to react.  Christine explains in her book how we are hard wired to escape pain and predators as mammals, those defensive reactions served us well in the past but if we are reacting to being retriggered in the present all the time such responses become counter productive.  In PTSD and Complex PTSD we can get frozen in those responses.

Key to understanding how and why we resist and react is the concept of experiencing emotional flashbacks or what John Lee has called age or emotional regresssion.  I am the midst of writing a post on this concept.   When we age regresss or flash back we are no longer in present time and we often do not recognise it.  We can say things that were better not said, we can get frozen in time.  We can start to try to fix or give unwarranted advice.

I am just reading a book which deals with the concept of being hijacked by what the author calls our ‘toddler brain’ this occurs when we are age regressed and triggered by some kind of cue, perhaps the harsh tone of somone’s voice or undeserved criticism.

When we are in age regression or hijacked by the toddler brain we cannot respond well and with empathy.  We may not see the truth of a situation.  We may lash out.  We may sever friendships.   Getting ourselves back in adult brain takes work for those of us who had difficult or traumatising childhoods that left us with deep attachment wounds.

When we can open to a difficult reaction in the present moment with our full awareness (one of the skills we learn when practicing mindfulness); we can be less reactive.  We can practice self soothing.  The adult part of us can turn toward the inner child and comfort him or her, we can take ourselves into time out in order to have that inner dialogue.  We can also set boundaries with our wounded self in order to take care of him or her and not react.

Christine makes the point in her book that we are more hardwired to remember negative experiences than positive ones.  I guess this is one of the ‘pinning’ aspects of trauma I spoke of in a recent post.  When we are pinned to the negative sticking place we see only threat, we may be flooded emotionally or physically with a panic attack.  In my own case when this happens now I remember to work to take a few deep breaths into my belly because when I pay attention to my body I realise what has happened is that I have frozen my body or stopped breathing something I had to do when trapped in the car waiting to be cut out all those years ago, something I also used to do a lot when my Mum’s energy was upsetting or troubling me.   I have then learned to shift my focus and my attention to something beautiful in the surrounding environment.  I will have to deal it time with things that call me stress and anguish but being mindful in the present moment means I don’t have to ‘blow them up.’

Stopping the running of negative dialogues and scripts is also a part of this process. Often when stressed or panicking if I pay attention to my inner dialogue its all about resistance, saying things to myself like “this is all too hard, all too much. shouldnt be happening” or feeling and telling myself I cannot cope.  Sometimes in order to feel better all I have to do is place my attention on a task in hand that is right before me and start with that one little step instead of looking at the big picture and totally freaking out.

Doing something loving for our body is another way we can draw attention away from pain when we pinned in place and increase the flow of good chemicals such as oxytocin inside.  For example when I woke this morning and push pull symptoms of PTSD began I reached for some hand cream beside the bed and gently applied it to my arms and hands.  This soothing action took me into a gentle, loving, peaceful place.

Decreasing our resistance and lessening our suffering is also about opening to body sensations that may have come from our compulsive need to resist that formed over long years if we were not taught as children to engage in a positive way with challenging emotions.  Burying them inside us is not helpul.  For myself I know how my body has suffered from the chronic tightening that goes with repressed or denied anger I was not allowed or helped to express.  Today I sometimes deliberately tighten my muscles or limbs as an excercise to help them release stress and relax and I find this exercise helps me., but this exercise is totally different to a lifetime in which we had to bite down hard on difficult emotions and experiences.

All in all there are many things we can do to deal mindfully with our pain so that it doesn’t have to turn into deeper suffering.  Self compassion, mindfulness and learning to work with painful sensations, thoughts and emotions are all ways we can apply the soothing, healing balm to our wounded, contracted, hurting or fearful places.

 

A beautiful interview on being fully present

The gem of wisdom in this interview comes towards the end, so stay with it.  “To be loved means to be recognised as existing”  fully in all of our suffering.  I have been an admirer of Thich Nhat Hanh for some time.  This beautiful interview toward the end gives some lovely advice on how to listen and be fully present with compassion for others and also for our selves.  We can use his mantras to talk kindly to ourselves when we suffer too.

 

Sadly, we don’t always trust our emotions

Allow.jpg

In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as somethign alien, other, separate from us.  From Plato onwards the ‘passions’ have be viewed as our ‘lower nature.’  Regarding the source of the passions, as Freud did, as an ‘it’ (id), ‘a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement’, makes it hard to develop a friendly relationship with emotions or accept them as part of ourselves.  This view of emotion as primitive and alien is a classic form of dualistic Western thinking.

As a result of regarding emotions as other, we feel the need to rid ourselves of these alien forces invading our system, either by acting them out or suppressing them.  Yet this fear of our emotions indicates how alienated we are from ourselves.  First we are alienated from our own energy, making it other and judging it negatively.  Then we start to imagine these emotions are demonic, that we have monsters in side us. The irony is that in judging and controlling our emotions, we become further overwhelmed by them, which leads to explosive eruptions that leave us all the more alienated from ourselves.  In treating emotions as other, we grant them dominion over us.  Suppressing emotions and acting them out are both alienated, afflicted strategies that prevent us from experiencing emotions as they are, face to face.

John Welwood : Toward a Psychology of Awakening

An alternative way of regarding our emotions is to understand them as part of us, an intrinsic part of our raw and vital aliveness, expressions of basic life energy moving through us.  The saddest part of suppressing our emotions is that we lose access to this liveliness and depression is often a result.  We become split and divided from our essential engine of soul/spirit in body that guides us and keeps us in touch with life through our emotions and our felt sense of being.

Gendlin addressed the concept of felt sense in his book Focusing.   A particular feeling such as sadness may actually have different layers of feeling associated with it and there are ways we can use to get in touch with the felt sense of a particular feeling in order to come in touch with the more essential part of our being and vital aliveness underlying certain emotions.

At first the felt sense that lies beneath an emotion may not be very clear to us, most especially if we are conditioned to run from or over express certain emotions in such a way, rather than be in touch with them, instead we then tend to become over powered.  This is because often an emotion is a more intense form of feeling.  For example sadness can build into grief, irritation may erupt into rage, a feeling of fear may turn into panic.  When feelings become intensified in such a way they do tend to  overtake us and we need a strong sense of attention to be able to contain and feel and hold the feeling and observe how it may build into something more intense and wisdom to see what lies under it and may be motivating us.

In his book Toward A Psychology of Awakening, therapist John Welwood describes such a situation as ’emotional entanglement.  He explains how a feeling of sadness can be amplified by the way in which we choose to respond to it.  Whether we resist or judge ourselves for it thinking or seeing it as a sign of something wrong, annoying or unwanted.  This can happen when a feeling threatens our self image and then we can start to tell ourselves stories about the feeling we are having most of which tend to magnify it or make it far harder to engage with in a productive way.

reacting against feelings – fearing fear, being outraged about anger, becoming depressed about sadness – is much worse than the primary feelings themselves, for it turns us against ourselves and causes us to go around in emotional circles.  As we spin around in the cycle of feelings – giving rise to highly charged thoughts, our perception becomes cloudy, and we often say or do things we later regret.

Cutting through this tendency to get lost in emotionally driven thoughts and stories requires a certain discipline, which psychotherapy and meditation provide in different ways.

Working in a therapeutic way with our psyche involves unpacking the deeper felt sense underlying emotions and stories we tell, it is a way of tapping more deeply into underlying meanings and responses beneath emotions.  In fact certain emotions may be pointing towards a need we must address.  For example sadness may be a reason to look at the ways in which we are missing happiness, joy and connection in our lives, or an indicator of loss we need to work through.   Anger may be a message that we need to express certain feelings and needs to someone who is hurting us or a sign we need to treat our frustration and discomfort gently by setting a boundary or sharing a truth.  Fear may be a sign that something isn’t safe for us or we may need to take care.

Without access to our feelings we either split them off and denigrate ourselves or let feelings build and build intensifying with the punishing stories we can tell.   If instead we can open our minds and hearts to our bodies and the feelings that may have valuable messages for us, if we can welcome them in and pay mindful attention we may learn a valuable lesson in self care and find a sense of calm, connection, contentment and rest that does not come if we are continually fearing them and pushing them away

Judging affects our body

This is another post inspired by Byron Brown’ book Soul Without Shame. Ever since starting to read about it I have been connecting the dots on so many things, on how John Bradshaw years ago connected addiction and disconnection with the inner child to toxic shame, pointing out how often addicts came from religious or other overly controlled and controlling households where certain feelings and expressions meet with hostility, rejection and shame becoming ‘shame bound’.   Shame bound feelings explains a state where you cannot have a feeling such as sadness or anger without also feeling ashamed for the pure fact of having it, you then have a lot of feelings locked up inside that you exist in a deeply problematic relationship with.

Shame becomes internalised in this state of being and feelings can only be had under her cover of night.  If we have a lot of anger over stuff that happened to us we swallow it down since it would be shameful to express it and then we become the super nice do good people pleaser who jumps through hoops by day but becomes on fire at night or when drunk with blind reactions or rages.  We then wake up and feel ashamed about the shadow energies that came alive in us when we took the risk to shut the judge up with some form of numbing.

Recovery opens us to a cacophony of feelings bound in shame that we can no longer suppress, we try extra hard to work on our recovery and ‘become good’ but the fact is that our self judged ‘bad’ isn’t really bad at all, its just repressed life energy now bound in shame and fear and we no longer have the liberation of the ‘numb’ to at least let us blow off some steam.  Now we not only have to feel but we need to feel what is real for us in a body that is slowly waking up or becoming less numb.  How will we allow this when the  judge that is on our case exists inside us an energy of self suppresssion?

I cant clearly articulate any kind of process or formula here of the ‘way out’ as so many of us find our own ways out of toxic shame.  We all have our own unique battle with the forces of judgement and self judgement we have internalised but what may help some of us most particularly on a somatic/emotional level is the recognition of how shame and self rejection of our needs, wants, desire, meaning and feeling may manifest on a bodily level.  We can engage in a process of self monitoring towards what happens in our body when we try to meet certain standards. and react to inner and outer judgements and shame.

Late last week I also began to read the book Power Over Panic in which the author draws attention towards perfectionism, control, the need to impress others or live to certain ideal standards that are not realistic and panic attacks.   Apparently a panic attack can only happen when there is resistance on one level to an emotional truth which we are attempting to suppress or deny.  Such information interested me since I have suffered from a host of weird body symptoms and manifestations of anxiety ever since my marriage ended just under 13 years ago    Slowly while reading this book I was connecting the dots, dots which are becoming even more connected now reading Byron Brown’s book on shame and the inner critic.

The chapter I am currently reading speaks about developing a process in which we become attentive to what goes on in our body as we talk to ourselves in certain ways.  I have noticed in myself that a state of contraction comes with feelings of fear and shame and with inner voices saying things around me are out of control or not perfect enough.  I have noticed too how a deeply compassionate loving attitude in which I put my focus on my heart and the opening healing breath actually allows my being and consciousness to expand and the result may be tears of relief and release following often by feelings of joy, peace and happiness.  I am noticing more and more how my own consciousness can both contract and expand as I judge not only myself but others as well.  It is enlightening to me and so I wanted to share my own insights around how I am noticing judgement impacts and affects my body, for we live in such a judging culture that is externally focused in this day and age, is it therefore any wonder that anxiety conditions are so prevalent.  I am sure it is in no way a new insight, but it is one that I am coming to understand and become aware of more and more lately.

Soft : A Hymn to Body

forest

Soft like a blanket

Insider knowing

You rain realisation down

You, the body/soul that long ago

Became too painful for me to enter

You, body/soul are calling me home

Showing me where sadness is created

Birthed from emptiness of the disconnected kind

When we are not truly touched and embraced

And of how wholeness is felt

When my awareness is returned to you

Feeling I had no place to rest before

Left me with no true home in you body

Endless distancing

A painful repeat of all the times I was sent so far away

I lost contact with you body due to grief and loss

Buried so deep inside

But now I know

Pain asks of me this softening

Soul you demand

That I become pliable as a reed

Capable of moving with the wind

That wants bend me

To a new purpose

Wants to form me

Into a body of substance

Body you are the home I always longed for

You give me the answer to secrets

I could not know in any other way

And when I embrace you

There is love I find beating here

Deep inside my chest

Soft body

No longer brittle, angry, defensive

Imprisoning me within hardness and misunderstanding

Hurting defended against with armour

Soft body you show me there can be a end

To running

To restlessness

To go, go, go

A homecoming found

In mindfulness, attention and soothing

Shining its light

On fearful, tense, contracted, suspicious places

Body how you long

To be covered by a soft blanket

Given shelter from tormenting thoughts

Of not good enough

Done wrong

Illusions all

Body teach me

I am open

You are my temple

Show me how to come home to a space

That in containing it

Has the capacity to transform suffering

And bring me peace

Use everything on the path

There is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhism of trantric practice and I not speaking here of sexual tantra but of the practice in which every trait, experience, quality and feeling, both so called ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ is used on the path to awakening : absolutely nothing is discarded.  This practice requires of us an opening to those aspects of our so called ‘shadow’ that, particularly in my Catholic background, we were conditioned to regard as unacceptable and unlovable, such as selfishness, anger and jealousy or even sexual feelings of wanting and desire.

On the tantric path it is believed that our nature is fundamentally good, there is a part of us that lies beneath all of our conditioning and perceptions which we have acquired that has a quality of clear light and we can shine this light on the darkest spaces in our soul instead of pushing them away or try to cleanse or remove them in order to make ourselves appear ‘shinnier’.   Indeed our fundamental belief that we are some how better or of more value if we shine and are happy instead of walking around dull, clouded and upset or depressed is such a huge part of our western culture.

What  we resist tends to persist. What we open to embrace and shine the clear light of the heart and soul’s loving compassion on tends to transform in some way.   You will have experienced this yourself if you have been able to be truly present to your heart and inner self in times of great sadness and anger, if you can just be with quality of the experience, truly feeling it instead of resisting it or making up stories about it such as “this is just so bad and wrong its unbearable”, “if I open to this it will kill me”, or even “if I open to this others will reject or kill me!” in time the feeling does tend to dissipate and transform.

And writing this Rilke’s quote about things coming to us and asking help of us comes to mind.

Everything

I am not sure Rilke knew of tantric practice but he did know great suffering in his life. This is evidenced in his writing which is full of wisdom and advice on how we can be kind, loving and accepting to ourselves and our demons even in the most wounded places.

I have been practicing in this way for some time now.  Following my godmother’s death on Wednesday I was flooded with memories, images and feelings of the past.  I listened all day on Thursday to the Carpenters as one of my most special memories is that it was my godmother who took me to the shops in Sydney to buy my first ever album with was A Song for You   Some of the songs on it are so sad and come out of deep feelings Karen Carpenter must have struggled with.  I used to listen to this album after school on the days when there was no one home and I was all alone.  It is very sad to me that in some way my soul really identified with some of the deepest songs on that album such as Bless the Beasts and the Children and the haunting Road Ode even in my early teens.

Listening to the music on Thursday put me in touch with my heart and with old memories, it helped me to touch base with grief so that I could release it in tears and come to deeper understanding of how I really felt over all of those heartbreakingly lonely years where I struggled.  The feelings broke apart and left me in a clearing by late Thursday I was able to cry in therapy and really be validated.

To me this process of opening my heart to suffering doesn’t mean I have to get stuck there.  It means I open a door to awakening to realities I could not if the door was kept shut.  And in time being able to feel it means I am reconnected from a deeper place.  I don’t need to struggle to ‘let go’, instead the feelings actually let me go when they have been acknowledged, they were just beating on the door of my heart asking to be let deep inside and praying the door would not be closed on them again.  And once I could feel and release them I felt such a weight removed from my soul.

When things ‘look’ bad : some thoughts on perception and mindfulness!

Head stream

I am thinking about perception today.  What it is that makes some of us see sunshine and rainbows while others heads are full of clouds and storms even when the sun is shining.   I seem to have a state of mind in which things can become negative.  I am no fan of false ‘positivity’.  I actually think it can be very damaging to be told you need to look on the positive side of a very damaging, abusive or heart breaking situation and yet there is usually some kind of silver lining if you are not totally inundated by negative experiences and abuse which, after all, is where so many of us find ourselves at the start of a hard healing journey.

If friends or emotional support or a good validation are absent it can become even harder.  In my own case I have seen a very entrenched suicidal depression lighten over the past few years as my connections with positive, connected and validating people have grown, still at times I also battle inner forces and perceptions that focus on decay and the dark side, particularly when I am alone in my home.  It can seem as though decay surrounds me, that I am not ‘keeping on top of things’ as others do.  I put a lot of pressure on myself to have things looking good and I am also aware at times that I do get pulled into addictive bad habits which is when a positive inner parent needs to step in to nurture and take care of my wounded inner child in more loving ways.

Wounded child is not a great place to spend heaps of my time if love isn’t being given in some ways to make things better, and so often that love has to come from inside me in terms of my self talk.   But its a fine line between imposing positive self talk and being able to be with what is arising when it is painful and difficult while giving it space without allowing the ‘bad’ to dominate my consciousness.   These days I spend less time in these states and encourage myself to see if there is some kind of positive solution, something I can do to ease the loneliness and pain or the negative thoughts when they can begin to dominate especially those thoughts are being driven my other thoughts that are perfectionistic in nature.  And I guess at base this is practicing a kind of mindfulness around my inner thought processes while tapping into a more loving, nurturing witness being inside that can raise rather than lower my vibration.

I notice the critical negative thoughts seem to be triggered for me when I return home to my house alone after being out.   The inner critic is so powerful at these times that I nearly lose consciousness of the ‘good’.  I guess becoming aware of this pattern is the most important thing for me, for once I can see and name it : that is the first step towards making a change.

I was thinking today of how helpless and passive and hopeless I used to feel in my life.  I truly felt I had no power. It was such a terrible place to live and when I see it in others my heart aches for there are people out there in situations where their power has been stolen and there is not a lot of support.  I can’t afford to have a Pollyanna view of these situations of real suffering such as the plight of refugees on Manus Island.  Seeing these kinds of situations can put my own into perspective. The lonely tough days can be hard but there is usually something I can do and some way to comfort myself.  Today I reminded myself that the things that sometimes look ‘bad’, are not really.  A bit of mess or broken things lying around is not ‘bad’ : the feeling that it is all comes out of my conditioning.  Mindfulness reminds me of a different perspective, one that can build me up rather than tear me down inside.

Mindfulness and panic attacks : some insights from Debra Campbell.

We are not problems to be addressed or sentences to be corrected. (Our) fault lines have a beauty and history that reach back before words.  They must be honoured.  They can’t completely be talked away, although this can help.  They won’t be bulldozed into non existence.  The past that put them there cannot be changed .  It can be tolerable, even good, to sit with the fault lines, with ourselves, in the courage and grace of being with what is.  Although the cliffs of the fault lines are dangerous, their genesis holds many clues about our personality formation, the wisdom of our feelings and some cautionary tales.

Mindfulness is a way of living with more awareness and less judgement, connected to a deeper sense of self.  In great panic and anxiety, alone on the cliff face, it can be the cable that holds you from plummeting and that gently reels you up from a fall.

The above excerpt is from the chapter on Mindful Love in Debra Campbell’s book Lovelands. In it she addresses a client, Alex’s panic attacks which were crippling and entirely overpowering in their severity.  I must say suffering the same up to two or three a day meant that the information in this chapter moved me to tears by the end.

Debra worked with Alex to develop a mindfulness practice which would allow Alex to stand present with himself through the abject terror of his panic attacks.  As Debra explains there were fault lines and deep fissures in Alex’s development.  His father had never fully parented him, leaving him with out a feeling of safety in life.  As  a young child, Alex had watched terrifying movies with his Dad which makes me feel his father must have gone through some kind of terror that he was passing onto his son or at the very least showing a lack of protection to his son’s developing consciousness.

Alex became obsessed with the darker side of life, this was what his childhood had opened him up to but his father had never really provided him with the support or resources he needed to cope in a life in which he often felt unconsciously overwhelmed.  In end Alex needed help with this and with Debra’s  assistance, guidance, support and love over time he learned how to self parent.

Staying mindfully with ourselves is the deepest form of self parenting.  But often we need a guide or midwife along the way for our soul, for alone we often get sucked into deep crevasses and fault lines not of our own making especially if we lacked attunement, protection, guidance and support in childhood to deal with big feelings.  Mindfulness practice gives us a  way forward to breathe and focus on the love in our hearts that can contain the fear, emptiness, loneliness, frustration, confusion and pain, a way of seeing that they are residues of a deeply unconscious past that can dog us well into adulthood, a painful past that doesn’t need to be a life sentence but does need to be understood.

Mindfulness can help us to become aware of some of the story lines we are running around our fear, and a deeper understanding of how our fear of our fear is the most challenging issue, keeping us stuck and preventing us navigating the crevasses which have lessons for us, without getting stuck there.

Often the origin of the attacks stems from a combination of factors or from being under too much stress for too long.  An exhausted soul’s fight or flight mechanism may mistakenly smell unseen danger everywhere, becoming hyper vigilant and increasingly activating the false alarm of panic with little or no reason.

Understanding when and why this is happening to us is very important.  The connection Debra makes in this chapter between being too overwhelmed often and left with out protection speaks to me of emotional neglect.  I got an enormous insight into my own panic attacks in this chapter.  I was moved to tears.  In the end Alex made friends with himself in the midst of his attacks and life became less frightening.

Concluding the chapter Debra has this to say :

Mndfulness helps you find the capacity to be with the inevitable pain that life dishes out.  Of tremendous value to me was finding such a practical everyday way to become less afraid of my depressive and anxious demons that drove me relentlessly back to my faultlines.  I had found a way to make friend with every part of myself and see every thought and feeling as an event, neither good nor bad, unless I decided it was so.

She ends the chapter by saying mindfulness, in opening her insight into her flaws also enabled her to glimpse new hope and possibilities not by trying to shut the door on or run away from them but through looking them closely in the face and not being turned to stone like Medusa.

Mindfully in the moment I breathe

What a paradox

To be mindfully in the moment

Means I am with my experience

And touch my thoughts lightly

Only to let them go

And put the focus on my breath

Noticing where it flows

Noticing the sensations on my skin

And in my body

And the feelings that arise

That tell me I am alive

Fear and terror of past pain

Makes me pull back from sensation

Too acute

It feels as though I am dying

And there is death in no forward movement

In holding on too tightly to the breath

As thoughts of fear run rampant

Touching then lightly

I let them go

I return to the breath

To the sensations in my body

To what fear feels like

Beyond thoughts of the mind

Noticing them and letting them go

I feel life again

Flowing through me

Love arises here as I open

Love and softness

Touching past pain

Letting it go

While feeling it deeply

Telling me I am alive