It was the summer after my senior year in college. I was a graduate who barely graduated, who enjoyed collegiate life too much, and who saw the diploma more as an ending than a starting point.
Luckily, as I navigated the painful and confusing transition of leaving my beloved Villanova University, I had the benefit of living in Wainscott, a beautiful, oceanside hamlet in the Hamptons (situated between East Hampton and Bridgehampton).
I also had a job that kept me outside and exercising and in beer money. I worked for my uncle’s landscaping company, serving, rightfully so, at the bottom of the proverbial ladder. In this role, perhaps my greatest contribution (other than fetching the mid-morning coffee and post-breakfast snack for the crew) was to “stomp” down hedge clippings and other tree and plant material the team cut down and stacked in the back of a dump truck. I would trudge around the truck’s bed in my work boots, trying to make room for more to be piled on, looking for the world like a grape presser at a winery.
Every now and then, though, I was awarded an assignment that got me out of the dump truck and on my own to do some actual landscaping. I remember one such day. My uncle dropped me off at a beautiful mansion overlooking the beach to sew ivy plants around the home (for some reason, I had a knack for planting ivy, although my Irish grandmother always warned, “plant ivy, plant sorrow.”)
But it was hard to feel sorrow that day. It was mid-August, hot but not humid, some breeze, and cool in the semi-shade cast by the house. I started planting in the morning and worked to lunch. I was to be there all day, and I had brought a sandwich to eat. Ordinarily, I would have dined where I was, but I could hear the ocean below, and it was too inviting after spending hours digging on my knees in the dirt. So I snuck down to the beach, still wearing my work boots, dirty jean shorts, and soiled T. I looked a mess, but it was the kind of mess that felt good, being created in the toil of honest work.
I ate my sandwich and looked at the water. I had never seen such a color — it was a mix of turquoise and gray, sparkling like champagne in the sun. It was too inviting, and I finished the meal, stripped off my shirt and boots and socks, and dove in.
Never before, and never after, have I felt so comfortable in the water. It was the temperature of the perfect bath, and the gentle swell lulled me like a baby at bedtime. I cleansed myself in the water, relaxed, let go, feeling one with the ocean.
It was the best I had felt all summer — the best I had felt since graduating. My worries left me. My concern about the future evaporated. My stress disappeared. It was sublime, magical, and momentous.
And it was more than three decades ago. I had forgotten about the moment, that swim, for years. But the other day, struggling again with worry and concern and stress, a friend, Jason Kurtz, a therapist specializing in EMDR, offered one evening to guide me through a meditation. This focused on light, and he asked me to think of a light color and let it go through me, wash me, cleanse me. And my mind, after all that time, hit on the color of that ocean that day, when I put the ivy aside and submersed my dirty body in its bosom and let go.
So what happened? How did that memory come by? I’ll let Jason explain.
Particularly impactful experiences, both good and bad, get stored in our nervous system. Our conscious minds may have forgotten these experiences, but they are there, embedded in what we call our subconscious, or unconscious. Many people are familiar with the concept of being triggered. This is what happens when we have experienced a trauma in the past, say a car accident, and afterward the sound of breaks squealing can throw us back into that past moment, where we felt out of control and in danger. Therapists use techniques like EMDR to help people heal those past, embedded traumas, so that this kind of triggering no longer happens. In short, we can teach our mind and body to let the painful experience go.
However, everything in nature has both positive and negative applications. In the same way that our mind can be triggered to remember a traumatic event, our mind can also be induced to recall particularly potent healing experiences. EMDR and mindfulness techniques can be employed to help people recall these positive events, and in this way gain access to buried feelings peace and safety, which help us become more grounded and less afraid, more happy and less depressed, lighter as opposed to heavy and burdened. This is what happened when John and I were meditating on healing. His mind unearthed an old experience, where he had felt free and happy, and as it did so, he was able to feel that way once again. By practicing this kind of technique we can learn how to access grounded feelings, so that they become more readily available to us when we need them. Our mind is very powerful. When it is out of our control, it is dangerous, we can get triggered and feel helpless, but when we know how to work with it, how to access its’ natural healing properties, it becomes a great support and aid.
When something happens to us that is reminiscent of something very painful that has happened in the past, we can get “triggered,” which means that the old, traumatic experience, resurfaces. It is these past traumas that EMDR aims to help uncouple from our pain.
We live in difficult, stressful, scary times. So many of us are hurting and struggling. But if you have a moment, take time to close your eyes, breathe, and perhaps picture a color of light you would like to come inside you and heal you. Trust me, it is there.
It will help. And all will be well again. I promise.
Originally published at https://goodmenproject.com on March 28, 2021.