Spiritual Bypass & Somatic Emotion

Fragile_EmotionAs humans, we are evolutionarily wired to avoid what is uncomfortable or unknown. Mindfulness is counterintuitive in that it trains us to turn toward discomfort, allowing it to be just as it is (more on that here).

As you may know, this is not a simple training, and it’s relatively common to slide off the path into various forms of avoidance along the way. This phenomenon is called “spiritual bypass,” and no particular technique or practice is immune. In Psychology Today, Ingrid Mathieu put it brilliantly: “spiritual bypass is an equal opportunity defense mechanism. It is more related to what we as human beings do with spiritual practice than it is related to the practice itself.”
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Freedom is a Moving Target

freedomTo me, “freedom” is a particularly useful word to describe the long-term goal of mindfulness practice. But what does that word really mean? To keep “freedom” tangible and relevant, I like to move through my life asking, “how am I NOT free in this moment?” Often the answer is surprising. As an illustration, consider the example of hearing the unintentionally harsh words of a friend…

Am I free to feel the hurt (sadness, embarrassment) caused by the harsh words, or am I compelled to space out or ruminate angrily? Perhaps I am free to feel the hurt, but am I fully free to speak up in defense of my principles? Perhaps I am free to speak up in defense of my principles, but am I free to do it in a way that is kind and without anger? Perhaps I am free to speak up kindly, but am I free to walk away from that experience without resentment? Perhaps I am free to walk away without resentment, but am I free to maintain a fully accepting relationship with this friend, should that seem the best choice? Perhaps I am free to maintain that relationship, but am I free NOT to maintain it, investing less energy in it if in fact it seems unhealthy?

Freedom is a moving target. In each moment, as conditions change, there are new opportunities to let go and new opportunities to be stuck. New opportunities to choose, and new opportunities to humbly acknowledge the limitations on our freedom of choice. How are you not free in this moment?

There Is Nothing Wrong With You

There is nothing wrong with the part of you that feels sad, scared, or alone. There is nothing wrong with the part of you that doesn’t understand. There is nothing wrong with the part of you that desires things or people. There is nothing wrong with the part of you that wants to run from others, even when what you need most is to connect.

There is nothing wrong with the overachiever, the inner critic, the unworthy one. The overwhelmed, the humorless, or the numb. There is nothing wrong with the jealous one, the selfish one, the one who is ashamed. There is nothing wrong with the part of you that thinks there is something wrong.

All these orphaned parts, they don’t need to be fixed. They need to be allowed in. They need to be lovingly led back from exile, or gently coaxed down from the soapbox, and brought to their seats at the table. With acceptance and understanding, we earn their trust. With trust, they settle into balance, no longer distorted in their influence.

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Spatial and Temporal Freedom

Mauritius_beachTwo handy ways to look at “freedom” from a mindfulness perspective…

Spatial Freedom
We feel something unpleasant in a given moment (e.g. a stubbed toe or a wave of anger). It’s the habit of the human nervous system to zoom in on the point of discomfort, excluding all else. As a result, we are quickly overwhelmed and seek external distractions (e.g. Facebook). A great deal of freedom can be gained over time by retraining the body-mind to zoom out, feeling into the space around the discomfort (whether emotional or physical). We begin to notice all the parts of the body which aren’t in pain. Generally, this diminishes the intensity of the discomfort, allowing us to stay in the present moment (and off of Facebook).

Temporal Freedom
Another thing we might notice, in staying with discomfort, is that it doesn’t just get worse and worse forever. We tend to run for the hills at the first sign of unpleasantness, but all sensations come in waves; they arise, crest, and pass away. We can retrain ourselves to stay with unpleasant sensations long enough to watch them recede and disappear. This applies to addictive cravings as well.

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Rumination – Part 2

Last week, we started a discussion on rumination—what it is, why we do it, and how it can be harmful. It’s clear to see the damage that rumination can cause in day-to-day life. We can live almost continuously in an inner world of fear, resentments, and unpleasantness, while external experience passes us by. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

So what can we do?!
Essentially, rumination is thinking to regulate the emotional experience of the present moment. So as long as we’re using thinking to balance ourselves out, it can be any thinking! We can think pleasant thoughts, and that will serve the same purpose that unpleasant thoughts have been serving! In other words, it isn’t actually about the content of the thoughts, but rather, their function.*

But we don’t want to think pleasant thoughts in just any old way. As meditators, the classic practice is called lovingkindness. This link provides detailed instructions. If you’ve used this technique before, you may notice I’ve set it up differently than most teachers. Neuroscience research has found that the technique is most effective if it is grounded in a present-moment experience (like a feeling or a state of mind) rather than a sentimental reflection. I choose a state of mind because it gets us out of the body, which is often in pain in the moments when we need the technique most!

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