Grains of sand, like the proverbial grains of time trickling down the hour glass, move slowly.
Settle into solidarity. Smooth into harmony. Flatten like a pancake. Then upheaval: returned to chaos by steady raking, tilling, toiling away until that too gives into gravity and stasis.
I witness her fingers move languid through the sand. She is thirteen, wears a purple hoodie bulging out from under a faded school uniform, and stares into the sand tray with a gaze that is both focused and far. Her hand heavy in the sand is a solid anchor from which she drifts on barely noticeable tides of breath.
I see the beauty, now. This precious time beyond time.
But sometimes I forget to trust the unfolding. I am eager to do my job. And about half an hour into watching my third client slowly sift the sands of eternity, I started feeling antsy. “Is this helpful?” I wondered, “What does she really need? Are we even doing therapy?” On cue, all the monkeys in my industrious mind scurried off in search of interventions, interpretations, interruptions, and other therapisty tricks. I offered some words here and there. A question, an idea, a reflection, stirring the pot to see what would bubble up. She didn’t take the bait; merely swayed in the wake of my efforts and ebbed like pond water back to a placid place.
Then I realized:
This is the antidote.
This young, creative, growing adolescent is in school. All day. All week. Getting reprimanded for daydreaming, for not turning in her homework on time, for not trying hard enough, for not doing the work and getting the grades. She is terminally behind in all her classes, and the missing assignments keep piling up. From all sides there are adults telling her to work harder, or she’ll have to go to summer school. More school! In other words:
You have to do this, or else you have to do this.
What if I want to do that!?
Every fifty minutes a bell rings to hurry her to another classroom with another taskmaster and another task. And for ONE HOUR a week she is given a pass to escape the usual stream of school and come to therapy. A place where you can just be yourself. And here I am, trying to make her do therapy?!
Productivity is an insidious aspect of dominant American culture and White culture at large. It shapes our institutions, policy, economy, environment, climate, hours, agriculture, diet, relationships, and on and on. Productivity is a core American value because capitalism depends on it. Capitalism reinforces itself by rewarding those who produce — or at least by promising to reward those who produce, while really rewarding those who have amassed the product of others’ labor by way of having unearned privileges such as whiteness, wealth, male bodies, etc. Productivity is a deeply instilled value, so pervasive it often runs unnoticed. In this exquisitely unproductive moment in the sand I caught a whiff of my own productivity edging in.
I mean well. I want to help! I want to DO something! I’m a social worker, gosh darn it!
But sometimes the best way to be an ally is just to be and let be. Maybe this teen was telling me, in not so many words, that she doesn’t need me to do anything, and certainly doesn’t need me to need her to do anything. She already gets the message that she’s not doing enough, not smart enough, not good enough here at school. Maybe the most meaningful missing experience I can provide is to let her just be. To be together, quietly, slowly sifting the sands of time. To have that be enough. That’s what I’m here for: to be a counterpoint to the aspects of our culture that tell us we’re not enough, not worthy, not lovable exactly as we are.
So I settle in.
I join her without words or actions,
with loving presence
and a sweetness fills the room.
My mind has been busy bubbling this morning. An infinite running to do list, cross-referencing and self-editing and rearranging as if a live document being edited by a team of contributors with their many minded agendas. The dance has the enlivening quality of aerial somersaults, swiftly swinging from idea to idea with acrobatic artistry, as well as the tiresome quality of compulsive dashing about.
This is one of those moments for mindfulness. I choose to press pause for 10 minutes. I promise to come back to whatever remains true after my mini retreat.
I sit on the feet of a bald cypress. Beautiful bald cypress, with it’s ginger-blonde bark, shaggy in soft shreds, its heavy-set bottom and spindly arms. I settle my butt into the padded ground and press through my back to meet living wood, and I turn inward. Things settle. Get quiet. I drift along the stream of my experience, in and out of the lovely weeds of thoughts and emotions. I slip my limbs from their compelling compressions again and again, and continue to drift back and forth between their grip and their company.
The weeds become more grippy. I find myself following whole storylines, jumping aboard 10-car trains of thought, and wrinkling my nose at the rising annoyance sizzling on the train tracks each time I catch myself and jump back down to the ground. To my back. To the shredded bark.
A rattling overhead filters into my awareness. Softly at first, then crisply the sound comes into focus. What IS that? I look up and see nothing but the spindly ginger arms of the bald cypress, feathery drooping boughs of bright green, and patches of sky between. The rapid battery of sound continues, and I crane my neck straight up and see — directly above my head — a squirrel. A particularly ruffled squirrel, swinging his tail in wide lasso sweeps of agitation, brown nose and splayed whiskers vibrating with his furious chatter at the woman below. CH CH CH CH CH CH!!
Wow!, I exclaim, How wonderful! How adorable! What a treat! I am delighted by this silly squirrel who has chosen to come so close with such animation. My face lightens and opens, my eyes sparkle, my mouth smiles in welcome curiosity.
And I wonder:
What would it be like to welcome my OWN chatter with such openness and delight? Can I greet the chatter of my monkey mind with the same light-hearted reverence that I hold for this spirited squirrel?
Two common responses to mental chatter are:
Squirrel chatter inspires the opposite in me: instead of criticizing the chatter, I am honored by the preciousness of the chatterer. And instead of identifying with the chatter, I am endeared by the innocent commotion as part of my experience but not part of me. Instead of agitation I feel gratitude for the appearance of this furry messenger, who I hold with a warm but open hand as a passing visitor.
How being busy hurts, helps, and holds different roles in mental health
These days, I feel myself going a million miles a minute. I had the funny-sad realization today, as I lay fully reclined on the dentist chair, goofy sunglasses shading my vision of a centerfold of a tropical island tacked to a stale white ceiling, that this was the most relaxed I’d felt all day. Never mind that someone was about to wedge my mouth open with plastic and drill a hole into my tooth. Between work, errands, emails, and meetings, it was here in the dentist chair that I just sat, open and unproductive, and felt myself breathe.
Busyness is an epidemic in American culture, a natural byproduct of a capitalist society that values productivity (do do do!) and is fueled by consumerism (more more more!). Keeping constantly busy can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. Yet busyness holds a paradoxical role in psychotherapy.
In the field of mental health, making oneself “busy” is commonly prescribed as a way to cope and feel better. Busyness is used to distance and distract from anxiety. It is an effective way to counteract inertia and jump out of depressive sinkholes. To go out and do something - anything! - is recommended for people in a rut. Filling idle time with healthy activity is key on the road to recovery from addictions. Still thinking about that old breakup? Get yourself together and get out there! Got a problem? Do something about it! In a culture of do do do, getting down to busyness is generally seen as a step toward success and mental health.
But being over-busy can also increase anxiety, lead to burn out, and serve to distract from deeper digging. Busyness impedes healthy reflection and foundational restructuring of one’s life. So, when is it time to do more, and when to do less?
It depends on where you’re at and what you are trying to accomplish. Are you just trying to hold it together, or trying to break things down to rebuild? Busyness serves to fill space, so the question boils down to how much space is optimal.
Are you obsessing over things you can’t control? Stewing in negative thoughts? Having a hard time getting up in the morning? Maybe it would be healthy for you to get up and do something, get some fresh air, a fresh perspective, have an experience. Exercise, outdoors, creative projects, connecting with people, and having fun are good ways to reboot and gain perspective.
On the other hand, if you are in a place in your life where you feel called to examine or reorient the way you are living, being busy can distract and keep you skating across the surface. Simplifying and slowing down can be a great way to tune into oneself. If you are ready to make a fundamental change in your life, you will need the space to listen, to receive, and to resolve.
Un-busying is essential to feeling what is beneath all the rushing and doing. This can be painful. There might be a swirl of anxiety under your peppy facade, or frightening tugs of depression in the absence of constant stimulation. You may feel lost or aimless without so many plans.
Having the space to feel can also be deeply pleasurable. Intimate time with your own experience. Space to notice the ribbons of sunlight through the leaves; Space to taste the fresh berries of summer or draw in the warm aroma of hot chocolate; space to enjoy and ponder the experience of living life through your unique body and environment. Life is rich, and slowing down can enrich one’s experience of it. Slowing down also gives space for insight to bubble up. It can be transformational. It can also be a way to touch in with an activated state (of stress, anxiety, despair) and directly guide oneself back to a sense of safety through breath and attention. Feeling our feelings builds resilience and self trust.
To busy or to be?
Busyness and spaciousness both aid one’s wellbeing when used appropriately. Ask yourself, or those closest to you, how the ways you busy yourself hinder or support the way you want to show up in your life. Working with a mental health professional can help you clarify and carry out choices that benefit your overall being. These will be different for everyone, and with the right support you will be able to set structures around your time and space that will allow you to flourish. As for me, the answer is clear. Schedule more dentist appointments.
I work at a middle school. As a therapist working with preteens, I am no stranger to strong and sudden outbursts of emotion. Bubbling joy, agonizing heartbreak, red hot rage, ear-steaming frustration, giddy giggling, awkward EVERYTHING, and of course: boredom. But there's always something surprising and new lurking just around the corner, for those who are listening.
My office shares a wall with a single stall bathroom. It's a decent wall. Normally the only sounds I hear from the other side are the crank of the paper towel dispenser and a well muffled flush. This morning, as I was sitting at my desk checking email, someone entered the bathroom. I barely registered hearing the weight of the door close behind them, and then: a long, wavering howl. My ears pricked to attention and curled around this strange undomesticated sound. A jagged series of wails and yowls followed the first in arrhythmic succession, groans and sighs bemoaning the animal blood coursing behind that thick wall. I scanned for distress: No, this was not the sound of crying or fighting, but the release of a primal impulse even deeper than emotion.
My initial "adult at school" reflex was to go knock on the door and tell the mischief maker to knock it off. A more vibrant impulse quickly rose up and swatted down that rigid scarecrow with a deft swipe. Instead I listened. I opened myself to the odd outcry, let my eyes away from the backlit bullets of e-communication, and smiled. It was so unclean and raw, this syncopated ululation that defied common categories of "sadness" or "anger," an unabashed outpouring of undifferentiated human feeling. It carried on for a minute or more until, just as spontaneously as it began, the cry concluded with a second soft thud of the door.
There is a rebel inside of me that revels in that wild song. A sleeping wolf, too brash too bold too intimidating for the workplace, who rustled to attention and attuned to the distant yet familiar cry, recognized the impulse and howled along. I believe she is common to us all: a yet-untamed unbroken wildness that is alive in the heart and hackles of every human. A wildness that awakens and responds to the wildness in others. As "civilization" encroaches on her terrain in both the lived environment and the inner psyche, she keeps a quieter profile. In a hostile environment — one where derision, ostracization, violence or punishment are the tools of social conformity — wildness will hide itself, mask itself, tuck itself away in the darkest, crookedest, hardest to plumb corners, and wait for the space to open. Signals from "the pack" awaken and embolden.
Especially in the right-angled corridors of school, where teachers bark at students to "be quiet!" and "sit still!" and "behave!" and the system seems designed to knock the living soul-spark clean out of them, any stand for wildness is a protest. A protest against homogenization, against standardization, against un-human postures and hours and rhythms. A protest for creativity, for expression, for uniqueness, for the magical unknown, for self-discovery and for being alive! This isn't just about "kids being kids" or standardized testing, although that would be enough. The school houses of America are also housed within and thereby espouse other larger institutions of America: racism, sexism, capitalism, and a slew of social contracts whose insidious and ubiquitous nature obscures them from direct sight. As one of the earliest foundational institutions in which most children learn the rules of conduct in society (i.e. "how to act” and “what to expect”), school is a powerful tool of socialization. When we teach conformity, we inevitably teach conformity to a particular "standard" that is modeled upon a white, male, middle class prototype who presumably learns well by sitting alert and receiving instruction for hours on end. It is designed for a student who feels welcome to speak up, entitled to their education, trusts authority figures to have their best interests in mind, had breakfast this morning, and believes they have a bright future full of opportunities ahead. Our current school system is also modeled after the industrial revolution, the 8-hour-workday, and a mechanized model of productivity that compartmentalizes body from brain and leaves little room for cultivating physical intelligence, intuition, creativity, or authentic expression beyond prescribed periods.
I wasn't thinking about all this in those two surreal minutes of howl encounter. I was moved by the irrepressible persistence of the soul. Like the tiny seeds of grass that lodge themselves in the sidewalk and eventually crack the cement open to wildlife, there is a howl in all of us that will not be cemented over. That cannot be civilized. That rebels. That wildness within will plant itself in the cracks of our institutions and grow to crack them open.
This October I participated in a gathering my friends named “shadow play”. The intention was to create a container in which to unleash and indulge our shadows; to feed and tend those parts of ourselves we tend to starve and sequester, lest they fester and foster monsters too bitter and ravenous to handle. What may sound like a dark and dirty dive, was in my experience a beautiful welcoming home of all wayward children. While wildness and desire were certainly present, the overall expression was one of grandmotherly unconditional love: all lost parts of the psyche drawn to the bread-smelling warmth of her skirts, nestling in with a warm bite to eat and a cozy lap to curl into. The revelrous play that ensued was anchored by a physical altar where we placed treats to please our shadows, and an ethos of celebratory acceptance. I was reminded that everyone (and every PART of every one) needs to be seen, welcomed, claimed, and fed. What is ostracized and starved will grow into a frightful monster indeed. But love and nourishment will calm it back into the lost child it is, and proper purpose will give it a place and a chance to shine.
I had been invited to a few different things that night, all very attractive things. The next morning, while wandering a sun-spilled path in the Oakland Hills, I felt a familiar needling gnawing in my head that I easily recognized as one of my own less savory aspects, FOMO. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I am one of the many modern people who live with FOMO, a powerful force that drives us to try to do everything and drives us nuts when we miss anything. OH how I loathe this part of myself! I try to shake her off, to “evolve” out of her, to shame myself out of feeling her, or at the very least to hide her from others, yet she just clings all the closer: a me-shaped silhouette underlining my every move in icky sticky dark ink. ARG!
So here she was. As usual, I met her with a judgmental sigh of exasperation. But then I remembered — I had just spent all night honoring and feeding the shadows. FOMO is just another shadow. She’s asking for attention. Ok. I will give her some *gulp* loving attention.
I slow my stride on the path to a soft stand still. Knees bent and buoyant, hands gently open, face relaxed, I surrender my frame to the same kind curiosity with which I would approach a flustered child. “Hi, FOMO” I venture under my breath, “I’m listening.”
I listen. I hear the dry clatter of oak leaves shimmy in the breeze, and the distant whoosh of its mother wind sweep the canyon below. I hear the punctual scuffle of a bird shuffling dead leaves with wiry feet. I think I hear dust settle. I feel my heart blush a shade of compassion. Ready to feed this shadow, too.
But what can I feed FOMO? What would FOMO like to eat? Well, her most obvious favorite treat is plenty of rich experiences. Maybe I could feed FOMO by doing a bunch of cool stuff… WAIT! That’s the shadow! FOMO is a modern day “hungry ghost.” She craves more and more experiences but is never satisfied, as if a hole in her stomach prevents her from ever becoming full and sating that pain. Another flush of compassion ripples through — I can relate. I had a digestive issue in my early adulthood where I was eating plenty of nutritious food but wasn’t able to properly digest and assimilate the nutrients, leading to a perplexing nutrient deficiency. Early on, doctors prescribed me to eat more. I would explain with frustration that I was already consuming above and beyond the prescription. The less creative retorted, “ok, then try more.” When I finally met a naturopath who worked with me to address the issue at the digestive functioning level, it was the relief of finally being seen. And fed.
Shoving more experiences down the gullet of FOMO will never quiet her hunger; she needs to feel and integrate the richness of the experience of her life as it is. And so, I begin to feed her:
I place a hand on my heart and one on my belly, and I call to mind a moment from last night when I felt love. A hug, a smile, a kind word, a sweet exchange with another person. A simple moment, nothing extraordinary, but sweet and nourishing all the same. I hold the moment in my mind long enough for the memory to seep down into my body where I can re-member the way I felt in that exchange. I taste the sweetness in my mouth, I hold the warmth in my heart and belly, and I breathe it in fully… and gently let it go. I call another memory up, and take the same deep drink from the well. I call another, and another. All from the same night, a dozen brief flashes in the brain that can either sizzle and be gone (on to the next!) or roast slow and steady until mouthwateringly tender. I remember, drink deep, and breathe it along, one by one. And a remarkable thing began to happen. After a few minutes of this shadow feeding meditation, I FELT — SO — FULL.
All day long my head bobbles atop my body, leading the way. I orient myself to the horizon beneath the limitless sky. Standing up from where my feet find rugged earth, linoleum floor, grasses and sands and gravels, I know where I belong. It is automatic, this right side up thing. It is the first thing we do in the morning – we get up! It is familiar and functional to walk through the world in this way, with our feet below and our head held high, so ingrained that we don’t even realize that we habitually see the world through a particular perspective.
Humans are creatures of habit. We learn and repeat and repeat behaviors, like the same old way we respond in that situation, and the shape our musculature settles into after years of sitting/dancing/breathing in this way. We have mental habits too, the themes and thoughts and theories we tend to draw again and again. They feel spontaneous and self-evident when really our thinking is filtered through the surprisingly narrow lens of our core beliefs – baseline conclusions we have unconsciously gleaned from the triumphs and wounds of our history. Our patterns of thinking, relating, and holding ourselves are drawn from and arranged around these beliefs. The view is limited. Rarely do we pause to question our knee jerk reactions, because they have become reflexive. However, unlike the reflex to jerk when the knee is struck, we actually do have the ability to actively participate in our mental process by taking a step back and observing. A mindfulness practice helps us to catch a reflexive thought or behavior as it bubbles up from the burner of our core beliefs and habituated patterning, and to slow down the bubble long enough to choose another way (to see things, to speak, to tense up) before it breaks the surface. The simplest practice is called a “mindful pause.” Check out my article on the mindful pause for a number of easy ways to weave this simple yet potent practice into your every day life to create more mental space and cultivate conscious action. (link coming soon!)
Another fantastically fun way to play with perspective and expand the mind’s eye view is to flip your perspective up side down – literally. Changing any habit can be a catalyst for other habits to change, and what better way to remind, nudge, and inspire a shift in perspective then to literally shift your perspective? Going up side down and looking at the world from a different point of view can be profoundly altering and refreshing, not to mention it comes with a slew of physiological benefits (which in fact I will mention later on).
Introducing: inversions! An inversion is a position in which your head is below your heart*. You don’t have to be a yogi acrobat to do inversions, although if you are then you might enjoy more advanced inversions such as headstands, handstands, and wheel pose to name a few. More accessible ways to try on a topsy-turvy view include downward dog pose, draping yourself over a chair belly up, folding forward to let your head dangle down, or lying on a bed with just your top parts cascading down towards the floor.
* note: It is important to modify or abstain from postures that cause pain or are contraindicated with a condition you may have, such as unmedicated high blood pressure, some heart conditions, neck injuries, recent stroke, detached retina, glaucoma, and epilepsy.
Let me paint a picture of a personal favorite that is actually very simple for most people to do. I am hiking up a hill with a friend. The incline has my legs tingling the tiniest bit with heat. I bear most of my weight in the balls of my feet, digging step after step into the grassy terrain to push my way up the slope. We are fired up by what we’re talking about too, and the flames from my legs mingle with the flames lighting up my mind as I share passionately about this thing I am thinking about with such intensity and focus. My eyes focus too, intently fixed on the spot of dirt and grass just two feet ahead, my head bent downward as if drawn forward by the very action of looking. The talking and the hiking are now knocking at my chest, breath is moving faster and faster to keep up and I can feel my heart alive and kicking in the conversation with my friend and my thoughts and the slope. Then, a welling of everything: heartbeat, hard breathing, legs tingling, and a crescendo in the conversation stops us in our tracks midway up the mountain. A natural time for a break. We fall into wordless heaving to catch our breath, and for just a moment we lose out train of thought and let our eyes meander along the tree-line below. My lower back now speaks up, tight and tired from the rigorous hike, my head too feels heavy with all the work of thinking and orienting, and I instinctively lean my torso down toward the ground. Facing uphill, I plant my palms in the earth and walk my feet back into a downward dog position, hips high and spine long. Big breath. My eyes rest passively on the greens and blues and browns. Then I actively look: I see what I am actually seeing for what it is: a “sky” of grass above a fringe of dark green hearts planting their points into a smooth, blue ground. Although my mind keeps trying to flip the image back up to match my idea of how ground and sky look and behave, I actively focus my attention back to what I actually see. By the time I stand back up, I feel refreshed. The heavier aspects of my story have dropped off into the ground, and I am lighter, my eyes alive.
The physiological benefits of going up side down are many. Inversions are highly energizing, as they reverse the blood flow and bring fresh blood to the brain, and invigorate physical and mental processes. Conversely, inversions in which you are lying down with legs up are calming to the nervous system. Inversions can also fortify the immune system by moving lymph to eliminate toxins. Depending on the pose, you may also be improving strength and balance as you experiment and play with new ways of engaging with gravity. Which brings me to my final endorsement for putting your feet up and letting your hair down: it’s fun! Get creative and use inversions to literally “turn that frown up side down” and I guarantee you will end up laughing at some point.
So, flip the script and take advantage of a new vantage point. Enjoy!
It’s been a hard day. A challenging conversation with a friend. The truth I am trying to express gets garbled and gunked in word-sludge, my head bangs against a filmy communication barrier. I miss the call I am waiting for. What’s left in the fridge is mismatched. My gut pouts and kicks the random snacks around. I need to reserve space for a workshop and nothing is coming through. I can’t seem to get all those things done that need to be done, and it’s been raining all week and I am * just * so * frustrated!! That’s it,
I grab my keys and put on my shoes, I’m going for a walk. The change in scenery, the fresh air, the daylight penetrating my retinas, and the effortless way my body falls into rhythm immediately balm my crackling soul. I massage the earth as I play her drum with my feet: bom, bom bom, bom. I breathe deeply the air into my lungs, the vivid greens and curls and contrasts into my eyes, the atmospheric sounds into my ears. I exhale waves of pent up tension out, out, out. Taking a walk is one of my favorite go-to ways to reset. I reinhabit my body and the outside world, and my state shifts.
Today I am really churning, though, still stuck on the botched conversation and all the frustrations of the clunky morning. My brain sifts its own murky soup in repetitive rakes for solutions to all the things. A flicker of hope bubbles up with the thought of another potential carpooler to try, and I pull my phone from my pocket to text him, and – ARG! – Something is weird with my phone and it’s not working! Bubbles burst, dashed upon the hard concrete, this is the last straw, I hear myself growl aloud, “Nothing is working!!!”
I stop and wallow in it for a minute. Nothing is working. I let it in and let myself feel totally sorry for myself. It is a small, insular, and shadowy shape just a bit smaller than my actual body, so I need to draw in a bit tighter to really feel it: eyes closed, lower lip pushed up in a frown, arms and shoulders curled around my tender heart in a dense and protective cloak. Nothing is working.
I allow myself to feel the heavy, end of the rope, extremity of this state/ment. From this holed-up place a little piece of me pops one eye open and pokes its head up to peek: “Really? Nothing?” I uncurl my neck, b i g b r e a t h . Huh. Well, my lungs are working. I slowly look up, and around. Green is still working. The beech trees continue to stand tall and upright, the live oaks still grow their crazy mess of branches in twists and tangles. Their roots anchor them perfectly. My feet are working, I notice as I step back into the beat of the walk. And my knees – and knees are so prone to twisting! How amazing that my knees are working! I feel my dazzling sense of wonder pick up the pace as I notice more and more things that are working. I list leaves, organs, friendships, cellular processes, houses, hips, emotions, laughter, tons of things all up in perfect working order. It is so wonderful, this world in which some things work!
This experience stays with me: I can still feel the sharp brilliance of the sky’s light creasing the corners of my eyes, can still see the Japanese maple leaves shimmying joyously for no one, can still feel the pulse of my feet in my heart spilling up into a smile as I realize how lovely it all is. I want to bring this into regular practice. Not to deny the things that are difficult or asking for attention: I still had to coordinate the workshop, address the communication break down with compassion, and deal with “life.” But to bring bounce and balance into a stymied game of teeter-totter can revolutionize the way we receive and approach the whole mixed bag of the day. So when I find myself thinking in an extreme zero-sum mindset (“nothing is working,” “I can’t get anything right,” “nobody likes me”) I am going to practice taking a breath to notice all the evidence to the contrary.
Sasha Wright, LCSW
I provide psychotherapy in the Bay Area. My holistic orientation embraces the body, mind, and spirit as intertwined aspects of being. My work focuses on seeking resilience and weaving sustainably vibrant lives, and is infused by my own practices in dance, mindfulness, creative arts, earth based spirituality, and spending time in nature. I write to share ideas, inspire embodiment, and support wellbeing. Enjoy!