What it means to heal yourself, and how “self-healing” is misnamed, incomplete, and so needed

Have you ever sat by a waterfall in the forest, relaxed in a hammock on the beach, or watched an impressively colorful sunset and felt… nothing? Beauty and peace surround you, yet you’re lost in your own troubles. Maybe you’ve even had that experience with helping professionals, going to therapists and bodyworkers and life coaches and doctors and still, you remain caught in the same struggle that brought you there. It’s an awful feeling, like being handed a beautiful gift made just for you, only you can’t reach out your hands to accept it. You might decide the gift is not right for you and continue your search for more and new and better gifts. But what will help you to receive them?

As many of you know, I am a huge proponent of what I call “self-healing.” This phrase wasn’t super popular long ago, but much like “mindfulness” and “energy work,” it’s becoming so commonplace, it’s losing all meaning. So let me clarify the essence and the hype, as I see it.

What self-healing is not

When we are suffering, the darkness feels more real than the light. Finding solutions to problems in that dark place can seem pointless and burdensome. Self-healing, contrary to its name, is not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and applying that independent, self-reliant, cowboy attitude to recovering from burnout and trauma. It’s not about undergoing a multitude of different therapeutic modalities or taking every nutritional supplement or psychedelic medicine available on this earth, though your own self-healing process may certainly include some of these wonderful tools and teachers. Self-healing is also not about manifesting everything you desire or replacing social needs with spiritual pursuits. And just like an outside person can’t make a change happen in you, no “self” can force you to think and feel differently either. 

What self-healing is

Self-healing is an opening. It is being able to see and acknowledge whatever kind of angsty mess we might find ourselves in for the moment. It is surrendering from the struggle to make it all better, a giving up on the attempt to figure it out. Self-healing, in the way I practice and understand it, is being willing to accept life on its own terms and to follow the step that shows up next like one would follow a flashlight through a dark cave. The actual steps are unique to each of us and the timing is as important as what actions we take. In essence, though, self-healing includes both some stepping up and some stepping back:

Stepping Up

We accept we can’t delegate our ability to feel better about ourselves and our lives to outward circumstances or to someone else. We don’t wait on what is outside our control to change. We give up the quest for the final answer being out there somewhere someone else has hidden, and take loving responsibility for our own internal experience of this life. We tell the truth to ourselves about how we’re doing and use our will to be willing.

Stepping Back

We slow down and let in the support that is already available. Maybe there’s a passerby that makes eye contact and smiles, a cardinal that lands on a nearby tree branch, a cooling tea with just the right herbal blend, a song, a movement, or a powerful ally or ancestor unseen by others. The form the support takes is irrelevant–what matters is we’ve let down our guard and allowed the spirit of what is present to touch us. The natural flow of life is healing itself when we stop blocking it. We learn how to receive, which, most simply put, is how to relax around what is. 

We think we need to feel better; often what we really need is to release resistance to what we actually feel and allow the everyday magic to do its thing. Healing as a noun is still a verb—it’s a process unfolding all the time. Shit happens and you can befriend yourself through it or abandon yourself. Self-healing is about learning to be your own champion, your own rescuer, your own beloved. Not because you have a big ego and can do all those things, but because you know you can’t. It’s like the little fuzzy caterpillars I’ve been seeing on my morning walks these days. I was looking at them and thinking about how they will become butterflies. Then I saw one being eaten by a chipmunk. All is not light and wonder. Healing is transcendence but not always through outer transformation. 

The caveat

The individual’s decision to accept rather than resist is a turning point, not the whole story. We are each unique beings, but we are also part of a much larger organism, beyond our own families and loved ones. We are not separate from the earth we walk on nor the child on the other side of the globe. We affect each other. We can trigger each other like crazy, but we can also heal together in depths we can’t reach alone. There is quite a lot of stepping up and stepping back that needs to be done in community as well. Self-healing is essential: only you can choose to be willing and open. Self-healing is incomplete: like trees in the forest, we may seem separate above ground, but our roots are interconnected.

I hope whatever you’ve got going on this summer, you’re reconnecting in a way that is nourishing for you. For the empaths and the sensitives, that way may look quieter and more intentionally slowed down, and that’s absolutely OK. For some of us, re-entry to society is harder than turning in to the introvert’s cave of quarantine. We’re all working things out somehow though. Thank goodness we’ve got ourselves and each other for company on this wild ride. 

Julia Aziz

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PRACTICE NEWS

I am beyond excited about the next cycle of the Release & Empower Women’s Circle, where self-healing in community moves beyond theory to practice. Women who give much of their time and attention to others are coming together in a sacred space for their own self-healing. We are upleveling the energetic container of the online experience, returning to a closed group model, and syncing up with the rhythms of nature this year, amplifying what has already been a nourishing and powerful experience for more than fifty women in the past couple years. Women have started signing up for the fall term with the early registration discount. Read more about the women’s circle here to see if it would be a good fit for you or to apply.
 

When you’re giving out more than is coming in

Have you ever heard a fox cry? A week or so ago, I was in the hill country and heard what sounded like a child screaming, “Help!” in the night. It was a little disconcerting until we realized it was a fox. My friend and I responded by sounding out a similar cry. The more we called back, the closer the fox seemed to approach us. She came near but never all the way to where we stood. We continued to stay in conversation for a while though, until she moved on.

If this fox actually was crying for help, the help she needed was not for someone to go and rescue her. She seemed to find her own way eventually. Maybe she just needed to be heard, to know someone else was out there crying too. I feel a similar dynamic evolving in this next phase of the pandemic together. In the old paradigm, there were damsels in distress and rescuers. There were people in need and people who helped. This dichotomy was always false though. We carry both of these archetypes within us; we are each vulnerable and strong. Pretending there are some who have it all together and others who only fall apart has led to situations like the current mental health crisis for therapists and real burnout for healthcare professionals in general. 

These are intense times, so if you’re not always doing so well, that seems about right to me. We’re not meant to feel always cozy and well in a sick and troubled society. We are meant to be uncomfortable as much as we are meant to be brave. Who says we have to be stoic about any of it? One of my favorite memories of last year was when I stepped outside one morning in Colorado and heard my dear friend and neighbor screaming at the top of her lungs on her front porch. I immediately responded with a loud roar of my own. We laughed about it when we saw each other later, but in the moment it just felt good to be in our own messiness and know we were not alone.

Being heard feels risky, I know. As a therapist, I’ve been well-trained to not show too much of myself, good or bad. Helping professionals are taught to be clear mirrors for others. We’re not supposed to fog up those mirrors with our own personhood. We hold space for other people, not take up space ourselves. I don’t buy it as a way to live a whole life though. I can express what’s within me in contexts I feel safe in, and also show up with presence, compassion, and my full attention for someone else. We all have gifts, and we all have burdens. There is room in this world for the humanity in us all. I’d like to shed all pretenses of “helpers” and “helped” and instead sing out loud with you the music that arises from our dashed dreams, our triumphs, our sorrows, and most of all, our love.  

When we cry out like the fox and hear another’s cry too, it’s not just about venting. It’s about remembering: this life on earth didn’t come with a promise of feeling happy most of the time or everything working out a certain way. You’re not failing at that game. This life is an adventure of growth and change, an opportunity to feel and experience everything. Our stories are heroic tales of resilience. You’re here, and you’re doing it. We all are! 

Please share your voice, and know I am rooting for you. 

With love,

Julia Aziz

PS: If you are helping other beings through this pandemic, and you feel like more is going out than coming in for you, please check out the women’s Release & Empower Group. We have a few spaces open this month, with either month-to-month subscriptions or a nice discount if you make a three-month commitment to yourself. Also new, 10% of the group’s profits are being donated to grassroots community healing work led by BIPOC women. Current recipients include SanArte Healing & Cultura Clinic and Black Women’s Health Imperative. Help others and help yourself too. 

“I feel so much permission to just be however I am in this group. The journaling, the movement, the breathing, the sharing–it’s all what I’ve been needing to do more of for myself and now I feel like I’m making room for it again. I feel so thankful for the women here, and know that as I am going through some changes in my life, this is just where I need to be.”

How we are with each other

Sixteen years ago, I worked as a counselor for a nonprofit that was run by the consensus process. When I first started there, I was so excited. I envisioned a place where everyone’s voice was heard and counted equally, a highly evolved and cooperative utopia. The reality, however, was more challenging. Everyone’s voice was certainly heard, but often for long, drawn out meetings. Minor decisions had to be debated and postponed week after week until an agreement could be reached. As we know, opinions don’t change easily. Sharing new ideas doesn’t mean other people will be receptive to them. And if everybody’s talking, who is there to listen? 

I learned a lot from participating in the consensus process, and while I still deeply respect the model, I realized I don’t have the inner patience for it. Hearing too many opinions drains my compassion. My favorite way of being in community is more nonverbal. Some years before that nonprofit job, during a work exchange at a yoga retreat center, I had my first experience of group sharing without cross-talk. Being together in silence, owning our experiences, and sharing without the interference of others’ judgments was a relief and a revelation. Not only did we leave those meetings more centered and connected, making clear choices came easier too.  

It’s tricky, interacting with other people these days. It’s hard not to get pulled into a downward spiral of how terrible everything is and what should or shouldn’t be happening. Sure, it can be interesting to hear what you think about it all, but what I really want to know is, what is giving you strength each day? How are you keeping your heart open? In today’s world, where so little is actually known or understood, opinions feel even less compelling to me. I wonder more what changes are growing in you.

As a dear friend said to me yesterday, it’s compost time. If triggering information and opinions are going to keep coming in, all that heavy mental-emotional energy needs to be regularly let out. I’ve been hearing people say that everyone is going to need therapy when this is all over, as if mental health is something we can put on hold to deal with on some future, easier day. Mental health is not a matter of keeping it all together until the outside world improves. Let’s please not hold our breaths like that. There’s another way, one that has been around much longer than modern psychology or colonialist times. We can ritually call in, feel, and release the strong and messy feelings on purpose. When we do this letting go together in a protected and loving container, the relief is exponential. We can find both our own hearts and each other again. 

I’ve been studying different holistic helping modalities for many years now, and I still find profound worth in the most simple practice of being quiet together in community, listening to each other and witnessing without offering opinions. As many of you know, we do this type of sharing at the end of the women’s release & empower groups. When we went online this spring, I was heartened to see that we really can do this community self-healing work virtually. It’s not passively receiving information staring at yet another screen in a webinar; it’s being together at home, actively letting stuck energies move through the mind, body, and heart without advice or judgments getting in the way. To make this community practice more accessible and available throughout the changing times we’re in, an online Release & Empower community is opening August 1st, with a FREE introductory workshop the week before. Especially if you’ve been doing a lot of emotional caregiving professionally or at home, check it out, and invite a friend you’d like to be with in authentic community. 

I don’t know what’s going on around here. What I do know is that even when I tire of opinions, I still care about other people’s experiences. I still love when we can be ourselves together. No matter what is lost, no matter what comes next, I am grateful to be moving through these changes with you.

Wishing you treat yourself to whatever deeply frees your spirit,

Julia

PS-If you’d like to learn more about the expressive writing practice we do in Release & Empower and receive some extra support with your self-care at home, check out this new mini practice book just released last month for pandemic times: When You’re Having a Hard Time: The Little Book That Listens. It’s a little heart’s guidance for emotional strength and resilience. 

PPS-The release & empower workshop is designed for helping professionals and other emotional caregivers who have been holding it together for others a lot lately. It’s powerful work and requires a certain level of social support and self-care grounding to integrate. If you’re really struggling with mental health right now and feel at the verge of a breakdown, this workshop will not be sufficient nor appropriate. If you don’t know where to turn, try a 24/7 free crisis hotline that can connect you with good and local support, or you can use this textline for help with coronavirus-related anxiety and grief. Help is available, and I encourage you to receive it when you need it! 

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What it takes to be free

Commitment, structure, accountability. I’m surprised you’re still reading; those words bring up strong resistance for many of us. Or at least for those of us, like me, who like to feel boundless, creative, and free. But one thing I’ve learned is that commitment can actually be a channel for creativity, and structure, with its fewer choices, can be a relief, letting the wild one within feel safe to emerge.

In 2006, when the idea for my book first emerged, I started writing here and there, when I felt inspired. I didn’t feel pressure to produce anything, just a vision hanging overhead and a vague pull to sometimes give it voice. That haphazard “write-when-you-feel-it” pattern went on for about six years, until the very end of 2011, when I decided to take on a thirty day challenge of writing every day. Once the book became my homework, I actually made some good progress on it. I didn’t stick with the daily writing practice after the thirty days, but I did become more disciplined about writing, and two years later, I was able to send a manuscript out to a few publishers. When I received a book contract, it then took just three months to completely rewrite the book and ready it for professional editing. The structure of writing regularly, the commitment to complete the project, and the accountability to my publisher are what allowed a dreamy inspiration to become something you can actually hold in your hand. 

And so I wonder:

What if the commitment wasn’t to get something done, but to let something go?

What if a structure supported finding your own answers? 

What if you were held accountable to resting, receiving, and ease? 

We need containers for healing and growth, just like a caterpillar needs a cocoon. I would have given up on that book if it weren’t for the writing discipline and an editor waiting on me to finish. When it comes to our emotional health, commitment is even more important, because it affects not only us but also all those we care for in the world and in our families. To fully express what’s within us without alarming the neighbors, we need the space, the privacy, and the compassionate support to do what we know will help.

If you’re feeling like you could use some accountability for releasing stress from your mind and body, I absolutely invite you to explore the new women’s release and empower group that starts really soon. There’s a week left to still take advantage of the early bird registration discount (ends August 31st). I know commitment is scary. Trust me, I feel it too! But wow, the alchemy of what is possible when heart-centered women gather together and let go of what’s weighing them down and holding them back… watch out world, here we come. 

RELEASE & EMPOWER: A WOMEN’S GROUP PROGRAM FOR LETTING GO AND MOVING ON

The women that have signed up so far are wonderful people, making me even more excited for this group. I am doing free calls with everyone beforehand to make sure it’s a good fit, so if you want to take advantage of the discount, let’s set up a time to talk this week! And if you’re already committed to your stress relief and truly supported in your well-being, I hope you let this “no” be just as powerful for your freedom.

Shine on, dear ones,

Julia

Quiet, cared for, and free

I’m on my way out for a solo retreat this weekend. I’ve been going to the same place every year since I turned 40. It’s a perfect setting because there are hardly any other guests around, and I get to enjoy delicious homemade meals without having to cook.

When I was younger and lived alone with much more time to myself, I still went on my own retreats. Back then, I would instill the self-discipline of fasting, meditation, prayer, yoga, and so on. This stage in my life is different though, with three kids, teaching, and a private practice. More than spiritual discipline, my soul longs for a respite from routine, responsibility, and technology. My solo weekend is about unwinding and re-wilding now, following natural impulses to do whatever I feel like doing in the moment. Usually, that means I spend a lot of time sleeping. Last year, I counted and actually napped five times in a day, while still going to bed early. I also wander the hills, read a lot, and write in my journal on and off all day. Then take another nap.

Have you noticed how restorative it feels to turn off devices, schedule nothing, see no one, and go nowhere? If you haven’t had a day like this in a while, I highly recommend it. These open-ended solo retreats with all my needs taken care of and no striving for anything have been just as profoundly healing as the time I’ve spent in spiritual intensives with masterful teachers. Living in a city in this busy middle phase of life, what brings me back to who I really am is… a whole lot of nothing at all. 

Solitude isn’t all blissful refuge though. All kinds of feelings arise in spaces without distraction. For me, the quiet usually brings deep emotional release and a reckoning with any uncomfortable truths that currently need facing. Next weekend, I’ll be hosting sixty friends and family for my son’s coming of age ceremony, so some centering beforehand seems like good timing.

Silence, nature, nourishment, freedom. It’s a simple recipe, but it takes some prioritizing and commitment to gather the ingredients. It requires turning away from a culture that says, “Keep going! There’s more to do! People need you!” All that is never going to stop. So I have to. 

I know this kind of quiet retreat isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope you too gift yourself lavishly with whatever fills you up and speaks to your soul. The more people taking care of themselves on this planet, the better off we’ll all be when we get back together! 

Hope you have a lovely weekend wherever you are,

Julia

Why I think Valentine’s Day is best celebrated in elementary school

It’s my middle child’s last year of elementary school, and I have been watching him write valentines for all his classmates. It’s a bittersweet time for me, knowing that Valentine’s Day will never be the same again for him. Soon enough, valentines will be for lovers, and he will know the same idol of romantic love that his culture bows down to. If he is lucky in friendship, he may exchange loving messages with friends or family too. But the form of human love overlooked on Valentine’s Day is one that we could all use more of, and it is the spirit behind elementary school valentine exchanges. 

Community love. 

Community love is appreciating the people we are on this crazy earth ship with, whether or not each individual is our favorite person to be around. It’s the sweet librarian who always says hello and the neighbor across the street who calls everybody in on code violations. In elementary school, you make a valentine for everyone, whether or not you know them well or enjoy their presence. Some kids grumble about having to make them, most bring store-bought candy, and the majority ignore hand-written notes. It can also be a hard time for the kids being bullied, shunned, or overlooked. Community love is messy like all other forms of human love. But there is an opportunity here, a teachable moment for us all. The spirit behind the practice is to look for something you can appreciate about the people around you. Even if it’s that they are making you stronger and more resilient by being your adversary. It’s about gratitude for the whole, even if all the parts are imperfect on their own.

Community problems need community healing. We are each responsible for our own well-being, but we can only go so far alone. When we come together to support ourselves in community with each other, the power of our individual work grows exponentially. 

If you feel a bit disconnected from community love, I am happy to share one of my communities with you. Community Wellness Hour is *free*, and it is an ever-evolving group of people who take time out of their lives to slow down, center, and relax each week. We come from all kinds of backgrounds, but we all come for peace. 

Community Wellness Hour is drop-in, but regulars rotate in and out. When you first arrive (on time or late), you’ll sit down and receive ear acupuncture called the NADA protocol. This protocol is commonly used for addiction as well as general stress recovery. If you aren’t comfortable with needles, we have some cute little beads to wear for acupressure. We sit in silence for the first half hour, meditating or letting the mind go wherever it needs. Then we all go on a little imaginary journey together through a guided meditation. We end with a brief sharing circle, which is all the more authentic because of the quiet we just shared.

I don’t remember everyone’s name. I even forget faces, which I am trying to do better at. But I do feel the love in the room each and every time. It’s different than romantic, family, or friendship love. It’s just humanity, sitting together, doing the best we can. I am grateful for all of it.

Whether you join us one day or not, I hope you feel the love of your community today. You are not alone here. We are here.