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Why am I Such a Mess?

Updated: Mar 23

This may seem like an odd question coming from a mindfulness teacher.

There is a misconception that mindfulness teachers are all floating about like Zen Buddhist monks. But even Zen monks aren’t in a zen-like state all the time. Anyone who has lived in a closed community will tell you that they also experience politics, cruelty, misunderstanding and all other human behaviours.

Just like any human being they, like you and me, will feel anger, hurt, shame, rejection, sadness etc. They will also feel happiness, joy, serenity, equilibrium and love.

And that’s the point – these are human experiences. Life is messy. It’s confusing. It’s full of things like trauma, bereavement, disappointment & illness. And emotions are meant to be powerful, they are meant to get our attention. As Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, says, ‘What matters hurts and what hurts matters.’

Another misconception I come across regularly, and not just in classes but in all types of media, is that mindfulness and meditation somehow relieve us of these powerful, difficult emotions and many of us may wish that were true.

However, it is by working out what causes strong emotions within us that we know what really matters to us, that way we can make choices based on who we really are, rather than who we think we should be or who we’ve been pretending to be, or accidentally become out of habit.

There’s a great quote by Rachel in the sitcom Friends: “Oh, my god - I've become my father. I've been trying so hard not to become my mother, I didn't see this coming.” In trying to be like someone, or not like someone, we lose sight of who we are and what matters to us. And some of these behaviours are unconscious, e.g. the adult who believes they must always put others first and care for them because they had to do this as a child, even at the detriment of their own health and wellbeing.

In mindfulness we learn how to allow our emotions to be present; how to live with them in a way that means that we are not taken over by them. This requires a willingness to turn towards and accept these strong feelings, to ride them like a wave, rather than avoid or resist them.

I noticed resistance whilst writing this blog. I kept leaving it unfinished, and eventually I worked out why. The perfectionist within me wanted it to be perfect, and that drive to perfectionism was stopping me from writing and publishing it. If I don't publish it then I can't make a public mistake, so my perfectionist is keeping me safe. However, the building frustration became a powerful emotion that helped me override the perfectionist. Had I repressed the emotion of frustration I would still probably be re-writing my blog now.

Our society tries to (literally) sell us the fallacy of perfectionism. We are not encouraged to make mistakes, to mess up, to admit to being lost and confused, angry, jealous or defeated. So we end up not just hiding these feelings from others, but hiding from them ourselves. The result is that we lose sight of how we really feel and who we really are.

I love this graphic by Ruth Buczynski of NICABM as it shows so clearly how this pursuit of perfection is never attainable, because it just doesn’t exist.

When we try to reach something unattainable, there is only one outcome: failure and its associated feelings and beliefs about ourselves. The frustration of not publishing, if ignored, could eventually lead to worse feelings of failure when I never finish anything.

So why ask, ‘why am I such a mess?’

If we ask the question often enough with the correct mindset, all the shame of being a mess disperses and is replaced with a compassionate, honest enquiry. Then, what we are really asking is: What is going on for me right now and can I allow it to be as it is?

If we are feeling balanced, in a state of coherence, emotionally well-regulated, or within our window of tolerance – whatever term you prefer - then the answer will generally be reassuring.

However, we tend only to ask the question when we are in a very different state. When things are not going well for us. When we feel overwhelmed, or emotional, or ‘stressed out’. When we are ill. Exhausted. Fed up. Depressed.

Then we start to ask the questions. AND we often feel shame, especially if we meditate regularly, after all, aren’t we meant to have let go of all of those difficult thoughts and feelings in week 4 or 5 of the program?

The difficulty is the underlying question: ‘what is wrong with me?’

Kristen Neff, Chris Germer, Paul Gilbert, David R. Hamilton, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg to name but a few, stress the importance of self-compassion in embracing the reality of being human. When Rumi wrote the line ‘This being human is like a guest house,’ he could have written, ‘This being human is messy and unpredictable.’

What if we could embrace the fact that being human means being messy? Not knowing the answers sometimes? Feeling emotional, lost or defeated?

How do we embrace our messiness?

True acceptance is like a mental hug, where we reassure ourselves that it's ok to be a bit of a mess and we are doing the best we can. It's not meant to be a cop-out but neither is it meant to be used to fix ourselves.

My mentor, Shamash Alidina, uses a great analogy in his books. If we walk outside and it's raining we might not accept the fact that it's raining and be really miserable or angry or fed up about it. Or, we could accept that this is how it is and make peace with the fact that it is raining and take whatever practical steps we need to based on the weather as it is. However, imagine if one day we are walking outside, accepting the rain, when it suddenly stops.

If we mistake acceptance of rain with the rain stopping, we might think that we have fixed the rain, which will just lead to disappointment and feelings of failure when that doesn't happen next time. Likewise, if we believe that accepting our messiness will fix it, then we will only be disappointed with ourselves next time we mess up.

(BTW, if you want to know why rain is so good for us - listen to this podcast:

Knowing when we need help and support, or just a little guidance, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to be nervous, unsure, this is real wisdom. In Buddhism there is a teaching that the wisest person knows what they don’t know.

If we were out walking in the countryside and pretended that we knew where we were instead of acknowledging that we were lost, we would probably end up in big trouble. The sensible walker knows to keep checking, to admit when they have made a wrong turn and consult a map to get back on track. If necessary, they will stop walking and call for help.

Usually, the answers are right there within us. All we need to do is stop, recognised that we are struggling and that this is ok. Once we have recognised this we can open up to finding the solutions. We can’t find solutions or make wise choices when we are denying or resisting the truth.

As Louise Hay once said, ‘If you are going to clean a house, you have first to find the dirt.’

So, as we embrace the Spring Equinox this week, let’s take the opportunity to reflect on where we are out of balance right now. It’s very unlikely that everything in our lives will be in perfect harmony. If it is – have a great big celebration. If it isn’t, celebrate anyway! You are a human being and this being human is messy and unpredictable.

Let’s use our mindfulness skills to support us where we need them to, rather than our training becoming another stick to beat ourselves with because we aren’t the perfect person we keep telling ourselves we should be. Let’s embrace our imperfections, pick them up and take them with us and get on with doing what we know has meaning for us.

And on the way we will turn some of them around and become better human beings.

Thousands of studies have shown that people who are kind and accepting of their own ‘faults’ are much kinder to others, and at the end of the day, if we were all a bit kinder wouldn’t that make a difference in the world?

So next time you meditate how about allowing some of that messiness to show up and letting it be as it is. There is no shame in being human. But we do need to take responsibility for ignoring what we know to be true and continuing with behaviours that are detrimental to ourselves and others. This is what Kristen Neff calls the fierce Mama Bear - the one who says, 'because I love you so much I'm going to be the one to tell you that you need to shape up! But I'm also going to help you do it.'

If you like to use mantras here’s a suggestion for you:

I love and accept myself deeply, just as I am right now.

It’s a great starting point.

Wishing you all the blessings of the season,

Natalie x



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