Amy Ward Brimmer

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


Contracting and Expanding

My intention today is to write about our habitual resistance to reality as it arises, moment to moment.  I have been planning this post for a few days, making notes, adding thoughts, imagining it in odd moments of reverie. I was inspired by a series of teachings given by Pema Chodron at Omega last May, entitled "The Marks of Our Existence."

Pema reminds us that life is fluid, dynamic, and always shifting. Ultimately, this is very good news, but we have been conditioned to expect reality to be solid, fixed, and predictable. The essential groundlessness of our existence frightens us, or at best, takes us by surprise, and when that happens, we react by resisting. You don't get what you want, or you get something you don't want. People don't do what they say they will, or they do things you wish they wouldn't. We get worked up or hooked in, we collapse and cave in, we pull back, push away, or grasp at some aspect of what is happening at any given moment. These reactions are experienced physically and mentally as tension. Habitual, unconscious resistance shows up in the body-mind as contraction.

So this morning I sat down at my desk with great enthusiasm to wax eloquent on this topic of contraction and what to do about it.  Then, of course, one thing after another just kept arising, preventing me from getting a start on my writing.  Some of these interruptions were positive, some neutral, and one was very annoying indeed.

My plan was to finish before noon, because I had agreed to take my husband to the hospital for a minor procedure, which required him to have someone drive him home afterward.  I was struggling inwardly as we arrived on time for his appointment, troubled that I had not even begun to write.  I hoped I could drop him off, go home for an hour, and get going on it already. When we inquired, we were told they'd call for him in about 15 minutes and the procedure would only take about 15 minutes, so we decided I should just stick around. Sounded good to me.

You know where this story is going, right?

A half hour later, when they still had not come for him, I decided to have lunch in the cafeteria. In an attempt to cultivate patience, I took my time, used the meal as a chance to practice mindful eating, and returned after about 30 minutes. David was still sitting there.

I won't recount the details of the next part except to say that I did indeed contract.  Like most of us, I am very good at resisting what life throws my way, and I do it regularly. When they finally came to get him, I decided to sit outside in the hospital's meditation garden, and recognized the irony of being resistant to the fact that I was delayed in writing a blog post about resistance. I was able to smile at myself and feel grateful for irony, which is so often my teacher.

Contraction is an opportunity for mindfulness. The practice is simple: when you are contracting, notice it, and then expand. Don't judge yourself for contracting, or even try to stop it. Just contact the contraction, and find a way to open to it, to bring about expansion. This is a core principle of the Alexander Technique, which provides a method for restoring balance and poise to the way we use ourselves in activity.
Closing down and opening up.

There are some tried-and-true ways to expand when we are contracting, including:
  1. Open up physically.  Spread your arms out wide and take a big, deep breath. You might not be able to do this in all social situations.
  2. Smile. It has to be a legitimate smile, not a phony, mask-like thing. (This worked wonders for me today, even though it was kind of rueful.)  Thich Nhat Hanh teaches "thinking a smile" and so do many Alexander teachers.
  3. Speaking of the AT, expansion can happen when you readjust how you're sitting or standing, to allow your spine to lengthen into its full integrity of support.  Notice how your shoulders let go and your breath expands when you do this.
  4. Open your sense perceptions. Really see, hear, smell, or feel your body weight in space.  
  5. Exaggerate the contraction, then release it.  Some people need to do this because they cannot feel expansion otherwise. It helps to make the tightness even tighter, and then follow the outward direction as the tension releases.
  6. Extend kindness to yourself. The resistance is a fear reaction to the reality of our constantly shifting, fluid, and groundless life. It is universal and very fundamental for most of us. Instead of being hard on yourself or indulging in the critical inner voice, why not be kind? Pema's teacher used to say, “Place the fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness.”
Notice the many strategies you have for resisting life, and contact contraction as it happens.  Choose to expand instead.  Practice this and see what happens.