As I begin to write this post I find myself thinking of the man in the iron mask, who was imprisoned for thirty four years, and whose identity was never known as he always wore a mask of black velvet. Historians have debated his identity for years, and various theories have been expounded in books and films, such as the one released in 1998 starring Leonardo Dicaprio and John Malcovich.
Whilst fortunately we are not locked away and forgotten as that man was, all of us wear masks throughout our lives and are conscious of the varied roles we play in the world, and the expectations of others that go with many of these roles. Society would not function without the shared understanding of what it means to be, for example, a doctor or a teacher.
Most of the time, our feelings and behavior are not in conflict with the roles we are asked to play, nor with our inner selves. At other times however, the mask has become something else – virtual black velvet that protects a story, contains an identity, and stops us from feeling our own vulnerability. But it’s the very thing which stands us in resistance to living our truth and ends up attracting realities that conflict with who we really are. Because we are living inauthentic lives, we end up attracting the very things we are trying desperately to avoid.
So how do we begin to remove these masks, and how do we even know they are there? Are they so finely molded to us that we no longer perceive them as anything other than truth? To begin to explore we have to look at our inner and outer lives through the eyes of the witness. The part of us that is able to observe our own thoughts and psyche. Until we start to see that we are not our stories, we are unable to go into the darker deeper parts of our-self because we are too invested in our identity. We need a certain sense of distance from our own experience first, and there are many ways we can begin to achieve this, such as through writing, meditation, mindfulness and other practices.
Another aspect of releasing masks is that:
It requires us to feel.
Whilst most of us are willing to feel up to a certain extent, there are often deeper feelings that we will do anything to avoid because they hurt, frighten us, and often relate to deep unmet needs we are not consciously aware of. So we have to be kind to ourselves and understand that it takes time to unravel a lifetime of mystery, and gentleness to allow ourselves to feel and move from head to heart.
Feelings aren’t enemies, they are clues. Way points in an uncertain world, direction markers that guide us back into the brilliance of our-selves.
If we’ll allow it.
There is a beautiful stillness outside as I sit to write this post, a jumbled collection of musings which started to come together last night as I sat working on course content.
Is it ever personal?
I was working on a section entitled ‘the fictional self’ which looks at the different masks we wear and why we wear them. Uncovering and integrating the ‘shadow’ is something I’m fascinated by, and over the course of my exploration (which is ongoing!) it has occurred to me more and more that we fear our shadow because we make everything personal.
I realize this is not something new – I realize that spiritual teachers have taught throughout time that we are all one, that there is no ‘self’ with the little ‘s’ and that transcending the ego is the ultimate goal.
But still most of us insist on believing it’s personal. We decide on our identities, put on our masks, and spend our time grasping; building and clinging to everything we think we need to preserve them. We may let go in certain areas, but there are still parts we believe are exclusive and we fight tooth and nail to maintain them.
We want ownership, security, the ability to be able to say ‘it’s mine.’ You don’t have to look far to see this in our society. But it’s all an illusion we buy into, and it’s the illusion that’s maintaining the paradigm we live in and know at some level is dysfunctional.
It’s easier to say ‘it’s mine’ when it makes us feel good. But still there is this grasping because we know at any point it could disappear, leaving us faced with the nothingness that terrifies us. We see our pain as personal. Some of us fear joy and happiness and make the pain personal to protect ourselves. But what if it’s not? Of course we feel it, and it’s real and it hurts and sitting in it and allowing it to be can be one of the hardest things we ever do. But it’s not personal. It’s our pain. When we feel pain, others feel pain. When we feel joy and love, others feel it too. When we stop making it personal we open ourselves to feel more. To be more, to connect more.
Just as we don’t have to look far to see the ‘my, my, my’ paradigm, we also don’t have to look far to see the truth. We hear it in the space we inhabit when we stand on a beach and realize how small we are. It’s there in the restless feeling. It’s there is the niggling voice we try so hard to shut up with consumerism and projection. It’s not going to go away – so why not listen?
This morning I went for a long walk to help clear my head before working on lesson plans for my upcoming course. The topic I wanted to explore in today’s notes was self inquiry, and it occurred to me that whilst for some self inquiry might not be daunting, for others just the very thought can unleash a myriad of questions, doubts and fears.
I think often what can happen is that we just don’t know where to begin, and also, we think that it will be overwhelming. But self inquiry can be a very gentle therapeutic process of developing the capacity to witness ourselves without judgement. There is a great picture based on Joseph Campbell’s work called the circle of consciousness. It is a circle with a line through it. The part above the line is what we are consciously aware of, and the part below is our unconscious. To the degree that we are not aware of what’s below the line, is to the degree that it will control us. It is the automatic reactions we have, the flipping into anger, the feelings of not being good enough, the fears that we seem to have no control over, the mood swings and so on.
Self inquiry is all about shining a light on these parts so we become a more enlarged and whole being with an increased capacity to draw on our wisdom. It is shining a light on the places we haven’t been paying attention to, and developing a deeper understanding of who we are. This then has a ripple effect into the world around us, enabling us to have better relationships with others.
One of the important parts of this inquiry is to remember that what lies beneath the line is not personal. I think, and have certainly found through my own journey of self inquiry, that we can carry a lot of shame around the places within. But every single one of us has these reptilian parts, these raw emotions. It’s part of our inheritance, carried down through generations. So when we explore issues such as our own addictions, we see that its not ‘my addiction’ its ‘our addictiveness.’ It’s ‘our anger.’ Of course we express it on an individual level and are responsible for that expression, but its by no means unique to just us.
What happens when we don’t shine a light on the parts within us is that, in a sense, we forget who we really are and become cut off from the awareness that lies beyond any stories we have created. In exploring these parts we can wake up to the truth, and also realise that by including it we can deal with it.
In terms of feeling overwhelmed, I believe we know at some level what we can cope with. If we approach self inquiry from a place of trust, we allow what needs to come up to present itself at the right time. We live moment to moment, only enough for this moment will arise.
Self inquiry will have its painful moments, but if we don’t face whats under there, we will always know at some level there is something we haven’t dealt with. When we do deal with it, we are able to redevelop the sense of innocence we used to have, because we are no longer hiding unseen things.
I felt inspired to take the above photo yesterday because to me it symbolized an emotion I have been exploring a lot recently – vulnerability. Just seconds after I took the shot my daughter blew on the dandelion, scattering its seeds which were carried away on the breeze. But the core of the dandelion remained strong and upright, it had shed what it no longer needed in order for new growth to begin.
In relating this to vulnerability I found myself thinking how we hold on to parts of ourselves and protect them because we fear exposure. Many of us will go to great measures to avoid feeling vulnerable, myself included. But what is it that we fear? Judgement? Rejection? Failure? Losing control? Probably a mixture depending on the context.
It all goes back to programs we developed in infancy to make sense of our emotions and protect ourselves. They have been called by some teachers emotional programs for happiness. In our very early years we have no awareness of a separate self, but we do have needs and these needs come with emotional responses which are faithfully recorded in our memory banks. By the time we reach the age of reason we have in place fully functioning emotional programs for happiness based on emotional judgments we made as children in response to needs.
When we are born we have two instinctual needs – survival and security. As we grow and become aware of being a separate self we experience more needs such as pleasure, affection and esteem. If one or more of these needs is perceived to be withheld, it becomes difficult for us to believe in the goodness of life. None of us escapes the emotional fragility of childhood because as children we only have our feelings to go by and cannot discern the cause as we can as adults. But because we develop programs for happiness before we develop reason, they have no limits. So when we are older and, for example, the desire for security is not met and we experience the emotions of grief, anger, jealousy etc we identify the value systems we developed at a young age to cope with unbearable situations.
This is one side of it, the other is that not only do we identify with these childhood programs but as we grow up it changes. What starts out as needs develops into demands and then shoulds which we expect others and life to meet. We don’t know we have these deeply ingrained programs. In fact people can grow spiritually, physically and intellectually whilst their emotional lives remain at the level of infancy.
So how does this relate to vulnerability? It relates in that these emotional programs protect us from experiencing our vulnerability. We don’t want to experience the pain of childhood unmet needs that lie beneath. But in order to grow and live from a place of authenticity we must explore these deeply ingrained patterns and in doing so embrace our vulnerability. As Brene Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly:
‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose, or deeper and more spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.’
It is what connects us to others and to ourselves. In embracing and exploring it we can not only discover all of who we are, but we can also learn how to fulfill the needs we perceived as unfulfilled in childhood and also see that we no longer need to seek fulfillment outside of ourselves. We don’t need to control anymore, or have life look a certain way in order to satisfy our demands. What happens when we discover that is that we free ourselves up to being more creative, more loving towards ourselves and others, and as Brene Brown says, obtain greater clarity in our purpose.
The first step is inquiry. Turning inwards and exploring with compassion the tender places. It only needs to be a tiny step, but its a step that can see the start of a beautiful journey of self love.
The power of connection
A while ago I posted a couple of posts about helping children deal with intense feelings. Today I felt inspired to add to them with a part three.
As usual, my inspiration came from observing my daughter who is now almost 5 years old. I noticed that she was going through a phase where she seemed to getting angry regularly. Most children get angry if they don’t get what they want, for example a new toy or that extra piece of cake. But there are times as a parent when you notice that there’s more to it, the anger is about something deeper.
I wrote about anger in both of the last blogs, but I’m going to write about it again because I think it’s an emotion that many of us feel really uncomfortable around. It’s often met with a lot of judgement, both from those on the receiving end and also those expressing it.
It’s very easy to condemn the person expressing it and try to get as far away from them as possible.
But anger is a response to something much deeper. When we are hurting and afraid what do we do? Unless we are completely comfortable with feeling hurt and afraid we lash out. Project our feelings outside ourselves as quickly as possible to avoid the pain. So there is a lot of fear in there as well.
Some of us don’t lash out though. Some of us were taught it’s not OK to express anger and so instead we try to stuff it down. This is where addiction and depression can come in.
So how do we help our children learn to deal with anger in a more healthy way?
It is said that the two wings of awareness in enlightenment, the two things we most need as human beings, are to be understood and to be loved. In essence – connection.
These are the two most primary needs a child has, and fulfilling them when a child is struggling with anger is incredibly powerful.
A simple way to do this is to wait for a pause in the anger, or until it has subsided enough for us to step in with a question, and then ask these simple words:
‘Where does it hurt?’ Without judgement and from a place of true compassion.
Offers an invitation to the child to stop for a moment and allow themselves to feel where the pain is. What we want to be able to do is hang out with the child and help them to discover what it is they really want. Hopefully this will lead to the child talking about it and this will help them to understand themselves better and also help the parent understand their child.
There is a lot of anger in the world today – compassion is lacking in so many ways. I am reminded as I write of a story I heard someone tell about a person who approached a dog and reached out to pet it. The dog lurched forwards, teeth bared and the person leapt backwards and cursed the dog for its aggression. A moment later the person saw that the dog’s paw was caught in a snare and in a flash realised the dog was aggressive because it was hurting.
If we can ask the question ‘where does it hurt?’ more often and try to understand, we will help ourselves and others so much.
In the next post I’ll write about asking ourselves the question and how doing so can help us heal deeply.
This year I have started growing my own wheatgrass, and I wanted to share a bit about it as its not only a fantastically healthy addition to ones diet, but also incredibly easy to grow and harvest! In the past I bought the powder, which was easier, but often pricey. Growing fresh is fun, a great activity to do with kids, and it’s ready to harvest in under two weeks!
First of all, some of the many benefits (taken from research articles found online)
Lose Weight – Wheatgrass contains selenium, which is essential for healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, one of your body’s natural weight management tools.
Reduce Food Cravings – Wheatgrass is packed with many nutrients, thus helps to compensate for a lack of vitamins and minerals that could see your body craving foods to compensate for. Some common deficiencies — such as magnesium, iron, and omega-3s — can make you snack as your body searches for a source of these much-needed minerals.
Detox Your Cells – Wheatgrass is highly alkaline, so perfect for detoxing
Improve Immunity – One of the top documented benefits of wheatgrass is its ability to increase red blood cells in the body, making it an excellent immunity booster.
Stimulate Circulation –Wheatgrass has the ability to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood, making it a great way to stimulate circulation.
Improve Digestion – Can help to relieve heartburn or indigestion, introduce wheatgrass into your daily regimen.
Treat Arthritis – Chlorophyll is thought to fight inflammation, which is associated with joint pain and may be the reason wheatgrass is so helpful in these cases.
Reduce Fatigue – The chlorophyll in wheatgrass helps to increase oxygen supply in your body’s cells and tissues, contributing to cell regeneration, which heals the body and reduces fatigue symptoms.
Chlorophyll is also naturally regenerative for the adrenal glands, according to Ellen Tart-Jensen, Ph.D, D.Sc. Boosting the adrenal system is crucial for sufferers of chronic fatigue
Prevent Tooth Decay – Wheatgrass has natural antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that can increase mouth health and reduce the risk of cavities and gum inflammation when drunk.
Cleanse the Liver – Wheatgrass is probably best known for its effects on the liver.
Stabilize Lipid Levels – Wheatgrass improves lipid levels, which means it’s a great tool for managing high cholesterol.
Clear Sinus Congestion – As wheatgrass supports immunity and reduces inflammation, it can also be an excellent tool for reducing congestion.
Prevent Cancer – Wheatgrass’s anti-cancer benefits stem from its blood oxygenating ability; cancer thrives in a low-oxygen environment, so wheatgrass may contribute to cancer prevention in this way.
Fight the Common Cold – Steer clear of colds with wheatgrass supplements to boost immunity and make sure your body is getting all the vitamins it needs.
Improve the Mood – Wheatgrass can improve your mood in a variety of ways. It can boost the adrenal system thanks to its vitamin K and magnesium content, helping your body to better deal with stress. It’s also rich in iron. A deficiency in iron can cause fatigue, which lowers mood.
Combat Bowel Inflammation – In addition to wheatgrass’ general anti-inflammatory qualities, it has been proven to fight inflammation in the bowel linked to several diseases including Crohn’s and IBS.
Slow Aging – The amino acid chains and antioxidants in wheatgrass can help repair damaged DNA and reduce the effect of free radicals, which harm these essential elements of our cells.
Feed Your Brain – Our brains use 25% of the body’s oxygen supply. Because wheatgrass fuels the body with oxygen it is, literally, brain food!
Simply purchase organic wheatgrass seeds. (I buy mine online) Soak in a bowl of water until the seeds grow little white ‘tails’ (this means they are sprouting) which usually takes 3 days. Change the water each day to ensure its fresh.
Plant in a shallow tray of earth and cover lightly with potting mix or earth. Keep the earth moist, not too wet. Do not grow in direct sunlight. The seeds will grow in a few days, and are usually ready to harvest in 10-14 days. Simply cut with scissors!
Mix the wheatgrass with filtered water (I use two and a half cups of water to a cup of wheatgrass) and blend in a blender. Strain through cheesecloth. Pour the juice into ice trays, pop the trays into sealable plastic bags and freeze.
Take out a couple of blocks in the evening and defrost overnight in the fridge. In the morning, either drink neat, or add to a smoothie for a energy boosting, nutritionally packed start to your day! It doesn’t taste bad, in case your wondering!
I find it literally tastes like grass. But add to a smoothie to avoid the taste if you don’t like it.