How to Unhook from Obsessive Emotions in Four Steps

The Sad Man for obsessive emotions blog post

 

Here’s a story my friend and acclaimed Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg tells. Years ago, as a young woman, she traveled to India to study meditation. One of her teachers lived in Calcutta. After finishing her time with Dipa Ma, Sharon planned to get on a train to visit another teacher who lived in a different part of India. With a friend, she hired a rickshaw to get to the train station. However, on the way there, the driver took a shortcut through a back alley and a man leaped out of the shadows to grab at Sharon and tried to pull her out of the cart. Luckily, her friend pushed the man away, and the two women escaped unharmed. When she arrived at her teacher’s place, Sharon related her experience. His response went something like this:  “With all the loving-kindness in your heart, you should have used your umbrella and hit the man over the head.”

umbrella fight for obsessive emotions blog postAs with most Buddhist teaching tales, we can draw various lessons from this story. One is that we often feel conflicted about how to act in adverse situations. When fear or anger, grief or worry take over, confusion, paralysis, indecision, and a desire to escape can occur. Women especially are conditioned to acquiesce to the societal norms of “good behavior” and ignore prompts to respond assertively against injury. Strong emotions can cloud anyone’s mind. Meeting violence in any form, whether it comes toward oneself from within or from another, requires wise and skillful action. This is not our intuitive response. Reacting in a habitual and conditioned way is.

The key word in the teacher’s advice is loving-kindness. Knowing Sharon had suffered from a disturbing event, he was encouraging her to hold herself with loving-kindness, but also to have compassion for the perpetrator, a victim of injustice and poverty. The unfortunate conditions of the attacker’s life, however, are not excuses for his hurtful actions. Skillful or right action includes moral conduct. When we decide to take action, are we aware of the ethical dimensions of our actions? What is our motivating force? Are we attached to specific outcomes? Are we doing harm—with a look, a harsh word, with indifferent or malicious behavior? How can we become more conscious of how we affect others and ourselves?

Rain overhead for obsessive emotions blog postI recently thought of the umbrella story after our house was robbed while my husband and I were asleep. Not even our usually alert pooch that barks at every squirrel in the neighborhood woke up. My initial reaction to the burglary was fear, violation, and anger. The anger soon dissipated, but the fear lingered. As I observed my mind getting caught in the dukkha, the Pãli word for suffering, I saw that the fear had its roots in a sense of helplessness, disappointment, and a damaged sense of safety. Jeesh, even my beloved doggie let me down! For days, I struggled with alternating big emotions, but when I looked deeper, I saw that the need to feel safe had long been a core issue in my life.

To break patterns of reactivity requires we cultivate an awareness of our mind’s biases and preoccupations. Renowned teacher Pema Chödrön states: “The Sanskrit word klesha refers to a strong emotion that reliably leads to suffering. It’s sometimes translated as “neurosis” and as “afflictions” and “defiled emotions.” In essence, kleshas are dynamic, ineffable energy, yet their energy can easily enslave us and cause us to act and speak in unintelligent ways.

Our lives give us plenty of opportunities to work with kleshas. “Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable,” wrote the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. I find his words highly comforting. They take the sting out of the shame of vulnerability. They remind me that a tender and unblemished part exists in all of us. Just think of it— every moment we are alive is a brand new moment, a chance to take a fresh breath and begin again. When strong feelings sweep us up, when we are caught in a craving or are numbing out, we can pause, go inward and pay attention to our breath. We can ask ourselves with open curiosity: What’s here? Is it fear, sorrow, frustration, rage? What is asking for my attention? No matter what we have experienced, no matter how troublesome our circumstances, we can meet it with a mind unbound from past patterns.

Let me offer a simple strategy for staying mindful. As I like to joke, we have to be mindful to remember to be mindful!

Snow rain for obsessive emotions blog postSeveral Buddhist teachers encourage a practice with the acronym RAIN that is helpful in stabilizing the mind and directing our awareness to our deep truth. According to teacher Tara Brach, RAIN is a four-step process that can be accessed in almost any situation. She writes: “RAIN directly de-conditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience. It doesn’t matter whether you resist “what is” by lashing out in anger, by having a cigarette, or by getting immersed in obsessive thinking. Your attempt to control the life within and around you actually cuts you off from your own heart.”

The easily remembered steps to RAIN are:

R—Recognition
A—Acceptance
I—Investigation
N—Non-identification

Recognition

The willingness to recognize what is happening in your life right here, right now is the first step to mindfulness. It involves focusing your attention on all that is happening within you, your thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations. Some of us find it easier to notice our cold fingertips and racing heart than our racing thoughts. Start wherever you can focus, the tightness in your chest or the words repeating in your head; wherever you start, attend to yourself with curiosity and without judgment.

Acceptance

Can you allow what’s occurring in the moment to just be? It’s completely natural to want to push away difficult thoughts, feelings or sensations and resist unpleasantness in all forms. The teachings tell us that when we soften and open to whatever is happening, our level of ease and comfort actually increase. A phrase that’s often helpful in making space for the unwanted is the accepting acknowledgment: And this, too.

Investigate

Tara calls this step, “investigating with kindness.” She encourages us to ask ourselves the questions, “What is happening inside me right now?” What am I believing?” “What does this feeling want from me?” We may ask ourselves what judgment are we holding about a situation. Beneath the judgment, what else can be discovered?

Non-Identification

When we identify with our thoughts, stories, or emotions, when we say to ourselves, I am an anxious, or greedy, or angry person, we limit our view of who we really are, and ignore our vast and wise “Buddha” nature. Non-identification means we acknowledge that we are not our thoughts or emotions and that our emotions are not unique to us. When we live in our larger selves, we are freed from the constrictions of our limited minds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson print for obsessive emotions blog postThe American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson urged us to be “active souls.” An active soul is an inquiring soul, a soul participating in the world. By claiming our full human experience—life as it is, not as we wish it to be, and accepting things as they are—our closed-off hearts break open in recognition of our common plight with all beings. We understand that our existence on the planet, no less than the existence of the planet itself, depends on the comprehension of our interconnectedness. The personal is universal; by befriending our individual minds and hearts with genuine curiosity and non-judgment, we contact our essential goodness and intelligence. With greater ease, we naturally lift out of despair and hopelessness and discover new energy for our role in planetary well-being.

Several days after the robbery, I had a realization that in a world of haves and have-nots, stealing will inevitably occur. This understanding lessened my sense of personal injury and softened my attitude toward the thieves. The thought came to me while sitting in meditation and arose as a deep insight about the world. I have not dwelt on the fate of the thieves or tried to imagine them, but when they come to mind, without trying to push anything away, I feel no trace of bitterness.

And here’s a PS to consider about the umbrella story. As the teacher advises: If with the intention of compassion and loving-kindness, we stop our attacker by hitting him on the head, we prevent him from accumulating bad karma from an unwholesome deed!

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.”



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



My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know

child in tunnel for childhood trauma post

 

My father’s first heart attack was a rehearsal in loss. It’s August in New Jersey, the air an incense of mown grass and spent lilies, sunlight sizzling off the grille of our Ford. I’m nine, hot and tired from jumping rope. I saunter into the cool interior of our house. On the way to the fridge, I halt at my parents’ door. Why is my father sleeping mid-afternoon, his body skewed across the bed?

Once upon a time, middle-class Americans like us ate fried eggs, bacon, and buttered toast for breakfast, adults topping the meal with cream-thickened coffee and a cigarette. Malnutrition, not obesity, dominated public health concerns; polio, not diabetes, the public scourge. At fifty, my father’s arteries were filled with sludge, and on that day, his heart spasmed its distress. I shake his shoulders, shout his name. When there is no response, I’m frozen with dread.

brain diagram for childhood trauma postComing upon my father’s inert figure on the mattress that day has been a central trauma in my life. Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s not just the triggering traumatic event that can flatten us. Nor is it simply that the memory of the event causes anguish. Far more enduring is the exhausting hypervigilance and anxiety that becomes part of our nature. In The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst and renowned expert on trauma Donald Kalsched tells us that in traumatized moments our entire nervous system is flooded with stress hormones. Our bodies and emotions revert to a primitive state of fear, charged by the brain’s limbic system, while our higher cortical functions like rational thought become mute, unable to be accessed. A traumatic situation throws us into a time-stopped and tunnel-visioned moment in which we might freeze or flee in panic—the well-known fight or flight response. Trauma initiates us into an irretrievable loss of innocence: not only do we feel exposed and vulnerable, we can no longer anticipate feeling protected and safe.

Most of us will never experience the extreme traumas of war or genocide or the murderous rage of an enemy, but coping with smaller traumas are part of human life. Kalsched asks how is it possible to live an ensouled life after trauma, or put another way, how do we accept our suffering and also find joy? The question points to both a psychological and a spiritual answer.

sculpture by Barbara Hughes for childhood trauma postMyoshin Kelley, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says there is a great movement within our hearts to be free from suffering. We may yearn that the hearts of all beings be open and free, but the wounds inflicted by trauma interfere—and persist. A first step in healing trauma is recognizing its presence within us. My own experience has led me to understand that trauma shapes us from below, from the unconscious, where the dissociated parts thrive in darkness. “After trauma,” writes Kalsched, “dissociative defenses are set up in the inner world and these defenses distort what we are able to see of ourselves and others.” These defenses protect us from feeling past and future traumas, and yet the defenses can cause their own problems. They create vacuums in which hope, creativity, and self-love cannot exist.

In her book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, analyst and professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary Ann Beldford Ulanov writes, “When we make an unconscious deal to cut off parts of ourselves, we swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us.” Dr. Ulanov suggests that whatever we are afraid of is asking for our attention. “We must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.” In this space of not-knowing, we assemble all the parts. “It is like collecting all our laundry, even the fugitive socks that seem to lead a life of adventure all their own.” Through this process of discovery, we compose a picture of our wholeness that is an ensemble of parts, a “completeness,” rather than “a seamless excellence.”

child in darkness for childhood trauma postThe thought of going into our darkness takes our breath away. It seems to require more than we can bear, and yet instinctively we know this is the path to healing. Acclaimed mindfulness author and teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that “when we see our pain, whether mental or physical, as a single, solid, monolithic entity, unyielding and oppressive, it is almost impossible to bear. Fighting a consolidated enemy, we feel overcome, helpless, stuck. But when we can be mindful of exactly what is happening, we begin to see that everything we experience is composed of many ever-changing elements.” Our traumas are part of the rich texture of who we are, but they are not all of us. They are a summons to wholeness.

The power to make meaning of our experience, good and bad, lies within us. As my nine-year-old self stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, in the gap between blinks, I imagined I saw my father’s soul hovering above his body, a fragile blue shimmer similar to what orbiting astronauts report observing as a sort of halo around the Earth. Like the spacewalking Russian cosmonaut who was so awed by the universe he was unwilling to step back inside his cramped spacecraft, so too my father’s soul seemed to falter, trying to decide whether to reenter his flesh.

Years later, the memory still detonates strong feelings. We cannot willingly unremember. Nor could I have predicted how that moment would animate a lifelong investigation into the transforming power of fear. We all lose things — glasses, car keys, memories. Over a lifetime, we lose people we love. Loss and time pick us clean, which may well be why we like to accumulate things, pad our nests with stuff, even as time insists on revealing itself in natural cycles, bare branches slicked with ice later weighted with fruit, pencil marks on a wall behind a door to mark a child’s growth.

mirror with hands for childhood trauma postThe Buddhists say to see the flower is to want to possess the flower. Be mindful, they warn: observe the desirous self and let go. My sorrow, I discover, matches the dilemma of all beings: we fear change and loss. But aren’t we deeply attached to our attachments?

What if becoming attached to things is our way of praising earthly life? The great poet Rilke on the windy cliffs near the Duino Castle wonders: Are we perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window, –at best: pillar, tower. Rilke reminds us of the reciprocity between things and the soul: when we imagine a beloved’s bathrobe on its hook, her worn slipper beside the bed, we see the essence of the person contained in the thing, each object a star in our private galaxy. Here then gone: everyone I love.

We have our shocks, our terrors. However, inside the damage are seeds of change. Childhood trauma forges our identity, lending us our tics and insomnia, our depressions and panic attacks, but emotionally charged experiences also drive the quest for spiritual maturity as we reconcile the controlling part that draws a protective circle around what we love and the surrendering part that recognizes our helplessness. Our heads understand we don’t control the universe, but our hearts pine for a stable, anguish-free life. Head and heart wrestle, but the heart is the queen, the high priestess, the beginning and end of the world.

I sit now and breathe into my heart. Even the troubling memories arrive dusted with the aura of the sacred. What is buried is not lost. The past lives in infinite dimensions. Either way—sorrow is inextricable from joy. Grief itself isn’t a solid fortress, it’s porous. Light shoots through the cracks.

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.”