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The Aliveness of Feeling All Our Feelings

By Fiona Robertson.   

Many years ago, and in the throes of relationship turmoil, I went to see my wise friend and mentor. Having sobbed and complained about the behaviour of my soon-to-be-ex partner, I then went into a long diatribe about how I knew I was supposed to accept what was happening and that my inability to do so was evidence of my obvious and inherent flaws. Having recently encountered New Age teachings, I had unquestioningly swallowed the idea of unconditional acceptance and surrender. I believed – for a mercifully brief period, as it turned out – that all my suffering could be affirmed out of existence.

My friend listened, patiently. And then picked up a sharpened pencil from his desk.

“What would happen if I poked you in the eye with this?” he asked.

Flinching, I replied. “Well, it would really hurt.”

“Exactly” he said, and smiled.

It took me a few moments to realise what he was getting at. I was hurting, not because there was something inherently wrong with me, but because what was happening was hurtful. The behaviour I had presumed I should accept wasn’t acceptable. My feelings were there to guide me, rather than being inconvenient reactions that I should repress, censor or overcome.

The belief that we should not be feeling what we are feeling is a major source of distress. This belief may come from a variety of sources. We may have grown up being told certain feelings were unacceptable (in some families, for example, anger is always suppressed or grief goes unacknowledged).  We may have been taught by our culture, religion or spirituality that particular feelings are signs of deficiency, weakness or badness. Wider society sanctions or punishes feelings according to race, gender and sexuality. So when we find ourselves in the grip of rage, grief, envy, anger, fear, or any other emotion which has been unduly designated as ‘negative’, we think there is something wrong with us. We assume we need to fix, solve or get rid of the feeling. In addition to feeling the feeling itself, we also have to contend with shame or self-blame for having it in the first place. Our confidence is eroded; we doubt and criticize ourselves.

At the heart of this dynamic lies the internalised ideal self-image, the fictional uber-self which remains forever out of reach and unattainable. The ideal self-image varies for each of us, of course. Created in childhood and refined as we progress through life, we measure our actual selves against it and find ourselves wanting. Perhaps our ideal self-image is of a serene, calm person who can cope with any eventuality. We find ourselves raging and hostile and judge ourselves accordingly. Or our ideal self-image is adventurous, fearless and risk-taking, and we find ourselves trembling with uncontrollable anxiety and caught in a cycle of self-hatred as a result. Regardless of what we believe we should be and feel, we are stuck with the moment-by-moment reality of what we are actually feeling and being. We can find ourselves caught up in frantic efforts to try to make our real selves conform to the ideal self-image. Such activity is, ultimately, a violence to ourselves and often to others; we often attempt to keep our ideal self-image intact by making others wrong, lashing out in the process.

If we are willing to investigate more deeply, we can begin to unpick the strands of this Gordian knot, and allow ourselves to feel more honestly and deeply rather than suppressing or denying what is here. First, we notice the presence of a should or should not, must or supposed to. I shouldn’t feel like this. I’m supposed to accept this. I should not be jealous. And then we question it. What tells us we shouldn’t feel like this? How do we know we are supposed to accept this? In inquiry, we are not asking these questions from an intellectual perspective. Rather, the answers come from a deeper place; from memory, from the unconscious caches of data we have stored in both mind and body. It may be we discover we vowed never to feel anger because we had a raging parent who traumatised us. Or we were bullied in school for daring to show tears in the playground. The possibilities are endless; we each discover how such inhibitions, vows, rules and so on work within us.

In my sessions with clients (and in my own looking), there is often a moment when a previously denied, forbidden or taboo feeling is finally felt. In the safety of the space, the feeling can be itself at last. And even if it is excruciatingly painful, there is a relief in being able to be with the reality of what is here. The feeling can express, tell and show, its message being acknowledged after many years. We may be astonished to discover the wisdom that lies within all of our feelings. We become more honest with ourselves. We come closer to the realness of ourselves as we no longer cling quite so tightly to the ideal self-image. We find ourselves more willing to feel what is here, and less willing to buy into teachings and rules that tell us how to be or what to feel.

All our feelings – whatever their nature, and whatever our ideas or beliefs about them – are natural responses or reactions to experience. They naturally arise, not because we are wrong or at fault, but because that is what our systems are designed to do. They are an essential part of the experience of being human. Being judgemental about them – either our own or others – misses the point entirely. When we develop the capacity to feel whatever we are feeling – and we have a safe space either on our own or with others to do so – we no longer need to act out in destructive or harmful ways. By becoming fully conscious of what we are feeling we are able to be present to ourselves without the self-shaming or self-criticism that leads us into denial. We begin to feel the full spectrum of our feelings, and connect with our innate aliveness, freed from the rigidity of trying to fit into the shoulds and oughts of the ideal self-image we no longer ascribe to. Instead of trying to be Teflon-coated super-selves, we become fully and vulnerably human, embracing all aspects of our being. Life touches us – and we touch life – ever more deeply.

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The Reality of Embodiment: Coming Fully into Form

By Fiona Robertson.

During the nineteenth century, phantasmagoria – or theatrical horror shows – became a popular attraction throughout Britain, Europe and the United States. The creators used lighting, projectors, smoke, sound effects and electric shocks to conjure all manner of apparitions and frighten audiences. Sequences of terrifying images played on screens and theatres were often decorated accordingly. There were even rumours of patrons being drugged.

As I was inquiring last week, the word phantasmagoria appeared. I realised – to a greater extent than I had done previously – the exact nature of the phantasmagoria going on in my mind. I’m sure it’s the same for many of us. We play and replay scenes from the past. Imaginings of future catastrophe or suffering take hold. These images can be vivid to the point of occupying most or all of our awareness, in spite of what we are doing in physical reality. They seem all the more real when accompanied with thoughts and feelings, of course.

The capacity to fantasize and imagine is a wonderful aspect of the human psyche, in my view. The mind’s creativity brings us such wonders, including art, drama, music and literature. And yet this same capacity appears to torment us too, at times. Is it possible to turn off the projector and smoke machines, to leave the apparitions behind and simply exit the theatre?

My hunch is that the phantasmagoria takes hold partly because we have not been able – thus far – to face what is actually here. When we have been traumatized – particularly as children – it is natural to dissociate, retreating from the painful reality of the body into the supposed haven of the mind. At least, here in the mind, we can imagine what could or should be. We can imagine what we want and haven’t got. We can fantasize about what might have been or what might yet be. In our imagining, we retain a sense of control in circumstances in which we are otherwise powerless.

Even though the phantasmagoria is frightening, it often feels less painful or terrifying than actually facing the truth of our experience. Facing the truth means letting go of the possibility of something other, even if that possibility exists only in fantasy. Facing the truth means coming into the feelings and sensations we have tried so hard to not feel. Facing the truth means admitting to ourselves exactly how bad it was.

Coming out of dissociation and denial in this way is not easy, yet it feels like a relief. It is certainly a relief to the body, which has inevitably been holding the truth of our experience even as we have been unconscious to it. It is natural that the mind – with good intentions to protect us from the reality of painful truths – is sometimes reluctant for us to face whatever is here. It whispers or shouts warnings. It attempts to distract us. And yet, at some point, despite the warnings and distractions, we become willing to clamber onto the stage and look at the mechanisms that lie behind the phantasmagoria. We become aware that we are sitting in the theatre, projectors whirring, smoke machine billowing.

The more we look, we more we come to realise what lies behind the horror show. As we feel unfelt feelings, the projectors begin to power down, at least a little. As we admit how it was  for us, we are able to make contact with our bodies in a deeper way. As I continued my inquiry last week, having acknowledged just how low my self-esteem had been throughout my life, I began to see how mesmerized by the phantasmagoria we tend to be. Once fully and deeply acknowledged, the reality of our past no longer needs to hold sway in the same way. We are left in now – this body, this moment, this chair, these sounds.

What happens when we start inhabiting actual, physical space rather than the phantasmagoria? It seems our focus shifts into the reality of the body and we begin making direct contact with the world around us in a subtly different way. There’s a deliciousness to embodiment which goes overlooked when we are hooked by the phantasmagoria. For me, subtle levels of dissociation have continued to lift and I’ve been able to enjoy the pleasures of the senses more deeply. There is a joy to coming more fully into form – both our own form as well as the solidity of form around us. We are no longer held hostage by the theatrical spectacle going on in our heads, yet neither are we dismissive of it.  As we become ever more incarnated, the separation between mind and body lessens and we inevitably feel more inclusively whole. Our relationship with ourselves, our bodies and the physical stuff of life begins to transform. It seems there is no end to this journey of embodiment.

 

On the Perils of Certainty and the Wisdom of Doubt

By Fiona Robertson.  Lately, I’ve been reading about certainty addiction (or bias). Our brains are apparently wired to perceive uncertainty as a potential threat to our survival, so we go looking for certainty wherever we can find it. We prefer certainties – however painful or uncomfortable – to the unknown and uncertain. We will ignore facts, reasoning and arguments – however compelling – that seem to threaten our sense of certainty. We see certainty addiction playing out in many areas of life, including politics and religion. It is also evident within spirituality.

Certainty feels good. In fact, certainty evokes the same kind of feel-good feeling as sex, gambling and other addictions. It also tends to reduce anxiety; the more certain we are, the more our sense of threat diminishes. No wonder we are attracted to certainty. A lack of physical certainty– food, shelter, warmth – can indeed be a threat to our survival. However, we often act as if our belief structures are equally necessary to our survival. An attack on our beliefs – even hearing an opposing viewpoint – can feel viscerally and powerfully threatening. We invest our ideas and beliefs with certainty, and proceed to defend them come what may.

When we go into defensive mode, we act as if we are defending the beliefs themselves, as if it is the content of the belief or viewpoint that is so important to us. In reality, however strongly we think we feel about a topic, we are also driven by our addiction to certainty. The more certain we are, the stronger and more determined our defensiveness will be. We will do whatever we can to hold onto our certainty, desperately trying to not feel all that comes with uncertainty.

Our addiction to certainty, while it gives us a sense of self and a feeling of security, also confines us. Having a sense of the known – even if the known is unpleasant or painful – is often less frightening than entertaining the unknown, yet it keeps us bound and unable to see wider potential or possibility. One of the many things I love about inquiry is the ability it gives us to question everything, to cast the light of doubt on anything we take to be certain truth. When we inquire, we come face to face with our certainties. I most definitely am unlovable. Yes, I’m better than him. Yes, my opinions are right. We discover just how tightly we are holding on to all our beliefs and opinions about ourselves and the world because we can’t conceive of what or who we might be without them.

Asking the inquiry questions opens up the possibility that things – including ourselves – may not be as we’ve believed them to be. Whatever our answers, the questioning itself can pierce the armour of certainty, or at least open up a slight chink. Sometimes, entertaining the possibility that we may not be X or Y is feels challenging, subversive or scary. At other times, it is liberating or exciting. It is also humbling to loosen the reins of certainty and allow other possibilities and perspectives to come into view. Either way, questioning our certainties connects us with the emotional pain that inevitably resides beneath. Once certainty is no longer obscuring it, the pain can finally emerge. As we continue to feel what has been previously unfelt, we develop the capacity to simultaneously hold certainty and uncertainty, surety and doubt. We ascribe less to an either/or model of the world and see the potential for both/and. We find a place of much deeper wisdom beneath the brittle veneer of certainty, a wisdom that only emerges when we are willing to doubt.

Inquiry does not leave us without opinions or viewpoints. It does not render us incapable of discussing issues or taking a stand on what we feel is important. It does, however, release us from the burden of having to defend our viewpoints in service to our own sense of certainty. We no longer need to be certain, because we are less addicted to certainty and the promise of security it seems to offer. As our need for certainty recedes, our relationships inevitably change. We become less defensive, less attached to our particular certainties.

Whenever we meet certainty – particularly absolute certainty – we see certainty addiction at work. Inquiring into our own certainties injects a healthy dose of doubt into our constructs and concepts. What if? What if this isn’t the case? Is this what I think it is? Am I what I tell myself I am? Again, we don’t need to come to a conclusion. There is not necessarily a definitive answer to these questions. It is the act of asking them in the first place that is most important. Can we stand not knowing? Can we rest in a place of doubt, resisting the temptation to land in a place of certainty?

In our increasingly polarised world, many people seem deeply entrenched in their certainties and unwilling or unable to question them. It seems incumbent on those of us who are willing to do the deep work of questioning to bring the wisdom of doubt to bear on all our beliefs and certainties. Perhaps together we can open up possibilities previously hidden by our collective addiction to certainty. Humbling and painful though it can be to question our sacred cows, how much better it is than to be trapped in our addiction to certainty.

http://www.beyondourbeliefs.org/perils-certainty-wisdom-doubt/

Inquiry and the Ego: Listening to All Our Voices

By Fiona Robertson.

There’s a lot of talk in spiritual circles about the ego, the problems it causes, and how to deal with it. Ego is seen as the cause of our suffering, the root of conflict and pain. But what is the ego, exactly? And does it really deserve such pejorative labelling?

In Latin, ego simply means ‘I’. Over time, the word has accrued many and multi-layered meanings. In my experience, the ego isn’t a single, uniform entity, but a collection of voices or self-identities, each with their associated drives and feelings. We could say that the ego is the stories we tell about ourselves, the selves that we believe we are, whatever their flavour. We might believe, for example, that we are someone who is not good enough, or wrong, or better than others, and we act in the world as if that was the case. We could also say that the ego is the inner, critical voice (often called the superego), the part of us that judges, cajoles, exhorts, criticizes. There’s inevitably an interplay – usually conflict – between these two parts or voices. The self believes itself deficient, and the superego judges and demands and strategizes and plans in an attempt to somehow fix or deal with the perceived deficiency.  We’re all familiar with the inner dialogue that ensues when these two voices or parts are engaged in a struggle with each other:

Deficient self: I know I won’t get this job. I’ve always been terrible at interviews because I get so nervous. 

Superego: Can’t you pull yourself together for once? Why, after all this therapy and meditation, are you still so anxious and lacking in self-esteem? And why are you still eating too much? 

Deficient self (feeling even more deficient): There’s clearly something really wrong with me. I’ve never been good enough, and all of this just goes to prove it. 

Superego: Right, well, I’ve got a plan. Let’s start dieting tomorrow, and book onto that ‘Big Up Yourself’ course that you saw online the other day. Then perhaps you’ll be able to be the person you should be. 

We all know the drill. These kinds of inner conversations can go on interminably. And when we discover spiritual teachings, a third voice is often added, one that denounces both of the other voices, and that believes it should get rid of or ignore or somehow disallow whatever it perceives as the ego. It’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves completely entangled in all of this, often feeling bewildered and at the mercy of these seemingly unstoppable and argumentative voices. It can feel as if they are fixed, unchangeable givens that we somehow have to manoeuvre around, overcome, or vanquish. When we find ourselves unable to do so, we heap yet more judgement or shame upon ourselves.

When we inquire, we can begin to pick apart the threads of conflict, and give space and time to each of these ‘ego’ voices. Not only do we meet the pain of the deficient self, but we also hear the anguish of the superego and its valiant efforts to keep it all together, to make sure that we get through life as best we can. The superego, after all, often does what the deficient self feels it could never do, as these extracts from my journal reflect:

The deficient self says: That Fiona (superego Fiona) has been clever, and interacted with people, looked after me, talked when I didn’t know how, kept me in line, kept me motivated, kept me from the pain before I could really face it. She couldn’t do all that without despising my weakness, hating my pain, and loathing my failures. 

The judge in me speaks: I’ve been trying to protect you. I’ve been so afraid for you. I’ve been so angry with you for being so stupid sometimes. I love you, but I’m resentful of you…resentful of your sweetness and prettiness, resentful of your gentleness and kindness, resentful of your dreaminess and your imagination. Nothing would get done if I left it to you. Everywhere would be untidy, and a mess, and dirty. I’ve just been so exhausted, having to look after you. Sometimes I hated you, I just wanted you to leave me alone and to stop having needs and wants, and to stop needing me. 

Here’s the thing: both of these voices are essentially part of the self structure that developed in childhood in response to whatever circumstances we were in. Both, ultimately, came into being to protect us on the deepest level. It may not feel like it when your superego is berating you yet again, but it is there for the best of intentions. It took its cue from the people around it, believing that if it could somehow be more like them and less like itself, it’d be okay. We introjected the behaviour and beliefs of the adults in our lives, creating a mesh of inner demands, commands, and expectations against which we measured ourselves. Years ago, while doing some inner work at a retreat, I discovered that my superego solidified definitively when I was around eleven years old, and its primary concern was to make sure that it avoided making my mother angry or displeased (something that happened frequently, to my detriment). When seen in this light, how can we possibly continue to label the ego in all the ways that we do?

As we inquire, and the stories of deficiency unravel, we meet the pain that lies at their core. As we do so, the inner voices of deficiency and judgement begin to quiet. This happens not because we make an effort to control or dispel them, but because once the pain is truly felt, the voices are no longer necessary. Their job was to ensure we didn’t feel the pain, because when we were young children it was impossible for us to do so. The job of the ego was always to ensure that we were kept safe, to ensure that the pain stayed under lock and key. Yes, this suppression is ultimately deeply unhealthy, but we don’t need to blame the jailer just because the prison system itself is flawed. Rather, as we open the prison gates, the jailer – along with all the inmates – is also freed.

Gradually, we find our inner voices – the parts we often refer to as ‘the ego’ – become more benign and unified. In my psyche, the previously harsh voice of judgement seems to have been replaced by a wry commentator. One morning recently, as I was switching on the kettle for the first cup of tea of the day, I found myself caught up in anxious thoughts. The commentator merely said, Starting early this morning, are we? The kind humour made me smile, and the anxious thoughts – left uncriticized and therefore not needing to defend themselves – simply ebbed away. The ego itself, like everything else, is made up of words, images and sensations and feelings. As it unravels, it becomes naturally healthier, neither needing to proclaim our deficiency nor criticize ourselves or others. We discover that it is not the enemy, but simply self-fragments that, once tended to, effortlessly transform.

Are You Feeding A Story of Deficiency or Nourishing Yourself?

By Fiona Robertson.

I realised during a recent self-inquiry that I had been feeding my deficiency story – literally.

As I sat down to inquire, I saw the words there is a choice. In that moment, the choice was palpable. It can sometimes seem – particularly when we’re in the grip of fear, compulsion, or intense feelings – that there isn’t a choice. When choice becomes an option, however, we get to see in intricate detail exactly how we make our choices. I saw the moments in which I choose deficiency habits; I reach for the chocolate, or watch yet another episode, or leave the washing up until the next morning.

None of those things are – in themselves – a problem. I don’t have anything against chocolate, television or mess per se. The point is that as we continue to inquire, our ability to discern the difference between compulsiveness and non-compulsiveness, deficient or non-deficient behaviour, gradually increases. The piece of chocolate brownie shared with my sister over a cup of tea and warm conversation the other day? No shred of compulsion or deficiency. The two pieces of chocolate I had after dinner every night the week before? Definitely compulsive and linked to a sense of inner lack. Don’t be fooled by amounts or degree. Yes, the magnitude of the compulsion may be large or small – three family-size bars of chocolate versus two squares of 75% Ecuadorian – but the underlying movement of compulsion is the same. When a deficiency story is running, we make deficient choices.

More words came: There is a choice in each moment. Heaven or hell. It’s in my/your hands. I saw that – when choice is available to us – we can access true self-discipline. This isn’t the punitive, masochistic discipline of should, ought, or must, the inner critic task-master, but the kind discipline of a self that transcends and yet embraces all the stories we tell about ourselves, a self that knows what we truly need or desire because it knows that we are completely whole exactly as we are.

Suddenly, the original intent of commandments and precepts became apparent; they give us a supportive framework to keep us in integrity whenever we are tempted to indulge the deficient self in ways that may harm ourselves or others. Just at that moment, my deficient self (keen to emphasise its deficiency, in case I’d forgotten) said Yes, but I made the wrong choices. Despite its protestations, it became very clear that all that matters is now, where the choice is being made. What are we choosing in this moment?

The deficient self is often lax and indulgent. It wants to treat itself because life is so _____ and it deserves more ______ (fill in the blanks). It has a tendency to talk or think endlessly about its past suffering or inevitable future calamities. It is good at indulging, justifying and punishing itself, often in equal measure. And our cultures cater to or even reward such behaviour. Expensive cosmetics ‘because we’re worth it’. Constant temptations – based on blatant appeals to our deficient selves – to have or get or be more or better.

As I inquired, it became clear that it is time for me to stop feeding or indulging the deficient self, and that this requires a modicum of self-discipline because the deficient self is, in part, a habit. A well-worn groove of choices made over and over again from a simple lack of awareness, a misunderstanding about who I really am. As I stayed with my experience of the deficient self in that moment – a feeling of immense hurt throughout my body – it became very clear that this feeling didn’t want cake, chocolate, television dramas, or any other kind of indulgence. It wanted goodness and a major change in perspective. It wanted to no longer be defined as a self. A sense of self-discipline or ‘moral fibre’ arose, a sense of being able to discern where goodness really lies in any given moment. I saw a cartoon-like image of a cage in a zoo, complete with the caption Do Not Feed the Deficient Self.

Since this session, I’ve noticed significant changes. The uneaten chocolate is sitting here on the shelf and the ‘I’ve been working hard so I need a reward’ snacking has ceased. I’ve had unexpected surges of physical energy and I’ve been moving and holding myself very differently – more upright, less apologetically, more solidly.

Inevitably, each time we unravel a sense of deficiency, we grow up a little more. We have fewer excuses to not be who we really are. We no longer feel as if we’re on the margins, defined by our suffering. We act in integrity much more of the time, and yield to the temptations and indulgences of the deficient self far less often. Our long-suffering bodies no longer have to bear the burdens of deficient choices and behaviours. We learn what it is to truly nourish ourselves. We come out of the cage of deficiency and fully into being, into life.