“This is the real work.”—my words to my mother as we sat the dining room table a few nights ago. I felt like I was about to spin out. I’ve been more tired this week and my tasks have become overwhelming. I was getting scared—and when I get scared, my body freezes in place, and my mind tries to run away. But this time, I didn’t want to do either if those things. I’ve been down those roads. I know where they lead.
Some years ago I had a dream in which I was walking in the woods near the house where I grew up. Traveling uphill on an autumn day, I enjoyed the colorful leaves decorating the trees. After a while a car drove slowly past, and it occurred to me to become nervous. Some yards ahead of me, the car stopped, and a man got out and hid behind a tree as if waiting for me. My inner alarm blaring, I turned on my heels intending to flee down the hill. But as I did, I saw a second man step out from behind the first, pointing a gun at him. Already in flight and frightened by what might be done to me, I didn’t stop to examine the scene any further. I fled down the hill and formulated a plan of where I might go to hide. Suddenly, I found myself swamped in cold water and snow. It came up to my waste or higher as I struggled to make my way through and escape the torture that seemed to pursue me.
When I related the dream to my mother at the time, she replied, “Well, you won’t like what I have to say about it.” “What’s that?” I asked, steeling myself for her answer. “What came to me is that you were supposed to witness, and instead, you ran away.” It’s taken me 10 years to figure out how she was right. Of course in a physical showdown, the most preservative thing to do is fight or flee, but this was my subconscious—no physical danger, just the warring of inner demons and gremlins. When you run from those guys, there is no escape. And going hand-to-hand with them is less effective than one might think.
Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Daniel Siegel tells a story in his lectures about what happens when a person is bitten by a dog. Say the dog has its teeth clasped around your hand, your innate response is to pull away from the pain and danger. And the dog’s response is to strengthen its hold on you, clenching its teeth and digging them deeper into your flesh, thereby causing more pain, more danger. But, if you were to relax, and allow your hand to move further into the dog’s mouth—in effect giving your hand to the animal, its gag reflex will kick in and expel your hand from its mouth.
I don’t know if this is true in practice, but the idea, on an emotional level, is sound. That is why, as I stated here last week, I want to embrace my illness—as well as whatever part of me is healthy—and let it all just be as it is. Not that I don’t try to feel good, but that I don’t consume the moments of my life with conspiring or running away. I want to come home to my body, come what may, and know that I am safe here—even if it is painful and scary.
One of the many health practitioners I’ve consulted over the years once told me, “Be in your body. You want your body to be there for you, so you need to be there for it.” It has taken me at least 10 years to understand what that meant (Apparently my learning curve is a nice and gentle decade-long slope!). Now, even when I don’t feel all that good about myself, I remember that the organism that is my body is still beautiful and amazing—like a tree or a flower or so many of the other living things that I respect and cherish just because they are alive. I have spent so long running away from pain, but now I am leaning into it, paying attention, allowing whenever I can, for as long as I can.
And this is the real work I was talking about a few nights ago—being there at the dining room table and saying to myself, “I feel like I’m about to spin out,” and letting that be, without judgment and without trying to change it. These moments of sitting with difficult emotions or thoughts and not acting on them is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. It feels so much easier to start howling, or throwing dishes, or binging on donuts or TV. But I know that if I do any of those things, the second I’m done, those thoughts and feelings will still be there—all the moldier and nastier for my having tried to ignore them. But if I stay with them, or as the Buddhists would have it, offer them a cup of tea, it gets better—maybe not right away and maybe not exactly in the way I think I want it to—but it does get better.