Enduring is a word that evokes stress simply upon hearing it, so I apologize. However, it may feel as if we’re barely hanging on to the constant roller coaster of change in our lives or anxiously waiting for something to be over! Whether that means the end of a job, a relationship, waiting for kids to change, or waiting for a global pandemic to end. Transitions in life are constant. Any kind of change that impacts our daily lives can feel like, “If I can just get through this… then life will be easier.” However, life can be more easeful in an instant when we learn to hold ourselves with love on a moment-to-moment basis.
Life transitions are constant, and often what makes them difficult is we’ve forgotten the ingredient of self-love! It is like we leave ourselves out of how to meet stress and tension due to change; when we are the only one at the center. Establishing a practice of self-love is a necessary ingredient in meeting all life’s transitions.
When the pandemic hit March 2020, I was in Patzcuaro, Mexico teaching a program and coming off a year of confusion due to a me-too scandal in my spiritual community. I remember seeing emails where my colleagues in Seattle and NorCal began to cancel upcoming Karuna programs. In Mexico, the relevance of the Corona Virus was barely surfacing. I was overwhelmed and almost incapable of finishing my program when I realized we were facing something serious.
I remember lying in my bed just placing my hands first on my heart, throat, and abdomen and actively generating love for myself to calm my nervous system enough to be able to think about the demands of the moment. Once home, the unraveling continued for me and the rest of the world. I spent countless hours holding my heart and generating love toward myself during impending change.
We can relate to that sense of panic in the air that something is changing. I was primarily worried about my business. Then I would spiral into a broader awareness of the real suffering at hand and all those who were dying. Then I’d feel awful that I was worried about myself in the face of so much loss. Thus I found myself holding my heart again for all the others suffering and radiating compassion outward.
The 2020 Pandemic was groundless for many of us, isolating for most of us, and tragic for many in ways I cannot conceive. Yet, I’ve found the practice of self-love to provide a cool balm of relief that feels calming to the body and soothing to my mind in these changing times.
The pandemic was a gross example of how transitory life is by nature. We may all remember this era as a great disrupter, a time we all had to reconsider our options, a time for pause for sure!
Learning to ride transitions with self-love propagates agility and skill and unlocks the capacity to access what life ultimately has to teach us. Those teachings always occur due to change!
This simple practice has helped me stay in my body through the enormous change upon us all.
Self Love Practice:
Bringing heat and warmth to your heart center, which is in the center of your sternum, is in and of itself a healing gesture. Empowering your hands as conduits of the heart takes practice. Some people have been gifted with Reiki practice, which is similar, but I am not a Reiki practitioner. Our heart center is a point of integration in our bodies, where we can learn to resource ourselves with our own loving and kind awareness.
As we learn to hold and resource ourselves by generating love toward ourselves just in the physical body- we later begin to develop love toward that in life, which is confusing and perplexing us in the difficult transitions.
In Karuna language, this act of generating self-love is called Maitri in Sanskrit, meaning loving-kindness. The path to discovering genuine compassion begins by making friends with ourselves. Maitri is not boastful or full of positive self-talk. Instead, it is a heart-generated acceptance and radiant kindness that we practice towards ourselves first, and naturally, this radiates to others.
The exercise may feel challenging to do - but focusing on the heart and breath at the very least will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to stabilize anxiety when we are under stress. Some people find it extremely difficult to find a heart center; they feel nothing. Others are flooded with fear and anxiety and the idea to pause and take care of oneself is foreign.
Learning to generate self-love is a practice, and like all practices, we need to find our way into the terrain and make it our own. We are not fooling ourselves or practicing mind over matter, in Contemplative Psychology, we begin with matter, the body, the heart, the breath, and learn to bring genuine, authentic kindness and love to those real parts of ourselves; daily!
Change is and will forever be upon us. I see that life with the internet creates a speed and expectancy for change. For example, newsfeeds know we are bored if we read the same headlines the next day. So click-bait headlines are churned up to entice us to click on them. This clickbait mentality is addictive and creates a positive loop. I participate in this madness daily, so there is no moral high ground here. I advocate learning to titrate the ceaseless flow of bad news with self-love.
From a Contemplative Psychology perspective, turning inward to one’s own ability to calm and restore oneself with self-love is a sane way to relate to the times we live. The alternatives are to hang on the click-bate headlines to see what is happening next and then worry senselessly about what to do about it. However, we can do much better than simply reacting to change; we can use the challenges of transitions to make us more loving and compassionate.
Contemplative Psychology understands cognition as a state or experience of knowing. Cognition includes all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is acquired, such as sensing, feeling, perceiving, recognizing, conceptualizing, and logical reasoning. How we know what we know is highly nuanced and a topic of inquiry in Karuna Training.
Knowing is something to question and examine, especially in an era of false truths, fake news, information overload, and rampant conspiracy theories. However, truth is not something I wish to take on in this newsletter, but we are concerned with the pathways we develop in which we come to sense, feel, discern, belief, and act from such knowledge.
Understanding what we know takes present-moment investigation; in Karuna Training, that translates into sitting silently in meditation. Learning to look and feel inward, psychically, and not believing everything we think is a practice of becoming familiar with our mind and its inhabitants: sensations, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and concepts.
Possessing knowledge is often misinterpreted as having ‘expertise’ in a specific topic, earning a degree, or being trained in a particular field like medicine. However, that kind of knowing is a limited way of defining knowledge and is somewhat parochial. Possessing expertise can be acquired and performed but doesn’t consistently incorporate one’s perceptive intuitive heart experience.
In Contemplative Psychology, we embrace knowledge as a marriage of intuition and intellect, a kind of melding the heart and mind together, applied to present moment circumstances. For example, suppose someone is knowledgeable about Canadian Geese and knows their seasonal migration patterns and breeding habits. In that case, that person is then asked to explain the recent change in migration patterns due to climate change. To honestly know and understand Canadian geese, the expert must practice not-knowing, an open-minded inquiry into finding out the multiple factors that contribute to the migration patterns of Canada Geese. Actual knowledge requires the space of not knowing to get at a legitimate answer.
In Karuna Training, we investigate our minds through five ways of knowing, or five different capacities of mind, an extrapolation of the Five Buddha Family Wisdom Mandala. The Buddha Family Mandala offers an ancient understanding of mental capacities that contribute to our conditioned mental habits, which is always at play when examining how we know what we know.
In other words, we can become familiar with the habituated mental capacities we use to know what we know.
It's not the same for everyone how we come to know something. We are all conditioned by our cultural, familial, and lived environments. In addition, we are highly influenced by those we surround ourselves with, not to mention lifetimes of conditioned consciousness.
The five ways of knowing include; embodiment (sense knowing), emotional (felt knowing), cognitive (discernment knowing), qualitative (contextual knowing), and active (knowing what to do). I will address these five ways of knowing briefly here, but in Karuna Training, we’re dedicated to familiarizing ourselves with all-knowing styles.
Embodiment or sense knowing stimulates our awareness of our physical body’s sensations. We can train in becoming more sensitized to our mind’s sensing habits and conditioning. For example, when we pet our dog, we know our animal through unconscious sensations. Embodied knowing invites us into our non-dual natures with the world and is something we train intensely in Karuna to awaken what is often a much-ignored way of accessing our truths.
Emotional knowledge,e requires us to meet emotional energy as it first arises in the body instead of figuring out what the emotion is and why we are feeling it. We access emotional knowing through feeling. Navigating difficult emotions takes intensity capacity to tolerate emotions we would rather suppress. Feelings like anger, jealousy, or pride are often repressed and managed internally. Another habitual approach would be to act out certain emotions, so everyone knows how we feel by our emotive demeanor. From the perspective of Contemplative Psychology, when we act out emotions, we add fuel to the fire.
Wisdom and knowledge are different things. Emotional knowing arises by feeling our feelings directly in our bodies in the present moment as they are occurring. For example, I sense when I am upset about something long before naming an emotion in my body. I often notice a tickling in the back of my neck and head; what feels like I’m growing horns, and when I sense that sensation, I know anger, irritation, and or discontent is brewing within, long before I can cognize any emotion. Emotions are dynamic by nature; they become wisdom when we learn to meet them directly. The topic of wisdom is for another newsletter, but in Contemplative Psychology, wisdom doesn’t belong to us and can be accessed through selflessness.
Discernment knowing is more conscious and uses our sense perceptions to either accept, reject or ignore our experience in the present moment. We habituate what we like and dislike through discernment. For instance, I don’t like radishes, and I do like strawberries through my taste experience. I like rock and roll and dislike live musicals through experience, but when we habituate this type of knowledge, we might be cutting off experience because we’ve made a decision. We apply our discernment knowing layered over embodiment and emotional knowing. We have all the pathways of accumulating knowledge within us, and it can seem arbitrary to separate them. Still, they are different functions of the mind, with which we can become familiar through meditation and contemplative study.
Qualitative knowledge has to do with the value and worthiness we place on the world. As humans, we naturally compare ourselves to the greater whole of our family, society, and culture. Qualitative knowing brings conditioned biases toward ideas of status and worth applied to ourselves and others. This qualitative knowing is often not conscious but a set of incorporated notions that produce patterns for how we hold ourselves in comparison to others and, eventually, how we treat others. For example, being courteous to others rises from qualitative knowledge.
We are social animals and learn qualitative knowledge through interactions and relationships with others. For example, we know our place in a company’s hierarchical structure on the first day of work without anyone explaining the hierarchy to us. We know our status or worth in the greater whole through sensations, feelings, discernment, and our qualitative conditioning. Cultural biases condition this qualitative knowledge. We learn to know our place in society by emphasizing quality and value in various circumstances. As a result, we tend to carry our qualitative knowledge into all situations in life, whether applicable or not.
Finally, active knowing, or knowing what to do, is arrived at or not based on how the other four ways of knowing have conditioned us. Knowing what to do is not easy and is often discovered through trial and error. We do and will make mistakes when it comes to active knowing. Far too often, we do not allow for making mistakes along the way and get caught in auxiliary habits of self-blame, shame, and guilt because we have some idea we should know better. Knowing what to do is culturally and societally conditioned and is often a source of feeling driven or lost; we often feel incompetent when we don’t know what to do.
Of course, these five aspects of knowing all work together. Karuna Training explores how conditioned mind modalities dominate our cognitive style. When we sit in meditation, we’re attuning to the present moment fresh, and there we can unravel mental conditioning and tune in to what we know at this moment alone. At this moment, I sense a restlessness in my body. At this moment, I feel gloomy or cheerful. At this moment, I open to my sense perceptions, discernment, and cognitions and find worthiness in simplicity. At this moment, I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. When we learn to rest in the freshness of the present moment, again and again, we are liberating our mental conditioning of how we know what we know.
Karuna is dedicated to becoming familiar with our mind’s habits through meditation. We practice inquiry with our own and others’ styles through community and interactions with others. Ultimately we learn to take refuge in not knowing, a state of mind which is open and aware that our conditioned ways of knowing cloud what we know.
We welcome you to our next cohort beginning in May 20022 to start a journey of embodied contemplative inquiry; Spots are limited... Won’t you join us in not knowing?
From the host of Awake in Relationship podcast, Silas Rose:
"The pandemic has highlighted some fundamental and often painful differences in worldview between nations, political parties, friends and family. As we enter a 5th wave polarization and fear can undermine our collective ability to respond effectively to a changing world. According to contemplative psychology we all possess intrinsic health, a basic reservoir of sanity and compassion we can rely on. By reconnecting with intrinsic health through mindfulness practices it is possible to release fear, bridge differences and foster healthy relationships.
In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with return guest Melissa Moore, director of Karuna Training and author of the Diamonds Within Us: Uncovering brilliant sanity through contemplative psychology, about the often hidden resource of intrinsic health. In this conversation we discuss how polarization creates pathology both in the culture and the mind and how to work with strong emotions using the tools of contemplative psychology. We also discuss specific ways to reconnect to intrinsic health and create a compassionate space for dialogue in these polarizing times. "
Tis the season to be… To be what? To be cheerful and grateful…or to be genuine to who and what we are truly feeling? Sometimes we’re just not feeling the holiday cheer, and for many, the darkening months of the Northern hemisphere are dauntingly depressing. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recognizable syndrome that affects people with an experience of melancholy and even depression; usually, the symptoms occur in the wintertime.
I’ve struggled with SAD myself living abroad in Germany and in Slovenia. I lived in Slovenia through three long winters, shortly after the country was liberated from Yugoslavia. I discovered other seasonal struggles because, at that time in the mid-’90s, Slovenia didn’t celebrate the holiday seasons with lights or all the usual commercial holiday trappings that I was accustomed to as an American. I found out I’m deeply attached to the Holidays cheerful tenor and specially attached to the display of holiday lights. The need for exposure to light became very real to me during those dark winter months living in Europe. (read more)
We don’t need to diagnose ourselves with SAD to notice our human tendency to feel less engaged and even contracted during the winter months when there is less light in which to play. And yet, we all possess a capacity to attune to the rhythmic nature of the seasons as an intention of synchronizing with the natural rhythms of life.
Attuning to the rhythmic nature of winter invites an exploration of constricted feelings and the dormancy aspect of our personalities. This dormant aspect of ourselves naturally arises when the light of the day grows shorter. The sun’s lightness and darkness impact our mood; it’s an observable phenomenon.
Contemplative methods, like meditation, encourage us to open to the darkness within us and the darkness outside of us with stability and curiosity.
To embrace the dark time of year is to understand how human psychology operates. We all have seasons in which we feel an alliance; for some, that’s the wintertime, when it’s more acceptable to contract, stay home, and pull our energies inward. Maybe for you, the holidays bring a special comfort, and then the post-holiday doldrums set in in early January. This rhythmic cycle is individual and a product of our mental conditioning.
In Contemplative Psychology, we’re encouraged to be observant of our seasonal rhythms and responsible for our minds. I like to refer to this practice as a process of embracing the cyclic rhythms and attuning to the invisible forces within us. The invisible forces include the underground unconscious rhythms of our bodies, speech, and minds and adjusting to life’s dark and unknown aspects.
As we learn to encounter and understand our mood swings, we begin to make friends with the darkness within us and the darkness we experience in the world.
Looking under the hood is an expression used to notate looking into one’s unconscious nature. The unconscious aspect of our minds includes conditioned biases, dreams, neurotic habits, and in general, all the unknown reasons we do the things we do. In Buddhism, these are sometimes called “primitive beliefs about reality.” Which includes any time we are projecting a conceptual overlay of reason onto our experience. For example, beliefs like, “I feel terrible every winter because I hate the cold.” That kind of belief will condition our experience of winter, naturally.
As we enter the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere, we could approach our experience more openly with curiosity.
We could consider the darkness and cold outside a chance to reflect on the unknown aspects within us.
To intentionally pursue more access to these unknown entities in ourselves and in the world. This inquiry into the unknown aspects of ourselves can take the form of reading more books, journaling, and or simply sitting in silent meditation.
To take it further, getting to know the unknown aspects of ourselves can be achieved by entering a process like Karuna Training, where we dedicate our time to looking under the hood for the hidden jewels within us.
Karuna Training is built on inquiry and walking through the Buddhist understanding of the moment-to-moment development of the ego.
Meditation practices, specifically solo meditation retreats, are genuine portals to the dark and unknown aspects within ourselves. Even if we carve out just half a day to sit with ourselves, either in a meditation room indoors, or maybe alone in nature when and where that works. It all depends on your access, capacities, and desires.
For many years I’ve been connected to a Buddhist Community that encouraged the discipline of doing annual solo retreats. As a result, I’ve been embarking on annual solitary mediation retreats for now 35 years, and though I missed a few years, I’ve been consistent. To be honest, I’ve had to face many internal demons in these solitary retreats. I know solo retreats are not for everyone. I found that holding to a schedule with lots of fluidity; allowed me to embrace the dark parts of myself more, often in the dark time of year. Now living back in the States, I relish my holiday time, as a time of retreat and a time for holiday lights and celebration.
Learning to face and embrace the darkness within us, leads to finding the light within us.
We can generate our own light by igniting a heart of loving-kindness and compassion. To find this light within us, we first have to open to the confusion and darkness within us. Often we have projected the darkness onto others to keep it separate and external from ourselves. Facing and embracing the darkness is the contemplative method of finding the light within us. In doing so, we are developing equanimity and curiosity in the face of discomfort.
I’m not advocating a method to remove seasonal depression, I’m suggesting a practice of befriending our energy as it is arising within us.
Ultimately the highs and lows we experience are important information for us to pay attention to, and there is no need to fix it. In fact, the quest to fix ourselves when we are feeling low is often a way to step over our innate wisdom. We are so busy looking for cures and avoiding our discomfort, that we miss what is already available.
However, to glean the wisdom of our emotions, we need a means to embrace the dark emotions; loneliness, fear, and depression. In Contemplative Psychology, we learn how to stay with our emotions, and how to hold the darkness we may find, as a path of inquiry. There is a step-by-step recipe to making friends with the unseen forces within us. It begins by sitting down and being quiet. Either formally in a meditation posture or outside in the woods where we are comfortable and can remain still.
First, we need to experience the mere sensations within ourselves; which may be arising as fear, depression, or energetic sensations. Then as we relax with these sensations, we can begin to attune to our breath and relax into our bodies more. As this occurs, we begin to be able to take in the qualities of the space we are inhabiting more openly. The nuanced stages of relaxing with ourselves as we are, facing, and feeling our experience as it is, instead of how we want it to be, is the path of Contemplative Psychology.
Pretty soon, before we know it, the light will return. The dark night of the soul begins to dawn, and the darkness within us lifts. The winter will give birth to spring and so forth. The light always returns, and we can learn to trust the cyclic nature of the seasons. We can discover our own light through the practice of inquiry. We do so by staying with the darkness as it is with open curiosity.
What is compassion? Strangely, a word so commonly bantered about today needs defining, but as a society, we’re seriously confused about the definition and usage of the word compassion. At least, compassion as it’s understood in Karuna Training, and Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit.
The word compassion means “to suffer together.” And in modern-day Western research, compassion is defined as a feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
The word compassion does not mean the same as empathy, sympathy, or altruism, even though the concepts are related. For example, we often hear the word compassion used to convey feeling sorry when we realize someone has less than we do. Therefore, we say we feel compassion for the other person, but that’s not compassion. That is sympathy. Sympathy has a slight hierarchy of one person has more, and the other has less. Compassion always occurs in a relationship of equals.
From a Karuna Training perspective, to feel genuine compassion requires that we feel the pain of others from the inside, meaning as inseparable from our suffering. For example, if we feel motivated to offer something to an unhoused person on the streets, we do so from the perspective of our unhoused nature. Touching the pain of being unhoused inside of ourselves takes a certain kind of bravery. Feeling our homelessness is often the feeling we are trying to manage away by offering the unhoused money in the first place. That willingness to assume the equality of suffering is what makes us genuinely compassionate.
That is why Buddhist Masters say that genuine compassion is as rare as a star in the daytime. Instead, genuine compassion arises from complete selflessness and utter bravery to feel the suffering of others, to begin with, and then aspire to alleviate that suffering using whatever methods one has at one’s disposal.
Westerns have jumped on concepts such as Christine Neff’s notion of ‘self-compassion.’ Self-compassion refers to an essential developmental process in the development of compassion, which in Sanskrit is called Maitri. Maitri means loving-kindness toward oneself and others. But, unfortunately, there is no English translation for this word Maitri, so the words ‘self-compassion replace the need and understanding for the development of Maitri. We have to befriend and develop acceptance toward our suffering before being genuinely available to feel true compassion for others.
I think words like self-compassion are what are leading to the confusion about compassion. Leave it to Westerners to turn a selfless notion like compassion, something utterly and exclusively about others’ suffering-- into something to do with oneself! And yet, there is a deep need to befriend oneself genuinely before developing the actual ability to be compassionate toward others, and traditionally that step is called Maitri.
Loving-kindness with oneself naturally leads to relaxation and less self-consciousness. Once we have befriended ourselves, then curiosity about others develops naturally. This curiosity and friendliness toward others create a ‘soft spot’ toward the suffering of others, which is the seed of compassion. Developing genuine compassion is a time-tested recipe of the Buddhadharma from the Mahayana tradition of developing selflessness.
The notion of selflessness is critical in the development of a compassionate heart. A compassionate heart is responsive to and not defended at all when one meets the suffering of others. A compassionate heart is not self-concerned whatsoever! Making friends with oneself has already occurred in the process of becoming more open, and therefore, we are available, honest, and responsive to others’ pain.
I think it’s important not to get too religious around the practice of compassion but to check out our motivation when we feel open-hearted toward today’s issues. So I ask myself what my motivation is when I think I’m feeling compassionate, to see if I truly am.
For example, during the evacuation of Afghanistan, as I listened to interviews of women who fear for their freedom under the rule of the Taliban, I felt fear. I could not watch Margret Atwood’s Handmaid's Tale on television, a fictional tale about mass take-over of the feminine, because it felt too real, and I’m afraid it could happen. So my compassion for Afghan women is fear-based, yet as I feel into that fear, I can open my heart to their fear of being controlled, which we share. In this way, I touch into empathy which is a stepping stone to genuine compassion, nevertheless, I can empathize with their fear.
There are many manifestations of compassion in action. For example, I’m seriously amazed by two Karuna teachers, who both involve themselves in stressful endeavors working with opposite-minded political stances. One of them acts as the voice of the democratic party in a radically Republican State; the other one participates in something called The Braver Angels, a group that works to find common ground with those who hold the opposite political views. Understanding the thinking of others when it is directly the opposite of our thinking takes enormous compassion, open-heartedness, and selfless motivation. And it takes a lot to feel the panic and loss of ground when we open up to another’s views that are directly opposite of our own.
Bringing acts of genuine compassion closer to home, anytime we’ve expressed aggression or hostility, and we notice it has hurt someone else. It’s an act of compassion to make amends and say we are sorry. Saying we are sorry takes feeling the effects of how we’ve impacted another person or people. Making amends takes humility and selflessness, which are the foundations of true compassion.
Compassion has been packaged into a ‘feel-good’ new age emotion, but in my experience, compassion doesn’t usually arise from feeling good. Instead, It stems from the willingness to open up, be responsive, let down our fences, and generously feel the suffering of another as if it is our own. We cry together, and that grows a human strength of heart.
In Karuna Training, we create an environment where it is accepted to explore our unpleasant emotions, question our biases, and discover our mental conditioning. Developing an open heart takes time and a lot of maitri, or loving-kindness towards ourselves, to first befriend ourselves for who and what we are, then to begin to accept others for who they are. This step-by-step formula is how one develops true compassion. Consider joining an upcoming program on Contemplative Psychology and committing to a path of open-heartedness.
Mandala means anything with a center, a periphery, and a fringe. The word can include any society, group, or association and represents any kind of practice-oriented gatherings.
Wisdom mandalas are used in many Eastern traditions as a meditation practice tool. In Karuna Training, we utilize the wisdom Mandala of the Five Buddha Families to learn to trust and understand the non-duality of the seen and unseen forces of the world. We learn to communicate, access, and integrate our wisdom through convening with the Wisdom Mandala of the Five Buddha Families.
Karuna Training offers deep study into the practical aspects of the Five Buddha Families, the body, speech, and mind of the Mandala, both confused and wisdom aspects, and the spectrum of in-between, where most of us land. We begin with opening up to the energy of the elements: space, water, earth, fire, and wind -- the makeup of the entire universe. We study the unseen energetic aspects of each Buddha Family represented by styles of emotions, styles of knowing, and how the confused and wisdom manifestations of the energies are nondual realities we all exchange with daily. We call them families because they’re so familiar.
In Karuna Training, we train ourselves to trust the intrinsic sanity of the world through studying the Wisdom Mandala of the Five Buddha Families. We learn to embody and befriend the energies, even when the energies and emotions are uncomfortable. We make friends with ourselves and become less reactive to the world with its impermanence and suffering.
The universe can be divided into five energetic areas that correspond with many related aspects. Humans have been diagramming their worlds for ions, which is another manifestation of a wheel or a mandala. We study the Mandala’s emotions; ignorance, aggression, pride, passion, and jealousy, which all innately possess basic sanity. However, we cannot access the wisdom of energy if w solid and entrenched emotions rule us. Meditation practice is a critical skill in learning to inject space into our emotions, loosen them up so that we notice them, and become curious about these seemingly foreign entities we call things like; depression, feeling down, feeling angry, feeling vacant, etc.
The Five Buddha Family mandala is utilized to train more deeply in stabilizing one’s relationship to space. What is space anyway? We seem to throw that word around a lot in Buddhist circles and beyond.
Space is the densest element and the element from which everything emerges and dissolves back. Thus space is associated with the Buddha Buddha Family element and at the center of the Mandala. Space is also associated with ignorance, how we willfully space out or choose not to think or tend to things in life. However, the wisdom aspect of space is the all-accommodation of space, which holds everything and all the other elements.
To the East is Water and the Vajra Buddha Family, represented by a Vajra, a symbol of indestructibility. This indestructible aspect is applied to both the ability to see clearly and accurately - and a solid rigidity of mind. Vajra is associated with the east, as it is the rising sun and clarity of the morning and a new day. Vajra is also associated with our most boundaries energetic aspect, anger, and how we say ‘no’ when we need to say no. Vajra energy, like frozen ice, can become the most solid of mindsets, and at the same time, water thaws and flows and follows the path of least resistance. The wisdom aspect of Vajra is mirror-like in its accuracy of reflection, as a clear highland mountain lake.
To the South is the Earth element and the Ratna Family, which means jewel and represents innate richness and issues of worthiness and poverty. The Ratna family is about resources, having, consuming, generosity, and bounty. These aspects have to do with a sense of confidence and trust in the world and having enough, being enough. The Ratna family pertains to issues of death and decay and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Everything has its place and value globally, and we can learn to rest in the wisdom of equanimity.
In the West is fire, the Padma Buddha Family, represented by a lotus, Padma’s meaning. The lotus grows in the muck and slime of the bog and arises as a pure and pristine flower, all the while representing transmuting confusion into wisdom and pointing to the transformative virtues of fire. Fire is also associated with passion, magnetizing, the energy of the heart, heartbreak, and disappointment. Fire needs fuel and tending, and this very human type of energy is associated with love, desire, and attachment. The wisdom of the Padma family is discernment or discriminating awareness, which knows what to accept and what to reject.
In the North is the wind energy of the Karma Buddha Family, meaning ‘action’ as opposed to the karma of cause and effect. Karuma is the most efficient of energies, and the busiest mindsets get caught in comparative mind, jealousy, and envy. This energy is fast-paced and unpredictable, can be destructive, like fire or in combination with fire, however on its own, it can also be all-accomplishing.
Each of the Five Buddha Families, Buddha, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, and Karma, has infinite other associations and things to discover interpersonally in a retreat-like setting. The method of discovery is to join with the energies in wearing the color and also lying in the specific posture while staying attuned to the energy for an entire day of the retreat. This way we are mixing with others in the Karuna mandala and seeing how differently the energies manifest moment to moment in ourselves and also in others.
The Birth of Maitri Space Awareness
In early 1971 Chogyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, befriended one another as two influential teachers, both occupied with landing Buddhism in the West. They discussed how many American students showing up at their respective centers displayed serious psychological challenges of one sort or another. They promised one another they would integrate contemplative practice and Buddhist psychology to bring people home to their innate basic sanity.
Unfortunately, later in 1971, Suzuki Roshi died. Chogyam Trungpa was heartbroken upon hearing the news of his death and reflected again on their shared commitment. Trungpa Rinpoche, at the time, was teaching an advanced seminar, and he noticed that when one of his students was ‘acting out’ with drunken behavior at a party, the space in the room began to shrink. “Little J.M. was dancing and singing his Tahiti (a kind of dance), and he wanted all of us to sing and dance, and nobody would cooperate with him. I felt very uncomfortable at the time because somebody might complain downstairs…then, there was a world outside and above us. I felt there would be a complaint from above and below and all quarters… I felt very claustrophobic, and at the same time, I enjoyed his company and his beauty. Suddenly I realized myself in a box. All of those complaints and paranoid ideas and everything… I suddenly remembered the bardo retreat techniques for relating with space…” (Chögyam Trungpa, unpublished talk at the Second Maitri Conference,1973).
Chogyam Trungpa drew from the extensive meditation training he’d undergone in Tibet as a Tibetan Tulku. In 1972 he founded the Maitri Psychological group with the dual purpose of first helping students explore the nuances of space and learn more about their mind; secondly, to create a community that could serve people suffering from psychological issues.
Trungpa designed five Maitri rooms to correspond to the Five Buddha Families, and he instructed specific postures for each room, to be held in the practice of Maitri space awareness. The Maitri postures were drawn from the ancient Tibetan Chod practices he’d accomplished in Tibet. Originally there were only rooms, but in the early ’90s, Maitri Space Awareness teachers figured out how to make the practice more mobile by asking a group to lay in those same postures with five colored glasses.
Chogyam Trungpa summarized that what we label as psychological problems in the West are, in fact, issues concerning our relationship to space. For example, we often consider ourselves solid and the surrounding space to be empty and open; however, we’re the porous empty phenomena from a Contemplative Psychology perspective, and space presents itself as unmovable, speaking energetically. For example, when we learn the news of somebody’s death, it begins to permeate space in such a way that we cannot deny it. That is a gross example of how space is tangible. There is nothing there, yet the space of death is non-negotiable. Leaning into the solidity of space with natural openness and permeability evokes sanity. Trungpa came up with the term “space therapy” for this contemplative method.
Karuna Training has taken the Maitri method and works in an ongoing way with the wisdom mandala of The Five Buddha Families. We integrate the energies and their understanding into our body, speech, and mind. We center our curriculum around the potency of the practice and the mandala. If you are interested in joining in a cohort of Karuna Training and practicing Maitri Space Awareness with the Mandala of the Five Buddha Families:
We are launching a hybrid Karuna Cycle combining six Online Programs with four In-Person Retreats. The first weekend is scheduled for Friday, October 29, Monday, November 1, 2021. All the in-person retreats will be held at Shambhala Mountain Center and use the Maitri Rooms, which did not burn down during last year’s fire. We are excited to be on home ground with the unique practice of Maitri Space Awareness.
Karuna Training Now Enrolling!
October 29, 2021 - 2023!
A 332-hour Certificate Program in Contemplative Psychology
See the Entire 2021 - 2023 schedule and apply here: https://karunatraining.com/basic-cycle-2021/
Creativity is part of our humanity. It strengthens our resilience, brings joy, gives meaning, and helps us find new ideas and connections. Yet even the thought of creativity can be triggering and polarizing. For some of us, it brings back childhood memories of school, family, or church when we felt embarrassed or ashamed that we couldn’t carry a tune, draw a straight line, or think out of the box, and that meant turning away from our potential. For others of us, creative spaces felt like the only places where we could be ourselves, and that restricted access to a feeling of belonging in the community. And then some of us may fall somewhere in between these two poles or have other feelings. Regardless, when we think of creativity, we’ve likely formed judgments like can and can’t, dull and brilliant, sane and crazy, uptight and eccentric, or serious and frivolous. We probably feel shut off in one way or another.
I had some access to the arts in school, and teachers encouraged me, but my family home wasn’t where I could develop my creative potential. Not surprisingly, as an adult, I’ve mostly turned away from or ignored my longings. When I think of the word creativity, I feel inspired, and I also feel thwarted and regretful. For me, the past painful and eventful pandemic year has awakened my neglected creative self. The disruption of my usual rat race allowed me to feel into what I want to do with my life and provided space for creative thinking and expression. The bittersweet feelings I have around creativity based on my own life story inspire me as an activist for all of us to reclaim our creative capacity. I know that creativity is a resource for well-being and change both personally and societally.
The mission of Karuna Training and Contemplative Psychology is to align with our open hearts and minds to awaken our inherent wisdom and potential.
We are currently offering introductory programs that provide an experiential taste of the two-year Karuna Training course that will start again next fall. The training is multifaceted, and the learning occurs in different modalities. The seminars and retreats include teachings and discussion, small and large group work, guided meditations, movement, and personal projects. The training also includes periods of creative play and expression. When I recall the many and varied Karuna situations I’ve been part of, there have been many times when students happily surprised themselves with their confidence and ease in natural expression arising in training exercises, free time during retreats, and projects. I recall the quiet space for people to feel what they feel. And I also remember laughing, crying, singing, joking, dancing, writing, journaling, collaging, photography, films, painting, collages, and clay.
In Karuna, we aspire to create a safe and supportive environment, a community where we are not afraid to be who we are and where we can dare to tell the truth and manifest our longings. The healing journey of opening up to aspects of ourselves is opening to our bright light that may have been hidden.
Central to the curriculum of Karuna Training is attuning to and deepening into the wisdom of the five elements in week-long programs at rural retreat centers. These programs train in accessing cross-cultural experiential knowledge of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The retreats include contemplative and community activities that heighten each element’s experience, and ‘aimless wandering,’ walking, and opening one’s senses to immediate perceptions. Attuning to the five elements, aimless wandering, and noticing perceptions help Kaurna trainees open to self-existing creativity.
Everyday creativity is available to all of us. It opens us to ourselves, to each other, and to change. I will be discussing this at our next Karuna Live! Creativity as a Resource for Change on Saturday, June 5th at 2 pm Pacific /3 pm Mountain /4 pm Central / 5 pm Eastern, and I hope to see you there. Till then, I will leave you with these cues for everyday creativity:
Be mindful – Try meditation, be present with your experience as it’s unfolding now.
Don’t know – Be open and curious, don’t be a know it all
Awaken your senses – Smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight are gates to the vividness of now
Open to messages – Helpful information is coming to you from unexpected places
Un-schedule – Leave open time just to be
Take a walk – Feel your body, move through space, see what’s happening outside.
Do what you like – Let your affinities guide you
Try something new – Try anything, especially something you’re not good at
Work within a constraint – Make something using what’s available, recycled materials, or found things
Feel what you feel – Notice feeling or numbness, scan your body sensations
Enjoy life – Be open to beauty
Have a good laugh – Reclaim your sense of humor
Sleep on it – Let problems solve themselves while you sleep
Dream on it – Notice and jot down your dreams when you wake
Spring is an inspirational time for those of us seeking to leap, try something new, or just liberate the doldrums of Winter. After a year of navigating a global Pandemic, you may be itching, like me, to get back to life and sprout new avenues of adventure, see friends, and make life changes. Change and new beginnings entail taking risks and, consequently, often failing. How we hold those failures has everything to do with growing confidence and generating further trust when trying something new. Confidence is the belief that we can rely on something to go as expected. Confidence is firm trust in ourselves and in others. From a Contemplative Psychology perspective, self-confidence is cultivated by holding our mistakes and failures with loving-kindness.
Contemplative Psychology encourages taking a mind of not-knowing to evoke an open perspective in whatever it is we’re engaged with. Cultivating a mentality of not knowing is the view that invites curiosity and courage. The great Zen Master Suzuki Roshi inspired a generation of meditators to take a ‘beginner’s mind.’ He said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”
Since moving from Northern California to Colorado, one possibility I’ve been longing to explore is to start another garden. I lived with a permaculture food forest in California, with bees, chickens, fruit trees, and vegetables for many years. I was not the gardener, but living there allowed me to experience the reciprocity of the earth that naturally occurs between garden, kitchen, and gardener. The garden taught me a lot about natures’ challenges through the seasons.
I recently decided to try planting a small kitchen garden in Colorado. I’m discovering a completely new challenge with different weather, different growing seasons, and completely new rules for hosting a garden! To have an abundant garden in Colorado, one needs to start seeds indoors and wait until it’s warm enough to transplant them outdoors mid-May.
As I said, I was not the gardener, but I was the beneficiary of the gardener’s work. I dabbled and learned, but I’m a total novice as a gardener. I resonate deeply with farming and gardening, probably because my roots are deep in the farmlands of Missouri when there were family farms still in operation. My mother grew up on the farm and was adept with horses. My father was ‘farmed out’ to his relative’s dairy farm in Missouri as a kid, while his mother worked and lived at the St. Joseph State Hospital.
My father and my mother both hated farm work, they said, but they were familiar, and I was briefly exposed to these relatives as a child. I grew up in the concrete jungles of Los Angeles apartment complexes. I was a ‘lock-key kid adept at making TV dinners and ordering take-out when my mother worked late. Thus, becoming the gardener is a risk and a personal stretch for me, an aspiration I have leaped into this Spring.
Every day, I rush to the window where I’ve planted my ‘seed babies’ to observe the slow-growing sprouts. Some are coming up nicely, others not at all. It’s a hit-and-miss endeavor, and it strikes me as the perfect metaphor for leaping into anything new in our lives when we don’t know at all what we’re doing.
The hit-and-miss quality of taking a chance, and doing something new, actually bring joy if we hold our mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn.
Beginning anything new, for many people, feels risky! Depending on our personalities and style, we may be the type of person who doesn’t dare take any risks for fear of failure. That’s why cultivating a ‘beginner’s mind’ in every endeavor is liberating. We are all beginners when we think about it because there are always causes and conditions that cause us to make mistakes. We all experience failure in life and sometimes hurt others in the process of trying new things. Most of us encounter failure many times over in our lives.
Trying new endeavors, making changes, and even letting things go when there isn’t a replacement are all risk-taking behavior resulting in disappointment and loss. Learning to hold mistakes and failures with kindness and inevitably is the way to develop trust in ourselves -not trusting ourselves never to make a mistake, but trusting we can live with it when we do. Learning how to make amends to others when we make a mistake that affects others, in large part, is learning to embrace and befriend our humanity.
Examples that come to mind are daring to meet someone we’ve met on a dating app, learning a new language or musical instrument—changing the approach to our diet, exercise, or leaving a job that’s killing us—making a significant move to an unknown destination, entering a path of recovery, or ending an important relationship when it no longer supports us. These are probably familiar things being considered by some right now. When we take the time to ask ourselves, “where do we desire to make a change?” what is stopping us from doing so?
Making change and stepping into the unknown can be regarded as cultivating growth opportunities. In Contemplative psychology, cultivating a ground of openness, courage, and not knowing is necessary for opening our hearts to a fully engaged, compassionate life. Stepping beyond our comfort zone is essential because it breeds the confidence to fail and succeed.
Once we take a leap and make a long-overdue change -- it may not work out, and that’s JUST INFORMATION. We do not have to hold ourselves hostage and never try anything new again. Learning how to hold our failures, challenges, and slips along the way in the space of loving-kindness is how we grow a heart of confidence. Taking loss, relapse, mistakes, and relational blunders as a path to learn, increase and expand our capacities and capabilities. The alternative is being stuck in small-mindedness and beliefs that we’re not capable of change.
Here is a contemplation on where in our life we could use some risk-taking.
Take the time to reflect on your life as you’re experiencing it right now. Use a piece of paper and journal your thoughts, or just sit and consider each of the following categories:
Karuna Training provides safe containers for people to consider their habits of mind around many factors, including trying something new. We are all conditioned by the past, and yet, cultivating a mind of not knowing in everything we do, invites a beginner’s mind approach. In meditation practice, we discover each moment is fresh, and it’s possible to cultivate our lives, like a garden. We are planting seed babies, taking small steps, and growing our confidence in the garden of life.
From this past year, What do you want to embrace and extended tenderness toward in yourself? What in your life do you want to let go of? What do you want to move toward?
In a recent Karuna Training online class, we shared a contemplative circumambulation of the calendar year from March 2020 to March 2021 to help us feel what we are holding now as we prepare to move back into what we might think of as more normal lives. Near the end of the contemplation, I asked, “What do you want to embrace or extend tenderness to? What do you want to let go of? What do you want to move toward?” In discussion later, people reported that they experienced brain fog and numbing out at the calendar year review. Others noticed increased tension, others recalled many shocks and painful jolts, and others reflected on the wake-up calls inspiring action or change. Today as I look out in my neighborhood and read the news, I see a kind of mania as we burst out into space. For myself, I wonder, how will I incorporate the experience and lessons of the past year? How can what I’ve been through better prepare me for what may be coming next personally, culturally, and globally?
Life out of Balance, Finding Equanimity
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of the 1982 documentary film Koyaanisqatsi which takes its title from the Hopi word meaning "life out of balance." It has vivid images of how we’ve grown apart from nature, and it moves from still landscapes to busy cities with an unforgettable and often relentless musical score by Philip Glass. I also think of the recent film Nomadland which shows how so many of us have been disenfranchised from our birthright of belonging in a community with sufficiency on planet earth. I wonder for myself, after this (maybe) once in a lifetime year, will I now fall back into my previous out-of-balance ways, lurching into to-do lists and activities? Or will I spring forward reborn? I don’t want to go back, and I’m not confident I can spring forward either. How about you?
Karuna Training draws on Buddhist wisdom and the contemplative path of meditation as a foundation for cultivating an awakened heart and compassionate action toward ourselves and others. A central part of Buddhism is the four Brahmaviharas, also called the four limitless ones, the qualities of equanimity, love, compassion, and joy. Each of these is an active force and everyday practice, but equanimity might be particularly helpful to cultivate in our current circumstances.
Equanimity is about not losing our balance no matter what happens. It is often described as the mental calmness cultivated by making friends with our mind’s ups and downs through meditation. People often think of equanimity as having a poker face or a kind of evenness mask, but actually, it is learning to attune to life’s continual changes subtly.
Part 1: Equanimity is having an open and unbiased attitude toward life
Equanimity is sometimes described as the foundation for the other three limitless ones; cultivating the ease of equanimity can bring out the full-heartedness of love, the tenderness of compassion, and the radiance of joy. With equanimity, we take an open and unbiased attitude toward life. A kind of equality of mentality. Chogyam Trungpa called this attitude of equanimity the art of non-aggression, starting to see where we put up barriers between us and reality. It’s stopping and seeing what’s happening instead of what we think should happen based on our hopes and fears, past experiences, and projections. It’s not complacency or passivity but learning to see what’s going on, notice our responses, and move from there. This experience often comes to us vividly when it seems like time stops, for example, in birth and death situations. This same attitude can permeate our lives. In meditation, we become oh so familiar with the places our minds tend to go and have the opportunity to gently recognize these places and come back to being open and available to the present moment again and again.
Part 2: Equanimity is riding the waves of our experience
Sounds easier said than done, yes? Continually there are the traps of reactions like “Oh no, not this again!” toward ourselves, others, and situations and a sequence of falling into a rabbit hole of anger, passion, and compulsions, or ignoring and Netflix, whatever your particular poison is, or a combination. For example, I took jazz singing lessons for a while and had a habit of stopping in the middle of a song and yelling at myself, full of self-doubt and critique. At a certain point, my teacher took a stuffed lion that belonged to his daughter off a shelf and said, “Sandra, this is your inner critic; it will always be here. When this comes up in your mind, you can look to the lion and say, “Hi critic, I know you’re here, but I’m going to keep singing.” In other words, there’s more going on than these habitual reactions; we can begin to recognize and make friends with them, and this way, they can loosen their grip, and we have more choices. There can be multiple layers of feeling to recognize, honor, and relate to. At a certain point, “Oh no, not this again!” can be helpful.
In Buddhism, it is said that our enemies are our teachers. When you look back over your life, you might see that your various foils have played a pivotal role in helping you to make essential changes in your life. We can all see how we get hooked on patterns of behavior, caught on the roller coaster of normal reactions, of likes and dislikes, and that we have continual opportunities to learn and change. Spring forward, fall back. I’ve been here before; I know this ground, this reaction, this fear, this pattern. I can keep sensing and moving forward.
Part 3: Joyful equanimity is appreciating the spiral of our lives
I have the good fortune to live near redwood groves in Northern California. The giant sequoia can live to 2,000 years old, most between 500 to 1,000 years. Sometimes you’ll see a fallen tree with the tree’s rings exposed. Each ring around the heart of the tree represents another year of its life. I remember a forest ranger showing how you can see fires, droughts, rainy winters, and climate change in the tree’s rings, the variance from year to year, but yet the trees stood strong and stable through all of it.
We, too, can stand strong with equanimity, like the redwoods year after year, to come into balance with ourselves and whatever may be coming next. Not only that, but it is said that we can meet life with joyful equanimity and a sense of humor and celebration. It’s why comedy and tragedy are paired in the human experience. Even the harshest and most cruel situations of life, and pain such as we are experiencing now, the harsh falling back, can bring us together and help us spring forward into another go-round of another year.
How To Be Your Own Support System
Dear Karuna Training Community,
Do you sit with relationships in your life that have caused you to shut down and freeze your heart? Sometimes we kill people off in our minds and hearts because they’ve hurt us, and sometimes because we have hurt them. Freezing the heart is common, and we think it helps to protect us. What it does is congest our hearts with unprocessed feelings. We refuse to open to the pain we hold. We intuit thawing the frozen heart will entail an in-depth process of falling apart.
Harms occur in relationships, profound horrors that should never have happened, prideful insults that sting forever, and misdeeds that feel unforgivable. We do and say things that we regret, and instead of apologizing, we shut down our hearts and freeze our compassion. Unfortunately, when we freeze our hearts to avoid the pain, we’re the ones who continue to suffer. We end up suffocating our heart connections due to our fear of openness, vulnerability, and being touched. We refuse to be soft and open and thus become unresponsive and blocked in the heart. As a result, it feels impossible to forgive or even foster a soft spot of possibility to allow others.
What I’m about to write about here is not a love and light topic. If you are easily triggered, please stop, pause and breathe before continuing.
For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, join us for a free live online session on Thawing the Frozen Heart on Saturday, March 20, at 9 AM PST.
Freezing Our Heart is All too Common.
Relationships that we abandon and refuse to relate to congest our hearts with unprocessed grief. It’s no mistake that heart congestion is a leading killer. Because we don’t create spaces and containers to honor our aching hearts and fall apart, we don’t trust that we can afford to fall apart. From a Contemplative Psychology perspective, when we learn to love ourselves genuinely and resource ourselves in basic sanity to meet the pain, then we can afford to fall apart. Falling apart means being vulnerable, and tears are usually shed. In this way, we thaw the frozen heart.
Humans are as capable of shutting down our hearts as we are in opening them up. However, we need safe environments, and we need each other to foster warmth. We need connection and community; we need to belong and to be witnessed. We could say the origins of this are how we evolved in the village in communities of protection from the wilds.
The great good fortune of Karuna Training lies in providing a safe community with which to fall apart. For many years, karuna has provided a loving container that offers some sense of sustenance and warmth that thaws the frozen hearts, even if only for a moment. We’ve also had the usual growing pains and made mistakes along the way, and we’ve learned some things about safe containers in our 27-years of providing seminars. However, the point is not to do this in the safe container of Karuna Training but to take Karuna teachings outward and apply them to our daily lives.
Karuna is a compassion training designed to thaw the conditioning of the human heart. Thawing takes the warmth of human kindness and forgiveness, but it also means we need to venture into territories we’ve been conditioned to avoid. Our conditioning can be such that it diminishes our sense of worthiness, and we internalize environmental messages.
At times we take refuge in and freeze our hearts further by adopting definite views. Views such as racism, sexism, white supremacy, entitled privilege, homophobia, ableism, etc., because we’re unable to love certain aspects of ourselves. We look to fortify ourselves philosophically and block our hearts from touching the pain of other’s lived experiences, especially people we perceive as different from ourselves.
Loving Kindness Thaws the Frozen Heart
Ultimately we must find the love and warmth within to thaw our frozen hearts, but environments can either foster for us -- or deter us from such loving-kindness and connection. We cannot find any warmth within ourselves for ourselves. Thus we need safe containers to help us discover that which we already possess, maitri or loving-kindness.
As Chogyam Trungpa explains, “according to Buddhist teachings, although we acknowledge that people’s problems may have been caused by their past upbringing, we feel that the way to undo problems is to cultivate that person’s maitri on the spot. Maitri is fostered by working with the persons’ immediate environment rather than by delving into their past. Buddhism does not use the Western analytical approach of tracing back to the roots of neurosis in a person’s past… Buddhist psychology works with cultivating good behavior patterns, rather than trying to analyze the person’s problems.”
When I first trained as a psychotherapist at Naropa Institute (now a University) in the early ’80s, I did my nine-month internship at Broomfield Home for Children. There I worked with a 13-year-old girl, whom I will call Jessica for the sake of confidentiality. Jessica taught me a great deal about thawing the frozen heart.
Jessica had spent at least three years in and out of the Broomfield Children’s facility; her adopted mother was Catholic and considered Jessica a curse for her infertility. Jessica was blond, blue-eyed, cherub-faced, and an innocent-looking child on the exterior. Emotionally, Jessica exuded complexity, fear, and hostility, especially if you attempted to engage her in any way. When I met her, Jessica demonstrated severe behavioral issues. She spent a good many hours a day isolated in a time-out room due to incidents of attacking other children and speaking back to teachers.
Broomfield Home for Children was a mal-adapted behavioral institute straight from the father of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner. Jessica did not do well in this behavioral system of punishment and reward; she seemed to have no incentive. Something about the confines of having to earn her freedom and rights through good behavior had done nothing to motivate her up to the time we met.
Jessica had been adopted at age 3, after being taken from her biological mother as a young child due to her mother working as a prostitute. It was suspected Jessica had incurred brutal trauma before the age of three. I was barely 26 when I began my internship in Broomfield. In many ways, way too young to take on the responsibility of a traumatized child. Because I had been trained at Naropa Institute (now University) and steeped in the loving-kindness of Contemplative Psychology, my Broomfield supervisor threw me in the deep end of the behavioral training pool.
I spent my first months in Broomfield meeting with Jessica weekly in a small, cold, cheaply furnished office in the basement of the school’s gymnasium. Jessica sat with her arms tightly wrapped around her knees, not responding, acting hateful toward me. I was rendered inoperative and feeling inept in the first meetings we had together.
One day Jessica saw a pack of cigarettes in my purse and asked me if I smoked. That was the first time she had spoken to me. I told her I smoked sometimes and was so excited that she had engaged me. I instantly broke all the rules and asked if she wanted a cigarette. I allowed her to smoke a single cigarette that day outside the gym. Breaking the rules bonded me to her through bad behavior. We were acting out together.
Engaging Jessica through breaking the rules proceeded for many months. Because seeing me was an earned privilege in the Broomfield handbook, Jessica began behaving better in class to continue our sessions. She began to be good enough in making behavioral points to ride in my car -- eventually, she earned the right to go on an outing with me to Boulder. Our relationship continued to grow over nine months, needless to say, because I broke all the rules. Jessica bonded with me as much as she could, given her conditioning and traumatic background. She didn’t trust anyone that was always clear, yet she was willing to bargain with me for freedoms. She was thawing her frozen heart incrementally and cautiously.
In the end, however, Jessica was deeply needy for nourishment, as I was needy for her connection to prove myself as a good therapist. The space of poverty and neediness is where we met, yet there was a warmth there too. It was not a skillful therapeutic encounter, and in a sense, I was using my behavioralism in the bribery of breaking the rules.
Luckily, through supervision at Naropa, I began to see the downfalls of my enmeshment with Jessica. My relationship with this girl was planting false seeds of hope and connection. I offered her a promise of a bond that eventually, I could not fulfill. I let her down by leaving my internship and not taking her with me. Even if I served to thaw her frozen heart momentarily, I would always feel tender remorse about my lack of skills with her.
Jessica and my story is an exaggerated illustration of how trauma conditions freeze the heart. A genuine and authentic connection plants seeds of forgiveness, and yet, simultaneously, human beings are complicated and tricky. Relationships that don’t go or end well often serve to haunt us. Failed relationships provide fodder to hold ourselves accountable. They help to strengthen and resource us, especially when we’re willing to feel the vulnerable frailties that arise in our relationships with the people we love.
Applying Maitri to Disappointment
People always disappoint us and let us down; relationships often hurt us when we open to them, and things go awry. We all are participating in a discordant home for children, and at the same time, there are glimpses of open heart, loving-kindness, and genuine thawing taking place all the time. Attuning ourselves to authentic connection is a journey of making friends with our whole selves, the good, bad, and the ugly.
In Contemplative Psychology, we call this process of accepting our whole selves, maitri, making friends with ourselves as we are. Maitri is generative warmth that renews itself in further vulnerability. To thaw our frozen hearts, we need to fall apart. That’s the good and the bad news simultaneously.
Karuna training is an environment of practice, a safe space where you can extend warmth toward habitual tendencies, unwanted emotions, and frozen places within. Wherever we go there, we are! In Karuna, we offer an environment of safe and respectful community to see, embrace, befriend, and transform our frozen hearts into responsive, vulnerable, awakened hearts.
Please join Kathryn Rile and me on Saturday, March 20, at 9 AM PST, to explore loving kindness the practice of Thawing the Frozen Heart. The opportunity is to step momentarily into a gentle space and be met to integrate what we all must learn to generate for ourselves. We hope to see you there.