Always return to your center

When I was a teen, my father taught me racquetball basics. In case you don’t know, the game is played with a bouncy rubber ball, short-handled rackets and no net in a small, enclosed court. Every surface is fair game – walls, floor and even the ceiling. The play is fast-paced, aggressive, and often, in my opinion, overwhelming. Kind of like life sometimes. And you can get hurt.

Racquetball

Of the many skills and lessons my dad tried to teach me over the years, I can’t think of a single one that stuck any more permanently or served as so meaningful a metaphor as his racquetball wisdom. The most responsive spot on the court is at the center, he instructed me. Always come back to the center position. The strategy is to stay poised in order to move easily in any direction to return a shot. It feels tremendously risky at first because your back is to your opponent, but it doesn’t take long to understand the value of the strategy.

As a poet and an idealist, I pondered that metaphor until it came to represent the ideal of living a centered life. But what exactly is that?

Sorts, whacks and kilters. Most of us are familiar with expressions like out of sorts, out of whack, off-kilter, off the beam, off-center, off-balance, at sixes and sevens, bent out of shape. We don’t have to know the meaning and origin of sorts, whacks and kilters to get the sense that these are all ways of describing that unmistakable feeling of discomfort (and perhaps even panic) that signals an abandoned center.

For me, abandoning the center can happen in any of these ways:

  • Skimping on the supportive routines that make me feel solid and grounded (rest, regular meals, solitude, journaling, meditation, movement, contact with nature, unplugging from electronic stimulation, taking care of business, free and unstructured time for play and daydreaming)
  • Putting external concerns (work, social activities, volunteer commitments) above internal priorities (personal goals, primary relationships, creativity, spirituality)
  • Getting over-involved and over-empathetic with other people’s problems (including not only immediate issues in the lives of friends, family and neighbors, but also the local, regional, national and world “news”)
  • All of the above

Did you notice I didn’t include having my own challenges as part of the list? That’s because having my own problems does not necessarily throw me off-kilter (which, by the way, roughly means out of alignment or balance, not in good health). In fact, if I’ve stayed close to center with these core supports, I’m in the perfect position to cope with what arises in my life. I’m in the middle of the court and poised to respond. I am attentive and strong, ready and resilient.

In case of emergency. Right now in my life, things are unbelievably uncertain. I have no income and am living by faith. People who are close and dear to me are facing major hurdles: one got fired unexpectedly, two have long-term marriages in crisis, several are ill, one is in the hospital, two recently lost dear pets, and another is attending to her husband in the last stages of a terminal illness.

Tenderhearted and service-oriented as I am, it is clearly time to make sure I am in the center of my emotional-physical-spiritual racquetball court. And here is perhaps the most convincing reason why: in case of emergency, I am no good to anyone (including myself), if I have gotten off-center.

Where is the center? The center of which I speak is a metaphorical space, a symbolic place, and yet, many of us could agree, I imagine, that it exists. We can feel when we are there and we can sense when we have strayed. That is the first step, simply noticing.

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I colored this design with markers when I needed to center myself (from a book by Susanne F. Fincher, “Color Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression”). Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, a shape that can symbolize wholeness, infinity, the self in relation to the cosmos, and much more. I find it incredibly soothing and focusing to color, play my ukulele, chop vegetables for a meal, or go for walk. Other friends accomplish the same thing by knitting, drumming, yoga, gardening and the like. These are but a few of many ways to reclaim your center court position. 

What I notice these tools have in common is that they invite full presence and attention. To attend is originally from the French, meaning to “direct one’s mind or energies” and the Latin for “to stretch toward.” I feel this as a deep yearning when I get distracted, frazzled and frantic. I feel the call to attend to my own needs, to return to my center. Sometimes all it takes is to rest my hand on my chest and get still – and there it is, here I am, back in touch with myself.

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Will the real healer please stand up?

From the first skinned knee or cut finger and the first band-aid, we are led to assume that healing comes from outside ourselves. The magic appears to be delivered via an adult’s caring kiss, the startling sting of the antiseptic spray, or some mystic property of the sterile strip. Each of us assigns power and builds beliefs based on which remedies our caregivers trust and what seems to work most reliably.

At the physical level, what’s really going on is much more remarkable and complex than any magician’s conjuring act. With no conscious guidance or even awareness from us, a team of platelets adheres to the site within minutes, activating coagulation and clotting, launching invisible processes that result in a marvelous skin remodeling project taking place at miraculously high speeds without your conscious supervision.

Healing is one of our deepest instincts. How differently might we behave if we believed this?

Who is the healer? Many of us are taught by example, experience and advertising that if we are wounded or ill, we need an authority or expert to heal our bodies and minds. We expect a diagnosis, medication, surgery, therapy, nutritional guidelines, some kind of fix. Often we unconsciously relinquish power and authority over our own well-being as we hand ourselves into another’s care or trust someone’s recommendation.

Most of us think of these experts as healers and their tools as healing, but no matter what anyone else does for you, they can, at best, simply support a process that only you can undertake. You are always the healer.

You are always the healer.

This is fairly new news for me, although in hindsight I can see I’ve been playing it out in my life in quite dramatic ways. I started noticing that my beliefs tended to prove true in my experience. When I believed I was irreparably flawed and shameful, my life mirrored that. When I glimpsed a different angle and began to entertain a new possibility, my experiences started reflecting my realignment.

An experiment in belief. Just over a year ago, I decided to test a new belief: returning to wholeness and balance is my body and mind’s natural inclination. This is the sort of thing I might have believed without question if my mom had known how to explain the natural process of wound repair to me as a child instead of teaching me to believe in the magic of band-aids. I’d read about this basic concept in placebo studies and other experimental inquiries into the power of beliefs. I decided to undertake my own experiment to see if mind over matter was a positive-thinking fantasy or the real deal.

I picked something visible and chronic as my proving-ground. For 30 years I’d been dependent on chiropractors to address my back problems, a condition I’d assumed was partially inherited from my dad and the rest a cost of heavy lifting in a factory in my 20s. Since the 1980s I’d had regular discomfort and occasionally severe misalignments that immobilized me in excruciating pain. I’d come to depend on regular chiropractic adjustments, usually at least monthly, sometimes more often.

For decades I’d repeated the story that I had a “bad back” and needed support for optimum functioning. For years I’d validated the belief, often at exceedingly inconvenient times, like on vacation or in the middle of an important project, when I would suddenly become disabled.

In October of 2013, I saw my chiropractor for the last time. I took as my mental refrain the belief that my back would love to support me and is naturally inclined to return to alignment. I paid attention to my thoughts and chose again and again to trust my body’s wisdom. I was willing to let something new and wonderful be true. I literally and symbolically “took back” my authority as a healer.

Conscious healership. This return to conscious healership actually began 20 years earlier when I awakened suddenly as if from a lengthy and nightmarish sleep and realized I was self-destructing at a painfully slow pace. Seemingly against the odds, I realized I wanted to live, wanted to get to the bottom of my despair, wanted to understand why I was in chronic emotional pain.

The details are a story for another day. What’s important to know today is that some inner grace awakened me, my natural instincts toward healing led me forward flawlessly, and I believe I am alive because I trusted them.

A therapist helped me process my feelings and reconstruct my trauma story in a way that brought it out of the shadows and into the light for resolution. A therapy group, a self-help group and laboriously building a diverse resource network helped me grow by quantum leaps. But this I now realize: every single step of the way, I was the healer.

Wounded healers. I will confess without apology to living a good share of my adulthood as a wounded healer. There are many different ways of defining or explaining the term, but the resolution comes down, I think, to this matter of recognizing who the real healer is.

If I know you are the healer of you and I am the healer of myself, we will relate much differently. I will not try to save you and tell you what to do as a distraction from my own work.

That is where I live now, bringing my own self-healing into community and being willing to support others as they do the same.

How are you? (don’t tell me)

The other day a friend of mine posted this meme on her Facebook page. I realized immediately that it kicked up dust from an issue sitting quietly in the shadows on my emotional shelf. Part of me understood the deep wish that someone pay attention so closely and know me well enough to offer comfort at that level. Another part of me got squeamish and felt a little buzz of anxiety.

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To tell the truth. After I sat with my discomfort for a while, I left a comment: I would also love it if you’d look me in the eye and tell me when you’re having a hard time! 

After a little more thought, I added an explanation: I grew up in a family where I had my radar on all the time trying to figure out how everyone was feeling and what I needed to do about it. It made me pretty unhealthy! So I really appreciate openness among friends who can say how they are feeling and ask for what they need. That feels healthier for me.

Someone else replied: When people ask me it is just easier to say I’m okay than tell the truth. This is a big truth.

How are you? is one of our culture’s most frequently asked questions. It is perhaps one of the most loaded questions, buried under a cargo of invisible rules and preferences, assumptions and expectations. We often ask it as a form of greeting with an accidental question-mark at the end. We ask it and promptly stop listening.

Dying. Years ago I read about a graduate student who conducted a field study. When people asked “how are you?” she answered with a word that sounds similar to what we’re trained to reply. Instead of saying “fine,” she said “dying.” I don’t remember the percentages, but a shocking number of persons said some version of “oh, good…me too.”

A few days after our Facebook interchange, my friend Michelle and I saw each other in person. We are still in the getting-to-know-you phase of relationship and I asked her a few questions so we could find common ground and dig in.

We talked about our secret suspicion that people might not really want to know how we’re doing. She shared that sometimes she withholds the truth because she feels it would be an emotional burden.

I talked about my desire for authentic connection and honest answers. I clarified that I’ve learned it’s not healthy for me to guess at how people are feeling. She pointed out that telling the truth can sometime result in unwanted care-taking; people jump in to try to solve our problems when all we really need is to feel heard.

Sometimes all we really need is to feel heard.

Isn’t this a gloriously fertile and confusing field of inquiry? What a gift it is to a relationship to choose to get real. I believe it takes trust, understanding and even courage to answer this frequently asked question with greater authenticity. And it takes patience and practice to listen attentively without needing to take on our loved ones’ or friends’ feelings as a personal burden or leaping into problem-solving mode.

A place to start. My friend Bill and I both enjoy practicing the power of positive thinking and conscious language choice. When I ask him how he’s doing, he usually says “excellent” or “outstanding.” He chooses to see the bright side. He sometimes chooses, I assume, to state his highest aspiration rather than an actual assessment of his temporal condition in the moment. I take a similar approach most days.

This may seem falsely positive or pollyannish to some, but I try not to say anything I don’t mean from my heart. Even when circumstances are challenging, I can honestly say “it is well with my soul.” I do, however, strive to be real if things are not so great. Yesterday morning I heard some really sad news about a dear friend of mine whose health is rapidly declining. If someone had asked “how are you?” yesterday morning, I would have said, “I am feeling really sad.” That, I hope, would have been a gift instead of a burden.

I do believe how are you? has the potential to be a more meaningful social ritual. How can that happen? It starts with me caring about your answer. It continues with us taking time to lay a foundation of trust so you can feel comfortable giving me an authentic answer. On that foundation we can choose to build a new vocabulary of caring.

Who is with me? Shall we begin? This will help keep me from relapsing into the unhealthy habit of using my empathy to try to guess at your feelings. Instead, I’ll save my empathy for listening to you when you tell me how you’re really doing.

The invisible alchemy of intention

Midwife to my imagination. Over the last several weeks as I plunged into the messily creative midwifery of birthing “insight” – an idea in my head – into the world as a physical space for offering peer support in Newton, Kansas, I’ve mostly been moving books, games, musical instruments, art supplies, beautiful objects, colorful textiles and other possessions of meaning from my apartment upstairs. I feel as if I’ve been collecting these things for years in preparation for this exact venture.

living room 2 sign

How I ever fit them all in my 400 square foot apartment is a mystery. As my living quarters become steadily more spacious (in a good way), my writing and community connecting space in “the living room” down at street level is taking on a softer, sweeter energy.

New life for old things. Some items are being put into service for other than their original intended use – revised, revamped, reintended. I can look at these components of “the living room” and know the deeper context. While those who visit me may not have the same conscious awareness, I do believe there is some richer energetic and emotional texture carried forward that you will feel when you come here.

Several friends donated chairs and a love seat. My magical landlord – with whom I am ingeniously sharing this space – offered me a writing desk and shelves. These supportive and functional structures are, I believe, permeated with the love and generosity of the persons who freely shared them. You will feel that too, perhaps without knowing why.

Many of the beautiful and life-enriching books and objects on my shelves were first gifts of love to me from others or to me from my increasingly kind and loving self. I hope some of my friends and family will drop by here and feel their own thoughtfulness reflected to them, a wink out of the corner of love’s eye. I know I do.

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Winner of the hope lottery. This venture is built almost entirely of imagination and love. Today I spent $6 for a used lamp and $7 on printing for a sign and some brochures. That’s it so far: $13 and a lot of vision and hope. I have an extraordinary amount of hope, although this has not always been so. I’ve hit the Hope Lottery (you can’t win if you don’t play) and I’m planning to share the wealth.

I’ve sat in every seat here and considered the vantage point. I’ve played ukulele here, danced here, meditated, sweated, laughed and cried. I’ve imagined and wondered. I’ve answered a calling to make my love available. I can’t explain why I cry when I write that.

Now I am eating a piece of Prairie Harvest carrot cake and drinking a cup of Wild Sweet Orange Tea on a cloudy afternoon, thinking of you as I write. Thinking of how, when you come to sit with me here, you will know all of this without knowing. Thinking of how, even if your heart is hurting, you might want to split a piece of carrot cake with me, sip a cup of tea and possibly notice something startlingly beautiful about your broken-openness. And I will stand witness.

Next time, we'll split this, okay?

Next time, we’ll split this, okay?

I am one of the things in this space that has been revised, revamped and reintended. You won’t be able to imagine what I once was by knowing me now, but the alchemy of how I’ve transformed myself is part of what I offer here, peer to peer. And I don’t know how to put a price on that, but together we will figure it out.