Focus of the Month: April 2021

A Perfect Mess

written by Keith Porteous

Photo credit: “Edith, Christmas Morning, Danville, Virginia” by Emmet Gowan

“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” – Anne Lamott

When I was growing up in the 1980s, time with my grandparents in the Mississippi Delta created community and inspiration. The bright radiance of the beaming sun, my grandmother’s endlessly joyful piano playing, and their community of artistic friends were an affirming balance to the shadow of my parents’ ongoing divorce.

Close friends who were sculptors made outdoors rooms, figures of animals, gardens inspired by Mexico, and called me “Keith Little” to give me a place amongst the lineage of women whose name I share. My brother, cousins and I would play hide and seek in their gardens and tour their studio in wonder. We watched them experiment with adding glass to sculpture, change their style, and over time build a huge business they literally started out of mud. Being around them, it felt like anything was possible, not in a reckless way, but in a life-affirming, express-yourself, believe-in-your-dreams kind of way.

The female was petite and powerful; her signature style involved wearing only one earring, on purpose. The gentleman had a common expression about someone he cared for: “isn’t she just a mess,” he would say in his heavily accented voice. His words were intended as a compliment. From my memory, I believe he meant that the person was authentic, unique, and accepted. This person who was a “mess” was invited into his circle of care, rather than excluded. Their art studios were not perfectly tidy, but they were full of creativity, inspiration and love. In reflection, I think it takes someone who is fully authentic, embodied and at ease with their own shifts to fully embrace and move through the mess: the mess of relationships, child-rearing, seasons, pandemics, life itself.

It has been said that yoga is the healing of the divided self. How do you experience imperfections and messiness, both within your relationship to yourself and your environment? As we emerge from time in isolation, many of us have been more internal than ever before. Perhaps during this time you did some exploring of the closets and suitcases in your home, both physically and emotionally. It takes strength to begin the process of “spring cleaning,” whether that means facing stacks of old papers or acknowledging grief. With the spring approaching, we have the chance to open the windows and let air flow, to assess what resides in our homes and hearts, and to plant new seeds in a garden for a future time. This spring, much of America will experience a great thaw, with melting of snow and the inevitable messiness that comes with transition from one season to the next.

Recently, over Zoom, a yoga teacher from Colorado told me that in her area the snow was just beginning to melt. As much of America had just experienced a devastating deep freeze, this shift to warmer weather meant more than during a “normal” year. When I asked her to speak further about her experience, a slow, profound smile spread across her face as she said “it’s going to be a perfect mess.” What a curious expression: ‘a perfect mess.’ In my experience, the drive for perfection and the reality of the authentic messiness of life are often at odds. What is your relationship with the concept of mess?

In college, my photography professor shared an image he had taken of his wife on Christmas morning which captures my own approach to mess. The floor is littered with wrapping paper. She looks serious and stoic as she assesses the situation. There is none of the ebullient joy of the child gleefully ripping open presents in this image, although clearly a child has recently torn through the room. In my childhood, I recall the joy of Christmas mess, but as an adult, my relationship with mess has a tighter grip. I relate to this photograph as a parent and someone who needs to ‘hold it together’ for others in various roles. On most days every fiber of my being wants to resist experiencing, feeling or being seen as a mess. Ironically, the more pressure I feel not to be a mess, the more resistance I experience with everything in my world, and it becomes hard to even face the dishes. This resistance is called “dvesha” in the Yoga Sutras, it is a rejection mindset which forces against the world. It shows up as judgment, impatience and every flavor of distaste. When we are in this state, our thoughts can have a kind of corrosive effect on our relationships with our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, and especially our history.

Looking in the rearview mirror like this, mistakes loom large. According to the Yoga Sutras (2.8), an aversive mindset follows the experience of pain. On one hand, aversion is an excellent survival skill as we learn from the past and protect the physical safety of the body. It doesn’t take too many times touching a whistling teapot to remember to protect your hands to avoid being burned. But if this aversive mindset expands to cloud everything we see, everything takes on a threatening tone. Our lives constrict, and we become less connected to our environment, our friends, our families, and most of all ourselves. If we can’t get out of our own way, or adjust to more realistic standards, we’ll end up depressed.

Notes on the Nervous System:
One silver lining for me during 2020 was finishing a two-year course with Dr. Miles Neale’s Contemplative Studies Program. In one module, we studied “trauma-informed dharma,” or how to healthfully approach spiritual teachings without spiritual bypass or ignorance about the cues for how trauma presents in oneself and others. Much of our coursework covered the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, whose work highlights the critical role of the tenth cranial nerve, also known as the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a wanderer throughout our body (vagus comes from the same root which gives us the word vagrant). The vagus innervates the lungs, heart, and many major organs.
The highest level of the vagus is called the smart vagus or ventral agus. When we are in this vagal tone, we are able to exhibit the mammalian response (rather than a fight, flight, or freeze “reptilian” response). If there is enough secure attachment in childhood, an appropriate level of development, and the perception of safety, then the smart vagus can run the show and develop robustness, or ‘vagal tone,’ and an array of mammalian skills like communication, bonding, trust and intimacy. With vagal tone
there is the ability to apply the ‘vagal brake’ if there is a problem, which slows down heart rate and breathing, so you can approach a challenge without “burning flight or fight fuel,” as Dr Neale would say. You can stay mobile and active, using your higher
social functions like problem solving, listening, reading subtle cues in facial expression and vocal modulation.

The smart or ventral vagus is situated above the diaphragm. It is myelinated, which means it transmits signals very quickly like a well-insulated wire. If the smart vagus gets damaged, or if we are assailed by stress, conflict and unresolved trauma, then we can’t sustain smart vagal tone, and we drop into our middle or lower capacities. In the face of threat, physical, psychological, or emotional, we downshift into the fight-or-flight reaction characteristic of the sympathetic nervous system. We can observe this in animals as well as in ourselves.

It is important to remember that once we’re in fight or flight, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are running through the body (affecting our organs) and our sophisticated communication system is no longer online. As just one example of how much our behavior changes, the actual inner ear function shifts to focus more on lower frequency sounds associated with threat rather than on the frequencies found in the human vocal spectrum. Dr. Porges has applied these findings with his Safe and Sound Protocol to help children with autism, who often struggle with communication or reading emotional cues. From his research, he found that their ears operate in the mode which focuses more on the lower tones associated with threat rather than the higher, complex spectrum of human communication. By helping modulate vagal tone back “up”, therapies grounded in polyvagal theory are helping children with autism ‘rewire’ and reconnect with their lives. This is one example of how vagal tone affects behavior, as well as social and emotional processing. There is a corny joke that “what happens in the Vagus goes everywhere,” as in, unlike an alleged trip to Las Vegas, whatever happens with the vagus affects systems throughout the body.

Lastly, if the fight or flight reactions characteristic of the sympathetic nervous system fail to ensure safety, our system further descends down the ancestral chain to neural responses which link us with reptiles. This is the realm below the diaphragm of the dorsal vagus. The ventral and dorsal vagus are both a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, yet their effect is opposite. When the dorsal vagus is in charge, you might experience dissociation, immobilization, or in the face of true shock, the body either collapses or freezes. You might have observed this in a lizard who suddenly acts as still as a stone in the face of threat. One of my teachers recently mentioned that he feels children have micro-freezes often, when it is simply too much to feel what they are feeling. I think we do this as adults as well. In a yogi’s language, some prana gets frozen, or compartmentalized.

As yogis, our time on the mat, whether at home or in the studio, provides a powerful synthesis of social support, safety, and mobilization. The metaphor of melting or “un-freezing” is important in the context of trauma recovery. This is the level of repair and healing in which the parasympathetic nervous system shifts “up” into smart or ventral vagal tone, and there is often an emotional release. You might experience this kind of feeling with a trusted teacher, or with a therapist, or an old friend who gives you space to be both perfect as you are and a mess. Perhaps you remember in your early days of yoga doing a pose and being flooded by a memory. Something shifted. A glacier
within cracked and begin to thaw, or a salty tear found a path down the side of your face. A geyser of grief revealed suppressed energy and emotion.

Moving through the mess:

2020 put so much pressure on all of us in different ways, I wonder if you experienced some “cracks,” as did I. One can only hold it together for so long. Personally, I experienced a series of breakdowns and breakthroughs which made me feel like a mess. It is truly humbling to see how much more powerful suppressed emotions are when they begin to release than any kind of intellectualism or assumed self-identity. These experiences had a gut-wrenching, “bottom up” authenticity which could not be held back or covered over with an intellectual veneer. The emotional release that comes during the healing process reminds me of the messiness of melting winter, and perhaps to stretch the metaphor, it is also linked to recovery from the freeze response in the nervous system.

If we can connect with others and ourselves through these experiences of being a “mess,” rather than reactive with a rejection mindset, our breakdowns can reveal new paths for growth and healing. As Zen Master Dogen says, “If you want to see things just as they are, then you yourself must practice just as you are.” This spring, you are invited to practice just as you are, not as you should be. Perhaps softening the grip on what we should be can allow us to let go, and as we let go, we move through the mess, we process and let go, and just like this spring season, we move into a new cycle of growth.

Teacher Tools

“A Zen master’s life is one continuous mistake”. – Zen Master Dogen
“To be in harmony with the wholeness of things is not to have anxiety over imperfections.” – Zen Master Dogen
“If you want to see things just as they are, then you yourself must practice just as you are.” – Zen Master Dogen
“A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it. When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves. Working with plants, trees, fences and walls, if they practice sincerely they will attain enlightenment. You should study not only that you become a mother when your child is born, but also that you become a child. If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” – Zen Master Dogen.
“Cicada shell: little did I know, it was my life.” – Zen haiku

“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” – Anne Lamott
“A ‘mistake’ is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.” – John Cage
“Allow the mistakes to do their good work.” – Tias Little
“Simple kindness to one’s self and all that lives is the most powerful transformational force of all.” – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., Power vs. Force. Selections from pp. 127-128.
“Force always moves against something, whereas power doesn’t move against anything at all. Force is incomplete and therefore has to be fed energy constantly. Power is total and complete in itself and requires nothing from outside. It makes no demands; it has
no needs. Because force has an insatiable appetite, it constantly consumes. Power, in contrast, energizes, gives forth, supplies and supports. Power gives life and energy – force takes these away. We notice that power is associated with compassion and makes us feel positively about ourselves. Force is associated with judgment and makes us feel poorly about ourselves.” – Power vs. Force, David R. Hawkins. Chapter 8
“Seemingly catastrophic events may be the very essential and necessary elements for the evolution of the soul.” – Dr. David Hawkins, Transcending the Levels of Consciousness
“Have compassion for everyone…We all must struggle with the downside of human nature. Everybody is crippled in some area, and each of us is somewhere on the path of evolution – some people are ahead of us, and some are behind. In the steps we’ve walked are the old lessons of life, and before us are new teachings.” – Dr. David Hawkins
“There’s nothing to feel guilty about and nothing to blame…Nobody could have done otherwise at any given point in time. We can only get “there” from “here”. Every leap has it’s own platform to originate from. Pain exists to promote evolution; it’s cumulative effect finally forces us in a new direction.” – Dr. David Hawkins, Power vs Force
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
“The most precious gift we can offer another is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“The river is my savior
She’s running to the sea
And to reach her destination
Is to simply cease to be
And running ’til you’re nothing
Sounds a lot like being free
So I’ll lay myself inside her
And I’ll let her carry me” – Jason Isbell
Note on the Yoga Sutras:
Yoga Sutra 2.8: Duhkhanusayi Dvesah
Duhkha – Pain
Anusayi – Follows with
Dvesha – Aversion
• Aversion is that which follows identification with painful experiences – Swami Satchidananda
• Dvesa is repulsion or hatred and results from anything that causes pain – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
For more information about the nervous system, and specifically polyvagal theory:
Books and online courses by Dr. Stephen Porges
The “Trauma-informed Dharma” online course taught by Dr. Miles Neale. The course was taught live in 2019 and can be purchased and enjoyed at

On the mat:
Poses which support balance in the second chakra. Some examples: Supta Baddha Konasana, Eka Pada Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), Tarasana (Star Pose), Supta Hasta Padangusthasana 2.
Balance poses, to build ‘Sthira a Sukham’ in the legs (chakra 1), which we need if we’re working with emotions (chakra 2). Perhaps we can hold the joy and the pain “in the balance” without leaning away from or towards certain aspects of ourselves.
Shalabhasana (locust pose), which aligns with the Zen haiku “cicada shell: once I thought that was my life”
Bhujanghasana (cobra pose) also about letting go, shedding skin
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
So Ham and Tat Tvam Asi
Saha navavatu, Saha nau bhunaktu, saha viryam, karavavahai

April 2021