I sought my life’s purpose as if there was something Out There that had my name on it. I was convinced, in my adolescence, that there was a Right Path that was mine and all I had to do was to find it. I was so convinced of this that I changed life paths, or at least career paths, quite precipitously in the middle of my university education.
Now I see things differently. Actually, it isn’t a matter of seeing things but more a matter of knowing in my body, in some deep place of knowing that isn’t cognitive, isn’t verbal or imaginal or even conceptual. Which, of course, makes it pretty hard to describe in words.
If I am weeding this garden, then right now, that is my purpose. If I am writing this blog post, then that is my purpose. If I am helping someone to express a feeling that he or she has long held captive in the recesses of mind and body, then THAT is my purpose, right there at that moment.
Somehow, I guess, that purpose isn’t something outside of me that I have to find. It is more about doing whatever I am doing with the intention of doing it fully and with all of myself.
We leave tomorrow for the week-long bioenergetic retreat in Prince Edward Island. We have spent a year preparing, with more active preparation going on since January, and accelerating toward tomorrow. The program begins on Friday evening and runs through the following Friday at mid-day, and each year it draws a diverse group that somehow becomes a community during our time together. And I can imagine that the people who are joining us from all over the world are preparing, packing, and anticipating.
I have been busy with getting ready, looking after details, checking in with the rest of the team, and preparing myself for the work of therapy. Body psychotherapists use their bodies in their work, so part of my preparation has been to be sure I do my bioenergetic exercises, to be aware of my sleep and nutrition, to work through any internal logjams that may get in my way.
And now, today, I am feeling that lovely anticipatory excitement that comes up when you are heading off for an experience that is new and also likely to be challenging and deepening and supportive and connecting. The closest comparison I can get is that feeling I had when I was maybe eight years old of expecting Santa to come and bring presents on Christmas Eve. There was an element of surprise but also the expectation was that things would be pretty good.
I am looking forward to seeing what gifts the next week brings. Gifts are not always in bright packages: in fact, the gifts of the retreat often arrive in the form of difficult feelings, ones we prefer to avoid. I guess maybe the gifts come when people are offered a time and space to be themselves, bring their struggles, challenges, and their joys, express whatever their bodies need to express, and then see what happens. Part of my anticipation is that I don’t know what will come up; part of my joy is that I do know that things will happen, people will have opening experiences, and we will become a community.
I wish you all the gifts that freedom of expression can bring.
Last week, against a backdrop of horror and despair generated by the apparently premeditated shooting of RCMP officers in a nearby city, I noticed that I was able to feel happy. I was digging in the dirt, moving weeds out and seedlings into a little plot for which I have taken responsibility. I felt the sun hot on my skin, the work and fatigue warming my muscles, the damp cool earth soiling my fingers. I saw the little plants going into the ground, smelled the mulch as I spread it over the bed, felt my own sweat sliding down my back. I felt myself entirely alive, breathing, sweating, moving, thinking and aware, always aware, of the backdrop of loss and pain and suffering of the young families who lost their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. I felt happy.
It might seem paradoxical or just plain wrong to be so aware of my own happiness, my own contentment in the moment in the garden, with so much else happening alongside. Rather than insensitivity, I think it is being exquisitely sensitized that allows us to feel deeply into our own lives. Instead of taking on those garden tasks as jobs that had to be done, interruptions in my train of thought, I experienced them differently. I felt fortunate to be able to work in the garden, with my partner nearby, safe and healthy. I was grateful to have mundane chores to complete. I was delighted to have the strength to do the work, and the senses to take in the experience. The shootings in Moncton brought me to the edge of awareness of the fragility of life, the temporary nature of our existence in this world, the sense of impermanence. That edge allowed me to go deeply into my experience of physical well-being. Here I am, world, me, breathing and sweating and moving and digging in the dirt. Here I am, planting flowers for a future that may not even happen. And I can feel my own good feelings doing that, even though at the same time I am aware of my sorrow on behalf of others and the horror of the event itself.
And in the moment of awareness of happiness, I felt it slide out of my experience as other feelings, thoughts, and sensations took its place. I remember wondering if perhaps I “should” be feeling sad or angry or horrified, but also remembering that I don’t have control over that. I am sad, angry and horrified, and also, for that moment, I was brilliantly, exquisitely happy.
May you experience the fullness of your feelings just as they are, today, tomorrow and onward.
We cannot return to the past; we can only go forward.
I had that thought this morning, pondering my life, my career, my current state. But I think it is likely that both parts of that thought are untrue.
We can go back and we can go forward, always and sometimes obsessively, in our minds. We do a lot of both. Sometimes I spend a lot of time in one place or the other, and sometimes just waffling in between. Remembering, for example, my mother’s death, or then her life, and wondering how much of my memories of her are based on “reality” of actual events in the world, and how much based on the reality of my child’s experience. And then flipping into some future where I have written about my life, and made sense of it all. And then flopping to another new future where I leave therapy as a career and do nothing, nothing at all. Or write, but somehow make a living at writing. Or reshape my therapy practice so I focus on groups and have more free time, or then I wonder if I don’t really embrace some idea I have for work, well, then, will I die feeling incomplete???
The point is that I am returning to the past over and over. I am slipping into the future again and again. And when I spend my days in those places I miss being alive. I miss what is actually going on.
Where can I find a balance so that I am living my life here and now, and also creating a future that conforms to my desires? Oh, that’s a point….all of this time travel is usually about control. It is about my desire to control my future and my rage that I could not control my past. Aha, yes, indeed.
I wonder if acknowledging that I want to CONTROL my future will help me let go of that deep desire. Actually, I don’t really want to control the future….I just want the outcomes to be the outcomes I want. It reminds me somehow of the prayers I was taught as a child. I was taught to ask God to bless parents, friends, the dog, and to keep everyone safe and happy. Somehow I believed that my supplication would protect people and keep outcomes the way I wanted them. That’s a pretty long history of wanting to control how things work out.
Maybe all I can do right now is try to limit my time traveling. Here and now can be a pretty good place. It can also be boring, sad, angry, irritable and cold. But the more time I spend in the present, the more life I am getting in my life. I guess I’ll try for that.
How do I end up in these places? That’s not just a whine about winter, but a bigger question, really. It seems to me that I could not have predicted my current circumstances from my earlier life. I think that a lot of strange, unpredictable things had to happen for me to be here, now, doing what I am doing.
I often wonder if there is any truth to my sense that I have made choices, decisions, which resulted in my arriving here in this place, in this work, in this country, within my particular family structure.
Did I actually have anything at all to do with that?
There are times when I think that maybe choice is illusory and that we operate on another scale. We are mere mites within a grander structure. We run around, choosing one path or another, feeling stressed about what to choose, but we cannot see that the choices are limited by the maze into which we were born. We think we are choosing from all the available options but maybe our very choices are constrained by our pre-existing beliefs, our social structures, or needs for acceptance within our tribes. Those constraints are largely invisible to us as we make our day-to-day decisions. Eggs or pancakes? Divorced or married? Employed or not? House or condo? It is not obvious that there are many other options than just the either-or within our cultural and social limits.
What are the limits? What keeps us inside the maze rather than climbing up the walls and getting a look at what else is there?
I suspect that partly it is our illusion of control. We feel a need to hold onto that, even though life has a way of reminding us regularly that we don’t actually control very much. If we should climb up the walls of the maze just to look out and across the sweep of those tunnels of our options and maybe the related but disconnected mazes of people from other places, cultures, social settings, we would have to acknowledge that truth…control is just an illusion. That’s a frightening idea. We want someone to be in control. Some of us want to be in control of ourselves. Some of us are willing to relinquish control to a beneficent deity. Some of us believe that we are controlled by malevolent forces, from government-corporate conspiracy to the devil. Some people prefer to believe that we are controlled by natural forces, such as evolution, or climate change. After all, we figure, SOMEONE must have set up those mazes.
What if none of it is true? What if our limits are our own conceptual construction, just as our control is our own conceptual construction? What would happen if we dropped all the stories, all the self-talk about us and others, about limits, about control, about events? I suspect we’d be left with experience, our moment-to-moment experiencing of being a human organism living a human life.
I’m going to ponder this for awhile. Who am I when I drop the storyline? When I really drop it, that question also disappears. The “I” of my story is gone and what is left is just the experiencer, experiencing. I get there sometimes, moments during sitting and other moments too, but as soon as I notice then I am back in the story, back in my maze. But I wonder, and this is part of the story too, if I can melt away the “me” of my story, can I melt away the limits of my maze? What is it like to just BE, without putting that moment into the context of my day, my week, my maze?
More and more, I am thinking that anxiety is about trying to cover up your feelings. You don’t want to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, so you try everything in your arsenal to stop feeling. You tense your muscles, constrict your breathing, start thinking obsessively, focus on external sensations or fill your body with too much food or alcohol or other chemicals to numb whatever is happening.
But the body doesn’t buy it. Instead, it sends you a message that something is wrong. Tense muscles, upset digestive processes, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, pains in gut and head, shakiness or trembling….all of these body experiences can connect to anxiety. Anxiety isn’t exactly fear. Fear is cleaner, has a more specific focus. But fear can be one of the emotions we try to cover up…and that can result in anxiety.
How can you recognize anxiety? It can show up as body symptoms: tensions, pain, nausea or other digestive upsets, headaches. It can show up as shakiness, foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate. Or it can appear in disguise. This is what happens when our defenses against anxiety are working to keep us from feeling it. So, for example, I tend to make internal lists, develop complex plans for my future, create diet and exercise and frugality hell for my body to live in. I have learned to recognize that my mind uses these tools to defend against my anxious feelings. When I am doing a lot of rigid planning and programming for myself in my mind, I know (in some other part of my mind) that I need to look deeper. This is one way that I manifest anxiety.
You might have racing thoughts. Or worrying. Or obsessive ritualistic behaviour such as around cleaning, or working out, or making contacts with people. Or avoiding contact with people. Many different behaviours can be manifestations of anxiety because we learn very quickly to make associations. That is, if we engage in a behaviour and experience a lessening of the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, then we are pretty likely to engage that behaviour again. Sometimes it is almost as if the behaviour IS the anxiety; so we think our racing thoughts ARE anxiety. But really they are an attempt to cope with the body sensations that are unpleasant.
Learning to live with emotional discomfort is just as useful as learning to live with physical discomfort. We don’t have to happy, contented, or relaxed ALL of the time. Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, experience what our body is experiencing, and just being present to it….well, that’s a great way to be really alive.
How do you do that when you have only ever run away from your feelings? Yes, that’s the hard part. It helps to remember that you are just going to be FEELING something…and feelings, like thoughts, come and then then go. And it helps to remember that nobody ever died from just feeling something. Watching out for catastrophic thinking helps too….thinking thoughts like “I can’t stand this” won’t make it easier to actually stay right with that feeling. So when you feel a bit anxious, see if you can give yourself some time and space to just ask what might be there under the anxious feeling? What else is there? Allow yourself to breathe into your belly, and feel your feet on the ground, and ask….what is this about? What do I notice in my body? Oh, yes, this sensation in my belly, and this one in my chest….oh, THIS…this is sadness….(or anger, or fear or whatever…). Then watch that felt sense with kindness and compassion and some curiosity…oh, yes, this is what I am experiencing right now….THIS is it. And watch it as it shifts and changes, and notice what that is like for you. Giving yourself time and space and permission to have feelings can make a big difference.
The huge benefit to allowing ourselves to fully experience our uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or unpleasant feelings is that ALL of our feelings become more accessible. When you experience your own integrity, where you are not hiding, covering up, or showing off your emotions, you feel yourself more solidly on the ground, and more real in your body. And that’s what life is about…being here, in this body, in this moment, right now.
You are a human being. You have a whole range of feelings as your birthright. Don’t live your life halfway: feel them all!
Positive thinking is fine. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Usually when people refer to thinking positively, they are actually experiencing unpleasant thoughts….thoughts that might create imaginary catastrophes, thoughts of criticism or judgment, or just overt pessimism. Those thoughts generally don’t lead to better outcomes, so people want to change them. And that’s okay.
If all it took to recover from traumatic stress was positive thinking, we’d probably all be just fine. And therapists like me might have a lot less to do at work.
There is a lot that happens in our thinking. And there is also a lot that happens in our minds apart from our conscious, word-based thoughts. That’s where the over-simplification of “positive thinking” starts to fall apart.
What else is in there? If you sit, quieting your body and breathing and just noticing your mental activity for a period of time, you’ll become aware of the constant overlapping parade of ideas, words, memories, anticipations, and images that are flowing through your conscious mind. Then you might be able to start to notice the spaces: can you find space between the discrete items in that steady parade? Then, over time and practice, you might notice specific types of items in your continuous mental flow, or you might focus on paying more attention to the empty space, allowing stillness to come into your mind as well as in your body.
This practice helps us to become more acquainted with the contents of our minds, and helps us to access some things that we may have been avoiding or simply not noticing in the chaos of the untrained mind.
The danger of “positive thinking” is that we might use it to avoid looking deeply into ourselves, to pack away uncomfortable feelings and memories, to try to keep ourselves from feeling sad, for example, or angry or afraid. While there is certainly some short-term utility to that approach, in the longer term we end up cutting off parts of ourselves.
Wow, that sounds brutal! But what might it actually look and feel like, to have cut off parts of yourself? Well, one example might be that you have very poor memory for parts of your life. Or you may only experience a very restricted range of feelings: you feel happy, sad, angry or afraid, but only a little bit and you wonder what all the fuss is about, when other people seem to experience their feelings more powerfully. Or you just feel slightly anxious much of the time, with no apparent reason. Perhaps you everything in your life looks just fine from the outside, but you feel like something is missing….but it is embarrassing to say that because your life is “just fine.” These are all possible indications that you are out of contact with parts of yourself.
Looking deeply into ourselves, staying with the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise, can be an act of great courage. Really experiencing our experiences, whether we label them “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” or (my preferred label) “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” allows us to find the hidden parts and embrace them.
Positive thinking isn’t bad, especially if you are trying to change a pattern of catastrophizing, what iffing, or shoulds. Using it to numb us to our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can keep us stuck in our old patterns, though. Be aware of what you most want to avoid…there is usually something of value there!
Yesterday I posted a little note and a photo of a tree in the woods. I commented that the tree was decorated in Mardi Gras colours, purple, green, and gold. That’s exactly what I saw yesterday in the woods.
You might have noticed, as I have, that the picture I posted tells a slightly different story. In the picture, the decorations are not limited in colour, but include other colours as well. And a friend noted that she had seen that tree before in the park, quite a while before Mardi Gras.
Hmm…..this has me pondering and amused, actually, at the influence of my thoughts. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day important in my childhood for religious reasons and the beginning of Lent. I recall many years of the supreme sacrifice of giving up eating candy for the interminable six weeks before Easter. This was for some abstract reason that was going to help Jesus, somehow, even though he was still going to be crucified whether I was compliant or not. In my adult life, Lent marked the end of the Mardi Gras season, which started at Epiphany and was marked by delightful and delicious King Cake, a soggy sweet coffee cake that boasted purple, green and gold coloured sugars, and a plastic baby hidden somewhere for you to break a tooth on.
But yesterday in the woods I was primed to see a Mardi Gras tree, not a Christmas tree.
I had been thinking about Shrove Tuesday, and about my nephew Vic’s birthday, and the particular birthday when Vic turned twelve at our house in Louisiana. The birthday fell on Tuesday, Fat Tuesday. So we celebrated by heading off to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Vic decided that the party was for him and we all agreed.
With pancakes and king cakes in my mind, how could I avoid turning that tree into a Mardi Gras symbol? But I was wrong. The power of perception was so strong, so insistent, that I came home and posted a picture claiming what I had seen. Only now I know it’s just what I thought I had seen.
Thoughts can be powerful and persuasive. I wonder where else I have experienced a sort of perception-blindness?
Today is March 5th. It doesn’t feel like March to me, but it looks like I expect March in eastern Canada to look. There is plenty of snow, and plenty of sunshine, but boy, it is still very cold, unseasonably cold. There is no sap running yet in those maple trees.
My own sap seemed to have dried up some, too. I resent the cold, ridiculous as that might be, and long for different weather. Today, though, I took it upon myself to dress up and head for the park, ready to enjoy the sunshine if not the temperature. Grateful for my day off, and that I finished an early draft of a presentation this morning, I layered up, pulled on the boots and thick mitts and the warm and very ugly fleece hat that Dan literally found out in the woods some years ago, and I headed out.
It was not only my misfortune that I had to make a stop at the hardware store first. I felt some mild pity for those who had to view my backwoods attire, but at least it was the hardware store and not some place where customer appearance might raise eyebrows. If mine raised anybody else’s eyebrows, I was unable to see them from under my fleece hat.
I did ultimately arrive at the park, checking out the cars in the parking lot (How many people am I going to run into here?), the piles of snow at the edges of the lot, and securing my keys to avoid an unpleasant surprise upon my return. These are all strategies to delay actually getting out of the car and into the cold. But I finally did what I went for, and got out into the day. There was an immediate payoff. I discovered a lovely surprise: someone had decorated a Mardi Gras tree! Yes, purple, green and gold decorations on a charming little spruce just off the main trail. The gold was glittering in the sunshine, though the tree itself was in the shade of the forest, but it sure made me smile, remembering Mardi Gras of years gone by, and making me wonder who, in this part of the world, would celebrate this way?
So there was a bit of delight, but I had to move along and quickly, because my personal temperature was dropping fast there in the woods. Walking was predictably hard but at least there was a track; first a rolled track for the skiers and then I landed on a snowmobile trail. Say what you might about those noisy, gas guzzling, roaring monsters of the winter night, they do lay a nice trail on top of the snow for us walkers and especially walkers with dogs. When I slipped of the track, I discovered just how deep the snow really is….that would be somewhat deeper than my leg is long.
But the moral of the story is this: warm happens. By the time I was up and down and around a bit out there on the trail, I was unzipping the jacket and popping off the hat for a bit of ventilation. Who could have imagined that? The warmth lasted, too; I stayed warm for hours, warm physically with the movement and warm also emotionally, with the sense of connection to the world that I gained with my little adventure.
Sending you warm wishes for your late winter….Peace….
Working out challenges me. I am challenged physically, of course, and also in terms of my attitude and thoughts, so I guess I could say that I am cognitively challenged, too. I have to stay positive, to avoid over-thinking and to just DO IT.
But what I have found out about working out at home, is that the sensations in my body allow to me access other kinds of emotional responses than I thought likely…or even possible. I suppose if I had not been a client of bioenergetic therapy for more than ten years, I would perhaps not feel free to allow the behavioural expression of my experience. But I do, and I am amazed and full of wonder at what is going on.
Specifically, when I work through some of the deepest and most chronic of my body tensions, it hurts. It hurts a lot, but I am okay there, knowing that what hurts is my own tension. I am not injuring myself but pressing extraordinarily tight tissues against gentle resistance, such as the foam roller, or opening my hip outward using a strap to support my leg. What happens is this: I wait with the sensation, sink into the intensity, try to allow relaxation to happen around the exquisite pain of the place where my resistance meets the roller (for example). And I am moved to sobbing, deep, deep sobbing, tears and wailing. It feels pulled out of me, from my deepest self, like part of me is tearing apart. Rolling my thoracic spine over the roller has a piquancy that is like nothing else, but as the roller descends toward my lower ribs, to the area of my diaphragm, the intensity increases. It is painful, genuinely painful, but I know it is not the pain of injury. It is the pain of my chronic tensions, chronic defenses against living my own life, resisting the pressure to soften, to release, to let go, to allow, to surrender.
So I do let go; I let go into the sobbing and wailing and that contributes to some softening and relaxing. I can’t stay for long; the sensations are too intense, my reactions are big, and I can only hold that space for a few moments. There it is: my body letting go another tiny bit, releasing ancient tensions through sobbing and vibration. I don’t have any stories to tell myself about WHY I am crying, don’t have any need to locate a reason in my everyday world. It just happens. Then it is over. And then I can step away, take a deep breath, and rest in the experience of a new and different body, a calmer and more alive self than just a few moments before. The ground feels more secure, the world looks brighter, and I am intensely present to myself.