Recently Justin and I covered slowing down on the Patreon feed of our podcast. You can listen to that here if you fancy signing up. In this post I want to give a more personal reflection on my current everyday experiments in slowness and spaciousness. This is a companion post to my recent one on slow relating. That post explored slow love and relationships with others. This one explores love and relationships with yourself.
The slow relating post brought the fastest side of myself together with the slowest to have a dialogue. This post sees a return of that slowest side – Ara – but together with my reformed inner critic – Beastie – who is perhaps best placed to interrogate these ideas and practices.
If you haven’t read one of my plural blog-posts before and aren’t sure who these people are, feel free to check out my Plural Selves zine, and my previous dialogue post about plurality. But hopefully you don’t need to get that part in order to find the content here useful. Click here if you want to read a more standard form post about the gap.
Ara: Hey Beastie.
Beastie: Hey Ara. Ready to talk about the gap?
Ara: I am. I’m interested to hear what you make of it. But perhaps we should introduce ourselves a little more first, so people have some sense of us.
Beastie: I think the kind of dynamic we have was best captured in that Netflix Tales of The City last year: the characters of Shawna – played by Ellen Page, and Anna Madrigal – played by Olympia Dukakis.
Ara: Mm the sage old queer and the young upstart.
Beastie: Not quite how I would have described it. I love the scene where Anna says something characteristically vague and wise-sounding and Shawna says: ‘You know the rule against talking in fortune cookies around me.’
Ara: And Anna immediately replies: ‘And you know the rule against being a smartass around me.’
Beastie: So. No Madrigaling me in this conversation, okay?
Ara: I wouldn’t dream of it Beastie.
Returning to the gap
Beastie: So something curious happened recently. We moved away from doing any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice, and then returned to something which probably looks quite similar but feels very different.
Ara: Right. Reading that David Trevealen book on mindfulness and trauma helped us to see that meditation may not have been our friend in the past. Irene Lyon says something similar: many people with post traumatic stress report that meditation feels like sitting in a small room with a man shouting at them.
Beastie: Sounds familiar. At worst it was like that for us. At best just falling into our noisy thoughts for fifteen minutes each morning without much consciousness about them. We would often feel some shame about it afterwards, although we tried to be kind towards ourselves. It was a relief just to allow ourselves to stop, and to start the day with journaling instead, which we enjoy a lot more.
Ara: Reading the trauma literature helped a lot with that: recognising why our brain was hypervigilantly searching past, present, and future for any sign of threat whenever we stopped. Also why staying in an activated state was making it harder – rather than easier – to stay present and to feel kind towards ourselves and others.
Beastie: But then our therapist said something about how it could be useful – with trauma – to find safety in the sense of the space around us. When she said it, we didn’t want to hear it. We’d just got away from the idea that we should be doing meditation. That place had never felt very safe for us. Why would we go back there? But the next day you tried it.
Ara: Right. Something in what she said chimed with me. And of course our main Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, describes something similar in her work. It was such an interesting experience Beastie. It was as if we’d approached this thing that we’ve been thinking and writing about for decades from just a slightly different angle, and our perspective on it had completely changed.
sitting not Sitting
Beastie: What d’you think was different?
Ara: I think we finally let go of the attempt to make it this special thing. Which is, of course, what wider culture has done with mindfulness and meditation also. I’m thinking of the shift as a move from Sitting (with a capital S) to sitting (all lowercase). I literally just sat in a chair in the window of our flat and hung out with everything that was going on: sounds, sights, smells, sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories: whatever happened I was there with it.
Beastie: There was a sense of welcoming too right?
Ara: Yep. Whatever came up I tried to embrace it with warmth as part of the whole experience, even imagining saying ‘you’re welcome’, but not treating it as any more important than anything else that was going on.
Beastie: Not grasping it, not trying to get rid of it: That’s the Buddhist idea.
Ara: Yes. The overall feeling, by the end, was of sitting in this current moment of our life, within a wide open space, and anything could come into that space: like there was room for everything. It wasn’t about aiming to reach any particular state, or have a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ experience, whatever that would mean.
Beastie: Just being present.
Ara: That might be how a fortune cookie would describe it, yes! It’s hard though isn’t it because even these kinds of words – ‘presence’, ‘being’, ‘spaciousness’ – hint at something special. And as soon as we imagine in that way it becomes harder to do. I like Pema’s word ‘gap’, or the idea of hitting the ‘pause button’, or sitting lowercase. They are much more everyday and straightforward words. It really is just hanging out for a while with whatever’s around – internally and externally.
Varieties of sitting
Beastie: So since then we’ve started doing this a lot more. Again it amuses me. Before we’d do it once a day and feel a bit bad about that. Now we can’t seem to get enough of it. It just makes sense to keep returning to the gap several times a day.
Ara: I guess it tied in to a wider process we’ve been in about self-consent: noticing how easily we override our consent in relation to others, and work, and ideas of what we should be doing. This sitting provided an opportunity to make a gap between one thing and the next, so we could return to a kind of neutral, and check in with ourselves what we actually felt drawn to doing next.
Beastie: There was a challenge to that as well. We noticed that when we had done one thing we often wanted to crack on with the next for fear that, if we stopped, we wouldn’t be able to continue. That’s our Max’s flight tendency. We also noticed that when we were feeling a little edgy, uncomfortable, or uneasy we wanted to go to some kind of work, or escape into TV or a novel, rather than hanging out in the gap. We feared that if we sat still the feeling would get worse: perhaps overwhelming.
Ara: I think that’s another reason why pausing is so helpful. It gives us this regular reminder that escalating of tough feelings doesn’t have to happen. In fact I think trying to avoid those edgy feelings with work or escapism much more frequently leaves us feeling worse than when we started. That’s not at all to say that there’s anything wrong with working or chilling out, but it seems that we enjoy those things much more if we’re not going into them trying to drown out tough feelings.
Beastie: It’s wild. Many times lately we’ve actually chosen the gap over work or distraction, knowing it tends to leave our nervous system in a better place than those things. We’ve even started making a regular small gap between the different elements of a work task, episodes of a TV show, or chapters of a book, so that if we continue we know we’re in self-consent.
Ara: Such a relief to finally feel the gap as a good place to rest.
Beastie: I guess we’re now trying to do what Pema calls ‘on the spot’ and regular sits. Regular ones – after we finish one activity and before we start the next – allow us that ongoing consent check-in with ourselves, and remind us that this space is always available to us. ‘On the spot’ is when we notice that we’re having a difficult feeling, thought, or sensation, and deliberately sit then-and-there in order to welcome that into this space. If we can’t sit then-and-there then we at least make a promise to that feeling, thought, or sensation that we’ll return to it as soon as we have the time.
Self-talk and sitting
Ara: That regular vs. on-the-spot distinction relates to another one. When we’re feeling relatively calm it’s possible to just sit quietly and notice the sound of the birds and traffic, the feeling of the breeze, a memory flickering up, a fleeting feeling. When tough feelings are present – particularly those we connect with trauma – that’s much more challenging. I guess our response to this is a bit like the distinction between doing a guided meditation on an app or something, and one where you just sit there quietly without guidance.
Beastie: So we sit quietly when there isn’t anything particularly challenging present. But if there is something, we try to sit in whichever part of us is struggling, and another part guides us through the sitting: often you or James being the more parental parts of our psyche, but really any of us can do it for any other.
Ara: Yes. James and Jonathan recently documented our process in this blog post. But where we’ve got to now is perhaps even more simple and straightforward than what they described. The guide part of us just imagines holding the other part of us while they say – out loud – what they are with. Perhaps reminding them to come back if they drift into noisy thoughts.
Beastie: Like ‘I’m with that seagull arcing through the sky… Now I’m with the thought that I fucked that thing up… Now I’m with the feeling of my throat being all constricted… Now I’m with the sunlight shining on that building… Now I’m with the sound of the seagulls… Now with the fact I just got lost in trying to plan what I’m going to say to that person…’
Ara: If Tony were here he would point out how lately it’s shagging seagulls we’ve mostly had the opportunity to be with.
Beastie: I endeavour to have a little more decorum than Tony.
Ara: Shall we say a bit more about what this means for us now?
Beastie: Yes please. I think that safety and befriending are the main themes. I’ve just noticed how they map onto what we’ve been exploring around protection and care. The counterbalance to the fear/shame feeling of trauma is a combination of protection/care. Protection alleviates fear by keeping us safe enough. Care alleviates shame by befriending ourselves and our experience.
As a non-binary person we’re a little embarrassed that our parental parts are quite so gendered but James does a good number in protection and keeping us safe, and you are good at kindness, care, and connection.
Ara: I like to think that we both do both, but I see what you mean.
The gap and safety
Beastie: So safety?
Ara: Yes. Well the thing about post traumatic stress is that it feels like a very unsafe place to be. Even things that used to leave us unphased can now feel like a big threat. And, after the multiple big stressors we’ve been through in the past year, we’re left feeling that we couldn’t handle anything else.
Beastie: Like a global pandemic or something would just be too much to cope with.
Ara: Heh, that was our feeling before that hit, yes.
Beastie: So we’ve been feeling very unsafe, largely because we’re so fragile and easily triggered. It’s hard to predict what we have capacity for, and what will tip us into overwhelm.
Ara: And those fear/shame feelings can easily feel intolerable: impossible to stay with. So this is where the gap comes in. If we can show ourselves that this space is a big enough container for any and all feelings, then we can finally feel safe to ourselves: at home in ourselves.
Beastie: How does that work?
Ara: Well now that we know more about the physiology of trauma I guess a big part of it is that, in the gap, we’re attending to the whole of our interior and exterior experience: not just the traumatic feelings or thoughts that may be around.
By tuning into everything about how our body feels – our feet on the ground, the air on our skin, our hand on our belly – we ground ourself in it, reminding ourselves that our body is safe enough to occupy.
By orienting to the environment – what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste – we’re reminding ourselves that we’re safe enough here-and-now.
Most trauma researchers and therapists suggest strategies for grounding in the body and the environment. They also emphasise reminding ourselves that we’re not in the traumatic experience any more: that it is over and we can put that ‘ended’ time stamp on it. We have survived.
Beastie: We’re not there yet. There’s still a lack of trust in the gap to hold more vivid trauma responses or emotional flashbacks.
Ara: Absolutely, and remember it’s not about making the feelings go away, or some idea that it’s only ‘worked’ if we feel nice and calm after a certain period of time. It’s more about holding. I love that phrase of Pema’s: ‘hold it in the cradle of loving kindness’. My sense is that – in time – we might be able to bring any feeling we have into the gap and be with it warmly in that wide open space. The potential then is for a profound sense of being safe-enough with ourselves, knowing that any state we’re in could be held in that way.
Beastie: Practising with the flickers of feelings – before they become a flame or fire – is certainly a good way of working up to it. But yes, you and Pema do seem to be optimistic that, given time, we can hold anything in that gap.
Ara: What we’ve found so far is that, with bigger feelings, particularly shame – which I know you intend to write more about Beastie – we have to keep returning to the gap. Some days it’s been about going back time and again, each time we feel that flicker accelerating into a flame. Pema talks of times she’s sat up all night with that kind of feeling.
Beastie: Again it’s not about eradicating or avoiding the feelings, thoughts, sensations, etc. but being with them along with everything else. There was one day we went for a walk in the woods and I was in a very angry place.
Ara: Getting in touch with our beautiful and long-absent fight response.
Beastie: Heh. It was interesting because it felt like I kept re-igniting – going back into angry ruminations – but at the same time the rest of you were able to be with the green leaves and the breeze. The plural thing certainly helps us to hold multiple states that way: generally one part struggling and one part able to hold them. But it can also feel that the gap is holding the aspects of experience that are more difficult, alongside aspects that are less so.
Ara: I like the bit where Pema says that if you go barefoot and your feet get cut to shreds, you could try to cover every piece of land you want to walk on in leather. Alternatively you could make yourself a pair of shoes. That’s how we’ve been thinking about what we’re doing right now isn’t it? Making ourselves a pair of shoes.
Beastie: Proper, solid hiking boots is the plan. That’s a good analogy for what we’re hoping for from the gap isn’t it. Right now we can easily become scared, because we’ve been so overwhelmed and incapacitated. But the more we sit with each experience as it comes – and learn that we can tolerate it – the more we have that sense of being safe-enough to ourselves.
Ara: That brings us onto befriending.
The gap and befriending
Beastie: So what do you mean by befriending?
Ara: Certain phrases really lodge in my mind lately. Pete Walker writes about ‘becoming an unflinching source of kindness and compassion towards yourself’. Pema talks about befriending: complete acceptance of yourself as you are, no sense that you need to change or improve. Chani Nicholas writes about building an unbreakable bond with yourself, accompanying yourself no matter what, wanting yourself like your life depends on it.
Beastie: Chani Nicholas being?
Ara: An astrologer.
Beastie: *Raises eyebrow*
Ara: Yes I know, I know. I have become that queer. At least I have you and James to keep me honest. What she suggests is really good though, whether or not you buy all the understanding behind it… Just like Pete and Pema now that I come to think of it. You may or may not buy that our suffering is primarily located in our childhood trauma, or in the combination of past karma and human attempts to avoid suffering which Buddhism suggests, but you can still find their advice extremely helpful.
Beastie: Fair point, well made Ara. I’ll give you that one.
Ara: Feeling gentle today huh Beastie?
Beastie: Well I have to remember I’m speaking to an old woman.
Ara: Remember Anna’s rule about being a smartass.
Beastie: *grin* If Tony gets away with publicly sassing you then I definitely do. So you’re saying that the gap can help us to befriend ourselves, as well as making us safe-enough.
Ara: I think they’re related. Right now we do not know that we are an okay person no matter what. We don’t want ourselves no matter what. We can’t accompany ourselves anywhere. When we have the shame feelings in particular, we do not feel that we’re okay, or deserving of being accompanied or loved – even by ourselves. And there is also a fear that we couldn’t accompany ourselves in future – if certain things happened like realising we’d messed up in ways which we find particularly challenging.
Beastie: Too right. I’m rarely the part of us who struggles with those feelings, but the couple of times it was my turn it was shockingly hard.
Ara: So giving ourselves the message that we’re up for hanging with ourselves in the gap whatever we’ve done, however we feel – that’s how we befriend ourselves. Again we can conceptualise it plurally – whichever part of us is struggling, the other parts will be there, tag-teaming in to accompany them through it however bad it gets.
Beastie: Like we always do that if one of us wakes troubled at night: get them a hot milk and talk to them kindly.
Ara: Plurality has been a good way into self-love for us because it is easier – with a background of self-hatred – to love our component parts than it is to love the whole. But I think this gap goes beyond our plural love, to let every aspect of us – and our experience – know that we can tolerate it – even welcome it.
Beastie: Just like embracing me – the inner critic – we can work towards a point where we can embrace anything we go through: any feelings, any thoughts – befriending everything.
Ara: And as with you, I suspect we’ll find that much of what we’ve attempted to avoid or eradicate becomes a fierce ally if we can embrace it.
Beastie: We’ve already found that with the fear aspect of trauma haven’t we? Gratitude for how it protects us against overriding our consent again.
Ara: All part of learning to accompany ourselves rather than abandoning ourselves.
Beastie: The big ongoing challenge is going to be accompanying ourselves through shame. But we have already begun to see that holding shame in the gap, and getting curious about it, are leading us to helpful places, just as we did with fear. For example, when we stayed with shame we got the sense that we may be holding a lot of shame that isn’t really ours – more transferred onto us by others who can’t bear to feel it – the way that wider society tends to blame the person with trauma rather than the people and forces that traumatise them.
Ara: I look forward to reading your thoughts on shame soon Beastie. I’m also now thinking about the gap as past, present, and future protection and care. The gap enables us to be with feelings we have avoided in the past in ways that enable us to tell a different story through our life.
The gap enables us to be in a good relationship to the here-and-now, instead of fearing what might come up. That’s an antidote to loneliness: knowing that we never have to feel abandoned in the present.
Finally, being able to stay with feelings like fear, shame, anger, and sadness, means that we can protect and care for ourselves in the next instant, and longer term future. When those feelings become tolerable in the gap we can listen to what they’re telling us – instead of what we might assume they’re going to tell us.
Beastie: So when there is fear we might ask ‘How might I have been in danger of overriding my consent – or allowing it to be overridden?’ instead of just trying to get the hell out of there. When there is shame we could ask ‘Where does this shame belong?’ rather than collapsing into self-loathing. When there is sadness ‘What do we – and others – need to grieve?’ instead of sinking into depression. When there is anger ‘How can I have my boundaries?’ instead of lashing out.
Ara: ‘Positive’ feelings too. When there is joy ‘How can I dance with this – or share it – while it is here,’ instead of trying to pin it on a particular person or situation and grasp hold of that.
Beastie: True, true. That’s one for Tony, our joybringer.
Ara: Anything else to say about the gap?
Ara: For now then Beastie.
Beastie: See you in the gap Ara.
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Plural tag: This post was written by Beastie and Ara.