On the west coast of Canada, we just experienced an historic “double bomb storm”. Twenty hours of 50 km/h winds, crashing waves, severe downpours, power outages, downed trees all caused by the lowest central pressure system ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest. As I write today, it’s still raining and blowing and I still have the candles and flashlights handy. I’m on alert.
And it reminded me of a client from last year who described bracing herself for big waves of emotions rushing in at her – panic and fear – and losing her sense of herself. She was on constant alert. She would feel her body stiffen and her mind starts spinning, leaving her immobilized, unable to remember what’s really important to her and unable to choose her next step. “It’s like I don’t have anything solid to stand on.”
The Impulse to Turn Away from Big Emotions
It is an instinct to run when you sense danger. Your built-in flight instinct is activated when there’s a potential physical threat, but also when there’s a threat to our emotional landscape. When a wave of emotional pain is approaching, or even has the possibility of approaching, it urges you to turn your back and run for cover.
While it may be actually leaving the scene, it may also look like escaping into alcohol or entertainment to numb your emotions. Eating or shopping to outrun something inside of you. Withdrawing into your shell. Procrastinating about doing things that require you to slow down, things for your well-being, because they may create enough space for painful emotions to come in.
So, we’re stuck in reactive mode. We’re constantly scanning for safety and ready to run as quick and far as we can. And that means we’re unable to be present to what’s really happening and connect to what’s really important to us.
This fear of facing fear is a tyrant. It has us standing on the decks of our ships with rigid legs, locked knees and jaws, tight bellies and wide eyes, alert to any emotion we believe will knock us down and toss us overboard. As my client said, “I just don’t want to feel that fear again. Anything but that.”
And yet, avoiding the pain only causes other, prolonged pain – the pain of not being fully engaged in this precious life, authentically ourselves, choosing what’s important to us and expressing who we are in this world.
I've read that the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the human body and brain is about 90 seconds. If we open to it, it flows through in 90 seconds. If we resist it, the turmoil can last hours, days or weeks. And so, you might like to ask yourself, what would it look like for me to stand on deck and bend to the waves and wind for 90 seconds? And what would that make possible for me?
This was the focus of this woman’s coaching program, finding her unique way of staying present, standing steady and allowing her emotions to be felt. She dearly wanted to be able to stay true to herself when she was feeling less sturdy. And over those few months, what became possible for her was a new way of connecting to her inner self during both stormy and fair weather. In our last meeting, she said, “Who I really am is my anchor and it’s always right here.”
Practices for Staying
To stand on deck and face a big wave, we must develop our captain’s stance. A stance that is solid and yet springy. An attitude of “standing with” instead of bracing, clenching and dreading.
We can cultivate our stance by undertaking small daily practices that strengthen our balance and flexibility. Build the ability to ride out the rising, peaking and subsiding of the wave, staying intact and true to yourself. We practice on our regular days in calm seas so that we can call upon these “muscles” when a wave actually swells before us.
Here are some suggestions for you to choose from:
· Notice your Standing Posture
Begin with a few cleansing breaths. Look at your feet and check that they are parallel, shoulder-width apart, with toes pointing neither outwards or inwards. Let your knees be slightly bent and soft, not locked. Check the tilt of your pelvis. Start by placing one hand in the small of your back and one on your lower abdomen. Tuck the buttocks under and tilt your pelvis forward. Your shoulders should be loose and relaxed. Your hands hang down from the shoulders by the sides of the body. Create length in the back of the neck and tuck the chin in very slightly. Stay in this position and allow your body to register and remember this posture.
· Work with breath
Begin by sitting tall, feeling your sit bones pressing firmly into your chair and feet on the floor, spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Place one hand over your heart and one on your belly and notice your breath as it is in this moment. Feel the rise and fall of the chest and belly with each breath in and each breath out. Feel the sensation of your hands against your body, as breath flows in, peaks and flows out. Keep the focus on the rise and fall, being with each in-breath for its full duration and with each out-breath for its full duration, as if riding the waves of your own breathing.
· Strengthen your ability to regain your balance
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Take at least 30 seconds to breathe gently and connect with the space around your heart. Lunge back with one foot to a comfortable position. Trusting your foundation, sway from side to side and back and forth. Allow your body to go slightly off balance and then return to equilibrium. Let your arms move instinctually as a counterbalance as you explore the space around you. After one minute, return to the standing position. Switch sides and repeat. When you’re done, take a few moments to linger in your balanced standing position and take a few gentle breaths into the space around your heart. And then step into the rest of your day.
Daily practices are essential to effect permanent change. Not just thinking about the change we are making but engaging in a physical action that supports our new way of being. We cannot change without bringing our bodies along; our bodies must contain our new way of being.
A Blessing for You, the Captain of your Ship
There is no change without discomfort, no growth without challenge.
There is no perfectly calm voyage.
And so, with grace, may we turn and face our emotional storms.
You are not lost. You are here. At your helm.
Your emotional pain will not destroy you.
It yearns to teach you something, a fleeting messenger.
So, stand with your steady legs. Open the front door of your heart to this tenacious emotion.
What gift is it bringing you?
Whether it makes sense or not, whether you can see it clearly or not,
take that wisdom into your center.
Allow it to become part of you and shape you going forward.
And then gratitude.
For the learning.
For the waves of challenges, failures and successes.
For the ancestors and angels that stand beside you and the life force that pulses through your veins.
For the north star within you.
With you on the journey,