How do we navigate Unknown Territory — without a map?
How does our navigation shift when we’re guiding others, knowing that our choices impact their well-being too?
How do other people’s fears impact our own ability to find a clear path?
On a recent beautiful day, my 6-year-old son and I found ourselves at the top of a ravine in the woods, without a map (having lost cell phone reception), looking at a cliff-like ridge that seemed to be obstructing our way home.
I pointed out to him that the main trail was likely over the top of that very steep ridge, and it was easier to find a way there than to try to go back the long, unmarked way we’d come. I was at peace with this, but my usually adventurous boy started to spiral down into all the Negative What Ifs:
“What if we can’t get there and never get back to our car?
What if we get lost and no one knows where we are?
What if you lose your phone and we can’t call for help?
What if we get bitten by a snake or see a bear or step in a yellow jacket nest?
Who would rescue of us? Could you even carry me out of here, with a baby in your belly too?”
He wasn’t completely freaking out, but certainly had no qualms about speaking aloud every possible terrible thing that could happen!
I wasn’t particularly worried about any of it myself, having a clear sense of direction, strong inner guidance, and plenty of experience at finding my way in the woods, even in unknown territory... including with him. (We've had similar adventures before -- with very little anxiety!)
And, it took a LOT more energy to maintain my own sense of calm, the more I listened to his worries.
(Have you noticed that amidst this pandemic too??)
How could I ground myself in my own inner guidance, without succumbing to spiraling with him into all the possible negative scenarios? (Because clearly, if I did spiral down that way too, it wouldn't help us at all!)
Time to Pause.
Time to notice my body, to observe the terrain, and to tune into my son’s state of being, as well as to our respective needs.
To navigate safely, I needed to honor and have compassion for his fears (which were valid for our location, although relatively unlikely), while also not taking them on as mine, or losing my own Center.
Deep breaths. Rooting into my embodied wisdom.
And, occasionally asking for some quiet, so the litany of fears didn’t erode my energy too much!
I also gently reminded him of the Positive What Ifs:
“What if we pause, take a breath, and see what we notice around us that can guide our way?
What if this way DOES lead us where we want to go?
What if we keep looking at this as an adventure, and pretend we’re explorers in uncharted territory? What would a good explorer do?
What if we pay closer attention to where we’re going and how we move our bodies, so none of those scary things happen?
What if we Trust that we’re ok and we will find our way?”
(This reminded me a lot of how I’m navigating current global circumstances too... Anyone resonate?? Easier in short intervals than long-term, but always a useful practice, amidst changing circumstances!)
This particular hike had started out as a joyful adventure, somewhere we’d never been before, looking for a shady change of scenery with a creek and very few people. But basically every trail we went down petered out into the bushes — old hunting trails, apparently, aren’t ideal for our preferred kind of hike!
At the beginning, my son was delighting in the fun of searching for a new trail as each obvious one disappeared, and we made up songs along the way. It felt like an adventure, and we certainly needed one amidst much quarantined time at home!
I figured it was good navigation practice (plus there wasn’t much undergrowth or poison ivy), so off we went, through the forest. He was quite proud to be following the progress of our blue dot on the (woefully inaccurate) trail map on my phone, checking to be sure our choices took us in the direction we wanted to go, even if the trail itself didn’t seem to exist.
Eventually, we got to the creek, played in the sand and water, and enjoyed our picnic.
Only as we got up to leave did we realize we’d lost reception in the ravine — both our map and blue locator dot were gone. There were no obvious trails nearby, and we’d have to find our way back to the main trail on our own.
Given my son’s experience last summer (when he’d insisted on leading me off-trail, stepped in a yellow jacket nest, and got 44 stings), this wise young one decided that "mommy should lead the way" this time! 😅
But, even with his clear faith in me, his litany of complaints and Negative What Ifs made the whole experience much more exhausting than if I hadn’t been hearing those fears at the same time I was trying to find the easiest, safest path forward. Just like I take regular media breaks (and tend to myself well before and after consuming any news), I had to ask my son to pause periodically, so I could quietly tune into the best way to go, checking out the terrain and listening to my own intuition without the interference of extra fears.
And, it would have felt SO much easier just to be navigating for myself, without being responsible for him too! Because there was the awareness that if something happened to him, I likely couldn't carry him out of there by myself, pregnant as I was, on such steep slopes... I was definitely feeling my motherly responsibility for his well-being, while doing my best to carry that responsibility in a grounded way, rather than let it make me anxious and therefore more likely to make an unfortunate misstep.
I knew I had to stay as clear as possible within myself, as well as in my responses to him, for us to get where we needed to go. (Much like I need to return to center within myself to help our family navigate changes brought by the pandemic.)
And I did, and it was fine.
But, at the end of the day, despite it all going well in the end, I was completely exhausted — and noticed that I’ve been feeling similarly about all that’s going on in the world, too, with all the Negative What Ifs swirling around. It can take a LOT more energy to hold our own center and find a clear path, when feeling constantly bombarded by others' fears! (Have you noticed that too??)
After getting my tuckered-out boy to bed, I cuddled up with my partner to rejuvenate, and decided to take a thorough break from any news for the week, to reset my nervous system and re-focus on my own Inner Clarity, as that’s what’s most essential to navigate my family’s path forward. (That reset was so helpful!)
There seems to be a fine line between “staying informed” — when pretty much everyone else is also navigating the Unknown as best they can, with maps and data sources of widely variable accuracy, and a stronger tendency toward Fear than toward Clarity or Compassion — and then letting that information amplify fears that send us spiraling down into a state in which our own Inner Clarity becomes harder to access.
When we lose touch with that Inner Clarity, we’re more prone to either foolishly compromising our safety by ignoring risks, or else to freezing in fear and taking no helpful action at all, as our nervous systems get hijacked by our primitive brains… And then, we more readily end up in heated conflict about our differing perspectives, rather than engaging in dialogue that could allow us to come to calm, compassionate, reasonable ways of moving forward.
In Fear, we also tend to forget to acknowledge that ANY path into the Unknown is an experiment, and even the most thoughtful path we choose *could* bring some “failure” that requires course-correction. And, course-correction happens best when our nervous systems are calm and steady.
Knowing how to settle our own nervous system is vital to our ability to meet the Unknown with as much clarity, ease, and grace as possible.
Do you know what soothes your nervous system? Or your children's or partner's? How do you come back to your Center?
(If not, or if you'd like some more tools that are easily accessible in the moment, check out my free mini-course Embodying Courage in Challenging Times for some helpful practices!)
We can only do the best we can with the resources we have available at the time. As we learn more, we re-evaluate, and get to try something new.
However, when we’re not deeply connected to our own Inner Clarity (which is challenging, if not impossible, when the nervous system is under significant stress, especially over an extended time), there’s more of a grasping after any perceived external “resource” we can find, in the hopes that it will help us not to fail or get lost. (Which sometimes can be useful! To an extent…)
But we also need to know how to utilize external resources WITH our Internal Resources of clarity, presence, calm awareness, and deep Trust in our own embodied knowing of what’s the next best inspired action to take in a given situation. (A skill that is seldom taught or valued, and which is why I do the work that I do with people!)
It’s always worthwhile FIRST to have compassion for ourselves and others, as we notice the fears, befriend the primitive brain, and do what we need to do to soothe our nervous systems — individually and collectively.
We’re unlikely to learn well, to come up with creative solutions to our problems, or to find the clearest path forward, while in an intense stress response — especially if stress is prolonged over months, or passed down for generations.
That’s the constant challenge: to regulate our own nervous systems before making decisions, as well as while engaging in dialogue about complicated choices.
It can be REALLY hard!
First, let’s have compassion for this human challenge.
Then, let’s look at what skills we can cultivate to meet this challenge with more grace.
How aware are we of our own nervous system responses? How do we react to others’ stress?
What works best to calm YOUR nervous system, so you can come back to a sense of internal peace, trust, and clarity — even in a world that isn’t safe, and is inherently full of Unknowns?
(I work with people individually to help them identify their embodied response patterns, and to facilitate their development of healthier ones. While there’s overlap in practical techniques, what works best is unique to the individual, and deeply useful for all of us to explore.)
Part of this inquiry also asks us to look at how our previous trauma, cultural conditioning, and/or chronic stress affect our ability to stay centered and navigate changes with ease, grace, and courage.
Because when there’s past trauma at play, or strong cultural conditioning, or even just on-going stress, it can be much harder to identify when we begin to go into a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response — which we need to notice first, if we’re going to interrupt that and change the pattern.
This inquiry invites us to deepen our awareness, and to practice compassion for ourselves and others under stress. Everyday.
What prevents us from tuning into our bodies and calming our nervous system in certain situations?
What helps us to stay present enough in our bodies that we can re-regulate more quickly and easily?
Learning to recognize these tendencies, and then to shift them (gently) with consistent practice, is life-changing — possibly world-changing.
How would our whole world shift, if we all learned more about tending to our nervous systems and tuning into our embodied awareness?
Within ourselves and with each other?
(Because co-regulation is an essential aspect of healthy relating — and it’s an entirely different thing to regulate our nervous systems alone than with others! Sometimes easier, sometimes harder…)
Perhaps, with practice and more supportive communities, we could Pause more easily.
We’d have a better chance of interrupting reactions based in Fear or Stress, such that we could co-create a more peaceful, respectful, sustainable, and safe world.
That’s my hope and my practice, both in my work and in my family life.
Everyday. Now more than ever, as we navigate the Unknown in new ways.
What do these reflections bring up for you?
Feel free to share below, or to join the similar conversations we’re starting in our free, private Facebook group, Thriving Families: Embodying Love in We-Space.
Sending love, compassion, and courage to All, as we navigate this unknown territory as best we can with our own Inner Guidance system, instead of with a clear map.
What if cultivating our Inner Guidance is actually better than relying on someone else's map?
What if this is an opportunity for us all to strengthen and align with our Inner Clarity?
What if we use this time to create beautiful new pathways in the world that's being birthed -- pathways that can lead us ALL toward thriving?
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