Guest Post by Nina Lalumia
At least since the time of Aristotle (the fourth century B. C.), the idea that there are four basic elements–earth, water, air and fire–has been an important theme in our culture. Aristotle himself used this idea to understand the physical world. He thought about the four elements much the same way that chemists today understand elements such as hydrogen and carbon. The basic idea is that underlying any change that we perceive there MUST be something that remains stable and the same. Physical change is understood as different mixtures, additions and subtractions of elements that do NOT change. Aristotle also understood the human body as composed of all four elements: earth because the body has solidity and we eat food that comes from the earth; water because we have blood, sweat and tears, and because we drink fluids; air because as long as we live we are constantly breathing air in and out, inhaling and exhaling; and fire because we are warm and seem to burn the food we eat.
But the four elements can also be understood in a psychological or spiritual manner. The thoughts of our mind are airy, because they can drift like a balloon to many different locations in space and both to the past and to the future. Still today we may call a person an “airhead” if their thoughts and words float all over the place like a balloon tossed about in the wind. In contrast, our body is relatively stable: it cannot travel in time (not yet, anyhow!), and it travels from place to place only gradually and with effort–certainly before the advent of modern methods of transportation. And we describe a person who is present and focused as being “grounded.”
These symbols–air for the mind and its floating thoughts, earth for the relatively solid and stable body–are helpful for me in understanding a difficulty that I have. As a strongly empathetic person, I often feel invaded and overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of other people. I feel that I have very weak or porous boundaries. It sometimes feels like I live in a room that has no doors or windows that I can shut. I feel that I have no peace or privacy in which I might be able to give attention to my own thoughts and feelings.
I reckon that many empathetic or highly sensitive people (HSPs) have similar experiences. But I recently learned an important lesson from Caroline van Kimmenade, who produces the website thehappysensitive.com. This site offers many useful resources for understanding what it means to be a highly sensitive person, an empathetic person or an empath, and how to manage these abilities, these vulnerabilities, and live happily and productively. She also offers online coaching.
Caroline pointed out to me that in many cases I am the one who crosses boundaries into the space or territory of other people. The way I do this is by thinking: by trying to figure out what other people are thinking or feeling. My motivation for doing this is to avoid conflict: I’m always trying to please other people or at least avoid upsetting them. Then I adapt myself in order to act and be the way I think will please them.
The important realisation that I had is that, although I often feel invaded or controlled by other people, this particular phenomenon is something that I am responsible for. I don’t have to let my airy balloon thoughts float over into other people’s space or territory. I can bring my airy thoughts back down into my earthy body. Paradoxically, the best way for me to do this is to focus on my breathing. Yes, of course breathing involves air, but the activity of breathing in and out is the most noticeably constant activity of our body. In particular, normal healthy breathing involves the motion of our diaphragm, the complex muscular layer at the base of the rib cage. When we breathe in, it pushes down into a bowl shape, and we feel our belly expand. This muscular motion creates an empty space, a vacuum, in our chest cavity and draws air into the lungs. That’s the real work of breathing. Breathing out normally requires no effort: we simply relax the diaphragm, it comes back up, flattens out, and air easily flows out of the lungs.
So what I mean by “focusing on my breathing” is directing my attention to these activities of my body. When I intend to do this, for a while my airy thoughts still tend to float into different times (past and future) and different places (in particular, into other people’s spaces). But the basic technique of meditation is to notice when your thoughts float away, and gently draw them back to focus on your breathing. As far as topics go, the activity of breathing is not very interesting. This is a good thing, because eventually our thoughts settle down back into our body and rest there. For all intents and purposes, we stop thinking about anything at all. We remain aware, but are not thinking about anything in particular.
One obstacle to reaching this state of resting back into the earthy body is actually thinking about our breathing. For me, this takes the form of inner thoughts counting my breaths, giving them numbers, or an inner voice saying things like “In and out, in and out.” I think this is my mind’s way of resisting rest, of holding on to its own activity and independence. I have found a way to deal with this: I say simple words with a rocking, lullaby rhythm: Breathe deeply in and then starting on the next breath out: “La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…” The first ‘La’ is a breath out, the second ‘la’ is a breath in, and so on for each pair of sing-song syllables.
My ten sing-song syllables play the role of what many practitioners of meditation call a “mantra.” The strategy in any case is to give the mind something fairly empty to chew on. Eventually, if all goes well, it calms down and we are simply breathing and simply aware, but not thinking about anything. The airy thought balloon has landed back in the earthy body.
After a fairly brief session of this kind of meditation, I can open my eyes and my mind again and see things more clearly. I can feel that I have needs and wants just as other people do. I grow more aware of my own feelings and can separate them from the feelings of others.
Now I am in a better position to put healthy boundaries in place: primarily by having the courage to say No to some things, and by saying Yes carefully, slowly–only after considering my current feelings and thoughts, and after considering the consequences of saying Yes. Am I truly ready and willing to accept the consequences of saying Yes–come what may? If I don’t take the time to consider such things, I am liable to say Yes only to please other people–or to do what I THINK will please them.
It is much healthier to talk with the person or people involved. Talking–real talking out loud–like breathing, is something we do with our bodies. Our vibrating vocal cords and the shaping motions of our mouth, tongue and teeth shape sound waves that set the eardrums of other people in motion, and so on.
I speak and the other listens; the other speaks and I listen. If all goes well, we can reach an agreement, a plan, a boundary that at the very least we both honestly can tolerate. It may get better than that, but we shouldn’t let it get worse.
These are things that I have learned about and am still finding difficult to put into practice. But when I do put them into practice, things go better.
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Notes on words
This sense of ‘grounded’ or ‘grounding’ arrived quite recently. The OED gives this quote from Allen Ginsberg in New Age Journal (1976): “Trungpa’s position was that ‘psychadelics’ are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is.” Trungpa was a teacher of Buddhist meditation.
‘Mantra’ comes from Sanskrit and was first based in Hinduism, where it meant the intention one has in mind when saying or doing something. ‘Manta’ and related Sanskrit words are the roots of our word ‘mind.’