As we begin a new year with new, or renewed, commitments to better our lives, let’s examine some very basic strategies that move us toward a deeper healing of our lives.
Our response to suffering can be motivated by a desire to stop the immediate pain and discomfort or it can lead us to explore the ultimate roots of the suffering with an eye toward ending the cycle of suffering. This second path requires us to learn skills that help us stay with our suffering long enough to explore it.
This requires us to create an intimate awareness of our mind and body. The state of our body and the content of our unconscious thoughts are, at any given moment, our most immediate sources of information.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were feeling happy, free and open and then someone entered the room and for some reason you immediately shut down? Your body contracts and you begin to feel closed off, angry or protective? This is a vivid example of the messages our body sends about the states to our internal and external worlds.
Remember that underneath all of our activity and doing is an ongoing narration of our internal world. Most of the time we are completely unaware of these thoughts. Learn to tune in. You will be shocked to find the fearful, angry, critical, dark tone of the narrative. The more stressed we are, the darker, louder and stickier these thoughts become and the more power they have to drive the brain chemistry, and therefore our experience, in a corresponding direction.
So this is how we create awareness of what is happening. The next mind-body skill is to learn to move from sympathetic to parasympathetic functioning.
It is our sympathetic nervous system that motivates us to move away from pain. This is basically our fight-flight-freeze response. It is sending the message, “HERE IS DANGER! MAKE IT STOP!” It motivates us to take whatever strategies are at our disposal to stop the suffering. Most of us are wired for and default to one of the three strategies. Some people fight or argue, often vehemently defending their position or attacking the other person. Some people shut down or move away from the source of pain. Other people freeze. Not knowing exactly what to say or do they freeze, hoping that the situation will just resolve on its own.
I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with any of these strategies when we are faced with physical threats. They each play an important role in our survival.
But we are working with a new skill now. We don’t actually want the pain to just stop in the moment. We want to extend it slightly so that we can examine it, to explore it, to see our part in it so that we might more clearly understand how to move us toward deeper healing rather than the temporary ending of the immediate pain.
Once we have learned the skill of recognizing what is happening in our mind and body; once we become aware that we are moving into the unconscious patterns to protect ourselves that originate in our sympathetic nervous system, we can then make a conscious choice to do something different.
And here we use the unbelievably simple tool of breathing. Deep, conscious breathing brings us back into the present moment, deactivates the sympathetic nervous system and moves us back into the part of our mind and body that can explore the underlying mechanisms that perpetuate our suffering and the suffering of others.
Why did this particular thing activate me? In what way do my thoughts about this thing lead me to despair or delusion? What parts of this situation are my responsibility and what things belong to others? Are parts of my past being triggered that, in reality, have nothing to do with the present moment? What action, if any, is most likely to lead to long-term healing rather than short-term band-aids?
For more exploration of this topic, come join us for our Balanced Empathy Workshop on January 24. To register, or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org