July, 2019
“Buddhists are nice”, right? 

Buddhists are nice because you meditate, you practice compassion, you’re peaceful.  You’ve taken up a life of pacifism and vegetarianism from hearing that the Buddha was liberated from the three poisons; greed, aggression and ignorance. It’s true, the Buddha instructed in tolerance, compassion and morality. And for the more advanced audiences he pointed out that in seeing through the ignorance of our cherished ego-identification, practitioners may dwell undisturbed in “high equanimity”.  This feels nice. 
One trouble, though, is that you are not really equanimous and you have a tendency to get hooked on feelings. Especially nice ones. You want to feel good and leave out what feels bad. And the ideal that you should only feel good creates quite an elaborate prison, especially when you gather with other Buddhists, mesmerized by the same belief system. Watch how the rule “we are nice” gets hijacked into a collective rule that “we have to be nice” to fit in with everyone else we are practicing with. It’s a cozy little family.

How uncompassionate, actually.  If we have to be nice then the unspoken rule is we can't make you feel bad, we can't actually serve you by pointing out where you're stuck because you seeing how stuck you actually are feels very shitty.  Yet that’s the whole point in Buddhism, we’re stuck. It’s the First Noble Truth, Suffering 101.

You might think, “but actually, I’m really a nice person.”  But the Buddha never taught you that because there is no such thing.  Every school of Buddhism accepts as a major tenet, your sense of “person” is simply a preprogrammed (karmic) bundle of causes and conditions, combined with an error that strings the past and future together to create a false reality of a private, separate sense of self. So from an absolute point of view you are not a person, let alone nice or not nice. It really isn’t relevant. 

But from a relative point of view you are both nice and you are not very nice at all. You are part of the human conditioning which is sometimes generous, loving, equanimous and nice. You are also capable of war, hatred, greed, and screwing over those who you love.  Just let yourself be pushed far enough. Take a good look at the high horse you ride,  thinking you’ve worked through your anger and greed as you crush your potential for true liberation by hanging out with a bunch of other Buddhists “on the good side”.
An antidote to the shadow side of niceness is an ethic of treating each other real, which is often kind and not always so nice.  It's actually showing up with the integrity to be honest and vulnerable with ourselves and others, which then cuts through the  fat of the collective “party of nice”.  It’s transformative. It’s taking a stand on something true without backing down which doesn’t preclude the humility to admit we’ve been partially or totally wrong.  It’s the antidote to mediocrity, to naive hopefulness and to being superficially intimate. And ironically, when practiced collectively, it is a surprising antidote to passive aggressiveness and shame.

May 2019

Feminism, spirituality, beyond equality

I am a man with the consistent intent to evolve a conversation… not to begin one or end one, but to continue exploring our shared interest in greater truth and freedom. For some, it may be hard to imagine how a white and surely privileged masculine man would have the balls to write about feminine nature.  And to be clear, the intent here isn’t to systematically oppose or “mansplain” the matriarchy. It is to first define and distinguish feminine energy from masculine energy;  then I’ll propose some context for what may have happened to our feminine energies and examine the consequences of the feminine being overlooked from both spiritual and mundane points of view. I assume the reader agrees that individuals of all genders have both masculine and feminine energies and examples using “men” and “women” are simply employed as generalizations to exemplify masculine and feminine energy, respectively. I also understand that this article addresses the feminine from a masculine perspective- I’m using structure and definitions- so I’m already inviting trouble.

Let’s begin with a dive into definitions:  From the point of view of spiritual awakening, the masculine path of attainment is through releasing consciousness from the entire world of form, gross and subtle. The Absolute masculine is one with the primordial void, Emptiness, pure untainted Witnessing Awareness. It is the formless. The feminine path of attainment is through receiving the nature and fullness of all forms gross and subtle which is ultimately oneness with Pure Light, or Selfless Love.  It is the manifestation of whole world of form. In cultivating the masculine pole we develop wisdom and in cultivating the feminine pole we develop love and compassion.  The end goal in most mystical traditions, east and west, is defined as the non-dual resolution of (or seeing beyond and through) this polarity; “emptiness is form, form is emptiness”, or our feminine form “becoming One with the Father”.  From this perspective- that is, beyond all perspectives-masculine and feminine are one and the same.

However, when this is not clarified and a view is taken up through the narrowed sense of an ego identified self, masculine energy is expressed as disconnection, or an “up and out” often harsh objectification of form while constricted feminine energy is expressed as the error of conflating selfless compassion with selfish, often merged, “love” due to over identification with form.  So yes, there is at least some kernel of wisdom to be garnered from the pathologizing stereotypes; unawakened masculine men over-think and are objectifying assholes while unawakened feminine women over-feel and are hysterical drama queens!

Feminine paths of spiritualty are often based in cultivating love, devotion, feeling, and receiving one’s own divinity.  This is in juxtaposition to a masculine path of cultivating concentration, stillness and meditation geared to releasing one’s consciousness from identifying with anything whatsoever.  For most of us, the journey of awakening is a combination of cultivating both poles to some degree though we should be aware that modern culture has a bias toward masculine energy which creates strong prejudice on how we view the awakening process in the West; this is especially true of undertaking traditional eastern forms of spirituality which were imported into modern and post-modern cultures in the West.  (I anticipate a future article on this topic alone and for this conversation it suffices to understand that the collective bias toward a masculine view on many spiritual practices can have a stifling effect on the spiritual development of feminine energy and more feminine individuals).

Let’s back up here to provide some necessary evolutionary context.  In the traditional wave of development which emerged 5000 years ago (and still exists in a major percentage of the world’s population as ethnocentric, rule oriented, socialized belongingness, religious), the masculine and feminine poles are represented as more distinguished and balanced than later modern and postmodern waves.  Obviously the traditional wave of development also includes a great deal of repressing women and feminine energy (especially sexuality), but traditional collectives across the world do pay regard to the receptive and divine feminine.   This is exemplified by the sacred architecture in most traditional cultures as inherently designed to allow one to receive the Divine when entering a sanctuary space. This is as true of a cathedral as it is of an ashram or a sweat lodge.  In more mundane terms, the masculine-feminine balance in the traditional wave is expressed as a distinction in male and female roles.  Rather than reducing this to something men did to women, it is more accurate to say there is an evolutionary agreement at the traditional level that the feminine qualities of nurturance, compassion, receptivity, and communality are essential for our cultural well-being.  In short, because the masculine-feminine polarity is more clearly distinguished in the traditional, regard for the feminine is arguably higher in this wave than later waves despite its limitations as ethnocentric, misogynistic and homophobic.

About 500 years ago when the modern (scientific, individualistic, hierarchical, capitalistic) wave of individuals and cultures emerged, we saw a dramatic swing toward a masculine orientation.  To follow our architecture paradigm, rather than sacred sanctuaries of being and receiving, we crafted buildings of grand functionality for all of our thinking and doing.  The emphasis in the modern wave is no longer on what the God or Goddess can build but on what the intelligence of the individual spirit of “man” can muster.  Receptivity is largely thrown out of the top windows of the skyscrapers, doing and rationality become significantly emphasized, and those who do the most or think the best are the most rewarded.  Feminine values of compassion, receptivity, and nurturance along with the rest of our feminine divinity went largely into collective shadow where it continues to cry out from today.

We should surely not deny the progress of modernity as it continues to pull billions up and out of poverty, innovate technological solutions beyond imagination, and increase the quality and duration of our lifespans.  But in our pursuit of materialism- scientific, intellectual, consumer- it appears we may have settled for the masculine half of the truth. Perhaps the biggest crime against feminine nature is not that it has been abused, oppressed and persecuted but that it continues to be overlooked. It is no wonder that women often report that they experience themselves as unseen but modern men are not the only culprits here; how many women have transcended the collective modern belief system and fully received for themselves their own feminine natures?  The truth is that very few of us of all genders have learned to receive the feminine, and we’ve overlooked this at a price. 

The currently emerging wave of postmodernism (pluralistic, multi-cultural, feminist) has accurately identified and intended to address the pains of ignoring the feminine, largely intertwined with our reckoning with the brink of environmental, economic, cultural and political collapse. Emerging in full force in the 1960s, most would agree that postmodernism has done much to bring feminine energy back online as exemplified in liberal values, connection to the environment, equality, communalism and social justice. Women in postmodern and modern waves are making significant gains and, in the United States, currently have a better prognosis than men in areas such as physical health, mental health and education level.

But similarly to the traditional and modern waves, postmodernism is not all healthy good news. The sad irony is that much feminism is unconsciously still being done from a largely masculine perspective. In the noble endeavor to reclaim feminine values, our postmodern collective, rather than actually transmitting the profoundly beautiful, sensual, nurturing , and receptive half of the universe, is often professing it. And a large error in the postmodern view is that it doesn’t consciously distinguish masculine from men and feminine from women so it sets up a culture war. In its pathological collective form, postmodernism thoroughly oppresses itself in a masculine ultimatum of “equality for all… except ,of course, for anyone who does not believe in equality” which is a scarcely more refined form of all the “isms” that postmodernism seeks to correct.

Is equality the best we can do? The damage of a righteous and rigid philosophy of equality, governed by “feminine” values goes much deeper than we may have seen.  A major side effect of looking at a culture’s success primarily through the lens of equality is that the significance and expression of both masculine and feminine energies has become neutralized.  In other words, it’s no longer okay to be overly masculine or feminine (the bias is toward “balance”) and in the feminism of equality women often are being trained to be more masculine (ie. assertive) and men are being trained to be more feminine (ie. sensitive).   Though this is not 100% misguided, the current result does not appear to be healthy for culture long term- in the US, for example, young women are not only making gains in the masculine world but young men are backsliding in virtually every measure of health.  As we become more “equal” we’re also cultivating less nurturing women and more spineless men. Yes, the runaway bias of the masculine in the modern wave of development does need to be questioned and corrected, but in the long run of healthy culture, the feminine needs the masculine just as the masculine needs the feminine.  Neutralization under the guise of equality is not going to take us much further and I suggest that our culture will be stronger when we show mutual regard for the differences of healthy masculine and feminine energies in addition to seeking equality.

All said, the postmodern collective does have it right that feminine energy will need to be reclaimed for healthy evolution to continue.  As many people of all genders continue to transcend the limitations of a philosophy of equality and neutralization, we can be on the lookout for significant expressions of truly healthy, receptive feminine energies. One hallmark of this healthy expression is that it not particularly against the masculine, or attempting to take down the patriarchy, but powerfully and unapologetically differentiated from it.

July 2018

Cleaning Up Collective Unconsciousness of Postmodernism

When thinking of defining collective consciousness and collective unconsciousness, I remember being a student in England when I was brought to a football match.  Football culture in Europe is an ideology of its own and the seats I sat in were just a few yards from the dividing line of one team’s fan base from another. I was excited but shocked and uncomfortable to see the verbal and physical altercations.  I’ve reflected since that if I had interviewed people individually from both sides of the mob a week earlier, virtually none of them would report being prone to violence and they may not have even disclosed how much their team meant to them.  But when they got together, watch out! Two collective mobs emerged around “Our team is the best, and yours is not worthy of our consideration”.  So for our purposes, the collective consciousness of a culture would equate to “Our team is best because…” and the collective unconscious would be anybody not on the team and “not worthy of our consideration”.

All levels of human development are subject to this “our team” syndrome and postmodern consciousness tends to gravitate toward the collective conscious belief system outlined below.  Like the football fans, this is not to say that every individual who identifies as postmodern has these attributes but if we brought numerous individuals together to discuss important issues, the center of gravity in a postmodern belief system- “our team”- would look something like this:

1.     Everyone is entitled to an equal voice
2.     Truth is relative, culturally constructed
3.     Favor being harmonious
4.     Favor being nice
5.     Sympathetic with the narrative of victims or the oppressed
6.     Against judging others

These are “good” agreements, right? Collective postmodernism has done and will continue to do its work to expose and correct the collective unconscious of prior levels of development.  For example, the traditional worldview while being civilized, rule and order based, with God as sacred (collective conscious) also has limitations by being ethnocentric, racist, misogynistic, and rigid in its creed (collective unconscious).  Then, in part to correct traditional prejudices, modernity consciousness collectively arose during the Enlightenment which showed promise of rationalism, progress, science and democracy (collective conscious) but has clearly come up short in areas such as oppressive hierarchy, environmental degradation, and greed driven policies which favor the privileged (collective unconscious). Hence the postmodern collective order which began to gather steam in the 1960s.

Notice that in the list of collective beliefs of postmodernity outlined above, only the collective conscious- “our team”- elements are displayed.  If you identify with the conscious aspects above as “good” and don’t see any collective unconscious, this is a perfect opportunity to have empathy for the traditional and modernist worldviews.  The fact is that none of us can see what is unconscious in the level of development that we are in.  We are all flying blind to our prejudices until we at least cognitively grow into the next order of consciousness.  So in order to demonstrate some of the potentially unconscious views of collective postmodernity (“the team not worthy of our consideration”), I’ve added to the original points to reveal some of its aspects which may be in shadow.

1.     Everyone is entitled to an equal voice except for anyone who doesn’t see it that way. It is very difficult for postmodernists to see the prejudice against any form of prejudice which thereby negates its view of equality.  The “other team” is anyone who is not postmodernist or is not a perceived victim of inequality.  All other developmental levels which postmodernists seek to correct definitely do not get equal consideration.

2.     Truth is relative, culturally constructed and therefore should be deconstructed. Unfortunately, this propensity strips postmodernists of a basis for discernment of good ideas from bad ideas, negating the ground for a foundation of ethics.  Having a debate within the collective of postmodernism is a quagmire of these truth contradictions.  There is no real truth except “my truth” and the implicit truth that you need to be egalitarian and politically correct which means often we don’t get to the truth.  Additionally, a philosophy of Absolute Truth, which can’t be deconstructed, is often discarded, arresting further spiritual development.

3.     Favor being harmonious over being direct, truthful, or making anyone feel uncomfortable. If harmony is the ethic of “our team” then dissenting voices- which may even express wisdom requiring disharmony- are the “other team”, another interesting contradiction because the voice of dissent is what postmodernism is all about. The truth is often uncomfortable and disharmonious.

4.     Favor being nice and project or repress negative emotions, especially anger and hopelessness, often expressing them through passive aggression. Passive aggression is very difficult to get a handle on from inside the postmodern collective.  In some ways it is more damaging than “active aggression” because it is harder to point to and lays deep in shadow.   Postmodernists have largely cut themselves off from the clarity and boundary- setting wisdom of anger, yet may have a tendency to be outwardly aggressive toward hierarchy, discipline or rules resulting in a wobbly, politically insolvent, undisciplined and self-victimizing world view.

5.     Sympathetic with the narrative of victims or the oppressed and see themselves as rescuers and view history as plagued by perpetrators.  The postmodern collective has not yet done well to distinguish dominator (socially imposed) hierarchies from naturally occurring hierarchies.  While its goal to protect victims and seek justice from perpetrators is noble and in many cases justified, the postmodernist rescuer lens does not see the world objectively; by habitually rescuing others, postmodernists disown their own victims which are then projected, amplifying a world “out there” that is full of perpetrators and victims.  Ironically, when this projection is not reclaimed, postmodernists give away their own sense of power and collapse into the victim they are trying to eradicate.  This can lead to subtle, passive aggressive perpetration against perpetrators and in extreme cases biting violence, all the while trying to maintain a view of equality.  If this feels utterly murky, we are getting a taste of the collective unconscious of post modernity.

(On a personal note, I have witnessed with my psychotherapy clients and experienced for myself that in order to continue developing toward wholeness, each of our victims needs not only to be rescued and protected from perpetrators but to be faced and healed, sometimes through hard going shadow and trauma work.  In other words, the postmodernist is partly accurate that the victim in all of us does need to be held, seen, heard and protected from immediate threat but it ultimately also needs to be illuminated, confronted, and reclaimed until we no longer see the world through the lens of the Drama Triangle- victim, rescuer, perpetrator. Great discernment and care is needed to determine case by case what is needed for each individual and collective but the main point is that postmodernism has collectively gathered around a rescuer archetype that has a propensity to see its disowned victimization everywhere but in its own interior).

6.     Against judging others, interprets criticism as shaming and does not differentiate feeling unsafe from feeling uncomfortable.  “Our team” has made an unconscious agreement to avoid feeling uncomfortable so when shame is triggered, there’s a movement toward blaming either self or other or to withdraw into “safe spaces” which, while sometimes appropriate, are often another go round in the Drama Triangle.   Postmodernists often fail to dig the gold out of being criticized or judged and often try to repress all judgments of their own which leak out as passive aggressive withdrawal and resentment. Postmodernists may only want to hear what is good about themselves or adopt a strengths-based, positive psychology ideology, which results in increased narcissism and many opportunities are missed to grow from integrating pain, failure, and shadow material.

Is this feeling heavy yet?  If so, I say “good news”.  Obviously, postmodernism has done much to correct the shortcomings of previous levels of development and those have not been the focus of this article.  The reason is because a natural catalyst of Growing Up is seeing and experiencing the limitations we bind ourselves in both individually and collectively.  In a sense, traditionalism felt heavy before the emergence of modernity and modernity felt heavy before the emergence of postmodernity.  If this is feeling heavy we may be growing out of our collapsed ideology.  If we are seeking lightness, let’s make a new emergent collective agreement to not turn away from our development by blindly agreeing to be comfortable, harmonious, nice, or safe.

How do we keep growing? This is a topic requiring a blog of its own but here is a sketch of some suggestions:

1)    Wake Up- Meditate as much as possible.   Cultivating witnessing awareness is a practice which leads us to insight about our individual and collective limits.  Ultimately, witnessing is the fourth, ever-present point of the drama triangle- free from its grasp- and the resolution into the freedom beyond all belief systems.   Seek out and cultivate a philosophy of Absolute Truth and walk the path.

2)    Grow Up-  Grow your belief system by gaining a basic understanding of the orders of human development.  Knowing that your egoic process can’t escape from being an individual in a collective culture, discover more about the gifts and shadows of “your team”.  Allow for the discomfort of cognitive dissonance (hypocrisy) in your belief system. Research has shown that a belief system that includes a cognitive understanding of human development is helpful in accelerating individual development.  This will also help us to serve others in a way that is appropriate to each individual’s level of development rather than oppressing them with our own ideology.

3)    Clean Up-Do shadow work with a teacher or psychotherapist.  We all have shadows both individually and collectively and unearthing what we can’t see is our responsibility to bear if we have the ego strength to do so. This will require being uncomfortable which is synonymous with growing.  You may also benefit from deep trauma work to reclaim and heal your own victim before emphasizing change from others. 

April 2018

The Pitfalls of One Tradition, All Tradition, or No Tradition

I took priest ordination in the Rinzai Zen Buddhist tradition last month and I’ve been very surprised by the impact.  Intimacy with life is visceral, conversations more direct, purpose sharpened and curiosity piqued.  “Who am I, really?”  I’ve relaxed immensely into this question and burn with love to answer.  In spite of my “self”, I’ve turned out to be a Zennie.  Such a terrible relief.

I spoke with a good friend and fellow practitioner recently, discussing the significant question of either: 1) joining a tradition to awaken, 2) avoiding all tradition to awaken, or 3) joining several traditions to awaken.  We agreed, it is extremely rare that we practice deeply enough to even question these three ways of the journey- let alone transcend them- and, more likely, our deeply conditioned belief systems on the matter overshadow our insight and progress. 

On the one hand, if unconscious belief systems are at play, we may feel relieved to have taken up one path, opting out of many other roads of wisdom, fully trusting a teacher and what the single tradition reveals.  We may pretend to surrender. We stop thinking for ourselves or questioning the authority of the teachings thinking “THIS is the Way” and the path quickly becomes the rule book we had originally set out to transcend. In short, anything that shakes our rigid belief system goes into shadow and we stop developing discernment for ourselves. 

On the other hand (entrusting a more popular collective spiritual shadow today), we might “do it our own way” in reaction to the damage traditional institutions have done in making people “good and bad”.  So we take up a belief system that we’ve outgrown all that and no longer remain open to the transcendent teachings in the religious traditions.  Or alternatively, we half-heartedly join all traditions and develop a notion that they are one and the same.  This is slippery because if I am not clearly discerning, I may be picking up only the pieces of the pie that I like and then I ignore anything challenging or uncomfortable.  Let’s remember one thing if we are to conflate all traditions into one… the end game is beyond the preferences of the “I”.

These are just examples and the possibilities for keeping ourselves trapped in this polarity are as numerous as our conditions for taking up a spiritual path. Most of us avoid the shadow side of our spiritual practice and pacify the grind of the uncomfortable, unresolved nature of it.  But until it is no longer an issue for us, we can find a way to challenge ourselves to work both of these poles.  For example: let your curiosity open you to new modes of awakening yet seek assistance to discern what is useful specifically for you; question authority and at times surrender to it; Question… question… fail… again and again… doubt, faith, doubt, faith… until the path reveals itself clearly.  Your own clarity may return you to a specific tradition or within/ beyond all traditions but the deepest teachings point to not rest on your laurels until the real, unquestionable rest stabilizes of its own accord. 

May we do whatever is necessary to transcend all beliefs!

March 2018

A call to responsibility

It seems we are approaching readiness to discover that our habits of blaming ourselves and others for our experience are approaching a dead end.  We feel the limits, the contraction of our belief that we are victims of circumstances and we’re growing sick and tired of ourselves and our ”selfing”.  We may realize that the only way out is to take responsibility for whatever we can and fearlessly let go of the rest.

Is it any wonder that Jordan Peterson has struck such a chord (in many cases a nerve) with us?  If you are unfamiliar with him check out this interview where he defends his new book, “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. Whether we like him or not, he has exposed where most of us (no gender excluded) continue to disown our power and collapse into victimization.  We do this to ourselves in the form of toxic self-shaming or we project our victim onto some villain in the form of aggression.  Even us so called “liberal” proponents of equality have had our worldview exposed, that in our zealousness for vindication we may have become what we hate the most… the oppressor.  “Gotcha”, says Peterson which is about the only moment he loses his cool.

The practice of Zen- or any other serious spiritual path- is a call to RESPONSIBILITY. This means taking responsibility for everything that arises in our consciousness without exception. Because there is nothing truly outside of us, all of the suffering of the world is ours to RESPOND to, rather than REACT to.  Interestingly, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Daniel P. Brown translates the Buddha’s First Noble Truth of our existential suffering very simply as “reactivity”. 

When we empower ourselves and stop to train our minds to become still, we take notice that we experience everything that arises in awareness in one of three ways: 1) we like some things, 2) we dislike other things, 3) or we find things to be neutral and we ignore them.  This observation is where a very subtle but all important choice point emerges.  Will we hold on habitually to one of these three limited options or could we let the object in awareness “be” with no opinion?  Will we hold on for dear life to what we like and press away everything that is uncomfortable? Do we react or respond?  Whatever the case, this choice point beckons us to take responsibility in any way we can, to empower ourselves to articulate the truth of what we are really doing.

What’s more, our belief systems are formulated around what we are conditioned to like, dislike or ignore.  This fact remaining uninvestigated, is the root of our victim. We missed the choice point. Our further reactivity demands fairness, vindication, co-dependent compassion, and often to make more victims out of perceived oppressors.  We can all agree that the playing field in our world needs serious levelling but what kind of society are we asking for that would level things to the worldview of the victim or, for that matter, the oppressor?  We might contemplate our own conditioned beliefs about this deeply.

Zen practice demands our responsibility. We choose to examine what we are grabbing onto, what we are pushing away and what we simply ignore.   We end all reactivity, all suffering. Cutting through our conditioned belief systems we discover that if we want to end war, we end the war within first.  War is essentially reactivity meeting reactivity.  If we want equality, we end the oppressor/victimization tyranny that we put on ourselves and others.  The end of the road of Zen is deep insight into the insubstantiality of all our selfing.  We train the mind to clear enough junk out of the way so that this insight reveals itself clearly.  Meanwhile, the junk is what we take responsibility for rather than pretending our junk is caused solely by someone else’s junk.

But the call to responsibility does not mean beating ourselves up, or shouldering it with some belief of burden or unworthiness.  It’s just the opposite. Our discovery of self -limitation is joyful, disciplined, sacred and confidence building. We remember it is a “call” to be responsible, not another belief system to measure our selfing against. Ironically, everything we discover along the way grows us out of victimization.  Responsibility also does not mean resting back on our laurels and doing nothing of use.  That’s just more victim stance.  Is it possible we are ready to emerge forward, taste the truth of who we really are and live in the real power in service to those whom we are already uniquely drawn to serve?  Rather than following along in our collective conditioning that the world will not be healed until everyone is equal, can we tap into what is deeply unique in each of us, below the reactivity, the shoulds and the unfairnesss?  It is not going to be easy but we are ready with everything we need.


January 2018

The Zen Mind Body Bind- Waking Up and Growing Up- A personal refection

As a Zen student, I am a failure.  I efforted in all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons. The “driver” that emerged out of my own early traumatic conditions strived for perfect attainment in hopes of making myself lovable, respectable, even heroic.  I spent hundreds of days on retreat on 4 continents and have been slammed with insightful irony that the driver was equally accurate as it was completely blind.  The self IS imperfect and the driver will not stop striving to perfect which is the endless loop of the self simply doing its conditioned thing…selfing. But as awareness is revealing, there was never actually anything to perfect or attain.  My relentless path has led me squarely nowhere which, from a Zen point of View, is an essential insight to even beginning the spiritual journey.

Zen practice begins with a View of emptiness, nothing to attain, seeing past the reference of selfing.  This is not a goal. It is an essential View.  From the point of view of the self, it appears something like beginning with the end in mind and yet how quickly, when the View gets taken up by the thinking self, it will solidify it into a belief system which becomes the dogma for further imprisonment.  The Zen View is beyond thinking, beyond emoting, beyond feeling, beyond what is sensed.  It is simply resting the mind. 

In the self’s training of embodying this View, however, there are usually some bumps and bruises along the way.  In fact, the self IS the bump and the bruise! The intelligence of Zen meditation practice- which instructs us to witness everything that arises, simply let it go and to persevere in identifying with pure awareness in unbroken concentration- is that insight will reveal how our identification with thinking, emotions, sensations and senses imprison us.  From a mere selfing point of view this instruction appears very difficult- the Zen bar being set so rigorously high- because everything we do that is not embodying the View is revealed as ego activity and contraction. We suffer and the insight from practice shows us this in more colors than we can even imagine. The View never suffers but we certainly do, don’t we?!!

On my own path, I have inevitably ignored the instruction of Zen in order to “work with” egoic psychological and somatic contractions during meditation.  I sometimes blended Zen and other wisdom traditions. As a failed student of Zen, I concede that after an introductory 7 years of essentially monastic level vipassanna meditation training in the East, it was at times temporarily relieving and helpful to me to put attention on the painful content arising in awareness.  But boy did I lose the view! At times I’ve become totally lost in self-centeredness (and I don’t mean “selfish” although it was at times.  I mean I was overly identified with the self, the “me”, the driver that wanted to perfect).  I confess, at times it felt like there was no other way but to “go in” and purify myself in the wilderness of suffering and contraction.

What is dawning for me in respect to our post-modern age is that we would do well to be extra discerning and open to guidance as we walk the journey of the relative and awaken to the Absolute.  There has never been a time where we have had so much information on how to Wake Up, Grow Up and Clean Up and the downside is that multiplicity of views can leave us swimming in an ocean of information with no real sense of directionality, let alone a way to cultivate Absolute View.   In this age, it appears we are collectively impatient and undisciplined and we have a tendency to grab on to multiple views at once- or worse yet- think we need NO guidance, and then employ the fractured remnants of traditions (religious, spiritual, psychological and otherwise) that are temporarily favorable to us. For us post-modernists, could this be egoic folly rather than clear discernment?    

Whatever the case, whether we do it consciously or not, we are going to have to sort through this.  Current Integral Theory suggests that the trajectories of Growing Up and Waking Up are largely independent.  In other words, the paths to ego development (healthy self) and to Absolute Truth are different axes of development. While I think for most of us the experience of development actually is more of a braid of the two- the trajectories can and do influence one another to a degree- sound guidance and practice should include combing out the braid cleanly from time to time in order to clarify our views and View.  These dreadlocks need washing!

Life is a messy, nonlinear, confusing, and difficult endeavor as we braille our way out of suffering.  For now, I am raising a flag for the view of separating Waking Up from Growing up in practice even as the post-modern mainstream wants to make all of this one big “dreadlock” called “spirituality”.  When I practice Zen, there is only Zen.  When practicing Yoga, there is only Yoga, when practicing psychotherapy… et al. An Integral practice can include and rigorously take up all of these areas of Waking Up, Growing Up and Cleaning Up but also discern them from one another which might lead us, ironically, to a more fully integrated Awakened post post-modernism.

Fully committed to our path, we leave no stone unturned as we become self-forgetting enough to know there are no stones.  Swaha!

October 2017
The Zen Mind Body Bind Vol 5- Reclaiming our victim

Hello everyone,
In this issue of Zen Mind Body Bind, we are having a fresh look at victim consciousness.  And why not?  Is there something so despicable about our victim, deeming it unworthy of our attention?  In our dedication to Waking Up and Growing Up, we leave no stone unturned; Witnessing awareness takes no preference and, yet, seems to show great interest in all of its experience.

There are two ways the personality appears to turn when we approach the word “victim”. We either over identify with the “I” that was victimized or the “other” that was victimized.  This is especially true when we are triggered with being in or near our own trauma vortex which can leave us feeling hopeless, powerless, and alone.  Then the old and habitual record plays: “What did I do wrong to be feeling so despicable?”  Or, “Who is to blame?” The danger here isn’t so much the voice itself but that we become overly identified with victim consciousness allowing it to govern us because of its resistance to becoming seen clearly by Witnessing awareness.

Below is a model to further unpack our exploration which is referred to as Karpman’s Triangle or the Drama Triangle.  I wrote a blog the day after Trump was elected which included this model if you are interested.  You will notice there are three components to the Drama Triangle and from the point of view of Witnessing awareness, they are inseparable and all arise simultaneously.  This does not mean that we always notice this but when the Victim arises, there must be an “other” to blame, a Persecutor, and we will also seek a Rescuer because as a Victim we are surrounded by an ocean of beliefs, emotions and sensations which convince us there is nothing we can do for ourselves.  Although we may have habits of falling into one of the three roles more habitually, the paradigm of all three arising simultaneously could equally be explored from both the Persecutor and Rescuer.  Even “good”, “helpful” Rescuers, for example, are dependent on the other two if we have entered the Triangle. If you’ve got one, you’ve got them all!

Why would we want to reclaim our victim consciousness? 

For a start, we may miss out on some of our strengths and subvert our energy, purpose, and achievement.  Refusing to integrate where we feel victimized, we often compensate by using a great deal of energy to develop a false persona that is quite the opposite.  This can look like over-drivenness, an attachment to power or money, and a false image of strength which blocks the healthy vulnerability required for satisfying relationships. A comprehensive reclamation of our so called “weaker” parts allows for a wider spectrum of emotional maturity and an ongoing confidence that we can live in Witnessing awareness even when it appears that the world is caving in on us.  Reclaiming the victim and stepping out of the Drama Triangle results in unshakeable tenacity rather than a “house of cards” type of strength.

Also, if you are one of a growing number of people feeling concern for political, multicultural and/or environmental movements, we can be sure we all will become so much more effective and compassionate when we are not approaching it from inside the Drama Triangle.  All of us as unconscious Persecutors, Rescuers and Victims of oppression could even join together in a commitment to becoming aware of this.  Healing needs to be done at all levels and there are varying degrees of ability to cope with victimization but especially for those of us who habitually move into Rescuer or Perpetrator mode, if we could heal our own Victim first we will be so much clearer in how to respond- rather than react- to oppression when it arises.

How do we reclaim our victim?

1)    Let awareness do most of the work.   By cultivating or strengthening a meditation practice, we quite naturally notice the nearly constant movement of mind that generates the Drama Triangle.  I have had clients often remark how shocked they are about the number of hours they discover we are all acting out the Triangle paradigm.  Just read the news, or contemplate what is driving “successful” economies, or reflect on the rates of incarceration in America.  By taking up a practice that strengthens Witnessing awareness, we are able to see what we are doing and step outside of this entirely allowing new insights into how we could be actually useful without creating any more Victims, Persecutors or Rescuers.

2)    Play with collapsing verus standing tall. One step in working with victim consciousness is to literally DO something different.  For example, if we have a tendency to collapse or move into shame, we might try temporarily straightening up our posture and noticing the results. This requires seeing the Victim’s arising first and then “standing up for it” in its place. If we are more the type to move into anger or Persecutor, thereby covering the vulnerability of our Victim, it may be helpful to explore collapsing for periods of time, really experiencing the Victim.  The key to any sort of experiment here is to keep Witnessing awareness online as much as possible and it can be helpful to have someone to skillfully guide us into these difficult areas.  We will soon learn much about what we continue to do to ourselves in order to preserve our identities in the Drama Triangle. 

3)    Notice times when we are not in the Drama Triangle.  By identifying these times at the level of Witnessing, tuning into thinking, emotion and bodily sensation, we reward our nervous systems and even our personalities with ease, clarity and compassion.  We can literally rewire our brains toward positivity over time and set the stage for further personal growth and awakening. 

But be forewarned!  The Drama Triangle is pretty much the standard lens through which conventional reality is seen.  It’s our collective agreement. So when we begin to look AT it rather than THROUGH it, it can be a stunning and painful insight which is very difficult to take responsibility for.  However, working gently and steadily with ourselves over time, coming out of our Victim consciousness clears the decks for an entirely fresh way of looking at ourselves and the world.  Imagine… no Victims, No Rescuers, No Persecutors.  What would remain?

June 2017
The Zen Mind Body Bind Vol 4- Conversation with Robb Boswell

I had the pleasure of meeting with Awakening and self-healing mentor, Robb Boswell, several months ago.  We immediately realized that we were kindred spirits in that on our journeys to Waking up, we’ve encountered immense challenges as traumatic symptoms suddenly began to arise seemingly out of nowhere.  We agreed to meet again and film an impromptu conversation about the impact of trauma on Waking Up and Growing Up.  It was a very engaging conversation for me personally and my hope is that it is useful to you.

Here are the links to the videos:

In the first video segment of two, we begin by differentiating the paths of Waking Up and Growing up, discussing the importance of making this distinction.  I have also covered this topic in my prior blog posts of “The Zen Mind Body Bind”, Volumes 1-3.  We then move on to define “trauma” and the importance of uncoupling the physical symptoms from the assumptions we make about it. Most people who experience trauma unconsciously make meaning of the overwhelming experience which, while well intended, is not often helpful.  In short, in trauma we experience overwhelm and the narratives we generate on top of this are likely to be ones of fear, hopelessness, helplessness and unlovability all of which may lead to a basic life stance of victimization or feeling shame for who we are.  Basic mindfulness skills are essential to making these discernments, uncoupling the sensations of overwhelm from the emotions and the belief systems all of which unconsciously got created faster than you or I can say, “Oh $h*T!”

In the last portion of the first video, Robb and I emphatically agree that any degree of Waking Up has been and continues to be helpful in alleviating trauma symptoms.  Robb’s experience of seeing “through the mind” and my articulation of having space and a “view” of everything arising in a larger, more trustworthy context both point to the importance of the fruits of spiritual practice which psychotherapy may overlook.

In the second video- less theoretical and more experiential- Robb and I move into some of the practicalities of working with traumatic symptoms.  We discuss how to look at pain appropriately and how both of us worked with the intensity of the often debilitating impacts on daily life.  Robb and I also offer our experiences of what has been helpful along the way, reiterating the importance of gingerly uncoupling the sensations from emotions and thinking as we balance the importance of courageously staying with our direct experience and knowing when and how to resource ourselves and our physical bodies. 

I also make a case for the importance of working with all of our experience including the somatic, emotional and mental. This topic could be an entire blog post on it’s own but I want to stress the importance of discerning for ourselves what we may need on the journey of Waking Up and Growing Up.  We should question our tendency to think in narrow ways or to swallow what we have read, studied or heard without digesting first.  Instructions such as “It’s all about the body” or “Just change your thinking” or “Just witness it”, may be as equally helpful as they are dogmatic.  We are just entering a New Age of integrating Eastern and Western modalities and there is no single recipe for the bumpy and awkward ride, so having a general overview of different types of psychological healing, embodiment and Awakening schools may be some of the best knowledge we could acquire.

The Zen Mind Body Bind Vol 3- Trauma, Implicit Memory and Selflessness

I’ll begin this article with the end in mind and a specific word about psychotherapy and contemplative practices in regard to working toward resolution of trauma.  Most of the psychological research about working with trauma reveals that body-centered approaches which include mindfulness, careful guidance to re-experience the traumatic material and bringing in positive resources while doing so are indicated.  However, therapists and spiritual teachers alike need to be careful not to completely reject cognitive processes including intellectual understanding as part of treatment.  In fact, a cognitive rewriting of our “stories” and our belief systems while understanding how we think can be tremendously valuable to our processes of both Growing Up and Waking Up. 

And of course, I will appear to contradict myself because paradoxically, “dropping the story” is precisely encouraged as both the path and the fruition of the meditative journey to Waking Up.  “The Zen Mind Body Bind” is a conversation on how to differentiate and integrate these paths of Growing Up and Waking Up. If this is new language to you or you have not read Volume 2 of this blog, I recommend it for context at my website: Please pass along any feedback so we can continue to evolve this important conversation.

So the question framing this article is, “Who are you without your story?”  According to trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk , “When people receive sensory input they generally automatically synthesize this incoming information into the large store of pre-existing information. If the event is personally significant they generally will transcribe these sensations into a narrative, without conscious awareness of the processes that translate sensory impressions into a personal story.” In a relative sense, this is what we call “normal”.  Most of us, most of the time, call our memory “me” and if all goes well in terms of development we may be blessed with a cohesive sense of ego, and Grow Up through sequential stages in relative health.

Traumatic experience disrupts linear memory and, hence, our sense of self in many ways. “Our research shows that in contrast with the way people seem to process ordinary information, traumatic experiences initially are imprinted as sensations or feeling states, and are not collated and transcribed into personal narratives” [my italics], says van der Kolk.  Brain imaging studies reveal that traumatic memories often correlate with a deactivation of Broca’s area of the brain, responsible for speech.  Language, which involves a capacity for symbolic processes and abstract reasoning, must be functioning in order to create a cohesive time bound sense of self and so traumatic memories- often experienced as heightened emotional states, strong somatic sensations and fragmented visual images- cause many to experience a bewildering break in the thread of the personal narrative. This is can be very unnerving.

A further challenge in “our traumatic story” is that we are often left in a wake of negative assumptions about ourselves, many of which may not even have words but are stored in our implicit memory.  In the process of alleviating traumatic symptoms, many confront an overwhelming sense of helplessness, hopelessness, unworthiness, or powerlessness.  For a hypothetical example, a baby abandoned at birth may have never been told she was worthless but the overwhelming fear of her survival imprinted in her nervous system could be coupled with an implicit belief system that she is somehow unlovable or flawed even though she did not have the developmental capacity to “think” this. If we were traumatized early in life such as in the example above, all further developmental levels may be tainted with these subtle assumptions of deficiency.  So we become what we believe, both implicitly and explicitly and what we believe to be our story, becomes “me”.

Now lets make an abrupt transition to an Absolute perspective, Waking up. Let’s take our question: “Who are you without your story?” as a present moment inquiry rather than a conceptual question.  If I look from the surface, I can see that everything I experience could be called “my story”. Right now I hear a sound, presumably coming from overhead, a familiar “tweet” and almost simultaneously I like the sound, and an image in my mind forms of a bird, and then I remember it is supposed to be 70 degrees today and I love the springtime!  This is “a story” of how normal memories and preferences combine with the present experience intersect to formulate “my story” in a relative sense.  Then, going a little deeper, who am I without the extra layers (stories) I have added to the sound?  With nothing extra added, I am simply the witness of the sound and even the witness of the idea of the bird, and the joy of springtime.  And deeper still, even the witness is a very subtle story constructed as a way to manage and contain the vastness of “my experience”.  Looking deeper still, no separation of sound or me, all one thing. There is no separation or sense of self, traumatized or otherwise.  This is freedom from the self and is the unconditioned peace we are all searching for, and does not rely on a past story or changing a thing in our experience.

So in light of this, why bother with resolving trauma? In terms of integrating Growing up and Waking Up, we tend to gravitate toward one pole or another and this is problematic especially for those of us with unprocessed trauma.  From my own experience, having had profound insight into Waking Up many years ago, I can now see that returning to the gross realm of consciousness and looking at the experience through the subtle story of my traumatic experience- a lens of powerlessness and hopelessness- caused me to doubt my insight entirely which condensed the vastness of freedom into a nihilistic, meaningless world of bleak mind states.  

For myself and others doing the somatic and psychological and cognitive work to rewrite the script of our stories has been essential for Growing up and also has let the ego structure relax enough for deeper insight into Waking up.  And indeed, one of the outcomes of resolving trauma is a sense of mastery, empowerment and worthiness that is essential for building true confidence in our own experience of being awake. 

On the other hand, as a therapist myself, I notice that some people doing years of psychotherapy, body work, family systems healing, shamanism, herbalism and a whole myriad of relative practices are often stuck in subtle realms of symptom alleviation, meaning making and other forms of grasping to feel better. But they may lack a “right view” of the meditative states training to truly transcend “the traumatic story”. It is essential for us to remember that Waking Up is a radical shift in consciousness and a complete reorientation of the sense of self from “me” to a disidentification with “me”.  No self improvement is ultimately needed.

A thorough path of integration includes looking directly at our blind spots.  Knowing that we can not see them- we are blind to them, after all!- a thorough and mature avenue of inquiry can be used to take stock of what we may be missing.  Have we done 10 years of body based therapy and ignored growing our cognitive framework of development and awakening?  Have we spent years in silent meditation and not considered a course of psychotherapy? Have we ruled out shamanic or psychic healing in favor of our addiction to rationalism?  We will all need different tools at different stages along the path to ultimately resolve ourselves into infinite freedom, at times focusing on Growing Up and at other times dedicating ourselves to Waking Up technologies.  In full Enlightenment, we leave no stone unturned and are willing to face all parts of ourselves both in shadow and in light.

*I have referenced van der Kolk’s article below and his book “The Body Keeps The Score” is a must read for anyone seeking a cohesive framework for trauma exploration.  However -just a warning- as is the case for almost all trauma research to date, he sadly does not say a word about Waking up and has limited his perspective to the Growing Up trajectory.   

VAN DER KOLK, B. A. (1998), Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52: S52–S64. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1819.1998.0520s5S97.x
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