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Discovering Resources In Stressful Times

By Lisa Meuser.

Post-election. Holidays. Life. We humans spend a lot of time trying to figure out the world, our days, our thoughts, each other, our emotions. Trying to ‘figure out’ is a popular go-to strategy. Our brains are great at figuring out some things, such as building a deck, balancing a checkbook, and planning the week’s meals. But when it comes to other things, like happiness or love or feeling good, that same figuring-out mechanism can be more of an illusive trickster.

Life can’t be figured out, but what life consists of- thoughts, images, sensations-can be noticed, felt, and allowed. In that space of allowance and noticing, sometimes an understanding or some perspective drops in. But it doesn’t drop in from figuring out. It drops in because of the spaciousness that opens up when we allow our experiences to be what they are, without trying to make them different (read: trying to figure them out).

“I am really just trying to be with life,” a client shared with me, “but I see now that I’ve been stuck in my head trying to figure it out.’” For my client, the “it” that she is trying to be with includes rapid-firing thoughts, quickly scrolling images, and uncomfortable sensations- all of which are often happening at once. She’s heard the phrase “just be with” throughout her career as a spiritual seeker, and she keeps trying. It sounds simple enough, right? Just be with your experience! That’s what we keep hearing from teachers, gurus, and even well-meaning friends. Easier said then done, however.

When thoughts and images and sensations are perceived to be attacking or coming at us at once, as they often are, it can be extremely hard to “be with” anything. Instead we find ourselves in the experience of overwhelm, and/or a variation of the fight, flight, or freeze (FFF) mechanism that often accompanies overwhelm. When in any of these states, the part of the brain that facilitates self-awareness shuts down to a certain extent, making it nearly impossible for one to be fully aware of their present experience, or to be present (i.e. “with it”). Her innocent use of the phrase “be with it” confirmed what I’d been contemplating for a while: just be with it” is often not a useful pointer for people trying to connect with their present moment experience, because it’s misunderstood.

Contrary to how it’s generally interpreted, “just be with it ” doesn’t necessarily mean to:

1 sit still with the experience, and do nothing else,
2 feel the experience as it is,
3 explore what the experience might mean,
4 or all of the above, adding “until it’s gone” at the end of each sentence.

Some people maintain the assumption that if they can “just be with it”—turn attention toward it (the experience or challenge) and do nothing else—then something will magically shift. That may be exactly what happens for some. But for others it might not; for others it might just exasperate the already difficult experience because it becomes more of an attempt to figure out as opposed to allowing the current unfolding.

“Just be with it” does not mean to do nothing but sit in the experience. “Just be with it” actually involves a person accessing her/his own personal reservoir of resources. We all have access to plenty of resources; some of us have more than others, and some resources are more internal while others are more external. For example, because I do inquiry with people for a living, I have access to a reservoir of internal resources. In other words, I can apply the techniques I use with other people to myself. I can ask myself useful questions and can extend love and hold space to and for myself, and I can often literally sit still and “just be with it” (allow the experience to unwind naturally by noticing/acknowledging my thoughts, images, and sensations without being attached to or enmeshed with them). When in a calm state, many of us have the capacity to connect with these internal resources. But when we’re not centered, grounded, or calm, accessing them can be confounding. For me, too.

Sometimes I’m too immersed in my own stuff to be really present for myself. Sometimes I am in my own version of the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Being in overwhelm or FFF affects my ability to utilize my internal resources, because when I’m in the FFF grip my nervous system is on high alert. “Just sitting with it” isn’t always possible during these times because the parts of my brain that enable the ability for self-awareness are quite literally diminished. Instead, my reptilian centers are more on line, so before I can “be with” anything, I have to calm my nervous system down. To do that, I have to get resourceful in a different kind of way.

There are a lot of external resources that we have at our disposal in any given moment that can help us to soothe and nourish our nervous systems. Taking care of our nervous systems will help us to connect with our internal resources so that we can inwardly connect more deeply with our experiences (read: “be with” our experiences). When we are able to connect with ourselves in this way, we can slow down the hamster wheel of thought from spinning out, loosen the grip of thoughts from jousting with each other, take a break from referencing past and future thoughts, and give pause to the figuring-out mechanism. We can stop trying to figure out how to feel safe and *actually* feel safe in the world / with ourselves / in the present moment.

We can find safety in the world, and we can feel safety in ourselves, by utilizing resources that will support us. Those resources are what can really help us “be with” what is going on in our experiences and be in the present moment. When my nervous system is jostled, I utilize my internal and also external resources:

1. I feel the chair/bed/sofa/floor underneath my body.
Science upholds that when my back feels supported, my nervous system starts to relax. Try this out: as you lean into your chair (object), remind yourself that this object is literally designed to support your body. It is designed to hold all your weight, and to do so comfortably. So allow yourself to connect to this object fully, and notice what you notice. Feel the resourcefulness of this chair supporting you.

2. I feel the floor or earth under my feet.
This is an extension of #1. The floor is also designed to hold up form. I can feel into that as I feel my feet connect with the floor or, if I’m outside, to the earth. Use the floor/earth as a resource.

3. I connect to my inner sense of curiosity.
Curiosity is maybe one of the most profound resources that I have. I often say that curiosity is the antidote to fear, because if I can access just a drop or two, fear will begin to loosen its grip. One easy way to access curiosity is to ask yourself a simple question without trying to answer it. It could literally be any question. Even “Why is the sky blue?” Don’t try to answer it. Just ask the question and wonder. That opens the part of the brain that connects to self-awareness and loosens the reptilian brain center’s grip. I also bring curiosity into my explorations of #1 and #2, as well as the rest of the items listed here. Bringing curiosity into any moment utilizes an amazing internal resource.

4. I connect to my breath.
As I’m feeling into #1 and #2 (and the rest of the list), I bring breath into my attention. I breathe into the chair. I breathe into my feet on the floor. I breathe into my belly. I breathe into my sit bones. I breathe consciously and gently into and throughout my entire body, at my own pace. Sciences documents that breathing through the nostrils can aid in calming the nervous system, so if it’s resonant for you, try that out. Follow the breathing cycle with attention: stay with the way that breath is constantly flowing in and flowing out. There are many breathing practices that can be researched- these are just a few ideas. Breath is an amazing resource because breath is always happening in the present moment. Play with this amazing internal resource of connecting to breath.

5. I lean into touch.
Science also documents that physical touch puts my nervous system to rest. I use my own hands to connect with myself and the present moment, placing them wherever my body wants to feel touch. On my forehead or face. Behind the back of my neck. Over my heart. Against my belly. In a hug position or on my arms. I hold my own hands. I feel the touch of my skin. If I’m near animals or other humans, I connect with them using touch. Receive the resource of touch, from self or other.

6. I access sound.
Sound can be a profound resource to connect with. Music (either that of my choosing or that which is already happening). Birds. Wind. The fans or white noise in my home. The purring of my cats. Listening to a guided rest (see #9) recording. I also play with feeling the sounds move through my somatic system, or invite my body to move to the sounds. Use the resource of sound in a way that is resonant for you and your nervous system.

7. Connect with water.
A cool washcloth on my forehead, face, or behind the neck can help in soothing the nervous system. Drinking a glass of water, slowly and with mindfulness. Having a cup of tea. Taking a bath or a shower. Feeling the water pour over me. Feeling the water hitting different parts of my body. Feeling the temperatures as determined by what feels good in the moment. The cleansing nature of water makes it a powerful resource!

8. Engage in movement.
Sometimes my body just wants to move! Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Yoga. Stretching. Walking. Exercise. Jumping. I let my body move however it wants to. I keep my attention on the movements and sensations that arise as I follow my body’s inclinations. Dancing to music can also be a powerful way to tap into my internal resources. Use movement as a resource however it resonates with you!

9. Experiment with scent.
I really enjoy playing with scent: Essential oils, candles, outside air, flowers, food. Google to find out the properties linked to different scents and see how your system responds (most people find peppermint invigorating and lavender relaxing). Ground yourself using the resource of scent as desired.

10. Rest.
Resting, for me, means stopping what I’m doing / engaged with, and consciously turning my attention toward whatever it is that I’m noticing in my current experience. Resting allows me to notice what is in my attention, and how I am experiencing what is in my attention. Is my attention mainly in thoughts? Is it referencing past or future? Is it lost in imagery? Is it in the body? This can be done sitting down, or during any activity. Resting for just a few moments can have a profound impact on my nervous system, and can automatically link me back to my internal resources. It opens the doors to self-compassion and self-awareness, and can connect me with some of the other resources listed above such as breathing, touch, feeling the floor/chair, and curiosity. Utilizing rest is one of my passions, and I have many guided-rest audios available for free- please contact me if you’re interested.

11. Creativity
Creativity can allow a vast world of resources to open up for us. It is an internal resource, but I can also play with external resources to access my creativity. Finger painting is a favorite of mine as it allows free form expression and tactile engagement. Journal your experiences- writing down what is happening in a moment can help my system slow down and become more available to what is in my present moment experience. Cooking. Making collages. Taking pictures. Making a music compilation of your favorite songs. Knitting. Singing. Dancing. The list of creative endeavors is endless! Gently and curiously tap into how the resource of creativity wants to be expressed through you!

All of these activities literally bring attention out of the mental realm (where figuring out tries to happen) into the somatic realm (where presence “happens”). This is important. We feel, we breathe, and we have sensations in the present moment, whereas thoughts and the mental realm often reference past or future. Imagine taking attention from the head and bringing it down into the body: when attention is no longer spinning in the head, our nervous systems relax and the ability to be self-aware increases. If you have any questions about any of the above, please send me an email ([email protected]).

Being with our experiences—whether they are filled with joy, sadness, fear, anger, excitement, curiosity, shame, or happiness—doesn’t look a certain way. There’s no prescription on how to be. It may happen as we go for a walk in the woods, smell a flower, drive home from work, or yell into a pillow. “Being with” an experience may mean sitting in a chair and mindfully internally exploring. “Being with” an experience may include stargazing, listening to music, or sipping tea. “Being with” an experience may involve slamming the car door, holding one’s own hand, baking brownies, or breathing deeply and consciously. “Being with” an experience may invite one to watch thoughts, images, and sensations come and go, come and go, and come and go. “Being with” something may happen through meditation, a hug, a hot bath, or a deep sob.

Use resources as they support and resonate with you. When your nervous system is relaxed, you will be able to more fully access the parts of your brain that will allow for self-awareness, and you will have more capacity to inquire into your thoughts, your images/memories, and the sensations in your body. Using your resources—both internal and external—will allow you to be more present and enjoy life. There is no one way to be a human being- and there is no one way to “just be with” your experience. So be curious, experiment, and play!

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.