Spring 2015 STAR News
To feel loved is a universal desire. We often long for it. We expend a lot of energy chasing it. Or we’ve given up ever having it. Even in long term, committed relationships we often lack the sensation of loving or feeling loved. Longing to feel safe, connected, and seen by another are innate to being human. We are programmed to connect. Yet, many of us reach adulthood without really knowing how to connect, how to let someone else in, or how to experience the safety of a trusted other.
Only recently has science helped us truly understand this primitive instinct, this innate need to love and be loved. The structures for feeling loved are laid down from before birth through infancy and involve sensory and emotional experience.
Your capacity to experience love, to feel loved, depends on your earliest experiences in relationship. If your caregivers were emotionally available to you, saw you, “got” you, then you felt safe in your world and were able to trust, relax, and receive caring. With this your nervous system would also have developed the capacity, over time, to calm itself and to handle moderate amounts of stress. Basically, you could allow yourself to feel open and vulnerable with appropriate, trusted “others.”
Many of us did not receive this type of nurturing. For some, our parents did all the “right” things, but no one was home emotionally. They may have provided for all our needs but just not been available to us. For others, parents may have been really present and loving some of the time and frightening or just absent at others. This often happens with substance abuse or mental illness which results in neglect, abuse, and/or abandonment. In these cases, depending on the severity of your circumstances, your nervous system may not be wired so that you can readily feel love. Instead, you may feel anxious, depressed, or just numb.
We are careful not to blame our parents. They couldn’t give us what they never got. The good news is, we can change that now. We can grow the needed connections in our brain; we can literally change our nervous system so that we can experience love—both loving and feeling loved. This is, of course, what we are all about at STAR!
When my children were quite small I remember saying to a friend, “I know I love my kids. I adore them but I don’t feel anything.” Because I never received the emotional connections as a baby, I did not have the hardware, so to speak, to actually experience the deep caring I knew was there. I did all the “right” things—breastfeeding, co-sleeping, staying at home—yet I wasn’t emotionally present. I wasn’t even emotionally present to myself, so how could I be really available to my kids? Over time, bit by bit, I worked on it. I’d like to share with you a few of the simple principles I learned, which interestingly, are now being supported by science. The short version is below. If you begin to follow these guidelines, day by day, you will experience, as I did, more aliveness, more presence, and in the end, more love.
As with everything, the first step is awareness. Focus your attention on what is present, first in your body, your breath, and secondly, in your surroundings. Sitting here as I write, I notice I was holding my breath a bit and when I bring my attention to my breath, I automatically breathe more deeply and relax my shoulders. I look out at the oak tree in front of me. It just is. Not striving to be anywhere else, it is allowing the wind to blow through its branches. And, in this moment, I can just be, too. I am noticing as I really take in the tree my mind wanders and I imagine you, there, and wonder if you might just be allowing a breath, too. Hearing a bird call and the cars in the distance, I come back home, to my body, my breath, this moment. This is a practice of mindfulness that will help any of us make great strides in our quest for feeling loved.
From this place of mindful awareness, a helpful practice is one of receiving. If I can’t feel love, the chances are that I am not very good at receiving. Many of us are quite adept at giving but not so good at receiving. For me, this has been a life-long learning as it requires some awareness and some innate capacity to feel safe within relationship. Tracking your own body when you are with others helps you know when you are safe, when you can move toward, when you need to move away. Having developed this sensory knowing, we can more readily receive “the goodies” when they are there.
When my adored aunt had dementia and was dying, I would sit beside her and she would look at me and say repeatedly, “I just love you!” At first, I discounted it, thinking, “Oh, she’s just saying that.” Then I realized how precious those moments were. I remember saying to myself, “You’d better take this in. This is gold!” That was years ago and yet I can still feel the love now as I think about it. Love transcends all time. It can feed us forever. You might think of someone from the past who wished you well or someone who loved you. Sometimes I hear people say, “No one ever loved me!” If that were the case, we probably would not be here. What it likely means is some version of, “I never felt safe enough to receive any love that might have been there.” Try to recall someone who would wish you well… a grandparent, teacher, coach, neighbor, friend’s parent…anyone. Now see if you can recall a moment, a look, a gesture. Try taking a breath, closing your eyes, even placing your hand over your heart. Receive the love now. Breathe and repeat often.
We learn to receive bit by bit. When someone pays you a compliment or says something nice, notice what you do with it. Do you take a breath, smile, have eye contact and say, “Thanks?” Or do you rebuff it, saying something like, “Oh, it was nothing?” First try receiving from people who are safe or in situations that feel non-threatening. For some of us this is having eye contact and just receiving a smile from the grocery clerk, saying “Thank you,” and pausing when someone opens the door for us. When talking with a friend, try to see the preciousness in that relationship, take in, as much as you can, that they might genuinely respect you, enjoy your company, care for you. Notice what that feels like. As you feel safer, you can try actually receiving from your nearest and dearest. Slow down, really receive the hug, for example. Have more eye contact. Keep breathing, keep noticing, and keep practicing. As Ken would say, “Notice what you notice!”
Consciously telling yourself things like, “I’m safe. I can receive now. I deserve love,” can also go a long way toward healing your numbness and learning to feel loved. You might imagine yourself as a Loving Adult nurturing you at a very young age, telling that Little One things like, “I’m here now. You are safe. You are loved.”
So we begin with increasing awareness, practicing receiving, and noticing when we push things away. We add to that our authentic, personal affirmations that begin to change the connections in the brain and strong images and sensations of loving, of healing the Little One who may not have received adequate emotional connection. We begin now.
There is always more to say about feeling loved. And, I find that as I practice these small things, mindfully tracking myself and others, consciously opening to receive and telling myself some statement of deserving, my capacity to love opens, deepens and I experience things I never knew were possible. When our grandchildren arrived, I remember looking into that tiny face, eyes fixed on mine, my heart ready to burst with feelings of love and thinking, “I thought I could feel love before. I thought I knew what love was. Now, this is feeling love!”
Thank you all for your contributions and support. Each person helps in their own way, some financially and some with donation of services. Many of you tell acquaintances about STAR, a gift to the person as well as STAR.
Did you know that Amazon has a program that benefits non-profit organizations? It’s called Amazon Smile. It is an easy way to support the STAR Foundation, at no cost to you. Amazon makes a gift of .5% of the price of your eligible purchases to the STAR Foundation. Go to http://www.smile.amazon.com if you would like to get started.
Your financial support is making so many things possible:
- Your contributions keep our scholarship program going so we can assist folks who seek the healing work of a STAR Retreat, but cannot afford it.
- Your dollars help defray some of the expense of our Facilitator Training, making it more affordable. It’s simple, more certified facilitators enables us to accommodate more participants.
- Your support helps us keep materials important to the work of STAR fresh and plentiful. For example, we have replaced the tattered mats and blankets that are so important to the participants’ work; the art studio is fully stocked with a variety of media for participants’ inner exploration.
Finally, a stunning statistic is the number of person-days donated to the project of getting Pier II Resort ready for our programs. Between last June and January, there was at least one person volunteering every single day, usually 13-hours a day. It was a monumental project and all the hard work resulted in comfortable and successful STAR Retreats beginning this year.
Following our second STAR Retreat at Pier II we held our third annual Training and Facilitator Gathering. With 23 facilitators present, we learned practical applications of the latest developments from neuroscience, attachment theory, and trauma and how they support our practices at STAR. Our facilitators had opportunities to continue their own personal growth while connecting more deeply with colleagues. In addition to our important work and practice we found time for seriously fun play and even a bit of dancing and singing. If you have thought that you’d like to be a part of the STAR Facilitator community, if you’d like to make a valuable contribution to STAR and all the lives we touch, think about applying to become a facilitator. You can obtain the application through Diana at the STAR office.
Let no one keep you from your journey,
no rabbi or priest, no mother
who wants you to dig for treasures
she misplaced, no father
who won't let one life be enough,
no lover who measures their worth
by what you might give up,
no voice that tells you in the night
it can't be done.
Let nothing dissuade you
from seeing what you see
or feeling the winds that make you
want to dance alone
or go where no one
has yet to go.
You are the only explorer.
Your heart, the unreadable compass.
Your soul, the shore of a promise
too great to be ignored.
By Mark Nepo