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Tuning Inward: Creating Meaning in the Midst of Challenge

Melia Snyder, PhD, LPC, REAT | Education Director & Clinical Therapist

Uncertain and unsettling times bring us face-to-face with our deepest anxieties, our most basic needs, and our often-neglected longing. When “business as usual’ is disrupted, we are confronted with a rare opportunity to see ourselves and our lives with new eyes. We remember that impermanence and interdependence are the nature of reality and that our essential self is dependent not on what we do but rather on who we are. We remember that our strength, grit, compassion, and resilience are greater than the fears that can make us small.

Over the past many months we have gone through significant waves of change in how we live, connect, work, and play. For a time, our busy, productive, and externally-focused lives came to a halt as we sheltered in place and restricted all non-essential activities. Our reality continues to shape-shift at the intersection of public health and politics. Masks and social distancing, schooling online, caring for kids around the clock, working from home, or not working at all mark the new and ever-changing landscape of many lives.

Therapist Melia Snyder in session at Open Sky

In the space of what we have left behind, we have the opportunity for increased connection and intimacy with ourselves, our families, and the natural world. The word intimacy comes from the Latin intimare: “to make known, announce, impress,” and from the Latin intimus: “inmost, innermost, deepest.” Often when we are faced with anxiety, trying times, or unprecedented stress, we can resort to ultimately unhelpful patterns of avoiding, numbing, and distracting by working more, staying busy, using substances, shopping, etc. If we set those patterns aside and instead approach this most unusual time as one for tuning in rather than tuning out, we may discover unexpected gifts. In the words of Rumi, the 13th century poet:

Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the earth.

Rather than constantly filling the space that has opened up in our lives with news and noise that fuel fear, we can turn off the TV, pull ourselves away from articles, social media, and podcasts, and close the informational apps on our phone. Rather than fill the small space left behind by our online obligations, we can allow ourselves to feel what we feel, to be impressed by things just as they are, and to discover or return to the beauty we love. Here, the arts become our ally.

For as long as humans have walked this earth, song and sound, ritual and ceremony, images and dreams, visual and oral storytelling, and movement and dance have woven the fabric of both the mundane and the sacred moments of life. In most indigenous cultures, there is no word for “art”. Rather, these are simply ways of being human; ways of being in relationship with others and the world.

Creative expression is a part of the human experience

In my role as a clinical therapist at Open Sky, I support my students in reclaiming this view of who they are at their core. The term therapy has been around for thousands of years, and originally among the Greeks, it meant to “care for” or “attend to”…not to heal or to fix. So, therapy takes care of – or attends to – the psyche, the Greek word for soul. If we reimagine psychotherapy as caring for the soul, we must each look inward and assess how we’re doing in this regard. Are we neglecting ourselves and putting everyone else first? Is our own well empty and in need of replenishing? Does our soul feel tired and afraid at events in the world? As creative beings, we can care for our soul in many ways. We are each the artist of our own lives, and our artistic exploration and expression do not require technical skill. Rather, the making and the quality of attention are therapeutic in themselves. When we cook a meal with attention and love, for example, we feed not only the body but also the soul. Likewise, when we are present in our bodies in yoga and meditation, we bring non-judgmental, present-centered attention to the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that arise in our awareness. At Open Sky, in fact, we refer to the practice of meditation as a “practice of unconditional love” for ourselves.

A student paints as a form of creative expression at Open Sky

As we care for our soul, we find that we cultivate our own wisdom and resilience. The field of health promotion suggests that those who are resilient or have the capacity to thrive in the face of adversity are those who create meaning in the midst of challenge, who draw on internal and external resources to manage and cope through upheaval, and who make sense of their experience. As a therapist, I listen for the language my students and families share to learn where the crisis lies, because therein also lies the medicine. Language like “it’s just too much” or “I’m so overwhelmed” suggests a crisis of manageability and a need for resourcing. Language such as “what does it matter” or “why bother” suggests a crisis of meaning. Language expressing a sense of “I just don’t understand, I used to be so happy!” suggests a crisis of comprehensibility or understanding.

The arts help us to harness our resources, to create meaning, and to make sense of our experience. To follow is an example of a nature-based expressive arts practice that can be nourishing for our raw nervous systems and orienting in this disorienting time.

Allow 45 minutes to one hour for the following practice:

  • Intention: Orient and tune into the body and environment. Access internal and external resources by allowing the nervous system to relax and feel safe.
  • Coping skill: Body tapping. Starting from your head and working your way down to your feet, gently tap each part of your body with your fingertips while naming the body part two times (e.g., “this is my head, this is my head”). Bring your full presence and awareness with your touch.
  • Arts practice: Poetry. Go for a gentle walk in nature, bringing only yourself and a journal and pen (leave the dog and other people behind!). Pay attention. With a sense of openness, begin to notice what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste. Jot down a few words, including rich sensory detail (e.g., “the whoosh of flapping blackbird wings” vs. “a bird flying”). Keep walking, jotting, noticing. Do this for at least 20 minutes. When your walk is done, find a comfortable place to sit. Tune into your own body (try a body scan!). What do you notice? Jot down a few words or phrases to describe how you feel in this practice of interoception. Now, underline the words and phrases that stick out to you from your practice of noticing both your inner and outer landscape. Arrange these words in an interesting way, bringing in transitions and additional words as desired. This is a poem! Poetry is not scary! If you want more containment, try the haiku structure—a three-line poem with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.
  • Journal prompts:
    • Practice the coping skill and re-read your poem(s). How do you feel differently than before?
    • What resource from within or from your environment seemed most orienting for you?
    • What shifted in your internal landscape as you dropped in more to the outer landscape?
    • What line stands out to you most from your poem? Create a refrain, mantra, or phrase that you can take with you into daily life as a reminder to orient to your world when you feel yourself starting to freeze in the future.

As you move back into your daily life, recognize that a brief time to “decenter” from the chaos, anxiety, and responsibility of these times can be incredibly nourishing. Our full, present-centered attention is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves and one another, and indeed, this is the best definition of love I know. Begin to develop your own personalized practice of attention to resource yourself, considering how nature and the arts can be allies to support you along the way.

For Open Sky parents, know that as you are doing this, your children are engaging in parallel experiences here in the mountains and high desert. Consider sharing your practice and poem in your next letter or on your next parent call. Even in the most trying of times, we can buoy one another by connecting through experiences that grow our resiliency. May this practice and those that you will create on your own provide refuge for you in this potent time.

I’ll close with a poem from my practice as described above:

The two ravens danced as one
Up and down, tow to crown,
Black wings blessing the long Sleeping Ute
Wings whooshing again and again
Against a sky, finally clear

Two ravens danced as one
Cleaning the haze, the hazardous air
Wafting it with their bouquet of feathers
As we do in the desert
Sending sage from head to toe
Blessing one another in ceremony

For a moment, grief and fear
Stood down
Stood by
Can I see how this time too
can be a blessing?

October 23rd, 2020

Melia Snyder, PhD, LPC, REAT | Education Director & Clinical Therapist