Recuperating from a treatment on my low back and pelvis had me laying horizontal for days. It reminded me of my experience floating in the Dead Sea over a year ago. The buoyancy from the salt water was steadfast. As hard as I pushed back, the water still held me. It never left. That was the most that my body had ever felt supported. And my nervous system responded. My joints opened, my muscles settled around my bones, and my thinking mind rested.
You might be tempted to call it my “happy place” but don’t.
In the ‘90s, finding your “happy place” became popular. The idea is that by visualizing a place or time that you felt joy you can shift a negative mood toward a more happy or calm state of mind.
America is the epicenter of happiness as a cultural obsession. Which is no surprise given the country was founded on the “pursuit of happiness.” But that right to pursue happiness has morphed into demanding we have it in every nook and cranny of our lives. Sorry, capitalist America: happiness isn’t a thing. Happiness is a plain, old feeling. It’s conditional and it’s fleeting. Especially by the ways we go about it.
“It’s the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” — Viktor E. Frankl
Recent research and advice suggest we’ve got it all wrong when it comes to happiness. Iris Mauss at UC Berkeley has found that people who aspire to happiness often become some of the most unhappy people. Ruth Whippman writes about how our pursuit of happiness is making us nervous-wrecks. And Mark Mussman tells us to flat out stop trying to be happy — which he clarifies as pleasure-seeking.
The more contemporary view shifts focus to something far more beneficial: resilience.
The reality of life is that we won’t always feel good and things won’t always be easy – let alone go our way. Resilience is the capacity to hold the twists and turns of our lives in a larger container of awareness and choice. It is an elasticity with our emotions and the ability to engage ourselves through situations that feel beyond our control.
We all know that what we experience on the inside can truly from what is going on around us. A conversation, an email, or a headline. A smile or a hug. We’re constantly taking in and reacting to life, whether we’re aware of it or not. Many of us view our inner experience like a rushing newsfeed – a never-ending scroll full of surprises. Resilience is our sense of agency to counter feeling that we’re at the mercy of life.
Sometimes, it is our new found agency — new choices or directions — that can throw us off center. With a visit from an old dance injury, an upcoming job transition into a new, entrepreneurial career, and my ongoing somatic openings and discoveries, I’ve been feeling an expansive vulnerability. A lost-ness. I’ve been floating but worried there might be nothing to catch me.
That’s how it goes with deep shifts: to have a new shape to our lives we must move into a new shape ourselves.
It’s common for people engaged in somatic work to feel disoriented as the process of unwinding the patterns of muscles, emotions, and thinking moves change forward. The power of working through the body is that out-of-our-awareness momentum. But the paradox is that the in-between time, suspended between two shores, can’t be sped up.
At some point, we may realize that we’ve become foreigners to an old version of our Self. Maybe we didn’t even know we had the option of upgrading to a new version of ourselves. Feeling stuck might feel more familiar than the creation of new possibilities.
Spending time in the not-recognizing and the not-knowing is integral. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s necessary.
Resilience is not easy by design. The saying, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a pretty traumatic way to think about growth. In her co-authored book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg uses the term pre-traumatic growth to encourage another view: that there’s nothing wrong with fostering our resilience prior to our world falling apart.
An exercise for embodying resilience is to rest your attention on or visualize a setting — preferably in nature — and simply pay attention to what happens. There is nothing to do but sense what happens in your body. Let thoughts come and go as you prioritize attending to sensations. Perhaps images or come into your mind. Let them pass. Notice your mood, areas of the body that draw your attention, or the quality of your vision.
Where this gets interesting is to then let yourself pull into your thoughts — maybe around a stressful situation in your life. Notice what shifts in your body then. What happens to your breath? What sensations are you now feeling? Or no longer feeling? What do you notice in your vision? Your mood?
After only a short dose of time spent there, go back to the scene in front of you or in your imagination. It is important to note that the goal is not to establish or reinforce avoidance tactics. Quite the opposite.
This is the training part.
We need access to a more secure place of perspective and action than the middle of an emotional-tornado. In most situations, our heightened stress-states are actually us at a disadvantaged, compromised place. What we want to reinforce is our capacity to move out of our stress or mental rumination, into a reserve of open and available grounded-ness — our Center.
Whether we realize it or not, many of us are more practiced in adding logs to our inner fire than knowing how to settle ourselves. We’re accustomed to pushing through. Often without listening to signs to slow down or stop. We think more to “figure it out.” We react. Or we may do any number of numbing or self-harming activities.
This exercise trains pausing into our soma so that we have it as an option in our daily life. But even before that, it allows us to feel the difference between the two states. It allows us to see for ourselves what is most familiar — where we tend to live. Telling someone they’d be better off making a decision or acting from Center is superficial without it being tied to their own awareness.
The truth of a better place to resource from has to move beyond advice into embodiment.
The Dead Sea is one of my resources to recharge and practice resilience. I’ll float between the shores of Israel and Jordan, sometimes surrounded by other bobbing bodies during the day, and sometimes alone at sunrise. I sense into the pressure coming up to meet what might literally be weighing me down. I might notice pulls of tension, especially in my jaw. I open my vision to include the sky above me and the faraway shore. I practice noticing plenty of space to hold what I’m feeling. My body may tremor slightly, releasing its stress. I’m free to toggle back-and-forth between the support and any stress, instilling a greater sense of presence in my nervous system.
It’s said that the Dead Sea can’t support life. Yet, I found it benevolent to bodies burdened by gravity and self-reliance. It gave me a new option for how life could feel. It connects me to an engine of universal support that allows me to let go, to settle. And through practice, to keep moving.
Originally published at Somatic Capital on Medium