Amy Ward Brimmer

mother daughter wife teacher writer dreamer sister worker seeker activist minister healer student human


On-the-Spot Ways to Not Freak Out

Last week I found myself in a challenging situation that felt like a crisis, in spite of knowing that it wasn't -- at least not yet. My husband, who has a history of heart problems, was experiencing dizziness and other symptoms that might have indicated another heart attack, so a friend took him to a nearby ER. I got a phone call to consult about whether the ER visit was necessary, and I agreed that it was a good idea. During this discussion I was a model of calm concern. I remembered to stay grounded in my body, to breathe, to listen carefully. My dear one was in New York City and I was in Philadelphia, so it made sense to wait for a report from the ER before deciding whether to take any action, like hopping the next train to NYC.

I don't know about you, but waiting patiently is not my strong suit. Having nothing constructive to do feels helpless, and that is not a feeling I enjoy. I did what I had been doing, which is to breathe, send positive healing energy to my husband and those caring for him, and get back to the tasks at hand, hoping to be distracted from the supremely unhelpful running commentary in my mind.

At one point I had the bright idea to post on Facebook: What is your go-to method for letting go of worry when there is zero you can do about a scary situation?
I got a lot of very interesting answers, and many of them are listed below. Some are religious or spiritual, some are body-based, some are more psychological. These are practical, easy things anyone can do under stress, and I thank everyone who replied on my Facebook page.

And hallelujah, it wasn't a heart attack. Just a wakeup call.

Coping Methods (in no particular order):
  • Breathe.
  • Pray. 
  • Once when I was scared for someone, I sat through the fear and wrote them a letter. I never mailed it, but the duration of the focus was a true "Holding in the Light." Now I do that by coloring and drawing too. You could do it with movement.
  • A prayer I use is "God is with me now and all is well." Also, say the name Jesus repeatedly.
  • Something I've used with some success is the idea that if there is no solution, it is not a problem but rather an event -- like, say, a rainstorm. Problems have solutions that require planning and sometimes can benefit from a bit of timely worry.
  • I try to stay very present. Wash hands, feel temperature, etc etc....keep coming back....and of course breathe.
  • Going for a run.
  • Do an activity you enjoy - reading, crafts, TV, walking, etc.
  • Put on a song I love and focus on the music. Breathe with it.
  • Placing yourself firmly in the present can help. Rub your toe into the floor to remind yourself where you are. Grasp something small, whatever is close by.
  • Say the Serenity prayer.
  • I remember I am never alone, whether I simply visualize love and support from my community or reach out like you are doing now.
  • 4-7-9 breathing. From Dr. Andrew Weil. Breathe deep to count of 4. Hold to count of 7. Exhale to count of 9.
  • Look at the big blue sky. Makes every worry seem small.
  • Worrying is praying for what you don't want; it is always better to just pray.
  • Herbs that ease anxiety and fear - motherwort, oatstraw, nettle, skullcap.
  • Under the circumstances, let the rain wash it away. [It was pouring on this day.]
  • Looking at what is the worst case scenario and asking if you can survive it. Thank Mother-Father God for giving you the strength to deal with it.
  • Trust my gut to take the next step. I choose to take one step at a time without trying to figure out an ultimate solution. I remember I'm not alone.
  • Relax your pelvic floor. You will feel better immediately.
I put my favorite one last. I cannot tell you how often that has made all the difference for me. I know it's not helpful or even necessary for others, but I'm so grateful to my Alexander colleague for reminding me of this.

Next time you feel like you are in a tough situation that is out of your hands and all you can do is wait for more information and then be ready to act -- try one of these methods. Or combine several: Breathe and look at the big blue sky and relax your pelvic floor muscles while you remember that you are not alone. And ask for help on social media; people just love giving advice!


The Power of Tiny Repeatable Actions

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying "I will try again tomorrow." -- Mary Anne Radmacher

I've had a quietly courageous week. I learned how to use mindfulness practice when suffering from the Puking Flu.(Hint: nausea comes in waves, like the breath. Try not to struggle.) I discovered more about what simplicity means; it is amazing what the most basic things like a warm bed, soft pillow, peppermint tea, and a loving cat can do for you when you're feeling like death warmed over. I was able to recognize my luxurious existence, at least compared to some others. I wondered what it would be like to be so indisposed and ill without a reliable place to call home, or someone to come and murmur sympathetically from time to time, without the ability to maintain a little dignity and privacy. I was relieved to discover an ability to respond to an unpleasant situation with some gratitude (when I wasn't feeling terribly sorry for myself) and interdependent understanding.

More and more, I'm seeing that stepping back and searching for the big picture in any situation is often all that's needed. Taking the long view is called for right now, don't you think? I'm hearing some discouragement around questions of whether one's individual efforts can make a real difference. Whether in relation to socio-political chaos or about daily mindfulness practice and changing movement habits, folks are expressing doubts about the power of tiny repeatable actions. Is calling your senator effective? Can one big splashy march truly change hearts and minds? Is moving my computer monitor higher or lower really going to stop my neck pain? is it really so bad to skip a day or two of meditation?

Yes and no. No, because just one person does not make a movement. Nor will occasional, sporadic attempts at meditating establish steady concentration leading to wisdom. (Really, it will not. I speak from experience.) Also yes, because each person in a group is just as vital and necessary as any other. And each time you sit meditation, you are recalibrating your inner and outer fields. That affects the wider field of everyone you come in contact with. Each time you notice an inefficient or tension-producing habit, and you stop the activity and apply some Alexander thinking, you are bypassing the old automatic neural pathways and carving out new ones.

I've written about my experience of incremental change and "progress" before. I have told the stories of my many failed attempts and what I've gained by them. But I must need more lessons in this, because the Puking Flu was the culmination of some days of deep internal darkness, a feeling of severe tension in all parts of my body, and a lot of what Stuart Smalley calls "stinkin' thinkin'." Whatever virus got into me, my body responded by forcing me to focus on the most basic aspects of my existence, with little or no time to indulge in despair about humankind. I did best when I accepted tiny victories like being able to digest saltines, and small comforts like nurturing music and blessed sleep.

I don't have any deep wisdom about the power of the individual and the power of the collective; I look to other teachers for that. I am learning about this daily, as I get curious about what we mean by power anyway. I now know, however, that when I feel overwhelmed with despair, I can get simple. I can step back and look for the big picture. I can break it down and take small bites. In this way, it seems, the possibility of opening the body-heart-mind to compassion and healing grows, incrementally.


Pathways 2017

Perhaps you follow Way Opens Center on Facebook, and if so you've probably seen some images that I've been posting there. "Way Opens" is a Quaker phrase that implies faith and also forward movement. Each day in 2017 Way Opens Center will post a picture of The Path, as a reminder that there are many avenues to explore, many terrains to navigate, one step at a time, over and over again. These pathways may look familiar, they may look strange, they may barely look like an actual way through, but each can provide a little reminder that "we make the road by walking."

Each month I will share a slideshow of all the images from the previous month.  Here is the show for January. 

I am currently drafting a post on one of the 3 words for 2017, Power. Stay tuned. An until then, enjoy the view of whatever path you are on.



Three Words for 2017

Last year I began the practice of choosing three words to inform and guide my life for 2016. They were Prosperity, Interdependence, and Love. During the year I set the intention to notice how these three concepts showed up in various ways, and looked for ways to deepen my understanding of what they mean and how they operate.

Prosperity was the easiest one to work with, perhaps because it is tangible and not esoteric. I expected to learn about ways that are prosperous, and how that might be different from financial wealth. Things like an increase in public recognition of my work was a sign of prosperity, as was the wonderful, generous outpouring of financial support for my MBSR training fund. (You can still give, until January 15, here: I prospered in positive feedback, in skill development, in deepening connections with others. I confirmed what I suspected when I chose Prosperity: you don't have to be rich to prosper.

Interdependence was so beautiful to work with. This is the most wonderful reality of life, the way we need one another for our well-being. This is not just healthy psychology or sound philosophy, it is nature. Interdependence describes the foundation of all life. Trees, for example, use an intricate network of roots, spores, etc. to communicate and help other trees thrive, because when one tree thrives, they all do. That is true for all life forms, including humans. So in a year that saw the worst effects of polarization, petty hatred, and an "I got mine" mentality, the need for recognizing interdependence has never been more important or relevant. I sought out, and was blessed to experience, many instances of interdepent life. Everything's connected.

Love? Well, love could be the watchword every year. It's still a mystery to me, and as far as I can tell it is the reason we are here. I think life human life is a course -- a doctoral-level course -- in love. I (re)discovered some qualities of love, such as the fact that when love is present it makes you want to move closer to another person rather than farther away, or it makes it less impossible to do so. When there's love in the equation, courage arises, or compassion, or openness and flexibility. Love makes one stronger, more clear, more willing and able. This is why Michelle Obama encourages us to "go high when they go low." This is why Jesus advises us to love our enemies, because in the act of bringing love into the mix, we ourselves change (not sure what it does for the enemy). And of course there's romantic love, sexual love, spiritual love, friendly love, love for the earth, and so on. Love takes many forms and it's been an eye-opener to recognize love in action.

For 2017 -- a year that arrives full of foreboding and determination in equal measure -- I have chosen three words that hold huge potential for personal growth. Like last year, I'm choosing concepts that are a bit daunting. If I want to experience and cultivate these elements, I will need to make some pretty big changes. Part of my discernment process was to identify the words that scared me the most or made me react by contracting. That's often a sign that I'm at my growing edge. I also wanted to notice which words intrigued me the most, what ideas I was willing to explore thoroughly and consistently through the year. It's no surprise that in each case, I am both curious and afraid. How like life!

My three words for 2017 are (drumroll please):

  • Simplicity
  • Power
  • Forgiveness

  • I'll be writing more about each as the year unfolds, but for now I will say that I chose Simplicity because I tend to over-complicate things and burden myself unnecessarily, and I want to stop doing that. Simplicity is one of the "Quaker Spices" or shared testimonies of our faith, and in my opinion, the least understood or followed by Quakers. Mostly, though, I want to understand my own lack of trust in the simple way.

    Power was sort of a no-brainer. The power grab in the U.S. by neo-Nazi elements, the myth of "people power" in an election run by the corporate oligarchy, the stories I keep hearing about how disempowered people feel, the lack of justice for people of color and women and immigrants -- it's all a swirly mass of fear and craving about who's got the power. So I am super motivated this year to learn about what constitutes true power. Stay tuned, I think we're all apt to learn about this in 2017.

    Forgiveness feels a little like Love, in that it is universal and absolutely necessary for a peaceful life. My immediate task is to cultivate forgiveness for myself, even as I seek to learn better how to forgive others. I don't believe in New Year's resolutions but I did renew my vow to recognize when I am being unkind or oppressing myself, and then to stop and extend some compassion my way.

    Like signposts along the way, my three words guide and even nudge me towards more fully awakening to life. May 2017 provide you with guidance and encouragement as you too seek awakening.


    The Second Arrow

    Because of the particle-like nature of consciousness, we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction. To do so we must learn to tolerate our pain and fear. This is not easy. . . .  We must learn the difference between reaction and response. . . .  When someone cuts us off in traffic, we can angrily retaliate by racing up to them shouting, trying to get back at them, or we can breathe and let it go. When we are criticized, when we are betrayed, we don’t have to reinforce the pain of the situation by adding to the pain by our reaction. -- Jack Kornfield, Responding With Love and Courage

    Jack goes on to describe this personal reactivity as "the second arrow," a classic Buddhist description of what we do when in conflict or some other negative situation. Something painful happens, and it's like being shot with an arrow. Then we habitually, unconsciously pierce ourselves with another arrow, causing extra, unnecessary suffering.

    "Unnecessary" is the key word here; we do not have to reinforce the pain. Alexander lessons, meditation practice, Qigong and other forms of mindful movement, all offer the opportunity to unhook from this automatic reaction, over and over again. At first, and always, it's necessary to see this happening. Like most habits, we become so used to judging ourselves and others that it feels normal, even unavoidable. You can't change what you don't know about, so waking up to the habit comes first.

    When we look, we see that we do this quite consistently, so it's useful to recognize how reactivity operates, dominating our lived experience. As Jack points out, this requires the willingness to tolerate challenging emotions: pain, fear, disgust, loneliness, powerlessness, [insert your favorite unpleasant emotion here]. Our aversion to be with these feelings comes in many forms, but it needn't be acted upon. We can pause and attend to the space between the stimulus and response, the urge to react and the reaction itself.

    The freedom to make new and better choices in response to whatever arises is a hallmark of the Alexander Technique. Those who study it soon discover that what seems like a little pause is actually quite spacious, that a momentary stop provides enough power to see, sense, and switch off harmful habits of thinking and moving. In meditation, as steady attention is cultivated, it becomes very easy to see how we add extra pain to painful situations (by pushing away or running away), or ruin pleasant experiences (by grasping and greed).

    So what is the cumulative effect of practicing the pause, of finding the gap and waiting there? Sylvia Boorstein describes it this way: 

    If I want to free myself from endless cycles of struggling..., I need to keep rediscovering that the pain of the struggle is greater than the pain of the desire. If I develop the habit of restraining myself, I'll enjoy the relief of feeling the desires pass, and I'll remember that desires are not the problem. Feeling pushed around by them is. I'll continue to have desires, of course, because I'm alive, but they'll be more modest in their demands. 

    I don't know about you, but I often feel weary of being pushed around by my own reactivity; it wears me down. I have experienced the liberation that comes from turning toward my pain and pausing there, the freedom to notice that I'm wounding myself with the second arrow, and stop.


    Giving Thanks

    Living is tentative and uneasy for many of us right now, especially in the U.S. Gratitude helps so much. It's like a magic energy that alchemically transforms scarcity into satisfaction, half empty into half full. Luckily, we have a whole day dedicated to giving thanks.

    Today I am grateful for:

    My passion.  When I resonate with something or someone, I’m all in. I may not always be disciplined or consistent, but I am wholly dedicated to whatever inspires me, and I enjoy bringing my total self to the endeavor or the relationship. I give my all. I show up, and keep showing up. For my ability to turn desire into dedication, I’m thankful.

    My family.  I’m lucky to have a husband who keeps loving me and growing in companionship, and two absolutely beautiful daughters who are kind and funny, smart and insightful, emotionally sensitive and socially aware. My father, who at 90 continues to seek understanding and healing, has given me a strong spiritual foundation for life as well as an appreciation for nature and the beauty of this world. My brother taught me how to be strong and resilient, and to trust my intuition. My nieces and nephews astound me with their ability to forgive and to develop unconditional love. They are also super creative and persevering in all they do, which gives me hope for the future. Thank you.

    My spiritual family.  These are my closest friends, advisors, mentors, and cheerleaders. They listen when I ask, are not afraid to call me on my foolishness and wrong thinking, encourage and pat me on the back, give me gifts and let me give to them in return, and generally help me remember to play and be goofy while I still can. Maybe we’ve known each other since high school, maybe we just met last year, but we connect authentically in the heart space (see #1 above). You know who you are. Thank you.

    My gifts.  I am an experienced, talented hands-on healer, an engaging and skilled teacher, and a decent writer and editor. I enjoy connecting people with one another and creating networks of learning and support, and I can organize events with the best of them. I am never happier than when I’m planning a workshop or writing a lesson plan or refining curricula. Nerdy but true. My singing and dancing is mediocre but on a good day I can engage in them with gusto and abandon, which is half the battle. For the gifts I was born with and those I’ve worked hard to develop, I’m thankful.

    This life.  I feel so grateful to be drawing breath right now, this very minute. My dharma teacher, Mark Nunberg, tells me that there are only two things to ask when I sit to meditate:  1) Am I interested in what’s here right now? Can I cultivate some curiosity about how it is? 2) Do I care about this life which has been entrusted to me? Can I cultivate some compassion for this being?  For my ability to remain interested and caring, both on and off the cushion, I am thankful.

    Wishing you and yours a happy Thanksgiving Day and the ability to feel genuinely, deeply grateful for all the many blessings of this human life. Claim them. They are yours, and no one else can know
    them and live them like you can.



    Surviving Skillfully

    For many years now, I have been learning and teaching that mindfulness is a skill. It is not a state of bliss, or wisdom, or mastery, or even clarity. These states may result from mindful living, but mindfulness itself is a skill set that we apply with intention to meet whatever is, however it is, in the moment.

    This is simple, but it's not easy. That is why there are a variety of practices that we can engage in to foster and develop our understanding of the skillful means available to us. A short list might include formal meditation (sitting, standing, walking, lying down), mindful movement (qigong, yoga, Alexander technique, tai chi, aikido, etc.), communication practice (NVC, peer counseling, compassionate listening), and reflective writing and art-making.

    In a recent newsletter I discussed the acronym RAIN, and how it guides the process of turning toward our experience in order to be with it mindfully. RAIN is most useful at times when one feels overwhelmed with emotion, or confused, or otherwise thrown off course somehow. (It works beautifully in ordinary moments too, but we don't typically feel the need to navigate those moments as carefully.) To recap, RAIN stands for:

    R -- Recognize
    A -- Allow
    I -- Investigate
    N -- Not Personal, Nature

    Many teachers have offered this RAIN guide. Tara Brach uses it quite a bit in her teaching, and has several examples of how it can work individually and in relationships. I have used it successfully many times, as a way to utilize the skill of mindfulness that I am cultivating, and I'd like to share an example of how it is of great use to me right now, today.

    Perhaps only a few of you know that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and, as a young adult, date rape. Even as I type that sentence I am using RAIN.

    • I am Recognizing the strong sensations that arise in my body, accompanied by thoughts like, "Don't say that publicly. Find another example!" Feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, and vulnerability are here. 
    • So I Allow them to be present, don't fight, accept to whatever degree I can. It's actually okay to be with those feelings and thoughts, because 
    • When I Investigate, I find that I have felt this way many, many times, and essentially these are just insubstantial thoughts, and physical sensations in the body. And they are changing. They have a pulse, a texture, a duration. Like everything else we pay attention to in meditation (breath, sounds, etc.), these strong and mostly unpleasant feelings arise, stay for a while, and then change or disappear. 
    • I don't need to get caught in the experience, I can know it as Nature arising. I've just shared an intimately personal truth about myself, which breaks the rules of my conditioning, big time. Of course these thoughts and feelings will arise. It may sound odd, but the truth is, this is not happening to me. But I can be with it as it happens.
    Okay, to be honest, I'm still working on that last one. It is difficult to stop identifying with my experience. Yet all the great spiritual teachers remind us that we must. Joseph Goldstein says, "the Buddha summed [everything] up in one essential teaching: Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or Mine. This is not a philosophical statement, it is something for us to practice, to realize, moment to moment. This is the practice of freedom."

    As a survivor of sexual abuse, the past several days have been severely challenging. Beginning with the release of the recording of Donald Trump bragging about how he can get away with sexual assault because he is a celebrity, to the onslaught of reactions to it, the jokes and discussion on social media, and culminating in that violent war of words we called a "debate," I have been strongly triggered and retraumatized. Maybe you have been too. Chances are good that about 30% of you reading this are also survivors. The rest of you know someone who is.

    And I can live through these upsetting, truly hideous personal reactions because I have a skill set called Mindfulness. I have gathered and used many tools for 30 years or more, picked up along the way in psychotherapy, bodywork, 12-step groups, religious practices, and other sources which have helped me heal and restore wholeness. But daily mindfulness practice is really paying off right now. I don't like being triggered, but it no longer needs to run my life or even be a problem.

    An acronym like RAIN is a hook to hang our hats on. It's a go-to process that we can access (dare I say cling to?) in difficult moments. It prevents us from reacting unconsciously and engaging in old harmful habits. Even better, it helps us wake up and see when we're reacting out of our old unconscious habits, and stop. 


    Interestingly, the name of one sexual assault hotline is RAINN, and if you need someone to listen and help you, please call 800.656.HOPE (4673).