February 2017

    “Zen Mind, Body Bind” Vol 2: Waking Up and Growing Up

This month I offer a brief philosophical orientation- a way of thinking about the path of trauma resolution and awakening- in hopes of shedding more light on The Zen Mind Body Bind.  One of the important contributions to the exploration of human consciousness has been the relatively recent addition of the Wilber-Combs lattice.  Before the lattice was articulated, it was thought that Enlightenment (Waking up) was simply an outcome of reaching the highest levels of human psychological development (Growing Up). 

The lattice upended our paradigm and created two axes differentiating the trajectories of Waking Up to higher states of consciousness from Growing Up through higher stages of development.  Obviously there is a good deal of overlap between the two in how our life experience unfolds but having the two trajectories merged philosophically creates all kinds of problems for untying The Zen Mind Body Bind. 

Why is this important?  This updated philosophy matures us- first cognitively- by giving us the opportunity to understand, embrace and become more compassionate toward many of the pitfalls we experience along the paths of our awakening and our psychological development.  By seeing Waking Up and Growing Up as largely two separate processes, we come to learn from our own experience and through working with others that what works for Waking Up may be very different from what is useful for Growing Up.  Most of us tend to gravitate toward one trajectory or the other and this point is especially relevant to the utterly confusing road of trauma resolution.

Let’s begin with Growing up.  There is indisputable evidence that childhood trauma impacts the smooth unfolding of the stages of healthy development.  It devastates our relationships, our livelihoods, our confidence to actualize our vision and, perhaps above all, it seeds attention biases toward threat in our life long scripts- from here we also generate self-limiting belief systems about what is and is not possible and these become maps of “reality”.

Developing the resilience and flexibility to update these maps into greater complexity is a major aspect of Growing Up.  Trauma therapies, especially body-based modalities, have been shown to restore equilibrium and resilience to our fragile nervous systems which may result in feeling a more cohesive sense of self, connecting more easily in relationship, finding life purpose and experiencing more positive emotions and worldviews.  I highly recommend the readings of The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk and Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine for reliable information on trauma seen through our lens of Growing Up.

But putting all our stock into the path of Growing Up is a mistake if we are genuinely interested in scratching the deepest itches of our existential suffering.  No matter how healthy we are, how integrated, how good we feel, how developed and powerful and even how much we are of service we are to the world- to put it blatantly- all of this is going to die!  Therefore, many of us turn to Waking Up, any contemplative path that transcends all of our Growing Up on a completely separate axis as shown on the Wilber-Combs lattice. 

When talking about “spirituality” if we are not able to be precise in what we mean, we are likely mixing Growing Up and Waking Up.  We can have many experiences along our Grow Up trajectory that make us feel blissful or soulful, connected to something larger than ourselves, and even at peace with the way things are.  I am not here to judge what spiritual means to my readers but for the definition of this writer, spirituality or Waking Up is characterized by having genuine experiential insight into the insubstantiality of the self or ego.  If I look carefully, the “I” that I hold so dear and central cannot be found!  This insight does not require repairing ourselves, changing our belief system or Growing Up any further- it can be seen here and now.

This point is central to our discussion of differentiating states from stages.  In short Growing Up (stages) is about making our sense of self more healthy, integrated, connected, happy, and complete- resolving trauma is an essential part of this.  But notice the centrality and identification of the self here- “I” become more healthy, integrated, connected…”. Waking Up is quite different and is characterized by insight- seeing the way things actually are- into the fact that the centrality and identification of the “self” is ultimately a lie we tell ourselves.  It is a belief system we took up- not so dissimilar from the self limiting “map” we developed when we were traumatized- and when we see through the lie, we realize that the self we’ve been so worried about healing, protecting, managing, and primping is basically not as cohesive as we’ve made it out to be!

So which is the more important road to cultivate? The answer is Yes.  The term “spiritual bypassing” coined by John Wellwood is now widely understood for cases where people take the “high road” of Waking Up rather than “cleaning up” their stuff in their Growing Up trajectories.  In other words, knowledge of states of consciousness is used to transcend the stages of the self (or at least we pretend to!). But the term could be used equally in its inverse in cases where the therapeutic culture, for example, neglects to employ any view or technologies of Waking Up because this is “bypassing spiritual” altogether! If we spend an undue amount of our time and resources Growing Up in hope that the genuine relief we intuit is in reach, we are deluded.  But to take the approach that many yogis have of leaving the world behind has generated some catastrophic results too.  Here we see people who may be quite remarkably awake in stabilizing their state experience but their undigested trauma and shadow material makes them very dysfunctional and often destructive.

In conclusion, in studies of both trauma resolution and the ancient wisdom traditions, we have not yet seen research or writings that integrate the confusing mess I have unpacked here.  The trauma research in the last 20 years has been tremendous and will be making huge impacts on the field of psychology (Growing Up) for years to come.  However, we search in vain for any credible information or contributions from authors of trauma theory and research that integrate the relationship of trauma resolution to genuine Waking Up as we collectively untie The Zen Mind Body Bind.  Similarly, from our contemplative wisdom traditions, any study of stages of development (Growing Up) and the impact of trauma on Waking Up is utterly absent.  Until we can first differentiate and then integrate these two trajectories we will be left with very broken and fragmented ways of living, both individually and collectively. 

January 2017

New Blog: “Zen Mind, Body Bind” Vol 1: Dissociation and Emptiness

Hello everyone.  For the next year or so I intend to publish roughly one article per month related to the topic of “Zen Mind, Body Bind”.  The mission of this project is to contribute to the important and ongoing discourse of:

·      The integration- and ultimately resolution- of the Mind/Body and Eastern/Western dichotomies
·      Trauma as gateway to genuine spiritual liberation.
·      The strengths and weaknesses of contemplative and therapeutic practices in the resolution and integration of traumatic experience

I’ll present the blog as a blend of my own experience as both a meditation practitioner and as a psychotherapist as well as citing recommended readings when at all possible.  The writing is not intended to be taken as the TRUTH but I will take certain critical positions in hopes readers will critique, discredit, and defame me whenever possible! (In fact, I would appreciate our dialogue as an opportunity to evolve our perspectives and enhance our collective learning about these topics).

I'll begin by indulging myself (and you) in two paragraphs of personal back story…

For a variety reasons, I was and still am a very committed meditation practitioner.  I am fond of remembering the long periods over 7 years I practiced extensively in India and Thailand. I felt quite at home in monastic settings and I dedicated myself to the aspiration to achieve enlightenment, appreciating periods of austerity, meeting with teachers, living from a backpack.  I had uncountable mysterious subtle body experiences and I most certainly have since weathered the standard pitfalls of spiritual bypassing and constructing a “spiritual ego” as part of my drive to discover- and avoid- the Truth more deeply!

One evening in India, in a public meeting with one of my teachers, I was guided to an experience quite different and in all ways beyond any of my subtle body experiences.  Later that evening I was suddenly watching myself penetrate the universe, turn inside out and dissolve into infinite space.  This was obviously very pleasant and liberating and as I look back, the awakening experience would shape my life every day since.  The following morning, the non-dual experience disappeared yet I noticed something very new; my reference point of “me” had expanded to include a fairly persistent awareness of infinite space.

Then things turned very hard for me. Three months later while in another retreat, I was quite suddenly overcome by immense terror.  Sometimes it was so debilitating I thought I would lose my mind and go crazy as if evil was all around me.  At times my body began shaking violently and I experienced periods of intense gagging.  These symptoms would then collapse into periods of numb dissociation and feelings of helplessness, often wondering if I was dying.  The infinite space I had been granted three months earlier appeared to merge with my dissociative states, which is to say I could not tell them apart with any sort of confidence.  In retrospect, I believe the collapse of my ego structure from the awakening experience gave way to a whole constellation of unresolved trauma symptoms and I would spend my next decade in a long and painful gauntlet of uncoupling dissociation from the liberation of Shunyata (the Buddhist “Emptiness”, Causal Body, or freedom in “nothing”).  

 I am certain I am not alone in experiencing this kind of confusion. Even for individuals who have not had the stark experiences I have, I notice that many people interested in both contemplative practice and psychotherapy encounter innumerable problems from not having the clarity to make this distinction.

For example, meditation teachers have been traditionally grossly under equipped with interventions to allow the frozen energy of trauma to free itself through movement practices and encourage more sitting or “to just be aware”.  This is not to say that this instruction is not partially true but western modalities have done much more sophisticated work to address trauma freeze states and dissociation with more efficiency than just sitting it out.

In the other extreme, therapists who have typically done lots of personal work on themselves but little meditation may not have enough experience with emptiness to distinguish it from dissociation in themselves and others.  For example, when clients experience a “blank”, therapists unresolved in their own discernment may inaccurately detect dissociation or worse yet a “spiritual bypass” when in actuality they have robbed a client of her liberation!  Therapists and other helping professionals have a responsibility to be open and honest in their own self-assessment here.

Finally, meditation practitioners who “think they are Empty”, an oxymoron in itself, can spend years on the cushion ignoring the felt sense of their bodies and trick themselves into believing they are attaining spiritual progress.  If this is not pointed out or discovered, it will often increase the mind/body split which is the opposite of enlightenment in all ways.  As it has also been pointed out, dissociation can be used to “spiritually bypass” psychological structures and traumas which need to be attended to and integrated.

However, the reverse is true as well.  We can spend years trying to "heal" ourselves of our trauma and never transcend our narrative, constantly rewriting our scripts into ever more "wholeness" but never drop the project while unwittingly building more refined psychological cages.

If you are wanting to know more about a trauma sensitive approach to meditation I highly recommend this wonderful three part blog by Mark Foreman, PhD.

In the next article of this blog I will be exploring the foundations of debate between the trajectories of “Waking Up” to state experiences versus the process of “Growing up” into more mature stages of development.  This is a new conversation- emerging from the past decade or so- and needs attention because having the two paths coupled together-even philosophically- is at the heart of where things can go very awry.

 The pith is this: all of the “psychological work” we do to grow ourselves up may not do much to liberate ourselves from the whole construction of our egos and, similarly, countless hours in contemplative states practice may not do much to repair the deep wounds of our ego.  Almost all of us tend to lean toward one pole or the other and it is essential that we take stock of ourselves as accurately as possible, lest we trick ourselves-genuine enlightenment & self actualization allude us.

November, 2016

A commentary on Trump's Election 

I do not know a single person who voted for Donald Trump and this fact informs me in so many ways.  It revealed to me, without any filters, that the bubble I live in as a middle class, values driven, “helping professional” has protected me from seeing the reality of half our nation’s citizens.  I knew this intellectually but the bubble simply popped, the voices were heard.  I feel naked and raw and guilty and actually a touch excited by a new information highway emerging through our collective shock.  And I‘m taking a hard look at my own responsibility where my post modern values have, in their own right, become a form of oppression. 

Have a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  What we know about human development, both collective and individual, is governed by a hierarchy of increasingly complex needs; only after lower more fundamental needs are met can increasingly more conscious and actualization needs be attained.  And we notice the pyramidal shape is elegant because, in fact, when foundational needs are not met, higher needs become shaky and topple over. The pyramid also reminds us that fewer individuals have the opportunity to self actualize compared to those who are grappling with survival issues.

Thus we have collectively elected President Trump. A good half of Americans struggling at the needs level of safety and security or making ends meet for their families may well interpret the values system of liberalism as “pie in the sky” if not oppressive in their own right.  Just imagine the survival level of your own consciousness being threatened everyday and then carrying the added burden of being seen as “conservative, selfish, and insenstitive”.  An animal that is starving is not at all sensitive to others, nor should it be and our higher values will never “trump” lower needs in the hierarchy.   Just like the polls demonstrated, we missed this important truth.

I woke up at 5:30am and cried with my wife. I sat on my meditation cushion and got really curious asking, “What is my response, what is really happening?”  First, I rode waves of shock as if we’d survived an earthquake. And the first reaction to this discomfort I noticed was the strong habit-potential to view myself into a victim.  I understand this pattern well enough to see it is driven by fear.  It is interesting to notice when we have entered the “drama triangle”- which was originally posited in the psychological theory of Transactional Analysis- if we unconsciously choose to be a victim, we will simultaneously notice a perpetrator arises and we will seek a rescuer. 

It is painful but liberating to notice that if we do not take responsibility for our fear- which is in itself simply a contracted form of clear alertness and excitement- we will enter the drama triangle from which a great deal of reactive suffering will be generated.  We then often respond by projecting our victim- after all who wants to feel that- and deny responsibility, both individual and collective, for what has happened.  The humorous irony here is that our unconscious collective agreement to enter the drama triangle got Trump elected! By 6:00am I was chuckling.

For those of us who are willing and able, I propose taking a stand in addition to our actions generated from liberal political and social justice values.  Rather than shaming ourselves blaming someone else or “helping” someone by entering the drama triangle, can we take a collective stand to experience and own all of our habitual contractions which contributed to Trump’s election?  If I have one prayer for the citizens of our most amazing country it is that we take seriously this opportunity to enter the gate of our individual and collective suffering.  This is a gate beyond fear and ironically beyond hope as well.  We can surrender to the human condition as it really is- RAW, VULNERABLE, RARE and BEAUTIFUL   When our drama triangle becomes transparent and we turn to face each of its aspects, the Rescuer becomes true selfless compassion rather than mere pity, the Perpetrator becomes razor-like discernment rather than judgment and the Victim transforms into fearless vulnerability rather than shameful collapse.  

And from here, even Trump can be seen as a fellow human being… well, ok… almost! I’m working on it.

May, 2016
From Inner Critic to Inner Freedom

This month I am taking on the very large topic of our dear old friend, the Inner Critic.  I interviewed Dharma teacher, Martin Aylward on the subject and if you’d prefer to listen to the full interview click here.  Martin has an upcoming online course called "I See YouMara: From Inner Critic to Inner Freedom" and I recommend watching his introductory video to get a sense of his philosophy and approach. The course begins soon so check it out! 

As the cartoon humorously indicates, Martin defines the structure of the Inner Critic as the “self that talks to the self about the self”. For many of us, the Inner Critic is the background noise of our life and the very water we are swimming in and we may not even notice it as judgment or evaluation of ourselves.  It has become a basic assumption of our reality.

Recognizing the Inner Critic and slowly teasing apart its hold on us is a heroic undertaking.  As we begin to unwind it, we see just how deeply it has impacted our development, our sense of goodness, our insight and well being.  The first step is to notice it and to warm up to it a bit in order to get a sense of the structure itself.

 Is it ferocious and violent or cold and dismissive?  Does it have a location either inside your body or outside your body?  Whose voice is it (yours, your parents, anyone else you gave authority to)? What does it look, sound, feel like and is there a constellation of emotion around it?

The inner critic may be more pervasive than we expect!  In the full interview Martin and I teased apart some of the subtle ways that the structure may be operating undercover.  For example, we can notice when we are comparing ourselves to others as better than, worse than or even equal to us.  Also, forms of unhealthy pride or arrogance are often the critic in disguise. If the critic goes unnoticed it may have a side effect of projecting our judgments about ourselves onto others or it may leak out as resentment and passive aggression.

For meditators, it can often take years to uncouple pure witnessing awareness from the “abstract watcher”, a self conscious form of observing. And the very drive to perfect ourselves by following orders from the critic becomes a distorted spiritual overlay, measuring our “progress on the path”.  For some, in spite of dedicated practice and having profound insight into reality, much of the progress can later get hijacked by doubt when the critic later undermines our confidence in our own experience.

Especially for those of us who have experienced trauma, the structure can produce a rather morose and foggy atmosphere of wrongness in which we assume we do not have even the right to inhabit our own experience.  The critic may even appear as a voice mistaken as God.

Martin proposed that the structure itself may not actually go away and this is great information for us as most of us would like a magic bullet to end the tyranny of our critic.  The point is not to destroy it as much as to see it (“I See You Mara”) and to understand how it operates within us.  This can include looking at our own history to appreciate and understand that the Inner Critic initially developed as a way to protect ourselves from pain.  The particular strategy we employed was different for all of us but the bottom line is we came to trust in bad food.  As Martin puts it we came to “lack a basic trust in life” and so we created or swallowed rules to get our basic needs met for survival, love and belonging.

My favorite insight from Martin’s introductory video was that it can be very liberating to inquire deeply enough to “release dependency on the inner critic”.  In a deeper than simply cognitive way we are able to see that in the end we do this to ourselves.  This is not a blaming or shaming kind of insight, it is liberating because we understand and see that we made a huge assumption of our lack and ultimately our separation.  We gave away our authority. We solidified around this and continue to play the same old record. It is almost boring!

April, 2016

One word: Trump

As a psychotherapist and coach practicing in the liberal Republic of Boulder, CO USA I might be considered suicidal were I to ponder writing something endearing about Donald Trump.  OK, “endearing” is probably not the right word but considering the number of my clients who have brought his name cynically into the therapy room in the last three months, I feel a certain responsibility to at least be curious about our reactions to “Trump”.  There may be something we could learn and after all, he has us angry and he has our attention.

Donald trump says exactly what is on his mind.  Although the actual content is often rubbish, contradictory, and inhumane, consider how we might feel were we to allow a more refined version of this into our own lives.  Imagine a world where we said yes when we meant yes, no when we meant no with the interior freedom to change our minds without apology. Imagine not being paralyzed by political correctness or pretending to be nice when we feel pissed off, where we could speak passionately even if what we said was unpopular.

Donald Trump reveals our relationship to power.  Because he is such an easy target to fire our projections, there is a great opportunity to reclaim and process our undigested material here. For example, some of us may feel bullied or victimized when past experiences of losing our power emerge, generating a fight or flight response. In some cases, Trump may show us our expectation or even reliance on being rescued by those in power. For others, we notice our triggers leading to black and white thinking about men, hierarchy, leadership and even privilege.

Donald Trump shows us a common spiritual bypass. He provokes our anger and self-righteousness as his behavior rubs up against our belief system that the world should be more compassionate.  This is ironic because the “should” implies it “should be different” (which is basically aggression) and how interesting that we go as far as to disown our anger and believe “he makes us angry!”  This may reveal a powerful contradiction in spiritual types.  If our orientation is to becoming compassionate and “all one” Trump shows us where we are at the very least limited by, if not contradicted by our belief system.

So, is there something I could say that is endearing about Donald Trump?  Well, not really. But at the very least, he has my attention!

March, 2016
Evolving Women, Collapsing Men?

If you chanced upon this month’s issue of Psychology Today, you may have seen the headline “Why Young Men Are Falling Behind”.  Some of the statistics and hypotheses are alarmingly relevant to men AND women as we continue to face being thrown overboard by the tottering complexity of heterosexual relationships as we continue to evolve.

From the article: “Among recent college graduates, women earn 97% of what their male peers earn.” (This is in stark contrast to the figure of 78% for American females overall). Also, 60% of undergraduates today are female and women earned 61% of all graduate degrees in 2013.  Women’s wages are rising faster than men’s and, in addition to these successes for women, men are backsliding not only in education but in physical and mental health indicators. Suicide and accidental death due to substance abuse rates for middle aged men are increasing as are the ubiquitous compulsions toward pornography and gaming.

The gap has closed gents and we must tip our hats to the hard work of our counterparts. They have earned it. But what does this mean for men?  From the article, “It may be that while many males openly welcome the progress of women, deep down, beyond even their own awareness, they can’t help interpreting it as their own failure.” Indeed, one study showed that women’s success in heterosexual relationships negatively affected the self-esteem of male partners.
In an age where the notion of gender itself is questioned or even targeted as a construct and where roles have been significantly depolarized, those of us who identify as men are discovering new complexities that are arising for the first time in history.  We appear to be collapsing in a time when the healthy aspects of masculinity- a sense of agency, courage and fierce resolve- are needed most. 

We are struggling to access our valor in addressing the double bind of being asked to be masculine and feminine all at once and yet this is our task if we are to survive long enough to manifest and serve in ways that meet the complexity of our times.  No doubt, it’s a tough time for us and our first task is to address our shame with resolve. According to the article, in a recent survey of young men, what   We can speculate all we want about what happened to us and why but at the bottom in our guts we know it is shame. We are hiding out, quietly enraged with none other than ourselves.

How to begin to address male shame?

·      Talk about it.  Shame thrives in secrecy.  Find other people and get it out in the open.  This can be done in groups, dyads or with a professional counselor.
·      Face it. Get to know what shame and the feeling of collapse looks like experientially.  What happens in your body?  Shame is uncomfortable but it is workable.
·      Slow the process down. Experiment with the polarity of observing the collapse into shame and alternatively standing tall and refusing to collapse.  Allow for anger!
·      Commit. Make a commitment to the journey of working on yourself… this challenge builds both masculine self esteem and compassion for shortcomings.
·      Reward. Take small steps in areas where you know you can succeed. Acknowledge yourself.  We are worthy of this heroic journey.

Feb, 2016
Relationship: Moving Beyond Harmony

Is striving for harmony in your relationships a subtle form of settling for less?

Like everything else in our lives, as we develop, the unspoken rules and values which govern relationships evolve too.  The majority of the data tracking adult development shows that healthy individuals and communities move from egocentric relationships to increasingly more worldcentric ways of relating.  In the next three paragraphs I quickly generalize what this trajectory looks like- a little dry but hang in there- and then make a brief argument that development can and will move even beyond what is usually, in psychotherapy and current popular culture, the goal of harmony in relationships.

To begin, in traditional relationships, preferential value is placed on people who think and behave much like us.  Conversations are generally limited to particular, sometimes narrow or even rigid belief system and we find comfort with others who share our values.  We see this today in traditional religious organizations, rotary clubs, and fraternal organizations. Healthy relationships at this level are achieved by getting along well and not challenging the norms of the community.  An example of a contract for couples at this level is “Until death do us part”.

As we continue to grow, we begin to differentiate from this kind of sameness taking preference for more individualism.  Relationships become more about functionality and what we might achieve together.  While we still include the wish to be surrounded by those similar to us, we also become interested in topics that stimulate debate such as politics, science, and other current events.  To some degree relationships are more hierarchical- based on what is contributed to the community- and healthy relationships equal all individuals getting their needs met in a functional way, each person in their place. The contract at this level for couples can be represented by “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine”.

Finally, as the limitations of sameness and individualism are recognized, we come to wish for harmony, inclusion and unity in relationships.  More than ever we value interior feelings, our uniqueness and we seek relationships that bring meaning to our “journey of life”.  We become interested in personal development modalities such as psychotherapy, wellness and spirituality in the service to harmonizing ourselves and our relationships.  Healthy relationships at this level are inclusive of differences and value equality, with every member of the community- or even the world- getting a chance to contribute.  The contract at this level for couples might be stated as, “Equal partnership, fairness and sensitivity.”

But does it end here?  Just like the earlier stages, will we begin to feel harmony and unity as a self-limiting box of its own?  While individuals at this level have become notably more compassionate than any preceding level of development, there is often a palpable lack of action or agency to get much done in terms of actually manifesting the worldcentric view it seeks to embrace. With the potential for overemphasis on sensitivity and feelings, and having rejected the hierarchical aspect of the previous stage, we may find ourselves bogged down in process and political correctness. If we look carefully, we can be quite fragile, entitled and somewhat narcissistic here.  (To explore if this is true a valuable exercise is to observe our response when we do not feel “seen and heard” or if a space feels “unsafe”.  Individuals and communities at this level of development can become righteously enraged by the “lack of justice”, revealing anger which is paradoxically a definite no-no in the harmony and unity belief system).

So how do we include the gifts of all the previous developmental stages but continue to evolve?  There are many avenues and one characteristic of moving toward this level is we begin to become aware of the fear governing all the earlier stages and we take the risk to get dirty again.  We return to fearlessly work with ourselves and our community to squarely acknowledge all the bumps, bruises and ugliness we’ve acquired along the way. 

It becomes clear that these wounds are the unseen forces governing our lives anyway, so why not address them? Exploring what is raw in us becomes great fodder and compost to feed a new generation of effective, trustworthy, vulnerable and compassionate relationships for those who are willing.  Conflict and anger- wielded skillfully- are no longer outlawed and we even embrace the power and wisdom of other “negative” emotions. Finally, we discover that as we explore our most shadowy and traumatized areas with those who we are in relationship with, we are simultaneously offering some of our most precious gifts, truly serving and transforming our communities, our lineages and ourselves. 

Healthy relationships at this level include taking the best of all the previous developmental rules of relating and adding the realness of being basic human beings.  We begin to see that the roots of suffering are infinitely complex yet equally ephemeral-short circuiting blame and shame- as we integrate paradoxes such as being both special and ordinary, masculine and feminine, light and dark and so on.

What is in the way of embracing our fullness, our brokenness, our realness, our ordinary genius?  How does turning away from these obstacles impact us, our relationships and mirror the state of our world?  

January, 2016

It is unlikely that any course of therapy, coaching, meditation path or other form personal development will allow us to avoid the discovery of our anger.  And we would sure like it if we could move through it quickly in a clean way, wouldn’t we? We hope that containing our rage to the surprising single therapy session where we hit a pillow might just solve it so we can move along and maintain our composure as a decent person.

As a generalization, there are those who express anger outwardly and those who internalize it.  If we have constructed our personality around either of these two styles, we will be surprised to discover that neither end of the spectrum has done a thorough job examining the potential of anger as ally, or even companion along the path.  Expressers tend to work with anger in a way that is outwardly destructive while Internalizers tend to point it inwards resulting in shame, resentment and passive aggression.  Both may be blind to anger’s wisdom and compassion because they overlook fear as a common root. 

Unfortunately, fear left unseen or ignored governs us!  Depression, anxiety and other symptoms that contribute to our suffering are often related to unresolved feelings of anger.

A powerful exercise at any level of our development is to examine our individual and cultural beliefs around anger.  Judge for yourself how anger has shaped you and vice-versa:

·      Do I allow myself to show anger?
·      Is there a difference between anger and aggression?
·      Is anger built in to the human wiring (biological) and/or is it learned (socially constructed)?
·       How was anger expressed (or not expressed) in my family system?
·      Does anger inform me of anything other than a belief that someone- including myself- or something is bad?

A roadmap to working with anger:

Start with your direct experience and take 100% responsibility for it.  This is no small task but it is essential to drop underneath any blame and simply acknowledge our anger as ours. Where, when, how do you experience anger?  If we genuinely believe we do not have anger, look a little more closely! It may mask itself as shame or irritability for Internalizers.  Expressers will need to gently contain their expression and feel underneath to tolerate strong feelings.  In short, Repressors and Expressers may benefit from exploring some of the qualities of each other’s style.

Anger and aggression are not the same thing!  In our ignorance they have become coupled together.  After taking responsibility for our anger and aggression, it is essential to slow down the process and watch very closely. Get cozy with the direct feelings and separate them from our belief systems, judgments, and reactions.  Get to the pure energy in the body and what do we discover?

When we discover the pure energy of anger as upright clarity and as an indicator of our boundaries, we are on the road to uncoupling anger from aggression.  This does not mean we are through working with anger and we do not need to be.  It means we are liberated from our conditioned way of relating to anger and can now use the intensity of this pure, clear strong energy as a form of active compassion. 

The Mondo Zen process is an excellent way of acquainting ourselves with the power and unlimited context anger can offer us before it collapses into aggression and violence.  Here we learn that avoiding anger actually aligns our awareness with egoic activity rather than freedom. Please remember I offer Mondo Zen free of charge and to contact me to schedule this.

November, 2015

Masculinity or Chicken Noodle Soup?

I extend heartfelt congratulations to the multiplicity of successful waves of the feminist movement in the United States.  In less than a century since the 19th amendment was enacted ensuring women’s right to vote (this is a very short time ago in the geologic timescale of humanity’s development), we are now seeing women earning 80% of men’s salaries in the workplace up from just 59% in 1974. There is still a tremendous amount of work still to be done and- in my cozy little male armchair opinion from the bubble of Boulder, CO- we can only expect this trend of heightened consciousness to continue as the sacred feminine is showing great strength, promise and compassion in healing itself.

While this work continues to unfold, I propose turning our attention largely to the sacred masculine.  The feminist movement, in general, emerged as a natural response to the oppressive, patriarchical and hierarchical qualities of the masculine and it may be fair to say, then, that it was the masculine that was broken first!  (Yet again, the masculine has outdone the feminine J.)

As is always the case, when we develop to become more conscious and whole, new developmental stages create new challenges.  For many people in the post modern world, we have seen and understood all too well the catastrophic effects of the broken masculine. In reaction to the oppressive and patriarchical worldview, we have come to favor a more conscious “sensitive self”, more inclusive, more compassionate and quite possibly more feminine! Is that what we really wanted?

A difficulty we see today is that in response to the broken masculine, we seem to have cast out the brilliancy of masculine energy as well.  Men, in particular appear to have collapsed in shame, surrendering our backbones, placing attention on developing sensitivity, banishing aggression into shadows (leaking it out as passive aggression and resentment) and rejecting healthy qualities such as boundaries, directness, leadership, discipline and warriorship. When we attempt to embody the masculine from the perspective of shame and retribution, we become like a big pot of chicken noodle soup and men, especially, are the noodles! Frankly, this kind of “masculinity” is to be eaten only when we’re sick. (Scroll down to previous posts for more of my take on shame).

As we begin to taste the higher levels of adult development we begin to intuit that the most impactful work that can be done in the world will not be in reaction to previous waves of development.  It will be done when our hearts are truly intelligent and open but first we need strong, committed and enduring backbones to hang them on rather than noodles.  Only then can we emobrace Wendell Berry's proclamation, "Therefore, let us quiet our hearts... and settle down for a change to picking up after ourselves and a few centuries of honest work"  Hurrah!!!

Anglo Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men
by Wendell Berry

Come, dear brothers
let us cheerfully acknowledge
that we are the last hope of the world,
for we have no excuses,
nobody to blame but ourselves.
Who is going to sit at our feet
and listen while we bewail
our historical sufferings? Who
will ever believe that we also
have wept in the night
with repressed longing to become
our real selves? Who will
stand forth and proclaim
that we have virtues and talents
peculiar to our category? Nobody,
and that is good. For here we are
at last with our real selves
in the real world. Therefore,
let us quiet our hearts, my brothers,
and settle down for a change
to picking up after ourselves
and a few centuries of honest work.

September, 2015
Got shame? Got resentment.

This month, I’d like to continue our exploration of shame.  Now that we have uncoupled shame from guilt, we can deepen our understanding of and our wish to uncover shame. At this stage, it can be very helpful to think of shame in its connection to anger; rather than expressing anger at a target outside of ourselves we swallow it, choosing unconsciously to turn the anger inwards.  Shame, therefore, is a form of self-aggression. 

What? Me angry?

Take a moment to notice how you relate to the word “anger”.  In our current postmodern culture, expressions of anger have become quite taboo creating all kinds of shadow material! Regularly while counseling or coaching clients I notice that if I say, “You sound angry about that” the response is, “No, not angry. Just frustrated.” Or Irritated. Perhaps resentful.  Yes. And lets’ call a spade a spade, these are all in the constellation of anger.

If we live under the burden of toxic shame, it may be difficult to think of ourselves as angry because shame’s nature is to repress anger into shadow. However, if we regularly experience shame, we notice an underlying part of ourselves- perhaps the background noise of our lives- that is critical and resentful toward self and others.  This makes perfect sense because in shame we have been violent toward ourselves, and rather than taking responsibility for our aggression, we project it outwards and attempt to vindicate ourselves from a kind of constructed perpetrator.

I use the word “constructed” very purposefully here because the experience of toxic shame often rests on a platform or lens that the world is victimizing us.  It is an incredible challenge to own that we unconsciously continue to do this to ourselves, especially for those of us who have experienced any form of abuse, be it emotional, sexual, physical or neglectful. Survivors often experience shame so deeply that aggressive energy becomes frozen or crystalized into deep grooves of unworthiness in which we build a victim through which we see the world. We went small and dormant to find safety which deserves deep appreciation because it protected us from intense vulnerability.  But today the “facts” of our experience, seen through this lens reinforce a series of assumptions about our experience, further solidifying the belief that we are unworthy, small and shameful. What worked in the past is no longer serving us.

This is why for those of with the most intense critics-the spokesperson for shame- the classic advice on how to work with ourselves does not seem to go very far because at this level we are managing the symptoms of shame, not the roots.  In fact, such tactics, when they do not get underneath the lens may even further suppress our insight into what is fueling the critic.  For example, a common recommendation is to employ kindness or friendliness toward ourselves but I notice that those of us who experience toxic shame often do not relate well to this instruction because within the lens is a belief that we unworthy of kindness.  (Here we can watch out too for a belief that kindness approaches are “too soft and noodley” for us as this may be another form of defense).

So what to do? 

There are times when the most compassionate and friendly response may also be the most direct!  It can be very helpful if we are willing to step into the discomfort and own the catastrophic consequences shame has on our relationships, our work in the world and our life energy. Take intense interest in the victim if we see it, feel the shame.  When we have a felt sense of it, are we willing to accept it as just simple and uncomfortable energy? Looking directly is a radical form of kindness!   This is fierce compassion.

There are at least two possible benefits from approaching shame in this way. 1) We learn that we do not need to manufacture kindness or even seek it elsewhere. Our natural interest, attentiveness and commitment to ourselves is enough! 2) By owning our victim, our critic, and our shame we also set a boundary with it. No more playing small and projecting it onto others. We see clearly when it emerges from the darkness and we realize we have a conscious moment to take action and make more enlightened choices.

Best wishes to you in your discovery! I always appreciate your comments.

August, 2015

Shame makes us play small, guilt leads us to a bigger game

Beginning just four years ago, Brene Brown released her research about vulnerability & shame in two Ted Talks and collectively they have received over 26 million hits to date.  This is remarkable but unsurprising as she discusses this sensitive material in a way that is accessible to many of us. We are inspired by her courage and realness and ability to deliver it with a sense of humor.

In her second Ted Talk she briefly brushes on differentiating between shame and guilt saying “Guilt is focus on behavior, shame is focus on self”.  Even more pithy, we can say guilt is: “I did it” and shame is: “I am it” which means that “Catholic shame” is a more accurate way of saying “Catholic guilt”!  It is essential that we explore this difference for ourselves because if we are able to uncouple them, we are on the road to discovering where we are playing small in our lives and where there are choice points to step into a bigger game.

Let’s begin with shame. Its very nature is to keep us small, hidden, powerless and disconnected. And more importantly, it relies heavily on our history and formulates a predictably patterned and reactive behavior that stems from swallowing untrue beliefs about ourselves. In “psycho-babble”, these beliefs are called introjects and we can think of them like chunks of unchewed food that we swallowed too quickly without tasting them for ourselves to decide if they were nourishing.  We did this unconsciously and if we are courageous enough to explore our introjects at their roots, we discover much to our surprise that we unconsciously choose to keep the cycle going. We swallow what we shouldn’t.  This feeds a very convincing belief system that we are unworthy, unconnected, unseen, and just about every other “un” we’ve onboarded without substantial evidence.

But guilt is of another vein.  It is an indicator that we have stepped out of our own integrity, a powerful “red flag” that may help us to choose more evolved behaviors. After all, we correct ourselves due to guilt, we apologize, and we reclaim our negative shadow material. Guilt can help us play a bigger game reminding us to choose antidotes, namely thoughts and behaviors that serve the development and well-being of ourselves and those in our community.

 Feel for yourself the difference between owning a mistake fully with integrity in juxtaposition to simply thinking we are an asshole because we’ve always been an asshole!  If we are not aware of the difference, guilt will quickly collapse into shame which is not only a missed opportunity to show up in life but it provides a damaging reassurance that we are unlovable. Brown’s research sums it up: shame is highly correlated with addiction, eating disorders, depression, suicide, and violence.  Guilt is inversely correlated!

Unfortunately, Brown points the finger to a shaming culture as the cause of shame.  Her research, based on countless hours of interviews, indicates that the cues causing shame-while slightly different for men and women- are externalized messages.  While I could even go so far as to agree that shame is so prolific in our culture that it is literally in the air we breath, she has failed to address our individual interiors where the roots of shame are experienced.  The unfortunate result of blaming our culture- our parents, our media, whatever- is that we are less able to take responsibility for our own experience of shame which means we lose the precious opportunity to understand that we do this to ourselves.  (We, as a sum of individuals, are the culture after all!)  

Take responsibility for my shame, you say? What? But…but… 

We can discover the truth of this right now.  Take a moment to think of the last time you felt shame.  Drop below the narrative causing your reactivity and discover where it is located and what it feels like.  Take your time to get a real felt sense of this. If you are willing to tolerate this, you will discover feelings underneath which are more primary than the shame.  The shame is in fact, a reaction to deeper emotions including sadness and grief. How interesting…  And why are you sad?  How about because you care so deeply. Brown is right on track here when she says, “empathy is the antidote”.   We are now on the path to discovering that this personalized experience of deep care leads us directly into a more universal and unshakeable understanding of true compassion and clarity.  From here no one has ever shamed us. Not possible. Not a chance.

Understanding this again and again takes a good deal of patience and practice and it is difficult.  But consider the cumulative cost on ourselves and community from simply blaming “culture” for shaming us, which is not only untrue but has predictably negative outcomes.  First, when we blame we perpetuate the belief that we are victims (powerless, worthless, disconnected, etc) which means we are perpetuating our own shame. Ouch! And perhaps even more tragically, when we look outwards for cause, we negate the opportunity to see our part in the cycle which is what keeps shame loop anchored in place.  This keeps us playing a small when we could be stepping into a much larger game!

Please let me know your own thoughts on shame, how you experience it, and your own discoveries about its nature.  Send me an email at