The Power Of Posture
This year, I’m struck by the number of folks who are leaving “for the winter.” I can certainly understand the urge to leave the present political situation, but trading the mild Northwestern winter for a few months of sunshine would feel like a true loss for me. Yes, the days are often dim and grey, but that makes the sunbreaks all the more enjoyable, even precious. In my neighborhood, vividly colorful leaves still cling to a few trees and make bright mosaics on the paths. Each day I pick up a few and make a fluttering little bouquet held together with braided stems to decorate my doorway. Noticing their shifting patterns of shape and coloration as winter arrives brings as much pleasure as any flower in softer summertime.
Some say that winter is depressing, too quiet and barren. As I walk, my mental busyness gradually quiets until I can hear the scrunch of my feet in the roadside gravel and a sighing wind in the trees. All around me, birds and small creatures enliven the woods with the song and scrabble of their small, busy lives. Trees that have shed their autumn glory make a lovely tracery of bare branches against the sky or the subfusc backdrop of cedar and fir. Their uplifted arms remind me of the power of posture: When I am crumpled in on myself, head bowed in sorrow and grief, fists clenched in helpless frustration and fury, it’s almost impossible to feel hope. When I sit or stand upright, head back, eyes to the the sky, I immediately feel more open to possibilities I can’t find or fathom alone. When I raise my own arms, hands outstretched to receive, my implicit receptivity is rewarded with a heartening sense of both gratitude and hope.
The Posture Of Power
That posture, arms up and open, head back, is as ancient as humanity. Called variously orant, orante, or orans, it comes down to holding ourselves open to the holy, the sacred, the healing. It’s a very powerful tool, and not too surprisingly, in religious circles, there is a great deal of debate about whether just anyone can use this posture (right?), whether the arms should be more out at the side or upward (seriously), and if arm waving during prayer is acceptable or a possible offense against the holy. Would you be amazed to learn that virtually all this flapdoodle is created by OWGs? That’s Old White Guys, FYI, but I’m thinking the stuck of any description could be included. Powerful tools that just anyone can use are not always welcomed by those in power, especially when their own power is based largely on the stuckness of The People.
These days, and maybe always, stuckness is clearly a major social and cultural disorder if not an actual illness. When I steel myself to take the plunge into the news, I’m often reminded of an old childhood rhyme: When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. Sound familiar? Part of my own stuckness definitely comes from a place of fear, a sense both of terrible danger to people and to the planet and profound doubt about what to do. I find myself saying (usually out loud and when nobody else is around), “I don’t know what to do!” pretty much daily, despite doing what are by now the auto-pilot phone calls, cards, letters, emails, and texts of protest and (sadly, less often but just as important) support and thanks. Do I really not know what to do? It isn’t given to most of us to change the world in big, sweeping ways, but we can certainly change our own small place in the world.
Power Tools For Positive Change
Back when, Al Gore presented a lengthy list of small, daily shifts in lifestyle and attitude that could result in significant change in terms of energy use and planet protection. Some of us tried all or most for a while and settled on a few to follow for life. Some folks chose instead to try to use Al Gore’s home energy usage to debunk the value of those suggestions. That dedication to destructive patterns of stuckness can seem like petty meanness or even deliberate evil, but it’s more likely that it comes from deep fear and doubt. Perhaps we don’t dare dream or try, for fear of failure and loss? I recently heard a proposal that for most adults, joyfulness triggers foreboding; if we treasure something, the idea of losing it can annihilate our pleasure in it. The ‘it’ might be a job, a friendship, our kids, our marriage, our social position, whatever. That fear underlies the emotional dampening that has so many of us in thrall these dark days; are we on the verge of ecological disaster? Of societal collapse? Of the end of democracy?
This dampening effect can be crippling, sapping hope and energy and leaving us less effective than ever. Unfortunately, there aren’t many large social forces to counter our despair and social media only makes it worse: posts about kindness to the homeless and lions playing with dachshunds are washed away under the tide of dreadful daily news. One solution is to restrict social media time, just as we might restrict screen time for our kids. Notice how you feel before you check in with your online pals and cruise the news, then evaluate how you feel when you put down the device. Do this for a week, then see what your heart is hungry for. Try having a media fast one day a week, or take a week off from screen time. Some people find limiting screen time to an hour a day allows them to savor their inner calm and make the most of their energy and intention. I make allowances for working screen time (like this) but feel a lot saner and safer in the world when I don’t dip into the media poison pot all day long.
The Practice of Gratitude
One of the best ways to counter despair and toxic info-overload is to develop a durable practice of gratitude. Gratitude is hot stuff these days, researched everyplace from Harvard to Berkeley. Practicing gratitude brings measurable improvements in health and well-being, in happiness and in generosity and altruism. What’s not to like? And why is it so hard to maintain a daily practice? Just as many of us tried out the daily changes that could help slow climate change but gradually drifted back to our old habits, creating a personal practice takes, well, practice. And persistence, something we are beginning to feel a little fondness for, thanks to the estimable Senator Warren.
It’s commonly estimated that most people need about three weeks of daily repetition before a new practice starts to feel normal. Turns out that’s not so; the average is around 66 days and some require closer to a year. Several studies seem to indicate that creating a new habit is easier than getting past an old one, though creating a replacement habit can help. Whichever way we’re trying to shift, towards or away, the bigger the change, the longer the adjustment period may be. Laying off the chocolate for a week may not be too tough, but try quitting smoking after decades and see how soon—or slooowwwllllyyyy-the longing dissipates. Try getting used to being a widow, or losing your job, or your home. Or your country. Or your culture. Adapting to changes like these require some serious effort, and it can feel fake or silly to try to be grateful in dark and dangerous circumstances. But. However. And yet.
Finding What Works And Doing It
Support groups for addicts of various stripes have a common saying: “Addiction is finding something that works and not doing it.” It can be hard to tell if we are actually willing to change or not quite ready, but that saying captures the essence. If we are really ready to give up stuckness and despair, then we will really commit to working for change, personally and publicly. To truly change on a personal level, we need to alter our brains, because entrenched behaviors create neural pathways that require multiple exposures to a desired new way of being. Practice. Persistence. And more practice.
My own shift from deeply fear- and scarcity-based thinking began during a very dark time, on a day when I found myself saying (out loud and when nobody else was around), “I am willing to do whatever it takes to not be here ever again.” My change mantra was “I am willing to exchange fear for faith,” and I said it thousands of times. Whenever I noticed the old negative crap rising in me, I would say some version of my phrase. I called my car’s steering wheel my prayer wheel; when driving, I repeated my chosen aphorisms over and over, in detail, talking out loud because that works for me. I also learned to write down my gratitudes, to speak them out loud as I wash dishes, bake bread, make the bed. I speak gratitudes as I walk; Look at those clouds, thank you! Gorgeous effect of sunlight in mist, thank you. Love the bird, thank you. Awesome clean hot water, thank you. The you you thank may not be the same as mine but that doesn’t matter. Thanking does. Let us persist together.
But wait, there’s more!