You can feel the sensation of tension in your body. The stress is intense and your shoulders and your belly and your neck are all involved in trying to keep up, trying to not break down and trying to meet everyone’s expectations, not the least of which can be your own high expectations of how you want to present to the world, how you want people to see you: competent, strong, steady, on your game.
The tension leads to a headache, it leads to loss of appetite, or to comfort eating (ice cream, cookies and potato chips, please). Your body feels buzzy, like your blood vessels are filled with seltzer water. As long as you keep on moving, then it’s easy to keep a smile on your face, even if your patience is getting more and more frayed around the edges.
How familiar does this sound to you? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to restore some sensation of balance and equilibrium?
Learning to Surrender
Over and over, I am struck by how images from nature can lend much insight into health and wellbeing. For example:
I remember sitting on the edge of a granite ledge on an island off the coast of Maine. I’m age 7, hanging with my big sister. We are out after a thunderstorm and the sky is still dark and a little eerie as the sun peeks out through the clouds on the horizon as it moves towards sunset. The Atlantic is stirred up, more choppy and stronger surf than I recall having seen before. There are many days where it is just gentle swells with the sun sparkling off a smooth surface.
As we sit on the edge of the granite outcropping, we are watching the surf crash up and over the granite ledges on the island across the channel. The crashing spray soars up and over the ledges and I can feel my fear settle in. This is a scarier sea than I am used to. I grew up in the midwest; I am not accustomed to the different faces of the sea.
As my sister tries to reassure me, a giant wave crashes into the ledge we are perched on – we are a good ten feet above the surface of the ocean. The spray soars over our heads, drenching us in its arc. I am so surprised by this moment, and the spray is so innocuous, I burst out laughing. What was so scary from afar is not really scary at all right here where we are. It’s not as if the entire wave was surging up over our ledge to pull us out into the current. We are just caught in the line of spray.
Decades later, I find myself in the gentle swells of surf in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. Here I learn that as the wave comes towards you in a curl, you can be swept underneath it – hold your breath – you’ll be out of the water again in a moment, especially as your feet are still touching the sand. The curl of the surf can tug at you, make you lose your stability, can feel overwhelming and trigger the racing adrenaline of fear. If, however, you dive into the wave, you pop out the other side and you can swim further out beyond the surf line where the swells lift you up off the ground, carry you along, and then drop you back down, with your feet back on the sand. Out here it is calm. There is no curling wave, just these gentle swells that advance, hide the horizon from you, pick you up and then set you back down.
There is a surrender to letting the water carry your body like this.
Now, let it be noted, I grew up in the midwest. My ocean adventures continue to be very limited. I’ve never been out on a surfboard. There are many who may know all sorts of other dynamics about the ocean. I am not speaking of riptides or rogue waves, and other true dangers of the ocean. That being said, these experiences lend some beautiful insight to the emotional terrain within.
Passing through the Waves
I learn about deep emotion in my life; after heartbreak, during times of transition, during times of stress, conflict or worry. I want so badly to be seen as strong, confident, and capable that I am not able to make space within myself for any sign of weakness.
I can feel the tension build, and I do whatever I can to contain it, push it down, to not let it out. I don’t realize I am doing it at the time, but I do know that our society doesn’t approve of such expression and it is safer to ignore it and try to make it go away. My shoulders are tight, I cave my chest in, my diaphragm is tight.
I find great catharsis from reading Ring of Endless Light by Madeliene L’Engle, sobbing in my rocking chair in the kitchen in my Boston apartment one winter, letting the tears from her story release the tears unshed from within myself.
Years later, I learn to make peace with strong emotions like grief and anger and sorrow. As I let them course through me, I find they become less scary, less overwhelming. In fact, once the emotion passes, I come out the other side and there is sunshine and laughter and ease. This is so very different from trying to not feel these unfamiliar, scary emotions. I realize that in trying to not feel them, I create a pressure cooker environment – this intensifies and complicates the original emotions.
The emotional landscape becomes familiar, the waves of emotions wash over, pass through – they may feel big and unending, but in the surrender, you let them carry you towards greater peace and authenticity. In these moments of passing through waves of emotion, the heart washes itself clean, becomes more vulnerable and open in the world.
In this place, there is strength, there is compassion, there is a solid steadiness. To quote myself, “In my brokenness, I am more whole than when I am chasing okay-ness.”
And again, let it be noted, there are ways to be present to the depth of emotion on your own, with beloveds or with close friends (or friends who are not yet close, but in opening to the depths with them invites that closer connection), that are very different than falling to pieces publicly, crashing through boundaries in questionable ways. This is a finesse to tune into – when and how, yet celebrate the journey as the current carries you.
To offer some fortune cookie wisdom of my own, “It is a gift to feel deeply. To know great joy is to also know great loss. They are two sides of the same coin. Do not fear feeling great joy in order to avoid feeling great loss. It is a gift simply to feel deeply.”
“I believe I’m in the right place at the right time.— Samara Jade, songwriter
This wave is crashing down and it’s the one for me to ride.
Crazy world, crazy time –
Gonna let go of what oughta be and hang on for the ride.
Ebb and Flow, Rising, Falling”
How is the surf in your life carrying you these days?