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The Living Inquiries Blog

Going Deeper Than Safety

By Lisa Meuser.

In the last two blog posts I wrote about the possibility of discovering a sense of well-being even when there is discomfort. In this next blog post I will take that a step forward into the territory of safety, a topic that is very related to discomfort. Safety is a huge topic, and is a complicated one, with lots of nuances. As such this post will just be a “toe dip” of sorts. If you haven’t already read my previous posts in this series on discomfort (or seen the YouTube video which does not include piece #4), please do, as those lead into this post.

Safety and Discomfort

Safety and discomfort are very entwined, especially for survivors, but also for anyone who didn’t grow up with people helping them to stay in their bodies when they experienced challenge. The topic of safety is so important, for so many good reasons, but it is often misunderstood.  I have discovered over time that unless our journey of well-being includes embodiment/our being, the science of the vagus nerve and brain health, practices of discernment, as well as knowing true sources of safety, we will actually wind up as more fragile humans.

As I name that, I see many scenarios flash before my eyes. One I hear about often is the meditator who feels that “all is well” until they get off their meditation pillow. While there may be much utility to meditation, if it is not paired with consciously including and exploring into our human experience, we will be limited by the false and unconscious belief systems that are habitual for us, and remain disembodied. I have been that person. While mediation alone did provide clarity in some ways, it enabled a sense of fragility in other ways. I did not learn how to participate as a human, and instead lived in a “glass house”. This, unknowingly of course, limited me to being a person who needed to control her life, for fear of that glass breaking. This is a hard way to live.

In another scenario, I am thinking of someone I know who surrounds themselves with only people who agree with them. Their past trauma has left their nervous system quite disorganized, and rather than focusing on consciously repairing that, they find people who will make them feel safe through validation and agreement. While there is nothing wrong with wanting validation, when our safety is dependent upon agreement from others, we remain small and disempowered. This is a person who often does great in the world, but due to their inability to discern, their efforts are always limited due to believing that their safety hinges upon factors outside them.  The more they try to manufacture safety (i.e. control), the more insular they become, and the more fragile they become.  The more fragile they become, the more unsafe they feel. And the more unsafe they feel, the more dysfunctional their behavior becomes. And the cycle continues.

I have been this person too. I have surrounded myself with people who see the world in similar ways as I do. Again, while there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, for me it reinforced a belief that I am not safe with people who see the world differently, which reinforced the premise that I am not safe as I am. It also stripped away opportunities to sit with experiences of awkwardness, conflict, and discomfort, so that my system could discover that I *am* safe as I am, regardless of if people see the world as I do, or not, and regardless of whether I am uncomfortable or not.

Maybe you’ve been nodding your head reading these scenarios: these are not unusual scenarios, although they might look different for each of us. Regardless of our circumstances, most of us learn what I call false conflation. We believe that if X, then Y, or if Y, then X: if we’re uncomfortable, then we’re unsafe, or we’re unsafe because we’re uncomfortable.  Either way, there is a conflation of safety and comfort.

Learning About Ourselves, Learning to Name

When we think about the topic of safety, we often think about what will help us to feel safe, and we build those ideas of safety upon external factors. When X person does Z, I feel safe. When I’m in X location, I feel safe. When X is happening, I feel safe. When I’m in X circumstance, I feel safe. When I feel X, I feel safe.

In my journey, asking curious questions of myself so I can identify the factors I respond well to has been absolutely crucial, and even profound. Getting clear enough to name things for what they are for us can be very empowering. It is important that we know ourselves well enough to determine how we feel in relationship to people, places, things and our own experiential happenings, and it is important that we know what comforts our nervous system, particularly if we are rebuilding or discovering a healthy nervous system.

Having said that, sometimes developing the self-knowledge to identify these things can be seen as the ending spot, or goal, so to speak. In my experience, this self-knowledge is actually the beginning. There is much more empowerment and possibility available.

When Science meets the Practicality of Well-Being

The naming process is an important aspect of our personal and collective evolution because developing the ability to observe our predicament enough to name involves neural pathways that connect to the prefrontal cortex. When this part of our brain is engaged, a few things happen: our vagus nerve is connected to well-being, we’re able to have some distance from the reptilian brain which functions on survival responses, as opposed to what is really going on in a moment, and we can have some ability to resource and self-regulate.

This increased sense of resourcing and agency is empowering, as we’re then connected to our sense of well-being. And yes, it does allow us to feel safe, which further relaxes our nervous system and allows us to experience a wider and deeper aspect of life, with the source of life itself.

All of this helps us in being able to discern and inquire into our experiences, which allows us to see through and disrupt old belief systems and assumptions about our place in the world.

As with everything, this is a process of discovery.

Here’s a personal story to illustrate.  Last summer I became part of a group of local activists who were protesting Nazis at our local market. The week before, some militia members showed up to support the Nazi farmers, carrying guns and knives, both legal as we have an open carry law. As you might imagine, I needed to prepare myself to enter into a situation knowing that there was the possibility of violence. Did I feel safe walking into that situation? Ultimately, yes. Was I safe because of the environment? No. Knowing the kind of violence these militia groups are capable of (e.g. Charlottesville 2017) I knew that I could be walking into a violent situation, i.e. not physically safe. But I connected to something much wiser and larger, and that connection conveyed a sense of safety in my Being. Was I comfortable? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Did I experience fear at times? Yes. Through that experience I learned that I could be in potentially violent circumstances, with forces completely outside my control, have some fear, feel discomfort AND I could still be safe in my Being. More importantly, I also was moving from Love, which was also a profound part of my experience, and perhaps is its own blog post for another time.

I’m often reluctant to share my experiences because you as the reader may not grasp how much effort and time it has taken for me to develop the resources and agency to be able to partake in these kinds of events. Furthermore, I’m not saying that everyone has to rush out there and protest Nazis at their local farmers’ market.

There is utility learning how to be present and engaged in the everyday experiences of our life. Unwinding the false conflations and misunderstandings about safety allow us become active participants with life which might allow us to: have uncomfortable but important conversations with our friends, children, families, neighbors, work mates, etc – and even with ourselves!

    • stay committed to things that are important to us even when “things get hot”; 
    • get involved in creating change in our organizations and communities; 
    • advocate for ourselves as well as others who are often not represented in our culture;
    • be in integrity with our actions and our emotions; and so much more.

Going Deeper Than Safety

What? Deeper than safety? Well, if we keep getting real, eventually we will learn that absolute safety is an illusion. I cannot control what other people do or say and I cannot control factors outside of me. I also cannot control all the thousands(?) millions(?) of microcosms happening within my body. What I can do is connect with my sense of well-being and learn how to develop a relationship with that so that I Know it so deeply that nothing can strip it from me. I may have what I call momentary bouts of “amnesia” when it comes to this Knowing, but they are short lived because I now have the ability and resourcing to reconnect with it.

Developing this Knowing is not necessarily easy. As I said earlier, it takes conscious effort and practice to develop the resources and agency because most of us have never been taught how to be in relationship with ourselves, so we lack the self-knowledge with regards to being present with our experiences. In fact, for most of us, the neural pathways that enable this do not exist. We have to build these neural pathways through conscious practices: practices that include embodiment/our being, and the science of the vagal nervous system/the brain health, practices of discernment, as well as practices which develop a relationship of Knowing true sources of safety.  

Gently Exploring our Experiences

The reality is that I can literally be safe, but be convinced that I’m not. AND, I can do all the right things and not have much well-being at all.

What do I do with all that? When we’re triggered and enter into fear our prefrontal cortex stops working efficiently, so the first thing we have to do is build enough self-awareness to know when our nervous system is activated and that we’re triggered. This very important naming can dramatically influence the quality of our life because we will then have the ability to slow down, discern and inquire into what is going on.

What can help us realize we’re triggered? When we’re in a triggered state, we might have narratives that sound something like this: 

“Wow, my thoughts are really spinning”
“I am thinking/saying/writing the same things over and over”
“My heart rate has increased”
“I’m sweating”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed”
“My gut (throat, chest, fist) is tightening/clenching/etc”
“I need to do something/act, now…”

There are many more possibilities, but these responses tell us that our nervous systems are triggered. If we do not slow down, it won’t take long for us to experience increased fear, and from there we will quickly start to make false assumptions about our safety. Our prefrontal cortexes won’t be online, so we won’t have the ability to think clearly. This is why slowing down is both hard, and yet crucial. Without the self-awareness to connect with our experiences, we will also steamroll ahead.

Once we slow down (or, if you’re in a session with someone, your therapist can help you with this) then curious questions can be asked (curious questions come from the prefrontal cortex). We can ask ourselves about the underlying assumptions going on with regards to our experience.

I know I feel overwhelmed/triggered/unsafe/in danger. But am I actually? 

When we slow down to examine the actuality of our experience, we learn that we can have simultaneous experiences. In other words, I can absolutely feel unsafe/in danger, but when I look around my room, I can very clearly see that I am not unsafe/in danger. I can keep exploring.

Ok, I feel unsafe. And, I can see that I am not. But wow, this sensation is really painful and I’m really uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Am I really safe?

At that point I would need to look around the room again. Then I can name to myself (if this feels true):

Ok wow. So, I am feeling something really uncomfortable/painful, AND, I can see with my eyes that I am safe/not in danger. Let me connect to breath, and/or feel my body in the chair for a few minutes.

This process is the way to start to unwind all the false conflations about fear, safety, discomfort and well-being. I would strongly encourage you to find someone to help you with this process, because in my experience as someone who works with trauma every day, it is not easy to hold this for oneself. In fact, all of your strategies will steer you away from this. Also, keep in mind that our culture thinks in binary relationships, so including the AND is very important. This allows for us to discover that we can feel unsafe, AND be safe at the very same time.

Compassion for Ourselves

I hope that this blog post has been helpful. While learning about the territory of safety and discomfort is crucial, it is not easy. I invite us to be slow, gentle and kind with ourselves while we learn and unlearn. One thing that helps me with this is to remember that life can be messy, and sometimes I have a hard time embracing the mess. I remind myself that that is ok, and I rest in the kind, compassionate, real words of Alexis Pauline Gumbs:

The primary offering here is a space to be. Be here. Be all over the place. Be messy. Be wrong. Be bold in your helpfulness. Be confused in community. Be reaching past isolation. Be part of the problem. Be hungry for after. Be helpful in the midst. Be so early in the process. Be broken by belief. Be bolstered by brave comrades. Be unbelievably unready. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, foreword of Beyond Survival

In my upcoming 2021 Exploration we will learn how life altering it is to Know safety with/in our being, so that we do not have to try to control that which is outside of ourselves in order to “have” safety, and we will learn how to support others in discovering this as well. Please let me know if you have questions! 

 

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

Being Alone

By Sumitra Burton.  

This little word “alone” can be terrifying, perhaps second only to the word “death.” We naturally feel threatened by these ideas of being alone in life or of dying. And sometimes the sense of being alone feels worse than death. Also there can be a big difference between feeling alone and feeling lonely. Often after sitting for a while in deep rest or meditation, there’s a sense of aloneness that is very peaceful. 

And, of course, during this pandemic time for many the sense of being alone and/or lonely is greatly exaggerated. Those of us who live alone have been spending much more time by ourselves than ever before and many of us will even spend the winter holidays alone. It can be easy to sink into a space of feeling separate, alone and lost.

In more normal times I have inquired into this idea of aloneness a number of times for myself, and have facilitated sessions with others who have felt plagued by the thought of it on an ongoing basis. A sense of separation from others and from life itself can freeze us to our core, making life feel unbearable at times. We may feel exiled from life and nourishment. 

Our first strategy is often to look outside ourselves for the connection we so deeply crave. The problem with that, of course, is that the relief we find outside ourselves is temporary and dependent on others.

What’s the worst that could happen if I were truly alone? I’d have to care for myself, to find relief and connection inside myself. There would be no one to give it to me from the outside, to hold or to save me. I might feel frozen and terrified. I would have to face that gripping sense of emptiness inside myself.

Can I take a moment to feel that emptiness just now? What’s it like?

It feels like a hollow void in the center of my body – just above the belly (solar plexus area), very intense and with a strong grip. When I sit with the sensation and feel into it, images arise of past experiences of being “left alone” by others, rejected, abandoned, etc. I look at each image to see if they prove I’m alone. I can see they’re simply images from the past and hold no threat in this moment.

As I notice that sensation of the hollow void in my center just now, I say to it, Thank you for arising, I feel you; you are welcome to stay as long as you need. This helps me to relax and turn towards the sensation. Sitting a while with a sense of embracing this hollow void and allowing it to be as it is encourages it to soften a bit.

When I look at the word “alone” and listen to the sound of it spoken aloud, it seems a little less threatening now. I take a few moments to come to a sense of rest and take a few deep breaths.

I check to see if anything is left of the sensation. I say aloud, I am not alone, and check in with my body to see if there’s any resistance there, anything that seems to argue with those words. 

An image comes of me as a little child wanting to be held by my mother when she was busy doing something else. I welcome this little child to be with me in this moment, and imagine holding her on my lap, with full attention. She seems surprised to be acknowledged, and cuddles up, loving the attention. You are welcome to stay as long as you need, I tell her softly. 

How amazing to find that I can hold my own aloneness and allow it to be felt so deeply inside. “Alone” tends to melt into a feeling of “all-one.” There is no lack of connection now. Nothing else is needed than simply holding the sensation, listening to its words, and feeling deep compassion for its sense of separation or lack of connection. And in that holding and listening, real connection is experienced and the gripping sense of emptiness loosens. Nothing outside is needed after all. 

Turning towards my fear, being willing to hold it while it reveals its sorrow, feels magical. Welcoming what once seemed terrifying – to come home, to be held and heard – allows a real sense of connection. I can rest here now, with this sense of relaxed connection.

Old and more frightening experiences can certainly be more difficult to inquire into than this simple example, but the process is generally the same. There are times when it’s helpful to have a facilitator hold the space for us, while we gradually learn to inquire on our own. 

And also, it’s important to find ways during this pandemic time to connect with others in safe ways.

 

To read more about Sumitra Burton, click here.

Including Neutrality In Our Direct Experience

By Lisa Meuser.

This is the fourth part in my blog series on discomfort. You can find the first one here, as well as a YouTube link to all of them being read here. In this post I’ll be writing about the topic of neutrality, something I wrote a bit about last year.

Sometimes we humans get lost in two speeds – immersed completely in something, or avoidance of something. Sometimes these two are related: we get lost in a feeling, it overwhelms us, and then to cope with that we turn off.  Feeling pleasure, or pain, involves a lot of body engagement, and let’s be honest, we’re not a culture that has a healthy relationship with body engagement. Even while we may say we want to feel pleasure, or would rather feel pleasure over pain, we may not know how to be comfortable with the body engagement that comes with pleasure. And, as much as we may not like pain, we may be more familiar with managing pain, than opening up to pleasure.

There is a lot of possible territory to explore with all that. I’m not going to go deeper into those specific areas – instead I’m going to write about how we might learn to navigate difficult territories – pleasure, pain, or other expressions – by also noticing and including resonances we’ve not yet become familiar with.

Moving Beyond Binary Traps
How often have you spent time contemplating your neutral experiences – the experiences that exist outside the bounds of enjoyable, or uncomfortable, for example?  For some of us, we can’t help it – the moment we feel discomfort, it feels like ALL of us is uncomfortable. For some of us, we can’t help it – we are driven to pay attention only to that which feels good. Our attention, and the way we think, can be exclusionary like that.

That makes life really narrow and limited, however, because it’s very unlikely that ALL of us feels good, or that ALL of us feels uncomfortable. It’s impossible for all of our sense receptors to be feeling the same thing, and it’s impossible that X <insert that which is being focused upon > is the only experience that is happening. This binary kind of thinking – this, OR that – is very dominant in our culture, and it contributes to how we oppress ourselves, as well as others.

Let’s explore this using temperature. If you scan your body, head to toes, I wonder how many variations of temperature there are. For me, I feel very warm in some areas, while other areas are quite cool, while other areas are a range of “in between.”  From this we can learn that in lived experience we are AND creatures. We experience warmth AND coolness simultaneously. Our binary-trained minds often go against our experiences, however, focusing on just one aspect of our experience, as if that is all that is there.

When it comes to discomfort, or pleasure, our minds are even more trained to focus on just one, or the other. When we focus in such a binary way, we have to exclude everything else. An effect of that is that our world gets smaller – as we become reduced to just that which is being focused upon.

Have you ever felt afraid, and in that state felt very small? This presents a similar dynamic. Parts of our brain are being utilized, and parts of brain are being excluded. Parts of our experiences are being included, and parts of our experience are being excluded.  We often feel small because we’re experiencing life as our child-self did – our child-self who was indeed small, and who was often un-resourced, overwhelmed, and without agency. It can be very disempowering to be a child because of the lack of control we had.  When we become afraid as adults, even though we have more resourcing and agency than we did when we were kids, we can easily forget that we are safe and resourced when fear states come over us[1]. We can easily feel disempowered.

Now, let’s imagine being afraid, and, as we’re aware of the discomfort of the fear, we’re also aware of other things. Imagine being able to acknowledge the discomfort and/or fear, AND also being able to notice that there are sensations in the body that are actually quite fine. Imagine being able to name that we may feel unsafe, but that we can look around the room and notice that we are physically safe.  In that moment, we may escape the binary world of either/or, instead enter the world of both/and. We BOTH feel unsafe, AND are safe. This very quickly changes the dynamic, and we can go from feeling lost in a sensation state, to being in relationship with all that we’re experiencing – the “good, bad, and ugly,” or as I like to say, with what I don’t like, AND what is also ok/fine.

It can feel counterintuitive to take the time to include the AND in our experience. And, at first, it may not seem like it’s changing anything in our experience. It takes time for the AND neural pathways to form, but once they do, the practice of inclusion both becomes easier, and shifts our reality. Just like any practice, it is a process, and it requires time and engagement.

Learning to Expand our Attention
Because we’re trained to think from a binary lens, it takes effort to include the full range of our experiences, rather than just focusing on one aspect. Because we’re trained to think in terms of good or bad, it takes effort to include aspects of our experiences that are neither good, nor bad, and instead neutral (or are “ok” or “fine”).

A profound part of my journey has been learning how to make friends with the territory of neutrality. As I wrote in a past blog post, because I’ve been drawn to highs and lows, and because I have had so many false ideas about waking up and healing, it took time for me to even be interested in what I call neutrality – the space in between “good” and “bad.”

When we’re used to the intensities of “good” and “bad”, neutrality might feel strange at first. For some, it may feel boring, or empty. It may be uncomfortable or unsettling. We may feel “twitchy”, or like we’re doing something wrong. We may feel like there is “nothing here.” It can take time to know that just because something is different, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad, or that we’re in danger. Our entire sense of identity can be threatened when we start to engage the territory of neutral. As another client said, “who even am I if I’m not feeling my usual X  <intense feeling>?”  For them, it seemed that meaning and even vitality was gone when connecting to neutrality. It can take time for the nervous system to reorient towards health when we’ve grown used to the rush of pain or pleasure chemicals. It can be unnerving to not be caught in the binary.  And, it can be strange to be connecting with our bodies in direct experience.

We are laden with ideas of what we think we should be experiencing, and when we, even for a moment, give them up and consider what we’ve not yet been including, we can become very insecure. This is a normal part of change, evolution and growth. AND, yes, it can be uncomfortable. Said another way: including neutrality can bring about discomfort.

Experiential opportunity:

Notice, when you feel discomfort, you will likely also be experiencing “not discomfort.” It may not be comfort that you experience, but you will likely be experiencing something other than discomfort. For example, I may feel a tightening in my solar plexus, which may feel uncomfortable for me. Nearby, I may feel neutrality in my pelvic floor, ease in my chest, and even some comfort with the support that is behind my back. When we pause and explore, we may discover there is comfort, neutrality and discomfort happening simultaneously. It is important for our well-being that we learn how to include more of our experience.

Not everyone is challenged by neutrality. Neutrality might feel like a welcome relief after spending much of their life on the rollercoaster of life:  the erratic ups and downs can be exhausting! For many, including neutrality can be a combination of sorts: challenging AND relieving.  One client shared, “First I thought neutrality was nothing, and the place where I felt the trigger (in my body) was everything. And now I see the neutrality as something full, and “strong.”

As we continue to practice including the full range of our experiences, in the simplest ways that we can, we will slowly learn that there is great vitality in all moments. In each inhalation, there is aliveness. In each heartbeat, vivacity. In each movement of our body, liveliness. In engaging in any of our sense receptors, engagement with life.

It takes time to move from living from our imagination, to living in direct experience. Please be gentle with yourself, and make sure you have loving, compassionate and consensual support. I have recorded many rest meditations that focus on inclusion – here is one, and here is another.  Others can be found on Insight Timer or here.

As always, please let me know what questions or observations you have! If you are interested in these topics, you may be interested in my 10-month Exploration coming up. More details to be released this week, or email me for more information: [email protected]

[1]  I’m obviously not talking about a situation where our life is in real or immediate danger.

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

A Growing Relationship with Discomfort

By Lisa Meuser.

In the first blog piece on discomfort, I wrote about how we often unintentionally conflate discomfort with wrongness, and the importance and significance of befriending discomfort. In the second piece I explore the topic of internalized oppression – which includes living from our internal narratives of should, supposed tos, and so on, which create a push/pull fighting dynamic inside of our self.

In this piece I’m going to share an experience, which will reveal a little bit about how these two are related as an entry way into diving deeper into this topic.

A couple of months ago – right around the time I was starting to write more on discomfort, I had an experience that I started to share with clients, to illustrate how quickly the mind can jump in when discomfort happens.

I was in a meeting with a group of people – some were familiar to me and some unfamiliar. We were all sharing our reflections – where we saw the organization in this present time in relation to our groups’ particular focus. The focus was not race, but race was on my mind. I had been struggling with this organization – the last month in particular after hearing first-hand about some overt and covert racism that had been happening. I felt compelled to share my thoughts. Actually, if I was to continue to be a part of this community, I found it necessary to share my thoughts. I verbally shared with love in my heart, and presence in my being. And yet. Right after sharing I could feel a deep throb in the area of my solar plexus. It was loudly uncomfortable.

I was somewhat surprised that I was having this physiological response, and in the span of a few short seconds I noticed narratives checking to see if I’d said anything out of integrity, or anything wrong. Since I had been studying discomfort, particularly the conflation of discomfort with wrongness, I very quickly saw through what was occurring. Here was a lived example where discomfort came, and in a split second my narrative was assuming I might have done something was wrong, and that I’d be rejected for doing so.

I’m lucky to have this awareness. I immediately had a short conversation with myself – “This is just discomfort; it doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong. This is just discomfort; I am in no danger.” I consciously acknowledged I was safe, and that I was having a body response to saying hard things, but that I was indeed in integrity. I brought conscious attention to my bones, to my breath and to my being and slowed down to rest with all that had arisen. About a minute later, the wave had shifted.

I am sharing this to show how common and how normal it is to conflate untruths to our experiences – as well as how quickly these thoughts can surface, as well as how quickly they can subside.

I will not write extensively on this today, but the topic of oppression ties into this as well. In fact, it is very relevant. Had I not had the self-awareness, I would have very likely moved into an oppressive battle within myself, which could have very quickly have led to becoming passive to the real-life oppression that is happening within that organization.

Speaking out against externalized oppression may not be easy for many of us. It may very well bring discomfort. If we think this discomfort means we’re not safe, and/or, if we think this discomfort means we’re doing something wrong, and/or, if we think this discomfort means we should stay or be silent, not only will we be enabling the dissonance in our minds, we will be supporting the structures of oppression in culture.

Befriending my discomfort does not just make life more fulfilling for myself, it allows me to speak up and disrupt oppression that is happening around me. It allows me to say hard things to people 1:1, it allows me to say hard things in group or organizational settings, and it allows me to write things that people often find challenging. I might even say that befriending discomfort is key in evolving.

Some things which can help us befriend discomfort will sound counterintuitive at first. Perhaps befriending discomfort already sounds counterintuitive enough, however it is by getting closer to that which we don’t like that we can learn about it. If you would like to develop a healthier relationship with discomfort, I invite you to explore this diagram from the first blog post:

discomfort =>

belief: I’m doing something wrong/I’m wrong =>

I’ve got to: figure out/manage/control/fix/adapt =>

overwhelm/exhaustion =>

numbing/dissociating/disembodying =>

more discomfort…

…and the cycle continues.

Do you see this patterning in your own life? Developing self-awareness takes time, but it is crucial if we want to develop different ways of being in the world. Slowing down, which is also hard and can seem counterintuitive, so that we can become more intimate with ourselves can be profound. Be curious of your relationship with your inner narratives and their relationship to discomfort, and please let me know what you discover!

Note: I will be facilitating a 10-month Exploration in January 2021, where we will learn how to befriend ourselves and our experiences, as well as extend that knowing in our work with others. Please email me if you’d like to know more: [email protected]

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

The Exhaustion of Inner Oppression

By Lisa Meuser.

Here is the second piece in a series of blog posts exploring discomfort and disconnection.  

I have been noticing in clients, in myself, and perhaps everywhere: tension (and discomfort) goes up when a sense of connection to well-being goes down.  It’s not the tension or push-pull that’s the problem, in fact tension is a normal part of the human experience; it’s the constant lack of well-being amidst the tension. Could you imagine us being a culture that communicated from kindness, that operated from a sense of “we-ness”, or that was rooted in curiosity? Even amidst tension, we could be in connection, supporting one another. But we are a culture rooted in dominant/oppressive narrative[1] behaviors and mores, a culture that is rooted in disconnection, and so along with tension we also feel disconnect, and that changes everything. 

When I think of tension, I think of a “push-pull.” There is something pushing, and another thing pulling, and this creates a tension. We may have literally experienced this in our families of origin – where we perhaps found ourselves in between our mothers and fathers, or, as was in my case, in between my mother and my brother. We may have experienced this in our circles of friends, or in other kinds of engagements, where, for example, there is a sense of pressure to be a certain way. We may have experienced this from groups of people, or from culture itself, particularly if we are from a marginalized population (as deemed by the culture in which one lives).  We often don’t have good skills to navigate these tensions, and we often aren’t with others who have these skills either, who can support us.

Survivors know this territory well, on a variety of levels. Instead of being raised with loving and kind voices and a compassionate culture, we were often raised with external narratives filled with supposed tos and shoulds, as well as other judgements, and sometimes even hatred. We tried so hard to “be good,” but we still got treated the way we were being treated. 

It hurts to be rejected, to be excluded, to be othered, to be harmed, to be left out… to not belong. We so desperately want to be accepted by others, included by others, valued by others, loved… and it can be devastating when we are not. We try so hard to get that approval so that we can belong. Over time we innocently internalize those external judgmental narratives, and they become our own narratives. In the process we begin to turn ourselves into pretzels – fighting with ourselves to be certain ways – still trying to get that approval, to get that belonging. 

We can literally feel this push-pull in our bodies when we are involved in conflict, with ourselves or with others. One part of ourselves may be pushing one way, while another part may be pulling in another way. It can show up differently for each person, based on the context. I often experience it in my solar plexus, but it has showed up in my throat, heart, lower belly and other areas of my body. It is usually very uncomfortable and can create distress in our bodies. You might think to a time when you weren’t sure what to do. You wanted to X, but you also wanted to Y. Maybe it was your belly in that push/pull, and it felt like there was a knot there.  Maybe it was in your heart, with a clenching. Maybe it was in your throat, with a tightening. Or maybe there was overwhelm, and so a sense of numbness came over you. Not knowing how to navigate the discomfort of our bodies, this push-pull often takes us to our minds, where an internal sense of fighting comes alive – a fighting and a franticness in our thoughts, as we’re convinced that we’ll be able to figure it out from there.

Feeling Exhausted?

All that pretzel-making is such burdened, hard work – in an innocent attempt to feel safe, we turn to fighting with our self through our thoughts.  We so badly want this discomfort to end, and we attempt to rely on our thoughts to do it. The unconscious internal narratives may look like, “If I do X, things will calm down,” “If I do Y, they will stop yelling at each other,” “If I do Z, this knot in my belly will go away,” “If I am XYZ, I will be included.” The thoughts can morph into “I should be better than I am”, “I should be like I was when XYZ”, “I should be like XYZ person is,” “I am supposed to be XYZ, not as I am.” The variations are endless.  Hidden within all these unconscious narratives are shoulds and supposed tos and have tos, that we hope and believe will lead us to relief and safety.

Phew. Is it any wonder why we experience so much anxiety, and why we are so exhausted? 

This frenetic state of being is perhaps the biggest clue that we are out of well-being, and that we need to get some clarity. We know that our revved-up thoughts are not helping, and so we must slow down and pause. As we do so, we will be able to step back from the franticness of our minds and start to get conscious with the subtext/subconsciousness of our thoughts by simply asking ourselves, “What thoughts am I having right now about XYZ/myself?”  Having a healthy relationship with our somatic presence is an important part of this process. There are some simple practices to develop this relationship mid-way through this blog post.

Shifting into Well-Being

While this slowing down and becoming familiar with our thoughts is a necessary part of shifting patterns, we may not at first appreciate what we find! For example, we may have considered ourselves to be a rather peaceful person, only to discover this inward fighting and conflict going on! Discovering what had been out of my attention has often been difficult for me – it may bump up against a kind of arrogance I have about who I am and/or my place in the world. Said another way, it often didn’t feel good to my personality to realize how many blind spots I had about myself! Shame and humiliation often surfaced first. After the sting wore off, usually with the help of some loving people in my life, I moved from humiliation to humility, where I could wake more fully to the learning part of being human. Once I re-remember I am a human here to learn, I find the discovery aspect of my human journey less threatening, slowly becoming grateful for the opportunity to unlearn the innocent yet harmful patterning. 

I didn’t have support to help me be aware of my subconscious narratives early in my journey and so it took me a long time to learn that often it wasn’t others who were harming me anymore. Over and over I thought it was other people. To clarify, yes, people had harmed me tremendously in my past, particularly when I was a child. I had minimal sense of autonomy or ability to choose with regards to my predicament. As I matured and was able to make choices for myself, those internalized oppressive narratives followed me, and over time I realized that as an adult, no one was harming me as much as I was harming me through the subconscious mental fights going on in my mind in attempts to feel safe. 

When we argue with who we are and when we are constantly comparing our self to others/imagined selves, it is we who are rejecting our self, berating our self, other-ing our self, excluding our self. What once began as others not being loving towards us and others rejecting and judging us, becomes us not loving our self, rejecting our self, and judging our self. It becomes us who abandon our very self. 

Spotting that internal fight, rather than focusing on the external fight, can be a first step in putting a cog in the wheel of self-violation. It can also be a huge step in moving towards empowerment, because while we can’t control how others respond to us, we can slowly over time learn how to be kind and loving and accepting of ourselves. And for the record, self-compassion is something I had to learn as an adult, because it was never role-modeled to me as a child or even into my 20s, despite my years in a spiritual community.

Loosening the Grip of Oppression 

Naming this happening may seem like no big deal, but naming is one of the most important components of shifting a habitual pattern. A pattern runs at its strongest when it happens without consciousness. As soon as it becomes conscious, it immediately starts to lose power and it will lose more power if there is less judgement associated with the naming. In other words, if I beat myself up for being conscious of the pattern, it will hold it in place. But if, upon recognizing I’ve participated in the pattern, I can factually say to myself, “Ohhh, I just did that. Ok, I can see how that is the pattern of X,” that simple awareness will start to shift the pattern. This is where getting support was helpful for me in shifting the patterning, as I did not know how to treat myself with patience or kindness until it was modeled to me through somatic practitioners trained in trauma healing.  

Once you are able to name the patterning without judgement, you might start to notice it more. As kindly and compassionately as you can, keep naming the pattern as it arises, without trying to fix or change it. The kindness and compassion itself can be profound in shifting the pattern. I found journaling to be useful, in addition to exploring with supportive practitioners and friends. 

Although it may take time, all of this plays a role in shifting the oppressive tendencies we have with regard to how we treat ourselves, as well as others. 

Keep exploring, and please let me know what questions arise for you as you get to know yourself!

[1]  I’ve written about the dominant narrative here and here

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.