Flexibility and Stability of the Whole Self
This month’s newsletter brings together some of the previous newsletters’ explorations into resilience and equanimity, offering a model of the Whole Self that integrates much of the wisdom of those explorations.. May you find the reflections and resources here useful in cultivating your own experiences of authenticity and wholeness.
FLEXIBILITY AND STABILITY OF THE WHOLE SELF
“And who are you?” asked the caterpillar.
“I knew who I was this morning,” stammered Alice, “but I must have changed several times since then!”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I use an imaginary model of the Whole Self to help clients, even myself, track which particular aspect of self they might be viewing life from at any given moment. Even as that experience of self changes from moment to moment. My imaginary model of the Whole Self has five layers of self resting inside each other, each layer tenderly holding the smaller, earlier layers inside it with full awareness and full acceptance. Like the five carved wooden dolls nesting inside each other that my Polish grandmother gave me decades ago, still sheltering each other today on my bookshelf.[I hereby acknowledge there are so many other elegant and valuable models of Self besides the one offered here; some are referenced below in Books and Websites.]
The inner most self is the inner child, the little one who is still vulnerable to wounds of fear, loneliness, despair. We all know the intense misery we sometimes tap into when we’re triggered into feeling again the pain we felt in the third grade, hoping someone on the playground would please, please, please ask us to join them in a game. Or when we’re triggered into a panic, as I was in this month’s Stories to Learn From, when my brother’s heart attack dropped me right into the fear and worry I experienced when our mother’s heart attack kept her in the hospital for a week.
The “me” of the wounded inner child needs to be tenderly held by our mature adult self, the self we have all worked so hard to become as we mature from the lessons of life. The adult self has been around the block a few times; it has learned as best it can how the world works; it has learned as best it can how to feel, deal, and relate well. The adult self navigates the many identities and roles of our “I”, as I was doing, coping and planning in this month’s Stories To Learn From. The adult self picks up after the teenagers at home, speaks up at the school board, worries about termites in the basement and the bombings in Iraq, and welcomes the older brother home from rehab.
The matur(ing) adult self needs to be wisely and compassionately held and guided by our Wiser Self. Our Wiser Self is our own authentic embodiment of being fully alive, aware, wise, loving, centered, courageous, whole. My Wiser Self is the one who remembered “How big does your heart have to be to hold this?” in this month’s Stories to Learn From.
When we access our Wiser Self, we feel gelled and stable inside, resonantly connected with people around us. We can consciously and compassionately reflect on all the inner reactivity of the inner child and competently assess the various coping strategies of the adult. From this awakened self, what some people call our True Self, we intuitively know the right path to follow in any circumstance.
Our Wiser Self is the personal expression of universal True Nature, the essential wholesome qualities of Being itself: compassion, generosity, integrity, joy. Experiencing our True Nature is an experience of an easy, luminous spaciousness, as I experienced on the beach the afternoon of this month’s Stories to Learn From. Our True Nature is also named, in some traditions, the experience on non-self.
The outermost layer in this model is simply the energy or life force of Being itself. Called in various traditions: consciousness, pure awareness, the unconditioned, emptiness, spirit, the divine, the Tao. This outer layer is the ground of Being all the other layers of “me, I, True Self and non-self’ emerge from.
Moment by moment, with non-judgmental awareness and practice, we can discern which of these layers we are inhabiting in any given moment. Are we caught in the inner child, too shy and timid to voice our own needs and opinions, even though our adult may be quite competent in whatever endeavor is at hand and, indeed, knows full well we are competent?
Are we inhabiting the wisdom and wholeness of our Wiser Self that knows when our adult is obsessing and over-analyzing and needs to take a break and breathe its way into a larger perspective again? That knows our inner child just went through a shame attack and needs tender reassurance of its self-worth?
Have we taken a few precious moments today to center ourselves in awareness of our True Nature that is our birthright as creatures of Creation, even if it’s three minutes in bed in the morning before we get up, or three minutes in bed at night before we go to sleep?
Have we found an even rarer moment to “lose our self” in the is-ness and such-ness of life, right here, right now?
Over months and years, we can develop our capacities to move among these layers of self fluidly, with increasing acceptance and awareness.
Psychotherapy helps us move from the innermost layer of “me” –the wounded inner child that experiences itself as flawed or unlovable, the victim that bad things happen to, to the “I” of the maturing adult who can act skillfully on its own behalf and for the welfare of others in healthy resilient ways.
Mentoring/coaching helps us move from the maturing “I” of our adult self to the fully realized Wiser Self, reliably accessible and steady.
Mindfulness practice helps us move from any layer of self through a letting go of the limitations of any layer of self into the freedom and openness of anchoring our awareness in universal True Nature as our true “home”.
Wisdom and compassion practices help us drop through all movement into the still, formless, no-thing-ness of pure Being that is the Source and re-source of the transformation of all the other layers.
Dan Siegel suggests, in The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, five traits of a fully functioning brain that can support the integration and resiliency necessary to experience an authentic wholeness of self. He uses the acronym FACES to help us remember the five traits: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized , Stable. May the exercises below, and in previous newsletter, help you develop the FACES traits in your own being, your own Whole Self.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.
– Mark Twain
* * * * * * *
I am larger and better than I thought.
I did not think I held so much goodness.
– Walt Whitman
* * * * * * *
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
– Thomas Merton
* * * * * * *
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson
(quoted in Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech)
* * * * * * *
A life of truth walks the edge
between ease and effort.
There’s nothing you must do
to win approval, no list of
saintly acts to tick off one by one,
no required deprivations.
Say yes to life and you are blessed
With countless opportunities to choose
wholeness over fragmentation.
You need but knock for doors to open wide.
Ask and you are filled with a presence
so vast that all the words
in your personal lexicon
amount to nothing in its silence.
Stop seeking long enough
To receive the spirit
that’s within you now.
Just be your truest self,
and the voice you’ve longed to hear
will speak through you.
Release your grip on limitation
and possibilities roll out like endless ocean waves.
All you have to do is kick off your shoes
and run barefoot in the sand.
– Danna Faulds
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
I was lying on the beach during a heat wave last summer, luxuriating in the soft sleepiness of the day, no worries, no frets, just relaxing into a peaceful “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world” kind of feeling.
Two hours later, stuck in gridlocked traffic, anxious about getting home in time to fix dinner for friends, I had to let go of the effortless serenity of that “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be” and click into the high-gear planning mode that my adult self knows how to do so well: who to call? who else could pick up the salmon roast? who has keys to let the others in? Swiftly calculating and strategizing to navigate this blip on the radar screen in the time I had to do it.
Bigger blip when I arrived home: the dishwasher I had run to get ready for the dinner had exploded itself all over the kitchen in my absence. A good half inch of sudsy water covered the linoleum where we needed to be cooking 30 minutes ago already.
Friends pitched in. Friends “no problem!”ed the situation. Friends were coping resiliently. So I checked phone messages. One from my sister-in-law while I was out: my brother Barry in Detroit had been rushed to the ER….I didn’t even wait for the end of the message. Barry had had a heart attack four months before, and I was panicking right now. I called his cell phone which Mary answered at the hospital. Barry was alive; he was stable; he would probably be kept overnight and released in the morning. What could have been his second heart attack was “just” angina severe enough to warrant calling the ambulance. The doctors were glad he had come in so quickly this time; it looked like he was going to be fine. Mary and I talked a few more minutes, whether I should fly out that night or not; we agreed I could come the next day.
After I hung up the phone, I just lost it. Our mother had had a heart attack when I was eleven and my brother was eight. Memories of the panic and worry from the week she had been hospitalized flooded right in. A friend from the dinner noticed my collapsing onto the couch, shaking and crying. She came over, put her hands on my shoulders. Without even knowing what I was so upset about, she reminded me of what I had often said to her: “How big does your heart have to be to hold this?”
I heard my own words coming to me from her. “How big does my heart have to be to hold this?” I could almost feel my awareness physically expanding back out from its implosion, like a balloon expanding with breath blown into it. “Oh, right. This is now; that was then. This now is fine. That then turned out fine.” (My mother lived another 35 years, well into her senior years and my own mature adulthood.) “ Barry is OK. I’m OK. Everything is OK.”
I remembered the peaceful OK-ness I had felt at the beach just 3 ½ hours earlier. Amazed to realize I had shifted which self I was coming from so many times in one day, even in the same small part of the day. I went out into my garden and breathed a prayer of relief and gratitude. Gratitude for my brother; gratitude for the awareness that could hold the fluidity of self responding to life events, grateful for conscious compassionate steadiness of the Whole Self.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
I learned the essence of this exercise to cultivate awareness of True Nature, in ourselves and in others, from Jack Kornfield, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It uses the qualities of Buddhism’s four Heavenly Abodes – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – to evoke a felt sense of our True Nature. This exercise takes about 10-15 minutes. It is done in silence with a partner. Indeed, we often access a sense of our True Nature by someone else acknowledging our True Nature first. This exercise allows two people to be True Others to each other’s universal True Selves.
Decide with your partner who will be A and who will be B. In the first round, A’s will be the receivers and B’s will be the senders. In the second round, you switch roles; B’s are the receivers; A’s are the senders. Noble silence is maintained throughout.
1. Loving kindness
A’s begin by closing your eyes, focusing your awareness inward, bringing to awareness qualities of your own True Nature: kindness, patience, wisdom, generosity, trustworthiness. Focus on your True Nature as the true ground of your True Self. From this sense of True Nature, send yourself wishes of loving kindness: May I be happy; may I be healthy; may I be safe from inner and outer harm, may I be free of suffering and all causes of suffering.
B’s, while your partner A is focusing inwardly, let yourself imagine the qualities of their True Nature, their kindness, their patience, their wisdom, generosity, trustworthiness. Silently begin to send them well-wishes of loving kindness for their well-being: May you be happy; may you be healthy, may you be safe from inner and outer harm, may you be free of suffering and all causes of suffering
A’s, open your eyes and let yourself receive the wishes of loving kindness coming to you (in silence) from your partner B. Read the signals of their facial expression, sense the energetic connection, feel the energy of loving kindness in your own body.
A’s, close your eyes again, focus your awareness inward, bring to your awareness any moments of suffering or struggle you have experienced in your life. Open your heart to the pain and anguish we experience as part of the human condition. Send yourself feelings and thoughts of compassion; may my suffering ease, may I have ease of mind and heart.
B’s, while your partner A is focusing inward, imagine the suffering or struggles they may have experienced in this life. Open your heart to the pain and anguish we share as part of the human condition Begin to send them thoughts-feelings of compassion: May your suffering ease, may you find ease of mind and heart.
A’s, open your eyes and let yourself receive the wishes of compassion coming to you (in silence) from your partner B. Read the signals of their facial expression, sense the energetic connection, feel the energy of compassion in your own body.
3. Sympathetic Joy
A’s, close your eyes again, focus your awareness inward, bring to your awareness any good things that may have blessed your life: loving relationships, meaningful work, moments of joy and delight, any accomplishment and triumphs that may have brought you a sense of pride and joy. From your True Nature, send yourself wishes of continuing joy: may my true happiness continue; may my true happiness increase.
B’s, while your partner A is focusing inward, imagine any good things that may have blessed their life: loving relationships, meaningful work, moments of joy and delight, any accomplishment and triumphs that may have brought them a sense of pride and joy. Begin to send them wishes of sympathetic joy: may your true happiness continue; may your true happiness increase.
A’s, open your eyes and let yourself receive the wishes of sympathetic joy coming to you (in silence) from your partner B. Read the signals of their facial expression, sense the energetic connection, feel the energy of joy in your own body.
A’s, close your eyes again, focus your awareness inward, bring to your awareness the rich complexity of your life, the responsibilities and obligations you carry from day to day. Send yourself wishes for equanimity in the phrase of Sylvia Boorstein: “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.”
B’s, while your partner A is focusing inward, imagine the rich complexity of your partner’s life, the many demands and obligation and burdens they carry in their life every moment of every day. Begin to send them wish for equanimity in the phrase of Sylvia Boorstein: “May you meet this moment fully; may you meet it as a friend.”
A’s, open your eyes and let yourself receive the wishes for equanimity coming to you (in silence) from your partner B. Read the signals of their facial expression, sense the energetic connection, feel the energy of equanimity in your own body.
Accepting All Aspects of Our Selves
I learned Emotion Freedom Technique (EFT) to generate full acceptance of one’s multiple selves from John Freedom. I have modified the technique here, eliminating the tapping on acupressure points (which can be learned at www.emofree.com), substituting the simple butterfly hug of gently tapping on one’s shoulders, alternating right and left shoulders.
The idea of EFT is to pair a negative message or belief from the inner child or even from the adult with the embracing stance of the Wiser Self: “I deeply and completely love and accept myself.”
Even though I feel lost and confused right now, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
Even though my finances are a mess and I’m in real trouble, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
Even though I feel like it’s all my fault that [whoever] left, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.
If the awareness and acceptance of the Wiser Self seems unrealistic, too much of a stretch, head yourself in the right direction with a modified phrase like “I’m willing to consider trying to deeply and completely love and accept myself.
Write down one negative phrase you want to work with; write down “I deeply and completely love and accept myself” right after it so they are paired. When you are ready, begin tapping gently on your shoulders, alternating right and left. Begin saying your paired phrases out loud, slowly. See if you can begin to feel any sense of ease in your body as you repeat the phrases (at least 15 times). Let yourself accept that even though the negative phrase is true, or you deeply believe it to be true, the deep love and acceptance of your self can simultaneously be true as well. The negative phrase may change over time; it may not change for a long time. But your relationship to the negative belief can change. Acceptance and integration of this aspect of yourself can increase. You can experience more wholeness of self.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
This month’s recommendations:
Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard C. Schwartz, PhD. Guilford Press, 1995.
Richard Schwartz has pioneered a model of embracing the multiplicity of selves held in the awareness of the Self that “contains the compassion, perspective, confidence and vision required to lead both internal and external life harmoniously and sensitively.” See also www.selfleadership.org
Embracing Our Selves: The Voice Dialogue Manual, by Hal Stone, PhD and Sidra Stone, PhD. Nataraj, 1996.
Voice Dialogue is an psycho-spiritual inquiry into the voices of the many selves or sub-personalities that make up the psyche; the method of in-depth dialogue leads to inner integration and transformation. See also www.delos-inc.com
Essence by A.H. Almaas. Samuel Weiser, 1986.
Essence is one of 14 books in the Diamond Heart Approach to Inner Realization series. Essence guides the reader in ways to set aside the conditioning of the personality so that the real Self is revealed. See also www.ahalmaas.com