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breaking old habits that keep us stuck

 “freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns” Tara Brach Radical Acceptance

“the curious paradox is that when I accept myself Just as I am, then I can change” Carl Rogers

Being human we have a set of instinctive drives hardwired within us and centuries old. We have the drive to protect (ourselves and our kinfolk) and the drive to grow. Our drive to protect-often manifesting in the first instance as automatic and unconscious defences such as fight, flight or freeze-become activated without choice. They keep us alive and our species intact. The drive to grow, to develop and evolve, often called the drive to self-actualise or entelechy, appears to be most prevalent in human beings. Other animals build, but we appear to have a profound need to realise in some way our inner potential; we can this express in art, music, dance, literature and so on.

Older -and we could say stronger- than the evolutionary drive is this self-protection drive. It is so strong that when it goes online it can subvert or hijack the finer, loftier drive of self-actualising. It is not so much that the drive to evolve is sabotaged, rather it can become suppressed and frustrated, taking very different turns and routes out. This, for us, can result in us making what appears to be the best decisions in our lives out of an unconscious self-protection, but then “Velcroing” to these defences and patterning our lives by them.

The psychotherapist Carl Rogers wrote about this in his book A Way of Being, comparing human growth to the potato shoots he saw as a child in the family barn. The old potatoes were thrown away into the corner, yet still would shoot but without care or nurturance. The shoots would be twisted, feeble at times and subverted, yet still they reached out to the sun. Rogers compared this to the human need to grow; we still reach out, even though our life circumstances and layers of defences subvert skilful growth, allowing old strategies and redundant patterns of behaviour and relating to direct us. We literally become stuck in neurological grooves that will never allow us to fully grow, caught up as we are in the hope or belief that if we just keep going down this road something will change and we will find our happiness.

Take Molly for example. Molly was 24 years old and angry. Her mum died when she was 14 and her dad couldn’t cope, losing himself in drink and despair. It was left up to Molly to do her mums job, so she looked after her dad and her 10-year-old brother. For Molly parental love vanished at the age of 14, yet still into her adult live she hungered for it, believing that if she kept appealing to her now-alcoholic father she might just get it. In her adult life this meant that her relationship history became patterned by abandonment and rejection; she would seek out partners who would most likely reject her or she would find fault in, creating a confirmation bias that proved she was unlovable.

In my consulting room we explored this. Molly began to explore what it would be like to loosen the self-defeating and largely defence led belief that in order to find what she needed she was required to get it from her father. Over weeks-and with difficulty at first, for it is hugely difficult to rerelate to old patterns of behaviour, we resist change since the old patterns have served us so well in the past and they habitually reassert themselves-Molly reached into herself, accepting her inner fragility with kindness and self-compassion. It was the gradual awakening of her self-acceptance and development of her self-compassion that allowed her to move past her defences, not by ridding herself of them or suppressing them but by befriending them, allowing them to loosen their force.

Molly never stopped loving her dad, but was able to rerelate to her father and herself, accepting that she could find love and what she needed elsewhere, which she did, waking up her own heart and finding a lover she could trust, letting go of those old patterns of resistance that blocked growth.

In my consulting room we used an adapted version of RAIN practice, popularised by Tara Brach.

  • R is for recognising the stuck patterns that are blocking growth
  • A is for allowing and accepting these patterns to have whatever emotional of cognitive tone they have
  • I is to investigate with kindness these patterns
  • N is to nonidentify with them, allowing growth to occur

This does not define you

Around two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha made an important distinction between pain and suffering. He suggested that though we are unable to prevent pain from occurring in our life, our suffering is optional.

The undeniable fact is that we cannot prevent ourselves experiencing pain, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual pain, pain happens. The Buddha called this the “first arrow” and suggested that we are shot by that arrow time and time again. But then-being clever humans-we do something with this arrow of pain: we resist it.

We resist the fullness of experiencing this pain by either fighting it, flighting it, or freezing from it. This might take subtle or not-so-subtle forms, such as suppression, denial, distortion, repression or projection, the latter being where we project the difficulties we have of meeting this pain onto another thing or person (“It’s your fault”).

This disowning of our experience builds up and becomes reified into a fixed narrative of suffering, whereupon we identify with the resistance as “us”-it literally defines us. So this is the second arrow, shot right into the tender wound made by the first, yet enlarged and made more wounded.

So we might walk through life habitually conditioned with and by this narrative of suffering. But it doesn’t stop there.

Because our human minds are so tricky we do something else. We fire a third arrow. This is the arrow we fire into ourselves, and if it spoke it might say “I deserve this” or “I’m not good enough” or “there’s something wrong with me.” If you google “I’m not good enough” there are 64 ½ million results.

Now the world can rest. Nobody need hurt us because we are carrying within us a narrative, a repeating cycle of self-attack that we fire into ourselves again and again. In a very basic way we are subjugated within a reactive self, split off from our authentic being. This, we let define us.

This does not define us.

Neuroscience has known for years that within the human brain “neurons that fire together, wire together” and from the perspective of mindfulness an oft repeated maxim suggests “where attention goes, energy flows and something grows”. It’s clear that what we bring our attention to, either by holding onto it or attempting to reject it, this actually reinforces the very thing we’re trying to rid ourselves of.

We need a different approach.

We can pause, we can literally stop firing these arrows. Mindfulness practice tells us we can become more present to the moment, right here and right now rather than being caught up in old and disabling story lines. And we can send deliberate, conscious messages of kindness to ourselves allowing us to open and deepen into the disowned parts of ourselves.

Kirsten Neff has worked extensively in the area of self-compassion, and suggests that we need to evoke a sense of mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness to halt the firing of these arrows. Neff created what she calls the self-compassion break as a way tending to ourselves. The instruction is to pause, take a breath, let your mind settle, relax, then say to yourself (perhaps putting a hand on your heart)


this is a moment of suffering

everybody has moments of suffering

may I be kind to myself in these moments of suffering


The first line is mindfulness, recognising without denial the difficulty or suffering, the next common humanity, it tells us we are all in this together as part of our human nature and the last line self-compassion, which is a prerequisite for meeting those difficult parts of ourselves we have rejected.

Taking back the arrows of projection, of reactivity, and pausing our narrative of suffering allows us not only to get closer to our pain but also find our authentic selves. Fight, flight or freeze, a life defined from a narrative of suffering can flow and grow: but so can kindness.


Kristen Neff Self Compassion

water 4

the places that grow me

There are not many of us that live without being hurt in some way. Being hurt evokes our fight-flight-freeze response which is hardwired into us; it establishes a thousand subtle and not so subtle defences, shields and justifications for needing those shields, such as “better safe than sorry”.

We defend in so many ways: we deny, distort, suppress and repress what threatens and hurts us. In order to maintain our shielded selves, we espouse a particular narrative which, by its very nature closes a part of ourselves off. Mostly, since we don’t want to feel our pain, we don’t just reject and disown that which is painful and dark in us, but the light, too. We reduce our experience of pain, but so too our potential for continued growth. To a greater or lesser extent, we’re then all operating from a place of arrested development. Yet we can “grow up.”

We’ve become used to identifying and relating largely from what is called our mental-egoic self, mostly a cognitive, problem-solving, strategising self. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but we’re capable of much more.

There are more stages and levels available to us. Exploring briefly the work of Ken Wilber, he suggests that there are three distinct levels or stages of human growth: preconventional, conventional and postconventional. Most of the world population operates from a conventional level and constellate largely around the mental-egoic set of preferences we have. But what, or where, are the places that grow me?

One primary way of moving from conventional to post conventional is by relating from what Buddhism calls bodhicitta, often described as “awakened heart”. It is interesting that in many Asian tongues the word heart is the same as mind; there is a sense of a fuller presence here. Pema Chodron calls bodhicitta “the soft spot…as vulnerable and tender as an open wound” and equates it with compassion. The awakened heart-this is not mere emotion or feeling, but an embodied and awakened compassion and self-inquiry-shines a light that connects and releases our defences, defences that hold us in aversion and grasping; in that release, we grow.

We discover a fixed sense of self we have constructed and maintained from our defences. This conventional self, structured as it is around certainty and separateness falls away; we then relate to a self coordinated by impermanence and interdependence, connected to the flux and flow that is life living through us.

The awakened heart is then free to rest in awareness itself, light and dark are reconciled and we grow.


Pema Chodron The Places That Scare You

Ken Wilber Sex, Ecology, Spirituality




moss 2

How to be happy 0: what is happiness? What are GREATMinds?

“Everybody wants a happy life and a peaceful mind, but we have to produce peace of mind through our own practice.” -Dalai Lama

When I ask couples what they want from each other they often reflexivity say that they want the other person to make them happy. I often gently point out that this is beyond the others person’s ability; they might have it in their power to not create unhappiness in you, but getting happy, or finding happiness is your own responsibility. It means attuning yourself to your own path, which is another way of saying deepening into your life.

What is happiness? Is it a boat along the Norfolk Broads, sunset in Santorini, a pistachio ice cream or a cool beer on a hot summers day? Perhaps these things make us feel happy, sure, or bring us pleasure, indeed, but happiness itself? I think that’s something else.

I like Matthieu Ricard’s description of happiness: “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind…an optimal state of being”. This seems to transcend pleasure-perhaps also pain-and our desire for power, influence, fame, celebrity and certainty.

How do we then, flourish?

I’m exploring happiness in these blogs, what it could be, and in order to navigate the territory I’ve developed a tentative map (if you read this upside down i.e. the last blog first, which we do when we read blogs, it might have changed somewhat from now).

I use the acronym GREATMinds, standing for

  • Gratitude and savouring
  • Relationships
  • Exploration
  • Attitude and Acceptance
  • Transcendence and beauty
  • Mindfulness

Let’s see how this develops…….


Matthieu Ricard Happiness Atlantic Books


My summer of suffering -or- Riders on the (Brexit) storm

Britain today is the family divorce writ large. We’re splitting up everywhere. -Susie Orbach

It seems the whole country is experiencing a kind of nervous breakdown. We have no effective leadership, political parties are self-immolating, terrorist attacks persist and hate crime increases. The FTSE has a panic attack. There could be worse to come; “storms on the horizon”, there is a sense of something coming, dark and foreboding. Leavers and Remainers. A country split.

Apart from those in a place of steadfast denial, the whole of the U.K. could be said to be united in loss, as in, we all lost, as in, we’re all losers. Nobody got what they wanted. The Remain camp did not get what they wanted, and the Leave camp look as if they will not get what they were promised.

Nobody of us really got our own way

The Leave Camp appeared motivated at times by wanting control “take control” being a slogan, but also by decades long (at times) unresolved suffering expressed in anger, a feeling of being disenfranchised. Many had unheard grievances that they were seeking to express, an anger that had no other outlet and one that they felt politicians refused to hear, often for decades.

So they took a chance, saw their opportunity and almost literally put the boot in against what they saw as a cold, heatless elite. This does suggest that a significant amount of the U.K. population has been caught up, in and been living with, years of unresolved pain and suffering.

The Remain Group now have something to hate. I voted Remain, and woke up on Friday 24th June in horror and disbelief. This soon solidified into a kind of resistance, a denial that this could actually be happening, and a felt sense of increasing nausea.

I commiserated with friends, sent out emails, posted on Facebook. I felt worse; I was not prepared to accept, but caught up in this resistance to what is. Next job: to find somebody to hold to account- well this shouldn’t be too hard. I was well on my way to channelling my pain into a story of righteous suffering that would take me further from my original felt experience.

A few years-a few months-of this and I’m the same as a Leave Campaigner, my pain siphoned off into projected hate and blame.

There’s a sense of closing down here, of retreating from my experience as it is into a solace of anger and shielded protection. Very human, but who wants to live with this amount of resistance gnawing away at him or herself?

I’m also struck by how much I’m attached to my anger and my position or preference here. Pema Chodron writes about this and calls it getting hooked, but for her a more accurate word for this is the Buddhist term shenpa, a kind of preverbal attachment to what we feel we identify with. It tends to happen inside us very suddenly, out of our awareness and without warning.

Lawrence Greco calls this the shenpa storm, a kind of force or energy behind all of our emotions, it turns difficulty to hate, charges negative emotions more forcibly and breeds reactivity and catastrophe. It’s a chain reaction that closes down our heart and splits off parts of ourselves into fragments of like/dislike.

What helps?

The Mindfulness Association offers a training in Compassion that includes the practice of tonglen.  This is a Tibetan word that means ‘taking and sending’. ‘Tong’ means ‘sending out’ and ‘len‘ means ‘receiving’. The practice originated in India and it was brought to Tibet in the eleven hundreds by the Indian master Atisha.

The practice is to take in all the suffering of others and send out joy or wellbeing to them; we might visualise a blackness which is the suffering and a light which is the wellbeing. We start with a flash of openness, often known as bodhicitta or awakened heart.

This might work Brexit style like this:

  • Open up your heart (the flash of bodhicitta)
  • Leaver, take in the pain and suffering of the Remain
  • Send out to Remainer wellbeing in the form of light and warmth
  • Repeat

(Then reverse, Remainer take in pain and suffering, send out wellbeing to Leaver)

This puts us in touch with the tender, raw vulnerability of others, in turn reducing the reactivity and closed heart which sustains our separateness. In this way we can also open up to our own pain and often unacknowledged suffering, and hence opening and deepening to all others, for it is very difficult to sit with another person’s pain and suffering if ours is split off.

It works as an antidote to what the psychotherapist Susie Orbach calls the “the ugliness of othering the foreign” by reaching out to the pain in another person’s heart, shifting our perspective from what Martin Buber called the “I and It” perspective to an “I and Thou” connection, and hence interconnection. We are not separate, we are riding the storm, shenpa and all.

Martin Buber I and Thou

Pema Chodron Taking the Leap

Larence Greco

Susie Orbach


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