Sunday, July 25, 2010

Must Be Present to Win

Out the back and up on the ceiling. That’s how I would leave my body when I got too overwhelmed.

Until I started working with Dana, a somatic counselor, I might not have been able to map my escape route so specifically. I certainly couldn’t have to told you why it was important to map it. I was often perplexed during a session when I’d describe a sudden realization or the release of some old wound, and Dana would ask, “So how did you do that?”

“I don’t know,” I’d think. “I just did.” But eventually, I learned to slow the observation process down. I started to notice other signs that I was going away, like my vision getting a little unfocused. I’d have trouble forming sentences, and I’d feel fuzzy around the edges. I grew to see just how often I dissociated, spending most of my time absent from my own life.

As a survival mechanism, dissociation is brilliant. Your spirit leaves to minimize the impact of trauma, whether a car crash or abuse. The problem comes when you can’t find your way back, even after the situation is over.

This is fundamental to soul retrieval, a powerful form of shamanic healing that works on a spiritual level to bring you back to yourself. It’s no coincidence that after someone did a soul retrieval for me, I felt physically full up – all of me was there for the first time since I was a toddler. My soul was home.

Sometimes, though, it takes the body longer to catch up – our physical forms are slower than our spirits or intellects or emotions. Our bodies may not realize that it’s 2010, so they react like they did in 1994, or 1976. Maybe that more measured pace is why we can’t always hear the wisdom they’re trying to give us. That’s why we need to slow things down. That’s why Dana keeps asking me, “How did you do that?”

Because paying attention to how I come back means I can do it again. More often than not, I start by sitting up, with my feet flat on the floor. I clench and unclench my toes inside my shoes. Sometimes, I ground myself further by naming objects and their colors: red carpet, brown wood, white wall.

I’m not exaggerating when I say the somatic work I’ve done over the last three and half years has been revolutionary. I’m literally showing up in my life in a way I couldn’t before. I’ve discovered that here – in this body, in this room, on this day – is a beautiful place to be. It makes me think of that statement you often see on raffle tickets: “You must be present to win.”

When Emily, Genesis, and I went to Minneapolis for General Assembly last month, we stayed with friends I’ve known for over 20 years. While we were there, one of our hosts had a particularly tough day. She’d felt underprepared for a writing workshop she’d agreed to teach. She’d had to scramble for childcare because her daughter didn’t have summer camp that day. She’d arrived at the gig for her string trio only to open her violin case and discover that her instrument was still sitting on the piano at home. Worst of all, each setback was tangled up in other bigger knots of shame and fear. As a downpour cut the thick midwest humidity, this amazing woman cried as she confessed that she felt like an utter disappointment to all the people around her. Her despair and suffering raged more violently than the thunderstorm outside.

I was completely taken aback. How could this brilliant, beautiful person so thoroughly doubt her own inherent worth? I enfolded her in a gigantic hug and told her that she might’ve had a disappointing day, but that’s just human. She’s far from a disappointment as a friend, and wife, and mother, and writer, and musician, and a million other ways. As the deluge pummeled the house, I put my hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” The phrase felt like it started deep in the earth, coming up through the soles of my feet and hitting her squarely in the chest. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Even as I said it, I knew the only way such a statement was possible was that I believed it about myself. I’d finally spent enough time in my own company – rather than up on the ceiling – to know that I’m not fundamentally flawed. After decades of my own suffering, I finally knew, in my body, that even when I make mistakes or forget to follow through or let people down, I’m whole. No caveats. No asterisks. Just me. Present, and holding the prize.

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the July 25, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

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