The Gift of Our Compulsions with Mary O’Malley

Today, I am delighted to share an interview with one of my greatest teachers and inspirations: Mary O’Malley.

Mary is an author, counselor and awakening mentor in Kirkland, Washington. In the early 1970’s, a powerful awakening led Mary to begin changing her relationship with her challenges, freeing her from a lifelong struggle with darkness. Mary’s latest book, What’s In the Way IS the Way, provides a revolutionary approach for healing our fears, anxieties, shame, and confusion, so we can live from a place of ease and well-being.

When I read her book The Gift of Our Compulsions, I was blown away. I was so deeply touched and felt understood on a cellular level. Since reading her book, my relation to my most profound compulsion (my body) has drastically changed and I refer back to her book on a regular basis to go deeper, to experience more, to practice unconditional love.

Grab a cup of coffee, tea or whatever your favorite beverage is, get comfy and enjoy Mary’s wisdom and profound teachings.

Mary O'Malley photoIn your book The Gift of Our Compulsions, you write – as the title says – about compulsions; what’s your own story with compulsions?

After having a very dark childhood, I hit rock bottom when I was 23. In one year alone, I gained 97 pounds and washed it all down with alcohol and drugs because life was too painful. The following year I was in a psychiatric hospital for the better part of a year and then tried to kill myself three times.

Several months after my last suicide attempt, my mother offered me a yoga workshop she had signed up for but couldn’t attend. It was taught by Joel Kramer who came up from California. Hearing Joel’s words, “In the seeing is the movement” was a powerful turning point for me. Rather than always trying to fix myself, he showed me that the power of my own attention can open things back up again. As I began to be curious about my compulsions, rather than always trying to control them, my compulsions started to calm down.

Can you share how you started your work?

After that yoga retreat, I began studying with many well-respected spiritual teachers, including Stephen Levine, Ram Dass, and Jack Kornfield. These inspirational and wise teachers guided me to meet my compulsions and struggles with my heart. Stephen Levine, whom I consider to be my mentor, taught me to bring curiosity and compassion to all of the states of mind and body that I had been trying to control or change my whole life.

By learning to be with what I had considered my “broken parts,” I was able to finally experience peace and well-being. I began sharing what I had learned with friends and family members, and over time, groups developed, then one-on-one counseling, retreats and the four books that I have written. I never planned to become an author, counselor and awakening mentor, so I believe I was chosen for this work. For more than 30 years now, I have had the good fortune of working with so many amazing people as we walk down this path together.

How can there be a gift in our compulsions?

There are two main gifts that come with compulsions. The first is understanding that compulsions are a finely crafted survival system. We all buried or numbed our pain when we were young and compulsions were one of the ways we did this. We had to do this because the deep feelings that moved through us were scary and we did not have the skills to meet them in our own hearts.

So, we turned to compulsions, like drugs and alcohol abuse, eating, shopping, work, sex, the Internet, busyness, self-judgment, and chronic worry in order to numb out our pain, sadness, grief and shame. I think back on all those years when I shut down my pain with food, drugs and alcohol, and I know without a doubt that my compulsions were the survival system that saved my life!

The second gift is learning that whenever compulsions are here, there is a part that you were taught to turn away from when you were young that is asking to be seen and set free. As you become curious about what is happening inside of you when you are interested in being compulsive, your compulsions lose their grip on you because you learn to take care of the things that your compulsions have been taking care of, but in loving, healthy ways.

Why is it important to make our compulsions our friends?

In order to heal from your compulsions, you need to learn how to be in a new relationship with them – a friendship. {Click to tweet}

We have been taught to dominate them, only to have them dominate us. If we try to control one of our compulsions, another seems to take over. We stop smoking, and we find ourselves overeating. We let go of drinking and we end up compulsively shopping. When you try to resist your compulsions, they just come back stronger. In other words, whatever you resist, persists. You need to move beyond seeing your compulsions as enemies and recognize them as guides that help to bring you back to a deep relationship with yourself and with life.

How can you reconnect with yourself if you feel like you never really connected in the first place?

You may not remember being really connected, but you were when you were very young. When you were an infant, you did not have a thought in our head. You were pure consciousness. As you grew, you learned to turn away from yourself in order to survive in your world because life was too scary. You began to live in the stories in your head, and through conditioning, you learned to shut off and shut down.

It is so important to know that your connection with life has never left you. You just think it has.  It is always here, right now, in this moment of life. The way back is to become curious about the beliefs you took on when you were young and to compassionately meet the feelings that arise from these beliefs.

It is not easy to open your heart again to yourself, but it is the safest thing you will ever do because it opens you to your innate aliveness and joy.

What does it mean to move from management to engagement?

Management is trying to control life, to make it what you think it should be. And this is an endless game of struggle. Engaging with life is about befriending, keeping company with, allowing, honoring, respecting, acknowledging, and developing a relationship with all of these parts you don’t likeI love the word “allowing.” Allowing is acknowledging the waves of sadness, grief, pain and anger that are passing through you.

True healing is about turning toward and making space for whatever is showing up in your life. {Click to tweet}

It is about noticing what is here right now when your mind goes into its struggle mode and tightens your body. Meeting whatever is showing up brings you into full engagement with what is happening rather than staying caught in resistance.

How do you love yourself from the inside out?

Loving yourself from the inside out is really about getting to know all of your fears, your struggles and your challenging states, including sadness, pain, grief, and judgment, and learning to love them all. You do this by being curious about what is showing up in your life. This is a radically different way to live, because most people resist those parts.

But, death, loss, pain and sorrows are part of the natural unfolding of life and when you can open your heart and make space for them, you can then touch them with loving kindness. If you resist them, you suffer. But when you learn to be with what is, your heart naturally opens and you can relax and open back into Life.

What do we do when we’re terrified of our feelings?

Most people view the world through a lens of fear. Fear is made up of conditioned beliefs that you took on when you were very young. I like to call these beliefs “spells” because they are something that was laid over the top of you, they are not true and they can be lifted.

The voice of fear talks in your head all day long and getting to know the spell of fear is a powerful part of awakening. It is one of the core teachers for waking up to life. It is powerful when you can begin to notice it and say “Oh, I see you fear” rather than falling into the story that fear is telling you.

As you get to know your fear, without trying to fix or change it, you begin to see that the feelings you have been terrified of are just young children in monster costumes that need somebody to say hello!

I love the passage in your book about opening to our breath. Can you share a bit about it?

Breath is one of the most powerful tools you have because it turns on the calming aspect of your nervous system and lessens the power of your struggling mind. The amazing world of breath is a sanctuary when you are lost in your mind.

The next time you are caught in struggle, watch how much you hold your breath. {Click to tweet}

It is important to just notice it and not go to war with it. When you relax into your breath, you can feel how calming it is to pull your attention out of your busy mind and invite it instead to simply ride the waves of your breath. When you give yourself the gift of pausing throughout your day and noticing one round of breath, it really makes a difference. That is a moment of consciousness.

In your new book, you write about what’s in the way is the way. What do you mean by that?

In my book, I invite you to open to the radical notion that in your life, whatever you perceive to be in the way of what you long for IS the way. In other words, your challenges are tailor-made to help you see your particular brand of struggle and help you unhook from it so you can again know the joy of being fully alive. Most of us live in resistance to the challenges in our lives, and this work is all about the opposite of resistance.

It is about opening up again to the creative flow of life.  It is about saying “Yes” to life. That doesn’t mean that you sit down by the side of the road and let it run over you. It means that at your core you know everything in your life is for you and the key is to meet whatever is showing up with curiosity and compassion.

Life is an intelligent process. It knows what it is doing and it is safe to open to it. {Click to tweet}

How can we learn to accept what’s in the way and move through it instead of moving around it?

The first step is to ask yourself, “Has ‘moving around it’ ever brought me the peace and joy I long for?”  If you are honest, you would say no. You have within you a most powerful tool, and that is the tool of your attention. In fact, when your attention and your immediate experience come together, whatever is bound up inside of you can begin to move through you.

So rather than getting caught in struggle, you can learn how to watch what is going on inside, feel the energy in your body, accept what is here, and become curious about it. You were conditioned into fear, shame, anger and despair, and these emotions are nothing but trapped energy that long to be released back into free-flowing aliveness through the power of your own accepting attention. This is the path to your freedom.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your life so far?

I have learned so many lessons on my journey, but I would have to say that one of the most important lessons is that there is nothing inside of you to be afraid or ashamed of. We all have “broken parts” and we are all good at pretending that we don’t – both to ourselves and to others!

So we go to war with the so-called unacceptable parts which cut us off from the joy of being fully alive. When you let these parts into your heart, you let go of the war of wanting things to be different than what they are and you can again know the joy of being fully alive, no matter what is happening in your life.

What’s one last thing you’d like to share with my readers?

The most radical thing you can do to be a part of the wonderful opening that is happening on this planet is to be kind to yourself – to every single part of you. {Click to tweet}

As you give yourself this gift, you automatically gift it to others and you become a healing presence in the world.

I want to thank you for reading this interview and if this work calls to you, please visit my websites: and I offer lots of free audios and videos of this work, in addition to a monthly newsletter and a weekly blog article. I also offer in-person and telephone support groups and retreats where you can gather with like-minded people who are discovering how to transform struggle into peace and well-being.

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to sign up for the 12 Days of Kindness Challenge. Mary will give away 2 of her books! 

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