“The cause of our suffering is our reaction to the reality of no escape.” Pema Chodron
I remember thinking to myself during my first labor, as the contractions began to intensify, and I felt them coming from my back all the way around to the front, if only I could get myself up out of the gap, before the contraction made it all the way around and closed in at the center of my tummy, I would be alright. As the contractions grew stronger, and my desire to escape became more intense, I experienced each contraction as more agonizing than the last, due to my clinging so strongly to the desire to resist and evade the sensations I was experiencing. I see many women in labor struggle with similar feelings and many years, three of my own births, and having accompanied a thousand or so women during their births, I understand that I could have made a different choice, one that would have allowed me to surrender and not suffer.
I could instead have decided to remain present with those feelings, without feeding more fuel to the raging, growing fire of the story my mind was concocting about them. I gave in to fear of pain, to fear of feeling vulnerable, and fear of not being strong enough to stay with each surging wave as it arose, crested, and passed. I increased the flames of fear by the labels I assigned as well. These labor sensations I was experiencing were “bad”, “unbearable”, “too intense”, “more than I could handle”. What if I had chosen a different perception and rather than resisting, closing down, plotting any means of escape, I had simply said “YES”? What if I had said “YES”, and welcomed each sensation, being thankful that my body knew what to do? What if I had felt excited that I would soon meet my precious baby, and decided that I was willing, able, and happy to be part of this miraculous process? What if instead of resorting to knee jerk habits of running from vulnerability and feelings of discomfort, I had said to every cresting wave, “ I welcome you”? What openings could I have created if I had let go of how I thought, or desired my birth to go, and my contractions to feel, and instead, allowed them to be however they needed to be? In her amazing book, My Stroke of Insight”, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable account of her massive stroke and recovery, she tells us that it takes just 90 seconds, a minute and a half, from the time we experience an emotion, and our body responds by releasing a flood of corresponding hormones and chemical messengers, for these chemicals to leave our body. If strong emotions, or a fight or flight response lasts longer, it is because we are choosing to fuel that response with the thoughts we layer over top of them. As each of my contractions began, instead of having an “Oh no, here comes another one” moment, and clenching, tightening, resisting, and trying to escape them, I could have said YES!, relaxed into them, and surrendered to the work they were doing of bringing my baby ever closer to my arms. In this way, rather than positioning myself smack dab in the midst of increased fear, anxiety, resistance,and suffering, I could have found liberation, and freedom. Saying YES! would have stopped fanning the flames of fear, and allowed them to be replaced with calm, surrender, and peace.
It is rather like the story told by a Native American grandfather to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. The grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.” Which will you feed, the fearful, anxious, resistant, emotions, thoughts, and old habits of desiring to escape feelings of vulnerability and discomfort, or one that will assist your labor to progress and bring your baby to your loving arms, one of saying YES!, welcoming, and surrendering to whatever arises?
In the midst of labor and birth, especially for first time mothers who are already facing a cloud of unknowns hovering over their head, it can feel disconcerting to discover the birth process asks us to accept and flow with a river that runs counter to the list making, project planning, and control we are used to in our daily lives. When our labor begins we realize that just like life, birth too is a dynamic, ever moving, ever changing process, and one upon which we cannot find a steady plot of earth to firmly plant our feet and claim a steady and steadfast position of sureness and comfort. Instead, we must get used to, and accept feelings of being as a boat at sea, with ever churning, never still, motionless, or stationary waves. Somehow, in order to reach our destination, we have to make a conscious choice to be okay with, and find calm in the midst of turbulence.
It is as if we are a child on the playground, who has climbed up onto the seesaw, and is standing in the center, trying to rock it this way and that, one side up, one side down, until we can find the place of equilibrium and balance where we feel safe and comfortable. We are seeking to become Master of the seesaw and undoubted Queen of the playground. But life, and birth, are often just like that shifting seesaw, dipping this way and that, giving a sense of groundlessness, of shifting sands, and change, that leaves us with unsure footing. In the midst of labor and birth then, with its unsteady, surprising, and changeable nature, can you choose to feed the wolf who understands and accepts the dynamic, ever changing, never stagnant, nature of life, change, and uncertainty, as the norm? Can you stop fighting and wishing for things to remain the same, known, or just so, and let go of striving for a stable foot hold? Can you climb down off the seesaw, and give yourself time to breathe and just be, rather than doing, or trying to change, resist, escape, or fix things? When these uncomfortable thoughts and emotions arise, can you do as Jill Bolte Taylor suggests, and just sit with and allow them to be there, just as they are without judgement, for one and a half minutes? Can you recognize but not cling to them, allowing the thoughts, just like birthing waves, to arise, crest, and pass away? Can you, instead of fearing and resisting, welcome them in your heart and mind, and thereby choose to feed the wolf who walks the path to freedom and joy, rather than out of fear, following the wolf who habitually leads us along the path of suffering? In the miraculous process of labor and childbirth, we all come to find that relinquishing our striving and desire to be Master of the playground, is the only way to ride the rides with an artfulness that allows us to end up as triumphant champion, and undoubted Queen of the playground of birth, and the passage into motherhood.