Inner Work

Mindful Amid the Snowfall

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I’m borrowing from my previous practice of mindfully observing a leaf and applying this concept to winter, specifically, to snow. If you live in a climate where it does not snow, most of the practice could easily be adapted using crushed ice.

Sensory Exploration

Begin by using four or five of your senses to observe the snow.

Sight

What colors are reflected by the snow? How might the depth of the snow affects its hue? What patterns and shapes does it contain? As the snow falls, how does it change in shape, texture or form, and to what do you attribute the changes? Where is it ordered, and where do you see disorder? What happens where the snow meets other objects? How do the edges of where the snow has landed differ from deep areas?

Sound

What is the sound of snow falling? What noises do you hear as it affects various objects and structures? What sounds emanate as you walk or travel over it? Drop the snow to the ground. What sounds does it make? Pack some snow together. What noises are created?

Texture

Cradle a bit of snow in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like? What energies do you find emanating from it? Pack some snow together again. How does the texture change when it is held lightly versus being crushed? How does the sensation of temperature alter as you hold the snow? How does your body respond to holding it?

Smell

Sniff the snow and notice any hints of smell that emerge from it. To what extent is it affected by its surroundings, and to what extent is its scent, if it has any, its own? What scent does snowfall lend to the overall environment around you?

Taste

Depending upon where you live and the pattern of snowfall, experts have some recommendations regarding tasting snow. Crushed ice may be a good alternative here. If you choose to eat a small amount, note the taste, smell and texture as you first eat some versus when it dissolves in your mouth. How does the temperature of your mouth change the form?

Mindful Transformation

If the energy feels right, collect four samples of snow, perhaps from different places around you. You’ll be connecting each sample to a different element and experience.

Earth

If you have a potted plant or another indoor source of dirt, bring some snow inside and bury it in the soil. What is it like to flip the order—snow under earth? How is the energy affected by the introduction of this cold form of water? Alternatively, you can spend time observing snow melt into the soil on a warming day.

Air

Wait until there is a breeze, and release some snow into the air. What trajectory does it take? What are the characteristics of its flight? Where and how does it land?

Fire

Expose some snow to candlelight or sunlight. How does its characteristics change in the light? What happens as it is transformed into liquid water by the heat?

Water and Spirit

Snow is the water element in crystallized form. It differs from ice mainly in density—a snow-pile will be comprised of both air and water while a block of ice is mainly water. The shape of each snowflake is in part dictated by the temperature at which it forms. Snow can also contain bits of dust. In this way, it is truly an intertwining of each of the four elements.

Enshrine the remaining sample of snow in a jar on your personal altar or in another sacred space. Notice any thoughts and emotions that arise from doing so. Continue to use your senses as you incorporate it into your altar space and ritual practice. When the winter season ends, you may return it to the water element in the spring rains, or you may choose to keep it as a permanent part of your altar.

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

When children are abused repeatedly, particularly when they are abused by trusted caregivers, their brains are left with an impossible dilemma. The individuals on whom they rely for protection and care are also the individuals who are hurting them. In order to resolve this discrepancy, they sometimes engage in dissociative behaviors. These behaviors enable them to stay connected to their caregivers while enduring the traumatic experience. Viewed in this light, dissociative behaviors are a life-saver as, through their use, children may achieve some sense of normalcy and can able to function in the outside world. Like any fortified structure, breaks and cracks will develop over time. Eventually, either in part or as a whole, the dissociative walls will come down and people, now adults, may be overwhelmed by the barrage of memories, sensations, emotions and thoughts that in fact assailed them as children but feel like fresh attacks. Having lived through this experience myself, I can attest to the sharp curve into “too much reality” after years of unreality. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to explore what it means to be dissociative and how it can affect our spiritual lives.

Aspects of Dissociation

Dissociative behaviors include depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization includes feelings of being detached from one’s body. Derealization involves detachment from external stimuli; everything around the person feels unreal. Both of these experiences are thought to be survival mechanisms that are triggered by extreme stressors and trauma. Instead of a provoking a “fight or flight” response, the body may engage in a freeze response if running to safety or fighting for one’s life do not seem like effective choices.

Additional autonomic systems are engaged, including the parasympathetic system. This system slows body responses such as heart rate and respiration. As I understand it, freezing behaviors, or “tonic immobility,” can also include an activation of our sympathetic nervous system but to a lesser extent than our parasympathetic system. This means the person experiencing such a response is basically frozen in fear. Endorphins may also be released, which cause bodily and emotional numbness.

All of these physical responses are adaptive tools our body has; for instance, if you were being killed by a large animal, most likely you’d want to be “out of it” and unaware of what was occurring. These defenses become problematic when we become conditioned, through traumatic experiences, to deploy them in moments that are not truly life-threatening. I have issues with dissociation beyond depersonalization and derealization, but I wanted to start my exploration of this topic by going into more depth with these two core elements.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization occurs when people feel as though they are not in their body, but are instead observing it from a third-person viewpoint. Some individuals will describe feeling as though they were floating above their bodies. I tend to find myself utterly lost in a pattern such as a piece of wallpaper, unaware that I’ve traced it again and again in my mind unless I lost all sense of my body. It can also include experiences of distance from one’s thoughts, as though another person is thinking them. Emotions may be expressed without the person’s internal sense of connection to them. I’ve felt there is nothing odder than having tears streaming down my face with a look of sadness while feeling completely calm and serene internally.

People experiencing depersonalization may feel as though their body is taking action without their conscious control. We all do this to an extent, for instance, your mind may wander while you are walking around your house; you find yourself going in to a room and can’t remember why you went in to it. During an experience of depersonalization, this mental state cuts across decision-making. When I’ve had times of depersonalization, I find myself in the middle of a sequence of action without awareness of a conscious decision to start or continue the sequence. I once had a car break down early in the morning. By the evening, I found myself at a car dealership buying a new one, without any memory of conscious choice on my part. This day included a period of time in which I was driving aimlessly, as though the solution to my stress would appear if I just drove further. Some individuals escalate to episodes of dissociative fugue, where they may be found days later having gotten “lost,” wandering and forgetting most if not all of the personal memory of who they are.

Derealization

Derealization takes many forms but, at its heart, involves a felt sense of one’s surroundings being dreamlike and strange. If you’ve ever spent far too long playing a video game or watching television, and it took you a minute to snap back to reality when you looked around yourself, you’ve had a small example of what derealization feels like. The form of objects and the space between them can become distorted; when this happens to me, I often feel like people’s faces are mere inches away from me even though they are sitting across the room. I’ve also experienced objects like tables seeming to grow or shrink in size; most of the time I would be aware that the object had not actually changed but that it was my perception of it that was altered.

I once dated someone who quickly showed signs of becoming abusive. I somehow ended up in a situation where, while staying at the person’s house, they left for a few hours for an errand and planned to decide during this time whether or not they wanted to end the relationship. I could easily have slipped into my car and escaped the situation, but instead I found myself in nearly a literal fog; everything around me seemed opaque and glossy, as though it would fade into mist if I reached out to touch it. My thoughts fell out of my head as soon as I had them (another example of depersonalization); my short-term memory was impaired. Everything around me seemed muted and at a distance. The person returned and told me they were ending the relationship.

As I drove back home, each mile seemed to make the sun brighter and the lines on the road clearer. My thinking stopped looping and I realized what had happened and how much danger I would be in if I stayed with this person. I received frantic messages a few hours later begging me to get back together, but thankfully the physical distance had diminished my dissociation to the point where there was no doubt in me about the relationship needing to be over. This is how dissociation can work; when a person is in a sufficient state of physical or emotional risk, or when a person is inadvertently triggered intensely enough to provoke an inaccurate assessment of risk, fight or flight can transform into freeze or, as I see it, float, where everything is soupy and sort-of, and time, body and surroundings seem to be malleable props of actual lived experience.

Before I engage in a discussion of dissociation and spirituality, I do want to note a persistent theme I have encountered in both my scholarly work as well as my personal therapy for dissociative issues, which is that of will. I try to reconcile myself to the idea that I am responsible for my actions, even when I am dissociative and feel detached from what I am doing. Where I vehemently disagree with some of the work I’ve seen is that dissociation is a consciously-controlled, enacted behavior. When it has hit me at full-force, I felt completely unable to do anything about it. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t have done anything, just that, in the moment, I don’t know if I could have. That’s the point, it has to work seamlessly and quickly in order to be effective. Sitting around thinking “hum, should I mentally escape into myself now or not” isn’t an operative defense. In fact, times such as painful medical procedures where I’ve consciously attempted to dissociate, I’ve been unable to fully do so because the key element of being trapped with relational danger was not present. I’ve felt shamed on many occasions by people who seem to view dissociative behaviors as interchangeable with acts of pretending or choosing to ignore, which they are not. I am extremely curious to hear from anyone who also struggles with it as to your interpretation of how it works and the extent to which you think you “choose” it or it simply “happens” to you.

Dissociation and Spirituality

In some ways, being capable of dissociative behaviors mimics certain spiritual states of ecstasy and trance. I had a short stint in the Pentecostal world of speaking in tongues and crazed dancing in the spirit. I marveled at the amount of time it took others to work themselves into a spiritual lather, whereas I could immediately slip into an altered state at a whim. I didn’t need the repetitive music, exhortations from the spiritual prophets, or the embrace of the Holy Spirit to go there, so to speak. Oddly, the immediacy of my experience showed me how shallow it was, and the “on-off” quality of my transformation led me to reject this lifestyle within a few months. I wonder at how many of the individuals of various faiths who go into trance states are dissociative.

Where dissociation can clash with spirituality is in the deep inner work it takes to grapple with spiritual challenges and difficult ethical questions. I find it tempting and sometimes succumb to the desire to un-realize and un-personalize myself from the muck of the surrounding world with all its troubles. Dissociation can provide a bubble, within which no negativity can penetrate and no betrayal, shame or ugliness can enter. This is of course an illusion; some part of ourselves is in fact absorbing everything that is happening, but to the part of ourselves with whom we identify, it isn’t our truth or our experience.

Practices of breath-work, grounding and centering have become vital to my spiritual practice, enabling me to face harsh realities and dialectics without trying to circumvent them. In addition, my spiritual walk is immensely tangible, with literal altars and enacted rituals. The balance of head and heart is more focused on heart, not because I lack intellectual depth but because I am all too skilled at using my head to disengage rather than engage.

If you are a trauma survivor, what does dissociation look like for you? If you have struggled with dissociative behaviors, how have they impacted your spiritual journey? What types of experiences have you found it useful to incorporate into your spirituality to assist you in staying grounded and centered?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

The Walking Wounded: Struggles in Recovery from CSA

Today’s #EmbodiedHeart post feels particularly vulnerable as I take a hard look at my potential for recovery and functioning as a childhood sexual abuse survivor and as a person with multiple chronic physical and mental health conditions. The insight I’ve gained from this personal reflection has allowed some of the internal distress and discomfort that’s become particularly acute for me the past six months to make more more sense to me. My insight has not yet led to a particularly workable solution, so I am hoping to learn about how my readers have handled similar situations. I will say that ideas like “look on the bright side” or “remember others have it worse,” although not entirely without merit, are typically experienced as invalidating rather than as useful in most situations like mine.

I’ve unfortunately set myself up in a situation where I need to maintain a high level of performance across a variety of domains in order to stay on top of my finances and to preserve my living situation. My job is high stress and demanding. I have sufficient funds coming in but face an uphill battle to get my student loans paid off. I have to stay in my job at least a few more years in order to have the possibility of my loans being forgiven realized. As a homeowner, I am solely responsible for the upkeep and repair of my house. Without my family in my life, maintaining close ties to friends and acquaintances takes on a heightened sense of importance. My health is assisted by the fact that I stay active and eat a decent diet, but both of these behaviors require constant effort and monitoring. In short, I feel overwhelmed by trying to keep up with the demands of my life, while simultaneously becoming increasingly aware of the toll it is taking on my mind and body. I know that the situation in which I am in is largely my own doing, but that sense of “choice” doesn’t mean much when I can’t see a quick way out to a lower stress environment.

Despite the external and internal pressures under which I find myself operating, I’ve kept on keeping on for years. Recently, though, I’ve heard a loud “no more” from inside. Parts of me feel as though they are holding on to dozens of tangled strings, attempting to contain my mental health symptoms and body sensations. They are threatening to let loose of all of them at once, which I can only imagine would mean a severe deterioration in my functioning. I had a few years of significant impairment in my 20’s. At that time, my internal system believed I was in a safe enough environment to let go and then found out it wasn’t. Now, though, the issue is less motivated by hope and more by exhaustion and frustration.

I had a breakdown in therapy last year in which I shared with my therapist that I perceive myself as having full-blown PTSD and other disorders, but the pressure I feel to maintain my functioning is so strong that I can’t even allow myself to experience the acting out of the symptoms. Instead, I think I dissociate further and tuck away any loose articles that might tumble out of the overcoat of “I’m good, I’ve got this” in which I blanket myself. Something always gives, though, when we dissociate, and the hollowness and joyless outlook with which I am currently struggling is one such outcome.

There are steps such as a slightly reduced workload and more vacation time on which I’ve embarked to attempt to rectify the situation. My fear is that I won’t be able to fully placate the parts of myself who are completely fed up by my inattention to my inner needs and who almost seem to desire for me to “lose it” so that everyone else will witness the folly of my attempt to appear to have it together. I keep reminding myself that, as a general rule, decompensating to the point of needing intervention is very likely to be retraumatizing and brutal, not the posh vacation with room service which pieces of my mind seem to believe it to be.

My internal imagery for my experience one of running a race far beyond what my body and mind can take, with my single-minded focus on the finish line obscuring from me the fact that my shoes are torn beyond repair and my skin is crusted with salty dehydration. Now that I see the state in which I am, I know I need to recalibrate my intention and take some rest periods, but I also realize I have to keep moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. There is no reasonable option in which letting myself sink into the sandy landscape surrounding the track will do anything for me other than cause me to wither to a helpless shell of myself in the blazing sun. There is no one coming to save me, just as no one came to save me a child in an abusive home. Now, though, I believe I can look to my fellow travelers for at least encouragement as I plod along.

What have you done in situations where you felt you were in over your head? What resources have you leveraged to reduce your burden? How have you found the energy to keep going?

Naturally Mindful

Elemental Meditation-Air

Within Paganism, the Air Element is linked with aspects of creativity, self-expression and mental engagement. For today’s #NaturallyMindful reflection, I will be exploring the connection between the physical properties of air and the spiritual implications of our relationship with it in this second installment of my series on the elements (see Earth). I’ll also be examining some of the psychological effects our relationship with air can have on us.

Lines and Swirls

The movement of air is intimately related to the fire element of the sun; wind is forged when air is heated by the sun’s rays and expands. We often describe human growth and development in the language of both light and air. Beginnings are “enlighted.” Change is “in the wind.” Wind not only originates with the fire element, it can in turn fan the flames of infernos. Contemplate for a moment the ways in which empowerment and inspiration are inter-played in your own life with aspects of movement and evolution. What can we learn from the dance of wind and fire?

Wind moves in three dimensions at once by flowing in straight lines or swirling in spinning vortexes. How often we as humans desire linearity—for things to progress forward—with no strange angles or curves! There is a beauty, though, I think in the undulations of a field of wheat or the rocking of branches to and fro in a storm. The trajectory of our lives is likewise uneven and flitting; accepting the unpredictability and possibility of what is to come can be exhilarating in the way it frees us from expectation.

Air is ever-present yet the quality of its movement is inherently transient. We feel its force and then it’s gone. Our mental processes are likewise temporary. Mindfulness meditation practices sometimes make use of imagery related to air to help individuals with anxiety loosen their grip on the need to obsess over fear-provoking thoughts. For instance, the person may be encouraged to imagine the thought as a balloon, which can be released into the air and watched as it floats away.

In Breath and Out Breath

The air we inhale is not made primarily of oxygen. Our lungs are responsible for selectively filtering the oxygen out of the mixture of gasses, moving it to our blood. Humans require a constant supply of oxygen in order to produce energy to “run” the cells of our body. Without it, our brain quickly dies. It amazes me to think that every human in existence relies on an “invisible” gaseous substance every moment of their life. Each in-breath feels like a tiny miracle within this framework.

We exhale air in which the oxygen content has been transferred to carbon dioxide. Trees and other plant life absorb this carbon dioxide and transform it back to oxygen. This symbiotic relationship extends to other aspects of our breath, as trees also block harmful particles in air.

Breathing exercises that focus on regulating the pace of our inhalations and exhalations can reduce stress. Individuals who suffer from the effects of traumatic events may find attuning to breath to be a grounding experience. The next time you engage in this mindfulness practice, extend your awareness to the sources of the in-breath and the gifting of the out-breath to nearby vegetation.

A Voice to the Void

We harness the power of air each time we speak. Consider that each time you say something aloud, your body, through an intricate balancing act, is constricting and releasing air just so in order to pronounce each syllabus. It takes us years as children to master this choreography; there are plenty of individuals for whom, due to physical conditions, a precisely-timed pirouette of sounds proves elusive even in adulthood.

The space between objects within our galaxy is filled with the Interstellar Medium, a near-vacuum compromised only of very tiny particles made of substances like “crystals” as well as thin gases such as hydrogen. Our voices do not directly reach this void as far as I understand physics, but it is fascinating to me to consider how much “hot air” many of us generate on a regular basis in speaking without genuine need or purpose. Ritual chanting in Pagan practice becomes elevated to a sacred act for me when I consider collective voices calling into the night.

Air is ethereal, there but unseen. We need it and we shudder to think what it means for our existence when breath ceases. It give life to our innermost thoughts as we render them to spoken word. What has the air element meant for you in your life? In what ways do you connect its physical characteristics to your psychological and spiritual life? How might you alter your relationship with it, for instance through awareness of your breath?

Goddessing Self Care

Moon-time Howling

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining focusing on how women can engage in healthy and healing behaviors during our moon-time and throughout our cycle. This time is especially fraught for me as I suffer from PMDD, which stands for premenstrual dysphoric disorder. I describe my experience to others as having full-blown depressive episodes around the time of my cycle, which dissipate rapidly once bleeding commences. This experience can feel animalistic to me in its rawness and rage, even as I seek to reclaim it as part of my femininity. My writing here regarding moon-time is primarily aimed at those who identify as women, although I think it could also be useful if you have women in your life for whom you would like to serve as a support person.

The physical aspects of being a woman of child-bearing age have never been easy for me. I went through puberty earlier than most of my peers and did everything possible to hide the fact that I was getting my period. I would get severe stomach problems every month, to the point I’d need to leave school. I now experience migraines that correspond to my cycle. My mood swings during the premenstrual time are extreme and leave me feeling disillusioned with life and detached from those around me. I am prone to rage. My PTSD symptoms also increase significantly.

Given the distress I experience with my cycle, Goddess Spirituality has opened a new world to me in terms of the ideas of “red tents” and “moon-time.” There are dueling theories regarding whether menstrual huts served places to separate women who are viewed as spiritually unclean, or as places for women to gather during their cycle because of its sacred power. I think the former is much more likely than the latter in many societies, but I hope women gathering together in this way can become something we claim as sacred ground for us to celebrate our feminine experience. I think there is a good deal of cultural appropriation as well in what we make of these rituals, so I hope that we can develop new practices that are not overly reliant on customs and practices that may be sacred to a culture different from our own with which we are unfamiliar.

After coming to an understanding of how menstruation can be celebrated instead of shamed, I feel more able to view my experience as part of the general ebb and flow of life. In gathering in community with other women, I’ve seen how common some of my experiences are. I feel encouraged to take the time where things get especially rough for me as an opportunity to turn inward, and to release those things in my life that are no longer suiting me. I have high points as well throughout the month and I put more effort than I used to into harnessing the energy and strength I have at these times towards accomplishing tasks, so that there is less to do at low points.

I’ll be describing the self-care that I’ve personally found useful throughout my cycle, but I do want to note that you may not find yourself following the same pattern. Some women are energized during their time of bleeding, and drained around the time of ovulation. Others may not notice these changes. Trans-women as well as women with certain physical conditions may not have a traditional menstrual cycle, but may still identify with the ebb and flow of energy throughout the month.

Self-Care During the Waning and New Moon Phase

The time of the month leading up to and when we are bleeding correspond to the waning and new moon phases. Your energy may begin to decrease, and you may feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities you have in your life. You may find yourself withdrawing from others. Your emotions may be heightened. This time of the month and moon cycle offers an opportunity to:

  • Deepen your inner work. Your intuition is ripened and ready to release new knowledge. Use this time to learn more about yourself and your unconscious needs and desires.
  • Connect to your support system. Even though the impulse is to pull away from others, staying in touch with them and opening up the vulnerabilities you may be experiencing can enhance your relationships. I often find myself having more meaningful and longer conversations with a select person or people during this time.
  • Attune to your body’s needs. My body proclaims its needs loudly during this time. I ignore it to my peril. I tend to be more likely to schedule doctor’s appointments and adjust my habits to ensure healthy nutrition and sleep during this time.
  • Refresh your environment. I tend to redecorate, organize, clean and update my physical surroundings during this time, releasing any physical materials that are no longer needed. Surrounding myself with fresh flowers, scented candles, incense or other fragrant materials keeps me in touch with beauty even if I feel “gross” physically.

Self-Care During Waxing and Full Moon Phases

When the bleeding time ends, we enter a stage of energy and excitement as our bodies build towards the full moon of ovulation. You may experience a feeling of needing more in your life. Sexual desire could increase. Creativity blossoms. This time of month and moon cycle provides a chance to:

  • Set goals. The beginning and middle of my cycle can be a place where I take the reflection I did during my moon-time, and decide upon the specific goals that will get me closer to what I am seeking in life.
  • Direct your energy flow. There are times during this part of my cycle in which my energy can feel abundant. If I’m not careful, it gets spent on activities like making expensive purchases or starting a project for which I don’t truly have the necessary time or resources. It takes sustained effort for me to ensure I am channeling the energy I feel into productive and healthy endeavors.
  • Participate in community action. I am more interested in spending time with others at the start of my cycle. I find it useful to balance my engagement so that I don’t over-commit for the rest of the month, and so that I take advantage of this time to dig into relationships and activities.
  • Rejuvenate self-care behaviors. I find it easier to make positive changes in my eating, sleeping and exercise behaviors as I approach ovulation. My body has fewer cravings and I have the energy needed for vigorous exercise.

Your experience throughout your monthly cycle may mirror mine or may unfurl differently. What changes, if any, do you experience throughout the month? How does your energy peak and descend? How are your emotions and relationships affected by these changes? Women’s cycles have been stigmatized and ridiculed throughout human history; it is vital for us to stake our claim to our experience as our own unique way of being a woman in the world, and to find the common ground we all share.