I am lucky enough to have a part time job that includes sitting quietly in the woods for thirty to forty-five minutes. I lead or co-lead a group to a location with a stream or waterfall, an overlook or rocks to perch on. Everyone spreads out and finds their own place to sit quietly with themselves, pausing, reflecting, listening and being still.
The other day after the group split up, I sat down, leaned back and looked up at the trees. I appreciated the beauty of the green leaves and the sunlight shining through, but I also felt disconnected. It felt as though I was floating above my body and I had a sense of being "gone."
I then became aware of the urge to distract myself from this floating/gone feeling. I thought of all the ways I distract myself when I am home. I play a silly game on my phone. I check facebook or email. I watch ridiculous youtube videos or catch pieces of news. I turn on some electronic device and let myself be drawn in so that I do not have to feel the discomfort of being out of my body and away from myself.
The Choice: Go Away or Come Home
In this case, I had my phone with me and I could have let myself get sucked into it. Given my role as the facilitator of this quiet, reflective experience, I listened to my own instructions and tried something else. I paused for a few moments and invited myself not to do anything. I hung out with the physical sensation of feeling disconnected and stopped trying to fight it or get away from it. In that moment, a shift began. I settled into myself ever so slightly. Paradoxically, as I leaned into the feeling of "gone," I felt less gone, more in myself and more present.
Sometimes it is those first few moments of stillness, or the moments of anticipating being still, that feel the most uncomfortable. I regularly sit in meditation first thing in the morning and I have noticed a couple things. One is that I often have a piece of pressure in me that is telling me to skip the meditation and get up and go do something "productive." I almost never listen to this voice. I know that it does not serve me. I feel better when I start my day with meditation and some gentle, mindful movement.
Still, and this is the second thing I notice, I generally feel some form of discomfort when I initially begin meditating. As I pause and bring a gentle focus to my experience, I notice various ways that I don't feel "good." Maybe my neck or back is stiff. Maybe my mind is busy and racing. Maybe I notice I feel scared or stressed out about something.
Here is where the practice of mindfulness comes in. I breathe. I feel whatever I feel. I breathe again. I sit with the physical sensations I notice in my body. I invite my attention to my bottom half, my hips and sit bones, my thighs, knees, lower legs and feet, and I feel the cushion and floor beneath me. I remind myself that whatever I am feeling is not all of me.
Sometimes when a feeling is particularly prickly, scary or off-putting, I imagine myself getting bigger. I focus on a sense of expansion, as if I am a container for my experience and when I grow there is more room for the experience to be in me and not overtake me.
Sometimes I imagine being held by a loving presence, like a person, animal, spiritual being, the earth or a tree. I bring comfort and kindness to whatever discomfort is present. I practice not running away and curiously exploring what happens if I stay.
After sitting for a while and being still, I almost always notice something change. The truth is that our experiences are not static and as we allow for them, they shift and move and the next experience arises. I once heard meditation described this way: you observe your thoughts and feelings as if they are clouds appearing in the sky, forming, dissolving and passing by. Here is a cloud I call judgment. There it goes. Here is the next one I call sadness. And so on.
Wouldn't it be easier to not notice any of this? To stay disconnected and not feel the discomfort I am trying to avoid? I still ask myself that. And sometimes I choose to be disconnected. I let myself drift away and be distracted or entertained. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. We all have the right to choose what we focus on in any given moment.
The benefit of mindfulness and staying put is that the more we pay attention to what we are feeling, the more freedom and ease we experience in the long run. Some days I get in a funk and feel cranky and off. I sort of notice how I feel, but mostly I am trying to avoid it. When I truly pause and bring some kindness to myself right where I am, something begins to change. The moment I stop fighting my experience, something shifts. It is less like a miraculous, quick fix and more like a gradual opening into compassionate awareness. Something within me lets go a little and there is room for the clouds of my experience to pass by once more.
The other day as I sat in the woods, I practiced not needing to do anything. I felt the earth beneath me. I invited relaxation to come to my muscles and my body as a whole. I focused on softening and feeling safe and held by the earth. As I relaxed, I actually began to drift into sleep. You know those moments before you fall asleep and you can feel your mind wander and lose focus and deep relaxation comes in? That's what I felt. Ten to twenty minutes later, I was in a different place. I felt rested, less tense, and more able to show up for whatever was next.
Katherine Grigg, MPC, RSMT is a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist who is passionate about weaving mindfulness and compassion into everyday life. She sees clients in West Hartford, CT and teaches classes and workshops in the Greater Hartford area. To view all her offerings and learn more about somatic therapy, a mind-body healing modality, visit her Classes and Workshops and About pages.