We all know what it’s like to be at war with ourselves.
When was your last battle? The last time you interrogated yourself? Your most recent moment of agonising over something you did, or didn’t do? Your last confusing decision which came with anxiety?
Sometimes we fight what we are experiencing, and we push it away and resist it being there (our world is rich in techniques: denial, blame, anger, debilitating thoughts towards ourself).
Sometimes we flee, hoping to avoid the whole thing.
Sometimes we’re pulled in opposing directions within ourselves, which is confusing, nauseating, and we go into freeze. We're unable to act, and we can't feel enough clarity on either choice.
Over our tri-annual retreats for female combat veterans, who have returned home post Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sit and walk with these women, as we address the war within us.
Over this particular retreat we are in the snowy Colorado Mountains at 13,000ft, in warm cabins and out on the land these women walk this journey, navigating the inner war, one that challenges us every step.
These women break open their hearts to find a second courage - the one that follows war - when peace is required, and the parts that feel broken, must be involved. The one we all search for, to fall into allegiance (a form of love) with ourselves again.
How do we move out of the pain we cause by making ourselves our worst enemy, to become our own cherished advocate and loving friend?
Here are gems of wisdom from the experience of female combat veterans - on facing the war within, and eventually knowing we must come home to ourselves.
Seven gems that support us to do this:
1. VULNERABILITY IS THE CHANGE REQUIRED, whether it comes as the first step or the last, it cannot be ignored.
One Veteran, Sarah* has almost completed her PhD on conflict resolution. She said she continued to read about vulnerability, but couldn't understand it's place. She didn't deem it necessary. We began to unpack the narrative around 'vulnerability', the story that emerged was how it is weakness, is exposing, it opens up our insecurities, and can invite emotions we avoid.
It was only when she experienced it alongside her fellow veterans, "I get it now". she said, after all this theory, "I get the purpose! It's a big step". She spoke to the power of it - and the whole room was with her. It brought them together, and it brought her closer to herself.
Through being herself, sharing her world, and letting others in, she found exactly what she needed. For years she had complained that outside the combat zone, no one was there for her. She realised vulnerability leads the way, which then allows others to be there for you.
This became the new invitation for bravery. And it came with a realisation, that we only need to begin.
Vulnerability connects us to possibility - it opens up the possibilities for what we truly want.
2. DON'T COMPARE, CONNECT!
Let us not compare our pain any longer.
Our empathy allows us to see pain and recognise suffering. However when we compare pain, it becomes a weapon or a wall. We block our ability to care for ourselves.
A veteran Latisha* offered this wisdom; that there is the tendency to see a veteran who lost limbs as a 'truer soldier', or worse, a veteran who didn't return.
When we compare, we give away any compassion for our own journey, personal insight and the path forward.
We all do it. Sometimes it makes us feel better temporarily by bringing a wider perspective, yet it can really invalidate our experience. Our experience is where the wisdom lies for us.
We share pain naturally, and are given a choice to connect through it, rather than compare.
When we trust our own path as worthwhile, full to the brim with lessons, growth and healing, we embrace it as a guide for ourselves, and with others.
3. ALL OF ME (ALL MY PARTS) ARE WELCOME HERE
Thank you to the woman who drew this so explicitly on the door! This one really does need to be as clear as a doormat – All of you is accepted and welcome here!
To welcome myself home, I need to take myself aside and gently let myself know, with knowing, kind eyes, that all of me is welcome here.
When this feels difficult, begin to notice what parts are not included in your welcome.
Know that whoever is left on the doorstep, is still on the porch. Usually, they are easier to deal with if we let them inside and offer them our hospitality!
4. DEFINE RESILIENCE FOR YOURSELF
How do we deal with difficult events that change our lives?
The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc. (Merriam Webster)
One of the biggest realities is understanding we don't return to our original shape, to how we were "before" the event. Why would we expect ourselves to do so? We are changed by what happened. This is our way of being with the experience properly, allowing it to transform and affect us, allowing integration and healing.
Life requires us to find a way through, to find a gift or a purpose from our tender places. Have you seen an animal lick its wounds? We honour whatever happened in a way that we can begin to transform it.
Resilience is not only something in us, allowing us to rise from the ashes, like the phoenix. It is the STORY of life shaping us. It is how we found our way and how wisdom reveals itself as us over time.
Take the time to define resilience for you. It’s a powerful process of being with your story in this light. Acknowledge all its characteristics, including the small things, and who you became along the way.
Image: Qualities of resilience named
5. SAY YES AND NO LIKE YOU MEAN IT.
We all crave feeling free. Imagine feeling free in every aspect of your life, that you chose it. Yes to this. No to that.
Instead, it can feel like we are always on the back foot, catching up to our lives. We say 'yes' by default (when it's implied, because we don't feel our own choice) and we express 'no' by avoiding a response.
We can hide our 'yes' and 'no' with blankets of excuses or reasoning that involve other people, rather than speaking up for ourselves.
When we begin to feel our true 'Yes' it comes with clarity and power.
One of the simplest ways to feel in control, and bring some energy to yourself is to find something small in your day that you genuinely and completely say 'Yes' to. It could be a cup of tea, taking a walk, lying on the lawn, the action doesn’t matter so much as the energy of saying 'Yes' to something with your entirety.
i) It starts by noticing what is happening for you. Befriending yourself to listen and act on behalf of you and what is true. We are given billions of choices in our lives. Whatever you decide, speak it with a trust in yourself. There is no time limit on how long it may take to find your clarity. Treat it as an opportunity to continually get to know yourself better.
ii) Part of this is uncovering the 'No'; the thing that doesn’t feel right or which we were going to fiercely avoid. Instead, name it as a 'No'. When we acknowledge discord, we free up immense energy in the nervous system and body! We have honoured what is right for us. It is only when we have a proper 'No' that we have a 'Yes' with substance.
At any moment, our 'Yes' and 'No' can change, because each moment we have new information. Relax into the truth, for right now.
The discovery of your Yes and No is exciting. Treat yourself like an incredible person you get to discover daily... Approach all new gains in understanding with your attention and kindness.
6. LET GO WITH AN ACTION
It is the lead up to letting go (what comes before) which takes energy! We anticipate it for a LONG time by holding on. Holding on can take everything we have.
When we let go, it takes care of itself. We are in the release. It flows. Something moves in us, and the world listens in many ways.
After we let go, there is space. Sometimes there is a release of energy, which can look and feel various ways. It's a transition.Hence, there's great power in completing the process with an action.
After a deep release process of grief and emotion, our body can want to move the energy physically.
On a high ropes course the veterans were invited to climb up a 20ft tree trunk, and while harnessed, leap into open air, into unknown territory. At the peak of their leap, they were held/ suspended by the support of the others and equipment.
Action is powerful. It doesn't need to be a leap of faith, a small action itself is powerful, it is the intention and the meaning that we put into it.
Find an action. It might represent what you leave behind, or what you step into.
(What you 'want to be' is already here)
Burn some pages, soak in a bath, wake up anew and step out our door with a claim “I am….”, embark on a walk knowing you will return differently to how you set out – create a marker for where your walk begins and where it ends. Listen in, to the action being called for.
7. BE WHERE YOU ARE
Where you are right now, contains all the information you need.
We use a model of Awareness – Kindness – Action.
Awareness: Bring attention back to you. Still your body, notice your breath, walk with awareness, or lie down to deeply relax. Take a moment to pause.
Be Kind to what shows up. Listen. Let the wiser part of you listen. Listen to your breath, and feel your body; its weight, its movement or stillness. What is needed most?
Action: Take these moments in ordinary daily life. While sitting at your desk between emails, 5 minutes before you leave the house, after a shower. It is amazing what you can do for yourself in the ordinary pauses.
I would love to hear your own experience with these.
Regardless of their familiarity - Which is most relevant for you right now? and how will you (re)begin it?
Haaweatea Holly Bryson
*Names have been changed
** These retreats were originally run as 'CenterPoint Retreats', then via 'Veterans Path', and now (same team) the organisation has been renamed 'Rooted Within'.