Befriending the Fearful Parts

Today is barrels of fun as I’m dealing with the potential for severe weather as well as the ongoing pandemic. Right after learning about the upcoming weather events, someone posted “tips” for dealing with anxiety on a social media site I visited. What they wrote immediately irritated me as their message was basically “think positive” and “distract yourself.” That approach may work for some people, but, to me, it dishonors the role that parts of myself–the ones with strong emotions–play.

Anxiety is often relegated to the role of a deceptive betrayer, a cowardly enemy or a feminized hysteric in modern culture and modern psychotherapy. I find it unfunny but ironic that many of the exposure and response prevention tasks that people with contamination OCD have had to endure, such as touching a doorknob and not washing one’s hands, fly directly in the face of declarations from the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. in terms of dealing with the pandemic. We have been told to fight our fears, to quell the whispers of obsessive thoughts and to “calm the f*ck” down” when, in reality, the world presents dangers. I find myself deeply questioning the years of training I received in graduate school, wondering how much the “treatment” of anxiety is really a tutelage in social norming in order to not disturb the sheltered peace of the privileged optimists among us.

What relationship can we have, then, with our anxiety that does not trade fighting for subservience and terror? I view it as one of acknowledgment, honorance and the formation of an alliance. If this framing doesn’t work for you, ignore it! I first encountered in during Buddhist practice and immediately knew it was for me, but it may not be the story you need to tell.

To me, getting to know the scared parts of myself is first a practice in realizing there have been and continue to be things that are frightening in the world. I’m not “stupid” or “over-reacting” when I worry. I concentrate on the process of how I worry and thank the parts of self that bring worries to my mind for their care for me. There is a way to worry well or at least to negotiate with worry. I take action based on my fears, action aimed at reducing the likelihood that they will come true as well as methods of building resources if they do. Sometimes, my fears fuel panic-buying, but I’ve grown to trust myself more deeply than I did in the past, so this happens here and there, not with consistency. In short, I prepare for danger, and, in doing so, often fear it less.

I also check in with myself and with my fear to watch the extent to which it is based on concrete reality and the extent to which it is a physical reaction to stress. I find that I actually have the most difficulty with anxiety after a stressor has occurred, when I’ve taken all the practical steps possible and simply am in a state of waiting for resolution. For me, behaviors such as not sleeping or eating poorly can create their own spin-offs of fear that have to be managed by self-care.

Perhaps because I’ve been invalidated for my fears on a non-stop basis, told not to worry, that my worries are unreasonable or that they don’t deserve attention, I’m not good at remembering that, even if the worst happens, I’m not alone. There may or may not be people willing to help or sufficient resources to recover, but, even if safeguards fail me, we are interconnected and each of our lives, in my worldview, are more than a beginning and an end. What would it mean to tell the next person you hear panicking that you will be there for them in whatever way you can if their worries come to fruition, rather than telling them not worry? To have that said to you? I try to do this for my anxious parts, to let them know they aren’t going to be abandoned to fear, that the rest of me will consolidate and bring the resources I have to bear to manage the situation.

Anxiety, even at the “pathological” level I possess of it, isn’t my enemy. It does not deceive me. It isn’t hysterical. It is a biological response that has been preserved in pretty much all animals by the process of evolution to warn us of danger. Humans have the gift of foresight, of anticipating threats before they occur. We can rage against this capacity, deny its presence, numb it or attempt to silence it through invented worlds of positivity, or we can come to know the inner monsters we hold and realize they are frightened children who need love. We can come to know it as a part of us, steady in its reliable angst, and, like all parts, only made whole when it is welcomed into the family of our being.

Attuning to Nature Sounds as a Slow Living Practice

If you have access to a sense of hearing, what sounds come to mind when you think of busyness? What do words like hectic, stressful and crowded bring to mind? I hear cars engines running, a cacophony of harried voices, the smell (wrong sense, I know) of pollution and footsteps stomping down the sidewalk or hallway in a clipped pace.

What do phrases like slowing down, living the simple life, relaxing and spacious stir up? My mind conjures notes of grass blowing in the wind, birds chirping, a stream softly flowing and insects at play on a summer night. I continue to watch live streams of nature scenes from around the world, and, more than the peaceful visuals, I’ve become accustomed to the instant feeling of calm that permeates my body as soon as I hear the accompanying sounds. In particular, the night-time noises from various animal parks in African countries and the rush of waves coming in on Hawaii’s beaches are the most soothing I’ve found.

It is a privilege to be able to enjoy slow living. What we often conceptualize as a simple lifestyle depends on pre-existing wealth or access to funds. I detest tourism to poor areas of the world that revels in the condition of life there as the “cure” to busyness, when, in fact, abject poverty brings its own forms of (often physical) suffering. To be able to be still and to be able to relax into the sounds of that stillness are gifts for which I hope I can be grateful and moments I desire not to squander.

There is nothing that needs to be done or accomplished with the quietness of the natural world. It is ephemeral, broken most often where I live by the machines humans have made. It cannot be stored in quantities and does not hold over from one day to the next. All we can do with it is attend it, open to it, and be in it as fully as the presence it offers us. The pandemic is stripping from me any vestiges of a belief in raw capitalism as a way of life; today I find myself pondering how many billions of dollars humans have spent on products designed to mimic, at maximum expense and minimum function, the enormous wealth that can be found in acts as simple as pacing my breath to the contour of the ocean’s rhythm?

Tips for Coping with Social Distancing Measures

There is evidence of community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 near where I live, and daily life is rapidly changing. Events have been cancelled, my job may be moving to e-learning and social distancing is the buzzword on everyone’s lips. I wanted to share a few ideas I have about how to cope.

Action and acceptance

I wrote about this topic yesterday. In terms of steps to take, what I want to share is to encourage you to take steps to deal with the situation at hand that are measured, within your means and accessible to you. I’ve been stocking up on basics since January, so I’m now in the stage where my anxiety is fueling me to want to purchase, for example, a 3K generator. It can be really difficult to discern between what is rational and what is panic-based; if at all possible, for larger purchases, I try to wait 24 hours before making a final decision.

In terms of acceptance, there may come a point for each of us where we reach the end of our capacity to prepare or to respond to the crisis. I won’t provoke your anxiety by laying out examples as, if you are as skilled at freaking out as I am, your mind has no trouble delivering these to you. This is the place where I think practices of spirituality and faith in humanity have to come to bear. My hope is that something greater than myself will guide me and someone kind will meet me if I arrive at the end of my means. The groundwork for this response, for me, has been years of inner work and (much less successfully) attempts to build a social support network. Each of us might have more at our disposal than our scared inner children let on.

Self-Compassion

Give yourself permission to be only as active as you need to be to maintain your health and responsibilities. I’m seeing a lot of posts about learning a new hobby, finishing the book you were writing or completing a home repair project if you are asked to stay home. Although these suggestions are well-meaning and perfect for people who need to stay busy, they can be overwhelming to those of us with workaholic tendencies who may feel that we are not being as productive as we should be.

I do encourage you to develop a daily schedule with as much time as you are able to devote to self-care and reflection. It is healthy, in my opinion, to pause from time to time to check in with yourself and your loved ones and to see how you are coping. Mindfulness and other practices can help get us out of the past or the future into the present moment.

To the extent that you are able to do so, be present with your emotions. It is okay to feel angry, scared or sadness. I’m struggling with an angry “I told you so” after my concerns as to what was coming were dismissed and mocked by several people IRL. Rather than stuff down what feels like smugness, I’m sitting with it and asking myself how I might respond differently in the future when someone ignores my advice. Our feelings are excellent, in most situations, at helping us identify our underlying needs.

Community Connections

As I shared above, social support is key to making it to the other side of the pandemic in a way that tends to our mental health needs. This is the time to get creative and to find ways to connect with loved ones, even if it has to be through virtual settings. A monthly meeting I enjoy attending has been cancelled, so we are considering hosting it virtually if the quarantine continues next month.

Take a mental headcount of the people in your neighborhood or local community with whom you might partner to meet basic needs. I’m learning about so many agencies that exist on a city and county level that I did not know were there to support the community. If it suits you, determine whether there are ways to support healthcare workers who might be highly affected by this crisis.

What are you doing to cope with social distancing if it has been implemented in your area? If it hasn’t been yet, what can you do to prepare?

The In-Gathering

As I worked through what I need after feeling invisible, experiencing invalidation or simply having a stressful day, I realized my inner world is best honored by ritual. My spirituality is at its deepest when I follow my own natural rhythms. Whenever and wherever, I can honor each part of myself. I invite you to customize the following for your own practice.

Setting the Scene

Create a space for ritual. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, laying out a special cloth, or brewing a cup of tea. It can be creating an elaborate altar or traveling to a place in nature to which you feel called. All that matters is that it is made sacred by your intentional presence.

Begin by centering yourself on your breath. Invite your senses in, one-by-one. If you having trouble focusing, play calming music or listen to nature sounds.

A Safe Place for All

In turn, welcome* each part of self. Some I chose to honor are the vulnerable, the eager, the nurturing, the brave and the wise. You may have other parts that need representation. Allow each to share with you whatever they want to share, without judgement. Ask the other parts to sit back and grant space while each one shares. Parts may make a request of others, which should be held with care.

Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit

After each part has shared, concentrate again on your breath. Inhabit every corner of your body. Listen to your body as a whole and through its systems, observing what it needs. Focus on what it may want to reveal or release.

Allow your emotions to channel and course through your body. Meet each one with a loving embrace. Notice them shift and dance.

Attend to your mental state. Notice the pattern and pace of your thoughts. Observe them come and go.

Finally, turn to your Spirit. Allow it to reveal itself to you through your senses. Touch the moon and sun cycles, the sky, earth, rain and fire and the season. Let nature guide you deeper into your soul.

Symbols of Love

Breath again, and ask of yourself, all of yourself present, what love looks like here and now. To the best of your ability, provide this love to yourself. Note any hesitancy, and then move through it with care. Embrace yourself.

A Closing Prayer

Finalize your ritual by spending time in quiet meditation, honoring yourself for making time to gather yourself whole and to recognize your worth. Incorporate whatever words and movements feel holy in this moment. Be the prayer your soul needs to feel.

*If you are new to inner/self-work and you hold a trauma history, this practice could be destabilizing. I encourage you to first work with a trusted therapist before engaging in this ritual and to take as slow of a pace as needed. Self-care practices such as spending time in nature, running a gentle bath or settling into your breath may be safe places to start to connect with parts of self.

At the Center (Daily Works of Art)

In the last half-year, there has been an internal shift unlike any I can remember experiencing. I’ve started T during this period of time, so I’m certain that coming into alignment with myself as a non-binary person has played role in this change. My image of myself has been transformed as I’ve created my present.

I’m a relationship disaster. I get close to people, building up connection and hoping that “this time” something will stick and it won’t go sideways. Every single time, though, that there is a breach of trust, when I feel betrayed, used or mistreated, my trauma surfaces to an insurmountable level and the whole thing breaks apart. My deep-rooted attachment issues win the day, no matter, it seems, how much I try to will them into the background or how hard I work in therapy to undo them. I get re-traumatized and cut more deeply after every experience. I do not heal and I do not grow in my capacity to love by failing at it. The only beings I’ve ever loved are my dog and myself. Relationships with others matter and I will continue to engage in them, but they do not complete me.

My career is equally unable to give me a sense of fulfilment or meaning, despite the fact that I know what I’m doing is valuable. Every trigger I experience there makes it harder to show up the next day. I wade through it, but I don’t derive my joy or sense of purpose from it.

I care about the human condition and the planet, but I’m not an activist. Even though topics such as human rights stir my passions and I advocate for equity, I am not enough of a True Believer ™ in any cause to dedicate my life to it. I find meaning here, but it is fraught with disappointment and despair to an intensity where it is not enough, on its own, to sustain me.

I’m left, then, with the possible sources that most people turn to for their deepest nourishment a shallow bowl of thin soup. Finally, after twenty years of suicidality and less-than-ness, knowing myself to be a loner, a Not a True Believer ™ and an unmet career potential achiever, I may have hit on why I’m here. This dish is a rich stew, with layers of flavor and body.

My core is my inner world. I know my interior to a level of detail I’ve rarely encountered in others. And yet, I scrub the corridors of my mind and sweep the reaches of my heart and still I uncover things about myself I didn’t know before. And I refuse to see the gift of self-knowledge through the lens of navel-gazing self-absorption. We die alone. Life is coming to that realization and finding a reason to keep living.

I haven’t found my inner world in order to escape there and shut myself off from reality. Instead, my physical experience is at the center of my inner world. I live embodied. No, I’ve found my core because it is the root of my spirituality and creativity. I have something to honor and something to express because, in knowing myself, I find my entryway to the universe. I do not live to romance a perfect love, to make the world a better place or to achieve a capitalist monument to money, fame or innovation. I exist to live present, sacred and as a witness to the present and the sacred.

I’m a nature photograph of only the trees and the mountain. No caption to draw attention to the threats of the future. No human figure outlined as the subject. No metaphor for the accolades I’ve garnered. Only the holy now and the lens to see it.

My way of being is not the best or the singular way through life. I fully support those whose center is the periphery of my image—the happy family camping, the environmentalist chained to the tree, the goal-setter summiting the peak. There is pain in finding my focus, because I think it is trauma more than biology that has led me to it. A life unspoiled as mine was might have a depth I cannot achieve in which everything I’ve described is blended into a harmonious entree. But my point is simply that I have something for which I exist, even if it isn’t typical, appreciated or noticed. I’ve found my purpose. Attempting to compel myself to locate it elsewhere is a distraction from my fundamental source of joy and hope. I’m in this light, of this breath, reflecting divine presence.

Observing an Insect (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

Ants are creatures I most associate with beings that make piles of dirt and which swarm en masse to discarded scraps of food. However, for today’s simple pleasure, I watched ants crawl down an old oak tree. Their tiny-legged journeys inspired me.

At first, I thought the red-hued ant I was watching was solitary, which struck me as odd because ants are known for living in large groups. It eventually traveled in close proximity to another ant and I then saw more. For a while, though, it traveled down the coarse bark on its own adventure. Every scramble forward felt at an impossible angle and I wondered how it was able to cling so adeptly to the wood. The ant wasn’t racing; it meandered. It stopped every so many paces and wiggled its antennae to direct its next motion. Finally, it disappeared into an oaken crevice.

The lessons I took from observing the ant were firstly to pause and “sniff” the air on occasion, by which I mean to check in with myself and my surroundings instead of barreling through the world without reflection. I also marveled at the idea that my journey through life may seem at a certain angle and level of difficulty, but could be viewed entirely differently, were I able to shift my perspective. Finally, I loved the idea of surging into community, greeting others along the way, but also withdrawing into dark and cozy places of rest as needed. What is the last insect you observed? What did it teach you?

Observing the Sun and Moon Cycles (Today’s Simple Pleasures)

In terms of moon cycles, I connect the changes with energy surging outward and then retreating inwards, much as the tide against the shore. The moon is waning today which to me signifies a movement from the manifestation of the full moon towards the inner-directed intentionality of the new moon. I hold fall/autumn in the same phase, as I tend to start to withdraw a bit and cocoon myself more as winter approaches. It’s a good day to make a cup of tea and get cozy.

I learned today there are also solar cycles which last 11 years. Apparently each cycle usually starts off slowly and builds towards a heightened frenzy of sunspots around five to six years in. We are entering the last part of cycle 24, so there is a minimal amount of activity. Sunspots, counter to my intuition, are actually cool areas on the surface of the sun that can be related to “twists” or pent-up magnetic energy that then explodes into a solar flare. Solar flares can impact earth activities such as radio communications. Cycle 24 is predicted to end late this year or early next year, so, for now, all signs are pointing toward a slower, more deliberate pacing of life. How do you connect to moon and sun cycles? To which other cycles in nature do you most relate?

Practicing Deep Breathing (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

When I first started practicing mindfulness meditation at a Buddhist center years ago, I was confused when the person leading the session mentioned the pauses between breaths. It had never occurred to me that there could be a break between an in-breath and an out-breath! My vision for this year has included spending time in awareness of the space between the out-breath and the in-breath, as I think that it is the expansive moment of inflection I most need to allow into my life.

For today’s simple pleasure, I took time to count my breaths. I started with a count of four in, hold, out, hold but quickly became light-headed, so I shifted to four in, hold two, out four, hold two which I found relaxing and calming. I can breathe in and hold my breath for much longer than I can breath out and wait before inhaling. This matches my personality exactly, as I am more on the side of rigidity and withdrawing into myself than I am on loosing and engaging, especially when I am stressed. Breathing is the pace of our life; I desire for my pacing to become more balanced and rounded instead of sharp and drawn. What is your relationship with your breath?

A photograph of a card with a pomegranate drawing, a bronze meditation bowl with a wooden dowel, a small candle and a gray soapstone in the shape of a heart.

Honoring Each Sense (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

For today’s simple pleasure, I decided to create an altar to sensory experiences. Children are often encouraged to attend exhibits or engage with toys that stimulate each of their senses. As we age, I think we can easily become overly-reliant on one or two senses to the detriment of a full exploration of the world. Not only do our senses diminish with age, but we may experience unexpected life circumstances that reduce or eliminate a sense from our experience. Our sensory world is therefore ever-shifting, so I think that finding the sacred in it is a valuable experience.

I focused on visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory (smell) sensations for my altar. I left off gustatory (taste) and more complex brain-body interactions such as our vestibular system (sense of balance).

For my sense of vision, I included a drawing of a pomegranate tree. I liked this inclusion because it represents both vision in the outer world and the inner world of mentalizing required to create drawings. Vision is the sense on which I am over-reliant. I look much more than I listen or feel or taste or anything else. I would much, much rather read a set of instructions rather than have to hear someone explain something to me, because I can consume visual information much more quickly. Even though I view something, do I really see it?

For my sense of hearing, I included a meditation bowl that a friend gifted me. I appreciate that it can be used to create a short, high-pitched chime or, if the wooden dowel is run along the inner brim, to create a longer, deeper note. I would say hearing is a more difficult sense for me as I have a difficult time screening out or modulating any sounds that bother me. I have tinnitus as well which adds to my distress.

In relation to touch, I included a heart-shaped soapstone. It is cold, heavy and smooth, which is a combination of textures that I find calming. I use my sense of touch as a way to self-soothe quite often, and have to be careful about the amount of jewelry I wear as I am constantly playing with any rings or bracelets I have on. My tactile senses are generally a source of pleasure more than annoyance for me because of this.

The final sense I honored with my altar was smell. I included a beeswax candle and lit it as I complied my creation. Along with hearing, smelling is generally more unpleasant than pleasant for me. I hate “people smells” on the whole and become over-stimulated very quickly in perfume sections of stores. In part, I think I am sensitive to chemicals, and, in part, I have an extremely heightened disgust response which is easily triggered by any odors I deem unpleasant. Add in the occasional migraine and a low-smell environment is definitely more my speed. All that said, certain smells like fresh bread or cookies baking are delightful, and gentle scents like my candle refresh me.

The experience of creating my altar led me to re-examine my relationship with my perception of sensory information. So much of the rigidity with which I order my world as well as the anxiety I experience in public settings can be explained by my relationship with each sense. A smelly, loud environment is inevitably going to stress me out, and a visually and texturally-interesting one is going to draw me in. I absolutely loved going to the fabric store as a child, and now I know why! For yourself, to whatever extent you are able to use each sense, which ones bring you pleasure? How does this show up in your life?

Visualizing Inner Divinity (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

I’ve begun sketching a crow for one of my intuitive deck cards that I am designing, so the first image that came to mind when I pulled today’s Simple Pleasure card was that of a crow in flight. I immediately connected the image of a crow with my Inner Divinity as their behavior reflects characteristics I think are worthy of holding sacred. They have a tough exterior that belies their mental strength, and, in this, they represent aspects of the sacred that may be less approachable but which are vital for connection within safe boundaries.

Many corvids, including crows, are intelligent, cunning and discerning. They are able to use tools to solve problems. Crows are inventive and able to adapt to their environment. They may even understand how money works! Crows can also distinguish humans by their faces and remember who is friend or foe.

In certain spiritual groups in which I participated in the past, there was an preference placed on emotions and intuition above the “thinking” mind, or on trusting an external deity rather than one’s own knowing. This de-emphasis on reason and logic never sat well with me, as I think justice and morality require deliberative thought informed by compassion and empathy; a meeting and melding much more than a competition between hard/soft, masculine/feminine, etc. Crows appear intimidating to me when compared to many other birds, but knowing that they bring gifts to people they like and bond with each other for many years helps me integrate the wisdom of the Divine–the need for an integration of the mind and the heart–that I believe they represent.