Unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Unknown. At times, these three words have described situations in all of our lives, but especially in these most recent times, many of us have asked the question, "How do we continue to live well with so much uncertainty in our world (climate change, economic upheaval, societal structures collapsing, war, mass shootings, social injustices etc), as well, as the instability of our own lives (Covid, loss of jobs and relationships, changes to health, family difficulties, etc)?".
Ultimately, we cannot change our circumstances, but we can participate in “peace making” by becoming aware of how we are being affected, taking responsibility for our reactions, and finding ways to regulate. Talking about these concerns is always one way to open the valve on the unique stresses we are each carrying. Counselling conversations allow a safe space for this to happen. However, I find in my own life and my clients' lives that it is essential to move beyond simply talking. Using concrete experiential practices that connect and ground us to our whole selves is also important.
I recently attended a 4-week group asking and addressing these concerns. It was created and led by my friend Roxy Humphrey (roxyhumphreycounselling.com). I was there to give support and feedback, as she finished her degree in counselling. In this supervision role, I was still able to take in the psycho-educational pieces and the experiential practices and apply them to my own life. Here is a small picture of what I experienced and trust that these practices may be helpful to others in the midst of these complicated times. A shout-out to Roxy for allowing me to pass these on.
Over the four weeks, Roxy had us contemplate how navigating uncertainty requires us to pay attention to the following four areas:
Finding comfort and safety within ourselves
Hope as a meaningful present
Openness towards grief
Finding comfort and safety within ourselves
As I thought about finding comfort and safety for myself, I'm aware that the distressing emotions that arise with uncertainty are experienced within my body. This means that my body needs to move out of a sense of danger and into a more relaxed state. As Roxy stated,
“This is called a ventral vagal state. When the body is in this state, it cues the nervous system to be open and available to engage with oneself and others. One needs to be able to be in an appropriate physical state in order to foster such connections.”
I opened to one particularly distressing situation in my life and practiced the following exercise. As a result, I experienced a physical, mental and emotional sense of calm and was able to sit with the situation from a more centered place :
Practice #1- Movement Activity: body breathing
Read through the instructions for this exercise a few times before you try it so that you don’t have to be referring back to the handout while you are practicing it. This will help you attune to your own body sensations in the process and notice how it impacts your body.
Sit up straight in your chair. Have both feet placed flat on the ground and hands on your legs in front of you.
Make sure your back is straight as well and your head straight as well - make sure your chin is not too far forward or too far back and is in a neutral position (not pointed down nor up).
Slowly tilt your head to the left side. Do not twist your head or move any part of your body aside from the tilt of the head towards the neck. Keep your shoulders straight.
You should feel a stretch down the middle of the neck towards the ear.
Close your eyes and aim them towards the armpit of the side you are tilting your head towards.
Hold this pose for 60 seconds or until an urge to yawn or sigh comes on.
Once you have held it for a minute or until a yawn/sigh has emerged, change the side that you tilt your head towards.
Repeat this exercise so that you do both sides at least 3 times.
Once you have finished this, try to turn your head (while keeping your body straight) and see if you sense a greater range of movement in your head.
Once you have done this exercise, take some time to notice how your body feels. Was this a helpful exercise? If so, how might it help you going forward? What are other movements that foster a sense of ease within you?
Openness towards grief
As I moved towards thinking about death and loss, I was struck again how hard it is for all of us to do grief work. These uncertain times have led to so many losses and yet it is hard to go boldly into grief. Certainly the older I get, the more I realize how essential my grief work is and I have come to love “weeping and wailing” as part of how I process and find healing. Roxy wrote, “Contemplating impermanence (loss) is not intended to make you feel depressed or anxious, but to help you feel more alive and in touch with life, “to appreciate its preciousness even more.” It does take a certain intentionality to move towards anything that is hard and the next exercise allowed me to enter into a deeper sense of all the ways nature teaches us how to move through the rhythms of life and death. The following practice of building a nature sculpture was deeply meaningful as I touched, created and contemplated, through symbol, my own losses.
Practice #2- Movement activity: creating a death sculpture
The natural world is a great place to help guide us in confronting our impermanence. Things are always dying or decaying outside. Take some time and go outside and walk around your neighbourhood or go to the beach or forest. As you wander, look for things in which death has been involved, these could be objects like fallen leaves or flower petals, or soil. As you wander, and as long as you won’t be disrupting the environment too much, take a few items that you find that symbolize what you are noticing in the natural world in terms of death. Find a place in which you can create a death sculpture using those objects. As you make this sculpture, what comes to mind? How do you feel as you engage in this work? What emotions come up for you? What does the sculpture tell you about death? How might this help you going forward?
As I moved towards the idea of being adaptable, I found myself realizing how often we get stuck even as things are changing. Roxy wrote, “Adaptability allows you to hold outcomes openly and work with what is. Fostering an ability to be adaptable and hold this openness towards the future will help you navigate whatever happens.” The exercise allowed me to see “metaphors of wisdom” through the experience of changing images as I “changed” the water ratio, the angle of the paper, the amount of paint I used etc. As I engaged in this activity, I realized so much about my own adaptability: I often create resistance at first, changes do have an end, joining others who are adapting creates an easier path, I might not move and adapt without a bit of strain and I can often be stretched in uncertain times and not run out of “color.
Practice #3- Experiential Art Activity: drop painting.
For this activity you will need blank paper (thicker is better) and liquid watercolour paint (if you don’t have this you can just create it by adding water to your watercolour). Drop colours that draw your attention onto the page. Once you have dropped them all over the page, pick up the piece of paper and move it around. As you move it, notice what happens to the paint - how does it respond to the movement of the page? How does the paint move? Are there some that move more freely? Why do you think this is so? If you have salt or sugar around you, you can also drop some onto the page and notice what happens to the paint. What can you learn about adaptability from this activity? How can this help you going forward?
Learning to regulate our emotions, body and thoughts in these difficult times will take intentionality, specific practices, and structured rituals if we don’t want these stresses to debilitate our lives. There are many practices like these, but may these three simple ones give you encouragement to start.
Liz Prette, MA, RCC loves to laugh and experience the richness of life. You can find out more about her here: meet Liz