My Closet Retreat

When I was about eight years old I turned the closet in my bedroom into a tiny retreat for myself.

I moved all of my clothes to one side, and put a rickety wooden bookshelf that I had painted white up against the left wall. I gathered from my bedroom only my most favorite books, stuffed animals and souvenirs from family vacations, and put them on this shelf, along with a battery operated boombox and a stack of the tapes that spoke most directly to my heart. I placed a giant pillow up against the right wall, and would lean up against it, tucked under my hanging clothes. 

I’m sure there were times that I went in there to cry or because I was upset, but mostly I remember sitting in there contentedly reading a book, or sometimes even just admiring the shelf full of stuff that reflected back to me all the things that I cared about the most. At the time I would have told you I went in there to disappear, but now I know I went in their to try to appear. To be in the only six square feet on the entire planet that felt like they represented me, and in which there was nothing for me to do other than to be me.

Outside of that closet I unconsciously knew it was my job to be outwardly focused—to read the external situation and learn how to adapt and perform to be the good daughter, the good student, the good gymnast. But in my closet retreat, I got to allow my energy and attention to rest into myself. The smallness of the space helped me feel the space my body took up, and to be able to notice my own experience. My whole system would quiet when I sat in there on the beige carpet and did whatever it is I wanted to be doing. 

Later, my yoga mat would offer the same sort of containment to be with myself, and more recently, my motorcycle helmet and armored gear while out on a ride do the same. It’s the practice of being called to be physically present in my body enough to feel the space I take up and what it’s like to be me in my own experience.

This past month I taught the first round of trainings on self-care and resilience for the staff at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. As we were doing embodied self-awareness practices to feel what it’s like to be present with someone else while also being present to yourself, nearly everyone said this was a foreign experience. They were more practiced at being 100% focused on the other person and not on themselves. Though they conceptually knew that they have to be present with themselves to be truly present with another, they talked about how they’d not had any modeling or education on how to actually do that

One nurse teared up as she said she didn’t even know it was an option that she could have her own experience while taking care of a patient. Others nodded in agreement—that as long as there was someone else in the room it felt like they needed to be more present to them. 

This is true for so many of the clients I work with, too—there’s an unconscious way of operating that excludes their own thoughts, feelings, needs and preferences. So much of their operating system has become about making sure the people around them are happy or comfortable or feel understood or supported, that they, despite a strong desire to, don’t know how to stand for themselves in a difficult conversation, or what they really want to do for work in the next chapter of their life, or how to soothe themselves when they’re anxious or upset. There’s not a strong sense of their self and the space they take up, but there is exhaustion or frustration, or both.

If this hits home for you—if you also have a hard time being present to yourself when others are around—here’s something small but significant you can start practicing:

First, become aware of what it feels like in your body when you are only present to what’s going on outside of you, whether it’s a another person or an activity. Does it feel spacious or tight? Anxious or calm? Grounded or floaty?

Second, get curious about what it feels like when you have showed up for yourself—when you feel present in your body. What are the sensations that go along with that? Does it feel soft or hard? Quiet or loud? (It might be helpful to use your equivalent of my childhood closet to do this—seek out a place or person or thing around which you feel like you easily get to be yourself.)

Use these two data points to help you recognize--through how you feel--moments in which you’re present, and moments in which you’ve lost yourself. And when you catch one of those moments where you’ve lost yourself, look for yourself. I like the simple practice of saying, “Hey, are you there?” to myself. It’s like calling out to myself to make sure I remember that it’s important I show up.  And to remind myself that it’s ok for me to take up space. If you call to yourself inwardly in this way, you may not be able to feel a connection or something shift right away, but I feel strongly that asking—just starting to look for yourself in the different situations you find yourself in—is important.

Try this the next time you’re about to walk into a room to have a potentially difficult exchange with someone. Or, just as importantly, the next time you’re having a really sweet moment. Or right now—look for yourself. “Hey, are you there?” Maybe even tap on your chest like you're knocking at the door of your heart. See if you can feel yourself having the experience of being yourself, even for a moment. 

Jay Fields