(Some tools to get beyond the struggle)
An English poet John Milton said the mind can create for us our own personal heaven or hell. I know from personal and professional experience that we can use the mind as a terrible weapon against ourselves, or find in it a loyal ally. Because we do not control the mind, most of us allow it to control us with it tending to swing back and forth, if not exactly heaven or hell, a lot of time is spent in purgatory. We have in our life story, experiences of the mind being the ally and the sabotager.
OK! Ok! you say impatiently, I got it, now give me the tools to change, and tell me whatever I need to know to get off this mental merry go round. First of all and you may not want to hear this, it is important to get patient with yourself, with your progress or lack of it. Often we are harsh and denigrating with ourselves, and struggle in an attempt to force the mindless chatter to cease. Needless to say, when you are experiencing inner turbulence, it seems impossible to get still, breathe and relax. Quite often your inner self is agitated, fearful, struggling and if approached about your behaviors, you more than likely become defensive, as well as resistant.
When you stop and turn your attention inward, it becomes clear that the mind is chattering ceaselessly. In Buddhist meditation, such is called “monkey mind”, in that it is comparable to a noisy monkey swinging from limb to limb, or in our case, from thought to thought, never taking a break.
Most of the time we have so much chatter going on, we’ve not even aware it’s happening. Sometimes when I’m outdoors walking in beautiful natural surroundings it occurs to me I’ve been off in the past or planning for the future, instead of staying in the present and allowing the beauty of nature to relax me. I may find myself frowning of having tense muscles until I catch myself and witness that I’m not really present. I can break the cycle of mind chatter with some deep breaths, which helps to become present. Aah! then I’m open and can hear the birds sing. Shortly thereafter I’m gone again and have to repeat the process. So here I am, I write, I teach that which I need to practice and do more of in my life.
First things first. What is it like to be aware? Some of us are more externally focused and the some of us, internally focused with most of us somewhere in between. Even when you are unaware of your endless chatter, there are times when the automatic tendency is broken, and you are really present and able to know what helps you become more aware, as we all have such times and exceptions. Maybe it’s just before going to sleep, or upon first awakening when you see a sunset, change the baby’s diaper, wash dishes etc. There are instances when something you do fully engage you in the here and now. What ever helps you become more aware, do more of it, more often. Without judging, notice if your awareness is more available at certain events, but not others. Be gentle with yourself and direct awareness to encompass a broader spectrum of your thoughts, sensations, fantasies etc.
I have a client Milly(not her real name) who has a great deal of physical pain in her body. She has had several surgeries, back, knee, shoulder, you name it, some surgeries helped, some did not. She took lots of pain medication from different doctors who did not take the time to review the whole picture. Some of these medications had serious side effects and were not compatible with others. She ended up in the hospital with seizure-like activity from contraindications and put under supervision was taken off everything, in order to ascertain the cause. She went through such an ordeal, she decided to try and manage her pain another way. She engaged in counseling, relaxation techniques, hypnosis and eventually meditation.
When Milly first came to me, there was no point in asking her to breathe and relax. Asking Milly to relax was as fruitful as asking me to do brain surgery. She didn’t have a clue how to do so. She was racked with pain so managing it became our first priority. Since she was too agitated to relax, she agreed to walk outdoors, do some yoga stretches that did not aggravate her body, and to do this before her sessions with me. The physical movement calmed her a little, she became trusting enough to allow me to use clinical hypnosis for pain and in time to teach her self-hypnosis. With hypnotherapy, she learned how to manage her pain fairly well and realized she was able to have some controls back.
The next step was to help her pay more attention to how she was thinking. As she became more aware, it became evident to her that she spent an enormous amount of time, thinking negatively. The negative thinking, in turn, leads to a roller coaster ride of emotions that felt bad.
Her thoughts often ran as follows; it’s never going to get any better, or there’s no light at the end of my tunnel, etc. She also heard voices that harshly judged her. Angry vindictive, sabotaging voices that blamed her for living her life “wrong” and ending up a “cripple.” She believed that she was being punished for having pushed her body, excessively as she did, when she played tennis. The voices in her head sounded suspiciously like those of her parents, particularly her father who was a harsh, critical person, and especially intimidating when she was growing up.
Needless to say, Milly was unable to relax at any level, until she paid attention to the huge amount of time she was using her mind as the enemy. She had endured so much she was gradually ready to tackle her thoughts, inner voices, and visions. She had a couple of weeks of intense struggle, catching herself and intentionally stopping the process. At my suggestion, she put a STOP sign in her mind as a symbol of changing the flow of thoughts. She also said “STOP”, out loud sometimes with a laser-sharp intensity. Milly also journaled on a regular basis between sessions, putting on paper her vision of how she wanted to change and relaxation to look like.
Journaling is a wonderfully powerful tool especially at times of change. It allows us to take floating ideas, thoughts and feelings out of the vapors, and the act of putting it on paper starts giving them concrete form. It’s more powerful to journal by hand, instead of a computer, as the hand is connected to the unconscious. This exercise, in and of itself starts clearing out the endless ruminations and opening up some spaces inside, whereby you are more able to breathe. When one gradually gets to and is able to recognize this state of mind, one is readier to create what one chooses to put in there.
Some of you may say, and rightly so, that you are not as bad off as Milly. True, but how are you thinking? Are you conscious in the moment and focusing, or does it go something like this—I’ll be glad when I go on vacation, but how am I ever going to pay for it when my cards are maxed out. I hope this vacation turns out better than the last one we went on, when we had that big fight; he has not said to this day that he was sorry for being so rude to my friend, on and on ad nausea. You are preoccupied with the future, which triggers you back to the past, again and again. So what have you by the scruff of the neck? It becomes apparent you are not controlling your thoughts and feelings, but that you are being controlled by them, as you flow back and forth between past and future.
What’s Your Story?
We all have an inner story, whether you are aware of it or not, and it’s quite a powerful influence on your life. The story is generally formed around a cluster of core beliefs, passed down to us when we were very young by members of our tribe, i.e. family. We like sponges absorb everything, without question, as if it all were gospel. We can’t question when this happens as we truly are helpless, and have not reached the age of reason. The beliefs influence us significantly, whether we are aware of them or not. If we were lucky, what was passed down was not too damaging, but, for most of us, some of these beliefs have cost us dearly. One’s tendency to identify with the inner story, which is usually unconscious, actually limits how one lives ones life in the present.
Sometimes the story may go as follows. No matter what I do, it’s never enough. So one pushes oneself more and more, while at the same time believing, it won’t matter, it won’t be enough. This story or life script is a familiar one to me as a psychotherapist. It is usually instilled in the child’s unconscious by exacting, critical parents or teachers. Other familiar story lines go as follows; everyone I love leaves me; it’s my fault, if I had been a good girl, they would not have quarreled, being violent, or divorced. If the patterns that the core beliefs cause are too deep and are persistently interfering in your life, it’s important that you consider psychotherapy to root them out. In such situations, I use several techniques in addition to talk therapy to hasten the healing. I use hypnotherapy, guided imagery, breathwork, Psych K, as well as accessing the inner child for healing purposes. All of these methods access the unconscious where the clients story got started.
When Milly was born her father wanted a boy and by report had little to do with her until she was old enough to participate in sports. She was a good athlete, agile, talented, fast and played many sports during her school years. Her father coached her team in many of her chosen sports. As long as she did well she had her father’s attention. When she wasn’t up to par her father demeaned and criticized her performance, even to the point of telling her she played like a “wimpy girl.” She never felt valued as a female and tried her best in every venture to show her father she was not inadequate. It wasn’t ever good enough for him however.
In college she turned to tennis and was quite successful. Tennis was not one of her father’s favorite sports so her championships, honors etc did not impress him. She played harder, faster, even through injuries until her body gave way as result of been pushed too hard for too long. After each surgery her father seemed to take perverse pleasure in telling how right he’d been about tennis, in that she chose the “wrong” sport. It is evident to Milly now that the ground work for all of her injuries was laid in her overreaching her limits in all the sports she ever played. She did it to try and engage her self centered father, to try and make up to him for not being a boy. Relaxing and being reflective was not allowed in her family as it was equated with laziness. “no child of mine is going to be lazy”. Since Milly had no inner permission to take care of herself, she had to stay active and busy until she got “crippled.”
Freeing up from your story.
When you are living your life, as if the story is true, time and time again you create situations, that replicate the original belief system. For instance in Milly’s case over the years, she found herself in a struggle with many male figures to whom she gave authority. She over extended herself to please them, and generally was left feeling it’s not enough which at a deeper level felt as “I’m not enough.” This feeling of “not enoughness” created problems in romantic and intimate relationships as well. So much focus had gone into acting “boyish” for her father she did not value her femininity and felt lacking there as well.
The story that has us by the scruff of the neck is like living in a deep pervasive fog. It’s a real struggle to see where the arrows of our life are pointing. We go the way we are pointed, to what seems to be the way, a way that was given us by others. If your story isn’t working for you it’s time to examine it for what it really is, not what you would like it to be. We have to accept that we can’t change them, we can’t change the past, but what we choose to do right now will change our lives as we go forward, for better or for worse.
Levels of destressing
So many layers of our existence get in the way of knowing and appreciating our wonderful uniqueness, we have to start somewhere. In Milly’s case, we had to take her inner knotted ball of yarn and unravel many levels of pain, distrust, and fear before she could accept herself enough, to be quiet, to breathe and relax.
First: We tackled the obvious, the physical pain, giving her tools to manage it better without medication.
Second: We addressed the extent of her negative thoughts and feelings as well as the underlying anxiety.
Third: She journaled and came to a deeper level of understanding of why she experienced her injuries as a punishment.
Fourth: We examined her story line, her life script and why she had it.
Fifth: After unearthing her life script she had to deal with an enormous degree of anger towards her parents, especially her father, as well as the ignorance on both their parts.
Sixth: She started to get glimpses of how she wanted to create a new set of beliefs and a new life for herself—visualizations.
Seventh: Inner child work was done to heal the past and give her new permissions. She realized she did not have to be sick or crippled in order to take care of herself. (Remember in that
family, relaxing equaled laziness).
Eighth: She practiced breathing, felt more spacious inside, was able to truly relax for the first time. At this stage she was more able to love and value herself.
Ninth: She moved from relaxation into a meditation practice and felt new and whole as if for the first time.
Milly continues to transform and sees me on an as needed basis. She still has some physical pain to deal with, but by her report it is less overwhelming as she uses her new tools. She has less suffering emotionally as her responses to outside stressors are much less reactive. She’s in a new relationship and is taking it slow, using new information about her world to be her guide. She said she is cautiously hopeful about its outcome. She works at seeing him with new eyes, not eyes fogged by earlier relationships with men.
Some of you may wonder why I digress with Milly’s situation. Many of you may read about her and say, “that’s not me”. True, however if you have trouble getting still, breathing deeply and becoming relaxed, you may have a few levels of stuckness to work through before you can surrender into relaxation. It may not be Milly’s experience, but use her steps of healing, to get to know yourself at a deeper level. Realize that your story is just that, a story, that’s getting in the way, its not who you really are. It may take some tools, time, and much effort, but you can get healed and start altering your course. You can develop the capacity to disengage from your story while continuing to become more engaged in your own life, making your mind your ally. May you enjoy the process.