“If I could only teach one thing for the rest of my life, this would be it.”
These were Barbara Carrellas’s words about her favourite ecstatic breathing technique when I was assisting her in New York earlier this year. Not surprisingly, they got me wondering what the one thing I would choose to teach might be, were I only permitted to make one offering for the rest of my days. What sprang to mind was what I think of as “sitting with the difficult stuff” – which is to say, feeling, integrating, and making friends with those feelings or facets of ourselves that we’d rather cut out with the psychic equivalent of a scalpel than have to face and feel.
Perhaps this seems surprising, coming from someone who teaches intensives on the art of sex magic, supports clients in rekindling their relationship with pleasure, and takes great delight in facilitating large ritual orgies.
The thing is, to have pleasure is to be in your body. To be embodied is to feel. If there is big feeling or deep trauma, or a memory that still kindles fear or pain, stored in your body, it can be a hard place to be. Unless you can find a safe way to co-inhabit your body with those big emotions that seem to be taking up all the damn room, pleasure or intimacy, or both, are likely to be tricky territories for you to access. Divisions start to occur – between your head and your body, or between your heart and your sex; you can access one, but not the other, or you feel that you can only access them one at a time, never simultaneously. Never wholly.
In my last post, I talked about having sex whilst beset with overwhelming feelings. This time, I want to talk about learning to love them.
We’re not taught how to feel the difficult stuff. It’s not a skill we’re given. If anything, it is a birthright we are so often denied, and something many of us have never felt safe or allowed enough to do. The messages we receive about big emotions are some of the most damaging legacies this culture gives us, from “boys don’t cry” and “stiff upper lip”, through to indiscriminately prizing positive attitude, and a collective discomfort and impotence in the face of suffering.
I’m reminded of this as I sit with a friend who has just experienced significant loss, and is wondering how to honour that whilst still going to work, having relationships, living life. My friend talks about how they’ve been following the cultural prescriptions of keeping busy, seeing friends, watching shitty romcoms – but somehow this is feeling less and less like the appropriate response to the depth and breadth of what they are trying to traverse.
We’re a loss-phobic culture. A death-phobic culture. We want to keep growing, acquiring, expanding, but we can’t talk about closure, endings, or grief. In our urbanisation, we have forgotten that, in order for the bulb to become a daffodil, it has to endure months of darkness, of solitude, of a cold that feels like it will never end.
That’s germination. That’s the process that allows the daffodil to be the very best that it can be, to be what one would never imagine it could be by just looking at the bulb.
We’re not so very different. And so I sit and talk with my friend about the grief that I’ve come to know.
Grief the friend, grief the visitor. Grief the great honourer of what has been. Grief that made me so much more myself, so much more embodied, so much more of the best of what I can be.
What follows can be applied to any great emotional leviathan.
When grief comes to you, treat it as you would a visiting friend, someone particularly dear who you haven’t seen in too long. Perhaps you spend a little extra time on your home, clearing out that which no longer has use, making a warm and welcoming space for you to inhabit together. You may take a few days off to reconnect with this dear person. If they’re staying for a while, you will doubtless need to carry on parts of your normal routine – work, childcare, and so forth – during the day. But you’ll carve out time in the evening just for the two of you, time to sit together, breathe together, have a cup of tea together, time to hear what one another has to say, and share your own thoughts and feelings on the matter. Like any treasured guest, a big feeling will be more rewarding the more present you get with it. And it is my experience that, like any guest, once it has been fully met and welcomed and pampered, any big feeling will move on eventually, and make space for a new guest to enter – or simply let you enjoy the silence for a while.
How to get present with a big feeling? Think of the bulb in the dark of the Earth again. Imagine that the bulb is your awareness, the soil your pain. Rather than giving in to the impulse to skip across the surface of your feeling, to box it away out of sight and mind, settle yourself down right down into the centre of it. Put your focus as deeply into it as possible. Sit in the heart of it. And breathe.
An intense emotion is like any intense full body sensation. Like any pleasurable sensation, the more you breathe, the more you allow it to move, and the more you can experience its ecstatic qualities. Yes, release of this kind can be ecstatic too.
How to pamper it? Liz Gilbert wrote a beautiful post recently entitled Go to the Water, in which she shared advice from a naturalist friend, who told her:
“When an animal in the wild has been injured, it has only two strategies for how to heal itself: It can rest, or it can go to the water. Right now, try to do as much of both as possible.” I find I am always surprised by the efficacy of the combination of water and heat in soothing any sort of hurt; the first moment of sinking into a hot bath, even the first sip of a cup of tea, these things are always a wonder to me. Then there’s water and salt – tear and the ocean are both profound healers. And the restorative powers of sleep – not just to the body, to energy levels, but to the capacities of the soul – these too so often take me by surprise.
Finally, whatever approaches you choose for sitting with your “uncomfortable stuff”, if feeling it is something you have previously been denied, a radical act of reclamation and self-love, then I recommend creating ritual for it. Ritual can be big or small, complex or simple. It should definitely involve breath and attention; it could easily involve water and/or tears to cleanse, express, and release – fire also works for this, in the form of candle flames, or a hearth that consumes your feelings put down on paper, or a fire massage; it might involve singing or sound, dancing or movement, or just a long walk taken in the company of your discomfort.
The point is to reclaim your right to feel the difficult stuff, and to start treating it like the sacred signpost and wise friend it is.
Spend time in your dark, in your mud, in your grief. It is trying to open you to so much more of who you are.