We were delighted to host a performance of storytelling and music at the Divination Foundation’s annual Lunar New Year Party. Thanks to Will Hornyak and Michael Svenson!
Those of us who pay attention to the spiritual dimensions of life know about compassion, one of the most important forms of loving-kindness. Validating modern psychotherapy’s latest findings, the Dalai Lama reminds us that compassion can positively re-wire the mind.
Simply put, compassion is feeling and expressing loving-kindness for people going through troubles or suffering. Obviously, there’s certainly no shortage of suffering in the world to feel compassion for. In fact, all types of suffering—physical and psychological—seem to be multiplying right before our eyes, not only in impoverished societies, but including a growing dispossessed homeless population everywhere you look.
Indeed, according to Buddhist logic, we will all suffer—even the rich and comfortable—because suffering is built in to the ego’s strategy of ever pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The very fear of suffering begets extra anxiety—even more suffering, as we criticize ourselves for being anxious to begin with! We often shame ourselves as if there’s something wrong with us when we don’t understand or can’t cope with feelings.
We don’t have to suffer the crippling effects of anxiety, however. There are healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety, instead of engaging in self-criticism and negative judgments or the abuse of addictive substances and behaviors, which only leaves us feeling empty and worse off. Self-compassion is the royal path of the heart. It is the art of directing a loving, forgiving energy towards yourself, with new perspectives on your old dissatisfactions, perceived failures, and frustrations.
It is soothing and helpful during times of stress to focus your conscious mind on personal images of kindness, understanding, and love, in order to cultivate those feelings within yourself. Find some sacred images that appeal to you and move your soul. Print them out and post them around your space. You will train your mind to combat anxiety-causing thoughts and emotions with the powerful presence of love and acceptance. You will become happier.
Self-compassion is coming to the forefront of psychotherapy, as per an excellent book by Dr. Dennis Tirch called The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic, and Fear. Dr. Tirch writes about how treating ourselves with compassion has a huge impact on the quality of our lives and our ability to deal with inner difficulties, such as anxiety, fear, shame and depression.
In his book, Dr. Tirch writes, “Compassion begins with a deep understanding of just how tricky our brains are and a recognition that they are not that well put together! Once we recognize how difficult our emotions can be, we can stand back from them and feel compassion for the difficulties we experience.”
As we learn how to not take life’s challenges so personally, and to forgive ourselves for our imperfections by cultivating self-compassion, the uncomfortable effects of anxiety will diminish in our lives.
According to Dr. Tirch, “If you’re able to tolerate your anxiety-related distress and accept that anxiety is a part of life, then you’ll also be able to work with it and around it—in short, you’ll be better able to function in your life.” Just reading Dr. Tirch’s book and interviewing him for my Pathways podcast helped me enormously. (Now please excuse me while I take a deep breath and give myself a hug! 🙂
According to a folk saying in Thailand, if a person is wealthy, it’s because they were generous in a previous lifetime. (They have another one about if a person is beautiful it’s because they were kind, but that is a different article.) Either way there’s a catch (there’s always a catch). If you are well-off now you have the wherewithal to be even more generous this time around. Yet how many wealthy people are greedy and miserly, always in pursuit of more, more, more? Just as too many beautiful looking people might be conceited, mean and snobby. Such folks are spiritually regressing and, if they’re not careful, they could come back as an ugly cockroach.
The most generous human societies existed long before the invention of private property. Indigenous foragers had no concept of individually accumulated wealth. Often on the move, they shared everything transparently and immediately. Our native ancestors wisely put the highest value on community—recognizing human bonds as the only real security there is in life. As a result, they instinctively took joy in sharing and bonding with each other, never imagining hoarding possessions or lording it over others who have less. They would have been quickly ostracized for such egotistical obnoxiousness.
Our species, Homo sapiens, existed 200,000 to 300,000 years before civilization took over culture. According Christopher Ryan, author and psychologist, humans certainly had survival challenges way back then, but overall the foragers were considerably healthier and happier than their agriculturist descendants—and way less stressed out, working only 20 hours/week.
Biologically not much has changed in the last 10,000 years, a mere blip in anthropological time. Technology is rampant these days—and having a huge impact on the way we interact with each other—but essentially we are the same species, organically wired for cooperation and sharing. And, even in these times, we invest in our most trustworthy source of security anytime we give of our time, energy and attention to others in a real way. This is love (and I’ve heard it said that generosity is an aphrodisiac.)
As we enter gift-giving season, let’s remember that a wonderful, transformative gift that strengthens the fabric of relationships is just being there for someone else. This is a gift we can give all year round. In these times of shallow social media connecting, being totally present and deeply listening to another—without judging, reacting or editing—is a supremely generous and precious gift. The exercise of emotional intelligence known as empathy, wherein we accept and try to understand another person’s feelings—and let them feel that—is a gift of healing. Passing on some skill or knowledge that you have mastered is a gift of mentoring. Helping somebody move is a gift of service. Giving a homeless person a sandwich is a gift of nourishment. Smiling and saying “Howzit going?” to a stranger on an elevator is a gift of kindness and civility.
No matter how little property or money we have at our disposal, we all have gifts—really valuable gifts—that we can find a way to give. The practice of generosity honors our ancestors and ennobles us as human beings. It cleanses the soul of competitive possessiveness, status and privilege. May we honor our heartfelt heritage and grow back into ourselves by embracing our native generosity of spirit!
We now recognize several forms of intelligence. There’s IQ, emotional intelligence and—thanks to the work of Esther Perel—erotic intelligence. One of the most important forms of intelligence is “intuitive intelligence,” which is the title of my new book (available September 10, 2019 from Beyond Words Publishing).
Long known as “the sixth sense,” intuition is a higher sort of instinct, a feeling-based skill that transcends the strictures of logical analysis. Intuition is commonly defined as the ability to acquire knowledge without inference, or the use of reason. It is a holistic and nonverbal faculty that takes in the big picture and receives holistic impressions directly, sensing patterns without regulation by, or interference from, the analytical mind. The logical left-brain is superb at taking things apart and putting them back together again, sometimes in inventive ways. A holistic approach to perception, however, is different. It hinges on understanding that the totality of a system is much bigger than the sum of its parts and—for making big decisions—much more important. Thus, the subtitle of my book, “Make Life-Changing Decisions with Perfect Timing.”
Unfortunately, the reception of information by the intuitive sense cannot be switched on or willed into action like logical thinking can. From a Jungian point of view, we could say it’s more feminine energy than masculine. Its operation depends on being open and receptive to a spontaneous flow of impressions, insights, ideas, unusual occurrences, coincidences, hunches, and inspirations that arise in your personal mindscape. Such noticing can’t be forced; the mental circuits have to let go of rumination to free up the mind. It requires setting aside thinking in favor of a holistic ability to take in entire patterns, where not all the interconnections are visible, when the situation is not outlined enough to be fully traced or logically analyzed.
This ability to take in whole patterns is intimately related to the “visionary decision-making” process I teach in my book. It is a high form of pattern recognition, related to the ability to hold a vision, wherein larger patterns are perceived even though all the dots aren’t filled in. Holistic perceiving also benefits from wisdom, wherein more of the big picture has been filled in by experience and memory.
Intuition’s most important function and role in life is to help with decision-making, strategy, and making the right moves at the right time. The four steps involved in making a visionary decision are: 1) determining the best action you can take, 2) committing to that action, 3) deciding when to make your move, and 4) executing your decision with confidence. It is important to coordinate intuition with logic when it comes to your choices, but the timing aspect is especially important—and tricky, since it is almost entirely an intuitive decision.
In order to develop our intuitive sense, we have to learn to notice it and listen to it. It’s a subtle ability that never instigates strong feelings—gut or otherwise. Intuition, like meditation, is mindful of the big picture, the largest patterns. It ‘speaks’ to us through a quiet voice or feeling, based on its special kind of broad seeing. Paying attention to those subtle signals, and being open to them, is one of the best tools we can develop to make great decisions and cultivate Intuitive Intelligence.
A common spiritual trope is that we should get rid of ego. The word can even make us cringe or feel guilty. We try to suppress parts of ourselves, but to operate in the world we need a personal sense of self. When kept in its place, a healthy ego is extremely useful. It helps us get things done and express the unique gifts of who we are.
Ego can feel separate, unloved, and threatened, afraid of intimacy and afraid to let love in. On the useful side, its basic job is to defend us. We can allow it to relax its guard, feel less separate, and support our higher selves. But to insist on “no ego” is just an egoistic mentality struggling with itself. We can approach all ego actions with openness instead of judgment and channel them to serve the heart through authentic engagement and love. Whether you are coming from ego or from your heart is the central question regarding lasting fulfillment in life.
Khan defines ego as “the imaginary identity of an overstimulated nervous system.” He characterizes an overstimulated nervous system as having a closed heart, a noisy mind, low self-esteem, with an ego that runs things like an overcontrolling commander-in-chief.
We can learn to engage and integrate the ego as a competent lieutenant, who helps us get our needs met, while taking direction from the higher self. Gradually, we can unravel and heal our battered nervous systems. The keys are radical acceptance, compassion (including self-compassion), honesty and emotional receptivity. Just like its fears, the ego cannot be defeated, cured, or overcome. It evolves through our commitment to love ourselves and each other. When we let ourselves feel grief, rage, terror and other emotions, we can free the ego to better serve our soulful hearts.
The ego is only capable of conditional love and tends to be transactional, and that’s OK under many circumstances. When the immature ego, weak and conflicted, is in control, however, it blocks fulfillment. According to spiritual mystic Matt Kahn, the ego can be thought of as the “soul in incubation.” We process ego stages of development in trying to attain security, pleasure and power. It’s only when we get stuck on one of these three lower levels of consciousness that the ego’s control bites us. (Eckhart Tolle refers to this as the “pain body.”) The soul, or higher self, is a wave on the cosmic sea, connected to all. Unconditional love comes via the soul, via a heart-centered higher consciousness.
Whether we know why or how, everything is here to help us in making the transition from ego-centered to heart-centered. “While the ego judges each feeling solely on how painful or pleasant it is, the soul views each emotion while it lasts as an opportunity to love itself,” writes Kahn. Instead of fighting our ego, let’s learn to embrace it, listen to it and from that, grow and learn. In truth, through all the changes we can’t control, through all the pain and suffering of its dissatisfactions, the ego is evolving to serve the heart. Although it hurts sometimes, love is our only fulfillment and more than worth the price.
Matt Kahn is a spiritual teacher, healer and author. I had the good fortune to interview Matt Kahn on my Pathways Podcast and to attend his three-day retreat in Portland Oregon.
Feel rushed? Even when you’re on vacation? Worried about the future? Overwhelmed? Fast-paced living creates “hurry-sickness”– a sense of desperation and time-pressures that are draining. We’re conditioned to chase money, power, success – ever embracing a wilder, faster pace of life. Despite a rise in stress-induced illnesses, we continue onward in a furious race to an imaginary finish line. The anxiety we feel breeds muddled thinking which leads to poor choices. Poor choices lead to more problems, pain and suffering. It’s a race to the finish that we’re destined to lose.
Yun Rou, a modern Taoist monk I interviewed on my Pathways show, offers wisdom pointing to a better way. Tao, in fact, means “the Way.” It refers to living life in harmony with nature. Many of us spend our time and energy doing battle with life when the key is to live in harmony – through a Taoist alchemy that finds the balance between action and non-action, between assertion and letting go of resistance, as circumstances dictate. Yun Rou uses the term ‘rectify’ to refer to the effort it takes to bring things out of whack back into balance. We will never finally achieve perfect balance – we will always be rectifying – but it’s fun trying and getting better at it. Otherwise, we squander considerable effort and time trying to force the universe to bend to our will. So very exhausting!
Below are four Taoist secrets to doing less and getting more done.
1. Be like water – in the flow.
In his book, Mad Monk Manifesto, Yun Rou notes that we are each called upon to become a sage, defining sage as “a person who deeply senses the flow of the world and moves with it, not against it.” But how do we learn to yield and not resist? Taoists embrace the image of flowing water: when a stream of water is confronted by a rock in its path, it flows effortlessly around it or over it, rather than banging its head against the rock. Flow like water.
2. Cultivate inner peace.
Meditation, Tai Chi, Yoga – all of these ancient methods can be used to help us calm our anxious minds and reduce stress. If we imagine the principles of yielding, softness, centeredness, slowness, balance, suppleness and rootedness that these methods draw upon in a balance of stillness and movement, then we will sense our connection with nature, harmonize ourselves to her ways, and cultivate the inner peace that we all need and subconsciously crave.
3. Find the balance.
An important first step toward attaining this solution to modern stress is by learning to recognize and align ourselves with the movement of life itself. This is achieved through an understanding of yin and yang and finding the balance points of life’s ever-changing dance of polarities – light or dark, up or down, feminine and masculine, giving and receiving, consuming and sacrificing. Balance is the Way.
4.Practice gentleness and compassion.
Mistakenly interpreted as weakness, true gentleness is a courageous sensitivity, respect, and reverence for all life. Its companion virtue, compassion, brings acceptance, generosity, forgiveness, and love. How wonderfully ironic that caring about others’ happiness as if it were your own will reduce your stress level and improve overall well-being for everyone. Yun Rou sums it up: “Compassion is the key element of the awakened, rectified life.”
As this year draws to a close, the holiday season is upon us. Christmas is both a materialistic celebration and a religious holiday—a convoluted intersection of opposing belief systems. But the real spirit of the season derives from a celebration of nature and the solstice’s pivot towards greater light—a celebration neither materialistic nor religious. It was spiritual.
It’s strange that religion and materialistic science—in conflict for centuries—can intersect at all, but one thing they have in common is that they are both in opposition to nature. While religion and spirituality sometimes overlap, they imply different things. Religion is generally belief-centric, dogmatic, and ideological, whereas spirituality is practice-oriented, in tune with the season, and experiential. These differences have significant ramifications.
Dr. Steve Taylor, author of Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World, writes, “Every culture needs a metaphysical system to make sense of the world, a belief system that answers fundamental questions about human life, the world and reality itself.” I had Dr. Taylor on Pathways Radio and Podcasts. We discussed these belief systems, as well as the growing role of spirituality.
“Spirituality wakes us up, opens us up to the aliveness and sacredness and nature, and reconnects us to the world,” Taylor wrote. Aside from dogma and morality, “[Traditional religions] encourage compassion and altruism, teach us to be co-operative rather than competitive, to be moderate rather than hedonistic, and tell us that we shouldn’t expect complete fulfillment in this life.”
Scientific materialism, on the other hand, is a reaction to religion. “Our culture is in thrall to a particular paradigm…which in its own way is just as dogmatic and irrational as a religious paradigm,” writes Taylor. “This is the belief system of materialism, which holds that matter is the primary reality…and that anything that appears to be non-physical—such as the mind, our thoughts, consciousness, or even life itself—is physical in origin, or can be explained in physical terms.”
Many people see materialism—which ultimately negates anything but the physical—as the only alternative to religion. Taylor calls this ‘scientism,’ which is dogmatic, like religion. This materialistic paradigm promotes rampant consumerism, hedonism, status-seeking, competitiveness, and environmental destruction. After all, if nature is but a biological machine whose sole function is to sustain us, then as long as we continue to survive, there is no inherent value in maintaining other species or their ecosystems. By placing God outside of Nature, religions support this attitude too.
There is a fundamental sense of meaninglessness that takes hold without spirituality, but Taylor is optimistic that we are heading into a post-materialistic phase, where there’s growing room for a spiritual worldview. This viewpoint honors the insights of philosophers, physicists, mystics, as well as spiritual traditions and indigenous cultures. “The idea that the essence of reality is a non-material, spiritual quality is one of the oldest and most common cross-cultural concepts,” writes Taylor, and he explains how modern science is converging with mysticism. Perhaps someday in the future we can move beyond a consumer holiday or celebrating the virgin birth of a savior, and return to one that honors the changing of the seasons, the return of the light, and a sense of connection with nature, each other, and all beings. Halleluiah!
Have you ever wondered why you’ve been feeling more anxious or depressed in the past couple years? Having more trouble sleeping? Feeling confused or overwhelmed by behavior that you can’t make sense of? If so, you may be a victim of “narcissistic abuse.” Author and counselor Meredith Miller, an expert on the subject (and recent guest on my Pathways Radio podcast), believes Narcissistic Abuse (NA) is a leading cause of loneliness, anxiety and depression in the world today, silently happening across interpersonal, familial and societal levels.
A silent pandemic of narcissistic abuse appears to be growing at exponential rates, as it’s being normalized by media and entertainment industries rewarded by corporations and institutions, and so shamelessly modeled by our bullying leader. One of the key markers is lack of empathy.
Miller writes, “We are living in a world run by the narcissistic and sociopathic values of many corporations, governments, schools, religious and spiritual organizations.” On the island of Maui, Monsanto is a perfect exemplar of unbridled narcissism in the corporate sector … putting profits above the health—and the democratically expressed will—of the people.
NA is one of the most insidious injustices because it leaves its victims less able to trust others, or their own judgment. Narcissists emotionally manipulate others through language designed to assert greater control. They make people feel helpless and isolated in order to foster a sense of dependency. Hallmark behaviors include verbal abuse, manipulation, emotional blackmail, lying, gaslighting, bullying and withholding. Statistics indicate 15% of population has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but it is under-reported as these are not people who seek therapy.
We all have experienced narcissism, which is a natural stage of life…. for a two-year-old. Clearly, it’s a stage we are meant to outgrow with the help of decent parenting. But what if one or both of our parents is narcissistic or otherwise dysfunctional? Such families operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children conform to these rules, but never cease being tormented by them because the rules block emotional access to their parents … and themselves. They become invisible—neither heard, seen, nor nurtured. Boundaries dissolve and they are used (or abused) to suit their parents’ whims.
Even if we’ve been free of NA in our families of origin or intimate partnerships, we are all experiencing narcissistic abuse these days, because our president has NPD. Gaslighting describes how narcissists try to make people think they are the crazy ones if they believe their eyes and ears. An narcissistic abuser like Trump is a master at gaslighting, constantly lying to deceive and scam or just to throw us off balance. It’s not hard to feel the depressing impact his deranged leadership is having on mental health in the USA and worldwide.
How can we heal from narcissistic abuse? What are antidotes to such self-centered madness? First, we need to have compassion for all of us having to deal with NA. Develop self-acceptance and commit to letting go of our own self-destructive habits and complicity. Deliberately practice empathy and compassion. Avoid giving special attention to the abuser or taking him seriously (perhaps this means taking a “news fast” for a while) in order to rebuild an internal sense of safety. It’s never too late to redefine your sense of self and commit to creating new and better boundaries. And vote for responsible government in 2018.
Sometimes we are taken over by a part of ourselves that we don’t want to recognize. Various “selves” can show up for different situations and relationships. “Something came over me,” we say. It can be a helpful part (altruistic empath) or a shadow side of our personality (self-centered narcissist, needy child). “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less conscious of it we are, the blacker and denser it is.”
The myth of a unified self has us believe there should be one “real me” — a consistent face to the world, a projected self-image that we want others to see and believe. We expend great effort to pretend that’s who we are. But it’s not the whole story. Have you ever been surprised by how you acted, or felt confused, conflicted or uncertain about who you are or what you’re feeling? This thing we call ‘self’ is tricky. Many different and competing facets make for an often conflicted personality.
Subpersonalities are different aspects of a multi-faceted mind, each with a psychic life of its own. When we misunderstand or reject these energies, they become major obstacles to success and happiness. We easily become emotionally conflicted within ourselves.
The ego projects a mask over our whole set of subpersonalities in order to be as consistently attractive as possible. This is what you call your ‘personality.’ In the process we try to disown parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of or insecure about. But we can’t just claim one overarching “true self,” and discard the parts we’re not so proud of. Like it or not, we own it all.
To protect ourselves from disapproval (including our own), we suppress our insecurities by pretending they don’t belong to us and going numb. The needy inner child, the perfectionistic critic, the control freak — we don’t want to admit that we have such capacities. Meanwhile, the ego claims grandiose levels of our lofty aspirations. Oh, we do have good parts … it’s just not the whole story. Sometimes we are generous. Sometimes our compassionate selves are operative. And sometimes we are vengeful or unthinkingly selfish.
In order to evolve into a more integrated personality, we need to own as much of ourselves as we can. The more we shed light on all our parts, the less power the shadow will have. For instance, when the hurt inner-child starts acting out, when we are feeling needy or desperate, we may block feelings out of shame or embarrassment. But this doesn’t work because the child part runs off and disrupts things in an effort to somehow get what it needs. Inadvertently, this sabotages relationships and often generates psycho-physical symptoms like anxiety or depression or IBS.
Too often our lives are run by inner critics, taskmasters or perfectionists, and we are dominated by hidden parts. In this case, choices become blunted and limited — our inner and outer lives controlled by scared, unconscious, often angry, little ego-maniacs. But shaming and chasing away subpersonalities only makes them act up and get stronger. Try to accept and honor them. Listen to them when they are agitating and gently soothe them. Let your Compassionate Self say, “Come here little guy, sit on my lap and let me hold you.” Unconditional self-acceptance is courageous integration. As the I Ching says, love and no blame.
Everyone prefers happiness over suffering, but it can be difficult to steer our emotions and moods toward a happier state. According to evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, we are burdened with a big challenge he refers to as a “tricky brain!”
Why tricky? In his captivating book, “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert explains that our brains have been shaped by evolution, which is not the most intelligent designer. We could have a better brain, if evolution were able to reorganize it (like rebuilding a software program from scratch), but evolution doesn’t work that way—it can only build newer brain functions on top of old, patching and extending things over time.
It makes sense that over millions of years, our brains have become rather unwieldy and unstable. The “old brain” continues reacting to jarring stimuli as if it were life-and-death, as if a saber tooth tiger were about to attack you from behind, instead of the reality: you lost our keys and are about to be late for an important meeting.
It’s like we have two brains – old brain and new brain. The old brain runs emotions, which guide our motives (social and otherwise) to help us get what we need and depend on for survival. Old brain mechanisms, on the other hand, evolved functions that direct the body to deal with threats, take shelter, find food, seek out a sexual partner, etc.
In the last million years, our brains have evolved in profound ways. With a growing neocortex, we became able to think, reason, and plan, enabling us to cooperate and communicate. However, this new brain isn’t foolproof or even 100% advantageous. Because of these abilities for thought and self-awareness, we become burdened with habits of ruminating, comparing, self-criticism and judgment—with emotional by-products like anxiety, vindictiveness or depression. Unlike other animals, humans can anticipate the possibility of starving to death or obsess on a fearful experience. As they say in 12-step meeting, “stinkin thinkin” can get us stuck in a loop until we find a way to intervene.
The two brains are linked and intertwined. The old brain can hijack the new brain, where all of its thinking and planning becomes enlisted by the survival fears of the old brain. Our thinking can become linked or looped into a stream of threat-fueled anxiety, anger, or worry.
As always, 80% of the solution lies in understanding the problem. We can have a better relationship with ourselves when we stop judging ourselves and develop compassion for ourselves, accepting the fact that our brains are replete with conflicting ideas, emotions, and desires. Tricky!
In “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert teaches how to break self-destructive thinking cycles, reorganize the mind, and keep it on track for positive and constructive action. (My podcast talk with him is definitely worth a listen.)
For the sake of self-compassion—which, as Dr. Gilbert explains, is a healing balm for our suffering—it’s important to remember that your brain’s conflictedness is not your fault! Likewise, we are not responsible for the family system or society we were born into, so let’s have compassion for ourselves around that too! The great news is that we can learn to rewire our tricky brain by combining the skill of mindfulness and the power of self-compassion.