By Stephanie Livaccari, September, 2010
“This is where tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about groundlessness.”
– From When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
While I was away for a month this past summer, my father had many health complications at home. Upon seeing him for the first time, I was shocked by the frail, weak, old and tired man who stood before me. The tears welled up in my eyes almost immediately. In the past, my response would have been to suck it in, to grip my breath and tell myself “No, no, he’s not going to die.” Losing my father would surely mean becoming groundless and that would be too scary to accept. But this time, thinking of Chodron, I let the breath go, actually breathed INTO the fear and the pain and accepted the “throbbing.” It felt great. “Yes, eventually, my father IS going to die.” Every interaction with him since has been infinitely more meaningful because I stopped retreating from this edge.
We often retreat in our asana practice as well. When we come to our edge in a posture, we tend to play it safe. We pull back, we grip and hold the breath. This, too, is a vulnerable and tender place. If we go just past our edge, will we lose our balance, fall, embarrass or hurt ourselves? Or will we find out something about ourselves we’re not yet ready to know?
Perhaps we retreat because feeling things too deeply makes us nervous. I am reminded of one of my students, Alex, a six year old boy who some might describe as highly sensitive. Alex always had a keen sense of the energy in the room and could be easily upset. After an upsetting episode in class one day, Alex’s mother came to me for advice. She wanted to know how she could make Alex stronger and less sensitive, how she could, in a sense, “thicken his skin”.
Alex’s mother’s intent was, of course, a good one. She wanted to protect her son so he wouldn’t hurt so much. I began to wonder, however, why a “thick skin” is considered a good thing in our society. We are told to toughen up, to be strong, to shield or harden our hearts lest we feel sadness, pain, and fear too deeply. This is the only way we’ll be able to navigate this cruel world. If we do this, however, will the feelings of joy, compassion, wonder and excitement be lessened as well?
Several years ago in a prenatal yoga class, Sarah Halweil had some excellent advice. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable” she said. This is indeed great advice to a group of women preparing for childbirth, but it is no less pertinent in our everyday lives.
So let’s experiment with being groundless and uncomfortable. Let’s be vulnerable, feel deeply and learn to love our thin skins.