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A love we never outgrow

Let us hold all fathers in our hearts today, in gratitude for the gift of life they have given. Some of us are close with dad, some are not; some have very fond memories, some do not; some of us never really got to know that person we called “dad” and what really moved him, inspired him; what he really wanted and what his unique relationship was with the movement of love; or why he came here to this sacred human place. But the one thing we do know is that, just like us, dad only ever wanted to be happy, to be free from suffering, and was only able to use the tools he had been given to take the journey that was his. We may never understand the nature of dad’s journey, the unique pattern that unfolded as his life, somehow orchestrated in the stars, to unveil to him the mysteries of love.

Whether dad is still on this earth or the beloved has sent him elsewhere, it is possible for you to fully connect with him right here, right now, for he is alive inside every cell of your heart; no matter what has happened in the past, he has given you something important for your journey. May we honor dad on this day in all of his guises, in all of his forms – personal and transpersonal – and may we be guided by his wisdom qualities down that pathway that he and all beings have laid out for us.

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Self-care and selflessness: a contradiction?

In the research for the dissertation I’m writing on the ways in which spiritual belief and practice can serve a defensive function, I’ve come across the writings of Miles Neale, a Buddhist-oriented psychologist in New York City (who I ended up interviewing as part of the study). Miles recently sent me an article he just published which covers an important area in the ongoing dialogue between psychological/ therapeutic and contemplative approaches to health and well-being. One of the hot topics in contemporary psychospiritual inquiry has to do with the understanding of the “self,” i.e. its ontological status, what it is, how if at all it might be worked with, and how practitioners might be able to reconcile self-development/ self-love/ self-acceptance/ self-care with the contemplative discoveries of no-self, selflessness, shunyata, and so forth.

During our free video series on the Self-Acceptance Project, more than one participant asked, “So what is this ‘self’ that we’re accepting, anyway?” Or, in other words, how can we accept a self that isn’t actually there upon investigation? All fair questions, of course.

I’ll leave you with the first part of Miles’ paper below. If you find it interesting, you can head over to his website to download the entire piece, which I quite enjoyed. Or just go straight to Miles’ website and read the entire article.

Self-care and Selflessness: A Contradiction?

The nearly half century dialogue between Buddhism and Western psychology has created a potential forum for a mutually enriching exchange. It has also raised productive questions about the points of overlap and dissonance between the two traditions. One of the most apparent differences is in the way these disciplines relate to the self.  Psychotherapy emphasizes genuine care for the self and its feelings, needs and wounds, helps to restore a continuity in the sense of self when it begins to fragment and investigates how self-denial creates profound psychic disturbance and dysfunction in relationships.  Buddhist meditation establishes attentional equipoise, facilitates direct observation of the impermanent, insubstantial nature of the self and culminates in an intuitive insight of emptiness that ends the habits of self-reification and self-grasping at the root of suffering.

Is there a contradiction between the goals of self-care and selflessness, and what does each tradition stand to learn from the other’s approach?

“Spiritual bypassing”: spiritual practice as pain-avoidance 

Psychotherapy encourages meditators to take a more care-ful approach to their traumatic wounds rather than circumventing them.  I’ve frequently observed meditators devaluing their own personal traumas in pursuit of more exalted and seductive spiritual virtues like the bodhisattva ideal of saving others from suffering. Likewise, some yogis aim for mystical heights of ecstatic bliss hoping to transcend their ordinary human fragility, only to come crashing down to their painful reality once practice is over. This phenomenon of using spiritual tools and teachings to avoid psychological issues, traumatic wounds, and unmet developmental tasks occurs so frequently, that in the early 1980’s Dr. John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to characterize this tendency. Frequent scandals involving so-called spiritual masters who have had inappropriate relations with their students as well as students who see little psychological progress after years of spiritual practice stand as testaments to the deleterious effects of neglecting basic human needs. Indeed it may be possible to have profound spiritual insights, and at the same time neglect other areas of our complex being – including emotional, psychological, interpersonal or somatic dimensions. If we don’t take all of these dimensions seriously and incorporate them into “the work” of human development – then the shadow-side of our split identity can reemerge outside of conscious awareness, when we least expect it and with painful consequences.

Common forms of spiritual bypassing

Spiritual bypassing occurs when we unconsciously attempt to avoid pain, shame and the unpleasant side of our humanity and can manifests in a myriad of ways. The most common forms I have observed in myself as well as in my clinical work with yogis and meditators include: when fear of rejection, fear of burdening others or conflict-avoidance masquerade as being easygoing, patient and accommodating; when co-dependency poses as care-giving and compassion; when guru-devotion leads to subservience and conceals unresolved childhood dynamics such as over-idealization or fear of reprisal; when the spiritual virtue of detachment is misunderstood as disinterest and one attempts to avoid pain by disconnecting from feelings and relationships; when spiritual success and accomplishment end up reinforcing narcissism and the very inflated self-images they were designed to see through; when ultimate truths such as selflessness and emptiness are misunderstood and privileged over relative truths and one consequently falls into the nihilistic extreme of self-denial or apathy. All of these examples share one thing in common; they are unconscious adaptations of pain-avoidance concealed in the fabric of spiritual practice.  Without a skilled objective observer such as a therapist or teacher to alert us, we can miss our unconscious attempts at bypassing, just as we do the blindspot in a rearview mirror.

Read the rest of this article now

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Washed out by grace…

We can be so hard on ourselves in so many ways: why did I choose the same kind of partner yet again, why am I not able to find more meaningful work, why am I acting just like my mother/ father, why have I not become awakened yet, why am I not truly loveable by another. Recent research and clinical reports in the fields of attachment and interpersonal neurobiology have shown us that the way we’ve come to see ourselves, others, and relationships was formed in the extended nervous system prior to the acquisition of language. As little ones, we lived in a non-verbal world, shaping our models of self and other according to our deeply wired need to survive, to receive love, and to be mirrored empathically.

Fortunately, the realities of neuroplasticity have shown that it is possible to reorganize the way we see ourselves, conceive of this sacred reality, and interact in close relationships. By some unknown grace, it seems that we are wired for love; somehow we are supported by the unseen world to allow love to restructure our lives. While this journey is simple, we know it is not easy. We sense that it demands everything – and this can be scary. But through compassionate self-inquiry, authentic contemplative practice, somatically-alive psychotherapy, and especially through that ever-fiery crucible that is attuned, intimate relationship, the opportunity is there to give ourselves fully to this life and to receive the fruits of a wide open heart, a body and senses that are an offering of love, and an the clear wisdom of an intuitively-guided mind.

It does seem that one thing is required though, and that is tremendous kindness to ourselves – an unconditional friendliness to who and what we are, and a deep respect for the journey from fear to love, for it requires everything we have – and more. Let us nurture and hold ourselves in kindness today, and to appreciate the difficulties and challenges in living a life beyond belief. Let us set aside the spiritual superego, our desperate need to be something other than what we are, and to allow the grace that is always and already here to wash down throughout this sacred body, pouring through these precious senses. And let us behold the miracle of this life as it is, seeing how lucky most of us truly are, and how we could only ever be in the exact right place, to take the perfectly-designed next step into love.

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The Self-Acceptance Project… a free online video...

Access the Self-Acceptance Project free of charge

Self-aggression, self-acceptance, self-love, and issues of self-worth can be challenging for contemporary spiritual practitioners, even for those who have meditated or engaged in psychotherapy for years. There are many ways we can be unkind to ourselves, often subtle and unconscious, which can affect the way we perceive and engage in our lives, especially in interpersonal and intimate relationship.

In this free, 12-week video event series, I invited 23 psychologists, psychotherapists, neuroscientists, and spiritual teachers to speak with my friend and longtime colleague, Tami Simon, to explore these areas and how we might move toward the creation of a certain kind of holding environment in which we can grow, heal, and transform together.

All episodes of the Self-Acceptance Project are now posted and can be accessed as video or audio downloads, or can be streamed at no cost from the comfort of your own home. We invite you to join us for this pioneering series and look forward to sharing our discoveries with you – and hearing what you have learned. It is our intention that you benefit deeply from this work and that it guide you along your own journey of love and awakening.

Episodes include

  • Developing Shame Resilience with Dr. Brené Brown
  • Waking Up from the Trance of Unworthiness with Dr. Tara Brach
  • Turning Towards Our Pain with Dr. Robert Augustus Masters
  • Begin Exactly Where You Are with Jeff Foster
  • Taking in the Good with Dr. Rick Hanson
  • The Human Capacity to Take Perspectives with Dr. Steven Hayes
  • What if There is Nothing Wrong with Raphael Cushnir
  • No Strangers in the Heart with Mark Nepo
  • Transforming Self-Criticism into Self-Compassion with Dr. Kelly McGonigal
  • Faith in Our Fundamental Worthiness with Sharon Salzberg
  • Developing a Wise Mind with Dr. Erin Olivo
  • Embodied Vulnerability and Non-Division with Bruce Tift
  • Perfect in Our Imperfection with Colin Tipping
  • Staying Loyal to One’s Self with Dr. Judith Blackstone
  • Compassion for the Self-Critic with Dr. Kristin Neff
  • Curiosity is the Key with Dr. Harville Hendrix
  • Kindness is the Means and End with Geneen Roth
  • Healing at the Level of the Subconscious Mind with Dr. Friedemann Schaub
  • Embracing all of Our Parts with Dr. Jay Earley
  • Understanding Empathy and Shame with Karla McLaren
  • Integrating the Shadow with Dr. Parker PalmerLetting Life Be in Charge with Cheri Huber

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If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ...

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you,” that would suffice. -Meister Eckhart

We are quite sure that tomorrow will come, that the most sacred in-breath and out-breath will be there, that grace will take shape as the sun falling into the ocean, that the love that animates this body will continue to take form in such a rare way. But some part of us knows that it is really so fragile here, so precarious, so extraordinary, that this life is not what we think, and that it will be returned to love very soon. It is too much, though, to let this in all the way, as we know that do so would change everything.

We really are on borrowed time, a loan of grace directly from the cells of the heart of the beloved. Yet we know that she will be asking for this unbearably precious gift to be returned soon, so that she may recycle the uniqueness that you are and swirl it out through this and all universes. She will paint the stars in the sky with the essence of what you are, with the signature of your unique soul, and with each and every light strand of your DNA. She will take every word of sweetness that you have ever uttered, every act of kindness you have ever performed, every moment of humility and longing in your heart, and use it to touch sentient life everywhere. And what you are will then pour through every shooting star that will ever fall through the sky again, into eternity; the dust of the stars and the dust of your heart weaved back into one substance.

So let us take just a moment and say thank you, and to get real clear about what it is we are ready to give, what is really and truly most important, and what is falling away.

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Burning brightly

Is it necessary to make a commitment to study and practice within one tradition? When I first started meditating, I was introduced by Burmese meditation master S.N. Goenka to the old adage, “If you want to find water, don’t dig many holes. Dig deep in one place.”

And recently in a discussion with philosopher Ken Wilber, when asked this question in the context of a discussion about the future of spirituality, Ken responded by quoting a Japanese saying, “Try to chase two rabbits at the same time, catch none.”

But is this universally true? In our contemporary context, is it necessary to commit to studying and practicing within a singular spiritual tradition if one wants to radically grow and transform? Although I see the value in this perspective and the depth of realization it can bring, I am not convinced.

As an interviewer, I have now met some highly accomplished and wise teachers whose life experience tells a different story. I have spoken with spiritual teachers who have not followed any formal path at all and whose hearts seem wildly open and whose lives seem truly devoted to serving other people. I’ve also interviewed teachers who have simultaneously studied in several different lineages and who actually recommend such an approach as an opportunity for checks and balances (so to speak) as one matures on the path.

Having now met people who come from such a wide range of different spiritual backgrounds and paths of practice, my current view is that it is not the path that matters as much as it is the heart fire of the individual. What I mean by heart fire is the commitment and intensity of love and devotion that lives at the center of our being. When our hearts are lit up to the max—lit up with a dedication to opening fully and offering our life energy for the well-being of other people—there is a torch within us that begins to blaze with warmth and generosity. The real question becomes not are we on the right path but are we fully sincere in offering ourselves to the world? Are we whole-hearted (a word I learned from meditation teacher Reggie Ray) in letting go of personal territory? Are we whole-hearted in our desire to burn brightly and serve, regardless of the outer form our lives might take?

What I like about turning the question around like this is that now our finger is not pointing outward at some consideration of path or tradition or what other people say or have done or are doing. Now our finger is pointing directly to the center of our own chest. We can ask ourselves questions like: Am I hiding or holding back for some reason? What am I holding back and why? What would it mean to risk more so that the fire of life could shine more brightly through me? How could I live in such a way, right now, so that my heart is 100 percent available to love and serve?

My experience is that when we start investigating our own whole-heartedness in this kind of way, we don’t have the same need to judge and evaluate other people and their paths. There are a multitude of options, valid and viable. What becomes important is the purity and strength of the fire that is blazing within us.

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