I've come to understand that the answer for anyone is, Only if you make it that way. Only if you believe it to be. If you interpret things as punishment, if you respond to things with punishment.
Focus on punishment as a thing, and it's a thing. Make it a Big Thing, and it can define your whole reality. (This is true of anything. I like to say that whatever you put under a microscope fills your whole field of vision.)
I think it's profound and powerful for most anyone, raised in most any way, colored by any religious tradition or belief system, to ask yourself if you live in a punitive Universe. I'm serious: Pause. And ask. And watch for what arises.
If you get any whiff of yes, breathe into that. Feel that energy of punishment and castigation in your body, and breathe into that. (This is the pain-body work.) Ask yourself if it's true. (This is the tend-the-mind work.) Ask yourself if you'd like to experiment with the possibility that it's not true. Ask yourself if you'd like to take responsibility for creating a reality that isn't informed by punishment and the whole mess that goes with it (unworthiness, hypervigilance, perfectionism, defensiveness, needing to earn things that are your natural birthright—like love). (Living into that responsibility will be the choose-your-focus work.)
I did a lot of work around this later in life, long after I had consciously declared myself not to be a Christian or to subscribe to the beliefs of the brand of Christianity I was raised with (fundamentalist, or specifically, Southern-Baptist flavored). I started considering the possibility that I still (unconsciously) saw the Universe as punitive when I noticed something important and simple and super-recognizable by a lot of human beings. I realized that I felt myself being punished when things went badly (or not to my liking). I paused, breathed it, asked again (I did this again, and again, and again, each time it arised): Do I live in a punitive Universe?
For me it was the last undoing (with many repetitions) of the long-ago teachings instilled in me (and then presented as Truth, so my attachment to them ran deep even after I no longer consciously intellectually saw them as true). While fundamentalists in the Christian tradition (and probably others) give a lot of lip service to grace, there's a ton of emphasis on concepts that counter grace (and its twin, unconditional love): being inherently sinful, needing to constantly watch for the workings of the ego and somehow eradicate that aspect of ourselves (actually not possible or desirable), etc. There's also the disingenuous (a nice word for BS) "love the sinner, not the sin" thing, which is almost never actually applied with anything that feels or looks like love. If you have no experience with this yourself, ask anyone who's queer who's also been on the receiving end of this so-called spiritual concept.
I took total responsibility to uncover my punitive Universe AS IT LIVED IN ME. I found:
Honestly, as with EVERYTHING else, I've found the undoing is less hard than we think it will be.
The undoing takes wayyyyyy less time than it took to originally instill these wrong concepts in our minds and hearts and sometimes the cells of our being.
The undoing is set up through strong, clear intention (I'm going to notice where I live in a punitive Universe, take responsibility for that, and engage in the undoing), followed by choices now and now and now that align with that intention. (Back to the process described above—catch any whiff of it and pause, so that you can work it on both the body/breath and the thought levels; a few simple questions, just sitting with it till it seems absurd—that's enough to undo one hook right now, in this one moment.)
Nonjudgmental awareness is your best ally in the process: you get to simply notice your own punitive mentality (the punitive Universe you live in) that will always look like typical human stuff—which you therefore don't need to take personally: I'm punishing my partner right now for not connecting with me the way I want connection. I'm wishing horrible things for our so-called president. I'm making my kids feel bad about something instead of having an open conversation in which I invite them to tell me their experience, including what feels off to them. (Thus you could teach them to honor their own guidance system, not follow your beliefs that you keep reinforcing through punitive means.)
Thus, the undoing happens one moment at a time, each moment that the issue presents itself, not by a single unplugging. But people miss the extent to which this is a great process to be in. It's easy precisely because you know exactly when to go in with it (when it presents itself). You basically open the door and look it in the face when it comes knocking. The rest of the time, you're as free of it as you need to be. Ah, the power of NOW. (Thanks, ET.)
I invite you out of any model of a punitive Universe. If you choose a love-based, expansive, forgiving Universe, you get to live there. That too, requires living into your vision, now and now and now.
Please look below where I've given you a clip of writing describing my dear friend & colleague Kelli Younglove's indoctrination into a punitive Universe. I share it because our work together was part of the undoing for both of us. I share it because she may be your right coach. (If you're an Enneagram Two or need support with boundaries, standing strong, or speaking up, she may very well be your gal. She's also gifted with supporting cisgendered men to do their best personal-growth work. And ... she's a powerful, gentle healer.)
love & blessings, Jaya
p.s. An addendum featuring Kelli's writing follows. If you'd like another one from me on releasing guilt to get out of a punitive Universe and back to present time, follow this link.
ADDENDUM FROM KELLI:
Specifically, this is from Kelli Younglove's blog post on a healing she set up using a surrogate listener (when the one she wanted to say things to, in this case a parent, could not hear what she had to say). The part copied below describes her own indoctrination into a punitive Universe:
In 1971, my parents moved to a Bible Institute on the isolated prairies of Alberta, taking me and my sister with them.
Back then, it was the largest Missionary Training Centre in Canada.
Imagine an army barracks with its own school system (everything from pre-kindergarten all the way up to Bible College) and you'll catch a glimpse of my childhood.
The Institute was based on an authoritarian system with a top-down hierarchy that put children on the bottom rung.
And what I experienced and witnessed there (and after) went directly against the church's message of love and forgiveness. Corporal punishment was used to to break children's spirits and force them to submit to the will of the parents.
Signs of independence were commonly met with force.
The loss of self was devastating.
See the entire post here. I love the healing event it describes that could serve any human being who can't get the listening they want from a specific human being—while staying open to getting exactly what they need in another form. You may also want to look around on her blog: there's such good content there.
Photo on left courtesy of zwalshphotography. That picture depicts a sad white American 20-something smoking. The picture in the middle depicts a Black child aged 3-5 with sad face resting on arms. The picture on the right depicts an older Indian woman with a sad, pensive look.
The written part of this post describes a meditation/visualization exercise and what it does. There's an audio at the bottom in which I walk you through this powerful process for meeting a situation that brings up strong emotion.
A Formula for Meeting Feelings Well
I’ve got a sentence for you to play with—a formula, actually, with an X to plug something into, but its purpose isn’t mathematical. It’s to support you to move through any strong feeling better, with greater awareness, in a way that’s kind to yourself. It has the lovely effect of both allowing you to come closer to a feeling, while simultaneously giving you distance and perspective—thus beginning to set you free, or to disconnect overt suffering from pain or discomfort.
Unavoidable Pain/Optional Suffering
There’s no way to avoid feeling bad sometimes. It seems to be a reality of a human life on planet Earth. We haven’t done something wrong or failed at being an evolving human being when we feel bad. Grief is real. Depression strikes. We have angry reactions (and they’re actually useful, sometimes, to show us that something’s off and must be dealt with) or feel building frustration (which is useful to call us to a reset if we catch it and respond!). There’s truly no problem with feeling bad. The problem is that we let it get to us, hijack the mind, and take us down the rabbit hole—or to places far uglier and less cozy than I imagine any rabbit hole to be. We quickly go from pain or discomfort to overt suffering--and that part is typically optional.
Think-Feel Feedback Loop
You’ve seen yourself put a story to what you’re feeling, right? You’ve caught yourself reviewing details of the story that seems to be the obvious cause of a bad feeling. Absorbed in the story, you intensify the feeling, and that stronger feeling asks for more story. Redundantly reviewing its details and your assessments of it (not fair, not okay, makes no sense), you get sucked in deeper; the feeling gets stronger still. Taking off on some defensive inner response (not what I meant, not my fault, not what I usually do) or some wretched interpretation (unseen, abandoned, betrayed), you may successfully get stuck in a bad feeling and perpetuate it for some time.
Come Close to Feelings You May Want to Push Away
Even if you try to shove it down, you can’t quite shake it off. It colors whatever you do—certainly your sense of well-being, possibly what others around you experience. The dark cloud you carry around may dim the whole room. Or are you someone who pretends it’s all good, unaware you’re radiating something false and impenetrable that frustrates and mystifies those around you?
But you could come close to the feeling instead, even magnify it for a moment, and really let yourself feel it. (By feel it, I mean feel it, not think about it.) Hey, the feeling’s here anyway (it’s present), so you may as well give it your awareness (your presence). That’s where my formula comes in.
Tell yourself, This is what X feels like. Ideally, sit down or lie down with it a moment, but you could do this while working on the computer, or performing any rote task. Here you are, living your human life. And here’s this normal (painful) feeling: X.
If you can close your eyes, this can help you drop fully into the feeling, even for 30 seconds or a minute. I’m going to first walk you through coming close to the feeling, then have you notice you’re gaining distance in so doing.
Plug In a Feeling Name or General Description of Situation for X
Your first job is to fill in the X with your best label or name for the feeling at hand.
This is what loneliness feels like.
This is what techno-frustration feels like.
This is what worry about someone you love feels like.
This is what distress over planetary problems feels like.
Whatever it is, name it, plug it in for X, and take it in.
This Is What X Feels Like
This. This is what it feels like. The phrase itself holds an invitation to feel it, so that's your second job. Not just feel it, but feel it precisely. You could
In short, come close enough that you truly let yourself feel what you’re feeling. In this way, you get present to the feeling. By not ignoring or minimizing it, you teach yourself that you’re fully equipped to feel this painful sensation: it’s not bigger than you; it won’t get the best of you.
Into the Feeling, Out of Conceptualizing It!
Perhaps most important, this gets you out of transferring a bodily sensation to the mind, making a concept out of it, bypassing the actual felt, sensory experience of what’s moving through you. This in itself is powerful. It also allows the feeling X, I believe, to better move through you and move on: you know, that pesky the-way-out-is-through thing.
The Simple Power of Breathing a Feeling
And while you’re giving X your awareness, you might consciously give it breath, though it’s likely that will happen anyway. The breath is soothing, calming, leveling to the nervous system. The breath is kind. You might think in terms of the breath wanting to support you and get you through whatever you’re moving through.
The breath, too, is a felt, sensory experience that we seldom feel at all. When you sit with this formula, tune in to the breath (no manipulations needed, though you’re welcome to slow it down and deepen it if you like—it’ll go that direction anyway if you give it attention for a bit).
Gaining Distance from the Feeling by Joining the Human Race
As you repeat This is what X feels like, be aware that any number of human beings have felt this way over time. Right now, some are feeling it right along with you. Connect to them. Be one with them. You might even imagine specific faces. Take these from all the continents, from various races, ages, socio-economic levels, gender expressions. We are all one. You are not alone, and in holding awareness of others in the same boat, you cast your vote that they feel relief too, that they feel less alone too.
As you simply keep holding what X feels like with the gaze of the compassionate, dispassionate witness, noticing that others feel it too, welcome yourself to the human race. Take the compassion you’re able (probably more easily) to extend to others, and bring it back to yourself. (Aw, sweetheart, Ow.) And know it's okay for you to feel this: it's something that human beings, in the course of a lifetime, over the course of eons, feel and have felt. Why shouldn’t you feel it too, just for now? There’s no problem.
And you don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to add in and review and get preoccupied with the story of the hour that seems to have launched the feeling X. You can just feel this pain. You can let it move through you and move on.
Below is an audio version of this exercise. I highly recommend that you do it when you're in the thick of a feeling, especially if you don't know what to do with it, can't get out of the related story, or need support coming back to yourself and walking yourself through it kindly. If you're not doing it for the first time, you can begin at the 2:45 mark, when we launch the actual process.
Click on left arrow on audio bar below to hear the meditation/visualization.
Love & blessings, Jaya
p.s. Want a list of things NOT to get involved with when you feel bad? Here are my well-loved (helpful, practical) 11 Rules for When You’re Discouraged or Distressed.
This is BRIEF—not because it rhymes so nicely with RELIEF, but because—springtime.
So take it in like a big clearing breath, then run play outside. (Addendum: Or in the time of Corona, carry on in the best way you see to LIVE YOUR LIFE.)
You know that when the mind is chewing and belching in a rambling rumination, you can't be fully present to the brilliant buzz and birdsong (or to WHATEVER'S actually going on here and now).
Let's cut through the illusions that keep rumination in place:
Try these 3 steps toward getting OUT of rumination:
One more metaphor to illustrate those 3 steps:
To go with gum and hamsters, let's add a dog on a leash. Notice (witness) when it goes for the disgusting random foodstuff, interrupt it at once (no need to think anything through!), and redirect—head ANY other way. (Argh, canine, was that even ever edible? Argh, mind, aren't you so disgusted with this endless review of what needs no reviewing?)
May your communing with all things spring unfold in glorious presence.
Love & blessings, Jaya
(Practice during the holidays, REV IT UP DURING A PANDEMIC, carry on year-round!)
Could it be true that NOTHING IS INHERENTLY STRESSFUL? Whoa, what?
The thing is, if something MUST be stressful, then stress is the only thing possible once you’re in that something. If the holidays are stressful, then, stress. If work this time of year is stressful, then, stress.
If, however, that same something is not inherently stressful, then … what else is possible?
It’s been almost 15 years since I encountered that idea through Byron Katie. This writing is not about Katie or her inquiry process, but hey, I love to give credit where credit is due. Um, and I used to be ridiculously quick to declare stress, overwhelm, exhaustion, and ultimately how very depressing it all was. I’m still stunned that I live with so much ease, that I have for more than a decade. It’s kind of amazing that I’ve made a motto of There’s no problem.
Here’s what I did: I launched an experiment to test the idea that nothing is inherently stressful.
I wasn’t convinced of this no-inherent-stress thing. I’m still not. (The experiment is ongoing.) My visual imagination can conjure up scenarios that would seem to me inherently stressful (how about a war zone, or my kid in ICU?).
But it takes much less for most people to agree to obvious, automatic, absolutely warranted stress: moving, for starters, or divorcing. Or getting together with family of origin (or your partner’s!) over the holidays. I’ve stopped considering such things stressful. In fact, declaring stress seems to me a deplorable waste of my life force, which I’d rather use to be present to any situation I find myself in and get myself through it with as much grace (clarity, humor, kindness) as possible.
So I invite you to your own experiment. And (at the distinct risk of repeating myself), if you’re going to bother experimenting at all, make it a grand experiment!
Here are some things you might try in order to play with the possibility that nothing must be categorically stressful. Really (really) try them on. Keep coming back to them. Keep practicing. Leave no scenario or individual out of the reckoning. When you think, No really, this, STRESSFUL, ask yourself, What if nothing-inherently-stressful could work here too? It’s a great way to open to new lenses to look through.
There’s nothing to lose and plenty to gain. If the experiment makes a fool of you, you’ll be a more open-minded, more present, less stressed-out fool. Not half-bad, right?
Start with this basic premise:
So with a basic acceptance that life does what it does and people do what they do (oh, and you’ll have to keep coming around to accept that again and again, now and now and now), and that you’re in charge of you—not of other human beings and all of life--then you can get present to any situation (whatever its comfort level) and go about the business of creating the greatest possible ease in the context of reality.
From there, go into and/or be in any tricky situation with a mindset of not-inherently-stressful. Remind yourself:
Go in expecting to keep bumping up against your old beliefs of STRESS!—as they’re likely to kick in as quickly as you feel discomfort. This will serve you much better than imagining that an open mind going in will translate to freedom from old stories. Oh, no no no. So if you don’t need it to mean that, now you get to simply keep your eyes open and show up for what’s actually happening. (That’s a whole chapter in my book, Scooch! You’re already doing much better in the ease department if you’re willing to show up for what’s actually happening, not what you wanted to have happen or thought should happen.)
Stay in witness mode while you’re in the potentially (not inherently) stressful situation. I love to remind people to reach for the compassionate, dispassionate witness once you’re consciously witnessing. That is, witness with compassionate eyes that will look upon the scene (and you in it) with loving kindness; witness with dispassionate eyes that can hold a neutral gaze no matter what’s going on, that won’t get sucked into any story. The compassionate, dispassionate witness does not judge!
And know that the witness is a part of you, sitting right next to the scared kid, the teen who wants them all to fuck off, the escape artist who’s eyeing the emptying wine bottle. It’s fine: witness all of it, judge none of it (which means, drop out of judgments as you notice them, and get okay with their lingering presence if they won’t just march on command).
Let me point you to a couple of free resources. In November, I sent out recipes for going through the holidays with ease, and there are some great strategies there. (Use the headings to read what’s relevant to you. They’re all given near the top as well as throughout the text.) I’ve also created a 3-page pdf that lays out a clear formula with clear examples for staying firm (boundaried!) in difficult conversations. (It’s great to use with manipulative people or convincers.)
I’ve also got an audio program with written and audio supports that’s chock-full of super-helpful, clear, applicable mindsets, tools, tactics, with stories and examples. I taped it this December with so-called holiday stress in mind, and I’ve gotten fantastic (and sweetly grateful) feedback from takers. Check out the (Before they drive you crazy) Take the Wheel Program, which puts you in charge of your well-being in any situation, no matter how others are behaving ($55). (This means you can’t be a victim of what they do or don’t do, or of any circumstances, or of some concept of inherent stress!) This program, by the way, will help you apply the concepts in this writing and take them further.
Finally, to work in an ongoing way with this simple idea of nothing-inherently-stressful, you can learn to witness and monitor your feeling states and thoughts and use the information they give to point yourself consciously to self-care in the moment. You’ll also get swifter at course-correcting from upsetting thoughts to ones that feel more peaceful and empowering, and from your own powerless reactions that you disapprove of to quick shifts back on-track. Monitoring your feeling states as you go, you’ll also catch thoughts more quickly and stay out of what creates spiraling momentum you can’t get out of! All of this is laid out in my $33 Expansion program, along with lots on resistance and making your way with the greatest ease along a path of least resistance, one available step at a time.
For the record, these offerings are part of a current intention to offer affordable programs full of hefty, deep, nuanced content (sprinkled with humor and, um, occasional profanity) for those looking for solid, low-cost support that doesn’t require a one-on-one coaching process. You can listen to them at home, in spurts, in your right timing. (I always welcome interactions with real people—I'm happy to get your questions by email. The expansion program includes a custom-made audio for you, which I create and send along once you send me the optional homework.) I’m excited about this new programming, and the feedback that keeps coming in tells me it’s on-point. I invite you to these great offerings to support you now (in the stress season) and anytime.
Love and blessings, Jaya