Security, Certainty, and Safety

Perhaps after happiness – security, certainty, and safety are the things we most want.  Yet imagine a story of a character whose life was secure, certain, and safe.  Nothing could be more boring.

Living an adventure is stressful, unpredictable, uncertain, and risky.  Adventures are often unsafe.  But they make for a good story.  The first stories, the myths and legends of various cultures, are nearly all adventures.

Our own stories are full of adventure.  Those parts of our lives that stick with us the most are those ordeals we’ve passed through, particularly those we shared with friends and family.  They are often transformative: we learn from them, and are changed by them.  They bind us together with a particulare imprimatur.  We are marked.

So how can we learn to ride the waves of adventure, the uncertain chaos of an ordeal, in such a way that we enjoy it?  Because in this world we live in, there is no escape from it.  Change and volatility come in ever more frequent and more violent waves.  And if we can learn to ride these waves, we can trade the sameness and boredom of a safe and secure life for the transformative variety and challenge of an adventure.

Fortune favors the prepared mind – Louis Pasteur.  Our practice can stretch us and strengthen us across all the domains of life.  Our practice can still the silent screams of our anxious and fearful mind.  Our practice can empart to us the gifts of confidence, courage, and the determination to persevere.  Our practice can teach us the balance to stand upon our board on tall waves that cast us in shadow, and propel us at breathtaking speed.

Emotion: the Fifth Circle

You may not think of your emotions as a domain of practice.  I know I didn’t.  I just thought life sucked.

But experience has taught me that emotions aren’t just experienced.  They are influenced by practice over time.

I haven’t always believed this.  For most of my life I believed my emotions were beyond my control.

I’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists since college.  I’ve memorized scripture about the peace of God that passes understanding.  I’ve prayed.  If there’s a self help book, I’ve read it.  These all helped in their way, but there didn’t seem to be a “cure.”

I struggled with anxiety in particular.  There always seemed to be some general nonspecific anxiety in my body whether I had anything to worry about or not.  Nothing seemed to turn it off, not medicine, not scripture, not prayer.

Finally a friend referred me to an Emotional Polar Therapist.  The practice seemed strange to me, but has proven effective.  In addition to the office visits, she gave me various meditation and yoga exercises to do at home.

The short of it is I’ve finally found an off button to that anxiety.  And I no longer take medication.

But we all are different.  What worked for me may not work for you.  But then again, it might.  The idea behind a practice group is that we can learn from each other, from our mistakes and our successes.

Some questions for discussion might be:

  1. How do I feel?  Where in my body am I feeling my emotions?
  2. How are my emotions affected by my diet?
  3. What am I feeding my head?  How does this affect what I feel?
  4. What am I specifically practicing to improve my emotional health?

My Meditation Experience

I try to do three meditations a day: the first for 11 minutes in the morning, the second for 31 minutes around noon, and the third for 5 minutes in the evening.

The deepest meditation is the one lasting 31 minutes, Kirtan Kriya.  I sit on a pile of three yoga cushions in easy pose: the first halved, the second folded three times, the third folded four times.

I begin by “tuning in” a kind of centering exercise.

The kriya consists of chanting the four syllables, SA-TA-NA-MA, while simultaneously touching the thumb to the index finger (SA), the middle finger (TA), the ring finger (NA), and the little finger (MA) (this is the mudra associated with the kriya).  At the same time, I visualize the navel chakra (SA), the heart chakra (TA), the throat chakra (NA), and the brow chakra (MA).

I wear a watch which has a countdown timer.  For five minutes I chant voiced syllables; for five minutes I chant whispered syllables; for ten minutes I chant silently in my mind; for five minutes I again chant whispered syllables; for five minutes I chant voiced syllables; and then I count 15 rounds on my fingers without chanting.

Usually by the time I get to chanting silently in my mind I’ve become aware of the beating of my heart.  At that time I try to synchronize each finger tap with my heartbeat.  I try to keep my focus on the chanting, the mudra, the chakras, and my heartbeat.  If I find my attention drifts, I just gently bring it back as I become aware of it.

If I find myself wanting to squirm, or quit altogether, I just remind myself to trust the practice and submit to it.

I haven’t had any strange out of body experiences or hallucinations.  But it does seem to have a very stabilizing affect on my emotions, and has over time turned off the pervasive sense of anxiety I once suffered from.

Therapy as Practice

Yes I have a therapist; and fortunately so, because therapy has made my life a whole lot better, and made me a whole lot easier to live with.

But therapy is a practice?

What is practice anyway?  It’s a means to mastering some skill.  The skill I work on in therapy is self-awareness, and relating to others.

Therapy is my practice dojo for learning trust, vulnerability, and honesty.  Part of what makes therapy work is that you’re paying this person to keep your secrets, and if they don’t they can lose their license.  This enables you to look into the dark places of your soul, admit to yourself and your therapist they’re there, and begin to understand why.

Everything that walks in the light casts a shadow.  The only way to avoid casting a shadow is to walk in darkness.  Our shadow selves come from trying to find ways to cope with the world.  They are the part of ourselves we’d like to hide from the world, the part we are ashamed of, and the part we want to deny exists.

Embracing the shadow is embracing ourselves; it means accepting who we are.  Deny our shadow and deny our own self-acceptance.  Grace comes from that acceptance, and can lead not only to our own acceptance, but accepting our spouse, our children, our parents, and so on.  It’s a profoundly healing experience.

That’s a hard path to walk alone.  A good therapist can help us find that path to trust, vulnerability, and to honesty; a path that leads into our own darkness; but there is light and wholeness on the other side.

Practicing Sex

I believe that practicing sex is less about technique and equipment than it is about learning to be vulnerable, intimate, and tender with the one you love.

It’s paying attention to the little things, like taking the opportunity to give a nice long hug, or gently rubbing your loved one’s back, or giving a quiet touch as you walk by.  These touches make us feel valued and loved.

It’s about taking the time and effort to be romantic: giving a gift unlooked for, making a special dinner, or planning an adventure to some place or event you’ve never been before.

It’s about savoring your lovemaking with long lingering kisses, passionate embraces, and lots of gentle touching or massage.

Maybe the hardest thing about practicing sex is talking about what you want, or what you’re afraid of, or what you don’t like.  Something as simple as initiating sex, or refusing it, can make us feel extremely vulnerable.

You know it’s time to talk if you feel some resentment about your sex life.  Where does the resentment come from?  What is it you want that you’re not getting, or don’t want that you are?  How can you express that to the one you love in a way that is respectful and not resentful? 

These conversations are usually pretty difficult.  I need to find a way to get some distance from my emotions.  I may begin by writing a letter, and getting down on paper what I’m feeling.  Obviously I’m already feeling some resentment, so I want that letter to sit for at least a day before I edit it.  Then I’ll read it again and try to reword it in a way that is less resentful, more respectful, and uses language that I think my wife can hear. 

What you don’t want to do is provoke the same resentment in your loved one that you’re already feeling yourself.  That’s a recipe for an emotional conflagration, and maybe long term damage to your relationship.

Once I’m happy with the letter, I’ll give it to her and ask her if we can talk about it after she’s read it.  When we begin to talk, I try to breathe through the conversation, be aware of our emotional pressure, and back off if it gets too high.  But I keep trying to find a way to talk about it until we can come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Practicing Through Depression

I struggle from time to time with depression.  Not clinical depression.  It doesn’t prostrate me, and usually doesn’t last long.  But when it takes me my discipline flags and I find it difficult to get things done.

I am a morning person, and generally feel more energetic and productive in the morning.  So I try to schedule my “brain work” in the morning and more mundane tasks in the evening. 

But lately I’ve struggled with that routine.  The morning goes by and I find I’ve got nothing “done,” even though I’ve been working.  Maybe I’m trying to do research for a post, or summarize a book, prep work that takes more time than a morning will allow. 

If several days go by without making a post (and lately there have been many), I have a growing sense of anxiety and disgust with my lack of productivity.  Moreover there is little I can point to by way of evidence to my wife that I have been working.  If the days of depression drag on long enough, they can put me in bed.

I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I have a number of mundane tasks around the house that I am responsible for.  When the black dog takes me, if I can keep myself moving by doing these more mundane tasks, then the accomplishment of them begins to shore up my self-esteem.  I grow confident again that I can in fact get things done.  And my wife has evidence that I have in fact been working, and not just staring at the television or talking with friends.

This week I am making an experiment with my routine and scheduling the housework in the morning.  By noon I should be done, and have the rest of the afternoon to work on the blog, confident that I have already got my housework done.

How do you fight through your depression?

Practicing Contentment

He who knows enough is enough will always have enough – Lao Tzu.

How do you know when enough is enough?

Jesus said something that bothered me for years:

25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:25, NIV)

I’ve chewed that verse like a cow chews cud.  It just didn’t seem fair to me.

I grew up a glass half empty person.  It was as if I had negative vision: I could only see what wasn’t there.  And not just possessions; accomplishments, skills, physical attributes… the list was unending.  I saw what was lacking in my life, and everywhere I looked I came up short.

Whoever doesn’t have, even what they have will be taken from them.  It’s unpleasant to be around a person with negative vision.  They aren’t thankful for anything, and complain about everything.  They are jealous.  They are insecure.  They are easily offended, because the whole world is an insult to them.

I should know, for that man was me.

Here’s what that verse has come to mean to me: we all have something to be grateful for.  The issue isn’t possession, but recognition.  We’ve all been blessed with life.  And if we’re alive, then we have air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat.  Give thanks.

We’ve all been blessed with some interest, some activity we like to do.  Enjoy it.  Practice it.  And give thanks.

We all know people who are better than us in those things we’re interested in or like to do.  Admire them.  Get to know them.  Learn from them.  And give thanks.

Whoever has will be given more: this is the path to true wealth.  Before long you not only discover how blessed you are, but that you are a blessing too.

Finding Meditation

I chant.

It’s not something I would ever have chosen to do on my own. But my EPT therapist prescribed it for me, I practice it, and it works for me.

By “works for me,” I mean I finally found the off switch to the nonspecific sense of anxiety that haunted me most of my life.

My point is not that you should chant, but that if you keep an open mind with respect to the various forms of mediation, then you might find one that works for you.

I tried transcendental meditation back in college some thirty years ago.  It gave me headaches.

I tried pranayama (without a teacher; they were hard to find back then) and had a problem with swallowing air.

I tried just lying down and counting my breaths – that helped.  But nothing has worked as well as the chanting.

I’ve been diagnosed as ADHDWhen I was a kid I couldn’t focus on anything but the television.  I think my favorite kriya, Ganpati Kriya, has several aspects to it that make it easier for me to stay focused and harder to be distracted.

First, there are eight syllables that I chant out loud over and over for eleven minutes.

Second, the kriya has a mudra where the thumb touches the successive fingers on each hand with the pronunciation of each syllable.kirtan kriya

Third, I associate one of the chakras with each syllable and visualize the “activation” of that chakra with the pronunciation of each syllable.

So my mind and body are fully engaged as I practice this kriya, making it easier for me to stay focused for the entire eleven minutes.

I practice Ganpati Kriya in the morning, Sat Kriya at noon, and Kirtan Kriya in the evening.

How about you?  Have you tried meditation?  What works for you?

Emotional Polar Therapy (sequel to Practicing Acceptance)

All my life I have struggled to keep my emotions under good regulation.  When I wasn’t worried or anxious, I was angry or depressed.  Joy was nearly unknown to me, and I thought it belonged only to those who had won some great victory.

When the series on Integral Life Practice came to an end, I wanted to work with someone on my shadow self in the context of the enneagram.  One of the presenters referred me to an Emotional Polar Therapist.

My first visit to this woman was very strange, yet powerful.  We had an interview.  She tapped on my shoulder and took some notes.  She had me push against her hand while thinking some thought and took more notes.

She put magnets under my feet, a pillow on my lap, and a kind of bicolor needle work between my hands. Then she laid hands on me and had me breathe deeply in unison with her.  She had me repeat after her affirmations like, “I am a valuable person,” or “I deserve success,” etc.

The odd thing was that it was a struggle for me to say these things.  In fact, at one point I began to choke and weep.  This was my first visit, mind, and all the while I’m asking myself whether I’d been referred to some kind of witch doctor.

When that was done she gave me some homework of breathing exercises, and kriyasto do.  I left feeling like something had “happened,” like I’d seen a light after a long stay in a cave.

I did the exercises daily, returned to her periodically, and began to notice a gradual change in my emotional state.  The frequency and duration of my negative emotions steadily decreased.  The same measures of my positive emotions trend upwards.

I even experience joy now, and have discovered that it has less to do with great victories than it does with recognizing small ones.

The Problem of Envy

For most of my life, I’ve had a negative affect.  I’m not sure how I got there, but by the time I went to college my world was painted black.

Ironically, I knew I was blessed.  But I felt like my own inadequacies outweighed any number of blessings in my life.  I was so focused on what was missing that I couldn’t see what was present.

Then maybe five years ago, a friend of mine and I went to a weekend workshop on Spiral Dynamics.  During the course of the presentation, I made a comment on the dangers of comparing ourselves with others, and how Spiral Dynamics invited such comparisons.  The presenter said something like, ‘That may be a problem for you, and it’s good that you are aware of it.’

For some reason her comment really pissed me off.  I tried focusing on my breath, tried to listen to what she was saying, but I could not shake my feeling of anger.

I sat by her during lunch, and explained to her what I was feeling and why.  She told me I was a four, and was motivated by envy which was the source of my anger.  Huh?

She went on to explain a little about the enneagram, which is a model of human personality types.  The enneagram is a nine pointed star, and each point represents a type, the fourth point or type having the vice or passion of envy.

Now the Enneagram of Personality is beyond the scope of this post.  The point here is that I knew she was right.

Jealousy was a passion I had struggled with in my youth that I thought I had overcome as an adult.  But what I didn’t realize was that those feelings of inadequacy were another manifestation of envy, or the fixation I had of comparing me with others.

That epiphany led to what has been a sea change for me which I will explain in the next post.