A story for those feeling overwhelm in life. That feeling of not being able to move, crushed by everything being too much. And a possible path through – how you might work to dissipate this.
I lay in bed, with hardly the energy to raise my arm to get the next episode of the binge-watch to play on my phone. Luckily there is auto-play – it will start within 5 seconds if I can wait that long. I just have to press one button to skip the credits and then it will jump right into the show. Now I can turn off for the next 45 minutes. A sense of relief floods my brain.
The designers of the app know exactly what to give me when I’m in the cave. Being “in the cave” is what I call it when I’m overwhelmed and I go lie down and shut myself off from everything. I don’t want to be seen by anyone, and I lie there pretty much comatose.
It can happen with big transitions with job or living situation, with big shifts in daily schedule, everything being in different places or times. And for sure there is a cumulative effect from the past two years of pandemic that many of us are feeling – the lack of social contact with friends, everything being online, the postponement of all plans of the future – I don’t need to tell you. Things are available again but there is a sense of learned helplessness that many are feeling.
When it occurs, this feeling for me is like being squashed. Flattened out like a pancake. Overwhelm itself like a force pushing down on me from above.
And, if I work with it, it might take a while – perhaps as long as a few months depending how willing I am – but I come out the other side feeling absolutely amazing. Stronger than ever, overflowing with joy, so much energy that I can hardly contain it.
The process of going through this overwhelm a number of times and coming out the other side has made me stronger. This post, and the next one, describe the solution that I’ve developed arising from the teachings I’ve studied. I’ve used it successfully many times to move through states of overwhelm and back into clarity and joy. I share this in the hope that it may be of benefit to you dear reader in the times you face your overwhelm, when you are in your version of the cave.
The path is in two parts – 1) Walk the Path of Tiger and 2) Dance the Path of Snow Lion. This post describes how to Walk the Path of Tiger. Dancing the Path of Snow Lion will be the next post. I would say that in the period I’m sharing about here it took me about two to three months to move through the two parts of this process.
Walking the Path of Tiger
Step 1: The first step is to decide to take a step – find your willingness.
At first I experienced the overwhelm for several weeks. This has a confusing quality to it – wondering what the hell is going on! And then it takes a while to come into full consciousness of what’s happening. What am I feeling? This is one of the most difficult aspects of confusion – by definition it is confusing! So we have to keep coming back to this question – what am I feeling, and becoming willing to really care enough about it to work to change it.
After investigating this question – what am I feeling – for a while I realized – oh, I am not feeling joy and contentment in life. Then I asked myself – how do I know to reclaim that. I remembered that I already know how to do this. So I decided to set about consciously following the path of Tiger. I started writing down this conscious choice of path in my journal every day, and set up structures to remind myself constantly of this decision I had made. This is key to move through the confusion: we need constant reminding.
Step 2: Summon your Tiger.
When I’m feeling total overwhelm, at first I am squashed, totally squashed. Constantly turning around doing one thing then the next but going nowhere. There is confusion, and a not-knowing of how to get out. And then sometimes it all becomes too much and I go in the cave. But at a certain point, an inner wisdom message comes through. There is a reaching inside, and a calling upon an indestructible nature of Warrior. My inner Tiger.
In the face of overwhelming force pressing downward, we can stand up. We have the strength if we call upon it. Call upon your inner warrior nature, which is made of indestructible crystal clear diamond. It cannot be squashed, it has not been – for proof of that you can see that you are still here. And not just here, but totally ok. So summon it, feel it welling up through your center. While everything is pressing down with unbelievable force, we can feel this diamond-warrior-tiger-skeleton standing up, uncompressed by overwhelm, even if everything around you feels compressed and solid, your core is not.
Having felt our inner strength this way, even for an instant – keep cultivating it. Keep calling upon it, sensing it. When I feel strong and powerful I can feel my connection to it powerfully, and I sense it as a flowing torrent of energy. In the days of overwhelm I can barely sense it. But that’s all I need, just that little bit. Like putting your hand on the outside of a stove and feeling the warmth – you might not be able to see the raging fire inside but you know that something like that must be in there.
Step 3: Let Tiger Move.
Once we have felt a connection to this strength in even the tiniest way we can let it move – let it take one tiny step out of the cave. Begin to stop paying attention to the ongoing forces of overwhelm, just pay attention to the warrior inside you. And allow it to move your feet.
For me this looked like first choosing to press stop on Netflix. Then the next tiny move was to push myself off the bed, at first finger by finger, then limb by limb, and place my feet on the floor. Push myself up off the bed to a standing position. Slowly, but also continuously. When I stopped, I kept calling on this inner strength to again start moving inch by inch. The difference between moving at a crawling pace and not moving at all is infinite.
Once standing I could move a little faster – I put a towel in a bag, walked slowly out the door, got in my car and drove to a nearby lake. Still at a slow pace, although getting a little faster now, I walked into the water and went for a swim, a splash around in the water.
It’s important to note that the feeling of overwhelm did not stop. I just shifted my attention away from it, towards this inner tiger warrior strength. Rather than trying to make my feet move, I allowed this inner strength to move them, and my job was to not block it. This is a critical piece of the process.
It’s like what I see parents do with children – the child is chattering away about all the reasons why they shouldn’t have to wear their coat, all while the parent is doing up the buttons on their coat, preparing to go outside. The conversation about not doing the thing is still happening, but it’s separated entirely from the actions that are taking place. We disconnect from believing all the reasons we’re coming up with as to why we can’t move or do a particular action. The heaviness and the reasons are all still there, the mind is still chattering away with them, but nonetheless we let the body move anyway.
I knew that moving the body would create a shift in mood, and it did. Mood follows action, not the other way around. This is an incredibly important shift to make, one of the most important pieces of knowledge to metabolize into your being as part of this path of Tiger: mood follows action.
After a swim everything felt different. I felt amazing. Not forever, just for a while, but that was enough. That was everything in that moment.
Step 4: Let yourself take another step
To walk the path of tiger is to repeat this process, over and over. Each time is a step on the path. Calling on your inner strength when the sense of overwhelm is too much rather than allowing yourself to be completely flattened indefinitely. Love yourself to cultivate just the tiniest amount of willingness to stand up tall. We only need a drop of willingness to get started, and only need to move an inch or centimeter at first.
As I engage upon and walk down this path at first it is just hard, and there is not much sense of any progress. Then it leads to a period of cycling, where I feel great for a little while, then totally overwhelmed again. This experience is likely familiar to you dear reader. Then over time as I keep working with it there are fewer periods of overwhelm. And then suddenly there tends to be a big breakthrough where I burst into a space of joy. Having gone through this process a number of times now, this seems to be how it goes.
Tiger walks through the jungle, one paw in front of the next. Knowing who it is, clear on boundaries around herself. Tiger takes care of herself. Brushes her teeth, goes to bed at a good time, exercises – all the basics for a life of contentment that can be so difficult when we are overwhelmed. In these times, strip everything else away and call upon your Tiger. Go out and go for a walk, turn off Netflix and go to sleep, eat a good meal instead of chips on the sofa.
Each one of these is a step and we just take one step at a time. When I’m overwhelmed if I think of doing all the things (going exercising, sleeping well, eating well etc.) that adds to the overwhelm. Walking the path of Tiger – the emphasis on walking – is about tackling just the project at hand, right now in each moment, which is perhaps brushing your teeth, or putting on your shoes to go outside.
There is a sense of putting on some blinders, to bring the focus right down to what is within 3 feet of you. Become very intimate with yourself. Just focus on what you can touch, what you are doing with your hands right now, what your limbs are doing.
We might feel embarrassed that this is where we are at, that we are having difficulty with the basic aspects of life. This is where the contentment of Tiger comes in – nobody else’s opinion matters. It’s just you, and right now brushing your teeth is your edge and that is just where it’s at.
And it is a path we need to walk down for some time – I felt great after going for a swim, and yet the overwhelm was still there. So I continued to do the next thing, calling upon this strength. As we keep doing this, we keep moving one paw up, one paw down, we begin to move down the path, and it becomes easier. Not right away, but gradually as we keep moving.
We already know the things that are good for us and which are not. We already have the wisdom that we need to know the difference between when watching Netflix, or any other activity is enjoyable and beneficial, and when it is being in the cave. We also know deep down when being in the cave might be part of healing and recovery for us, and when it is harmful, a strategy that has become maladaptive.
The result of walking down this path, step by step, excruciatingly slowly at first, then with some increase of pace, is a level of contentment. A basic okay-ness, rather than the total darkness and squashed feeling of the cave. The overwhelm is still there, but we are moving through the resistance nonetheless and that feels good. If we keep taking steps, before too long we will end up sauntering down the trail, and suddenly we start to notice the sunlight and the chirping of birds. They have been there all along but it takes a commitment to begin walking for us to notice.