My cat doesn't worry
that he's wasting his life
if he rests all day.
Somehow, resting has become something akin to weakness, or a waste of time in our culture. Very few people get enough sleep and many people feel guilty if they are not doing something all the time. Technology has upped the ante as most people constantly stay connected to friends, "friends" and family. And many work environments expect and demand that employees will always be connected and available to receive and respond to emails.
Even when people have downtime, are they really resting? They are often multi-tasking: watching TV, looking at Facebook, texting, watching videos. Spending time truly resting, lying in a hammock or on the couch reading a book or just daydreaming, taking a nap, lying in the grass or on the beach in addition to a vigorous hike or bike ride, are the exception not the rule.
When is the last time you truly rested? Even on a vacation, do you allow yourself to go off the grid, to sit in a cafe and people-watch or lie on the beach, watching the clouds and daydreaming rather than running from place to place? How did we become a culture of people afraid of missing out? What does that even really mean?
Cats are wonderful teachers in this regard!They have no qualms about lying around resting, in fact the term "cat nap" comes from this quality of theirs we would do well to emulate at times. They play hard and rest well. Our culture has lost this sense of balance, this yin and yang. Yes, there is a lot to do, and always will be. The to-do list has no end and never will. So why not take some time to rest, to rejuvenate, to nurture and nourish yourself today, even right now?
Now and then
it’s good to pause
in our pursuit of happiness
and just be happy
- Guillaume Apollinaire
There is a lot of emphasis in this culture on the pursuit of happiness. It is even listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of our "unalienable rights." There are many books and a whole school of psychology devoted to how to be happy or attain happiness. It has been made into a goal or something to be achieved rather than a state of being. So much of our culture's ( and the world's) materialism and consumerism is an attempt to buy or attain things that will bring happiness, a quick fix at best.
In a certain sense, so much emphasis on attaining happiness makes it more elusive. It's like a dog chasing it's tail, something that is just out of reach but seems so close: it becomes a mesmerizing, obsessive pursuit. Somehow the chase, the search, the pursuit, has become the focus, the end in itself. This chase doesn't actually bring happiness except maybe in fleeting moments.
Happiness is an inner state of being, not something that can be pursued, purchased or attained. It is always available even in times of great difficulty or fear. It is something that can be experienced by turning inward, and something that can be felt by paying attention to the small joys of life: the beauty of a flower, the feel of the wind on the skin, the full moon, a smile, a newborn baby. It's tricky to write about, because I don't want to give yet another prescription for "how to be happy." So I will simply end by saying it exists in awareness of the present moment, rather than as a pursuit.
The cave you fear to enter
holds the treasure that you seek
- Joseph Campbell
Most children, with their vivid imaginations, are scared of haunted houses, dark attics or basements and bogeymen in the closet. They are often afraid that if they enter these places, they won't return, or certainly won't return unscathed. Adults are really not that different!
Most people seek psychotherapy because something isn't working in their lives. As therapy begins,there is often a lot of fear of going within, of going into those root cellars and dark caves. There is often a hesitancy about exploring those unknown or barely remembered places within. Often therapy clients question, why go there? Why stir up the past, or at least what appears to be left behind?
I have two answers to those questions:
1) Although the past may seem to be left behind, many of the ways each person sees and reacts to themselves, others and their environment is shaped by their past experiences. Rarely is anyone free of past influence on their current behavior, outlook on life.
2) That dark unexplored place within, may contain painful memories and experiences. Yet by bringing them to light and facing them, there is the opportunity for them to loosen their unconscious grip on you, for you to have more choice and freedom. You may also encounter positive feelings that were buried in the cave for safekeeping. By entering the cave, there is the opportunity to find that buried, long-lost treasure and bring it back out of the cave into your lived life!
I will always have fears,
but I need not be any of my fears,
for I have other places within myself
from which to speak and act.
-Parker j. Palmer
Fear is often an overwhelming experience. It may feel like being possessed by something outside (or inside) yourself, paralyzing your ability to think, act or feel anything else. When this level of fear is present, it's hard to remember that any other experience may be possible, hard to imagine feeling anything else, hard to find the path out of this particularly dark and treacherous forest. To paraphrase a concept of Carl Jung, the problem is not when you have fear, but when it has you.
Fear is part of being human; it's your relationship to it that determines how much it runs (or doesn't) your life. The work lies in finding ways to acknowledge and feel the fear as it arises, without allowing it to swallow you up. Or when it has taken over, as it often may do, finding ways out of the thicket and brambles that obscure the path back to yourself (meditation and mindfulness are excellent tools for that!).
As the quote above states, you have places (and feelings) other than fear within you, from which to speak and act. What are those places? How familiar are you with them? There may be memories of other times when you have been fearful and then the fear has passed; simply the memory that it DOES pass can give you the strength to endure the fear and finally set it aside.
There are probably many other places within such as strength, determination, curiosity, enthusiasm, intention, connection ( to yourself, others and spirituality however you experience it), passion, and love to name just a few. Which of your inner places have I named and what other ones can you add to my list?
Your task is to not deny or suppress fear, but to find ways to tap into any/many of those other places within yourself that can guide you in your next step, and the one after that, and the one after that. Can you have the fear yet not identify with it, setting it aside, putting it in brackets or parentheses, allowing other places within you to guide your actions, at whatever pace you need to go?
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley