During teacher training, I often speak of the importance of creating a strong container. Us humans are asked to be and do so much on a daily basis–as friends, co-workers, spouses, parents, etc. I know that when I feel most overwhelmed and incapable of containing the emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that arise within and around me, I look to “easy button” solutions. Perhaps you remember that old Staple’s commercial–the one where as soon as the person on-screen was met with the kind of stress or challenge they didn’t want to contain, they’d press a big, red Staple’s Easy Button and suddenly they’d be transported somewhere tropical and stress-free. Some days, this sounds awfully nice. My easy buttons, though, tend to close in on me in a way that leaves me feeling more frustrated and unwell eventually. These are the easy buttons of food, wine, texting, scrolling–all the distractions that keep me from having to engage with life, hold space for all that comes with life, and in the end, means that I stay small. Life hasn’t asked me to hold less as I get older; in fact, I’ve had to make room and find the strength for more of it all– sorrow, stress, joy, and all that comes with living and engaging with the world. Having some tools and teachers that help me to do so has been essential.
On our August weekend of teacher training, Jake White, a compassionate teacher of meditation, shared his contemplation on building a strong container and on emotional containment. And though this was first meant as a teaching for yoga practitioners, it’s really the kind of wisdom we all need. Life is full and big– our emotions can take us down or we can learn to create the kind of space within ourselves that makes it possible to expand our edges and hold more of this rich and abundant life.
A Container That Can Carry It All
In my early twenties I spent a lot of my time walking on my family farm without knowing why. I walked with feelings of happiness and walked when I was deeply in distress. Sometimes I walked with depression that did not seem to have a beginning or an end. On other occasions I was elated, feeling that my joy would never subside. No matter where I was, I went toward my body in the present moment for answers. I remember one day looking over at my father and brother in law working on the farm, feeling the heaviness of guilt as I grappled with not being more of a contribution: walking seemed to be all that I could do. On the trail one day I froze as I looked down in mid stride with absolute amazement: a large flint-napped spearhead lay in my path, pointing forward in the direction I was traveling. The spearhead was half-finished by the Native American who toiled with the rock and eventually tossed it to the side. For me, this was absolute confirmation that I was on the right path and had to keep working on this unknown direction that I was carving out for myself. This beautiful symbol gave me security even though I sometimes felt that I was not living up to my own and others expectations. So I kept walking, carving, and etching out a path and direction inside of my body where I could hold more of my experience in a place of clarity, non-reaction, tenderness, and self-compassion. For me, containment has been a search for cultivating a clean and consistent space to hold and connect with myself. It has meant working on establishing a foundation in my body where I can reconnect with something solid, present, and stable.
Creating a container is a layered process of navigating back to consistent connection. Containment simplifies our experience so we can move through the energetic and physical responses of the body in relation to life events. Containment begins with contacting the present moment and noticing what offers a feeling of safety in our current environment. On my farm, the trees, river, mountains, and my dog told me that I was safe. Safety has an important message and lets us know that our negative reactions are not necessary for our current environment.
Contacting safety gives us time to reduce thoughts that cycle and recycle negative situations and familiar emotional patterns that overwhelm our nervous system, while clouding the present moment. On my walks, I observed my thoughts creating a container that could connect, listen, and reduce this reactivity. Once thoughts are contained through awareness, it gives us time to connect with how our emotions land in the physical body. Being with emotions and physical feelings is a way of holding our experience while separating from negative external conditions. Containment through awareness creates safety and support for our emotions through holding, tracking, and feeling our physical body.
On my walks I would place one hand on my chest and the other on my stomach, stopping periodically to take three deep breaths in the areas where I felt tension, ease, sadness, or joy. This practice of walking while holding emotions sent a positive message to myself; that no matter what the circumstance, I was going to be present. Carving out a container in a sense is establishing a space where we can connect and reestablish safety, listen to our thoughts while reducing negative reactions, and hold emotions and physical responses in the body through self-awareness. Through containment our reactions no longer spill out into attaching to negative circumstances through thoughts and emotions. They are held through navigating our way back to simplicity and being close to ourselves no mater what the circumstance. This cleanses our reactions and simplifies our experience like waves being reduced to the point of still and crystal clear water. Now, looking back at myself walking in the fields and by the river, I can see that my destination was carving out a space of unconditional love that was consistent, present, clear, and always available. A practice of containment teaches us that love can carry it all.
Here is a beautiful prayer that I carried with me on my walks. I hope it can offer support on your path.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
~Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude