Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time
Teilhard de Chardin
MS. TIPPETT: And also, that gets at the fact that [trauma is] not just cognitive, right? It’s not just a story that you could tell. I mean, it may eventually become a story, but that it’s body memory. It’s a neural net of memory. It’s not just about words that you can formulate.
DR. VAN DER KOLK: Yeah. It’s amazing to me what a hard time many people I know have with that. This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition...
It was very striking in our yoga study because we see yoga as one important thing that helps people who’ve been traumatized because they get back into their bodies...what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body, basically.
I wish I knew the names of the birds in my back yard. I mean, of course I know the obvious ones: cardinals, bluejays, crows. I mostly just know the songs, not the birds that sing them. The songs are so familiar to me that I can immediately tell when there’s a stranger passing through: a shocking new song appears out of no where with a tone and resonance that is totally unfamiliar. I wish I knew who they were and where they were headed.
The mainstays—the ones I know so well that I almost tune out—surround me now. I know them by their rhythms, by their mounting cadences and lilting melodies. There's the loudest one, with its three phrases that end in an exclamation mark, “ti-ru-ru, ti-ra-ra, ti-re-re, preet!”” Then a ways off is the two syllable four phrase singer: “tee-u, tee-u, tee-u, tee-uuu”. This one I can mimic so well whistling that I can have conversations with them…a trick the boys find particularly amusing. There’s the sing-songy, sad, nostalgic one, “pee-tuuu….pee-tuuu” that sounds almost as if it’s a child calling out, looking for his friend that he lost.
There's the two I know: the morning dove, whose familiar tone surrounds me like a blanket with its warmth: “ghrroo, ghrroo, ghrrooo…” And then there’s the sloppy and somehow always comical arrival (usually with an accompaniment of feather flaps and rough landings) of the “caw…caw…CAW” of the crow, interrupting all the songs around it, in its show-stopping and endearing awkwardness.
I’ve heard these songs for years, but somehow I feel I never really listened, never realized how their songs weave into the tapestry of my living and are, at the very least, deserving of my delight and attention... if not my sincere gratitude. Not until lately, that is.
I'm struck by how quickly we remove ourselves from the belongingness of our bodies in this natural world. How easily we escape into ambition, anxiety and to-do’s, conversations and ideas and thoughts. As if by talking and thinking we somehow could supersede our place of gravitational belonging in the shapes and forms of this earth, the curve and weight of our flesh held by the fragile structure of bone and ligament that bonds us to everything else that will one day die back into this world.
I mean, let’s be real: our entire culture and orientation in the west is already horribly impaired in this department. Most of our religions were founded on platonic metaphysics which split matter from spirit, the former being made to be something “of the flesh”, “bad”, “untrustworthy” and the latter becoming the goal reached when the former was escaped. We’re already barely able to be here, to inhabit our own forms...but this capacity to flee goes in overdrive under stress, or under trauma.
Like the above excerpt of Krista Tippet's interview with trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk reveals, trauma does strange things to that EXIT trap-door out of our bodies: it turns it into a black hole, making it almost impossible to return to the physicality of our birthright of belonging.
The body —in the midst of trauma—is highly intelligent, it finds a way to cope: we “exit” ourselves. During a trauma trigger then, the person’s body may still be there, but they have once more “left the building"--their body is transported, tricked by the protective instincts of the mind to believe they’re in the middle of the traumatic event again. Ironically the only way to heal from this pattern is to return to the body, to find a way to inhabit our physicality once more, to re-wire the neuropathways, to re-solve the stress hormones that—during trauma—were not adequately discharged…to begin to return to sensation and to learn how to trust it.
Interestingly enough, the little of what I’ve dipped into of Gurdjieff’s approach to spiritual awakening has taught me that the importance of learning how to access this type of sensory awareness is critical to learning how to be present. We are sent off with some type of manual labor job with an inner task: an intentional reminder/way to practice being present. It may be, “pay attention to the place where two surfaces meet” (such as paper towel/window, paintbrush/wall, rake/ground). Or it may be “locate and return to the sensation of your feet”. The idea is to begin noticing how often we “exit the building” of our bodies while we work, and hopefully to begin re-training ourselves to stay here.
It is perhaps thanks to this training that I’ve been able to slowly locate myself back in the form of my body after a substantial trigger earlier this month and learn how to just stay with sensation. While this was born out of necessity for my own healing, I’m curious how this work of healing trauma and the capacity to learn presence overlap.
Without the normal operation of a clear and linear narrative, a systematic progressive story to gain certainty from, the traumatized person has to learn how to trust sensation as a way to come back to the present moment, trust the body, trust the belonging of weight, the curve of shape, the feeling of sun, breeze…the vibration of perceived sound, of bird song, car passing, child laughing. The sensation of feet on ground, the rhythm of a ball being tossed back and forth from one hand to another.
It is very humbling work to come back to the here and now.
I think perhaps this feels humiliating because we like to declare ourselves above the physicality of our world...of the laws of evolution, of slow time, of birth and decay that govern all things. We want to be immortal, so we “time travel” to the past to construct who we are and dive ahead into the not-yet to imagine who we will be. We think we can transcend this world of things living and dying, so we remove ourselves from the world of form. Instead, we regret our choices and we worry about our future. We build identity from the stories of "our story" we tell over and over again. The fish gets bigger each time, and so does our ego’s attachment to each experience we accumulate, as if we could somehow unlock the secret of life’s direction out of the trinkets we collect on our travels. We rocket launch into a million possibilities of “could-be”, arching ourselves to try to see around the curve to quell the anxiety of not having a f'ing clue what comes next.
We panic, grasping at life as if it could be clenched like reigns or a whip and subdued. We find security in external forms, bandaids placed hastily over the gaping caverns of our own souls—we try to satiate the it with nice things, nice events, nice homes, nice life-trajectories. And it works...so long as we keep the distractions coming steadily enough to drown out the sound of our own voice asking the one question we keep running from.
We travel back and forth between two non-realities, barely inhabiting the only reality there is, and wonder why we’re all exhausted, worn out, lost and terrified of standing still. We try to carve meaning out of nothingness while the warm wood of the present sits untouched in our hands.
Let me be clear: It's not easy to come back to “just this.” Inhabiting “just this” feels like failure in a way: like it’s not enough. “Just this” goes against the grain of ambition, like the absence of a hook to hang the hat of our identities on. It also carries the return to the terrifying sensation of powerlessness…of having to make peace with how not “in control” we actually are.
Making peace with that sense of powerlessness has been a particularly difficult adjustment for me. I have fought it to the limits of my own traumatized brain’s capacity to flee. A few weeks ago, largely due to my own capacity to bypass my limitations, I had the closest thing to a two-by-four to the head someone who has experienced trauma can. I have had to slow down…way down.
I take only what is directly in front of me, one thing at a time. I have to sleep more. Remember to eat. Run. Go outside and let the sun make freckles on my skin…let the magic of nature’s cocktail help to create the stabilizing hormones that were naturally designed to help me heal. I'm remembering to read, not for work, or for school, but for the hunger in me. To pray, not because it's "my practice" but because it is the way I breathe back into into my body...because it's the way home into the surrendered, naked stance of being that reconnects me to the family of belonging we all participate in. In other words: I have to be here, be present. No where else.
Learning to be here...
On the path of no arrival.
Now that my body is calling me back into itself I realize how adept I am at constructing "arrivals" out both life and my spirituality: checkpoints on my horizon to measure my own progress by, milestones by which to make sure I'm doing ok. Linearity sneaks into our thinking and we perpetually throw our becoming into the future, not in the present where it's taking shape.
Bowing under the pressure of expectations, within and without, I've wasted so much energy building idealized versions of myself, being slave to a perfectionism that has relentlessly driven me in both life and learning. With the "about face" turns of my life changes this last year however, I am experiencing a cellular crash landing (the crow's awkward fluttering entrance comes to mind): a welcome of own humanity that is requiring a compassionate tenderness toward my own limitations and failures. But it's not just about accepting the finiteness, the welcoming also includes a rooted appreciation and genuine curiosity of the unique song that sings itself out of my heart....what is the infinite that comes forth into the world from within me? what is this shape.that belongs in this broader world of becoming forms?
I wonder what would happen if we ceased placing our hope at the end of our linear thinking and instead located it here, now, on the path of no arrival. As Cynthia Bourgeault likes to say: Hope is not in the future, it is rather, the "innermost point in us and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us out."
What would it look like to begin re-orienting our lives to live from that pulse of truth, to learn how to connect to the sensation of that deeper quality of aliveness? Perhaps the first step is to simply come back to our bodies, to sensation, to notice how often we exit the building.
These days I'm taking the time to feel how my feet feel on this ground, and learning how to trust the steady rhythm of my own cadence, my own pace and stride. To notice the way my arms swing when I walk, the unseen geometry I make with my hands when I talk. To feel the sensation of the sound of my own voice asking my own questions and letting out my own shocking song into the chorus of the birds with as much confidence as they do. I'm re-orienting my vision to trust the perception of this world from my own heart, from the inside out. And the amazing thing is that as I return to this body, to slowness, to attention: I am feeling myself come alive from within this broader net of belonging like a small bloom curling its pedals out under the influence of the sun.
Attention is the beginning of devotion, says Mary Oliver.
And I believe her. The poets intuit this and live it. They live in full attention, and I want to take the next several month's on this blog to explore how they ground us in this world, reminding us of our belonging.
I want to keep learning how to be here…on the path of no arrival. What a relief it is to not have to reach for an illusory ideal, or bend under the weight of anyone else’s expectation. To simply eat the fruit of the wisdom of the elders around me and trust it will be metabolized in its own unique way in my own body. To learn to see life with the eye of the poet and to recognize it as my own. To pay attention and build devotion.
To be here.
On the path of no arrival.