The Paradox of Acceptance
Years ago, Carl Rogers observed, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” In other words, carefully observing and accepting our emotions and beliefs, rather than fighting or fearing them, is a precursor for using that same mindful state to help them transform. Once people come to compassionately engage with troubling elements of their psyches, they’re often able to release difficult emotions and outmoded beliefs they’ve carried for years. For me, this process of compassionately engaging with the elements of our psyches is a natural second step of mindfulness. If you feel compassion for something, why just observe it? Why not engage with it and try to help it?
Actually, some prominent Buddhist leaders advocate taking this next step. Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Jack Kornfield all encourage their students not just to witness their emotions, but to actively embrace them. Consider this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn about handling emotions: “You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling the mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying.” So it’s possible to first separate from an upset emotion, but then return to it and form a loving inner relationship it, as one might with a child.
The Buddhist teacher Tsultrim Allione revived an ancient Tibetan tradition called Chod, which has practitioners feeding rather than fighting with their inner “demons.” She finds that once fed with curiosity and compassion, these inner enemies reveal what they really need, feel accepted and heard, and become allies. It’s possible to go beyond simply witnessing our inner world to actually entering it in this mindful state and interacting with the parts of our psyches with the same kind of loving attunement that creates secure attachments between parents and children, or between therapists and clients.
More than a Monkey Mind
This is harder to do if therapists consider clients’ inner worlds to be populated by an annoying ego or agitated monkey mind. In some Buddhist traditions, the myriad thoughts and feelings, pleasures and pains we have are considered to be the product of an ego, which is conditioned by the materialistic culture to become attached to transitory things and keep you from your higher spiritual path. If that’s your starting assumption, you may notice feelings of happiness and sorrow with acceptance, but you aren’t likely to want to spend much time getting to know them. You’ll fear that the more time you entertain such thoughts and feelings, the more attached you’ll become to the material world.
If, on the other hand, you consider your thoughts, emotions, urges, and impulses to be coming from an inner landscape that’s best understood as a kind of internal family, populated by sub-personalities, many of whom are childlike and are suffering, then it makes more sense to take that next step of comforting and holding these inner selves—as Thich Nhat Hahn advises—rather than just observing and objectifying them. All clients need to do to begin exploring this apparently chaotic and mysterious inner world is to focus inside with genuine curiosity and start asking questions, as Molly did, and these inner family members will begin to emerge. As the process continues, clients will be able to form I-thou relationships with their parts, rather than the more detached, I-it relationships that most psychotherapies and many spiritualities foster.
Once a client, in a mindful state, enters such an inner dialogue, she’ll typically learn from her parts that they’re suffering and/or are trying to protect her. As she does this, she’s shifting from the passive-observer state to an increasingly engaged and relational form of mindfulness that naturally exists within: what I call her “Self.” Having helped clients access this engaged, mindful Self for more than 30 years now, I’ve consistently observed that it’s a state that isn’t just accepting of their parts, but also has an innate wisdom about how to relate to them in an attuned, loving way. I’ve observed over and over clients’ enormous inborn capacity for self-healing, a capacity that most of us aren’t even aware of.
We normally think of the attachment process as happening between caretakers and young children, but the more you explore how the inner world functions, the more you find that it parallels external relationships, and that we have an inner capacity to extend mindful caretaking to aspects of ourselves that are frozen in time and excluded from our normal consciousness. This Self state has the ability to open a pathway to the parts of us that we locked away because they were hurt when we were younger and we didn’t want to feel that pain again. As clients approach these inner parts—what I call “exiles”—they often experience them as inner children who fit one of the three categories of troubled attachment: insecure, avoidant, or disorganized. Typically, once one of these inner exiles reveals itself to the client, their Self automatically knows how to relate to that part in such a way that it’ll begin to trust the Self. These inner children respond to the love they sense from the Self in the same way that abandoned or abused children do as they sense the safety and caring of an attuned caretaker. As parts become securely attached to Self, they let go of their terror, pain, or feelings of worthlessness and become transformed—a healing process that opens up access to a bounty of resources that had been locked away. When that happens, there’s a growing trust in the Self’s wisdom, and people increasingly manifest what I call the eight Cs of Self-leadership: curiosity, compassion, calm, courage, clarity, confidence, creativity, and connectedness. In other words, they return to a natural state of groundedness and embodiment.
Attachment Theory assumes that healing occurs only when one person becomes a healthy attachment figure for another—a therapist for a client, one spouse for another, or a parent for a child—exhibiting the kind of engaged, active mindfulness we’ve been discussing. However, Self-leadership opens the possibility of a different kind of attachment-based healing within a person, which can lead to a deep sense of personal empowerment.
The observer type of mindfulness meditation can reinforce the effects of this inner attachment, so that therapy and meditation complement and feed each other. I’ve encouraged many of my clients to practice the observer type of meditation between sessions, and have found that their progress is hugely accelerated. The meditations help people practice separating from and accepting their parts, while accessing and trusting the mindfulness state, which increases clients’ ability for self-healing. The healing done in therapy, in turn, allows for deeper and less interrupted meditations. As clients become increasingly able to notice, rather than blend with, the wounded parts of themselves that are triggered as they go through their daily lives, they become clearer about what needs attention in therapy sessions.