Some of the best advice I have ever received came parcelled up in some gorgeous religious imagery: If you know someone isn’t prepared to take off their sandals on the sacred ground of your truth, then keep shtum.
This image has served me well, functioning as a sort of boundary, a way of knowing who to trust with what I hold dear. I know the friends I can share an embryonic thought or feeling or bit of writing with. The friends who take off their sandals are the ones who are good at listening and practiced at understanding and aren’t frightened or weirded out by their own psyches, who are generous towards themselves and give allot of space to feel whatever it is they feel and enjoy the weird reality that comes out of other peoples psyches.
I adore toddlers because they are often so uninhibited about sharing the weird truth that emerges for them. They’re so good at telling their truth, in all of its idiosyncratic glory. This morning R told me passionately, with some shouting, that he WANTS BREAD AND JAM RIGHT NOW. Tears loomed. If an adult expressed such strong feelings about their breakfast preferences, we might wonder about their sanity. And I take off my sandals and walk on the sacred ground of his truth: I acknowledged his strong feelings for bread and jam like I usually do. This interaction happens daily or maybe hourly with him. And it is astonishing the effect that simply validating a feeling and giving it space to exist has. I am daily astounded by how calming it is to be understood, whether or not you actually get the BREAD AND JAM RIGHT NOW. I know this truth from eight years of therapy: that being understood is the ultimate balm. Its far more soothing than mere gratification could ever be.
And we are phenomenally bad at this culturally. At validating the truth of the other, at giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel no matter how weird it is. And the useful stuff is always weird. It’s always surprising and disconcerting. JAM. NOW.
Culturally, we teach toddlers that their truth is too much to bear, we find ways to duck out of hearing the brunt of their feelings: maybe we lecture them on better breakfast choices than jam or ignore the passion and urgency behind the request for jam, pretend we haven’t heard it or tell them, ‘you don’t want jam my dear, do you? Let’s have eggs.’ Or we attempt to distract them with a toy. Or we give in against our better judgment, we hand them the jam so we don’t have to face the wrath or frustration, so we ‘relieve’ them of their strong feelings. This is a list of ways to avoid being-with-a-feeling. These distractions act as a tranquilliser dart fired at the exact moment the feeling is leaping off the ground, mid-air. It anaesthetises immediately, and the result is numbness, a deadening of emotional life.
Maybe it is frightening, letting someone so passionate cycle through the whole feeling. Letting them own the pulsating urgency of their desire for BREAD AND JAM RIGHT NOW.
The astonishing thing is how fleeting a feeling is if it has space to exist, if someone takes off their sandals to witnesses it. But this is easy to forget. We are so frightened of feelings culturally, partly because maybe many of us as children weren’t allowed to cycle through the whole wave of whatever BIG emotion we felt. We maybe didn’t have much practice having our frustration or disappointment or desire named and welcomed and honoured, we aren’t used to having the whole arc completed. Maybe many of our parents put us in time outs or naughty steps or told us off rather than taking off their sandals and walking barefoot on the sacred ground of our truth. And this is our loss. When a feeling is respected instead of repressed or rationalised or dismissed, it has a sort of shape to it. I think of the architecture of a feeling sometimes, it feels structural. Or it comes and goes like a wave. Or it reaches a pinnacle and descends. Or it spreads out and thrashes around for a while. Or my favourite metaphor: it rears up and bucks and then quiets.
I had forgotten this recently. I imagined my feelings might run away with me if I let them in. I was frightened about how they might overwhelm me. I have been guilty of not honouring the sacred ground of my truth. I recently experienced another wave of grief in a therapy session as I prepare to end with him this year and I remembered: oh yes, there is a shape to this feeling. I have capacity to think about this, I will digest it. It will not be some interminable agony like my childhood. My job is to welcome them, all the feelings, take off my sandals and mark the sacred ground. I need practice at this. I balk at this depth of feeling precisely because I haven’t had enough experience to know the night will end and the tide will go out again and I’ll stop crying if I start. And that I’ll have some more feelings later and I’ll welcome those ones too.
And so I’m gesturing with an open hand of welcome- perhaps my hand trembles a bit as I beckon- but I’m trying to make space for the feelings I dread. One of the ways I take off my sandals is by turning up to my therapy session even when I’d rather not enter this painful territory. Or staying with the thought I’m mildly ashamed or alarmed by. Another way is sitting still in the morning during my yoga practice and letting whatever will come, come.
And then, I advance, trembling, one step at a time, one bare foot in front of the other onto sacred ground. I want to tread here, this is my holy dirt and I want to honour this place.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018