We are addicted to our stories. The thoughts come in and take us away on their magic carpet promise of arriving in a land of certainty, where the vulnerability and pain of life can’t touch us. We learn early to climb aboard this carpet because, as young people, we usually don’t know how to manage the big feelings of life. Big feelings coursing through a little body are only manageable when that body is being held in the arms of a loving, solid caregiver who can transmit the message, “You’re okay. It’s okay. I’ve got you. It’s a big feeling but it won’t hurt you. Let it come. Be loud. I’m here.” Most of us, sadly, receive a vastly different message, often from day one.
We become so adept at climbing aboard the magic carpet of thoughts and stories that it becomes a habit, a neural-pattern in your brain that feels automatic. Yet when we start to practice a reflective practice like mindfulness or journaling, we learn that, subtle and quiet as it may seem, we actually do have a choice-point: we can climb on the carpet and tumble into that familiar realm of anxiety or we can turn toward another, undiscovered pathway.
Whereas the thought pathway is well-trodden, the new pathway is wild and overgrown. We don’t know what creatures live in the tall grasses, which is why it’s so scary to enter. It’s a psychological truth that we would rather remain miserable yet in the realm of the familiar than venture into the unknown. As the famous family therapist, Virginia Satir, is quoted to have said, “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” This is important to know, especially when we fall into the mindset that the thoughts take over like a relentless bully over which we have no choice. Most people, when they’re honest, share with me that they’re aware that they have a choice – they can see the fear-path and they can see something else – but that they often choose to get on the train of thought that will inevitably lead to anxiety. What’s important here is the recognition of choice so that we don’t fall into the victim mindset.
What happens when we choose the path less traveled? What signposts line that path? You might find a signpost that says TRUST (it’s all okay). You might see one that says GRATITUDE (that reminds you to focus on what’s present and working instead of what’s absent and not working). You might stumble upon the simple yet all-powerful signpost that says LOVE (love is stronger than fear). And you might see a sign that says GRIEF (an invitation to drop down into body-space and be willing to feel what lives there).
When I’m working with clients, a defining moment in the session is when they’re able to shift from head-space to body-space. There’s a palpable shift in the air between us, a change in the atmosphere in the room. Sometimes, when the talking stops, it’s filled with silence. Sometimes tears come. These aren’t the tears of despair (“I’m so tired of feeling anxious”) but tears of raw and beautiful grief. It’s like a warm breath-wind has come to embrace my client, and in that potent silence or pure sadness, the anxious energy of thoughts falls away. It’s like a rainstorm on a hot day.
Once the thought is neutralized, it’s as if we’ve entered a sea where time stands still. The waters are warm and calm. The moon is near. It’s the realm of the Great Mother, where softness surrounds. An old thought-pattern dissolve. A layer of intergenerational pain falls away. We are held in this sea, open and allowing the mysterious element of healing to enter. It’s effortless now. The striving ceases. There’s the sense that no matter what is happening on the level of story, it’s all okay.
It’s not just grief that neutralizes thought. Any time we can drop down out of the familiar pattern of mind-chatter and sink into the softness of body, we enter calm seas. And when we don’t take time to slow down and reflect, to cycle into the inner realms and become curious about what we find there, the inner realm will find us: through intrusive thoughts, anxiety, overwhelm, self-doubt, waking up at the witching hour (2-4am). Think of the child who doesn’t get her emotional needs met, who isn’t seen and heard because her caregivers haven’t worked beyond their own stuck places and so parent from their deficits, and is awakened in the middle of the night with a nightmare. Maybe then she’ll find comfort in half-asleep arms. Maybe not. We have that child within and we need to attend daily so that he doesn’t have to scream out to get our attention.
The chatter is a defense against the grief, which we resist because we don’t know that it won’t hurt us. We resist the grief because we have somatic memories that tell us that we can’t handle the pain. As Alice Miller writes in The Drama of the Gifted Child, “She needs a constant thrill to keep boredom at bay; not even one moment of quiet can be permitted during which the burning loneliness of her childhood experience might be felt, for she fears that feeling more than death. She will continue in her fight unless she learns that the awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.”
The answers aren’t in your head. They’re in the undiscovered place inside, the well of Self that can only be accessed when you stop and find the courage to take your own hand and listen with kindness and curiosity to what needs to be felt and heard.