All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm as the active growth of spring and summer is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter….When we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go; we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor.
– Wayne Muller, Sabbath
Most of us live in areas of the country where trees and gardens have now gone dormant for the winter, apparently lifeless. Most of us are still weathering changes in the economic climate of our country where we’ve seen dreams dashed or deferred. We may feel a bit disappointed, discouraged or depleted at this year’s end.
It could be skillful means to use the “down-time” of dormancy – refuge, resourcing, review and repair – to re-gain our courage and re-claim our dreams, to position ourselves to enter a new year, a new decade, a new chapter of life, not from depletion but from an inward replenishment.
Much as the trees and gardens are now invisibly nourishing their roots to support an exuberant leafing and flowering come spring, we can pro-actively harness the neural plasticity of our brains in this season of winter darkness to re-group, re-fuel, re-nourish ourselves so that we have not only energy and momentum for the new year but clarity of vision and a compassionately resourced heart to “be the change we seek.” (Which we learn how to do in the upcoming January 2010 e-newsletter on Purpose.)
This month’s e-newsletter offers three steps of a process of dormancy and replenishment.
Refuge, resource, and review are steps to prime the process of re-pair – the process of re-wiring old memories with a felt sense of wholeness from the larger view so we can wisely and deliberately let go of the old (or let it be) and let in the new. The poetic images and wisdom in Poetry and Quotes and Stories To Learn From evoke how dormancy and replenishment happen metaphorically. Reflections and Exercises explore how they happen in the brain.
May you find these tools of dormancy and replenishment useful to you and yours as we rest and renew.
REFLECTIONS on Dormancy and Replenishment
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days….
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
– John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us
Dormancy is settling into “fallow time.” A time of letting go of the growth/harvest that has been, even when things have died on the vine or not come to the fruition we hoped, even as they settle into compost and decay. If our sensibilities were still anchored in the agricultural metaphors of 100 years ago, we would more easily know and accept this cyclical rhythm of effort and fruition and/or failure, then rest and renewal in the ground of our being.
We can know the blessedness of rest and renewal when we experience a good night’s sleep, when we let go of the disappointments of the day and any weariness of spirit into the deeper holding of REST – Relaxing and Entering into Safety and Trust.
We are learning from brain science how essential the slower rhythms of sleep are – and by extension the longer slow rhythm of dormancy – for our brains to process and integrate the experiences of the day or the year. Literally to wire together the new experiences of our waking hours, for good or ill, into long-term memory. Without the consolidation that happens during 7-8 hours of sleep each night – or by extension in the downtime of a winter dormancy – the usefulness of our sincere efforts during our busy “doing” time is lost; our brains struggle to remember, our hearts are burdened with all they hold, and we’re hampered in learning the lessons of our journey.
1. Refuge and Resource
Refuge is the container for the process of dormancy – a moment of pause, a time of retreat, the stillness of a Sabbath, the time of no-thing-ness, when we can choose to let go of all the forward momentum of our lives, let ourselves be in stillness and serenity, and intentionally let in the healing and nourishment that will replenish the well of our well-being again.
Refuge can be found in quiet time – in a cozy corner on the couch with a good book or a good friend, on a long walk in the woods coming upon the quietness of a frozen pond. We nestle into the warmth and safety of sangha, community in these “holy-days”, in the comfort and en-courage-ment of cherished friends and family. Our spirits come into ease and equanimity – what psychologists call the “window of tolerance” – not too anxious, not too numbed out. The brain state of relaxed alertness that is the ground of all skillful engagement, creativity and productivity in the world.
In the refuge of dormancy, we can replenish – from the Latin and Middle English to “fill up again,” letting in new energy, new vitality, new momentum. The organic metaphor of replenishment is food nourishing the cells of our bodies so that we can move and act in the world again with strength and ease. (Undernourished bodies literally fall into listlessness and passivity.) The mechanistic metaphor is pumping new fuel into the gas tank of our car so the engine can run smoothly.
We replenish our spirits by resourcing – tapping into the re-Sources that nourish us. No matter what else happened or didn’t go well this year, letting in and fully savoring any moments in the last year that can feed our souls – moments of kindness, moments of competence, moments of creative lunacy. When we deliberately focus our attention on a moment of resilience, on a moment of mirth, we shift our brain state, not necessarily more “up” but more expanding “out” into an integrated wholeness. As Rick Hanson reminds us in Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, our brains are hardwired like teflon for the positive, velcro for the negative. Taking in the good is essential to restore our brain functioning toward a truly balanced integration.
Re-Sourcing happens in refuge and becomes the neural substrate of putting life events in proper proportion in Re-View.
2. Re-view (Wise View)
There’s a teaching story in the Buddhist tradition that illustrates the possibility of Wise View emerging from a year-end review.
If you take a teaspoon of salt and stir it into a glass of water and then take a sip of water from the glass – Ick! It’s too salty to drink. If you take a teaspoon of salt and stir it into a large freshwater lake, then dip a glass into the lake and take a sip of water from the lake, the salt has completely dissolved and you can’t taste it at all.
When we can step back from the complexities of the year just past, reflect upon the teaspoons (tons!) of salt in our experiences – any failures or mis-steps, disappointments or discouragement – we shift our awareness from the intense focus on personal details (the self-narrative generated by the medial cortex of our brain) to a larger awareness of where those details fit into – or dissolve into – the larger scheme of things (accessed by our lateral cortex).
We dissolve the salt in the lake of awareness by drawing specific memories into a larger narrative – a year’s worth, a decade’s worth, a life chapter’s worth – that then integrates more circuits together in the brain. With that larger awareness and more integrated circuitry, we pro-actively cultivate a larger acceptance of those experiences, moving from contention with them to consent-ment – it is what it is – to a deeper contentment with how what has unfolded is held in the larger perspective. Ultimately, we can’t taste the bitterness of the salt anymore; it’s dissolved in the larger picture.
Repairing can then happen within the larger perspective which has pro-active components of engaged awareness and engaged acceptance.
Healing happens, shift happens, when we have found refuge, tapped into resources, opened our minds to the larger awareness that can hold anything, anything at all in a larger perspective, finding its true proportion in the larger view, opened our hearts to a larger embrace of all that is as it is …and then repairing.
The brain repairs any pattern of contraction, any pattern of limitation, any pattern of affliction by pairing the neural holding of the old contracted or limited memory with the neural holding of new resources, awareness and acceptance. When the old and new neural patterns “fire” together simultaneously in the brain, our brain circuitry is re-wired in a new direction in that instant.
Dormancy and replenishment prime the brain for this moment of brain change, this moment of re-pair. This is how, with a calm, relaxed alertness and pro-active kindness to ourselves, we harness the neural plasticity of the brain to let go of the old (or let it be) and let in the new. We may have to repeat this re-pairing many times if we have a ton of salt to dissolve for the year, but pairing old with the new is how re-pairing works. (Sometimes it’s the only thing that works.)
This re-pairing metabolizes the old, allowing it to release from its neural cement and move through our system. This re-pairing brings the nutrients of the new into our system to nourish and sustain the new life that would take hold and grow. Re-pairing doesn’t re-write history, but it does re-wire the brain, creating a new neural platform from which to enter the new year, re-balanced and restored.
(See exercises to practice re-pair below.)
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
To recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
Anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
Is too small for you.
– David Whyte
The House of Belonging
* * * * *
Light cannot see inside things.
That is what the dark is for:
Minding the interior,
Nurturing the draw of growth
Through places where death
In its own way turns into life.
In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.
That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.
That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.
When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.
That the searching of our minds
Be equal to the oblique
Crevices and corners where
The mystery continues to dwell,
Glimmering in fugitive light.
When we are confined inside
The dark house of suffering
That moonlight might find a window.
When we become false and lost
That the severe noon-light
Would cast our shadow clear.
When we love, that dawn-light
Would lighten our feet
Upon the waters.
As we grow old, that twilight
Would illuminate treasure
In the fields of memory.
And when we come to search for God,
Let us first be robed in night,
Put on the mind of morning
To feel the rush of light
Spread slowly inside
The color and stillness
Of a found world.
– John O-Donohue
To Bless the Space Between Us
* * * * *
In the relentless busyness of modern life, we have lost the rhythm between work and rest.
All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning. There is a rhythm as the active growth of spring and summer is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter. There is a tidal rhythm, a deep, eternal conversation between the land and the great sea. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat; the lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale.
We have lost this essential rhythm. Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go, we bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We mist the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger.
– Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives
* * * * *
As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.
– John O’Donohue, Blessing at the End of the Year
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
When my cat Kitka died last year on the morning of new year’s eve, my heart cracked open to loss, sadness, yes, and compassion for everyone who was suffering loss and grief at that time. But Kitka’s death also plunged me deeply into an archaic well of grief, loneliness and despair that was completely out of keeping with my sense of my life at the time being fully full, rich and blessed.
Because I have and teach deep respect for the power of implicit memories – the full-on sensations, feelings, thoughts, defenses congealed around a particular event or experience that can bubble up in our consciousness “out of nowhere” and feel so real, so true in the present moment because there’s no sense whatsoever that our current experience is actually a memory, no longer true, it just feels so true! – at least I had some sense that, besides actual current grief, what I was experiencing was also archaic – pre-conscious, pre-verbal, not true now but very real sometime before I could possible have had any conscious awareness of it. I began the journey that dissolved a ton of salt into a larger awareness and acceptance, and that distilled out into the steps of dormancy and replenishment presented in this newsletter.
Finding refuge in close friendships, even as I was keeping all the obligations of my “adult” life functioning pretty well. Finding resourcing in sensorimotor psychotherapy, a mindfulness based, body-based trauma therapy that could laser in on a specific attachment loss and trauma I experienced when I was three years old, encoded in the developing neural circuitry of my brain at the time, completely outside of conscious awareness.
Developing a re-view in realizing the powerful impact on me, on my developing brain at three, when my mother’s mother died. My mother’s doctor forbade her to travel by train from Chicago to Minneapolis in winter for the funeral because she was eight months pregnant with my younger brother at the time. Her grief, loneliness, despair downloaded into my un-boundaried brain like a neural transfusion, constellating an identical neural network of grief, loneliness and despair in me that remained unintegrated into the rest of my developing narrative of self. That neural network was profoundly “triggered” when my cat died and my own grief resonated with the implicit memory of grief encoded in the neural networks of my brain decades earlier.
Having the larger awareness and larger acceptance available to me now as an adult to do the repair, I and my therapist could hold the archaic grief, loneliness, despair in a mindful compassionate presence. I could “light up” the bodily felt sense of those archaic implicit memories, and re-pair them with newer, more resourced experiences of conscious, compassionate connection. Each week for the three months that it took, I could sense the pain and contraction of the old body memories dissolving in a mindful compassionate engagement with them. Eventually the salt of grief dissolved in the vast lake of conscious, compassionate connection; it wasn’t there to taste anymore.
And, in a fuller retrospective at the year’s end, I could honor that a harvest of so much loving and feeling loved that came to fruition in this last year wouldn’t have come to fruition so fully without the dormancy and replenishment of the loss, the triggering of the implicit memory and the healing re-pair.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Because exercises in previous newsletters have focused on
Refuge (April 2008 Compassionate Connection Deepens Resilience),
Resource (January 2008 Mindfulness and Empathy and September 2008 Healing Heartache), and
Re-View (December 2008 Taking Stock and March 2009 Thinking Outside the Box),
this month’s exercise focuses on the process of re-pair.
When we’re struggling with something disruptive or depleting in our lives, when we’re caught in grief, trauma or despair, we can become so focused on coping – on solving or fixing – that we forget the power of refuge and resource to hold the dilemma so we can resolve – or dissolve – it from a deeper ground. What works better is to find refuge and resource first, then shift our view to the larger awareness and acceptance (cultivated through mindfulness and loving kindness practices), get the felt sense in our bodies of resting in our wholeness and resourced-ness, and then bring the dilemma into that resourced holding. The larger awareness and acceptance, the nourished resourced sense of ourselves, can dissolve the neural cement of the old problem and create new neural pathways so that the truth of the new becomes the new truth.
Remember a moment in your life when you felt loved and cherished, when you felt safe and serene, when you felt creative and resourceful. Allow the feeling of that moment to settle into your body – amplify a felt sense of the nourishment of it. When that’s steady bring to mind a moment of daunt or failure, or regret or disappointment. (Or at least a piece of it to begin with.) If the more difficult memory begins to overwhelm the resourcing and acceptance of the larger new awareness, back off a bit, re-group, feel the resources again, and bring a smaller amount of salt into it. Allow the larger wholesome experience to pair with the smaller difficult memory. As the neural circuits begin firing together, you may even notice a felt shift in your body, sometimes quite dramatically.
Repeat this process of re-pairing as many times as is necessary if you have a ton of salt to dissolve. Repetition strengthens the firing and wiring of the neural circuits. But this is how it works. Remember, repairing doesn’t’ re-write history, but it does re-wire the brain into a more flexible and balanced integration.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue. Doubleday, 2008.
A beautiful collection of blessings and commentary, both fierce and poetic in quickening our deeper souls.
Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives by Wayne Muller. Bantam Books, 2000
This timeless book is especially relevant for people in the helping professions. Wayne Muller, therapist, minister, social activist, makes the case well for the deep need to refresh our spirits with time outs and the sanctuary of Sabbath. It’s full of helpful tools and exercises drawn from every spiritual tradition on how to take mini-Sabbaths of 15 minutes here, a half a day there, to avoid burnout, re-anchor our well-being, and see things from a new perspective.
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
This gem of a book draws on the latest research to show how to stimulate and strengthen the brain for more fulfilling relationships, a deeper spiritual life, and a greater sense of inner confidence and worth. Readers learn how to activate the brain states of calm, joy, and compassion instead of worry, sorrow, and anger. Clear and down-to-earth, the book is filled with practical tools and skills readers can use in their daily lives to tap the unused potential of the brain and re-wire it over time for greater well-being and peace of mind.
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, 2009.
One of the more progressive thinkers on the modern scene, Barbara Ehrenreich challenges the blind-sightedness of always looking on the bright side, suggesting we need to come to deeper realms of realism and discernment if we are to move forward in a more intelligent way.