Our lives cycle through a constant series of expansions and contractions–and, if you become attuned to it, you’ll see that on something of a regular schedule, there is a macro-level expansion, followed by a macro-level contraction, that affects every category of your life: career, family, health, relationships and more.
These seasons (seasons of life, that is) can be felt as a subtle undercurrent in the body, before the external evidence that they’ve arrived has even presented itself.
During expansion, there is growth–new connections, new friendships, new information, new opportunities, new inspirations and a lot of output. Everything is inhaling wider and life is abuzz with activity circling a new project–whether that’s a “get healthy after being diagnosed with an illness” project or a creative flourishing.
Expansion is not always optimistic or filled with “good” circumstances, so much as it’s a time when a lot is happening at once, and you dance along the line–but not quite over the line–of overwhelm. Something within you seems to be incredibly responsive in a way that is different from all the other times, times when you might have broken down in response to a new stress.
It can be an exciting time when the expansion is accompanied by happier circumstances, a time where work doesn’t even always feel like “work,” as much as it feels like dancing wildly backwards, and laughing at the zany craziness of it all.
Moleskin notebooks get filled with writing that process grief, or post-it notes with new creative ideas line the bottom of the computer screen. Energetic or creative output is running on all cylinders.
Then there’s contraction.
Contraction is a time of going inward. There is evaluation of all of the new things that have come in during the cycle of expansion–what fits? What no longer works? Alongside the evaluation there’s confusion, uncertainty. There’s less output and more input. When my own life is going through a time of contraction, I seem to release friendships, spend more time reading and studying (input) than writing and sharing (output), and–gulp–make less money, because my ideas are marinating within me and productivity is down.
Contraction is quieter. There’s more listening. You’ll likely crave silence. You might want to give away everything you own, pare down, keep things really simple. Things that once seemed important might seem less-so, the urgency diminished.
Contraction & Fear
Times of contraction used to scare the shit out of me (confession: sometimes, if I’m running too many Stories, they still can).
My own life seems to recycle itself to one or the other on an annual basis, seemingly out of the bounds of my control. 2010? Growth. 2011 (inward). 2012? Growth. So–2013? Oy. I admit to some nervous apprehension.
I can feel it all over my life, already – the pull towards contraction. It shows up in the inclination to spend the day on the sofa surrounded by books, the consideration of a new creative project without the impulse to take action, the prioritizing of yoga.
When your life is stepping into contraction, you’ll feel it in your body and your bones: the pull to assimilate and integrate rather than flourish outwardly. The call to be taught, rather than to teach; to listen rather than to speak.
The Hungry Ghost
The apprehension we feel about times of contraction is rooted in a scarcity mentality.
The “hungry ghost” is that Buddhist term for when something external is desired, but even in the attainment of it, it’s never “enough.” It’s the “hungry ghost” voice within that says, “But you’ve worked so hard; you’ve come so far. How can you…sit back and read books? Take time off of work? Not plan out a series of profitable business projects for 2013? That would be crazy. If you want this lucky streak to continue, you’ve got to work harder.”
You can fit this dialogue to your will: How can you…not enroll your kids in all of those extra-curricular activities? Volunteer to take on that extra project for the boss? Organize the garage after you’ve sworn you’d do it? Work as hard as you’ve been working to be more compassionate or patient?
The expansion cycle, as it gives way to a contraction cycle, can feel unwieldy, maybe a little painful.
But here’s what I’ve learned about these expansion-contraction cycles: The natural rhythms of life are going to play themselves out anyway.
Trying not to follow the very alive current during an expansion season? Just about impossible. The requests for your time or the calls to action will flood in, until you can’t ignore them or resist them. When you update your friends on your life, they won’t believe it’s only been a week since you last spoke; so much has happened. If you’re in a creative flow, the words and message flow with ease.
By contrast, I’ve learned that if I ignore the internal signs of a contraction season at work, and if I push to do a lot during a contraction season, I won’t get much done, anyway.
Whatever I do get done during a contraction season is going to be like pulling teeth–and the quality isn’t going to be as good. For me, it’s not the inner critic saying this; I’ve reviewed writing from such seasons and can see, really clearly, how it’s as if I were writing “around” the truth during a time of contraction, instead of honing right in on my target as I do so easily during times of expansion.
At such times, it can feel like the cosmic joke is on you: you’re doing all the things you did so well during an expansion season, but the Midas touch is…gone. You’re pushing yourself to function at the same level of productive output–whether it’s for a creative project or to “be there” for others during a time of crisis, and…you can’t.
And yes–this can feel slightly devastating, confusing and (really) scary. It can feel so out-of-control.
Going With the Flow
Breathe in–expansion–hold it. Keep holding it. Notice how awfully uncomfortable it is to keep holding it, until you simply can’t, any longer. You exhale. You can’t help it.
Working against the natural rhythm of the exhale is effort.
Try exhaling, but not inhaling. Notice the same–how you’re working against the natural inclination to bring the breath in, and when you finally can’t hold yourself back any longer and you breathe in…relief floods the body.
Everything in the world is changeable, and there are micro- and macro- cycles of expansion at work in the body, with our finances, within our relationships, with our cells and biochemistry, with our creativity, with our personal and spiritual growth.
If you want to suffer less, you’ve got to “go with the flow.”
If life is calling for you to expand, you can resist the call for as long as you like, but every sign around you is going to be calling you forth. Sometimes, the call forth will come in a way that feels painful–like getting laid off as the final push to do the work you know you’re meant to do, or a relationship will hit its final straw, and that’s what gets you to move towards your new paramour.
So–pay attention to the clues, and go with that flow. Notice what happens when you start saying “YES” to what life seems to be ushering you towards.
If life is calling for contraction, you can resist that call, too–if you wish. In our productivity-oriented society, most people resist this call and it typically leads to burn-out, illness, numbing-out, depression. Most people who are feeling “stuck” think they need to work harder or “do” something to relieve themselves to get “un-stuck.” In fact, they’re “stuck” because they have been ignoring the cues for rest.
To them, also: notice what happens when you start saying “YES” to what life seems to be ushering you towards.
It’s in joining with the natural rhythm of our lives that we can discover the truth: the expansion has its place, as does the contraction. Neither place needs to involve suffering, unless we set it up that way by going against what everything seems to call to us to do–unless we try to inhale with exhaling, or exhale without inhaling.
Look around at your life, your world, as the calendar year changes, as the seasons change. What’s it calling you towards? Expansion, or contraction?