Reader’s Question about Anxiety and Practicing from the Head

Question

I’ve been reading your posts on integrating emotional scars. Growing up, I had low self-esteem. Now at 48 I still have social anxiety despite meditating 20 years. So could you tell me the practice of resolving childhood emotional scars? In my situation I don’t have to deal with my social anxiety. My thought is occupation colors experience on the path. I work as a computer programmer, so I’m used to being up in my head. If I don’t force myself to really change, then what is the point of practice?

Answer

All practitioners, without exception, were traumatized in childhood. Trauma is why we enter the path in the first place: We are trying to heal our broken selves and reprogram dysfunctional interpersonal habits, for it is in our relationships that we suffer the most.

The problem is that we let this trauma program our very method for redressing it. Until that ouroboros of a tendency is corrected through metacognitive awareness, we are indulging in poor form in the gymnasium of the mind, so to speak, and are therefore wasting our short human lifetime in devotion to fruitless exercises. So how do we unknot this first, basic conundrum so we can practice well? I have several prongs to my response.

Establish a Sense of Trust and Present-Oriented Motivation for the Sit

You say that occupation colors experience on the path. Well, all of our conditioning colors (and obscures) everything until it doesn’t. Good practice is the deconditioning, but until its subvocal work is completely done (ie, until you are a buddha), conditioning, your psychological issues, will still regularly make their appearances. The path is cyclic, not linear. You will have to confront the same central personality issues over and over and over again, at successively deeper levels right up until buddhahood! So, first, realize that, until you are a buddha, you aren’t going to escape or perfectly integrate your issues or your scars. In fact, the impulse to escape, suppress, or change them is the heart of the problem, especially if that impulse is mistaken for practice method.

You have to be determined to establish and maintain metacognitive awareness of how you are relating to the fact that conditioning is corrupting your method, as well as relating to the conditioning itself. This is important! If, when you practice, you expect to just “get rid of” what you don’t like about your personality, well, as my husband always says, “Expectations lead to death.”

You need to take yourself in hand when you are indulging in expectations that current practice is going to be some kind of a shortcut to changes in your relative, conventional life, relationships, and personality. Such attempts at spiritual bypassing invariably fail. There are no shortcuts.

The more you focus on the future, expecting to “get rid of” anxiety, fear, withdrawal, and tunneling down into your IT work, the more frustrated and defeatist you are setting yourself up to be when you sit down to meditate now. You ask me “What is the point of practice?” That question reverberates with self-defeat that is embedded in your goal-formation. 

So, firstly, don’t do that! Simply stop being impatient for the ultimate fruit that won’t come till buddhahood. Set more reasonable incremental, present-oriented goals.

When you sit, call in your ancestors and all the masters who have ever cared about these practices. Ask them to give you support. Do so even if you have no beliefs that these “others” are “really” there. They are; just trust me. And do it even if you don’t trust me! Lack of trust in the universe is the key hindrance to practice, yet it comes from the childhood trauma that is motivating us to practice in the first place! This paradox is actually a very deep insight into the Second Noble Truth: the recursive nature of suffering.

Decondition that as actors cultivate feeling: by rehearsing physical actions, by first just going through the motions “as if.” Feeling will follow action, as I learned when I was a theatre major. So pray, even if you are not religious. Begin to relate to any imaginary figure you can with trust, in the safety of your sacred practice space. I do so every time I practice. I pray to Jesus Christ, for example, even though I’m no longer a Christian or a theist at all. The efficacy of doing so cannot be overestimated. 

Then set an effectively formed motivation for the sit, such as “I’m going to rest attention on the breath for the next 24 minutes in order to ‘wire in’ an ability to self-soothe agitation and calm distraction quickly in daily life.” You are motivated by the promise of long-term fruit, a changed personality trait; but your expectations are grounded realistically in the present sit. 

Ironically, the more we sit down to practice to “get rid of x,” the more x will haunt us, casting a defeatist coloring over the practice. This sets up a negative feedback loop. If your practice consists in rejecting yourself, rejecting your experience, then how can that self lead you to embodying a better one? I think this is one practical reason that in Buddhism we must think of ourselves as already pure. And when we don’t feel so pure, we can pray, do tantric practices, engage in purification rituals. I take lavender Epsom salt baths and put on clean garments before I sit. I clean up the meditation area. All this is about honoring our experience as our highest teacher. All this is high self-esteem and faith in the making.

A defeatist coloring is a lack of faith, and faith is one of the Five Spiritual Faculties. If faith is lacking, its complementary Faculty energy will soon drop down to that same low level, for the Spiritual Faculties balance each other if you do not metacognitively balance them at a helpful level. 

Note that you cannot just energetically force faith, though, for faith is an openness, the Feminine Principle, the trust that founds loving relationships. What you can do, though, is be more metacognitvely aware of how you are currently relating to goals, expectations, and the practice. You can have insight into that.

In that way, you can interrupt this story of how you habitually “are”; focus instead on the current 24-minute sit. If you remain driven to indulge in a lot of defeatist self-talk, then schedule a time to do so after the sit. In fact, if you deliberately sit and write or say aloud all that defeatist self-chatter, it may just make you laugh. It will certainly make you more mindful that you are in fact indulging, that you are making a problem where there need not be one.

So this is first:

Be skillful in how you formally motivate your sitting practice. Before you sit, do as follows:

  1. Establish a sense of trust (there are many ways to do so, but I’ve suggested prayer or evocation as a personal favorite), and 
  2. Set an intention for the sit that grounds the ultimate wish for your enlightenment in present opportunity to practice something realistically specific toward that goal. 

You cannot work well with method infected by the very trauma it seeks to heal, after all, and you cannot work on the future, period, because it isn’t here. 

Understand that “Letting Go” Is Poor Method

Here is my second prong, from direct experience: thick layers of habitual reactivity patterns are shorn off not by a practice session itself, nor by even a 100 practice sessions, but by the permanent awakenings that result from them. Neural reconfiguration and energetic reorganization is happening all along, but you won’t directly see the really dramatic results until the big sudden “attainments” happen, such as stream entry or correction of subject-object misperception.

Stream entry ended my severe phobias the very day it happened; another whole layer of fear was torn away at Mahamudra awakening. And even after all that, I had to work for months on trauma “stored” in the third chakra. When that opened, yet another huge layer of fear was lifted off. 

All this is to say another way, yet again, don’t expect the practice sit itself to change your personality or patterns of reaction. Expect your practice to lead to insight, and that will lead to attainments, and the attainments will lead to embodiment of the changes you want. So focus on the correct goal: Insight. 

Focusing on personality change is anathema to focusing on insight, because insight emerges only during those moments that you are truly attending to messed-up here and now. Insight is always into how things actually are, not how you want them to be or not be.

At least until after some major permanent awakenings, “just letting go” is poor method, because most Westerners, when they say “just letting go,” mean “just getting rid of the part of reality I don’t want to investigate.”

Get instead the insight into how not letting go actually is, actually operates, actually is your maintaining the delusion of a separate egoic structure. That way, at the moment of major insight culmination, the “letting go” happens automatically. You realize that you are holding a hot potato: You don’t then decide to drop it, any more than you began your sit by planning to drop it; dropping it just happens as a matter of reflex, or something even faster, if you are attending to things as they are.

Daniel Ingram once wrote me, “It is amazing what lengths practitioners will go to in order to avoid looking at their own suffering.” The irony is that, if you don’t look right into the face of your suffering, without trying to change it, you will never change it. 

The Door to the Greatest Human Pilgrimage Is the Body

My third prong is that most of the really focused transformative work on personality per se comes after the major insight attainments, not before, at least in pragmatic dharma circles in the West. I’m working on this right now–many integration practices to embody my realizations.

Trauma is stored in the body, specifically the subtle body, and that has to be deconditioned. Most in the West are correcting subject-object misperception first via vipassana. That’s fine. But then you have to circle back around and clean up blockages in the central channel, the chakras. Traditionally, in the the East, the bodywork is done well ahead of high-level awareness practices. But here in the West, where we are mind-oriented and impatient, and led by very masculine practictioner-teachers, we are jumping right into completion practices at the onset!

You don’t have to wait, however, to start this orientation to the body. You can make your body the site of insight practice and kill two birds with one stone. I’m beginning to teach my 21-year-old son meditation, and this is how I plan to approach things with him.

Practices to try include the following:

  • Nine Breaths of Purification and tsa lung practice
  • chakra-opening work (especially first three chakras)
  • somatic descent work

My current teacher has taught me some of the latter two, and some local centers taught me the first one. I recommend going to DharmaOcean.com and registering. You can then get some free audios by Reggie Ray, who was my teacher’s teacher when it comes to the somatic deconditioning practices. In addition, you can buy Reggie’s “Somatic Descent” series of audios. I bought my son his audios on beginning meditation, too, because they are body-based. (It is called Meditation in Seven Steps).

I spent about 4 months recently relentlessly resting (awakened) awareness into the third chakra, which stores rage and terror. Post-awakening, just the slightest inclination toward that part of the body causes it to start actually unwinding and opening. You can feel this happening. After it was open, almost all of my interaction fears stopped. Because the fear manifests as certain self-guarding sensations in the body, you have to attend to them without trying to change them or make anything happen or stop happening. You simply rest into being aware of that plexus. It will start releasing knots on its own.

In our culture, we are all “up in our heads.” Most of our trauma is in the lower three chakras: (1) root for Basic Trust, (2) sweetness for libido and the right to feel, and (3) solar plexus for power and unknotting the victim-perpetrator duality.

There are no good books in English yet about chakra work, says my teacher. But Reggie Ray is a great place to start orienting toward the body-mind as the seat of fear, inhibitions, and personality-related stuff. 

I hope this response helps your practice.

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