Leaning In

The holiday season is upon us and with it my perpetual tendency to avoid and dread all things having to do with Christmas.

For the last 27 years, I’ve been living half a planet away from my family of origin in Germany. Over the course of these years, each Holiday celebration has been different. Different places, different people, different food, different customs and traditions, different spiritual practices, different moods and music. This year it’s going to be different again. Once again I’m blessed to share the Christmas celebration within the circle of some of my dearest friends. I’m feeling grateful. I’m acutely aware how vastly different and not at all cheerful this time of the year can feel to many people all over the world. I count my many blessings daily.

And yet, here it is again. That sense of dread, the wishfulness to get it over with, the varying levels of anxiety over the need (real or imagined) to fulfill people’s expectations, to give meaningful gifts, to participate in holiday activities, to be cheerful and merry, and whatever else my imaginary Holiday Spirit may conjure up to make me feel uneasy.

I work with horses and people, so for the most part working through the Holidays is a given for me. The animals need care and movement, and the people need support of varying sorts during this festive, busy and often stressful time of the year. Working through the Holidays gives me that comfortable sense of purpose that comes with getting up before the break of dawn and keeping myself so busy throughout the day that going to sleep feels like being hi-jacked by the sudden, irrepressible need for deep rest once my face touches the pillow.

It seems that lots of people have a love-hate relationship with the Holidays. It feels good to think I’m not alone. I sneak a few more treats into each day and hope a few more in the evening won’t make me feel as bad as the night before. And then, I can feel the anxiety set in. Mildly at first, then a bit more insistent, another cookie, some cheese and crackers, maybe some almonds, oh, and just a few pieces of chocolate, frozen yogurt, just a little… And yet, the funny feeling in my stomach won’t be humored. It’s been rumbling, moaning, fussing and mumbling discontentedly for quite a while now.

So, last night, just before reaching for that next ‘last cookie,’ I stopped myself. Rather than doing or eating one more thing I stopped and sat down in front of my fireplace. I closed my eyes and asked my self ‘What makes me uneasy?’ 

I sat with that question in my mind for a while and focused on my breathing. I remembered the words ‘If a question arises within you, the answer is right there with it. It may just not reveal itself right away.’

The words ‘leaning into discomfort’ bubbled up. I started to notice aches and feelings of tension in my shoulders, my back and my legs, steady companions that come with living with fibromyalgia for many years. I’m used to discomfort, just haven’t been leaning into it with great enthusiasm.

‘Keep going…’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort… What makes me uneasy?’

‘Feelings.’ It said. ‘What does your discomfort feel like?’

‘Aches in my shoulders, back and legs.’ I thought. ‘And in my stomach.’

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And what else? What do you notice underneath that?’

‘I don’t want to think about my aches and pains.’ I thought.

‘Why not?’ It asked.

‘I’m afraid my thoughts will make me feel worse.’ I thought.

‘Thoughts.’ It said. ‘Thoughts are only thoughts. Some of them are useful. Others not so much. You get to choose.’ 

‘Hmm. I’m still worried.’ I thought. ‘Once they’re loose it’s hard to keep them under control.’  

‘Ah. Control. And discipline. Such heavy shackles.’ It said. ‘Controlling your thoughts and feelings… about what?’

‘It’s the first Christmas my mom isn’t alive anymore.’ I thought and swallowed. ‘And my dog is gone, too. And I’m worried about my dad.’ 

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And how do you feel when you think these thoughts?’

‘I don’t like those thoughts.’ I thought. ‘They make me feel really sad. And anxious. And there’s so much good stuff going on in my life. I shouldn’t feel sad.’ 

‘One doesn’t exclude the other. You can feel different things, and think different thoughts.’ It said. ‘You can allow as much or as little into the present moment as you like.’ 

‘Hmm.’ I thought about that for a moment.

‘Where do you feel the sad feelings?’ It asked.

‘In my heart. And in my stomach.’ I thought as the water gathered in my eyes and my stomach made a move that felt tight and as if it was reaching up all the way into my throat.

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s ok.’

‘It is?’ I thought. ‘I don’t like these feelings. I’d like to keep them down.’

‘Down?’ It asked.

‘Yes, down.’ I thought. ‘Way down… and far away from me.’

‘So you put food on top of your feelings?’ It asked.

‘Yes.’ I thought.

‘Does it help?’ It asked.

‘No. But it’s something I can do…’ I thought.

It was quiet for a moment. I noticed my breathing had gotten a bit more shallow. I took a deeper breath in and exhaled slowly.

‘They are your feelings, you know?’ It said after a while. ‘They’re part of you. They are telling you something.’

‘Yes, I know.’ I thought. ‘I’m feeling sad, and achy, and grumpy.’

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s better. Know and acknowledge your suffering. Lean into it for just a moment. Feel compassion for yourself. Then you can heal.’

‘Hmm. Interesting.’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort is part of healing.’

‘Yes.’ It said. ‘You must know your own discomfort.’ 

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘And then what do I do with it? Can I just sit with it?’

‘You can sit with it. You can look at it. Breathe into it. Feel it. You can lean into it.’ It said. ‘And when you’re ready you can lean out of it.’

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘I like that. I can lean into it. And then I can lean out of it. It’s like using advance and retreat, or pressure and release, with the horses. ’

‘Yes.’ It said. ‘It’s like any practice. Little steps will help you master your quest.’

‘I’m still feeling sad.’ I thought. ‘Will I be alright?’

‘You’re always alright, sweet child.’ It said.

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘Ok. I think that’s enough for now. I’m leaning out now…’

And then it was quiet. I mean really still. I could feel the warmth of the fire blending with the warmth inside of me as the calmness spread through my whole body. Then some more words bubbled up. 

‘May you be well. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from all suffering.’

And so it was that I didn’t need another cookie last night. And tonight not quite as many. Little steps. Leaning in. And leaning out.


[First published 12-17-2016]

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