I’m so Tired.

I’m so tired. We’ve all said it. We’ve all felt it. Why are we all so tired? Is it that we are really physically fatiguing our bodies? Or is it that how we are spending our days? Perhaps our actions and thoughts are not aligned with our values–with our authentic selves.  If we are not feeling joy in what we do every day, all day, then we are out of sync with our authentic selves. Being out of balance in this way is exhausting.

Think about this. Ask yourself. What gives me joy? Right now, write down five things that give you joy. If you are finding that difficult, write down four things, or three things, or one thing that gives you joy. You may find that the things that give you joy are also difficult. For example, suppose you are a writer. Writing is difficult. It takes disciple and organization. It takes effort. It takes time. And, it gives tremendous joy. So, most often what gives us joy takes effort, organization, and commitment.

Now, put down your pen and close your eyes. Image you are immersed in doing the first thing (or only thing) on your list and ask, “Why am I doing this?”  The “why question” connects you with your authentic self.  When the answer comes from your core values, it feels right to be doing it and your body and mind will respond with a resounding ‘yes.’  This ‘yes’ is telling you that your values and actions are aligned with your authentic self.

This alignment is beautiful. This is where, if you put your energy and time, in ever widening circles, you will reside in joy.

If you don’t get a resounding ‘yes, this feels right,’ this is a signal that this action, this behavior may not be totally in alignment with your authentic self. Perhaps you are doing it because someone or something else feels it is right. Because they feel it is right you believe that it should feel right for you, too.  Now, that you’re picking up the covers you sense that there is something more for you to explore.

This is a rich place to be. Be curious. In this place you can sit and gently and compassionately ask inwardly, “What about this whole thing?” You’ll be surprised how your body will respond, how it will show and tell you all about how this activity aligns or not with what feels right to you.  It will show you where your motivation is coming from, perhaps from the obligation or pressure coming from family, friends, work, society, or culture. This exploration takes time and a willingness to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. It typically does not express itself like a bolt of lightening. Be patient. It will unwind and open and show you where your true alignment lies.

What’s Hurting?

When you sit quietly and comfortably and bring your awareness inside, what greets you? Do you feel open and intimate? Do you feel that you can sit down with whatever is there like you would sit with a friend or stranger beside a campfire? Or, perhaps you feel something else.

Something doesn’t want your presence. Something is angry and rebellious. Something disappears into blankness. Something says, “Go away. I don’t want you here.” Or, says, “You’re ridiculous. ” Or lets you know that you can’t do it, that you are a failure.

What to do? Really be there for it. It can be the ugliest, most violent, most condescending thing you have ever encountered.

Really feel whatever it is in your body.  Invite your body to show you/tell you something about what’s here with you right now. Invite your body to open to what you are feeling.

What you are feeling is resistance. Experience your resistance. It may feel uncomfortable. It will feel uncomfortable. Start with inviting your grounded, open presence, your whole self to be here right now. And, know that you cannot fail at having whatever experience you are having. Have your experience! Be open to it. Invite it to be here right now.

Know that what is hurting is not your resistance, it’s your relationship to it that hurts. Say, my intention, my energy is here right now to experience what is wanting my attention right now. No holds barred. I welcome this resistance and my experience of it to be here with me now.

 

 

 

 

A Very Difficult Person

Perhaps there is someone in your life whose actions and or words you find difficult, perhaps very difficult. If this feels right, you might do the following. Taking a few minutes gather together a piece of paper and a pen. Now, find a quiet place where you can sit and write.

Open green book with pen on white background.

Sitting, let your body take its most comfortable position.  Feel your feet and what they are touching. Sense the seat beneath you and how it supports you. Notice your hands and what they are touching, how they, perhaps, hold the pen and the paper, too.

Now write the person’s name at the top of the paper. Perhaps the person’s name is Jane. Write ‘Jane’ at the top of the paper.

Now bring your awareness to your breath. Just the way it is. Breathing in, pausing, breathing out just breathing as it is right now. No need to change it. If it feels right take a deeper breath.

Now bring your awareness inside your body to your inner knowing of what feels right for you. Take your time. Sense your more spacious and whole self arriving inside. As you do, you might become aware of something in the throat, chest, stomach or belly, or somewhere else. Just notice what’s alive for you right now and acknowledge that it is here.

Now bring your awareness to what’s difficult about this person and invite it to be present. You might say to yourself, “I’m inviting that whole thing about [name of person] and [describe briefly in a couple of words the difficulty]. Here’s an example. “I’m inviting that whole thing about Jane and how she treated me in the meeting to be here now.”

Acknowledge what comes. It might be a picture, video, feeling or emotion. Whatever comes acknowledge it gently with respect and empathy. You might say something to yourself like, “Ah, hello, I see you are/it is here.”

Now, taking your time, invite three good qualities of this difficult person to come forward. You might say. “I’m inviting three good qualities of Jane to make themselves known.” Perhaps only one or two good qualities will come forward. That’s OK, too. Write each one down. Even if there is only one good quality, write that down on the piece of paper under the name of the person.

When you have finished writing, put the pen down.  If it feels right take a breath, feel your feet and hands and what they are touching. Feel the support of what you are sitting on beneath you.

Read the first good quality to yourself. Now, sense how that good quality feels in your body. Let that feeling be there as fully as it wants to be. Now read the second good quality and sense it in your body letting it be there as fully as it wants. Now do the same for the third quality. Notice how your body feels now. Perhaps something has changed. Perhaps there is more space or a flowing or lightness. Just notice.

Seeing the good in someone, even in a difficult person, doesn’t hurt and can help you feel good, too.

Joy and Sadness

Previously, we have explored the emotions of anger, fear, worry, and grief. Today, our topic is joy and sadness. Joy and sadness are about caring. When we get something we care about we experience joy. It may be a beautiful sunset, a longed-for treasure, a long-awaited goal, or a blossoming of heart-felt relationship. Joy resonates in the body as a twinkle in the eye, a blush upon the cheek, a smile on the lips. When we lose something we care about, something dear to us or our community, we experience sadness: The loss of friendship, opportunity, or treasures-of-the heart. Sadness resonates as a tear in the eye, a pallor to the cheek, down-turned lips.

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In traditional Chinese Five Element Theory, joy and sadness are the emotions related to the fire element which is expansive, upward in motion, and relates to heart energy.  Fire, symbolic of combustion, represents that fleeting moment of maximum activity followed by its falling away. From a physiological perspective, all emotions are electro-chemical signals that flow through us in an unending cycle. Every emotion is a specific signal asking us to focus, to collect information, and then to act accordingly.

Joy and sadness are related to heart. We talk about the joy in our hearts and our hearts breaking with sadness. Joy manifests in us as love, laughter, and enthusiasm and when balanced, we are able to give as well as receive warmth and delight in the company of others. Sadness manifests as a fall in energy, a momentary melancholy, and withdrawal away from others. Often when we are sad, a whimper or tears come.

In both the ancient and the modern Western traditions, when we are balanced, emotions move. So, too with joy and sadness. If stuck, too much joy manifests as always joking, laughing, and talking–always on without pause. And, when there is too much sadness we are in a state of helplessness and despair; continuously drained, down, melancholy, depressed.

Joy and sadness are associated with compassion. When we see suffering, we experience a twinge of sadness, a feeling of concern and connection, just before we feel a willingness to act. When suffering has been relieved we then experience a moment of joy. Often, sadness can get stuck in caregivers and others in the healing and humanitarian professions. This is because instead of letting go of the concern and connection they feel towards those they are helping, they get stuck in sadness; leading them to take on more responsibility than is reasonably theirs to bear. Sometimes, unable to shake their sadness, they opt instead instead to leave a profession they love. Seeing thousands of starving many children, they miss the joy of the ones whom they have fed and rather, focus on those they have been unable to reach.

What can we do when joy or sadness gets stuck? We can notice. Turning inward to our bodies, we can invite the whole thing about the joy or the sadness to come forward. We can make contact, acknowledge, and listen deeply as we keep whatever comes company. Just as clouds cannot be chased away; stuck joy or sadness can’t either. It is only by turning our attention to it, by saying “hello,” and by actively listening that we can once more live our life forward.

Healthy joy and sadness are like the clouds in the sky; they pass through leaving not a trace, and always there are more another day.

Danger! Threat! Fear!

Did you know that fear keeps us alive? It is essential to our survival. In the face of danger, we become afraid and parts of the brain activate the fight flight reaction.

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Both western science and ancient Chinese Five Element theory recognize fear as that emotion that helps keep us alive. In Five Element theory fear is associated with kidney energy or qi. Kidney qi is of a special type. It supports the body in reproducing, growing, and developing–the bodily life cycle. So, it is not surprising that fear works with kidney qi to keep us alive.

From a western scientific perspective, fear arises from a perceived threat and we experience the physiological response called fight flight or the stress response. Fear is an important element of fight flight because when we feel fear that’s a signal to us that we need to pay attention, not just react but really pay attention.  Here’s why. So important to our survival is fight flight that when a threat stimulus reaches the thalamus, its first processing point in the brain, the same stimulus takes two different processing paths. The short route is rough and fast. The long route brings in higher processing and is much more precise but is also slower.

The short and long processing works like this. Suppose we’re hiking through the woods and just up ahead, we see something. It looks like a long narrow shape coiled up on the path. The short route says, “Must be a snake!” “Snake,” says the amygdala, “I’ll tell the hypothalamus to turn on the stress response!” At the same time, the long route sends the information to the cortex for higher processing, “Wait a minute. It kind of looks like a snake but is it really?  No, it isn’t. It’s twisted woody vine.” But, let’s check in with explicit memory.” The explicit memory is consulted through the hippocampus. “This is twisted woody vine. I’ve seen this before.” Word is sent to the amygdala. “No snake! Just twisty woody vine.”  The message is received and more messages tell the nervous system to reset.

The fight flight response causes physiological changes in our body via the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. These include elevations in perspiration and heart and respiratory rates. It makes sense. If we’re going fight or flee, we need muscle power and that means we’d better have oxygen and blood flow going to the muscles so we can punch harder or run faster. “Snake! Run!”

At the same time that the sympathetic nervous system is ramping up glucose production, it is also making other less noticeable but just as important physiological changes in the body. The pupils dilate, blood is drawn away from the skin to the muscles alas the saying, “white as a sheet,” when someone is really afraid. Parasympathetic modulated responses such as digestion and large intestine and bladder functions cease. The body is so focused on fight or flight that the bowel and bladder may even empty spontaneously.

When  a threat presents itself, fear arises and the stress response system turns on. When the danger passes, our fear evaporates and the nervous system shakes off the stress response by re-balancing its sympathetic and para-sympathetic branches. Animals in the wild literally shake all over once danger has passed.

But what happens when our nervous system isn’t able to shake it off? This happens when one perceived threat is followed by another one before the nervous system has had time to reset. This is the dilemma of our modern life. The dangers and threats we face are not tigers looking for their next meal and usually, not even snakes in our path. We face a plethora of perceived dangers often driven by our own thoughts. We are afraid of not having enough of what it takes to meet the challenge that lies ahead. Perhaps we are afraid we can’t complete or achieve that which we aspire to or that we are inadequately prepared for what we might be asked to do. “Will I get laid off?” “Is this relationship going to fall apart?” ” What’s going to happen at work today? Will my project get approved?” “Do I have enough money to pay the mortgage this month?”  These are all survival fears! And, one after another they arise without ever giving our bodies time to reset. The result? We live in a state of fear and physiological stress. It takes its toll on our health and well-being. Our kidney qi gets zapped.

If we don’t do something non-stop fight flight or stress response can turn from something that saves us into something that kills us. What can we do?

We can pause. Remember that when  a threat appears, we feel fear and the brain processes it both on a short,  fast track and on a long, slow tract. The fast track processing gives a quick and rough appraisal to the amygdala, “Ah, it looks like a threat. Better to act now than be sorry.”  But, if we pause, we allow the long tract enough time to process. The higher processing of the cortex and explicit memory via the hippocampus can weigh in. Is this really a threat? No, it isn’t. The body can relax.

Our fear is a signal. It is a signal to pause and bring our awareness inside to the whole thing about the perceived threat.  We can make contact with it by saying, I’m sensing something in me that’s really afraid … .” We can acknowledge it by saying, “Hello, I see you’re there.” We can keep it company with interested curiosity and when it is ready to tell us something, we can listen mindfully, with our full attention, non-judgementally and with compassion.  We can ask, “What is this wanting to happen?” or “What is this not wanting to happen?” This practice of pausing with awareness can save our lives. It can keep the fight flight, stress response at an appropriate level. Turned on when necessary; turned off when not. It can keep our body mind in balance, healthy and well.

The Body — A Different View

In my professional healing and wellness work, I use body-based modalities. But what do we mean when we say body? Do we share a common definition? Experience tells us that we do not.

To some the body is just a thing, “an object in a world of objects.” (Cornell, 2005, p. 221) It is that physical structure, the bones, flesh, and organs. Others acknowledge that the body is alive; it has processes, but it is not all of us. They acknowledge that the body breathes, taking in air containing oxygen and exhaling air containing carbon dioxide; that cells divide and create new cells through meiosis and mitosis; that cells and organs make new substances from other substances through chemical reactions; and that sensory information from the environment is captured and transmitted to the brain where it is assembled into an experience or a situation. But, they maintain the mind, the Self, memory, emotions, knowledge and wisdom is somehow separate from the body.

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n4

At the same time, most of us would acknowledge that we have experienced a bodily sensation that carries with it meaning. We say things like, “I had a gut feeling this would work out.” Or, ,”I had a gut feeling to stay away from that.” Or, ” My stomach is tied in knots; I’m so worried.” No one asks, “How did the gut know?” “How did the stomach know about worry?” By which mechanism does the gut and stomach have this knowledge?

When questioned the response might be, “It’s just a saying.” But is it? We’ve felt something.  The stomach tied in knots. The queasy feeling in the abdomen. The tightness in the chest. The clenching in the throat. We have felt it. Then we let it go.

Something in the consciousness of our culture keeps us from talking about something so natural. Perhaps because the process is not analytical or rational, we shy away. And yet, we acknowledge these feelings in our everyday communication, “Something in my gut told me to call you.”  And, we make good use of what they tells us.

This is our body talking; not in a physical but in a subtle way, delicately yet precisely. This body, this interconnected process, interacting with the environment, has wisdom that it shares with us all the time. We can learn to pay attention to it in a special way so that we can fully partake of what it has to share.

When we pay attention with focused yet open awareness, moment to moment, and non-judgmentally, we are in Presence. When we are present the whole of us, the whole the body, can sense what wants our attention now. We make contact; we say hello. We listen and acknowledge from that neutral but compassionate Presence. We feel a body sensation, sense an emotional quality or mood, see imagery, and connect to a story.  By doing so, by entering into this respectful relationship with our body, we can heal, grow, and receive that life-forward energy that allows us to achieve that which we desire.

Reference: The Radical Acceptance of Everything by Ann Weiser Cornell
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Venus de Milo, The Louvre, Jastrow 2007

The Empty Boat

Floating across the river in your boat, you are carefully avoiding hidden obstacles, other boats, and too shallow water when, BAM! another boat rams you. Your anger flashes; your heart pumps faster.  You jump up and yell, “You stupid blankity-blank so-and-so!” You shake your fist and stamp your foot. You call out for the other boatman to show himself so you can tell him a thing or two. But, no one emerges. There is no other boatman; the boat is empty. It has slipped its mooring and floats without control. There is no one to be angry with; no one to curse. Realizing this, your fist unclenches and drops to your side. Still muttering under your breath, though, because you believe it would have been so much better if there had been someone there to be angry with, you go on your way.

This is my reading of the Empty Boat story from the Taoist tradition. If it peaks your interest you can read it and others in the book, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions books, 1997) compiled by Thomas Merton in the 20th century. Most likely written around 250 B.C., it is a powerful and timeless teaching that we can apply to our own experience.

“Well, what’s the point of the story?” You ask. John Welwood in his book, Perfect Love, Imperfect Realtionships (Trumpeter Books, 2006), has a helpful explanation that resonates for us. He says, ” The point of the story is that the parents who didn’t see [us], the kids who teased [us] as a child, the driver who aggressively tailgated [us] yesterday–are in fact all empty, rudderless boats. They were compulsively driven to act as they did by their own unexamined wounds; therefore they did not know what they were doing and had little control over it.” [page 89, Kindle edition]

You may think, “So what. What’s that got to do with me?”

These parents, siblings, friends, bosses, and strangers, among others, these empty boats ramming into us with their unkindnesses, their neglect, and their hurtful actions are driven not out of need to hurt us but out of their own unconscious pain–all the hurt, the woundings, they, themselves, have received along the way. When we react with anger, or jealousy, vindictiveness, or defensive stonewalling we do so because of our own grievances, our own pasts, our own experience with people who have hurt and neglected us.

You may say, “Well, of course. I can’t let someone hurt me. I have to stand up for myself. I have to protect myself. I have to survive.”

In answer, Wellwood responds that until we realize that these are just empty boats we remain tied to our own grievance and pain and suffering and this binding keeps us “from opening up to the more powerful currents of life and love that are always flowing through the present moment.”

So what can we do?

We can not take it personally. After all, the hurt, the unkindness was not meant for us even though it has rammed into us. Not taking it personally is compassionate: we have recognized suffering (the suffering of the person who has rammed into us), we have felt for a moment the pain of that suffering (that we too suffer, but have not let that acknowledgement cause us to suffer more), and we have acted to relieve the suffering (in the other person and in ourselves by not retaliating or reacting angrily, or jealously or whatever.)

We have given everyone space. We can relax and breathe fully. Psychologically, this relief quiets our minds. Physiologically, we can protect ourselves from the incessant turning on of the stress-response in our bodies that over times wrecks havoc with our health leading us to suffer all sorts of maladies and disease.

The next time, someone, anyone, hurts us, neglects us, lashes out at us, or acts unkindly, we can say, “Ah,  just an empty boat” as we take a few slow deep breaths letting the exhale last longer than the inhale so our parasympathetic nervous systems have time to turn on a sense of calm within us.