Beloved Zen poet and environmentalist, Gary Snyder, was asked recently for a distillation of his life’s work. He said “don’t work to save the Earth because of guilt. Save it because you love it.”
What if we brought this same attitude of changing because of love rather than guilt to our reflections at New Year's time? Western culture is still in the echoes of a long held belief that we need to motivate ourselves and others using the stick instead of the carrot. Modern research has clearly shown that positive reinforcement and self-compassion are much more effective in engendering sustained change. Yet it takes time for the many generations of motivating children into behaving by slapping rulers to wrists or admonishments from adults of “you’re a bad boy/girl!” for this harshness to be eased out of our reflexive unconscious.
We may not even be conscious of the sometimes subtle ways in which this inherited history affects our attitudes with ourselves. It can be found in the double standards we have for ourselves, way more forgiving with friends' mistakes than our own, in our perfectionistic striving, in our people-pleasing, in feeling guilty when we’re not accomplishing something, and in putting off the self-care another part of us knows would be healthy. It can even be seen in the phrasing of New Year’s resolutions as “lose 10 pounds!” in a harsh tone of voice in our heads rather than a loving and gentle, “work towards being more fit so you can enjoy more energy or being able to hike that favourite trail with ease” in an accepting tone. Or even better, this latter resolution along with its paradoxical cousin, “work to accept and appreciate my body as it is today, no changes needed.”
Acceptance and Change
Eastern thought is a lover of paradox. Things being both/and rather than either/or. At this time of year, one of the biggest paradoxes is how to work with both acceptance and change at the same time. What I mean by this is how to work on 100% accepting and loving ourselves as we are right now while also desiring to work on changing parts of our behaviour so they align to a greater extent with our deepest held values, at the same time.
It’s possible. And in fact, starting from self-compassion gives us much more sustained energy for change. We can work at our intentions for this New Year from a place of love and understanding rather than guilt. This practice of being more gentle and accepting with ourselves is more powerful a spirit force than our attempts at being perfect, driven by ego, could ever be.
"I’ve known many people who have spent years exercising daily, getting massages, doing yoga, faithfully following one food or vitamin regimen after another, pursuing spiritual teachers and different styles of meditation, all in the name of taking care of themselves. Then something bad happens to them and all those years don’t seem to have added up to the inner strength and kindness for themselves that they need to relate with what’s happening. And they don’t add up to being able to help other people or the environment.
When taking care of ourselves is all about me, it never gets at the unshakable tenderness and confidence that we’ll need when everything falls apart. When we start to develop unconditional acceptance of ourselves, then we’re really taking care of ourselves in a way that pays off. We feel more at home with our own bodies and minds and more at home in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people."
- Pema Chodron
Dedication and Ease
In the eightfold path that the Buddha taught one of the of paths is wise effort. This means that we embody the paradox of dedication, alertness, and discipline to our practice and to each moment, while also relaxing, finding ease, trusting the unfolding, and a receptivity to the moment as it is. The beautiful thing about this teaching is that it applies in our meditation to our awareness of each breath – is our attention lax and hazy or tight and trying too hard to follow the breath? Am I trying to control the breath, tight in my attention to it, or somewhat asleep in how I’m watching it, kinda there and kinda not – and it applies in a more macro sense with our larger efforts in life. We might observe a tendency in our meditation and bring curiosity whether it might play out in others areas of life. In some areas of life we might numb and disengage and in others try too hard there, and in this seeing we have the choice to find the middle path in our effort. Noticing where tendencies we observe in our meditation practice play out in life is a really fun part of developing insight. If we bring curiosity and playfulness along with our inquiry rather than self-judgment and sternness, we observe our minds as similar to all minds and love our way to growth.
A habit towards one extreme of tight efforting or lax passivity on the other extreme may be a way we learned to cope with reality as a child, a defense mechanism. We need to be gentle with our approach to deconstructing these habits. Our defense mechanisms were created to get through difficulties in childhood, and while they may no longer serve us, they once played an important role in our survival. We can nod to them in thanks, and let them go - patiently and slowly.
"Rather than going after these walls and barriers with a sledgehammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them, and smell them and get to know them well. Without calling what we see right or wrong, we simply look as objectively as we can. We can observe ourselves with humor, not getting overly serious, moralistic or uptight about the investigation. Year after year, we train in remaining open and receptive to whatever arises. Slowly, very slowly, the cracks in the walls seem to widen and, as if by magic, our open heart is able to flow freely towards ourselves.” - Pema Chodron
Mindless heart and heartless mind
Another area where it can be very fruitful to work is to see whether we have a tendency to favour mind or heart in the way we approach reality. Many models of Eastern philosophy suggest that it is in calling on both that we arrive at wisdom.
Mindless heart is seen as the tendency to hold much compassion generously but lose discernment or clear seeing. To get lost in loving, and lose the capacity to act with wisdom. Its opposite, heartless mind is valuing discernment but losing the nuance and softness that heart qualities can bring. Either tendency can be harmful to ourselves and those around us.
Daniel Siegel has done some great work in the neuroscience of mindfulness and how it can help integration in the brain between right and left hemispheres. The right hemisphere of the brain tends to be associated with creativity, lateral thinking, and emotionality and the left hemisphere with logic, linear thinking, and problem-solving. Most people have either a right hemisphere dominance or a left hemisphere dominance. People with right hemisphere dominance can feel flooded by their emotions while people with left hemisphere dominance can be cut-off from them their emotions and resulting vitality. Mindfulness training can bring greater integration between the left and right hemispheres, as well as integration to the upper and lower parts of the nervous system, enhancing emotion regulation.
I recommend reading Daniel Siegel’s excellent book: Mindsight if this is an area that resonates with you to find balance and wholeness. Or consider attending my upcoming 6-week workshop starting Jan. 25th in Duncan – we’ll be exploring these practices in depth.
Have you ever noticed that if you’re mostly pragmatic you seek partners in friendship and romance that are artistic and creative, and if you are artistic you might seek out pragmatic relationships? Carl Jung’s theory of anima and animus is that we are born whole but through our upbringing taught to suppress certain parts of ourselves to receive the approval and love from our parents. He said that we then as adults seek out these cut-off parts of ourselves externally in others. These people can inspire us, but true healing comes in cultivating our wholeness internally. If we find ourselves seeking the other hemisphere outside of ourselves, so to speak, perhaps this is pointing to a deep inner desire to bring more integration and wholeness to our lives.
A Word About Balance
We don’t finally get to balance and stay there. It’s an ever-moving target and more a direction than a destination. Often we swing too far one way over-correcting for a tendency, and then come back the other and so on and so forth until we find a middle place for us - and that’s a normal part of the process. It is a fluid dance with life rather than a still point we finally achieve and don’t dare sway from. At different points of our lives, different values will inform the way to where would be most fruitful to invest energy into balance, and we can accept that the middle point is changing all the time.
So when you are reflecting on your year and inviting intentions for the next one – can you find a way to be kind? For an area of life to be more self-accepting? As Jack Kornfield says, “our meditation practice is not to perfect ourselves, but to perfect our love.” Acceptance and change, two sides of the same coin. Loving ourselves so much it inspires change.