Expanding, Contracting

June 18, 2021

For so many months I’ve felt confined to a narrow range of activities. For much of the past year, my world shrank to the few miles between my home, the grocery store, and the barn. And even though that radius has expanded to include the library, my hairdresser and a favorite coffee shop, I still feel my world has narrowed. And I know many people have left their homes even less than I have.

The Year That Must Not Be Named was a year of contracting for most of us. As the pandemic ravaged the world, most of us stayed close to home, limited our activities, and put plans on hold. My thinking undoubtedly became smaller as my day-to-day world shrank. Uncertainty, confusion, and limitations characterized 2020. And while the circumstances were undoubtedly unpleasant, if our reaction was to contract, that was entirely appropriate. In fact, the slower pace of life for many during the pandemic proved beneficial. As Amy Ward Brimmer wrote in “Expanding and Contracting,” “Contraction is an opportunity for mindfulness.”

If we allow it to, that mindfulness can guide us as we start expanding—allowing our thoughts and actions to widen again.

A natural cycle

The process of expanding and contracting is one of life’s natural cycles. Each condition is neither all good nor all bad; each practice serves a purpose. Just as breathing includes both inhalation and exhalation, so we also need times of contraction and expansion. As nature has times of expansion and growth, so it has seasons of loss and letting go.

Here are some examples of expanding and contracting:

Ways we expand:

  • Be open hearted—listen, help, love, give, to the best of our abilities
  • Plan future events and adventures
  • Learn something new, or deepen our understanding
  • Train our bodies for a physical contest, like a 5K or a charity walk; start an exercise program; or bump up one we already have
  • Try to understand another person’s point of view


Ways we contract:

  • Seek safety and comfort in the familiar
  • Take care of ourselves when we’re sick or injured
  • Withdraw to conserve energy, or think something over
  • Rest

Expanding pushes us outside our comfort zones. It can feel exciting—or it can feel scary as we reach beyond our previous limits. Contracting is a natural reaction to danger, threat, and even exhaustion. If we overextend ourselves while expanding, we may need to contract for a while to recover. (While working on this post, I realized that even my word of the year acronym—DARE: Dream, Act, Recharge, Evaluate—contains the concepts of both expansion and contraction.) 

We can also stay in a contracted state too long, fall into using false comforts or overuse real ones, thus stunting our own growth. We can make our world too small. This is where I am right now. I need to begin expanding again, finding inspiration, “filling the well.” I believe I can do this safely and responsibly, but I’m struggling. I shrink back from the very things that will inspire creativity and bring me happiness.

I’m still searching for the flow between expanding and contracting, as I imagine many of you are also. What feels right and safe and appropriate?

Let’s start simply: Take a big breath. Sit up straight. Smile. Now think of one little thing we could do to make our world bigger and brighter. Then do it! And let’s come back and share our experiences in the comments below.

As we begin to move back into more normal life, how can we expand thoughtfully while still being mindful of the benefits and need for contracting?

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  1. A wonderful essay, as always. Yes, I relate and feel this challenge too. I have been expanding, going out into the world a bit more, but I still want to hang on to my retreat, the coziness of my home. For this introvert, the year had many benefits. And for my tendency to get sidetracked, fewer distractions. (until I started creating them through the Internet...) Yes, balance, always balance is something that helps to create serenity. thank you.

    1. Thank you, Rita. I hope you're able to find just the right balance of introvert pleasures and expanding adventures. It's always a work in progress, isn't it?