The Edge Between

Have you ever had this experience? You are feeling stuck and frustrated.

You sit quietly, feeling your connection to the space around you and inside of you, sensing the earth energy flowing up through you, and how you are supported by your breathing, the space around you, and what you are sitting on. Now, bringing your awareness inside the body, you invite this whole thing of feeling stuck and frustrated to come forward.

Something comes forward. You feel something is tight somewhere in the body. You go to it. It wants to hide away, or go inward, or it is rolled in a tight knot, or something else. You say hello. You sense its inertia as it goes round and round in a circle. You sense it feels alone, lost or something else. You stay with it, opening to it. It lets you know that it has to dig down deep to protect something. You let it know you hear it.

Then something else comes forward, something or a place in you that wants to go out into the world. It wants action and acceptance out there. You say hello. You sense its bursting energy and anger. It lets you know it is not wanting to miss out on life. You let it know you hear it.

Now you sense that both are here. That place that feels lost and inward and that place that feels angry and wants a life in the world.  You hold both and sense the edge between them. You sense a stalemate there. It might feel as though one foot is on the gas and the other is on the brake. This is a rich place to be.  Have you ever spun a coin and noticed that as it spins, you can see both sides?

This is where you are now.  You are with both sides. This is the time to feel how your body is supported and how whatever comes is ok; that there is plenty of room for what is here. This is the moment to put lots of space around both and be curious!  The stalemate reflects their relationship with one other. Until each feels it is heard with deep listening, the stalemate will continue. Be patient. Sense if one or the other is wanting your attention more. If you don’t get an answer or you only sense the friction between them, turn to each one individually and let it know that you are here and you will give it your full attention. That there is plenty of time and space for both and you will give your full attention to each.

This is the time when your open and neutral attitude, your curiosity and interest, and deep listening is all important to your process. Acknowledge both. Take time with each one. Unraveling takes time.

Sometimes at this point in your process you may or may not be aware of a little hurt thing. If sensing a small one is here, acknowledge it letting it know you are with it. And, remain with the two sides of the coin listening deeply, allowing them to open and release their energy. Only then will the small thing be accessible to continue the process until it, too, unfolds with life forward energy.

Through this open and deep listening, what is right for you will emerge. You’ll feel its forward and bright energy. Go with it. This is your authentic self. Bon voyage.

I’m Confused

“I’m so confused,” you might say to someone else. “Something in me is so confused,” you might say inwardly to self. So what about this confusion?

The dictionary defines confusion as a lack of understanding; uncertainty, or as the state of being bewildered or unclear about something in one’s own mind. When I am feeling confused, there is a lack of clarity. Murkiness abounds. And that feeling state of bewilderment and perplexity is there too.

It might also feel very dense, all tied up, or turbulent as though it is impossible to unravel the threads to gain understanding. It can be difficult to navigate confusion. What to do? Bring your presence, neutral space and time and empathetic listening.

Give yourself a moment to center, perhaps take a breath letting the exhalation last a little longer than the inhalation. Then say to it, “Hello, I see you are there,” with interest and curiosity. Take a moment and sense how it reacts.

If your “hello” engages it in a neutral but friendly way, take some time to describe it. How it feels, its texture or quality, or its shape. It may show you or tell you something.

If, on the other hand, it feels tense and tight as though there is not much or no space or air, back off a bit. Take another breath and bring your awareness to the ground your feet are touching and how that supports you. Sense your hands. Fingers, palms, and back of hands. Now as you take another breath allow your awareness to follow its journey through the nostrils, down the throat, into the chest and even further down to stomach and belly. Notice how it feels to arrive there.

Now, say inwardly, “I am the space big enough for whatever needs my attention. Sense the space. Back off a bit more, if needed. Sense the space again. Sense and see if something that is feeling confused is still there. Good, It is. Say “hello” gently or if that feels like too much. Just inwardly acknowledge its presence like you might inwardly acknowledge the presence of someone you don’t know who sits down next to you on a bus, train, or plane. Now, giving it lots of space, take some time to describe it. How it feels, its texture or quality, or its shape. It may show you or tell you something.

As you take your time and give it space, the feeling of confusion may change. You may notice that it is not one thing but maybe two or more things. Each thing that arises has its point of view and is wanting your attention. It wants to be listened to gently, deeply and without judgment.

Sometimes, when we sit down and keep this feeling of confusion company, we are struck by a sense of the unknown. This sense of not knowing can feel scary. That’s ok. We can reflect back to it what we sense, saying inwardly to this something, “I’m sensing you are not knowing and I sense you feel scared.” This kind of active and open listening is exactly what it is wanting.

Often, when working with a sense of confusion, two or more things arise. We may sense that they are engaging in some kind of dialogue, sniping, or acting out a tug-of-war. This kind of back-and-forth is wanting the wisdom of our presence to step in and say respectfully to each one. “I am here with you and will listen to you. You will have your turn.” Once you ave given this inner invitation to each hold all of them in the space and sense which one is needing your attention more right now. This way each part will have time and space to be with your full and open self so that it can be heard. Once heard in all its intricacies, its forward energy will release and confusion will transform into an appropriate action or understanding.

When we engage these practices of open and focused presence, of giving our attention, and listening deeply without judgment, confusion transforms. It shows us something from which clarity opens to us.

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.

Transformative Grief

Grief is our natural emotional response to a loss of something or someone with which or with whom we had a bond. We grieve when someone we love passes. We grieve when we are separated from someone important to us or from a job that is no longer ours or from a lifestyle in which we can no longer participate perhaps due to illness or misfortune.

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Grief is one of the five emotions (the others being joy/sadness, worry, fear, and anger) described by the ancient Chinese Five Element Theory. Grieving is a process; it moves like the seasons, like summer into autumn. Summer’s creative action culminates with the harvest while autumn’s energy strips the leaves from the trees and makes everything bare. The leaves fall to the earth giving nourishment for new growth in the spring. Grief moves like the active energy of summer falling away into the inward-turning and letting go of autumn.

Grief’s living forward energy cleanses and purifies as it distills creative, active bonds into their essence, this most precious thing that carries us forward with natural resilience to new creative action. Just like the resilience of nature as it sprouts, blooms, and withers in continuous cycle. S. A. Berger, in his 2009 book Five Ways We Grieve, identifies four paths of creative action which may come from grieving.  These include preserving the memory of the loved one or lost thing, recreating a sense of family or community, helping others dealing with the same illness or issue of the loved one or lost bond, and creating meaning through religion, philosophy, or spiritual quest. In each of these there is a life-forward movement. Think of the grieving parents of a young Leland Stanford Jr. who after losing him to typhoid fever when he was only 15 decided that because they could not do any longer for their own son that they would do for the children of California. Out of this they built Stanford University, now one of the world’s most prestigious. Think of those who have rebuilt families after losing one of their own to war, illness or accident or towns that after losing many of their inhabitants to earthquake, tornado, or flood have built again never losing the memory from which they have come. Think of those who through the grieving process have given themselves to healing others, providing solace, or seeking the spiritual–reaching out, touching, transforming suffering into the sweetness of the moment.

Grieving is not all sadness. It can also bring forth moments of delight and laughter when we remember something joyous, something funny, something wonderful about our loved one or loss. I remember a family story about my father’s remembering his Aunt Bertha after her death.  The story goes that Aunt Bertha was a no nonsense women, who worked in an airplane factory as a welder during the war. Once at the dinner table, and much to my father’s delight, she took a big piece of cherry pie even though she had not yet finished her meal.  When my grandmother, her sister, admonished her  she matter-of-factly said, “You never know if there will be any left the next time round. I’ll just have mine now.” The story then goes that my father, grieving the loss of his dear aunt, laughed so hard telling this story that tears came to his eyes, happy tears for his Aunt Bertha.

What happens when grief gets stuck? Unable to process, to transform, it hunkers down. Its energy unable to move becomes oppressive rendering us unable to function. We may become lost in sadness or depressed for a prolonged period of time. Or, we may disassociate from our grief. Unable to sense it in our bodies we think it isn’t there. Perhaps we hold a belief that grieving is just something we don’t do, that we just have to get on with life, so we push it away.  Or, we exile it because another part of us thinks that it’s too much to bear. But, it isn’t. There is room for all to come.

When we allow our grief to come to us like autumn comes in nature, when we are present with it, acknowledge it, keep it company, and sit with it with interest and curiosity, it will show us its life-forward energy and we will be transformed.

Worried Sick?

Worry, like anger, joy/sadness, grief, and fear is a natural emotion. For thousands of years, we have recognized the energy of worry as that energy which triggers thinking. The feelings of worry–uneasiness and concern– move us to think how to satisfy the worry.

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In its natural form, worry is healthy. And like all healthy emotions worry moves.  Worry moves us to think. Thinking moves us to a solution. Then worry releases leaving as naturally as it arrived in us. This movement from worry to thinking to solution is something we do every day.

Suppose that we live by a river. In the spring, we notice that the rains swell the river.  Sometimes the river becomes so full, it overflows its banks. Our house is right there and we notice that when the river overflows, the water approaches our house. We notice that it comes close, just to the border of our garden.

Now, worry arises in us. We worry that the water could flood the house! So what happens? Our worry leads us to think how to protect our house. “What can we do to protect the house from being flooded by the river’s waters?” We ask ourselves. “Ah, we can bring sand bags to protect the house; or we can put the house on stilts; or we can work with others in the community to build a higher levee to protect our homes.”

Our thinking gives us options;  we have three here already. It also helps us to see which one fits best. Ah, sandbags seem best. We discover that the city stocks them every year for residents just like us. We make note of where the city stockpiles are and how to get there on several different routes. We note that the sandbags are within five minutes of our house. Deep breath. We have a solution and a plan to implement it. No more worry.

But suppose instead of leading us to this kind of constructive thinking, our worry leads us into a negative kind of thinking–a circular and repetitive thinking that feeds upon itself. If instead of problem-solving thinking, we careen off into this negative kind of rumination, we might think like this.

“There’s nothing I can do to stop the river from flooding. This is futile. What do I do if the water starts rising. What if I can’t get away from the water. What if the water ruins all my belongings. I have no place to go. I am alone. What do I do if the river floods? I can’t stop it. I’m alone. What do I do? I’ll lose everything.”

And, so on and on in a circle that traps the worry and gives rise to a sense of hopelessness and isolation. We become depressed; everything seems dark and flat and negative. No matter which way we turn we end up in the same place, in the same circular pattern.

From time to time, we all may find ourselves slipping into negative rumination. Then we catch it!  But, if we don’t it becomes oppressive. We feel trapped. Worry is now a concern because it leads not to problem solving but to negative, circular thinking that makes us sick.

The expression, “I’m worried sick,” comes from our collective human experience of worry gone awry. We become anxious, depressed, isolated. We stop caring about our lives; we refuse to see our friends. Stuck worry makes us sick and we suffer.

So what can we do? We can bring awareness to our worry and then turn to our body, sensing and accepting what comes. We can acknowledge it, keep it company and listen compassionately without judging.

“How does one do this?” We may be asking. Mindfulness meditation, BodyTalk, and Focusing  are three practices that help us to do this. In all three  we focus our attention, receive what comes compassionately, and acknowledge non-judgmentally.

On Anger

Emotions are natural expressions of our whole organism. In the ancient Chinese healing arts, Five Element theory in particular, five natural emotions are defined: Anger, joy/sadness, worry, grief, and fear. In this tradition, as in others, each emotion has a natural expression that all of us recognize.

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Anger moves us to action. When we see a wrong or something out of the natural order of things, anger rises up and moves us to action. Perhaps we see a small child standing alone in a busy parking lot. We sense anger in us and, at the same time, the urge to lead the child to safety. Once the child is away from danger, the anger dissipates; we turn our attention to the child, smiling we ask his name and if he knows where his mom is.

Healthy anger moves;  it rises up and falls away. But what happens when it doesn’t move? What happens when we hold on to that anger? It seethes. Over and over our self-talk reproaches the child’s mother for leaving her child unattended in the busy parking lot.

This is sticky anger. And there’s more. Today’s anger has stuck onto some past experience. Perhaps as a child we felt unsafe. Perhaps we were left alone in an unsafe place. The small child became angry and that anger moved it to find safety. “Make me safe!” If no one came to help her; she may have coped by building a wall or fortress around her; by pretending that everything was OK; I am OK she would tell herself.  The fortress, the “I’m OK,” and the anger stuck.

Today’s anger gets all caught up in that. This “sticky” anger is not helpful; it gives us no space to understand the context of this current situation. Everything gets filtered through us in the guise of that little girl and the fortress, and the “I’m OK,” and the anger whether we are aware of it or not.

The mother is here in front of us right now. The anger is burning in us; we feel a pressure or something that’s hard to describe.  Then we realize (or maybe not) that she is crying. Picking up the child, she admonishes him for running away as she hugs him tightly to her breast. She thanks us profusely. There is a moment of recognition (or not)  in us that we’ve read it wrong. This is a good mother; she takes care of her child; she loves her child. She is thankful for our help.

Perhaps, at this moment, we feel puzzled and grateful or perhaps we just grumble. Outwardly, we express our thanks that child and mother are safe and sound. We move on. Inside, the anger and the whole thing about it recede into our subconscious until triggered again.

This is what happens in life. Our experiences of the present get caught up, get filtered by stuck experiences and emotions of the past.

Natural anger moves; it dissipates; it leaves no trace. Stuck anger lodges in the body and can express itself in many ways: As resentment, or as a constant undercurrent of irritation or as exploding rage. Stuck anger makes us sick. It gives rise to suffering. So what do we do?  We can bring awareness and just notice that something in us is angry, irritated, frustrated, or raging. We can acknowledge it, keep it company and listen compassionately without judging. When we do this, we will experience a shift; the anger and its story will move; will release; and, we will feel the flow.

“How does one do this?” We may be asking. Through BodyTalk and Focusing, the body becomes aware of the anger and the whole context of that anger–the stories, feelings, images, judgments– the whole thing. We can then approach the anger compassionately, listen to what it wants to tell us; and experience the healing shift of life-forward energy. When we experience anger and it doesn’t feel right and appropriate in the moment or it lingers on and on and wants our attention, then BodyTalk or Focusing or both can be just right for us.