March 14, 2012

Staying Emotionally Present in the Wake of Tragedy. ~ Jamie Davies O’Leary


Lately I think in metaphors about cleaning, clearing, packing, and moving.

It has (temporarily) taken over my life as my husband and I are new homeowners. This week is no different. In packing and clearing out closets, dumping old clothes into giveaway garbage bags, finding long-forgotten cat toys in every corner and crevice — I found myself muttering in frustration at how much junk we’ve accumulated in only two-and-a-half years.

Anyone who moves complains of this. Our tendency to hoard is matched only by the physical space we actually have. I am probably worse at this than others.

There’s a yoga metaphor in here, waiting to be dug out; bear with me.

This week I’ve also felt a lack of presence in my own body. Spaciness. Dissociation. Distraction. Just like locking ourselves up in the attic to sand, shop-vac, and paint, I have locked myself upstairs this week – as in, up in my head. Checking out of our body and emotions is like living in the attic, failing to inhabit the full space we have.

There are many reasons we do this. For me, any time I hear of tragedy – whether a global climate catastrophe or a random act of violence – something comes unwired. A circuit breaker pops. I move upstairs. I mull about for hours, days, maybe even longer – before I even notice the feeling of stuffiness and suffocation and entrapment that comes with not being in your body. It’s easier to confront these things with your brain, to read dozens of articles, to think and talk and analyze — rather than feel. Inhabiting your body means confronting a sick feeling in your stomach, tightness in the chest, a hollow void of desperation in your stomach.

When I heard about the school shooting recently at a suburban Cleveland high school, I felt all these things. Then I promptly (and unintentionally) checked out.

This is understandable, normal, and not to be criticized. Violence and loss — even that experienced by strangers — can remind us of the trauma and violence we’ve witnessed in our own lives (to whatever degree that is; everyone experiences it to some extent) and can be triggering. Fleeing to the attic can be a welcome reprieve to the uncomfortable feelings that are conjured.

The problem with this is what happens over time. The emotional stuff from which we flee starts to build up. It gets shoved into closets and corners and begins to accumulate, and it takes up space in our body and in our heart. We have less room to move about. The longer we wait to process the emotional baggage, to address is, file it, store it, or toss it – the more our bodies and minds start to gradually turn into an episode of Hoarders. And as I can attest to in a literal way, it’s far easier to clean and clear your living space periodically than it is to save it all up and deal with it at once. Maintenance is far easier than complete overload, breakdown.

Yoga provides the space for this emotional maintenance, allows us to inhabit the body, to force ourselves out of the attic and back down into full presence. Even if we only confront the pain for a few moments, a handful of breaths – we are clearing out space in our bodies and hearts, creating a freedom that we innately long for.

For me, that means some extra time on the mat as I confront that hollow pit in my stomach that forms each time I remember the three kids who lost their lives at the hands of an emotionally disturbed gunman. It means pausing, putting my hand to my heart, and saying hello to whatever pain that inhabits there- whether I understand it on a rational level or not. As Tara Brach, meditation teacher and author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, encourages – can we open the door to those emotions and accept them as freely as we accept an old friend? To feel them is to be fully and absolutely human (translation: NORMAL), so why slam the door?

Just like packing, cleaning, and moving – emotional spring cleaning isn’t easy. It can exhaust us. Nor is it easy to confront senseless violence and loss and to create the space for processing it during our busy lives. But a little bit can go a long way – toward creating space to inhabit ourselves, averting emotional overload, and developing compassion.

Thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and loved ones – and survivors – of this shooting. And to each of us, in attempting to confront such news with as much love, compassion, and presence as we can muster.

edited by Greg Eckard


Jamie Davies O’Leary is a yoga instructor (RYT 200) and co-director of yogaServe, a yoga service group in central Ohio bringing yoga to undeserved groups, especially those affected by violence and trauma. She teaches domestic violence victims. Her passions are innumerable (and often unrelated): yoga, meditation, mindfulness, writing, public education, Tara Brach’s teachings, beer, art, music, vegetarianism, and interior design. She blogs on a variety of topics, including yoga, health, and mindfulness, at Strange but Good and can be found on Twitter @jamieoleary.

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