Making Space for the Unfamiliar
Monday, October 18, 2010
by: Maureen McHugh, GCFP

Section: Art of Living

Margie has been coming to private sessions in my office for several weeks to get help with neck and shoulder pain. During this most recent session we had begun with some movements of rolling and reaching, and now she was lying on her back, resting. I noticed that her breath was easy, her neck and shoulders were relaxed, her hands were at ease and her low back was comfortable with her legs outstretched. All this was a big change.

Sitting next to her I said, “Margie, I’d like to tell you a story.” She nodded yes, and I continued. “Last night after dinner I was amusing myself like this.” I stood and extended my arms sideways to shoulder height and turned the palms up. “I was holding a ball in my left hand, it’s about five inches wide, and I was trying to roll it across my shoulders to arrive in the other hand.” Margie gave me an encouraging smile; she knows that I like juggling and related things. I continued: “At first I was having fun. It’s a new trick, so I kept dropping the ball. I was cheerfully picking it up and beginning again. But then something changed, and I started to get frustrated.”

“Fortunately, I was in a quiet space inwardly, so I was present to the beginning of frustration. A picture came into my head of a slide, like at a playground. I felt, ‘Oh no! Here I go, sliding downward into a negative state.’ Another something inside me SO MUCH did not want to take that downward slide.”

I paused in talking to Margie as I remembered the next moment. An unusual inner experience had occurred, and I felt unsure how to share it. For a moment we just looked at each other. She seemed to be understanding me and encouraging me, so I continued. “Margie,” I said, “What came next is hard to describe. I just stood still, and there was an inner pause. I felt that I got wider inside, and there was silence everywhere. In that silence a voice that felt like me spoke. It was feeling fear and confusion and said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ The silence lasted a few more moments, and then a second voice spoke. This one didn’t feel like me, and it spoke with authority. It said: ‘What you are looking for is an unfamiliar sensation.’

Margie’s eyes squinted a little and she said, “That’s an interesting message! But what does it mean?” I said, “It means I think I can succeed at rolling the ball across my shoulders by using the repertoire of sensations I already know. But that won’t work. The trick needs sensations I do not yet know. In other words, there is a sequence of sensations that corresponds to the ball rolling across shoulders, and I am not yet familiar with that sequence."

Now Margie’s eyes were wide open and she was giving me a big smile. She said, “That’s what’s going on with me, isn’t it? I feel so good right now. This is what I hoped to get by coming here. And now, if I understand you correctly, it will help me to sustain this good feeling if I recognize that -- in relation to my usual sense of self -- these are unfamiliar sensations. The familiar leads me back into trouble. The way out of pain is through what feels, in the beginning at least, unfamiliar.”

She paused and then asked, "Are we on the same page?”

I said, “Yes, we are!”
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