I’ve been flatlining for months – exhausted, crawling into bed at 2pm each day, wondering where all my energy has gone. I listen to the news and it’s full of vitriol and hate. Bombs. Shootings. More hate. I can hardly listen without going into a sort of trauma response. And so I turn off the radio, close the shutters on my heart, afraid to take any of it in, lest it take me down.
And then yesterday, in the dentist chair, the dam broke.
It’s not unusual for me to cry at the dentist. Something about lying on your back, mouth splayed, strangers peering inside with metal tools. I can’t think of anything more vulnerable.
“I’m sorry I keep crying,” I told the dentist. “You can do your work. It’s just really vulnerable to be in this chair. I can steel myself and try not to feel it, or drug myself out of it, but here it is.”
“I’m exactly the same as you when I have to get work done,” she replied and handed me a Kleenex and a blanket. Then she asked me if I wanted Cat Stevens or Krishna Das on the stereo. (It’s Berkeley after all!)
It was almost 2 hours in the chair- a lot of drilling and numbing and cotton, the smell of burning god knows what… fists clenched. This is suffering I thought. And I remembered the practice I learned from Kristin Neff. First, you recognize the moment as a moment of suffering. (This is suffering) Then you remind yourself that suffering is a part of life. That everyone suffers. (You haven’t done anything wrong, nor are you being punished) And in that moment you become connected to the suffering of others. You become connected to an entire human race that suffers each and every day. This is not meant to bring you down. It’s a reminder of our shared humanity. And for me, in that moment, it was a reminder of the pain in our world that I have been trying to keep at arms’s length.
Sometimes allowing a little crack in the armor- to allow ourselves to feel – also means feeling so many more layers. This might be why we avoid it. We numb ourselves with screens and work, alcohol and weed, Facebook and Instagram, busy busy. Because if we even felt into the edges of our grief, it might unleash something unmanageable, like a tidal wave of pain that we would never recover from.
This is the fear. But it’s not how it works.
There is a great story that Frank Ostaseski shared on my podcast. He is the buddhist teacher who created Zen Hospice and mentors caregivers in offering compassionate end of life care. He also wrote one of my favorite books – The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. Frank was once giving a talk on the topic of moving toward what’s difficult and a man in the audience remarked, “It’s like telephone poles!” Confused, Frank asked him to explain:
I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Telephone poles? What do you mean?” I asked.
He explained that he once had a job installing telephone poles. “They’re hard and heavy, standing up to forty feet high.” There was a critical moment after you placed a pole in the ground, he said, when a pole was unstable and might topple over. “If it hit you, it could break your back.”
His first day on the job, the man turned to his partner and said, “If this pole starts to fall, I’m running like hell.”
But the old-timer replied, “Nope, you don’t want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it. You want to get real close and put your hands on the pole. It’s the only safe place to be.”
It’s counter-intuitive, but moving toward what’s difficult, being willing to feel it, is in the end the only safe place to go.
Yesterday, I had an impromptu session with my friend Laurel Bleadon-Maffei. I mentioned the synagogue in Pittsburgh and the floodgates of tears opened. “What’s the feeling inside the grief?” she asked. I thought for a moment. “Like we’re outnumbered,” I replied. “Like there is too much hate, ignorance and unconsciousness for us to stand a chance.”
This is the place of despair I’d been trying to avoid. A kind of collapse. Defeat is a familiar place for me to go. It’s hard for me to find my fight.
I’ve been doing EMDR lately. If you’ve ever experienced it, you probably know a bit about its magic. It’s a way to work with traumatic events, anxiety and other issues with the most astounding transformational effects. With the therapist I’ve been working with, I hold two small buzzers (one in each palm) that alternately vibrate in a soothing and rhythmic way. This stimulates both sides of the brain and (I believe) allows you to process more three-dimensionally.
During one of my sessions a few weeks ago, I placed myself in a scene from my childhood that was particularly charged. I watched the scene as I held these little buzzers in my hands. After a few minutes, my body began to jerk in a way I couldn’t control. “My body keeps jerking!” I said to the therapist, a little alarmed. “See what it’s trying to tell you,” she replied.
My shoulders moved forward and my chest caved in over and over again. Then I heard the words in my mind… “This is recoiling. It’s fear, disgust, terror.” I sat with it while tears streamed down my cheeks. Then something extraordinary happened.
An enormous woman with wings swooped down, like a goddess or an angel or a Renaissance painting. “Oh my god,” I said aloud. “The feminine just came in.” I don’t normally express myself this way. I rarely talk about the sacred feminine or have even fully understood the concept until this moment. But this was her.
In the vision, she wrapped my little girl self in a blanket, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve got you.” Then she took her gigantic hand and pointed at the person I was with who had created all that terror in me. “NO!” she boomed.
One word. No. And she carried me away.
I was stunned. And opened my eyes. “I felt her Andrea,” the therapist said. “She filled this entire room.”
I can’t remember why I am telling you all of this. Perhaps because we are all suffering as a collective, we are afraid, feeling vulnerable, trapped in a world that doesn’t feel kind or charitable. We are in our own kind of recoiling – in disgust, fear and horror.
And maybe that’s what’s needed right now. That fierce, powerful feminine to come in for us as a collective whole. To gather us up, look us in the eyes and say, I’ve got you. To point a finger to the oppressor and say “No. No more.”
We also need the sacred masculine, defined here as:
Each of us carries within us aspects of both the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine. The true masculine is characterized by confidence without arrogance; rational thinking without a need to control; honor without a desire for war. It provides stability, strength, and courage in an ever-shifting world.
Through all these experiences – the dentists chair, talking with my friend, the EMDR – I am learning that when we open to our discomfort in a conscious way, it has the opportunity to move, to shape-shift, to instruct.
We discover resources we didn’t know we had.
We can move from flat-line mode to feeling alive again.
Creative solutions arise that would otherwise not have found a way in.
Maybe this is the best we can do right now. To show up fully and consciously for what we are all facing. To practice this kind of moving toward what hurts… not to collapse in defeat, but with the fierce love and nurture of the feminine alongside the stable strength and confidence of the sacred masculine.