There is a wonderful scene in the movie Starting Over, in which Burt Reynolds is in the furniture section of a big department store with his girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) when she proceeds to have an anxiety attack right there in the store. She is moving in with him and this transition is bringing up oceans of anxiety for her. As he struggles in a bewildered fashion to help her pull herself together and get her emotions under control, he looks up to find that they are surrounded by hoards of curious shoppers. He shouts out, “Quick, does anyone have a Valium?” at which point one hundred hands fish frantically into their coat pockets and purses.
I can relate to Jill Clayburgh’s character in that I have experienced rivers of anxiety (fear) each year when my daughter transitions back to school. And I have noticed that I am not alone. The month of September can be a time of collective anxiety shared by many parents. But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that we live out our lives on an ocean of fear. From time to time, in even the hardiest of us, feelings of fear surface. These anxieties may be about death, loss of a loved one, loss of income, being sick, fear of failure, etc. They are always present, hidden deep within, and they surface under certain circumstances.
As our children move through different developmental stages, our own demons and struggles from similar periods in our lives can resurface in particular situations. They can make themselves known with a sudden jolt of recognition, or they may simply be floating around, cloud-like at the edges of our consciousness. Certain familiar situations can trigger intense reactions on our part that have more to do with us then with our children. The reaction might reveal itself as our own anxiety, or even feelings of real trauma resurfacing. Witnessing our children in school can bring up our own rivers of anxiety hiding in our shadow bag. Robert Bly refers to this bag as the buried emotions we acquire early in life that continues to grow and grow, leaving a trail miles long by the time we are adults.
In my case, there was an ancient trauma stored at the bottom of my bag begging to be healed. Since the time my daughter entered pre-school, a veritable river of grief and fear would begin to surface in me toward the end of August. This trauma contained a pearl disguised as a two-headed beast: the grief – which has had a few strands of its own: letting go of the open space with minimal time constraints, being attached to the beautiful intimacy my family shared after spending so much time together, and knowing that when school began, my daughter as I know her, would go underground once again. The anxiety – its other face, was a different story altogether. It held the seeds of my childhood experience with regards to separation, as well as the intuition that my daughter wasn’t where she should be. This river of grief and fear is never as close to me as when I think that she may be experiencing some of the separation anxiety I experienced when I was her age.
I am convinced that these rivers runs through us all, carrying deep, perhaps archetypal feelings we rarely come in contact with or even know exist until faced with whatever it is that releases them from its shadow bag. In my situation, it has been separating from my daughter and feeling her own fears around it as well. What was mine, what was hers, and what was the present scenario trying to reveal? It’s impossible to know for sure. Perhaps a montage of past onto present time, piecing together various moments of our life’s film into a whole. Together, we have survived: four years of anxiety (both of ours), not wanting to go to school (hers), countless sleepless nights (mine), angry and out of control outbursts (both of ours), fevers (hers), unending inquisition (mine), and frenetic, ungrounded energy (hers). Clearly lots of soil to tend.
As many of you know, I am passionate about bringing mindfulness practices to my life as well as to those who work with me. Mindfulness practice can have a positive impact on anxiety. How do we bring mindfulness when we are hooked into the throws of fear? In my attempt to bring mindfulness to my own anxiety, I saw it as a two-fold process that involved attuning to each strand of fear as it arised. I recognized it as a universal experience and this helped to depersonalize the fear. Additionally, if you can manage to remain centered in the moments the anxiety arises and recognize both the stressfulness of the situation and your impulses to react, you have already introduced a new dimension into the mix. Because of this, you can actually allow yourself to feel threatened or fearful or angry or hurt and to feel the tension in your body in these moments. The capacity to respond mindfully develops each time we experience discomfort or pain or strong feelings and we just observe them and work at letting them be there as they are, without reacting. The practice itself grounds us in alternative ways of seeing and responding to reactive states within ourselves, moment to moment. The moments we do react, just start over.
And in the moment to moment of starting over at a new school, my daughter and I have experienced an exciting and joyous beginning. What is being reinforced is that my intuition was speaking all along. As I suspected, she was overstimulated and ill at ease in her being at the other schools. The pace was too quick with little understanding of the rhythm between the inner and outer breath. For us – too much, too soon! As my daughter so eloquently said to me, “This is the first time that I feel rested in school.” To watch her run toward her friends with boundless joy, and only after the second day, with not so much as a glance backward is a scenario I couldn’t have imagined. For the first time, I have a clear vision of what it looks like when she is being held by a school and a teacher that truly honors a child her age. I am baring witness to the exquisite mirroring of a right match – body, spirit, and heartmind. The years of my anxiety washing away down the river.