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.
Karuna training has long been a container for healing trauma. When I first started offering Karuna, it was only four years after the Berlin Wall fell. Once we started the first training in 1996, I was surprised to learn there was a strong need for German students to atone for the forefathers' sins using the Karuna container. It meant directly addressing the atrocities committed by their parents and grandparents involved in the extermination of Jews in World War 2. A majority of Karuna participants made the collective and personal pain of events in WW2 the focus of their Karuna practicum projects. I was very moved and inspired by their bravery and vulnerability in addressing this national karma.
At that time, the United States had not done any such ownership on the national genocide toward Native Americans or the traumas imposed by enslaving Africans, who were the backbone of our prosperity. As the Summer of 2020 has so blatantly revealed, these racial traumas are up and beg to be addressed!
National traumas are systemically held in each of us as pain, conscious or not, and that pain lay dormant in all Americans. For some, the fear of touching that pain turns to violence against others. All Americans share our National history and the trauma of these unfortunate events in our social bodies, whether we choose to learn from that trauma or deny its existence. Resmaa Menakem, in My Grandmother's Hands (2017) reminds us:
“while we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict will need to be resolved."
Compassionate Exchange (CE) is a natural fit with trauma work, whether personal or collective trauma. CE is a skillful means supporting connection through mutual recovery, a means of integration, and a way to experience our interconnectedness as humans and the suffering we’ve propagated and thus share.
The enormous breakthroughs in neurological psychology and brain science have found language for Compassionate Exchange experiences long addressed but not necessarily named. In Karuna, we aspire to grow with this expanding knowledge base and integrate trauma-informed language into our training. We’re enhancing our language to address the pervasive trauma affecting us all in these troubling times.
Compassionate Exchange (CE) is the practice of offering oneself to touch the suffering of others and offer a space of intrinsic sanity. This practice occurs in either a nano-second or through an on-going exchange or relationship. Buddhist Psychology understands that genuine compassion can only happen in a relationship of equals. The provider of Compassionate Exchange learns to both hold and enter into the process simultaneously, and thus CE is always a process of mutual recovery.
Compassionate Exchange is an embodied practice that can only occur in the present moment. CE plays on nondual awareness and an ability to touch the space of our inseparable interconnectedness, which exists for all human beings. The CE practitioner offers themselves in an on-going practice, designed to regulate and resource oneself through tapping into our natural potency of heart. Thus the practitioner of CE is studied in the nuance of emotional energy and possesses the ability to hold a firm conviction in intrinsic sanity.
How CE looks varies greatly. A CE practitioner offers a formal container to someone, with the agreement of touching into an active and painful topic. The practitioner of CE offers themselves as a safe and abiding compassionate friend. Someone who is there to hold whatever arises in non-judgemental awareness, intrinsic health, and that which supports another to integrate past trauma or move closer to integrating their experience. Another manifestation of CE is someone softening on the spot and merely sharing their truth in a non-judgemental reflection; this can serve to open up space when there is group trauma actively occurring. Trauma occurs when something is experienced as too fast, too much, and too overwhelming to integrate.
Like the Pandemic that swept the World with shutdowns, interruptions, and suspensions of life at varying degrees, broken again by the divides of class and economic well-being, writing this now, the death toll worldwide due to Covid-19 is 2.34 million. That can be read as just a number, but then we quickly fragment and dissociate if we feel it. At least that is what happens to me. Encountering the trauma of a Pandemic, or any trauma in our lives, we fragment off through developing compensatory strategies, of a fight, flight, or freeze.
Adaptive behaviors become habituated and serve to hold the fragmented pieces of ourselves unconsciously frozen, affecting us in multiple ways far from coping. Self-medication occurs with food, relationships, alcohol, and or drugs, and all have long been a common choice for managing. Yet, this behavior can also serve to dysregulate us from an integrated experience of well-being. In Contemplative Psychology, we hold addictive behaviors as ways in which we’re seeking connection and integration. In and of itself, we understand addiction has intrinsic sanity with destructive consequences.
Bringing trauma-informed language to the practice of Compassionate Exchange, we’re developing our repertoire to support ourselves, friends, families, and colleagues. People need opportunities to integrate their experience in these fragmented times, and we need to name and acknowledge these moments of sanity. Anie Boudreau, a Karuna Teacher and founder of School of Reverence, informs us:
“It is a kind act to have a working understanding of the nervous system when offering oneself to others in engaged, compassionate coaching or other occupations.”
In Contemplative Psychology, we access traumatic energy in the present moment by attuning to our bodily sensations, feelings and experiences directly and compassionately, without the need to suppress or act out emotions. This approach is not about demonizing our trauma, but more like taking the trauma as our teacher. When we fragment off, that’s information. As Resmaa Menakem says “Our bodies exist in the present. To your thinking brain, there is past, present, and future, but to a traumatized body, there is only now. That now is the home of intense survival energy" (My Grandmother's Hands, 2017).
Compassionate Exchange work is naturally trauma-informed, but until now has not been languaged this way. Contemplative Psychology centers practitioners first, in the present moment in the body, and trains awareness in attuning to a tacit exchange that is always occurring with others and with the World. By bringing awareness to these unspoken exchanges with energy, we learn to track emotional reactions, fragmentation, and dissociation in those with whom we’re exchanging.
Contemplative Psychology expands our capacity to feel, hold, and experience intense emotional energy without splitting off our unintegrated parts.
Using trauma-informed CE we work with another to develop our window of tolerance through the fearless exploration of emotional energies. The term ‘window of tolerance’ coined by Dan Siegel, defines someone’s range of functioning capacity in confronting adversity. When someone holds trauma in their body, whether conscious or unconscious, their windows of tolerance narrow and they’re easily triggered and split off emotions into fragmented habits to cope. That can look like addiction, dissociation, or numerous other adaptive behaviors which only serve to further sever one’s connection and authenticity.
Our goal is to learn to resource ourselves through an open relationship to energy and build the heart and mind’s strength to stay with emotional and historical intensity. Knowing how to resource oneself in the face of intensity grows our windows of tolerance. Intensity capacity is the seed of our resilience, and our natural resilience is a by-product of intrinsic health. As the provider of Compassionate Exchange, we’re mutually benefited in growing and strengthening our own windows of tolerance when we work with others. First, we apply the method to ourselves and then offer ourselves as a compassionate vehicle to others.
All this adds up to Compassionate Exchange as a perfect tool with which to resource ourselves and others. Resourcing is integration, a kind of synchronization that feels like coming home to our bodies in a relatively open way we might feel after a good night's sleep or a lovely walk in nature. Integration from a contemplative perspective means we synchronize our body, speech and mind in the present moment.
I have always championed the personal journey and life story of Anie Boudreau, who as a student of Contemplative Psychology and many other methods, has integrated her brain trauma, and on-going seizures into a path of awakening. Anie utilized an open heart and vulnerability to tame her physical traumas and work with on-going disruptive trauma skillfully. I’ve personally witnessed her teeter on the edge of death and then bring her experiences to the path to be of tremendous benefit to others. I mention her journey now with her permission because, with her help, we can reposition our primary method as trauma-informed Compassionate Exchange.
Happy New Year! Or maybe just … New Year!
As we turn the page on 2021 … what have you learned from 2020? What might give you a boost for a fresh start and the long haul?
In the Karuna program we train in time-tested methods that help us keep our hearts and minds open during difficult times. We look at how we listen to, care for and extend compassion to ourselves and others. It seems that now more than ever we need routines that can help us be resilient as we cope with the crises of our changing world. That’s why this month, we are exploring the topic Resolution/Revolution: Fresh Start for a New Year. If you’d like to explore this topic with us more, you can join Senior Teacher Sandra Ladley on Saturday January 9, 12 - 1 PM Pacific Time for an online Karuna Live interactive talk on the topic, and/or read a little in-depth discussion about it from her here.
What resolution do you want to make that will help you in 2021?
New Year’s Celebration/Review/Fresh Start
In the 1980s I worked in downtown San Francisco. At New Year’s we would gleefully celebrate by tossing the previous year’s daily calendar pages off the roofs of our office buildings. The pages would float and join a snowy swirl of thousands of pages descending and blanket the streets. We would then wade ankle deep through the pages with dates and personal appointments of the past year surfacing in random fashion, like a waking dream. This would of course leave a very big mess for sanitation workers to clean up and they would do so with big sweeping trucks the early hours of the morning after. We would come back to work the next work day and all of it would be gone. There was a lot of waste in this and times have changed but the symbolic sequence of a celebratory toss, floating, review. wading through, and clean-up for a fresh start stays with me. If we consider the calendar pages of 2020 fluttering by, or the repetition for many of us of reliving the same day over and over in a “Groundhog Day” kind of way this past year, then where does that leave us? I recently headed out on a walk in my neighborhood and was stopped in my tracks when a neighbor said to me “Hi. We have a lot to look forward to this year, don’t we?” Actually that hadn’t occurred to me. Heads up! As we begin this year with weary hearts, surrounded by suffering and with indefinite stay at home orders, what can we look forward to? What will help keep our spirits up? What have we learned from 2020? How can we change what we want to change?
So we all know that research shows that resolutions don’t work and diets don’t work. And in recovery programs it’s said “don’t do a geographic” meaning you can’t abruptly move away from your issues because wherever you go - there you still are. Yet at the same time there’s the corny but true “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’ve all been inspired by stories from people saying that a major health issue or hitting bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them because it woke them up and helped them change harmful patterns. For many, despite the horrors of the past year, the disruption we’ve experienced has had a similar effect in a “Where have I been all my life?” kind of way. And at the same time just to survive being at home day after day and the onslaught of news and despair we’ve sometimes succumbed to the dangers of a never-ending pajama life and our worst tendencies. How can we chart a course for ourselves that takes these ups and downs into account? If resolutions don’t work then what does?
I’ve gleaned the following shared themes from current research on personal change. During this month’s Karuna Live, on Saturday January 9 from 12-1 PT, we’ll have a time to reflect, identify and develop an achievable or “tiny” personal resolution/revolution plan to help sustain us over the year.
Increasing Success for your Resolutions
A New Year’s resolution is defined as a tradition to resolve to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve our lives at the start of a new year. One half to one third of Americans engage in the ritual of making a resolution at New Year’s. Research shows that we are aided in making change by support from the “environmental nudge” of a new year and similarly to a lesser degree by the start of a new week. These are referred to as the January effect or Monday effect.
In general, things that can help us succeed over the long run are reinforcement for the practice of ‘self-liberation” - that we CAN change, adopting a simple “tiny”good habit instead of avoiding a bad one, rewarding our successes, avoiding temptations, and visualizing our success. Things that can sabotage our efforts include negative thinking and fixating on past harms, berating ourselves and negative self-talk, wishing and pretending there isn’t a problem, avoiding our feelings, and denying and minimizing the dangers of the issue you want to address.
Here is a possible sequence for establishing a resolution plan.
Steps for a Creating a Resolution Plan
1. Reflect and celebrate
Research shows that it’s hard for us to take in the good of our lives. We are wired to fixate on the negative and self-criticism. Take time to reflect on what went well for you this past year and where you did follow-through, no matter how small. This strengthens our own intrinsic health and embodiment of the sense that we can change.
2. Have gratitude
Another corny but true platitude is no person is an island. Let yourself take in the support and connectedness you have in your life, and your good fortune. Count your blessings. Sometimes this brings up the opposite, a sense of poverty, loss or longing and that’s good information but see if you can touch the connectedness and support or belonging you do have, This sense of being part of a support community is also strengthening for us as a foundation for change.
3. Identify the resolution and motivation for it
Identify what it is you want to change. Be as specific and realistic as possible. Why do you want to change it? Research shows that knowing and staying aligned with our motivation helps us, and that internal vs external motivations are more likely to succeed over the long run. So, for example, losing weight to feel better and lessen health problems is more likely to succeed than doing it to meet societal body image expectations.
4. Set a tiny achievable plan - a 1% change
Break the resolution down to the smallest step you can take. It’s said we will increase our success by making 1% changes over time. This way we can recognize and gain strength for continuing from our successes and operate under the radar of the “shoulds” and negative self-talk. In Karuna Training we recommend ongoing meditation practice which is hard for many of us to start and keep going. So you wouldn’t go from zero to 100 and set your resolution as “I’ll practice meditation a half hour every day” you might set it as “I’ll meditate 5 minutes at 9 am each day, or three times a week.” There is data that supports starting anything with 5 minutes is achievable and we can leverage that habit as a foundation for continuing change.
5. Identify a cue, link it to another behavior
Find a cue and ongoing behavior you already have to link your resolution to. So, for example, I wanted to stretch in the mornings. I committed to stretching while my kettle was heating to make coffee. Visual cues also work. People often use their sneakers as a cue for walking or working out.
6. Write it down, see it
There is data that shows that writing down our resolution reinforces and strengthens it. Know where you’ve written it down and refer back to it. Some people find tacking it up for you to see a help. Putting the activity in your calendar as a routine also helps you to see and prioritize it.
7. Tell your friends, engage their support
Going on record and telling people you are doing this helps you tap into support from your community for it. In addition, where can they join you in this? Having a walking or meditation buddy or group can really help keep you on track. Take advantage of zoom and other online support for your resolution.
8. Go gently, ups and downs are part of it
In Mahayana Buddhism there is the helpful slogan from Atisha “not too tight, not too loose.” If you hold yourself too tightly you are bound to backlash. If you are too loose then you can lose the momentum and it can be hard to find your way back. Both tight and loose can be ways of making it harder on ourselves. Go gently with a long view. Every morning brings a fresh start. Sense of humor and having a comedic perspective on our foibles also helps.
9. Plan to reward yourself
Research shows that rewards work in making habits stick. A square of chocolate, a small purchase, a gathering, a ticket to something - what rewards will work for you?
10. You did it! Take time to recognize, celebrate and embody your change
Coming back full circle … recognizing and celebrating our successes is seen as pivotal to accomplishing our goals. An uphill battle or trek does not work. Using hiking as a metaphor, periodically stop to rest, take in the view, appreciate and adjust, then move on. You could schedule these rest stops in your calendar.
I feel we all need help and can support each other in creating personal safety nets of good routines that hold us and strengthen our resiliency this year. I hate to say it but who knows what’s coming next?
This Winter Solstice we have the opportunity to reflect on our experience, celebrate our resilience and honor how we’ve faced the challenges of 2020; the pandemic, fight for racial justice and the divisive 2020 Election. These events, whatever political side we may fall on, unite us together as human beings. This last year has offered us a plethora of shared experiences with everyone in the entire world. For me, it appears that the world has shrunk even more so through technology and shared global concerns. If we are paying attention, we cannot deny that we are affected by and have an influence on the greater whole.
On December 21, 2020, this Winter Solstice we could begin by contemplating our planetary inter-connectedness. Let's start with what unites us, what we share and what we have in common versus what divides us. This coming Solstice could be, at the very least, a celebration of passing through one of a most difficult years we’ve collectively lived through together - if that is true for you. I know that personal tragedies serve to mark our life and that other years may have been far more challenging than 2020 … another reason why contemplative reflection is a worthy activity at the end of the year.
Celebrations of Hope During Darkness
The Winter Solstice has been an important holiday cross-culturally for human beings over eons.
There's an innate need to bring light and insight into the darkest time of year, to turn the page, to move forward, to bring cheerfulness into the darkness. We are compelled to mark this annual transition from dark to light as humans.
When we ritually mark and celebrate the Winter Solstice - we connect to what is ancient in us as human beings. There was an ancient Roman celebration called Saturnalia, a solstice celebration dedicated to the planet Saturn, the god of agriculture and time. The Chinese celebrate Dong Zhi (which means “winter arrives”) and the holiday welcomes the return of longer days and the corresponding increase in positive energy in the year to come. Scandinavians and Italians honor Saint Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs, who was a symbol of light. Lucia and her feast day blended naturally with ancient Solstice traditions such as lighting fires to scare away spirits during the longest, darkest night of the year. Iranians worldwide gather to celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness in an ancient festival called Shab-e Yalda (which means “Night of Birth”). In the Southern Hemisphere, like in Peru, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place on the June solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god.
In North America, indigenous people who occupied northern Arizona, southern Colorado and northern New Mexico; the Hopi Indians, were believed to be among the descendants of the Anasazi people who inhabited the first World Heritage site of Mesa Verds, in Colorado. There were no written records from the Anasazi of Solstice rituals, but anthropologists construct the importance of their Winter Solstice rites, due to the placement of stones in sun dialed structures of their ruins. They took a strong interest in the sun’s movement, and like us, they lived and died by the sun. The Hopi Solstice celebration is called Soyal, when the Sun Chief takes on duties of their office and announces the setting of the sun on the solstice. They hold an all-night ceremony which includes dancing around fires and gift giving.
Solstice rituals are cross-culturally known to human beings the world over. One could say they abide in our DNA as a species, consciously or unconsciously this impulse to mark transition is active. Humans all over the world ritually mark the Winter Solstice in communal celebration, ritually marking the Solstice as a shared-planetary transition is a way to bring awareness and energy to our interconnectedness and renewed beginnings.
Creating Rituals to Acknowledge Transitions
In Karuna training we explore how rituals help us acknowledge important transitions in life. Through ritual we learn to commune directly and energetically with elemental energies, and the seasonal display of a greater wisdom in the world. Conscious rituals are an important aspect to human psychological health and sanity. Ritual here does not necessarily mean following an official rite or a religious ceremony, we find out there are all kinds of rituals. When speaking of ‘sacred ritual, we acknowledge the freedom to create and amalgamate whatever we care to incorporate, as humans have done for eons, in creating a meaningful ritual for oneself.
If we don’t consciously create sacred rituals, then we unconsciously enact them usually through self-destructive, or unsatisfying behaviors.
In Contemplative Psychology, we understand that our most destructive addictive behaviors arise out of an aspiration toward the sacred. Sacred here refers to evoking an experience of the world and its wisdom -- which is greater than us but not separate from us. We are all seeking connection with that which feels bigger than we are. We forever aspire to belong to someone, something, and/or the World. Even if we’re one who has renounced belonging and lives in solitude- we’re in reaction or we’ve evolved away from our need to belong.
Evoking the sacred means learning to enact conscious rituals, or create contained experiences that bring forward a sense of belonging to the greater whole. We can learn to mark significant transitions in the year with meaningful rituals that we ourselves amalgamate out of our personal history and current values. Creating rituals or combining those familiar to us and those we love is an opportunity to evoke the sacred - to make the holiday season meaningful and personal, in order to feel they belong to us and we to them.
Through enacting sacred rituals we bring aspiration and intention to the Winter Solstice. When the sun is far away we can supplicate the light to return, metaphorically, ‘What shadow areas do we wish to shine light in our lives?’ It is courageous to invite light, which in Buddhism is synonymous with insight. We are bringing insight to the shadow time of year, a shared collective turning point on both Northern and Southern poles of the globe.
Noticing Attachment to our Cultural Rituals
It is helpful to reflect on our attachment to cultural holiday rituals that we’ve grown up with in order to discern our attachment to our own traditions. This is most illuminating when living outside of one’s own culture on important holidays. I lived in Slovenia for four years in the late 90’s, shortly after Slovenia liberated from Yugoslavia.
For Slovenes, the Solstice and in particular Christmas are considerably downplayed compared to American culture, at least this was true 20 years ago. I'm sure it's changed considerably. On December 5th, the Slavic version of Saint Nicholas hands out candy and fruit to children in cities and villages. This Santa Claus is a much drier version than that of the Santa Clause I grew up with of Coca Cola’s fame. The Slavic Saint Nicholas is an ancient bearded fellow in a white duster coat with fur-lined sleeves and boots. This figure is a cast back to the Siberian shamanic reindeer travelers combined with the Christian Saint Nicholas of 270 CE, a cultural amalgamation so common to modern day holidays.
As an American, conditioned by consumer-driven Christmas, I was shocked that Saint Nicholas was so stingy. That was my first Christmas in Slovenia, by the second Christmas I was prepared and ventured out to evoke an American-style Christmas and proceeded to impose a celebration on my Slavic family. They were suspicious glancing at one another silently on Christmas eve when I bestowed small token gifts on each of them. I projected that they were thinking I wasted money enough on gifts while traveling, why this?
Then, at the end of the evening, I served them pumpkin pie... a major feat as it was not easy to find a can of condensed milk in the late 90’s in Slovenia. My Slovene relatives considered pumpkin to be pig food and not consumable by humans. But my pumpkin pie made a huge impression on them, and they were very impressed, you would have thought I invented the moon.
My holidays in Slovenia revealed my serious attachment to Christmas, not because of any Christian faith per se, I'm a Buddhist 40-years, nevertheless, holiday attachments to traditions are real, and often unconscious.
Through reflection I’ve come to see this attachment is much more about bringing back the light and color to the darkest time of year. I love the warmth and generosity of gift giving and it's something to look forward to annually. All these traditions are very important to me, more than I realized.
I must also own that I’m programmed to spend money in December, and often feel poverty struck unless I do so. I’m not proud of this consumer element of my holiday attachment, yet I recognize and befriend the conditioning in me. I know where it comes from and work with it consciously now. I decorate with traditional Christmas offerings, yet I bring my own meaning to the holidays. I also have a Jewish partner who brings his attachments, so we’re working it out together, with thought and reflection.
I have a strong need to celebrate the holidays and mark the Winter Solstice transition with light and ritual, which I stretch from December 21 - through January 7th. I have come to realize that I’m seeking to evoke the sacred as a conscious celebratory transition from dark to light.
On this Solstice, December 21, 2020, please join our Karuna live and reflect on your cultural relationship with the Solstice. We will explore, which, if any, rituals will evoke the sacred for you this Winter Solstice.
This year as we approach winter in the Northern Hemisphere we are coming in from the cold of a broken planet and systems burst open. We’re trapped in our homes taking safety precautions and worried about COVID-19, our livelihoods and our future. We’re weary from discontent and emotional turmoil, regardless of where we are on the political spectrum. In the US, as the world is watching, we enter an uncertain transition from November to January with a change of presidents and the potential for violence and unrest. The seasonal holiday rituals and gatherings that for some of us bind and warm us hold less promise for comfort as activities will be restricted and family conversations are hard with so much polarization.
Now that I’ve completely depressed you, Shakespeare’s opening lines from Richard III written in 1594 that begin “Now is the winter of our discontent …” express the sentiment that we have reached the depth of our unhappiness and that better times are ahead. Are they? I too feel some hopefulness with continuing the work that has broken through into broader awareness this year especially around systemic racism and climate change, and possible changes in the US. Even so, with the cumulative effect of 2020, I find myself longing to hibernate in a long winter’s nap, a mashed couch potato stupor where I know precious time could be lost.
Can’t I just go to sleep and wake up in the spring like a bear? Can’t it all be over? Hmm too bad the world has changed and there is no going back.
So, what helps me find energy and inspiration when it’s dark inside me and all around? How can we all stay with and find strength and ways to hang in there with fear, uncertainty and fatigue? How can we transform Broken + Discontent + Winter into Open + Engaged + Content?
What helps me is remembering the resources I forget I have, and where I may need support.
Body Speech Mind Practices For Gentle Support
Something that helps me take stock is the Body Speech and Mind framework. In Karuna Training we train in using this framework in many and varied applications. This methodology was pioneered at Naropa University and is drawn from the Sattipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s first wheel of teaching, like the four foundations of mindfulness. It is rooted in the practice of mindfulness awareness meditation where we notice and touch our current experience with an unbiased, inquisitive and gentle attitude, and become familiar with the ups and downs of our own minds, and the open space of possibilities.
The Body Speech and Mind method is a practice of direct observational perception and noticing, without judgement or interpretation, what’s really happening in our bodies and our environment, in our heart and relationships, and in our outlook and mental preoccupations.
It’s rooted in the view that intrinsic health and resiliency is always at work in situations, even in the darkest and most desperate times.
In contrast, research shows that we tend to fixate and give energy to what’s wrong about ourselves and situations, and when this happens it is harder for us to notice and align with the wisdom and dynamism that is available to us.
Body Speech and Mind is a way of reclaiming and reorienting toward the full range of our experience. In Karuna we often use this method in groups but it’s also something you could do in a journal or with a friend right now. Can you keep an open mind and heart and take a look?
A Body Speech Mind Practice To Try
Here is an adapted and shortened version of a Body Speech and Mind inventory for right now. See if you can respond to these questions with an unbiased attitude, without interpretation or judgement, like you were listening to a friend. It’s all in the details. You could do this as a contemplation and jot a few things down, or talk it through with a friend:
Body – How would you describe yourself to someone else right now, without judgement? How would you describe your home environment and surroundings? What is your schedule? What rituals and routines are you using? What is helping you care for yourself during this time?
Speech – What are you feeling now? What relationships are occurring in your life? What have you been talking about? What/who are you listening to? What is your heart’s desire? What is your heartbreak? Where are you finding emotional support during this time?
Mind – What’s on your mind? What are your preoccupations right now? How are you entertaining yourself? What is dragging you down? What/who is inspiring you?
And now, having gone through this:
How are you feeling? What reflections are coming to you? Are there any little shifts you want to make? Anyone you want to reach out to?
As I go through this inventory, I sense my self-imposed amnesia of forgetting the riches of my life - nature, friendships, inspirations, engagement. I see the numbing I’ve been doing from the weariness of constant emotional hijacks. I could scream and cry a lot. I see my need for naps and personal ‘rest for the weary’ and to keep laughing and crying with friends. I see that meditation, dance, movement, creative work and cooking really help me. I am grateful for the training I am doing now around polarization with Braver Angels. I remember and call in the wisdom I’ve received from many teachers I’ve had including the recently departed poet Diane di Prima who was an example and really encouraged me as an artist activist.
What is helping you to take care of yourself, and to engage? What teachers continue to inspire you?
In this winter of discontent, I encourage you to remember to stop and take a few breaths, take stock of where and how you are, and have a fresh perspective on what will really help you through this time. If you are like me, you might be surprised again and again at the resources and possibilities that are available in your life.
Are you struggling with eco-anxiety? The state of our environment is an ominous message these days. From climate change, to pandemics, to wildfires and unpredictable weather, it is stressful to contemplate the state of the natural world.
However, if we stop and feel deeply into ourselves, we know that we are not actually separate from the natural phenomenon. Now is the time to recognize and draw on the wisdom that is already present within us and in all situations.
Living with Eco Anxiety
“What does it mean to live with the knowledge, where the energy behind the emotions can engulf you and create a maelstrom of fear and reaction?”
This question was posed by Dr. Renee Lertzman at the start of a Touching the Earth Online seminar. Dr. Lertzman identifies herself as a psychologist inspiring climate and environmental action, working with those on the front line and administration in mental health . She is all about working with our own emotions, and her approach is completely in line with Karuna Training.
To live with eco-anxiety is to live with this question all the time. The news on climate change and environmental devastation is so haunting, we end up asking ourselves, ‘what can we really do to make a difference?’
The Climate Crisis Is Getting Personal
In the mid-August heat of Denver, Colorado, Sloan Lake, my neighborhood respite, the place where I resource myself daily, has had a major drop in oxygen levels in the water due the high stagnant heat and fire smoke throughout Colorado. The result is hundreds, if not thousands of fish died and floated to the surface. On my morning walk I met the stench of dead fish two blocks away. The fish were laying on their bellies gasping for oxygen - which immediately mimicked the gasping for oxygen that COVID-19 inflicted patients are going through. There is no air, we can’t breathe. Sound familiar?
Ecological mishaps tend to motivate us when they affect us directly in our own backyard. Many of us have either been through a major fire, an earthquake, a mudslide or a hurricane, or we came close enough to know that the disruption is daunting. Eco-anxiety is now in the weave of human fabric, something that we live with daily.
These haunting incidents are occurring so frequently that I dread the news. If we believe science, we know it is only getting worse. The crisis is upon us!
Noticing Eco-Anxiety Paralysis
We are living with these climate change events, as if we’ve been diagnosed with a terrible disease with a poor prognosis, and we’re frozen by not knowing what we can really do to help. We know that unless we do something... yesterday, it will continue and likely get worse.
And yet, even though I consider myself a champion of ecological issues, I’m not consistent in my activism or carrying through with good ecological habits. I personally tend to move in wide swings of extremism; one year eradicating all paper in my house, except toilet paper… another several years living with a Permaculture food forest front and back yards in California --- but paying extreme water bills to keep it alive. At the same time flying off to offer seminars Worldwide and agonizing over my carbon footprint, but not stopping.
Many of us become intentionally inactive and ignore the situation altogether, falling into what Dr. Lertzman calls the ‘hope and despair option’. This option doesn’t motivate us but leaves us wallowing in ambivalence and paralysis.
Many of us have given the eco crisis a lot of consideration. Maybe we’ve become a vegan, created permaculture gardens, or chose local farm supported agriculture. Still, we constantly find ourselves head to head with issues of giving up our comfort and convenience.
It is a challenge to maintain the truth of the crisis consciously and consistently. We live our lives in modern times with a multitude of unnecessary conveniences that are bad for the environment. It is easy to grow ambivalent and complacent to just keep ourselves and our families healthy and housed. Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, there are many behaviors I roil around in my heart about. For example, I order way too much from Amazon when it appears that is the only place to get what I want. The point is that we live our lives conveniently, and it is easy to go unconscious around the urgency of the issues. Meanwhile the earth is becoming uninhabitable for humans and a multitude of other species.
Working With Eco-Anxiety Contemplatively
What is called for, from a contemplative psychology perspective, is facing and feeling the underbelly of our anxiety, and finding a way to resources ourselves while doing so. We cannot move forward on any of our aspirations to make personal or planetary change to be conscious stewards of the environment without learning to relate to the emotional dimension of eco-anxiety. If we don’t embrace the emotions we are sitting with, we will never be consistent or successful in changing habits that need changing.
Step one is meeting and feeling our anxiety directly for what it is: helplessness, fear, stubbornness, attachment, etc.. We need to take the time to feel all the aspects of what is really there and why we are feeling the anxiety we do. The problem is that meeting our anxiety is the last thing most of us want to do. Often we are looking for anything, any fix we can find in order to not feel the tinge of our anxiety.
In Karuna Training, we understand that our emotions arise for a reason, they are there to inform us, and are full of wisdom, if we are not being ruled by them. If we are busy avoiding and managing our feelings, they become like demons that rule us, and yet ultimately they are our teachers. The way to meet our emotional energy directly is to feel into our emotions directly by listening to the body, as opposed to the thoughts in our head. Learning how to do this is a contemplative discipline, it takes mind training and building the muscle of awareness that habituates us to come back to our bodies as an anchor to feel the energy of emotions.
Anxiety can be debilitating and habitual. It's not uncommon to develop a free-floating feeling of anxiousness that we then hunt for reasons why we feel the way we do. Thus we need support to distinguish clinical anxiety which is debilitating and can need professional attention and care from habitual feelings of overwhelm; in this case, specific to the environment and climate change.
We need to be extremely gentle and kind toward ourselves when we say “meeting our emotions directly” because in actuality the practice is really a process of befriending our emotional energy, and learning to listen to our emotional pain as an informer, versus an obstructor and/or debilitator.
What is needed is a strong supportive environment, and a means by which we can resource ourselves to be brave and experience the wisdom of all that we feel. This can take many forms; a therapeutic container, a class, a group dedicated to the grief over the loss of our planet. Some kind of exploratory container with other like-minded people who support us in this kind of relationship to emotional energy is necessary.
When and if we do face our fears, anxiety and complacency (and we dare to feel them directly), at that moment we are enacting fearlessness, because we are leaning into our truth in the moment. This can look like a breakdown or a strong display of vulnerability on the surface, but just the willingness to touch into and feel our unpleasant emotional energy is an enactment of strength and resilience. Meeting our energy directly has the ability to empower us on the spot. We gleen energy and resources within ourselves by facing and feeling our emotions directly.
Finding Support In Community
I want to champion the work of Irene Woodard, who is the founder of Touching the Earth forum, a google group on Shambhala Online. This group is providing a network and forum to support genuine inquiry and a safe space for holding the fear and ambivalence of eco-anxiety. They’re offering us information on what we and all species are facing in the environmental crisis. I mention this group because this is who I’ve recently found as a resource, and there are multiple other such resources available if we look for them.
For example, the day I discovered the dead fish in Sloan lake, I was fortunate to have a group to attend and to share my feelings about it. That resourced me so that when I got out of that group, I began to look into what is actually going on with Sloan lake versus making a lot of things up in my head about what could be causing it. Later I read a lot of such speculations from my neighbors on the Nextdoor posts, such as: “Someone put some blue chemicals in the water,” “The lake is dead and the spring has dried up.'' These speculations are anxiety speaking. I am learning that when dealing with Eco-anxiety we need to get beneath those initial reactive fears, and find out what is actually happening, get the facts.
Once we discern our true feelings and resource ourselves enough, then we find out the facts. We need to be educated on the facts before we can start opening up to the question, “What can I do?”
In order to work with my anxiety around the lake, I turned to my neighbors for support. I’ve now started a channel on the NextDoor app ‘Let’s Help Sloan’s Lake’, and we are brainstorming options on what to do. I’m finding out that issue is bigger than I thought. The lake has indeed lost its original spring, it dried up already and therefore the lake is fed with runoff from the neighborhood. That means all the neighborhood runoff is feeding the lake. I mention this because often when we resource ourselves and look more deeply into the facts; we end up peeling back a layer of hidden truths and find out even worse news.
What is important here, from a contemplative perspective, is we need to keep feeling what we feel directly, and finding like-minded communities. Thus resourcing ourselves for a journey where we are able to make whatever changes we feel are appropriate and in accord with our values.
Living with eco anxiety is about finding a way to hold ourselves in loving kindness and be responsible simultaneously. It is a journey of realizing the anxiety is real and there's a reason it's coming up - its intelligence! The environment is speaking to us, the elements are raging from a human perspective, and the question is “are we listening?”
Living with eco-anxiety is embracing the notion that we are all interconnected with this sacred earth and all its inhabitants. They’re health and sanity is directly related to our health and sanity. When we begin to touch into, feel into and embrace our earth and its inhabitants as family - we will naturally want to find ways to act, even small changes congeal to make a difference, and to ease our anxiety. The earth doesn’t write emails, the connection we have with the environment starts in the heart, flourishes in the mind and is lived through the body.
We all need to find ways to be resourced by and through our connection to each other.
Resourcing ourselves and staying resourced and focused is 99% of the effort. The rest is just following through. Resourcing ourselves to live with eco-anxiety is and will become an endless task in our lifetimes. I aspire to reclaim the wisdom as human beings that we were born with, and that we will be guided by our heart as responsible stewards and co-inhabitants of our beautiful planet. She needs our attention and love right now, we are not separate.