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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.

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.

A Journey of Connecting with Discomfort

By Lisa Meuser.

There’s something huge going on right now that is freaking people out around the globe, within almost every person: discomfort. 

Whether it’s Covid 19, or the great awakening with regards to racism, or something in between, this is a time of uncertainty – and for most humans, that ushers in dis-ease, restlessness, anxiety… discomfort.  

If we could clean up our relationship with discomfort, the world would be a lot different. Yes, the world.  Really. And, yeah. It’s not that easy. I know. Discomfort and I were enemies most of my life. I did everything I could to negotiate with discomfort  – I maneuvered, manipulated and managed life in such a way that I became an expert at avoiding discomfort. On levels I was not conscious of, I thought discomfort (1) defined who I was as a person, and (2) would kill me if I felt it. Hidden within both (1) and (2) was a rather significant belief: if I’m feeling discomfort, it’s because I’m doing something wrong. Or worse yet, if I’m feeling discomfort, it’s because I am wrong (or a derivative – bad, for example). 

This belief is a pretty limiting belief, yeah? It is a belief that promises pretty much only one thing: a life of suffering. There is no way around it. If one believes that discomfort equals wrongness, or any derivative, there is going to be suffering – eventually. 

I tried to hold off “eventually” for as long as I could. To avoid it, I spent my life trying to control, fix, adapt, manage, figure out… and when that didn’t work, or exhausted/overwhelmed me, I rotated between being numb, dissociated and disembodied.

Survival Strategy: Going Mental
Why would I choose such a belief if it’s guaranteed to bring me suffering? Why would anyone? Well, no-one would choose it. But life experiences and various contexts will innocently lead us to this belief. 

For example, if we’re in a family of origin that does not talk about feelings and sensations, and how to be with them…. or if we’re in a family of origin where the adults are causing us harm… or if we’re in a family of origin where our siblings or other young people are harming us, and the adults in our lives aren’t helping us… or… (there are countless possibilities).  As a young being, we will experience shock when we are harmed or disconnected[1] from a sense of/our sources of safety. Without guidance, without people to safely re-connect with us, and without nurturing instruction, we will quickly become overwhelmed, and then we will innocently turn against ourselves.   

We won’t be aware of it at the time, but we will subconsciously blame ourselves. We are literally at the mercy of the adults in our life, so we need them to be good in our eyes. It is not safe to blame the adults, so we blame ourselves. We will assume it’s us, and then we’ll try to find out how to please our caregivers, figure out who they want us to be; we’ll try to manage the situation and our own behavior, even try to control what’s happening, control our caregivers and/or ourselves through our behavior, or to fix what we think is wrong. Or we just keep adapting to their wants and needs while losing contact with our own.  

In thinking that it is our fault, in an attempt to figure out how to get out of such a predicament, we will disconnect from our bodies because it’s too overwhelming to be with what we’re feeling without support. Instead we will turn to our heads to help us manage, fix, figure out, fantasize, and/or control.  We will literally go mental, in an attempt to feel better, to feel connected, to feel whole.  

Until we learn how to safety include our bodies, we will live the rest of our lives from this very mental-oriented strategy/adaptation. A friend of mine created this diagram to describe the (mostly subconscious until recently) process that she has been reliving over and over throughout her life:

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

This is 100% “normal” in our culture: I’ve not met a person that hasn’t done this in one way or another. Some people unconsciously live their whole lives from this disembodied place so as to avoid what they innocently fear: discomfort.  They don’t know from lived experience that discomfort is normal, and actually a necessary aspect of evolvement, and instead conflate it with personal lack, I-am-wrong-ness and even danger.

Befriending Discomfort, So That We Can Know Love

So here we are – and I’m noticing something interesting. As I’ve been journeying with so many during this time of Covid-19, which then flowed into a world-wide awakening into the naming of systemic racism, I notice the most resilient people are those who have made “friends” with (or, re-connected with) not just their bodies, but also with discomfort. For various reasons, some of us have learned – by choice or by circumstance – how to be in our bodies while there is discomfort. Others of us have not been given the opportunity to learn this, or are very slowly learning this with the support of experienced practitioners. This territory will feel extremely counter-intuitive for most, so it is a journey… a learning that will re-create a life anew for us. 

I am going to write a series of posts about this curtailing

  • how and why this is particularly relevant now
  • the importance, and *necessity*, of befriending discomfort
  • how this is linked to racism (and Covid 19) and white supremacy
  • how this is related to waking up, Love, and unity consciousness
  • how this is connected with self-love, trust, and a life of well-being
  • how to unweave and unlearn the belief that discomfort is bad/dangerous. Or, in other words, how to put a cog in the wheel of oppression. 

Yup, it’s all related. If you’ve read my past posts about awakenings over the years, you might already get a sense of how it’s all related. The giveaway: in order to open one’s heart and reside in Love, in order to truly be as unity-consciousness, in order to sincerely be in well-being: one must have an inner resilience to be able to feel all that comes with such territory. The territory of our humanity is wide, expansive and deep. Befriending one’s body – reconnecting with one’s body – and discomfort, is key if one is to be with this territory. 

This is not easy territory. It requires us to be well-acquainted with the depths of compassion and presence, the somatics of trust and allowance, and… the wisdom of Love. 

I will be moving into more context in the next piece in this series. Please feel free to email me with feedback or questions at [email protected]

[1] It’s crucial to name that underneath our struggle with discomfort, is disconnect. As young beings we feel whole and loved when we are with loving and kind people. When we experience a lack of love and kindness as young beings we experience disconnect, which can be terrifying. Unless there is repair, that sense of disconnection will live on, and we will crave and try to “get” wholeness by any means possible moving forward.

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.