When embarking upon a journey to the unknown, it is wise to equip oneself with the tools to face the unexpected. To dig deep and locate the source of one’s inner strength, so that when a challenge arises, we may respond from our core: open, flexible, relaxed, and present.
There is a tendency in life, however, to lose touch with this place. We inadvertently take on other people’s stories, and behave as if we were a supporting character in their drama, instead of the lead in our own. In so doing, we lose our center of gravity.
It behooves us then to identify those stories and their origins, to understand the parts of us that are running on someone else’s script. When we can shine a light upon that, we create the possibility of moving past it and reclaiming ourselves.
on the forcing of willpower and the art of relaxation
Somewhere in my childhood, I internalized the story that life is struggle, and that we must force our will and ignore our needs in order to survive.
This message was influenced by my parents, the immigrant culture of our heritage, the religion I was raised in, and the power games that played out based on gender, roles, and legacy. It became a thread woven into the fabric of my reality.
Consequently, my adult approach to life took on similar flavors: repressing my needs and desires, feeling driven by outside forces, pushing myself to exhaustion, and embodying an almost complete inability to relax. In addition, “work is struggle” had become a variant of the “life is struggle” theme, and so the notion of a fun and creative career was also out.
When I finally arrived at the moment of truth where I could no longer live like this, I began to retrace my steps, turning a critical eye toward my own conditioned attitudes and behaviors.
I thought of the many times throughout my upbringing that I was nudged in a direction that was not mine. Typically done with the best of intentions, influenced by the projecting of unfulfilled dreams. In elementary school I loved art, but was pushed to play violin. In high school I wanted to pursue photography and architecture, but was directed toward orchestra instead. In college I was drawn to psychology and philosophy, but was urged to choose something that would make me more successful, like business or pre-med.
At some point I must have given up on trying to follow my heart, and began choosing a harder path. I decided my desires were unimportant, and that someone other than me knew what was best to do with my life. Rather than simply accepting that hard work was sometimes necessary, I’d begun to take it as a virtue. Unless it was hard and unpleasant, it was suspect. If it came easily or I liked it, it was probably wrong.
My first job out of college was as a regional manager of a large grocery chain, and though I was making nearly 6 figures, the work was physically exhausting, spiritually soul-sucking, and I was running myself ragged. My energy was managed with coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, instead of self-care.
An irreconcilable tension settled deep into my body, as externally I displayed strength and a fierce independence, but internally needed validation in order to feel a sense of confidence and self-worth. As a friend pointed out to me, “You exhibit a lot of authority-seeking behavior.”
I developed a knack for creating situations where I bit off more than I could chew, enabling the cycle of self-flagellation and disempowerment to continue: a voice inside me laughing at how ill-equipped I was to make good decisions in life, reminding me that this is why I required outside authority, and telling me to just push harder and stop complaining. My response was anxiety, resignation, and exhaustion.
It became an addiction, emotionally isolating myself and getting lost in work and checking boxes. I’d push myself constantly, hoping to grant myself the feeling of deserving a pat on the back, but no amount of checked boxes ever gave me a lasting sense of self-worth. i’d get a fleeting hit of dopamine, then feel like I should have been able to accomplish more. It didn’t matter how herculean my efforts for the day, the bar of worthiness was always just past the reach of my fingertips.
Which brought me to the present.
I surveyed this historical narrative, and asked myself:
When did these stories originate in my life?
What were the drivers behind them?
What underlying value assumptions were attached to them?
stories from the old country
I thought of the stories my immigrant grandmother told me, of sleeping in the barn with the horses as a little girl on the family farm in Yugoslavia, of being forced to spin wool until her fingers bled, of urinating on her feet in the cold of winter to warm her toes. She explained to me how life was hard, a constant struggle to be endured. How you don’t get to do what you want to do – you do what needs to be done. There was no time for the luxury of relaxation when survival was at stake.
She reminded me how she had to learn to be strong after her husband had passed away, leaving her alone with a three year old son, my father. How she came to this country to give him a chance at a better life, not knowing the language, working several jobs at a time, sleeping in broom closets in between shifts. In her later years, she liked to show me how her knobby arthritic hands could barely make a fist anymore, a result of thirty years of working on a car manufacturing assembly line in Cleveland.
She would look at me with steely eyes and say “Ja sam vrjedna,” – “I have worth.”
In my teenage years, when I’d complain to my father about some unpleasantry I didn’t feel like doing at work, he’d reinforce the above message with “Well Venessa, sometimes you gotta eat shit in life.”
The message I received was to expect that life would be struggle, and the appropriate response was to struggle back. Strenuous work and self-denial were not just means to an end, but a moral imperative.
a catholic household & the virtues of martyrdom
I thought about the stories that were conveyed about the virtues of self-sacrifice and dutiful service. I watched the women in particular deny their needs and give of themselves tirelessly, asking for little in return, and often being abused as reward for their service. Their husbands and children would walk all over them as they toiled. Not maliciously, mind you. In more of a blissful ignorance that this was just what their role was to do, so no need to really overthink it. The wives would justify their exhaustion with platitudes like “Well, God never gives us more than we can handle!” and “Sometimes you just have to settle in life.” or “God has a Divine Plan.” Every once in a while I’d hear my mom say “I’m so tired I’m nauseous,” as she’d prepare a cold compress for her forehead and go lay quietly on the couch for a few moments of peace.
What was presented as “trust in a higher power” I interpreted more like “have no self-respect.” An inability to say no. An actual shame in saying no. Duty and obligation came first. Taking care of yourself was selfish.
When I thought about it, really all the members of the family were victims to this pattern in some way. There was a fundamental disconnect between themselves and the capacity for inner listening and self-nurturing. Relaxation was seen as a luxury instead of a need, and as a result, vital energy leaked out at the seams, leaving everyone drained at a number of levels.
The message here was clear. Keep your inner guidance quiet. Whether it was the expectations of your husband, your culture, or your God, someone other than you was the prime influencer of how you directed your energy. Do this long enough, and you really do lose the ability to know and meet your needs, leading to a loss of trust in yourself. And so the need for external authority becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the enslavement ensues.
contemplations and insights
As I stepped back and tried to interpret all of this from the broadest perspective, I could actually appreciate how these patterns had for a long time been both useful and necessary.
No culture or society or family sets out to extinguish itself. It does what is necessary to survive and even thrive, passing along the strategies, rules and behaviors that have proven themselves to be effective thus far.
In the case of a society that is dependent upon obedience to external authority to hold together, it only makes sense to create circumstances that undermine people’s capacity to make their own choices.
A people who are deeply tuned in to themselves are dangerous.
If they are connected to their source, aware of what they need in order to be whole and fulfilled, and confident in their ability to voice those needs and get them met, a conflict with authority is certain to arise eventually. And, for much of history, disastrously.
In the case of my own life’s experience, it’s not to say there is something inherently wrong with having an immigrant work ethic, being in service to your family, or having a belief system you look to for guidance. Where things go astray is when we lose touch with our inner authority, and let those systems or frameworks replace our own human agency. Before we know it, our tools become our masters.
We are born with a vital energy, and granted the gift of willpower to put it to use.
We can allow ourselves to become self-tyrants, abusing or misusing this energy, pushing it against the grain. We can dishonor ourselves by ignoring our own body’s signals, shrinking our capacity to respond.
Or we can reimagine ourselves as stewards of this energy, and treat it and ourselves as precious gifts. We can see that by giving permission to care for and nurture ourselves, we build inner strength, trust, and core stability. By learning to listen to ourselves, we become aware of a larger spectrum of information available to us, expanding our range for decision-making. We become less driven by fear and anxiety, and slowly the tension in the body is replaced with a rootedness and relaxed presence.
Think of it as claiming a piece of your sovereignty.
From this place, challenges in life can be met from a deep-seated sense of self, a way of being that is more fluid and more effective.
In Taoism there is a concept called “wu wei,” which translates as “without action” or “effortless doing.” The idea is that there is a way to go about approaching life that does not feel like struggle. That we could let go of the need to force or control, and instead have a yielding nature, like water. Do not fight against life, but rather flow with it.
This concept was hugely useful to me as I began to imagine a different state of being.
I realized that there will always be a multiplicity of forces at play. The world, after all, is an irreducibly complex place.
A better way to navigate it would be to engage in a game of inner exploration and discovery. To find out what my particular energy was really all about. To understand it so well that I could begin to live my life artfully. To become masterful at the everpresent dance between myself and the world around me. To become open, flexible, relaxed, and present.
I would have to learn to listen to my body, to set boundaries, to get more familiar with my true nature. To make it an ongoing practice to align with the path of least resistance.
I realized that I am the master of my domain. It is up to me to choose to be in relationship with it and partnership with it, and to assume responsibility for my health on all levels. I realized that I do know what it feels like when it feels right, and that no one outside myself, no matter how benevolent or well-intentioned, can know it better than me.
We are born with the capacity to be sovereign beings.
Our world enslaves us.
If we want freedom, we have to claim it.
next ………….. Reimagining Archetypes, & Practices for Sovereignty
contemplations on 40th gene key, sphere of life’s work