The Narrow Band

Most people spend the majority of their time in some kind of pattern or avoidance behaviour. Living like this can seem less painful and difficult than staying present. And it self-propagates: the longer and more often we do it, the more habitual it becomes.

Since my experience with Lord Iboga in December, I’ve been noticing and tracking my avoidance strategies more. Predictably enough, as I cultivate this awareness in myself I’m presented with clients and participants who are working on this issue. And although this is still very much a work-in-progress, the beginnings of a theory is emerging to support my work with this theme.

The Narrow BandAs I see it, presence – being authentically in touch with what’s alive in us from moment to moment – is a narrow band. All around it are behaviours that are less rich and less alive than presence, and often we fall into one of them. These options feel a bit flat and 2-dimensional compared to the vivid, complex, 3-dimensional feeling of being fully alive. But staying in the narrow band is tricky precisely because there are so many ways we can fall away from it.

When I started thinking about this topic I asked the Sacred Pleasures Facebook group for some input. My question was specifically about strategies for avoiding feeling certain feelings – at the time, that’s what I thought this post would be about.

My original list was:

  • numbing (feeling nothing)
  • laughing / making a joke out of it
  • collapsing / becoming overwhelmed
  • talking too much / focussing on detail
  • picking a fight
  • self-pitying
  • distraction (Facebook etc)
  • self-medicating (smoking, drinking, sugar, marijuana etc)
  • raging
  • self-doubt

to which people added:

  • creating situations where the other feels what you’re not feeling and blaming them for it
  • pleasing
  • procrastinating / over-analysing / not committing
  • controlling
  • using banal / light / cliched language
  • changing the subject
  • shopping
  • having sex
  • giving it all over to ‘the universe’
  • being judgmental / superior / arrogant / playing big
  • playing small
  • initiating a big change or starting a new project while others are only half done
  • dissociating through meditation rather than being embodied
  • feeling guilty
  • getting something physically painful (e.g. tattoo) when you originally felt emotional pain
  • physical over-exertion
  • over-working
  • going into auto-pilot
  • being passive-aggressive

This list, while not comprehensive, is impressive in its scope. It shows a deep recognition of the many ways we avoid the ‘narrow band’ of presence in favour of something less rich but more comfortable.

As I reflected more deeply on the subject, I realised that often these avoidance strategies come in pairs or small groups. So for example playing big often goes with self-doubt: we use the arrogance strategy to avoid the fear that we aren’t good enough; and when we run out of steam or things don’t go our way, we collapse into self-doubt or self-loathing.

Often the strategies we use are close to but not the same as the real feelings we’re working hard to avoid. So in the example I’ve just given, we probably do feel some real inadequacy and fear around what we’re doing. But rather than allowing ourselves to sit with that, to be in it, to feel it to its depths and to learn what it has to offer us, we fall into a shallower, less rich place inside ourselves. Which naturally is also a less scary place too.

There are a couple of key reasons why we develop these avoidance strategies. The most significant, in my opinion, is that showing up means risking being hurt. Often what looks like vulnerability actually isn’t: it’s just part of our patterning. A great example of this is the person who always falls into self-pity and cries easily when things don’t go their way. From the outside it may look like they’re being real and vulnerable, but after we’ve been through the pattern with them for the 20th time, it becomes obvious that they’re still squarely in their comfort zone.

As a wise friend of mine recently pointed out, someone who never expresses anger allowing themselves to feel and show this is actually a very vulnerable thing to do. So in our example above, the crying might be a cover for deeper feelings which are more alive but also scarier. By contrast someone else might fly into rage easily but avoid the delicate feelings of confusion and not-knowing-what-to-do that lay beneath.

For most of us, there are at least two layers of emotion present at a time, and the one we go into habitually is the shallower one. Often it’s one of these two combinations: pain masking anger or anger masking pain. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two – we follow one pattern in certain situations (e.g. at work) and the reverse in others (e.g. in our love life). And for some people one emotion is always the ‘top layer’ and the other one is always what’s hidden.

Take a moment to think about which emotion(s) you go into most easily and which ones are harder for you to access. You can be sure that the place of authentic vulnerability is in feeling and showing the one(s) you can’t reach so easily.

So we have two interconnected ways of noticing how and when we avoid being present. The first is to notice the narrow band where we’re really alive to what’s happening, that place where we’re really showing up with our rich complex web of contradictory feelings; and the second is to recognise that certain emotional responses are easier for us to express than others.

With this in mind we can begin to witness our patterns and avoidance strategies with a bit more awareness. They’re still going to happen, you can be sure of that: patterns take a long time to break and the mind is a crafty bugger! – but when we start to see them more clearly we are not completely ruled by them. If we’re lucky, we might even start to enjoy our little tricks and find it a bit amusing. Humour is a great tonic to taking ourselves too seriously and laughing at our patterns is a great way to help develop self-awareness.

Over time this witnessing can bring about lasting change. At first it may be a conscious process – noticing the strategies and gently guiding yourself back to riskier, more alive ways of being. But gradually this noticing becomes more instant, maybe even automatic: a new and healthier habit replaces the old one and this pair or set of habits loses its power over you.

Naturally enough it isn’t long before another pair or set of habits or avoidance strategies emerges. The beautiful thing about our minds is how skilful and wily they are. They are heavily invested in running the show and don’t really like it when we become aware of their tricks and games. In a way, presence challenges the mind because it can’t be controlled: so as soon as we start bringing enough awareness to one set of patterns to erode it, there’s another set right behind it.

At this point you may be asking why we should bother if it’s just going to be one layer after another of patterns and avoidance strategies. That’s definitely a good question. At times the personal growth journey can seem frustrating and repetitive: layer after layer of work with no end in sight. If you recognise this feeling, don’t worry – you’re not alone! It takes commitment to deconstruct ourselves and discover how little control we have over our thoughts and behaviour.

But here’s the good news. Firstly, developing awareness is like any other practice: it gets easier the more you do it. The first time we train in preparation for that 5k fun run, it hurts like hell. But after a couple of weeks of persistence, what used to be agony is easy and we’re pushing ourselves to run further and faster.

The same is true for awareness. The first few steps are always the most painful and difficult and require patient perseverance. But as we start to see how we make our life flatter and less rich than it can be – and especially when we catch glimpses of how different it feels when we show up for ourselves a bit more – we’re encouraged to keep cultivating awareness and noticing where we’re living in presence and where we’re stuck in our patterns.

And this is the second bit of good news: although it’s more difficult and we risk being hurt in it, presence feels more alive and more whole than living in a patterned way. For those of us, like me, who hate the idea of not being free, it’s amazing to realise how unfree we really are when we are stuck in habits and patterns. By contrast, being present is about the most free we can ever be. It may not be easy but it’s fuller, richer, deeper and more alive than any other way to live.

Lastly, as I described this ‘narrow band’ to a Buddhist friend, he pointed out that it’s exactly the same as the ‘middle way’ described by Gautama Buddha. In Buddhism this is spoken about in terms of craving (things that bring pleasure) and aversion (things that causes pain) – the middle way is the space in between where we’re open to what truly is rather than chasing after the nice stuff and running away from what’s difficult. The narrow band.

However you picture it, the principle remains the same: in every moment there’s a narrow band of experience where you’re alive, free and in touch with life more fully and a bunch of places where that’s less true. By noticing that we’ve moved away from the narrow band we can guide ourselves back to presence – and maybe have a chuckle at ourselves along the way.


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