coping with stress

Staying Soft in Hard Times

I’ve been considering how we (‘we’ here meaning beings of Earth) are literally the eyes, ears, lungs and kidneys –the filters and sensors, the processors, of the world. I imagine the work of our hands, our mouths and stomachs, our minds, our souls, as the work of change; of transmutation. We are, daily, in the practice of breaking things apart, and mixing things together.  Within us, our bodies never stop alchemically processing; diffusing oxygen, distilling salts, pulverizing food, infusing enzymes, extracting proteins, connecting neural pathways...Without a constant flow of these functions, we seize up.  Outside of us, we choose (consciously or not) how to engage with the world.  What things do we crush, mix, cook and consume?  What things or beings do we soften or solve (as in solvent) and connect with? How do we alchemically work on each other in every interaction?  

I’ve also been considering how we are impacted by the increasing amounts of pollution we process through the air we inhale, the water we drink, the food we eat, the environments we inhabit, the often harsh information and relationships (or lack of) we negotiate. Thinking of all of this, with our function as the world’s processors in mind, the notion that we are living in ‘hard times’ takes on another dimension.


The dominant story of “success” as financial excess, convenience, “comfort”, independence and even domination has hijacked our transmutational gifts and capabilities toward endless consumption; consumption of already processed and reprocessed things and relationships. In physical terms, we call the byproducts of processing “waste” (which is accurate only insofar as we don’t use or value what is actually the stuff of the alchemical nigredo—the fertilizer for new growth). With so many people-processors hard at work for “success” making byproduct “waste” to be thrown away, out of sight and mind, we are now faced with a gigantic pile-up of shit.  In other words, as many of us are aware, we have created and repressed our garbage (waste, pollution, toxicity, trauma, hatred –the things we’d rather not process) at a faster rate than we can filter or even sense.

So where does this leave us?  What is this situation asking of us as the processors of the world; as transmutation specialists?  In the face of such a task, it’s easy to tense up –to brace and get rigid.  But I’m realizing that instead I have to continue learning how to open and stretch out my capacity --to take in more, to burn more, to dissolve more, to forgive more, to love more, to let go more.  I’m also learning how important it is to not add to the collective waste pile. In terms of working as a psychotherapist, I attempt this by coming into proximity with people (with trust, emotional softness, solutio) and inviting their personal struggles and shadows with compassion and interest, rather than judgement or rejection.

This kind of stance requires openness and flexibility (softness), but also requires the safety of a container which requires boundaries and fidelity (hardness). Yoga, translating from Sanskrit as “union”, is one way I work my capacity for relating within a ‘union’, or balance, of softness and hardness in my work as a therapist.  Rob Loud*, a favorite yoga teacher of mine, reminds us in class from time to time to bring our attention to the balance between using effort and being relaxed. He’ll often bring this balancing point to attention when we are holding a pose that begins to make our muscles burn by saying something like “how can you stay soft in hard situations?” How can we gain strength in difficult positions by letting go of our tense thinking about how hard it is, and by finding the softness of a more detached way of witnessing what we are experiencing in the moment?

I think of this question when I consider the task I’ve imagined for myself of filtering and transmuting my garbage (and if we really are a ‘we’, then anyone’s garbage is, in a sense, my garbage…but that’s another topic). This image of filtering brings to mind something else Rob jokingly shared, which I can’t fully remember, but it had something to do with passing a kidney stone --and yes! This is what things feel like right now in the world.  How do we process and pass such hard, nasty things?  Fascism, endless war, environmental catastrophe, overwhelming greed and poverty—the list grows every day. 

If I think of a kidney, it has to be soft and flexible to let something hard pass through.  And as soft and flexible as it may be, it’s still going to hurt to pass the stone, but if we resist passing it and tense up, it just makes the agony worse. If I think of us as relational beings in the world processing our psychological garbage piles, we have to be soft and flexible, and as soft and flexible as we may be, it’s still going to hurt to process these things.  But as much as it’s going to hurt, it doesn’t help to hold them in.  These fears, regrets, frustrations, resentments, judgements, hurts (the stuff of garbage piles) need to be transmuted –dissolved, diffused, re-membered, re-worked.  To unclog ourselves of our shadowy but fertile messes; the messes in our relationships, in our bodies, in our politics, in our environments, we need to open wide and let things move.

There are, of course, many reasons someone might not want to open wide and let go.  It’s often painful and scary, and as mentioned already, the intuitive reaction to ‘painful and scary’ is many times to tense up and try to control.  But in a safe and contained environment, like a therapeutic session, we can approach opening up and looking at what is present little by little.  Paying more attention to what is present = more conscious awareness. More conscious awareness = less repression.  Less repression = smaller collective (and personal) shit-piles. Which brings my attention back to the importance of form-contained practices like yoga, where we are given constant opportunities to cultivate, as slowly as needed, an awareness of what is arising in the present moment (including our garbage piles) via attention to embodied experience and breath. 

So, what does this have to do with passing kidney stones?  If we are giving attention to our garbage as it arises in our experience, rather than projecting it outward in blame (for example) then we can do our part to manage the amount of “waste” that needs processing.  If we are tracking our relational experiences by staying in touch with how we feel rather than banishing our reactions to the oubliettes of sub-consciousness to be forgotten (and thereby unwittingly repeated, but that’s another topic), then we are not building up gigantic kidney stones (or shit-piles – whichever metaphor you prefer) which, if not dealt with, may get stuck, or infected, or infested, or Trump-tastic land, or pick-your-adventure...

By resisting the temptation to get hard and rigid, impervious, to our own feeling and those around us, perhaps we can avoid the resulting build up.  Like our internal physical systems require flex and softness in order to process and keep things in flow, our relational and emotional processing systems also need to maintain an alchemical flow of sorts.  It seems that especially in hard times, when we are charged with dealing with extra garbage of all kinds, our capacity to digest and transmute and keep things flowing is all the more important.  I’m dedicated to supporting this kind of softness and attention in and around me in all the ways I know how, and I’m thankful there are so many loving people who are devoted to actively doing the same.  Together, and softly, we’ve got this.

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 *Rob’s approach to yoga and teaching is inspiring and methodical; he’s an excellent firestarter for anyone curious about trying yoga, and a wellspring for those wanting to deepen their work. To check out his classes visit