First useful observations during meditation: The glue of attachment, creating self-esteem and a template for self-regulation.

I have heard many people report after meditating regularly that they experience a sense of peace and calm that they didn’t have before. I have also heard on the news that school children who are sent to meditate instead of being punished for their behaviour tend to see dramatic improvements. These are the known outcomes but as a training Gestalt counsellor I am curious about the how the mental process of meditation facilitates these changes. I am sure there are numerous literatures about this very topic however I wanted to share 3 key realisations of my first recent experiences of silent meditation and focusing on the voice.

Image curtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Observation 1: My ‘glue’ of attachment
As I attempted to keep my mind clear of any thoughts (first feeling very unsure of what that even meant) some thoughts attracted me like a magnet, these often had an accompanying emotion; Feeling hurt, angry, excited or anxious. Instead of seeing these as a sign of failing meditation, I observed what pulled me in; this felt like vital information about me. The thoughts with the strongest pull were ones I knew too well, well worn, and on reflection the most tempting to ruminate on a closed loop circuit. However, when I tried to pull away and re centre my mind, I felt resentment like I was having my favourite toy taken away. The ‘glue’ of my attachment was in the emotional stimulation I got out of them – like a smoker craving more nicotine or a fish tempted by the bait on a hook. If this is what happens in my ‘real life’ there are such positive benefits realising it’s ok to pull away from toxic thoughts.

Observation 2: The surprise of self-esteem
The process of pulling away from these thoughts was like trying to pull a rabbit backwards out of its warren. I had already started launching in to replaying a dialogue with someone, going deeper in to the feelings, my body reacting as if I was there, uncomfortable, trying to distract myself and wanting to stop. After I pulled away, I felt myself in the room, the vibration of my voice and was shocked by the accompanying message. I’m leaving this alone so ‘I must be more important than this thought’. I felt an increased sense of care for myself in the present. I felt calmer and emotionally regulated.

Observation 3: A parallel process of self-regulation in real life.
Often in real life when a distressing thought occurs, the failure to pull away from it, causes a spiral of negative emotion such as anxiety or anger that can drain me psychologically and causes physiological reactions which reinforces their influence. Self-regulation; returning to a state of feeling calm and present often comes through distraction – watching Netflix, playing candy crush, or maybe having a joint. But what meditation is teaching me is that I can centre my mind at any point if I develop the ability. Exercising the ‘muscle’ of self-regulation through meditation is empowering; for me its not so much about remaining clear headed at all times but more about knowing what pulls me in, that I can pull away and that I can support myself emotionally by doing so. If I can apply this to real life it could save me hours of distraction! Perhaps, when school children get in to trouble, they are also hooked by their emotions and are learning self-regulation through mentally walking away. I carried my experience the following day feeling more assured that I don’t have to go down that rabbit hole when a thought occurs. I’m now hooked on creating a healthy mind through meditation – what a simple, powerful tool!

Russian Doll inside: Holding the trauma of our past to live more fully in the present.

Many people including myself have had experiences that make feeling vulnerable or intimate a bit more overwhelming than it needs to be.  Maybe you had experiences at school being bullied, with parents who were unavailable for support, an abusive or painful heartbreak which left a trail of mistrust and fear.

RussianDolls AnAccidentalAnarchist.blog
Image courtesy of Bradley Davis (CC BY-ND 2.0)

When we encounter a current situation that might resemble one of these experiences, those past feelings can get stirred up and leave us feeling confused, anxious, angry or feel that we want to keep people away.  For myself at times like this I usually don’t feel ‘like my-self’, with feelings that seem unsafe to express to anyone except those I feel close to and they aren’t always available to talk.  I have found that the feelings can affect my immune system, my digestion; supressing my appetite or make me clumsy (although to be fair I’m not usually that graceful anyway!).   These bubbling feelings can affect every day functioning at work where I need to feel focused, positive and confident but they leave me wondering how to pull myself together emotionally when I feel like liquid inside.

At those times I have found it helpful to visualise my life contained in a series of layers in time, like a Russian doll; each layer marking a point in my life where a particular feeling was very strong, such as an experience of family loss, betrayal or feeling alone. The layers go deeper, backwards in time until finally at the point of birth where are my first experiences of being with my parents; the most tiny and vulnerable Russian doll layer.

Connecting overwhelming feelings as belonging to one of those layers has been a helpful way to bring me to a sense of safety in moments when the emotional layers of past and present start to merge.  A way of both owning my emotions (- it is often tempting to blame outwards on the person triggering them!) and knowing that because they arose from my past and are seeping out in to my present that I can contain them; at least until they reduce and until I am able to talk to someone I trust (this is vital).

Finally imagining myself as the outmost layer of the Russian doll as I am now and drawing a boundary around my emotions helps me to stop and take a breath, ground myself in the present and to understand the difference between my feelings and what triggered them. I feel more able to respond the way I want to rather than just react and most importantly brings me back to the self I want to create right now.

We are all so vastly unique and complex, having experienced unspeakable things that creating a structure to help us identify what layer is operating within us can allow us a vital space to climb out.

Finally, if you have enjoyed this post then please share it and follow us for more posts.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Overcoming ego (Expression or Mindfulness)

I’ve been struggling with two philosophies that I hold dear, that are seemingly in opposition to each other, namely, Gestalt Therapy and Mindfulness.  My initial impression was that the two are similar, but are they?

InnerZoneMindfulGestalt
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tinker-tailor/ (CC License)

Present moment consciousness suggests we become an observer of the process of thought, without engaging in it.  The exhibition of anger, tears and so forth should be witnessed but not engaged with, e.g.  ‘Oh, I feel angry, Oh I feel happy.’ notice but not engaged with.

Gestalt proposes a ‘here and now’ approach to life, touching what is present fully and making full contact with what is.  This all sounds very mindful.  Part of this approach can involve allowing a polarity of feeling to fully express, that is to explore fully the expanse of possibility that we have for a particular situation (gestalt = situation) or feeling, including expression of that feeling.  The expression bit doesn’t sound so mindful, I am picturing 1970’s therapy sessions, people throwing cushions around the room and screaming, flared trousers, moustaches, beards, shirts with collars for hand gliding. That approach doesn’t sit so well.

So, suddenly there appears this contrast to the practice of present moment consciousness and the gestalt therapeutic process.

Bringing these two aspects together

I think the difference in approach originates from differences in the useful quality of our zones of experience, e.g. the outer zone (trees, flowers, the wetness of the air, sounds) are all real and to be fully experienced, thus be very mindful of them.  The inner zone, e.g. my body sensations, breath, emotions are also all real and thus to be fully explored.  However, there is another zone, the middle zone which doesn’t really exists, we know this as ego.  A nice quote from a group with Fritz Perls (Gestalt founder) solves part of the problem for me.

The neurotic suffering is suffering in imagination, suffering in fantasy.  Someone calls you a son of a bitch, and you think you feel hurt.  There are no bruises, no actual injuries.  Its the ego, the vanity that has been hurt.  When you say you feel hurt, you feel vindictive and you want to hurt the other person.

Fritz Perls

Ego can act fast, often without a conscious process.  A feeling arises and we suddenly feel the need to express something.  Emotional understanding is about observing the feeling ‘oh, I feel angry’ and then ‘where does that come from?’  Going deeper, can we then investigate their sources and their fuel?  Why is there this need for a reaction? Whats actually taking place?  I don’t mean purely intellectualising, but witnessing the middle zone of awareness, the realm of fantasy, those stories that form our reaction to events.

This I think is the same mechanism as conscious aware process, e.g. shining a light onto a neurotic suffering.  However, much of a neurotic suffering is unconscious.  If we have consciousness then we have the power to witness whats taking place and transform it.

In gestalt some of the powerful expressions are about bringing awareness to the unconscious patterns of behaviour.   This could be something potentially powerful, shocking, explosive and challenging.  But, what comes after, is a knowing, a consciousness.  In Zen Buddhism they use a Keisaku  (a paddle to strike you on the back) to bring about awareness during meditation or a Katsu (a shout), both seemingly harsh expressions are about awareness.

So I don’t think that Gestalt and Mindfulness are so diverse.  I think the buddhist approach is to meditate on something to understand it, e.g. to engage with it fully ourselves internally.  The gestalt approach is similar although often involving outwards expression.   Both probably are appropriate means of understanding the middle zone and in doing so becoming less engaged with it and more engaged with ‘here and now’.

I suppose that raw expression can be problematic.  I am picturing a couple in a relationship having arguments again and again about the same stuff, this could represent a lack of processing or worse that something is still unconscious.  This could but a strain on the relationship if both parties are not invested in the process of unravelling unconsciousness, especially as each will be unconscious of different aspects of their ego, thus a large degree of love, patience and acceptance is required.  Meditation can be a more peaceful way, however, such a peaceful approach is not always possible without consciousness.   Sometimes, we are just gonna have to suffer!   As Eckhart Tolle said:

“The ego says, ‘I shouldn’t have to suffer,’ and that thought makes you suffer so much more. It is a distortion of the truth, which is always paradoxical. The truth is that you need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it.”

Eckhart Tolle

I have a tendency to act quickly, to react, to become unconscious.  My goal then for this week.  To try to bring more consciousness of my process.  To feel but not to act so fast.

And after writing this, I feel, a peace.