We are at the cusp of Winter, when the longest night meets the shortest day. It may feel very dark indeed, but this moment also marks the precise moment when light finally begins to creep back in. This awareness has brought me to consider how the darkness outside does find a companion in the darkest parts of our Soul, those places that we shy away from because they feel dangerous and scary.
A big part of the way I work with people these days feels like bringing light to those dark places by moving into one’s body and feel what arises from within, not in terms of naming that which comes up, but rather witnessing and becoming aware of the physical sensations. This is not something we are familiar with, especially if and when the sensations are unpleasant. To describe what we feel (and at times even to be aware that we feel something), requires a language that is at best unfamiliar.
On paper it may seem self explanatory to just notice the sensations, but when an unpleasant feeling arises, usually the mind launches into whatever inner story/narrative accompanies this feeling (a few examples would be: "I am not good enough", "I am a looser", "I am unlovable"; all self-representations that have become associated with certain unpleasant feelings as a way to 'explain' or justify them). When this happens you are NOT feeling the sensations, you are thinking them based on old thought patterns. At this point redirect your mind away from the thoughts and back into the body sensations, naming and describing them (it will sound something like: my chest feels tight, there is a knot in my stomach, my left shoulder is tense, I feel breathless and sweaty ...). It will be helpful to breathe into the sensation to allow it to exist. You may even feel the need to cry, shake, panic...just allow that and keep breathing.
The mind will likely seek refuge in the old stories again (after all they came about to avoid feeling the feelings); when this happens just redirect your awareness and breathing to the sensation, trusting that it will leave and observe as it does that, without actively trying to change anything (we cannot will sensations away, we can only witness them as they slowly go). It is important to notice in the end that you have survived the experience and were able to stay with that which was unpleasant and difficult.
Do not get me wrong, this is not easy and, like anything new, it requires practice and patience. Be kind to yourself if at first you seem to be unable to feel anything, or if you go straight back into 'thinking' mode; just allow that to happen. The next time it may be slightly easier. Just know that getting familiar with your inner states is time well spent which will repay you with more presence, self regulation and a sense of belonging into your body.
After a very wet start of the season, as soon as the sun comes out, all life in the fields and the woods becomes frenetic with the lust of high summer. Buzzing insects, blooming flowers, hopping hares, maddening magpies to name but a few of the daily inhabitants of my small corner of Wiltshire, all welcoming the high energies of this time of the year. Paradoxically, all this activity is inspiring me to slow down, right down, to the point where I begin to feel that I can see what lies in between two moments merged into one.
Since coming back from Italy in May, I have become more aware of how strongly each and every one of us follows automatic and repetitive behavioural and thinking patterns which are written in our autonomic nervous system, outside of our conscious awareness. These fixated mechanisms bring us from A to B without any knowledge of any intermediate steps which have been called upon to produce such an effect. For instance, think of the last time you were surprised at flying into a rage because someone had done something, or of when you became aware of a pang of anxiety suddenly catching your breath for no apparent reason. How did you get to the final state of rage or anxiety? What caused the auto-pilot response? The examples are endless, possibly as many as our experiences.
Most of the time these automatisms do not bother us and we simply choose to ignore them. Other times though, we may get the feeling that we are not really in control of our reactions and that we are being taken for a ride by someone else. When this happens it can be a painful and isolating experience, especially if we begin to think that there are multiple parts inside us that are not in communication. We find that we are one short step away from not recognising ourselves anymore, that we have lost connection.
In Italy I have learned that by slowing down and tracking what happens inside our body we can trace the origin of pretty much every over-coupled sensation, behaviour, thought, emotion or image that compound an experience and, by bringing our focused attention to the body's inner language, we can expand our awareness of that experience, thus making sense of it. From the very first moment we came into this world, as babies, we have been responding to the signals and messages from our body, even before being able to understand their meaning, but along the way we have forgotten how to listen and how to observe the cues. This leaves us lost searching for firm ground. "The ego can only be strong enough if it is supported by the wisdom of the body whose messages are directly in touch with the instincts." (M. Woodman)
By creating a new/old dialogue with our body we can begin to build trust and in the messages the body gives us. Tracing the origin of a thought or an emotion via our body sensations, following the subtle movements of energy by tracking images, thoughts and behaviours, we can often reach an understanding, find a new meaning which allows self-regulation and integration of the experience. Integration is always felt as an expansion or a release of energy, at times subtle, other times quite dramatic. With new understanding comes freedom: that which was a fixated pattern becomes now a choice, made knowing what triggers us. It can truly be life changing.
Thinking about a theme for this blog post on a blustering early March day I decided not to go looking too far, but to elaborate on a recent experience that focussed my thoughts in a laser like fashion on what it is that Jung called the shadow.
As part of 'looking after myself' I recently saw a therapist. I will not mention what therapy nor who the practitioner is, but I think it is worth sharing with you that when I left I was feeling both confused and bewildered. True to what I often suggest to my clients (it was time to talk the talk and walk the walk), I chose to stay with how I felt, no matter how uncomfortable. It became progressively clearer to me that the confusion was hiding anger, consternation and a sense of betrayal...this was on the surface, or if you wish, on top of another underlying emotional state that had expressed itself with that fighting back/biting reaction. A deeper and more tender feeling had been triggered during the session: a fear of rejection, a primordial sense of doom originating in childhood had been awoken by a few questions which I thought to be unnecessary in the therapy...or where they?
It was as if, all of a sudden, an internal landscape that I had forgotten or I didn't even know existed had emerged, first in bodily sensations, then in thoughts and reactions, and finally in a coherent memory, connecting the dots. Nothing I can think of in the questions could have been consciously connected with what emerged, but my psyche (the unconscious) knows differently. Somewhere a trigger had found a way to stir something up and that left me shaken and battling with unknown enemies...like a Don Quixote against the Windmills, terrifying in his eyes, a mere glitch in the landscape in the eyes of onlookers. This is the power of triggers...they, in themselves, mean nothing; yet they can make the difference between a pleasant experience and a nightmare.
I learned several things from this experience.
First of all one needs to F E E L S A F E to be able to start exploring deep material. It was not my set intention for the session (it is important to have clarity about what one is seeking out of a treatment) and there was no established relationship with the therapist. To me the whole thing felt a breach of the sacred non-violence principle of therapy. I felt resistance and this is what happens when the therapist has a motive other than to be present and bear witness.
Secondly, to F A C E the S H A D O W that creeps up is the only way not to become a recurrent victim of it. Evoked experiences, whether images, thoughts, feelings, sensations or memories are flashlights onto a 'forgotten' past (personal or intragenerational). The experience comes first, then the need for understanding emerges quite organically if one is driven by curiosity. Had I chosen to distract myself rather than be in the experience, I would have once more buried the memories away, ready for them to pounce on me when least expected, causing similar or stronger reactions which have no connection to the present, but are nonetheless loaded with meaning. To know that one can safely explore that meaning is the beginning of healing.
Lastly I realised that the way I feel and my ability to recognise what meaning any experiences hold is a result of where I am in my personal healing journey. Only a year ago I would have probably blamed the therapist for making me feel awkward, or a few years previous I would have despised myself for exposing my vulnerability. At each stage of the evolution of our Soul we face our shadow in a different way, until we can finally bear to bring it into the light and clear what pain is holding it firmly in the darkest recesses of one's psyche.