I’m going to be talking about overwhelm. Let’s just look at the word for a minute, which I did. I have an Oxford English Dictionary in my office at work. I’m a university professor, among other incarnations.
It is 1330 C.E. in the the dark ages in England and is the first time that the word has been recorded in writing. And it’s interesting because the context of overwhelm was in battle. It was in a fight.
And I think that this is one of the underlying assumptions about the situation of feeling overwhelmed. We often conceive of this as a battle.
And there is a sense of losing. Losing our center, losing our mind. Overwhelm can manifest in a number of different ways. For me, just recently, I’ve been dealing with tension headaches and odd sleep patterns.
For me, these are two of the most immediate signs. And it’s upsetting because they seem to be out of control. They seem to be beyond my purvey, beyond something that I can handle.
They’re just coming at me.
Here is where we can hopefully reorient ourselves and understand that self centering is the means for us to deal with overwhelm.
But before we can do that, we have to recognize that we’re being overwhelmed in the first place.
And that can be difficult.
Overwhelm: The Signs
Perhaps we think we’re just kind of feeling under the weather.
Or perhaps we have noticed that we’re making mistakes more often. We’re writing down appointments wrong. We’re shifting numbers. I do that. Instead of 13, I’ll write thirty one.
This can be a problem!
Procrastination. Putting things off. Being more emotional than usual. Perhaps we may have trouble saying no.
Avoidance. These behaviours you might not think connect with overwhelm, but they can be avenues onto being aware that you may be experiencing overwhelm.
There is process here and the process we’re going to be exploring is about getting to know yourself and getting to know yourself well enough that you can sense when you’ve moved into overwhelm territory. Now, in terms of the six element practice, overwhelm can be found most poignantly in the first three elements, Earth, Water and Fire. These are what constitute your physical plant.
Let us start with Earth: your body, your home.
When you’re overwhelmed, you lose your balance, you lose a certain psychic heart/mind balance and you’re turned upside down. When you are overwhelmed, you’re turned over. Everything’s topsy turvy. You can’t really get your bearings. There is a sense of being scattered. And so as a result, you may want to stay in bed all day and actually, that would be the most logical response.
You want to come home. To be safe. To know that all is well.
Earth Element: Coming Home
You want to come back to a space of solidity. You want to get your bearings. So this is a process. And what I want to put out here is that it’s perfectly all right to take time to center yourself, to find your bearings.
You can do this in a number of different ways from the point of view of six element practice. Now we’re dealing with Earth. The earth chakra is the earth element on your inside. Earth element on the outside takes the form of rocks, dirt – as stability, security and a sense of belonging. Earth energy is the energetic firmament in which we stand, walk, live, sleep, eat where we ‘find’ ourselves.
Finding ourselves is a certain kind of energy, it’s a psychic energy, it’s a natural energy, and an energy that can also be found outside ourselves. If you travel the continuum of earth energy to get inside, that becomes the earth chakra. So whether you’re approaching earth element from the outside with rocks, with walking in nature, with grounding yourself through nutmeg, cardamom and any of those earthy spices, (think about vetiver!)- think of rooting yourself – like you find in the rooting energy of trees.
Trees are rooted in the earth. This is how they grow. And there’s a wisdom there. Some of us may start to approach this wisdom from the outside (sensual practice) in our daily lives and steadily move inside along that continuum. Others of us may start on the inside with awareness practice and then begin to move out into our daily lives. If we start on the outside, I would call that sensual practice – the outside world of the senses. Awareness practices starts inside yourself.
I’m born in America in northern New Jersey and grew up in a basically Protestant WASP work ethic home. The notion of ‘self-centered’ was something I was taught to avoid. This was selfish. This was disconnected. This was not of service to others.
But what I’ve realized over the years is that this is a deep duplicity that does not serve us well in the long run.
So I’m going to change that word from ‘self-centered’ to ‘self-centering’. I want to take back that word. ‘Queer’ that word (as my colleagues might say). Imagine you’re in the midst of a hurricane. In Japan we have typhoons. I live in Japan about two hours north of Tokyo, and there’s a typhoon coming up.
And as you step outside, the winds are just picking up. There’s tremendous energy outside. With six element practice we are aware of energy. What we do with that energy – now that is something else. And that’s where we step into overwhelm. We can also experience underwhelm which is the opposite. These are two extremes. To find a balance we self-center.
But in order to do that we have to acknowledge there is wind – acknowledge that there is a lot of energy.
Wind is out there. You’ve got your your bosses, you’ve got your underlings, you’ve got your pressures. You’ve got your pay checks. You’ve got your partner, you’ve got your family, you’ve got loved ones. We now are in deep distress on account of covid. And believe me, Earth is in more distress. Think about that. Earth is even more distressed than we are.
So let’s get a grip on that. We have Got. To. Understand. Nature’s Narrative.
Nature is speaking. And we need to listen. One of the most important things we can do now is to listen to our human nature and to listen to the nature of the planet, the nature of the cosmos. This is who we are. Nature is the galaxies, solar systems, patterns of ferns unfolding. These spiral patterns are energy patterns. We can find them anywhere.
When you wash the dishes, look at the water that goes down your sink. Notice this.
And this is an opportunity for centering, To be aware not just of yourself, but of the forces around you. How do we do that without being overwhelmed? This is the practice, so if you imagine this hurricane, this swirling of energies, which is natural, that’s where we are. That is who we are.
So imagine the energy swirling around. And there is a center. There is an eye. And whether that ‘eye’ is an eye that sees or it’s an ‘I’ who sees; either one, there’s play in that. There’s a bi-valency here. Stay with that, OK? Because you are at the center and you can see that. That’s what this human incarnation is teaching us. At every moment – here and now – we can find center. We’re in a material body, we are embodied. Use this body to find your I (eye) in the storm.
This center you can find inside of a hurricane or a tornado when you’re feeling overwhelmed. The practice and the process is to find center. Come to center where there is peace and where there is calm. Come home.
Now there are a number of ways to do that. I’m going to talk about three ways.
Your Are A Body: Be With It
One is exercise. And I don’t mean losing weight. I’m not talking about vanity. I’m not talking about our appearance in front of others. I’m not talking about competition and I’m not talking about keeping up with anybody.
Your own expectations of yourself? Not even that. I’m talking about health and I’m talking about well-being. This is all about you and self centering in the positive sense of the word.
So this takes a bit of time. You have to be with yourself. Exercise in some form is accessible for many of us. And I don’t mean the gym necessarily. I mean taking a walk. Stretching on the floor. If you have a carpet that’s enough – you don’t need a yoga mat. Just lie down on the floor, flat on your back, arms wide. You don’t have to have a name for that position.
Just lie there and come in touch with what’s going on in your body. You can sit if you want to on that carpet. On that cushion, on a chair, on a sofa, cross your legs up on the sofa and take five minutes just to be in your body. Move if you want to. Slowly and carefully. Nothing too challenging.
You may be driving a car at this moment. You may be puttering around your house, you may be at work. If not now, can find the space in your day to take a minute to stop?
And when I say that, perhaps rather than ‘stop’ I should say redirect. Redirect your energetic attention away from the flow that circles around you. Direct your energy – that attention – towards yourself. We’re just going to take a moment. Breathe and be with – yourself. Three deep breaths. One on the in. Two on the out – what I call a ‘breath cycle’. Three, you breathe in, four, you breathe out. Five, you breathe in, six, you breathe out.
Now, how does that feel? I can hear my heartbeat. Yes: these moments, these precious moments. And may I just point out, you are not checking out. You are checking in. Without you, there is no project, without you, nothing can be done. We’re being called upon in this time to find our light. This is how we do it, we turn inward. And once you come to peace with yourself and try to make this a practice, it’s just like brushing your teeth.
You Are Awareness: Be With It
Take a moment. You don’t have to call it mindfulness. You don’t have to call it meditation. Call it your seat.
Finding – and taking – your seat. We always do that when we go into class, when we go into a forum. We find a parking place. Your parking seat. You find your place. This is Earth: finding your place, finding your tribe. If you around people who are pulling you off your seat first, check in with yourself.
Because maybe you can put some tools into place to help you to maintain your seat and to maintain your center.
This might be about diet. Or about nutrition. And I’m not talking about going out and buying the latest greatest tool or product, accoutrement. I’m not talking about that. And watch that. If you feel suddenly drawn to purchase something, be aware of that. I’m not saying if it’s good or bad, I’m not being judgmental, but I’m just saying be aware.
Do you sense it? You’re being pulled into a direction. Now it’s possible that being pulled in a certain direction can be enlivening, but just be aware that this sense of enlivening does not lead to burnout.
And by that, I mean burning a hole in your pocket. Be aware of your own behaviours. This incarnation for us as humans, if nothing else, is to learn what it means to be in a material form. Material forms require upkeep. Just like machines, just like pets, loved ones, diapers, making meals, feeding ourselves.
This is upkeep. And and there’s a lot of “drudgery” in all of that.
Here’s something I’d like you to take away from this. When you find yourself in your daily life, in your day to day practice, (living is both a practice and a process), as you find yourself in this process of living and you enter into a task – it could be vacuuming. It could be doing the dishes, it could be cleaning, it could be sweeping.
It could be anything, but something you consider drudgery: driving, folding the laundry. Next time you find yourself in this task shift your attention from the task itself into your awareness of the task that you are performing. It’s routine right? So you have room to breath.
Just be aware. No judgment here. This is key, no judgment. We don’t want any blame because very often overwhelm results from self-blaming. I’m not good enough. I’ve got to be better. I am insufficient. I’m not enough. I have a meditation about that on this blog called ‘Enough Is Enough’. You could take a look at that.
These are old narratives that go deep, deep, deep into our nature. And they are carried forward through ancestral lines, through patterning – all sorts of ways. But now we are doing this task and being aware of how we’re encountering the task. The task itself moves to the edges of your consciousness and you are at the center. You are keeping yourself company through the task. Just observe, observe yourself from the inside.
Are there feelings of irritation coming up? What are these feelings like? Are there narratives that come up? What are those narratives saying?
Some of these narratives may be joyful, some of them may be difficult to hear. Some of the feelings may be painful. Some of the feelings may be quite pleasant. But just get in touch with that, just get in touch and explore what you are feeling/hearing because this is the hum of your daily life.
I discovered many, many years ago I was living in a hum of dread.
Dread! And I wasn’t even aware of it, and this coloured my life, as you might imagine. From the outside I looked great, but from the inside – when I was alone and I was performing my tasks, going through my daily life, being with myself – I was in dread. I dreaded what was coming.
So this is a process of coming to awareness. I’ll use the word conscious because dealing with overwhelm means becoming conscious of what overwhelm is and how it manifests in our own bodies and in our body/minds. If we become conscious of that, then we can consciously engage in tools. Sensual practice (outside ourselves) and awareness practice (inside ourselves) can address that. Our bodies are our petri dish, and let me tell you, 2020 has brought this to the fore.
We are being challenged. Personally I have found it positive. It’s not easy, challenge is not easy, but it also encourages us to dig a little deeper, to find a little more. It also means we need to take care of ourselves. In order to be here for others we have to be here for ourselves. And that brings me to the third.
You Are Human: Be With It
We’ve talked about exercise. We’ve talked about awareness. So you’re going through your daily tasks, the third tool is human connection: conversation, sharing food with another person, being with another person. This is very important because one of the symptoms of overwhelm is isolation. Overwhelm is not only isolating, you also may want to stay in bed, you also may want to avoid other people because you can’t say no (and this leads to more pressure, more energy and more overwhelm). Because of this other people become a kind of a trap.
You feel like you’re living a line. You’re walking a really fine line. And when your limbic system is activated under this stress, your logic and your sensibility, your common sense, your ability to reason, go on hold because you’re stressed and you’re under duress and it’s fight or flight.
When you shift like this into your limbic system you get emotional. You’re shifting back to a more primitive state. And with that, your sleep patterns go off. Your eating habits go off. You may be eating more. You may be eating junk.
You may be eating less. And you may be acting like a jerk around others because there’s no buffer, you have no wiggle room. You’re so tight. You’re walking that line, that thin line. And it’s tight. Finding balance means reaching out to make connections. These connections are stabilizing and provide us with more ground so that we feel ‘rooted’.
Now whether you actually physically do that or not – I’m not asking you to open the phone and call someone. I’m not asking for that. But I am asking you to be aware of the sensual nature of interacting with other human beings. That means listening. You yourself are a human being. So what we mean here is that you actually start listening to yourself. Now that might entail actually taking some quiet time, taking some quiet time with a cup of tea.
Or a cup of coffee on your own or with another – this can go either way. Integration with other human beings can go either way. You can actually have another human being or beings in that process, or you can commune with yourself. YOU are a human being. Listening to yourself, talking to yourself and be aware of the conversation. Be conscious. Be aware of the conversation even when you’re speaking to yourself. What direction is it going?
What does the conversation feel like? What does it sound like? Can you start to notice? Is there a nagging sense in there?
Is there a pressure that lies behind the conversation? Is there a sort of driving force? Daemon, they say, as in a monkey on your back. What’s the overall atmosphere of the conversation? If you’re talking with others, remember that you speaking no more than half. The other half is listening. Active listening. I can’t stress this enough. Get in touch with the methodology of your listening.
Are you listening (to others or to yourself) with your whole body? Are you listening with your mind only? Are you listening with your ears? Your tummy? Are you listening with your eyes? Taking in information is the way that conversations revolve.
It’s a revolving process. Light and dark, self and other hearing/speaking. It’s a give and take.
So be aware of that integration. When you have a project or when you have an assignment or when you have something you have to accomplish that has to do with work, notice and be aware that this activity is not being done in a vacuum.
You are not alone. This project is part of a web of activity. Your work is a hive, you are being in your work.
There’s a hum there. There’s an energy there. Become conscious of that, get to know that. Integrate that. You can receive that energy into your body and you can then offer that energy to others.
No judgment. We are all simply doing the best that we can.
Bring that God-image down into you, make that a part of your being.
Come into conversation with being with your God-image, with yourself, with others, and give plenty of time for listening. We want to take the OW! out of overwhelm and bring it back to an awareness of energy. You are suffering, OK? So the idea here is to take out resistance. Shinzen Young, who is one of my teachers, (I have never met him) trained on Mount Koya where I trained. And he has a lovely formula.
Pain + Resistance = Suffering.
Pain is a fact of life, and when we feel pain – when you’re feeling under the weather, when you’re feeling stressed, when you’re feeling you want to stay in bed, when you’re making mistakes, when you’re feeling confused. Understand that there is pain in that. And don’t ignore it, ignoring pain is a form of resistance.
When you ignore your own pain, that makes even more suffering. So what you’re trying to do here and what we can all do, is to remove – or at least bring down – the level of resistance. Let it be, let it happen.
Don’t resist – be with.
I understand we have to juggle with times of day and demands that are made on us and we’ve got to work with the flow. We all have to work with the flow.
But back to Earth energy. You’re climbing, you’re working the terrain, you’re walking, you’re on the earth, you’re placing each foot – one at a time – in the most stable place you can find. It’s a natural momentum. If you’re climbing a mountain, you’re looking for the most stable place to put your hand, put your foot. You are climbing mountains.
So be aware of stability and what brings stability into your life.
The Muggy Mug
What else can you do to bring stability into your life?
For me in the kitchen, I found there’s a form of tea here in Japan made from barely. I make a paste with honey and turmeric and add some clove and some nutmeg and some cinnamon. So whenever I make a cup of tea, I can take a teaspoon of this bright yellow paste and just drop it into the tea. I mix the tumeric and spices with the right amount of honey – to taste.
And I put in milk. So it’s black tea with a teaspoon of this turmeric paste with grounding spices – the sensuality of ground – and I pour in some milk. It’s good in coffee too. You could use cream or coconut milk, almond milk, whatever suits you. Take this with you in a nice muggy mug and sit. Just consciously take the time. Don’t resist. Don’t turn on the TV, don’t look at the phone. Just sit and notice if something’s happening on the inside.
I do this and whoa. I’m telling myself I’ve got to do something. Voices are hammering at me. Can you just sit for the next five minutes? And simply not do anything. Be with the pain, the irritation, The feelings and voices that you are not enough – that you have to do this or that.
For five minutes you are not going to do anything. You can journal. I don’t journal during that time, and I’ve found that anything that’s important, that happens during that time, I will remember. So don’t worry about that.
You will remember. And when you’re done with that time, you can start writing and that can be very insightful, actually, and especially with some practice, because you start opening some spaces, you start opening spaces in the noise, in the overwhelm and the hurricane energies start to subside, which is a miracle. You are self-centering.
It’s a miracle.
But it’s been practiced for thousands of years. So this is well known – a well-known miracle. So I ask you to find five minutes, I’ve given you some tools, and I hope that this can be useful for you to work with overwhelm.