Do people ever say to you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and your inner voice replies with something like, “But I don’t know how not to,” or “If I’m not, who will? I won’t get very far in life”?

One of my yoga teachers talks about the “Little Man” in our head who tells us how we’re not going to succeed. “You can’t balance on one leg for five seconds – you will fall! You’re not good enough for them – they’re out of your league! You have to do everything yourself – you’re a loser and no one is going to help you! You’re gonna miss that bus, then you’ll be late to work, and then you’ll lose your job!”

All of these messages come from that voice in your head & can really beat you down, causing stress, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. The majority of the time we are our own worst critic.

But here is the secret: That voice is not really you! You may think it is you because it’s coming from inside of you and and it sounds like you; but it’s not a part of you. That voice and those messages are a part of someone or something else. They grew from a little seed (or 2 or 20 seeds) that you unknowingly swallowed along time ago.

From a psychological perspective this is called an introjection. An introjection is “the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others.” These voices or messages in your head are just ideas from someone else you started to believe without question.

Not all introjections are negative or make us feel bad about ourselves, but it’s wise to be curious about all of our unconscious beliefs. Introjections can be ideas we picked up from our family or community about religion and spirituality, politics and money, sex and identity, race and culture. They can also be ideas about who we are – things that people told us about ourselves as we grew up.

So, if you grew up in a home where you received messages about being smart, attractive and successful, after a while you probably started to believe that was true because it’s what the authorities in your life told you. And if your school environment was supportive of your growth, encouraging you to think critically and told you you were smart, then you probably believed that too. But imagine if you had parents and teachers who were unhappy, stressed, angry or sick, and blamed your for their suffering. If this went on for a few years, then after a while you started to believe that it’s true. We internalize these messages about ourself and the Little Man is not so nice – he is our own worst critic, judge and tormentor.

Now the question becomes, How do I get rid of the Little Man? I believe that the Little Man is not something we want to get rid of, but something to change. That voice is something which can be helpful when it says things which help us feel good about ourselves. It takes time to change that voice and the messages. It’s takes consciousness, awareness and effort. Think of it as retraining your brain to think differently about yourself.

This is where self-compassion comes in to help soften the voice and soothe the Little Man, so he doesn’t get defensive when you tell him he’s wrong. That would be like arguing and yelling “Shut Up! You’re wrong!” That’s not going to help someone change their thinking. Self-compassion brings in a level of understanding your own suffering allows the mind to open to other possibilities. This takes time and discipline, just as with any new skill we learn.

One of the best tools for working on this is practicing a Loving-Kindness meditation (or Metta from the Buddhist tradition). This practice has two parts: sending loving-kindness to yourself and to others. For the practice of self compassion I suggest focusing just on yourself. The basic practice is to get into a mindful state and focus on this mantra:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.

I suggest starting with just five minutes a day, every day. Over time these messages will start to become more natural and automatic, and eventually the Little Man may adopt them into his arsenal.

There are many other ways to work with introjections and cultivating self-worth and self-esteem, such as working with a therapist. This is just one way to begin the work on your own.

~ May you be free from suffering ~

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 2

Recently on This American Life, Ira Glass interviewed some teenage girls who gave him the rundown on how interacting with their friends on Instagram is crucial to their social standing. They basically explained that in their circles, if a friend did not respond to a photo posted with the expected type of response (ie. “You’re so pretty!”) AND within the expected period of time (ie. within 1 hour or less), this was possible grounds for ending a friendship.

How many Facebook posts have you LIKED in the last week? How many Instagram photos did you give a HEART today? On the flip side, when was the last time you left a scathing Yelp because you got bad service at your regular cafe? Or, have you publicly flamed someone because their post upset you? Engaging with one another online has become as natural as scratching an itch, and we can easily forget that there is a real person on the receiving end of our reactive click.

Now, everyone has an opinion, and opinions are important. Opinions help us discern our wants and needs. Opinions help us navigate through our day. However, it is when opinions turn into judgements that they can cause suffering. These thoughts and ideas — these strong opinions — can be the seeds of suffering for both yourself and others.

A growing concern which has had a great deal of press in the last couple of years has been online bullying. The ease with which you can direct judgment and negativity at someone, and often without being held accountable for it, is astonishing. Yes, most of us, including myself, have had nasty thoughts about another person — usually when we are hurt or angry. We can take a breath, let the moment pass, and go on with our lives. Or we can let the flood of emotions blindly encourage us to post a rant or smear a person instantaneously, creating a digital record of it “forever.” Thankfully you can delete a post or a tweet, but you cannot unsend a text message.

There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today. And if you’re on social media, it is everywhere: innocent people being shot and killed, politicians throwing each other under the bus, displaced immigrants seeking asylum and being turned away by entire countries. It’s hard stuff to face, and being constantly bombarded by it hurts our hearts and triggers all sorts of feelings. It’s important to monitor our inner landscape and take care of ourselves, even when we are just catching up with friends online.

Here’s your challenge: Notice when using social media leaves you feeling good about yourself and others; OR when it leaves you feeling depleted, angry or hopeless. Notice what you want more of and what you want less of — LIKES or hugs, FaceTime or face-to-face time. Now, can you sit with it all in a place of being grounded and present, engaging in a kindhearted way without preference? Without pushing or pulling? Without loving or hating, but simply being? This is the beginning practice of equanimity.

My teacher Isa Gucciardi, defines equanimity as the practice of “engaged presence without preference.” Without the preference to pull toward you for more, or push away and ignore. Another translation of the Pali word for equanimity is, “to stand in the middle of all this.” So how can we stand in the middle of all this love and hate, and just be present and compassionate? It takes practice, and this is what it means to be a human today. It’s wonderful and beautiful — it’s heart wrenching and challenging.

We are here to experience it all. As my good friend Uncle Bear says, “Feel your feelings.” Then take a breath, don’t push, don’t pull, and be here now.

~ Nick Venegoni, MFT

Buddhism is not only a religion, but a philosophy, a science and a psychology as well. The Buddha studied the nature of the mind very deeply, the way a biologist studies a cell on the nuclear level. Buddhist psychology is a complete science unto itself, of the nature of the mind and the ways in which the human mind creates suffering, joy and liberation within the mind. Buddhist psychology explicitly gives instructions on ways to support yourself and others to find liberation from suffering and to live in joy and complete bliss. The tricky part, especially for us westerners, is that it is a continual practice, not just a one time quick fix, like taking a pill.

Let us start with empathy: What is it? In his new book on compassion, “A Fearless Heart,” Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. (former Tibetan monk and principal english translator of the the Dalai Lama) defines empathy: It’s our natural ability to understand other people’s feelings and share in their experiences. It thus consists of two key components: an emotional response to someone’s feelings, and cognitive understanding of his or her situation. So it is a perceived feeling and knowing what others feel or experience. This is very helpful for both parties involved: the one in pain feels understood and less alone in their suffering, and the one who is witnessing has a visceral experience of understanding and relating in their own way to the experience of suffering.

Now, for some people having empathy can be challenging. Many of us grow up not learning skills or knowing how to cope with our own suffering, let alone others suffering. I’ve heard it said that in today’s modern, technology driven society, there is a significant deficit in empathy. Many aspects of our culture have cultivated a sense of narcissism that makes it easy to disconnect from what others might be experiencing.

Then there are others who are overwhelmed by empathy. Some people are quite sensitive and attuned to other people’s experiences, but without proper self care this can be exhausting. Many people in helping professions, such as nurses and therapists, end up leaving their profession because of what’s called “compassion fatigue,” but I would argue that they are really experiencing “empathy fatigue.” These people may believe they have a responsibility to take on the suffering of others because they know how to digest it more easily than the original owner, but this is very taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Hence the fatigue and burn-out occurs, and we have talented helpers and healers who are very much needed, leaving their professions. So, what is the solution?

This brings us to compassion and kindness. Compassion is really quite simple, yet our experiences of empathy can sometimes impede compassion. Compassion is a deep and sincere wish or desire that another’s suffering come to an end. It’s as easy as a wish. Kindness is then the action we take toward the one suffering as a result of our compassionate wish. Jinpa says: Compassion is a more empowered state and more than an empathic response to the situation. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism. Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.

This action of kindness is another place we can get stuck, however. For those of us who are helpers and healers we get stuck in feeling helpless and not knowing what to do to help another person. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be. Often times simply holding compassion for the sufferer in their presence is enough kindness. It doesn’t sound like much but it can be quite powerful. It can take fierce compassion to stay present with anothers suffering knowing there is nothing you can do about it because only they know the best way through and out of their experience. Expressing loving kindness toward them means they don’t have to feel so alone as they walk that path.

As a therapist, I often think of myself as an old-fashioned, cast iron oven, sitting in the middle of the room and emanating a heat and warmth of compassion and loving kindness. Those who are on their journeys of healing and self discovery can stop by to warm and center themselves before they carry on again. Yes, I have other tools and practices to offer them as well out of kindness. But, as Jinpa said, “compassion is a more empowered state” for all involved, than simply feeling empathy for the sufferer.

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

Daniel Rechtschaffen, a friend of mine from grad school, was interviewed on the local news this weekend and the circulating video clip of it came across my Facebook feed today. While watching my friend in his brief interview, I sensed a great joy growing inside of me and I was very excited for him! How wonderful that his work and passion is getting such recognition! — I thought.

From a Buddhist perspective, I was experiencing Empathetic Joy. This particular feeling (also called appreciative joy) is that which you experience as you witness and become infected by another beings happiness and delight. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, especially in the presence of children on Christmas morning or chasing bubbles across the yard. They are so excited and full of life that you can’t help but smile as you feel their joy. Or perhaps watching animals at play. (Maybe this is why we’re addicted to cat videos on Youtube.)

But one thing I’ve noticed as I age is that, the challenges of life make it more difficult for me to experience empathetic joy with other adults. When things aren’t going my way or I’m struggling with money, and I see others who are better off, sometimes I feel a tinge of jealousy begin to rise up within me. If I’m not careful I may begin to to judge them to feel better about myself; or I may judge myself to punish my laziness or to motivate me to do better. But none of that feels good, nor is it really helpful to anyone.

What is helpful is to loosen the grip of my mind about my expectations for myself, and rest in the joy that another persons experience brings to me. Being in this place will help me stay more connected to others. It will also support me to move towards my goals in a positive and productive way, instead of punishing myself for not yet having the thing I want.

So many of us walk through the world judging our experiences, the people we encounter, and ourselves — this is exhausting, and it doesn’t feel good! I challenge you make it a game to see how much joy you can find in others and allow it to infect you. Take off those goggles of gloom and doom, and try on some rose colored glasses… just for an hour.

During this last winter my friend and I decided to explore the elements in a freeform, guided meditation. When we meditated on fire we both came up with similar ideas and imagery. For us fire was about change and transformation, but also about warmth, sustenance and community. Many images came of communities gathering around a fire circle for a ritual or the hearth of a home, and even around the stove in a kitchen. How many parties have you been to where the little kitchen is full of people and the spacious living room is empty? Humans are drawn to community, connection and contact. By our nature, we are not solitary beings. Science has shown that without contact with others our physical and mental health suffers greatly.

Community and connection is paramount to our well being, and not just any community, but our sangha. Sangha is a Buddhist term, which refers to our community of kindred spirits, like-minded friends or our spiritual community. Your sangha is the community where you can be yourself, relax and find support. For some this is at work or school, for others it’s in your own family or even at the local watering hole.
There are many people who may feel isolated from that sense of community. They may feel like outsiders because of their beliefs or a particular disability. I want to acknowledge that it can be a struggle to find a sangha for some. To those people, I would encourage your to not give up and keep looking. I also offer two other options, the first being the internet. In this day of social networking we can meet people from all around the world, and we are bound to find other kindred spirits out there. The second possibility is the internal sangha, for those with a spiritual practice or believe system. In prayer and meditation we can find a multitude of support networks through a pantheon of gods and goddesses, angels, spirit guides or mythical figures. Even our imagination can create a rich center of support, perhaps by reading uplifting stories or sagas of great heroes who have discovered strength in their wounding.

We seek out these communities when we feel good and want to connect, but also when we want to take refuge from our struggles and difficulties. And even though our community may not have the answers or solutions, we feel better simply because we can rest in that connection with our people.

– Nick Venegoni, MA