Centering in a Time of Stress

By Glenda | March 22, 2010

I was asked recently to post here something I presented years ago to a group in San Diego, and I am happy to do so, at least an excerpt from it. It was a talk concerning “Centering in a Time of Stress.” In that presentation, I first briefly discussed the level of stress my family was suffering at the time, and then I went on, as follows:

“…And so, here is my report on my own trial and error discovery of techniques for centering and maintaining some sense of wholeness in the midst of chaos.

First, I want to tell you what didn’t work for me.

Denial didn’t work. I tried it. You’ve tried it. We can’t kid ourselves and pretend, in those awful times we all experience that “Oh, everything is fine; I’m fine; it will all go away tomorrow, or after I’ve had a cup of tea or a stiff drink.” Denial only makes it worse.

Blaming didn’t work. I tried that too. Blaming others, blaming myself, blaming God, blaming the universe, blaming workmen who didn’t show up on time or ever… Blaming didn’t help. Lost cause.

Self pity didn’t work. I tried and tried to make this one work. I did my “abandoned child” routine for everybody, until they all got sick of it and did abandon me to my self-pity. I got tired of wallowing in it. It didn’t help.

Intellectualizing or analyzing the problem continually didn’t work. I tried to distance myself from my situation that way, but it didn’t really work. So, you know the label for your syndrome, does it go away? If one more person defines my situation, outlines my needs, and analyzes my mood, I’ll stab them with their own quill pens.

Finally, jumping ship didn’t help. I wanted to run away. My notes for this talk, made over the past month or so, are all interspersed with penciled information about nice new brick houses for sale. My husband threatened once to leave. My daughter mumbled something about running away from home as a happy alternative to sweeping up the sheet rock dust in the living room. But jumping ship doesn’t help. Indeed, there is an apocryphal story that is telling:

One day when the Sultan was in his palace at Damascus, a beautiful youth who was his favorite rushed into his presence, crying out in great agitation that he must fly at once to Baghdad, and imploring leave to borrow his majesty’s swiftest horse. The Sultan asked why he was in such haste to go to Baghdad.

“Because,” the youth answered, “as I passed through the garden of the palace just now, Death was standing there, and when he saw me, stretched out his arms as if to threaten me, and I must lose no time in escaping from him.”

The young man was given leave to take the Sultan’s horse and fly, and when he was gone the Sultan went down indignantly into the garden, finding Death still there.

“How dare you make threatening gestures at my favorite?” he cried.

But Death, astonished, answered, “I assure your majesty, I did not threaten him. I only threw up my arms in surprise at seeing him here, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Baghdad.”

Jumping ship doesn’t work. Our fate catches up with us, in Baghdad or wherever.

Occasionally, last year, I stood and looked at myself in the mirror and listened to the inner voice who wanted really to jump ship, who was screaming, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” I thought how easily at such a time one can unconsciously choose to die, can just give up. But would that help? I didn’t think so. It was tempting, like simply lying down in the snow and going to sleep, the sweet sleep of forgetfulness.

This is, I think, the biggest unconscious temptation at times when we are uncentered. Just give up. I knew the statistics about how often people develop serious illnesses after a major loss in their lives, and I had had numerous major losses, one after another. And so I said to myself, quite consciously, out loud, looking myself in the eye in the mirror, “I don’t want to die. I choose to live, despite this chaos. I will not jump ship.”

Well, then. Those are some things that did not work. What did work? What did help me to center, to stay sane? Is there any good news?

Well, yes. I did get through those months. Some things did help. Different things, helpful at different times. Sometimes different things, even contradictory things, helpful, oddly, all at the same time.

I decided to make a list. And the list was so peculiarly contradictory that I decided to read it to you. It isn’t in any order of priority. Some are just common sense, but too important to be left off my list. And so here it is:

The first is to hold on. But the second is to let go.

The third is to be careful, cautious, even suspicious. But the fourth is simply to trust.

The fifth is to be still. But, of course, the sixth is to get up and get going, go with the flow, but get moving, don’t just sit there.

The seventh is to take it all lightly, don’t forget to laugh, especially at yourself. However, the eighth is that its ok to cry, even to grieve.

The ninth is to raise a hue and cry for help when you need it, but the tenth is to value silence, to listen in the stillness for something from beyond, some intuition or vision that can’t be heard if you are raising a he and cry and drowning it out.

Funny, contradictory list. I want to say something about some of these.

The familiar first one, “Hold on,” for example. Sometimes it is essential just to hold on, just to hang in there. Sometimes it is just that basic. I had to say to myself over and over this year, sometimes holding myself together literally with my arms, or wrapping myself tightly in my favorite quilt, “Hold on. Hold on. Do not fly apart.” I had to remind myself that if I had pneumonia or a serious operation, I’d just say, “Now, hold on, you don’t have to anything right now but rest and heal. Don’t try to take dancing lessons on a broken leg. Just be gentle with yourself, and hold on for awhile. “

Some psychic fevers and psychic events and psychic times are like that. We want to rush around and do something, do too much, find a solution, find a new centeredness, find a new house or new husband or a new analyst, when what we need is just to hold on, to say to ourselves simply, “This is a hard time,” and be still, if we can.

We must hold on, too, to awareness, all of it, all of one’s perceptions about what is going on, good, bad, and indifferent. Hold on, even, especially, to awareness of one’s own childishness, one’s own weakness, one’s own shame at not doing better. An Episcopal priest, Dick Thompson, once told me that if there is anything worse than feeling bad, it is feeling bad about feeling bad.

One may benefit, in fact, from allowing oneself to feel bad sometimes. A person who is seriously injured but can feel no pain may do even greater damage to himself or herself than one who does feel the pain and knows he or she is in trouble.

I found that I needed to be suspicious if I was doing too well in a troubling situation; it usually meant that I was blocking from consciousness my worst negative reactions, and they were coming out, unconsciously, behind my back, so to speak, and, like the tail of the dragon, striking me, and everyone else, unexpectedly. And so I needed to hold on to awareness of how bad I really felt. Tears can be a tool for centering. So can rage, even, at times. But never, I believe, can denial.
So I tried to hold on to awareness of my very worst self, to keep it right out there in front where I could see it. After all, everyone else could see it, why not me?

One must also hold on to as much awareness as one can muster of whatever seems to be happening, even when this seems contradictory and confusing. One wonders, “How could this, and that, both be happening at once? How can I want all those different things at once?” Often when one feels uncentered, it is just because one is caught between apparent opposites (stay here-go there).

That balancing act, holding fast to both of the opposites, is an important part of centering in chaos. We have to let go of the tendency to take sides, to think that any one way is the way. Its opposite turns out to be equally valuable in some way, at some times.

So the next homespun wisdom after “hold on” is “let go.” A good Zen solution. Most often we have to let go of our own attitudes toward the center itself.

I had to let go of all the artificial centers, the imaginary solidities and illusionary stabilities and securities. The center was not where or what I thought it was, and I had to let go of my former certainty that I knew what the center was. I had to let go, indeed, of my certainty that I knew anything! When I walk around acting like god, pretending to understand everything and control everything, well, I have to let go that egocentricity if I am ever to get to the true center.

It was surprising to me this year the things that were difficult to let go of. I thought that I was not a materialist, but this year, living out of boxes, it was the absence of my beautiful dishes, my books, the material orderliness of my life that hurt. It was also my sense of myself as a person in the community, or as a fine homemaker, or whatever. It all went away. But I kept hearing the good Hindu master saying inside me, “Not this, not this; let go, let go,” as one after another of these things bit the dust, leaving me standing, and surprised to be still standing, without those important central aspects of my life, those props, those illusions of permanence and stability and importance.

Let go. One must at times, let go of resentment of the problem itself. Maybe the problem is a stepping stone into something better.

There is a theory in science called the theory of dissipative structures, a theory that won the Nobel Prize in 1977. Among other things, this theory says that when an equilibrium is perturbed, shaken up, shaken out into disequilibrium, the thing perturbed may ‘escape’ by a ‘creative leap’ into a higher order of complexity, into a whole new, more functional, more workable, more creative equilibrium that would never have arisen without the perturbation.

So an uncenteredness can carry us forward, when we are perturbed, into a new and higher state of being, if we are not so intent on hanging on to the old, or not so intent on recentering back into the same old place. We may let go into a higher order, a better resolution, if we don’t try too hard to find the old center that worked last year, yesterday, the old way of doing business as usual.

The toughest thing for me to let go of is the continuous search for a solution to my uncenteredness. I am so eager to solve all the world’s ills, particularly my own, that I tend to forget that some things can’t be solved, and that perhaps some things shouldn’t be solved. When one is delivering a baby, for example, there is much pressure, some pain. Yet it is not appropriate to get rid of that pressure. One needs that pressure to deliver the child. If a doctor gave a woman too much medication for her discomfort, it would harm the child, slow or even abort the delivery. And so some pressure, some distress must simply be borne, for as long as it takes, forever in some cases. One may need to stop trying to find a solution, to let go of the need to be in control, and just be there with the situation. Carrying it. Bearing it. Honoring and enduring it as a given.

Being centered, I discovered, doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s situation is happy or even peaceful. Was Jesus centered when he was being crucified? Was he happy about it? Being centered means being in right relation to the situation; sometimes that’s peaceful, sometimes that is appropriately excruciating.

Our sense of ourselves can be “at peace,” as it were, even when the situation is turbulent. If, when we are in the deepest pain, if the pain is, well, appropriate, then one feels right, even about the pain. This sounds paradoxical, but I don’t know how to say it any more clearly. I just know that sometimes I search so hard for a resolution that the search itself gets in the way. I’m looking so hard I can’t see anything.

The Taoist says, “The Tao is not be looked for; it is the looker and the looking.” And again, “To seek after Tao is like turning round in circles to see one’s own eyes. Those who understand this walk on…”

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