why practice?

In the gray dim of a pre-dawn workday and still groggy from sleep, I was travelling along a main highway with a large number of only what I can assume were regular commuters who try to beat the morning traffic rush by leaving home at the crack of stupid.

 

path through the woods

 

 

With my once-strong eyesight now becoming as temperamental as my body’s thermostat that goes from chilled to tropical moments in a heartbeat, I wasn’t overly concerned when my car headlights appeared slightly dimmer on the asphalt in front me. I chalked it up to my sleepy middle-aged eyes not making the visual transition with the dawn’s light.

But writing this off soon turned to a mild panic when my interior lights began to fade as well right before my headlights faded altogether.

I talked myself off my reactive panic ledge by saying “just calmly put on your blinker to get over to the right shoulder” as everything around me became less visible. That would have been stellar advice if my blinkers were actually working. That meant my four-way flashers were useless, too.  Now can I panic?  This gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘blind spot’.

As cars and large transport trucks whizzed by me, probably cursing the moron with the remarkable bedhead driving in the dark without her lights on, my momentary reaction was “my car is dead and so am I. There is no hope”.  Way to stay calm in a crisis, Danette!

 

wrong way

 

My accelerator did nothing to increase my speed but since I’d been hovering around the speed limit, I decided that I had enough momentum to get over to the side if I waited in the middle lane until the two lanes to my right were completely free of cars coming from behind me. Oh yes, this plan is flawless!

But then an oddly peaceful inner voice became clear. I realized that I could only control a minor portion of this situation.

 

 

“Do what is in front of you and let go of the outcome.”

autumn moment

 

The time pressure to get to my side-of-the-road destination before my car rolled to stop in the middle lane kept trying to incite the inner calm to riot. Those few moments felt like a bottomless pit of slow-motion moments.

With a deep breath, I drew myself back to the inner voice who was saying “Shoulder-check and wait. Mirrors and wait. Shoulder-check, clear now slowly move one lane”. I repeated this for many more moments until I got the far right lane and then I rolled the car onto the shoulder of the road. When I felt I was far enough over to be safe from the passing traffic, I hit the brakes.

Once the ignition was turned off and my shaking hands and voice had called for a tow truck, my short breath and trembling body revealed how much more panicked my body was than my mind had even let on.

There’s nothing like a full mind-body-engaging experience to get the two doing a tag-team wake-up call.  While the body responded to some deep breathing, the brain began tucking away all sorts of wacky thoughts for me to develop into full-fledged manic stories later on.  Even now, I have a short anxious mind-movie that plays in my head whenever I drive past the very spot on the highway where I had this experience.

Beyond the fear factor and the ensuing stories to uncover about how close I came to shuffling off this mortal coil, I do sort of know what an alternator does and have never been more impressed with the important task it performs.  So that’s good.

 

But I also learned that my practices of meditation, yoga, deep breathing and uncovering my old and new stories are now an integral part of my resilient responsive repertoire in the face of crisis and panic.  

old church

Hmmm.  Maybe that’s all I need to know.

no chance of rain

 

You know that rare, unexpected moment when you look around you and notice that there are no major crises swallowing up your attention? You know the kind of event that seemingly hijacks your life and derails even your daily plans?  None.

In that rare moment, even if you’re experiencing some confusion, minor loss, life dis-order or chronic busyness, the things you’re facing apparently do not qualify for the master list of significant life stressors so should be more or less manageable according to the creators of the master list.

Quite recently, I realized that over a few weeks surrounded by the unremarkable stress of being a living, breathing conscious person, I became increasingly agitated.   And as my general uber-vigilant disposition was not picking up any external signs of an intense struggle to engage or an insurmountable obstacle to overcome, it seemed that I needed to create some concrete struggle internally.

Suddenly my own arbitrary deadlines rose to commandment status with the added pressure of “someone will be waiting on me for this”.  In my own gospel, Never Leave Anyone Waiting is the second commandment after Do Everything Correctly and followed by Everything Matters. My inclination to set regular goals and write lists became a firm attachment to perfectly imagined outcomes followed by an out-of-balance disappointment when they were not realized. My growing acceptance of “this is the way life is” was recklessly abandoned on the meditation cushion with my settled breathing and mind. Slow, mindful movements were replaced with jittery legs and fidgety fingers. Sleep was rest-less and stillness disappeared.

Remember, there was no genuine crisis. Bounty was all around me.  Relationships, life’s work, passions and creative outlets were all within much more-than-rich and satisfying range. Life, as they say, was and is good.

SAM_2124

On a clear, breezy day with no clouds or chances of rain, am I addicted to the chaos of panic and pressure? Do I need to create drama where there is none in order to feel engaged, relevant and meaningful? Does dis-ease become my default position especially when things are going well?

I don’t know.  Now comes the sitting and listening with a curiosity for what comes up and with no predetermined outcome.  If panic asks to take over, I’ll re-read “the “3 steps to pacify the panic” blog I wrote a few years ago and get un-stuck (again!) from this familiar place.

May your summer be full of self-accepting moments where you never give up on the places where you get repeatedly stuck!

 

 

 

 

little discomforts

 

In three seasons out of four, I most often read and write under an espresso-brown fleece throw in my overstuffed living-room chair. Especially on the chilly days, I even have a space heater at my feet as the winter wind whips around the bare branches of the tree right outside my window.  Inside, my home is dressed in a warm palette, with textured and inviting fabrics, round edges, fresh flowers and candles waiting to be lit in most rooms.

 

ingredients: novel, chair, pillow, sunlight

 

My place is a pillowed sanctuary from the occasionally-harsh conditions of the world for an introvert and one with more than her fair share of sensitivities. Too much light, noise, extreme temperatures, too many demands, stress, drama or chaos can all have me diving under the fleece for a reprieve.  Can you say ‘high maintenance’?

While having this place of serenity has been my sanity saving grace on many occasions, I’ve recently discovered that I may also be using it as a form of self-medication. Not only to soothe my weary psyche after a long workday but to also wrap myself in a cocoon of self-talk about why it is unnecessary to indulge in anything that makes me feel bad.  Uncomfortable.

 

Most recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve become quite elegant at avoiding the following:

  • Beginning a task with a long-term deadline where progress is not quickly noticeable.
  • Initiating a conversation with someone involving me asking directly for what I want.
  • Allowing myself to fully express a hard, vulnerable feeling even when I’m alone.

 

Because of my well-developed verbal reasoning skills, I’m able to convince myself that I’ve been through enough stress through the working day so when I get home, I don’t want to deal with more drama. I simply want the comfort that is due me.

The problem with this approach is that the challenges I avoid only appear to disappear like a parent does to a toddler when his pudgy little hands are covering his eyes in a game of peekaboo.

 

Peekaboo!

 

So where do the hard things go? According to my bodywork therapist, I have a few holding points for them in my shoulders and lower back that are asking for my attention often.

Beneath the layer of avoidance of uncomfortable things, there is a deep river of grief and fear. Not having to wade into those waters is so much easier if I choose instead to focus on procrastination, choose solitude over relationships and talking myself out of feeling feelings even though I’m standing hip-deep in them. Grief and fear. The Big Discomforts.

 

River Clare Water Cascade

 

Since storing unprocessed emotional material in my body’s cells is hardly a positive long-term solution, it seems that engaging in little discomforts might be a start. Breaking it down into manageable chunks. Looking beneath the surface irritation, panic, procrastination, the avoidance and the desire to cocoon for a glimpse at the dark flowing waters below.

This week, I began by allowing some little moments of uncomfortable, raw, exposed vulnerability in the safety of my sanctuary.  Without trying to self-soothe and negotiate an express trip through the process.  As unnerving as it is to begin, initiate and feel deeply, little by little, I’ve found surprisingly, they don’t consume. Under the panic, grief and fear are feelings. Just feelings. Feelings asking to be felt instead of hidden away as muscle aches and pains, physical tightness and exhaustion.

They exist whether I give them room to breathe or not.  But what could be released, opened and nourished as a result of opening the door to little discomforts?  Capacity to sit with The Big Discomforts?

I guess I’ll see.  Little by little.

 

3 steps to pacify the panic

As a young student, I quite enjoyed going to school. Despite my social awkwardness (and maybe because of it), I was able to achieve relative academic success especially in tasks that allowed me to work alone. I had never considered myself slow to process information but I do recall that the subject where my comprehension was the lowest and slowest was the one that coincidentally caused the most personal panic. Math! Ugh!

Math seemed much more like a foreign language to me than French ever did and, for some reason, Math had the added element of time pressure.

 

Pen en papier / Pen and paper

I can still recall sitting round-shouldered over my math facts sheet and gripping my pencil too firmly with sweaty fingers while a humourless teacher/ drill sargeant strutted through the room with stopwatch and counting down the time remaining. I’d quite literally freeze. Letting my head fall on my desk, I’d be numb, barely breathing until the litany of stories about why I was stuck began. “I’m stupid”. “I can’t learn Math”. “He is a terrible teacher.” And the downward cycle of fear and failure was in full gear leading nowhere fast.

This past week, I wasn’t working on math but in the process of breaking old patterns, learning new skills and some self-imposed due dates and deadlines, I was suddenly back in 7th grade at my desk writing a Math test. I did not enjoy being thirteen years old the first time so was not about to re-live that age of adolescent angst as a, for the most part, high-functioning adult. But ever-so-subtly, the disquieting panic began building until it developed into the full-fledged discomfort of a houseguest that would not leave!

After a few days in a deep-freeze of panic, I decided to warm my icy nerves with three steps to begin the thawing process and move me from overwhelmed to okay. Perhaps these steps will help others who are prone to panic when their time seems to be running out.

1. Observe Your Body

Observing takes a commitment to being still. Even with deadlines looming and the expectations of others in the balance, noticing where the panic is settling in your body will not be clear in the midst of fussing and fidgeting. While indulging in activities intended to numb or distract, your awareness to your body’s sensations is in slumber-mode. Sit comfortably and do a slow, simple body-scan. Begin at the top of your head and move downwards. Where are you tight? Where is there discomfort? For me it’s a deep buzzing sensation in my solar plexus. It’s a constant heavy hum that makes taking a deep calming breath challenging.

2. Breathe To Your Capacity

This breathing exercise works best when you are lying on your back stretched out. If you feel that you don’t have time for this exercise, check to see how much time has become unproductive or lost to the frozen-feet syndrome. Once on your back, you may feel a temporary increase in heart rate or a feeling of being exposed. This is common. Breathe as naturally as possible to give your body, mind and breath a chance to settle.

      • Place your hands on your lower abdomen with middle fingers on either side of your navel. Breathing slowly and evenly through your nose, fill your belly with air, allowing your lower abdomen to rise and separate your middle fingers from each other. Exhale slowly and evenly through your nose, allowing your belly to collapse and your middle fingers to come back closer together. Do this for three full breaths. Return to natural breathing.

 

      • Next, place your hands at the base of your rib cage with the webbing between your thumb and first finger on your side body. Thumbs will point toward your back and fingers will be on the front of your abdomen. Using the same method of nose breathing, inhale slowly and evenly until your ribs expand sideways allowing your side body to rise into the webbing between your thumbs and first fingers. Do this three times deeply then return to natural breathing.

 

      • Third, place pads of your fingers directly below your collarbone and find the tender spots between your collarbone and uppermost part of your rib cage. Using the same method of breathing, inhale slowly and evenly to fill your abdomen all the way up to your finger tips. Work to see if you can cause your fingertips to rise slightly with your breath. Repeat three times deeply then return to a regular breathing pattern.

 

If you feel comfortable with this process, the next step would be to do draw the breath to all three places in one breath starting with the lower abdomen, to the side body, then to the upper chest. But even simply doing the first step of three deep breaths in each area brings me immediately to a state of calm. And being calm is necessary for the next step to pacifying the panic.

3.  Prove-Proof Your Space

I once read a book by Anne Lamott who was giving advice to writers whose tendency to self-edit resulted in low productivity. She suggested putting the “voices” that make up your inner critic in a mason jar and screwing the lid on tightly until the task at hand is completed. Choose any voice that is asking you to prove your worth to them. These voices may be clearly attached to a person, past or present, or may be a collective voice of all those who caused you to question your value. If it helps, keep an actual jar in front of you as a token of your determination to quiet the panic that comes from constantly trying to prove yourself.

This week, after I noticed the jackhammer hum in my solar plexus, the telltale sign for me that panic wants to keep me stuck, I did the three-part breathing exercise then I jarred the voice of my inner critic. Since then, the fuzzy-headed feeling has dissipated, the spiral of negative thinking has ceased and the frozen feet have thawed.  And for the moment, I am unstuck.

Meditation

This has become my standard practice and you may find that one or more of the steps works for you. Or maybe you have your own methods. Do tell!

How do you pacify your panic?