Beyond Self-Esteem: How appreciating others can help you to value yourself

About a month ago, I set a conscious intention to be less self-critical and to increase self-esteem. Several weeks afterward, I had an insight during a sitting meditation. It came to me seemingly out of nowhere. I was just easing into the present moment, not thinking of anything in particular. Then, it suddenly occurred to me: When I don’t value myself, I also depreciate everybody who made me who I am right now. On the flip-side, appreciating other people who had a beneficial impact on my life can help me value myself more.

First, on a biological level being overtly critical of myself means being critical of generations of people who came before me and transmitted their genes. But this goes much further. When I trace back the lineage, it includes human evolution and the origins of life on the planet as a whole. Imagine you rewind your life history from the day of your birth hundreds, thousands, and millions of years back. Phylogenetic relationships, cause, and effect, make us embody knowledge and information that we’re not fully aware of. It’s vast potential. Thinking of myself as a self-contained individual cuts me off from greatness. Mindfulness of relationships makes me feel esteem. But let’s fast forward again.

Second, since my son was born, I have become more mindful of what it takes to raise a child. I have become more appreciative of the efforts and sacrifices that were made to keep me alive and make it into adult age. Think of all the efforts that went into feeding you, bathing you, and sheltering you. You would not be reading these lines if they would have been entirely absent. As infants and children, we are so vulnerable. We can’t make it without somebody giving us at least some degree of love and care, even if it was only for moments you cannot remember. Infants die when left on their own without any support die. I’m still around and so are you.

Third, I’m made up by what I learned from my partner, parents, teachers, and peers, or people who randomly influenced my life. Who makes up the person you are in this moment? There is a whole bunch of people who more or less directly affected who I became and who I am right now. There have always been others who have given me something that made my day that made my life worth living. Can you remember anybody or any situation in which you received a gift, perhaps a smile, some wisdom, or a simple present? Have you carried it with you in your heart? Is it part of you now? I’m confident that you will find something, even if it takes some assistance.

Finally, I embody everybody who came before me and influenced me up to this moment. Would I ever want to devalue all of these people? No. Having self-esteem means becoming more aware of how my environment and the people who are part of it shaped who I am. This awareness enables me to value myself more. For me the fact that I am part of something bigger than myself is comforting. Appreciating everything that made me exist, survive, and thrive is empowering. On the flip-side, you and I leave an imprint on others, too. Think of somebody who received something from you, perhaps something that changed this person’s life in a particular moment, such as a smile or kind words.

Ethics, Meditation, and the Need for Therapists Self-Care

“This client is a mess!” On multiple occasions, I have heard therapists talk about the people who seek their consultation in patronizing, disrespectful or even abusive ways. This ranged from lack of empathy and reducing somebody to psychopathology to blunt insult. Sometimes I felt outraged. Why do marriage and family therapists, clinical counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have chosen a profession dedicated to serving people to recover from mental illness lose empathy?

I concluded that it must be about burnout in a high-stress work environment when therapists talk disrespectfully about their clients. Of course, there were times when I was talking or at least thinking of clients in less than friendly ways, sometimes probably without being aware of it. When I’m not doing well, I can’t support others. Psychotherapists have the responsibility to be their best selves to assist their clients and to make ethical decisions on an ongoing basis. I believe that self-care can help prevent burnout and compassion fatigue through a reflective meditation practice.

Today, self-care is an imperative in highly stressful therapeutic work environments with ever-higher workloads and training requirements. It has become a buzzword in the mental health field that can obscure more significant social and organizational problems that cannot be resolved by individual therapists. Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma may be the result of unrealistic expectations of productivity in which numbers rather than people count. To prevent them large healthcare companies commonly encouraged therapists to “take care” of themselves. Employers may readily associate meditation and mindfulness with self-care. These practices are supposed to recharge exhausted therapists so they can get the job done. I found that self-care through reflective meditation can be more than just becoming better equipped to stay on a treadmill. It may be about changing body and mind as well as relationships with others in unexpected ways. For me, meditation has become a comprehensive form of self-care that helps me to cultivate contentment, to know myself better, and to become ethical.

 

Caring means cultivating contentment

The first avenue towards self-care through meditation is probably the most intuitive: meditation can help relax and recharge the exhausted therapist to foreclose knee-jerk reactions to challenging situations. It can help shift gears and activate the parasympathetic nervous system that makes me ‘rest and digest’ – if I allow it.

“Is it selfish to just take time for me to rest and enjoy?” a colleague asked me recently. I was able to relate to the question. For me, a central obstacle to benefiting from peaceful and pleasurable states during meditation has been my reluctance to allow them.

Many years into my meditation practice I noticed that there was a sense of guilt when it came to relaxation and pleasure. In part, this was a result inflexible instructions that caution practitioners vehemently to not become attached to pleasurable states. I often worked too hard to calm the mind, which was of course counterproductive. Now I know for sure that I don’t want meditation to be some sort of self-discipline that has the result of treating myself harshly. Don’t get me wrong, it can be helpful to have a schedule for sittings and to stick with one particular instruction for a while, but I found that this only makes sense when it leads to more ease and gentleness with myself, more care.

I don’t want self-care through meditation become another “should” that makes me feel bad about myself when not performed “correctly.” For me just taking some time to step out of everyday life’s busyness and to do nothing, in particular, can be a form of meditation. I found that adjusting my posture, changing it, laying down, and letting my mind wander can all be part of an open meditation practice. I don’t have to pay attention to anything, in particular, to allow a whole range of pleasurable states to arise. Just permitting myself to rest may lead to a deep relaxation that can come with a feeling of interconnection and being cared for, perhaps the ultimate form of ‘self-care.’

Once my nervous system has calmed and becomes less emotionally reactive, I am usually in a better position to make ethical decisions in everyday life as well as in consultations with clients. Relaxing, calm, and pleasurable states during meditation may set the stage for distinguishing ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ off the cushion. But I found that the cultivation of tranquility is not enough for self-care to become wholly transformative.

 

Caring means getting to know the self

Self-care through meditation can be about more than taking a break from hard work to recharge and go back to the same situation. It can lead to self-knowledge and insights about how to act ethically. To care for the self, I have to know the self. For me, this can include an awareness of a boundary crossing that had gone unnoticed. During meditation and in reflections afterward, I can catch unconscious needs and wants. Just noticing them during the sitting and redirecting myself to the save heaven of the breath might not be enough to get to know what is going on in my inner world.

Self-care through meditation can also be about processing and integrating thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and desires. For me, this is only possible if I am ready to follow a train of uncomfortable, embarrassing, or even painful experiences for a bit during meditation. This openness to my mind as it is in the present moment became an ethical practice that requires ongoing self-reflection. When I meditate I allow myself to experience whatever comes to mind. It is not about getting rid of my needs and wants but rather to become aware of them. Attended to with care my inner world may hold surprising answers to ethical dilemmas that I’m unable to tackle through linear rational thought. I might get answers to questions I couldn’t even think of when I allow myself to be curious. As a result, it may become easier to feel empathy and more likely that I remember values that I want to live by because I can put thoughts and feelings about my own and other’s actions into perspective.

For me, the key to knowing myself and my experience through meditation is a doubling that can take place by writing down what has been going on during the sitting and thereby opening up the possibility of reflecting upon it afterward. Moreover, talking with other people about the experience and being asked questions about it sheds light on blind spots that I would not have thought of before. An awareness of my unconscious habits and desires is key to making choices about where to go next and what ethical decisions to take to take care of others and myself. This reflective process may result in the development of longer-term dispositions in regards to how I want to present with people who seek my consultation as well as in relationships more generally.

 

Caring means becoming ethical

Finally, self-care through meditation can result in the development of moral qualities. If I get to know my inner world and myself, I can start to make conscious choices about how I want to act and about the type of person or therapist I want to be. Ethical self-reflection is about the development of ‘character’ or a preferred identity.

Momentary insights about myself in a relationship with others gained upon meditative reflection can lead to what has been called virtue in philosophy. Virtues such as honesty, integrity, or kindness may have universal value. However, what qualities to focus on and how to apply them may depend on where you come from as well as on the particularities of an ethical challenge. I learned that in Greek philosophy the care of the self was the foundation of ethics, a notion of self-care that has been largely forgotten today. It was about skillfully monitoring, managing, and challenging personal needs and wants to develop one’s moral character. Today, virtue ethics can complement the ethical codes of professional organizations that require conformity rather than personal development on behalf of the therapist.

Virtue ethics take into account that the personal and the professional are interconnected. It is about how to be a good person or a morally good therapist who can make choices about how to show up with people who seek consultation and how to handle power differentials adequately. Thus, virtuous therapists are motivated to do what is right because they judge it to be right, not just because they feel obligated by their professional associations or the fear of negative consequences of an action.

A reflective meditation practice that includes journaling and conversation about the content of one’s experience allows for an ongoing ethical development of the therapist. It does not give universal answers but rather prepares the ground for better-informed decision-making that takes into account more variables of a situation. This approach goes with questions like “What thoughts, emotions and body sensations am I aware of as I consider this ethical dilemma, and what are they telling me to do?” “What decision would best define who I am as a person,” or “Who do I want to be as a therapist?” Caring here is about cultivating personal qualities that I can feel good about in the face of ethical dilemmas and actions that are congruent with my therapeutic approach as well as my self-image.

 

Comprehensive self-care

During meditation, self-care can take the form of relaxation, self-knowledge, or the development of virtues. One session may primarily focus on one of these processes. However, for me most of the time they are interlinked, both in a particular meditation sitting as well as in an ongoing practice over time.

Sometimes self-care requires calm states of mind for undervalued or hidden thoughts and feelings to arise. Once I get to know them better in a particular situation, I can make a conscious decision about the care that is often no longer just about myself. It involves making decisions about who I want to be in relationships with others. This mindful awareness may include correcting some of the stories my mind makes up to divert my attention from boundary crossings or violations. Insights in the wake of meditation can lead the way. Some bright moments have made me reduce my workload and therefore the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. Other insights motivated me to challenge unethical practices at work. When they were resolved, I felt less stressed, no need to return to a treadmill.

A comprehensive approach to self-care cannot guarantee ethical decision-making in the everyday practice of clinical counseling, psychotherapy, and life. But it can make it more likely to move into a more thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate direction. Comprehensive or integrative self-care is an ongoing process that does not end with relaxation, a particular insight, or virtue. Self-care through a reflective meditation practice seems to require the whole person to become ethical anew again and again in every new situation to take ‘good’ care.

 

Valuing ‘Monkey Mind’: Towards Experience-Near Mindfulness

Long live monkey mind. Over the past years, I explored innovative forms of mindfulness that help me understand my world and experience better by allowing thoughts and emotions in meditation. I used to be convinced that I’m not a good meditator or that I will never be able to be fully mindful. Then I found out that this was largely the case because the instructions I used were counterproductive.

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For a long time I thought that I have a “monkey mind” that can never be still and calm. In some respects I do, but things are a bit more complicated and interesting. There is hope for anybody who cannot calm one’s inner chit chat by force. In an open and experience-near form of mindfulness having a “monkey mind” or being easily distracted and driven by seemingly random thoughts and feelings is not an obstacle but an entry point into exploration, insight, and more knowledge about ourselves and our worlds.

For many years I set myself up with instructions that told me to come back to the breath or the body when my mind wants to go somewhere else. But when I force myself to focus on some object of attention for a longer period of time my mind naturally wanders. Standard mindfulness instructions suggest to gently take attention back to the original object of focus.

The metaphor used is training a puppy who constantly wants to run away. Well, I found that constantly telling myself “sit, sit, sit” does not have the effect of being gentle with myself. Most long-term practitioners have difficulties with focusing their attention on an ongoing basis without being distracted. For me sustained concentration has only been possible when I was removed from society and everyday life. Many years ago I thought the inner silence reached on long-term retreats would be ideal meditation. It became the gold standard for measuring the progress and quality my meditation: having a clear mind without thoughts, just perfect balance, ideally all the time. But this was a set-up.

I found out that my mind settles down naturally when I don’t try hard to be a good meditator and when I allow myself to be with whatever experience comes up in an open and nonjudgmental way. It may be only for a couple of minutes in a longer sitting but these moments come with ease. On the one hand, this makes meditation much easier because I don’t set myself up for failure by trying to do the impossible, that is forcing myself to not have thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, it is also challenging since the thoughts and emotions that come up may be scary, annoying, or uncomfortable.But even if they are, when I take an accepting or tolerant stance towards them they become less threatening. In fact, there is a lot to learn about how I routinely deal with myself and my world.

When I get insights about how automatic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior work, it becomes clearer to me what conditions have negative effects and what kind of conditions have positive ones. This is the first step towards making informed choices based on understandings gained during meditation.

Another effect of allowing thoughts and emotions into meditation is that even if I think of my experience as negative, I might find that there is much positive content in my mind that is pushed towards the periphery of awareness. Bringing this content more to the center of attention helps me to become aware of things that make me feel good about myself and others. This positive and life affirming inner self-talk would go largely unnoticed or pushed aside when I would constantly try to focus on a precontemplated object of focus.

For more information about experience-near mindfulness see Sati Sangha https://satisangha.org/and read “Unlearning Meditation.”

 

 

Mindfulness and Depression: A Matter of Acceptance?

Are you able to accept depressed mood as it is? Being more accepting of negative thoughts and emotions does not necessarily mean to give up. In the contrary, it can be the first step toward change. In one of our recent mindfulness meditation group sessions in Hillcrest some participants noted that “depression” is not necessarily a “bad thing.” This was a keen statement that made me think about mood disorders in new ways.

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There is something I would call the “depression paradox” in America. On the one hand, people feel depressed perhaps more than ever before in human history, on the other hand, it seems to have become ever more unacceptable to feel down.

In the American popular culture there is a tacit imperative to claim that everything is fine even if that’s simly not true.  Particularly in Southern California to smile and be happy all the time can be an expectation that is not conducive to wellbeing. Feelings of sadness are commonly not talked about. Above all, it is unacceptable to display them in public even though going inward and being unhappy can be an important way of processing life events.

As a family therapist I meet many people who have difficulties to accept that symptoms of depression such as hoplessness, irritability, loss of energy or interest in daily activities, and fatigue may come and visit for various reasons. The result of avoiding negative feelings is often rigid emotion management based on social conventions in which any negative feeling must immediately be reframed and turned into something positive. Sometimes this is promoted by psychological self-help literature that asks people to smile or engage in positive self-talk when there is actually a need to acknowledge a moment of suffering.

If the symtoms become severe and last longer than two weeks it is important to seek professional help, but even then, the first step towards healing is to accept the fact that you are hurting. This sounds more simple than it is.

In the 1980s, the Stanford anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere claimed that in Buddhist cultures, i.e. in Sri Lanka, the renunciation and withdrawing from the world is considered a way to enlightenment rather than a sign of psychopathology. He argued that the Western psychiatric diagnostic category of Major Depressive Disorder does not necessarily apply to people who follow Theravada Buddhism. Although this is a bold assertion, it remains a fact that in countries where Buddhism is commonly practiced, the psychiatric prevalence of depression is very low.

This makes sense if one considers the first Noble Truth of Buddhism, namely, that life means suffering and that suffering stems from attachment to transient things. From this point of view depressed mood can be a normal consequence of human craving and aversion. Perhaps it becomes more prevalent in neo-liberal consumerist cultures that make us obsessed with ‘progress’ and ‘success.’ To what extent does our longing for the latest and most cutting-edge style, body image, product, degree, or job make make us prone to ‘depression’?

Ultimately, I believe that whole-hearted acceptance of where I am at right here and now can lead to new actions rather than fatalism or the believe that nothing can be changed. With a little bit more awareness of what is going on, I’m more prepared to notice that change is inevitable. But maybe acceptance is too big of a word. As the meditation teacher Jason Siff argues, “tolerance” may be all we can hope for in the face of dispair. In an open meditation practice it is important how we relate to negative thoughts and rumination rather than to pull ourselves out of them. Simply denying that they are there and wishing that they would be gone has never served me in reaching greener pastures.

Increase Compassion by Remembering the ‘Good Stuff’

Recently, I asked participants in a domestic violence offender group about how they would define compassion. Some connected it with sympathy, others with doing what others want you to do. The fact that for most of them the word was not part of their daily vocabulary did not mean that they had never been compassionate. Unsurprisingly, they could remember some ‘good stuff’ and doing so may also help you to feel more secure in your relationships this year.

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The term compassion is not something we readily hear on the news; it’s hardly used in block buster movies. Although the word ‘compassion’ sounded strange to some men in the offender group, they were all familiar with acts of kindness that come out of concern for another person. They also agreed that there is a difference between feeling what another feels and acting upon this feeling.

Commonly, in psychology this distinction is made to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy has been defined as the vicarious experiencing of an emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to the emotion of another individual, as well as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings tied to it (Eisenberg and Janet Strayer 1990). Compassion is more than that.

In broad terms, the term compassion refers to the ability to be touched by the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate their suffering. It has been associated with the vicarious experience of distress in response to another person’s suffering, a variant or blend of sadness or love, and as an evolutionary adaption that motivates helping behaviors for the sake of survival, reproduction, or both (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010).

The great news is that compassion also spreads. It reproduces itself because the recipients of compassion tend to become more compassionate themselves. Some researchers argue that higher “attachment security” is closely related to higher levels of compassion towards others and altruistic helping behavior (Shaver and Milkunicer (2004).

Attachment security or feeling valued, safe, and cared for in a relationship may be a result of your past experiences. It includes instances of having been treated supportively as a child, being involved in security enhancing close relationships during adulthood, being able to call upon mental representations of being cared for, being influenced by a security enhancing context, or a combination of these factors.

From this perspective, our human capacity to experience compassion is enhanced through trusting, secure, and protective relationships. While people with more attachment security are said to be able to show more compassion, little is known about the positive effects of compassion on attachment security and wellbeing in relationships.

In my own clinical practice, I found that even people who went through intense trauma, including many domestic violence offenders, “big” and “small” acts of compassion are common. Sometimes they are not seen as such and remain undervalued or not integrated into a coherent story about personal values and relationships.

For the men who had abused in the past, communication in the group provided a way to expand awareness about the benefits of compassion. In the past year, several had cared for sick family members, supported someone who struggled with everyday life problems, or intended to do so in the year to come. The group discussion provided them with a rare forum to develop a language around these act, to share and celebrate them.

In my opinion, one of the keys to cultivating compassion is to remember and become aware of the “small” compassionate acts we already perform. Once we value, understand, and enjoy them, we may create more possibilities to practice compassion – perhaps with the result of enhancing our own and other’s sense of safety and “attachment security.”

When I focus attention on the ‘good stuff’, I change neural pathways in my brain, a process called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity is used to refer to our ability to change the physical structure of our brains throughout the lifespan (Siegel 2010). We can literally grow new synaptic connections through sustained and focused attention on compassionate acts. Is this going to increase your compassion? Try it out.

By reflecting and talking about past instances of turning empathy into action you may turn neural pathways into superhighways that inform future action.You turn something that is already present into the forefront and thereby make it more powerful. How have you acted compassionately lately?

 

 

 

Welcome to McMindfulness: A Critique

In recent years, the ancient Buddhist practice of “sati”has been translated into U.S. American mainstream and pop culture. It is now commonly known as mindfulness in English and has thoroughly changed.

In a Huffington Post article titled “Beyond McMindfulness”, some critiques argue that as a secularized technique mindfulness is decontextualized from its original transformative purpose and its social ethics. It is made to fit the corporate world, the military, and other institutions that are unlikely to change as a result of mindfulness seen as a banal self-help technique. In this sense, mindfulness becomes part of the mental defilements it originally was supposed to counter.

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Today, there is a tendency to see mindfulness as an individual, private, and internal affair. As Zen teacher Ted Segal illustrates in his blog post “mindfulness or heartfulness”, people may seek for a technique that is in line with what is represented in popular media. He gives the example of a visitor whose primary motivation was to “get to know himself better” and makes clear that mindfulness is not about self-absorption or developing insight into the self and should rather be called “heartfulness” to avoid confusion. He points out, “using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness”. The Zen teacher admits that ten years ago he would not have disagreed that the practice is about introspection but changed his view with increasing insight.

It is not surprising that in a society in which individualism is an ideal and ever higher expectations of productivity are considered normal, meditation is seen as a technique to know more about oneself and ones strengths. In my opinion there is nothing wrong about introspection as long as it is for the sake of developing more fulfilling and loving relationships. The danger lies in an uncritical adoption of mindfulness that shifts the burden of injustices and domination onto the individual. The practice of mindfulness is abused when employees, students, or soldiers are held responsible for stress generated by organizations that create environments that are not conducive to mental and behavioral health.

Based on popular depictions of mindfulness you may think that it is another way to calm down hyperactive kids, become more productive at the workplace, or cope with the high exigencies of everyday life in a post-industrial information age. While this may be true on a superficial level, it is about much more. A McMindfulness perspective reduces mindfulness to a mere coping technique removed from its original embededness in ethics and the transformation of relationships. Mindfulness can not be measured by money and status but only by the quality of our relationships with other people and the enviornment we live in.

Just Being or Becoming? A Mindfulness Controversy

Is mindfulness about the present, past, or future? People writing and doing research on mindfulness meditation are often not aware of the controversies that surround this practice in Asian Buddhist history. Evidently the cultural context in which mindfulness is practiced today in hospitals, corporations, or even the military is very different from the one in which the historical Buddha developed this practice about 2500 years ago.

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The contemporary mindfulness movement in medicine, psychotherapy, and education defines mindfulness primarily in terms of present-moment awareness. Accepting what is without necessarily judging it in any way may have positive effects on individual’s wellbeing in post-industrial societies in which striving for future achievements and goal-orientation often result in stress.

Susan Smalley and Diana Winston from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center point out that mindfulness is about “bare attention.” Similar to other authors who translate the practice into American popular culture they argue that present-time awareness such as taking a breath to become aware of one’s impulse before acting upon it, is already enough to make wise action likely to follow.

From this point of view you have to be fully present with what is in order to become more discerning with your thoughts and emotions. As Susan Smalley and Diana Winston point out in their book “Fully Present”:

“In practicing mindfulness you are not trying to change who you are, but to become more fully present with your experiences” and later they go on “you may also become more discerning of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that awareness will give you greater opportunity to make positive changes, if you wish to do so.”

Here change is a by-product of mindfulness and not its goal. This is in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s approach that emphasizes the negative effects of striving for positive treatment outcomes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. He used to ask his patients at the Massachusetts Medical Center to leave their hopes and aspirations for change behind after the first session.

Responding with a more balanced and detached view on a difficult situation may indeed follow, but not necessarily.

Some of my Buddhist friends point out that a sniper can be mindful, too. Without ongoing ethical reflection, the evaluation of the benefit of an action, and related personal change mindfulness does not necessarily lead to wellbeing in relationships.

From a different angle you need to be more discerning with your thoughts and emotions in order to be able to be fully present with your experience and accept it. Some historians argue that this comes closer to what has been taught in Theravada Buddhism, which contains the oldest Buddhist scriptures. As historian Robert Sharf argues, the type of mindfulness that enters U.S. popular culture is a product of Buddhist reform movements of the early 20th century rather than an ancient practice. Other scholars agree.

In his article “Is Mindfulness present-centered and non-judgmental” Georges Dryfus points out:

“Mindfulness is then not the present-centered non-judgmental awareness of an object but the paying close attention to an object, leading to the retention of the data so as to make sense of the information delivered by our cognitive apparatus. Thus, far from being limited to the present and to a mere refraining from passing judgment, mindfulness is a cognitive activity closely connected to memory, particularly to working memory, the ability to keep relevant information active so that it can be integrated within meaningful patterns and used for goal directed activities. By paying close attention, practitioners of mindfulness strengthen their cognitive control because they increase their ability to retain information and thus see their true significance rather than being carried away by their reactions. What is well attended to can be maintained by working memory and thus become available for appropriate evaluation.”

Meditation teachers like Thanissaro Bikkhu argue that the “bare awareness” approach largely misinterprets what the historical Buddha meant when referring to mindfulness. For him the non-judgmental and completely accepting stance towards one’s experience comes in a later stage of mental training in which the meditator has developed the skill to willfully enter a state of choiceless awareness through concentration. This bare awareness is then founded on a set of skillful thoughts and actions that are in line with the ethical values adopted and remembered through mindfulness practice.

In my opinion, both perspectives can be helpful. I’m not sure which one should come first in the training of the mind. I started with practicing non-judgemental awareness for many years before I came across other possibilities and found this practice very beneficial. Being more directive to shape one’s experience seems to be a complementary step at any point. When I first notice things as they are without judging them, it gives me some distance to disassociate from dominant themes. In a second step I can see them more clearly, each thought, feeling, body sensation in its context and relation to another. Third, I thus discern what I want to cultivate and what I can let go of.

Mindful Parenting: Beware of the ‘Boy Code’

Boys are often unintentionally put into a straightjacket of emotional constraint. Mindful parenting can help you cultivate compassion and put yourself into your son’s shoes. Instead of hardening a boy or young man by becoming emotionally more distant, you may choose to allow him to be vulnerable and dependent on the love and support of others just as you would with girls.

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Research has shown that mothers in the United States generally tend to use a greater variety in emotion language and show more vivid facial expressions when communicating with daughters. Both mothers and fathers commonly brush over more tender feelings when they are expressed by boys. This may happen to the extent that little boys expect their parents to respond far less warmly when they show sadness or fear.

Cultural stereotypes of the unwritten “boy code” keep boys from showing negative or vulnerable emotions and parents may reproduce them unintentionally. The result is emotional constraint apart from one strong feeling allowed: anger. When boys feel ashamed to show more tender feelings they commonly turn to anger. This is the case when the full range of emotional experience is constrained. Yes, it is true that gender stereotypes are changing. However, they are changing slowly and may present themselves in new guise. Today, psychologist William Pollack’s perspective is as relevant as almost 20 years ago when he wrote the book “The Boy Code”:

“…when we look closely at the behavior of young boys, and when we listen closely to their stories, we realize that what in men or older boys is often interpreted as a macho sense of rigor and cockiness, in reality often has much more to do with hardening. This hardening takes place and the mask goes up, not because boys or men feel particularly strong or self-assured, but rather because they don’t – they feel anxious to protect themselves from wounds to their already fragile male psyches. Once they have been shamed enough for failing to be fully masculine, once they’ve been told enough times that they should suppress their vulnerable feelings, once they’ve been actually physically injured for failing to meet the mark, boys allow the wounds to scar over, cover any remaining soft tissue, and act as if everything is going all right.”

A central tenet of mindful parenting is empathy and compassion. When you think back to your childhood, what did you most want from your parents? Children desire to be seen and accepted in the family for who they are, a desire to be treated with kindness, understanding, and compassion. This is true for boys and girls. However, when it comes to pressing children into a gender straightjacket of dominant stereotypes of masculinity, particularly boys and young men may lose out on warmth and tenderness given to them.

To be empathetic may be very challenging when the boy is yelling, screaming, or even starts to act out aggressively. This is why the ability to act compassionately takes intentional cultivation. It usually starts with becoming aware of what is happening in the moment. An awareness of your feelings is key. Only when you are able to pay attention to what is going on with you in a spirit of kindness, you are empowered to choose your response. You may find that you need to take a deep breath or get some additional support from another family member. In any case it is about responding rather than knee-jerk reactions.

To be empathetic and compassionate when kids are acting out is not easy. It is much less clear cut than traditional approaches such as distancing yourself and disciplining the child. As Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” points out, there is no set formula. The challenge is to view difficult behaviors in a more non-judging and open manner that allows you as caretaker to keep a heartfelt connection to your boy – a connection the “boy code” wants to cut. This does not mean to be passive. Children are not fully able to self-regulate their emotions. They often need an adult caregiver to role-model sympathetic behavior and to give them some boundaries to hit up against and slow down. This is why mindful parenting is so much about being aware of what is going on with you in relation to the child, including your ideals and values about gender and masculinity.

 

 

Good News: Thoughts are not the Enemy!

The provocative title of Jason Siff’s brand-new book “Thoughts are not the enemy” summarizes an unorthodox approach to meditation. During a recent workshop at the Van Hanh Temple in Santee the post-modern Vipassana teacher simply told the participants to sit with whatever comes up. In contrast to traditional meditation instructions, he also encouraged everybody to follow thoughts into the past or the future without redirecting one’s attention to the breath or some other object. This stands in contrast to most approaches to meditation, including the modern mindfulness movement.

A large number of books and research articles suggest that “mind wandering” is the source of human distress, rumination, and delusion. In line with this idea, the implicit goal of meditation is to strengthen one’s ability to re-direct attention away from obsessive thoughts and as a result to become better equipped to regulate one’s inner experience or to move away from the notion of “self” tied to inner narratives. However, at the workshop Jason argued that for many meditators this doesn’t work. Even if we are told to “gently” move our attention back to the breath during meditation there is a high likelihood that thoughts become considered an “obstacle” that needs to be avoided or overcome in favor of some transcendental state of consciousness. I resonated. This had definately kept me stuck for a while.

After a sitting period, there was time to write down what came up during the meditation. Having relatively unspecific instructions gives the mediator the freedom to choose where to go or what aspect of experience to attend to. Thus, the participants were asked to reflect upon and journal about the choices made during meditation. This is an integral part of “recollective awareness”.

I was glad that Jason mentioned “choice”. For me Recollective Awareness seemed to be a rather passive process in which the meditator is asked to drown in a flood of restless and automatic thoughts. But as the critique of mainstream meditation pointed out, “it’s not about choiceless awareness but about becoming aware of the choices we make.”

The recollective reflection period gave me the chance to become more aware of how I want to relate to my inner self-talk and its content. First, it became pretty clear that I don’t want to beat myself up for having thoughts of any kind during meditation. Second, to follow uncomfortable thoughts gave me more insight about where they might come from in my own life. Third, I felt that some thoughts may be more helpful than my judgmental mind tends to assume. Rather than to cut them off, they are something to cultivate. Finally, I figured that once I become more aware of the choices I make during meditation, I may become more aware of the ones that come up in everyday life.

The awareness of the fact that there are choices at all makes a huge difference. Since the Recollective Awareness approach does not tell me where to go this makes me responsible for making sense of my experience and of choosing what seems to be right and appropriate for me at the moment. This individualized approach is highly contextual and lacks the prescriptions given by both traditional Buddhist approaches and the secular Mindfulness Movement. It is more complicated because choices seem to become more self-determined within the meditation process. Although some of my questions were left open, I resonated with a notion of change that takes into account meaning and narrative.

Recollective Awareness is interested in what Jason called “transformative conceptualization”. By exploring thoughts, their causes and contexts one may find that the categories, labels, and stories through which we think about ourselves and others may not really fit our experience. He pointed out that in the process of giving a fuller description of what is going on in the mind one starts to “crack down” the language through which we perceive our worlds.

We may become more aware of multiplicity and the need to come up with new conceptualizations that better fit our personal experience, an experience that cannot be fully grasped by any religious dogma or meditation teacher. From this perspective, meditation is not about a transcendental state without thought but about a more experience-near labeling of thoughts that is open to reconceptualization. Instead of getting away from thoughts, if I understood this correctly, it is about getting away from concepts that categorize us in habitual and unhelpful ways and be open to new ones that are more beneficial and in line with our personal struggles and aspirations.

As somebody who was exposed a lot to Narrative Therapy during my training as family therapist, I was pleased to hear Jason Siff’s perspective. There is an approach to mindfulness that seems to encourage the deconstruction and transformation of stories rather than to cut them out as residual “mind wandering” that can be reduced to rumination and ultimately overcome through some universal experience of stillness. But don’t get me wrong. Although Jason criticizes conventional approaches to meditation and mindfulness I did not feel that I have to give up “directive” practices after the workshop. They will continue to be part of my meditation practice.

I will continue to enjoy the moments of stillness when they come up naturally; and I will actively create them – probably with a bit more awareness of why I feel the need to do so.

 

 

Remembering: The Forgotten Aspect of Mindfulness

How do you remember what really matters to you in each new moment? When my mind runs on automatic pilot I often get carried away by things that don’t matter at all. A retreat at the Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido made me aware of how mindfulness can be seen as purposefully letting go of what keeps me stuck and keeping in mind what makes me genuinely happy.

 

Buddha-Metta

The teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also called Ajaan Geoff, emphasize the role of thinking, recalling, and memory in meditation. From this perspective, mindfulness is about active memory or calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that are helpful in attaining the goal of ending stress and suffering.

Alertness

Being aware of what is going on in the moment is important for the cultivation of mindfulness. It has a purpose. The Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism as taught by Ajaan Geoff suggested that alertness helps the meditator to notice what works and what doesn’t during meditation. He continuously asked all students to be very alert and vigilant in order to see what kind of mental and bodily state makes them feel good and what kind of state produces stress. I was told to be alert not merely for the sake of alertness but in order to notice what makes me feel more wholesome.

After several days, I started to attend to particularly energizing or calm bodily states with more appreciation as well as to thoughts of goodwill towards self and others that made me feel simply more at ease. Instead of just noticing what came up, I tried to notice when, where, and why a particular experience arose. This made me somehow more committed to learn from insights.

As Ajaan Geoff pointed out, once they are noticed skillful states can be remembered and later recalled on purpose. In this process meditation becomes a skill in which the beginner actively shapes his or her experience.

Ardency

The practice of brining back the attention to the breath or the body as an object of focus is an expression of ardency. Ardency is about making a commitment for training the mind and developing mindfulness. I came to see this attitude as a passion for making a difference, a desire for personal change and growth. Ideally ardency enables me to pull myself out of unskillful states based on my remembrance of skillful ones that made me feel wholesome in the past.

When for example a negative emotion or a thought seeks to dominate experience Ajaan Geoff recommends to argue with the reasoning behind it and to remind oneself of its drawbacks. However, the dangers of striving, clinging to particular states of mind, and repressing uncomfortable thoughts has to be taken serious.

“You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody’s keeping score or taking grades. You’re here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not “just watching.” It’s more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Discernment

Mindfulness as practice of remembering is inextricably tied to discernment. It is important to be aware of whether or not a particular state of body and mind is skillful or not. Thanissaro Bhikkhu asks questions such as: Is a particular thought “worthy” of your attention? Is it helpful to identify with it? What is it composed of? Why is it coming and why is it going? Is it in line with your intentions? If not, how can you take it apart? This does not mean that meditation is merely about arguing with oneself. In his opinion, mindfulness seems to be a means to an end, namely, the transition into more calm and peaceful states without conceptual thought.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach is straightforward. When we know that a particular state has been harmful in the past, we should keep it from arising or take away it’s energy by focusing on the breath. When skillful thoughts and bodily states come up, he recommends to attend to them for a few times until one lets them go, too. During the retreat he also emphasized continuously that each meditator has to discern for him or herself what actions are skillful or unskillful during meditation.

Although the Buddhist teachings provide a compass, they do not exactly prescribe how to deal with one’s unique experiences on the path. In this sense discernment seems to be a matter of what he called “experimentation” – on the most basic level with the breath.

During my sittings in one of the monestary’s avocado groves I became intrigued about the notion of mindfulness as remembering. From this perspective meditation is not just about being in the moment. Remembering can keep me connected to the Buddhist teachings but also to my own knowledge about what works for me and what doesn’t. It also keeps me in touch with a broader vision of what I want in life. It is about choices and how to continuously shape my future based on what happened in the past. This aspect has largely been neglected in contemporary mindfulness-based therapies and stress-reduction.

 

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