“I can’t figure out how to not engage in my addiction,” confided a client. Like many of us, trying to ‘figure out’ is often her go-to strategy. Our brains are great at figuring out some things, such as building a deck, balancing a checkbook, and planning the week’s meals. But when it comes to other things, like happiness or love or feeling good, that same figuring-out mechanism can be more of an illusive trickster.
The older I get, the more apparent it becomes that life can’t be figured out. And the various experiences of life can’t be figured out, either. The experience of addiction and cravings can’t be figured out. Particular thoughts can’t be figured out. Sensations can’t be figured out. None of these things can be figured out as they are happening- but they can be noticed, felt, and allowed. In that space of allowance and noticing, sometimes an understanding or some perspective drops in. But it doesn’t drop in from figuring out. It drops in because of the spaciousness that opens up when we allow our experiences to be what they are, without trying to make them different (read: trying to figure them out).
“I just sit there, trying to be with it,” she continued, “but I see now that I’ve been stuck in trying to figure it out.’” For my client, the “it” that she is trying to be with includes rapid-firing thoughts, quickly scrolling images, and uncomfortable sensations- all of which are often happening at once. She’s heard the phrase “just be with your experience” throughout her career as a spiritual seeker, and she keeps trying. It sounds simple enough, right? Just be with your experience! That’s what we keep hearing from teachers, gurus, and even well-meaning friends. Easier said then done, however, when one is in a state of overwhelm, or when one isn’t even aware of what is happening to “be with.”
When thoughts and images and sensations are perceived to be attacking or coming at us at once, as they often are, it can be extremely hard to “be with” anything. Instead we find ourselves in the experience of overwhelm, and/or a variation of the fight, flight, or freeze (FFF) mechanism that often accompanies overwhelm. When in any of these states, the part of the brain that facilitates self-awareness shuts down to a certain extent, making it nearly impossible for one to be fully aware of their present experience, or to be present (i.e. “with it”). Her innocent use of the phrase “be with it” confirmed what I’d been contemplating for a while: just be with it” is often not a useful pointer for people trying to connect with their present moment experience, because it’s misunderstood.
Contrary to how it’s generally interpreted, “just be with it” doesn’t necessarily mean to:
- sit still with the experience, and do nothing else,
- feel the experience as it is,
- explore what the experience might mean,
- or all of the above, adding “until it’s gone” at the end of each sentence.
Some people maintain the assumption that if they can “just be with it”—turn attention toward it (the experience or challenge) and do nothing else—then something will magically shift. That may be exactly what happens for some. But for others it might not; for others it might just exasperate the already difficult experience because it becomes more of an attempt to figure out as opposed to allowing the current unfolding.
“Just be with it” does not mean to do nothing but sit in the experience. “Just be with it” actually involves a person accessing her/his own personal reservoir of resources. We all have access to plenty of resources; some of us have more than others, and some resources are more internal while others are more external. For example, because I do inquiry with people for a living, I have access to a reservoir of internal resources. In other words, I can apply the techniques I use with other people to myself. I can ask myself useful questions and can extend love and hold space to and for myself, and I can often literally sit still and “just be with it” (allow the experience to unwind naturally by noticing/acknowledging my thoughts, images, and sensations without being attached to or enmeshed with them). When in a calm state, many of us have the capacity to connect with these internal resources. But when we’re not centered, grounded, or calm, accessing them can be confounding. For me, too.
Sometimes I’m too immersed in my own stuff to be really present for myself. Sometimes I am in my own version of the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Being in overwhelm or FFF affects my ability to utilize my internal resources, because when I’m in the FFF grip my nervous system is on high alert. “Just sitting with it” isn’t always possible during these times because the parts of my brain that enable the ability for self-awareness are quite literally diminished. Instead, my reptilian centers are more on line, so before I can “be with” anything, I have to calm my nervous system down. To do that, I have to get resourceful in a different kind of way.
There are a lot of external resources that we have at our disposal in any given moment that can help us to soothe and nourish our nervous systems. Taking care of our nervous systems will help us to connect with our internal resources so that we can inwardly connect more deeply with our experiences (read: “be with” our experiences). When we are able to connect with ourselves in this way, we can slow down the hamster wheel of thought from spinning out, loosen the grip of thoughts from jousting with each other, take a break from referencing past and future thoughts, and give pause to the figuring-out mechanism. We can stop trying to figure out how to feel safe and *actually* feel safe in the world / with ourselves / in the present moment.
We can find safety in the world, and we can feel safety in ourselves, by utilizing resources that will support us. Those resources are what can really help us “be with” what is going on in our experiences and be in the present moment. When my nervous system is jostled, I utilize my internal and also external resources:
- I feel the chair/bed/sofa/floor underneath my body.
Science upholds that when my back feels supported, my nervous system starts to relax. Try this out: as you lean into your chair (object), remind yourself that this object is literally designed to support your body. It is designed to hold all your weight, and to do so comfortably. So allow yourself to connect to this object fully, and notice what you notice. Feel the resourcefulness of this chair supporting you.
- I feel the floor or earth under my feet.
This is an extension of #1. The floor is also designed to hold up form. I can feel into that as I feel my feet connect with the floor or, if I’m outside, to the earth. Use the floor/earth as a resource.
- I connect to my inner sense of curiosity.
Curiosity is maybe one of the most profound resources that I have. I often say that curiosity is the antidote to fear, because if I can access just a drop or two, fear will begin to loosen its grip. One easy way to access curiosity is to ask yourself a simple question without trying to answer it. It could literally be any question. Even “Why is the sky blue?” Don’t try to answer it. Just ask the question and wonder. That opens the part of the brain that connects to self-awareness and loosens the reptilian brain center’s grip. I also bring curiosity into my explorations of #1 and #2, as well as the rest of the items listed here. Bringing curiosity into any moment utilizes an amazing internal resource.
- I connect to my breath.
As I’m feeling into #1 and #2 (and the rest of the list), I bring breath into my attention. I breathe into the chair. I breathe into my feet on the floor. I breathe into my belly. I breathe into my sit bones. I breathe consciously and gently into and throughout my entire body, at my own pace. Sciences documents that breathing through the nostrils can aid in calming the nervous system, so if it’s resonant for you, try that out. Follow the breathing cycle with attention: stay with the way that breath is constantly flowing in and flowing out. There are many breathing practices that can be researched- these are just a few ideas. Breath is an amazing resource because breath is always happening in the present moment. Play with this amazing internal resource of connecting to breath.
- I lean into touch.
Science also documents that physical touch puts my nervous system to rest. I use my own hands to connect with myself and the present moment, placing them wherever my body wants to feel touch. On my forehead or face. Behind the back of my neck. Over my heart. Against my belly. In a hug position or on my arms. I hold my own hands. I feel the touch of my skin. If I’m near animals or other humans, I connect with them using touch. Receive the resource of touch, from self or other.
- I access sound.
Sound can be a profound resource to connect with. Music (either that of my choosing or that which is already happening). Birds. Wind. The fans or white noise in my home. The purring of my cats. Listening to a guided rest (see #9) recording. I also play with feeling the sounds move through my somatic system, or invite my body to move to the sounds. Use the resource of sound in a way that is resonant for you and your nervous system.
- Connect with water.
A cool washcloth on my forehead, face, or behind the neck can help in soothing the nervous system. Drinking a glass of water, slowly and with mindfulness. Having a cup of tea. Taking a bath or a shower. Feeling the water pour over me. Feeling the water hitting different parts of my body. Feeling the temperatures as determined by what feels good in the moment. The cleansing nature of water makes it a powerful resource!
- Engage in movement.
Sometimes my body just wants to move! Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Yoga. Stretching. Walking. Exercise. Jumping. I let my body move however it wants to. I keep my attention on the movements and sensations that arise as I follow my body’s inclinations. Dancing to music can also be a powerful way to tap into my internal resources. Use movement as a resource however it resonates with you!
- Experiment with scent.
I really enjoy playing with scent: Essential oils, candles, outside air, flowers, food. Google to find out the properties linked to different scents and see how your system responds (most people find peppermint invigorating and lavender relaxing). Ground yourself using the resource of scent as desired.
Resting, for me, means stopping what I’m doing / engaged with, and consciously turning my attention toward whatever it is that I’m noticing in my current experience. Resting allows me to notice what is in my attention, and how I am experiencing what is in my attention. Is my attention mainly in thoughts? Is it referencing past or future? Is it lost in imagery? Is it in the body? This can be done sitting down, or during any activity. Resting for just a few moments can have a profound impact on my nervous system, and can automatically link me back to my internal resources. It opens the doors to self-compassion and self-awareness, and can connect me with some of the other resources listed above such as breathing, touch, feeling the floor/chair, and curiosity. Utilizing rest is one of my passions, and I have many guided-rest audios available for free- please contact me if you’re interested.
Creativity can allow a vast world of resources to open up for us. It is an internal resource, but I can also play with external resources to access my creativity. Finger painting is a favorite of mine as it allows free form expression and tactile engagement. Journal your experiences- writing down what is happening in a moment can help my system slow down and become more available to what is in my present moment experience. Cooking. Making collages. Taking pictures. Making a music compilation of your favorite songs. Knitting. Singing. Dancing. The list of creative endeavors is endless! Gently and curiously tap into how the resource of creativity wants to be expressed through you!
All of these activities literally bring attention out of the mental realm (where figuring out tries to happen) into the somatic realm (where presence “happens”). This is important. We feel, we breathe, and we have sensations in the present moment, whereas thoughts and the mental realm often reference past or future. Imagine taking attention from the head and bringing it down into the body: when attention is no longer spinning in the head, our nervous systems relax and the ability to be self-aware increases. If you have any questions about any of the above, please send me an email (email@example.com).
Being with our experiences—whether they are filled with joy, sadness, fear, anger, excitement, curiosity, shame, or happiness—doesn’t look a certain way. There’s no prescription on how to be. It may happen as we go for a walk in the woods, smell a flower, drive home from work, or yell into a pillow. “Being with” an experience may mean sitting in a chair and mindfully internally exploring. “Being with” an experience may include stargazing, listening to music, or sipping tea. “Being with” an experience may involve slamming the car door, holding one’s own hand, baking brownies, or breathing deeply and consciously. “Being with” an experience may invite one to watch thoughts, images, and sensations come and go, come and go, and come and go. “Being with” something may happen through meditation, a hug, a hot bath, or a deep sob.
Use resources as they support and resonate with you. When your nervous system is relaxed, you will be able to more fully access the parts of your brain that will allow for self-awareness, and you will have more capacity to inquire into your thoughts, your images/memories, and the sensations in your body. Using your resources—both internal and external—will allow you to be more present and enjoy life. There is no one way to be a human being- and there is no one way to “just be with” your experience. So be curious, experiment, and play!