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Fear

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Has anyone ever told you that you’re too sensitive?
That you’re touchy? Or overreacting?
Or that you shouldn’t feel as much as you do?
Whenever I’ve heard this, it was never a compliment.
It was a judgment. A criticism.

Too sensitive?
I say there is no such thing.

 In a world that moves fast, rewards hardness and runs roughshod, the willingness, the choice, the ability to be soft and tender is extraordinarily courageous.

The softer we can stay in the face of everything that life gives us, the stronger we are.
It’s a paradox of living that most people never even consider, let alone practice.

Many of us were told to toughen up when we were kids. We were taught that the world was a mean place and you’ve got to grow thick skin so you can take it. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if, in a mean world, the way to make it through is to stay tender and open and willing to feel? What if bullying and lashing out is the ultimate weakness? What if sensitivity is the ultimate strength?

In the body, we can start with the skin. Experiment with feeling details and nuance with every cell of your skin. Feel not just with your palms and fingers but with the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers. Feel with your wrists and the backs of your knees. Feel with your cheeks and your shoulders. Feel all of it with all of your sensitive skin.

Practice sensitivity with your imagination: let your dreaming mind explore and create something. Draw or write or sing or dance or just think up something you’ve never thought up before. It’s a tender place, the imagining place. Spend some time there, it’s a seriously brave move.

In every day, there are opportunities for softening your heart. Talk to a friend who’s struggling. Watch the aching ebb and flow of Nature. Read a headline or two. Whatever you choose, stay open and soft and take it in. Without trying to fix it or change it or look away or pretend it’s not happening, stay open and soft.

It’s challenging stuff, sensitivity. Most people armor up and build a hard protective coating around them in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of staying tender. The paradox is that only softening strengthens us to live deeply and fully.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

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My husband is building us a house. It’s a big and exciting project full of details and a dozen workers. When I tell people about it, the one question that nearly everyone asks is,

“When will you move in?”

Sigh. Who knows? Maybe December. Maybe January. Maybe March. There are so many variables and so many things that are in flux and changing. We have no idea. But that’s not the answer anybody wants.

Our culture is addicted to attempting to know what will happen. Whole industries have been created around predicting the future.

Polling for elections.
Odds-making for sporting events.
And everyone’s favorite: weather forecasts.

These predictions have varying degrees of accuracy. (Hurricane Florence and the Trump presidential campaign are two good examples of predictions that looked pretty certain and then swung wildly and suddenly at the end.) Which begs the question, Why do we keep listening to them?

Fear.

We are afraid of not knowing. It is uncomfortable to live in uncertainty. So we create illusions that we know what will happen that give our brains a false sense of solidity and clarity.

Instead, what if we practiced getting comfortable with not knowing? What if we focused on allowing ourselves to relax into uncertainty? What if we were willing to embrace the bigger truth of complete groundlessness, as Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron calls it?

Experiment with letting your body and mind relax and let go of their grip on wanting to know. Soften into not knowing.

And when we move into the house, I promise I’ll tell you.


What’s the difference between falling and flying?

My intention?
My ability?
My landing?

Recently, I’ve had Grace Potter & The Nocturnals song, Falling and Flying playing in my ears and in my head. I can feel that both falling and flying are full of energy. Both falling and flying can be scary and unsettling and both can be exciting and eye-opening. So what’s the difference?

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestault Therapy said this about that:

What if the difference between falling and flying is breathing?

Breath has the power to nourish and cleanse, to energize and relax, to ground and empower. Let your breath flow and you convert falling into flying, fear into excitement, panic into peace.

This week, whenever you feel the grip of fear, go to your breath. Do whatever you can to breathe into the tight, stuck places. Let the energy move rather than be held rigid.

Breathe and transform falling into flying.

At the opening of a class at Hot Yoga Charlottesville not long ago, my teacher, Julia von Briesen read this by Roshi Joan Halifax:

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.

Right away, I recognized the false “strength” of a brittle, defended heart that strikes out in an unskillful attempt to protect.
I do this a lot in traffic.
And while reading the news.
And otherwise being a scared judgy-pants.

Since hearing this quote (and subsequently printing it out and reading it daily), this has been my practice: (1) when I find myself snapping out at someone
(as in “what do you think you’re doing, pulling out in front of me in your enormous SUV with a bumper sticker I don’t like?”
or as in “what kind of heartless, thoughtless, short-sighted politician are you?”
or any other snarky, angryness that pops out of me),
(2) I pause and say a little metta (or loving kindness) for myself
(as in “may I be safe, may I be loved, may I know peace”)
and
(3) I say a little metta / loving kindness for the person I just snarked on
(as in “may you feel safe, may you feel loved, may you know peace”)

When I do this, I feel a little taste of the choiceless compassion that Roshi Joan Halifax tells of. It’s not much, I grant you. But it’s a start.

What can you do today that will strengthen your spine, your core, and soften your heart?

At 5pm, my office window looks onto nothing but blackness.
In these so short days, I can easily slide into seeing nothing but darkness.

A favorite song for decades, I’m reminded of Cat Steven’s Moonshadow.
The simple light melody tells the ultimate silver lining story.

“And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if I won’t have to work no more.”

So on the week of the Winter Solstice, I’m allowing myself to be followed by a moonshadow.

Even the darkest of days aren’t only dark.

Listen to Moonshadow here. Maybe put it on Repeat.

One year ago this week, the world changed.
Or perhaps, to be more accurate, the world did what the world does and I changed.
Maybe both.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year summed up in six words:

Breathe Deep ~
Take care of yourself. Breathe. Move and feel what’s happening in your body. Eat well. Drink water. Sleep. Take a break when you need to. You can’t do what you need to do if you are running on empty, stressed, and overwhelmed.

Shine Bright ~
There is an energy that only you can bring. You have gifts that no one else has. Sharing that energy and those gifts isn’t just your opportunity, it’s your responsibility. We need what you have to give.

Show Up ~
Stand up. Speak up. Have an opinion. Collapsing and pulling the covers over your head only works in the shortest of terms. Do your best and show up.

Sometimes in the past year, I’ve emphasized one more than the others but in times of challenge, we need all three.

These six words have helped get me through times when I’ve felt afraid, but the more I practice them, the more it seems like they are a good choice no matter what’s happening.

You can do it.

photo by Rebecca George ~ find her art at https://www.instagram.com/bravedragonfly/

My friend and colleague, Loring Myles, is teaching her last Nia class at acac today. The mother of one of my closest friends is dying. And it feels sincerely unclear to me what the Sam Hill is happening in the world. Endings and uncertainty can leave me wobbly. Which seems like an excellent time to revisit this post from late summer 2013

 

‘The old is not old enough to have died away;

The new is still too young to be born.’ ”

– from John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time

The past few weeks have been full of everything at our house: family visiting from Minnesota, planning for upcoming travels near and far (including buying a camper!?), a parent’s serious illness (and then amazing recovery!), and then yesterday, we took our second (and last) child to college. Lots of broken routines and unexpected twists, lots of emotions of every color and intensity.

After all that, I feel fragile. Like I might crack if I move too quickly. Or at least bruise at the smallest thing: like when I see a parent laughing with (or angry with) their child, or an elder slowly and gingerly crossing a road, or the rich blue late summer sky filled with plumes of white clouds.

My friend calls it “wobbly.” It’s true. The past few days, I’ve felt all kinds of wobbly.

This week, on her (wonderful!) blog, author (and Nia student!) Deborah Prum posted a quote from Frederick Buechner that is full of paradox and wisdom and speaks directly to how I’m feeling. In part it reads, “We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.” This is the interim time that John O’Donohue’s perceptive poem blesses. This is the uncomfortable, in-between time when even a familiar path feels uneven and strange. It’s the time when one thing is over but the next hasn’t yet begun. We’ve cast off from shore into a fog bank with no land is in sight.

In part, it’s the time of year. Kids are going to school, sometimes for the first time, or leaving home. I suspect I am not the only one who watched my boy walk away and wondered how my days will be, how my relationship with my partner will be, and who I will be with him gone. Wobbly questions, indeed.

But it’s not just a fall thing and it’s not just a child-going-to-school thing. We are all in transition all the time. We are all letting go of something and waiting for whatever comes next. For you it may be making plans to move, have or adopt a baby, change jobs or embark on a creative project. You may be preparing for retirement or travel or going to school. And of course, navigating the ultimate transitions of aging, illness, and death in ourselves and in others is so filled with uncertainty and fear that it can plop us smartly on our butts. Whether it’s an exciting something you want, or a troubling something you fear, there is always that in-between feeling when you’re leaving one thing and haven’t yet come to the next.

Most of us shrink from this interim time. The discomfort can be intolerable and we will do whatever we can to avoid it. Our unwillingness to be in the awkwardness of transition can lead to all manner of poor, short-sighted decisions. Fear of the interim time is at the root of rebound relationships, ill-considered next jobs, and even trashy magazine reading in the doctor’s office.

Whatever transitions you are in right now, whatever interim time you are wandering in, remind yourself that this is fertile, important ground to walk. It’s worth spending time in the uncomfortable liminal space. It’s important to stay here, breathe, and not run. As John O’Donohue encourages us:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.

Do not allow your confusion to sqauander

This call which is loosening

Your roots in the false ground,

That you might come free

From all you have outgrown.

Fear not the wobblies. Welcome them, as they are necessary for growth. Fear not the transitional, in-betweenie feeling. Allow yourself to walk wobbly but wise through the transitions for it is the only way to recognize what you have outgrown and see clearly what is next.

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