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Author:Richard Chadek

On Belay

When I started my coaching career—all those years B.C. (Before Covid)—I was heady with the possibilities that naturally arise after rigorous training in one’s field of passion.  My clients, I imagined, would be folks stuck in their work or struggling with intimacy or trust; people who’d used psychotherapy, not just to feel better, but also for the sake of understanding themselves, and who continued to feel the pull of something below ‘see’ level.

Seeing the world through a developmental lens, I understood suffering as the consequence of blocked or impaired growth and I believed my greatest service lay in helping remove whatever blocked the natural movement of life from fundament to significance.

It’s approaching 20 years since those days, and while I still see the world through that developmental lens, a different cohort of clients has found its way to my door.  These folks experience life as profoundly ephemeral.  For them, something fundamental, which they’d always counted on to be solid, is now up for grabs and the river of their life is moving, somewhere, that isn’t really of their choosing.  And while this can happen at any point in life, it usually isn’t until after middle-age, when significant losses have really started to accumulate.

That’s not to say life isn’t still busy or vital, but they’ve lived long enough to experience the moving horizon of life, carried inside themselves, become fixed.  No longer does the horizon stay the same respectful distance from them as life unfolds.  No, as they move through life, the edge of all known things gets closer and closer.  And beyond that edge?  Well, there be dragons.

Maybe their children now have children, and they wonder: what’s to become of them in the world being left them?  Or perhaps they never had children, and they wonder: what’s to become of me as I journey further and further into alone?

Perhaps life for them has already been a series of sacrifices and now they struggle with yet still more surrender.  Perhaps they’ve recently lost parents or a spouse.  Or there’s been an unrelenting series of these losses.  Maybe they themselves have been given a diagnosis that completely changes what they think about living.

They may not have language for this.  They talk about being resigned or say they’re angry, but what they feel is that it’s just too hard surrendering to all they face.  The taste of ‘giving up’ is bitter.  But it may be that what they face isn’t about how to give up as much as it’s about how to bow down.

I’ve always been fascinated with language and that what we say actually shapes the world we experience.  Everything we do involves language which we use to either open up or prevent what’s possible.  With many clients, it can be useful to explore what declarations do or don’t show up for them.  Like whether and how they say No or Yes, especially in circumstances where the opposite seems to be expected of them.

But with the folks I have in mind, this won’t be deep enough for what’s on the line.  We’re living in a time of real confusion between what we say is true, what we say is real and what falls into the category of personal experience.  In these times, our experience, or what we fear experiencing, has become interchangeable with the True and the Real.  We can see this in the rise of the conspiracies that abound and the common insistence on fidelity to a worldview rather than fidelity to the world.

The clients I’m speaking of have become desperate for reality.  They badly want truth.  But here’s a problem: if we look at the etymology of truth, we quickly discover that it started as a verb.  It was more like “truing” a thing, like making something straight.  And then it became a thing a person did for their community.  Someone of real standing—typically an elder—would attest that this is the way things are and their standing in the community became collateral, something they put at risk should the stand they took prove devious.  But we don’t live in an era that holds elders in much regard, so that kind of truing is lost to us.

The etymology of words, the history of their meaning, isn’t merely academic.  The current meaning of a word is like the last 5 feet of a climbing rope.  We absolutely need to hold onto the current meaning, but when we’re using words to belay us in this life, we need to trust the whole 150 feet of rope.

For the clients I’m speaking of, I suspect that even more than truing, what they seek is belief.  And here we need to turn again to etymology.  Belief comes from the joining of the words be and lief.  When be was used as a prefix it meant something like ‘intensify whatever word comes next’—like becalm or benumb or bewilder.  And the word it was joined to in this case came from one which had to do with love.  That gives us belief as an intensification of love.  Can you feel the difference between this understanding of the word and its shabby offspring of today?  And can you imagine how holding the word in this way might hold us?

With this understanding, our desperation might be resolved through our loving.  What is it that we’re loving?  Not just what are we holding onto, but truly loving?  What might it look like to intensify that loving to the point of actually bowing down to it?  There’s a surrender we have a chance of saying yes to.

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The First Law

If we look in a certain way, we see that everything in our universe is about one of two things: either movement—which is energy, change, information—or stillness—which has to do with awareness, capacity, or space.  I like to think the work I do is mostly about restoring movement.

Without exception, every initial interview I’ve ever had with a client has been devoted to metaphorically walking around with them, the two of us looking at what’s not moving.  But it isn’t stillness we’re seeing, it’s this very different thing, called ‘stuck’.

The 17th century mathematician Isaac Newton’s First Law was that a body in motion stays in motion unless some force acts on it.  Now, apart from the apple that’s said to have landed on him, Newton wasn’t focusing on living things.  But his first law actually fits the living quite well. Life is, after all, about movement.  So we could say, as a very good first approximation, that if something in life isn’t moving, there’s a force being applied to stop it. 

And we can take it as given that whatever the force is stopping the movement in our lives, we’re the ones applying it.  Which makes my job kind of simple, even if it isn’t very easy.  All I need to do is understand the process through which my clients are applying this stopping force and, after helping them see it, work with them to integrate a process that supports movement.

A few years ago, a friend and I gave a talk in which we intended to explore what’s actually trying to emerge from all the chaos and suffering in the world around us.  But what we ended up talking about that night was how compelling it is for us to turn away from whatever it is we don’t want to feel. 

For example, we may not always say what we really want, even to ourselves, because we don’t want to feel what it’s like if we don’t get it.  Or we fear losing relationships we sense might not be able to tolerate who we really are.  Or who we might become.  And all of us fight with our partners—generally because something they do makes us feel like we did as children.  And if we don’t read that story on climate change, it’s likely because we don’t want to feel overwhelmed, helpless and afraid.

As it turns out, we all turn away for a couple of reasons: either as a way to avoid the pain and discomfort that comes with change, or to protect ourselves from the effects of a past injury.

Turning away from what we’re unwilling—or unable—to feel is the force we apply which stops the movement of our living.  This impulse is so strong, and it happens so quickly, that we generally aren’t even aware we’ve done it.

There’s also a big difference between, let’s say, that thrill of fear which happens as we’re about to do something risky for the first time and the feeling that comes up when we’re panicked.  With this kind of fear, our concern is about whether we can actually do this new thing.  That’s about growth, about being called by life to something bigger.  But with panic, we actually lose access to what we’re already capable of doing.  And that has more to do with a trauma we’re still trying to escape.

The difference between what growth and trauma feel like is important because the problems of growth can often be worked through with the mind and an understanding of what’s going on.  But trauma operates at the level of survival and requires attention to our emotions and our bodies.

Regardless of whether our reaction is to the painful pressure of growth or the limitations of a past trauma, when that reaction is below our “see” level, it seems like it happens to us rather than being something we do.  And it compounds the illusion that there’s nothing, evidently, we can do.

But as Moshe Feldenkrais has said, when we know what we’re doing, we can do what we want.

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Just about a year before the virus landed, Dianne and I moved to Vashon, one of the islands of Puget Sound.  On many days I work in the woods around our house, clearing away dead wood or fitting chunks of basalt into shapes you might mistake as either the ruins of what’s falling away or something new emerging from the earth.

Most days, I also work with clients who themselves are clearing out the deadwood.  They’re trying to discern whether all the dis-ease in their lives signifies an old structure past its time or foreshadows a new one trying to emerge.  And from everything they tell me, letting go of what’s falling away isn’t any easier than figuring out what’s to come.

It’s evident, too, in the wider world.  After all, we live in a time of five crises: the pandemic; our unsustainable economy; the chauvinisms of race, sex, nation and faith; our weaponized politics; the ever-warming climate.  Each involves the falling away of structures or identities or ways-of-being that have been centuries and even millennia in the making.  And the precise shape of what’s emerging is not at all clear.

In my own life, the deeper into it I travel, the more conscious I’ve become of my horizon.  Like that other one, out in the world, it used to seem that no matter where or what direction I went, my horizon moved with me, always keeping its respectful distance.  But now, it seems fixed and I draw closer to it every day.  There’s a structure here, a structure that bestowed a comforting location in life, that’s falling away.

As I write this, something one of my mentors told me comes to mind.  He said what distinguishes us from everything else alive was that we know we’ll die.  It’s not that other species don’t know death but, as far as we can see, we’re the only ones that know death will come to us.  We know we’ll lose every one and every thing we love, although it takes some time to actually believe this.  He told me it’s in the relationship we have to this understanding that our humanity is found.

Do we seek to protect ourselves from all this loss?  Do we become parsimonious in our loving to lessen the pain?  Or do we bow down to that pain in gratitude for the loving?

Now, I don’t pretend to be the supplicant I want to be.  Even when I squint ferociously, it’s hard to make out the shape of what’s coming.  And this squinting is evidence of a “need” to know the shape of things before tolerating what they cause me to feel.

In the culture we’ve made, exploring the impact of mortality on our loving is as rare as it is vital.  That it’s hard to talk about these things, with more than just the mind, before we reach a certain age is not surprising.  

But at some point, when the heart and the body join in this understanding, a need arises to have a different relationship with our living.  One in which what we believe, what we know and what we do cohere.

This is why I fit one stone to another in our woods.  It has to do with finding patterns that please my mind and heart, yes, but also with spending much of my time there on my knees.  And it’s why I search, with my clients, for the evidence of what we yet might be.  

It’s been said that we each have two lives: the second one begins the moment we learn we only have one.

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