The depth of my self-reflections and recent individual experiences have been a long time in the making. For that reason, I cannot rush into sharing my intention. What I can do is share pieces of revelations and growth to get both of us there.
Mindfulness Meditation, Teachers, and the Breath
Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” When I first began practicing mindfulness at a yoga studio near my home in 2018, nothing in that definition was true of me. I avoided paying attention as much as possible, but when I was paying attention, it was because I was hyperaware of my surroundings and inner turmoil.
Each day was and is spent in either the past or the future; neither being beneficial for someone with depression and anxiety. I could not make it through even one hour without judging myself harshly for thoughts, emotions, or actions, either in the present or past. I desperately needed and still need mindfulness to bring me back to myself and the present.
How am I supposed to stay out of the past when my previous experiences crop up so powerfully? I remember an embarrassing moment from my sophomore year of high school at least once per week and sometimes as many as forty times in a day. I still cringe at the memory nearly twenty-five years later.
How am I supposed to stay in the present when the future is so full of uncertainty? Someone needs to solve world hunger, division and malice, mental illness, and poverty. Why not me? Or maybe I should become a neuroscientist and work on brain mapping, a writer and Ted Talk speaker, or an advocate to help prevent or manage dehumanizing behaviors of mental health workers in a hospital, residential, or outpatient setting. The possibilities are endless, and with all my past experiences and future opportunities, my brain turns into one of my household electrical outlets—overloaded.
Sound has always been an anchor into the present. It draws me into my environment as it is—not as it was or could be. Unfortunately, I have noticed that some sounds have begun to hurt my ears, cause me to feel overstimulated and overwhelmed, or continue for an annoyingly long period of time (yes, that is a judgment). Mouth breathers and loud chewers are the banes of my existence in this way, and I KNOW I am not alone. During the times I am more sensitive to sound, I turn my attention to my breath, and I have been considering how my breath relates to my intention for 2022 since mid-December.
One Saturday morning in January, Lisa, my teacher, opened by reflecting on some of the wisdom of two men who recently passed away—Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh. She pulled out The Book of Joy, an insightful reading about Desmond Tutu’s and the Dalai Lama’s friendship and the “eight pillars of joy.” Lisa highlighted one of the pillars—perspective—and reminded those of us sitting with her that we create opportunities by changing our perspectives in hardships. I have personally been contemplating perspective for quite some time.
*I recommend reading the book. The dialogue of these friends with different religions, languages, and experiences and their shared thoughts on contentment and joy is beautiful; especially is a world of division and hatred.
Lisa went on to treat us to Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom. Hanh is considered the “father of mindfulness” and simplifies both the language of meditation as well as the practice of being in the present moment. Lisa mentioned that Hanh used phrases with each breath to unify his mind and body within the moment. One of his mantras holds the sentiment, “inhale life, exhale death.”
A woman practicing in the Saturday morning group found it morbid to acknowledge Hanh’s observation—each inhale is evidence we are still alive, but each exhale means we are closer to death. I suppose the older we get, the more real that feels, but my heart hammered with excitement. I interpreted it much differently, which is the beauty of people—to experience something different and yet honor the other’s experience. For me, with each inhale, I am taking in life, but, with each exhale, I am releasing the ugliness, darkness, despair, depression, anxiety, and negativity that took over my life years ago. Each exhale is a letting go of what I have hung onto unnecessarily.
Gabor Mate, in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, says, “The possibility of renewal exists so long as life exists.” He was speaking of the hope he had for the drug addicts he worked with each day, but how true that is for every man, woman, and child, no matter the circumstances. Each breath is a reminder of renewal. Each breath is an opportunity. For me, each breath is filled with profundity.
When I was young, I remember thinking about how cool it was that I was breathing the same oxygen Jesus breathed 2000 years ago. That same oxygen has been breathed by many people since then, but it is the same oxygen! As I grew, I understood this idea as symbolically true as well: Each person inhales the wisdom of all who came before them and all who are alive now. As each person exhales, they are keeping the wisdom alive and contributing their own. Each person is a teacher. How cool is it that my breath carries the wisdom and legacy of countless people before me? So long as a person is breathing, he or she has life, growth, and wisdom to share. Expansion and contraction.
Expansion. Life. Contentment. Joy.
When we inhale, our chest expands or opens. When we exhale, our chest contracts.
Similarly, when I am excited about something or fully engaged, I am open to what is around and in me, and when I am afraid or disinterested, I move in or collapse on myself.
Either literally or figuratively, contraction requires expansion. Without it, we die. In some of my darkest times, my mind and spirit collapsed inward—contracted, and I thought of little except my own death. I was too terrified to open my eyes and heart to what surrounded me. I was too terrified to experience life. I was terrified of living the rest of my life in the state I had been. I am learning that living is not necessarily the goal though, especially when life has offered trauma, chronic illness, feelings of inadequacy, and more. I am learning that life can offer contentment and, at times, joy; if we are open—if I am open.
Each time I practice *expansion* and dip my toe into life, it is as if…
I am turning the lightly textured yellowing page of a well-loved and frequently read paperback book, glancing up from my weathered gravity chair on the wrap-around porch to take in a deeper breath of humid air just in time to glimpse a brightly colored goldfinch hanging on the feeder, calling to his mate.
I am seeing massive snowcapped mountains jutting into a bright blue sky from lush green fields scattered with red, pink, purple, orange, yellow, and blue wildflowers.
I am inhaling deeply on a beautiful summer day as warm rain falls, intoxicatingly subdued by the smell of the steaming water rising from the scalding blacktop and the smell of worms, surfacing to avoid drowning. For my fellow Michiganders, nothing quite compares to the smell of worms in the rain, does it?
I am waking to the musical notes of songbirds and the chattering of gray squirrels as the neighbor’s elderly black lab mix wanders blindly around the lush freshly mowed lawn.
I am falling asleep to the melodic high-pitched chirping of crickets emerging from their hiding places after a day of blinding sun and oppressive heat.
I am plucking plump blueberries from sun-kissed bushes, tasting the ripe sweetness as the skin ruptures and tart juice spills onto my tongue.
I am feeling the velvety softness of warm, clean sheets fresh out of the dryer on a frigid, dark January winter night in my historic home in the Northeast.
Internal Family Systems and My Parts
Mid-2021 was a significant marker for me. I had been excited to begin Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) with my therapist after returning from Utah. My excitement crashed as I struggled to keep my head above water after each session. I was re-traumatized weekly, but I did not recognize it myself and kept silent about what I was enduring. My therapist and I worked through that crash and re-evaluated.
At the time, my therapist had been reading a book about Internal Family Systems (IFS). A valuable insight emerged: Parts of me were likely causing frequent, severe reactions to trauma processing. It was likely, according to the IFS model, some parts were triggered, angry, sad, afraid; some parts were protecting me; some were trying to help end my suffering; all were trying to send an important message. We decided to give a “bastardization of IFS” a try (Her words, not mine – I still chuckle about it).
One of the focuses of Internal Family Systems is to help “protector parts” separate from the “self.” Protector parts are divided into “managers” and “firefighters,” and their job is to protect “exiles,” the parts that have been deeply wounded. When a manager part is predominant in my life, I attempt to meet unrealistic demands through required perfection from myself, or I may keep the peace by doing what others want me to do or saying what others want to hear. If a manager part falls short, my firefighter parts may convince me to self-harm, lash out in anger, exercise excessively, or do something else. Understanding those basics helped me start the process of separating from the protector parts.
The founder of IFS, Richard Swartz, utilizes alliteration to make the “technique” more user-friendly, starting with the Six F’s.
- I need to Find the active part in my body or environment.
- To bring the part closer to work with it, I need to Focus on it.
- Fleshing it out requires asking questions. What do I see or hear from the part? How am I experiencing the part?
- It is important to ask myself what I am Feeling toward—not about—the part.
- I must BeFriend the part—create open communication to understand how it came about, what it needs, and why it has been an integral part of my life, among other things.
- Parts have jobs, and if one of them no longer does its job, it believes something “bad” might happen. I need to find out what the part Fears.
The Eight C’s
In 2022 Intention Part One: Lists of Eight, I introduced the Eight C’s. They are a requirement of the fourth “F” (Feeling toward the part). If my thoughts are about the part, I am too distant from it or experiencing it from another part, I will have more negative thoughts. If my thoughts are toward the part, and reflect the Eight C’s (Curiosity, Calm, Clarity, Connectedness, Confidence, Courage, Creativity, and Compassion), I will be able to do some extremely hard but necessary work—from “self-energy.”
In my daily life, when I could be curious, I tend to be fearful; when I long for connection, I cower to protect myself from danger; when I seek to be calm and have clarity, I instead give in to the thoughts that evoke anxiety and cloudy thinking. My confidence and courage are inauthentic and rely on others or my surroundings, and my natural inclination to be creative is trumped by the un-comfortability of what is unknown. Yet, when curiosity, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, creativity, and compassion are within reach, I experience the coveted contentment and glimmers of joy.
For the past several months I have been working with my parts, both during therapy sessions and on my own time, and I have seen and heard things deeply hidden within me that press me to continue digging with earnest anticipation. There is gold inside of me. Pure gold. I need to mine the shiny metal deep inside of me. The Eight C’s have provided me with a roadmap. They beckon me to listen and inhale the oxygen and wisdom of my parts—expansion.
The Eight C’s of IFS are the focus of my intention for 2022, and my fierce attempt to find a word to encompass them together has taken me down a brilliant path of exploration of both the breath and me. Lungs expand and the heart beats more freely when the chest is open. Parts settle and speak without inhibition when I am attuned, receptive, and open my arms wide to and for them.
I will be open-minded toward myself—specifically my parts—and get to know me.
And for good measure, I will be open-minded with others—their parts.