My teacher Jorge Rosner had a simple approach for transforming the I should’s (but I don’t wanna) of life. He told us: When you are facing an inner struggle between Act and Afraid to Act, Just ask yourself: Will I or won’t I? And then: What’s the worst that can happen if I do or I don’t? He recommended we imagine the worst possible outcome, and only then decide I will or I won’t.
The most important part of that exercise was to accept that you can only make a decision for here and now, not forever or even for tomorrow. This put an entirely new perspective for us early Gestalt students, turning I should diet… I should exercise… I should be kind to people… to I will or I won’t right now. I remember testing this out on a day I really didn’t want to go to work (long ago, when I worked for others). I knew I should and I wondered what was the worst that might happen if I didn’t. I remember going through an anxious exploration of worst case scenarios which ranged from being yelled at by my boss to being fired. In the end I realized that the worst that could happen if I took that stay at home day was that I would let down my own image of myself as a loyal and trustworthy employee. I knew the impact on my boss and colleagues would not be much. So I decided I will! I will stay home from work today! An hour later I was in the office, unable to live with the self-created guilt of my decision. It turned out that was the worst that could happen!
There are many layers of how we fight with ourselves in the space between should and will. One layer is fear of consequences — that we will no longer be loved, accepted, belong — based in our history and our trauma. Another layer is our attachment to an ideal self for which we have been accepted and loved, compared to the here and now (called the real) self which might want something completely different, out of pattern. Refusal or even hatred or denial of the real self keeps us in patterned responses. We simply cannot be weak, unsure, afraid — a huge chunk of our humanness. Without allowing ourselves to be weak or unsure in a moment of decision making we run the risk of being rash, of lying to those we love, and of always thinking we are a fraud underneath it all.
Where do we find the support for not being ready? Gabor Mate’s book When the Body Says No underscores that at the body level we know absolutely. To deny that body knowing takes a great deal of energy, keeps us tied up in knots, gives us headaches, stomach aches, and creates an incredible sense of aloneness, alienating us from our environment and our relationships. Who does not know the feeling of being stuck between I should and I can’t?
In Jorge’s day, in what we call “early” Gestalt, the word “can’t” was simply not used — there were only two choices: I will and I won’t. The years in between have brought much deeper understanding of the widespread nature of trauma beyond the impact of war, natural disaster, accidents, rape and beating to include the many every day shocks and frights to which as possessors of sensitive physical bodies, we are subject. Addictions too are rooted in trauma. The familiar terms fight, flight, freeze and surrender, refer to situations in which the mind cannot make sense, and in which the body’s nervous system saves our life through numbing, freezing, and other life saving adjustments. In Gestalt we say these are creative adjustments that deserve our honor and respect. When traumatic response is present, our simple truth is “I want to… I know I should… and I can’t.”
Can’t means I am frozen, or numb, or want to flee, or want to fight. The part of us that has the will to survive is occupied. Lately I have been thinking again about the word “will.” We often criticize ourselves for lack of will power, for not having the discipline or fortitude to do what is best for our health, our dreams. This idea of will as something forced comes from our childhood when our simple will to explore, to learn was interpreted as willful and we were punished for it. Against the forced or rigid systems we faced in growing up we often rebelled – itself an act of will, but where we were the loser.
It turns out that root of the word will had the same meaning as wish. To say this is my wish was the same as to say this is my will. Children express their will from the earliest stage of life, in their movements both subtle and grand. Where that natural will is overpowered by you must and must not, the body learns to use its natural wish or will to protect our own wishes rather than be supported to make our wishes come true.
There is a simple exercise that comes from Aikido master Koichi Tohei that we often share with the students. Some of you may know it – it is called Unbendable Arm. It goes like this – you bend your arm and ask a friend to try to straighten your arm out. Although some people give this a good try it is not the intention to give pain, but simply to notice the amount of effort your friend and you are expending to keep your arm from bending. Once you have experienced that you are going to bend your arm again and simply will it to not be straightened. Just that. Will or wish or just say to your arm, don’t straighten. And relax, while your friend attempts to unbend your arm.
The energy required to follow a wish is a relaxed energy. Even if the wish is to wait a while, to give yourself time, to take a break, to realize when you can’t do something. Reflecting back to what I learned most from my dear teacher Jorge Rosner, is that the worst that can happen is I don’t live my own life.
-Jay Tropianskaia, Director of Training
Copyright Jay Tropianskaia 2017