Breaking through the clouds

I have read and reread a vivid metaphor for many years now that has played a substantial role in my journey through life. It is about an eagle, attempting to reach her home in the midst of a terrible storm. The sky is painted dark, clouds are black and thunder and lightening surround her as she fights to stay aflight. As she flies she becomes exhausted and even confused, fighting to keep her flight path, being dashed about and pummeled by rain and wind this way and that, attempting to “sweep away the clouds” with her wings. The author graphically describes how she “awakens the doves… with her wild cries and vain endeavors to find a way out…” The story concludes with the eagle finally dashing upward, with all her might, into blackness and valiantly breaking through the clouds, finding herself above the storm and then “all is light”. That final scene is etched in my mind, and I replay it over and over, often with chills up and down my spine. Such a powerful depiction of a battle well fought.

Out for a run earlier this morning I was growing tired, finding myself wanting to slow down, perhaps even walk for a bit. I have been stepping up my mileage and my pace over the past couple of months and some days that is more exhilarating and enticing than others. Today as I was pushing myself rather hard, that little eagle came to my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. All i could think about was this little eagle, flying through a raging storm, beaten down, wet, confused, exhausted, yet flying with all her might. I could visualize the entire scene in my mind, I could hear hear screeching and see her straining with everything she had. I could sense the darkness and the cold and the desire to be in a safer, calmer space. Then the moment arrives, when she gives it all she has and with one final gust, she emerges through the clouds. Hard not to be inspired. To want to push through. To keep fighting.

The effort. The struggle. The fight. Sheer exhaustion. I cannot help but resonate with that. It seems that life is never short of providing us ways to practice building stamina, endurance and will power to push through. I have experienced many moments in my life where I simply did not feel I had it in me to keep going. I see a similar battle in my clients that I sit with from week to week. I hear their stories, see their emotion, sense their drive and admire their courage. A battle is not won by hiding. A battle is won by showing up and using all you’ve got to give, and not stopping until it’s over.

Many people say that “it is in your blood” or “you either have it or you don’t” when they talk about courage, will power, drive and sheer determination. Perhaps there is some truth to that. But I tend to believe that if we were not simply gifted with such qualities, we can certainly seek them out, learn them, even obtain them. Perhaps grow to become them…

I believe that we as human beings are capable of change. We are capable of growth. We are certainly capable of being motivated, inspired. So my question becomes; how does one share the power and possibility of breaking through the clouds with one who is still in the storm? How does one practice their way through life in such a way that renders one ready and willing to stay the course when the storm begins to rage? How do we as connection driven beings, assist one another in the plight… of life?

The following link provides a powerful reminder of how each and every one of us are seeking to feel we are not alone, that we are somehow seen, heard, even cared for by another being. That someone not only sympathizes with us, but actually gets it, feels it, sits with us in it. Brene Brown did a fabulous voiceover for this little cartoon, in which she describes the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Dr. Dan Siegel, neuropsychiatrist and researcher uses the phrase “feeling felt” in his body of work around interpersonal neurobiology, a fancy way of describing how people connect and why. Feeling felt provides an almost sacred word picture for me, as i contemplate the actual internal feeling I get when the person I am with seems to get what i’m saying or what i’m going through or where i’m coming from. It is so powerful, perhaps even softening to ones soul…. to feel seen, heard, felt, for who you really truly are at the core of you.

It is a rarity however, and a feeling that many people have never experienced. Most often we walk around feeling very isolated and alone, even misunderstood or actively judged, for not being enough… smart enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, intelligent enough, fast enough, creative enough… you name it, we mostly feel inadequate and not only judged by others, but often times judging ourselves against how we feel others see us. It can be debilitating if we do not find a pathway through it, that allows us to create a buffer. Buffer against the storm, buffer against others judgments, buffer against our own feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt.

In therapy, we often use the phrase “grounding”. We are referring to a technique that is used to help those of us who become overly anxious, unstable in mood, “flighty”, or disconnected from self or others. The concept behind grounding is actually quite simple; soothe the anxiety, fears and instabilities that cause the person to feel out of control or distant from the present moment. Quite literally it means to root or ground the person to the earth beneath their feet.

We utilize meditation, often guided meditation to bring the focus of the individual to the present moment. An example would be to focus on the chair one is sitting on, how it feels beneath you, supporting you, holding you up from falling. Another example would be to imagine yourself flying through the air like a kite, and to feel the gentle tug of the string as you are being guided back in for landing. The concept behind the technique is focus. Where one’s focus lies, has a great deal to do with one’s perspective on life, and the individual moments that make up the larger picture of the journey.

This concept of grounding seems to come into play as I think about the eagle desperately flying through the storm and eventually breaking through the clouds to the sunshine above. Perhaps if one can find a way to sense the solid ground beneath ones feet, when we feel the world around us crashing down or swirling up… Perhaps if we could shift focus, see the strength we possess and even the purpose beyond the present moment pain.  Maybe we could connect with a larger picture, even when everything seems to be falling apart. Perhaps if one could reach out and connect with another being when loneliness threatens to engulf… One could find strength to stay aflight amidst the storm.

Perhaps even break through the clouds.

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Little Fish, Big Pond

I had the honor and privilege of attending a Gottman conference in Seattle, Washington this past week. This was not my first Gottman training, nor will it be my last, as I have come to have a profound respect for his research and clinical expertise! For those of you who have not been introduced to John Gottman or his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, I will provide a brief description…

John Gottman has over 40 years of relationship research under his belt and is world renown for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. He was most recently listed as one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century, and has published 190 academic articles and has authored or co-authored 40 books. John Gottman PhD co-founded The Gottman Institute, with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman PhD in a desire to share their research and clinical expertise in marital therapy. Julie Schwartz Gottman was named Washington State Psychologist of the year and is widely recognized for her work with distressed couples, abuse and trauma survivors and substance abusers along with their partners… So as you can see, their collective resume is impressive and incredibly humbling for us neophytes in the field of psychotherapy!

Coming back to my experience last week; sitting two rows from the front, where John and Julie were providing case consultation on real life cases one after the next, modeling their interventions and techniques with precision and a confident humility, the title for this blog post came to me.

There I sat surrounded by clinicians far more experienced than I, finding myself feeling rather small and inadequate. I sent a quick text to my girlfriend sharing this, and she responded with something along the lines of “just keep swimming”, a favorite line of mine from the movie “Finding Nemo”. I quickly decided that this line would be my motto for the entirely of the workshop and jumped back in, fully engaged and ready to soak up everything I could.

Little fish, Big pond. Just keep Swimming.

I have a dear friend who is embarking on a journey to community college to complete her associates degree, and my hat goes off to her for her diligence and stamina as she has been through a lot…. Scaling obstacles and fighting battles have become her specialty! While talking with her the other day, I heard her lamenting some of the same feelings and doubts that I had felt while at my Gottman conference…. “What am I doing here?” “How did I even get here?” “What if I fail?” “Is this really the right thing for me to do?” I heard myself respond to her saying, “We all have to start somewhere, and you are right where you’re supposed to be, just trust that.” Followed by some other familiar line like…

Little Fish. Big Pond. Just keep Swimming.

We’ve all heard the phrase “sink or swim”, and perhaps some of us feel more versed in this life experience than others, but as I thought more about this concept of swimming as a small fish in a large pond, I realized that this is where the weak get separated out from the strong… Sometimes we have to give it all we have simply to keep our head above water and we fear that we won’t be able to do it for much longer, but here is where will power and sheer determination come into play. One day we realize that our neck and shoulders have come out of the water and there is a tad bit less effort involved… and perhaps a little later we find ourselves actually wading through the water, possibly even enjoying the feel of the sand beneath our feet. A confident humility in knowing the effort it took to get there and strength it took to keep going.

We all have moments where we feel insignificant, lost and or out of sorts… We all have seasons where we are humbled and reminded that there is a whole world of knowledge yet to learn, and life yet to live… It’s what we choose to do with these moments and these seasons, how we choose to react that sets us apart. Do we quit swimming and start sinking? Or do we fight for dear life and kick like hell!

We are all just fish learning how to swim.