Mark was telling me his experience with his latest girlfriend. “I’m doing it again! I’ve gotten into another relationship in which I’m the supportive, encouraging one, and I don’t get any of my own needs met.”
Again and again, Mark finds himself in relationships not just with girlfriends, but also co-workers, friends and family members who are comfortable relying on him for help, but who don’t give him support and help. On his side, he gets to see himself as a useful, good person without having to feel the awkwardness and scariness of revealing his vulnerable underbelly.
I recently asked students in a class of mine how they feel when they catch themselves running habitual patterns like these. Many of their responses were similar to Mark’s. Generally, they described disappointment, shame, guilt, or anger with themselves for doing something yet again. Carla described finding herself at home following a mindless shopping spree surrounded by things she didn’t need or even like. “I can’t believe I did it again! I’m such a moron! They should just lock me up. It’s not safe to have me roaming the streets.”
As the class explored further, we found that most experienced a nameless basic “yeccchhhh!” when they woke up in the midst of habitual patterns. In contemplative psychotherapy we regard the experience of self-disgust or revulsion as very promising, as a hallmark of brilliant sanity, because revulsion arises when we see that our behavior is harmful to ourselves or to others.
Someone who repeatedly abuses alcohol and gets behind the wheel of a car, parents who lose control and hit or yell at their children, youngsters who risk disease in having unsafe sex—all are harming others with their mindlessness. Much less serious habitual patterns—such as telling “white lies,” ignoring the feedback of co-workers, playing computer games instead of sharing a good meal with others—these too bring harm to ourselves and others.
All habitual patterns of behavior are based on ignoring what’s really happening. When we indulge in habitual patterns, they give us the false impression that we can keep things always the same. We use repetitious behaviors to create a false sense of a permanent self, and we hope that we will find an escape from pain.
We use these habit patterns to pull back from the sharpness and vulnerability of the present, of being alive. We turn to them for comfort, but instead they tend to just feed on themselves. They develop momentum and become even harder to spot until we are fortunate enough to reach a moment of revulsion.
In the brief moment before we feel revulsion, we’ve had the clarity to see what we’ve been doing. We may feel genuine sorrow when we see how we are short-changing ourselves and others. We feel remorse and regret when we see that we truly harmed another being.
When we experience revulsion, we see that we are responsible for what we do. Until we recognize our own part in the problem, we don’t feel revulsion. Instead, we continue to blame others. Counselors who work with perpetrators of domestic violence, for example, know that the experience of self-revulsion is a sign that the person is beginning to accept responsibility for his or her own actions. So, this feeling of awful recognition, of “yeccchhhh,” of a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, is very good news. It’s a sign of mindfulness, and it represents a powerful opportunity.
Moments of revulsion present us with a fork in the road. At this point, our recognition of what we’ve done might turn into self-aggression. As Carla described, we might begin to heap on ourselves thoughts of our basic unworthiness, beating ourselves over the head and concluding that we are people who will always mess up. We could descend into depression and hopelessness. Or we could take the self-aggression and begin to do what the AA folks call “stinkin’ thinkin’,” collecting resentments and blaming others again for what is our own responsibility. So one path is aggression, directed at oneself or others.
The other path is to recognize this moment of revulsion as good: we have begun to see what we are doing. It can lead to what is traditionally called renunciation. We can make a commitment to stop perpetuating this harmful pattern. Carefully learning how the pattern works can overturn the ignorance that underlies it. The key to changing habitual patterns is the willingness to directly experience what arises when we refrain from engaging in them. For Mark, it means that he has to be willing to feel awkward and vulnerable.
Sometimes we have to take it more gradually. For Carla, she may begin by feeling whatever arises when she comes home and sees what she has done. As she continues to work with her mind, she may need to experience what comes up while she’s shopping and then, later, what comes up when she wants to shop. Then she may learn what she’s been avoiding and face it directly. Her practice will be to notice what arises in her body, in her emotions, and in her mind.
Even more important than mindfulness and clarity, though, is gentleness. We need to cultivate an attitude of non-aggression toward ourselves. We don’t have to fool ourselves and say it’s just fine that we have harmed ourselves and others, but we don’t have to conclude we are evil either.
We can also help others when they reach the delicate fork in the road represented by revulsion. We can support the intelligence that has brought them to this point and encourage gentleness in working with it. After all, in the bottom of our hearts, none of us really wants to hurt ourselves or others. It’s just become a bit of a habit.
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