The Unexpected Benefits of Staying Warm

The Temperance card in the Tarot deck means balance and grace. The figure is balanced between the water (emotion/spirit) and the land (body/earth) and is in 'flow' as symbolized by the flow between the goblets.

I’ve been doing some new years resolutions, even though it’s not new years yet. As of Solstice, it’s a new year from the solar perspective, and that somehow seems more real than some calendar thing. It’s like the time between Christmas (or 5th day of Yule) and New Years is a rich transitional space, where I can finally have some time to think and reorganize my life.

I was reading (listening to, actually) a book by Gretchen Rubin called “the Happiness Project” where she researches what makes people happy and then spends a year trying out a bunch of the recommendations.   I hesitate to say I’m doing well with keeping my resolutions, as if you’ve read my blog for any time you will know that I have difficulty with persistence, but I’ve kept a chart as she advises in the book, which satisfies my left brain, and it seems to be working

One of my resolutions is to stay warm, in particular to keep my neck, hands and feet warm. This is my first day doing it, and it has really become an exercise in staying in my body. If I dissociate, I get cold and when I notice I’m cold, I try and do something about it right away (add more clothes, turn up the heat, ect… rather than disregarding my body needs as usual. I’m realizing I seem to have a lot of them. I seem to need to pee, for example, a lot more frequently than I thought I did, I get hungry,  and my body changes in temperature a lot, depending on how still I am or where I am in the house, which is logical. Paying attention to the temperature of these three body parts, has made me aware of what is going on in my body a lot more.

I’m also exploring a concept from my Scandinavian heritage called “Lagom”. It’s a Swedish word that means ‘just enough’ , like the baby bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the three bears. Neither too much or too little. I was in a restaurant this morning and found I had been given too much food. The food was good, and I could have cleaned my plate without discomfort, but I was full. I thought about how the food would be wasted, and then I thought “It’s wasted anyways, since I don’t need it, this way its’ wasted, but if I eat it it’s wasted, AND I have to spend a lot of effort removing it from my waistline later, which is even more of a waste.

I have been knitting ‘prayer shawls’ for myself, and now for a friend. A prayer shawl (in the way I do it) means that you pray while you are knitting, putting the energy of some mantra, blessing or intention into the making of the shawl. I am wearing one today that I made for myself  while singing to myself the “Goddess Protection” chant, which goes “May the arms of the Great Mother, ever surround me (2x), I invoke protection of Divine Mother’s embrace. I invoke protection of Divine Mother’s Grace.” The first time I wore it I could hear that song in my head, from time to time, throughout the day. It warms my upper shoulders and neck, which store stress for me, and which I have noticed, relax more when they are warm.

Now I’m working on a shawl for my good friend K, who has a mental illness that usually is in remission, but sometimes makes her feel paranoid, and gives her delusions. As a survivor, I can relate to being afraid and feeling strange, and we don’t judge one another. While knitting yesterday I was repeating in my mind “K is Healthy, Safe, Loved and Connected”, over and over.

Today I was out and about as I had some errands to run and decided to walk on a public labyrinth that I used to go to all the time. The turns of the labyrinth are such that you get turned around facing the four directions repeatedly during the walk. The directions (North, East, South and West) have spiritual meaning for Pagans, and I usually spend time meditating on whichever one I happen to be facing during my walk. Sometime during the walk that mantra “Healthy, Safe, Loved and Connected” came into my head, and I decided it could apply to me. In that moment, I was healthy, safe (I was in a quiet enclosed space with only women), Loved (my dog and wife, and friends I’d seen recently) and Connected. I realized that each of these blessings corresponded with a direction from a Pagan perspective. Healthy fits in the North, the place of the physical and Earth. Safe fits in the East, the place of boundaries and air. Loved fits in the South, the place of fire and warmth. Connected fits in the West, the place of water and the flowing together of intimacy. It felt like a nice realization, a sacred one, and I spent the rest of my walk meditating on those qualities as I turned to the appropriate direction.

None of these are absolutes. A person can’t be absolutely healthy (my nose was running from allergies), safe (an earthquake or some random violence could happen), loved (all human love is conditional) or connected (human beings can apparently only manage a little over a hundred close connections).  But there in that moment, it was enough. I allowed myself to feel the blessings as if they were absolute, as we do in magic, that in that sacred space and moment I was completely healthy, safe, loved and connected, and it became a magical spell.

This is hard to explain to non-Pagans. When casting a spell, it’s similar to an affirmation, when you say “I am completely well and happy” or whatever in an absolute way as a way of casting reality to that shape for yourself. The belief is that by doing this, we shape or pull reality in the direction we want. It is done in a way that is very conscious and distinct from denial, although the power in it is in believing what you are intending. Pagans or witches believe that sacred space is a space ‘between the worlds’ in which you can cast an intention and have it manifest in the real world.  Anyhow, this morning I cast a spell for me as healthy, safe, loved and connected.

Later on I was waiting in a cafe, and decided to follow up on ‘connected’. I texted a few of my friends I’d seen recently for Solstice, and thanked them for the time spent together. I texted my wife to tell her I love her and wish her a good day. I felt more connected. This is one of the ways spells work. They remind me to act in ways that make positive change, because I make myself believe that change has already happened between the worlds and is in the process of coming true in the world.  It’s easier to make changes when you believe (by choice) that it’s a sure thing and a done deal, or if you will, that the Goddess is on your side.

All of my friends texted me back with nice greetings. My wife in particular seemed to really like it. I’ll have to remember that.

Anyhow, it was beautiful, and it made me happy today. So here I am, warm and thus connected to my body, healthy, safe, loved and happy.

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What I Learned about Grounding and Sexual Abuse Survivors

Photocredit: Raissa Bandou via Flickr

I thought I’d write a bit about some of the healing things I’ve learned in 22 years of clawing back the effects of being raped as a child from my life. One of the first and probably most important things I started working on was reclaiming a sense of being in my body.

<possible religious triggers>

I was raised loosely Christian, but when I was exploring my spirituality as an adult, I found that I needed something a lot more overtly empowering of women, with a very very low (or preferably nonexistent) patriarchal component. (Patriarchy means ‘father rule’, and I’d had quite enough of that.)

I came first to my own beliefs, that my higher power was nature, and then discovered existing religious structures that fit. I became Wiccan, in a social justice tradition called Reclaiming, who are kind of the Quakers of NeoPaganism. The nice thing about Wiccans is that people have a lot of choice on what to believe and how to practice, which suited my need to reclaim control of my life from my parents.

Pagans and Wiccans begin most of our meditations and ceremonies with something called grounding, which is a meditative act of connecting with our own body and then, energetically with the earth and sensations around us. This is apparently easy for some people, I’m thinking for folks whose bodies have not been traumatically violated.

It was only when I tried to do it, to ground, that I discovered that I had virtually no awareness of my body. If I held my arm behind my back, I could only tell where it was by looking for it with my eyes, or by reaching out for it with my other arm. I must have been phenomenally clumsy. When I started to pay attention to my body, at first I could only experience it with a great amount of attention. I started by touching my own skin, and comparing the sensation of feeling the outside of the skin with my ‘active’ hand with attending to the sensation of being touched by my own hand from inside.

At first the sensation on the ‘outside’ was a lot stronger than the sensation on the inside. I could feel what temperature my skin was by touching it with my hand, but if I took  my hand away and tried to attend to what temperature my skin was without touching it, I couldn’t tell. I’d guess, and then check by touching with my hand.

Gradually, with practice, I became aware of sensation from the hairs on  my skin, how they would raise themselves when I was cold and if I concentrated I could feel the air disturb these hairs, giving me some clues about how my body was moving.

Grounding myself to a degree that I could be adequately prepared for ceremony in my view took several months of practice, and a lot of concentration each time. Over time it has become fairly easy. I pay attention to the temperature of my extremities and other safe parts of my body on a regular basis, pay attention to subtle sensations like currents of air over my skin, my pulse, the buzz of blood moving around within me, whether my eyes or mouth are moist.

It is still easy to fall into my default setting, which is to turn most of these sensations off. However, I find staying connected to my body is worth it. I think better, I’m more aware of my surroundings and I can take better care of my needs in the moment, like knowing when I have to pee, relax my muscles or eat. People respond better to me when I am grounded, like they feel I am more there.

At other times it all seems to much, to be typing here and notice that the palms of my hands are a lot warmer than the backs, that the fingers themselves have a mild ache, that I’ll need to change position because my neck is getting stiff. It seems like it breaks my focus on what I’m trying to do or write.

But this was supposed to be about what I’ve learned. Here are my tips for getting into your body if you are as dissociated from it as I was:

When trying to ground, pay attention first to physical sensations in relatively safe areas of your body. If you have been out of your body for a while, don’t try to do it all at once, or you may be in for a weekend of flashbacks. Be gentle. Find a safe place (in my case,  my feet) where you can be minutely aware of sensations without it triggering anything. Put your awareness there, and feel everything you can, the temperature of the skin, and then if you can, inside the skin. Feel any differences in levels of comfort or discomfort in your safe body part. In my case, right now, between my big toe and my second toe, there feels like more movement space than between the other does. Move the body part slightly and observe how that changes the sensations. Take a few deep breaths from time to time to prevent yourself from completely leaving the rest of your body while you focus on this one part.

In time work up to being closely aware of two body parts at the same time, say your hands and your feet. Gradually work into being aware of the whole body at once.

You might find once you do this that there are certain parts of your body that you have no sensation from. These are possibly areas where some trauma is held. Be very gentle in getting in touch with these places. You might want to make your first few attempts with a supportive friend present or in session with your therapist, so you have someone to help remind you that you are safe in the present, and to help you release any feelings that come up.

It helped me to have something comforting to do for that body part. I was a low-income student at the time, but I could afford to buy socks from time to time. I bought colourful, soft socks for my feet, which helped me be aware of this part of my body with affection. Over time, as I have reclaimed most of my body, things like warm baths, lotions and massages have become body care, as have healthy food. 

Lately I’ve been eating a healthy dinner from a recipe my cousin, who is a very good cook, gave me. It consists of freshly cooked brown rice, still warm, with grated carrots and beets on top, slivered almonds, and chopped baby spinach. Then there is a dressing (I’ll find and add the recipe for it to the comments) that goes over top. The dressing is, frankly, what makes it taste good. He calls it “hippy  crack”. What I like about eating it is that my body seems to like it. After I eat it I notice my body feels ‘happy’ for lack of a better word, with all the nutrients. You might want to try this, eating something healthy, like a freshly squeezed juice, and see how your body feels in response. This was something I’ve only been able to notice in the last ten years or so, so don’t worry if you don’t feel anything at all.

Lastly, if you are very dissociated from your body, it is for good reason. Your mind and body will let you know the full back-story when it is safe to, in time, but you don’t need it to start to reclaim your connection to your body. Don’t judge yourself for being numb, spacey or ungrounded. Let other people’s judgement slide off you if you can. They have no clue. With people who know my history, sometimes I’ll say – “This behaviour is a caused by some very extreme experiences and I’m doing the best I can to overcome it. You haven’t been in my shoes. Cut me some slack.”

I’d love to hear what you think about this post, or if you have any strategies or experiences around connecting with your body to share in the comments.

Girl in a blue velvet dress – novel

Photocredit: Shutter Daddy on Flickr

This is another installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.

Sarah waited in a vinyl-covered, yet surprisingly comfortable chair at the edge of the central court. The mall quiet enough in this second week of December to worry even the most seasoned mall retailer. The windows were bright and filled with shiny sparkly things that made even environmentally obsessed Sarah want to buy shiny sparkly things she didn’t need just to feel that infectious Christmas shopping happiness.

A regular stream of parents trickled slowly into the exit line for Santa’s photo gallery, each told by the somehow still smiling staff to go to the poorly marked entrance line, surrounded by a greenish fabric covered rope. One of these groupings was a mother, father and what looked like grandparents surrounding in adoration a small girl in a stroller. The girl, who basked in a beam of adoration as bright as Christ in the manger, wore a beautiful royal blue velvet dress. Sarah was struck by how perfect she looked, how happy. The colour of her little dress, neither too plain nor too fussy, in a rich, deep colour of plush velvet that looked luxuriously soft. Her rosy, peaches and cream cheeks and bright delighted blue eyes smiled up into the love that was her due. Her daddy lifted her from the stroller and carried her around to the correct entrance.

Sarah found her eyes and then her cheeks, suddenly wet. All that love for a little girl. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. She thought back in her mind to all the pictures that had been taken of her as an infant, and could only recall ever seing one. In the picture, a smiling, chubby baby is surrounded by a papasan chair in black and white. The baby, herself probably before she experienced any severe damage, is wearing a plain white terry-cloth onesie. There is no-one holding her or gazing adoringly at her, except perhaps the person taking the photo.

In the mall, it didn’t seem to matter that she was crying, that the man in the chair next to her might notice, that someone walking by might notice. It just didn’t matter.  Sometimes you have to let people see, she told herself.

Her partner walked toward her with a brisk, businesslike walk. Places to go, shopping to do, his body posture said to the world. She looked at him and decided to let him see it too. She said “there was a little girl in a blue velvet dress. She looked so loved it made me cry”.

Her partner frowned. “cry?” he asked, but not like he really wanted to know.

She tried again “I don’t think anyone ever took me to take a picture with Santa Claus”. What she meant was, “no-one took pictures of me because they thought I was wonderful and that all the relatives needed a copy”.

Her partner began walking, his body language lacking any encouragement to continue. Sarah gave up and started a conversation about the groceries they needed to buy.  It seemed like nothing much had changed.

Some Christmas gifts are not worth the price

As a  pagan, I don’t celebrate the birth of a god/saint/martyr from another religion as such. However I grew up celebrating Christmas, and all of my family does. It is a time of year when we all pretend for a few days, and gift giving, albeit with strings attached is a big part of that.

This will be my third Christmas, I think, since I called my mother on her crap and she once again refused to rise to the occasion.

Last year my wife and I decided not to give gifts, but to donate to charity instead. This went over great with her family, but not at all well with mine. My family does not share my earth-loving materialism eschewing values. If you love someone you will spend more than you can afford on a gift you have carefully sleuthed out and think they will like.

I think part of it is that I don’t want their stinking gifts. And part of it is that I don’t want to put that kind of energy into a gift for people I’m mad at. Gifts were always bribes, to stay quiet, to comply. I can only give gifts to people I’m sure that is not the scene with, and even then, with difficulty. I don’t exactly know what my issue with giving gifts is, only that it makes me very uncomfortable and I dissociate around the concept. I can literally ‘forget’ to buy Christmas gifts, even with all the incessant sacharine hype for two months leading up to the day.

It’s funny, my mom has a bit of a gift thing too. She gives extravagant, luxury gifts, but can’t be counted on for what you actually need when you actually need it. The gifts are thoughtful, usually perfectly chosen, but off the mark. She would be quite happy buying me something gorgeous for Christmas, but she won’t return my letter and tell me what the layout of the basement in the first house we lived in was, or put in writing that she believes my father abused me.

Iwant the gift of courage from the people who love me. I want the gift of caring and loyalty and commitment. Keep your stinking ipods to yourselves.

My father once built me a doll castle. It was five feet tall, made of wood, with turrets, and six rooms. It had a bathtub with a working jacuzzi in it. The kitchen floor had miniaturized linoleum on it. The clothes closet had minature hangers in it. I can’t for the life of me imagine why he would have made me such a thing, or what it cost me. Maybe it was just an interesting challenge for him to create, or maybe it was grooming. I don’t know.

My mother once bought me a beautiful pink silk dress I couldn’t wear becasue I had no shoes, nylons or underwear that worked with it. And she didn’t buy me those things. Eventually I sorted out getting them for myself. It would have been less dramatic as a gift, but I would have rather had socks and underwear and a few t-shirts at the time, even though the dress was wonderful, I couldn’t wear it anywear I went. It was like I was some sort of doll to dress up.

My older brother freaks out when I buy him, or especially his kids, gifts. They’re never good enough and he rather impolitely tells me so. I’m not sure what his deal is, and he’s never told me.

I really rather wish we’d been raised Jewish. I hear that Chanukka gifts are small and few, and it’s not as big a deal. I wish I could play the witch card and just say I don’t participate in Christmas since it’s not my holiday, but no-one would buy that, and I don’t think it would even be the truth.

I always manage to get some sort of gift for my wife. She is always gracious about it, and even though she’s hard to shop for, she knows that and forgives me if I don’t get her something perfect. I like making her happy. It’s not really a gift if there’s all this baggage to it, anyhow, it’s an obligation.

I think too, I’m so fricking furious with my mom and older brother that I don’t want to be fake and give them gifts. If I could get by with bath beads or gourmet coffee or something I could do it, but they want the real deal, a gift chosen just for them with a lot of effort in it. I just don’t want to give them that. They don’t deserve it. I guess that’s the reason then. I don’t buy gifts for people who I am mad at. I don’t put out emotionally for people who aren’t loyal to me. It’s a boundary.