Mindfulness for Women: Confronting and Overcoming “Othering”

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai for othering blog post

A Conversation with Psychotherapist and Teacher Mare Chapman

This month, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to a dear friend and extraordinary teacher, Mare Chapman. Mare has traveled many paths in gathering wisdom, including degrees in Occupational Therapy and Counseling as well as studying with Native mentors and acclaimed Buddhist teachers. She is a respected and fearless voice within the tradition of Vipassana Meditation. Using the lens of mindfulness training, Mare offers a unique and clarifying roadmap to facing the demons of fear, doubt, and internalized oppression, while learning to embody equanimity and self-compassion. Her book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, will transform the way you see the world and how you live in it.

Dale Kushner: You practice mindfulness-based psychotherapy.  What is your basic view as you approach your work?

Mare Chapman for othering blog postMare Chapman: I believe we are each trustworthy beings for ourselves.  By that I mean, as spirits living in these human bodies, we all possess an innate drive that moves us towards our well-being and full potential. Our bodies, minds, hearts and spirit are continuously giving us information to help us evolve in this direction.  But the habits of our conditioning and the beliefs we unconsciously internalize as we grow up bias our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. More often than not, these habits and beliefs block our access to and our trust in that vital information.  My primary job is to help the person I’m working with access their own system’s reliable data and find their own truth and wisdom. This requires mindfulness: cultivating a sensitivity and acceptance of one’s full present moment experience – perceiving what’s happening in the body, realizing the thoughts and stories going through the mind, receiving the feelings residing in the heart, and listening deeply to one’s spirit. By relating to one’s authentic experience in this way, insight and deeper understanding, along with acceptance and compassion, naturally emerge. Healing then happens organically, and trust and confidence in one’s own being deepens.

D.K.: How is mindfulness helpful with this?  Does this always involve meditation?

M.C.: The core intention of mindfulness, as I understand it, is to free the mind from its conditioned habits so we can perceive reality accurately and access our true nature/who we are ultimately. It requires learning to relate to whatever we’re experiencing, with curiosity, kindness, acceptance, and without taking it so personally. Learning to be a compassionate observer of one’s experience enables the inner room to realize what’s authentically happening in the moment. This internal spaciousness allows one to clearly see those conditioned beliefs and behaviors that create misery, without self-blame. As a result, self-compassion and wisdom can naturally arise. With practice, instead of reacting habitually under the rule of those conditioned beliefs, there is the possibility of choosing a wiser and kinder response.  Mindfulness trains our mind to become our reliable friend instead of being our inner bully, and we learn to stay connected, steady, and kind with ourself, even when the going gets rough.

The Buddha in meditation for othering blog postI teach clients how to establish an inner stability by connecting with their breath, encourage tons of curiosity, and help them be aware of the stories in their minds and the sensations in their bodies as we explore their distress, coaching them to remain accepting as we dive more deeply into the discomfort or habit pattern they want to explore.  Although I don’t require clients to meditate, I do encourage it, and occasionally will teach meditation in our sessions.  This often includes teaching about the nature of thoughts, emotions, the body-mind connection, and the principles of mindfulness. By trusting their own reliable data, the clients maintain their agency and I remain open, receptive, and curious as we work together.

D.K.: A few months ago, I interviewed the meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg. She recommends your book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, for any woman who feels stuck in insecurity.  How do you identify that as a key issue for women?

M.C.: I see so many amazing women who appear successful and competent on the outside, but internally suffer from so much self-doubt, insecurity, and the resultant anxiety and depression. Even though they are doing whatever they can to make sure others are happy with them – always being responsible, doing their best, striving to be perfect – deep down women commonly believe there is something wrong with them, or they aren’t enough. Consequently, much of one’s inner life is spent dwelling on and worrying about others, wondering how they feel about us, fearing they aren’t approving of us, all of which naturally disconnects us from knowing ourselves and leaves us cut off from our wisdom.  We assume that when others are happy with us we will finally feel secure and then we can relax. But given that we never know for sure if we’re really okay in the other’s eyes, we’re left with chronic insecurity and self-doubt and feeling exhausted by this constant inner turmoil.

I call this pattern of seeking approval and security from others while disconnecting from one’s own authentic experience “othering”: it’s the habitual movement of attention away from self to the other, based on the assumption that the other has more power, authority, value, or privilege. I see it as the common normal coping strategy and natural reaction to women’s gender conditioning.  Because we live in a world that is predominately patriarchal, as we grow up, we internalize the misogynistic beliefs inherent in patriarchy: men are superior and should be dominant and women are inferior and should be subordinate.  Although we know intellectually we’re all equally valuable, nevertheless the innumerable and insidious ways patriarchy inserts its views and the resulting behaviors into our society cause women to believe we don’t matter as much. This trains us to give our power away to others as we look to them for the validation and approval we’re unable to give ourselves. Addressing and transforming women’s internalized misogyny is thus a key aspect of feminism’s unfinished work.

D.K.: How do you treat this issue and the habit of “othering”?

“The Creation of Eve” from Illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost by William Blake (1808) M.C.: First, I help women realize that othering, the false beliefs that underpin it, and the various ways it plays out in our lives are all deeply conditioned patterns and a normal response to our internalized misogyny. This intellectual understanding helps mitigate the habit of self-blame or the charge of co-dependency. Then I teach the skill set of bringing mindfulness to present moment experience. Through the increased awareness and inner space this creates, one is able to spot othering habits, choose to pop out of them, and connect with authentic experience, just as it is in the moment.  Whereas othering trains us to place our reference point in others and ignore our authentic experience, mindfulness creates balance in our attention.  We learn to be aware of ourselves, our own valid data – what we’re feeling, thinking, knowing, wanting, intending – as we perceive and relate to the other. This makes it possible to express clear boundaries, take wiser care of ourselves, let go of what isn’t our responsibility, respect our wants and needs, and empower ourselves to follow our own truth and dreams. Since mindfulness inherently teaches us to relate to ourselves with kindness, acceptance, curiosity, and less identification, over time with practice, one begins to build an inner frame of reference that is respectful, loving, and resilient. Gradually, with practice, we develop a growing trust in our authentic experience, the belief that we are enough just as we are, and the confidence we can handle whatever arises.

D.K.: Does your book give practical advice, instructions for women to help them to overcome disempowering beliefs, to achieve or improve confidence?

M.C.: Yes, my book is very practical. It’s based on a 10-week class, founded on a successful pilot study, that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years. It explores the notion of self, both conditioned and authentic, how patriarchy trains us to other, the common patterns of othering and how these affect us, and then step-by-step teaches the basic aspects of practicing mindfulness, as well as loving-kindness and compassion practices, in order to transform these disempowering habits. With numerous examples of women’s experiences as well as my own, specific instructions, guided meditations, informal practices, suggestions for reflection, and “ownwork,” my aim is to lead the reader into cultivating an accepting, wise and kind relationship with herself so that she gradually discovers and comes to trust that her own experience is always valid. It’s through this understanding and way of being that we empower ourselves to be our whole amazing selves.  And, since we are all interconnected, the effect of our own healing and freedom always ripples out and benefits the whole world.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?

North Star by Ginger Graziano for Sharon Salzberg blog post

A Conversation with Meditation Pioneer Sharon Salzberg

A meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher, Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition; Lovingkindness, her seminal work; and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September 2020.

Sharon Salzberg for Sharon Salzberg blog postSharon has been my friend and teacher for over a decade. On my very first retreat with her, I fell in love. Using stories from her own life as well as others, she imbues our poignant earthly suffering with compassionate laughter. Over the years, her talks and books have inspired a new understanding of what it means to be human. Sharon has many gifts as a teacher. One of them is to instill faith and courage in her students, and I am one of the millions around the world who deeply admire her wisdom. It is a great pleasure to interview her for Psychology Today.

Dale Kushner: For any readers who don’t already know you, your illuminating work, and before we talk about your new book, Real Change, would you tell everyone a bit about your background, and about lovingkindness meditation?

Sharon Salzberg: I went to India to study meditation as a junior in college, on an independent study program. As a sophomore, I had taken an Asian philosophy course which inspired me to look for meditation training. I wanted to learn how to utilize direct, practical skills, rather than simply learn the philosophy, to see if they could help me be happier. My first immersion into meditation practice was an intensive 10-day retreat in January 1971. It was a mindfulness retreat, using tools like focus on the breath and awareness of the body as the main trainings. It was like a revolution for me, to connect more deeply with myself, and with kindness. Right at the end of that retreat, S.N. Goenka, who was the teacher, introduced lovingkindness meditation, which is very related to mindfulness but is also a distinct technique. Through that, I saw the possibility of connecting much more deeply with others.

D.K.: It’s been helpful for me to sit quietly and focus on the questions I’d like to ask you today. Like so many others, my inbox is flooded with links from friends and from various groups offering opinions, invitations, strategies, and messages of equal amounts of hope and despair. Sorting through all this material is overwhelming, and yet I’m inspired that so many unheard voices are now being heard.

 In one of my favorite books of yours, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, you encourage readers to rely less on outside authorities, gurus or abstract principles and to trust our own insights and lived experience. Today, many of us live with doubt and confusion that our insights have been in error or inadequate in addressing issues of social justice. We wonder how to affect transformational change without falling into guilt, doubt, fear, or anger. From a Buddhist perspective, how best might we uncover the true nature of our biases that distort our ability to see how our actions shape the collective? Are there particular practices that can help us?

Covid Compassion by Lynne Adams for Sharon Salzberg blog postS.S.: One of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice is that it enables us to see our thoughts as thoughts, before we say or do something on the basis of the thought that has arisen. The illuminating and ultimately empowering aspect of this is that we can see our assumptions as they come up, so they are not unconscious. Not all of our assumptions are wrong of course, but many of them are, and grievously so. My friends have a daughter who was born in China. Two blond Caucasians, they adopted her at a young age and formed a very happy family. When the little girl was in the first or second grade, her teacher presented this assignment to the class: “Name a physical characteristic you have in common with one of your parents.” The little girl started sobbing, and kept on sobbing at home. Her whole sense of family, and belonging, was suddenly ripped away. The teacher was making an assumption about what makes a family. It’s unlikely that her intention was to cause harm, but not seeing her assumption as a thought and carrying it into action did in fact hurt someone.

D.K.: Your new book, which was to be released this month but will be launched in September, is presciently titled Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. What prompted you to write this book?

S.S.: I encounter so many people who inspire me through their dedication to their work in the world, some of whom function in very tough situations. I have a lot of respect for people who have a vision of the world that is inclusive, who navigate the world with love and care as their north star, and who try every day to make it real.

D.K.: In writing Real Change, you consulted with veteran activists and agents of social change. Were there common threads among the consultants that aligned with your own experience of Buddhist teachings?  Could you give us three or four brief examples of the principles that emerged from your conversations?

S.S.: I think that there are many Buddhist principles that emerged for me out of the lives of the people I interviewed, even though they weren’t all Buddhists or even formal meditation practitioners. One was a belief in the innate dignity and worth of everybody. I think of Shantel Walker, one of the leaders of Fight for $15, a nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize for fast-food workers. I’ve met several of the striking workers. They work very hard, at times are homeless because even with a full-time job they cannot afford rent, and in many cases, they are denied the wages owed to them.  Some would recount how even their parents would tell them “don’t make waves.” But Shantel is an exemplar of someone who realized she (and not only she) was worth being treated with respect—because everyone is.

Meditation Bowl (2015)This brings to mind the fundamental truth of interconnection the Buddha talked about. It doesn’t mean we like everyone or want to spend time with them, but there is a deep realization that our lives are intertwined. The corollary to this is that everyone counts, everyone matters. Everyone I talked to had this worldview. That’s why they do the work they do.

And a third principle is the conviction that love is stronger than hate. No one I talked to believed that meeting hatred with hatred was the way forward. They derived their energy from a sense of justice and a vision of what could be possible. This certainly echoed the Buddha, “hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only cease by love. This is an eternal law.”

D.K.: Does practicing mindfulness always involve meditation or are there other ways to achieve it?

S.S.: I think there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness. Life gives us many opportunities every day, really every hour. Meditation is a little like strength training—a dedicated period of immersion where your focus is on cultivating the different facets of mindfulness—awareness, balance, and connection. It then becomes easier to apply mindfulness in conversations, at work, commuting, whatever we might be doing.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



You Can’t Fail at Love!

Invisible by Laura Williams for Love blog post

 

February can be a tough month for love, reminding us of relationships we wish were brighter, deeper, reciprocated or still there. We’re inundated by images of couples walking on a tropical beach or canoodling under the stars. Our heads fill with comparisons, and worse, we imagine we don’t measure up, or have failed at love.

I bring you reassuring news. The words “failure” and “love” live at opposite ends of the universe. Whatever our disappointments in love, we aren’t doomed to relive them. Our minds may get stuck in unhelpful patterns, but love does not. Love isn’t fixed or static. It’s a quality of the heart, a transformative force that blasts through preconceived ideas and stale assumptions. As my wise and wonderful Buddhist teacher and acclaimed author, Sharon Salzberg, said during a recent conversation, “Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is ability.” We can develop our love skills. We can grow as students of love.

Sharon Salzberg for Love blog postSharon is my spiritual consigliere. At eighteen she left the States for India on a spiritual quest. Fast forward many years and she is now a world-renowned author/meditation teacher and the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. I seek her counsel because, like many of us, I feel worn down by the grim news around the globe, the sense of escalating violence at home. As a poet and novelist, as a wife and mother, and as a woman concerned about the state of humankind, my work is to examine and articulate the dilemmas of the human heart.

The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, explored familial love, friendship, and a young girl’s first experience of passionate love. My novel-in-progress examines how we can survive terrible things and still keep our hearts open. Over the last year I’ve felt an increased urgency to hone my skills as a “love activist,” to search for new approaches and a new set of behaviors for how to respond to violence and the threat of harm. After reading Sharon’s latest book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, I set up a time for us to talk.

Bodhidharma Seated in Meditation by Gahō for Love blog post Sharon, too, has been a lifelong investigator of love. She tells me the story of her younger self who used to think of love “as a commodity in someone else’s hands,” something like a UPS package that others could deliver to her or withhold. When she realized that her ability to experience love wasn’t dependent on others, that love was inside her, her anxiety about being lovable evaporated. Other people or situations might awaken her love, but she “owned her ability to experience love.”

Many of us grow up believing our happiness is in the hands of other people. We forget that the ability to love others starts with the ability to love one’s self. This may seem counterintuitive, even sinful to those of us raised to put the needs of others first. Self-love is a radical idea. How many of our parents said, “You really ought to love yourself better, dear.”

If befriending yourself feels difficult, Sharon advises offering kindness and compassion to ourselves as if we were our own best friend. Part of my own loving-kindness meditation practice is to imagine a very young self held in the arms of an older wiser self. Effortlessly, my compassion flows out to the little one.

But what if love has beaten our hearts and crushed our spirits? While we can’t undo the past, our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. Science validates what the Buddha instinctively knew: meditation can rewire our brains. Our marvelous organ of cognition is adaptable, plastic, and capable of regeneration. We’re not condemned to live out the negative consequences of rejection, loss, or trauma forever. Sharon reminds me that feeling connected to others has beneficial physical effects as well as mental ones: our nervous system functions better and we get more control over pain relief.

Sara Lazar slide for Love blog postNo matter what we’ve been through, however troubled, we always have the capacity to awaken our potential to love. According to Sharon, “real love is trying to come alive in us despite the distortions of our culture and the habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation.” We’re born with an innate goodness. Our ability to love is our birthright, a tiny seed that may be hidden from view or damaged by experience, but it is indestructible. To keep the seed alive and help it blossom, we can water it with a meditation practice and attention.

How do we practice love? Imagine every encounter as a love encounter—at the grocery store, on a bus, with a pet, or a favorite tree—let each be an opportunity to experience our connectedness. We can even send love to people we don’t like. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considers his enemies to be his best teachers, and encourages us to think of our real enemies as the fear and anger within. The Buddhists liken overwhelming anger to a forest fire that burns up all the trees, destroying its host.

Is it possible to heal the world with love? At an earlier time in my life, I might have thought this sappy. Now I don’t know. I do know that a dedication to alleviating the suffering of others goes a long way in creating happiness within our own hearts. And happiness can encompass a range of emotions. “Anger and compassion,” writes Sharon, “are not mutually exclusive in the brave and willing heart.”

Recently, my husband and I decided to write a new set of marriage vows after decades of being together. You don’t have to be married, or even have a partner to do this exercise. In fact, I highly recommend it as a way to soulfully connect with any person you love. When I sat in silence and brought an image of my husband into my mind-heart, I saw him clearly, with an appreciation for who he is, not for who I’ve wanted him to be. A quality of love is paying attention. Sharon suggests meditation is “attention training.” Love brings us into the mystery of the present moment, to cherishing the smile we see each morning, or delighting in the goofy antics of our dog. Love is a responsibility to ourselves, to our beloveds, to all beings. In moments of stillness, truth comes to us free of our ideas, associations or desires. We start by keeping our hearts open and our compassion ever-ready.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

Cherubs for Love blog post



Exchanging devotion

mindfulnessThe subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.

Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.

 

samuel_beckett1Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho (1983)

When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.

—Rumi (13th century)

Try to praise the mutilated world

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]

 

RumiThe Guest House

 

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

 

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

 

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks

davidfw2Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)

C.G Jung Portrait“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”

—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)

whitman_log“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.