Not fixing it
Kelley’s blog post Say It Loud got me thinking.
WHY DON’T WE WANT TO LISTEN TO OTHER PEOPLE’S PAIN?
We believe we have some responsibility to fix it. We want to save our friend from this awful thing they are experiencing, real or imagined. But we know we can’t save them. Heck, we can’t even think of the right thing to say to them. This thing they’re sharing is too big; it’s too complicated; it’s beyond us to fix; and even if we did have an inspired idea of how to fix it, the person confiding in us is probably in no condition to take to heart our brilliant suggestion.
Also, fear is contagious. We sense that and worry about it. What if I start freaking out? How can I help you if I start drowning? So we often back away to avoid the whole mess.
But what if it isn’t our job to fix someone else? What if we don’t have to find the perfect thing to say? What if our only job in the face of someone else’s pain is to be a witness while staying in a good energy space ourselves?
I heard a paramedic say that in an emergency the first priority does not go to the person on the brink of death. The first priority is for the paramedic to check in with herself to make sure that she is alright. The second is to make sure the other members of her team are alright. The third priority is the person in danger.
THE STRONGEST NERVOUS SYSTEM WINS
Last week I participated in a workshop on Somatic Experiencing. The presenter talked about how the strongest nervous system in the room wins. Not the more enlightened, the strongest. We are like radar dishes picking up signals from one another. We’re designed to be responsive to one another. If the person freaking out has the strongest pull, you’ll both go there.
You’ve experienced it: someone next to you is really anxious and you start to feel anxious too. Ever watch American Idol tryouts? After being steeped in a crowd of performance anxiety for a whole day, it’s all Idol hopefuls can do not to pass out when they finally stand in front of the judges.
FIND YOUR DEEP CALM CENTER AND STAY THERE. THOSE WHO ARE FREAKED OUT WILL BE CALMED BY YOUR ENERGY.
Calm spreads too, but it takes more consciousness to hold. Have you ever been really anxious and gravitated to the calmest person in the room, her very presence a lifeline to your panicked soul?
To listen to someone else’s pain and remain calm, we have to ground ourselves in something deeper. We have to stay within Love’s presence. Love is whatever makes you feel expansive, free, safe, able to see beauty or feel gratitude.
When we feel we are in the presence of Love, our own nervous system calms down. The field of Interpersonal Neurobiology is beginning to help us understand this dynamic better: that human beings mirror neuronal patterns of activation in one another’s presence. So when someone in pain and panic is around someone who is consciously holding a deeply state of calm, his own nervous systems begins to mirror that calm state as well.
When someone in crisis experiences a calmer nervous system, they have a better chance of hearing the quiet, still voice inside of them that tells them the next step. It’s that voice that lets them know all is well. Not you. Your job as listener is to keep your own energy grounded so another person can find rest within it. As Hafiz—clearly practiced in this—writes, “Troubled, then stay with me, for I am not.”
HERE’S HOW TO DO THAT:
Here are some things you can do to go into a deep still place before and while witnessing someone else’s pain. These techniques help you build resources within yourself that make it easier to keep returning to a calm, grounded state.
1. Deep Ocean meditation. Imagine your essence-self diving beneath the rocky waves and tumult and plunging deep into the ocean. Nothing can hurt you. As you go deeper and deeper, it gets calmer and calmer and calmer. Blue whales descend 3,000 feet where the water is so still they can call to each other over miles. Use your imagination to descend to that calm still place and stay there as you listen.
2. Cook’s Hook Up. Intertwining yourself in this pretzel position puts you in a balanced whole brain state that is deeply calming. Give it a try right now.
1. Cross one ankle over the other.
2. Extend both arms in front of you, hands back to back.
3. Cross one hand over the other at wrist and clasp fingers together, interlocked.
4. Tuck clasped hands under and up, and rest them comfortably on your chest.
5. Inhale slowly by nose, tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Exhale through your mouth, relaxing your tongue down.
6. Hold this pose, gently, and continue slow, deep breathing for a minute or two.
3. Remind yourself you don’t have to fix it. Your first priority is to check in with yourself and calm your own nervous system down. You witness someone else’s pain from that place of Love, and by so doing, welcome them to join you there. What’s something kind and loving you can tell yourself to bring you to your deep calm center?
4. Find a place on your body that feels neutral or even good. Take a vacation there. Bring your full awareness to that spot. What does it feel like? Is it cool, warm? Really inhabit that spot with all of your attention. Notice what happens.
NOPE, IT’S NOT EASY
Everyday there are things big and small that threaten to freak the hell out of all of us. It takes a lot of practice to return to a calm state. But it’s really the best way to support yourself and others. The more experience you have being in a calm state, the easier it becomes to return to it in the face of someone else’s pain, as well as in your own.
HOW HEALING HAPPENS WITHOUT YOU MEANING IT TO:
The paradox is that when a space is opened for someone to name and share their pain, it begins to heal without you fixing it. When connection is made, neither of you feel so alone. People are afraid that their pain will separate them from others because no one will understand them. Your witnessing presence is a gift.
WARNING: THIS MAY BE SUPER DIFFERENT FROM HOW YOU’VE REACTED TO OTHER’S PAIN IN THE PAST AND IT MAY WEIRD PEOPLE OUT AT FIRST. STAY WITH IT.
This may be a very different way of responding to someone else’s pain if what support has looked like in the past is mutual commiseration. Bonding over our wounds has become normalized and expected, and when you stop doing it people may think there’s something wrong with you or that you don’t love them any more. Don’t panic. Listen to their story in a way that says, “I know the truth of who you are. Your pain is separating you from that truth. I’m connected to the love that you are. Because I love you so much I will simply hold a space for you while you experience this terrible pain. And in witnessing the pain, it will be eased.”
When we more frequently occupy a space of calm in our own beings we understand the power of that place of vulnerability inside ourselves. We become more open to witness our own pain as it arises and are able to open a space to listen to others’.