Have you ever had a stressful experience and found yourself sort of leaving your body? Maybe your hands and feet go cold, your mind switches to negative self-talk or starts to spin wildly with anger or anxiety about the future? You are not alone! Many if not most of us abandon ourselves in challenging moments and it is really not our fault. So often these neural pathways were formed when we were young and our nervous system was immature and ill-equipped to take in and process strong emotions or energy from our environment. But we can reset our internal habits to stay present to the pain we feel (either physical or emotional) and actually move through it and release it. As week four of our summer meditation series we are exploring practices for self-compassion. Do try this at home!
Step 1 Feel to Heal
In her lovely book, Soul-Centered: Transform your Life in 8 weeks with Meditation, Sarah McLean explains how instinctively we know to hold ourselves in our pain. I recently dropped a potted plant on a finger and as pain shot through my hand and up my arm I grabbed my injured hand and cradled it firmly against my body (while walking around the yard and saying a few choice words.)
Touch and loving attention are natural ways to ride through pain.
Yet often we ignore this instinct and instead develop a habit of avoiding, ignoring or struggling against pain (this is especially true if the pain is emotional.)
But here is the big truth:
Healing involves moving toward pain rather than away from it.
Last week one of my best friends moved to West Texas. The llamas in the photo above are her neighbors now, not me!
When walking through grief or sadness I am consistently surprised at how slow I need to go in order to give myself a chance to really feel the pain as sensations in my body. I noticed this when my Granny passed away a few years ago. I simply had to make space in my daily routine to literally be still as in stop multi-tasking and sit down. Then I would notice my heart and the constriction I felt there and the tears behind my eyes. If I didn’t make space for the sadness it would weigh me down the whole day and come out sideways in irritation over little things.
So last week I made a point to tend to Lynn’s move and honor the energetic footprint of that loss in my own life and body. On the days when I felt sad, I let myself be sad. Tears were often there close to the surface and sometimes they would fall. A couple of times I made it a point to tell Lynn how I was feeling and to name the gift of her friendship in my life. And other days I put some of that emotional energy to work: pouring love into a simple grilled cheese sandwich I made for her and her man, packing kitchen tools and blessing them and their future home, or cleaning my house to give the family a haven of comfort on their final night in town when all their stuff was already in the moving truck.
And while I can still feel the tender spot in my heart and throat as I write about it– I also have been surprised at how good I feel this week. Like the sad guest who had taken residence in my heart has moved out for the time being. She may come back, likely will, but for now I relish the sense of ease I find in having treated her well during her stay.
But what about those moments when strong emotions feel like they will literally overwhelm you? When you feel as if waves are crashing over your head and your throat closes, chest contracts or jaw clenches and you really just want to push all that intensity down and find some relief?
Step 2 Find the Inner Resource
In moments of intense emotion it can be a wonderfully compassionate thing to do to simply remind yourself that you are not the emotion. You can feel it fully and also notice a part of you inside that isn’t feeling that way. So if there is sadness in your heart or tightness in your chest you could simply draw your awareness down to your feet and notice their solid connection to the earth.
Part of what makes dark or hard emotions so scary is that they feel like they take us over, and as we panic and pay them more attention the sensation grows. So it can help to find a part of your body which feels calm and show it some attention and gratitude.
And what if you can’t find an inner resource? What if your whole body feels wrapped up in a strong emotion? Take that as a clue to engage an outer resource to calm yourself and help your nervous system realign. My personal favorite? Taking five minutes outside drinking in fresh air can absorb the extra energy and help me reset. Try these other quick peacefinder activities.
Step 3 Toggle Your Awareness
After you have spent some time noticing and drinking in the support in your feet slowly take your attention back to that overwhelm sensation and just make room for it in your body. Inhale deeply and visualize surrounding the constricted space with breath. Then move your awareness back and forth between the resource, in this case your feet, and the area where you feel constricted. As you toggle between the two you might discover the sensation shifts. This practice literally helps your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system balance and gives your body a chance to process the emotion. Try it the next time you feel at risk of overwhelm.
What is on the meditation menu for week 4?
First off congratulations on being half way through the summer of meditation. Whether you have been doing the practices daily, sporadically or are just reading this blog for the first time today– I really commend you for intentionally tending to your inner life in a culture that tends to ignore it!
This week we continue with the Soul-Centered recommendations including sitting meditation and a new one called “Loving Your Body” meditation which is simply being aware of and relaxing your body from head to toe, from front to back, and from the inside out. After relaxing go on an inner tour of your body and bring loving attention to each area you come across. We are so supported by organs which digest, breathe, and beat without our conscious awareness– offer them your gratitude. Toward the end of your practice give yourself a few minutes to feel where your body begins and ends. This can be a really interesting sensation almost like dancing on your own skin!
Week 4 Summary: Suggested Daily Practices
AM Long, Slow, Deep Breathing: 3 Minutes. Sitting Meditation 12 Minutes
PM Loving Your Body Meditation: 5 Minutes. Sitting Meditation 10 Minutes
And as always please share about your experiences over in the comments section. I read each comment and it makes me so happy to meditate as part of a long distance Bird in Hand community of folks all around the country and world. I’d love to hear from you!