Many come to counseling with a desire to change something about their lives. This is a great starting place, yet that same desire can lead to disappointment when we discover we keep coming back to the same problems. This is frustrating. It contradicts the perception that we will one day arrive at our perfect selves. We aren’t comfortable in our own skin.
I hear questions like, “Will I ever be free of these old issues?” The truth is - No. But we can grow free of resistance. Resistance is not an agent of change. Resistance feels like, “I have to wake up, but I don’t want to.” You still have to wake up. Not liking that fact just makes it harder. By befriending our fantastically imperfect selves, we find the freedom to be who we are.
It is a common belief that negative motivation driven by an internal disapproval of one’s self is good for growth. In other words, “I don’t like this about myself,” matches a determination to change, fix and transform the self.
Working hard is a worthy endeavor. I don’t disagree. But what if that road started with a sense of compassion? Compassion often meets resistance in the counseling room; the mind confuses kindness with complacency. This misunderstanding sends us back into our heads for problem solving efforts that may result in flashes of the perfect self. This is when I hear, “I think I’m better. I had a good week, so maybe it’s finished!” Such moments are worthy of noting, but they’re a little like holding sand in your hand. The temporary magic from a fist full of “I got it!” meets the heartbreak of an empty palm when we think we can stop time to hold a feeling forever. But if we focus on the hand and not the sand – a dynamic feature of the whole, ever changing between full and empty - we enter into a world of playful observation. We can smile at our follies and approach change with humor. It’s a lot more fun, and it’s a lot more effective.
If you want to change the way your brain works, you start by accepting what is already happening. Reduce the hostility of your own non-acceptance, and create a welcoming change environment on a biological level. Social science researchers Ronald Simons and Eric Klopack, discuss the importance of environment on our biology in their editorial about gene expression and neuroplasticity. (Article available in March 2015 Journal of Youth and Adolescence.) By gene expression, they mean to show how the behavior of genes is largely based on the environment we grew up in and/or live in now. Neuroplasticity is the latest buzz word in what’s being called the third wave of psychology. It means your mind is actually malleable. Positive environment + malleable brain = change by non-resistance.
We know this from numerous studies now showing how mindfulness meditation and cultivating compassion can re-wire the brain and change neural pathways. Simple moments of paying attention to your present experience or smiling at a stranger can be powerful agents of change in reducing anxiety and depression. But it’s a daily practice much like brushing your teeth. We don’t do it because we think we’ll get to some finish line. We do it because it feels good. So How do I brush the teeth of my mind and keep my heart clean? I offer the words of Pema Chodron when I say - Stay.
Pema Chodron says, “When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. But loving-kindness – toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri (compassion) means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
By befriending who we are, we become who we always wanted to be. When we are determined to change, we sometimes forget that it takes more determination to stay. Stay with what comes up, be that physical or mental pain. Stay and allow yourself to softly rise and fall again. And then again. Stay and befriend the self with vigilant and objective observation. Ask yourself, “What is happening right now? Can I be with it?”
In this year of the Goat we wish you all the tenacity to climb steep, rocky, mountains and the determination to pause along the way. You might just notice that you’ve already arrived.Counselling