A Conversation with Psychotherapist and Teacher Mare Chapman
This month, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to a dear friend and extraordinary teacher, Mare Chapman. Mare has traveled many paths in gathering wisdom, including degrees in Occupational Therapy and Counseling as well as studying with Native mentors and acclaimed Buddhist teachers. She is a respected and fearless voice within the tradition of Vipassana Meditation. Using the lens of mindfulness training, Mare offers a unique and clarifying roadmap to facing the demons of fear, doubt, and internalized oppression, while learning to embody equanimity and self-compassion. Her book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, will transform the way you see the world and how you live in it.
Dale Kushner: You practice mindfulness-based psychotherapy. What is your basic view as you approach your work?
Mare Chapman: I believe we are each trustworthy beings for ourselves. By that I mean, as spirits living in these human bodies, we all possess an innate drive that moves us towards our well-being and full potential. Our bodies, minds, hearts and spirit are continuously giving us information to help us evolve in this direction. But the habits of our conditioning and the beliefs we unconsciously internalize as we grow up bias our perception of ourselves, others, and the world. More often than not, these habits and beliefs block our access to and our trust in that vital information. My primary job is to help the person I’m working with access their own system’s reliable data and find their own truth and wisdom. This requires mindfulness: cultivating a sensitivity and acceptance of one’s full present moment experience – perceiving what’s happening in the body, realizing the thoughts and stories going through the mind, receiving the feelings residing in the heart, and listening deeply to one’s spirit. By relating to one’s authentic experience in this way, insight and deeper understanding, along with acceptance and compassion, naturally emerge. Healing then happens organically, and trust and confidence in one’s own being deepens.
D.K.: How is mindfulness helpful with this? Does this always involve meditation?
M.C.: The core intention of mindfulness, as I understand it, is to free the mind from its conditioned habits so we can perceive reality accurately and access our true nature/who we are ultimately. It requires learning to relate to whatever we’re experiencing, with curiosity, kindness, acceptance, and without taking it so personally. Learning to be a compassionate observer of one’s experience enables the inner room to realize what’s authentically happening in the moment. This internal spaciousness allows one to clearly see those conditioned beliefs and behaviors that create misery, without self-blame. As a result, self-compassion and wisdom can naturally arise. With practice, instead of reacting habitually under the rule of those conditioned beliefs, there is the possibility of choosing a wiser and kinder response. Mindfulness trains our mind to become our reliable friend instead of being our inner bully, and we learn to stay connected, steady, and kind with ourself, even when the going gets rough.
I teach clients how to establish an inner stability by connecting with their breath, encourage tons of curiosity, and help them be aware of the stories in their minds and the sensations in their bodies as we explore their distress, coaching them to remain accepting as we dive more deeply into the discomfort or habit pattern they want to explore. Although I don’t require clients to meditate, I do encourage it, and occasionally will teach meditation in our sessions. This often includes teaching about the nature of thoughts, emotions, the body-mind connection, and the principles of mindfulness. By trusting their own reliable data, the clients maintain their agency and I remain open, receptive, and curious as we work together.
D.K.: A few months ago, I interviewed the meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg. She recommends your book, Unshakeable Confidence: The Freedom To Be Our Authentic Selves: Mindfulness for Women, for any woman who feels stuck in insecurity. How do you identify that as a key issue for women?
M.C.: I see so many amazing women who appear successful and competent on the outside, but internally suffer from so much self-doubt, insecurity, and the resultant anxiety and depression. Even though they are doing whatever they can to make sure others are happy with them – always being responsible, doing their best, striving to be perfect – deep down women commonly believe there is something wrong with them, or they aren’t enough. Consequently, much of one’s inner life is spent dwelling on and worrying about others, wondering how they feel about us, fearing they aren’t approving of us, all of which naturally disconnects us from knowing ourselves and leaves us cut off from our wisdom. We assume that when others are happy with us we will finally feel secure and then we can relax. But given that we never know for sure if we’re really okay in the other’s eyes, we’re left with chronic insecurity and self-doubt and feeling exhausted by this constant inner turmoil.
I call this pattern of seeking approval and security from others while disconnecting from one’s own authentic experience “othering”: it’s the habitual movement of attention away from self to the other, based on the assumption that the other has more power, authority, value, or privilege. I see it as the common normal coping strategy and natural reaction to women’s gender conditioning. Because we live in a world that is predominately patriarchal, as we grow up, we internalize the misogynistic beliefs inherent in patriarchy: men are superior and should be dominant and women are inferior and should be subordinate. Although we know intellectually we’re all equally valuable, nevertheless the innumerable and insidious ways patriarchy inserts its views and the resulting behaviors into our society cause women to believe we don’t matter as much. This trains us to give our power away to others as we look to them for the validation and approval we’re unable to give ourselves. Addressing and transforming women’s internalized misogyny is thus a key aspect of feminism’s unfinished work.
D.K.: How do you treat this issue and the habit of “othering”?
M.C.: First, I help women realize that othering, the false beliefs that underpin it, and the various ways it plays out in our lives are all deeply conditioned patterns and a normal response to our internalized misogyny. This intellectual understanding helps mitigate the habit of self-blame or the charge of co-dependency. Then I teach the skill set of bringing mindfulness to present moment experience. Through the increased awareness and inner space this creates, one is able to spot othering habits, choose to pop out of them, and connect with authentic experience, just as it is in the moment. Whereas othering trains us to place our reference point in others and ignore our authentic experience, mindfulness creates balance in our attention. We learn to be aware of ourselves, our own valid data – what we’re feeling, thinking, knowing, wanting, intending – as we perceive and relate to the other. This makes it possible to express clear boundaries, take wiser care of ourselves, let go of what isn’t our responsibility, respect our wants and needs, and empower ourselves to follow our own truth and dreams. Since mindfulness inherently teaches us to relate to ourselves with kindness, acceptance, curiosity, and less identification, over time with practice, one begins to build an inner frame of reference that is respectful, loving, and resilient. Gradually, with practice, we develop a growing trust in our authentic experience, the belief that we are enough just as we are, and the confidence we can handle whatever arises.
D.K.: Does your book give practical advice, instructions for women to help them to overcome disempowering beliefs, to achieve or improve confidence?
M.C.: Yes, my book is very practical. It’s based on a 10-week class, founded on a successful pilot study, that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years. It explores the notion of self, both conditioned and authentic, how patriarchy trains us to other, the common patterns of othering and how these affect us, and then step-by-step teaches the basic aspects of practicing mindfulness, as well as loving-kindness and compassion practices, in order to transform these disempowering habits. With numerous examples of women’s experiences as well as my own, specific instructions, guided meditations, informal practices, suggestions for reflection, and “ownwork,” my aim is to lead the reader into cultivating an accepting, wise and kind relationship with herself so that she gradually discovers and comes to trust that her own experience is always valid. It’s through this understanding and way of being that we empower ourselves to be our whole amazing selves. And, since we are all interconnected, the effect of our own healing and freedom always ripples out and benefits the whole world.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”