Some interesting conversations were had last week after I wrote about the importance of nurturing inner safety. Two, in particular, stood out for me. One was a discussion on how inner safety manifests when living in dangerous conditions, i.e. a war-torn country; and two, how one’s internal sanctuary provides a safe haven for others who may be in an unsure situation or lacking the ability to provide for themselves, i.e. a therapeutic situation, policing or teaching, to name but a few. I will touch on these topics in the next few blogs but what I really want to talk about today are specific ways to begin developing a safe inner harbor.
A few days ago I read a Globe and Mail Facts and Argument essay titled: After dad died, I still didn’t feel safe. Until now. It tells of a woman’s journey of healing from an abusive childhood. She writes, and I grossly paraphrase, that she only began to feel safe after learning martial arts, becoming a long-distance runner and finding a supportive partner.
Now I do not know her full story and maybe that is all she did—we are all unique in the direction our healing takes. I do know, however, that for myself I needed more than that. I needed to go within.
My past is very different from the above mentioned woman but I, too, grew up without a sense of security. I feel it is true for a large portion of the population. Many of us, therefore, do not feel safe inside. You see it everywhere from those who bully to those who are bullied; the folk who fear speaking their mind to those who stay in unhealthy relationships; the addicted, the lost and otherwise strong folk who cannot admit their vulnerabilities. I see it with people who fear losing status, money or privilege and those who fear being seen even if it is in aid of another. Then there are the self conscious and those with low self esteem and its purported opposite, inflated self worth. A lack of inner safety manifests in as many different ways as there are different kinds of people. There are just too many messages out there telling us we are not good enough and not near enough telling us that we are okay just the way we are. Don’t believe me? How many women do you know who like the shape of their body? How many men are fine with their female partners earning more money than they do? Without a sense of internal safety we lose sight of who we are and where we are going. We lose trust and confidence in ourselves and become externally focused in our drive to fulfill important needs like safety.
Because of my lack of internal safety I developed certain defences to help keep me safe (or at least what I considered to be safe): I became physically fit (both strong in muscle and endurance), was tough in attitude, crass in humour and careless in speech. Outwardly I pretended I didn’t care what people thought but underneath I was insecure, unconfident and desperate for people to like me. I was so intent on developing a thick and impenetrable coat of armour that I neglected who I was inside. It wasn’t until I tended to those inner feelings that my true safety began.
I think the first path I took in this journey was learning to be still. It was difficult for me. To be still meant danger. It evoked amorphous but fearful images and chaotic feelings of vulnerability. To avoid that I became the queen of doing. Whether I was exercising, talking, working or obsessing, my mind and body refused to be quiet.
The thing I didn’t realize was that (and I believe this is true for most people) I am at my safest when experiencing inner stillness. It is then that I can hear what my body is telling me, what feelings to listen to and what voices, internal or external, I can trust. When still, my boundaries are clear and I come to know what belongs to me and what belongs to others. It is there, where quiet reigns, that I understand that only I can hurt, abandon or reject ... me. And it is there where love begins and provides the foundation for who I am, how I relate to others and the choices I make.
There is a maxim in therapy that if you want change, you have to do something different. With encouragement from my then therapist I began to do just that. I took it slow and experimented in the safest place I knew: the forest. As I said before it wasn’t easy but ever so often when hiking in the woods I would sit down.
At first I could only do it for a few moments but over time I developed tricks to slow my mind down and ease the fear creeping up my spine. I would notice, for example, how the log or rock on which I was sitting felt against my skin; how cool or rough it was and how my body adjusted (or not) to make it more comfortable. It helped me become aware of other parts of my body. Other times I would focus on a leaf or a bug crawling across the path. I would describe it in my head, bringing all my attention to this one spot. My endurance grew and, along with it, the safety. I began to not need the external point of focus but could start with my breath—just noticing, observing and becoming aware of the natural flow of breathing in … and breathing out. That was over ten years ago. And while I can sometimes, even now, find it hard to be still I have the tools to respond to the challenge. This basic mindful exercise, sitting alone in the quiet of the forest, was the beginning of my adventurous journey back into life.
Here’s another mindful meditation developed by Yvonne Dolan. It is called Sights-Sounds-Senses or 5,4,3,2,1. I find it useful when I find myself befuddled with confusing thoughts, under stress or in the midst of insomnia. It uses the hyper-alertness that usually comes with these states and brings my mind and body back to a restful centre. You can do it anywhere: the bus, in a group of people, on a solo walk or in bed in the middle of the night. I’ve done it while working retail.
Say aloud or quietly to yourself:
Five things you see.
Five things you hear.
Five sensations you feel. (This is about physical sensations. For example, I feel my right thumb lightly touching the space bar as I type).
Which each thing you see, hear or feel spend a couple of seconds with it before moving on to the next one. Note, for example, how your thumb feels against the space bar… is there pressure, a coolness or … what? Maybe nothing comes to mind and that is okay.
Now, name four things you see, hear, and feel .
Then, three things you see, hear and feel; two things … one thing….
If you desire, start over again when you come down to one thing and keep going until you feel relaxed. There is really no wrong way to do this exercise. Even if you can only hear one sound, for example, keep naming it. Find a way to make it work for you. But notice, when you feel complete, how your mind clears of all the unwanted chatter and, almost miraculously, becomes still.
Next week I’ll discuss some other ways of beginning the journey of bringing safety back into the body.
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