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July 2016

Letting Go of Blame and Judgment: Emotional Transformation through Zen with Len

LenMany years ago, I experienced betrayal, pain and anger about something that someone did. I did not have the tools or life experience to fully understand my reactions - much less transform them - at the time, and the memory of the episode has resurfaced periodically, re-triggering unresolved emotions. The most recent recurrence began last October, disrupting my ability to sleep and negatively impacting other dimensions of my life over several months. The spell was finally broken during a retreat in January that was organized and led by my good friend, Kensho Len Silverston, promising - and delivering - emotional transformation. I wanted to share some of the insights and experiences that contributed to my breakthrough(s) that weekend.

I went into the retreat filled with blame and judgment: blaming the other person for causing my pain and anger, and judging that what the other person did was wrong. The intensity of my righteous indignation was magnified by the person's unwillingness to admit any wrongdoing or express any regret about the episode. I knew it was up to me to resolve whatever lingering emotions I was holding on to - as Tara Brach so aptly puts it, the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom - and it was increasingly clear, after several months of disequilibrium, that I needed help. When the student was ready, the retreat appeared.

Meditation, Yoga and Qigong

Zen_with_len_logoThe Zen with Len retreat consisted of several days of meditation, gentle yoga and Qigong sessions - all interleaved so as to balance our focus on mind and body - as well as special sessions exploring a number of other practices Len has found helpful in his own emotional transformations. Most meditation sessions were a half hour long - a bit of a stretch for me, as I had previously only sat for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time, but not out of my comfort zone - and I found the yoga sessions were similarly within my comfort zone, offering opportunities to gently push the edges.

While I have practiced meditation and yoga (with varying degrees of dedication) before, the Qigong exercises - a type of moving meditation - were new to me. One exercise, in particular, seemed like it was custom designed for what I was seeking at the retreat, and proved to be one of the most significant sources of breakthrough: an invitation to bring into consciousness something we want to let go, and then manifesting the letting go through movement (not just words). I'll embed a 15-minute Qigong video Len made after the retreat below; the letting go exercise can be found around the 9:55 mark.

The Qigong exercises were repeated several times throughout the weekend, and for each iteration of the letting go exercise, I alternated between letting go of blaming the other person, and letting go of my judgment of what the other person did. By the end of the weekend, I succeeded in letting go of both. However, I soon found that the blame and judgment were simply redirected toward me: how could I have tormented myself all these years? Fortunately, there were other tools provided during the weekend to help with this.

Mondo Zen

Mondo_zen_logoOne of the special afternoon sessions was on Mondo Zen, a protocol adapted from ancient Zen principles by Len's teacher, Jun Po, to facilitate the awakening of Clear Deep Heart / Mind through a process of koans. The process - detailed in the Mondo Zen training manual - is divided into two parts. The first part, Ego Deconstruction/Reconstruction Koans, is designed to help loosen one's grip on traditional ways of seeing, understanding and acting and arrive at a state of "not knowing". I had worked through similar processes in the Warrior Monk retreat I attended several years ago, and found the refresher helpful. However it was the second part, Emotional Awareness Intervention Koans, that really set the stage for the transformation I experienced.

The resurgence of the episode that brought me to the retreat triggered a number of different reactions at different times: anger, pain, shame and dissociation. In Mondo Zen, I learned that

  • No one can make me angry, shame me or cause me to dissociate / disconnect
  • Any anger, shame and/or disconnection I feel is a reaction to fear and/or sadness
  • Fear and/or grief is rooted in deep caring

I also learned that all of these emotions involve some kind of violence:

  • Anger is violence against others
  • Shame is violence against myself
  • Disconnection is violence against a relationship

Through the 2-hour Mondo Zen exercise during the retreat - a highly abbreviated, but effective, version of what is typically a multi-day retreat of its own - I was able to

  • Understand and accept that I reacted with anger, shame and disconnection to the past episode
  • Take full responsibility for my reactions
  • Recognize and take responsibility for the harm I have caused myself and others through my anger, shame and disconnection
  • Accept that the other person did nothing wrong

All of these new insights reinforced my ability - and willingness - to let go of blame and judgment.

Voice Dialogue

Another practice Len introduced in a special session was Voice Dialogue. We all have a multitude of voices in our heads, each representing different selves or parts of our personality. Each voice serves us in some positive way, and each voice has a different level of prominence in each of us, both in general and in the context of any particular inner conversation. Each voice can be harmful if allowed to commandeer the conversation to the exclusion of other voices. Disowning or rejecting any voice can also be harmful, as the abandoned voice will always find some way to leak out and express itself. We also have a higher self, or "True Nature", that serves as a moderator of our inner dialogues. I like to think of the voices as an inner program committee or board of directors, and my "True Nature" as the chairman of the board.

Selves_in_a_boxAs I understand it, there are a few different variations on the number and specific labelings of voices. The one Len used was from the book - and associated deck of 52 cards (each representing a different voice) - Selves in a Box. I think the most important aspect of the practice of Voice Dialogue is not so much the specific labels that are used for different voices, but the act of explicitly labeling the voices itself, and the way this differentiation enables one to identify and consciously moderate among the voices ... a manifestation of the principle I have heard articulated by several different spiritual teachers (including Tara Brach and Dan Seigel):"If you can name it, you can tame it".


CriticAmong the most prominent voices on my board of directors (in alphabetical order) are

  • The Accommodator
  • The Critic
  • The Judge
  • The Loner
  • The Perfectionist
  • The Romantic
  • The Sensitive
  • The Thinker
  • The Vulnerable Child

I have very loud and strident Critic (inwardly directed) and Judge (outwardly directed) voices. As I mentioned above, when I let go of blame and judgment of the other person, I redirected the blame and judgment toward myself, unconsciously shifting the leading voice of that inner conversation from the Judge to the Critic. Recognizing the rise of the Critic enabled me (or my True Nature) to explicitly call upon The Nurturer to comfort The Vulnerable Child so that I could better practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness ... a challenging practice that is still unfolding for me.

The Demartini Breakthrough Experience

Demartini_breakthrough_experienceThe final special session that Len led us through was an abbreviated version of the Demartini "Breakthrough" Experience, which is another process that is typically offered in a multi-day retreat of its own.

The Breakthrough process is based on the recognition that all traits have costs and benefits, and so traits I judge as "bad" also offer benefits to me and others. The process involves a sometimes painful investigation into what those hidden benefits might be. During the retreat, I chose to work on the trait of remorselessness in the person I had formerly blamed for my anger and pain, a trait I had previously labeled as uniformly bad.

Through an iterative process of excavation through layers of resistance, I came to recognize that this trait provided me a number of benefits, including:

  • Teaching me how to be unapologetically true to oneself (vs. consumed with people pleasing or accommodation of others)
  • Teaching me that it is OK to do what one wants, without undue regard for how someone else might feel about it, if it does not violate an agreement or directly harm another person
  • Teaching me that one cannot depend on anyone else for validation
  • Offering me an unsought opportunity to accept full responsibility for my reactions, which I can apply to other situations in which I experience betrayal, anger and/or pain

This last point represents a significant and unexpected breakthrough, helping to reinforce some of the other dimensions of transformation I experienced during the retreat. If the other person had expressed remorse, it would have vindicated my feelings of blame and judgment, enabling me to avoid looking any more deeply into my emotional reactions, and thereby avoid taking responsibility for them. The lessons to be true to myself, not depend on others for validation, and take full responsibility for my reaction are lessons that have been repeated at various times, in various ways and at various costs over many years.

I believe the prolonged intensity of pain that preceded the latest course offering was necessary for the breakdown that facilitated the breakthrough, and I am grateful for the timely, multi-dimensional learnings offered at the Zen with Len retreat.


"Expressed Emotions" in Everyday Interactions: Acceptance vs. Intervention with Family and Friends

Invisibilia_solutions_final_wideI've listened to the most recent episode of NPR's Invisibilia, The Problem with the Solution, three times in three days, crying a little less - and understanding a little more - each time I listen. I believe the emotional impact stems from my experience as a son, a husband, a father and a friend ... and more specifically, how "expressed emotions" - criticism, hostility and emotional over-involvement (essentially, expressions of non-acceptance) - have affected me and those I love.

The Invisibilia story focuses on mental illness, and how the traditional American mindset of wanting to fix problems can be counterproductive in dealing with people who have mental illness, i.e., the problem is [our preoccupation with] the solution. In the town of Geel, Belgium, people with mental illness are boarded by townspeople for, on average, 28 years. Studies have shown that people with mental illness who are placed in community settings (like Geel) after treatment are less likely to relapse than when they return home to live with their own families. This is likely due - in part - to the fact that host families are not related to their boarders, and are thus not attached to or over-involved in fixing or curing their boarders' mental illness. Instead, the boarders are accepted as they are.

As a resident of the Broadway Housing Communities - a project for recreating the culture of Geel in America - so aptly noted in an Invisibilia interiew, "Everybody has a touch of mental illness". Everyone I know has at least gone through periods where they have experienced "an unhealthy condition of body or mind", and many of those I know best have suffered a great deal from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions. In fact, it is the revelation of sufferings - and the sharing of how we are working through some of these unhealthy thoughts and emotions - that have formed the basis of the strong bonds I feel with my closest friends. And I have a growing appreciation for the suffering experienced by people I don't know well, and the way that suffering underlies some of the behaviors I find hardest to accept. As William Wordsworth observed:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

I don't mean to equate the suffering of what some call "the worried well" with the suffering of those with serious schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other types of mental illness highlighted in the Invisibilia story. I just want to say I can relate to suffering emanating from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions ... and to the effect of acceptance vs. intervention on that suffering.

I believe a great deal of suffering is caused by emotional over-involvement, and the various verbal and non-verbal ways that family members - especially parents (or grandparents) - try to "improve" us.

Invisibilia co-host Lulu Miller, who included her oldest sister's mental illness - and her family's response to it - as a recurrent theme throughout the story, noted that her older sister "had been quietly accepting this message that she was somehow not good enough" throughout her childhood, and the part that breaks me down and gets me sobbing every time (even now, simply copying and pasting the following text from the show transcript), is her father's candid admission of insufficient empathy in dealing with his oldeest daughter:

She was 2 or 3. And she was having a huge freak out at 3 in the morning, just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her. And I sat on her bed, and I was trying to calm her down. And I was sort of holding her shoulders, and I got angry at her. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears - as I was getting angrier, in her tears, she kept saying I can't help it. I can't help it. And I didn't hear that. It's - it's something I will always regret that my feeling anger instead of empathy - didn't know what I was doing as a father.

This feeling of insufficiency resonates deeply with me, and not just in my role as a father. If I had to single out the unhealthy thought that has created the most emotional suffering throughout my life, it is that I am not good enough. I have written before about my theory of how this inner conviction of unworthiness evolved; here, I'll simply note that I trace part of the origins partly to the effects of growing up in a household in which a family member suffered from mental illness - my father's alcoholism - and partly to the effects of my maternal grandfather's efforts to "improve" me through what I now recognize as "expressed emotions".

As an adult, I have found that some of my wife's well-intentioned efforts to "improve" me have inadvertently only served to deepen the void, and I am sure some of my efforts to "improve" her have had similar unintended consequences, especially when expressed with anger rather than empathy. I know both of our children have suffered from some of their parents' efforts to "improve" them. My son has confirmed that the two times that I exploded in anger toward him - rather than opening to empathy for his underlying suffering that gave rise to the behaviors to which I was reacting - both had a significant negative impact on him, and at least one of my daughter's lingering emotional wounds was inflicted by an angry expression of parental disapproval intended to "improve" her.

Which leads me to wonder whether acceptance always trumps intervention when interacting with family members. We naturally want our spouses and children to be the best they can be, and part of the role of a parent is to teach our children how to thrive. That said, I believe that "expressed emotions" (as defined above) are always harmful to both the senders and receivers of the expressions. I suppose that there are ways to encourage "improvement" that do not involve criticism, hostility or emotional over-involvement - the improv comedy practice of using "yes, and ..." rather than "yes, but ..." come to mind - but and in interpersonal interactions, I find it challenging to seek or promote improvement in another person without at least implying that someone is not good enough. Amid my increasing uncertainty, I am more and more inclined to err in the direction of acceptance rather than intervention.

In my journey toward greater acceptance, I have encountered a number of other sources of inspiration that are well aligned with the wisdom expressed in the Invisibilia episode. Before closing, I want to share a few of these here.

Radical-Acceptance-150Tara Brach teaches that one of the ways that we perpetuate the trance of unworthiness is by focusing on the belief that something is wrong, something is missing, and the way to break out of this trance is to embrace a radical acceptance of ourselves and others.

Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”

...

Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.

The_invitationOriah Mountain Dreamer also invites us to embrace acceptance in her poem (and its elaboration in a book of the same name), The Invitation:

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

And this theme of acceptance is further elaborated in her Prelude to her second book, The Dance:

What if there is no need to change, no need to try and transform yourself into someone who is more compassionate, more present, more loving or wise?

How would this effect all the places in your life where you are endlessly trying to be better?

What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature- gentle, compassionate and capable of living fully and passionately present?

How would this effect how you feel when you wake up in the morning?

What if who you essentially are right now is all that you are ever going to be?

How would this effect how you feel about your future?

What if the essence of who you are and always have been is enough?

Brene_brown_tedxhoustonThere are many other inspiring invitations to practice greater acceptance, but I'll allow myself just one more: Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness, which evoked a similar response as the Invisibilia episode (I watched the video three times in the span of a few days, each time revealing another layer of deeper emotional resonance and meaning).

The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this "I'm not good enough," -- which, we all know that feeling: "I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

...

when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.

And so, at least in this moment, the kindness and gentleness in me sees the kindness and gentleness in you. Namaste.