Pulsing through all of nature, animating each and every one of your cells, is a radiant energy. We need this energy like the air we breathe. Without it, our lives become mechanical. For clarity, this energy runs not only through our torso but also through our legs, arms, fingers and toes. It’s in every cell of our body and it does not want to be limited. It’s a force to reckon with that wants to flow freely. The study of energy is well documented. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is known to run along meridians. In yoga, the energy centers are called chakras. While in the west, scientist refer to it bioplasm or bioenergy.
This life force is known by many names. The yogis call it prana and activate it through breath and postures. Acupuncturist call it qi and balance its movement through a network of pathways. Martial artists also call it chi and learn to cultivate its mastery through years of disciplined practice.
By whatever name, these words all describe the same thing: the basic energy that runs through life. Anodea Judith calls it “charge.” It’s accessible and part of our everyday language, something even the skeptics can relate to such as in having “a charge” about something. Me? I use them all!
“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.”
Go with the Flow
To be healthy, we need a balanced flow of charge running through our body. Additionally, we need to be able to generate this energy as required by our various systems. But most of all, we need our chi to flow for the deeply human experience of being alive and connecting to one another.
All emotion is accompanied by some degree of charge. Anger is a fiery force that wants to move outward. Sadness is a heavy energy that moves inward.
When you’re afraid, you can feel your muscles tightening, you mind becoming hypervigilant – signals to fight or flee on a dime. While these reactions may be triggered by an emotion, but they are all fueled by charge.
When we suppress an emotion, we block its charge. We can equally lose energy by expressing too much emotion. We do this by discharging it onto a friend, partner, or unsuspecting wall. Consciously or unconsciously, all blocked energy diminishes our life force.
When charge becomes blocked, it doesn’t just go away. Instead, it gets locked in the body, outside of awareness. If it is repeatedly activated and simultaneously blocked, it can become physical pain. Or it might be experienced as unexplainable fear, confusion, or anxiety. Point being, it needs to go somewhere.
Over time, the blocked qi becomes the new normal. The mind gets bored and turns its attention elsewhere. All it takes is a small trigger, such as being criticized, to bring that repressed energy up to the surface. Before you know it, you’re packing your bags over spilt milk.
Charge wants to flow freely. That is the nature of energy. When charge moves through the body, it can only flow as far as the next block. If your lower body is free and open, the charge might rise through your belly before getting stuck in your chest. If you’re trying to ground, the charge might get stuck in your legs. When I see a client struggling with a trauma memory, I’ll invite them to move their legs (as if running) or press their feet into the floor to help release the block.
We come by our stuck places honestly.
Our blocks were put there to protect us. Maybe we spoke up and were shut down, so now we have a block in our throat. Maybe we were told we were too much and learned to “rein it in.” Maybe someone broke our heart and we’re afraid of the charge of falling in love again. More often than not, we are unaware of the block until we feel the prana pressing against an edge. The sensation can be quite uncomfortable. It’s natural and instinctual to pull away from it.
When charge pushes up against a block, all the fears of the original situation begin to arise. Because this happens outside of awareness, we haven’t a clue why we feel so “off.” Further complicating matters, we don’t know what will happen if we release it! This causes us to tighten even more, which compounds the block. Unfortunately, the price we pay for limiting or avoiding discomfort is aliveness.
Leaning Into Discomfort
A more helpful way to deal with discomfort is to welcome the sensation. I teach my clients how to do this by leaning into discomfort. We softly yet firmly go right up to the edge. In our culture, we spend a lot of time avoiding or bracing against discomfort. Therapy is a safe place to soften into the subtlety of our interior landscape.
To help clients turn inward I’ll ask, “What is the sensation of that discomfort? Where do you feel it in your body?” In the beginning, it may be hard to tell. Initially, a big part of the work is discerning and listening within. The body is a great intelligence. We use it as an ally by becoming curious about the sensation, magnifying it, leaning into it, and see what it has to say.
“My heart is pounding in my chest.”
“My gut is clenching.”
“I want to run…get out of here…not deal with this.”
“I feel like I’ve done something wrong…like I’m in trouble.”
In all cases, the charge is pushing at the block which creates a physical sensation – usually discomfort, though not always. Sometimes it’s relief, insight or just plain old feels good. Either way, the present-moment experience highlights the beliefs and attitudes associated with the block. Repeatedly visiting the edge of discomfort is how we expand.
Window of Tolerance
Cultivating a wide window of tolerance is the definition of freedom. The broader our threshold, the more easily we are able to hold tension and manage anxiety, as well as experience states of deep relaxation and periods of solitude. To live freely with ease and grace, we need to move past our comfort zone. But here’s the caveat: we stay within our window while gently leaning into our edge.
Healing happens at the edge of our comfort zone – not beyond it.
“Window of Tolerance” is a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel to describe normal brain/body reactions. The idea is that we have an “optimal arousal level” within the window of tolerance that allows for gradation. For our window to widen, we brush up against our edge without exceeding it. The idea is to expand our boundaries, slowly and mindfully, not push past them.
Qi can be become bound in the body when the natural cycle of charging and discharging is disrupted. Remember, energy arises for the purpose of action. Ideally, we use it to deal with the demands of the moment. We speak up, run away, or diffuse crisis – in other words, “take charge.”
Trouble is, action is not always possible. Little kids can’t defend themselves. Or they may learn that if they fight back, they get hurt even more. There might not be a place to run and find safety. It was (and may still be) common for parents to parrot, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” In these situations, children learn that releasing their charge has unwanted, and often serious, consequences.
In lieu of a normal release of energy, the charge has nowhere to go but inward. So the child (or adult in a similar situation) must find a way to bind the charge. Binding is like wrapping tape around a package so nothing can gets loose. It is a way of containing. Binding typically ties up charge in the muscles and organs of the body, creating chronic tension.
You can also bind charge into a behavior or habit, such as biting your nails, tapping your food, or clenching your jaw. It can manifest in repetitive thoughts, or foggy brain. And, of course, it can be bound to addictions such as overeating, drinking or self-medicating. The goal of binding is to bring homeostasis and balance to the system. Like all coping strategies, the intent is to help.
You can also “flee” from energy by avoiding it entirely. This is another form of binding, in that it rejects the energy completely send it to bind outside the person. It can be deflected at the onset of the charge-discharge cycle, like Wonder Woman’s magical bracelets.
In the best situation, defenses are there to save us until we are safe to deal. The problem with this coping strategy is that it becomes habituated into our way of being. Avoiding charge is disorganizing and at some point we have to address it. If we don’t have the internal resources to do so, the dysregulated pattern gets normalized. This often happens with trauma, where a person is unable to organize their energy in a coherent way.
Good news! It’s never too late to learn how to master your vital life force. As long as you’re alive, you’ve got time. The whole point of balancing our subtle energy is to learn how to live from the center. Our core is our innate, vital self. While it is made of universal energy – meaning we all have it – the form it takes is as unique as each and everyone of us.
When I was a kid, I read that we are the some total of the five closest people to us. While perhaps overly simplistic, it resonates as true. We organize our core in relation to the energy within and around us. This is why it’s important to not only do personal “inner” work, but to also be mindful of our environment.
One of the best ways to work out our blocks and enliven qi is through mindful embodied healing modalities, such as yoga, chiropractic care and somatic psychotherapy. Regulating and aligning energy is the medicine for what ails us. If energy is the interface between mind and body and soul, then it follows that energy influences holistic health. You can do this solo, but for optimal results hire as many helpers as you can.