Saturday, 14 May 2011

Letting go of shame

Lately I've been noticing the role shame plays in my life and how it limits and inhibits my true expression. Nothing is more sure of sending us into a state of depression, indecision or denial than shame! And all these feelings inhibit our ability to make wise and courageous choices in our lives. The kind of choices that expand our lives and our sense of what is possible.

Shame is different to guilt which usually only shows its head when you've deliberately or maliciously wronged someone. But shame can attack even when no one has been hurt at all! I might feel ashamed of the chubby parts of my body or of my off-beat sexual fantasies or because I feel I haven't lived up to my own high expectations. Everyone has their own shame triggers.

Guilt is more of a function of traditional and accepted notions of right and wrong, whereas shame can be attached to all manner of odd things. For example the other day I was sitting by the window and catching a movement out of the corner of my eye I looked up to see if my boyfriend were coming up the drive; afterward I felt a twinge of shame for caring so much about him! Yes it's bizarre but this is how shame works. It's attached to all sorts of wrong-headed beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others and the world around us.

Shame causes us to become stuck for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can cause us to start beating ourselves up which weakens us spiritually and makes it difficult for us to make empowered decisions. Secondly it can make us feel that we're not deserving of the good things in life. And thirdly it can send us into a state of denial where we unconsciously block out key facts about a situation that we need to know in order to make wise choices.

Letting go of shame requires us to first develop our self-awareness so that we become very clear about the beliefs we are holding onto that trigger shame. These beliefs may have been passed down to you from your parents, or perhaps they were developed in response to experiences that occurred earlier in your life. Either way they need to be explicitly understood and seen for what they are: just one way of looking at things.

Next it's important to become really clear about whether these beliefs are useful to you. Perhaps they were once, but if they're now triggering shame you can be sure they have outlived their usefulness! Ask yourself: 'What is another way I could look at this?' Even just realising that there is another perspective on the matter can help you see that your belief is not the only truth.

Meditation and the daily practice of mindfulness can help us notice when shame occurs and we can then trace the experience to a preceding thought, slowly deconstructing our ideologies and replacing these destructive beliefs with more life-affirming ones. By letting go of these beliefs day-by-day we can gradually free ourselves from shame. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Letting go of the need for success

There's a great line in a song I like by the band Modest Mouse; it goes 'Do you even believe there's a race to be won?' To me it's a very profound question because of all the many things our society tells us to believe the idea that we should strive to be 'successful' is one that is very rarely questioned.

Before we go on it's important to understand what success actually means to you because there's a lot of different definitions floating around out there. For some people success is about becoming better and better, it's about improving yourself, perfecting your skills. For others it's about using your talents to your greatest potential. For many it's about achieving what you set out to achieve. But the most common definition we find for success in our competitive world is that of beating others, winning, being the best.

All these definitions are to my mind problematic. Those definitions that emphasise self-improvement seem suspect to me because they imply that we are not good enough as we are, that we need to somehow prove our worth. And defining success as the achievement of a desired outcome suggests that we always know what is best for us in any given situation and denies the fact that sometimes the most undesired outcome turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. But it's the last definition that I find particularly fraught with complications, because if I'm going to be the best, have the most or win, then by implication there must be someone out there who is going to be the worst, have the least or lose. And this is not the kind of world that I would like to contribute to creating.

Being attached to success can lead us to push aggressively against ourselves, others or the harmonious natural flow of the universe. By doing this we separate ourselves from each other, become weak and exhausted and often miss out on wonderful opportunities because we are fixated on our goals and not receptive to other possibilities. Often if we really look at our need for success we find that what we really need is the approval or respect of others around us. This need for approval can really warp the choices we make in life and lead us down the wrong path.

So is there really a race to be won? I don't think so... In fact I think the idea of success is promoted in our society because at a fundamental level the socially unjust and ecologically destructive economic structures of our times require continual growth and to achieve this people must work long hours and buy many unnecessary products. Promoting 'success' is a wonderful way to co-opt people into both working hard and acquiring things. The intrinsic value of the work being done and the products being consumed is not questioned because the value of 'success' is so widely accepted and ingrained.

Letting go of the need to be successful means accepting that we are beautiful and worthwhile even without great accomplishments, material possessions and social status. It's about acknowledging that no matter how good we are at something, even if we are the best in the world, this will not necessarily bring us happiness. And it's about seeing that every human being has talents and qualities that make them an indispensable part of the Earth community.

Success is easier to let go of if you get in touch with your motivations for wanting to be successful in the first place. By becoming self aware, and by observing the thoughts you attach to the idea of success, both in meditation and through cultivating moment-by-moment mindfulness, you can begin to detach. In fact just noticing that you are attached is the first step! Now you can move towards a different idea of personal fulfillment, one that doesn't involve competing with yourself or others, or resisting the harmonious natural flow of the universe. 

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Letting go of anger

The other day a good friend of mine came out and said some things that really blew me away... Not only were the things he said deeply hurtful but many were also untrue. You know how it goes. We've all had this type of experience with friends. In fact if they weren't friends it's unlikely that what they say would hurt us at the level that it does.

Of course I found myself absolutely seething at this person. I wrote him letters in my head in which I named him as the most self-righteous, demanding, selfish and judgmental person I had ever met. But unfortunately my emotions were so strong that I found it impossible to actually communicate with him about any of this. I just fumed inside while he was left wondering what I was so upset about.

This anger invaded every area of my life. Even my daily meditations were affected; I just couldn't take my focus away from the stream of hateful and condemning thoughts. I felt trapped and controlled by my emotions even as I could see that they were counter-productive.

In order to escape from the anger I thought that I would simply stop being friends with this person and I rationalised in my mind that really we had very little in common, that our ideas of what a good friendship should be differed radically. But this was just my way of avoiding having to come to terms with the fact that my anger, not my friend, was the cause of my unhappiness and that what I really needed to do to regain my peace of mind was not to let go of my friend but to let go of my angst.

What brought me to the point of realisation was when I acknowledged that I felt controlled by my emotions, rather than being in control of them. But the silly thing is that I was actually giving this control away, by clinging so firmly to the story I was telling myself, the story that justified my anger. The story went something like this: 'I can't believe that after all these years he can have so little understanding of me, that he is so self-absorbed that he thinks only of his own needs and demands that I meet them, while having no interest in what is going on in my life.'

When I was able to acknowledge that this story was just one way of looking at the situation, and that it was in fact a distorted view, I was able to take responsibility for my anger. I could then see that it was an emotion chosen by me and not caused by someone else, that I did in fact have a choice in the emotions that I experienced. I was then able to recognise that anger was not a pleasant or productive emotion for me at this time and was able to let it go.