Valuing Our Work

Michael A. Singer, in his audio program, The Untethered Soul at Work, reminds us of the value of work in our lives. Michael’s emphasis is on how work enables us to grow by removing the internal blockages that disable us in challenging work situations. However, we can value our work on several levels by being grateful for the opportunities it provides for personal expression and interaction with others, as well as for personal growth.

Being grateful for the work we have

Whether we are in paid work, voluntary work or are self-employed, there are many opportunities to value, and be grateful for, all that work provides. At one level, work adds to our sense of self-worth in that we can earn an income and/or provide services to others. If we can keep the end user of our efforts in mind, we can learn to appreciate what it is we do in the form of “work”. For example, in my role as an organisational consultant, I define my work as enabling people in organisations to have the conversations that they need to have about the things that are important to their productivity and mutual well-being.

We often take our work for granted, not valuing the work itself and the opportunities it provides. We can stop ourselves at any time during the day to express gratitude for some small aspect of our work – a simple gratitude exercise. We can precipitate this awareness and associated habit by occasionally making our work the focus of a gratitude meditation. In this way, both our work and ourselves will experience the benefits of gratitude.

Being grateful for the opportunities work provides for personal growth

Work, whatever form it takes, provides us with the opportunity to express ourselves; to use our knowledge, skills and experience to benefit others (and ourselves); and to be motivated to build our capabilities. As Michael points out, it also provides the learning environment for us to overcome the personal blockages that get in the road of our inner growth. Difficult tasks provide us with opportunities to understand ourselves better, develop discipline and realise a sense of achievement in overcoming personal obstacles that hold us back.

Being grateful for the opportunities work provides for developing relationships

One of the major sources of depression is when people feel isolated, cut off from other people. Work enables us to interact with others in a positive and collaborative way and to build constructive and valuable relationships. This benefit can be fully realised if we continuously work on our own personal growth and the development of mindfulness.

We can learn to value each interaction we have with others in a work context (even if we work from home), if we develop the skill to interact mindfully. This means being fully present, openly aware of the other person and engaging in active listening. If we connect and share through mindful conversations, we can create personal and social transformation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on our work and simple gratitude exercises related to work, we can learn to appreciate the opportunities provided to us for personal growth, self-development and self-expression and meaningful relationships. This can lead to personal transformation and contribute, even in some small way, to social transformation. We can contribute to connectednesss in a world where superficial connection through social media and damaging disconnection abounds.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Do Those Difficult Tasks That You Avoid or Put Off Doing

We all have tasks that we ought to do, or want to do, but that we avoid or put off because they are difficult or challenging. Sometimes our negative self-stories get in the road, other times we may have developed the habit of procrastinating without knowing why. We find ways to distract ourselves from the task or take on other tasks that are not important or time-sensitive. We may have difficulty building up the energy to tackle the task in addition to overcoming the personal barriers we create that prevent us from completing the task.

Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, offers a comprehensive strategy to address this problem of avoiding or putting off tasks. In his article, How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day – with Joy, he introduces an approach that he describes as creating a “training container”. He discusses how to develop the training container and offers a number of steps to encourage you to undertake the associated training in a spirit of joy.

Creating a training container to develop the habit of tackling a difficult task

Leo is an internationally recognised expert on developing habits – he has 2 million readers who seek out his wisdom in this area. The training container (or dedicated block of time) acts as a routine (for a new habit) that can be developed to suit your own personal and work style and that, with persistence, becomes an integral part of your day (just like any other training or gym regimen).

The key elements for creating a training container are:

  1. Set aside a time of the day when you train yourself to do the task. It’s important to allocate a set time that suits your lifestyle and/or work pattern that you can dedicate to the training. I’m a morning person, so I find that mornings are best for training myself to complete a difficult task. You can let others know about your dedicated time and even set up a reminder through the alarm on your mobile phone. The time set aside may change as your circumstances change, e.g. when I was writing my PhD, I used to write at 4am for two hours before our baby woke up and before the phones started to ring.
  2. Set aside a place for this training. You can find a space that is different to your normal place of working so that you break free of environmental blockages associated with your procrastination. If I have a difficult task to work on, I go away from my office and work at the kitchen table (with a view) or go to a tolerant, coffee shop. If you have a recurrent difficult task, you can go to an alternative space daily and treat it as your training space.
  3. Set up a ritual for starting your scary/difficult task. Leo, who happens to be a mindfulness expert among other things, encourages you to develop a ritual at the start to focus on your intention and commitment to dedicate your attention fully to your task. This helps you to undertake your task mindfully, fully utilising the opportunity that the training container provides.
  4. Focus on a single task during your training session, do not multi-task. I learnt early on that if I start the morning with reading emails, I get side-tracked very easily and hours can pass before I get back to my difficult task or have to put it off to another day. If you find that you feast on the news, you will have to develop the discipline to put off chasing the news until you have finished your training session. This discipline of undertaking a single task during your training session, not only builds your capacity to focus but also enhances your productivity.
  5. Revisit your “why”. You need to get in touch with the fundamental reason you want to do the difficult task – Who are you doing it for?, Who will benefit from it? In my case, I try to keep my focus on my readers who come from all walks of life but who share many common personal difficulties that impact negatively on their lives. Richardo Semler suggests that you ask yourself three “why’s” to get to your deeper purpose. Focusing on purpose builds motivation.
  6. Express gratitude at the completion of your training session. Leo suggests that initially you set a timer for your training session. He urges you not to rush off to something else when the session is completed, but to take the time for a brief gratitude meditation. As he puts it, “Bow to the practice, and to yourself, out of gratitude.” In the long run, you will certainly be grateful for having set aside the time, place and focus for your training container.

I have found these tactics very useful in creating the discipline and focus to write this blog. Yesterday, I completed my 300th post. I now have a set time and place every second day when I write my blog and maintain a single focus throughout the research and writing involved. I have found, too, that some preparatory work in the form of thinking or research before my writing day also helps me to start writing because I am not starting from a blank sheet. So, jotting down some notes during the day may be helpful when you come to tackle your task within the training container.

Training with joy

Leo provides a number of ideas to help you bring joy to the challenge of completing your training session. Two of these steps – dropping into your body & staying with your sensations – are consistent with my previous discussion on managing anxiety with mindfulness.

Leo also suggests that playing some music can help to achieve the mindset and focus necessary to realise joy in undertaking your difficult task. I play classical music when I write this blog. I find that Mozart’s music strengthens my concentration and increases my relaxation. I have yet to follow Leo’s final step, “Dance with the chaos- let your body move to the music”. He also suggests that the dance can be figurative in the sense of having fun while you are encountering uncertainty and venturing into an aspect of your life that you used to avoid or put off.

As we grow in mindfulness – by bringing a disciplined, mindful, focused, curious, grateful and joyful attention to a difficult task – we can experience greater productivity, energy and sense of achievement. Overcoming procrastination takes time and persistence but having a plan like the “training container” can help us to remove the blockages that get in the road of achieving our tasks and associated, meaningful endeavours.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Exploring Awareness Without Boundaries

In a previous post, I explored Diana Winston’s discussion of the three dimensions of awareness – narrow, broad and choiceless. In this post, I want to explore “boundaryless awareness” which is often called “choiceless awareness“. I will be drawing on a guided meditation for resting in boundaryless awareness provided by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

The expansiveness of awareness

Jon reminds us that our awareness can take in an endless array of sensations, thoughts, and emotions as well as conscious awareness of the fact that we are observing, thinking or experiencing. Our awareness is like the unbounded expanse of the sky or the galaxies beyond.

With narrow awareness we hone in on a particular focus such as our breathing, sounds around us or a specific self-story; with broad awareness we open ourselves to all that is going on around us. With boundaryless awareness we progressively open to our total inner and outer reality without constraint – not choosing, entertaining or engaging – just being-in-the-moment. Jon reminds us that we are often extremely narrow in our awareness, just fixated on ourselves – e.g. on our addiction, our pain or our boredom. Boundaryless awareness creates a sense of freedom – moving beyond self-obsession to openness to what is.

A guided meditation on boundaryless awareness

In Jon’s meditation podcast, provided by mindful.org, he takes us through a series of stages that gradually open our consciousness to the expansiveness of our awareness – beyond depth, breadth and width.

In the 30 minute meditation, he begins by having you focus on the “soundscape” – the sounds that surround you and the space in between each sound. He encourages you to “be the hearing” – to rest in the very act of hearing, thus deepening awareness not only of the sounds but also of the fact that you are hearing them.

In the next stage of progressing in awareness, Jon suggests that you now move your awareness to the air that you breathe and the sensation of the air on your skin as well as consciousness of its progress through your body. You could even extend this to breathing with the earth, so that you are attuned to your participation in the “breathing globe”.

Jon points out that while all this is going on your body is experiencing sensations – aches and pains, pressure of the chair on your back and legs, the sense of being grounded with your feet on the floor. [As I participated in this meditation, I even had the sensation of movement in my fingers (which were touching) – lightening the pressure of touch, growing thicker and expanding outwards.] Jon suggests that you let your awareness float across your body sensations as you breathe, sit, hear and feel.

You can extend your awareness to your thoughts, not entertaining them but growing conscious that you are thinking – letting your thoughts come and go as they float away. This awareness simultaneously embraces feelings elicited by your thoughts and accompanying images and memories.

In the final stage of this guided meditation, that Jon calls “one last jump”, you allow your mind and heart to be “boundless, hugely spacious, as big as the sky or space itself” – an awareness that has no bounds like the “boundarylessness” of awareness itself in its uninhibited form.

Stability through narrowing your focus

If you find that you need to stabilise your mind as you experience the unaccustomed sensations of “weightlessness” or unbounded awareness, you can return to a narrower focus – your breath or the sounds around you. In returning to a narrow awareness, you can sense the limits of this focus within the broader field of unbounded awareness. Boundaryless awareness, however, is accessible to you at any time you choose to pursue it.

As we grow in mindfulness by resting in our awareness -narrow, broad or boundaryless – through meditation, we come to realise the expansiveness of awareness and the freedom and calm that lies beyond self-absorption, with all its various manifestations such as addiction, negative self-stories or depression.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Breathing with the Earth

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC (UCLA), offers a unique perspective on developing mindfulness through breathing. In her meditation podcast, she introduces the idea of breathing with the earth – expanding consciousness of our own breathing to connect with the earth’s breath. She encourages us to deepen inner awareness of our breathing and, from this foundation, expand our outer awareness to connecting with every living creature and the earth’s breath. The process develops a sense of connectedness, calm and wonder.

The earth’s breath

Diana begins her meditation podcast by playing a video from Chilean artist, Glenda Leon. The video artistically depicts (with an embedded breathing sound) the earth breathing. Glenda has titled the video Cada Respire (Tierra), which is Portuguese for every earth breath. Diana suggests that as you watch the video you attune your own breathing to the sound of the earth breathing as depicted in the video.

In an article titled, The Earth Has Lungs. Watch Them Breathe, Robert Krulwich (writing for the National Geographic) highlights the NASA time lapse video depicting an “unimaginably vast planetary breathing system” over the cycle of a year. As the seasons change around the world, the growth of trees and their leaves (numbered in their trillions) act as the lungs of the earth breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing life giving oxygen. Robert highlights the fact that every leaf on every tree has thousands of “little breathing tubes called stoma” which enable the leaf to take in air from the outside. He uses a photograph by Robert Dash to illustrate the stoma on the surface of a leaf which has been magnified 150 times.

John Denver in the song Tremble If You Must recalls that “the trees are just leaves on a big breathing globe”. Eva Cassidy, in her amazing rendition of the song What a Wonderful World, reminds us that as we reflect on the ordinary things in our life, we can experience wonder if we open our eyes and minds. As we expand our consciousness of our breathing to that of the earth’s breath, we can experience connectedness and calm through awareness of the reality that surrounds us.

Breathing with the earth

Diana’s guided meditation provides a way to focus on your own breathing that serves as a gateway to breathing with the earth. For a start, she suggests that you become aware of your own breathing, focusing on your in-breath and out-breath wherever you can experience the act of breathing in your own body. This may be the air passing through your nose or the undulations in your abdomen or chest as you breathe in and out. You can expand this inner awareness to lower-belly breathing with a little practice.

Diana guides you to explore your breathing further by doing two things, (1) focusing on other parts of your body as you breathe, and (2) exploring the path of a single breath. She suggests that this expanded awareness can begin with focusing on parts of your body other than your torso to observe the sensations that accompany your breathing to see if their movements are attuned to your breathing, e.g. tingling in your fingers or feet. This can then be followed by observing the movement of a single breath through your body (if you cannot capture the explicit sensation, you can imagine this flow).

If you find that you become distracted from your focus on your breathing, you can let the thoughts or feelings pass and return to your breath. This requires discipline but will increase your capacity to focus over time. Once you have become grounded in your own breathing you can expand your awareness to the earth’s breath.

One way to consciously breathe with the earth is to envisage the earth breathing (aided by the earth breath video introduced above). This will build a strong sense of connectedness to the earth. You can then expand your awareness to the breathing of other people and every living creature on the earth.

What can strengthen your capacity to connect with the breath of the earth is to stand on the ground outside your home and feel the sensation of the earth’s movement, being conscious of the trees and plants and their life-giving breathing.

As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we can develop our inner awareness, enhance our external awareness, learn to breathe with the earth and build a sense of calm and connection to every living thing.

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Image by skeeze on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Committed Mindfulness Practice to Challenge our Self-Stories

Tara Brach reminds us why our negative self-stories are so persistent and difficult to dislodge. Sometimes our stories can help to protect us by warning us about real dangers. Often our self-stories are based on an irrational fear that has its origins in our childhood. If we are to challenge these stories and change our negative thoughts, beliefs and patterns of behaviour we need to be committed to a consistent mindfulness practice that unearths the stories damaging our lives and our relationships.

Stories can blind us to creative options

Fear-based stories tend to cloud our perceptions and obscure our thinking, so that creative exploration of options is closed off to us. If we are dealing with difficulties in our relationships or undertaking a challenging task, we can be blinded by the negative self-stories that capture our thinking and lock out consideration of alternative approaches. It is in stillness and silence that we can access our creativity – the noise of incessant negative, inner dialogue can disable us because the embedded fear triggers the amygdala (the most primitive part of our brain) and our automatic fight/flight response.

The starting point for self-exploration

The starting point for self-exploration can be identification of a blockage to taking action on some issue or problem, whether associated with a relationship or an endeavour. If we find we are procrastinating, if is a sure sign that some form of negative self-story is playing in the background, on an unconscious level. As we discussed previously, the challenge is to bring these stories “above the line” – into our conscious awareness.

When we are faced with a perceived threat or the possibility of embarrassment, we tend to fall back on the illusory sense of control embodied in our self-stories and fail to exercise the values that we espouse as important such as “honesty, collaboration and fairness”. Bob Dick, in his research paper on Rethinking Leadership, asserts that in this scenario we try to “control the situation” and, in the process, desert our espoused values. Our sole focus is on self-protection.

Challenging our self-stories through a commitment to mindfulness practice

While ever we remain unaware of our negative self-stories or fail to face up to them when we become aware of their existence, we will be held captive and blinded by them. They can be persistent and pervasive. Addressing them in a single mindfulness session will be inadequate to prevent their recurrence. Negative self-stories are like weeds – you remove them from some aspect of your life, and they pop up elsewhere in a slightly different form. Even with persistent and focused meditation, negative self-stories will not be removed entirely. However, their negative impact on our lives will be reduced with committed mindfulness practice – what Tara calls “dedicated practice”. She encourages us, in the words of Henri Nouwen, “to push aside and silence the many voices” that question our worthiness and basic goodness.

The difficulty in trying to build any new, positive habit is being able to sustain the effort. Without sustained mindfulness practice, however, our self-stories will continue to hold us to ransom and control our beliefs, thoughts and actions. We need to become conscious of the damaging effects of these stories and to frequently recall the benefits of the freedom and creativity afforded to us through mindfulness practice. We can reinforce our commitment by revisiting the sense of expansiveness and self-realisation that mindfulness releases in us.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection and committed mindfulness practice, we can engage in self-exploration, unearth our negative self-stories and their damaging effects, experience openness to self-realisation and creativity, and rest in the calmness of our relaxed breathing.

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Image by skeeze on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Self-Stories Perpetuate Anxiety

We live in an anxious world where the prevalence of anxiety disorder has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, even in primary school children. This increasing level of anxiety disorder is mirrored in the reported experience in America. Underlying this growth in anxiety are self-stories that have a significant, negative impact on relationships. A core problem encountered when trying to eliminate these negative self-stories is the range of forces that keep them in place and cement their hold over us.

Tara Brach, in her course on overcoming negative beliefs and patterns of thought, argues that fear-based stories dominate our mental maps. In respect to our relationships, these stories suggest what we should be and what others should be – an impossible realisation that generates anxiety because of the gap between our self-perception/ perception of others and some idealised reality.

How self-stories are maintained

Tara argues that there are three factors that sustain our self-stories and perpetuate our anxiety:

  1. Our self-stories involve “deep groves in the psyche” – we continuously repeat an inner dialogue that creates neural pathways that deepen over time as the cycle of thought- fear-manifestation becomes more deeply embedded through repetition. Fear generates a biochemical reaction which becomes an automated response and maintains the experience of anxiety as a persistent state.
  2. We are reticent to share our self-stories that betray our uncertainty, anxiety and inability to cope. We keep them to ourselves and, because we do not expose them to the “light of day” by sharing them with others, we become more and more captured by them and identified with them over time.
  3. We cling to these negative self-stories because they give us a semblance of control which is illusory. We maintain these stories because they are reinforced by our distorted perception of our past experience. As Tara points out, we prefer to have “a deficient map rather than no map at all” – even though this gives us a false sense of security. The “disease to please” is one such deficient map.

Breaking the cycle of anxiety-producing self-stories

Tara maintains that it takes a lot of courage, persistence and self-compassion to break down the anxiety-inducing, negative self-stories. The more difficult self-stories to counter are those that are based on a perception that our life situation will only worsen not get better – a precursor to depression.

It takes courage to face up to the self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and to look beyond the stories to what underlies them, e.g. fear of rejection. It takes persistence to continue this self-exploration despite relapses brought on by self-recrimination over beliefs such as “this should not be happening to me” or “I should not be like this”. In the final analysis, it requires self-compassion and self-forgiveness to break out of the vicious cycle of self-talk that perpetuates anxiety.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can throw some light on our self-stories that negatively impact our relationships. With courage and persistence, we can break the anxiety-producing cycle of these stories by accessing self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

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Image by skeeze on Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line

In a previous post, we explored the storytelling mind that leads to self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and thwart our endeavours. The impact of these stories is that we become stuck in a pattern of responses (or lack of response) that impedes our progress towards successfully accomplishing our goals. Procrastination, the art of “putting off” some action, is one such habituated pattern.

The self-stories behind procrastination

Procrastination can block us at any time in relation to any endeavour. Behind procrastination there is often a self-story based on fear. It can take many forms and block us from taking action:

  • “I might appear as a fraud or hypocrite because I do not always do what I encourage others to do.”
  • “I could appear stupid because people might not understand what I am getting at.”
  • “I could make a fool of myself because I lack the intelligence to take on this endeavour and be successful.”
  • “I may not be able to live up to the expectations of others if I start on this project.”
  • “What would happen if I fail?”
  • “Will people be upset with me and think less of me if it does not work out really well?”
  • “What will happen to my reputation if things go wrong and don’t turn out as I had promised?”
  • “How can I possibly live up to so many diverse expectations of me?”

Bringing the procrastination self-stories “above the line”

Fear embedded in our self-stories can block us from taking action. The first step to redressing this situation is to identify, or “throw light on”, the stories that underpin our fear. In the previous post, I discussed the “circle of awareness” that depicts our unconscious awareness as existing “below the line”. Tara Brach suggests that the aim in dealing with mental and emotional blocks to our progress is to bring these underlying self-stories “above the line” so that we can loosen the hold of our false beliefs and self-defeating stories.

You can bring the self-stories into conscious awareness (above-the-line awareness), by taking several steps that can break your procrastination pattern:

  1. Identify the self-stories that are blocking your progress, naming the story – “What are you saying to yourself when confronted with a challenging or stretching endeavour?”
  2. Get in touch with the feelings that are generated by your procrastination self-stories
  3. Revisit the parental influences that underly the stories that you are telling yourself
  4. Examine any pattern that may be occurring in your stories
  5. Reflect on any life experiences that have served to “solidify” your false beliefs and self-stories – What has happened in your life to reinforce these beliefs and stories?

The impact of life experiences in solidifying self-stories was brought home to me during a workshop I was facilitating on the power of positive feedback. One manager reflected on why she had stopped giving positive feedback to her staff over the previous five years. She recalled a negative experience of giving positive feedback to a staff member where the recipient turned on her and was abusive towards her. The manager from then on maintained the self-story, “Whenever I give positive feedback, the person receiving it will attack me.” It was only when she reflected on the previous negative experience and brought her self-story to light, i.e. above the line, that she could see what had been holding her back from using the power of positive feedback. She resolved “then and there” to begin again to give positive feedback in a timely, sincere and specific manner that would ensure her success in this endeavour.

Self-stories that lead to procrastination lose their power over time if brought into the full light of consciousness, so that they can be seen for what they are – seemingly true but fundamentally false. Tara encourages the regular practice of bringing self-stories above the line – they will recur throughout your life as you face new challenges or may take on a new shape (as Tara publicly acknowledges, her own self-story challenge has oscillated between “self-deflation” [less than others…] to “self-inflation” [more than others…]).

The repetition of the practice of bringing self-stories above the line, creates new neural pathways so that the self-defeating stories are eventually replaced by self-enabling beliefs and stories. You can strengthen these new neural pathways by developing success “anchors” – alternative stories of successful outcomes that you have achieved.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop the capacity to throw light on our procrastination self-stories and bring them “above the line” by naming them, identifying patterns of false beliefs, disowning self-defeating stories and creating new neural pathways that facilitate our pursuit of successful, creative endeavours.

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Image by MabelAmber on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Expose Self-Stories Through Awareness Raising

Tara Brach in her course on negative beliefs and thoughts highlights the fact that as humans we have a “storytelling mind”. We develop “self-stories” that influence the way we view ourselves, perceive others and relate to the world at large. These self-stories evolve over time and exist below our level of consciousness. Tara maintains that we can overcome the limitations of these stories about our self by “shining a light” on them through awareness raising – achieved through mindfulness practices.

Our storytelling mind

Archaeologists, through the discovery of drawings and fossils, argue that humans developed the capacity for abstract thought more than 100,000 years ago. This enabled humans to think about things beyond their immediate observations – to envision, engage in symbolic thinking and develop language.

The capacity for abstract thinking underlies our innate preoccupation with developing stories, especially self-stories. Many of our self-stories, however, are fear-based Joseph Campbell described this propensity for fear as the “survival brain”. We fear physical and or psychological harm because of our human origins. Jacob Ham contrasts the survival brain with what he calls the “learning brain”. The former is totally focused on potential threats and is fearful about new situations and ambiguity, whereas the latter is open to new experiences and the challenges inherent in ambiguity – it is not preoccupied with avoiding mistakes.

Self-stories are unconscious – beyond awareness

Our self-stories develop through parental influences, social factors and our own life experiences. The messages we receive from our parents and society at large, influence the formation of our self-stories which, in turn, impact our relationships and our endeavours. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes these stories as “narratives” that can control our thinking, emotions and behaviour.

While self-stories influence our perception of threats and drive our behaviour, they are below conscious awareness. Joseph Campbell highlights this aspect with his concept of the “Circle of Awareness“. He suggests that we can think of our “self” or “psyche” as illustrated by a circle with a line through it – above the line represents conscious awareness and below the line represents our unconscious. We can increase our conscious awareness (above the line segment) by accessing our unconscious awareness through mindfulness.

As humans we have what scientists describe as meta-cognition – the ability to “think about thinking”. In other, words we have the capacity to access our thoughts, our stories and our internal representations of external reality. This meta-cognitive ability enables us to access our unconscious stories through awareness-raising processes designed to expose these self-stories.

Exposing our self-stories through awareness raising

Tara offers a very simple way to access your self-stories that may be locking you into ways of feeling and behaving. This mindfulness practice can be undertaken once you have grounded yourself through conscious bodily awareness and mindful breathing.

The practice entails picturing a time and place where you were with your parents as a child – e.g. the dinner table, the card table, on the sofa watching TV or lying on the floor with the pet dog. Now you turn your attention to your parents and how they are viewing and interacting with you – are they making eye contact at all, asking your views, listening to you mindfully or are they communicating with you without eye contact, ignoring your presence or talking over the top of you all the time. What messages are you receiving from this “interaction”?

In various, subtle ways, often below their level of consciousness, your parents are communicating messages to you and about you. These messages and others you receive, can shape your self-stories, e.g.

  • I need to go out of my way to attract attention, so that people will acknowledge me and value my opinion
  • I need to be nice and constantly meet other’s needs to be sure that I can be loved and valued (a self-story that can lead to “the disease to please“)
  • I should be “seen and not heard”
  • I will only be accepted when I am successful with everything I do
  • I cannot make a mistake, otherwise I will be rejected
  • Risk is to be avoided at all costs
  • I have to show people how intelligent, capable and accomplished I am before people will listen to me and take me seriously.

Tara argues that when you can name your self-stories, they lose their power to control you – to influence your thoughts, emotions and behaviour.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can expose our self-stories, increase our awareness of how they impact our lives and relationships and reduce their (unconscious) hold over us.

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Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.