June 13, 2011

The Journey of Self-Compassion

The greatest lesson I am practicing, the one that is most challenging, is to release and make space. This sounds quite abstract and "very Californian" but I believe the freedom will be worth the journey. To give an example, quite often I feel as though my brain is a constricted muscle, holding so desperately on to an idea, an ideal. My thinking moves into an obsessive sequence of what's and if's. Lately I've been asking myself, what if I release these thinking, thinking, thinking schemes and made space for what is? For some reason I often engage in this internal dialogue on my mile-long walk to BART and frequently recognize new and undiscovered nuances of the neighborhood when I become aware of what is around me instead of the stories inside of me.

I believe that these internal stories create anxiety. As I learn to relax my brain, I start to notice how noisy other people's brains are in their externalized internal dialogue. This is evident in their actions and reactions. Sometimes other people's noise is too loud and I have to walk away. In my Year of Balance I have become exceptionally private. With this quiet I am also making space for more thoughtful and engaging interactions with my friends and family. This is the "being present" space that is now available with releasing the brain muscle.

As I have been practicing yoga with Vickie Russell Bell, she has been challenging me to to move into a pose by releasing instead of pushing. For most of my life I've believed that to move towards an intention you have to work hard. Actually, the hard work is letting go of the push. What could I let go of, right now, to ease into the direction I want to go? What am I clenching to "do my work" - is it my jaw, my stomach or perhaps a thought spiral? What if I didn't hold on so hard to that muscle or idea? That's when I release my clenched brain or muscle, even just 10%, and experience spaciousness. Suddenly there is the possibility of reaching my intention because room has been made to move.

Yoga is about moving in two opposite directions at the same time, a concept I am just now beginning to recognize. In the Downward Dog pose you direct your finger knuckles, wrists, and lower arms forward while moving the upper arms and shoulder blades backwards. This dual-direction action happens throughout your body to create elongation and the possibility of space. As one part of your body releases, so does another. For instance, Vickie asked us to notice how when we clench our jaws we also clench our hips. We create our own ecosystems of interconnected weather patterns with one area of our bodies pulling from another to tie us up into stormy knots. Ever notice how little kids are so flexible? I believe it is because they haven't begun that dialogue of the brain creating stories and the body tightening up in an effort to conform to constrictive thinking. As we mature, we constrict.

The most challenging un-constriction is to allow your heart to be open when we are told to toughen up, deal with it and be an adult. In relationships - family, friends, colleagues, we do just that as we navigate through the waters of emotional tides. That's exactly where our brains and bodies become constricted, often out of necessity. How vulnerable to be pulled into swirling eddies and getting stuck, with an exit only possible when you desperately paddle back into the flowing river, away from the obstruction. Frankly, I believe many people just stay in the eddy, completely resigned to the situation. Perhaps that is easier as it is familiar, but at the same time life passes them by as they are swept into the same emotional circle, over and over.

How do you release yourself from an eddy? For me, I notice that I get to a breaking point of total frustration and then an "aha!" moment happens and I see an exit. This usually takes several months or even years to recognize. Being able to have that recognition moment requires spaciousness - allowing yourself to release muscles and thinking patterns. The only way I have been able to do this is to explore what small mini-change I can make as the first step, allow for the space to open-up, and to celebrate the recognition of movement like a ripple in the water that expands ever-outward.

So it is with keeping an open heart when dealing with difficult situations. My inclination is to get mad and shut down, which always results in more damage to myself and others. But what if, just if, I open up and make space to recognize what is occurring in the situation? What if I can be with the tide, not judging, not thinking, just receiving and letting it flow through me instead of getting stuck in my brain's  sticky cobweb of thoughts or hold on to it with Velcroed muscles?

My practice is to keep my heart, mind and body open, to be vulnerable to be invulnerable. For me this is the journey of self-compassion.