What I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed. (Hint: It’s less.)

“Try doing less, Mike.”

I’m on the floor yet again. These four words are a frequent refrain I hear in Lavinia’s Awareness Through Movement® Feldenkrais class.

Usually followed by something like “What would it be like to be easier on yourself?”

I then have the opportunity to move my arms, legs, head or torso more gently, lightly, or slowly than my previous, more amped-up pace. Next, I tend to notice something – about my body, thinking, or feeling – that I was previously powering through.

This marriage of ease and intention doesn’t come easily to me; I tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of person. I’m either sleeping, or giving it my all: writing, prospecting or serving clients, building community, interviewing someone or being interviewed, for a course or podcast.  But as a Christian-Buddhist priest in the ManKind Project reminded me, and a group of equally-driven men, a few years back: “Anything worth doing is worth doing 70%.”

When did I become this way, so 0 to 95 MPH in 10 seconds or less? My memory goes back to my 10th birthday party. A few family, and a few friends were coming over, the same as previous years. There would be pizza and cake – a perfectly comfortable routine. But this was ten years old; it felt like a milestone. And so, I created a poster for my own birthday party, and hung it on the front door:

“Celebrating a Decade of Excellence.”

How, at ten years old, did I become my own hype-man?

Years later, forcibly slowed down by my own debilitating anxiety, I’d suddenly find myself with ample time to reflect on these and other questions; to pause, observe, and digest my own life.

Memories surface: Writing and illustrating ‘books’ before I can even read coherently, myself; hyperventilating on a kiddie Ferris Wheel. Recapping years worth of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles storylines to patient relatives at Thanksgiving, full of verbosity and animation; having an earache so bad that I ask to say the “prayer of salvation” for my soul again, in case I die that night.

My mind could take me to other dimensions; my body just weighed me down with limiting terrors.

And so I come, right here, to this Feldenkrais mat. Amid a life where my readers, my clients, and even my loved ones and friends so frequently want me to do more, my teacher here wants me to do less – even to the point where it gets embarrassing. Like if my head would be a bit less strained with another pillow underneath, she’ll run over and fetch me one, like some server at a restaurant! It feels so improper; she’s the teacher of the whole class. But then my neck unclenches, and I notice something else.

I could locate my Feldenkrais-derived insights as part of our culture’s growing fascination with mindfulness, that penchant to adapt an age-old aspect of Eastern transformative practice to offices and boardrooms across the West. There does seem to be a lot of wisdom, here:

Can I halt my ceaseless inner chatter, to concentrate on a single point?

My breath, say, or a mantra?

In so doing, I might be able to calm down a little, experience clarity, and perhaps even that reach ill-defined but often-sought summit called enlightenment.

What a word. In the East, enlightenment refers to a dissolving of all thought, recognizing the impermanence of all things. In the West, the Enlightenment refers to an explosion of knowledge, a surplus of thought. Seemingly opposite ideas at play, yet both revolve around thought.

Since I started having panic attacks in my early twenties, I’ve sought to fine-tune, corral, and tame my thought life, pivoting from Eastern (“Drop the story you’re telling yourself right now, it’s ‘making’ you suffer. Let that thought go! Be in the nowww…”) to Western (“Replace your faulty thoughts with these better thoughts. Let’s hypnotize yourself…”) modes of thought management.

All of which have left me thinking…or wishing to stop thinking. All of which have left me firmly embedded in the primacy of thought which has reigned unchallenged since my precocious, storytelling, hype-man youth.

But is mindfulness ever meant to exist on its own?

Poet and writer Dave O’Neal muses:

Mindfulness 

Of all that knocks at deathless door,
The eightfold path.
It’s number four.
There are truly seven more,
The noble eightfold path’s the score.
Buddhists are thus wise to shout,
“They’re not what we’re all about!”
But it’s getting much too late,
To say they’re only one of eight.

Feldenkrais, like a robust Buddhism, suggests that there might be a wider context in which to practice awareness; that I might be more than a mind weighed down by a ‘problem body’ to be managed. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) himself wrote:

Faulty posture always expresses the emotional stress that has been responsible for its formation. The most frequent and observable one is the stress of insecurity in its different aspects, such as hesitation, fear, doubt, apprehension, servility, unquestioning compliance—and their exact opposites.

This wasted effort shows that the person had to produce it in order to comply with what she felt was an absolute necessity. The faulty posture was the best way in which she could produce at the moment what she had directed herself to do. It was the best posture at that time—and it still is, if she has learned little since.

It is quite erroneous to think, as some posture teachers do, that all the people in the world are wrong and do not know how to use themselves. And it is totally incorrect to think that a bad alignment of the body is the cause of the ailments that accompany such configurations.

When it comes to the tensions, disorientations, and anxieties that I experience, it does me no good – and is indeed quite cruel – to throw my body under the bus, so to speak, because it has this response or that to stressful (or even perfectly ‘normal’) stimuli. And it’s doubly damaging to keep pushing my body, like some overworked mule, even further when under duress.

It’s equally strange to expect my mind, already pretty active, to do double-duty and reign these sensations (and their accompanying emotions) in.

So what’s a body to do?

How about less?

Could it be that slowing down and sinking in, becoming more intimate with what-is, is a key to first warmly accepting, and only then potentially shifting myself on the level of experience?

The 18th-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade seemed to think so; he called this acceptance The Sacrament of the Present Moment:

There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals God’s divine action.

This takes so much of the pressure off for me. If God’s divine action is here anyway, then my bodiliness and heartfulness, in addition to a generous mindfulness, will help me sink deeper into What Is.

And I can begin, right here on this Feldenkrais mat, by being easier on myself.

And if I begin here, where might this greater ease end up?

What does your doing less look like? Let me know in the comments below.

This reflection is based on a piece I recently wrote for the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America. You can read the original, and learn more about this unique modality, here.

4 Responses to What I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed. (Hint: It’s less.)

  1. don salmon August 20, 2019 at 10:23 am #

    I’ve read de Caussade. And my initial reaction – as someone who has lived much of my life by the slogan, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing 800% – is, “Ok, great. A new project. Something I can do EVERY moment, surrender. Lots of grit involved in THAT one!!”

    My single favorite meditation instruction was at a Dzogchen retreat (only one day!) led by Alan Wallace in 1996, at the New York Open Center.

    The basic instruction was: “do nothing”

    That’s it.

    There were a few background tidbits, but I find when I write them online, people say, “oh, that’s too much, why not stick with just doing nothing?”

    Because you can’t.

    Or, to put it more clearly, “you” can’t.

    A Zen teacher up on Alexander, NC told me a few years ago (after I described my practice of “Shikan-taza,” the Zen version of Dzogchen’s “do nothing”), “you’re doing too much.”

    My Kriya Yoga teacher, Roy Davis, told me the same thing.

    Somehow it finally got through my thick skull, “hmm, maybe there IS something to this doing nothing’ (kind of a Seinfeld-like “meditation/life about nothing”).

    But how do you do nothing? the mind asks.

    “You” don’t.

    And one day you realize, “you” have never done anything, because “you” don’t exist. “You” are not a problem. How could something be a problem that doesn’t exist?

    What is “I” – this “little me” that I take to be “Don” – it’s just a network of thoughts, images, memories, feelings and sensations which, somehow, the infinite Being, the luminous awareness that is hearing through these ears, seeing through these eyes, feeling through the typing fingers, mistakes to be its ‘self.”

    Seeing this (and the “seeing” is most definitely NOT a doing) there is an immediate recognition that “I” am infinite Awareness/Being, one in being with the Father, if you like that language.

    “You” are the Light of the world. Haven’t we heard this all our lives, yet we don’t really take it to heart.

    https://beyondthematrixnow.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/rtb-8-13-19.pdf

  2. Jennifer Lee August 20, 2019 at 10:26 am #

    “When it comes to the tensions, disorientations, and anxieties that I experience, it does me no good – and is indeed quite cruel – to throw my body under the bus, so to speak, because it has this response or that to stressful (or even perfectly ‘normal’) stimuli…It’s equally strange to expect my mind, already pretty active, to do double-duty and reign these sensations (and their accompanying emotions) in.”

    I am currently doing trauma work in therapy. My body has been reacting in ways that are beyond my control, terrifying and at times baffling to me. And I have been fighting. I have been shaming myself for these reactions, as if I should be stronger. I have been numbing the overwhelm which means self harming and restricting food. And because I’m feeling separated from my body and rejecting parts of me, I struggle with my relationship with God, and I question whether S/He is put off by my self-attack as well as the overwhelming fear and anger that is manifesting in my body. When this questioning of God happens, I’m always met with a whispering of “I’m still here,” whether by some article or something someone says.

    And today, you have brought that whispering to my heart. I needed that paragraph I quoted above, and I needed the reminder that even in all of that, God is there right where I am, if only I would stay present. God is not put off by anything my body and I go through.

    Thank you for your words and in therapy on Thursday I will read this again as a reminder to let go and allow space for my body to do what she needs to do to heal, and I won’t shame her for it. I will meet God there.

    Peace to you and thank you again.

  3. Susan August 20, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    What I do is a lot like what you do, Mike. I say no. When I was younger and jockeying for position in the church we went to, people who said no* were not the leadership’s friends. I started saying no when I had my first baby, a cranky little guy that needed to be nursed, and I was pushed to the margins by the time I had my second one. It was so hard, but turned out okay.

    I hope you find some relief, my friend. ❤️

    *to another activity or meeting or wackiness that was named God. What can I say? I went to a charismatic church that was super manipulative.

  4. Jeannine August 20, 2019 at 8:30 pm #

    This has been the “message from the Universe’ to me repeatedly in recent months. As a mom, I firmly believe in self-care, but have then felt the pressure of just more things to do. I am craving “less” – the slow life.

    I read recently that when the brain tries to force a mindful moment to “mean something,” this is just the ego. That it’s better to just relax into it. I’m trying to remember that.

    Anything worth doing is worth doing 70% – I love that. It sounds like parenting to me. If we’re hitting 70%, we’re doing great – we’re doing enough. Only the ego demands 100% and it’s not sustainable.

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