What lies behind us and what lies before us
are tiny matters compared to what lies within us
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
We tend to focus on the past or the future. We may think about our mistakes or remember good times; we may think back with anger, regret, blame or nostalgia. And we may look ahead with anticipation, hope, fear, worry or planning. So often we really are not living in the moment as our thoughts are occupied with things that have already happened or that haven't yet happened.
And although our past certainly informs who we are and we need to spend some time at least, planning for the future, generally there is an imbalance of most of our energy going either backward or forward (or outward) and not within.
For it is within us where we truly reside. This is where we find ourselves, where we learn again and again to come back to ourselves, to seek ourselves. All the answers to our questions, to who we are or what is ours to do, live within us. It's a matter of learning the language of the inner world. A language that is not primarily rational or logical. It is a language that is richly metaphorical and symbolic, that may appear in images or movement or sounds.
Often it feels like learning a foreign language- like learning a romance language like Spanish, French or Italian or possibly a language with an entirely different alphabet like Chinese or Russian. It takes the same patience and dedication to learn this inner language, as it is often laden with emotion and forgotten memories of our lives and of who we truly are. And it is equally rewarding, for as we learn this language we will more easily navigate our inner world; we will more confidently travel to the deepest part of our being, bringing back into our daily life the treasure we find within.
It's not so much that we're afraid of change
or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place in between
that we fear . . . It's like being between trapezes.
It's Linus when his blanket is in the dryer.
There's nothing to hold on to.
~ Marilyn Ferguson
Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants a life that is satisfying, however each person defines satisfaction and happiness. You may be ready, or more than ready, to let go of old ways of being that are unsatisfying, stagnant or suffocating. You may be able to imagine the life you desire, be able to describe it in outline form or in great detail.
Yet the process of getting from here to there often is overwhelming. It may feel like jumping over a huge abyss without a safety net. Or like leting go of one trapeze bar, hovering in mid-air, trusting the other bar will appear at the just right moment for you to grab it; if not, you fear facing a horrifying fall.
Or you may feel like Linus without his blanket, absolutely terrified of life without the comfort of the old and familiar, though completely worn out, ways of coping. The familiar is so comforting even when it is painful, or stultifying or completely unsatisfying. It feels SAFE. Nothing to hold onto doesn't feel safe, in fact usually feels perilous. And yet sometimes it's time to let go, time to risk, time to stop holding on so tight. Time to believe and trust that there is a way to get to what you desire for your life. That's a lot of what is involved in the process of therapy. Therapy itself, and the relationship with your therapist, are there when you let go, are there to help face that transition.
No matter where we dig or climb
we come upon the fire we left untended.
This quote from poet Mark Nepo reminds me of the axiom "wherever you go, there you are." In other words, there is no escaping ourselves as hard as we may try to stay busy, numb ourselves in various ways, distract ourselves or live in a state of denial about what lives in our heart, about what needs tending.
We can try to run from our heart or inner self's knowledge or beckoning, but we always come back to it one way or another. What fire have you left untended? What part of you needs tending? What secret desire, what smoldering passion, what unacknowledged or unfulfilled dream needs attention? Or what sorrow needs attention and release? What untended grief or sadness wants your attention right now?
It's the awareness,
the full experience
of how you are stuck,
that makes you recover.
~ Fritz Perls
Often in psychotherapy, clients will ask me "what should I do?" They want a course of action, something to DO, to stop feeling stuck. This question usually comes after they have talked about a situation they are in, or an ongoing feeling that they don't know how to change. We may have explored how this situation is familiar, of what childhood situation it may be a repetition, they may have arrived at an understanding about it but they still feel stuck. An intellectual understanding of what is going on is an important first step.
Yet the path out of being stuck is paradoxically fully experiencing the stuckness! It's bringing your awareness to every nuance of how you are stuck.: exploring all aspects of the experience including how it feels in your body, images, thoughts, feelings. Bringing attention, curiosity and interest to the complexity and multiple layers of the experience of feeling stuck, rather than impatience and judgment. Going into the stuckness rather than turning away from it, will eventually lead you to a new way of perceiving things, to a new course of action, to a new path. It is a transformative experience that may feel quite mysterious because much of it is taking place outside of conscious awareness, outside of how the mind is used to approaching problems.
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley