Tornados: The Ungrounded Self Spinning Up and Out

It was Linda Kohanov, author of the Tao of Equus, Riding Between the Worlds and many other books related to the wisdom of horses, who first introduced me to the idea of the Tornado Head: an aspect of the False Self who is so shackled by fear that it is hell bent on sabotaging our attempts to live creatively, follow our hearts and step courageously into the unknown. I’m taking the liberty of adapting and expanding this concept of an upward spinning vortex (and in a later blog, the whirlpool, or downward spinning vortex) for the purpose of creating a lexicon of Aikido metaphors for a manuscript I’m working on: partly memoir, partly Aikido tentatively titled From Revenge to Reconciliation: How Aikido can help you stay sane in a crazy world.

We can recognize an impending tornado attack when we feel our grounding cords coming loose or being chopped at. I had a friend, a Swedish psychic, who swore that Walmart has some kind of invisible mechanism that cuts people’s grounding cords as soon as they enter the store in order to confuse, distract, and fluster them so that they forget their lists and impulse-shop instead. (Presumably other big box stores are in on it too, but she didn’t say.) She swore that the only way to thwart this Machivellian ground-cutting scheme is to pause at the entry of the store, hold hands with a trusted friend, and consciously sink your grounding cord back into the earth. (Don’t laugh; I do this with Henry every time we go to the Stupor Center. And it works.) I also recall a time when I was a tourist in Italy. A group of street kids approached and attempted to spin my attention upward by wildly gesticulating and shouting as they circled around me. Luckily I recognized their ploy as SOP for muddling a mark so that the deftest kid can pick a pocket or steal a purse. Two good examples of creating upward spinning vortexes in order to increase profits.

If we allow people around us to hack at our self-esteem and sense of basic goodness with disparaging and snide comments, or with fast talk that’s too good to be true, we can be turned into tornados. I’m sure we all know someone whose presence “makes” us feel crazy and ungrounded, insecure and overwhelmed. For whatever reason, probably unconscious and not ill-intended unless they are cynical con-artists, they have an uncanny ability to zero in on exactly how to “make” you come apart at the seams, make poor decisions, and forgo common sense. (I’m putting quotation marks around “make” because even though it might feel like someone else has the power to sever your grounding cord, it only happens if you let it. I think we all have to learn that the hard way, and then make better choices about who we want to play with.)

More subtly, we can also turn ourselves into ungrounded tornados by chopping at our self-esteem and sense of basic goodness with disparaging and snide comments originating from within. I’m sure we’re all familiar with this kind of incessant, negative chatter: What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re in way you’re your head. No one is going to agree with you. You’re a charlatan, a fraud, a fool. You can’t know/think/say that; it’s just your imagination, etc. Or, just as a con artist can snip your grounding cord for their own purposes, we can snip it ourselves with fast, loose talk that has no chance of carrying through into actual action: Sure, I can handle that. No problem. I’ll just do it after work/school/supper/picking up the kids/making love with my spouse/saying goodbye to my dying grandmother. The point, of course, of all these messages is self-sabotage: we run like hell back to our cramped and “secure” caves where we’re convinced that nothing bad can happen because nothing ever changes. Listening to negative or inflated chatter over time can fray our grounding cord and prevent us from gathering the courage to grow in self-knowledge by venturing out into the creative life.

I’m sure most of us have experienced tornado mode at some point in our lives. Some of my own experiences have been minor and humorous episodes, like when I first visited an advisor to go back to college after a hiatus of thirty-three years. I was so nervous and distracted with negative chatter—You’re an idiotic fool! What are you doing? Are you out of your mind??—that I dropped the entire contents of my purse on the floor and then spilled my coffee all over the papers on her desk. It’s a wonder that she helped me sign up for courses.

But some tornado attacks are potentially dangerous. A couple days before a natural horsemanship clinic which I was nervous about attending as I had a relatively young horse, I made the mistake of attempting to mount her in an indoor arena during a storm. The rain was deafening on the metal roof, and my mare was agitated with the drop in barometric pressure, not to mention the thunder and lightning and the noise. I allowed the combination of storm, my nervous anticipation of the clinic, and my tendency to be competitive to unground me, spin me up into tornado mode and divorce me from own intelligence and experience. Here’s what happened: When I attempted to step into the stirrup and swing my leg gracefully over my mare’s flank, I inadvertently kicked her hip instead. What I didn’t quite appreciate at the time is that tornado mode can be contagious. In an attempt to avoid my clumsy ineptness, my mare skittered away and I ended up landing painfully on my back. Panicked at the sight of me now on the ground, she ran out of the corral gate, eluded the attempts of my husband and my cousin’s boyfriend to catch her, and bolted out into the driving storm. My cousin raced after her on her horse and luckily was able to catch her down the neighbor’s driveway before anyone—horse or human—got badly hurt. But my fall resulted in several months of painful pins and needles down one arm. And it took almost a year to regain my confidence to ride without trepidation. A potential wreck is not only dangerous to horse and human, but sets back the training and the trust, and all of this could have been avoided if I had recognized my ungrounded state of being—and  my mare’s—and listened to my own body wisdom.

Upward spinning vortexes are most troublesome when they become the predominant pattern in one’s life.  People who get stuck in tornado mode seem to create a constant upward spinning storm around themselves; they attract chaos, upheaval and confusion, not realizing that they are sabotaging their own efforts to put their lives together. They might even learn to thrive on the feeling of being ungrounded so much so that they become suspicious of times that are peaceful and calm, and feel compelled to stir up trouble again. Some use charisma, expressed need and even helplessness to draw people into their cause or crisis of the day. These helpers often feel compelled to lend a hand and might enjoy that role for quite some time, especially if they are convinced that their grounding “batteries” are fully charged. Echoes of sure, no problem. I’ll just fit it into my schedule. But inevitably, they realize that since they are doing the grounding for someone other than themselves, they become depleted.

I don’t think I have gotten stuck in tornado mode for more than a week, so I can’t imagine how it would feel to live in that mode on a continual basis (nor would I want to). (When I lose my center, I tend to go in the opposite direction of the tornado: the whirlpool.) But I have been foolish enough to allow myself to be drawn in by a tornado a few times in my life, and really shouldn’t have been shocked to find myself dazed, confused, ungrounded, lost and depleted. One time I drove all the way to India and back, naively putting myself in truly dangerous situations, before I realized I had allowed myself to be snookered by someone who thrived on tornado mode. It has taken me many years to recognize the pattern, and coach myself to steer clear.

What’s next to write about? Instead of upward spinning vortexes, we have downward spinning vortexes: whirlpools, those people who seem to set their lives spinning down into the drain pipe of depression and misery and doubt. (My personal favorite.)

And then I intend to tie these two vortexes into a discussion of how they apply to Aikido as a metaphor, not only how to keep yourself from spinning up or down into ungroundedness in daily life, but how tapping into these spirals are exactly what makes an Aikido technique work.

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