SOMATIC LESSONS FROM A YOUNG PARROT

Zee HH

Those of you who have experienced my Somatic and Intuitive Coaching work know I believe that a sense of safety in the body is the foundation both for healing trauma and practicing new ways of being.

Somatic safety means giving your body experiences of feeling protected and/or able to take care of itself.

My avian assistant Zee has taught me alot about the “containment” or “holding” aspect of somatic safety.

Containment means giving your body a feeling of being held, of having a sense of boundary. With containment, emotions and sensations have a somatic beginning and end. They shift from “overwhelming” to manageable.

You can give yourself this experience with or without props.

With Props: you can use blankets, pillows, eyebags or sandbags, a wall, the floor or water to give your body a sense of being held.

You could put a sandbag on your chest, or hide under a pile of pillows, get in a warm bath and feel the water holding your skin, or wrap yourself in blankets.

You can wear a thick scarf or hoodie and feel the coziness. Notice which parts of your body like being held the most, and notice how you feel when you allow yourself to really rest inside that holding.

Without Props: you can push your arms against your sides; push your legs together; cradle your arm(s) around your head. Do each of these gently but firmly for five seconds, then pause and repeat.

Or you can lie down and push your feet against a wall, noticing your length from head to toe, feeling where you begin and end.

Certain breathing practices, such as counting the length of your inhalations and exhalations (ie. “In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4.”), or silently labeling the “beginning,” “middle” and “end” of a breath cycle, can also support containment.

To see if a containment practice works for you, try it out a few times, and pay attention to your body’s feedback—is it a “yes” a “no” or a “maybe?” If it is a yes, invite yourself to practice it every day.
 

Bedtime
My baby parrot Zee has shown me how essential a sense of safety is for healthy development. 

Here Zee is demonstrating his favorite “With Props” containment method: hiding in his fuzzy “happy hut.”

Sometimes Zee feels exposed, like when a big seagull or crow flies by our window. Parrots, like all prey animals, are ever-vigilant of predators.

Zee can also be timid when he meets a new person. He needs to gather his courage to explore a new object or area (such as his tree-playground).

Often during these vulnerable moments, he darts into his cozy “happy hut.”

Zee has so far lived a trauma-free life. It is not trauma that makes him cautious about new experiences. It is natural for him to hide, peek his head out slowly, retreat, and eventually emerge and explore.

Exploring includes many “happy hut” interludes. When Zee has had enough, risked enough, he returns to his refuge to rest and digest until curiosity draws him out again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3UjDni5Hhg

Parrots’ heads—especially their ears–get itchy. They can scratch their heads with their feet, but it is not as nice as having another bird preen them.

The first time I saw Zee scratching his head, I reached out to scratch it for him. He chittered and snapped at me, ferocious as a mini dragon. He did not yet trust my hands.

But later, he scurried into his fuzzy hut, poked his head out and nudged my fingers. This was my cue, and he let me scratch his head a little bit. Zee felt insulated enough by the happy hut to risk me touching his vulnerable head.

As the days passed, he allowed me to scratch his head more and more. Nowadays, he lets me give him “cuddles” out in the open, far away from his happy hut! He just needed to take his time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55JME0rLiq8&list=UUVzR1C-MR3zxibvq1vusoyg

We are biologically similar to Zee and other baby animals. We need a baseline of safety and holding in order to explore and risk and trust. 

All of us need to take it slow, and sometimes retreat. The dance of two steps forward, one step back is integral to healthy development.

This holds true even more when we are healing from personal or social trauma.

Our bodies have a natural need for steady holding, and a natural rhythm of retreating and exploring, contracting and expanding.

When we respectfully collaborate with this body rhythm, we are able to sustain each little victory of growth and healing. Our once narrow world expands–sustainably.

Zee reminds me of this every day. If I try to push him past his safety zone, he gives me a big “No” by acting out, or hiding in his hut.

When I drop my agenda, I am more able to notice when he has “had enough” and when he is ready for adventure.

I can respond appropriately and support his growth. With this foundation of safety and trust, his confidence—and his world–expands. As does mine. We bring each other joy.

Zee reminds me that I, too am a biological animal; I also need to nurture and challenge myself: What do I need right now? How much is enough? How much is too much?

Am I having a “happy hut” moment, or am I ready for a new adventure?

How about you? How are you treating your animal body?

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www.vanissar.com

 

 

 

THE “SLOW DOWN” OPTION

Many of us start the new year with new resolutions and intentions. Meanwhile, social and environmental crises continue to emerge. We have ample reasons for our bodies to get “revved up.”

As we load up on too many activities, respond to a dizzying array of injustices, responses to injustices, and commentaries on those responses, our reptile brains (our fight-or-flight hind brains) inevitably become activated.

The reptile brain’s knee-jerk reactions have been essential for humans to survive as a species.

Whether in the distant past when predators leapt at us humans, or in the present when armored police throw teargas at protesters, there are times when we must act instantly to protect ourselves.

These are not times to think. These are times to duck, run, hide, fight, struggle or freeze. Whatever survival requires. If our actions are successful, we will have plenty of time to think later! Reptile brains are pragmatic that way.

Let’s celebrate the beauty and efficiency of our animal bodies, which know how to—on a dime,  without our conscious choice–freeze like a rabbit, run like a deer, fight like a rooster, blend like a chameleon, pretend-die like a possum, placate like a dog, or daydream like a child.

Such ingenious, wondrous bodies!

Yet, in a world full of trauma, oppression, and too much information processed too fast, it is easy to get stuck in constant crisis mode, where we react and “rev up” over and over again.

We may add to this by over-caffeine-ating and over-working ourselves to match the unrelenting pace. We can burn out our adrenals this way.
“Revved Up” Body; Relaxed Body
If we would rather cultivate a more sustainable, relaxed way of being, it is helpful to learn from our bodies.

First, we can notice what our bodies do when they “rev up.”

What I have noticed so far is that “revved up” is indeed “up.” The body’s energy moves up and forward, becoming extremely focused.

We can also observe specific areas of the body and notice how they change.

For example, if I observe my eyes in “revved up” mode, I notice they are tight. My field of vision narrows, and I see only what is in front of me. Or my eyes tense up and scan my surroundings. All of this is efficient for running, fighting or spotting danger.

What are your body cues that let you know that you are “revved up?”

Second, we can notice what our bodies do when they relax.

For me and many people, the energy of “relaxed” moves back and down. Slowly.

When I observe my eyes in “back and down” mode, I notice they feel softer. The gaze is restful, and I am able to take in more nuances in my environment.

What are your body cues that let you know that you are relaxed?

You might also notice that the “revved up” mode activates your body quickly.

By contrast, the “back and down” mode unfolds slowly, layer by layer. Body contractions melt gradually, like ice.

We cannot rush this process by telling ourselves, “Hurry up and calm down!!” or “Stop being so reactive!” or “Why am I still not relaxed!?!” If you find yourself thinking this way, it means you are still in “revved up” mode.
Contraction and Expansion
Another way of looking at it is that “up and forward” is contraction, while “back and down” is expansion. This holds true mentally as well as physically.

The contracted bodily state is accompanied by a contracted mental state. In this mode, nuances are lost. We think in absolutes, make snap decisions, speak without thinking, and jump to conclusions.

The expanded body is accompanied by an expansive mental state. In this mode our thinking is nuanced, creative, and receptive to options and other perspectives.

Biologically we need to access both modes: rapid, hyper-alert, energized contraction/action, and slow, reflective restfulness.

But most of us could use alot more “back and down.”

What does the movement from “revved up” to relaxed feel like?

Imagine that your body is a spiral that suddenly tightens inward and shoots upward—that is the feeling of contraction.

Now imagine that intensely alert spiral starts to uncoil and soften. This is a much slower process; we won’t experience the results right away.

Nothing about “back and down” has anything to do with “right away.”  If you feeling impatient, you are not there yet.

Most of us could use more practice at slowly, softly, unfurling, unwinding, expanding, and dropping into deep restfulness.

Restoring ourselves regularly keeps us resilient during times of intense action.

You can find some “back and down” promoting practices here

http://www.vanissar.com/blog/de-escalating-reactivity-at-work-practices-for-individuals-teams-groups/

here: http://www.vanissar.com/blog/rude-body-wisdom-2/

and here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJWAaJ75N3E

Remember, you can speak your truth and take care of yourself. Wishing everyone a restful, resourceful month.

 

A Psychology of Unlearning Racism

Hi Friends,

Inspired by the vibrant racial justice movement, recently re-vitalized by‪#‎blacklivesmatter, I have decided to make my dissertation “Towards a Psychology of Unlearning Racism: A Case Study of a Buddhist Unlearning Racism Course for White People” accessible to anyone that wants to read it.

Here it is:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/fdf209po1f8cv5f/Vanissar%27s_Dissertation.pdf?dl=0

Should be useful to any individual or group wanting to understand the psychological obstacles to white anti-racist solidarity and action, and how to work skillfully and compassionately to dissolve those obstacles.

Much love,

Vanissar

www.vanissar.com

 

SMALL GROUP SOMATIC & INTUITIVE COACHING

Small Group Somatic & Intuitive Coaching

New groups begin January 7 & 8, 2015

in Rockridge, North Oakland:

8 Wednesday nights: 7-8:30 pm
or
8 Thursday mornings: 10-11:30 am

Are you ready to befriend your body?

Receive individual coaching from Dr. Tarakali in a compassionate group setting.

Learn somatic & intuitive tools to support your personal& vocational goals.

This intimate workshop creates a chemistry of mutual support where everyone benefits from one another’s learning.

Pre-registration is required.
Limited to 5 participants.

Cost: $360 for 8 sessions.

Find out more or register at vanissar@cs.com or (510) 594-6812.

TESTIMONIALS

“I appreciate your ability to understand and intuit what people need, and to offer us ways forward…My depression has shifted, I feel happier than I have in years. When I am (about to act blindly or compulsively), I can stop now, feel my body and choose. It is freeing.” ~Dave

“I’m more engaged with myself because I have tools (knowing how things feel in my body, check ins to see what is ok or not ok with me, etc.) to move through the pain and trauma/triggers. I feel confident and stronger with myself.” ~Kotori

“What a warm and open environment. I felt safe from the very first day. The practical tools to assist me in staying aware and engaged with life have been powerful.” ~Samsarah

“This coaching series has taught me ways to be kind to my body and to decipher the messages it is trying to give to me. I am managing my health challenges much better.” ~Elena

“I love the way you hold the group process…I never feel left out or not held even when your attention is on others.” ~Ryan

“I have learned little activities that I can integrate into my daily life and be more connected to my body quickly. I feel calmer, more grounded, and like the world is bigger, more vibrant.” ~Ari

“I feel significantly more able to love and take care of my physical and emotional self. I feel more able to stay with difficult feelings. I am so excited, and I definitely want to take more of these workshops.” ~Laila

“Vanissar’s fundamental trust in the body is riveting, and so different from what I’ve practiced my whole life. I now have more options for how to be with my physical sensations/symptoms, less anxiety, and hope that I could get to a really different place in my relationship with my body.” ~Kate

De-escalating Reactivity at Work: Practices for Individuals, Teams & Groups

When humans come together in organizations, mutual triggering and reactivity is inevitable, especially if members or staff are passionate about the work and/or the community being served. Here are some practices to reassure your lizard brain when it feels threatened at work.

Grounding Practices

*Feeling Held

Notice where your body is being physically supported. Pay attention to the sensations of your feet on the floor, your sitting bones on the chair, your back on the wall or chair. Keep bringing your attention to what your tissues and nerve endings are feeling with this contact. Notice what it feels like to have the floor/chair/wall, etc. consistently holding you.

*Bone Meditations

Your bones are your body’s reliable scaffold. Directing your attention to the bones can be very reassuring. Here is a bone meditation:
Using your hands, squeeze all of your bones, one-by-one from toe to head. Notice the shape of your bones, and notice how when you squeeze, your bones push back. Notice how dense and reliable each bone is.

*Grounding Breath

Inhale slowly and deeply, then exhale down towards earth, making a sound or sigh that matches how you feel. Repeat this at least three times. Notice how you feel afterward. Try adding this practice to your staff or community meetings. Doing this as a group enhances everyone’s ability to ground and settle.

Restoring Practices

*Gratitude

Write down or speak aloud a couple of things you feel grateful for. Make sure you pay attention to the sensations that show up in your body. This is powerful to do in pairs.

*Stand with one leg slightly in front of the other and gently sway forward and back for at least 3 minutes. As you sway, pay attention to any places in your body that feel warm or cool or neutral. Try doing this as a group: As you sway, you might want to call out appreciations of each other and the group. Feel your body sensations as you take in the appreciations. Notice what shakes loose. Allow yourself to yawn, laugh, shake or cry.

Presence & Awareness Practices

*”Draw” a line down the center of your body: Place a finger tip or the side of your hand at the top of your head, and maintaining contact, move it slowly down the center of your face, throat, chest, down to your belly button. Then using both hands, draw two center lines down your legs to your feet. Do this 2 or 3 times, and allow yourself to feel the sensations during and after. This practice can help you feel in alignment with yourself and the earth. It can be powerful to draw a center line down your back body as well.

* Get in the habit of tuning into your sensations. (Notice any tendency to analyze or interpret your sensations versus simply inhabiting them; thinking about your sensations is different from being immersed in them.)

*Scan your body feelings of exposure or vulnerability; this will clue you into when you are in fight-or-flight mode, and help you notice where your body needs safety practices.

*Periodically check in with yourself by asking, what is the mood of my body? You can start and end staff or community meetings this way to build everyone’s awareness and reduce reactivity.

*Have everyone in your group practice being present with their body’s mood and sensations for a few minutes. Then each person switches to being present with the physicality and moods of the people near them. Bring the attention back and forth between your body and the other bodies. It may help to close your eyes when you tune into you, and open them when you tune into others. After a while, see if you can pay attention to your body and the other bodies at the same time. This practice enhances your ability to stay centered in yourself (and your truth) while empathizing with others.

Safety Practices

*If part of your body feels exposed, give it a safe container: cradle your arms around the top of your head for a few minutes; cover your chest with a cat or hoodie or your hands; bundle up your body with blankets or pillows. Let yourself steep in the sensations for several minutes.

*Find an area of tension in your body and imagine drawing a “yes” around it. Thank this part of your body for “holding things together.” Appreciate its efforts. Pay attention to your sensations.

*Make space for yourself: Push your arms out with your hands facing forward as if you are stopping something. Do this 3-4 times in every direction: above, below, in front, behind and to the sides. If you want to, say aloud as you do this: “Go over there.” or “This is my space.” or “No.” Repeat this until you feel a clear sense of space around your body. Clearing your space reprograms your body to send clear non-verbal boundary messages to others.

Practice this together as a group and notice the effects on everyone. Claiming space creates room to reflect and respond mindfully. As you begin to own your space, your sense of spaciousness and safety will increase. Your reactivity (any tendency to auto-appease others, freeze, get defensive, attack, “check-out”, bail, escape, shut down, etc.) will decrease.

*To create a sense of group safety, have everyone sit side by side in pairs during difficult or shame-stimulating discussions or when sharing painful or challenging experiences. This practice builds a biological sense of safety and allyship, and relaxes the reptilian brain.

You can add some of the other practices to these dyads, such as grounding breaths, feeling held by the chair/floor/wall, or gratitude sharing. This will increase mutual trust and group resilience.

FEELING COMPLETE: EMBODYING ENDINGS & GOODBYES

Endings deserve our attention.
Birth is sacred and momentous; death is equally potent. Beginnings and endings–mini-births and mini-deaths—shape each day of our lives. Yet many of us enter new jobs, projects and relationships with more care then than we exit them.

Often we “check out” entirely during goodbyes. It’s no surprise: traumatic losses can leave us gunshy about endings. It can feel scary or painful to say goodbye to familiar people and situations, even when we have outgrown them; even when we know it’s time.

Nevertheless, we need to practice conscious completion. This means being present, to the best of our ability, with the sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise during endings.

When we “show up” for endings, we invite others to “show up.” 

During my last visit with my dying mother in 2010, she insisted that she was “going to fight this,” even though it was painfully clear that her body was winding down. I wanted us to speak honestly about this, and about our relationship. I had things I was longing to say, and questions. And I wanted to hear whatever she needed to say to me. All that.

Her refusal to admit that this was (likely) our last visit prevented that conversation from happening. I had to insist. Eventually, she agreed to talk, as long as she could have a nap first. So she did. When she awoke, she said, with steely resolve, “I’m ready.”

For about an hour, we had the most truthful and focused conversation we had ever had. We actually connected. It was, for me, a miracle. I felt satisfied, complete. She was utterly exhausted afterwards, and immediately had another nap.

I felt a bit guilty for having “worn her out,” but I found out later from her friends that she had repeatedly mentioned that talk, saying that we had had “such a good visit,” and that she felt close to me for the first time in decades.

We both were nourished by that conscious goodbye.

Conscious endings give us a fresh start for new situations.  

A client of mine who had changed jobs noticed he was wary at work, anticipating the worst. He realized he was projecting the awful interpersonal dynamics of his old job onto the new one, even though the culture at the new organization was emotionally intelligent and responsive.

I took him through a somatic closure process, and he was able to acknowledge, express and let go of the emotions and dynamics of the old job. Afterward he felt relieved. In the following weeks, he found himself able to engage more wholeheartedly with his new coworkers.

I want to share this somatic closure process with you. It’s a practice I learned from Denise Benson, a brilliant therapist and somatic coach.

You can practice this by yourself as a journal exercise, or you can speak it aloud.

You can also practice this with your therapist or coach, or with a supportive friend or group.

Somatic Completion Practice 

First, choose which ending you want to attend to. It might be a job you recently left, a loved one who has passed away, or a painful breakup. It could be a familiar aspect of yourself that is falling away.

Even if you are happy about this ending, it is important to complete it. Conscious completion frees up stuck energy, giving you momentum for your next steps.

Next, speak aloud or write about each of the following four categories (in whatever order works for you) as they apply to your ending:

* Resentments

* Appreciations

* Regrets

* Learnings

For example, for the “Resentment” category, you can say (or write), “I resent that________” or, “One resentment I have about_____is: ______.”

You can do this “stream of consciousness” style by naming one resentment after another without pausing. Every once in a while (maybe every 3 or 4 resentments), tune into your body sensations and hang out with them for a bit.

Write them down or describe them aloud to help you stay with: 1. what they are (are they a temperature, a texture, a sense of movement or stillness, a “mood”, etc.), and 2. where they are (your big toe? Deep inside your chest? Floating just above your head?).

Or, you can do it this way: express one resentment, pause, and then complete a long, slow inhale and exhale. Feel your sensations.

Then move on to the next resentment. Follow it with another long, slow deep breath. Continue until you have expressed all the resentments you can access at the moment.

 

Now, switch to the next category (Appreciations, Regrets and Learnings) and follow the same process.Notice when you have “had enough” for now.  Don’t push through. If you feel “done,” stop.

If there are more Resentments, Appreciations, Regrets or Learnings to be expressed, you can repeat this practice later on as much as you need.

Don’t forget to check in with your sensations! Being wide awake in your senses is the key to conscious, embodied endings. Experiencing your bodily sensations of ending frees up your somatic energy to fully engage in what comes next.

If during this process your body starts unwinding, let it! 

Your body is literally “letting go” of the old, making room for the new.

You might need to repeat the closure practice several times to feel complete, especially if what is dying or ending has been a significant part of your life.

Authentic endings help us forgive ourselves and one other.

You can use the somatic completion practice in a group or organizational context.

A pastor-friend of mine brought a version of this practice to the final board meeting for their community’s youth empowerment project. The project had gone bankrupt because of financial miscalculation. It was being closed down.

Everyone involved had put their hearts and sweat into the project. Each member felt some degree of grief, guilt or bitterness. They needed to have an honest discussion, free from acrimony.

My pastor-friend invited each participant to express: two resentments, two appreciations, two regrets and two learnings. The group listened to one another without interruption, and gradually the atmosphere lightened.

My friend observed that the combined structure of clear limits (“Tell us two–and only two–of each category.”) plus full permission to express “negative” feelings (resentments and regrets), created a safe container that allowed difficult feelings and opinions to be expressed without ugliness or blame.

The group was able to access gratitude and mutual appreciation as well as grief and disappointment. By the end of the meeting, the general atmosphere was surprisingly peaceful (as well as deeply sad, etc.).

I invite you to try out this practice with your endings:

When your dog dies.

When your last child leaves home.

When you finish your diploma or degree.

When you retire.

Let me know how it goes…

Practices to Melt Chronic Pain & Illness

As I wrote last month, matter is not (merely) solid, and neither are our bodies. Our bodies are mostly water, which, given the right conditions, can be a solid, a liquid or a gas. A healthy body is a mixture of stability and fluidity, an undulating dance of contraction and expansion.


Ongoing pain and illness are contractions—initially useful or purposeful contractions–that have become stuck. But no matter how stuck things feel, the distance between contraction and melting is slight. Under the right conditions, change can happen on a dime.


Practices That Invite Contraction

There are many influences on our bodies that we cannot control. But we can consciously practice attitudes and behaviors that cultivate contraction or fluidity, illness or wellness.

Which practices invite contraction?

1. Attitudes Towards Your Self, Your Body and Your Symptoms

Attitude is about how you treat yourself/your body. Attitude shows up in the internal “tone of voice” you use to speak to yourself, what you tell yourself, and how you treat your body and your symptoms.

Here are some attitudes that invite contraction:

  • Impatience/pushing/efforting (We might say to ourselves: “Hurry up and get better!” or “I gotta fix this!”)
  •  
  • Judgment/blaming/self-punishment (“what is wrong with me?” “I hate this headache!”)
  •  
  • Disrespect, disregard (“I don’t have time for this!”)
  •  
  • Dissociation, minimizing, numbing (“I am not going to feel this.”)
  •  
  • Objectifying your body parts or your symptoms (“My body is so uncooperative!” or “My stomach is ruining my life!”)
  •  
  • Turning illness or chronic pain into a static identity (ie.“I am chronically ill.” And sometimes when we say we have an illness (“I have fibromyalgia;” “I have IBS”) we are subtly telling ourselves we arethat illness.)

I want to say a little more about this specific attitude.

On one hand, it can be healing and liberating to claim an identity of “chronically ill” or “chemically sensitive,” etc. Owning chronic pain or illness as an identity can mean finally giving yourself permission to take your situation seriously, treat yourself with tenderness and care, seek out supportive community, and access dignity and resilience.

On the other hand, turning any aspect of our experience into an identity always runs the risk of inviting contraction and stagnation. So it’s good to hold your identities lightly. Give your living body room to breathe, and be willing to laugh at your ideas about yourself. Remember, you are a mystery. You are a profoundly fluid, changeable being.

It is a good idea to notice—with compassion—whenever you practice the above attitudes. Neutral awareness will allow these attitudes to loosen their grip on you, and become less automatic.

2. Telling Yourself Scary Stories

The stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and about reality, matter. They can shape the “matter” of our bodies. Unfortunately, many of us have internalized scary stories from our families and the media. We can scare ourselves by repeating stories like, “Oh, my heart is racing, I must be having a heart attack.” or, “Oh, my stomach hurts. What if it’s cancer? What if I am dying!”

Repeating scary stories to ourselves about specific parts of the body can cause us to contract and reduce the blood flow to these areas.

Do practices 1. and 2. sound familiar to you?

We become what we practice. The more we practice contraction producing attitudes and scary stories, the more we reinforce fear, pain, and powerlessness.
 

Practices That Invite Melting

Here are some practices that invite melting:

1. Attitudes Towards Your Self, Your Body and Your Symptoms 

  • Patience and gentleness (“What do I need right now?”)
  • Self-compassion (“Wow, this is really difficult for me.”)
  • Respectful listening (“Hey stomach, I am listening; is there anything you want to tell me?”)
  • Friendly collaboration (“Hi painful joints, what are you up to? How can I support you?”)
  • Hold yourself (and your symptoms) lightly (“My body hurts, and it is a beautiful day.”)
  • Playfulness/curiosity                                                                                                                   (You can bring the attitude of playful curiosity (as well as deep listening and patience) to TMJ pain, and start a playful dialogue: “What is it like being so clamped up, jaw?” You may unearth a long-buried time capsule of anger in your jaw. You may find this anger has been waiting months or decades for permission (from you!) or a safe environment to finally speak of an old injustice, or a violated boundary. Acknowledging and expressing that anger—playfully, or seriously—might soften or dissolve your TMJ symptoms.)
  • Your body is an adventure                                                                                                         (You can view your body as a moment to moment adventure. Notice how your pleasant and challenging sensations can stream and contract and change throughout the day. With an attitude of adventure and discovery, even familiar sensations of pain and illness can take you on healing journeys. I find gratitude is my ally here. Like many people, I deal with chronic ailments and pain on a regular basis. Sometimes I am bedridden or housebound for a day or two, and yet, my life feels sweet and full of surprises. I am grateful to be alive. Even being incapacitated can be an interesting adventure, if you permit yourself to approach it that way.)

2. Telling Yourself Comforting/Reassuring Stories

Sensations are not good or bad, they just are. So why not tell yourself reassuring stories about them?

Let me give you an example. I have food sensitivities that are tricky to manage. Sometimes I eat a food that I believe is safe for me, and my body reacts badly. Or I forget to check ingredients and accidentally eat something I am allergic to.

It happens. I get sick with severe stomach and/or intestinal pain, and full recovery can take two days. In the meantime I cannot eat or function well. This is obviously a situation I try to avoid, but sometimes I cannot.

When this happens, it is easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle of telling myself mean and scary stories that make me panic: “Oh that hurts! And the pain is probably going to get worse!”

Or I might worry, “I have important things to do, and I will not be able to do them!” “I am losing too much weight; my immune system will be compromised!” (My scary stories are usually punctuated by exclamation points.) “How will I get through the next couple of days?”

I also tell myself blaming and shaming stories: “I should have known better than to eat that! Why am I so stupid?” It is easy to endlessly, obsessively rehash what I “should” have done differently.

Telling myself such scary stories is cruel: I am already suffering, and here I am scolding and scaring myself. Perhaps my stomach responds to these stories by clenching even more.

What my body needs at times like these are comforting and reassuring stories. Stories that are merciful and forgiving: “Oh, stomach, I am so sorry you are hurting! I tried my best to avoid this, but it happened anyway. Or, “You poor thing! What do you need?” I can tell myself: “This is not forever; within two days I will feel ok.”

Finally, I can forgive myself for being imperfect, for not having control over everything. Self-forgiveness always helps me feel better, sooner.

 

3. Giving Yourself a Steady Container

Giving yourself consistency and steadiness can soften contraction, and minimize pain and illness.

Once you know which self-care routines work for you, try to maintain them. For example, no matter what the latest dietary theory claims, if you get cramps every time you eat gluten, it is best to trust your body’s direct experience, and consistently avoid gluten.

When you suffer from painful or challenging symptoms, you need steadying practices to reassure you and help you feel safe in your body. You can do comforting things for yourself, like drinking chamomile, crying, bundling up in fuzzy blankets, or taking a bath.

I invite you to practice melting your contractions. Try out some of the above suggestions, and pay attention to which ones your body likes. Nurture your body by doing them, over and over again.

We become what we practice, so why not practice fluidity, self-compassion, options and agency?

Let me know how it goes…

Somatic & Intuitive Coaching restarts September 10 & 11

Dear Beloved Friends and Clients,

Small Group Coaching has evolved into a core–and joyful–part of my work. Participants tell me they feel deeply listened to, and that my intuitive coaching approach is “magic.”

Small Group Somatic & Intuitive Coaching is:

* an economical alternative to private coaching;

* a good entry point for folks who want to get to know me and explore somatics;

* a wonderful way to build community.

I invite you to spread the word to anyone that you feel would benefit from working with me.

Thank you!

blessings,

Vanissar

SMALL GROUP SOMATIC & INTUITIVE COACHING 

New groups begin September 10th & 11th, 2014
 
in Rockridge, North Oakland:

8 Wednesday nights: 7-8:30 pm [*This class is full*]
or
8 Thursday mornings: 10-11:30 am

or 

8 Thursday evenings: 7-8:30 pm


Are you ready to befriend your body?

Receive individual coaching from Dr. Tarakali in a compassionate group setting. 

Learn somatic & intuitive tools to support your personal & vocational goals.
 
This intimate workshop creates a chemistry of mutual support where everyone benefits from one another’s learning.
 

Pre-registration is required. 
Limited to 5 participants. 
Cost: $45 per session for 8 sessions.

Find out more or register at vanissar@cs.com or (510) 594-6812.

Testimonials

“I appreciate your ability to understand and intuit what people need, and to offer us ways forward…My depression has shifted, I feel happier than I have in years. When I am (about to act blindly or compulsively), I can stop now, feel my body and choose. It is freeing.” ~Dave 

“I’m more engaged with myself because I have tools (knowing how things feel in my body, check ins to see what is ok or not ok with me, etc.) to move through the pain and trauma/triggers. I feel confident and stronger with myself.” ~Kotori

“What a warm and open environment. I felt safe from the very first day. The practical tools to assist me in staying aware and engaged with life have been powerful.” ~Samsarah

      “This coaching series has taught me ways to be kind to my body and to decipher the messages it is trying to give to me.  I am managing my health challenges much better.”  ~Elena 

      “I love the way you hold the group process…I never feel left out or not held even when your attention is on others.” ~Ryan 

      “I have learned little activities that I can integrate into my daily life and be more connected to my body quickly. I feel calmer, more grounded, and like the world is bigger, more vibrant.” ~Ari 

     “I feel significantly more able to love and take care of my physical and emotional self.  I feel more able to stay with difficult feelings. I am so excited, and I definitely want to take more of these workshops.”  ~Laila 

     “Vanissar’s fundamental trust in the body is riveting, and so different from what I’ve practiced my whole life. I now have more options for how to be with my physical sensations/symptoms, less anxiety, and hope that I could get to a really different place in my relationship with my body.” ~Kate 

Are you ready to join us?

Vanissar Tarakali, Ph.D. is a somatic educator & intuitive who coaches healers and changemakers to collaborate wisely with the body to heal trauma & sustain social change. Vanissar passionately practices Generative Somatics, Intuitive Reading, Energy Bodywork & Tibetan Buddhism.
www.vanissar.com           Facebook: Tarakali Education

 

Melting Chronic Pain & Illness

In a “how to” piece I wrote called Making Friends With Illness

I talked about how physical symptoms of discomfort and illness are not as concrete as they seem. Western medicine needs to catch up with modern physics! Quantum physics understands that all matter—including our bodies—consists of constantly interchanging particles.

In this essay, I will further explore this notion of the non-solid nature of body-symptoms, in hopes of opening up some options to readers who face chronic pain and illness.

I almost called this piece “When Mystics Get Sick,” because since childhood I have had a close relationship with visionary experiences and “non-ordinary states,” and have also experienced my fair share of chronic pain and illness.

I have found there is an interesting interplay between psycho-spiritual and physical states.

What is Chronic Pain? What is Chronic Illness?

A big question for me has always been, “What is illness?” “What is pain?” I am actually asking two questions here: “Are illness and pain solid things?” and “Are illness and pain bad?”

Is Illness/Pain a Solid Thing?

What is a migraine? What is chronic intestinal pain? Are these solid things?

Western medicine sees illness as a thing. Allopathic medicine focuses on diagnosing, labeling and treating a “condition” or “disease.” It searches for organic causes of illness and pain. A disease is seen as a free-standing, static thing. It is “kidney disease,” or “a tumor.” “a virus.” A thing.

We look to doctors to tell us, “You have X, and we are going to treat X with (the treatment for X).” This approach is legitimate, just as legitimate as it is to describe light as a particle. Viruses certainly exist. Broken bones exist.

But light is not always a particle; sometimes light is a wave. Often our symptoms and conditions mystify doctors.

So, are chronic pain and illness solid things? Maybe. But that’s not all they are.

Illness was not a solid thing for For Hildegarde von Bingen, a 12th century German nun and mystic. The grave illness that kept her bedridden was her repressed visionary experiences resisting censorship.

Hildegard had internalized the male-dominated, hierarchical church norms that forbade women and common folk from communing directly with God. As Hildegard lay in bed, God instructed her to write down her visions and share them.

Once she did this, her illness disappeared.

Pain is not always a solid thing for my clients. I have witnessed many clients’ distressing symptoms dissolve once they were acknowledged and listened to with respect.

Sometimes body contractions simply need kind attention to unwind; other times the bound up energy melts after it is expressed through tears or laughter, burps or flatulence, sighs or yawns.

For chronic conditions, this process may need to be repeated again and again. With repeated practice, more symptom relief and spaciousness becomes available in the short and long term.

Illness is not a solid thing for me. I’ve experienced migraines for 15 years. At first they were monthly episodes that began with blinding optical distortions (called “auras”), followed by two days of opaque, inescapable agony. Migraines used to terrify and defeat me.

But as I have grown and changed, so have my migraines. They are more malleable. Now when a migraine starts flirting with me, I slow down and greet it. I can feel the contraction of energy and emotion gathering in my neck and head. It wants attention and expression. So I cry, or journal, or dance, or speak aloud the angry thoughts I have been holding back. Usually the migraine evaporates.

At other times, if I am too caught up to notice an impending migraine, it slams me, and I am incapacitated for awhile (rarely for two days). But even then, it retains a fluid quality; big watery emotions float within the migraine; When I relax and surrender to the pain, I often feel strangely peaceful, and grateful.

Illness and pain are not always solid.
 

Are Illness & Pain “Bad”?
Are illness and chronic pain inherently bad?

Can there be a purposeful intelligence within pain and illness? 
In my experience, there can be. There is.

Hildegard’s illness was certainly purposeful. And insistent!

How about for you? I encourage you to explore this possibility yourself. When you are having a troubling sensation or symptom, try asking your heart, your spirit, your body: “What is this symptom trying to express or protect?”

  • Is this illness a message from the Divine, or wisdom from another realm?
  • Is this symptom an opportunity for healing?
  • Is this pain an opportunity to unwind trauma in the body?
  • Is this contraction in my body trying to keep me safe?
  • Is my body frightened of a change I am making in my life? Is it trying to reinforce the old, familiar restrictions of my family or the dominant culture?
  • Is there a story within my illness that longs to be listened to? A story of my childhood? An ancient story, buried under shame? An untold story of how my lineage survived oppression?

You can ask yourself these questions, or come up with your own questions. Trust that answers will come. Allow your body to respond in its own way and time. Setting aside some quiet reflective time each day creates opportunities to hear the “still, small voice” of your wise body.

Over the years, I have received some interesting answers to the questions, “Is pain bad or unhealthy?” and, “What is illness?”
Pain is both concentration and contraction. But is pain a bad thing? (Am I bad if I have pain? Have I done something wrong?)

Contraction frequently accompanies a significant shift in someone’s identity. The body/mind often contracts in familiar, chronic pain just as we are starting to expand beyond our previous limits. Contraction puts on the brakes.

Sometimes this is fear talking; it is a sign that we need some reassurance. Sometimes this contraction slows down the expansion to a more sustainable pace. Sometimes contraction is the inhalation that prepares us for the exhalation of expansion.

It is true that pain is challenging. But as we know from the birth process, pain is not necessarily a bad thing.

What is illness? Sometimes illness is transformation. Usually when I am shifting how I relate to the world, my body struggles to re-orient itself in specific, sequential ways.

For example, at a certain point I was actively shedding my old survival strategy of keeping my voice small and withholding my opinions, and “trying on” a new practice of raising my voice and speaking my truth. Audacious stuff for a girl who survived child sexual abuse and neglect by being compliant and unnoticeable!

During this time, over a period of about ten days, I experienced—in this precise order:

1) pain in my tailbone;

2) menstrual cramps;

3) extreme heartburn;

4) shoulderblade and rib pain;

5) a mysterious sore throat and severe TMJ symptoms;

6) vertigo and visual distortions; and finally

7) a fierce migraine.

At the time, I was too miserable to do anything but endure. Later I realized that my radical shift had been making its way through the each of the areas/organs associated with the 1st through 7th chakras (energy centers). By the end of this process, my vocal behaviors were thoroughly established.

How solid is illness for you? Is your pain a particle? A wave? Or both?
What intelligent patterns have you noticed in your body’s experiences of pain and illness?

I invite you to share your challenging and liberating experiences, with me and others.

Next month:

Practices That Invite Pain & Illness to Melt

The Dance of Sensation & Story: PART II

Last month I wrote about how, five weeks after a bicycle accident, I began waking every day
to terrifying, overwhelming sensations. When I came up with an “I must be excavating and
healing childhood trauma” story to explain my sensations, I was reassured.


I told myself that the accident had re-awakened my familiar child sexual abuse dynamics; this story empowered me to stay with my experience. I now share Part II of how finding the right stories enabled me to collaborate with my post-accident sensations and find healing.


*Warning* if you are a trauma survivor, what follows may trigger you. I hope that it will inspire you.

CHILD & GODDESS STORY

In the days that follow, my trauma healing story anchors and motivates me to keep inquiring into my somatic experience. Each morning, fresh waves of sensation drag me under and spit me out.

One morning I scrabble for air, choke on screams. My heart staggers, collapses. I can’t do this. I can’t feel this, pass this, puke this. It’s too much. A child’s voice is in my throat, panting, howling, begging for mercy, whimpering with shame. My heart moves; I weep for her. I hold her hand in hell.

Another morning. Another excruciating journey from incoherent terror and skinless despair to vast warm tenderness. I do not want to be a survivor of early age torture and neglect. But I am.

And I am a loving goddess who holds that feral child-tornado in her arms. My enormous patience extends out infinitely to everyone, including me. May this grueling archeological dig benefit others.

Another day. Story and sensation join seamlessly into an experience of my 4 year old self. She shudders. I promise her I will not turn away. I sit with this petrified pillbug-child, feel her hummingbird gasps, bristling nerve endings, indigestible grief.

She wails her heartbreak and rage. “Your voice is powerful.” I say, “You are powerful. You did it, you survived! It’s safe to cry now. Go ahead and have a tantrum. It’s okay.”

I hold her. I don’t leave her alone. When she whispers, “Nothing matters.” I tell her, “Youmatter. To me.” I drop my morning plans and give her all my attention.

I draw a bath, let the warmth hold us. Make a cup of tea. I sit quietly, letting chair, tea and journal hold me as I hold her. I need all the help I can get.

Her bottomless terror is crushing me. I call up my lioness heart and tell my little one, “I’m right here! I will face the suffocation with you.” I hold her, in the morning light, in my arms. I let her flip out. I growl; I roar: “If we die, we die together!”

We do not die. Again we travel from clawing, gibbering horror to soft, warm ocean. Rest in tenderness.

A DEPRESSION STORY

In other moments, I tell myself a story about being depressed. One might as well call it depression. Although it is not so simple. It’s more like landing at the bottom of my personal sea, arriving at age 5.

My little one shows me when she resigned herself to terror, where she gave up hope. It’s cold on the ocean floor. I am empty, crying from a wordless place.

That was yesterday. Today the “depression” is milder, but present. The grit in me sculpts a new story: from now on, I refuse to ignore the grief and despair of my young self.

I choose to stay in steady communication with her, even if that means feeling “depressed” for the rest of my life. I will not abandon her. I welcome her into my daily life.

The next day I sink into “depression,” land softly at my beginning. My defenses melt like snowbanks, revealing stark charnel ground. Machig Lapdron dances nearby; I rest my head on the soil. My tears, slow-motion drops of fear and defeat, soak into this yard of bones.

My depression story morphs again. As the earth holds me, I wonder: what is depression, anyway? I never knew it was so rich (too busy running from it, I guess). Depression offers depth, slowness, space.

Is this depression even “mine?” Can it be separate from our collective mourning for this sweet planet? Even in depression, I am not alone.

A NYAM STORY

As I recall meditation retreat experiences, I find another story. While on retreat, many things arise. Odd obsessions, intense sensations. Powerful memories, tumultuous emotions.

Some dissolve immediately. Some persist for hours or days. My teacher describes these phenomena, these “nyams,” as opportunities to purify our hidden contractions.

So I try to welcome whatever appears during meditation. Often, stories emerge from my body—never the stories that I would expect. Dismayed or amazed, I watch and dialogue with them.

Sooner or later each nyam mysteriously digests, each story melts. When they’re gone, I let them go.

After my last retreat in March I kept reminding myself: “The retreat continues; nyams continue to arise and dissolve.” This retreat story has allowed me to view getting “doored” and its aftermath as a series of nyams.

I can engage each nyam with all my heart and mind and soul and strength. And I can let each one dissolve. My intention is to love whatever shows up, for the sake of all beings.

STORIES AS STEPPING STONES

I just shared some stories that helped me navigate my challenging post-accident sensations. I marvel that my mind and body can come up with such ingenious stories!

These stories have been stepping stones across the abyss.

Any stepping stone can be a rest spot, but no stone (no story, no nyam) is the destination. Like nyams, we leave stories in our wake.

When I leave a story behind, is it still true? Was it ever true? Was I re-living childhood trauma? Am I depressed? Will the next stepping stone be true?

How can I know? How can anyone?

But here’s another story: I do not face my scariest demons just for me. My commitment is to wake up to benefit all beings, so this journey from stone to stone is not mine alone.

And so I tell my five year old self a story she has not heard before: “We do not walk alone. We walk this path held, guided and befriended by all beings.”

POSTSCRIPT: GREAT DOUBT, GREAT ENLIGHTENMENT


My dark night lasted five weeks. Thirty-eight days of despair and inertia. I once read this Ch’an Buddhist adage, “Little doubt, little enlightenment; great doubt, great enlightenment.”

The morning it began to turn, I was sitting in meditation with my sangha and teacher. I wondered, was I allowed to love what I already was? Could I love my misery and utter stuckness, even if they never changed?

What if I decided to enjoy my self, like some interesting, twisted bonsai tree? Could I just decide to be happy? Yes. Wow.

The next day, I was lying on my bodyworker’s table. As she held my head and jaw, quietly, patiently, my body remembered and showed me my head, immobilized in the ambulance that April night. My head was straining to escape.

Now I let my head struggle and fight. I felt my cheek snarl and my jaw growl. My solar plexus was roaring. My body amazed that it could fight. I got my fight back.

How did I get my fight back? Living through those five weeks. Feeling it all, facing it all. That morning beside my teacher, accepting all of it, all of me.

Since then, a little more joy each day, a little more motivation.

I am learning to fight for my life–in a new way. I am discovering effort without anger, drive without fear. Fight full of lifeforce, empty of blame.

There are still obstacles, many of them. It’s Life, after all!

But me, I am unstoppable.