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Author:Richard Chadek

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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Trauma and Power

These days I’ve been aware of how important it is to distinguish what’s going on around us—whatever the state the world is in—from what’s going on within us—the state we’re in. 

In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of the moon and the lake to point at this.  And for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t read my post on Intimacy, imagine you’re sitting on the shore of a mountain lake.  It’s summer, it’s warm, the sun is going down, not a cloud in the sky.  Just now, the moon begins to rise and as it’s rising you see a reflection of it on the surface of the lake in front of you.  The lake is so still, the moon’s reflection so precise, that it’s visually impossible to tell which is which. And then some kid down the shore kerplunks an enormous rock into the lake and we say goodbye to that illusion.

But if we pay attention, we see the presence of illusion all around us. After all, there is a world out there, but the only way we know anything about it is because of its reflection on the surface of the lake that’s inside us. Whenever our lake is quiet, we get a pretty accurate representation—or let me say re-presentation—of what’s out there. But when we’re anxious or afraid or perhaps a bit panicked, not so much. We end up seeing the disturbed waters more than the world reflected in them.

The bad, as well as the good, news here is this: there’s a kid in here with us who regularly throws rocks in our water.

I’ll tell you a little story by way of illustration.  One night recently, as my wife and I were lying in bed, talking about the days we’d had, which of us was on dog duty in the morning and who was going for groceries, Dianne said “You know, I just haven’t felt well all day.  I’ve got this headache, and my chest is tight and—I don’t know—I just have this sense that something’s not right.”  Given the world we’re in these days, it wasn’t exactly good sleep hygiene to hear this, and I’m sure my brow furrowed, but a little while later I found myself drifting off to sleep. 

The next morning, I got up early and sat with my cup of tea and my dog watching the dawn and the birds at the feeder. But my heart and mind weren’t open to the scene before me. I continued my worry from the night before: does Dianne have this virus? In the online news feed I turn to for distraction I see the stock market falling, there’s enormous confusion whether we can afford to go back into lock-down or whether we can afford not to, a chaotic election is nearly here, the bridge I use between the ferry terminal and Seattle is closed, maybe forever, and the rent on an office I cannot use is coming due.   Seemingly out of nowhere it occurs to me that I haven’t actually touched anyone not married to me for months.

Then, because this is part of how I work with my clients, I ask myself: ‘Richard, what are you feeling right now?’ The reply is immediate: ‘Good God, my mind is just racing. My whole body is tight like a fist and I’m only breathing into my throat. I don’t know whether to run, screaming, into the woods or fall, weeping, to my knees. I feel helpless and overwhelmed and alone.’

And because this is also what I do with my clients, I ask: ‘What’s that like?’

And you know what it’s like? It’s just like it was, growing up in my family, with an alcoholic father. I’m confused and I don’t know who to trust and what’s happening seems too big to let it all in.

It’s at that point that I take a deep breath. I feel how much like my younger self I feel and how different a thing that is from the man I also am, in the year 2020. And even though I know I cannot know what’s going to happen, I understand that it’s OK, as the man I am, to be uncertain or even confused. The tightness in my chest and the knot in my back start to relax.

But I hadn’t actually been aware of this younger version of me emerging. I just sort of became it. Every one of us has experienced things that have been too big for the person we were to take in, whether it was a divorce or having to move, repeatedly, to a new home or having a parent that couldn’t be their best when we needed them to be. We all learned ways of titrating that experience in order to simply endure it, either by running from it, or closing ourselves down or exploding in rage.  And whenever we come upon events that are big like that now, we stop seeing them as they are. Instead we re-experience who we were, then.  Or said another way, that kid kerplunks our lake.

In the beautiful and terrible way of these things, the capacities we’ve developed in all the years since those first overwhelming experiences are lost to us.  If we think of power not as the amount of force we can bring to bear upon the world, but rather as the capacity to withstand whatever forces bear down upon us without becoming distorted, it’s the loss of power that results.

There’s something in these troubled times that troubles us in ways which reduce our capacity to tolerate or respond to them. We become younger than we are.  We become captivated by the choppy waters of the lake inside us, seeing less and less of the world as it is. The consequence is that we can’t see the actual present, let alone any possible future.  We only see our past.

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