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An encounter with a black snake

A few weeks ago I was walking through our paddock in the late afternoon winter sun, when I came across a big black snake enjoying unusual activity. He (no, I don't know what sex but am using that pronoun) was a good two metres and with a girth to match, stretched out on the grass with his head a little lifted, checking me out. I was able to watch and follow him (from a safe distance) as he sluggishly slithered off until he was lost in long grass.

I told the story in class and one student described her terror at hearing (yes, just hearing..) the episode. She (we'll call her Susan) instantly became rigid and transfixed with fear and yet was slowly able to calm herself and listen to my fascination at the meeting with the beautiful reptile.

I was interested in the process that was unfolding in front of me. Susan was having an 'out of body' / 'out of mind' experience in which her normal calm temperament disappeared, replaced by an emergency response.

What was happening? Part of Susan was responding to a perceived life-threatening event. As she continued to listen she was able to use her self-control to calm herself and realise that the snake was not here now! But her whole demeanour had changed; her physiology had taken on the chemical soup of emergency ..... the sympathetic nervous system was in full action ..... flight, fight or freeze. Adrenaline was causing her heart to beat rapidly and it took the work of realising that the response she was experiencing was an ancient, evolutionary response that was essential (and still may be) when we lived in caves.

The episode illustrated a way I have been observing the feeling parts or aspects of myself. I enjoy working in my home and sometimes feel like a queen proposing and disposing magnanimously in my kingdom. However, one day recently I was stressed and in a hurry, I was being impatient and an image of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland appeared ..... 'Off with their heads!' Uh oh! In that moment I could smile and soften my reaction.

I was introduced to this approach via Richard Schwartz's (1995) method of Internal Family Systems Therapy which suggests while our culture teaches us to view and act as a unitary personality, it may be useful to consider the different parts of ourselves as inner identities. These aspects appear to have a function and are an expression of the feelings we experience in different situations. This seems to have similarities to other approaches which suggest getting in touch with our 'society of mind'. Observing and naming emotions has long been a practice in Bhuddist teaching.

Different parts become active to protect us from perceived attack or from deep emotions which seem too difficult or painful to acknowledge and deal with in the moment. Therefore in general there are protectors and protected parts. It is impossible to repress unwelcome thoughts for ever - eventually they come to the surface as acting out, acerbic comments or general unhappiness. Kristin Neff (2011) reports psychologists have done research on our ability to repress thoughts and emotions and found there is no such ability!

Taking some time to reflect on the drivers of our acts and behaviours may assist understanding and help to find some space 'between the spark and the flame', avoiding what emotions researcher Paul Ekman calls 'regrettable incidents'! Or at least make it possible for us to act differently in the future. This may be done either on our own or with a trusted friend or psychology professional.

Brene Brown (2012) has spent over 12 years researching our need for connection, belonging and cultivating spirit. In the process she unmasked how vulnerability and shame armour blunts our ability to connect and live vibrant lives.

These aspects of ourselves are in us all. They are both useful and get in our way. Each has a use and a shadow. This returns to the foreground the work of Scott Kelso and The Complementary Nature as briefly introduced in the August 2012 news and in the following words of Niels Bohr.

"If you hold opposites together in your mind you will suspend your normal thinking and allow intelligence beyond rational thought to create a new form."
Quoted in The Complementary Nature or page 185, Niels Bohr The Art of Genius (1998)

Our current theme is Moving and Learning; movement lessons bringing to the foreground the connection between our bodily parts and our feeling parts, exploring the bridge of breathing and our sense of aliveness.

Movement matters and there is a link between the felt quality of a movement and the quality of affective tone. In the thinking, feeling, sensing, moving of particular lessons there are opportunities to clarify intent and cultivate a more fitting and comfortable response. By finding the courage to look at our vulnerabilities we become more available for intentional living.

Schwartz R, (1995) Inner Family Systems Therapy; The Guildford Press www.selfleadership.org
Brown B, (2012) Daring Greatly; Penguin www.brenebrown.com
Neff K, (2011) Self-compassion; Hodder www.self-compassion.org

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