“I am really just trying to be with life—to surrender,” a client struggling ith being single shared with me.
“But I see now that I’ve been stuck in my head trying to figure it out.”
We humans spend a lot of time trying to figure things out—our days, our thoughts, our emotions, the world, each other. Our brains are great at figuring out things like building a deck, balancing a checkbook, and planning the week’s meals.
But when it comes to other things, like happiness or love or feeling good, that same figuring-out mechanism can be more of an illusive trickster.
Life can’t be figured out, but what life consists of—thoughts, images, sensations—can be noticed, felt, and allowed. In that space of allowance and noticing, sometimes perspective and understanding drop in.
But these don’t drop in from figuring things out. They drop in because of the spaciousness that opens up when we allow our experiences to be what they are, without trying to make them different, when we stop trying to figure them out.
When trying to figure life out falls away, we experience what some may call surrender. But surrender as a concept has often been equated with “doing nothing.” Throughout our lives, many of us, like my client, have heard the phrases “just be with [insert experience],” or “just surrender.” We keep trying. It sounds simple enough, right? Just be with your experience! Surrender!
That’s what we keep hearing from teachers, gurus, and even well-meaning friends. However, it’s much easier said than done.
When thoughts and images and sensations are perceived to be attacking or coming at us all at once, as they often are, it can be extremely hard to “be with” anything. Instead, we find ourselves in the experience of overwhelm and the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism that often comes with it. When in any of these states, the part of the brain that facilitates self-awareness starts shutting down, making it nearly impossible to be fully aware of the present experience—to just “be with it.”
“Just be with it” or “surrender” are often not useful pointers for people trying to connect with the present moment, as they’ve too often been misunderstood. When we really do surrender, it involves a person accessing her/his own personal reservoir of resources. We all have access to plenty of resources; some of us have more than others, and some resources are internal while others are external.
For example, because I do inquiry with people for a living, I have access to a reservoir of internal resources. In other words, I can apply the techniques I use with other people to myself. I can ask myself useful questions and can extend love to and for myself, and I can often sit still and literally “just be with it”—allowing the experience to unwind naturally by noticing and acknowledging my thoughts, images, and sensations without being attached to or enmeshed with them.
When in a calm state, many of us have the capacity to connect with these internal resources. But when we’re not centered, grounded, or calm, accessing them can be confounding.
Sometimes I’m too immersed in my own stuff to be really present for myself. Sometimes I am in my own version of the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Being in overwhelm affects my ability to utilize my internal resources because my nervous system goes on high alert. During these times, “just sitting with it” isn’t always possible, because the parts of my brain that enable the ability for self-awareness are diminished.
Before I can “be with” anything, I have to calm my nervous system down. To do that, I have to get resourceful in a different way.
There are many external resources that we have at our disposal that can help us soothe and nourish our nervous systems. Taking care of our nervous systems will help us to connect with our internal resources, which in turn help us to more deeply connect with our experiences.
When we are able to connect with ourselves in this way, we can slow down the hamster wheel of thought from spinning out, loosen the grip of thoughts from jousting with each other, take a break from referencing past and future thoughts, and give pause to the figuring-out mechanism. We can stop trying to figure out how to feel safe, and actually begin to feel safe in the world and with ourselves in the present moment.
When my nervous system is jostled, I utilize my internal and also external resources:
1. I feel the chair (or bed, or sofa) underneath my body.
Science upholds that when my back feels supported, my nervous system starts to relax. Try this out: As you lean into your chair (or other object), remind yourself that this object is designed to support your body. It is designed to hold all your weight, and to do so comfortably. Allow yourself to connect to this object fully. Feel it supporting you. Notice what comes up.
2. I feel the floor or earth under my feet.
This is an extension of the first resource. The floor is also designed to hold us. I feel into that as I feel my feet connect with the floor or, if I’m outside, with the earth.
3. I connect to my inner sense of curiosity.
Curiosity is one of the most profound resources that I have. I often say that curiosity is the antidote to fear, because if I can access just a drop or two of it, fear begins to loosen its grip.
One easy way to access curiosity is to ask yourself a simple question without trying to answer it—any question, even “Why is the sky blue?” Don’t try to answer it. Just ask the question and wonder. That opens the part of the brain that connects to self-awareness and loosens the reptilian brain center’s grip. Do this while relying on the first two resources.
4. I connect with my breath.
As I’m feeling into #1 and #2, I bring my attention to my breath. I breathe into the chair. I breathe into my feet on the floor. I breathe into my belly. I breathe into my sit bones. I breathe consciously and gently into and throughout my entire body, at my own pace.
Science documents that breathing through the nostrils can aid in calming the nervous system, so if it’s resonant for you, try that out. Follow the breathing cycle with attention: stay with the way your breath is constantly flowing in and flowing out.
Breath is an amazing resource because breath is always happening in the present moment.
5. I lean into touch.
Science also documents that physical touch puts my nervous system to rest. I use my own hands to connect with myself and the present moment, placing them wherever my body wants to feel touch. On my forehead or face. Behind the back of my neck. Over my heart. Against my belly. In a hug position or on my arms. I hold my own hands. I feel the touch of my skin. If I’m near animals or other humans, I connect with them using touch. Receive the resource of touch, from self or other.
6. I access sound.
Sound can be a profound resource to connect with. I can listen to music—either that of my choosing or that which is already being played in my surroundings. Birds. Wind. The fan. White noise in my home. The purring of my cats. I feel the sounds move through my somatic system, inviting my body to move with them. Use the resource of sound in a way that is resonant for you and your nervous system.
7. I connect with water.
A cool washcloth on my forehead, face, or behind the neck can help soothe my nervous system. So can drinking a glass of water or a cup of tea, slowly and mindfully. Or taking a bath or a shower, feeling the water pour over me. Feeling it hit different parts of my body. Feeling the temperature as determined by what feels good in the moment. The cleansing nature of water makes it a powerful resource.
8. I engage in movement.
Sometimes my body just wants to move! Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Yoga. Stretching. Walking. Exercise. Jumping. I let my body move however it wants to. I keep my attention on the movements and sensations that arise as I follow my body’s inclinations. Dancing to music can also be a powerful way to tap into my internal resources. Use movement as a resource however it resonates with you!
9. I experiment with scent.
I really enjoy playing with scent—essential oils, candles, outside air, flowers, food. Research the properties linked to different scents and see how your system responds (most people find peppermint invigorating and lavender relaxing). Ground yourself using the resource of scent as desired.
10. I rest.
Resting, for me, means stopping what I’m doing and consciously turning my attention toward whatever it is that I’m noticing in my current experience. Is my attention pointed mainly toward thoughts? Is it referencing past or future events? Is it lost in imagery? Is it in the body?
Resting can be done sitting or lying down, or during any activity. Resting for just a few moments opens the doors to self-compassion and self-awareness, and connects me with some of the other resources listed above such as breathing, touch, feeling the floor and chair, and curiosity. Utilizing rest is one of my passions, and I have many guided-rest audios available for free—please contact me if you’re interested.
11. I engage with my creativity.
Creativity can allow a vast world of resources to open up for us. It is an internal resource, but I can also play with external resources to access my creativity. Finger painting is a favorite of mine, as it allows free form expression and tactile engagement. Journaling my experiences can help my system slow down and become more available to what is happening in the present moment. Other ways I engage with my creativity include cooking, making collages, taking pictures, making a music compilation of my favorite songs, knitting, singing, and dancing.
All of these activities bring our attention out of the mental realm (where figuring out tries to happen) into the somatic realm (where presence happens). This is important. We feel, we breathe, and we have sensations in the present moment, whereas thoughts in the mental realm often reference past or future.
The list of creative endeavors is truly endless! Gently and curiously tap into how the resource of creativity wants to be expressed through you.
Imagine taking attention from the head and bringing it down into the body. When attention is no longer spinning in the head, our nervous system relaxes and the ability to be self-aware increases. Surrender never lives in the past or future—it is experienced right now, in this moment. It doesn’t come from the mind, it comes from being.
Being with our experiences—whether they are filled with joy, sadness, fear, anger, excitement, curiosity, shame, or happiness—doesn’t have to look a certain way. There’s no prescription on how to be.
“Being with” an experience may happen as we go for a walk in the woods, smell a flower, drive home from work, or yell into a pillow.
“Being with” an experience may mean sitting in a chair and internally exploring through mindfulness. It may include stargazing, listening to music, or sipping tea.
“Being with” an experience may involve slamming the car door, holding one’s own hand, baking brownies, or breathing deeply and consciously.
“Being with” an experience may occur through meditation, a hug, a hot bath, or a deep sob.
Use resources as they support and resonate with you. When your nervous system is relaxed, you will be able to more fully access the parts of your brain that allow for self-awareness, and you’ll have more capacity to inquire into your thoughts, memories, and the sensations in your body. Using your resources—both internal and external—will allow you to be more present and enjoy life.
I often want love to come from “out there”—in the form of chocolate, flowers, dinner, a person’s affection. Those things are all fine. But I know deep in my heart that love comes from within. Love begets love. When I take time to care for myself, I show myself love. When I love myself, I get to experience presence.
Honor your experiences and play with ways to get to know yourself. Show yourself that you are important and loved—not with things, but with the gift of your attention. Connect with your inner resources and explore yourself. There is no one way to be a human being—and there is no one way to “just be with” your experience.
Be curious, experiment, and play!
Author: Lisa Meuser
Editor: Callie Rushton