I’ve come to know these themes both personally and professionally over the last few years. It happens that the circumstances of our life mirror what resides inside. And that inner world is a representation of the collective, including our current societal themes as well as spiritual rhythms of generations upon generations and the earth in which we live. Let’s try to break this down.
The body has the ability to contract and expand. Muscle tissues contract in the face of inflammation. Contraction, in the way of muscle tension, often happens automatically to over-compensate for a weak muscle group. Contraction also happens in response to (or in anticipation of) physical pain. We tend to hold and move our bodies in response to tension patterns that have served us long ago, either physically or emotionally. Dead muscle tissue must move through the sensation continuum on its path of recovery, meaning the numbness thaws out, which enlivens previously blocked sensation. Heat and pain are activated in this process and can be worked with as part of the healing process. This is a necessary precursor to experiencing the release and softening of tension. Only then is pleasure or minimization of pain possible.
Contraction is the physical or emotional manifestation of the most agonizing human experience, namely the sense of unworthiness and non-belonging. I see panic and anxiety as an expression of fear at its deepest layer. Everything we struggle against reflects our fear of being shamed and discovering ourselves as invaluable to others or worst, imposters of this life. Contraction is the way we brace ourselves against these feared realities, either in a literal physical sense, emotionally, or behaviorally. Physically, we may clench our jaw throughout the day, hold our shoulders up toward the ears, grip our thighs to the place where we sit. What physical cues do you notice right now that reflects a sense of “holding yourself together” versus softening into your seat? Emotional contraction includes all the things that might bring a person to therapy! Feelings of shame and anxiety keep us small and afraid to step into arenas that aren’t familiar and predictable. We find ourselves living a life void of meaning or at the least, missing opportunities for joy, pleasure, and authentic connection. Racing thoughts circle round and round that prevent true presence and moment-to-moment awareness. Moments of beauty and clarity slip right by. Much of the behavioral contraction happens in response to this emotional suffering. There are so many maladaptive ways to cope with the pain of emotional contraction: binging on food and Netflix, mindless scrolling on social media, alcohol and drug use, avoidance and procrastination, pushing others away, rescuing/care-taking, and the list goes on. Though our intention is to distract from the discomfort, these behaviors actually create more tension in the body. The continued tension pattern registering in the body reinforces the deeply held beliefs that facilitated this cycle in the first place. A very strong negative feedback loop is created and maintained.
We have grown so accustomed to exiling the darker aspects of the human experience. History reflects such accounts. The reality is that this life has held so much pain. It’s important to touch on these experiences for they are your own. Your ancestry is imprinted in your DNA and its trauma is meant to be acknowledged. There is a kind of clarity in connecting into raw, vulnerable mood states that have plagued humans since the dawn of time. There is a reason “shadow work” has re-emerged as an important and necessary step on the healing path. Confronting dark and twisty parts of ourselves and humanity is incredibly difficult. Yet, we must venture through the dark before greeting the sun. This paradox is everywhere. Mystics, poets, musicians, philosophers have pondered this truth for centuries. We cannot have the light without the dark.
People that struggle with deep, emotional pain are probably the most primed to experience its antithesis as very expansive, altered states. The beauty and majestic tones of this life are available to us as rewards when we can successfully surrender to the entire spectrum of emotion. It’s not that this accessibility to expansion is a token for being “good” or effort, as we are all deserving of these gifts by simply being here. Rather, I see these gifts locked away in treasure chests that can only be opened with a particular key made available once we can truly revel at the magnificence. The treasure really can’t be integrated until we have something to compare it to. The depths of despair put the gifts of bliss, peace, and awe in perspective.
Expansion on a physical level is the softening of muscle tissue and its ability to experience a release of tension. Relief from physical pain and even a sense of pleasure is possible when we can unwind tension patterns as part of a recovery process. Expansion at its highest expression is a sense of cosmic interconnectedness, or consciousness. It is an outpouring of brilliance that showers grace upon the incessant chatter, distraction, and restlessness of our minds. Meditation masters describe expansion as a transcendence to the material, or physical, realm and therefore, an opening to absolute divinity. Our minds cannot fully grasp the magnitude of this experience so teachings will boil things down into more simplified layers or “sutras”, use metaphor or stories, and empower us to recognize and soften into moments of expansion as they naturally arise.
Notice what it feels like when you can truly un-attach from a wave of shame, sadness or fear? When you stretch your edges, take a step outside of that comfort zone, and tune into your heart’s desire? Expansion can be felt within an authentic connectedness with another person and the energy derived from feeling a sense of belonging or engaging in some kind of group ritual. Moments of gratitude, peace, or even a sense of “okay-ness” visit us from this expansive realm, which can feel pretty radical in a world that generates so much chaos and pain. Notice moments of pause, reflection, and inspiration. Beauty and clarity reside there. Of course, there are ways we can set-up our lives to generate more of these moments. Eventually, these moments may even accumulate to form states of awareness that offer more than fleeting contentment. Of course, I am a proponent of developing a consistent meditation practice, but how you offer yourself even just 5 mins. of stillness throughout your day is absolutely up to you. There is a wealth of wisdom steeped in age-old lineage that offers a variety of breathwork practices meant to achieve and sustain expansive, altered-states. If you are a spiritual seeker in that way, pursue the path. But please know that expansion is accessible to all of us. Begin by noticing this ebb and flow of expansion and contraction in your life. After all, it is the Truth of the universe. The act and practice of awareness alone helps us connect into a greater pulse that offers some sense to the nonsensical.
I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!” -Rumi