Memory & Forgiveness

I was doing forgiveness practice this morning, and an old, important memory from childhood arose.  It was an uncomfortable exchange in which I felt scared and sad—one of tens of thousands of early experiences (good and bad) which mix together to form the overall sense of self and world that underlies an adult personality.

We often fondly remember the good moments of our early years, but we file away the painful ones like unwanted boxes in the attic. It seems as though we can rid ourselves of these experiences, but as long as we hold resentment and blame about what has happened, we are influenced by those holdings. They consistently, subtly affect our views and our behavior (check out this article for more info).

So let’s take the blame out of what happened, however insignificant: Is it your fault that you adapted to the imperfect conditions of your childhood in the way you needed to at 1, 2, 3 years old? Is it your parents fault that they operated with the conditioning they were given—even with the best of intentions, falling back to sometimes misguided habits in the overwhelm of child-rearing?  Is it your grandparents fault for giving that conditioning to your parents?  Is it your great grandparents fault?

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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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Five Ways To Come Back Into Balance

We all get stressed. We all get thrown off. When we need to come back into balance, each one of us has a different set of tools with which to do that. Generally, some of them are skillful, and some of them are not. Some of them keep us in the present moment, and some of them don’t. Here are five helpful strategies that you can add to your toolkit:

  1. Use your thoughts – Most of us use thinking to regulate our emotions already! It’s just that a lot of the thoughts we think in moments of stress are not kind or soothing (much more on that issue here). The good news is, we can use mantra-based practices (phrase repetition) to generate positive content in our minds, and positive emotion in our bodies. This is a simple, powerful way to rebalance. Click here for instructions.
  2. Use your friends – Vastly under-acknowledged in meditation circles is the importance of co-regulation (the balancing and synchronizing that happens automatically when humans come into empathetic contact with one another). We are herd animals. We can’t go it alone! That said, you may not reliably feel good when you connect with others. It’s possible that they don’t know how to connect well. You might not either! We use the social tools that we learn from our families as children, so if you have trouble connecting, you haven’t done anything wrong. That said, you can learn new social tools through meditation. Read here for more on this point.
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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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Lovingkindness & Noting Feeling States

If relational mindfulness is your focus, one way to practice is to use Lovingkindness and Noting Feeling States techniques as two complementary strategies. I like to think of them as: "backing off" and "being with." Otherwise known as "turning away" and "turning toward."

In Lovingkindness meditation, we practice generating a positive state of mind, so it's available to us when we need to re-balance and de-stress. This is a way of skillfully "backing off" or "turning away" from uncomfortable or difficult feelings, without needing to exit the present moment (by comparison, "exiting the present moment" might mean going to watch TV, hopping on the internet, etc.).

On the other hand, in Noting Feeling States, we learn to "be with," gently and skillfully turning our attention toward the emotional experience we are having in each moment, without needing it to be different. We cultivate comfort and clarity around our feelings (more on that here), and this too leads to better balance in daily life.

We could spend the rest of our lives navigating the continuum between being with and backing off. Knowing what sort of strategy to implement, and when, is an art. But we can take comfort in knowing that in any moment, there is something to be gained from either approach, and both approaches help to keep us present.

Wanna try it out?

Enter your email address in the box on the right, and you'll be sent one guided meditation a day, starting tomorrow morning. During the week, you'll learn Lovingkindness and Noting Feeling States. I'd love to hear how it goes!