The Summer busy-ness is getting amplified
I’ve been away. Or rather I’ve been away from my computer. And therefore away from this.
But I have been doing good nourishing things, so I hope that I come back a little warmer, wiser, with some things to say.
Traditionally (and by that I mean for the last 20 or so years) the summer is when I have been busiest filming for the BBC. So from May to October I usually juggle my therapy clients and filming with lots of long train journies. I always have my travel bags packed. I also always take a week in the summer to run a Mindsprings retreat up on Holy Island.
In the last few years that busy-ness has been amplified by my enthusiasm for my teacher Reggie Ray and his organisation, Dharma Ocean. and who also seem to run their big events in the summer months. So this year we were three weeks in the East of Germany studying and practicing with him in the tiny hamlet of Pommeritz in Saxony.
Then I was up in Scotland filming for a week before heading over the Island for this year’s Mindsprings retreat – the biggest and by common accord the most powerful we have ever held up there.
Stuck on the horns of busy-ness
There is lots to talk about from the various retreats and travels but I find myself really stuck on the horns of busy-ness.
I have written before about the train-train of habitual busyness. And I have had insight into the powerful motors of cleaning and tidying from my past. But spending so much time with my husband D. this summer (we travelled to Germany together on a fabulous, heat-wave road trip) I have come up against this over and over.
D. is pretty relaxed. He was a dancer and is now a gardener and a yoga practitioner. He has his demons and his patterns, but compulsive busy-ness is not one of them. And his refusal to buy into my neurotic need to plan, do, work, tidy and clean is a powerful tonic.
Internal Family Systems at work
One of the things we studied in Germany was the way that Reggie and Caroline are working with Internal Family Systems in their exploration of compassion.
IFS is a therapeutic model developed by Richard Schwartz. He posits that the same dynamics that work in an external family (power play, mutual dissociations, hidden aggressions) are also at play in our internal world of ‘parts’. That is to say, we are not one coherent ‘self’ that is always in control, self-aware and lucid. Very often we are taken over by ‘parts’ or past roles that seem to overcome us like a possession. This is not a problem, according to Schwartz (and to Buddhist thinkers). It is the nature of the human mind.
A shifting slide-projector of different parts
We are a shifting slide-projector of different parts according to the situations we find ourselves. Sometimes, we are quite open and spacious, but when triggered we can become spiteful like a tantruming 4-year-old or moody like an adolescent 14-year-old. This is embarrassing and shameful to our ‘adult’ sense of ourselves, but it is true.
The beauty of meditation is to create a space where we can honestly inhabit these parts with awareness. (And that’s the crucial part: with awareness). And following Schwartz model we don’t demonise or pathologise these parts but see that they all came into being for a reason.
That reason was almost always protection.
Our little child-selves made up ways of protecting themselves
All of us had moments in childhood where reality was too much to handle. Waking up in the dark night and feeling terrified. Getting lost in a shopping centre. Losing a favourite toy and being teased because we cried about it. Being bullied. Being neglected. It’s in the nature of growing up that the infant human is overwhelmed.
Perfect parents (of whom there are none) would always be there to hold the child to comfort and make sense of the overwhelm and bring the child back into her own sense of self. But in the absence of perfect parents, our little child-selves made up some ways of protecting themselves. They might have protected that terrified or ashamed little child by inhabiting a slightly older fiercer ‘part’ that was super-tough, or super-indifferent, or super-obedient or super-sensitive.
Feeling the bodily constellation of these protector states
These slightly older parts ‘protect’ the more vulnerable part by always acting in a certain way. And whenever that vulnerability is activated by the outside world, then that protector get activated too and takes over the show.
What is powerful about Reggie and Caroline’s exploration of this (and it is a work in progress) is, of course, the somatic aspect. Their whole focus is how do we work with these things in the ‘right-brain’ rather than the more cerebral ‘left-brain’. It’s satisfying to notice and classify these protectors in a butter-fly-collector sort of way. But they become really potent when you feel into the bodily constellation of a protector state.
Housework feels like an axe-head, pointing forward
It’s like the energy of your body puts on a certain costume, a certain stance. And that funnels your experience in a certain direction.
So, for example, my “I-must-do-some-work” stance is a very locked-in and narrow energetic focus. I feel my upper chest very locked and a narrowing of energy into my neck, jaw and head. It feels very rigid, like an axe-head pointing forward. It’s hard and very difficult to negotiate with (as Daniel has found to his cost).
This is often the energy of these protectors. They are single-minded and rigid. They don’t feel very nice in the body but they have a compulsive quality to them. This is, of course, because they were developed as a sort of life-saving strategy. (For the infant mind, overwhelm is a matter of life and death). And they are powered by separating out from the more open and integrated awareness and locking into a more one-pointed and rigid form.
Meet the Managers and Fire-fighters
Schwarts divides these protectors into two camps: managers and fire-fighters. The fire-fighters are more extreme parts that spring into action in a very fixed, single-minded way. They aim to get the vulnerable self out of the “burning building” of feeling too much. These are the parts that compel us into drinking, drugging, cutting, sudden rage, running away. Firefighters are usually quite noticeable and have an addictive quality to them. Rather than feel that vulnerability we will do anything to numb or escape it. The fire-fighters are reactive.
Managers, on the other hand, are harder to spot because they are preventative. They work long-term and often in the background to prevent that vulnerable part ever being exposed. Managers control and minimize the possibility of hurt. Sometimes, they take the form of workaholism, perfectionism, slightly militant meditating, busy-ness, control or indeed lack of control: never taking risks, never taking responsibility, never making decisions.
The managers have become unmanageable
Managers are harder to identify because they often become ‘part of who we are’. And sometimes that’s fine. For example, busy-ness is admirable in our society. It’s not a problem to meditate. It’s OK to want to get things perfect, sort of… But there is a queasy quality to these things what ACT therapy calls “dirty (dis)comfort”. They’re meant to make us feel better (comfort) but they actually make us feel worse (discomfort) and leave us feeling rather unwell.
It’s often these two protectors run-wild that brings people to therapy. The firefighters have become too extreme. The managers have become unmanageable.
Now I have a much crisper sense of what’s going on
Using somatic meditation to feel into the ‘felt sense’ of these parts as they take me over has been revolutionary.
Firstly, I have a sense of what is going on. Previously, I had just felt guilty or confused or depressed that I was ‘going down that path again’. But now I have a much crisper sense of what is going on. And feeling into the somatic pattern of that “must-work-more” manager gives me a portal to work with it gently.
When you have felt into one of these parts, you can actually start to have a relationship with it. From your core “Self” – what Buddhism calls open awareness – you can interrogate the part as to what it’s protecting.
Love is available without hoovering
“What does all this compulsive cleaning or emailing or busy-ness do?” Often the answer comes back: it makes sure we are not left vulnerable, not abandoned, not cast off. Or some variant of that fundamental tender-point of all infants.
Gradually, you can negotiate with the part that believes that only by having a spick-and-span house can you be loveable, and get it to realise that this might have worked when you were a kid (or maybe it didn’t, maybe it was magical thinking?) but now love is available without hoovering! In fact, if I hoover less, I might actually get to connect with the human husband sitting in front of me.
This work opens the heart right up
What is super important in this work – and again Reggie and Caroline have emphasised this by working with IFS in the field of compassion – is the impact it has on our hearts.
There is always a criticism that can be levelled at this sort of inner work. It’s just mental masturbation, more endless self-improvement and self-absorption. But I strongly disagree in this instance.
If the purpose of our lives is to connect and help others, then we absolutely need to re-negotiate with these protector parts that tie up so much of our energy and time. We might waster weeks, months and years in ‘protective’ tidying, busy-ness, meditating. But skilfully if we can resolve these parts and bring them “on-side” so that their energies can be released back into the general good? This is of key importance. It is compassionate work. Because when our energies are tied up in out-dated childhood rituals of protection then there is almost zero concern or time for others.
I think my husband could vouch for that.