Taming Wild Horses explored our emotions, and how useful, frightening and difficult to control they can be. They, together with the body, are a terrific way of touching base with inner truth. Here we mull over some of the other ways which help us set our sights on a freer, more resourceful existence.
Create your own space
Do you know which feelings and expectations and wishes are your own, and which ones are actually those of people around you? When we have lived a long time under pressure and tried to please others to gain acceptance, it may be unclear what demarcating your own limits even means. It’s difficult to hear your needs and thoughts if all your attention has been turned outwards, and if the people around you do not expect you to have limits. This is equally true of a confused teenaged girl seeking to be accepted by her peers as it is of the middle-aged executive, who recently said in conversation: “Maybe I don’t know what happiness means to me. I’ve been so busy taking care of my employer’s interests that I haven’t thought about that for years. Maybe never.”
In Taming Wild Horses, we discussed the ways of distinguishing our own reactions to our emotions, and our emotions from ourselves. It is easier to do when we are alone, in peace and quiet. If we have already gotten somewhere with that, the next step is to test whether we are capable of doing it in the actual situations where we feel that other people affect our emotions.
One way to approach it is through the body. Observe how your body reacts when you are asked to do something, criticised, or praised. Does the belly turn hard? Do your shoulders rise up? Does breathing become shallow? Or is there a surge of energy, a lightness in the head, a warmth in the heart area? The body always reacts, and we should listen. It is a helpful tool, despite the fact that our body’s responses are somewhat geared to what we have grown to think of as rewarding. Praise brings pleasure – though we should not be that dependent on the praise of others. But it is a good place to start identifying what we think and feel.
When we are not quite sure of who we are, if we have not given ourselves the time to explore that, then we may not really distinguish where "I" end and where other people (particularly parents and spouses) begin. The difficult part is that neither do they! People can be quite used to thinking that their thoughts and wishes are automatically shared by us, that they are part of an undivided whole. This is equated with closeness, trust and love, though it is more a question of dependence and an undeveloped sense of self.
Once we begin to try and distinguish our own reactions, we begin to also notice that we can choose whether we are affected by other people’s emotions and expectations, or not. We have a fundamental right to our own emotions and wishes – but first we have to find out what they are. With time, we can say, as my friend Birgit puts it: “Tell them: You are you. I am another person. I am me.”
The Value of Silence
Exploring who we really are and what we really want will bring moments of despair, fear and loneliness. It can be frightening to be alone when those emotions hit us. Often enough, the hard moments come exactly when we are alone – there is time to hear the repressed messages then. In most cases, it is better to stay put, listen to the sensations, and wait for the moment to pass.
Naturally it is important to be in touch with other people, but using company to run away from the feelings will only prolong the process. The feeling of empowerment that comes with bearing difficult times and emotions makes it all worth it, and builds a stronger base. With it, there will be less and less of those hard times. Here again the practical toolkit of responses discussed in Taming Wild Horses helps.
This is not to say that we should isolate ourselves from others. The key is spending time with the right people, not just any people. Many yoga retreats and other centres of spiritual searching are full of people who are suffering and looking for keys to well-being. The keys are certainly there, but we can easily be affected by the complicated energy of the other people there. Same goes for bars and other places people congregate in search of others. All of them can be helpful - or at least fun - but the important thing is to choose your company well: find people who are really working on themselves honestly. It will help you be in yourself, and encourage to keep up the practice.
It’s true, charm works in the short term. It will provide periods of admiration and attention. Most of society accepts and encourages us to use unscrupulous means to successful ends. But if our objectives are to have personal space, an understanding of who we are and what our wishes are, and finding that inner silent base of peace, then we have to be careful to guard ourselves against both our own tendency to manipulate others, and that of others. What we are really looking for is respect: we want to be respected, we want to respect ourselves. Then, equally, we must respect others. Manipulating them in order to briefly feel accepted and loved, will not get us there. Letting others manipulate us, no matter how well-worded the argument is, will not build the base either.
Wow, Help!, Thank You
So where do we get the strength to keep working? After all, if we felt strong and capable, we would not be in this mess, would we? Beginning to pray may feel awkward and even absurd. Much of that has to do with the limited view we hold of God. We do not quite know what we are doing.
It is much like getting to know another human being and letting the love grow between you: the conversation needs to keep going, otherwise you will not really know the other. Prayer is speaking to God, and meditation or contemplation are letting God speak to you. The writer Anne Lamott has said that there are actually only three forms of prayer: Wow, help, thank you. Now we can all manage that, can't we?
NB: I am not a mental health professional. These are only notes on things that I have found to work for me and for people I know. If you feel that you are swimming in waters that are too deep for you to handle, get professional help. As I often say, these questions should not be overly mystified, they are common human predicaments that have been studied and solved for centuries. There are people who really can help, who have been trained in the process.