Once we’ve awakened to an issue or cause and we take action, how do we sustain our response over time?
Trauma, disappointment, and exhaustion saturate our emotional lives, our identities, and our beliefs. Not long ago, May Krukiel was a faculty member at the Garrison Institute wellness program in New York, as was I. She pointed out how we might carry and communicate these effects bodily—in our posture, our facial expressions, and our overall body sense. During a program that offered tools of meditation and yoga to domestic violence shelter workers, May led an exercise to explore that somatic phenomenon, which she adapted from a workbook called Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization, published in 1996.
In this exercise, people worked in pairs. As May read a script aloud, person A and later person B sculpted their bodies into a posture or position that best expressed their response to the reading. May’s script detailed a typical day for people who work at shelters. With a few adaptations, it could easily apply to other stressful and demanding environments.
The phone rings. It is the district supervisor, saying the budget you submitted has not been approved. You have to find more places to cut, without disrupting essential services. Your assistant suddenly seems depressed and isn’t communicative. Your office mate has become belligerent and is too communicative. A crisis has erupted between two residents who are frustrated, stressed, and nearly hopeless. And on a personal note, your health insurance company, having assured you they had all the paperwork they needed to process your claim, writes to tell you they don’t have all the paperwork. The doctor’s office says they sent it. The company says it never received it. What more can you do?
And on it went.
Participants listened to the vignette, took a moment to settle into their feelings, and then used their bodies to convey their reactions: posture, facial expressions, eyes . . . a full-body response. Once they found the right manifestation of the reaction, they were asked to freeze for a moment or two and allow themselves to really feel their pose.
Time and again, I looked out over a room of people curled over, trying to push away what they were hearing and feeling with arms spread, muscles rigid, and eyes squeezed shut or holding themselves as though they could ward off the pain and keep from fragmenting . . . not breathing and not ready to hear one more thing. It was so honest. So powerful. So sad. I couldn’t help but think, What if we were all walking around this way, as literal representations of how we are hurting or simply so very tired within? A symbolic exercise maybe, but also very real.
As the exercise of working with vicarious trauma continued, the person who had not molded themselves to the mood brought up by the script would look at their knotted-up partner and gently begin to unwind them. Clenched fists were invited to open. Hands that blocked seeing or hearing would instead start signaling an embrace. Between these gentle urgings and self-guided movement, you could see people uncoiling out of that fetal position and standing in a form that was empowered, calm, and whole. Their posture conveyed balance, harmony, groundedness, and dignity.
Related: How can we find peace in our new normal?
The newly unfurled person was then asked to form a body memory of this new, open posture and to consider using it in the future whenever strength and hope were needed.
We look at our habitual reactions to pain and consider whether they still serve us well, even if they once did. If those reactions are rejecting, denying, or trying to not feel anything so as to soldier through, I’d suggest acting them out in this kind of body sculpture to see if that’s the posture you want to maintain in your life. Then, unfurl, open, feel the greater balance in your stance, honor your body’s innate knowledge of how to wobble in coming to balance if that’s what happens. Breathe deep. Remember resilience just demands we respond in this moment for this moment. It’s not the same as a longterm self-improvement plan. Open to what is. Let go of those add-ons we’re conditioned to pile on: don’t be afraid of what you are feeling. One way or another, we need to process the tension, either as a torturous experience or something we can open up to.
As Joel Daniels, a storyteller and activist, said about being present with pain, “It comes down to my trying to come back to my body. Am I sitting up straight? How am I breathing? Am I breathing shallowly? The more I’ve done this, the easier it has become to catch myself when I’ve gone off. No one is always present.”
You can take a small step toward a different relationship to what is by reaching out to someone or allowing someone to reach out to you. Create—with words or images or food or the way you pay attention to strangers or a new way of relating to your body or those you work with and for. Listen. Take one small step toward the unknown, toward acting without depending on an immediate result, thereby relying on a different sense of meaning. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, writer, and statesman, said, “but the certainty that it is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
Some things just hurt. And no matter what, we are not alone. Take one small step to allow whatever helping hands are coming toward you to reach you or to extend a helping hand to someone else in some way.
As the Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “So you must not be frightened . . . if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”
When I’m in some kind of pain, I’ve found that this can be one of the worst components of what I experience . . . feeling that I’m all alone, my nose pressed up against the window looking into the space where everyone else has gathered, to enjoy a moment or comfort one another, to be a part of life. I’m somehow excluded, unaccounted for, and no one even notices I’m outside. It’s the worst and most habitual add-on I use.
I’ve been experiencing this since my childhood, when the habit of feeling different and excluded got acculturated, and working with it since college, when in my Asian philosophy class that habitual reaction was challenged upon hearing the Buddha’s statement “There is suffering in life.” The subtext was “It’s not just you. You’re not weird and different and totally cast aside. You’re just hurting.”
And I’ve come to see, even in the worst circumstances, that life has not forgotten me, it has not forgotten us. No matter how despairing or cut off we can feel at any given time, we are not actually severed from the essential flow of life or from one another. If we get quiet for a while and pay careful attention, this is what we realize.
Excerpted from Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World by Sharon Salzberg © Sept. 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission of Flatiron Books.