Upgrade Your Swiss Army Knife: A Metaphor for Transformation

Ice Always Melts: Embracing a Vast Perspective
April 12, 2012
Love, Grief & Luminosity: Teachings left behind by a small bird
June 6, 2012

Part I: Taking Stock & Appreciating What You’ve Got

Living with ourselves every day, it is easy to get stuck in same old-same old ways of looking at ourselves and our challenges. Fresh metaphors can shake loose these perceptions and open our bodies up to new possibilities. My favorite metaphor for body wisdom is the swiss army knife. A swiss army knife (SAK) is a compact container of handy tools that often includes a screwdriver, nail file, corkscrew, toothpick, scissors, and tweezers.

Swiss army knives are portable and convenient. You can carry your SAK with you anywhere, and at any time reach for it, open it up, and quickly select the tool you need for filing, opening wine, etc. You can add new tools to your SAK–some SAKs have over 80 attachments!

The SAK is a perfect metaphor for our body’s versatility and capacity to store and swiftly access useful responses to real-life situations. We can use the SAK perspective to take honest stock of our habits and their impacts, and to add healthy, effective habits to our repertoire. The SAK metaphor can give us permission to access healing attitudes and actions, and motivate us to practice what we want to become. Here’s how to use the SAK metaphor for yourself:

Taking Stock

Let’s open up your SAK and discover the ingenious tools your body is storing in there. Observe yourself for a few days, looking for repetitive body-mind patterns. Ask yourself (or ask a friend to help you): What are you really good at? Or, what do you do all the time that really annoys you? Be curious (not judgmental) about your automatic behaviors. To help you identify and name what you find, here are some descriptions of common patterns:

a) I move fast—I figure out complex problems quickly and accomplish a lot in a short time

b) I automatically blame on others when I feel uncomfortable

c) I notice injustice very swiftly

d) I am good at not being noticed

Once you have identified a pattern—your SAK attachment–use the following inquiries to take stock of this embodied tool.

First, list the good things or advantages of this tool. Include all the ways it helps you in your work, or in taking care of yourself, or in how you relate to people. Here are examples for each of the above patterns:

a) I am great at multi tasking

b) I am confident in my actions

c) being able to spot unfairness/injustice quickly makes me a skilled activist

d) I am great at getting important work done behind the scenes

Next, list the side effects or disadvantages of this tool. How does it undermine what you care about?

a) It’s hard for me to slow down and feel my body

b) I’m not good at being with my own discomfort

c) sometimes I jump to conclusions and see injustice when it isn’t there

d) I don’t get the appreciation I deserve

Finally, make a list of all the ways this tool shows up in the different areas of your life. Even your SAK attachments can have attachments!

Your list for

d) “I am good at not being noticed” might look like:

· I avoid really splashy projects, or I let others be in the spotlight

· I get people to talk about themselves and take the focus off me

· I avoid eye contact

· I change the subject when people praise me

· I hold my body still when I am in a group of people

· I curl my body up to make myself smaller

Taking stock in the above ways help us understand what our SAK attachments (automatic behaviors) are trying to accomplish, and paves the way for using these tools consciously and choicefully. Just like the tools in a SAK can be both useful and dangerous, our well-practiced tools are neutral. We can use them to support our success, sabotage ourselves, or both.

Where Do Your SAK Tools Come From? How Did They Become Automatic?

Whenever we practice any behavior over and over, such as putting on our shoes, or chopping vegetables, eventually this behavior becomes swift and automatic, like a speed-dial. At this point you have added a new attachment to your portable SAK of automatic behaviors.

Trauma is a common source of our SAK attachments. Trauma can include attachment trauma, abuse, emotional neglect, or any situation that was overwhelming and harmful to us as children that adults were not able to protect us from. Trauma can also include oppression visited upon ourselves and our families and communities, such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.

During experiences of trauma, our bodies draw on the innate biological flight, fight, freeze, appease, or dissociate survival strategies of the limbic and reptilian brain, eventually choosing the ones that best help us survive and adapt to situations of extreme stress or danger.

When the trauma or oppression is ongoing, individuals and communities keep repeating the most successful survival behaviors.With repetition these behaviors turn into swift, automatic “speed dials” or SAK attachments which use our energy more efficiently. For example, a kid who is frequently beaten by their parents or other kids may find that being quiet and making their body small minimizes further abuse. Instead of reinventing the wheel each time, this child repeats these successful behaviors until being able to go unnoticed is as natural to them as breathing.

SAK attachments can also include body postures, body armoring, or automatic thoughts and actions that repeatedly show up in our families and communities. To take stock of ancestral or community SAK attachments, you can ask yourself:

What behavior strategies did your community or ancestors use to survive oppression or abuse? How were these strategies intelligent survival choices, given the options open to your community in the past? How did these behaviors kept them alive, sane, or safe? What were the side effects/limitations of these behaviors?
For example, using d) “I am good at not being noticed,” ask yourself or another community member: how did it advantage our ancestors if they were not noticed?

[To read more about specific oppression survival strategies and how they become embodied as internalized oppression and internalized dominance, see my 6/08/10 blog entry: “Surviving Oppression, Healing Oppression”]

Whether they have been developed solo or inherited from our families and communities, we end up carrying toolkits of embodied skills that we default to in stressful situations. But unlike swiss army knife attachments, we are rarely conscious when we use them; it’s as if they are using us.

Appreciating What You’ve Got

Okay, so now you know what’s in your SAK—what next? Attitude is crucial. What I am calling a SAK attachment or tool, you might call a bad habit, or an unhealthy behavior that is messing up your life. You may judge yourself for your unconscious and automatic habits, such as reaching for ice cream when you are sad, or staying on Facebook for 3 hours when you need to sleep or work, or lashing out in conflict situations. But self-judgment is just another automatic behavior (!), and it does not solve the problem.

Judgment Versus an Attitude of Gratitude

A more skillful approach is to see your automatic behavior as one of the effective, well-honed tools in your SAK. Practice an attitude of gratitude. Maybe you are reading this and thinking, “Gratitude?!? But Vanissar, I hate that I do that! It’s getting in my way. It’s ruining my life! Okay. But remember, any behavior that is automatic became that way because at some point it got you or your ancestors through a difficult time. Maybe it’s how your ancestors figured out how to survive. This allowed you to be here now, taking stock and getting ready to create new, libratory ways of being. Survival strategies deserve to be honored for doing their job. Gratitude is an appropriate response. Appreciating the SAK attachments you have created or inherited from your ancestors is a crucial foundation for your next steps.

Next month– Part II

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