When my youngest son was 14, I took him to a rather unconventional psychotherapist. (My son had been a “good” boy and good student, but began skipping school and making less than stellar grades, so I became concerned.) The therapist gave the most concise, simple explanation of his “job.” He said that everyone has something down in the “basement” that is hidden and “running the show” behind the scenes.
The therapist told my son that his job as a therapist was to shine a light down in the basement and bring whatever was down there to the surface, so it could be seen, dealt with and we could move on.
This explanation helped my son and me understand the difference between thoughts and behaviors that we consciously choose and those that we reactively play out without knowing why. Those reactive behaviors frequently produce great difficulties and pain for ourselves and others.
Never mind my prior years of frustration and fist-shaking at the sky, questioning why humans are made this way--couldn’t we skip right to consciousness? I worked so hard trying to figure things out and thought I was fairly savvy. Why, then, after hundreds of books and dozens of self-improvement courses and countless hours of fretting later did I keep repeating self-sabotaging patterns, behaviors and challenging relationship dynamics? (Sound familiar?) Why did nearly every one I know do the same? How on earth could I bring all that was down in my dark, dank basement (and there’s a lot down there!) to the light and experience some peace?
More fist-shaking ensued. How? Just show me how! I finally began to get the whole “this is where the rubber meets the road” thing and the difference between theory and practice. I started with baby steps (more manageable that way). I started slowing way, way down and attending--noticing and listening. Sometimes I heard lots and lots of judgment. Thank you for sharing. Then I learned to notice and feel. Do I feel tension anywhere in my body? Do I feel anxious? Do I feel relaxed? How’s my breathing? Do I feel grounded or spacey? Are my thoughts spinning out in all directions, distracting me or am I able to focus on the task at hand? Often, just listening, noticing and feeling--were enough to disrupt the pattern or the story I had been telling myself over and over and over. That doesn’t necessarily make whatever I’m experiencing feel less painful, but it’s a start. I had teachers, therapists, mentors, trusted friends and advisors help me “shine the light” along the way, but things did not begin to shift until I practiced. Pause. Take a breath. Attend. Listen to my body--there’s so much information and wisdom there. Reach out to someone I trust when I’ve hit a road block and I simply can’t see.
I had a Buddhist teacher tell me that we all “wake up” and “fall asleep” a thousand times a day. It is an ongoing practice to wake up, and to offer compassion to ourselves when we fall asleep. There are many paths, teachers, teachings. I have a few that I enjoy. It is up to each of us to discover what works for us.
Most of the time these days, I experience life with ease, joy and great gratitude. However, I still sometimes go “unconscious” and that ease, joy and gratitude fly right out the window. Last winter, I was house-sitting at high elevation and a huge snow storm occurred--several days of wet, heavy snow without cessation. I was alone over Christmas and was popping Hershey’s kisses and watching the news in between hours on end of snow shoveling. By Christmas Eve, I had a melt down. I felt utterly alone and in despair about the happenings in the world. I let myself have a big cry, then called a friend and asked her to just listen. By slowing down and talking out loud, I realized that I was fatigued, I hadn’t nourished my body well, I had isolated myself and I was watchingnothing but the news--rarely an uplifting act. My friend offered a listening ear and tender compassion. I made myself a good meal, asked for help with shoveling, turned off the TV and went to bed. I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed, supported and grateful for the love and beauty in my life.
We wake up. We fall asleep. A thousand times a day.