Why I Walk
It's been a while since I posted..... but here is an article I wrote that will be published soon.
Have you ever been part of a gathering where someone has sought to settle the group with a guided meditation to begin your time together? “Close your eyes and take three deep breaths,” are often the first words out of the leader’s mouth. But if you’re like me, all of a sudden you feel unsettled, on hyper-alert, not sure why everyone else seems so still when you are beginning to breathe faster, beginning to wonder if you are in a state of panic and soon, with every fiber of your being, wanting to escape the room.
This was my experience, and I simply thought it meant I was really bad at meditation or prayer, that I was incapable of being still and knowing God, and probably also that God wanted nothing to do with me. So I declared to the world that I could not pray. I could not center myself. I could not know God, given that I could not be still, and therefore God did not have a way to know me. I was a failure.
Breath was my enemy when I tried to focus on it. It was hard to bring the ruah, the very spirit and breath of God, into my body without wanting to escape. The breath I had had to fight for so often when I was being hurt was now something I could only avoid and run from, not pay attention to. There was no stillness. Therefore there must have been no God.
But as I began to do some work to heal from the abuse I had endured as a child, including the time my brother had almost killed me by strangulation, I discovered that I needed to go and be in nature. I began hiking every day. To my surprise, as I walked I found my emotions had room to move. As I took each step my whole system relaxed and slowed, and there was stillness in the rest of me as my body got lost in the safety of hiking through beauty.
I began to ponder this, and discovered, as many children who experience trauma from a young age do, that my automatic response to the abuse was to freeze. To try to become as invisible as possible to evade my being seen as a target. Or, if that didn’t work, to disassociate—to leave my body so that I did not feel all that was happening in such an acute way. This stillness was a survival response. Be still and stay alive. Be still and escape the pain. Be still and eventually this will stop. There was no “be still and know that I am God.” If I was still, that meant acute trauma was happening to my body in that moment.
My healing journey forced me (or, maybe more accurately, invited me) back into my body, back into feeling what had happened, but this time in a supportive environment. Yet along this journey, stillness was the exact opposite of what my body needed to find that sense of safety. Instead, I needed to move.
So hiking became my friend. I moved through the beauty of the hills, no matter the weather, even if I only had 30 minutes. Each day I moved intentionally and found that as I did so, my inner being became still, and the harsh emotions traveled into the earth beneath my feet. The thoughts and memories failed to take hold if I kept my body moving, because it was learning to escape and take control and find its power in those hills. The freeze response had no room to grip me in its patterns of terror. I had to remain present in my body as it moved through space in order to stay safe and not trip over rocks and tree roots. As I did this, my mind became still and I felt God’s presence surround me and live within me in ways I had not known before.
As my own healing began to take hold I began to learn about trauma and the different responses the body has developed to deal with it: freeze, flight, fight, and fawn. I experienced trauma from infancy, when flight and fight were not options. Fawning did not work, so freezing was the only response left (which eventually became a form of flight as I disassociated from my body). As I researched I discovered I was not alone in this experience. Recent books have focused on the somatic effects of trauma, including Bessel van der Kolk who says in The Body Keeps the Score;
“In our studies we keep seeing how difficult it is for traumatized people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. We measure our subjects’ HRV by placing tiny monitors on their arms during shavasana, the pose at the end of most classes during which practitioners lie face up, palms up, arms and legs relaxed. Instead of relaxation we picked up too much muscle activity to get a clear signal. A major challenge in recovering from trauma remains being able to achieve a state of total relaxation and safe surrender.”
The more I read, alongside my seminary studies of the Bible and other ancient religions, the more I saw how commonly people took up this practice of movement as a way to be with God after experiencing trauma. The Bible tells the story of the Israelites escaping from Egypt. They had lived traumatic lives as slaves to the Egyptians—beaten to make them work harder, given little food to eat, treated as lesser beings. After they escaped, which included hurrying through the parted Red Sea that was about to close in on them, the cries of the drowning Egyptians who chased them must have echoed in their ears.
For forty years as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, the only times they really seemed to recognize God’s presence was when they were walking. It was at those times that they could simply follow the pillar of fire or cloud. When they stopped walking they soon forgot God was there, and complained about hunger, thirst, or the leadership of Moses. Unable to be still and know God, they made idols to replace God. Yet when they walked, they did so secure in the presence of God. It was then that they knew God, as their beings stilled with each step.
Jesus himself knew movement as a way to reconnect with God too. He regularly went away to pray— whether walking up a mountain or sailing a boat across the sea, he got to the stillness through steady movement.
This seeking of the Divine, the search for God, the need for movement to accompany the search, is perhaps why so many people go on pilgrimages; traveling the path to get to a destination but, just as importantly, traveling as the destination, meeting God in the footsteps along the path. Each step allows something to move through us to create a space for God to come into. And, of course, it doesn’t have to be walking—I can find that stillness swimming laps or paddling a kayak or sewing or painting. Allowing my body to fall into a pattern that is freeing in its repetitiveness creates room for me to notice the Holy. And then I can listen, I can discern, I can feel and hear what might still need work. I can relax, I can be still and know that God is God and trust that I don’t need to be. I don’t need to be hyper-vigilant, I don’t need to be in control, I don’t need to know the big picture, I don’t need to do anything but let God be God!
As I work with others now in my ministry, we often find ourselves moving our bodies during spiritual direction sessions. We walk, dance, push, and run. We combat the frozen response to certain memories by paying attention to what the body needs to do in order to allow God in. If someone is in the midst of a flashback, we help them find the movement they wish they had been able to enact when the trauma was happening.
When we regain safety, we regain the ability to hear God speak, to feel God heal, to know God as a felt presence where there was maybe absence in the past. Our neural pathways are rerouted to create and make available new responses beyond the old patterns and thoughts. We can hear God speak into the pain and injustice and offer comfort that can be felt as our touch receptors heal. As people begin to feel their bodies once more through movement, they begin to know God in a wholly different, felt way.
Find those things that allow you to become still enough in your being to know God. Dance with the Divine, swim, play an instrument, walk, paint, knit, garden, kayak. What is it that allows your body to settle into a rhythm and find the stillness of emotions and memories and thoughts and pain? Be still in that place and allow the presence of God to come to your consciousness. Ask your questions from this place, and listen for the voice of wisdom to speak into the stillness. Know that there is nothing wrong with you if what others call meditation does not work for you, even if you have not experienced trauma. Some of us are wired differently, and that is beautiful. Some of us need to move, not as an escape but simply because our bodies need that. So move… and know God! Find your stillness, even when it looks different from that of anyone else. God created you to be complex and unique. So find what works for you. Move and seek stillness, and God will meet you there!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.