Archive for November, 2010

Taming the Monsters

“In facing these monsters lurking inside us with the courage of a warrior, we find that they are not as horrible as we had thought.  As Rilke put it:

‘Perhaps the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something that feels helpless and needs our love.’

Our monsters are only masks worn by those parts of us that feel powerless or unlovable.  They want, most of all, to be met and seen through.”

— John Welwood, Ph.D.
Journey of the Heart

In a previous post, I suggested that there is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide from the fear that resides deep within each of us.  So how, then, can we work with challenging states of mind that arise which may sabotage us, many of these manifestations of the deeper fear that resides beneath them, such as wanting what we don’t have; anger and hatred; laziness and lethargy; restlessness and anxiety; and doubt?

Most peoples’ first reaction to challenging states of mind is to distract themselves.  Keeping busy “doing” by working, shopping, watching TV, engaging on the computer, etc., is a common strategy, as is numbing oneself with substances or sleep.  Anything that keeps a person from having to actually “be” with their self and the truth of what they are experiencing during these difficult states.  Somehow we often believe if we don’t see and feel something, it doesn’t have an impact upon us.  Unfortunately, that is far from the reality – the difficulty is usually still there taking its toll. As the title of a book by Karol Truman points out, “Feelings buried alive never die.”

In actuality, the most skillful way to respond to these challenging states is to use them wisely and take the opportunity to learn from them.  Here are some suggestions for working with difficult states of mind when they arise1:

Observe to understand and develop a new releationship
Rather than suppressing or hiding from difficult states, see if you can observe them when they are present.  See if you can notice, with a sense of curiosity and inquiry, how you are reacting to these difficult states and, perhaps, getting caught up in them them.  Just this insight alone is valuable; by understanding better how you relate to a difficult state, from there, you may have the opportunity to develop a new relationship with it, one that serves you better.  As a metaphor, Gurdjieff, a 20th Century spiritual teacher who based his work on self-awareness, was known to hold mindful work retreats for students.  During one of these retreats a participant was ousted by the others because he was very difficult and generally disliked.  After this participant left the site, Gurdjieff actually found this man and paid him to return to the retreat to give the other participants the ability to work with this challenge.  Gurdjieff recognized that if he allowed the students to eliminate this thorny issue during their retreat, they would avoid addressing the difficulty and thus would miss the opportunity to learn to relate to it in a more effective way.

Promote the opposite state
If a difficult state of mind is overwhelming, try promoting an opposite state to combat the grip the difficult state has on you.  If you can weaken its hold, you then may be able to attend to it more effectively.  For example, it is told that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness to monks who had been dwelling and meditating in the forest.  These monks were fearful of being attacked by spirits in the forest that didn’t want them there and came to the Buddha to seek his advice.  In response, the Buddha taught the monks the practice of loving-kindness, cultivating intentions of kindness and well-being, as an antidote to their fear.  The monks returned to the forest and as they chanted phrases of loving-kindness, such as, “may I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering,” they began to feel safe and see their environment as friendly.   By practicing loving-kindness, the opposite of fear and anger, the monks were able to quell their fear of the spirits in the forest.  Another example from day-to-day life: during those times when you feel lazy or lethargic, by having the will to energize yourself into some more active state (going for a walk, for example), you may be able to weaken the lethargy and, from there, take a closer look at it and your reaction to it.

Let go
With growing awareness, you may develop the ability to let go of the difficult states when you notice they are present, let them pass.  However, the ability to let go requires that you first acknowledge the feelings honestly, without engaging in them, without being seduced into a reaction to them.  If you, instead, evade acknowledging them honestly, you can slip into a state of denial or avoidance, which are common ways of reacting.  Therefore, it is not effective to bypass step 1) of these suggestions; observing and understanding your reactions to these difficult states must first be mastered before you can truly let go of them.

None of these ways of working with challenging states of mind are easy; however, the payoff for the effort is worthwhile.  Try these approaches for yourself and let me know how they work for you.

1.  Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Shambhala (2001)

“The best way out of a difficulty is through it.
— Robert Frost


November 19, 2010 at 4:54 pm 2 comments


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