“Part of the problem is cognitive laziness. Some psychologists point out that we’re mental mixers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty grappling with new ones.” Adam Grant
Calcification is a process in which calcium builds up in body tissue, causing the tissue to harden. When something becomes calcified, it becomes fixed and difficult to change over a period of time. When you repeat the same thought over and over, sometimes unconsciously, our thoughts become inflexible or unchangeable. Thoughts then calcify into beliefs.
By the time we become adults, we have a whole collection of stories that define us. Parents, teachers, friends, and culture have told us who they think we should be or who we are. What they don’t tell us is that those are just suggestions, not rules we have to live by. And we let those thoughts play in our head over and over, sometimes without even realizing it.
“Human Iceberg Effect – Most people can explain their beliefs that are above the water line but are unconscious to the 95% of their thoughts that are underwater. That hidden 95% is what runs most of their internal dialogue.” David Emerald and Donna Zajonc
If you have not paid attention to the thoughts that are underneath the waterline, you may not be aware of the stories you tell yourself about life. They poke you multiple times a day, calcifying that thought into a belief. You will recognize the unconscious thoughts poking you by the uncomfortable feeling they generate that you can’t explain.
“Without a clear look at our internal truths, our unconscious self is running the show. We can’t explain some of our choices because we’re driven by things we don’t fully understand.” Rick Foster & Greg Hicks
One of the reasons we practice mindfulness is to see under the waterline. Seeing the thoughts and stories that have given us identities, and beliefs we hold on to whether they serve us or not. Some beliefs are positive, creating joy or making us productive citizens. Others create dependence, anxiety, inauthenticity, or suffering. We tend to take each identity to be who we are, but in truth we are not limited by the beliefs and identities we hold on to. We are much more than the identity we use to define ourselves. They are only little pieces of ourselves. But our beliefs lead us to believe that is all we are.
The first 60 plus years of my life, one unconscious thought that was poking at me was, “You are not enough.” To be enough, I had to take on the role of know-it-all and do-it-all. But no matter how much I knew or how much I did, it was never enough. I spent a couple of years telling myself daily that “I am enough, I do enough, I am worthy and My needs matter.” That helped turn down the volume of my inner critic and turn up the volume of my inner nurturer.
“This epiphany revealed I had been treating my drama like a movie streaming on a flat-screen TV or computer. If I don’t like the movie, I can turn it off, right? But then, isn’t the movie still streaming? Of course it is! I might try to ignore my life story—all my dramas, beliefs, and struggles—but they would still go on streaming just beneath my conscious awareness. I could choose to turn off the movie, turn away from the drama, or keep watching to discover how it was getting me hooked.” Donna Zajonic
If you are like me, when you feel like you are not enough, you become very judgmental, of yourself and of others. I only recently realized that I have honed the skill of being judgmental over the years. A couple of years ago, I would have said I was not judgmental.
Recently I attended the SnowFlower Fall Retreat. I noticed that on Friday night I was being very judgmental about lots of little details. I chalked it up to working so hard on the planning of and preparing for the retreat. But Saturday morning, the judgments kept coming up. At our small group discussion, I mentioned how I was feeling very judgmental. Once of the group members said, I wonder what is under that. I responded by saying, “I guess it wouldn’t kill me to look deeply and see what is underneath.” So, I sat with the judgmental feelings during the next couple of meditations.
On Sunday morning, as I was looking at my need to judge, I heard my father’s voice. Whenever I got a report card with all A’s and a B, he always said, “What is that B doing there?” I always took that to mean that I was not good enough unless I got all A’s. My sisters had told me that he was proud of me and that I was his favorite. But I could not hear it or let it land it my heart because I was clinging to the story that I was not enough for him. During that meditation, I had an insight. I realized that the story behind my father saying, “What is that B doing there,” could be that he believed I could do better, and this was his not so skillful way of trying to motivate me.
While I had been told he was proud of me, I did not let it land in my heart until that moment. When I let go of the belief that he thought I was not enough, I saw another way I could interpret that story. A feeling of peace came over me and put a big smile on my face. I felt so light that I thought about doing cartwheels as I walked down the path to breakfast. I had finally let go of a belief that was holding me back.
To do this, I had to let go of old view of my dad. I felt funny allowing myself to believe that he was simply not skillful in his way of trying to motivate me. That was a cognitive blind spot for me, causing me to hold on to the belief that I was not enough.
This breakthrough was not just an insight achieved at the retreat. It was the culmination of many practices I have been doing for years. And that neural pathway has not been eliminated, only weakened. Here are the practices I used and will continue to us to decalcify the belief that I am not good enough.
By regularly practicing breath meditation, I have made the tip of the iceberg larger, so that I am now aware of a greater percentage of my thoughts. Relaxing with breath meditation turned down the volume of my mental chatter so that I could see more clearly. Each time I recognize a thought arising during meditation, I strengthen my ability to see thoughts arising in everyday life. I am much more aware of the conversations I am having with myself throughout the day.
Sitting helps us to get to know ourselves. When I meditate, I catch a glimpse of something trustworthy and good deep down inside of me. Covered up by lots of stuff. This gave me the confidence to watch my emotions and my thoughts instead of sweeping them under the carpet. I learned to become more accepting of the way things were. This did not happen overnight. Over the past few years, I have begun to become familiar with what I will call my mistaken self. The one who had to know everything and do everything in order to be good enough. The one who felt like she was never doing enough to be OK. Those are beliefs I’d like to let go of, but I was holding on pretty tightly. The more I meditated, I was able to look underneath this mistaken self, and I would see a glimpse of my inner goodness. That I am OK even when I don’t perform.
“We see how our ridiculous, repetitive thought stream continually constructs our limited sense of self, with judgments, defenses, ambitions, and compensations.” Jack Kornfield
By practicing the body scan, I have become aware of the uncomfortable sensations arising in my body. Instead of being disconnected and sweeping anything unpleasant under the carpet, I practiced turning toward the uncomfortable feeling. This has allowed me to expand my tolerance for discomfort, which started at zero tolerance.
By getting familiar with the wonderful feeling of being loving and being loved, I developed the strength to make cracks in the brick wall I was hiding behind. It took lots of practice for me to finally dig down to the inner goodness that my brick wall was hiding. I started with doing loving kindness for loved ones and savored that feeling of love. I also spent time feeling the love from my loved ones. Knowing that I am truly loved helped me to see that I am worthy of love. So I finally learned how to send myself well wishes and truly mean them.
The common humanity leg of the self-compassion stool helped me realize that I was not alone. This gave me the courage to talk about my feelings to others. When I kept my feelings of not being enough hidden, I allowed shame to grow. And I strengthened my tendency to push anything negative under the carpet. By exposing those feelings, the shame lost its power, and I was able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings. I started with just being able to peek at them for a moment, but over time could sit with them for longer periods of time. I could also discern when I had the strength to look at them and when I should put it off until I had more strength and energy. Instead of judging myself as bad for having those feelings, I learned to treat myself as I would a friend.
Recognizing that my mind was being extremely judgmental and allowing the judgments to be there set me up to look underneath the judgments. Instead of beating myself up for being judgmental, which would strengthen my tendency to judge, I looked at what was underneath it. I did not look at why I was being judgmental as that would bring up more judgments or excuses. I looked at what body sensations and feelings were under the need to be judgmental. Then I thought about what times in my life I felt those sensations and feelings.
This brought up my father’s voice. Due to the safe container of continuous practice at a retreat, I was open enough to look at the thought, my dad doesn’t think I am good enough to see if it was true. That step back allowed me to take a different perspective. I could see that another story was just as viable. My dad was proud of me and wanted to motivate me to do my best. While he is not around to ask, I feel the new story is closer to the truth. When I allow that interpretation, I feel open and light, not tense and defensive. And that belief is empowering, not crippling.
“When you open to the whole of your experience, you have more information and can make better decisions. You perceive more fully, seeing the big picture, putting things in perspective. You free up energy that was spent pushing down your real feelings. You tune into your body, your heart. You’re less fixed or attached in your views. You recognize the good things in you and around you that you’d tuned out. You feel more supported, more protected. You take things less personally.” Rick Hanson
My identity is becoming more fluid. I see the value of letting thoughts arise when they are useful and letting them fade away when they no longer serve my true self. I am trying to hold them lightly, so they don’t calcify into rigid beliefs. Sometimes the attachment to a thought or a belief is a strong as it ever was. But I know with practice I can let go again.