A practice to teach yourself to sit with uncertainty
Uncertainty is a word that echoes around me at the moment. During these strange and difficult times, I have heard over and over again, ‘things are uncertain’ and ‘I don’t know what is going to happen ...’. I too have found myself uttering these words.
I confess that one of my major triggers of anxiety is uncertainty. I fear what I can’t control and have done so since I was little. For many years worry controlled and defined me, becoming a dominant part of my personality. I worried so much during my teenage years that my mother often called me a ‘worry wart.’ It was the day she died that I had my first severe anxiety attack. Intuitively I knew what her death meant, but at the tender age of just 23, my life had been shattered and there was no possible way I could ever piece it back together. I felt orphaned and immediately exiled into the dark forest of uncertainty. In sheer terror, I found I couldn’t breathe. In the years that followed, I struggled with anxiety and depression. While lost in this darkness, I also had experiences related to my mother that I could not logically explain and struggled to find the language to articulate them. Eventually, I silently placed them in a box in my mind and listed them under the general category of ‘spiritual’.
Since the pandemic hit, I have found myself questioning my true nature. Gradually I am realising that I am not a worry wart. My tendency to overanalyse situations and drop into worry were responses to experiences I had earlier in life. Over time, these responses were reinforced by thoughts, which gradually became habits and beliefs.
So, while still fearful, I have been focusing on each step as I continue to move through the forest of the unknown. One important practice that is helping me move forward with courage is willingness, and in this story, I explain how it has helped me.
Willingness as a practice
Willingness is a practice I discovered by accident recently. In the English language, willingness means to be ready or prepared to do something. In his book, Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Stephen Hayes (2005) presents a strategy to help deal with anxiety and depression based broadly on this idea. Essentially, willingness is about teaching yourself to sit with uncomfortable emotions and develop awareness around how your mind and body responds to the experience of them. For example, does your mind catastrophise situations or does it try to distract you? To help develop this awareness, Hayes offers a simple technique. You sit in a quiet location, take a deep breath and then hold it for as long as you can. While you hold your breath, you scan your body asking questions like what emotions are bubbling up? Where do they sit in my body? How is my mind responding? The critical thing is to stay as much as possible in a neutral and curious state so that you can witness your emotions and thoughts and not act on them immediately.
Funnily enough, before learning about Hayes’ technique, I had already started a similar one during lockdown. A friend of mine, Bronwyn Lea, who is a trauma therapist, recommended the Wim Hof method. After practising his technique for a while, she noticed that she had more energy and felt more connected to life. Since fatigue was something I was struggling to deal with, I thought I would give it a go. The method was devised by Wim Hof, a former athlete, who became the subject of scientific enquiry after he demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to withstand extreme cold conditions. Notably, he is able to plunge into icy cold water and maintain his temperature, breathing and heart rate. Hof claims that the unique breathing pattern he developed, along with other practices, helps him control his body’s physiological processes. The pattern comprises taking 30 deep breaths, holding your breath for as long as you can and then taking a 15-second recovery breath. This cycle is repeated multiple times.
The little death
The first time I practised the Hof method, I had an intense experience that took me completely by surprise. I began the session by watching Hof’s safety video and then did his guided meditation. During the first round of holding my breath, I felt immediately uncomfortable. I sensed a large ball of tension and heavy energy sitting in my stomach. I desperately wanted to breathe. After resisting the urge to inhale, my imagination started to play a short film.
The film went like this. I woke up in a deep and narrow shaft deep underground, covered by a large textile blanket. It was cold and dark. I was fine for the first few moments but then I realised where I was. A warm wave of panic washed over my body. In my mind, I was screaming, ‘I want to get out of this pit!’ Fear ravaged my body until a clear thought crossed the surfaced of my mind: ‘I am going to die.’ A cold wave of acceptance poured over me. Then, in my mind’s film, I exhaled for the last time and transformed. I became a luminous river, made up of thousands of tiny stars, and floated out of my body, upwards and out of the shaft. While this was happening, I began to experience a sense of deep peace. In the final scene, I saw a man I could only describe as an Inkan representative; he had short, dark hair, and was wearing a long decorative tunic. He saw and greeted me in my transformed stated, and then commanded me to go and serve the ancestors. The film ended as I finally take in a deep breathe.
The origins of the short film
I am the first to admit that I have a vivid imagination and upon reflection, the origins of my mind’s film are now obvious to me. My imagination had drawn inspiration from my PhD research and also an incomprehensible event that took place the day my mother died. I spent almost a decade researching Inkan human sacrifice and many of the details of the film were inspired by archaeological and ethnohistorical accounts of children and young adults who were ceremonially buried alive at important shrines around the Inkan empire, Tawantinsuyu (see Dunbar 2015, Reinhard and Ceruti 2010 among others). My research led me to study the case of a 10-year old girl, who was sacrificed by the Inka on a mountain in Peru. While surveying her shrine, I often found myself wondering what her final moments were like and what she felt. Where I could not find answers in my waking life, at times, they came in dreams. All that I experienced in the field and in my dreaming life made me question the very nature of our existence.
When building the final scene for my mind’s film, my imagination was informed by an occurrence that took place within hours after my mother’s death. My mother had died suddenly in the early hours of the morning at home. At the time, I was living interstate. In a shocked and shattered state, I travelled by plane, accompanied by my godparents and their family. To this day, I hold immense gratitude for their support; I was simply too fragile to travel on my own. Almost twelve hours later, I finally arrived home. I walked into my mother’s room, half-wishing that I would wake up from the nightmare and find her still alive, reading while drinking a cup of soup in bed. As I opened the door, I scanned her room. No one was there, but it was filled with an immense energy — how I can describe it to you? It was like a whole luminous universe occupied the room’s four walls. Invisible specks of light like stars swirled and danced around me. I remember thinking the experience was ‘angelic’. In that moment, I felt the deepest peace I had ever experienced and have longed for it ever since.
While I believed in life after death at the time, my ideas and beliefs were unclear and undefined. Years later, after working in the Andes, I began to see parallels between my experience and the cosmologies related to death of traditional Andean communities, such as Kallawaya, who reside in the Bolivian Andes. Joseph Bastien (1985), for example, conducted research on the Kallawaya perspective of health and disease. He noted that the Kallawaya believed that the human body is animated by the alma (soul), and animu (life force). Importantly, the Kallawaya do not perceive these as ‘entities’. Instead, they are conceived as fluids, like rivers, circulating through the human body while a person is living, but flow out of the body upon death (Bastien 1985, 99). I now understand that for a brief moment in my mother’s room, I had witnessed something of the great mystery. I remembered that I was a part of something far greater. And I may have even felt the animu and the alma of my mother. A deeply spiritual and intangible experience.
The power of the little death
So, how does my mind’s film relate to the practice of willingness? While holding my breath, my imagination showed me the nature of my darkest fear: death. It also showed me what I had yet to fully integrate spiritually and emotionally. There is no doubt that my heart was broken the day my mother died. For many years afterwards, to avoid the pain, I overworked myself, refusing to take proper rest when needed. Anxiety and depression hunted me down after a while, forcing me to collapse. Now, the practice of willingness is helping me build my strength again. Holding my breath in, I suspend myself in the realm of death for a brief moment. As I do, my instinctual self speaks to me in words and images, showing me what I need to face — unprocessed grief and disappointment, the pain of what death took and what I will never have. Once the emotion is acknowledged, there is a release and then, there is peace, sweet peace. I breathe again and return to everyday life stronger and more resilient.
The power of the little death lies in teaching us to acknowledge our feelings and emotions and surrender them. As we hold our breath and track the darkness within, we afford ourselves the opportunity to confront and vanquish it. We gain perspective as it dissipates. We understand that we are connected to something far greater than us but also supports us lovingly, just as a mother does her child. We reclaim our strength this way and can reemerge into life more whole, and more peacefully.
In this article, I have cited to the following articles and books.
Bastien, Joseph 1985. “Qollahuaya-Andean body concepts: A topographical-hydraulic model of physiology.” American Anthropologist 87 (30): 91-113.
Dunbar Solas, Lisa 2015. Becoming Inka: the interpretative narrative of the taki and metamorphosis of Tanta Karwa. ANU PhD thesis.
Hayes, Steven and Spencer Smith 2005. Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life : The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications, CA, United States.
Reinhard, Johan and Ceruti, Constanza. 2010. Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains. A Study of the World’s Highest Archaeological Sites. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, University of California.
This is part of a manuscript I am currently writing about my research on Inkan human sacrifice and the sacred landscape. To learn more about this project and others, please visit my Patreon account.