Everyone will experience a healing crisis at some point in their life, whether it is in the form of an illness, injury, loss of a loved one or a sudden and unexpected change of lifestyle. A healing crisis is a crisis of identity and one of the greatest opportunities for growth one can experience. The term healing crisis can also be defined as a healing opportunity, the opportunity to create a new state of balance and integrity. Healing is the act of restoring balance or of making whole, and crisis is an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a persons life. Depending on how you wish to interpret the event it could mean either; a serious threat to your life/identity or as a radical opportunity for change and growth. I have lived through many a healing crisis, none of them were easy or comfortable, all of them deeply rewarding. I don’t know how or why I came to view the process as a gift, i just remember the first time i realized it. My grandfather was dying, he was in a coma in a hospital bed surrounded by his family, my father, my aunt and uncle and a few of my cousins. As I sat at the foot of the bed feeling a mixture of grief and confusion I noticed something unusual, something beautiful was happening. Amidst the sadness and the sorrow of my grieving family I saw a connection forming between them, I saw the gift of healing taking place right before my eyes. It was like a great weight was lifting and falling away as the space between each person dissolved. I perceived that shrinking space as a substance of time and memory and pain and of identities formed out of illusion and misunderstanding. I felt like a bright light had been turned on, a light that illuminated all the dark, hidden spaces within each persons heart, and I saw the gift of change taking place. My family was healing, my grandfathers stillness moved us closer together and allowed us the opportunity to grow deeper within ourselves and become stronger as a family. This is the paradox of the healing crisis, how the most painful and unwanted experiences can offer the greatest opportunity for growth and change. Its often difficult to see the potential gift in the midst of a crisis, sometimes we miss the opportunity for healing and instead become the victim of our own ignorance. Instead of using a crisis for accelerated growth we freeze and stagnate, we get stuck in a cycle of re-describing our pain and confusion and our wounds do not heal. I have seen this pattern many times with my clients and students. The post-surgical patient who’s body refuses to heal, the cancer patient who withdraws into isolation and depression. I have also seen many of these people turn their healing crisis into healing opportunities by choosing growth over decay. There is always an opportunity for growth even in the most dire of circumstances. If you choose to embrace the experience and look for the gift, (the opportunity to activate and exercise your authority), you can turn any crisis into a healing opportunity. Understand this, if you choose to embrace the gift of crisis you will change, your image and understanding of self (identity) will change and will never be the same again. True healing requires true and permanent change. The fear of change and the fear of moving into unknown territory within oneself is the main reason people do not heal or heal very slowly. Most people expect to “return to normal” after an illness or an injury and set their sights on re-describing the past, their familiar sense of self, and here is where the crisis of identity blossoms. There is no returning to normal, you cannot return to the past, the best you can do is embrace the present and celebrate your “new sense of self”. All healing and growth takes place in the present, so stop trying to be who you used to be and embrace who you are becoming now.
It takes courage to turn a healing crisis into a healing opportunity. Courage and the willingness to embrace life, all of life, the known and the unknown, the comfortable and the painful. Acceptance is a powerful tool and a resource I use all the time, acceptance helps me to ground and center myself in the present and gives me the strength to endure the unknown. I have learned how to embrace and celebrate my crisis, how to use crisis as a tool for transformation and spiritual growth. The alternative is to resist/deny the truth of the moment which only makes it worse. Resistance increases pressure, wastes energy and effort and slows down the healing process. Acceptance allows energy to move and flow and change, that is the nature of life and of healing, a continuous flow of movement and change toward fulfillment and growth.
Addicted to Anxiety
If you suffer from constant anxiety, fear and panic attacks, you may be addicted to the “rush” these feelings provide and are most likely using the rush as fuel. I was addicted to anxiety for years and did not know it. I thought my anxiety was something beyond my control, an external force that came upon me without notice or apparent cause. I blamed my anxiety and panic attacks on many things, my childhood, my parents, my inability to control life, the subway, the city, large crowds, spicy food, you name it and I could find a reason why all these things made me anxious. Deep down, I felt helpless/powerless and out of control, and yet, when I looked at my life and what I was able to achieve and accomplish I saw a huge discrepancy. How could I be so successful and be powerless and out of control? Something in my belief did not match with my reality.
I began to question my beliefs and measure the experience of my feelings (constant anxiety) with the experience of my daily life (super achiever) and I saw a very interesting pattern. My anxiety was often proportionate to my daily workload. Not only that, I would often experience intense anxiety before undertaking any task that required a lot of effort or energy output. It’s important to note that up until this time, I was completely unaware of any connection between my emotional reaction and my daily work load. I always associated my anxiety with specific events like riding the subway or nervousness before a performance of some kind. Then one day I saw my mind in action and many things became suddenly clear. I was thinking about the day ahead and how much I had to do (teach three classes, work with two private cliåents, pick up the kids, get groceries, make dinner, and update my computer files) and a huge rush of anxiety kicked in. My body began to shake, my breathing became tight and rapid and my heart started beating very fast. All the classic signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Almost immediately after the anxiety kicked in I experienced another rush of energy in the form of anger. Anxiety and anger mixed together is a potent combination, the affect was like ingesting some form of rocket fuel, and BANG I was off and running. I felt like the energizer bunny, charged and ready to tackle my day.
Thats when I saw the pattern. Thats when I saw my addiction to anxiety. I was using the rush of energy I got from anxiety as fuel. I was using the force of my emotional reaction like a drug, and like any addict I needed my drug to function. Its a powerful thing to see ones subconscious made suddenly conscious, to see the hidden agenda revealed, and in that moment of realization I saw some other things I did not care for. I saw the price tag attached to my choice of fuel. I saw the years of physical and emotional stress I endured as a result of using anxiety as fuel and how incredibly unhealthy it was and is. I also saw the toll it took on my family and the stress it caused them as well, and then I felt sad and suddenly tired. Time to make a new choice.
There is such a sense of power that comes from making a conscious choice, especially when you make a new choice that changes a long standing pattern. It feels exciting and a little scary, it feels like a new beginning. I see myself differently now, I used to feel victimized by my anxiety, I now see it as a choice. I can choose to stimulate myself with the energy of anxiety or I can choose the energy of love, or acceptance or creativity. My choice. I also see how I used to overload myself sometimes as a way to stimulate anxiety so I could get that familiar rush and surge of energy. I saw how after years of using anxiety as fuel and becoming addicted to the rush, it took on a life of its own. I would trigger anxiety at any time or place like a smoker who needed a cigarette. Once the rush of anxiety wore off I would start to feel tired and needed another hit, and like any drug you build a tolerance to, over time you need more of it, and you need it more frequently to get the same rush effect.
Once I became aware of this pattern in my self I began to see it in many of my students and clients as well, and what I see is a pattern that began in childhood and continued into adulthood without conscious awareness. When we live with a pattern for so long we tend to forget that it is still a choice, we choose to use anxiety as a form of stimulation/fuel the same way we choose to use anger or sadness or confusion to fulfill specific needs. The key is to become aware of our own behaviors and to recognize the choices we make both consciously and habitually. If a pattern/choice is no longer serving you the way it once did, perhaps its time to make a new choice.
Your willingness to open and allow life in will make all the difference in your work as an actor and as a person. Making the conscious choice to open and receive life takes courage. Understand that when you open and receive life, it affects you and changes you. This is the process of growth, the growth of conscious awareness. As children we are largely open to life, if we are safe and encouraged to grow through our exploration of life we expand through the experience of curiosity and play. Every day offers the opportunity to experience life in the moment and through our experience we learn, process, and grow deeper in our understanding of self and the world.
It is only later in life that we learn how to filter our experience through our resistance to life. Painful experiences teach us to protect ourselves and we become guarded and defensive and less and less willing to allow life in. We often create a force field around ourself that acts as a filter and as a defense. This filter prevents experience from entering fully and freely and as a result, our experience of life becomes partial and diminished. Instead of having a full on uncensored, direct experience we have an experience of percentages and degrees. This often occurs without our conscious understanding as the process becomes habitual and unquestioned over time.
In addition, we often seal ourselves within our own defensive bubble creating a sense of isolation and stagnation. We cut ourselves off from the outside world and create our own private prison of illusion and fear. The illusion is one of safety, the reality is one of stagnation and decay. Being cut off from the world, we are no longer engaged in the process of letting life in, nor are we being affected or changing (growing) as a result of receiving life. This experience gives rise to the feeling of being stuck and unable to move forward through life with a sense of freedom or ease. Needless to say, this is not a pleasant experience or a pleasurable one, and yet this is a common experience for most people at some point in their life and for many people, a constant one.
The issue is fear. More specifically it is the fear of our own feelings that prevent us from opening and allowing the full experience of life to enter and unfold. We often fear feelings for two basic reasons. One, we do not know how to process feelings, and two, we are in resistance to specific feelings that we have been conditioned to avoid through guilt and shame.
What does it mean to process feeling? A feeling is processed when we allow it to run its full course through our nervous system and discharge the excess energy through breath, movement and sound. Feelings are like food in that they need to be digested and metabolized. In other words we need to feel the feeling and express it. To express is to discharge the excess energy by grounding it. This is akin to excreting excess food/waste that the body does not need to hold on to. How ever, unlike food, we often contain the energy of our feelings and create a static charge with in our nervous system.
Holding on to a feeling creates the illusion of not feeling it. A feeling is felt fully only when it is in motion, thats why its called e-motion. When a feeling is held in stasis it is sensed but not fully experienced. A feeling held in stasis is often experienced as a general feeling of pressure and resistance. This general sense is often interpreted as stress without a clear idea of how to process it. Over time, the stress of stasis tends to build in intensity. This build up of energy and pressure is your body's way of creating an opening and a release of internal pressure. If you are unable or unwilling to process your feeling consciously ( acknowledge, accept and allow), your subconscious will attempt to overwhelm your nervous systems capacity and ability to resist and contain, and like a dam that can no longer hold back a great force and pressure, it breaks open and floods out of the body. This is a common pattern for people who do not know how to consciously process their feelings and emotional energies. The pattern generally looks like this; react-resist-contain-build-overwhelm-break open/down and discharge. The discharge may manifest as drama (arguments, yelling, tantrums), or as illness ( reoccurring colds/flu, debilitating head aches, stomach aches or mysterious fatigue) or as chronic injuries (lower back goes "out", muscle spasms, trick knees..).
Knowing how to process the energy of feelings and sensations is imperative for an actor. Without a clear method for processing (channeling emotional energy into the task at hand and discharging the excess through grounding) the actor is restricted by their own limitation of what feelings they can tolerate and allow.
The second factor to consider is conditioning.
Almost everyone is conditioned through guilt and shame to resist and avoid specific feelings. For example, If mom or dad did not know how to allow the feeling of anger in them selves, chances at they will not allow their children to express those feelings in their presence. When little Johnny gets angry and starts to express his anger in the presence of his parents he is admonished and told he is a bad boy for being angry. In essence, the feeling of anger is shamed and over time and repeated conditioning, little Johnny learns it is better to resist and avoid anger in order to avoid further shame and punishment from the people he loves and relies on the most. This type of conditioning is often passed down from generation to generation and becomes a family legacy. When little Johnny grows up and has children of his own, he conditions his children to resist and avoid anger as well, often without questioning whether it is healthy or not. After all, it is the family legacy, it is who we are and how we do.
As an actor and for your emotional health in general, it is important to understand that all feelings are valid, a feeling is just a feeling and is there to be experienced. Feelings are an integral part of our inner guidance system and a major part of our decision making process. Any feeling can be shamed and resisted, even pleasure, joy and happiness. When a feeling is shamed it is conditioned with the belief that it is not safe to feel. When you challenge your limiting belief and allow your self to feel a shamed feeling (a little at a time) and realize that it is safe and that you are safe, eventually your belief and your shame dissolves. In time, the reality that a feeling is just a feeling and can be safely allowed takes root and becomes a part of your repertoire of feelings to be used freely. Once a feeling is acknowledge as safe, and allowed to flow through your nervous system, it becomes integrated into your awareness and becomes yet another tool in your tool box.
If you are in the beginning stages of identifying and allowing a feeling that you have held in resistance, soften, smile, breathe and express the feeling through your breath with the heart sound, hawww. Be sure to ground yourself by bending your knees and centering your weight equally between both feet. Just stand, breathe, allow and express without acting out the feeling. Let the feeling run through your body and direct the excess energy downward into the ground. If you are clear in your intention and can direct the flow downward, the energy will help you become more grounded and stable. This is what we call rooting in tai chi. This steady stream of downward flowing energy will increase your stability, strength and your capacity to endure any feeling. If you have been in resistance to a specific feeling for a long time, you may have developed the belief that you cannot tolerate or endure the feeling. Understand, that is just a belief born of years of resistance and fear. The reality is quite different. The truth is, your nervous system is fully equipped to tolerate and endure any feeling if it has a clear and orderly direction of expression.
Soften, smile, breathe and express fluidly until the wave of feeling passes through you. Once you have allowed your self to feel, and realize you can feel and survive, you will no longer be in resistance, you will be in a relationship. A deeper relationship with yourself and all of your feelings, after all, a feeling is just a feeling.
We all struggle, every day is a struggle to pay the bills, fulfill our obligations and responsibilities and to just keep our heads above the water line of life. Struggling is how we grow and evolve. From the time we are born, we learn how to struggle with our very first breath. The struggle continues as we learn how to roll over and sit up in our cribs and then stand and look at the horizon beyond our immediate world.
Learning how to walk is a struggle. Watch a child as he or she stands, falls down, stands and wobbles then takes a step or two and falls down again. Day after day, until the legs develop enough strength to maintain balance and carry our body through space. Life goes on and so does the struggle.
Some people seem to struggle well and others do not. The ones that struggle well seem to realize that life IS struggle and embrace the task with a sense of joy and challenge. These people seem to succeed in the game of life and learn how to create the life they dream of. Then there is the person who shies away from the struggle and never learns how to assert themselves or develop the endurance it takes to transcend their known limits, or to take their creativity to the realm of making it reality.
I think of struggling as a form of exercise. I use it to develop strength, endurance and power. Over the span of my fifty some years I have learned how to struggle well, to turn the awkward task into effortless art. In short, I have learned how to struggle gracefully. This has made a great difference in my life of constant struggle. Struggling gracefully has enabled and empowered me, where struggling awkwardly used to weaken and defeat me. I did not learn how to struggle gracefully overnight, although once I realized that I could, it seemed to happen immediately.
I first became aware of the possibility of living gracefully by watching one of my early martial art teachers, a man who was then in his early sixties. He was a high school art teacher and a third degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, and the most graceful man I had ever encountered. He moved effortlessly whether he was sparing in the dojo, walking down the hall of my high school or sitting still in meditation. He was an enigma to me, a young teenager filled with anxiety and tension. He seemed magical and ethereal, yet solid and grounded. The image and feeling of his presence has stayed with me for over thirty-five years and I still see his silken gate as he glided through the halls. Zen Buddhists refer to this as teaching with ONES BACK. In tai chi it is called direct transmission, the transfer of knowing and experience from one being to another. It wasn’t until I started learning tai chi that I began to understand the concept of effortless being, and how to struggle gracefully.
Through the process of learning tai chi I learned how to see myself and my thought process. I became aware of my constant tension and my belief that I had to work hard at everything, all the time. I worked hard, played hard, struggled hard and would not let myself relax for fear of failure and vulnerability. Tai chi was difficult for me for some time. My teacher would constantly admonish me to open and receive, to allow tai chi to happen through me. This was an idea both foreign and frightening to me. How could I just let something happen?
It took some time and much repetition of the form to find a place of letting go, to gradually soften my effort and to allow. It started with observing my physical effort and using less. As I became more adept at using less effort and doing less physically, I became aware of my concentration. I could feel when I was concentrating too hard, and would soften my focus with an inner smile. Soften, smile breathe and allow. My tai chi form and the experience of tai chi itself began to transform with this new awareness. I felt freer and less anxious, more fluid and oddly more connected and grounded. This was a paradox, the less I did the more I experienced. What I ultimately became aware of was the intention within my form and how the intention to be soft and effortless made it so. Tai chi became effortless and graceful and so did other parts of my life.
I started to live tai chi instead of just practicing it for an hour or two each day. I applied the principle and the intention to BE graceful in all things. I found that I was no longer trying to play a role or prove myself in my relationships, I was just being present. I was no longer putting so much energy and effort into worrying about things I had no power over, I was simply allowing and responding as needed. One day as I was walking down the street I became aware of how much effort I was using to simply walk, and I decided to let go of my guarded determination. I found my pace slowing and my tension receding and I suddenly saw myself moving gracefully through space like my old teacher from Tang Soo Do.
Anyone can struggle gracefully. It's a wonderful feeling to be effortless instead of effortful. It's a powerful sensation to open and receive as you work, to use just what is needed for the task at hand. This takes a degree of sensitivity and trust. To trust yourself enough to allow, and to not push quite so hard at everything. Play with this intention and see how it feels. Play with it constantly and watch your life change from heavy and hard to soft and light.
“Self mastery is the act of aligning mind-body-spirit a thousand times a day.”
Many of my students have this idealized image of me being calm, centered and grounded all day long 24/7. What they do not realize is I lose my center a thousand times a day, and a thousand times a day I realign my center. That is what gives me the appearance of being constantly grounded and centered. When I first began my journey toward self-mastery I mistakenly thought I was supposed to center myself once in the morning and then maintain that state all day long. No wonder I was so frustrated for so many years! Every time I would create center and ground myself something would either distract me or throw me off balance almost immediately. I felt like a constant failure and would compound my anxiety by telling myself I was weak or somehow deficient for not being able to sustain my “calm state of being” for more than a minute. This went on for a very long time and almost proved to be the end of me. Now understand that this whole cycle of self-defeating frustration was based on a misconception and a fantasy of what I thought self mastery was; a constant state. It only took me several years (more like a dozen) to realize the flaw in my fantasy logic. The only constant state is change itself. Life is a fluid state and so is self-mastery. The idea is to adapt to change constantly, a thousand times a day! Seems like a lot of work and it is, but the more you practice the easier and more effortless it becomes.
To master something is to become effortless in its action. To use just what you need to do the task, no more and no less. This is what is called “right effort” in Buddhism. I like that expression “right effort” because it’s not about being morally right, its about being efficient and effective. Right effort is economical, there is no waste, no excess and no deficiency. It’s just right! So how does one achieve self-mastery? Practice, practice, practice of course. If you want to be efficient and effective at anything you have to practice, every great athlete/artist knows that and so do you. What does practice mean? Some people would describe practice as hard work, I however think of practice as living in the moment. There is a difference. The common Idea of practice as hard work is what keeps people from practicing. Practice does not have to be hard or work, it can actually be pleasurable and fun. Practice is process, it is the journey on your way to a destination of deeper meaning, experience and freedom.
When I hear people describe practice as hard as in “hard work” what I hear them really saying is judgement and resistance. Hard=judgment of self and resistance to being judged by self or anyone else for that matter. No one likes the JUDGEMENT THING! We are brought up on judgment as a way to control and coerce our children into behaving properly (according to the societal norm otherwise known as mediocrity). Judgement is an effective tool to use if you want to prevent yourself or someone else from taking a risk or venturing into new territory. As long as judgement exists within the heart there can be no self-mastery, the heart will not allow it. How then do we stop judging our selves during our practice? One, by acknowledging the judgement as something we borrow from someone else and two, by giving our full undivided attention to the task at hand. We are not born with self criticism we inherit it from others. Once you realize this you can then choose to either let it go or give it back to the one who bestowed it upon you. I have learned it is more effective to observe my action without judgement than it is to judge my action without observing it. Observation in this sense is pure acknowledgement. I see what I am doing, how I am doing it and how effective my action is in fulfilling the task. If my action/technique is not effective then I am free to modify my effort/process until it is effective. I recommend you read the book Zen in the Art of Archery to better understand what I mean by this.
The path to self-mastery is a simple one. Practice until your action becomes fluid, effortless and second nature. That is the process of integration. To integrate is to become ONE with all things, becoming one with all things is to know all things first hand through experience. To experience FULLY is the task. To experience fully you must experience without judgement or expectation. When I practice grounding and centering, I simply DO THE WORK and nothing more. When I realize the need to re-align because I have shifted out of center, I simply align and center without making a big deal about it. Soften, smile, breathe, observe and integrate, again and again and again. That is the path to self-mastery.