Here is a picture of my new “therapeutic” intervention.
Yes, it is popsicle money. I have been carrying popsicle money around with me all summer. I have spent some hours on the bike path, either on the bike or running (or walking) and carrying my popsicle money with me, just in case I was in a place that had popsicles when I wanted a popsicle.
You may need to know that popsicles are not a regular thing with me. In fact, they are pretty far off my usual list of foods to eat, and they certainly don’t instill any health benefits. However, there is an opportunity for pleasure and even fun with those icy treats on a hot day when I have been exercising. And so my quest for the pleasurable popsicle.
I tried to get one and had to settle for something similar one hot weekend day three miles into a four mile run. Whatever that concoction of water, sugar and flavour was, it hit the spot. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I made the very most of it.
So I am sharing this idea, and in the therapy office, I have put out a tiny bowl full of change for popsicles, along with a sign to encourage people to plan to have some fun, plan for pleasure….plan for a popsicle. Be prepared because you don’t know when the opportunity might arise to indulge and really, deeply enjoy.
Happy summer! Happy popsicle days!
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.
Pedaling through the aromascape I am assaulted, again and again,
barely time to register the sense impression before the next one arrives.
(I pedal smoothly down the path meeting wave after wave of fragrance,each carrying its own set of images, memories, concepts)
Full autumnal tang of crushed poplar leaves generate a golden afternoon and the dear one who was there. Superimposed is another face, radiant in the yellow light, images from ten, twenty, forty years ago as immediate as the present.
Then the nearly-acrid tang of pine gone badly wrong, the blowdown’s massive trunk is rent, torn asunder and bleeding its sticky fragrance into the warm summer air (Ghosts of Christmas past, brown needle-carpeted playhouses, wide boards freshly sanded in an ancient keeping room)
Pedaling on, the thickly fragranced atmosphere bears down, intense and pressing in the hot sun
Red clover, crushed tansy, heavy floweryness of milkweed calls insects and birds and me (six years old, gripping my milkweed pod between my fingers, a green and silent canary)
A brief hint of woodsmoke evokes a hundred campfires
The smell of water arrives before the plashing and tumbling, brown water rich with mud and decay and humus, scents of fecundity and death, life and that which feeds life all at once
And I stand to pedal, exulting in the effort, the ache in my calves, the pounding of my heart, the heaving of my chest (body remembering childhood, climbing the hills in my hometown)
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!
The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, has been on my shelf for years. I am not exaggerating. It has been there, reproaching me, taunting me with my inadequacy, for at least twelve years. Now you must understand that this is a thin little book, a small volume that consists of three of Miller’s major essays from the middle of her career as a Swiss psychoanalyst. But I have been afraid of this book, afraid of Miller in many ways.
Today, this morning in fact, I finally finished reading this book. I finished reading and now I sit, both wondering what I was afraid of, and knowing that my own struggles in reading this book come from my struggles to escape my childhood traumas. What Miller wrote was radical when she wrote it, but that was more than thirty years ago.
Her point, oversimplified, is that children experience intrapsychic wounding by parents who have not consciously realized their own wounds. This wounding happens in good families, by parents who mean well and frequently the children of such parents are “gifted:” they are leaders, intellectual, caregivers, compliant and obedient, shining lights in many ways. The problem, and there is a problem, is that these gifted children have given up parts of themselves in order to be what the parents needs them to be….good, nice, kind, smart, beautiful, athletic, obedient, quiet…whatever it is that the parent must have. When a person, a child, has to put away parts of herself in order to stay connected to the parent, those parts can go underground for years. They can emerge as peculiar behaviours, thoughts, or feelings, or show up as an absence, such as when a person feels “nothing” or “numbness” or reports that they feel dead inside. We are built with a part of us that strives toward wholeness, someone, and we get to a point where it no longer feels okay to live your life as if you are a real person having a real life. You want to actually BE a real person and actually LIVE. That means having access to all the parts of you; the nice, sweet, clean, brilliant parts, but also the dirty, nasty, angry, bitchy, sly and disgusting parts as well. We have it all but until we can find acceptance for it all, we are only living a partial life.
Miller is a psychoanalyst, so she constructs this process in terms of objects and introjects. I can see myself in those terms but also more simply. I can still hear my mother’s voice when I start to rage at myself for my usual internal list of shortcomings (that’s where the inadequacy comes in). I recognize that part of me that still operates as if striving will get me something. With striving come harsh thoughts, rigid behaviour and body, focused and energized thinking but only in rigid areas, with tunnel vision. Even though I don’t consciously feel like I need to be punished, my actions are punishing: extreme frugality, extreme exercise, extreme dieting, extreme overwork. When I get that way, now, I know that I have been triggered, something has happened. In some way I have been reminded of the child that I once was, who believed that she deserved to be punished when she was not “good.”
What I have learned about myself includes knowing that I need soothing rather than punishment when I am busy overworking, over planning, and overeating. Because the range of feelings could not be accepted and accommodated in my childhood, I learned that having some particular feelings was “bad.” Even now, even as an adult, a therapist, a psychologist, I may react with shock and shame at some trigger. . And it may take a bit of time for me to see what happened.
When I notice that rigidity coming over me, I can slow down. I can remember that my body is locked in the old, old story, not the here-and-now. I can breathe and remind myself that love is available. I can take it in, right here and now, feeling my connection to the ground and to the sky. I can soften my shoulders, relax my jaw, let my eyes rest deeply in their sockets, and remember that I am who I am, a whole person who makes mistakes and poor choices and has messy and complicated feelings, and that I am also more than that.
And I can thank Miller for her book, for her ideas that really opened up how we think about the inner world of children. I am sorry it has taken me twenty or more years to read this book but that’s just what it took. And I am grateful that I had it to read now.
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.
Music has power in our bodies, to the degree to which we permit it.
This is obvious but so much a part of everyday life that I suspect we ignore it. We certainly don’t use it to our best advantage. In fact, it may be used to influence our behaviour without our awareness. Have you ever noticed the background music in restaurants or grocery stores? You might wonder, actually, why on earth anyone bothers to have music in the grocery store. But it is for a very clear reason: people’s behavioural tempos are affected by the music in the background, even, or maybe especially, when you are not fully aware of what you are hearing.
I play music in my waiting room, and it is a particular, carefully chosen type of music. I choose relaxing, non-challenging music for that space. I don’t want music that is too hard to listen to, so I don’t include jazz or (much) classical music, because most people don’t feel comfortable with that music. And because the trajectory lines in that music are long…that is, in order to feel the whole pattern, you have to listen for several minutes, and that’s not always available in the waiting room. Even with that, I don’t put Top 40 pop on my playlist because going to the therapist is NOT like going to the mall. It is not a casual, no-big-deal sort of experience. I look for fairly attractive, innocuous, relaxing music without obvious repetitive patterns. In other words, New Age music which is often actually marketed for relaxation or to accompany massage, Reiki, or other calming modalities.
All of this actually is peripheral to my point, which I promise to get to…..we are affected, sometimes quite deeply, by the music and sounds around us, but we are often not mindful of these effects. When you tune in to what you are hearing, you become part of the moment, part of what is going on. You get to experience your own experience! In a very clear way, you see yourself responding to the music, which otherwise you might consider background. But background becomes foreground when we take a moment, breathe, listen, and feel.
This question of how music affects you can be an entire area for self-inquiry. What kinds of music do you find energizing? Enlivening? Relaxing and soothing? What challenges you to pay attention? What do you notice about yourself when you are challenged that way? And of course, music will tap into memory systems. So you might notice that songs from your youth generate some feelings that are like you might have felt years ago. How can you put those bits together?
As you begin this practice, you may begin also to understand how you might have been triggered into a different mood state in the past. Perhaps you came home from the store feeling really wonderful, bright, cheerful, alive….maybe you heard a song on the “background music” that reminded you of a wonderful memory. Or perhaps you suddenly develop a dark, somber mood….what have you just been hearing?
If music can affect our mood without our awareness, can we harness that power to influence our moods purposefully? I know that Bach has gotten me through some very difficult times. When everything else in my life seems like it is falling apart, I can put on the some of the piano works and feel a shift. Even though listening to Bach won’t fix my life, it can remind me that some things maintain their integrity and will stay stable even if I feel like I am coming unglued. I also know that I have run some pretty long distances listening to even cheesy music like Tom Petty singing “I Won’t Back Down.” Having a sound track for parts of your life can shift mood, support memory, and remind you that your life is bigger than the story you tell yourself. Check it out: notice music in your everyday world and see what it is doing to your inner space. Then see how you can use that information consciously.
My life seems to be made up of little realizations. That is, I keep finding myself suddenly seeing relationships and reasons for things that I either 1) never questioned or 2) had already relegated to the “clearly understood” pile. So now I am left wondering if I am the only person who sees things in terms of my beliefs about that rather than what they ARE. In this case, the belief is that eggshells are what holds eggs together. T’aint so! T’aint so, I tell ya.
So the story is this: on the weekend, I had occasion to move my black plastic compost bin. This was to make way for another backyard project, but I have to say that I wasn’t too excited about my task. The bin has been the daily recipient of food waste from our kitchen. That is, spoiled vegetables and limp fruit, the peels and ends of food that was on the menu, the left-over bits and pieces of kitchen, um, stuff. Garbage, in some people’s language. I snicker daily about putting food out on the raccoon buffet, because I know that my bin is visited nightly by assorted scavengers, and I am resigned and now somewhat amused by that fact. I also knew that under this week’s and last week’s layers of kitchen waste, there was likely some pretty rich compost in this bin. But to get to the compost and move the bin, I had to shovel through the recent additions. In short, the rotting garbage.
Like most tasks I expect to be onerous, I tried to take a mindful approach; noticing what was present, noticing my thoughts and how my thoughts tended to influence my ability to appreciate or tolerate the task, and trying to just be with the compost, the day, and the feeling of shoveling stuff into the wheel barrow and moving it. So it turned out to be an okay job: in fact, I had a sense that maybe I should be more aware of the waste that I generate anyway. And the finished compost was a thing of beauty, at least to the gardener in me. Gorgeous, dark, friable, filled with life, actually, much of which I couldn’t see, but some of which was visible and moving in my gloves…I ended up putting a lot of the lovely black stuff in the garden.
However, I noticed that even the finished compost was full of eggshells. Okay, I’ll admit that I eat a lot of eggs. Not just a lot, a lot by probably anyone’s standards…more than a dozen in a week, and that’s just me, not the rest of the family. But I figured all those shells were breaking down in the compost bin, enriching the soil with calcium and whatever cool stuff they are made of. Not so! Those eggshells were just as intact in the bottom of the compost bin as the ones in the top. So…eggshells don’t break down easily in compost.
I have been pondering this now for several days. I want the good minerals from the eggshells in my compost. What to do? Crush the shells, to make things maybe work a little faster? That won’t hurt, but I don’t know if it will help. So I have started saving them to crush them before heading to the bin. I have discovered that crushing eggshells isn’t as easy as it sounds. The shell itself is just a casing for the real container for the egg itself. The membrane of the egg is tough, flexible, and resilient. It is living tissue, while the egg is alive, though the shell is not. Egg shells, when the membrane is removed, are quite fragile and do crush easily. The real protection for this egg cell, this part of a bird that can become another bird (given proper circumstances), comes from that membrane.
I have spent part of my day trying, unsuccessfully, to remove the membrane from the inside of my breakfast eggshells. I am gobsmacked, once again, by my blindness. I have always assumed that eggs were protected by their shells, and the hard, solid quality of that shell was what kept them safe, or relatively safe, except from predators like me. But it seems that the hard, rigid, unyielding shell is a cover for the real protection, that membrane that flexes, bends, is resistant to tearing or breaking, and which is practically invisible. I have been hoodwinked by eggs all this time.
Stories need a point; this one has both a metaphor and a moral. The metaphor for me is the eggshell, representing our defenses in the world. We can rigidify ourselves (many of us do this regularly), become firm and unyielding in our beliefs, our behaviours, our “shoulds.” The more rigidly and tightly we hold ourselves, the more vulnerable we become to cracking and breaking. What really and truly keeps us intact is something invisible, something that flows just beneath our tough outer shell, the sense of ourselves as organism, resilient and flexible.
So that’s the metaphor. I like it. It will make me think about breakfast in a different way. The moral? Well, that’s probably up to you. Maybe it has something to do with finding out cool stuff even when you are shoveling garbage. Or about garbage being in the eye of the beholder. Or about how garbage can be transformed into insight if you look deeply. Or something profound like that.
I’m going to continue to think about my layers; my apparently tough but breakable outer shell, and my flexible resilient inner membrane. I feel safer about letting go of the shell when I think of my other protection.