Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #116 The Helpers Who Never Leave
About this episode

How would it feel to know you were always loved, supported and cared for in every moment of your life? Well, maybe you are. Join Martha to learn how to find the helpers who never leave.

The Helpers Who Never Leave

Martha Beck:

We’re all here together on The Gathering Room. I’m going to chitter-chatter for a bit longer, because we had a request last time I did The Gathering Room, and it was about doing something at the beginning of our gathering to set the tone and put us all in a good place. I thought it was a fabulous idea, and I said, “We shall do it.”

Hello, Hannah from England. Hello, Andrew. How you doing, Casey and Laurie? From Florida, from North Carolina, from Chicago, people are chiming in. Gothenburg, yeah. So we’re going to do this thing at the beginning, those of you who are just joining. I’m doing a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants as the saying goes, so that we can all be gathered before we begin. Not something we’ve done before, but ever after this, y’all are going to be getting familiar with this as the beginning of every Gathering Room.

The thing that brought this together was a brief exercise that I did, and I’m going to talk a lot more about it today. I’ve been rereading the research on which it was based. Doesn’t that just sound yummy? Rereading the research on which it was based. Doesn’t that just make you feel like killing yourself? No, it does not. It turns out to be good. This research is on the way the brain pays attention to the world, and it just so happens that the way we pay attention to the world has everything to do with how good we feel. People have known this for millennia in contemplative traditions, but it’s not something that’s really a big part of our culture.

As you know, or maybe you don’t know, I’m very interested in the fact that our culture encourages us to use, primarily, the left hemisphere of the brain and actually discourages things that are usually the province of the right hemisphere. So the left hemisphere is verbal and analytical and time bound and measured, and the right hemisphere does things like imagination, metaphor, poetry, art, and connecting, connecting, connecting. Feeling connected to the whole world, where the left hemisphere disconnects. And as my friend Jill Bolte Taylor says, “The best thing is to have the whole brain at work all the time.”

Now, in 2007, I read a book called The Open-Focus Brain by a man named Les Fehmi who was at Princeton. He did a lot of research there using the very first electroencephalograms, I believe is the word, EEGs. They wired people up, their scalps up to computers and looked at the brainwaves that are associated with feelings like anxiety and peace and creativity and joy and love, and all the things. So they were just learning about the brain.

Les Fehmi found working on himself, because he was really fascinated with the whole thing. He tapped his own brain up to a computer, and he tried to go into a brain state that he called synchronous alpha, and that is the alpha waves of the brain are these slow, smooth, even waves. They come from parts of the brain that are relaxed. If you can get the whole brain to be synchronized in alpha waves, you get these very, very intense physical effects. They basically burst open your perception so that the right hemisphere of your mind joins the left hemisphere. So you see everything that you’ve been seeing all along, but you see much more as well. You see things that aren’t physical, measurable, time bound. You see things that are not things, like imagination. Point me to an imagination, you can’t. Show me a piece of love, you can’t. It’s something that ineffable that we feel.

The left hemisphere likes to say that it is the only thing that exists, and anything it doesn’t see or know or think is important does not exist. The right hemisphere doesn’t do that. It includes everything. Well, we live in a culture that has cut us off from at least half of our perceptions and then made us believe that that’s all there is. So the reason I do this podcast is try to bring non-religious spirituality into a place where we can all think about it, feel about it, and practice it in little ways.

I said I was going to do this before I began The Gathering Room, and then I didn’t do it, but I think everybody’s here now. So what I had everyone do when we had the request for a repetition was an Open Focus brain exercise. It starts by understanding that most of the atoms in your body are composed almost entirely of empty space with just a tiny bit of matter. For some reason, the brain reacts to certain suggestions by going into this Open Focus synchronous alpha state.

The thing I was throwing out to y’all the other day was, can you imagine the distance between your eyes? So I’m going to ask you to do that all again. This is our invocation. It doesn’t reference a higher power or anything. It just asks you to imagine, is it possible to imagine the empty space in the distance between your eyes? I’m going to let you think that and do that a few times. Can you imagine the space in the distance between your eyes? Some of you are doing it, because you can close your eyes or let them be at half-mast. Can you imagine the space in the distance between your eyes?

Okay. I feel, literally, coming from my computer, this sensation that I get when I go into synchronous alpha myself. When other people are doing it, it’s much more tangible for me, much easier to feel, and very, very real. I can feel it right now. So somebody had a good experience with this and said, “Let’s do it every time we open up.” And so we will. We’ll have a moment, but I’m going to change it a little bit.

I just went back and reread all about The Open-Focus Brain. There are different parts of the body that you can bring in that are also very powerful. Les Fehmi started with the distance between our eyes because we’re usually in very tight, narrow focus, that’s what the world asks us to do, our culture asks us to do. So if we focus on the distance between our eyes, our attention’s usually right there anyway, but then it can go down, down, down, all the way through the body. Now, when this happens, and I’ve been practicing it because I knew I wanted to talk to y’all about it. When narrow focus gives way to an Open Focus, what we find are the things, only they’re not things, that I call the helpers that never leave.

When I was growing up in Mormonsville, the Mormons had a hymn book. They used a lot of old Anglican hymns, and then threw in some of their own. There’s an old Scottish hymn that I used to actually really like. It’s by Henry Francis Lyte. He was a Scottish Christian Anglican who was dying of tuberculosis. He wrote this song called Abide with Me, and it just means stay with me. I remember even as a little kid, some of the lines in this were so powerful, because this was a man who was facing it, right? There are phrases in it that have never left me. Like he says, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”

I remember singing that as a little kid and really feeling it, and feeling it again as I saw and learned about other creatures that were helpless. The helplessness of beings was almost unbearable to me. Not that great still. It so happens that of all the things that cause us trauma, the predominant thing is a sense of helplessness. So if we’re under fire but we’re active and we have a plan and we’re making it happen, we’re much less likely to get PTSD than if we feel powerless and helpless. Yet, there are so many situations in our lives where we are quite powerless and helpless. What do you do in the face of things like wars and earthquakes and climate change and injustice and racism and all the things that are really, really around us? Each of us feel like such little creatures. Oh, Lord, your ocean is so big and my boat is so small.

It’s easy to feel helpless because our culture is about “Go, do something measurable.” And the idea that you can work with the unmeasurable and that you can actually have an effect on the world and on your own life in a situation where you are materially helpless, that’s not part of our culture. I learned this as a little kid and could never find what it was talking about. I’d get into places where I felt helpless, like giving birth or something, and I would be like, “Help, help.” And nobody came, right? I mean, people came, but the helplessness that I was feeling was so deep. Sometimes people came. Sometimes I felt very alone.

I had a few really breakthrough spiritual experiences, and I started to practice things like meditation and contemplation. I realized that there are these helpers, these friends that are always there for me. Always, always, always, especially when I feel most helpless. And interestingly, they all are words that repeat the sound ‘S’ twice. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that ‘S’ is such a basic sound of the wind in the water, but those words are stillness, silence, and space.

Most of our universe is made up of stuff that has no atoms in it. It’s not made up of anything. We only know that it exists. We call it dark energy and dark matter, because it doesn’t have atoms. We can’t see it. We can’t find it. But the way the universe is working gravitationally means it has to be there. This is the bulk of the universe, just as empty space is the bulk of the atoms in your body.

So imagine instead of you being an object knocking around that you are a creature in space, and space is like a three-dimensional medium and you are floating through it, but it supports you, it holds every atom, and it suffuses every atom. It’s always there. Imagine it as being alive. Can you imagine that instead of the part of you being alive being your body and the matter that you are, imagine what if the part of you that’s alive and conscious is the space inside you? What if space itself is full of consciousness, is full of love? We don’t know what consciousness is. It’s one of the immeasurables, right? And space is always there. By the same token, stillness is always there under every action.

So you may have had a really busy day. You may be exhausted. You may not get enough sleep. You may be sick right now. You may be in pain. If you use the Open Focus brain tools, I’m going to teach you a couple more in a minute, it’s incredible how much you can alleviate your own pain and your own stress. You start to listen for the silence beneath all sound. It’s always there. Sound comes and goes. Silence is always holding it. Stillness is always there. Action comes and goes, but stillness always holds it. Matter comes and goes, but space always holds it. What if we are the space, the stillness, and the silence? That’s what happens when you meditate a lot. You get deep, deep into it and you’re fighting, and you can’t understand, and then there’s something like a phase shift. Clunk. And as [inaudible 00:13:23] said, it’s so simple. You stop looking at things in space, and you start looking at space itself.

So here’s a little exercise that Les Fehmi suggests. If you’re looking at a computer screen or a phone screen right now, or even if you’re looking at something else, a book or a picture or your own hand. Whatever you’re looking at, instead of focusing your attention on it, focus your attention on the empty space between you and whatever you’re looking at. So become aware of the space between you and whatever you’re looking at. Make that the focus of your attention. Oh, you’re doing good. I can feel it.

Now, I’m going to give you some more suggestions. Can you imagine the distance between your eyes? Start there. Can you imagine the distance between the center of your neck and the top of your head? Try that. The space. And I know that our culture laughs at this, but it’s space inside the substance of your head, and then drop down. Can you imagine the distance between the base of your throat and your heart? Can you imagine the space inside your upper chest and the space inside your heart? The stillness, the silence, the space, the conscious no self. The heart is the radio. Space, love, consciousness of the music.

Now, can you imagine the space that holds your heart in place, diffusing into all of space? All of space holding your heart. Holding your spine, holding your intestines, holding your entire body. But back and back and back, we go to the space inside your heart and how it reaches into the furthest ends of the galaxy. Can you imagine the space inside your heart?

I’m going through these really fast. I think a lot of you are keeping up really well, because right now I literally feel like I’m levitating. It continues to get stronger as we go. I don’t know if you folks can feel it, but it’s as tangible as love. It’s as tangible as imagination. It’s as tangible as knowledge. So I hope you just keep feeling the space inside your heart, and the trick is that you start by practicing these little exercises, and you can go online and get them.

So you start by doing all these imaginary things in your head. It doesn’t take very long. Your right hemisphere opens up, your whole brain comes online. You feel more peaceful. You come out of fight or flight and into love and be loved, and you can sustain it going through the world if you practice it just a little bit. The clinical effects on people who’ve done this are astonishing. It heals everything from their anxiety, to their ulcers, to diseases that aren’t supposed to be curable. So that’s the little exercise. We started with it, but I thought I’d just really talk about it, because the way to the helpers that never leave is just to remember silence, stillness, and space and find any one of them.

Okay. Jessica says, “The trick is remembering to ask the helpers when I’m in fight or flight.” Exactly. “I’m learning. Do you have a trick besides basic repetition for going straight to asking for the helpers before going into despair?” I don’t, because your emotions are geared to give you a little helpful boost, like when little kids go bowling and they put the bumpers in the alley so that the ball can’t go in the gutter, and it will always hit at least something. It’s like our emotions are arranged so that we will never just wander off too far before coming back to what we are: stillness, silence, and space. And the mechanism, the bumper is pain, suffering.

Physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain. All of it. Darkening of the soul eventually will help you say, “I need help. There is no helper, help of the helpless. Abide with me.” And then you remember what always abides. Another line in that poem is, change and decay in all around, I see, oh thou who changest not, abide with me. What never changes? The helpers that don’t leave, stillness, space, and silence. So no, I can’t give you a hint that will help you remember before it hurts. But it’s like burning yourself on the stove repeatedly because of the same action. You get burnt a few times, then you start to catch it right before it burns you actually, and then you start to like, “No, I’m not doing that again.”

So it teaches you, if you’re willing to learn, here’s the thing, if you don’t know how to find the helpers and you’re just in despair, it’s like putting your hand on a hot burner and not being able to move it so you don’t learn anything because it never alleviates the pain. But when you’re in pain, physical and emotional and spiritual, I’ve been in plenty, and you remember, oh, help of the helpless silence, stillness and space. And you drop in and you start to imagine the space inside your heart and this incredible warm no thingness that diffuses throughout all creation, it never, ever, ever, ever goes away. It’s always there for you. And pain is a helper also, it gets us to the other helpers, but pain is the helper that does leave and the others don’t. Donna says, “How do we get to that place of imagining the space when we’re experiencing the fear or anger of others? Is there a way to do this in the midst of our or others’ anxieties and anger?” Okay, this is really a great question.

A trainer once told me, Keep 75% of your attention on the inside of your body, when you’re dealing with, especially, people who are upset or triggered. And you want 25% of your brain’s plenty to track whatever’s happening there. But just as I said, look at the empty space between yourself and whatever you’re looking at, you can shift your eye gaze just the tiniest bit. So somebody’s yelling at you, maybe they’re red-faced and they’re yelling. And if you open the aperture of your attention. So all you see in narrow focus is the thing you’re afraid of. Last time he talks about a little boy who was raised in an abusive alcoholic household and how they thought he couldn’t read, but it turned out it was just that he was in fight or flight so intensely that his eye gaze had narrowed to the point where he could only see one word at a time.

And so they had to teach him to open his gaze word by word by word. And after a few weeks he could read fluently. So if you’re looking at something that scares you, you’ll obviously notice that they can’t physically assault you, you want to make sure of that, and then start to notice that things around them and the distance between the two of you and the space inside your body, instead of focusing on their anger. That’s easy. You can register that. That’s an easy thing to follow. But now start looking at the space between you. You can actually start to hear the silence beneath the yelling. You can feel the peace and stillness beneath all the agitation. And you just put your eyes on that. And it’s really simple. There’s a yoga statement that helps you soften the gaze of your eyes and you can use it in an emergency and it just says, “Wall to ceiling…” Oh no, “Floor to ceiling, wall to wall. All things equal.”

So right now, wherever you are, look at everything in your perceptual field and give it equal importance, not just that center point that we’re always told, “Look at me, focus, keep your eye on the ball. Read that book.” These are all things that drive us into fight or flight. They increase anxiety because narrow focus is part of anxiety and they cut us off from feeling the helpers because the left hemisphere cuts out the right hemisphere and the wholeness of our experience. So that’s a great question, Donna. And it’s something to practice as a Black Belt Skill, but you really can get there. Try it watching the news or reading an angry post on the internet, put it out there. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, all things equal. Can I imagine the space inside my heart? Kathy Kieran says, “Where can we find these exercises? This is spectacular.”

I’m so glad you think it’s spectacular. I thought it would be the next big thing. When I read this research in 2007, I thought everyone’s going to do this. Why would you not? Again, you can go to Amazon and order the book. And then Les Fehmi is, it’s F-E-H-M-I. He was the guy who really pioneered this and he put out DVDs. I’m sure you can get audiobook downloads where he goes through dozens and dozens and dozens of the, can you imagine different places in your body, and also tells you how to… If you have a place that is painful or even a really high stress or fear or whatever, if you locate it in your body and then dive into it with your attention and then imagine it diffusing into space, you can stop pain. I used this after my foot surgery. It really, really work.

It’s like a miracle. And so far as I’ve been able to see, he’s the main proponent of it. So go to his name and Google that and you’ll find the whole Princeton thing where they supported that research. So Natalie says, “Is soft focus and Native American spiritual practice? I feel like I read that in one of your books.” Good eye, Natalie. Good memory. It’s a practice of almost everybody in the world who isn’t in a left hemisphere dominated culture. So what I referred to in that book was a discussion between the great psychologist Carl Jung and a friend of his, a dear friend of his, who was Pueblo Chief called… I think it was Chief Mountain Lake. That was his name. And they were close enough that Jung felt like he could ask Chief Mountain Lake what the native peoples actually thought of Anglos.

And he said, “We think you’re completely insane.” And Jung was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, you’re staring. You’re always staring. What is it you’re looking for? Why are you after something? You’re always hunting you. You’re never satisfied. And you say you think with your heads.” And Jung was like, “Don’t you think with your head?” And he was like, “No.” And Jung said, “Well, what do you think with?” And he just did this. Just everything. The whole nervous system, the electromagnetic field that extends into this space, the great spirit, everything’s connected, that’s how we think. And I’ve seen people from many cultures that are not Western based have that kind of Open Focus that you’ll read about. If you read Colonial reports of Europeans going into different countries, they talk about how they look stupid and blank because their focus is soft.

And well, history will show who is more stupid and blank, right? So thank you, Natalie. Laura says, ‘”How do you overcome the worry that you are about to get sick, anticipating pain using the tools you shared?” I’m so glad you asked. I had this worry myself this week. And so you find the worry in your body. Mine was in my chest. I was afraid I was getting a sore throat. IT was slightly. But what I’m looking for is not the pain of the sore throat, it’s the fear. And that was focused on my… I had a tight, narrow focus on my throat because I thought, is it getting sore? So what I do is I notice where my focus is narrow, and then I imagine my attention diving down into the fear and being in the same physical space. And then I say, can I imagine the space inside the substance of my throat, my neck? Can I imagine that? Because that’s where the fear is. Can I imagine the space inside the fear? Can I imagine the distance between my fear and my heart?

Just saying, can you imagine, triggers the right hemisphere and starts to open perception. And I had a sore throat. It doesn’t always work for me, but it works a lot. I went in, cleared the fear, my whole chest relaxed, my throat relaxed. So far I’m fine. So it’s really useful for physical pain and injury. And animals use it all the time. [inaudible 00:27:33] says, “The friends that never leave seems like a constant in a temporary world. How do I use this to ease deep loneliness since moving to college and my identity crumbling apart?” What a beautiful question. And you’re absolutely right.

Change and decay in all around. We see everything is changing, everything is falling apart. Everything is always falling apart. And our identities, our little tiny things, we grip for a moment before something bad happens or someone leaves us or we get old or we get sick and he goes, “It’s falling apart.” That song is written by a man who was literally dying. And we’re always moving that way. We’re always shifting and we know it’s shifting toward ultimately not being material. So our identities are always in flux. And if you find the place that’s frightened of that, the place that there’s gripping. So narrow focus is a gripping sensation. And even the left hemisphere is responsible for gripping motion in the hands.

So notice where does your heart rip, does your stomach grip, and just allow it. Allow it to grip as much as it wants. Find the fear located in the body. And then begin to imagine the distance between… Say, the space between your eyes and the point where you feel most afraid. The place between your heart and the place where you’re gripping an identity and just breathe into it. Can you imagine that silence, stillness, and space, hold this frightened being, hold these molecules and atoms, hold every single living thing, every person in every moment, continuous and constant and always awake and alive and loving.

Can you imagine that we’re all saturated by a sea of consciousness and that there is no distance between our individual consciousness and the whole? So this day I have felt your beautiful presence. I have felt the space, stillness, and silence holding us all everywhere we are in the world. It’s a miracle to me every time we get together. So thank you, thank you, thank you, and practice these skills a bit and I will see you next time on The Gathering Room.

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