One of the big benefits of practicing the Dance of Shiva is the “hot, buttered epiphanies” that it brings into your life. While I am having huge effects from the Dance on my mental clarity, I’ve only had one “realization,” but I thought I’d share with you the kinds of thoughts I’ve been having this week. Perhaps you, dear reader, can say how much you think they are influenced by my new practice.
While meditating, I had this concept come to me that to solve problems you need periods of intense focus on the issue, followed by rest (during which the resolution usually comes to you). (As a note, this line of thinking seems inspired by the recent New York Times article on “Depression’s Upside.”) I thought about this cycle of intensity then recovery as an important component of mental health (rest all the time = depression, activity all the time = mania) and physical health (need exercize to activate our bodies, sleep to integrate our experiences). People tend to get stuck into either groove. I’m usually too sedentary physically and overactive mentally.
Then I thought of how our hearts pump then rest, pump then rest, and I began to see that this is the entire cycle of homeostasis that runs our bodies, our ecosystems, and the universe. It’s like all of life is pulsing to this rhythm.
As I mulled on this, I reframed the intensity/action phase as challenge. One of the things I really struggle with in my life is the need to be challenged (which might explain why I jumped into Shiva Nata with little more than a how-dee-do), especially in my career, but I also LOVE to be a lazy, bump on a log. I can never figure out how to balance these two qualities when seeking out jobs. They always either look too daunting or too boring.
Interestingly, this issue of boring vs. impossible is exactly what I am dealing with in my Shiva Nata practice right now. I’ve found an approach that I think can balance the two – alternating days of long, easy practice with days of short, difficult practice – but how can I translate that to my worklife?
I’ve noticed this pattern with my son, he loves being challenged by new things, and I have an instinct to keep accelerating him so he can be constantly stimulated. But that’s not really healthy, it’s a part of the normal cycle of growth to be challenged by novelty and stimulation, then to take some relaxation time getting used to them, incorporating those lessons, until it’s just too slow and boring, then start up again looking for new challenges.
As I reflected on it, helped along by sitting in the gorgeous sun of a cafe patio on the first true day of spring, I realize that this is the basic message of pagan theology and the wheel of the year. That life is a cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth, and that all of us need a winter for repose, before embarking on the intensity of another growing season.
The next day, up popped this blogpost on my Google reader. A kindly doctor told one of the Rookie Moms that every baby needs to go from zero (resting) to 10 (bawling) every day. She extended the idea to children, and it made me think that maybe all of us – adults too – need to go from zero to 10, from rest to intensity, every day.
Now the interesting question is what a 10 looks like for an adult. It’s not really sensible to say that adults should have sobbing emotional breakdowns every day. So instead, I’m just thinking of a 10 in the context of pushing oneself – physically, mentally, or emotionally. Sometimes it is good to have regular outlets for emotional release, like a weekly therapy session, where you cry but it helps you feel better because you’re letting it out.
A few years ago (actually many years ago – the movie I reference will date this to 2002), I made a resolution that I would force myself to watch sad movies, even though I didn’t want to. I’m very sensitive, so lots of movies upset me, but I realized that if I didn’t stretch myself, I would become one of those middle-aged ladies who made “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” the movie of the year. If I narrow my experience to just the most moderate parts of life, then I become bored…and boring.
The thing is that emotional stability was hard-won after years and years of wild swings of feeling, but it did start to feel constrictive. Some emotional lability is a good thing, and it’s important to allow ourselves a little bit of swinging on a regular basis.
Still what’s a 10? Is it a normal, day-to-day kind of emotional outpouring, or is it a once-in-a-decade, traumatic meltdown? The difference between the babies described by the doctor and adults is that children don’t have the perspective, so the former feels like the latter to them. So you have to help them just move through it and learn that they can recover. After they’ve gone through that cycle of need-tension-release-recovery about 10,000 times, they start to trust that they can safely express their feelings without the world crashing in around them.
One reason to parent children is that they actually help you learn these lessons at the same time that they learn them. While you want to avoid being down in the infantile muck with them all the time, you just can’t help that it does happen. And you find a way out, and it helps you be a better person.
Some small percentage of babies are really challenging, they have colic or what not. But most babies are actually quite easy to soothe. They have pretty manageable needs (diaper, food, sleep, cuddling), and in a way, you learn how natural it is to move through the cycle of need-tension-release-recovery with them. Over time, you learn that, when they cry, it isn’t the end of the world.
Now, I am not going to lie to you, during the first few weeks, you don’t want your baby to cry even a tiny bit. Well, they’re so small, and crying take SO much out of them. But slowly over time, you get used to the sound of it, you get used to how to respond to it, you learn to live with it. Most fundamentally, you learn that sometimes this other person that you love more than anything is in distress and there is No. Thing. you can do, but be there with him and help him move through the experience. Because, right, the reality is that babies cry. All. The. Time.
Baby E is a daring toddler, he is all over the place, exploring and challenging himself, and a lot of that involves bumps and falls. He had a big, old blue bruise in the middle of his forehead for the entire month of February.
What can I do when he falls (or touches something hot or closes his finger in a cabinet drawer or or or any of the million other ways he has learned a lesson about the world he has incarnated into)? I can’t say “it’s okay.” That’s a lie. It’s not okay, he’s in pain, and it’s denying his experience.
On the other hand, I don’t want to rush in, make a big production, give a HUGE amount of attention to the situation – that makes the baby afraid that something really is WRONG.
What is most true is to say “That hurt!”, give a hug and a kiss, and then directing his attention to something more interesting than the now-receding pain. (So that’s kind of how I try to treat myself these days: own the emotion, name it, soothe it, then distract myself.)
All this got me thinking about the concept of catharsis. To me, this word meant a healthy release of strong emotions, but I thought to consult Wikipedia, and I was fascinated by the fact that it’s historically tied to the theatre, similar to the ideas about movies that I have.
Catharsis (Ancient Greek: Κάθαρσις) is a Greek word meaning “cleansing”, “purging”. It is derived from the infinitive verb of Ancient Greek: καθαίρειν transliterated as kathairein “to purify, purge,” and adjective Ancient Greek: καθαρός katharos “pure or clean.”
“Catharsis is the emotional cleansing of the audience and/or characters in the play. In relation to drama it is an extreme change in emotion resulting from strong feelings of sorrow, fear, pity, or laughter; this result has been described as a purification or a purging of such emotions (whether those of the characters in the play or of the audience). More recently such terms as restoration, renewal, and revitalization have been used in relation to the effect on members of the audience.”
“Using the term ‘catharsis’ to refer to the emotions was first done by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Poetics. It refers to the sensation, or literary effect, that would ideally overcome either the characters in a play, or an audience upon finishing watching a tragedy (a release of pent-up emotion or energy). In his previous works, he used the term in its medical sense (usually referring to the evacuation of the ‘katamenia’, the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material).
“Catharsis before the sixth-century rise of tragedy is, for the Western World, essentially a historical footnote to the Aristotelian conception. The practice of purification did not yet appear in Homer, as later Greek commentators noted: the Aithiopis, an epic in the Trojan War cycle, narrates the purification of Achilles after his murder of Thersites. Catharsis describes the result of means taken to cleanse away blood-guilt–‘blood is purified through blood’ (Burkert 1992:56) a process in the development of Hellenic culture in which the oracle of Delphi took a prominent role. The classic example, of Orestes, belongs to tragedy, but the procedure given by Aeschylus is ancient: the blood of a sacrificed piglet is allowed to wash over the blood-polluted man, and running water washes away the blood. The identical ritual is represented, Burkert informs us (1992:57) on a krater found at Canicattini, to cure the daughters of Proetus of their madness, caused by some ritual transgression. To the question of whether the ritual procures atonement or just healing, Burkert answers: ‘To raise the question is to see the irrelevance of this distinction.’
“The term catharsis has also been adopted by modern psychotherapy, particularly Freudian psychoanalysis, to describe the act of expressing, or more accurately, experiencing the deep emotions often associated with events in the individual’s past which had originally been repressed or ignored, and had never been adequately addressed or experienced.”
Ooh, there is a lot of exciting stuff in there! Menstrual blood! Sacrifice! Purification!
You get the idea that catharsis is a transformation – from tension to intensity to freedom. Like winter to spring, it takes you from frozen to fresh start. I imagine the intensity of emotion or exercize or difficult mental work to be a cauldron or crucible, in which things are heated to purify them. It is a way to release the dross while retaining the valuable lessons, a way to strengthen mind, body and heart.
So I guess I’m thinking that “going to 10” – emotionally, physically, and mentally – might mean something more akin to a catharsis, where you feel better and clearer afterward. And maybe it doesn’t have to happen every day, but I should build these rhythms of profound rest and intense purification into my daily, weekly, monthly and annual schedules.