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What's in your backpack?
There was a time when I was energetic, happy and spontaneous. I skipped through life, light on my feet and without a care in the world. And then I acquired my first backpack. Over time, it grew in size and weight, and before I knew it, I carried it with me all the time.
We’re all backpackers in this journey of life, so busy getting somewhere that we don’t have the time to put the backpack down. Not even to take a look inside it to see what’s really there.
First, there’s the external backpack. It begins to fill when we become aware of the external world, the ecosystem we live in, the norms and expectations of the family we grow up with. With time and practice, we become more accomplished and confident at dealing with these external stimuli. We may even enjoy the challenge and thrive in the glow of external validation of a job well done. Achievement becomes a measure of success and personal identity. Before long, our self-worth becomes tied with external validation. The better we handle the load, the more loaded we become! We’re seen as reliable, dependable, conscientious, diligent, responsible, loyal, and so on. All worthy traits that are rewarded and recognised. Or sometimes not. Can you see how over time we become burdened with responsibilities, commitments and obligations?
There is another less obvious place where we’re storing things. It is inside us, held in the nooks and crannies of our body, and the shadowy parts of our being. Every time we experience a stimulus that sparks feelings that are hard to process, we add them to our hoard of unprocessed emotions. Over time, like dormant volcanoes, these internal wells of trapped energy begin to get restless and turn toxic. They make their presence known in many different ways, none of which are healthy. For instance, we may experience unexplained bouts of panic, anxiety, anger or sadness. We may experience stiffness in the back of the neck and shoulders, joint pain, arthritis, asthma, frozen shoulder, lower back pain and so on. And in the worst cases, these lifelong unprocessed emotions can manifest into chronic, debilitating and even life limiting illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease.
The things in our external backpack are often the very same things that create buried lava of negative emotions.
Too much responsibility can result in frustration and resentment. Why do I have to do everything? Why can’t people do things properly like I do? Obligations can result in feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. I have a lifestyle and status to maintain which means I have to keep doing what I’m doing, even if I long to do something else. Commitments can bring feelings of fear, rejection, disappointment and sadness. I have put so much of myself into this relationship, I can’t let it fail or let go. What if they leave me? What if I no longer belong here?
It is impossible to feel light and liberated without addressing what is causing us to feel so weighed down.
There is a reason why we sometimes feel like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Living in a globally interconnected world with real time coverage of news adds to this. Becoming aware of the suffering of others can make empaths amongst us feel helpless, guilty or responsible for easing the plight of all those who suffer. We may have complex feelings of gratitude and guilt as two sides of the same coin. Gratitude that life is so much better for us, and instant guilt that we should be lucky ones when others suffer so grievously. Guilt for wanting something different when we have so much to be grateful for.
Often the scale of the problem vastly outstrips any one individual’s ability to make a difference. This can lead to added feelings of inadequacy and frustration. A first important step is to accept our limitations and work within our respective spheres of influence. If you’re on an airplane and the air pressure drops, you are urged to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. In everyday life, too we can use this same advice. Taking care of ourselves will help us take better care for those who need us most. It begins with self awareness and self-compassion. And the simplest and most effective way is through our breath.
Your breath is the simplest and most effective bridge that connects your inner being with your outer world.
(Try this short guided healing meditation I created to help you connect more deeply with your inner world).
Use your breath to observe and scan what’s really going on inside you.
Use your breath to spread hope, energy, acceptance and love within yourself.
Use your breath to gently prise at stuck energies that no longer belong in your being.
Let your in-breath invite light and air into your being, and your out-breath be the wings on which your trapped energies are set free.
With every cycle of mindful breath, you replace old stagnant, toxic energy with light and space. Light that helps you see more clearly, and space for new opportunities and experiences. Freedom co-exists with responsibility. Trust and surrender walk alongside commitment and obligation. Stillness begets right action.
The backpack is still there. But this time you know what’s in it and why you carry it.