from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

soul cages

Here the land is wrapped in misty drizzle, and visibility is down to the milky edges of the pastures and copses, and the nearer trees are necklaced in shining droplets. The rivers are flooded again, and the roads run orange with the sandstone-belt topsoil.

In this run up to the festive season it's hard to continue to be calm and mindful, not caught up in the Western world's affluent consumption. We can feel trapped by the need to give and get, rushed by the things we really need to get bought and get done; whether or not we've managed to send Christmas cards and whether we've remembered everyone. Tempers can run high, and we can move so fast we leave our souls behind.

I've been thinking about the notion of soul cages. There's a big blog to write about this; and an even bigger one to write about the prevalence of 'soul loss' in our culture, but this is not either of these.

Just right now I'm thinking about something we all do, every day, to ourselves.

My father, a volatile Celt given to making emphatic and often very wise statements in between more wide-ranging monologues on the state of the world, used to say that beneath every negative emotion could be found fear. When I first heard him say that I was too young to really relate to the concept, or know whether I agreed with him or not. Over the last couple of decades I have realised how very insightful that was.

Circumstances from childhood on can build our cages. Later, it's largely up to us, though, whether we open the door or not. When we don't, it's usually down to fear – and not always fear of failure or inadequacy, but fear of spaciousness, of our own power, of our ability to act and create, and what that might require of us. There are so many stories of released prisoners heading straight back in again; of caged or confined animals choosing not to go free.

These fears particularly arise, of course, when we're on the verge of a breakthrough into a new way of being. Challenging our own patterns, the ones that keep us stuck, can be terrifying – partly because of the unfamiliarity of the terrain we enter and the fact that we have no maps; partly, perhaps, because of the reactions of those around us who want to keep us where they know they can find us, as we were. It's hard not to resist the comfort of old patterns, even dysfunctional ones.

I'm talking about keeping ourselves small. The worst jailer, perhaps – and writers will know this well – is one's own inner critic, only too ready to shame/blame us at any opportunity.

Robert Bly speaks of shame as being a hugely disempowering aspect of a man's psyche. Of course it's an aspect of a woman's psyche, too, but I suspect that women tend more readily to guilt, that variant of shame. (Having been raised a Catholic, I know all about guilt.)

The truth is few of us are free from the voices in our heads that berate us frequently, or even constantly: 'Loser!' 'Idiot!' 'Stupid bitch!' 'You so screwed up there!' 'You never get it right.' 'No, of course you won't be able to do that...' 'You're not good enough/clever enough/beautiful enough...' 'That was all your fault.' 'You're a terrible person for saying/thinking/doing what you just did!' 'What on earth makes you think you deserve this job/lover/happiness/success?' 'Who do you think you are?' 'You're so unloveable.' Need I go on?

I have found this small, simple tool to be powerful. Yes, it will take a little time out of a very busy period, but it may bring to the surface the habitual unhelpful ways in which you treat yourself, some of which may have been there running you unconsciously for decades (and as introjected injunctions from powerful Others when we were small, may actually belong to a parent, teacher, boss, or authority figure, not to you at all).

From now, yes right now, up until Christmas Day (or if you think that's not manageable, at least for the next 24 hours), take with you wherever you go a small notebook. Each time you get frantic or stressed, commit to noticing what you are silently saying to yourself or thinking about yourself and your behaviour (these blaming critical 'voices' may be so much part of your inner furniture you barely notice them). As soon as you can, close your eyes for a moment and check where the tension has landed in your body. Then take a minute or two to simply note down the harsh words you were saying to yourself about yourself, the negative thoughts; plus the circumstances.

You may be shocked at how often you think negative thoughts about yourself. Noticing and countering them is a way of being gentle with yourself; and a way of being kinder to your loved ones, too. 

At the end of the day, take five minutes to read back through, and see if it is always the same one or two negative perceptions of yourself, or whether you have any number of personal criticisms.

The next time you catch yourself running that self-blame tape, find a kinder counter-statement, eg: 'Considering how stressed I was I handled that situation with grace.' 'I did pretty well given that I only had two hours sleep last night.' 'OK that wasn't perfect but it was good enough.' 'I'll handle that even better next time.'

Open the door.

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