The Things We Carry— emotional baggage

Last year I was a lab virgin. This year I’m a lab veteran, meaning I’ve been to a Live Conscious Lab before. Why do the members of our small but growing community refer to these retreats as labs? Because they are places to experiment—to be totally honest, to ask for what you want, to explore your own depths.

I return home from this recent lab a different woman than the one who left home in early July. I left feeling good—maybe even a bit cocky—not only am I a veteran but I have the added advantage of having worked with the co-founders of Live Conscious in their private practices. I have this thing down, I think; I’m going to be “fine.”

And I was fine—I had a great time at the lab and I also discovered a lot about myself and the “things” I carry. I chose this title because it reflects the idea that I come with baggage—emotional baggage—I move through my life carrying the weight of my beliefs, anxieties, hopes, judgments and ideas about myself and others. I also chose this title because it reminds me of a book.

About two years ago I read a remarkable book by Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried.” It’s an autobiographical novel about O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam as a young soldier. It reads like poetry; terrible, delightful, heartbreaking poetry and it has become one of my top 20 favorite books.

What do you carry with you?

In the book, O’Brien describes his small unit of fellow soldiers by illustrating the things they carry—he begins with the obvious–back-packs filled with extra clothing, food, medication, pictures of loved ones, canteens, weapons, ammunition, etc. As the book continues he reveals the other things he and his fellow soldiers carry— fear, uncertainty, anxiety, sleeplessness, prejudice, homesickness, anger, confusion and doubt.

I thought about O’Brien’s book often while I was at the lab this month because, like the young soldiers in the book, all of my lab mates, myself included, came with stuff we carry—some of us for most of our lives. Some of us came ready to let go of our burdens, others were shy in the early days and then surprised the group with how readily and completely they dropped some of their emotional baggage. Others held tightly to their backpacks of pain or sorrow and only in the final days did they begin to lighten their load.

What I found interesting at this Lab was how we chose to let go of the weight we’ve been carrying. Early on in the Lab, Jake talked about the process of growth which he describes in his book, ReRight Your Life, as “the 5 A’s”. The beauty of the process of growth is there is an organic movement from awareness to acceptance to asking to awaiting to acting—acting in a new way as a result of this process.

Awareness is the first step

The amount of time between making myself aware (step 1) and acting in a new way (step 5) varies depending on the issue in question. Sometimes I carry such an intense “charge” about an issue that it takes time to go through the steps. Other times the process is almost instantaneous.

During the lab some of us chose to reveal and grow ourselves by sitting in the center of the circle and choosing a surrogate to represent the person we need to speak with. One of the questions Jake asked us in the early part of the lab was “what do you need to say that you haven’t said? What if you were to die tomorrow—who do you need to talk to and what do you need to say?”

With Jake’s help several participants sat in the center of the circle and spoke to a person who represented a significant other—a parent or sibling for example. Many spoke from different voices—at times they were still children, hurt and wounded and unable to care for or protect themselves. Other times they sounded like angry teens still smarting from their wounds but beginning to individuate and stand up for themselves. The growth happens when I can move myself from the immature voice of a child into the mature voice of my adult self.

We can change the meaning of our lives

Many of us at this year’s lab were middle-aged and yet we still carried wounds and resentments from our early childhood. With Jake and Hannah’s help we began to awaken ourselves to the idea that we can actually change how we make meaning of our lives. This involves accepting our pasts and recognizing how we have defined ourselves with our pasts, and then redefining ourselves.

Some of us were able to move easily from the child’s voice to the mature voice and experienced dynamic and profound shifts in how we view and define ourselves.

Other members of the group were more resistant in the early days feeling that the task was too difficult or too daunting to tackle at the time. The beauty of a lab is that there is no pressure and individuals are encouraged to own exactly who they are and how they are feeling in the moment.

For me, this is the grace of the second of the 5 A’s—acceptance. When I aware myself of how I am feeling and what I am doing, my next step is to be honest with myself and simply accept how I am feeling in the moment. The rest of the A’s help me grow myself, but acceptance, for me is the key.

The weight under which I’ve lived

I had a profound moment of growth and acceptance in the latter days of the lab and much of my growth was based on releasing a weight I have been carrying since I was very young. I wasn’t at all aware of this weight—it had become a part of me and I had lived with it for so long that I completely disoriented myself when it slipped off my shoulders without any effort on my part except my willingness and awareness in the moment.

It was the afternoon before the last day and we were doing one of Hannah’s sensory experiences. Hannah is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met and the most intuitive. She has the ability to read the group as we sit and talk, and without fail she chooses an activity or sensory awareness exercise that will help us bond as a group while at the same time deepen our connection with ourselves.

That afternoon she has us do the tunnel exercise. The group splits into pairs and forms a curved tunnel by having people face each other and standing about 2 feet apart. We have our arms extended slightly and the person at the head of the tunnel puts on a blindfold and walks blindly through the tunnel. In the background is music that matches perfectly with the experience and when it is my turn, I blindfold myself and step timidly into the tunnel.

I have my hands raised and slightly extended and each time I veer to either side a soft guiding hand meets mine and with a light touch helps me back on course. The first time I go through the tunnel I am uncertain of the help I need and I feel shaky and anxious. When I get to the end, one of my lab mates holds my hand and returns me to the “end of the tunnel.” I remove my blindfold and assume my role as a guide for my fellow tunnelers.

My entire life changed

As I watch my lab mates find their way down the tunnel with the gentle and soft guidance of the others something begins to crumble inside of me and by the time I walk down the tunnel the second time I am weeping. By my third pass I am sobbing and after my fourth trip I am beginning to understand what is happening to me.

After we’ve all gone through several times, we sit down and talk about our experiences. I am not the only person to be deeply moved by the tunnel. Many of us revel in the delight and love we feel and how profoundly moving it is to feel supported and guided by our fellows. I am still sobbing quietly and eventually I share with the group that for the first time in my life I feel safe. And I’m aware that every part of me feels safe—I am mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and “cellularly” safe. I am so moved I am unable to voice much more and when we break for dinner I return to sobbing.

Before I head to the dinner hall and another lovely meal, I spend some time settling into myself and my new sense of “safeness.” I stand looking west in the front of a large Ponderosa Pine and I feel myself extending my own roots into the ground and into a new definition of myself. I feel my arms spread wide and my head and eyes rise to meet the top branches of the tree as I announce myself. “I am here,” I say, “I am safe.”

The final day we say goodbye to each other. We are sweet and gentle with each other and ourselves. We are aware that life is precious, that nothing is permanent and we are all more aware of ourselves and the loads we have shed and the baggage we still carry. We move slowly and notice the world around us in a careful and attentive manner.

I changed the meaning of my life

When I leave I don’t look back—I have no regrets about leaving the weight of my childhood fear behind me—my fear is buried safely with the roots of the Ponderosa Pine and it lies at the foot of the Ocamora Mountain. I choose to leave my burden in the beautiful country of northern New Mexico.

It would be a perfect ending if I could tell you that I buried that weight several days ago and left it there for the rest of my life, but that is not true. I have felt the weight of my emotional baggage since returning home, but the difference is that I know I can put it down. I know I have a choice.

Not only did I leave some baggage behind, I also carried home some effective practices and solutions. My expectations of myself are more realistic. Or as Hannah said, “That is exactly the practice. Lose ourselves, find ourselves, lose ourselves, find ourselves.”

If you’re in the habit of feeling anxious or if you feel you have lost yourself, it is my experience that a Live Conscious lab can help you find yourself and you may discover along the way that much of the weight you have been carrying is unnecessary and ancient baggage. Life is short.





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