I cannot positively think away my trauma, the events that make me lie awake at night with guilt… the inner complaints that threaten to make me a whiner. No. I can only make the decision to put it to work for or against my well-being. I decide the narrative it creates in my life. It’s still there in all its glory, but I am the one in charge of the story.
So, when I sit down on my yoga mat, write/journal, bring out my oracle cards, conduct a ritual, or assess my chakras, I’m guiding myself through those dark spaces that if left unconscious will direct my life with their own agenda every damn day. Utter chaos.
No amount of affirmation, positive meme scrolling, gratitude, or loving your neighbor will process the energy of these places.
It’s hard to love the neighbor who sexually abused you, the school mates who relentlessly called you names, or yourself after acting in unconscious and hurtful ways, and to be grateful for the lesson when it keeps interrupting your ability to focus on life now. When it reaches out to you through expressions like night terrors, PTSD, anxiety, social phobias, and more, you can try to forgive and forget all you want. Those dark places will keep surprising you by coming back up.
These events literally wired your brain. It is through loving and accepting all of yourself that you can choose the gift that your darkness brings.
Sometimes, darkness is so scary or alien an idea that we’re confused as to how to go there without getting lost in the despair. That’s when we may need a guide. Someone who has been there before with themselves and others.
They aren’t a therapist, or a psychiatrist. They are a peer, and can share tools to help light the way and dig through the rock to the coal seam. That’s the work I do with clients. The realest of real.
If you’ve ever been totally put off by the “happy hippie” aesthetic, the under explained law of positivity, or even counting your blessings, it could be time to face your shadow.
If you don’t want to go alone, find someone who’s gone before to guide you there. Can you trust anyone who has never gone on the shaded path, but instead chose to “change their mindset” when the shit hits the fan? How will they react to heavy emotion and events? Where did their dark side go?
All this time, I had been avoiding my comfort in the shadows because I didn’t want to be constantly explaining myself to the #blessed crowd.
I made myself palatable as often as I could, and reigned myself in when I wanted to take a conversation into the realm of what is seen as negative talk only because it makes people feel uncomfortable with me and their selves. I didn’t want to be the person people avoid because she’s always talking about the bits that they want to push back into the dusty corners.
Yet, part of facing my own truth is to accept that life has wired me for this work, people need a hand to hold, and I am rather content to offer mine. It doesn’t look like rainbows, pumpkin spice lattes, and tropical paradise, but it is damn beautiful all the same.
Meet Kelli Hansel – The Shadow Guide.
“We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Jesuit Priest, philosopher, and paleontologist)
Our culture is all about changing, subduing, or avoiding our physical bodies. Extreme diets, pharmaceuticals, plastic surgery, consumer culture, social media, obsessions, and even our spiritual practices contribute. What would happen though if we focused on radically being in our body instead of changing, subduing, or avoiding them? What would it mean to live the language of our body?
There are signs all over the place that a great many people aren’t truly inhabiting this human form we’ve been given. Unconscious behavior runs rampant. The abuse of food, drugs, alcohol, sex, and one another both emotionally and physically are just some of the ways this is true. It’s true on the level of faith too. In spiritual communities all over the globe, there’s a lot of encouragement to “transcend the body,” as it is imagined the Buddha and Jesus Christ did, either through meditation, other spiritual practices, or self-sacrifice. Escapism is not the answer to the human struggle. It is the cause.
We find ourselves in the midst of struggle and instead of addressing it on the tangible, human level we choose to escape. At different times of our lives we all are guilty of trying to experience something outside of our human form in various degrees. Sometimes, this trying is a conscious effort. Other times, it is completely unconscious. It isn’t always a bad thing. Everyone needs a vacation from time to time. However, considering death is the only real way to escape the human form, if we don’t allow ourselves to consciously inhabit our bodies we are spending our entire lives avoiding living.
Whether we’re experiencing this active escapism as a result of mental, emotional, or physical trauma doesn’t matter. What matters is that we make ourselves conscious to it so that we can address it. Are you really letting yourself be in your body? Are you opening yourself up to a fully impactful human experience?
Here’s some signs you might be in avoidance mode.
1. You don’t recognize yourself when you look in the mirror.
Every time you look in the mirror you feel like shit. Even when you try to be positive about your physical appearance, you find yourself smoothing wrinkles in your shirt over your midsection. So, you’ve started avoiding mirrors. Now, if you happen to catch a glimpse of yourself you’re shocked that what you see is you. It doesn’t look like you. It doesn’t look like what you imagine when you’re feeling good about who you are and what you’re doing in life.
Our reflection in the looking glass and our reaction to it is a good gauge for whether or not we’re allowing our body to be our home. Feeling alienated by your own body is not conducive to experiencing your personal power, focus, and will – your magick. We gotta own these bodies.
Try some self-care to learn to connect with your body on a deeper level. Ask your body some simple questions and trust the answers that your gut gives you:
2. You overthink everything.
You find it hard to trust your gut. What is intuition anyway? Isn’t part of being human our ability to approach things through logic, problem solving, and complex forms of expression? What if that gut feeling is wrong?
Part of becoming disconnected from the body is that we lose the trust of the feedback it gives us. We unlearn the language it uses to speak to us. As babies and young children, we are very good at communicating with our bodies. Our bodies are how we learn to get around in the world and to obtain all that we need for survival. Add to those basic instincts the ability to reason and discern, and we’re pure force!
Our bodies communicate in the form of sensations. From emotions, to experiencing hot or cold our bodies provide us with endless data to inform our action. What if we began with this feedback, then applied logic, and then assessed whether or not that fits with what we “thought” was true at first – intuition? This is a step by step utilized Break Method, also developed by Bizzie Gold. Using our body and mind for decision making is a game changer. It can save all kinds of anxiety and time second guessing yourself.
3. You ignore physical sensation or overindulge in sensation making activity to feel alive.
You’ve found yourself saying – I feel dead inside. Everything is dull, mundane… unexciting. Even down to knowing when you’re hungry or not. You look up from your computer screen and it’s two hours passed lunchtime and you suddenly realize your ravenous. You couldn’t cry at your grandmother’s funeral even though you were very close. During sex, you find yourself checking out and making to-do lists for the next day, or debating whether or not the giants mentioned in the Old Testament bible were actually aliens. Orgasm is overrated.
In this case, you’ve disconnected so completely from your body, if you don’t recover the connection, it will be a life altering event that finally provides you the impetus to get back in there... if it doesn’t kill you. Your body can make life exciting. What’s in there that you are avoiding? How might you address those things in order to find your way back in?
Or, perhaps you feel alive by being the life of the party. You take all the risks. Excess is your middle name. Indulging makes you feel alive. The hangover after is what feels like death. Moderation feels too boring. Day to day living is not enough to make you feel alive, and it’s only by taking your body to extremes that you get enough sensation to feel present in life. Otherwise, there’s a numbness to it all. A feeling of waiting that is nearly unbearable.
You too are disconnected from the body. Even in exploring the limits of the body you are disconnected and ignoring it. There’s not a balance. It is not sustainable. Therefore, you aren’t getting the totality of experience. You are not present for life, but constantly trying to alter it. How can you impact something for the positive if you aren’t aware of all that it currently is? What too are you avoiding? How might you address those things in order to find your way back in?
5. Your spiritual practice focuses on transcending the body.
Has escapism become a dogma for you under a spiritual guise? Flesh as weakness. Every major religion and most traditional spiritual practices have some form of this thought when taken out of context or to the extreme. Is all your chakra work in the upper triangle? Is your biggest struggle in meditation to ignore the physical sensations in your body? Do you spend hours praying your way out of struggles? Are you honing astral projection, but ignoring the stomach pains after you eat?
The truth is, looking at the chakra system and other psychological schools of thought, that most of our inner work should be around our connection to home/tribe, interpersonal relationships, and our expression of ourselves as an individual. The lower triangle of chakras, if you are familiar with that system. The things that illustrate our human experience. Without roots a tree cannot reach the heavens. Without the ability to ground into our bodies, how do we even know what we are transcending? Maybe the lesson is to – be here now.
The same three episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations played repeatedly at least three times that night. One, he was somewhere in Spain eating in a local's home. I thought of how Mimi always was the one cooking for us when we all lived together. How would Bourdain feel about her food?
I had been watching Anthony Bourdain for years. I was relieved that at least those three episodes was something of a distraction as opposed to infomercials and other random television bullshit that plays in the wee hours of the morning. Through Bourdain, I saw parts of the world that this working class mountain girl will never get to see with her own eyes. I would watch him have experiences as I would want to have them. Ask the questions I was curious about. See the parts of life that aren't just for show. His jokes felt like they were coming from a friend who got my brand of humor. Watching him felt real. There was empathy in his eyes. A knowing from somewhere deep.
I lost my Mimi not long after that night. She had played the biggest role in raising the woman I am today. Having watched her suffer, I stopped fearing death. When I understood that miraculous healing is not what we are owed and that this life is but a blip in the whole scheme of things, I realized that death means freedom. It's real freedom. And, that when she passed on, she would no longer hurt, suffer, be cold, feel bodily pain, worry, fear, or anything like that. She'd be transmuted.
I experienced the death of my grandfather, aunt, and uncle during that same period of time. And, each time, while I was sad and wished they didn't have to go, I started feeling relieved for them. They each had to suffer so much before death. Sure, you may think it morbid. Heartless even. But, freedom is boundlessness. I only want freedom and boundless nature for my loved ones.
It was within this time frame that I began to not want to exist. I wanted that boundlessness too. I was done having to be at the doctor all the time, having entire days lost to physical pain and listlessness. Done wondering if I was a good enough mother. Done trying to juggle finances and being poor despite busting tail. Done waiting to live because everything was consumed by timelines and priorities I didn't create. There was nothing to make me want to stay aside from the pain that it would cause my daughters to know that I couldn't stay for them. That was the only thing that kept me living.
You cannot judge someone for feeling this way. Sure, you can say, look at all they have going for them. Look at the life they have that I wish I had. You can call them ungrateful, negative, thoughtless, selfish... but, unless you can understand the loss of emotional attachment to living coupled with a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion associated with going about the day in and out... in and out, then you cannot know how not wanting to exist feels. You cannot judge what you cannot comprehend.
It isn't that a person does not value or see their blessed life. It isn't that they are negative or have stopped seeing beauty. And, other than putting a higher priority on their own suffering than that of their loved ones, you can't even say it is selfish. We make other similar life choices all the time. Accepting or declining medical care, smoking cigarettes, walking a tightrope, doing drugs, eating crappy food, driving the car too fast, climbing Mt. Everest... things that we deem worth the risk despite the pain it might cause to us or others in the future. In a way, that's actually living. The thing to realize is that the people who decide they don't want to exist are too exhausted to keep trying. They made the pros and cons list. They did the risk vs. benefit analysis maybe 1,000 times. And, in the moment they end it, the finality of not existing felt like freedom. Boundlessness. All else would go on. Life, for all of us is a series of struggles as much as it is blessings. We cannot save our loved ones from that experience because they are alive.
I understand how "out there" this sounds. Unless you've felt it, it's a hard thing to intellectually grasp. We are born with the instinct to survive. A newborn baby has the ability to wiggle, smell, root, and find it's mother's breast with no help when placed on her abdomen. I watched my grandmother fight for her life even after she knew it was over. We fear the unknown, naturally. Until, through experiences and chemical configurations in the brain, loneliness, and lethargy from whatever cause, the unknown becomes more appealing than the experience we are having. Suicide is NOT normal. It is NOT an answer. It's an avoidance of the problem all together.
What we have to do though is make "suicide" a word we use. We need to ask our friends about it in conversation. We need to check on the friend that seems so very strong and courageous as often as the one who is having obvious struggles. That doesn't mean a text (though that is good), it also means visits. It means getting up in their business even if it gets on their nerves. It means meeting them where they are - even when they decline invitations, finding something that they can say yes to and doing that. It's about really seeing a person. Not just a social media account. It's about eye to eye conversations. It's about belly laughs. It's talking about the tough stuff.
"As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." ~Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
In a culture that puts so much value on "manifesting" and "postivity," we cannot neglect the experiences that allow us to understand what a "happy life" means. We cannot stop giving space to our pain and hurt. We cannot underappreciate sadness.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. ~Susan David
Stop avoiding your the topic of your friend's suffering. Stop ignoring that funny look in their eyes that you kind of wanted to ask about, but didn't want to intrude or make things uncomfortable. Be willing to get uncomfortable dammit! It won't KILL you!
This past week, despite all the great things in my life, the feelings of not wanting to exist would well up from time to time. It happens when I haven't had a break and get really tired. Now, that I understand those feelings, I think I will always face them when things are especially tiring, hard, or the right combination of this or that brings them up. I have attempted suicide twice in my younger years, before I truly grasped what it was I wanted to do in attempting such a thing. Now, being a mother will keep me from attempting, because I know that I don't want to be a source of any suffering for my girls. Yoga will give me reprieve. I will be open about the thoughts and tell people that if I quit talking about it, that's when they need to pay attention most. Being unmedicated now, I know I must diligently use my new coping tools. I will teach yoga, and I will give myself and my gifts as a resource to humanity. Anyone who wants to sit with me, I will, with honor, listen and I will share if you want to know. Don't discredit me or the things I share with you because I have these feelings. Don't label me negative. Yet, I will still be ok with the thought of not waking up. I have lost my attachment to living even in all its beauty and glory. Time is only now and a long, happy life is never a guarantee. No reason to be attached.
Then, today, while wishing I had more energy to face my day, I saw that Anthony Bourdain had made the choice to end his time here on earth. I cried. I've cried multiple times. I feel like I have lost a good friend. I've openly talked about him as my favorite of favorites. His work opened the world up to me. I'm devastated especially for his daughter, whom it was obvious he loved dearly. I hope she has a good network surrounding her. I hope Anthony is free. Boundless. He, if any of us, knew the beauty this world offers as well as the bad, and understood it twice as good.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide