The Problem With Perfection

My life didn’t change in one moment. I wish it had been that simple. For me, big changes happen over time in many steps. One particular issue that I needed to change showed up fairly early in my teaching career. I fondly refer to it as the “perfectionist” monster.

During a typical class or coaching session, questions would fall into the usual realm of work and relationships. These were complicated enough, however, in the back of my mind, I imagined the really tough emotional issues showing up one day.  Perhaps a woman had been raped and was working through the trauma of it.  Or, a grieving parent who had lost a child and was looking for peace.  I always thought it best to teach what I had experience in, yet I didn’t have those experiences. Nor was I likely to.

How would I do?  I wanted to have the answers that would help them. I would ponder the right things to say but nothing would suffice.  I would seek inspiration on how to help facilitate such healing, but was met with only silence.

Imagined scenarios would grow tentacle tangents of internal dialogue and grip my mind. “If I couldn’t help this person, then I was failing. That would make me a failure.  Maybe I should get more life experience and practice before I do any more teaching?” These thoughts had my attention distracted in a side story of self doubt and low level fear. It seemed that I could solve the problem if I just stopped teaching. But that wouldn’t really make the thoughts and feelings go away.  Rather, the negative stories would lie dormant waiting to be triggered some other day. I opted to continue teaching while observing this uncomfortable side story about my ability to guide people.

After some weeks of tracking these tentacles, I began a detailed inventory of the beliefs behind the images and thoughts flashing through my mind.  The turning point happened when I detailed the expectations I held for myself as a coach. I expected success and I was surprised to find that “success” had some very specific meanings. I could categorize myself as a success if, after a session, a client was completely healed of their emotional suffering over the issue. If they weren’t transformed, a particular voice in my head judged me as a failure.  It was a nonsensical belief system, and yet it was there poking at my emotions with its scenarios and stories.

I had unconsciously created an Image of Perfection. I don’t know when or how, but I was walking around with it. Perhaps I had acquired it from reading books on personal transformation, or stories of saints performing miracles when I was a kid at church. Who knows?

Like most issues in the subconscious, I didn’t find this fictional expectation immediately.  The voice in my head didn’t say, “Gary this is the fictional image of success we are going to judge you against. If you don’t meet it you will be deemed such a failure that you should give up even trying.” The ego kept expectations of perfection hidden behind doubts and impossible scenarios. Only upon careful scrutiny did I see the comparison and the unrealistic standard my ego was using. In the beginning, I was too busy trying to live up to it by finding brilliant life changing words that might help someone else. In reality, my motivation was more selfish. Apparently I was trying to escape the belief and feeling of failure that my subconscious had constructed.

What is peculiar about an Image of Perfection is that it is nothing but a concept. From one point of view, it can be a source of inspiration, a goal that we become passionate about, and a vision that can inspire us to excel and accomplish great things. From a darker point of view, that same concept can be used as a club by the ego to emotionally beat us down into fear, doubt, and self-sabotaging behavior.  How ironic that my ideal of a teacher was a monster as well.

What I realized was that I was never going to be “good enough” to meet that Image of Perfection. It was an unfair comparison to a fantasy scenario. It would have been unfair to hold other people to that expectation and so it was unfair to hold myself to it also. With awareness of it as fantasy, the stories of judgment, fear, and doubt lost credibility and began falling apart. I no longer felt the pressure to be the perfect coach or teacher.  I stopped imagining and fearing challenging scenarios or needing to come up with perfect words.

The common sense truth is that emotional hurt and grief don’t get transformed in an hour just because of well-spoken words. I didn’t know of any words that would magically alleviate emotional pain and suffering, because there aren’t any. I did know that I could be supportive and compassionate, while helping people work through their false beliefs and unrealistic expectations the same way I did.  I decided that was my best, and my best was enough. It wasn’t the lofty self-image the ego was trying to mold.  But it was one that was realistic, and allowed my mind to be at peace, and me to be happy.

Gary van Warmerdam

The Dhamma Brothers

documentary about a prison meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, Alabama, features four inmates, all convicted of murder, and includes interviews with guards, prison officials, local residents and other inmates.

I Don’t Feel Understood

I don’t’ feel understood.

Communication is a peculiar thing.  We probably didn’t always have it and only started to develop it as a detailed set of grunts about 100,000 years ago.  Over time our vocalizations have become more subtle and nuanced. We have taken an intricate set of sounds and trained our mind to automatically translate them into complex meanings. With a lot of these meanings being invisibly applied in each person’s head, don’t be surprised if you aren’t understood in the first attempt. It is unlikely that your words are being translated to mean what you intend.

Add to that all the different meanings our mind can derive from the same words and there is another layer of distortion and misunderstanding waiting to happen. Suppose someone told you they went to the bank today. Do they mean river bank or savings bank? “I banked on the new tires not slipping and banked a hard left.  I missed the bank building, got control of the car and came to a stop along on the river bank.”

Only by having other words in the conversation, assuming they are provided, does your mind know how to correctly translate the word “bank” four different ways.

“I thought I understood you.”

There is a translation our mind does when it hears words. Over years our language circuits have been trained to provide meaning to words so quickly we don’t notice all the various meanings or phrases and the emotions they produce.

Mary and her husband John would meet at home at the end of their respective work days.  Sometimes they would go on walks in the neighborhood. Mary, a particularly caring spouse would notice her husband lost in thought, his body stiff with stress and somewhat moody. Wanting to connect with him and give him a place to share she would ask, “What’s wrong?”

Mary considered this a question that showed she cared, was interested in him, and an attempt to help John feel better through communication. For her this was being a loving partner doing what a loving partner does.

“Nothing,” John would respond and the conversation would stop dead.

What was John actually translating as the message of sounds?  No telling exactly but given some patterns of communication men learn through childhood, growing up, relationships, self image and self esteem issues, and ego translations here are a few possibilities.

She’s thinks something is wrong with me.

She is judging me.

I feel rejected by my partner.

I should have it all together but she thinks I don’t.

I do not impress her so she doesn’t respect me.

I’m a disappointment to her.

I’ll compensate and project that everything is fine with me and I have work completely under control.  Nothing is wrong.

His response, “Nothing.”  And with that all the problems he was sub-consciously thinking might be going on in his relationship just got solved.

Did all this kind of thinking go on in the background or sub-conscious of his mind before he answered with his ego projected image?  There is no way to know for certain with each person, but something like those unconscious beliefs can become activated with such a question.  The mind can recognize many patterns and process many bits of data automatically by the time we reach adulthood.  Many or more likely most of these will be unconscious to us until we go looking for them.

In this case a man has learned to project an image of confidence and having things under control to a woman.  Yes it is his wife, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be seen as weak, stressed, worried, or unsure about a situation. If he suspects she is thinking such things then his projected image might go up. Depending on the size of his ego’s belief system he might still be propping up a positive image of himself even if she sees right through it.

What is being asked here?  

So what is a girl to do if she wants to have an honest conversation with her partner?  First understand that the words, and the way they are packaged have different symbolic meanings to the listener.  We often speak in a shorthand method and a lot of meaning and context is lost.

What Mary really wants to communicate is:

I notice that you seem preoccupied in thought and seem stressed.

I care about you and want you to feel better.

Is there something you want to talk about and get out of your head and then we can move on and enjoy the rest of our day?

Instead of conveying all these thoughts our mind bundles them all up into a shorthand question like, “What’s wrong?”

When we use a word like “wrong” we trigger a number of other meanings and possibly emotions associated within the listener. It’s a word that may have been used in past unpleasant emotional experiences.  The word “wrong” is then a symbol and can easily trigger those emotional memories and patterns.   These unpleasant emotions to the word might not be in his conscious awareness, but it doesn’t stop his mind from making associations and running internal communication and emotion patterns connected to it.

Mary was kind of skeptical that a man would be so emotionally sensitive to just a certain word like that.  However she agreed to experiment with it.  The next time John was in a funky mood after work, she asked him open ended questions instead, “What are you feeling? Or “What are you thinking about?”   Mary had to keep her jaw from dropping open as John unloaded about upcoming inspections he was concerned about, personnel problems, and the extra hours he was going to have to put in that would cut into some of their weekend plans. Apparently asking in an open ended way opened the door to a lot more sharing.  When Mary removed the words like “wrong” that labeled the situation there was more freedom for him to describe what he wanted.

Changing one word didn’t solve all of John and Mary’s communication issues, but it sure did make Mary notice which words she chose and the different type of responses she would get. It also got her to realize that little things like word choice and phrasing made a big difference. Over time it was a lot easier to avoid words and phrases that triggered John’s beliefs of being criticized or issues of insecurity and self esteem that hindered an open conversation.

Asking open questions like, “what do you think about ______,” are a lot less restrictive and help open a channel of communication. Applying adjectives or assumptions that define a person’s experience before they share it with you sometimes pushes the communication door closed. In general people don’t like to be labeled or their experience defined for them so consider looking for those dynamics in what you communicate and then practice leaving your labels and assumptions and see what happens.

What did you mean by that?

It’s sometimes hard to know what someone means. We might have an understanding of the words, but the meaning can be different depending on the tone, emotion, or attitude. This makes effective communication through emails and writing difficult in relationships.  Work information tends to be more matter of fact, but personal relationships are sustained with emotion so those elements matter. More meaning is conveyed verbally because we can use tone, emotion, intonation, and even facial expressions to completely change meaning.

With an emotion of wonderment and awe, “Why did you do that,?” can be complimentary.

With a curious tone, “Why did you do that,?” is a question.

In a harsh tone, “Why did you do that!”  is a criticism or reprimand.

The same five words are used in each case but the messages are very different. The emotion and tone are the real message and the words are just the wrapper containing the emotional meaning. Some confusion might arise if person A asks the question in one manner, but it is heard by the listener a with a different quality of emotion.  At that point the listener responds to something that isn’t asked or said.

Sarcasm is sometimes a pseudo humor that reverses the meaning of words.  When you tell someone they did a great job with a sarcastic voice you are communicating they did a terrible job.  The words provide a compliment but the emotional tone delivers a criticism. This kind of humor is one of the ways we mask our critical judgments and toxic emotions inside a denial wrapper of a joke.  Clear communication is difficult enough, and being understood is more challenging.  If you want to be heard and understood it will help to match the emotion and tone with the meaning of the words.

What did you hear?

Even if you package all emotion and tone correctly on your half it doesn’t mean that it is received with the same meanings. Culture has an impact on how things are interpreted.  If you grew up in New Jersey perhaps you spoke in a harsh berating way with people you love.  If you take that same attitude and tone with people in Denmark or even other places in the US, they might not consider you friendly.

Not only cultural background, but also personal experience plays a role in how we translate what is said to us. If a woman comes from an abusive relationship experience where she was often berated and criticized it will skew her interpretation.  A man might ask her, “Why did you do that?” in a curious or kind manner, but she hears criticism and put downs in those kinds of questions. Her mind has been conditioned to automatically translate certain messages into meanings of criticism regardless of emotional content.  This happens so quick there is no time to consciously think about alternative meanings. In these cases what is called for is a re-conditioning of the emotional responses our mind makes so they aren’t automatic anymore.   It also helps to be in an emotionally safe environment so those patterns don’t get reinforced as you are trying to dismantle them. I address this issue of establishing boundaries in more detail in one of the sessions of The Relationship Course.

The Listening Half of the Conversation

So while I’ve spent some time explaining how language has lots of opportunities to be misunderstood we need to consider the other half of how you communicate as well. Consider that sometimes you might not understand what the other party is saying. In your mind you will probably assume to know what they mean. You are confident in your assumption that the meaning you understand is the one that they are attempting to communicate. To help you better understand others notice when you feel confident that you understand what someone is saying. This can happen very fast and we are often unaware of it. We typically rush off to respond as if we understood the other party perfectly. In fact, what we understood perfectly was the meaning we applied to what they said.
To challenge our “know it all immediately” mind of assumptions, when it is important, and you want to connect, take time to explain what you understood them to say and verify that you understand them.

 

 

Ritual and Ceremony in Everyday Life

Why do I use ceremony and ritual in my process and at my events? The short answer is because it works. But that answer wouldn’t have sufficed for me when I started this inner work. I was educated and worked as an engineer so I required more research and understanding. I hope people are skeptical and so that short answer shouldn’t suffice for you either. In the realm of personal growth, self-help, and guru’s there are many false paths so it can be prudent to be skeptical.

I was trained to do the experiment or run the calculation myself and not just take someone else’s answer as good enough. Even in professional engineering and science work you check other people’s work and have other people check your process and calculation to ensure it doesn’t have mistakes.

When I started reading books on personal growth I was hesitant about ceremony and ritual. It looked like hokey stuff to me. Going to church as a kid didn’t help. I didn’t see any value in the ceremonies they did. Ceremonies in church seemed empty of value and meaning. When I didn’t understand them they seemed to take on a mystery that fed fear and superstitions beliefs. Fortunately, early in my personal process of change I was reading Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore and he helped clear up some of my misunderstandings, fears, and resistance. Thomas Moore helped me understand that we use ritual and ceremony all the time and that it has value in deepening our experience of life and events. This helped me get over some of my judgments and fears. Being skeptical doesn’t mean cynical, or to doubt everything. We have to try new things to see what will work and what won’t. See my previous post about my first ceremony to find out how it turned out.

Ceremony and Ritual in Everyday Life

We use birthdays to celebrate life and longevity. We customarily wish people happiness and sing them a song together. There might also be a Christening or Baptism as an intent for a young person’s well being in life. Weddings are ceremonies where people come together and unify their commitment to love, honor, respect, and take care of one another. Anniversary parties are for fun and to celebrate love. Thanksgiving is a celebration of gratitude. Independence Day is a celebration of freedom. Christmas time holidays are a celebration of great love and family connections. Holidays and celebrations are filled with rituals that deepen our connection to emotion, and to each other. Sometimes the bonding happens through the ritual of sharing a sports game together.

Funerals are our ceremony to honor and pay respects to the departed. They also afford family and friends to engage in practices that will help them to detach from that relationship emotionally and move on with their life. These rituals serve a purpose for those still living.

When I was in the military I put on my uniform each morning. With it I assumed a new identity, and personality. I shed my personal life attachments and commitments, and embraced a serious commitment to service. Wearing the uniform made many things about my personality and expressions change such as showing affection, my posture in how I stood, sat, and how I spoke. When I first put on the uniform I was taught that it was a big deal. I put on that uniform and it was an individual ceremony of change where I transformed my focus and intent within. Over time I became practiced at the change and it became automatic ritual of personal change each time I got dressed.

We also use ceremony and ritual in smaller ways in our everyday lives. At a sporting event we play or sing the national anthem. The music invites us to connect with our country men and women in a unified way. After the game competitors shake hands in a ritual of respect. Brushing my teeth is a personal ritual of cleansing. If I don’t brush my teeth before bed I don’t feel like things are in order.

Some people start their job by getting dressed for it. Others don’t feel they are ready to go until they first have their cup of coffee or tea in the morning. We probably don’t think of these everyday actions as rituals that connect us to our lives, activities, relationships or ways for us to focus our attention and intent, but they are. An action or activity can be practical and still have a ritualistic emotional feeling or centering aspect to it. There are rituals we do all around us that help us get centered in an emotional state and focused. We probably just have a different label for them.

All of these ceremonies and rituals add richness, depth, emotion, meaning, and order to our lives and relationships. We may not think of these everyday activities as rituals or ceremonies. Somewhere the terms ceremony and ritual have been left out of our cultural lexicon. In doing so we may not be as conscious of the value they serve. Even if the value they serve is to connect us socially with friends while having a beer and watching a sporting match. The term ritual and ceremonies have somehow unconsciously been relegated to realms of the religious or superstition. In doing so we may have lost some of the importance we use them for in engaging our attention, intent, and connecting with others.

Early Resistance to Ceremony

For me, the resistance to appreciating and utilizing ritual and ceremony grew as I distanced myself from the religion I grew up with. I didn’t understand the meaning of all the symbols and I didn’t connect with the meanings I did understand. The ceremony therefore seemed empty and rote. By distancing myself church ceremony I somehow distanced myself from all ritual and ceremony. In the separation I lost some connectedness with others and a deeper connection with life.

In the church the priest was doing the ceremony and so I wasn’t engaged. I was sitting near the back only watching what the priest had is attention and intent on. What I didn’t realize is that when you watch a ceremony you are not experiencing it in the same way as if you are doing it. Doing rituals and ceremonies is always much more powerful than watching or thinking about them. You’ll have no idea the power of ceremony if this is your only experience. When I finally engaged in my own ritual I knew what all the meanings were because I created the ceremony for myself.

What is Ceremony?

The essential part of a ceremony or ritual is the concentration of intent and attention that you put to work on beliefs, emotions, and feelings. Our patterns of fears and false beliefs were created because we put some amount of attention and intent into building them. Then to dismantle them also requires a similar amount of attention and intent. In our house of beliefs in our minds, the nails and screws were all driven in by a force. That force is a kind of personal will power that I call intent. To take out those screws and nails holding beliefs together requires a force as well. A ceremony is an event where you focus your force of intent to release those beliefs. In a wedding you direct that intent to make commitment to love and respect. At other times you can use that intent to release agreements, beliefs, or commitments that you previously created.

Ceremony can be anything. It can be as simple as making tea. The real essence is the attention and intent you put behind it. You can make tea in a stressed out way with fears of judgment that your guests won’t like it. Or, you can make and serve tea with a focused attention and presence that changes the mood in the room. Walking doesn’t look like much, but when done in a funeral procession it can be reflective, mourning, releasing, and put us in touch with a very precious commodity of life so that we can then further appreciate the time we have and not waste it. You can clean out your garage or a closet as a grudging bit of work, or you can direct your attention to see it as a cleansing of your past and baggage. As you let go of items of your past you are freer with your attention to live in the moment. Done in this way it is a ritual of ceremony. Without awareness and intent it is just a chore to get done as soon as possible.

Where is there ceremony and ritual in your life? How do you use it to change focus your attention, your emotional state, ground yourself into a centered feeling, or change the direction of your life? Do you have rituals like brushing your teeth, morning coffee, or physical exercise that help center you? Do you have certain holiday foods, songs, activities, or decorations that give you a sense of purpose and connection? What ones do you want to create that would make your life and relationships richer?

Where or when do you judge and diminish the practice of ritual and ceremony in your mind? Is it necessary to do so considering that you are probably including such activities in your day, even if it is just a matter of doing dishes and brushing your teeth? Consider that by reclaiming power over the lexicon of ritual and ceremony that you are claiming power over areas of your life that you have previously dismissed as hokey or ceded to the realm of superstition.

Life is richer in emotion, love, and happiness when we engage our attention on it. Ritual and ceremony is just a label that describes moments when we consciously create richer moments. My suggestion to you is that you claim and create more of these moments instead of letting them be lost to habits of the past. Doing so will carry you a few steps further on your pathway to happiness.

Ceremony to Change Beliefs

My Experience with Ceremony

About the time I was discovering fears and false beliefs that I was living by I was also reading Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. I decided to create a ceremony and see if this would help let them go. I had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t but I was willing to try new things. Previously I was unaware that I had unnecessary fears so I hadn’t needed to let them go before. Not having any experience I decided to try a ceremony and see what happened.

I had taken a couple weeks to investigate what my fears were and to write down the beliefs that were behind them. One of the fears was about taking time off before I took another job. I wanted an extended vacation. However, within ten seconds of thinking about a long vacation my mind would kick in with reasons that I shouldn’t. I took time during these weeks to write down and analyze all the reasons and see what was behind them and if they were valid. This kind of analytical work helped clarify what the beliefs were and that I would be fine, or at least better off without them. Intellectually I had made the decision but my mind still had the fears, thoughts, and beliefs. That is what the ceremony helped address.

The ceremony I made was a commitment to letting go of fears, and specifically the beliefs related to these fears. I didn’t notice anything change at the time of my ceremony. It was just a calm peaceful day devoted to a release. No thunder or lightening when off in my head. There were no beams of sunlight or rainbows to mark the occasion. But the next day I was driving in my car headed home when I noticed the internal dialog in my mind had changed. Before I would think about taking some time off, but fearful thoughts would arise about money, gaps in my resume, or that others would think I was a bum. We’ll that day while driving I started thinking about what a great trip I had and how nice it would be to extend my time. Then there was only quiet. There was a quiet peaceful space where the fearful thoughts used to be. It was the absence of those fearful thoughts that was tangible evidence for the power of one’s intent in the use of ceremony. I had experienced changing my thoughts, beliefs, and emotions through ceremony. I had to explore more and I did.

Ceremony Doesn’t Have To Make Sense

There are things that aren’t logical and that is okay. It doesn’t make sense that a ceremony that I did would change the pattern of thoughts in my head. Or at least it didn’t at the time. Since then I have studied and experienced a lot more and it makes sense to me know. I studied and worked as an engineer because I wanted to know how things worked in the world. What I learned from engineering didn’t tell me how my mind, or emotions worked. Logical answers didn’t tell me why I sometimes had negative thoughts, judgmental reactions, or why my mind dreamed at night. None of the logical things I learned explained human behavior or emotions. Love and fear drive so much human behavior and what goes on in the world but neither one of them is logical. After working as an engineer I still wanted to understand how things in the world worked and since love and fear was behind so much of what was going on in the world I studied love, fear, and the belief systems behind each. I discovered that you can change the emotions of fear into love. And, to be balanced, fear can also corrupt love and turn it into something destructive.

When you understand how love and fear work in your mind you will understand your self much better. When you learn how to transform the fear you have and create peace, quiet, and love, you will become wise. Understanding emotions, beliefs, and the processes for changing them don’t see logical, or at least with logical according to what we learned in school. These patterns of thought and emotions in your mind don’t operate by forces we are familiar with like gravity and physics so they seem weird, illogical, and confusing. However, these realms can be explored, understood to have their own dynamics, changed, and mastered.

In the beginning ceremony and ritual were weird, and wrought with superstition because I didn’t understand them. Just like all things seem a bit weird until we understand them. Even our own emotional reactions are weird, and strange things that we fear, until we explore and understand them.

By just using the analytical part of my mind I didn’t understand ritual and ceremony, the value it could have enriching my life, and the speed at which it could affect change. Of course I didn’t understand love, fear, emotions, or how my mind worked either at that time. As we grow and mature we grow and understand things beyond a simple model that logic allows. That’s good because the physicist, philosophers, and engineers, have as much right to understand illogical nature of unconditional love as the musicians, poets, and sages.

If you join me on one of my retreats you will learn more about ritual and ceremony as we incorporate them into our activities. Why do we use ritual and ceremony in these retreat events? Because they work really well to make changes in our patterned thinking, beliefs, and emotional patterns. At the end of one of those retreats you still might not understand how they work, but hopefully you will understanding that ceremony does work to help change what goes on in your mind.

 

 

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