Eugene Gendlin’s Process Model Theory tells us that – as living organisms – we are constantly interacting with our environment. Whatever is around us, whether intentional or not, we are affected by it and it is affected by us. Much of that interaction remains subconscious, below our awareness. Our brain has learned to separate us from this maybe because there were too many situations where it witnessed our environment as overwhelming us. Polyvagal theory, pioneered by Stephen Porges, describes how our nervous systems (brain and body) must feel SAFE wherever we are now, in THIS environment in order for us to socially engage with that around us. This is one of three potential states of being. The second state of being is the danger of fight, flight or freeze (our typical state of stress we all know well where we stop listening and then almost on auto-pilot react by arguing or escaping or possibly becoming silent). The third state of being is a life threat state. Here, we resort to basic survival mechanisms of submission or dissociation. PTSD and other physical/emotional trauma situations lead to this life threat state. It does not have to be extreme life experiences for us to find ourselves in this state either. Common place experiences can lead to stopped processes within us, that if not attended to, can accumulate and erupt in experiences where we feel out of control. For instance, 11 yr old Riley’s brain temporarily shuts down and she runs away from home in the Disney movie, Inside Out. Her stressors were common ones – moving to a new state, seeing her dad stressed about work, her mom stressed about the house and starting a new school. Together, they were simply too much. She lost her typical state of joyfulness and began engaging in fight, flight and freeze tactics. For a bit there when she ran away, she may have been in the life threat state of dissociating from her life altogether. I write more about stopped process in my blog “Something Stopped Can Move Again”. I also wrote about an experience I had with trauma that moved me into a state of submission in my blog “A Stopped Process Moves Forward – Oh, Happy Me!”
Many of us spend way more time in these second two states of being than is healthy for us. They are not the ground upon which we grow. They are the ground upon which we get sick, develop serious health issues and find ourselves viewing life as more of a struggle than joy.
FOCUSING LEADS US TO OUR SAFE GROUND
And so, how do we move ourselves closer to that ground upon which we feel safe, socially engaged, alive, thriving? One way of course, is to practice Focusing. We describe this same state of being that Porges defined as Presence or Self-in-Presence and we actively seek it. As part of our practice in establishing Presence, we pause, we sense into our body right now and really check: are we comfortable, can we feel a sense of support with the earth, the floor, our chair; what do we need to ask of our Focusing companion in order to feel safe, can we hear them easily; we might scan our entire body briefly, how is it interacting right now in this environment; we might notice our breath, acknowledge however it is as ok. Many of these concepts point us toward environments in which we might find ourselves naturally in this state of being. Nature for instance, is a place where we feel our feet upon the earth and are surrounded by the aliveness of fresh air. The earth is bigger than all of the problems she carries and she reminds us that we are too. Bringing awareness to our ears brings up Music. Music – that which we interpret as comforting – is another environment that brings Presence more easily for many of us. Certain people do this for us too – those couple close friends or family members we’ve come to trust will accept us as we are. Mind-body awareness activities like meditation and yoga encourage this state of being by bringing our awareness to our breath and scanning or sensing into our body. Yoga’s reminder to ‘find your own edge right now’ reminds us we are in a safe place that allows us to sense and choose our movement.
WHAT STATE OF BEING DOES EACH OF YOUR ENVIRONMENTS BRING OUT IN YOU?
I often find myself wondering how I might support those who are interested in Focusing in paying more attention to their environments and the state of being it seems to encourage in them. I know that if they are going to thrive in my Focusing classes or hold onto a shift they experience in a Guided Session, the environments I send them back to are factors. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately as we’ve noticed a surprising HUGE shift forward in one of our cats, Tess. Tess has been here about 1.5 yrs. When she first arrived, we could tell that she came with lots of baggage and emotional trauma. We have one other cat, Eva whom we’ve had since kitten times who has much less of this baggage. These two tolerate each other, mostly living in different parts of the house (Tess downstairs, Eva upstairs). They generally do not choose to engage socially in pleasant ways.
LIFE FORWARD MOVEMENT COMES
Well, two weeks ago, a new puppy joined our household. Lucky is 4 months old, a lanky, good-natured guy about 30-35 lbs. He also lives downstairs so Tess has a new roommate. It took her maybe a day or two to decide that she really likes him. Something about his Presence relaxes her and makes her feel safe in ways we had not yet figured out how to meet. Her body is less tense, she is less needy of our attention and she has expanded her typical behaviors in many ways. Last week when we got 16 inches of snow, she jumped from footprint to footprint in the snow to keep up with Lucky, Bob and I on a walk. She often claims Lucky’s dog bed if he does not. She has learned to expect a treat for coming in the house when called just as he receives one. She joined Lucky and I today for all three of our walks so far. In the morning we walk the immediate yard, then after breakfast and after lunch, we take various walks around the woods and fields of the 29 acre community we live in. That’s some leg work for a cat!
THE GROUND UPON WHICH OUR NEXT GROWTH WILL COME IS OFTEN A SURPRISE
Now, isn’t that interesting that adding Lucky to our household turned out to be the ground upon which our cat Tess would grow! I am very happy for her and for our entire household and I also have to admit, I did not anticipate this. And so I am getting to my original inspiration for telling this story. The ground upon which our next growth will come is often a surprise – to our organism and certainly to those around us. IF we do not act on or try out these aha surprises, we may never know the growth our organism is wanting for us to experience.
Let’s look again at Focusing theory. We know from Gendlin’s Process Model Theory that a felt sense of any particular situation holds a knowing of it’s way forward, what would feel like ‘fresh air’ for it now. This knowing comes as an experience – much more than words – and yet, when we can find words or images that match, this knowing becomes clearer.
Back to our example, we had noticed that Tess was not afraid of the dogs that live in our community, she would walk near them, even talk to them, boss them if they got too close. We took that into account in deciding to bring a dog into our household. Our thoughts were something along this line: “worth a try, over time they will get along”.
And what a pleasant surprise! They not only get along, they engage with each other in positive thriving supportive ways and they pull me in as well. I’m thriving in ways beyond what I had expected when I hang with these two! I have found it easier than ever to create space in my day to walk and hang with these two. Each time I do this I feel a sense of ‘fresh air’ as I shift what I’m doing to take another walk. I’m utilizing the times I pause to let Tess catch up to us to creatively add exercise moves to my walk too. I carry weights and might do squats or jumps or body twists. I often used to use walks to help me process thoughts, so although I was walking in the woods, I might still be mostly in my head for much of the time. Like I needed the walk to ‘get out of my head’. With these two as my environment, I’m whole-brain-body engaged from the start. I am talking with them both, sensing into my body, acknowledging thoughts, actively trying new things and enjoying what it feels like to just be with this all.
Isn’t this interesting? The same ground that our relationships ‘Lucky-Tess-Sandy-Nature’ bloom from is also the ground from which my relationship with myself is currently blooming. I’ve wanted more ground from which to be practicing whole-brain-body living in my life. I had a sense that saying ‘yes!’ to a puppy was in that direction. Yet, until I tried it, I did not really know what it would all bring. And of course, this is just the beginning of where this will lead me.
BUILDING OUR CAPACITY FOR PRESENCE
There is a feedback loop in my experiencing here that reminds me of something I used to teach about oxytocin. This state of safety and engaged social interaction is supported by oxytocin. Oxytocin acts as both a neurotransmitter and a chemical peptide in our bloodstream. It is produced and released whenever we are in this state of being. Oxytocin is highly unusual for our bodies in that it functions partially on a positive feedback loop. When some of our neural/ hormonal receptor sites become full of oxytocin, our body does not turn off production. Our body responds instead by activating MORE oxytocin receptors. We now have a greater capacity or depth from which to experience this state of being we call Presence than we did before this experience.
WHAT STATE OF BEING DOES EACH OF YOUR ENVIRONMENTS BRING OUT IN YOU?
And maybe there is something new you can try, something that your body has suggested, that turns out to be some ground from which you next grow…
I’d love to see comments, stories, questions added here to this post about your experiences.