by Stew Glick

Several people in and out of retreat have recently expressed similar experiences related to being criticized or feeling rejected, or fearing that this might happen. I thought it would be good to take a closer look, as it is an experience we have all shared at one time or another.

As young children, we were all very dependent upon others for our survival. There are survival mechanisms programmed into this body-mind which serve the practical purpose of keeping the organism fed and protected. But over time, this program seeks to protect and make safe not only the organism, but the image of who or what one “thinks” one is. That there is a connection between the basic survival mechanism and the physical as well as psychological pain stemming from feelings of rejection, separation and loss has some substantiation in scientific research. It was just recently reported that scientists now say that the brain that registers pain interprets it the same, whether it’s emotional pain or the kind that comes from an actual physical incident, such as a punch. The theory is that through evolution the social attachment system piggybacked onto the physical pain system as a means of survival–maintaining connections to one’s group enhanced the chances for food and shelter. Is it any wonder that the pain of feeling rejected has such a physical component?

People who are viewed as being in authority-type positions can also trigger this fear of rejection and the need for approval (love) in us. I remember being terribly humiliated in fifth grade by my teacher who read aloud our math scores to the class while admonishing those of us who failed. I didn’t know what I was doing with fractions and had just made up the answers to get through the test! I am quite certain that doing well in school equaled survival to me, in an unconscious way. I was most of the time panic-stricken taking tests, to the point of being physically ill. I felt afraid for my life, even though my life was not really at stake. Thought cannot “see” the self-image at the center of such worry; when there is no awareness, the body-mind operates in these reactive patterns when confronted with the signals which get interpreted as indicating “danger.”

These patterns carry through to the present. When we are now criticized or made to feel inadequate or ashamed in some way, these deeper hurts of the past are triggered and our response can be very reactive. There can be defensiveness–maybe in the form of denial or excuse. There might be rebelliousness (“you too!”), deflecting blame onto others. Or there may be an urge to run away or to hide in order to protect oneself from such hurt, or an attempt to assuage or block out the hurt through entertainment, sex, substance abuse–you name it! The responses–after being repeated over time–tend to become very automatic. The anticipation of these hurts can paralyze us and keep us from entering into situations which we expect may cause us the same pain.

It is interesting to see that when this whole dynamic is not noticed or questioned, even the slightest remark or gesture could set the response pattern off. A certain glance or look by someone in an authority position, someone from whom one seeks attention and love, and immediately the thought “She doesn’t like me,” and there may follow an urge to withdraw or even a subtle urge to “get back” in some way. We hear things in what people say that may not be there, as the filters in our listening have become so well entrenched over time. All of these movements can eat away at our relationships if they are not looked at or questioned in ourselves. It may be that the very pain and upset such reactions bring about eventually cause us to at last stop for a moment and wonder “What is going on?” This is a good thing, finally to allow the pain of insult or rejection to be felt rather than avoided. We are so conditioned to move away from discomfort, which is understandable in terms of how this body-mind is wired; we may need to attend to a bruised muscle or broken leg and such pain alerts us to taking care. But the physical discomfort arising from psychological causes–a wounding of the “me”–we need not move away from this or try to assuage it in some fashion.

What we call the “me-circuit”–the memories, thoughts, associated feelings, conditioned responses and behaviors–serves to create feelings of rejection and separation when there is little or no awareness. The physical discomfort generated sends signals back to the brain that there is something threatening, something/someone to be avoided, to defend against. It is an enclosed loop. There is no one doing this, it is how this body-mind is wired. And when there is little or no awareness, the energy travels through these circuit pathways, enlivening the conditioned responses, repetitively, unrelenting.

All of these feelings and discomforts can easily come up in a retreat setting. Do we feel inhibited by group meetings because we see someone as an authority, or because we are afraid of criticism, afraid of feeling unloved and rejected by this person, and by the group? Do we have images of the person who gives the talks, in some way giving a certain “weight” of authority to what is said, rather than listening and looking for oneself? When we listen through the filters of the “me-circuit,” we cannot listen clearly and we tend to either accept or reject out of hand what is being said. But when there is open looking and listening, there is no distance, no images between the speaker and the listener, no “you” and “me.” When the me-circuit is not operating at center stage, there can be a free-flowing looking and listening and speaking without so much concern about self-image. When the fear of “making a mistake” does not affect us, it is possible to listen openly to what anyone has to say, and look to see if what is said is so or not, continuing to ask questions for greater clarity, if necessary.

So at moments like these, when one notices feelings of rejection and criticism in retreat or otherwise, is it possible to pause and look and listen and wonder about what is going on, with patient interest? Noticing any expectations about what this will bring, about what may happen or what one would like to happen, and then leaving them alone, remaining quiet for a moment in the midst of it all? If there is some awareness, it may clarify all of this in a glance. If not, can we question into it, and not just take it for reality? This is a helpful aspect to retreating, in that most of our usual means of distraction are not available, and there is the supportive energy of the participants who are all taking time to be quiet and still with these movements of the body-mind when they come up. Is it possible to experience this discomfort–which may have previously taken up the whole screen–as a part of a much larger picture? Not taking the ideas and images and stories in the mind as real, but instead being alive and awake to all that is here at this instant: the sounds and sights and touch, with the senses being open? What is this moment, really, beyond the pictures or ideas or interpretations about it? This is not to say that this openness is dependent on the senses, but when it is here, the senses are naturally, effortlessly in touch–undivided from what is here.

When the burden of the me-circuit lets up for even moments at a time, and when the energy is here in this open presence, then there is no sense of anything lacking, no need for confirmation from others, no near of what others may think or say. In this space of open looking and listening, that which was previously heard as criticism fails to cause injury, because in such a space, there is no one to be injured. When there is a moment of clarity and what is said is heard openly, then what is there to defend? This space of effortless open looking and listening, of being, has been called our “true home” because it is what is here when the me-circuit quiets down; this does not need to be sought after. What obstructs needs to be seen through and dissolve. And one can question the idea “to see through once and for always” should that come up; instead, can there be a continued noticing of what comes up, of what gets in the way of this openness? With this work, over time, a palpable change occurs in this body-mind. Reactive patterns that seemed once so weighty and solid, so identified what as who we feel we are, can lighten up and dissipate much more quickly, if they come up at all.

In this openness there is a capacity for love and affection–a capacity to look at each other and listen to each other freshly, free from the prison created by memories of our endless hurts and fears and longings.