In the Space between Doing and Nondoing

I’ve had so many opportunities lately to contemplate this disease of workaholism that American culture seems to universally encourage through reward, punishment, and covert and overt shaming messages.

Having to compress my schedule a bit recently to make this year’s training and travel goals possible has really brought the issue of doing and overdoing to the forefront. I find the schedule has been heavy at times, but doable, and is definitely easier if I am disciplined in my self care. I’m curious about why I always hover at the edge of the limits of what I can accomplish, instead of comfortably within them.

I also recently spent a week helping out a loved one who was recovering from major surgery, but who still could not comfortably commit to reasonable restrictions, or to intentional rest. Cycles of discomfort, fatigue from overdoing, and then pain and frustration were the norm. It seems that the early messages about work were so internalized and misinterpreted as to make time off, no matter the reason, an extremely uncomfortable, guilt-laden ordeal. And it sounds as if the trend of overdoing continues for this person, now over a month out from surgery.

I’ve struggled mightily with the stigma around my own limited capacity over the years due to my ptsd, and find I continue to question how much is the right amount of doing for me, and still sometimes compare myself to what others appear to be able to do, even though I logically understand this is a meaningless exercise. As I continuously do my own recovery work, I have more and more capacity, and genuine excitement and motivation to be of more service in the world. And as soon as I make a gain in capacity, I seem to immediately fill it up with doing, to the point where I feel just as stretched and stressed as I was at the previous level.

As I complete day 2 of biodynamic cranialsacral training, which is all about healing through being rather than doing, I sit with this question: What is the right amount of doing or activity in my life? How can I know when it is the right amount?

What’s emerging so far is the following:

1) My capacity is going to depend on multiple factors:

  • my living conditions, like the amount of noise, clutter, nature, safety, and comfort my homespace provides
  • the quality of my self care, like sleep, diet, exercise, meditation practice, time in nature, and the ability to say no to what I don’t want to do
  • my support system, or more specifically, the perceived amount and quality of support I have from pets and community resources, as well as other humans
  • my nervous system capacitywhich, as a general functional assessment, is variable, but also fairly reliable and affected by the amount of remaining unresolved traumatic stress. Sometimes I’m going to have a ton of energy, and other times I’m going to feel the need to cut back
  • the type of activity I’m doing matters. Extroverted activities take more energy for me, and introverted activities can be more energizing, as can outdoor and certain healing activities.
  • other factors outside my control, such as illness, and other serious losses or demands on my energy supply

2) And then the million dollar question…where do I actively set the limit on the amount of activity, or specifically, work activity?

  • exhaustion cannot be the upper limit. It is unsustainable and feels shitty to always be just at the edge of collapse. There has to be some capacity left at the end of the day/week/month so massive recovery periods aren’t necessary and random mishaps and pileups of circumstances don’t create deficit conditions that require excessive downtime
  • there’s probably a lower limit, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully experienced it because I frequently can’t stop judging myself for how I spend free time when there’s plenty of it. I think it probably reminds me of the shame of depression-related shutdowns from the past
  • I’d like to be able to use how I feel in the moment as my guide, but it’s tricky because of the delayed response. It has to be a continuous checking process, keeping in mind the previous weeks’ energy expenditures, and the commitments in the next day, week, month, and months ahead
  • Less self-judgment is probably helpful, cuz let’s face it, when is self-judgment ever helpful? It just mucks things up and gets in the way
  • in the end, it seems to keep coming back to a question – where is the motivation for the doing coming from? Is it emerging from the discomfort of just being? Is it compulsive doing to avoid silence or truth? Is it coming from the addiction to ego gratification? Is it learned and taken for granted as truth? Is it who I think I am, or who I am trying to be or not be?

I had the idea recently that rather than committing to staying below capacity as a rule, that I could try intentionally scheduling some ideal weeks (just right – easy peasy), and practicing being conscious and present to whatever discomfort arises, both in the saying no, and in the slowing down and having more time and feeling better. It would be an experiment.

I am also getting a real understanding, for the first time in my life, of what it means to have boundaries with self. It’s the kind of self-discipline that feels firmly rooted in positive self-regard. Self-discipline always seemed like such a downer idea to me in the past; an image of hard work and thankless drudgery. Now it’s starting to feel like safety, and a solid home base to operate from! What a surprise! The care for self makes all the difference. I think this will likely be true for this whole exploration…more self-love will only make it all easier. The alternative, overriding and exhaustion, is really just self-violence.

I’d love to hear about YOUR experiment around levels of doing and nondoing…drop me a line!

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Dairy Fairy Tales

For some people, dairy is a diet staple. My husband, for instance, probably doesn’t go a day without it. There are governmental dietary recommendations calling it a major food group, and health food claims from warm, fuzzy cow ads promoting its friendliness as a food.

One of my most recent experiments has been to seriously take dairy out of my diet. I have noticed for my whole life the stuffy nose, swollen eyes, itchy skin, headache, brain fog, annoying cough, belly pain, reflux and reduced transit time whenever I consume dairy. As if this weren’t enough (and it wasn’t, because I still ate it!), I also have long suspected mood alterations, i.e.: startlingly severe depression, weeping, and lethargy related to my dairy consumption.

I had a chance to test out this theory by strictly avoiding dairy for the last 6 months, when some of my inflammation markers from recent blood tests kept coming back high in recent years, appearing like I’m still eating gluten, even though I’ve become sort of a pro at strict gluten avoidance, having had about 15 yrs worth of practice. Then I relaxed the dairy avoidance to have an anniversary dinner last Saturday night. One night. Not whole hog. Just sprinkles of feta on my salad, a little bit of parmesan on the pasta, a little bit of cream in the coffee. And what happened was quite startling.

The next day, I was exhausted. Felt like the worst hangover in over a decade. So tired I literally could not get up off the couch until after 3pm. And weepy and weird for the rest of the day; every tiny thing, or really nothing, basically sent me into tears or nearly so. I felt illogically lonely and depressed. It took about 36 hours to regain some sense of normalcy. I think about how familiar this experience has been my entire life, and how it fades away whenever I avoid dairy (I’ve already been avoiding gluten for a long time, and things did get better, but not completely. I just kept eating dairy and putting up with the random feelings of unwellness, vaguely aware of the probable cause.)

Psychiatrists who have discovered this dairy-mental health link are starting to write about it, and it’s kind of mind blowing. It makes me wonder how many of my clients who cannot get satisfying results from their anti-depressants may be having this reaction to dairy, or to gluten, or both. I have experienced it from both. It’s a stupefyingly random feeling of chronic and intense mood instability that seems without cause.

Having experienced this instability and the relief that dairy and gluten avoidance brings, I frequently think it could be a game-changer for many of my clients. It is so dramatic it defies description. Not many want to consider such a change. When it was first suggested to me in my 20s I was adamant. Give up bread and ice cream? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! I had to become ill, depressed, choking on my own phlegm, gasping for air, and trying to override fatigue to do my running workouts, before I started to seriously wonder what was going on.

I know it’s rough to first encounter the idea of dietary restrictions, but people do it every day. Diabetics do it. People with anaphylactic peanut and other allergies do it. HH the Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying he avoids milk because it doesn’t like him. Lactose intolerant people manage avoidance just f. There’s been plenty of press for decades about the lack of evidence for dairy as health food, and plenty of evidence of the dangers. More recently:

Here’s a Mark Hyman writeup about dairy and health.

Here’s an article with good references about depression and allergy links.

Here’s another short article about it.

Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s take on diet and depression. And there are plenty of other psychiatrists taking notice of this phenomenon.

This is not a thing that is easy to do in the beginning, avoiding dairy and gluten. But if you try it (4 days to a week is probably sufficient to tell whether you feel different) and discover your mood and energy improve, it sure is a lot easier to work with the deprivation feelings than constant pervasive darkness of chronic depression and anxiety caused by gluten and dairy intolerance. The deprivation feelings are real, and can be easily worked with. And no, this is not a substitute for addressing trauma, but it can be the difference between being able to get up and go to work in the morning, and not. There’s so much more help and information out there now than when I was starting out.

Other bright spots in the journey that included times where I wandered around the kitchen bawling and hungry: I learned how to cook, and started to read food labels. Until then I had no idea how much chemical crap I had been ingesting. The gluten free prepared foods were so awful at that time, I was determined to have safe food that tasted good. I learned how to appreciate, and then developed a taste for, real honest-to-goodness food. Stuff we were meant to eat. Gardening grew out of that, and then an increased feeling of connection to the earth and concern for the care of it came even more into focus. I am a more whole person than I ever was, since learning I must avoid dairy and gluten.

It’s not that difficult a task when it feels this darn good.

 

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Not Knowing

I write this, humbled, having failed in my commitment to weekly posts. I hope to make them up to you this week, and share everything I’ve been learning in the whirlwind that has been the past few weeks.

One thing that has made writing difficult recently is that I am reading Kathryn Schulz’ book Being Wrong. It’s made me hesitant to be certain of anything I might want to recommend to others, or even for myself. It’s made me wonder about things I have ever recommended to anyone in the past. It leaves me wanting to be more thoughtful about the way I talk about things, and reconsidering the purpose and value of everything I share.

“Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing – that inner sensation that something just is…” and we, by virtue of the need for reference points to function as human beings, cannot ever believe that our knowing does not match up to reality. There is the logical necessity, captured by what she calls the Cuz It’s True Constraint, of thinking that our beliefs are grounded in the facts, not to mention the egoic and socially constructed aversions to wrongness and error that equate it with incompetence at best or evil, at worst. Many experiments have been conducted to test this rule (actually called the First Person Constraint on Doxastic Explanation) and the descriptions of the results are mindblowing. I highly recommend the book, or at least watch the TED talk.

In Being Wrong, Schulz convincingly explains why knowledge is “a bankrupt category and that the feeling of knowing is not a reliable indicator of accuracy.” I’ll be getting to the hopeful parts of the book soon in my reading, that explain how uncertainty and being wrong is intimately connected to creativity, imagination, and connection.

I have to admit, that I, in theory, already had the understanding of the lack of an absolute truth before reading this book, and recent political and world events have further challenged my  understanding and created a lot of discomfort. This book is ripping away any last vestiges of sacred ground of ‘knowing’ I have been operating from. I have to admit that it’s possible that everything I think I know or will ever think I know, is likely to sooner or later be shifted or changed or abandoned as just plain wrong.

One of the most recent examples of this is having to do with something called exposure therapy. In my professional career I first thought it was good logical theory, then came to believe it was stupid, cruel and retraumatizing practice, and now in a recent training, it’s been reframed and I’m learning ways to tailor it that could make it incredibly effective and powerful tool. I am at once incredulous and sheepishly curious. How can something I was so certainly against, be actually valuable? Can anything ever be certain again?

Upon this new discovery, I notice the drama queen that is egoic consciousness having a fit and wanting to say, “Screw it, then. If nothing is real, who cares? What’s the point of doing anything, then, if I can’t know anything for certain, and it’s probably going to be wrong and embarrass me later? How can I ever know the right way to help anyone?”

And there’s another part, the small still voice, that says, “You do the best you can. Hold all of your beliefs lightly. Be gentle with others and yourself, and never assume you really know. Be with yourself and others in appreciating every moment of the journey exactly as it is.” And the more I contemplate this way of being, the more I can feel the softening of my armor, and the greater ease toward self and the world that feels like the inevitable result. If I can never know, then everything becomes possible – a wide open world of wonder.

It’s interesting how we always think we know – the way I thought I knew what it means to rest in groundlessness, free of assumption or the constraints of conceptualization – and then discover what it really means, after the rug is pulled out from under me. I rest in the great relief of this new understanding, and try to hold it lightly, knowing there will eventually be another, wider understanding that makes this one later seem rudimentary and obtuse.

For now, I will enjoy this new experience of gentleness, of tenderness, of sudden softness toward everything, and both notice how long my heart has yearned for this understanding, and marvel at the strange and wonderful way it was finally revealed.

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The Price of Awakening: Total Acceptance

I’m starting to notice that I’m losing the will to rush around and cram my days too full. I literally cannot summon it, bribe or threaten it into action.

I just noticed something about this recently in a different way than I’ve ever thought or felt about self care in the past…it seems like trying to resist the reality of needing transition time, recovery time, adequate travel time, or ignoring any of my needs, really, is just aversion to what is. So is working too much, skimping on self-care, staying up too late, and eating things that make me feel lousy. I already knew this, but something suddenly became completely obvious:

The lack of self care is actually self violence. 

It struck me as I was thinking about the transition time I scheduled at the beginning and end of an upcoming trip out of state that I’m making for training. I have always tended to think of the day before and after as “optional” or as something I know I desperately want but is not valid because others don’t need or take so much time (likely faulty assumption).

There’s always some good excuse available to ignore my needs – someone else needs something, it’s not “normal”, financial pressure, it takes too long, it’s not fun, what others might think, or “I’ll never get enought done this way” thoughts. And none of these things really matters in the face of the obvious. Needs aren’t negotiable. They just are.

The simplicity of this movement toward alignment with reality is a relief. It is also fierce, uncompromising, and beyond my control. I cannot unknow it or override it. Welcome to continuous awakening.

 

 

 

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Concrete

I puzzle at the heaviness in my gut, the pinchedness of my heart, my paralyzed limbs, and compose theories of cause: overwork or wrong path or scary disease, and then I remember,

I visited the abyss again, reaching for the warmth and comfort that somehow seems natural to expect from that place, the place I came from – but it was empty, and told me so, yet again, in no uncertain terms, and left me gasping, aghast, spiraling into numbness.

I signal my body to go, and search for the energy that moves me toward work, loved ones, food, movement, but it is blocked by grief. I cannot seem to go any faster or expend any unnecessary energy.

I cannot whip the body into submission, so giving up my agenda for a moment, I move in closer to inspect: where is the deadness inside and what exactly does it feel like in my body?

It is a dry, silent moan in my throat, a hollow ache in my heart, concrete in my gut, that cannot move or produce sound or tears. Then I hear the wisdoms I keep delivering to others about self compassion and realize I need them myself. I slow my pace further and try to soften toward the alarming lack of energy I feel.

I offer words of comfort to myself, hand on broken heart, and climb the stairs to dress, with my still heavy body. I put on running clothes, too warm for this weather, but wanting the comfort of extra covering. I instinctivley know I need time to be outside, in some way.

I step out into the back yard and hesitate as I see the wet pavement, but She pulls me down. I lay down face first on the cold ground. I can feel the warmth of Pachamama even through the cold concrete, and I soak her in. The sun warms my back as it moves in and out of clouds.

It feels so good, better than I could ever have imagined to be plastered to the cold concrete, like a child laying face first in the lap of her mother. The roughness and cold of the pavement doesn’t seem a problem for my bare legs, the strip of exposed belly, or my face.

She takes me in her arms and I ask Her to take the burden of my heaviness from me, as my tears drop onto the pavement and She soaks each one in. I ask Her to be my mother, and She says She already is. I feel into the truth of it, discovering it there already, inside of me.

I lay there for awhile and She listens to me cry, and I can feel Her stroke my hair and chirp softly to me that it’s ok as I press my cheeks and wet eyes into Her paved breast.

As I lie there, the burden eventually somehow feels foreign, no longer mine and I feel it being pulled from me and absorbed into the earth, fertilizer for new growth. I can smell the early spring smells and the wet earth.

I thank Her and beg for the blessing of energy to run, putting my left hand out palm down on the pavement to receive her gift. Barely a moment later I feel it, the lightness of a burden lifted, and She says, go! Run, Sprite!

I lay there a bit longer as the image and feeling of lightness dance there in my brain and body, listening to the rustling of birds at work in the bushes, and finally, I rise and stretch.

As I prepare to head out, I pause to give another moment of care, hand on heart, to deliver another dose of the love of…who? The Universe? Pachamama? God? At once I realize what has been missing.

I wonder, have I ever really loved myself? I wonder if I could even do that, and what would it look like? I can barely believe it as I realize my own love for myself has been absent.

I check for a moment to see if I can do it, love myself. I close my eyes and imagine the love coming from myself, delivered to myself through the hand on my heart, and there it is – I can feel it – a little spark, the hint of pure self love. Satisfied, surprised, and planning to explore it more later, I hop out the door to run.

 

 

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Nothing Special

I’m reminded by the current difficulty I find bubbling up in myself now, that I sure don’t want anyone to get the idea that I never have any rough times or that I or anyone somehow reaches a point where there are no more troubling emotions or reactions.

Though I’ve done an awful lot of my own trauma work, I still have days when I’m just exhausted and think about leaving my job behind and buying a farm, or hiding out and just writing for the rest of my life.

I still encounter periods when I feel down/low energy/unmotivated for no apparent reason.

I still have moments where I realize a loss at another level, and find I must take some time to grieve that new piece of realization.

I still frequently feel the overwhelm of too much to do, the loneliness of times with less connection, or the sting of jealousy or inadequacy.

I still have times when I wonder if I will ever really be done working on my trauma, and at the same time knowing that this journey will relentlessly continue revealing me to myself without regard for my preferences or questions.

I have to admit, though, it’s different to experience these things from where I sit now, as opposed to where I was just a few years ago. Now I can be curious to see what happens if I drop the story, and be with all the other parts of the the experience. Now I can hold the discomfort and challenge the urgency that says “I can’t stand it!” and “I want to do something about this NOW!”, while offering comfort and compassion for myself in the discomfort. Not trying to hide in meditation or satsang recordings.

I can journal about what I’m experiencing…and see where I’ve been a few pages ago for perspective. I can notice my shared human struggle with impermanence, and with the desire to “be something” and how it causes me to feel miserable, and the concept of non duality. I can be curious about the origins of this latest drama – “is it live, or is it Memorex” stirred up in my body from a time long past? I can sit and be curious about everything I’m witnessing…the struggle within, the struggle in the world…wanting to act and not knowing how…deep peace somehow somewhere underlying it all.

And so I keep fumbling forward in the grittiness of it all. Even in the midst of doubt, sadness, or pain, I keep taking in the irony of this sense of groundlessness simultaneous with the sensation of the solid ground of Mother Earth under my feet. And I call the newfound, not so pretty, ability to do all of this…power. Everyone has the seed of this power just waiting to be watered…with mindfulness, with trauma work, and with a little  bit of grace.

 

 

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Who’s Got Your Back?

We’re often good at picking on ourselves. We try not to to pick on others, or at least feel bad when we do, because that is something we have been conditioned to pay attention to. We’re told to “be nice”, and “say you’re sorry” from a fairly young age.

It’s rare for someone to ever tell us to treat ourselves this way. By the time we finally hear it from someone, it’s hard to take in, because we’ve had so much practice with scolding ourselves. It makes sense to some part of us that we are human just like everyone else, but there’s a part of us that cannot allow positive self-regard, mistakenly believing that if we do treat ourselves kindly, there’s no end of trouble that will automatically follow.

We can practice loving-kindness meditations, or actively work to challenge the inner critic – difficult to do at first, but immensely helpful.

Another tactic for getting a sense of what that kind of support could do for us is to imagine having our own personal cheering squad. Who would be included? You can put anyone on your cheering squad…God, movie stars, family, mentors, teachers, superheroes, your grandmother, best friend, dog, etc.

If you notice, the cheerleaders at sporting events are closely following the game, cheering every positive move, and offering hope and encouragement when the going gets rough. They aren’t criticizing the errors or belaboring the poor choices. They’re not encouraging bad behavior or advising the team to give up and go home.

I bet no one on your cheering squad would tell YOU to give up, either. Nor would they be abusive or tell you that you should have done better. Can you imagine what their cheering might sound like for your every little victory? Can you imagine how they might support you during rough times, encouraging you to take it slow during the hard parts and really do your best without beating yourself up? Can you visualize the whole group of people who would love for you to be happy and succeed?

Can you imagine how you might feel today if you’d had this kind of support all the time your whole life (minus the criticism)? What if you always knew you had the benefit of the doubt, that everyone knew you were always doing the best you could, that you’d already registered the ‘ouch’ of your error and learned from it and didn’t need it pointed out? Can you imagine what that might feel like? I mean it – imagine it right now, and feel it in your body. Or, in any given moment, you could check in…what would they be saying?

If you have trouble with this idea, then you may want to inquire about what is blocking your ability to have positive self-regard. Friendly regard for ourselves is important, because without it, we’ll likely sabotage our efforts toward success and not even realize it. This is not letting ourselves run wild and abandon responsibility. It’s support for our successes and our challenges that makes both those things easier to take in.

The origins of this self-regard difficulty are complex and culturally constructed. There may be some way the overfunctioning critic gives us the illusion of safety. It sometimes requires assistance to inquire more deeply into that, because we may be touching into traumatic material. We don’t have to do it alone, and it’s often better not to. Listen to your cheering squad. They know a thing or two about that.

 

 

 

 

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