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Openness and Constriction
The Fundamentals of Self-Awareness
Your hand always opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced as birds’ wings. -Rumi
We are constantly alternating between states of openness and constriction. These physical states are most often unconscious responses, as automatic as breathing. They are the foundations of our thoughts, perceptions, motivations, and preferences. They influence our life choices and actions. This nonverbal level response system is your body’s animal intelligence.
The more we are open, the better we feel, and the more we are met with openness by others. Yet, it is not possible, nor desirable, to be open all the time. Constrictions can serve a protective function. Constriction only becomes a problem when we habitually approach experience from this place, or when we are unaware of how it impacts us.
By placing awareness on states of openness and constriction, we come to know ourselves on a subtle and intimate level. Self-reflection that does not include an awareness of how our body responds to the environment is of limited usefulness. Our body often points the way to what is happening in a more direct way than our thoughts do. By cultivating an awareness of the language and wisdom of the body, the mind and body can become more in alignment.
States of openness are often experienced as pleasurable or positive experiences. States of constriction are often experienced as discomfort or negative experiences. But this is not always the case, and it varies person to person.
Examples of the experience of openness are curiosity, connection, acceptance, happiness, joy, calm, peacefulness, patience, solidarity, expansiveness, tenderness, excitement (which can also be constriction), confidence, empathy, gratitude, and compassion. The experience of constriction includes aversion, rage, wariness, feeling stuck, impatience, anxiety, repulsion, anger (which can also be openness), fear, confusion, shame, suspicion, doubt, embarrassment, annoyance, struggle, and pain.
The same emotion can lead to the experience of both openness and constriction. For example, anger is often experienced as aversive (constriction). Yet, it can also be an emotion that energizes us to act on our own behalf, like speaking up when we feel we are not respected. If handled skillfully, anger can lead to greater opening and a deepening of experience. It can lead to you standing up for yourself, or removing yourself from conditions that don’t serve your well-being.
But when anger leads to shutting down, feeling helpless, or lashing out reactively, it perpetuates a constricted experience and does not lead to well-being. You may feel temporary relief at telling someone off or imagining punching them in the nose, but those expressions of anger generally come from a limited sense of volition and keep you small (constricted).
Sadness, like anger, is an emotion that can be experienced both as openness and constriction. Learning to be curious (openness) about all internal states makes all experiences informative and, therefore, potentially helpful.
The idea of working with the wisdom of the body is to open to all experience, including constrictions. This might sound paradoxical, but that is only the case when we perceive these states as dualities, as either/or. Making room for all our experiences allows for a more expansive (both/and) way to perceive and move through the world.
By bringing curiosity and acceptance to our constrictions, they become less aversive. This makes it easier to work with them, to understand when they contain a source of wisdom, when they come from unwarranted fears, or when they are a combination of the two. By opening to all experience, especially our constrictions, we can learn to approach challenging situations in creative and adaptive ways.
By practicing noticing constriction, you will develop important insights about yourself. These insights will help you improve your quality of self-reflection, as well as your capacity to make decisions that are in alignment with your highest interests. This helps build the foundation of having a sense of ownership over your life.
Exercise: Change the Quality of Your Constrictions
This practice is meant to help you create space (openness) around the experience of physical and emotional constriction. Releasing around physical constriction is helpful when working with difficult emotions.
Clench different parts of your body separately - your face, then shoulders, and then stomach. Starting with your face, clench it tight for a couple of seconds, and then release it. Do this three times. Notice your experience when you are clenching, and then when you release. Move to your shoulders, shrug them tightly, and then release them, three times. And then move to your stomach. This is a helpful way to creatively practice noticing constricting and releasing.
Now imagine a time when you were irritated, angry, or upset over the past few weeks. It doesn’t have to be a memorable event. For example, were you on extended hold with customer service? Did you have a disagreement? Did you feel excluded? Vividly imagine this event and notice how you experience it in your body.
Once you have it vividly in your mind, and are aware of it in your body, practice bringing openness to the experience. For example, breathe into the physical sensation of tightness or discomfort. Take several deep, comfortable breaths. You also might imagine a warm sensation surrounding constricted parts, softening them, even releasing them entirely.
In this exercise, simply imagining the experience of opening to the constrictions might be where you are at, and that is enough. You might go further and have the physical experience of constriction change as you practice opening to it.
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