Practices for when You’re on Your Knees

Earlier this year, I found myself reflecting, personally and in my coaching practice, on the following question:

What are the practices we can access when we’re on our knees?

By which I mean, what acts of self-care are available to us when the shit is hitting the fan of our life, or we ourselves are hitting rock bottom?

In my client sessions, the question came up in the face of a sense of failure, arising out of not having managed to stick to particular spiritual or well-being daily practices. Whether because of personal pain, or winter weather, it didn’t matter; the sense of failure was the same. But it occurred to me that, like all the best things in life, our practices exist on a spectrum. And yes, one end of that spectrum may be occupied by perfectly executed sun-salutes (not for me, I hasten to add – even and in spite of the fact that Jessamyn Stanley offers online classes, and I think she’s So Awesome) – but the other end is occupied by those small acts of kindness we can access even on our toughest days.

Curious to get some more points of view on the subject – and unwilling to write an entire blogpost about the holistic benefits of drinking tea, which I would have been in danger of doing had I focused solely on my own answers to that question – I reached out to two of my favourite brains to get a second opinion. Luckily for me, said brains belong to two fantastic human beings, who generously agreed to share their thoughts: Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, and Barbara Carrellas.

Mollena Lee Williams-Haas is an Award-Winning Executive Pervert, author, storyteller and BDSM Educator, who happens to be one of the most articulate and engaging voices I know on – honestly, pick a topic; from kink to the socio-political utopian vision of Star Trek, Mollena has it covered. Barbara Carrellas is the author of Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century, the founder of the Urban Tantra Professional Training Program, and someone I consider chosen family. Disclaimer: we all curse a lot when we’re talking to each other, and I have chosen not to remove all of those curse words from this post!

What is interesting is the trajectory on which these conversations happened. With three busy schedules and three different times zones to line up, it took us a minute. In the end, I spoke with Barbara a couple of weeks into the current situation – whereas by the time Mollena and I were catching up, we’d been in this for well over a month. What this inevitably meant was that this topic of the practices we can access when we’re on our knees (not in that way, precious perverts!) got more specific to living in lock-down with each conversation. When I set out to write about this, it was through the lens of “surviving in a capitalist culture is hard work”. By the third conversation, Mollena’s comments were addressing self and community care in the current situation almost exclusively. Which is to say – hopefully this post will not only have a little something for everyone, but also prove timely.

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One of the things that clarified for me in my conversation with Barbara was a way to further articulate the difference between what we might refer to as our spiritual practices or daily disciplines on a good day, and the kinds of practices I’m talking about. These are probably not practices for the sake of making perfect (e.g. a rigorous meditation practice or exercise regime). Instead, they’re the kind of loving direct action that a friend might take on our behalf if they happened by while we were marinating in a pool of our own tears on the floor (which also illustrates why I was in danger of writing too much about making cups of tea with this one).

Another thing that became clear in that talk was that an alternative term for these practices might be emotional first aid. Drawing on a conversation she had recently had with our brilliant colleague, Cindy Darnell, about how re-triggering this time has been for those who were at the heart of the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS crisis, Barbara’s first go-to was TRE® exercises – for example:
“Get on the ground, and shake. Start at your feet, start a shaking motion, and let it move up your body for as long as your body wants to shake. Your body will know when it’s finished – it won’t be that long, usually less than five minutes. Much like an animal shaking off trauma, whatever it was that sent you there will be lessened by the shaking.”

Barbara cited the fact that she can usually find something to lie down on; the fact that she doesn’t have to think too much about what she’s doing; and the fact that this practice takes less than five minutes, as reasons why she’s been finding this incredibly useful. She also likes the that, when we shake, we also inevitably start breathing – which she finds much more conducive than a direct encouragement to breathe. I remain profoundly amused by the fact that the person whose catch-phrase is “this is a breath process, and everything else is an add on” will also come out with “have you noticed how, when someone tells you to take a breath, you want to punch them?!”.

Barbara’s favourite emotional first aid tips also included:

  • Finding a breath that reflects the flavour of the struggle you’re experiencing.
  • Getting to a body of water – whether it’s a shower, or the ocean. This reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “go to the water” – see her post here.
  • And, for those of us whose instinct is to be in service, now more than ever it is worth remembering that it is not our job to fix everything. If ever there was a time that could illustrate this, it’s now, when we get to be superheroes by staying the fuck out of the way of those working on the front line.

Finally, Barbara asks: What are your top ten turn-ons in life? These don’t have to be specifically sexual turn-ons, just activities that make life worth living for you. Make a list, and when you’re in that low place, turn to your list, and see if there’s anything on there that you can access even a little of. I actually have my top ten above my desk, from a recent re-read of Barbara’s book Ecstasy is Necessary, and I am pleasantly surprised to find that the answer, for me at least, is yes.

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One of the reasons I’m so glad I followed that conversation with talking to Mollena is because Barbara and I are both pretty biased towards the concept of practices – so I was excited when Mo started our conversation by owning to being a “practice averse” person.

Mind you, she said that, and then jumped straight into talking about Thich Nhat Hanh! Specifically, his invitation to westerners to allow aspects of their day like a traffic light or a ringing phone to act as a call to mindfulness, and a reminder to take three breaths.

However, after that first nod to more traditional “practices”, Mollena’s top picks began to speak more directly to the fact that she is someone who values feeling useful on the day to day:

The first was one she picked up in rehab, where one of the rules is you have to make your bed. Mollena recalls “I was never a bedmaker in my life, not at-fucking-all. I was like why, I’m only going to get back in it anyway… However, this was a rule in rehab, and the point was: At the beginning of the day you can say you made your bed, and at the end of the day you can say you didn’t drink. And so you have achieved a thing today. Two things.” Making your bed in the morning is a recommendation in a lot of literature about survival and self-care precisely because, as Mo pointed out in our conversation, it’s a small and simple physical act that can help us start the day with a sense of achievement. Now, we could dig into why we need to feel a sense of achievement in order to known our worth – but the fact is, when we’re living in a culture that absolutely conflates those two things, accessing that feeling of achievement first thing can help set us up for the day.

Mo also likes this one because all too often she can get to the end of the day and start beating herself up for not having done anything with it – especially at the moment, when so many of the things she would usually be doing have been curtailed. Bringing mindfulness to small activities like this, noticing ourselves doing things like making the bed or making a meal, can help combat that illusion at day’s end that we’ve been “sitting on our arses when we’ve actually done a whole lot”.

Another of those “little things” for Mollena is her “three people reach out rule”. During lockdown, she’s reaching out to three people per day to check in on them, let them know she’s thinking about them, and send them some love. Thus far, the responses she has received have been nothing but gratitude. She’s particularly taking the time to do this with the Strong Black Women in her life, who have inevitably replied with “thank you, because no one else is checking up on me”. So, if you have the resources, remember to check in with your peeps who you perceive as always having it together. And if you’re low on resources yourself, maybe you could have a “one person reach out rule” where you reach out to at least one person per day to check in, ask for support, and say how you’re doing.
“So that’s my practice. Setting these smaller, achievable goals that I can hit within ten minutes. Even if I’m in a shitty mood, I can just send three messages. And after I’ve done that I can say yes, I did the thing, I’m OK, I’m creating the change I wish to see in the world.”

What I love about Mollena’s approach is that, as someone whose usual activities have been completely curtailed by current events, she poses a really interesting question: What is the change you wish to see in the world, and how can you condense it into a ten minute, entirely achievable daily action, so that you can still feel a sense of agency and creativity – while also leaving abundant space for the business of surviving? And how can you bring awareness to your survival activities in such a way as to grow your appreciation for yourself in your staying alive today?

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Now it’s your turn. Make a list of your own top ten tiny acts of self-kindness. Here are some tips to help you get there, drawing on the conversations above, and a couple of things I’ve noticed about my own emotional first aid kit:

  • These acts are things a loved one might do for you when you’re in distress
  • These practices may take no more than 5-10 minutes
  • These emotional first aid tips are ones you don’t have to think about too hard
  • These self-care nuggets probably encourage you to breathe more deeply – even if it’s just for three breaths
  • These tiny acts of kindness to self or other might give you a taste of that sense of accomplishment you’ve been missing
  • These practices are probably ones you’re already familiar with, rather than new activities you need to expend energy you don’t have to learn
  • Is there something your life, loved ones, or gods have repeatedly reminded you makes you feel happier or healthier? Can you do some of it in five minutes?
  • What’s the smallest, simplest way you can be the change you wish to see in the world?
  • Making a cup of tea totally counts!

Now take that list, put it where you can see it, be a little kinder to yourself – and stay safe out there.

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