Resilience Archives - Embodied Living

How many of us at this point during the pandemic are not feeling right? If you’re not feeling like yourself, it can be a strange feeling. But whilst each of us will be experiencing things differently, the common thread may be that we are acting in ways that are not typical.

 

not feeling like yourself
conflict within causes stress

How we might be feeling

We usually think that our sense of self is a constant unified thing. That there should be harmony and unification. But the reality for each of us, to some extent or other, is that of conflict. Who has not had the experience of being in conflict? Perhaps about a decision we have to make, perhaps about a relationship? It’s like a part of us wants something and another part wants the opposite.

 

Parts in conflict

This sense of parts of ourself in conflict is playing out in the world at large. Look at the extremes operating publicly in a liberal country like the US. Whilst Joe Biden calls for calm and civility, that is a big ask for human beings. We are ruled by difference, by polarity. And this plays out in those inner conflicts where we have polarised parts driven to behave in opposite extremes. Part of us wants to ask our friend out for a walk, but another part is being incredibly stubborn about something. We might have all the best intentions to eat better, or lose weight, yet part of us just keeps heading for the couch or reaching for the chocolate.

 

When opposites don’t attract

It’s a well-known aphorism isn’t it: opposites attract. Well, they do until they don’t and mostly they don’t. As human beings we really have a problem with difference. And when that difference is in us we can protect ourselves by becoming blind to it. Of course, our inner critic or internalised bad object may protest quite loudly, but we do our best to silence or ignore it.

 

Reasons for not feeling like yourself

This lack of inner alignment or balance can manifest in well-observed ways in all of us. We may be intellectual not sporty – or vice versa. We may be good at doing, keeping busy, but crumble when we need to sit still. We may be very rational and lack intuition or creativity, or perhaps we are arty and creative and people see us as a little flaky. It may be that we are seen as passive and easy going or we may come across as bossy or domineering. As a man we may be overly masculine and lack a more feminine side and a woman may have overly developed her femininity and deny herself the power of her own masculine side. And then there is the tendency to activity or receptivity. Perhaps we are great at putting others first or helping them, but poor at asking for help ourselves?

 

Polarities within families

We can categorise the polarities in our being into four broad types. Firstly, we are born out of difference. We are the product of a mother and a father. Two different people, two different genders. And then there is the whole realm of difference in the families of our mother and of our father. If both of our parents are balanced and well-integrated as people, in a loving family environment we have a chance, as children, that all parts our self will be seen, accepted and validated.

If you are not feeling like yourself, perhaps you have lost your temper or have been overly critical of your kids. ‘Oh god, I am becoming just like my mother/father’ is not uncommonly heard amongst some of us! Yet, if our parents stay together (or split amicably) and love each other, we can more easily integrate and balance those parts of our parents and our families with which we identify. This means that if we behave in ways that we are not so proud of, we are kinder to ourselves.

 

Family divides

But if our parents hate each other, or parts of each other’s families, we will be in conflict with those aspects of any of them which we recognise in ourselves. This may mean that we feel shame or disgust at our self, or to protect our self from shame, we may project onto others and see those qualities in people around us.

Either way we become split. This can result in a self-propagating cycle of shame where we either withdraw from relationships and have increasing feelings of unworthiness. Or we may become angry or hateful of others.

 

How to begin to feel better

Whilst our culture pretends that difference is not an issue, it also likes to have quick fixes and bulleted lists for self-help! Making deep changes within our self is not easy and neither are self-help suggestions, because we are all different. No two of us will be doing a ‘problem’ in the same way, nor would we have constructed or developed the problem for the same reason.

But here are some considerations for when you are not feeling like yourself.

  1. Awareness matters

The first step is perhaps to begin to develop awareness of these polarities that exist within us, but with a healthy dose of self-compassion. True change only comes from a place of acceptance. Once we accept something within us, that we may well not like, we have a chance of changing it.

 

  1. Practise self-compassion when you’re not feeling like yourself

self-compassion when you're not feeling like yourself
self-compassion

Once we become more aware of conflicting parts within our self, it is important to learn to be kind to our self. Otherwise, greater awareness can simply bring more self-loathing or criticism. For instance, remind yourself that just because your behaviour sometimes reminds you of your mother or father, it does not mean that you are globally like them. You are more than your behaviour. Learn to see the positives in the aspect of yourself that you don’t like. For instance, a tendency to be critical of self or others often has a positive intention of wanting them to be better.

This self-hypnosis on ‘Loving Yourself’ might be nice to practise.

 

 

  1. Talk to someone who loves you

The best antidote for shame, an emotion often at the heart of difference, is to be seen by someone we love. Truly seen. If you can be brave enough to talk about aspects of your behaviour or thoughts that you don’t like, with someone you know believes in you, it can be transformative. To be seen in our shame or disgust, and accepted, helps to discharge it. Loving others may also see things differently – we are usually our own worst judge.

 

  1. Work on your HRV and coherence

Heart rate variability (HRV) is an important measure of coherence. If we can train our system into coherence we are integrating neurological imbalances such as sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and increasing vagal tone.  The neurological and psychological state that this achieves means that we are more resilient to stress and more able to make the changes we want in our life.

 

  1. Integrate your polarities

I believe we are driven to achieve balance and integrate all parts of our self so that we can become whole. All of us, regardless of the difficulties and traumas we have faced in our life, are able to become who we truly are. It is through achieving alignment on all levels of our being that we can move forward in life and be more able to face life’s inevitable challenges. A good psychotherapist can help you on this journey.

 

More reading when you are not feeling like yourself:

More articles on low self-esteem

How are doing ? No really, how are you doing? You may be bewildered about how to cope with the highs and lows of Covid. But one thing is sure as we head into lockdown again: none of us are feeling like ourselves.  I have had so many therapy clients say that to me. And I recognise it myself.

Look around you.  Some of us are quieter, others louder. Some are eating more; others are out running in the icy conditions. Some are being kinder, whilst others seem to be uncharacteristically mean. You might be ranting about how the government is making mistakes because of covid restrictions. I might be meditating myself up my own backside.

 

Defence mechanisms

Ultimately, whatever our way of coping – even if that is unallayed optimism – it won’t work all that well to help us cope with the highs and lows of Covid. We learn coping mechanisms early on in life. These strategies serve us well – they defend us from ‘life threatening’ situations. When we are young, that simply means parental disapproval. So we become the good girl or boy, or the clown, or we get busy. And it works; until it doesn’t. In fact, often our uncharacteristic ways of coping, are our last line of defence, and they only end up causing us more problems. We become so used to keeping our anxieties at bay by staying busy, that when covid strips away all our avenues of choice, we are forced to face painful reality.

 

Even stoicism doesn’t help with the highs and lows of Covid

Stoicism is the haven of many. But even that can create more problems. When its rationalism and objectivity become a defence mechanism, it can end up just being another way to avoid painful emotions.

 

A little help

Children often turn to a transitional object when things get difficult. Did you ever have a comfort blanket or a favourite toy from which you were inseparable? Only to be told by your parents that one day you put it down never to pick up again.

My transitional object, at two years of age, was a china dog. I remember it vividly. I feel my deep abiding love for the inanimate animal. This Christmas my dad saw the exact same dog in a local charity shop and bought it for me. I was so excited. Yet when I opened it, though I was delighted with its beautiful design, I did not get the comfort that my two-year-old clearly did.

 

Comfort in Covid

What can help us cope with the highs and lows of Covid? Give us real comfort and solace in these unprecedented times? We are living with a threat. This elevates our fear, fight, flight response – activates our sympathetic nervous system and causes our parasympathetic response to go offline.

However, this threat is different. It is chronic, persistent, and invisible. It strips us of control and activates a trauma response. Covid-19 is at risk of doing as much damage to our mental health as it is to our physical health. But we can become more resilient.

 

Developing resilience

True resilience is not Pollyanna optimism, or denial. Rather it is developing an ability to face the reality of the situation. As the Covid crisis (and its long tail of mental health problems, job losses, economic upset) is likely to get worse before it gets better. And undertaking activities and practices to help us cope; then we might be able to crawl back, rather than bounce back, to comforting normality.

 

Some ideas to help you cope

We are all different and what works for one of us, won’t suit another. You will know the best ways to cope in difficult times but here are some ideas that have worked for me or others.

  1. Walking (in nature) – we all know walking is good for us. But physical exercise that involves rhythmic movement and connection with the earth helps the body process trauma and helps with anxiety and depression. If we are able to be in nature whilst we walk, we start to benefit from tuning in to a healing frequency that sooths us on a deep level. Healing vibrations carried by the colour green reach into us and can even positively affect our DNA. And plants and trees have a type of consciousness that can touch us, if we let it. A daily walk is an important part of managing the highs and lows of covid.
  2. Yoga – whilst in the west we have deformed yoga into yet more body beautiful fitness regime, real yoga is something very different. It may not even include physical postures (asana) but mantra, chanting, service/work, breathing practices, and meditation. Stepping onto the true path of yoga can bring us closer to our real self and build enduring resilience. It can keep us balanced and uplifted, even as we enter our third lockdown.
  3. Satsang – this is something that we do in any kind of spiritual discipline. It is where we seek out the company of people where we can seek out, talk about and understand the truth. A group of like-minded folks committed to understanding the deeper meanings of life and question reality. Whilst being supported by belonging to a connected tribe.
  4. Cleansing practices – the coronavirus crisis is bringing up a lot of negative energy in the world and in each of us. It can manifest in radical changes in peoples’ behaviours, which can mean we get upset or hurt. Practices to clear out such negative energy can be useful. This might include yogic practices such as the kriyas or burning sage (smudging) or palo santo sticks. Chanting powerful mantras – such as OM or om mani padme hum – are far more effective for clearing the mind than affirmations.  I have been doing a weekly havan during the last 9 months or so. This type of fire ceremony uses thermal energy and sound to purifiy and harmonise the air and ourselves. There are more, but perhaps these are just some to help protect your energy during this crisis.
  5. Helping others – if each of us could commit to helping at least one other during these times it would have a tremendous impact, not just on the wider community, but also on ourselves.
  6. Enjoying a hobby – perhaps you already have something you love doing but haven’t had the time or inclination to do it. Or maybe you have picked up a new interest during this year of covid? Hobbies are a fantastic way to engage with something we love and keep our mind focused. They keep our brains and our selves healthy and can even end up benefiting others anyway.
  7. New channels for connection – keeping connection is probably the most important way, for most of us, to get through the highs and lows of covid. But we may have to be creative in looking into new channels to communicate or stay in connection with others. Zoom is the obvious one. But remember skype, and WhatsApp is fantastic for messaging, phone and video calls. Social media is healthy and positive if used in the right ways.
  8. Animals – whilst I am not advocating adopting a dog during lockdown, there are many ways that we can get animal companionship or inspiration. You could help a friend or family member with their dog (or cat)  – respecting bubbles of course. You could look into the wide variety of furry and non-furry animals that can be terrifically interesting to keep. Looking after something else, and having physical contact (even if they don’t have fur) can enrich your life.

Read more ideas about Coping with the highs and lows of Covid.

What do you do to be less stressed? Before Covid-19, I used to sit around in coffee shops as regularly as possible. I would sit and watch life pass by, think and daydream – and sometimes write. Having thought about why was drawn to do this, I realised it is part of what I call the broad ‘margin’ that I like in my life. To steal a pinch from Thoreau. At its heart, I think it is all about ‘being’. Certainly being less stressed.

Creating margin

So, I ask myself, what do I do now instead to create this kind of margin in my life where I be less stressed? Two things came to mind. During lockdown I found a new hobby. Carving wood. I carve mostly pendants for jewellery and I find it beautifully consuming in a non-thinking way. I have this piece of wood, which I have found (responsibly) storm-fallen in local woods, which I know somewhat intimately. And out of which emerges something miraculous: perhaps an animal, or a symbol.

When I carve, my mind is quiet. Yes, at times the odd difficult thought emerges, but I let it go. The process of being with the natural element, takes me right back to the wood in which I found it. I can smell the trees, hear the sounds of nature and silence around me. Feel engulfed by the wood. I am not stressed in the this place. In walking with no aim in mind in that wood, I sometimes find interesting pieces to work with. In carving, I kind of have an aim, but the carving emerges, and I am not always in control. I enjoy the whole process because I puts me more into a ‘being’ mode than a ‘doing’ mode. This is a less stressful mode.

Too much time doing

I think we spend too much time ‘doing’. In this mode we are active, starting things, under pressure and a bit wired. We are more likely to be stressed. With this in mind, I watched people when I was out and about today. Coming and going, hurrying and queueing. And as I watched them I thought about the yogic concept of the gunas.  I started to notice which guna was predominant in each person. In the West certainly, we have a culture that encourages, rewards, and shapes us for doing. People often have a posture that mirrors a forward moving. go getting, achieving culture: sway back, knees hyperextended, a tense lateral myofascial line that throws the pelvis out of alignment and head hanging forward off the neck.

Existing or being?

People often simply don’t know how to ‘just be’. And their reactions to feeling stressed or overwhelmed is to do more, to keep themselves busy. Almost like if they stopped, they wouldn’t exist anymore. Of course, when they come to therapy, their body and/or their mind have already begun to ‘breakdown’ in some way. So, as I noticed the older lady behind me, who’s impatience I could feel even before she began trying to push in front of me. Or the stressed looks on shoppers faces busily scanning catalogues, or the harassed mum who quickly gulped down her takeaway coffee and was quickly on to the next task at hand. I could see ‘doing’ was written on the somatic structure of peoples’ faces, posture, body.

How can you ‘be’ more?

So I realise that margin and space is so important to me in my life.I can just ‘be’ in that space. So how can you create this type of margin in your own life? Thoreau himself went into the woods. What will you find that works? Let us know by posting in the comments below so that we can all be inspired!

For me this margin IS life. I have space to ‘be’. Of the gunas, Sattvic is light, space, lucidity, harmony. You can’t buy it or earn it by doing more or trying harder. You have to learn to be and let go of some doing and having. Perhaps this is the hardest lesson of all. Animals can be great teachers in this respect. Spend time with a cat, or a dog, or any animal and they will soon start to teach you!

 

Enjoyed reading this? Read more about stress here and happiness here.

In order to help with the symptoms of trauma we need to think of the trauma response as being an accelerator. I often remind my clients that trauma is something our body does. Our body has floored the accelerator pedal (so to speak) and we have forgotten that we even have a brake.

Trauma as undischarged energy

Trauma is our body’s natural response to an unnatural situation. Think of the tiny mouse who gets pounced on by the cat. Suddenly it is trapped in sharp jaws and knows it might die. A huge surge of energy rushes through its body as accelerator hormones are released that pump blood and expand lung capacity. It is like a nuclear bomb went off inside its body. This energy prepares the mouse to flee at the first opportunity (or fight if this was a larger animal). The moment the cat drops the mouse it runs faster than it ever has to survive. And the energy bomb is dissipated. The ‘hyper-arousal’ of trauma has served its purpose.

Fall asleep

Sometimes something else happens. When released from the jaws of hell, the mouse looks like it is dead. The animal feigns death. This is less well known side of the trauma response – ‘to fall asleep’. Many animals do this as a survival mechanism. It lies on the floor completely dead. The cat walks away. But the moment the mouse senses a millimetre of safety, it springs up and races off. However, if you were to watch closer, for longer, at some point you would see the little creature jerk and throw itself around in a strange sort of way. This is the mouse discharging the energy of the trauma response. This discharge means the mouse can get back to its normal life with no lasting after effects from the nuclear bomb which has just gone off inside of it.

Symptoms of undischarged trauma

Humans are often not so fortunate. Our natural instincts can be interrupted by our logic and our higher mind. Practically, this means that we are often left with the symptoms of undischarged trauma in our bodies that stay with us long after the traumatising event. In fact, they may lie dormant, but only until another trauma event triggers this energy again.

Diagram: (Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

This diagram is commonly used to help us understand heightened brain/body reactions during adversity. The dotted lines show a healthy nervous system. This being one which is able to self-regulate and maintain an arousal level (following a difficult event) that is within manageable or normal levels. When we experience trauma, this can induce a heightened energetic response in our system (as described above) and can mean that our ability to self-regulate is compromised. This is more likely to be the case if we have had earlier trauma, including disruptions in our early attachment needs.

 

 

From Hyper to hypo

This response to trauma pushes us into one of two states, which we will inevitably fluctuate between. Hyperarousal (the ‘stuck on’ position) is where our sympathetic nervous system is in charge and is characterised by an excessive energy response. This will present itself in symptoms of anxiety, panic, fear, hypervigilance and emotional flooding. We may feel rage or anger, restless and hyperactive and it will be difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate.

However, human beings cannot maintain this state for too long. Our system takes over and plunges us into the exhausted state of hypo arousal. This is where the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and in particular the dorsal vagal complex of the vagus nerve. Effectively this is the equivalent of the animal’s ‘feign death’ mode. Here we will feel depressed and tired, have more feelings of negativity and worthlessness, feel disoriented and disconnected. A sense of flatness or numbness will take over and we won’t feel like doing anything, we may also sleep a lot. Indeed we may even feel we don’t have a future. We are, in effect, emotionally dead.

Fluctuating between extremes

Again, our bodies won’t let us stay here too long. So we may be driven to risky (even suicidal) behaviour to feel alive again.

What I often find is that people often find one state more intolerable than the other, and therefore have more of a default position of ‘switched on’ or ‘switched off’. It goes without saying that both of these extremes are confusing and disturbing to us, and to those around us. People say ‘I feel like I am going mad’, they feel messed up and long to be normal. It is a chaotic state. Of course, this layer of shame doesn’t help.

Understanding the energetic response

Nevertheless, understanding the science behind this response helps to understand the disturbing nature of these symptoms. It is vital to learn to build resources in our self that will help us to manage the chaotic nature of undischarged trauma. This will help to protect us (and others) from further harm.

Risky behaviour increases with the trauma response

Without learning how to ‘self-regulate’ we will be at risk from taking actions that somehow help us manage these states but cause us more problems. We may take an overdose if we are so frightened by the thought of carrying on with these symptoms. We may smoke or drink more to help alleviate some of the distress, or become addicted to some other process or substance. These are more risky ways of managing the post-traumatic symptoms that lead to more shame, which will only feed the cycle.

Taking refuge in our self

Our body, and unconscious mind, already have all the resources within them to help us self-regulate the trauma response and find safety. By learning, or being reminded about, the resources we have within we can find and apply the brake on trauma. We can learn when to apply the accelerator and when to use the brake to steer our self into safety.

Applying the brake and the accelerator

Whilst there are different techniques to use for the hyper state and the hypo state, there is one that can work well for either. There is a muscle inside the middle of our body, which attaches to the heart via a central tendon, and also links up with the ventral vagal complex of the vagus nerve. In short, this muscle helps to engage the newest branch of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘smart vagus’ – the self-regulation centre. This muscle is the diaphragm, the primary muscle of respiration.

However we cannot just breathe our way out of trauma we have to do it in a very specific way. If we can learn to breathe using the full range (25-30 cm ) of our diaphragm, through our nostrils at a rate of around five breaths a minute (that is a 12 sec breath in and out) we can find a balance point between the brake and the accelerator. For this balance, certainly to begin with, there should be no pauses at the end of the inhalation or exhalation, just a smooth flowing of in-breath into out-breath. Like an undulating wave. It is from here that we can reach coherence and begin to find ‘normal’ again.

A simple practice to achieve coherence and balance

I usually teach my clients to reach this state in a number of steps. But I usually start by teaching them to find and engage with their diaphragm.

The following is a simple practice and the best way to do this:

Listen to a podcast of the practice here.

  1. Lie on the floor on your front with your body in a straight line. (it is important that you lie on a hard surface rather than a bed).
  2. Bend your arms at your elbows and rest your forehead or side of your face on your hands.
  3. Make sure you allow a few moments to get as comfortable as possible here.
  4. Make sure your mouth is closed, lips together, and you are breathing through your nostrils.
  5. Be aware of your body lying on the floor and the contact between your body and the floor.
  6. Become aware of your breathing, and notice your abdomen pushing into the floor as you breathe in. It releases as you breathe out.
  7. Keep your awareness on this feeling of your belly pushing into the floor as you breathe.
  8. After a few minutes, you can start to exaggerate this movement and push your belly even more into the floor by drawing deeper breaths. (if at any point you feel uncomfortable or have dizziness stop for a moment and come back to the practice later).
  9. Continue this practice for as long you can. And repeat every day if possible for a while.

 

Changing default habits

Remember that the trauma response is a habit that our body has gotten into when it is triggered. You can begin to change any pattern if you practice the new resourceful behaviour for a minimum 20 minutes for a minimum of 21 days (I usually say a month, continuously, with Sunday off!). This is like restoring your mobile phone to its factory default settings. You remember to breathe how you were born to breathe. You take the first step at re-connecting with the resources within that are your human heritage as an embodied being.

This article was first published on Counselling Directory.

In yoga we use breathing as a fundamental tool in both posture work and more overtly through the practice of pranyama (breathing practices). There is a way to breathe – known as coherent breathing – where we can synchronise heart rate and even blood flow, with respiration. This process happens when we are breathing slowly and deeply. Specifically, this needs to happen at a rate of 5 breaths/minute (yes that is a 12-second long breath!!). The average person breathes at 15-20 breaths/min (some are at 30 or more!!). This rate of 5 breaths/min brings about emotional and physiological coherence. However, it can only happen if we breathe using our diaphragm.

Unproductive breathing is the human condition

When we don’t breathe coherently we become incoherent (in thought, behavior etc).  For many of us incoherent, unproductive breathing is a lifetime habit, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes dominant. We’re in the realm of fearing, fleeing or fighting. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes redundant. The PNS is the side of our nervous system that induces the ‘relaxation response’. Without a doubt we all have inherent access to this deep internal calm state. However, through unproductive breathing habits our system becomes dysfunctional and is no longer able to counteract the stressed nervous system. This leads to a pretty negative and unpleasant way of being in the world.

Our terrible experience

With sympathetic nervous system dominance, caused by unproductive breathing, we experience:

  • poor circulation (cold hands, feet, tingling, numbness)
  • muscle tightness (particularly trapezius in neck and shoulders)
  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • pain (can lead to chronic pain)
  • increased rate of ageing

And a myriad of other symptoms!

Learn how to breath coherently

We can learn how to breathe coherently. This involves the following:

  1. Diaphragmatic action – the diaphragm is a strong sheet of muscle that sits in the torso separating the abdominal organs from the thoracic cage. It is the most important breathing muscle. It can move in a range of 10 cm. Yet in many people its range may be 1 cm or less. When the diaphragm is used to at least 60% of its capacity in breathing it brings mind and body into balance.
  2. Effect on the Heart – the diaphragm is connected to the heart and its action massages the heart. As much as 65% of heart cells are neural cells, identical to those found in the brain, your heart has thoughts and a ‘mind’! In addition, the heart is a powerful EMF energy generator (the electromagnetic energy that a coherent heart kicks out can be measured up to 15 feet outside of the body!!), and can affect the energy of brainwaves (a process called entrainment) and also of other people.
  3. Engage the parasympathetic nervous system – the diaphragm is connected to the vagus nerve, part of the PNS, and its action serves to increase the functionality of the PNS
  4. Entrainment – through coherent breathing we can entrain the heart into coherence (high HRV), and the brainwaves into alpha or even theta.

Powerful changes

These four points mean that when we learn how to breathe coherently, we notice changes in both body and mind. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that for some, to begin with we may simply feel MORE pain, more tiredness or exhaustion. This won’t last, it will pass quickly. Indeed this only happens because we are actually really exhausted and/or in pain. But this experience has been ‘hidden’ by the over active SNS. Stress hormones such as cortisol are at permanently elevated levels and serve to mask this. Without a doubt, in the long run this state of elevation will reduce our immune response.

Constant and consistent effort

But if we practice consistently and regularly these problems will diminish and we will start to feel the many benefits of coherent breathing:

  • reduced pain
  • more energy
  • improved sleep
  • reduced blood pressure
  • reduced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety
  • increased performance
  • improved emotional control
  • increased resilience and less stress
  • better decision making

 

Coherent breathing is the key to increasing our immunity. building our confidence, and achieving happiness and bliss.

You can find even more resources for accessing your most resourceful self on my Embodied Living podcast site.

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

When I was a 19 year old student with ‘know thyself’ in huge letters on my chemistry lever arch file, I was drawn to this quote. Now in my 40s, I am embodying it more and more, and felt inspired to write a blog post on non duality. For many people, black and white thinking is a key thinking error. We see things as dualities, this or that. We can be too quick to judge something or someone as ‘this’ or ‘that’ – good or bad, odd or normal, right or wrong, an idiot or wise, arrogant or compassionate. Our minds have a need to categorise, understand, control. By coming to a conclusion, making a decision or judgement about someone, we have a sense of control. Order is restored, we can relax. Or can we?

This type of thinking means that we feel anxious about shades of grey because that means we have to stay open to possibility or doubt, and we feel safer with a decision, one way or the other. This type of rigid thinking, causes people great stress; because the world is grey, not black and white. And, like it or not, we cannot control it. The desire for (and failure to) control, leads to illnesses such as autoimmune disease.

When Fitzgerald talks about ‘holding two opposing ideas in the mind’ – his is talking about non duality, letting go of opposites, moving towards ‘neither this or that’. When we do this it feels uncomfortable, we can ‘(lose) the ability to function’. This wise writer sensed this. If we work on tolerating opposites it feels uncomfortable – two opposing ideas held as both being ‘true’ takes a ‘bigger’ person – in that we need to get bigger, more expansive to hold that space. And, conversely, in holding that space, and the often highly uncomfortable feelings that go with it, increases our capacity, expands our resilience.

I will tell you a story. Last weekend I was on a workshop. It was a wonderful workshop but the teacher had a tendency to be a bit opinionated, strong, directive. And he was quick to make some dismissive judgements on big topics – yoga being one: ‘Yoga is good if you want a tight butt and a good body’. I felt angry: he was so wrong (and I was right!!). So, I spoke up and said so. He seemed irritated and suggested that I was too attached to my system of yoga, thereby ensued an exchange between us in front of the whole group of 30 plus people – all highly trained psychotherapists who knew all about projection, transference, countertransference and there we were playing out our ‘stuff’!

I felt anger/annoyance, a bit of fear (the entire room had stopped breathing!!) and curiosity. I sat there holding these powerful and uncomfortable emotions and felt a deep calmness too, and a gratitude of how differently I was dealing with this man (compared to similar situations in the past) and some opposing thoughts (‘is this guy a complete arse?’, should I be training with him?? or ‘is he ok, there is so much wisdom in what he is teaching, but what an arse! what just happened?’).

And I just sat with myself and held that space – with the difficult emotions and opposing ideas. I felt expansive, and calm too. And I held a possibility that if he was only 1 per cent or 5 per cent right, perhaps I have something to learn about myself.

At the end of that day, I wanted to connect with him and went over and we talked about the incident – and then he really listened as I told him what a big integrated system of yoga Satyananda yoga is – he said he would look into it. I felt heard. That was all I needed. He may not agree with me about the system, it doesn’t matter, this person had at least opened to listening. We worked together beautifully the next day! An old me, might have been so upset and angry I would have left the training. What a difference tolerating opposites makes!!

I think both him and I learnt a lot about ourselves that day. It is only in relationship with another, particularly a difficult or testing relationship, that we truly learn about ourselves, release our ‘programming’ from past events and traumas and move forwards on the path of freedom. But this only happens if we can learn to tolerate that space of non duality – or ‘neti neti’ as the Indians call it (not this, not that) – then we get bigger and consciousness expands, and we feel calmer and more resilient.

Did you ever see in yourself, or another, a fear of power? Power has such negative connotations: anger, rage, aggression, controlling, authoritarian. Yet when we are genuinely powerful we are confident, both in our abilities and in our interpersonal relationships; we feel in control of the world around us, our lives and we are more in control of our emotional state. We have high levels of self esteem, we can be spontaneous, we are assertive: we are resilient.

Our fear of our own power stops us from owning our power. When we own our power we are more able to own our vulnerability. We can drop the mask and be fully ourselves. We can both give and receive, we can please ourselves instead of just pleasing others all the time. When we own our power we have healthy boundaries: we can say ‘no!’ so that others cannot transgress our boundaries and bully, abuse or manipulate us.

High self esteem, healthy boundaries, a strong sense of self are dependent on our relationship with anger. Anger is another word that often comes with negative associations. We think of anger as bad: as aggression, violence, explosive rage. We may have picked up messages about anger from seeing too much – violence or aggression or fighting (lack of protection) – or from parents who did not approve of anger, whether that be the child’s (lack of support or acceptance) or their own (we don’t do anger in our family). Whatever the reason, we learn to be ashamed or fearful of our own anger, or believe ‘I just don’t do anger’. Yet anger is a healthy emotion. Healthy anger defends self against threat, physical or metaphorical; it enables the child to set healthy boundaries of self and another. Anger is key in helping us to become an individual, autonomous self; differentiated from the ‘other’.

So our fear of our power is related to our fear of our anger. As Ms Williamson says, it is a fear of limits. Not a fear that we are inadequate, perhaps more a fear that we are limitless. Perhaps we were too ‘limited’ in childhood, there was too much control or restraint, too many rules or expectations. Perhaps we didn’t have enough limits, perhaps our boundaries were too loose and we ‘got away with murder’. The tiny container of the child, needs the larger container of the adult to teach him or her limits. Imagine a 2 year old (the terrible two’s) having a raging temper tantrum, and a mother who is ‘powerful’ enough to hold the child in her embrace or gaze, to be with him in his anger, until he calms down. This ‘good enough’ mother in that moment, is teaching the child many important things: that anger is ok, it can be contained, it is not limitless; that he is ok, his anger can be allowed, he can express himself; she is teaching him to own his power. Just one example.

Our lack of power, our low self esteem stems from not having our basic needs met as children. Whether physical or symbolic, our basic needs are for nurture, support, protection, place, and limits. There are many examples, for many of us, where parents didn’t adequately provide for these needs. There’s no such thing as an ideal parent, it’s simply not achievable. It’s never about blame, parents do the best they can. Human development is unique in that we spend at least 20 per cent of our childhood dependent on others to meet our basic needs (versus around 1-3 per cent in the animal kingdom). It’s our responsibility, as adults, to change that, to take control. By becoming aware of our lack of resilience, of where we aren’t yet owning our power, we can begin to understand what we need to do to heal and become more fully ourself.