My Dog, Sunni: Whimpers softy and then loudly and melodramatically from his crate (because today is the day we supply the house and clean the floors so we don’t track something in on our shoes that might kill all the humans)…
Me: Hush now, Sunni. We all got sorrow. We ALL got sorrow.
My sorrowful confession:
I married my life and my work to passion many years ago. Passion isn’t just my business and brand. It is my personal identity.
Truly, it has been hard carrying the mantle of passion through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And yet, I cannot leave it behind.
Last night, I lay in bed, my head buried in my partner’s chest, sobbing because I had lost my way in the somber penumbra of this ghoulish gorge. Passion had begun to feel irrelevant to the struggles we are facing!
His response stung while my tears were running hot and my despair hotter. But today his words have begun to transform this seemingly eternal dusk. He is Indigenous, Maya (Tsotsil and Tseltal), and his thoughts are often like manna from heaven because they work on my soul in unexpected, challenging ways.
Last night, he bravely informed me that now is my time to prove my medicine works. If it doesn’t work as we walk with death as our constant companion, then it isn’t medicine at all, and I should stop offering it.
Instead of just comforting me, he insisted I ask more of myself and of passion!
In the wake of my tears, this question formed in my heart:
With our dreams suspended in purgatory, our hopes weighed down by loss, our economy in shambles, and our world gone mad, what healing, reviving medicine can passion offer?
The answer is shockingly good!
As it turns out…
“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” ~ Ferdinand Foch
By contrast, have you noticed what the fear of COVID-19 does?
I live in a lively Mexican town where the stone sidewalks are often too narrow for a couple to walk side by side comfortably. Sometimes, you meet another person and traffic (that prevents you from stepping into the road) at the same time. This makes it impossible to avoid one another by six inches, much less six feet.
Typically, since COVID began, in the grips of fear, both parties turn sideways, cast their eyes down, and hunch their shoulders in a rigid, inward-turning posture (as if turning a blind eye can fool the virus).
Occasionally, overcome by a case of irrational exuberance, someone goes frolicking past sans mask in the most jovial of moods (like the fool of the Tarot, blissfully unaware of the edge).
Either way, we are all trying to control the uncontrollable risk of death. We are grasping for some sense of certainty as we try to cope with the fact that we have suddenly become a danger to one another.
Passion and control are diametrically opposed to one another. They form an inverse relationship.
“Control is really the antithesis of passion. Control approaches situations with rigidity; it likes to confine things to boundaries; it seeks certainty, lack of movement; it resists change.
Passion, on the other hand, overflows the boundaries and seeks no limit, no end. It thrives on the unknown; it feeds off movement and transformation; it adores the uninhibited.” ~ Passion by Barbara de Angelis
Passion thrives on mystery.
But mystery is exactly what we fear most right now. We fear the undefined realities of COVID, of an economy in freefall, of a world that is changing radically. In short, we feel trapped in eternal danger, separated by a billion death veils (even those of us foolishly denying the collective reality).
Consequently, we also fear each other’s breath and we fear we will lose our own capacity to breathe (or that we will never recover it).
Breath and passion have something in common.
Passion is life force waiting to be expressed in the form of creativity, romance, adventure, dreams, purpose. It is aliveness dancing through an improvised life.
Breath or prana means life force or breath sustaining the body.
As we try to hold on to the breath of life, we are losing contact with passion and the meaning of our aliveness and our humanity.
Biologically, our nervous systems have two ways to shut down this kind of extreme, prolonged stress. One nourishes us and helps us turn peril into resilience. Resilience then leads to positive results like progress, growth, and learning. The other creates a dangerous level of collapse that actually harms our bodies if it is sustained for too long.
“The ventral vagus (VV) acts as a braking mechanism to inhibit the sympathetic system in a nuanced way, while the more primitive dorsal vagus (DV) supports deep rest and all silent metabolic functions at its low tone and at its extreme high tone, supports the freeze response (death feigning). The ventral vagus supports our use of the social engagement system to mitigate arousal when we feel threatened.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
The gentleness of the VV braking system and our capacity for social engagement work together with the more active and activating sympathetic nervous system to sustain or return us from distress to a state of vivacious aliveness and joyful interconnection. By contrast, the more primitive “death-feigning” response creates the most rigid and motionless state you can experience without actually being dead. You become like a mouse hanging silent and motionless in the cat’s mouth.
We are frozen here and now (though not exactly present in the moment). But we are also standing motionless and mute at the threshold of the future because it feels utterly disconnected from our familiar pasts.
Life has been irretrievably altered.
The future appears as an ambiguous, shadowy space that could as easily wind up being occupied by boogie men and monsters (like the present) as thriving lives and dreams fulfilled.
As we go through this grand uncertainty, we can either remain in a timeless death faint or we can awaken our passion and aliveness, not in spite of our fear, but as the ultimate challenge to it. We can start engaging the mystery, and most importantly, we can take back the future from our own projected phantoms and foes. We can give it to our dreams instead.
To do that, we have to give up our rigidity, not in some metaphorical or theoretical sense, but physiologically. We have to come out of the death-feigning freeze response that isolation, illness, and extreme stress have brought on. The freeze response is neither compatible with the aliveness of passion nor with the lively interconnectedness that turns trials into learning experiences instead of debilitating trauma.
So, how do we do it? How do we revive our passion and access its medicine?
Prana and Practice.
Deep, rhythmic breathing can break the stupor of the freeze response. It can take us from a closed, collapsed posture to an open, active, curious, and passionate one.
Maybe that’s because oxygen fuels fire!
Paired with heart coherence practices, deep breathing can restore equilibrium and help us reengage with life, with the challenges in front of us, and with each other (while still respecting the deadliness of this virus).
“Coherence is cardiac regulation in our tissues and organs.” ~ The Tao of Trauma, By Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
Now, here’s a neat trick: safe circumstances can definitely support coherence. But coherence can also be cultivated. It is not dependent upon perfectly controlled circumstances (which do not exist on Earth).
By harnessing our breath and our physiology, we can create a sense of safety within by bringing our bodies into a state of integrated, coherent functioning.
From a state of coherence, suddenly facing the unknown not only feels possible, it feels desirable. Passion (fueled by our recovered capacity to take on the risks of exploration and uncertainty), in turn, arises from coherence and the confident curiosity it brings.
Heart coherence can simply (though, perhaps, not easily) be cultivated with a straightforward, three-step process taught to me by the HeartMath Institute as a part of my certification as a HeartMath facilitator:
1. Breathe deeply while concentrating your attention on your heart center and imagining your breath flowing in and out through your chest center (note that respiration and cardiac functions are regulated by the VV);
2. Begin to generate positive (regenerative) emotions such as love, joy, courage, gratitude, or peace; and
3. Radiate those feelings toward yourself and others.
For a more sophisticated, perhaps more accessible practice, I highly recommend this meditation (also part of an extended series): The Blessing of the Energy Centers. It consistently helps me and my clients return to equilibrium and regain access to our passions.
With these passion practices, I am certain you can rescue yourself!
As to your dreams?
Only time will tell. But that is always the way of dreams! Dreams insist you act courageously and passionately in the midst of great uncertainty and they never promise anything.