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On Discovering the Sanity of Freaking Out

By Fiona Robertson.

Looking back, I recognise that I was anxious from a very young age, but the extent of the anxiety didn’t become apparent until I was in my late twenties and started having panic attacks, a few days after a close friend of mine had dropped dead in tragic circumstances. Very soon I also found myself facing the suppressed horror and grief of a previous loss, the death of my best friend in an accident when we were eighteen.

I didn’t use the word ‘anxiety’ back then. The phrase ‘freaking out’ seemed to describe it much more accurately. ‘Anxiety’ was redolent of something more contained, something that had a beginning and an end and a reason. What I was feeling seemed to have no cause, no start, no finish. It simply waxed and waned in its own way, seemingly without logic. I was at its behest, and no suggested solutions worked. The only thing that did seem to provide relief was connecting with emotion, which wasn’t always possible.

Fast forward to the present, and recently I found myself waking up in the night with anxiety. That rarely happens these days, not least because of all the inquiry I’ve done over the last five years, and the profound unravelling process that’s been going on. As I lay there, the sensations surging, a sentence came to me: The space already accepts these feelings, so you don’t have to. I felt relief at that, and a softening in my body. I fell asleep again, and woke the next day ready to investigate further.

As I inquired, I recognised a deep sense of apprehension. That was the word that really resonated: this wasn’t anxiety, it was apprehension. The words what’s coming next? seemed to be particularly potent. My body braced as it heard them, and I could see that I was simultaneously trying not to brace. Further insights came as I continued looking: that there was nothing I could have done about any of the past events; and that, on some subtle level, I’ve believed that bracing would somehow stop things from happening.

So far, so good. But I knew there was more. The next day, I could feel that my body was still in an apprehensive state. As I was getting ready for bed, intending to have an early night, the invitation suddenly came: You can freak out. Really, you have 100% permission to freak the fuck out!

As I began to accept the invitation, words kept on coming in a steady stream. Waves of emotion and energy arose and fell as I wrote and cried and wrote and cried. The words seemed to pour themselves onto the page:

“Have you seen what’s out there? Killing, starvation, torture, cruelty, pain, tumours, people who are hurt, people doing the hurting, crazy weather, extremes of behaviour and temperature and beliefs and mad beheaders and so much more….illnesses and diseases and battery chickens and planetary changes and things that are so vast and incomprehensible…the possibility of asteroids hitting us…

Who, in the face of all of that, sleeps tight at night? Who, in the face of all of that, is calm and serene and peaceful? And if you are, what are you? Cut off at the neck? Blind? Insane? Surely the only honest option is to freak the fuck out? To freak out at the absolute unsolvability of it all…oh, not to mention death. Life is an absolutely terrifying ride, and if you’re not terrified, you’re not really alive.

All my life, I’ve been trying not to freak out when freaking out is really the only option, trying not to be terrified when that’s really how I am. As if terror was unreasonable, and reason was reasonable, in the face of all of that. Are you kidding me? Have you seen these bodies we’re in and this world? Why on earth would you want to stop me from being terrified? What good are logic and measured tones in the face of all of that? My terror isn’t wrong, and neither is yours. I am so sick of being restrained and playing safe when that’s not what’s here. What’s here is terrified, wild-eyed, sweating, a-tremble and devastatingly, heartbreakingly alive.

Fear, let me tell you now, is not, repeat not, the opposite of love. Fear is utterly inseparable from our source. It is the most natural thing in the world, and only becomes a problem when we shut the door on it repeatedly and insistently demand calm. “Calm down,” you say. But no, I will not calm down. I will freak out for as long as the freak out lasts.

Now I see: the freaking out wasn’t ever wrong. The freaking out when my friends died wasn’t wrong for a second. None of the freaking out I’ve done before or since was wrong. It is such a relief to be allowed to freak out, to not have to rein it in or calm it down or pacify or placate or deny. To just be able to say yes, it really is like this. This feels so humane, just so humane.

There’s such wildness and honesty and animality that’s been lost since we became civilized, since the mind began to believe it could control, contain and solve – despite all the evidence to the contrary. Whoever first had the bizarre idea that it shouldn’t be like this? How did we become these irrationally rational creatures, only half alive? This fear is our very life-blood, if only we knew it. It seems tragic to me now that we cut it off.

There’s nothing to remedy. I’ll say that again: there is really nothing to remedy (and I believed for so long that there was). It was trying to not be freaked out that really did for me, not the freaking out itself. I see an image of gathering up all the freaked-out Fionas of various ages, from very young to middle-aged, so they can freak out together. I watch that for a while and it’s very sweet.

Then I see: there is no safety. Aah, that feels like a true, instinctive knowing in the core of my being. I see an image of a cave in prehistoric times, of being asleep at the back of the cave, a fire lit near the entrance. As I look, I see the paradox; when we knew we weren’t safe, we were able to distinguish where the threat really lay. Somehow, the lie of safety – a promise that can’t be delivered – has made it all so much worse. It’s as if we were built to operate in unsafety and it’s messed with our systems that we live like we do, so we have to evoke or create unsafety to keep this part of us alive.

There’s such a sweet relief in saying, “I’m going to die and I have no idea what will happen and that freaks me out.” Such piquant honesty, free of the guile of the rational or the spiritual. It’s the precariousness of life that renders it so immensely, unspeakably precious. In our drive for rationality and so-called objectivity, we lost something so vital and deep – the wisdom of the body, which knows it is going to die, which knows it makes total sense to freak out. Back in the cave, I sense the sheer aliveness of how it was to live then, the heart-racing, blood-pulsing, balls-out aliveness! How dead we became.

The myth of safety: my body is rejoicing as I see that. And somehow, seeing the myth of safety makes it clearer that there’s no threat or danger here just now. It’s as if holding on to some idea of safety muddies the waters and sets up a kind of dissonance, a sensate or visceral dissonance between what my body knows and what my mind believes. I see an image of a fourteenth century scene complete with plague pits, and sense the ever-present knowing of life and death that people had back then, without the shroud of supposed safety blinding them to the deeper realities.

I’m free now to be my basic self, free to be back in the cave. I can be left alone to get on with being terrified without this overlay or veneer of “yes, but we’re supposed to be civilized.” Of all our feelings, fear brings up the most shame: our civilized, enculturated self is so ashamed of this instinctual, animal part of us. The creature-self arises in fear, terror or rage, and we loathe it, despise it, shame it, patronise it. And yet we’re also terrified that we’ve lost contact with it, because somewhere deep inside we know that it’s the sanest, most vital part of us.

Curling up in the dark, warm cave of my bed, my body feels so good now. It was right all along (it’s resisting the temptation to crow). I feel alive, in contact, co-ordinated, poised, creature-like.”

Finally, the words ceased. Before falling asleep, I saw how my mind had become disembodied, and how this split between the civilized and the instinctual parts of my being had, in itself, been terrifying. I slept well, and awoke in wonder at the wisdom that can emerge when we’re willing to be present to whatever comes. I don’t know how this process will continue to unfold; I do know that my relationship with anxiety has undergone a profound change. It is such a bone-deep relief to realize that my body is far, far wiser than I have ever imagined.

Acceptance comes in many forms. Sometimes it is gentle and demure, with a kind touch and a loving whisper. At other times, it throws off the restraints of civility, and comes in swearing, howling and heavy-handed to wrest us from whatever beliefs have held us hostage. There are times like this when the structure of inquiry falls away and the process unfolds from the depths with an intelligence of its own, when our beliefs are swept away like ninepins and everything we thought we knew is turned upside down. It is at these moments that we most rejoice.

On Healing the Divisions Within

By Fiona Robertson.

Many spiritual teachings refer to the illusion of the separate self; the belief in being an isolated and deficient self seems to lie at the heart of our suffering. When we assume – or when life circumstances have led us to conclude – that we are unlovable, wrong, damaged or inferior, we are bound to suffer for as long as we continue to believe that assumption. Many of us know that suffering intimately, just as we know the relief that comes when we realize that we are not the person we have assumed ourselves to be.

When we inquire, however, we discover that very often we are not experiencing ourselves as a single separate self, but rather a collection of selves or parts relating to one another (and the outside world) in a variety of ways. A sense of internal dividedness or separateness mirrors the illusion of separation between the self and the world. We are separated selves as much as we are separate selves.

There is frequently an internal battle being fought to keep the divisions intact. Our sense of self depends on maintaining a kind of painful status quo, ensuring some parts, selves or feelings do not ever see the light of day. Inner barriers or barricades stand guard to protect us from having to feel what our sense of self depends upon us not feeling. It is as if these inner walls of Jericho separate the functional ‘me’ from the terrifying mass of thoughts, sensations, memories and emotions that we have relegated to the shadows. The prospect of dismantling the walls and barricades and actually feeling everything that we have made it our life’s work to not feel can be terrifying in itself. The self can feel as if it will be annihilated or cease to exist if we feel what it has tried so hard to keep at bay.

As I was inquiring recently, I discovered a deep inner divide. The session began with sensing into how exhausted I was feeling and I began to ask the question, “what is exhausting?” Several answers came, including “compassion fatigue” and “it’s so exhausting being around pain.” Grief came and went, as did the words, “I can’t ask for support”, “I need support” and then “I can’t ask.” The instructions or commands “don’t ask” and “don’t assert yourself” arose, along with bodily sensations and images. I looked at the words and then brought my attention to my body’s response. The felt sense was of being inferior, not mattering, not being equal.

As I came right into this feeling, I realised I’d been trying not to be it. As if I’d been trying to be outside the feeling, as if I’d been located in my head and subtly separate from and trying to manage the feeling. I stayed with this – letting the feelings be exactly as they were – and suddenly an image appeared. I saw myself standing in the school playground, aged about seven or eight. A group of children were picking teams for a ball game and I was second last to be picked.

At first, it didn’t seem to be a particularly striking image. However, over the years, I’ve learnt to take time with words and images, to give them a moment to land, to let the body respond to them in its own time. We never know which images will be pivotal in a session – sometimes, a seemingly innocuous image can hold a whole story in place. And that turned out to be the case in this session.

As I continued to look at the playground image, I saw that – in that moment – I’d not wanted to be her, so I separated myself off from her. As I acknowledged this – “I separated myself from you, the girl in the playground” – I felt into the strong sensations in my chest which seemed to be responsible for maintaining this division. I realised that I’ve done my best (unconsciously, of course) to uphold these divisions. Another question came: what if these divisions weren’t maintained?

The answers to that question took a variety of forms. There were images of derelict, overgrown sites. The sensation in my chest became even stronger, and I continued to feel what a huge strain it is to maintain the division. After a while, I naturally returned to the image of the girl in the playground. As I did so, the words, “that’s when I fragmented” came to me, and I felt the deep pain of that fragmentation, the turning in on myself. I saw that – in that moment – that particular part of me believed that fragmenting was my only hope, because it believed that it couldn’t survive as a unified, integrated being with needs. It became clear that I had cut off from that girl in the playground because she was in need of support and believed – not without reason – that she couldn’t ask. There’s always a kind of logic to the self-configuration. As an eight year old, I took the only decision available to me at that time, a decision to sacrifice a part of the self for the greater good of the whole, as it were.

The very seeing and feeling of this part of myself – the eight year old girl in the playground – enabled it to begin to integrate. The division began to heal. As we do this precious work of discovering, meeting and acknowledging the parts of us that we have disavowed, we find ourselves becoming more whole. We no longer have to put such tremendous energy into maintaining the divisions (no wonder I began the session feeling exhausted). The feelings and selves that we had to abandon or reject during our formative years are still present; much as the boundaries and barriers have separated them from us, they have also preserved them. They have been waiting – patiently – for us to return and reconnect with them. And as we become less separated from ourselves, the illusion of separation gradually fades.

The Living Inquiries Bee Flower

When We Come Back to Our Senses

By Fiona Robertson.

When we inquire, we come back to our senses. Literally.

When we were young children, we spent virtually all our time in our senses. We moved unselfconsciously, and curiously touched, smelled, and looked as we explored the world around us, as well as ourselves and our own bodies. Gradually, we were taught that it wasn’t always okay to be in our senses in this way. The dictates of society and culture or the unpleasantness of our experiences made us wary about being engrossed in our sensory world, and we began to spend more time in our heads, in our intellects.

As young adults, many of us seek out the means to alter our sensory perceptions. Alcohol and drugs of all kinds take us out of or change our immediate experience in ways that may be exciting, frightening, thought-provoking or numbing. While some of us are able to experiment with no adverse long-term effects, others end up becoming addicted. Perhaps we miss the vividness and wonder of childhood, and use substances in an attempt to alleviate the emptiness or boredom that we feel. Perhaps we can’t deal with emotional or physical pain, and find a substance to numb or dull it instead. Perhaps we view ourselves as more interesting or creative people because we take drugs or drink or smoke.

Of course, it’s not just drugs and alcohol that can be used in this way. We may be using feel-good spiritual or therapeutic techniques in order to change or manage our experience. Ultimately, however, whatever method we choose, there’s usually an unexamined set of assumptions lying behind our attempts to make ourselves feel better:

What I’m experiencing isn’t okay,  is wrong, or is a problem.

I can’t cope or deal with what I’m experiencing.

There’s something better out there somewhere.

There’s nothing wrong with these assumptions in themselves. They’re simply unexamined. My guess is that these beliefs form (consciously or unconsciously) when we’re children by being told that what we’re experiencing or expressing is not okay, and that therefore we should inhibit or suppress aspects of ourselves. These unexamined aspects remain within us until we decide to examine them further.

The Living Inquiries give us the tools to look much more deeply at these aspects and assumptions. To begin, we investigate what it is we’re actually experiencing in each moment. We begin to notice whatever is going on, and to let it all be exactly as it is.

Try it out right now. Take a little time with each sense. Notice what you’re seeing, both with your eyes open and with your eyes closed (whether your eyes are open or closed, it’s likely that you’re seeing internal or mental images, pictures or memories. They can get quite subtle or vague, so as you continue to look you’ll perceive more). Notice what you’re hearing, both externally (I can hear the wind howling, and the hum of the computer, and a car going past) and internally (the spoken voice in the head, or some music, or yesterday’s conversation with someone).

Now become aware of what you’re touching or sensing, both internally and externally. There are immediate physical sensations of sitting or lying down, the touch of clothing on your skin, and the feelings or sensations present inside the body. When we take a little time to really sense into our inner experience, we often find it’s not quite as we’ve assumed it to be. For instance, we may have labelled a familiar feeling as fear or sadness. As we stay with the felt sense, we may find that words or images arise, and that there is a visual component to the feeling itself. Sensations or body energies often have a colour, shape, or some other visible element to them, which can often be overlooked until we investigate more closely. There may even be a smell or taste associated with the sensations that we’re experiencing, or that come with images, memories, or thoughts.

Coming back to our senses in this way takes us out of the usual thought stream, but doesn’t exclude thought. Rather than being caught up in our customary narratives, we notice them for what they are: words or images that we’re seeing or hearing in our mind’s eye. This is not to diminish or dismiss thought, but to see it for what it is. As we inquire, thought tends to lose its primacy; we no longer believe it in the same unquestioning way.

As we come back to our senses, we gradually become a little more balanced, and are more able to be with what’s here. We find that what we’re experiencing isn’t wrong, and that it isn’t ultimately a problem. It’s interesting that we use the phrase taking leave of our senses to indicate irrationality or craziness of some kind. It makes sense, then, that the antidote, as it were, is to come back to our senses as fully as we can.