Dr. Lindley explained that people oftentimes seek out their fears in order to build courage. Some opt to walk on fire, others swim with sharks. I decided to start with the most accessible route: my fear of needles.
I decided to start with the most accessible route: my fear of needles.
For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of needles. I have passed out on many occasions while getting my blood drawn. With each of my three pregnancies, I declined an epidural, because my fear of the needle was greater than my fear of labor pain.
I immediately went home and contacted a tattoo artist.
I decided my fear of needles was a perfect starting place. Michael Brown suggests that the things that are difficult, like triggers, are messengers that point us to our unfinished work within. Michael suggests figuratively dismissing the messenger (the difficult person or situation) and breathing through the difficult feelings that come up without resisting them.
I had never before entertained a tattoo. I decided to go with something that represented my journey into fear. A Triskele is an ancient symbol found in many cultures. The Celtic version of the three legged spiral represents a journey of forward motion to reach understanding. The three connected spirals represent everlasting cycles, transforming at each point. The three representations that held special meaning for me:
Body, Mind, Spirit
Father, Son, Holy Spirit (Divine Feminine)
Life, Death, Rebirth
I especially connected to the Triskele as a reminder to not forget my body again. As a child, I learned to forget. There were a lot of good reasons to not trust the sensations of my body or the emotions of my heart. My little girl (me as a child) coped with the chaos by disconnecting from her body and living in her mind. The coping strategies of a little girl are necessary and work for a time. But, these coping strategies became an obstacle to living life fully as an adult.
My fascination with the Enneagram began to open my eyes to how fragmented I had become. Like the Triskele, the symbol of the Enneagram is also divided into three parts that make up the whole: body, heart, and head. The Enneagram teaches that we develop unconscious coping strategies at a very young age to manage overwhelming fears. When we are afraid, our strategies corner us into rigid unconscious patterns. We unconsciously fragment ourselves, relying on one strategy, while neglecting the other parts of the whole. I relied solely on my thoughts, while neglecting the body and heart.
My coping became an obstacle to living fully.
I was missing the gifts of the whole.
Unfortunately, the mind by itself has no anchor in present moment. Thoughts by themselves reel haphazardly between past and future like a ship missing its compass in present moment awareness. The sensations in the body; the breath, contractions, lightness, heaviness, etc., always exist in the present moment. Your body sensations are always now. The itch on your foot happens now. A mind that is anchored in the sensations of the body is here now. Emotions anchored in the body are here now. Sadly, a mind all alone by itself is left to think constantly and unproductively with no hope of discernment.
I chose the Triskele as a reminder to not forget my body again.
I picked out the image of the Triskele featured above. I loved that the three spirals were not perfectly symmetrical, each one is a little different. Each spiral has its own unique wisdom. I could learn to honor the wisdom of each as an experience of the whole. I also loved the three dots that are not typically part of the Triskele. For me, they represented the tools I would need on my journey: compassion, humility, and gratitude. The entire image with its spirals and dots represents Divine Love.
I decided the image would need to be somewhere I would see it every day because of my tendency to forget myself. I wanted to fully commit, no matter what anyone thought, to really taking on this journey whole-heartedly. I chose my inner left forearm – also connected with my heart.
Perfect love drives out fear. Love is the guide. Open in love.
Honestly, consciously choosing to get the tattoo gave ample opportunity to work through my fear of needles. For four weeks, I meditated every morning and night. I breathed through the sensations of fear without resisting them. On the day I received the tattoo of the Triskele, I felt completely peaceful. I experienced a needle for the first time without fear.
When the artist was finished, I looked down at my arm and smiled.
And now it begins…
I commend my Spirit unto the grace of the Great Way. Whether consciously or not this has always been the doorway to liberation.
All you lovers of truth and all you true lovers now is the time to be done with it. Wash your battle-scarred hands in this Presence among us.
Cast off your warriors’ clothing and slip into your night slippers. Untie your hair or cut it off. The Hidden One is present and doesn’t care where you’ve been or what you’ve done or what you are doing now.
Commend all of yourself- body, mind, and spirit to this Grace. Slip out into the night air into the waiting quivering birth of this Golden Heart.
Lean down now like wet, green grass and kiss the bottoms of your feet.
“Fear of life is really the fear of emotions. It is not the facts that we fear, but our feelings about them. Once we have mastery over our feelings (experienced in the body), our fear of life diminishes. We feel a greater self-confidence and we are willing to take greater chances because we now feel that we can handle the emotional consequences whatever they might be. Because fear is the basis of all inhibitions, mastery over fear means the unblocking of whole avenues of life experience that previously had been avoided.”
Not long after my training with Craig Penner, I visited Dr. Joe Lindley. Dr. Lindley is a gifted diagnostician and master clinician who has studied with healers from all over the world. His care has been an integral part of maintaining my health over the past 10 years.
I told him about my experience with Craig and the deep sadness I discovered underneath my smiling demeanor. With a gentle, kind expression, Dr. Lindley looked me in the eyes and said, “Maybe it is time for you to walk into your fears.”
Walk into your fears.
I was confused at first. No one had ever invited me to walk into my fears before. I wondered if that was even possible? His suggestion to walk into my fear was inconsistent with the message of “overcoming” fear I had heard all my life. “Overcoming fear” always feels like a never-ending battle against a challenging foe. “Walking” into fear” felt oddly conscious, like intentionally opening a door into unexplored territory. What is on the other side of the fear? I was intrigued and desperately ready to find out.
I decided to start with something I already knew and move forward from there. 1 John 4:18 would be my starting place: “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear.”
Perfect love drives out fear. Love is the guide. Open in love.
I opened myself up to trusting that love would show me the way through the door of my fears; love would walk with me into the unknown terrain. I learned from various teachers the art of being with fear without resistance. They described imagining yourself as a tree rooted deeply in Presence. A tree has the capacity to move with the wind and allow even intense weather to move through when it is deeply rooted. In the same way, over time, I learned to root in present moment awareness and allow the sensations of fear to move through without resistance.
“To recover from fear, let go resisting it. Surrender to the fear and allow it to run. Stop resisting the fear and stop calling it “fear.” You cannot experience fear. You can only experience the sensation. Fear is not “what you are afraid of,” but the experience which is sensory. You cannot experience hunger either, hunger is a name. You can only experience the physicality of hunger. What is the sensation of fear? It is a shaking in the knees, a pressure in the chest, a dropping of the stomach, a trembling of the nerves, a bracing in the shoulders, a holding of the breath. It is a feeling of terror and pending doom. Let go resisting the sensations. This is how you get rid of pain. All feelings have a limit. They are not limitless. Eventually they will drain out.”
I leaned on the most current neuroscience understandings of how the nervous system works. Each state of the nervous system (engagement, fight and flight, and collapse) have different sensations and body posturing depending on the level of survival. I learned to track the sensations and watch myself move through fight and flight, into collapse, and back into fight and flight again. I learned the importance of gauging my level of presence when I was experiencing overwhelming and intense sensations, or when I suddenly felt nothing at all. I used the quality of my vision to determine if I was present enough to stay with what was coming up in my body. The numbers on the digital clock in my room became a baseline for my vision. When my vision was a little blurry, fuzzy, darty, or tunnel-like, I knew that I was not present. I would take a break and re-orient with my senses until my eyes could see the clock clearly again. Then, I would return to the difficult sensations and stay with the experience in my body.
Love is the guide. Open in love.
I learned to let go of thoughts. Centering Prayer became my compass with its silent invitation that no matter what happened with my thoughts, body sensations, or emotions, I could return to the center: the Presence and Action of the Divine. I meditated in the morning and at night, relinquishing and growing in trust.
I hit a wall on many occasions. Sometimes the wall would last a couple of hours or several days. Sometimes I would reach an impasse that felt like it would never end. I could not stay with the intensity of what I was experiencing in my body. It felt too scary. My meditation experience would be a litany of endless, looping thoughts. In those moments, my centering word became, “I don’t know how,” and I would give up completely into the Loving Presence of God. The letting go of knowing forced me to let go of the way I was still unconsciously trying to control what was happening. The release would give way just enough to allow for things to start moving again and my mind would quiet down.
As an adjunct to Centering Prayer, I began to work through the 10-week program developed by Michael Brown called the “Presence Process.” Michael emphasized the practice of focusing on continuous breathing as an anchor in Presence. The conscious breathing practice proved to be profoundly helpful. Whenever I would get sleepy during meditation, I used his advice to double up on the pace of the conscious continuous breathing. Increasing the pace of my breath allowed me to move through difficult subconscious material that was surfacing into consciousness.
I decided it would be imperative to use the support of knowledgeable guides to move through this process. Sometimes, no matter how hard I tried to stay with it, I could not move through something on my own. I began to work with a somatic EMDR therapist, a cranial sacral therapist, and a spiritual guide.
Love is the guide. Open in love.
When Dr. Lindley challenged me to “walk into my fears,” it opened the door to a wild, incredible adventure. Little did I know that the year to come would bring about opportunities to face and resolve many unfinished experiences in my life. The Universe just came alongside and said, “let’s do this!”
How Surely Gravity’s Law
How surely gravity’s law, strong as an ocean current, takes hold of the smallest thing and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing— each stone, blossom, child — is held in place. Only we, in our arrogance, push out beyond what we each belong to for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused.
So like children, we begin again to learn from the things, because they are in God’s heart; they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.
“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing. Blocked awareness is the foundation of disconnection, and separation from self and others.” Craig Penner
I brace my body. I can feel it. I hold my breath. She unloads her words on me. I feel my face turn into a plastic smile as I hear my friend yelling at me through her tears. We are in the middle of a dining area in a Hampton Inn. The smell of hotcakes hangs in the air. People pause, trying not to look as they glance uncomfortably in our direction.
“You are always too happy,” she screams. “You are always too good. I never see you upset. There is always a smile on your face. How is this possible? You are untouchable.”
She looks down in frustration and defeat and asks, “What is wrong with you?”
That was 15 years ago. Our relationship never recovered. She never trusted me again and I never trusted her. Her words undid something in me. But she was spot on.
People knew me as someone constantly upbeat. People called me “Sunshine” because my presence lit up a room. Even my daughter wondered aloud at how different I was from so many of her friends’ mothers.
Most people did not know that I was sick much of the time. This is a little embarrassing, but it feels important to be fully honest if this is a “fully human” blog.
For many years, I suffered from a number of health issues. I had chronic bladder pain, yeast infections, vaginismus, chronic anxiety, chronic fatigue, chronic achiness all over my body, hypoglycemia, debilitatingly painful menstrual cycles, rosacea, Hashimoto’s thyroid disorder, and a painfully clenched jaw. When I was in my early 30s, I carried Metamucil packets with me everywhere. I was the only one I knew who would ask for an extra glass at a restaurant for my regular orange fiber drink ritual. My sister lovingly began to call me the regularity fairy.
I walked in my sleep and had night terrors since I was a teenager. I almost broke my nose one time walking into a wall. My poor husband frequently awoke to screams of terror or horse whispers, “There’s someone in the room!” He would gently pat my head and reassure me that it was just the two of us and open his arms for me to snuggle into his comfort.
In my mid 30s I went to see a doctor for a yearly physical. I expressed what I was experiencing in my body. He looked down at me calmly as he said dismissively, “That’s not possible,” and walked out of the room. I wish I was exaggerating here, but this is a true story. I was devastated. He did not believe me. I was too dramatic. There really must be something wrong with me.
What is a girl to do? Keep on smiling? Fake it until you make it? Ignore the chronic health issues and keep pushing through. I did not want to be a burden. I ignored my body with a smile.
As an emerging therapist, I tried a number of different types of therapy steeped in shame resilience, self-compassion, mindfulness, and empathy. I became a certified EMDR therapist and attended multitudes of trainings. I learned important coping and grounding skills, but I found myself in a constant cycle of managing symptoms. I knew people who experienced healing with EMDR and I also knew people who were so overwhelmed by the experience, that they vowed they would never try it again. I was missing something.
Fast forward to three years ago. Right around the time of my sailing adventure on the Heritage Schooner, I was exploring the Enneagram and read something that made me stop in my tracks. People who identify as “Type 2” are often known to have a characteristic “forced smile.” I had never really noticed my smile before, but come to think of it, I had an unusual amount of jaw pain. I noticed this “plastic smile” during difficult interactions, when I felt anxious, or stressed. Then, I remembered how my face had hardened into a tight smile during that fight so many years ago.
And then I met Craig Penner. I signed up for yet another EMDR training in Dallas. But, this time I was hopeful. This one seemed different. Craig, a master therapist from Santa Barbara, combined several therapies including Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and present moment awareness. He called his fusion of therapies Natural Processing.
I arrived at a home in a suburb of Dallas filled with 30 therapists. The living room was arranged with chairs, bean bags, and meditation pillows. The smell of fresh coffee lingered in the air. Bright colored fruit, vegetables, crackers, and various snack bars sat on the island in the kitchen. Craig welcomed us with a gentle smile and encouraged us to enjoy ourselves as we sipped our drinks and circled around the PowerPoint presentation. We nestled in, feeling at home. Craig’s demeanor was open and warm. He encouraged our questions and took careful time to understand and answer fully. He created a safe, cozy environment to learn and explore.
We started the training learning Daniel Siegel’s Window of Tolerance using the present moment experience of our own bodies. Using this model, we can track when we are operating from presence, our best selves, or reacting from survival. We explored our senses: vision, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. As we practiced, I became more aware of my senses and internal experience. For example, sometimes my vision was blurry, tunnel-like, but then sometimes clear. I never noticed this before or connected the experience of my vision as one of the ways to track when I was present and when reacting from survival. This was all new to me. I suddenly realized how disconnected I had been all my life.
Craig believes that the conscious awareness of both the therapist and the client are key to successful EMDR. When we become overwhelmed, we go into survival, and do not have the capacity to move through traumatic material. Conscious awareness offers resilience to stay with what is difficult. Awareness is a muscle that can be learned and expanded. When determining the outcome of therapy, the complexity of the trauma is secondary to the potential of a client to grow their ability to become present. The ability or inability to come back to awareness is the key that explains why some people immediately heal with EMDR and some do not.
On day three of the training, I volunteered to be the demonstration client. Craig and I were seated facing each other in the middle of a circle of therapists. As I looked around the room, kind faces waited in expectation. Craig asked what I wanted to work on. I remembered the fight I had all those years ago.
“I want to work on my tight smile,” I replied. I told him about the experience of the fight and the other times that I had noticed myself tightening up, jaw clenched, smiling like a plastic Barbie doll.
“What do you notice in your body right now as you tell me about this memory?”
No one had ever asked me that question before, and was astonished that the tight smile was on my face at that very moment. I described the unnatural tension on the corners of the mouth, the way the lips tightened over the teeth, the pressure on the corners of the jaw. I also noticed anxious energy and tension in my chest. My stomach hurt.
Craig repeated back what I was describing and mirrored the smile back at me. “Like this?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right,” I replied as he described the sensations I was experiencing. I felt both anxious and comforted with his precise attention. He then said something like, “You couldn’t tell your body to do this, right? I am seeing this, too.”
I stared at him. He actually saw me. He did not immediately dismiss me and walk out the door. Maybe I am not making this up after all. Maybe there is hope.
“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”
“Do you think you can stay with the sensations in your body in this moment?” Craig asked.
I noticed the tightness of my smile and nodded, “Yes.” I closed my eyes to concentrate. Craig began tapping alternately on each knee to add the EMDR processing to the somatic awareness.
Soon after Craig started tapping, I felt intense fear in my stomach. Something inside me knew I was not supposed to notice this smile. This was off limits, and at the same time I desperately wanted to know. I did not want to keep pushing past myself anymore. My shoulders and arms tensed. My legs began to contract. I felt paralyzed all over my body. Almost as soon as the fear and tension arose, it was gone. A deep heaviness settled over my shoulders, arms, and the back of my head. I felt my torso dipping forward, the heaviness pushing me down. My chin tucked in. I wanted to get as small as I could. I wanted to be invisible. All I could see was blackness. I am so alone. Desperate sadness settled over me. I remember this feeling. I felt like this throughout my entire childhood. I felt myself sucked into a black hold of despair.
Craig softly spoke, “I’m right here.”
I could feel the reassurance of his presence as well as the despair. Somehow, I did not feel as alone while at the same time experiencing how alone I felt all these years. My hands covered my face.
Craig gently invited, “Notice your hands.”
I had not noticed my hands until he spoke.
I could feel my hands covering my entire face. I waited.
A memory from when I was 14 began to surface.
My family had just moved to Kenya. We were somewhere out in the bush about four hours south of Nairobi. My parents were out with another missionary couple getting to know the area. They left my sisters and other children in the care of a kind Maasai woman.
As the day drew on, conflicts broke out between us, the kids. No one seemed to get along. I was jetlagged, lonely, and the fighting took me over the edge. I curled up somewhere in a hidden corner and silently wept. I just wanted to disappear. Somehow, the Maasai woman found my hiding place and crouched down beside me. She placed her hands over my face and held them there as I cried. Her hands had the combined smell of smoke mixed with the wash that she had just hung out on the line outside. She stayed with me calming cooing and reassuring me in her language. I had never experienced anyone comforting me in this way. She really saw me, moving into my sadness with gentle presence. I had no words. I did not know the language. The wordless comfort and gentle touch spanned cultures. She remained with me until I settled and was able to rejoin the other kids.
Back in the training with Craig, when my hands were covering my face, it reminded me of the feeling of the Maasai woman’s gentle hands on my face. My torso began to lift. My deep sadness intermingled with the compassion I had received from this woman. My shoulders relaxed. My breathing calmed. I felt a peace settle over my entire body.
I opened my eyes.
Craig asked, “How is it for me to be here with you noticing?”
I gasped as I bit my lips and pulled them in. I realized the vulnerability of what just happened. I was so into my experience I forgot that he and the 30 therapists were all around me.
Craig pointed to his own lips and pulled them in mirroring mine. “We don’t do this for nothing.”
I became aware of my own lips and let the words sink in: “We don’t do this for nothing.”
I am speechless. I am not making this stuff up. He sees it too. His presence welcomes my genuine experience without judgement. I feel the opposite of feeling like a burden. I feel human.
As we begin to finish the work, I share that I am now aware of a deep sadness within, but I do not know why or where it comes from. Craig notes that this work is still “midstream.” This is just the beginning. Is this something I would like to continue to work on with someone?
“We cannot change what happened to us. We can change our relationship to what happened in our body.”
“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”
He looks at me with a reassuring smile. “This is workable, Jennifer.”
I looked out at the faces circled around me. Some of the women in the group were wiping tears from their eyes. Several began to place their hands over their hearts as I caught their eyes. In the group processing, many expressed their gratitude for allowing them into this space with me. Several shared that the experience of watching me brought up something within them that may need to be explored further. We were all humans sharing what it means to be human together. I felt supported and encouraged by their words and actions.
During my experience with Craig I learned that I could be present with my body. I still did not know what it all meant. But, I felt hopeful. Instead of running away, my body could be my healing guide.
I am beginning to understanding that the house in my dream represents my body. I have tried all my life to run away from myself, be a good girl, and leave the past behind. But, the discomfort, pain, and physical illness is giving me the opportunity to turn back around. My body calls out over and over offering the opportunity to heal. I can trust the experience of my body.
“Conscious awareness is the foundation of healing.”