Self-Doubt – Part 2

A Cultural Norm?

Before I began researching self-doubt I’d often heard it referred to as useful or important and that without it one might become arrogant. This often struck me as being at odds with the harsh, critical and self-limiting reality of self-doubt. If the opposite of self-doubt were arrogance no wonder it seemed to be such a widely accepted norm.

However, what if true self confidence has nothing to do with being an extrovert, demonstrative or even successful. What if it has everything to do with simply trusting oneself? As such the opposite of self-doubt is not arrogance or an inflated sense of confidence but actually trust and self belief.

When I trust in myself the world around me feels like a safer place to be, my faith in others is stronger and I’m more resilient to deal with life’s challenges. When I don’t have belief or faith in myself I’m faced with self-doubt wherever I go. The world is full of uncertainty and I feel both vulnerable and a victim to a world where others have all the power, success and happiness.

Internal querying of ourselves and the world is a natural and normal mechanism, which can also be regarded as our moral compass that assesses what the right thing to do or say is. Self-doubt is part of this mechanism but it turns the querying into criticism. Because of the important moral aspect it is no wonder we confuse critical self-doubt with being so important. However it is self-regulation that is important. Self-regulation is the internal assessment process that supports our journey through our lives.

In my next blog I outline the two aspects of self-doubt and self-regulation the purpose of which is to provide a simple tool for empowering ourselves and navigating beyond the self-limitation. I argue that self-regulation is the important device that assesses what is right for me as well as the world around me whilst self-doubt is a defensive position that keeps me limited and withdrawn from my life.

Understanding self-doubt as a cultural norm means we can step beyond it and make different choices. As such we can shift our attention away from unhelpful internal dialogues and towards that which helps us grow and live more fulfilling lives.

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The everyday art of Meditation

For the past twenty one years I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation. There are many other forms of meditation out there many of which I’ve explored, however I keep coming back to Vipassana as I find it works at a much deeper level than any others I’ve experienced.

For me, meditation has helped me understand the nature of my busy mind and to bring myself more into the present moment. It has also enabled a better connection to my body and before I discovered meditation I was often stressed, angry and lost in my thoughts. All of this was what was perfectly normal to me and it had never occurred to me that perhaps I had a choice in what I did with my thoughts or how I reacted. Instead I was a slave to my reactive mind and body and a prisoner of my thoughts. Fantasising and worrying about the future or dwelling in past were states I was very familiar with and alcohol or other distractions being ways I coped with difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression.

Twenty one years ago I was coming to the end of a three month student exchange at a design college in Melbourne, Australia. My plan was to travel around the country before heading back to Manchester in the UK where I was in the middle of a three year design degree. Before leaving a friend, with whom I’d been to see the Dalai Lama give a talk at the Rod Lever arena in Melbourne, suggested doing a ten day meditation retreat outside Sydney in the Blue mountains. She explained that there was no charge and payments were based on donation. She also talked about the wonderful location and the great vegetarian food but beyond that she said very little. As a student with not much money the suggestion instantly appealed. I called the centre and miraculously they had space on the next course so all was set. Doing something alternative, becoming a beacon of calm and tranquility along with attaining the ability to sit in some sort of lotus-type position, I have to admit, where the only thoughts and expectations floating around in my twenty four year old mind.

Setting off from Melbourne I spent a few days exploring Sydney before heading up to the Blue mountains and the small town of Blackheath, which was a quiet contrast to the energy of Sydney. It was early June and so the beginning of winter. At the station I was met by a man in a truck and he drove me and a couple of other prospective meditators up to the centre. I remember that he parked at the end of a driveway and a we walked the rest of the way as snow fluttered in an icy breeze. Winter was not something I’d associated with Australia and so by this stage in the year I was ill equipped but thankfully had remembered to buy a jumper and a beanie hat in Sydney beforehand.

The centre consisted of a series of timber structures nestled amongst eucalyptus trees with landscaped gardens and carp ponds all on an escarpment over looking the Blue mountains and the valleys below. On first sight it was exactly what I’d expected of a meditation centre; peace, tranquility and beauty. This was going to be a great story to add to my experience down under and share my friends and family back in the UK.

After registering I was allotted a room but discovered that I would to be sharing with 5 other men and I would have to clamber up onto a bunk bed. This was the first blow to my idyllic fantasy. Back in the dinning room all 50 or so people who were taking part gathered and waited for the course to begin. Soup was served and we chatted in between uncomfortable silences. It was now dark outside and as the hours ticked by my impatience and uncertainty mounted. Thoughts such as “What the hell am I doing here?” and “This isn’t for me – I’m going to end up in some cult and so better make a run for it whilst I still can” played around in my head. However, before I could do anything about it the course manager came in with a series of announcements and introductions, explained the rules and pointing out various practicalities. The course was due to start at 8pm and he would bang a gong at which point we would enter ‘noble’ silence. By this stage I was feeling very nervous.

Some time after 8pm we were taken into the meditation hall and allotted large square cushions that would serve as our seating position for the duration. Men and women were kept apart with separate sleeping quarters, dining rooms and in the meditation hall men sat on the left and women on the right. As I adopted the Buddha-like position I watched, through squinting eyes, to see what others were doing. Was I doing it right? Suddenly someone, who I thought must be the teacher, entered and serenely positioned himself on an cushion facing us. I straightened my back. Through the ensuing silence and my half closed eyes I could see him fumbling with a tape which he clattered into a machine and pressed play. As he straightened himself I quickly closed my eyes lest he spot my fake buddha-hood and eject me from the course. From the speakers deep guttural chanting that sounded more like groaning filled the room as my mind filled with the idea of a goat being dragged in and slaughtered any minute. This was a weird cult after all but there’s no turning back now I thought. Never mind – what a story! Eventually the voice of the taped teacher, a man called Goenka, spoke, “You have all assembled here to proceed on the noble path of wisdom.” Enter goat! He went on to take the group through five precepts which included; no stealing, no lying, no killing, no taking intoxicants and no sexual misconduct. We all repeated the promise not to do any of these things for the duration of the course and were instructed to ask the teacher for guidance which also repeated in unison, sort of.

A tape recording? I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps this was just the beginning and the actual person sitting in front of us would impart some instructions tomorrow. At 9pm the introduction was over and we went off to bed in silence to be woken early the next morning.

When the gong went at 4am I was keen to hear the ‘real’ instructions on how to do meditation so quickly got ready in the chilled darkness and eagerly positioned myself in the hall. It was still dark and bitterly cold which added a cosiness to the meditation hall. A silent landscape of blanketed adults began to take shape like soft rocks, which struck me a quite beautiful. At 5.15am the teacher appeared, positioned himself as before followed by the clatter of tapes once again and Goenka’s chanting. Once that had finished Goenka instructed us to observe our breath as it enters our nostrils and as it exits. That was it.

Bewildered, I headed to the dining room for breakfast at 6.30. As we silently ate our breakfast I was wowed by the view from the dining hall. The moon, huge and peach-like, appeared to be setting over a lake of cloud down in the valleys below. It was a striking backdrop to my confusion.

Returning to the meditation hall later the same procedure ensued and then continued for the next 4 days. Observing the breathe as it comes in as it goes out. I couldn’t believe how easy it was yet unbelievably difficult with often 20 minutes passing before I realised I was lost in my thoughts and had forgotten all about my breath. On day four the focus of attention changed. Starting from the top of our heads and slowly moving down to our toes noting all the sensations then back up again. For someone like me who regarded my body as just something that held my head up this was uncharted territory.

By the end of the course any expectations I might have had were obliterated. Becoming all buddha-like was irrelevant and tranquility and peace were bi-products but far from the actual experience of the course.

In fact, by the end of the course everything seemed to have changed. The icy snow flurries had vanished and although we were now further into winter there was a distinct feeling of spring in the air. Flowers seemed to be blooming, the sun shone and animals came into clearings as if out of a scene form Snow White. After 10 days of silence talking was a shock and at the same time a verbal flood ensued as everyone who had taken part for the first time couldn’t wait to share their experiences. Meantime, those who had come back for a second or third time, avoided the chattering masses. At the time I couldn’t understand their need for continued seclusion let alone the fact that anyone would come back to go through the ordeal again, it was mind boggling to me.

Looking back I now understand both. The budding nature of spring that I was experiencing outside was actually inside me as something opened, shifted and was in the process of a major transformation.

21 years on I’ve now completed many 10 day retreats with each experience different from the last despite the instructions and the structure of the course being exactly the same as that first one back in Australia. I continue to get benefits from both the daily practice as well as the occasional experience of spending time in silence. I find that through the silence and the intensity of the extended periods of sitting I get insight and clarity into what direction I want my life to go. Any confusions and internal conflicts seem to get ironed out and I often emerge feeling clearer and refreshed. At other times it’s hell from start to finish but I’ve come to know that this is just as ok as the clarity and openness. It’s the nature of change.

Stepping back into the outside world can be a bit of a shock but on the course silence is lifted on the final day providing the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with our vocal chords. Talking acts as a shock absorber before leaving and re-entering the outside world the following day.

Back in the busy world I recently, watched a documentary film on the artist Marina Abramovic who is famed for her physical installations that explore the relationship between pain, relationships and the body. The film charts her creative life but focuses on a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Central to the show was her most recent piece entitled ‘The Artist is Present’, which was also the title of both the exhibition and the film. Within the piece Marina sits on a chair as visitors queue to sit opposite her. During that time they look at each other in silence for however long the visitor wishes. The show lasted for four months and Marina sat all day for the duration of the exhibition. Marina later described how she’d encountered a broad spectrum of emotions in the faces of her visitors that ranged from anger to sadness and love. She also described the pain of sitting for such long periods and how she’d have to look out beyond her suffering to connect with the other.

I found this film hugely inspiring and whilst it was an expression of the artist’s creative ego it also represented some of the challenges of meditating for long periods of time and the range of experiences that can be encountered during that time from bliss to boredom and depression. In ‘The Artist is Present’ Marina Abramovic turned sitting and observing into an art form. Similarly, I find that meditation provides a space in which creativity takes place and from which inspiration and insights emerge. One of the main aims of meditation is to become present. Marina’s presence beyond the suffering enabled connection with another human being. In meditation we seek connection with ourselves, our truths and the reality of each arising moment within the framework of our minds and bodies. From here, we can move out into the world bringing our presence and inspiration with us in order to be in better relationship, not only with ourselves but also, with everything around us. http://www.dhamma.org

Self-doubt – friend or foe?

Have you ever had a great idea only to find that as you try to take it forward you run out of steam or give up?

Chances are you may be in the grip of self-doubt. Often we are so familiar with self-doubt dictating what we do or don’t do that we’re unaware how much it stops us from expressing who we really want to be.

Here’s a couple of examples;

You have an idea that you’d like to write a book, you enjoyed writing at school and although this may have been some time ago you enroll on a creative writing course. On the course you feel really inspired and enjoy exploring different styles and generally getting back into writing as form of creative expression. During that time you’re encouraged to read your work out loud and whilst this brings up a lot of anxiety you receive some good feedback along with some constructive criticism. After the course you have some great ideas but you find yourself doing nothing further. Although you think about your initial idea of writing a book you also have thoughts like, “I’m not that good”, “others are better than me”, “who am I to write a book?” etc. These thoughts now overpower the original thought and they win the day.

Or .. you want to find a new job. You think you’d like to work for yourself and you have a few ideas but you are filled with anxiety every time you think about retraining or the possibility of not having a steady income. The thoughts that arise may include; “it will take too long”,”I will run out of money”, “I may fail” etc. Again, these limiting thoughts win the day.

The examples could go on to include; finding a new relationship, speaking out, moving home, following a passion, changing your mind, making decisions and the list goes on…

Of course, the argument in favor of self-doubt says that if I don’t have doubt I’ll be out of control, I’ll become arrogant or make bad decisions etc. This is where distinguishing the difference between self-doubt and self-regulation is very useful.

Self-regulation is the natural internal process that assesses our capacities, resources, talents and abilities. It is a concrete rational understanding that if, for example, I’m 95 years old, with all the will in the world, I’m unlikely to win a gold medal in gymnastics. However it might help me become a little more active.  Similarly, if I want to become a tree surgeon and I’m currently working in the banking industry self-regulation is going to help me fathom what needs to happen in order to get me to where I’d like to be.

Self-doubt, on the other hand is the internal critic. This critic acts out of fear and simply wants to keep us safe and secure. In listening to this and believing what we hear we keep ourselves stuck and our lives limited to what is familiar and away from uncertainty.

Getting into relationship with the dialogues that go on inside ourselves and embracing those moments of inspiration where we have a desire to move towards an expression of our soul nature can provide us with a map of how our live could be.

Moving beyond self-doubt and critical limitations can open up our lives in ways that, up until now, have only been a distant dream. Suddenly we become the writer we’ve always wanted to be or the tree surgeon or anything that truly makes our hearts sing.

Self-doubt can become a friend that can point us towards our wounds, our fears and what needs to heal. From there we can negotiate our doubts in order to live the lives we really want and align with our true-selves.

Coming to the end ..

Today is the ‘End of time’ according to the ancient Mayans. Whilst their calender ends today after nearly five and a half thousand years there was nothing to suggest an apocalypse yet across the globe thousands of people are preparing for our imminent conclusion. There is much debate about why it ends so abruptly but endings tend to have that element of surprise and the unknown about them.

Even those who were completely unaware of the calender and its significance, are now drawn into it’s web due to our mass global media. On the internet there is talk of people in China frantically stocking up on candles lest the sun be extinguished. Meanwhile, a friend of mine is gathering with others on a hill in Glastonbury to mark the end of time and celebrate the winter equinox. She assures me that she will be thinking of me should the earth come to a grinding halt.

Within therapy we often work with endings. The end of relationships. The death of a loved one. Loss of health. The end of a job. Within the difficulties that all these situations present there is also the beginning of something, even if it’s the beginning of the grieving process.

At the end of a therapy session I tell my clients that we have a few minutes left before we need to pause. Whilst it’s an end in itself our work is often on-going so I prefer the term ‘pause’. Eventually our work comes to an end and I like to allow a good few weeks to tie up any loose ends and review what has happened as well as what needs to happen next. In doing this we honor our work together recognising that whilst there are endings there are also beginnings.

Why talking therapy?

When I first sat in front of a counsellor and attempted to discuss the difficulties I was facing I found the experience of opening my mouth and speaking to a complete stranger both strange and profound. The counsellor patiently listened as I tried to give voice to my inner struggles and during a brief pause I was shocked to hear the words I had uttered repeated back in a calm and coherent manner as the counsellor sought clarity with sentences such as, “What I’ve heard is …” “Do I understand correctly?” “It sounds like what you’re experiencing is ..”

It made me smile to have been listened to and hearing the counsellor reflect back what I had been trying to communicate held a mirror up through which I gained understanding into my situation at that time. Within that simple interaction where words were exchanged, rambled, filtered, sifted, reflected and understood I felt a great knot of tension unraveling. Leaving that first session I felt lighter, less anxious and deeply inspired.

For this reason, and the subsequent sessions which helped me further, I decided to train as a psychotherapist and offer this service to others. I continue to find the power of putting words and voice to the challenges we face and to have these accurately mirrored back enormously transformative and healing. For many of us we have not been brought up to voice our difficulties let alone have them heard and understood so the dynamic between a talking therapist and client can be unique and create a space in which it is possible to understand ourselves better.

Psychotherapy as Art

Recently, I watched a documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic which followed the process of putting together an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York. At the heart of her exhibition was a new piece of work entitled ‘The Artist is present’. In this installation there were two chairs facing each other and a table in between. In one chair sat Marina whilst visitors queued to sit in the chair opposite. Once they had settled themselves Marina raised her head and established eye contact for the duration of their sitting. The rules were simple, no talking, no physical contact just eye contact. They could sit for as long as they wished and she remained present for the entire three months of the exhibition.

The effect of this pure and still presence attracted huge attention with some visitors queuing day and night to sit opposite her. She later described how she observed the emotional states that many sitters brought, from simple curiosity to anger and sadness to love and pain. For many there was a sense of being seen for the very first time and in this encounter deep emotions were stirred.

What was it about this simple performance that affected so many people?

In our society we have created little room for just being and as a result many of us are constantly on the move in a never ending cycle of action and reaction. Here, in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world an artist sat as the art itself and observed the observers. In that inaction she brought the visitor into the present moment with her.

Later, Marina decided to have the table removed. Now the dynamic of the piece resembled the same composition as in the psychotherapy session between therapist and client. However, in therapy there is the boundary of time where words are exchanged.

Can that pure still presence manifest in the container of a 50 minute therapy session where words and language are ever present?

I believe it can and does ..

The essence of that piece and the intention of pure presence reminded me of what we attempt to do as psychotherapists and often fail through words, interventions, solutions and opinions. We know we shouldn’t but they leak out through our mouths and our body language. The piece reminded me of what I’ve experienced as most trans-formative, both as a client and with my clients as a therapist. That of being fully present with what is happening in the room and witnessing from a place of empathic regard.

I’m always amazed, as I sometimes find myself hurtling across London, at how the troubles of my day dissolved when I’m able to bring myself fully present with my clients. Sometimes that can be challenging when the troubles of the day are great but as I listened to Marina describe the pain she often experienced through sitting for long hours and observing her visitors. In this I was again reminded of how we learn to look out from beyond ourselves into the lives of our clients and sometimes it’s just about being there as fully as we can be.