Posts Tagged ‘david richo’

Food for the Joybody: cultivating self-compassion

January 20, 2015

Last week my teacher at the Iyengar Institute mentioned a concept new to me: the eight limbs of yoga. Buddhist practice has so many numbered constructs – the four thises, the five thats – it’s hard to keep track of all of them. When he named the eight limbs that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras, I recognized many of them by name. I’d just never heard them organized this way. Apparently there is a particular hierarchical order, similar to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.

The eight limbs of yoga begins with the lower branches, the yamas and the niyamas, which guide moral behavior. The five yamas refer to conduct toward others and counsel doing no harm through stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or taking what is not freely given. The five niyamas refer to self-discipline and advocate for cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study, and surrender to God – or, for people who are allergic to the concept of God, celebration of the spiritual. Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy, therefore there’s no dogma, no insistence on faith or belief. That’s why Buddhism has no commandments but rather guidelines for ethical behavior.

(A word about tapas. Tapas is an important concept – the word is translated variously as austerity, discipline, and “zeal for yoga.” I like this explanation: “Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.” In tantric practice, tapas is associated with “sitting in the fire” and expanding your tolerance for impatience, frustration, imperfection, and all the other obstacles that inevitably occur on the path to serenity.)

After the yamas and the niyamas, higher on the tree of yoga you find asana and pranayama, which are the practices we associate with yoga classes – postures and breathing practices. Positioned above them are three limbs related to meditation: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (focus), and dhyana (state of meditation). Finally, at the top of the tree is Samadhi, bliss, union with the divine. 8-limbs-of-yogathe-eight-limbs-of-yoga---yog-sundari-ulkup29dMy teacher brought up the eight limbs of yoga to introduce the theme of grounding oneself in the basics. Before you get to bliss, you have to learn to focus. In order to learn to focus, you have to practice the asanas and the breathing. In order to ground the physical practice, it helps to be grounded in ethical behavior and self-discipline. That’s easier said than done. For the contemporary urban person, it’s pretty easy to find a class or a structure within which to study yoga postures, breathwork, and various forms of meditation. But where do you get instruction, guidance, and support for ethical behavior and self-discipline? Throughout much of time and throughout much of the world, organized religion provides those services – that’s the strong appeal of membership in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, to have consistent access to a community and to teachers who have spiritual authority. Organized religion can offer comfort by providing answers to the timeless questions of what to do, how to behave, what to believe. The shadow side of organized religion is the potential for rigidity, fundamentalism, and intolerance of difference or questioning. Most people in my world live outside the culture of organized religion, even those who are deeply committed to spiritual practice.

I know from personal experience and from my therapy practice how valuable and yet how elusive the Buddhist concepts of svadyaya and santosha can be – self-study and contentment. Cultivating a spiritual practice requires a considerable amount of initiative, self-awareness, and willingness to take an honest and compassionate look at yourself. I like the phrase that comes from the recovery movement’s 12 Steps: “taking a searching moral inventory.” The dilemma that comes up when conducting such an inventory is that inevitably you bump into all your imperfections, your failings, your mistakes. It’s all too easy to get stuck there, identified only with your deficits, and to live with a constant barrage of harsh self-judgments and the feeling of never being _______ enough. Good enough, thin enough, successful enough…fill in the blank. Arriving at a place of contentment and self-acceptance is the central spiritual challenge for most people: finding a way to hold one’s full humanity – all of who you are, your ups and downs, your triumphs and challenges, your joys and your sorrows, your assets and your imperfections – with kindness and compassion. Everyone struggles with this. It’s not easy for anyone.

I remember reading that when the Dalai Lama first started teaching in the United States, he was astonished and sad to learn how many Americans he encountered on the spiritual path live with a crippling self-hatred. Among the most beautiful Buddhist teachings is the notion that compassion begins with oneself: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” The kicker is that if you live with a huge amount of self-judgment, being unable to summon self-acceptance or self-compassion can be one more thing to be down on yourself about.

Three things have helped me grow compassion for myself. Daily meditation practice has been an important foundation in my life for 25 years now, but something major shifted the first time I did a 10-day vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in western Massachusetts. Sitting in silence hour after hour, day after day, I was forced to pay attention to the harsh critical judge in my head constantly blasting his criticisms through a loudspeaker, loudly announcing everything that was wrong with me and everyone around me. It was so painful that I had to realize that this voice came only from inside me (though traces of it sounded very familiar from my hyper-critical father) and it motivated me to learn the skills it takes to turn down the volume on that cruel broadcast and to replace the messages with more soul-nourishing words. Mindfulness retreats generally include instruction in metta, where one practices prayers of lovingkindness and compassion for yourself and others: “May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. May I be happy.” Self-compassion can be learned. It takes practice.

Years of therapy also helped me come to terms with myself, my resources, my limitations, my family heritage, my cultural imprints, my hopes, and my fears. In my training to become a therapist, nothing was more effective and revelatory than the hard long work I did on myself in individual and group therapy, along with clinical supervision from my teachers and colleagues.

I’m also a reader, so in addition to meditation and psychotherapy my svadyaya, my self-study, has always included books by spiritual teachers and seekers and thinkers. Many books have had a profound impact on me, but five of them resonate so strongly that I share them with therapy clients all the time. They have practically become the textbooks that accompany the careful, compassionate inner work that I do with people.

Taming Your Gremlin by Richard Carson came to me from the realm of life coaching. Carson introduces the extremely useful concept of the gremlin, that voice inside you that knows you so well and knows how to speak to you so persuasively and protectively and is absolutely expert at spoiling your fun. It’s a short, breezy, light-hearted but smart book that offers guidance on identifying and dealing with gremlins, mostly by not engaging or arguing with them but by taking some breaths and doing something different.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach directly addresses the struggle to win free of the harsh internal voices insisting that you’re not good enough. I met Brach when she co-facilitated that life-changing vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield (another important teacher of mine), and I appreciate how much she draws from her own personal experience in humorous, honest, and self-forgiving ways. Often when I need to summon the voice of self-compassion, it’s her soothing voice that I hear (largely thanks to the CD, Embracing Difficult Emotions, that came with Radical Acceptance).

The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs is the best psychology book I know of that speaks directly to gay men. Downs charts three stages of gay men’s emotional development: working through toxic shame around being gay; working through toxic shame around imperfection; and arriving at authenticity. The key concept that made sense to me is how Downs describes the second stage as revolving around seeking validation from others, which is something we all do. The ultimate goal of authenticity arrives when the validation comes from within. But that can be a long journey. And when you’re seeking external validation, Downs points out, if you’re not being actively validated, it can feel like you’re being actively invalidated – which is simultaneously enraging and, you know, not nice, so it has to be hidden: thus, the Velvet Rage. How to identify these phenomena as they occur in your life and to manage them compassionately is the gist and the gift of his book.

A therapy client turned me on to David Richo’s How To Be an Adult. At first I was put off by the title of this slim volume because it sounded so Mickey Mouse, so simplistic to the point of being insulting. But it lives up to its subtitle: “A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual Integration.” Richo addresses core issues such as fear, anger, guilt, and intimacy with remarkable succinctness and tremendous wisdom. He organizes his brief chapters often around lists and charts. The one that distinguishes anger from drama is so simple and clear yet surprisingly true that you have to laugh.

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown grew out of her social research on the subject of vulnerability (the subject of her famous TED talk). Her writing contains all the warmth and humor and self-revealing genuineness of her speaking voice. And she’s especially good at addressing the issue of shame, describing what it is, and sharing a pathway to acquiring what she calls “shame resilience,” a way to greet harsh self-judgments sensibly and effectively.

I don’t consider any of these books to be sacred texts to swear by or that require you to read and believe every word of. Nor are they the only books that deeply resonate with me; I could just as easily talk about Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, or Pema Chodron’s teaching tape Getting Unstuck. To me the value of these books and these teachings is that they offer a vocabulary for identifying and understanding the emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenges that we all face as human beings, and they provide a valuable, non-dogmatic road map for the journey to self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Svadyaya and santosha.

For some people, reading books provides fantastic spiritual nourishment all by itself. For others, it helps to share books with other people, individually or in groups. As I mentioned, key concepts from these various books have provided fuel for many fruitful sessions with me and my therapy clients. If any of these topics resonate with you or sound like something you would like support to address and understand, please know that I am available as a resource to you.

Quote of the day: ZEN

August 1, 2011


There is a Zen saying: “This being the case, how shall I proceed?” This adult question implies an acceptance of reality as it is or of a partner as she is – that is, mindfully. Alternatives would be “This being the case, how should you proceed” or “I can complain,” or “I expect you to change it” or “I will retaliate.” It is a turning point toward commitment when one partner accepts the other as she is – for example, as a procrastinator – and instead of complaining, looks into himself and asks, “How shall I proceed? Do I wait for her to change, or do I find a way to take care of myself and attend to my concerns using my own resources?” This is not a way of distancing ourselves from her but of taking responsibility for our behavior and predicament. It grants us power because it puts us in touch with our inner authority.

— David Richo

Quote of the day: GIVING AND RECEIVING

July 19, 2011


How exactly do we give and receive? The first way is a simple/difficult technique: Ask for what you want and listen to your partner. Asking for what you want combines the most crucial elements of intimacy. It gives the other the gift of knowing you, your needs, and your vulnerability. It also means receiving the other’s free response. Both are risky, and therefore both make you more mature. You learn to let go of your insistence on a yes, to be vulnerable to a no, and to accept a no without feeling the need to punish.

To listen intimately to a partner asking for what he wants is to pick up on the feeling and need beneath the request. It is to appreciate where the request came from. It is to feel compassion for any pain that may lurk in the request. It is to give the other credit for risking rejection or misunderstanding. We hear with our ears; we listen with our intuition and our heart. Giving and receiving entail the ability to accommodate the full spectrum of a partner’s fears and foibles and to distinguish between needs we can and cannot expect to see fulfilled.

A second way intimate adults give and receive is through mutually chosen sex and playfulness: You make love when both of you want it, not when one of you push the other into it. You can be intimate without having to be sexual. You know how to have fun together. You play without hurting each other, without engaging in sarcasm or ridicule, without laughing at each other’s shortcomings.

Finally, we give and receive by granting equality, freedom from hierarchy, to our partner and ourselves. Only the healthy ego, and not another person, is meant to preside over your life. In true intimacy, partners have an equal voice in decision making. One partner does not insist on dominating the other.

— David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

Quote of the day: CONFLICT

May 19, 2011


The style of addressing, processing, and resolving conflicts may be different for men than for women, so that even couples who have committed to all three may not really agree on what they have committed to. For men addressing may mean stating the problem now, getting straight to the point, getting directly to the bottom line. Similarly, processing may mean solving it now, and resolving it may mean forgetting it and going on. When quick resolution is the main priority, we may discount others’ feelings.

For women, on the other hand, addressing may mean talking and talking until we know what we are talking about. This involves going around and around the issue, not as a means of avoidance but as a way of giving it our attention. Processing for women means feeling into both this and past issues. It also means having feelings heard and appreciated. As for resolution, it may easily follow from a sense of being heard and cared about, from being mirrored with love. Thus, problem solving may be the lowest priority for women, mirrored feelings the highest.

— David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships

Quote of the day: GUILT

March 12, 2011


Guilt is not a feeling but a belief or judgment. Appropriate guilt is a judgment that is self-confronting and leads to resolution. Neurotic guilt is a judgment that is self-defeating and leads to unproductive pain. Appropriate guilt is resolved in reconciliation and restitution. Neurotic guilt seeks to be resolved by punishment. In appropriate guilt there is accountability. In neurotic guilt there is blame. In short, appropriate guilt is an adult response; neurotic guilt is the response of a scared child within us….

In every experience of neurotic guilt, there is something we are refusing to acknowledge.

1) A Disguise for Fear: Guilt that holds us back from acting can be a disguise for the fear of assertiveness. Guilt that follows a strong choice can be a fear of loss of love or of approval. We may fear the consequences of not being liked or of our losing control when we have strayed too far from an inhibition. The prior guilt can paralyze us and we then remain stuck or passive. The consequent guilt makes us ashamed and frightened of reprisals or of being known (or of knowing ourselves) in a new way.

2. A Downplay of Responsibility: Guilt after acting or after the omission of an act can be a way of minimizing the power of the choice we have made. We are less responsible if we judge ourselves guilty because then our whole self was not committed. Paradoxically, guilt thus lets us off the hook and creates a false sense of righteousness.

3. A Mask for Anger: Guilt can mean justifiable anger that we believe it is unsafe or wrong to feel or to express.

4. A Dodge of Truth: Guilt is sometimes used to avoid an unacceptable truth.

It is impossible to eliminate neurotic guilt entirely. Allow this guilt to be in your mind but no longer let it lead you to act or not to act. Make choices with guilt, not because of it. Simply notice what your guilt may be covering up. Is it a mask for fear, refusal to take responsibility, anger, denial of a truth, etc.? Then each time you experience neurotic guilt you acknowledge it as a signal of some avoidance. The guilt then dissipates enough so that you can address the authentic excitement and feeling underlying it. The guilt becomes what it always was: a concept not a precept, a belief not a verdict, a thought not a reality.

Fear is blocked excitement; anger is ignited excitement; guilt is mistaken excitement.

— David Richo

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