Empowerment before Equanimity
We can't rest in the midst of our fear until we feel strong.
An insight has been brewing for me recently around the way we integrate trauma healing and spiritual practice. You may or may not know that I’m a long-time meditator, and have done extensive silent retreats. For a long time I thought it would save me, and it did, for a while. Then it didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out why, and I couldn’t fix it, and I was lost. That’s when (thank goodness) I found Somatic Experiencing (SE) and began to recognize how my meditation practice was preventing me from healing.
More specifically to my point today, I was using my meditation practice to avoid what I needed to do to heal.
In meditation practice, we’re constantly turning our mind towards equanimity, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and peace with the way things are – a beautiful practice to undertake, and oh so magical when your mind manages to rest in these states. BUT (you knew there was going to be a big ol’ BUT) it’s oh so easy and oh so consistent with our cultural conditioning for us to begin to use the practice, subtly or obviously, to avoid the emotions we don’t like, and to avoid actions we don’t feel comfortable with.
What does this look like? Well, for me, it has shown up in lots of ways. On one long retreat I was in tremendous physical pain and emotionally drowning. I rationalized not going home because I was pushing myself to be with my experience as it was; I was working towards expanding my ability to be equanimous no matter what the conditions. What I didn’t see was that underneath my desire for inner peace was a deep fear of asking for what I needed, which was to go home. Plenty of times in daily life I notice myself choosing to just “be with” whatever discomfort I’m feeling rather than speaking up and asking for someone to do something differently. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll speak up “next time.” It’s too easy to tell myself it’s just an “opportunity for practice.” More like an opportunity to drown in misery!
I also spent years crushing my anger in an effort to connect prematurely to compassion for the ones I was angry with. Truth was I was scared of my anger and what it might ask of me. I know now I can’t be compassionate towards anyone else without offering myself the same, and loving myself fully, anger and all, first. I have to actually feel my anger, my animal drive to protect myself, surging through my entire body, and embrace it. And then ask it what it needs of me. What’s magical is that when I do this, compassion is often a natural result. No forcing needed.
It’s taken a long time and it’s still a learning process (thankfully I like it that way) but I recognize now that I can't actually be equanimous until I know for a fact that I can act to take care of myself in a certain situation, and that I can embrace all my thoughts and feelings, regardless of the content. I need to feel empowered before I can be equanimous. That means doing the things I hate and that I'm scared of – to prove to my being that I can, that I will take care of myself no matter how uncomfortable it is. THEN AND ONLY THEN, I can sit with the discomfort of not having things the way I prefer, and find peace there – because I know if needed, I could act to change things.
Rather than collapsing in the midst of my fear, I can rest in the midst of my own strength.
SE has been key for me in terms of finding a stable sense of empowerment, or badassery, however you want to name it. For so many of us, this is a key step that’s missing in our spiritual practice, and I've seen it lead to a lot of repression and holding, as well as a lack of acceptance and understanding about the darker side of humanity. I feel so fortunate to be learning to fully embrace myself and to be learning what it means to truly take care of myself.
SE therapist and prolific blogger Irene Lyon, (check her out, she’s amazing!), posted a video about our need for nervous system regulation before relaxation a while ago. It inspired this post, and I’ll link here:
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Carrboro, NC.