In our fast-paced world, where busyness is often mistaken for productivity, the concept of “soaking in being” has emerged as a powerful antidote. It encapsulates the essence of nurturing well-being and cultivating a heightened state of awareness. This practice invites us to pause, reflect, and connect with our inner self, which in turn promotes a deeper sense of fulfillment and purpose in life.Continue reading
It’s all too frighteningly familiar: A man walks into a workplace and starts shooting, leaving many people dead and others injured. News reports later reveal that he was angry for being fired from his job or under great personal stress. In one scenario some six years ago, the owner of a sausage factory in California, who had complained about being harassed by the government over health violations at his plant, shot and killed three meat inspectors who showed up to examine the facility. A friend of the assailant commented, “He was a good man, but pressure, pressure—everybody blows up under pressure.”
But does this tendency to blow up with anger and aggression truly lurk in everyone? I’ve always wondered.
Classic responses to stress
At the core of our existence is the need to survive. Meeting this basic need requires a minimum of food, shelter, and safety. Lack in any of these can trigger fear and anxiety, which puts significant stress on our nervous system. From the earliest times, humankind has responded to stress in relatively predictable ways. In the 1920s and ’30s researchers described the two best-known reactions: lashing out or running away, also known as “fight or flight.” When threat is detected, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks in, producing stress hormones that activate glands and organs to help us defend the body against attack. Glucose is released to give us energy. Blood flows to the muscles and brain; heart rate and blood pressure increase; blood flow for digestion decreases. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic branch, known as the “rest and digest” system, calms things down.
Another, less well-known, more recently recognized protective response to fear is “freeze”—like a deer’s response to the glare of headlights from an oncoming car. The freeze response most often occurs when neither fight nor flight is a viable option. We don’t fight or run away; we become immobile. The response is a form of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which often manifests as an inability to communicate or take necessary steps for self-preservation and may include feelings of apathy, detachment, and numbing. Freeze may occur when we feel paralyzed by survivor’s guilt or are overwhelmed. Like fight or flight, freeze is not a conscious response but one that occurs deep within our nervous system.
Tend and befriend response
The bulk of research on fight or flight has focused on male subjects. More recently, however, expanded research has identified a very different response in females. Compared to most males, females tend to respond to stress with less intense physical and emotional aggression. Instead, they may first gather and tend their offspring and move close to other females for social support and comfort. This response, dubbed “tend and befriend,” has the effect of calming the nervous system.
As research revealed that women are more likely to respond to stress through tending and befriending than men, scientists wondered whether there is something else at play beyond maternal instinct. The answer appears to be linked to the pituitary hormone oxytocin. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone, is released when females engage in nurturing behavior, and that inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity seen in fight-or-flight reactions to stress. Females’ estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while male androgens inhibit its release.
A study found that at the end of a highly stressful workday, a mother’s response is increased nurturing of her children, which stimulates oxytocin, thereby reducing stress. In addition, women are more likely turn to others for support—e.g., talking on the phone with friends or relatives. By contrast, fathers are more likely to withdraw or have interpersonal conflicts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long and challenging time for everyone, and it has taken a huge toll on our nervous systems. As we feared for our lives and those of our loved ones, our stress levels naturally heightened. Mandatory lockdowns exacerbated our stress. Those who could hunkered down in their homes, while others literally risked their lives working in “essential services.” Then additional events—most notably, widely publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of white law enforcement officers—exploded into social and political unrest, resulting in more fear and anxiety and more people pitted against each other.
Throughout this pandemic we’ve experienced a loss of connection. Everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. We’ve had to choose safety over love and belonging. All this has occurred because our nervous system has detected that our essential survival is at stake. During the pandemic, the “fight” response has been most in evidence in health care workers fighting for their patients’ lives. These workers coupled their fight with compassionate tending and befriending.
Our desire for connection and nurturing at this time has never been greater. What would we have done without delivery services, phones, and computers, Zoom, and Netflix? People have asked me, “Don’t you miss seeing people, besides on the TV?” Sure, but Zoom has been a blessing for me in the work I do and connecting with friends. Whether it’s one-on-one or with groups, talking face-to-face with real live people has saved me. Meditation and Somatic Movement have helped me stay connected to and in harmony with myself. But living alone, I do long to be physically present again with people—and especially to be held by my favorite tango partners and move in sync with the music! Though, sadly, I will miss the ones who succumbed to the virus.
I believe COVID-19 has awakened us to our collective vulnerability. It’s also stimulated the tend-and-befriend response in many people—not only female. Caring for ourselves and those close to us has been number one, yes. But hasn’t it also revealed the truth about our interconnectedness? As we consider ourselves part of a larger “us,” we realize that protecting ourselves also protects others. We are not separate and we really do need one another. We’ve seen this play out across the world with ordinary people joining together to help and protect the most vulnerable in their community–cultivating “tend and befriend.”
Creating space to tend and befriend
The renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Within all the limitations that have been imposed upon us during the pandemic, haven’t we learned that we can still find ways to shape our lives, find space for what is important? Creating space for compassion—for ourself and others—can help us choose how to respond to events rather than be driven by fear and anxiety. Creating space helps us get out from under whatever we’re feeling as we move forward with our lives.
Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cofounded Tend, a clinical consulting practice focused on preserving the mental well-being of health care practitioners. In an interview for the podcast “On Being,” she talked about the power of pause, gratitude, and savoring. She recommends developing reverence for our bodies and our nervous systems, for seeking whatever releases oxytocin in us and creates a sense of wonderment and curiosity.
I leave you with some words from other wise teachers:
“I go to nature to be soothed and to have my senses put in order.”—John Burroughs, American naturalist
“The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” —Tara Brach, meditation teacher
“Even wearing a mask, others can see the smile in your eyes.” —Karen Ross, hypnotherapist and life coach
There are times when providing a supportive space (or holding space) for someone facing a challenge can be the greatest gift. The process of holding space means being compassionately present. And it may not be an easy thing to do—especially when the other is our child, aging parent, or intimate friend. Our tendency is to want to fix things or offer advice. But when we are instead able to just be there for someone, it allows them to dip into their own inner space. This allows for making sense of their circumstance and thus shift from feeling isolated, wounded, or victimized to feeling safe, supported, and connected. Ultimately, our holding supportive space fosters the other’s growth and empowerment.
Holding space can happen at ordinary and unexpected times. Have you ever had an experience of being suddenly and utterly present with a complete stranger? I remember when someone behind me in a grocery store checkout line. She mentioned she was buying nutritional shakes for her mom who couldn’t eat solid food anymore. Then there was the person sitting next to me on an airplane who shared that he was traveling to be with a dying friend. In both cases, I felt deep empathy; my heart spontaneously opened to them, and they poured out their emotions.
Holding space with compassion
We may think of ourselves as independent persons, but we are all interdependent beings. Holding space for another is a form of compassion, but it is not a one-way gesture; it’s a shared experience. The American Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chödrön has stated this eloquently: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and wounded. It is a relationship between equals.”
Often, when we show compassion for another, our own dilemmas surface. We want to say, “I know exactly how your feel.” But do we really know how another person feels? You may think that this response, and even sharing a personal story, will help them. But more often than not it will diminish the importance of their struggle. How do we know when to simply listen and when to offer advice or share our own experience?
Holding space has no agenda or expectations or the need to help someone overcome a problem. All judgment must be set aside. Sitting silently and listening—in other words, abiding—creates a safe environment that invites the other’s heart to make room for whatever wants to be present. Don’t be afraid of silence.
Abiding is not suppressing your own thoughts, feelings, or sensations, but rather inviting them to take a back seat for now. Though your relationship with the one you are holding space for is “between equals,” you may not occupy equal space. You invite the person to occupy as much space as they need. As a back seater, you may want to take up more prime space. Be mindful when this happens. Simply say, as you would to a small child, “Not now; later.” Mindfulness is noticing your attention and what arises to distract you. It also is recognizing that whatever arises in your awareness is a messenger with something to share. It could be a self-doubt, judgment, or even fear. Rather than killing the messenger, we also must hold space for the message to be revealed.
Avoiding sympathy, favoring empathy
While holding space, notice when feelings of sympathy arise, as they can lead to disconnection from the other person. According to Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, when we feel sympathy for someone, we feel sorry for them but don’t feel their pain or understand their perspective. Feeling empathy as well as expressing compassion strengthens our connection. There may be a fine line between empathy and compassion. When we are compassionate, we are conscious of another’s distress and desire to alleviate it, but we are not invested in understanding their perspective. But with empathy, we are aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. As a result, we become more connected to them. Empathy is putting yourself aside, stepping into the other’s shoes, and walking their path with them.
Brown views empathy as being at one end of a continuum of connection, with shame at the opposite end and vulnerability as the equalizer. Shame and blame close us off and cause disconnection. In stark contrast, an empathic ear offers another the opportunity to be vulnerable yet feel safe in sharing his or her weaknesses. While shame says “I can’t let you see this,” vulnerability involves courage, compassion, and openness to connection.
Journey towards feeling whole
As I reflect back on my life, I think of many times when I needed to share my struggles with someone I could trust, who would listen lovingly and even feel my pain. There have been losses—a job, intimate relationships, parents. There have been life-changing challenges to address and decisions to make. I am fortunate to have had others who supportively held space for me. Some things, I’m sure, may have seemed trivial to the listener. Yet I have learned the value of letting go and allowing my vulnerability to surface with the right person. I have been able to do the same for friends and family, as well as countless people in my coaching work. I believe this is an important skill we learn on our journey toward feeling whole.
If someone we care about has acted inappropriately or been dishonest or hurtful, how can we hold space for and support them? Is it possible to set judgment aside and offer unconditional acceptance? Many therapists have learned that they don’t have to like a client or approve of what they have done. But they accept the person and constructively encourage them to move forward in their life. We can learn that same approach.
Fundamentals of space holding
Learning to hold space for someone can be cultivated as a form of spiritual practice much like meditation. Key components of this practice are:
- Letting go of judgment
- Opening your heart
- Allowing another to have whatever experience they’re having
- Giving your complete undivided attention to the other person.
Holding space for another invites our best self into the relationship. We trust the process to unfold organically. In sharing a journey with someone with an unknown destination, we foster their healing and transformation—and often our own.
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
I recently viewed a TV special with a segment from the PBS children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Nick, a young boy, was invited to play the piano. As Nick played a Bach minuet, Mister Rogers listened in a way that suggested he was not just hearing the notes but actually experiencing them in the same way his young player did. He watched Nick’s facial expressions, not his hands, and was thoroughly present and connected in his listening. Indeed, a Mister Rogers hallmark was encouraging kids to connect with others, especially those different from them. That passion for connection is reflected in the title of both the song for which he is best remembered and the recent documentary film about him: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Passive and active
How often are you really present with what is happening in your life? Do you find yourself easily distracted while engaging in activities or listening only partially when people are speaking? Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions have always had their power to distract us from the present moment. But nowadays texts, emails, and various social media have become all consuming, taking us away from what is before us, and even what is inside us. Yet with all this connectivity, research reveals that Americans feel more isolated and disconnected than ever before. All these electronic distractions interfere significantly with our ability to truly listen, focus, respond—and even to feel fully alive.
Hearing is generally a passive experience. We are bombarded with a myriad of sounds as we move through our daily lives and simply cannot be present to all of them. But how often do we really stop to listen?
Listening is not limited to hearing through our ears. We have the capacity to listen with our whole body, heart, and mind. Although hearing depends on the transmission of vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, sound vibrations also produce a felt sense in the body. I once attended a conference at which the entire audience was deaf. To my surprise, the event ended with a dance; the participants’ bodies moved with exhilarating joy to incredibly loud music. So loud it felt like my eardrums might burst. But I also felt its deep vibration throughout my entire body.
As I write this, the hissing sound of cicadas is present outside and I occasionally pause and listen. I feel it vibrating inside and around me. Listening can be an active inner experience that requires our full presence and fosters openness and absorption.
We all have a need to tell our story and truly be heard. Our minds often ruminate over stories of our daily experiences as well as our life challenges, which can cause us to feel stuck or blocked. Sometimes just letting it out verbally can release some of what is pent up inside. But that may only provide a temporary fix. We all need a Mister Rogers–like listener. When someone truly listens to us, a powerful human connection is created. We depend on and thrive as a result of such inter-relatedness with others.
When no one is available to listen, journaling can be a meaningful outlet. Some people keep a journal as if they are opening up to another person. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank was forced into hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. For two years she kept a diary in which she shared her deepest thoughts and feelings with an imaginary friend she called Kitty. Kitty became Anne’s safe and intimate confidante. Her diary, subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl, has become a classic that continues to inspire countless readers.
How to listen to another
I believe that most of us listen to one another halfheartedly, or, more colloquially speaking, we are half-assed listeners! When someone is speaking, a transient thought may surface in our mind, and we stop listening. We may think we’re listening, but we get busy thinking about what we want to say in response and become focused on when we might have the opportunity to interject our thoughts. The result is a fragmented conversation that does not provide the sense of connection we all need.
How do we listen? You might practice the following exercise with a friend or partner. Choose a time and place away from conflicts when your stress hormones are not activated. As one person shares something important to him or her, you, the listener, should slow down and breathe deeply. Perhaps evoke Mister Rogers! Become calm and absorb what the other person says—like a sponge. Set aside judgement and assumptions; don’t analyze and don’t interrupt. This is especially important when listening to someone whose views don’t agree with yours. Notice if you become triggered by what is being shared. Stay grounded and present with your breath while continuing to remain open and accepting; maintain eye contact.
Rather than wanting to fix, change, or give advice, be curious. Respond with nonintrusive, clarifying questions. For example, paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Ask the speaker to “say more.” Ask about their feelings, which will allow them to know you care; they will feel validated, something we all seek.
Listening in nature
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Nature may be our best teacher for learning to listen. As the cicadas continue to hiss outside my window, I feel their presence subtly vibrating in my body, calling me to go outside and walk amongst the trees. According to biologist David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, “There is no such thing as an individual within biology…. Instead, the fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship.” A tree shares the sounds of its leaves rustling in the wind; the insects and birds inhabiting its branches make their own unique and beautiful sounds. Nature’s sounds can help lure you away from your busy thinking mind. When you relax into listening, it’s possible to empty your mind of unnecessary thoughts. When you are deeply present, you experience the sound of silence and feel its peace and equilibrium. Listening can become your best companion.
As the spiritual philosopher Jean Klein, author of numerous books including The Book of Listening and The Ease of Being, said: “When you come to innocent, unconditioned listening, your body goes spontaneously into deep peace.”
What does it mean to befriend? The dictionary defines it as: “to make friends or become friendly with; act as a friend to (someone) by offering help, support or aid.” Diplomats, politicians and businesspeople are successful when they befriend the powerbrokers within the system. Whether with competitors, peers or enemies, getting to know each other personally creates a foundation of common ground to help broker future deals.
The art of befriending can also be a powerful skill to apply in many areas of one’s personal life. One person wrote about befriending the country to which she recently relocated. Another, ordered an extra Starbucks for the homeless person she passes on the way to work each morning. How about befriending yourself—your thoughts and emotions, disappointments and regrets and health issues. The art of befriending can have endless applications.
Foes as friends
In 2017 Oprah Winfrey led a focus group for television’s 60 Minutes. Fourteen people were selected from a community in Michigan. Seven supported President Trump and seven were against him. As expected the discussion was spirited and emotional.
Following the show the fourteen people created a private Facebook page for further discussion and to stay connected. Then they took it a step further. They started to socialize over pizza, bowling and even visiting a firing range—essentially befriending each other. When 60 Minutes learned about these remarkable happenings they decided to do a follow-up show filming some of their outings and once again having Oprah facilitate discussion. Interestingly, none of the members had changed their views. But they had learned to listen to one another and understand the others’ views–and they had become friends.
Befriending invites one to step outside oneself, and in an imaginative way, step into another’s shoes to experience his or her feelings and perspectives. In this way, befriending unfolds as empathy, which fuels connection, according to Brené Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
Befriending isn’t a new skill to learn. You already know this naturally. But you can learn new applications.
Think about the people you shun who are different than you. How does it serve you to remain separate from them? What would happen if you were to get to know them and really listen—without judgement—to their views? Is it possible to be open, curious and welcoming so you might learn more ideas? Other befriending qualities might include: caring for, encouraging, and having one’s back. These are essential for raising children, and for showing up for a family member or friend who is in need.
Very often befriending asks you to step outside your comfort zone. In the Academy Award winning movie, Shape of Water, a mute janitor befriends and eventually falls in love with an amphibious creature. One never knows where befriending might take you!
Sometimes you may befriend someone and then never see them again. Yet, you are both somehow enriched or enlightened by the brief encounter. This has happened to me many times when I’ve traveled. Some of my dearest friendships started this way.
For some people it is even possible to befriend a former partner or spouse. When my relationship with Tom ended a number of years ago, I really struggled. But with time and good therapy, I was able to accept that our romantic relationship did not work and no one was at fault. With a foundation of mutual understanding we later befriended each other and continue to share good times together. A deep trust and empathy have evolved between us.
YOU may be the most important person of all to befriend. There is much going on inside—thoughts, beliefs, stories and emotions. There are a myriad of things happening in the physical body at any given moment. How much of this do you take for granted…and possibly not treat very well?
The same befriending qualities such as curiosity, listening, non-judgment, etc., are equally applicable to knowing all facets of you. What sort of relationship do you have with your body: your health, your age? Is there something you want to change? Are there areas of disappointment or even disgust? Besides you, who really cares?
I love the title of Terry Cole-Whitaker’s book, “What people think of me is none of my business.” You can’t control other people’s thoughts about you—and sometimes your own. But, you can befriend the thoughts you think and the feelings and emotions that arise as well. Rather than block or resist them with sugar, shopping, TV or wine, take time to get to know them. Lovingly and tenderly befriend them.
Fear, for example, can be a rich source of insight. Rather than allowing fear to become an enemy that paralyzes you, befriend it. Sit with it and seek to understand it. Let your fear tell you what it wants. Let it show you what needs to be healed and let it become a companion to help you move forward. While this process initially takes courage, it also makes you stronger, wiser and more resilient.
Disappointments in life can often result in feelings of blame and guilt, especially when we didn’t meet our own expectations. Befriending can start by stepping back as an outside observer and witnessing the whole scenario or story about it. Make friends with the aspects that stand out, especially your beliefs and thoughts. Acknowledge what you have learned—which might even be a new skill that serves you later. The journey of life is filled with learning and growing from all experiences—positive and negative.
It’s a law of nature that with every negative there is a complimentary opposite, which is often uncovered in the learning. Each informs the other. A line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness, reads: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
Live from befriending
Living from a place of befriending invites you to welcome whatever comes your way, openly, lovingly and without resistance. The art of befriending has a multitude of benefits that can empower you. It helps you feel more connected to life and frees you to feel more whole and complete.
I recently was a staff presenter at a four-day retreat in Chicago for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Each veteran brought a support person—partner, family member, or battle buddy. One afternoon an art therapist at the School of the Art Institute led the group through expressive art projects. To begin, they were given old button-down shirts to protect their clothing. Then they were asked to place one hand into a puddle of colored acrylic paint, plant their handprint on the back of their partner, and say, “I’ve got your back!” This experience was a powerful way for people to feel connected—and to experience things we all crave: feeling safe, supported, and cared for. We all need truly supportive relationships.
I work with survivors of war and other traumatic experiences who continue to suffer long after the traumatic event. Vietnam was a highly controversial war. In addition to the traumas suffered abroad, those who returned home were not welcomed back. Many stuffed their memories and feelings just to get on with life. Those who have suffered childhood, domestic, or other forms of abuse or traumas generally harbor feelings of being unsafe, vulnerable, insecure, helpless, and alone.
Just as warriors need to protect one another in combat, we all need people in our lives who are there for us, have our best interests at heart, and will stand up for us. Yet, loneliness, isolation, and depression are now highly prevalent in our culture. A 2005 report published in the American Sociological Review found that one in four Americans felt they had no one they could talk to. According to Lynn Smith-Lovin Professor of Sociology at Duke University, that number has dropped to two. The proliferation of social networking over the last decade has changed the society in many ways but hasn’t offered a replacement for the kind of connectedness true friendship provides.
Care, support, and protection are fundamental needs of infants, children, and even teenagers. Most young people have the assurance that their parents will always have their back. It would be wonderful if we all had that sense of security. The fact is, we are social beings, and our need for connection continues throughout our lives; such connections give us the resiliency to live fulfilling lives.
Trust and support
“Problems carried alone are problems doubled, while problems shared are problems cut in half.” —David A. Grant, Founder/Publisher TBI HOPE Magazine
Even if we haven’t experienced war or abuse, we all have suffered—the death of a loved one, loss of a job, disappointment in a relationship, severe illness. When times are tough, who is there for you? Is there someone you can turn to who will listen, comfort you, and help you resolve or cope with your situation? If not family, who else can you lean on? Who really listens to you with a compassionate ear?
Even though we want to be accepted and loved, sometimes the prospect of letting another see us our flaws, failings, and weaknesses can be scary and make us feel vulnerable, not knowing if we can truly trust that person. We need people who can make us feel good about ourselves, not those who are negative or judgmental. While opening the trust door may seem risky, the alternative—being alone, anxious, and powerless—will not alleviate our suffering.
Some of us are most comfortable one-to-one with a friend, partner, or counselor when baring our inner soul. But support can also be found in groups. Support networks for people with health challenges and addictions have been shown to be highly effective in helping reduce anxiety and depression. They provide safe spaces in which individuals can voice their struggles, listen to the challenges of others, learn from them, and realize they are not alone. This offers a beginning for cultivating supportive relationships. Groups can also provide healthy peer pressure, nudging others to take steps that will help them. Learning to trust helps people feel better, develop better coping skills, and ultimately live happier, healthier lives.
I have greatly valued the informal networks of support I’ve formed over the years, both professional and personal. I cherish my lifeline of intimate friends whom I know will have my back when I need them, as I will have theirs. When it comes to writing these articles, I know I can depend on people who will honestly critique and edit my musings. I trust they’ll let me know when I’ve missed the mark. When I teach courses or make presentations, I’ve learned to approach them with the understanding that my audiences want me to succeed—they want me to inspire or enlighten them. Why else would they be there!
Being independent and self-reliant is highly touted in our culture. But we are never truly separate or independent; we all depend upon our interactions with other people. We are also responsible for our actions and their impact on others. Life is give and take. While our life journey is individual, we thrive on healthy relationships; quite simply, we need one another.
Cultivate your inner resource
“There is no real security except for whatever you build inside yourself.”
–Comedian Gilda Radner
Opening our inner selves to supportive friends and loved ones can provide a pathway to uncovering an inner strength. As an iRest Yoga Nidra meditation instructor, I help individuals cultivate feelings of security and ease. We spend time in each meditation experiencing what we refer to as our “inner resource.” Let me guide you through this experience.
Recall a place, or one you would imagine, creating it in your mind’s eye as though painting a canvas. It may be a place in nature—resting on a beach, in a forest or field. It may be a place you remember from childhood or on vacation. There may be other people here, an animal or spiritual figure—or you may simply be by yourself. Most importantly, there is a sense of being grounded, safe, and comfortable here. Visualize the colors, forms, and textures you would see here. Then begin to feel yourself in this place, seeing 360 degrees around you. Feel the touch of air upon your skin and any smells that may be present. Most importantly, become aware of the feeling of being fully supported and a sense of ease and well-being. Like a coming home to your true self.
Our inner resource helps us access deeper levels of our being that have never been hurt or broken and don’t need fixing. In iRest Yoga Nidra meditation, as in many forms of meditation, we must be open to Infinite Awareness, also known as Eternal Presence or God. This allows us to know peace, happiness, and love—and to rest assured that our back is always covered!
“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep,” wrote American philosopher and psychologist William James over 100 years ago. Modern science is now revealing how we are “connected in the deep.” We are born with the natural urge—wired in our brains—for connection, and this urge continues throughout our lives. Ironically, however, even though social media connections continue to grow exponentially, we seem to be more separate now than at any time in history, as loneliness, isolation, and alienation are reported to be on the increase.
As social beings, we crave to feel supported, valued, and loved. It is well documented that true social connection lowers stress and improves physical health and psychological well-being. Isn’t it time to get back to valuing true connection and learn ways to improve or enhance our connectedness to one another—and especially to ourselves?
Everything in life is about connection. When we leave the nurturing, loving environment of our mother’s womb, we are suddenly separated from our source. From that point on, we seek ways to reconnect and make new connections. But inevitably there are more disconnections. Our mother is not always available, there is no one to play with, etc. As we grow and move out into the world, life circumstances change. Losses, failures, and unfulfilled dreams leave us feeling isolated or even that something’s wrong with us. When a friend or confidant is nowhere to be found, the tendency may be to stuff our feelings. Our reaction might even be something we’ve witnessed in the adults who mentor us. Such a situation can turn into a lifelong conditioned response, and we lose the ability to trust others and share our true feelings.
In the May-June 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, an article entitled “Friendships: The Remarkable Power of Our Closest Connections” revealed that 50% of American adults now report that they have zero close friends. This is down from two close friends reported in similar studies 10 years earlier. Yet, according to Brené Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” So, what is the disconnect here? We crave connection, yet we’re losing our ability to achieve it.
Connectedness was an essential part of life for early humans. Not only were they connected to one another, but they also had an interdependent relationship with nature. Being social was just as essential as having food, water, and shelter. In today’s world we no longer have that deep connection with our tribe or environment. In our busy lives we have ready access to connection on demand that helps us surf the surface of other people’s lives but neglects the depth. We’re becoming emotionally lazy, as we’re drawn to connect via methods that are fast, easy, and always at hand—and that don’t require physical presence.
According to Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, “Genuine connection and companionship involves emotional risk—the risk of being authentically yourself, of being vulnerable, honest, and open.” Intimacy is what’s most essential. But human bonds take time and care to form and maintain. Intimacy involves trust with someone who can be a true confidant, who has our back, and who is not critical of our flaws.
Human connectedness runs deep in our brains. Neuroscientists have discovered that we have the capacity to read other people’s minds. I’m not referring to psychic abilities. We are able to become attuned to another person‘s actions and nonverbal behaviors through a phenomenon called mirror neurons. When we tell a friend about a happy experience we’ve had, for example, neurons in our brain light up in all the networks associated with that memory. As we convey this experience through words and body language, the mirror neurons in our friend light up as well. In turn, our neurons pick up her signals that let us know we’ve been heard and accepted. This could help explain how and why we feel empathy for people when they are suffering.
Research has also revealed that whenever we finish doing something analytic or engage in nonsocial thinking, the network in the brain for social thinking lights up almost instantly, like a reflex. This spontaneous reaction prepares us for the next moment in our lives. We switch from taking in information to being ready to send it out. Our brain prepares us to be in the world socially.
In this vastly changing world, I believe we are charting new territory in exploring what it means to be human. We can’t go back to living like our ancestors. But we also must not cast aside the basic elements of body, mind, and spirit that connect us with one another. Let’s explore some ways we can learn to enhance our connections.
Touch: What’s drastically missing in the connection-on-demand culture is physical touch. “To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo. When we touch someone, we strengthen bonds and give life to a relationship. A pat on the back, a caress of the arm, a hug—especially a big hug—are primary ways of expressing caring and compassion. Touch is fundamental to human communication and it provides incredible emotional and physical health benefits. A simple touch activates the vagus nerve, which can calm the body and stimulate the release of oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone. Even the sound of loving words can resonate in the body, touch the heart, and deepen connection.
Deep listening: Probably the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. Being fully present to another cannot be accomplished through a text or email. Physical presence is essential. It requires setting aside our own needs and agendas and not rehearsing what we’re going to say in response while the other is talking. When we become fully present, we open our hearts and minds to the deeper being beneath the words, and do so with curiosity and openness. This intimate way of listening is particularly powerful following a great loss or during a difficult change or transition. It can create space for compassion; when you lose yourself in another, feel what they feel. But it also exposes our vulnerability as we face the possibility of hearing disturbing truths we don’t want to hear. Ultimately, though, it can open the door for mutually experiencing a deeper sense of self-acceptance and self-appreciation.
Befriend yourself: It’s often recommended that if you want a friend, be a friend. What better place to start than with yourself. Believing in yourself helps you to enjoy your own company. This sense of “okayness” with yourself can transmit to others, conveying that you are a caring person whom others will want to be connected with. I can vouch for this approach; being alone doesn’t have to be lonely. It can actually provide an opportunity for your heartfelt life mission to be revealed and unfold. If you don’t have a partner, you can still feel connection to life. We all need to give ourselves a hug every now and then!
Connect to life!
Few have understood connectedness as well as Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Are you ready to take the challenge of finding ways to become more “connected in the deep”?
I am proposing something that may be radical, perhaps antithetical to your thinking. No matter the circumstances of your life, you possess an essential inner joy that you can access even as you navigate whatever turbulence or disharmony may be present. How can that be? You’ve had this great loss, disappointment, betrayal. How can you possibly feel joy in the grief of the moment? Perhaps at that moment you can’t. But there is always another perspective waiting to present itself. Eventually, what’s next or how you can move forward is revealed. As you allow this process to unfold, joy is waiting patiently to glow again inside you. Let’s explore how to cultivate joy.
As a child, I heard the Native American proverb “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” How does one walk in another person’s shoes? How can we know what they’ve experienced or how they feel? Why does it matter? It matters because we matter. You and I inhabit this world along with billions of other people, many of whom have difficulty getting along with one another. Empathy is the key component, and it is very powerful.Continue reading
Social has become quite the buzz word. But what does it mean in today’s digital world? Social media presents a myriad of opportunities to connect with friends, relatives, business associates, and the world at large. Photos and snippets of one’s everyday experience “go viral” every day. Texting is a new abbreviated language that requires neither correct grammar nor punctuation. But social has a vastly different context when it relates to our true happiness and well-being. Continue reading