Part of the magic of therapy is that a good therapist creates a container for your experience. This container becomes a safe space. It is both a physical space and an emotional space. It is imperative that the client experience the therapist as an ally who will not hurt her. The client must be able to relax her defenses so that whatever has been kept at bay can now emerge. In this way, the therapist provides a “holding environment.” This is what good friends do as well. When we share our ups and downs with our friends, they are helping to “hold” the experience.
Part of becoming more autonomous is learning how to hold our own experience, not so we won’t need anyone else, but so we don’t have to stop our process when we’re alone. This involves both learning how to stay with the experience and to provide the safe container needed. Here are some things that helped me.
The first has to do with the container. We must learn that we can trust ourselves, that we won’t attack or reject our feelings but will meet them with compassion.
Working with a skilled therapist for a period of time can provide valuable modeling that we later copy. I essentially internalized the woman who worked with me over a period of years and could easily imagine (and therefore replicate) her responses to my emerging experience.
You can also imitate the responses of a compassionate friend. Another strategy might be to imagine how a spiritual ally or your Higher Self might respond to your feelings. What is important is to be able to meet your experience in a way that is accepting so that it will continue to reveal itself.
Another element of the container is the physical surroundings. Although ideally we could allow ourselves to have our feelings in even hostile environments, I find it much easier if I can adapt my environment to make it more nurturing. When I want to stay with difficult feelings at home, I lock the doors, turn off the phone, reduce surrounding noise in any way I can, and change the lighting. These are physical reminders that I have marked off this time and space for me.
The other thing that has become an integral part of my process is working with my journal. It serves as an anchor and helps me see when I skirt away from scary and painful states.
The mind has many ways of distracting us. One is simply to turn our attention in another direction, be it a task or a daydream. A judgment can also serve as a distraction because it turns us away from the experience itself and enmeshes us in an evaluation of it instead. If I am judging my dependency, I am probably not really feeling it. We might also create substitute feelings or physical armoring to avoid sensitive emotions. One might, for example, tighten up or get angry in order to avoid feeling helpless. We have a lifetime’s worth of practice in ways to step away from our immediate experience.
My journal helps me by holding the thread. I record my emerging experience and when I find myself wandering away, I look back at what I had been feeling right before the wandering.
The journal also holds my experience by giving me a place to express it. There are times I leave the journal to cry or rage or immerse myself in an internal state, but I come back and write about it.
People sometimes talk about establishing a relationship with your journal in a similar way as we build a relationship with another person, but really it is a vehicle in the relationship with yourself. It holds, mirrors, and amplifies your experience in a way that allows you to become more intimate with it.
I’ve talked about journaling because it has been so central for me, but maybe your way is a little different. That’s fine. Find what helps you stay with your experience. Maybe it is just quietly sitting with an internal focus, not turning away from whatever shows up.
The point of staying with experience is so that it can continue to unfold and work itself out. Otherwise we tend to get jammed up inside, which makes us really cranky. Being able to “hold our process” thus helps with self-regulation as well as supports growth and transformation.
Adapted from The Tao of Contemplation, first published in 2000 and to be released as an e-book next week.