I have been a gardener since my younger days. Everyone who toils the soil knows to listen to the earth, the wind, the sun, the animals, the water, and of course, the plant. You become a tenderer and you are tendered back in this relationship. It is dynamic and alive. You can do everything "right" but it still doesn't guarantee the best crop. It is about probabilities and chances along with moon cycles and seasonal changes. There is care given to the young seedling and awe to the maturing blossoms. There is acceptance of each stage of the growing cycle. This includes sacrifice of some plants to creatures who like to nibble on them in the dark. There are choices to be made as preferences select certain edibles over weeds. There is an appreciation for each stage. One learns deeply about impermanence. Gratitude is harvested as vegetables are shared. There is a slowing of time away from the digital clock as one learns to watch the light dance with its shadow. Patience is rewarded by time revealing itself as flowers imbue their fragrance.
What is a pilgrimage?
I’ve done many of the traditional pilgrimages – traveled half way around the world, prostrated with hundred of thousands of others, walked beaten trails up mountain tops, stampeded on roads so small no cars could pass.
A pilgrimage is a journey to the heart of what matters most. As I tarmack across the city by the bay, I stumble along many places of worship. Of course, most of the doors are closed except once a week, but nonetheless, I marvel at the art and architecture and most of all the inspiration that had built such places of gatherings. Are these not places of refuge where one can talk to one’s god(s)? Did I not sit silently countless times finding solace in these empty chambers? And the lights that played across the stained windows?
San Francisco – the city of Saint Francis. The city of churches, temples, places of worship. The city attracts many. There is a port for the ships that travel across the oceans, another port for the airplanes carrying people from all different worldviews. Technology is at a crossroads here. Historically, when people want to pursue dreams that were too liberal for their hometowns, they go west. This is the farthest west the land goes. Many dreams were realized here right by the span of the golden gate bridge. What has this got to do with pilgrimages? Pilgrimages are about dreams. About hopes to be nurtured as well as fear to be understood. Some pilgrims embark on journeys in order to atone for a wrongdoing done. Others pray for a hope to be born.
In the alleys of the city, I walk the streets looking for remnants. I don’t need them to keep…just to remind myself what I want and not want. A thermometer when I can’t figure out my temperature. The sirens scream. I’m just waiting in line for my time, yet I pass my days as though forever is the currency. I make do with little pleasures yet they don’t work…and still I pretend. What will it take to wake me up from my stupor? Another death? A call for a drastic change the soul longs for…where is my destiny? Hiding behind a telephone pole …
God is what? What makes an artist different from a contemplative? Do not both live the beauty of God? As both an artist and a contemplative, I see them as complementing each other, not knowing where one ends and the other begins. When I take photographs, I am more aware of the individuality and uniqueness of creation. There is nothing excluded from beauty. It simply is a point of perspective. I get intoxicated from stumbling into the natural curves of nature. The mystery is present even in technology and I am left speechless…in awe. Sometimes I think that modernity excludes awe, relegating mystery to the religious. I see life as religion. How can I not? When I look into another’s eyes, I can not help but drop my biases and prejudices. Questions vanish and I feel connected. Some may say that I am pre-dispositioned to look at beauty. I am an advocate of learning and I believe everything is learned. I learned and am learning to look and feel and taste and hear and be beauty. It is like sharpening a knife. The more you use it, the sharper it gets. Boredom is not seeing beauty. Not seeing mystery. Not seeing life.
Most wait until their retirement. As a teenager, I read a cartoon of a man who kept saying he’ll do it later…you know until retirement. Except the later kept getting postponed and the last box illustrated him under the ground with a rest in peace sign on top. This made me ponder deeply. Yet, this insight was still blunt and not enough to shake me off my plans. I had a death will when I was 15 years old. My whole life was planned! And if plan A failed, I’ve already made an alternative plan B. Between the planning and over achievement though were the revolutionaries like Emerson and Thoreau who echoed the longings of my heart. The long walks in the desert reminded me of my insignificance and at the same time kept me in touched with the sense of belonging to this grandeur and magnificence of the whole desert. Mesmerized by the magenta and wine colors of dusk, it became clear that there was more to life than the certificates of recognition for academic excellence.
There is a joy that swims in my heart and I enjoy my company. There is this curiousity that pulsates. I am alive. I am no longer ashamed to proclaim that I am a contemplative. Yes, I contemplate the beauty of life. That’s what makes me live. It is my living. Often people asked about how does one make a living? Nowadays, living means work/pay/dollars. It is forgotten that it is about living. We make our living room comfortable so we feel home, who we are when all the masks are down. Living is breathing. Living is full of colors. Living is being alive. What makes you live?
This article addresses relaxation and tension in interpersonal relationship. Relaxation and tension need to be talked about together as they are flip sides of the same coin. Our physiopsychospiritual journey comes down to a common denominator. Are we relaxed or not? A relaxed system experiences itself differently than a stressed system, both in relation to self and to other. It is a matter of degrees: of where we are in the continuum at a given moment, acutely or chronically. Health in its most profound landscape is a system that is relaxed and, thereby, poised to interact without unnecessarily protecting itself.
Human beings are social animals and need social support to be healthy. What happens, though, when foundational social relationships provide more negative experiences than positive ones? How does healing happen when the underlying physiology of relaxation is not a felt experience in the body? How does one reconcile and bring in new learning to a belief, and experience, that social exchange is more costly than supportive?
For the purpose of this article, I am defining tension as a way an individual knows how to support one’s self in times of stress. Many times earlier in life, these coping mechanisms worked to “get the job done”. It may have meant pushing down one’s emotions of fear, anger, despair or/and anxiety. It may have meant experiencing numbness in the inside, while a smile on the outside prevailed. It may have meant “pulling up one’s socks” or “keeping it together” or “”pushing through” or “holding it in”. It may have meant pushing others away through rage and bitterness. In short, the individual learned the ability not to feel pain.
Each emotional state also has a corresponding physiological conglomeration. This may mean the belly is held in tightly while the throat is constricted in an attempt to choke back tears, and, the heart is wrapped a particular way as not to feel its vulnerability. It may mean a heated body. Whatever structures one adopts, they become familiar and habituated to the extent that they feel natural. It really isn’t natural, however. Rather, it is a learned reaction to a situation or/and person, repeated over and over again. It may be the safest and most valued way to hold one’s self: as a child, in order to survive, or, as an adult, in a life threatening situation.
This way of holding may not be the best way to be, yet it is the best that the individual body/mind knows how to do at the present moment. When one is in stress, one holds one’s self a particular way so as not to “fall down” or “fall apart”. The irony of this is that by not "falling into", one actually separates one’s self even more by solidifying one’s structures and becoming denser. This density provides a sense of protection. It is similar to embracing one’s self to keep the self together. The identity of self and other is even more pronounced.
When there is no external support, as with the loving presence of another person, the individual finds other ways to support the self. The effects of a life-long habit of holding in one’s self and not feeling pain, however, have their costs.
When one is physically and safely embraced by another, the accumulated tension of internal bracing can transmute. One can allow the feeling of contraction within the supportive embrace of another. The power of two, instead of one, meets the tension. One feels safer. One can let go of the ability to numb and disassociate. One can feel the heart. By falling into the loving and supportive embrace of another, the tension can release through shaking, rattling, whimpering or sighing.
To be met, held and not demanded to be other than what one is at that moment, translates to being supported in safety. It is not solely an emotional support. It is a physiological relational reality. The parasympathetic nervous system responds. One naturally allows a full breath, because, at that moment, one experiences trust in falling into the web of life where one is held. The individual relates to connection, to the oneness to which we all belong. One embraces and is embraced by the flow of the life force, by its influx of cycles. The feeling of self is of generosity and spaciousness.
A fundamental relational experience of relaxation is essential. Once the experience of support is felt as a basis, one can meander into social exchange as opposition and still be relaxed. Dancing with another force helps us connect with our strength and grace, not just with grit and armoring. The other supports the self in the uniqueness of being. The experience of self as whole is not so easily threatened. Trust is rooted.
The phrase "letting go" is so familiar to hear in psycho-spiritual circles. What does it really mean to let go? Let go from what into what? Why would that be valuable to us? A quick answer is to flourish as human beings. To be well.
As a movement educator, I observe many people who move as though their shoulders are on a coat rack. Bodies look suspended on the air while legs and feet appear to be disjointed from the torso. To simply tell someone to relax often does not simply work because the whole system doesn't know how to hold itself any other way. Ignorance is simply not knowing. It is also true in this case. Relaxation and letting go are visceral learnings, just like learning a language. I've been in movement classes where teachers speak of moving one's ribs and watch students struggle with this leap. To see someone in point A and want them to be in point B without understanding the gap between A and B fails to successfully address learning.
I was a reading specialist many years ago and taught children with different abilities how to decipher letters, put them together in order to read and then to comprehend. There were many steps from actually seeing the letter on paper to learning it multi-modally in the brain to finallly enunciating it with delight and certainty. It wasn't about simply addressing the learning challenge but also skillfully working with the emotional pretzeling around it.This is the similar process for how to relax and let go. To avoid reductionism, let us look at a few different possible ways that a learning is created.
We each have learnt a baseline as what is the comfort zone for breath retention, speed and length. That means the sacrum, the belly, the ribs, the lungs, the jaws, the little toes recognize this pattern as familiar and comfortable. It is associated with a sense of safety. Sometimes safety means not sensing one's body fully or feeling one's emotions to completion. Looking at it from the perspective of attachment and bonding theories, the infant's breath follows the rhythm of the mother's breath. If the mother is chronically anxious and depressed, then the infant uses this as a model for what is possible. True but inaccurate and limited. This becomes the baseline for what is possible within that neuromatrix. It is not about letting go of that "story", but creating and adding another story that encompasses a spectrum that includes wellness that matures. It is a conversation. Alive. This opens up the conversation between the maps etched in the cortex with the input from the periphery of the nervous system. Think brain and skin. They are truly modifiable by experience.
For thousands of years, breath has been a doorway in spiritual technology. Breath has been known to be the link between body and mind. The Satipattana Sutta of the Buddhist speaks directly as a meditation instruction to know for one's self the effects of a short breath on the body-mind and to know the effects of a long breath on the body-mind. In this process, one understands and knows one's self. Yes, breath is somatic. It is also an intersection of what compels us in our lives, often unconsciously.
To go out of this pattern means to learn a new pattern. We are rewiring the nervous and psycho-somatic circuity of the individual. Biofeedback is one modality that addresses specifically the relationship of this neuro-chemical dance with relaxation. This is why it is used with some success in patients with chronic pain. Unfortunately, when someone also has deep unresolved trauma, deeper levels of relaxation triggers the trauma. It is then very important to work with someone skillful about this relationship. I use Neurovascular Integration to support the resetting of the parasympathetic nervous system. Because we live in a culture that has the sympathetic nervous system (stress) turned on most of the time, we need all the help in balancing it with the parasympathetic nervous system (peaceful and powerful).
Chronic pain is biopsychosocial disease and interjecting at any point in the cycle breaks the pattern. A few tangible ways to break the cycle is to be curious, delighted, grateful, feel one's vitality, feel love, see beauty and appreciate a blessing in one's life. By understanding the loop of the physiology with the psychology, one can introduce positive feedback that builds resiliency. What is resiliency and why do we need it? According to positive psychology, resiliency i s 1. the capacity to be realistic, 2. to sense trust and faith, 3. to have the capacity to reinvent one's self, 4. to have the ability to create and maintain a social support system and 5. to have a sense of humour. Resiliency is linked to good health.
Movement and social support are the most important parts of health. Our bodies are hardwired to resolve dangerous situations that trigger the "withdraw, protect, resolve" pattern primarily through movement. Think of a baloon filled with water as opposed to a bottle with water. Our cells, tissues, bodies respond accordingly. Trauma laden tissues are rigid, either in freeze, flight or fight mode. Our tissues need to feel safe to circulate and soften. The body has its own innate intelligence to spontaneously self correct given the right kind of information. A human being that feels safe can truly relax, let go and attend its energy into flourishing.
Opening our hearts can sometimes be so easy. Other times challenging.
Here are a few tips to do when you find yourself collapsing:
1. Place your hand on your belly and actually feel your belly going up and down.
2. Imagine your sternum with your favourite color and it is giving off a glow forward.
3. Move your right shoulder one centimeter back and then one centimeter forward. Do at least three times as though you are moving in honey.
4. Do the same with your left shoulder. Slowly. Gently.
4. Notice the tenderness you feel for yourself. Breathe.
5. Say to yourself, "Thank you my heart."
My name is Kathrina Peterson and I invite you to participate in this forum around awareness and movement. I have been a Buddhist meditator for over 20 years and have been exploring in depth what it means to develop as a human being: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This is my passion, both on a personal and a professional level. I welcome you to share thoughts around what it means to be awake.