I wake up this morning after a terrible dream and want to be comforted.
I want someone to hold me, to take away the pain of the images in my dream.
People killing people, suffering on every level,
those who are killed and those who do the killing.
It’s a dream, yet there’s worse happening in reality. Along with empathy, guilt moves through for my privileged life, for my lack of suffering.
It’s moments like these when the power of believing thoughts is transparent. I find myself in a state of sad loneliness because of a dream my mind created. Yet, this alone is not a bad thing. The empathy and love I feel as a result connects me to the whole of the human experience. The part that is useless is the guilt, helplessness, doubt, fear and clinging that are generated if I follow my thoughts.
I watch the whole thing move through me like a violent storm across an otherwise peaceful landscape…
When I first wake up I just feel it, I’m crying as a get out of bed. I’m disturbed by the pain and cruelty I witnessed in my sleep. As I put my contacts into my eyes, the world comes into focus, and the thoughts begin.
“It was just a dream.”
“But somewhere it’s real, or worse. I’ve seen it on the news.”
“Why am I so lucky?”
“I should really be doing more to help others who are in pain.”
“but who? but what…where to?”
“Fly to foreign lands and set up camp?”
“I can’t. I’m useless.”
“What’s the point of my life? So privileged. Why me?”
Suddenly empathy becomes self-doubt. Before breakfast my whole life is called into question and I haven’t even spoken. Connection to others who are suffering in the world becomes all about me. I feel terrible. Suddenly all I am really thinking about is what I can do to make myself feel better.
As a student of environmental studies and social justice this is a battle I’ve been engaged in before. And I’ve never won. I know I won’t win it now if I stay with the thoughts that I’m bad, that I should do something more.
be something more.
work for something more.
whatever more might be.
Only the ego can take something so beautiful, our deep connection to all of a life and the ability to feel love and empathy for all creatures, and turn it into my problem. My loneliness, my guilt, my fear, my burden to bear.
Pema Chodron, American-Buddhist nun, writes that the greatest gift we can give to the world is our own awakening. Sri Nisargadhatta Maharaj, Indian sage, writes that greatest way we can spend our time in this life is to work to become free from our patterning. Free from our anger, blame, guilt, and depression. After all, we cannot offer help to the world if we are living our lives in a state of inner division.
Luckily I am still standing in my bathroom. I don’t (though I might have in the past) have the dream, get depressed, feel resentful, yell at my partner when he asks for something, create an argument, fall to pieces in the middle of it, saying,
“Why are we even arguing about this it’s so stupid. Don’t you know there are people in the world who are really in pain? What’s wrong with us?”
Thereby passing on the blame, guilt, and shame, into the world. Thereby making suffering out of nothing. Out of a thought. Out of a dream.
Instead I wake up with tears in my eyes. On that cusp between sleep and wakefulness, between eyes open and closed, I feel the pain of being alive. The pain of suffering, of living and dying, of killing and being killed. I breathe in deeply this feeling. I watch the temptation to make it all about me pass by. I send love and light into the world with my out-breath. And I catch a glimpse of the connection and love of the entirety of life. And I promise to live my life from here.
When we say a simple and sincere yes to life, yes to death, yes to the ego’s own dissolving, we don’t have to struggle anymore. It becomes a new way of navigating through life. Flow is what navigates us through life–not concepts, not ideas, not what we should or shouldn’t do, not what’s right or wrong. Over time what we come to see is that flow is amazing. ~Adyashanti The End of Your World
One of the most difficult cultural messages to unravel in my own inner life has been the message of “the doer.” I, and most people I know, was taught — you are what you do. This wasn’t overtly state of course, rather it was subtle programming that seeped in through watching the world around me–be productive, cross things off your list, have a good time, don’t forget to smile. We’re taught from an early age to seek external recognition and praise for all these things that we do–from grades in school to money for work, to accolades and praise for something creative–our worth is determined by something given to us from the outside.
As I’ve intentionally worked over the past ten years to create and live the life of my dreams I’ve had to directly encounter and investigate this programming in my own life.
In graduate school, studying environmental education, I was asked to sit quietly in the woods while doing nothing. It was a “solo,” an hour or more of time without pen, paper, books, etc. sitting in one spot, just being. This was the first time I’d ever connected with nature in this way. I remember wondering if the trees valued themselves more or less for being tall, or strong, or short, or wide. I realized that the trees probably didn’t see themselves as separate from life itself, let alone the forest they created, and that therefore value was a foreign, human concept. As someone who had struggled for many years with an eating disorder, body image issues, and generally valuing and judging my body and actions harshly, this blew my mind. It was a light bulb moment that delighted me.
I vowed to myself then, alone in the woods, to live like the trees: for life’s own sake, not for an arbitrary concept of value or worth. Like so many of life’s most potent truths this proved to be difficult. Not so much difficult to do, but difficult to remember when faced with a culture that immensely values doing, external recognition, and praise. It was hard not to want and seek what I’d been programmed to desire since childhood. I worked half-heartedly to be like the trees for several years until one day, in my late twenties, I realized nothing was going to change if I didn’t actively foster this idea in my life.
Deciding to intentionally explore this idea in my own life: that value is an arbitrary and useless concept when applied to one’s self as a means to an end, or as a motivating force in one’s own life, flew in the face of almost every way I’d functioned up to that point.
Without that doer I, at first, felt lost and unmotivated. I’d always been a runner and later a gym rat, working out 6-7 days a week, always driving my body towards an imagined ideal of perfection. Suddenly all of that was turned on its head.
Whose idea of perfection was this anyways?
Was it mine?
Where did it come from?
Why did I start to think this?
Why am I doing this again?
I’d ask myself these questions and I could no longer find an answer to keep me going.
The exercise I was doing at the time was not enjoyable beyond a perceived goal of bodily beauty. As I began to question this idea, I was forced to recognize that I didn’t believe in this goal any longer. I also knew, deep inside, that the workout regimen I held myself so strictly to, was not for health. I didn’t need to workout 5,6,7 days a week to be healthy. And in fact might even be hurting myself by doing so. For that matter what did being healthy even mean anyways? Where did I get that idea in my head!?
There were many mornings that I would wake up, begin my day, sit and then just feel confused… unanchored. Here was this thing, exercise, that had been a part of my daily existence for so many years that I hadn’t even questioned it. It was so lauded and encouraged by the external forces in my life– from the media to my personal relationships– as good that I hadn’t ever imagined it was anything but.
For a few months this was agonizing. It was, like any addiction, difficult to release my dependency. Having had an eating disorder in my earlier years I was familiar with the feeling of letting go of something that had served me in some way, but which had become destructive. What was so different about this letting go was that I was releasing something that most people agreed was a good thing.
I was not obsessively exercising, in fact I was keeping up with what many considered a norm. But the norm wasn’t what I was going for anymore. I wanted to explore what life could be like with freedom running it, instead of patterns and cultural conditioning. I wanted to know what life could be like if I were a tree in a forest who didn’t even think to look down at one’s self with judgment, blame, or guilt… about anything.
And what I found, when I really got down to it, was that there were many things in my life–exercise just one of them–that I was choosing to do from a sense of obligation, comparison, or a desire to be “better” and more valued.
This was big. Huge.
For several years I sat and wrote in my journal every morning about all of the things I wanted to let go of, all the unnecessary baggage I was carrying around, all the effort and energy I had been putting into holding my life together. From that addiction to exercise, to my love relationships being a certain way, to my work ethic that I’d so carefully created and protected. I was going for bare bones, stripping it all away. What did I do/have/want to be in this life that was truly coming from a higher self, or from a sense of love and connection with life?
You may wonder, as I did, what would remain if all was taken away. What would be left if I stopped trying to be that…
…person I’d imagined myself to be for so long?
I was ready and also a little terrified to find out.
There was a deep fear, within all of this exploration of values and motivations, that if I stopped trying to be someone, or stopped doing things to be valued that I’d just sit on the couch all day, watch cartoons, gain 300 pounds, and never do anything interesting again. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
As I’ve intentionally cleared away the clutter of my own mind, and conditioning, by investigating and questioning thoughts and beliefs that once seemed indisputable (like exercise being important and good for me) a new part of me has woken up. It feels like a new part of me has started to live.
I’ve heard many different descriptions of what I am also pointing to, but the metaphor of a river makes the most sense to me. A river wanders its banks without will or effort. It moves around, through, under. It winds past rocks and over. There is no resistance, just response to what arrives. There is little need for forethought or planning, just a slow or quick trip down stream, depending on the weather, the day, the slope of the river bed. Sometimes, when it is cold, the river is still. Winter comes and the surface freezes, though water still moves beneath the hard places. In spring, the snow melts. The river is fed with new life.
The river is inside all of us, moving our lives, even when we think we’re the ones making the decisions.
The thing that amazed me most about this process of investigation, that started with an hour long solo in a forest, was how experiential it was. This wasn’t just a concept or an idea, I could live this on an entirely practical level. Contrary to what my fears wanted me to believe, I don’t sit on a couch all day or eat nothing but junk food, or watch excessive amounts of television. Life happens and I experience and respond to it. I wake up when I’m ready or when I need to, when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep, when I need exercise I go to a dance class, for a walk, to a Pilates class. When a task needs to be completed I finish it. I don’t plan out each moment of my day, I don’t measure hours of exercise, I just wake up every day and see what it has to bring.
I feel annoyed, so I want to express the annoyance and fix whatever is annoying me. I feel annoyed and I don’t want to deal with it. I ignore it and distract myself with something else.
It’s foreign to feel emotions and do nothing with them.
The last thing I feel like I want to do when I experience anger, sadness, frustration, or upset, is sit still. Yet this is what I’ve been working with the past five years or so. See the emotion, feel it. Don’t react, respond when you are able, or if a response is needed at all.
Oh but the urge to react remains! It would feel so good to just speak my mind and tell you exactly what you did wrong, tell my version of the story, prove my self right. But it would only be a moment of satisfaction like a puffed up balloon, inflated, full, floating gloriously towards the sun and then… pfzsszzzzsszzzz… it falls back to the earth just a thin sheaf of plastic after all.
“I don’t want you to play with that, it’s mine and fragile.”
He takes the toy from my hands and throws it gleefully into the air. “Look,” he says, “it’s pretty in the sunshine!”
“Please give it back,” I ask politely as I’ve been taught.
“All right,” he says devilishly, “but in just one moment.” He tosses it again faster this time, back and forth between his palms. “Oops.” It falls to the floor and breaks into pieces, changed forever.
As a child if someone did something “to” me that I perceived as wrong, I’d turn to a parent. I’d seek judgement, reprimanding and blame from an external source.
“You should have listened. You should have given it back when she asked for it. And you… you should have been clearer that you didn’t want the toy played with in the first place, why did you have it out of the box if you were afraid it would get broken? It seems like you both owe each other an apology.”
I feel empty inside at the end of the conflict. Nothing feels resolved, and my toy is still broken.
The actions are done, past.
To dwell on them is to leave the present.
To take a stance on them is to create a story: “I was right, he was wrong, and I still got into trouble. The world is unfair.”
So that every time any conflict like this happens again, I will feel the victim over and over. Only, not just the victim of that moment, but the victim of every time I have been “wronged” for my whole life.
As an adult I’ve felt I’m often playing out the same scenarios over and over again with different toys and different judges. An incident in traffic, a conflict at work, a friend who does something I think is incorrect or hurtful. The judges have come to live inside my head or in the words of my friends when we gossip about what happened, “Can you believe it!? Can you believe he did it again?”
As human beings we have learned how to have boundaries. We have learned how to communicate our needs. We have learned how to say, “I am sorry.” Now, we must learn how to forgive even when these boundaries are broken, even when we want to make someone wrong, even when blame feels warranted.
We must learn how to forgive, just because. We must learn to love the relief and the space and caring that moves in when forgiveness is chosen over blame. We must forgive because there is enough anger, blame, and judgement in the world to fill it with pain for another century.
How many times when someone has said, “I’m sorry,” or in the case of a child, or even our court system, been made to say so by a parent or authority figure, has it actually meant anything?
For me, as a child, when my brother was made to say “sorry” all it meant was “I’m wrong,” and therefore “you’re right.” I don’t need to be right anymore.
I want something that exists beyond wrong and right.
We human beings are so often running away from ourselves, and yet what a ridiculous idea when we try to picture it, like a cartoon man trying to escape his shadow. There he is, relieved, standing for a brief moment at high noon at the height of summer on a blue sky day, wiping sweat from his brow. “Phew,” the thought bubble from his head. And then the clock ticks, the hands move past 12:00, he turns around…”AH! There it is,” and he’s off running again full speed ahead. The audience laughs.
Perhaps we’re not always running at top speed from our shadows and I suppose some of us aren’t running at all anymore, maybe we’re only shifting in our seats, or adjusting the volume of the TV, or turning to look in another direction.
Throughout my adult life I’ve had the gift (though I’ve not long thought of it that way) of having occasional panic attacks. When they come, usually triggered by a thought that I’m in danger, going to be trapped, need to escape etc., they are fierce. Frankly, it feels like if I cannot escape the panic I will die.
My first panic attack of adult life, in my early twenties, was triggered by actually being trapped. I, along with three friends, were stuck in a very small elevator. It stopped between floors. The light went out. We screamed. One of us laughed. We put our groceries down and waited. Soon the elevator moved again and we poured out into the daylight on the sixth floor of the apartment building. I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour.
Of course being trapped in the elevator was an actual physical situation from which I needed eventually to leave, but after that one real moment of being stuck, the fear of getting trapped continued. I started thinking about being stuck everywhere, in bathroom stalls, subway trains, buses, movie theaters you name it. Soon I started to avoid places that I might get trapped and a full blown phobia began.
Luckily I saw this. I saw that there were thoughts at work in my mind telling me things that weren’t true. I knew I didn’t want to go through life avoiding situations that scared me, so I actively worked with pushing my limits: riding in subways, occasionally elevators, airplanes. I was often uncomfortable and sometimes I bailed in the middle of a challenge, getting off the subway one stop after I got on, miles from where I wanted to be, but I kept at it. I talked myself through each situation, “You can do it, just breathe.” Slowly, agonizingly so when I was in the midst of the discomfort, the panic attacks faded. I sort of shoved them to the back of my awareness.
Until one day, years later, they came back. This time, it seemed there was even less reason for them. And that’s what I wanted, a reason, a why, that I could work with to make this go away. But there was none. The panic attacks would just come. And I would try to run.
In the middle of one of these intense panics last spring I was able to watch the panic instead of just being inside of it. I was staying at a cabin in the mountains with a bunch of friends and everyone had gone to bed. I, however, was wide awake. Jeff, my partner, lay next to me trying to sleep while I twitched and breathed frantically. This time though something else was happening. I still felt the whole thing: my body convulsing, my heart racing, but I was also able to watch the thoughts that were creating the panic itself. They came in wave after wave,
“What if the roof collapses, there’s a lot of weight up there with all those people sleeping and this is an old building, what if we lose power and can’t see in the dark, what if no one comes to find us, what if we light the cabin on fire from the wood stove, what if someone doesn’t see me here on the floor and steps on my face when the wake up in the morning, what if…this is real.”
And with each thought a physical sensation of pure fear.
For any readers who’ve never experienced a panic attack, take a moment to imagine that middle of the night wake up that most of us have had at some point in life. You are sleeping soundly and then all of the sudden you are bombarded with thoughts about every worry, anxiety, fear, and thing that could go wrong that’s ever floated through your mind. You jolt out of bed and your mind is racing, but you shake it off and go back to sleep. Or maybe you wake up, make yourself a cup of tea and remember, “Oh yeah, everything is fine.”
Only imagine that you just can’t shake it. Some part of you, that is entirely out of your control, believes that the thoughts, no matter how ridiculous they are, are true. You really are going to lose your job tomorrow. You really did offend that woman so much that she is going to file suit against you in court. That spot on your skin? Yes, it really is stage 17 cancer.
You are going to die. Any moment now you are going to die. Unless you do something.
That’s the basic message behind the thoughts during my panic attacks. And then, at the same time that those thoughts are happening, there’s this other super annoying uppity voice judging me.
“Wow, this is really bad. You have got to stop this. You know this is an illusion. You know this isn’t true, can’t you chill out. I mean, pull. It. TOGETHER.”
But if I listen to either voice, the one that’s telling me I’m about to die, or the one that’s telling me I’m an idiot, I’m just completely stuck. Trapped even, which is what this whole panic attack thing was about in the first place: being trapped, being utterly out of control.
So, it was in the heart of this moment, up at the cabin on a seemingly wholesome get-a-way with friends, that I saw for the first time really clearly the almost literal urge to run away from myself. But like that man and his shadow I couldn’t move. The reality is that it is not possible to get even one millimeter of space from one’s self.
The way in which the panic attacks are a gift is that through them I have been able to understand the connection between thoughts and physical feelings. In these moments the thoughts and feelings are so exaggerated that it becomes easy to see.
Thought: I’m trapped. Feeling: heart races
Thought: I’ll be like this forever. Feeling: nausea.
Thought: I’m crazy. Run. Feeling: arms and legs twitch, stomach twists.
It also becomes easy to see that the thoughts are not true, or that these thoughts have no basis on reality or on any action I should actually take in life.
These exaggerated thoughts, and the feelings they create, have shown me that I have a choice about whether or not to believe the thoughts that come through my mind. This magnified, almost cartoon version of mind chatter and the relationship between thoughts and feelings has helped me see that this is what is always going on in the mind: thinking, thinking, thinking, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. All Day Long, only usually they are much more benign. Regardless of the content though, I have the choice about whether or not to follow them.
There’s these two insane voices speaking in my mind. One’s calling me an idiot, the other’s telling me to run or I will die. But who’s in the middle? Who is listening?
This weekend I and my husband Jeff (you can read about what we do here) performed a kid’s concert to benefit our friends, Melanie and Dennis. They are farmers on Sunbeam Farm who suffered over $19,000 in damages during Colorado’s flooding this fall. Their entire 2013 fall harvest had to be sent to the landfill. The food was potentially contaminated by the flood waters and could not even be composted.
To get ready for our concert, Dennis built a stage and they covered the still saturated ground with straw, so that the audience could put their blankets on dry ground. Jeff and I put out the call to our community of fans and friends, we invited everyone to come to the farm for a concert in Sunbeam’s honor.
In the mid-afternoon on a dazzling autumn day children and parents began to arrive for the show. Bright pink jackets, colored tights, pattered shirts, butterflies, rainbows, polka dots, barrettes and truck t-shirts populated the land. Children holding parents hands fed chickens and bit into crisp apples at the height of sweetness. Warm cider was poured into mason jars and wax cups. I tested my microphone and accepted hugs, handshakes, and high fives from children. Jeff and I squabbled over the choice of a song for our sound check, laughed at ourselves, and then settled on one about a bobcat. My feet squeaked through the mud as I hid costumes of a black bear, mountain lion, and a truck driver named “Huck,” in a shed turned changing room near the stage.
What a privilege to live this life.
What a privilege to share music and magic with eager smiling children who give us their complete adoration and love without a thought.
What incredible gratitude I feel at the end of every concert,
my heart bursting with love and joy for this moment, these people, this land.
At the end of the concert we invited Dennis and Melanie to the stage. Dennis invited us all to think about worms.
“Let’s all stomp our feet together and tell the worms underneath us that we say, thank you! They’re working hard in the soil and they’re going even deeper because of all this rain. The worms are helping the dirt renew so we can grow food again next year. Are you ready? Okay, 1,2,3… GO!”
100’s of little shoes ran in place pounding “thank you, thank you, thank you,” into the earth.
There was a more cynical time in my life when I would have questioned the value of this moment, stepped outside of it to wonder at it’s accuracy or the science behind it.
This weekend my feet pounded the wood of the stage and I watched tiny dancing feet send messages to worms.
The sun streamed through the trees.
Parents watched the loves of their lives beat muddy foot prints into dirt.
Love poured from every inch of my being and the connection between us was palpable.
“Thank you.” I thought to myself. Simply, “thank you.”
When you desire and fear and identify yourself with your feelings, you create sorrow and bondage. When you create with love and wisdom and remain unattached to your creations, the result is harmony.” ~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj from I Am That
Learning not to identify with my feelings was one of the strangest things I eve tried. At first it seemed all wrong.
I’d grown up with the idea that my feelings were very important, that they told me the truth about what was happening in my life. If I felt angry there was a good reason for it. If I felt depressed something was wrong, and I should stew in it until I figured out what it was. If I felt lonely I should fix it by finding a new friend, or filling my time with something to do.
Feelings were giant unweildy things that I needed to pay a lot of attention to. They were immediate and close, there was little space for anything else if I was feeling.
Throughout my mid-late twenties, as I explored being an adult, and got my Master’s degree (in Environmental Education) feelings seemed more pertinent than ever. During this period I did much research on the ways that feelings are suppressed in modern North American culture. I concluded that my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents generations were horribly muted in their expression of emotions, and as a result were fundamentally unhappy.
I remembered the story my mom, Ruth, told me about when her dad died. She was fourteen at the time.
“I came home from school and I was really excited because I had the house to myself. That almost never happened. My brother Robert had just gotten the new Jefferson Airplane album, he was away for the day picking up our sister, Susan, at college. All day I’d planned to go home and listen to the new album on his record player.”
I imagine my mom at fourteen getting home, running excitedly up the stairs, carefully taking the record from its colorful sheath and placing it on the turntable. At that time she had thick-rimmed blue glasses that magnified her eyes and was missing a part of one of her front teeth where she hit it on the cement side of the swimming pool.
“I was dancing all over the room, jumping on the bed, holding a hair brush as a microphone, having a great time when I heard Mom (my grandma) calling from downstairs.”
“Ruth! Ruth! Turn that off and come down stairs right now.”
Hearing a strange tone in her mother’s voice, and thinking she was in trouble for being in her brother’s room, my mom scrambled to put the record away. Downstairs she found a foyer full of police officers and colleagues from her dad’s engineering firm. The men told young Ruth that her father had died earlier that day, a brain aneurism. Quick. Sudden. Over.
My mom vividly remembers wishing the man whom was speaking to her wouldn’t stand so close.
“I’m sure it wasn’t the case, but I remember feeling like his face was about an inch from mine. I could smell his breath and see his nose hairs and I just wanted him to get away from me.”
When the party of men with the gruesome news left the house my mom hopes that my grandmother hugged her.
“She must have,” she says, but she can’t quite remember.
Then her mother, my grandmother, stood tall, perhaps wiped a tear from her face and said, “Well then, there’ll be lots of people here soon. We’d better start to tidy up.” The two of them spent the rest of the night cleaning the house.
“I never saw Mom cry, not even at the funeral, there was just this one time that I heard her in the bathroom at night behind the door, she was sobbing alone. But she never let us see her tears, I guess she thought it was best to be strong, and in her mind being strong meant not showing emotions. That’s the way we grew up.”
If my grandmother’s generation suppressed almost all displays of emotion, I took feelings to the opposite end of the pendulum swing. I spent hours thinking about, analyzing, examining, and explaining feelings. I did this by journaling, talking with friends, and later in sessions with counsellors, I couldn’t imagine living any other way. I wrote hundreds of pages about my feelings, what I thought they meant, and how they fit into the wider context of my life. I made conclusions, for example:
“When I was young, especially as a teenager, I was told crying was un-ladylike and immature. Now, I am afraid of crying or feel guilt and shame when I do cry.”
While some of this exploration was helpful, at least in terms of moving through unhealthy patterns, like feeling guilt or shame for crying, most of the stories I created about why I was this or that way ended up being a hindrance, rather than a help.
If I made up all these stories about my past–I’m afraid of crying because my parents told me not to cry, but that’s just because they are from an emotionally suppressed generation–and believed them, I ended up with:
- blame (placed on my parents)
- judgment (of previous generations and myself for not doing it right)
- and labeling (of my parents and myself as deficient in some way)
As a result, I found myself walking through life with a story of victimhood and woundedness*. And as long as I believed the stories I was telling about my life those hurts couldn’t heal.
It’s a common thing amongst my friends and peers to connect through “shared woundedness,” or through our stories about our feelings. So, when I first began exploring the practice of not attaching to my feelings it felt really strange. It hit at the core of what I considered to be my identity, not just my personal identity, but also how I connected with many of my friends. Feelings and the stories I’d created about those feelings were what I talked about over coffee, how I viewed the world, and how I related to my friends.
I first came across the idea of having feelings, but not attaching to them, in books I was reading. Later in my women’s group we explored it as a practice in our lives. It was a slow and rocky beginning to experiment with having feelings but not attaching to them. Like learning any new skill, I made mistakes.
One of the hardest things to get was the difference between ignoring feelings and not attaching to feelings. For about a year, when I first started meditating and working with this idea, I just ignored many feelings. There I was thinking I was super zenned-out and awesome because I was so detached. The result over time, however, were sudden angry outbursts expressed to people I love, mostly my husband Jeff. Not attaching to feelings was a whole different practice.
In many ways non-attachment has meant I actually feel more, though usually for less time.
Eventually, when a feeling came, I stopped making it into such a big deal.
I wake up in the morning, I go to the bathroom, make coffee, and all the while I’m feeling kind of down. The thought might come, “oh no! This feeling, I hate this feeling. I don’t want it. Remember yesterday when I felt happy, let’s get back to that.”
But instead of running around the house cleaning, or getting really busy at work, or even thinking alone for hours about the sadness and what it could mean, I sit still and feel sad. I feel thoroughly and completely sad. Maybe I cry. I don’t try to make it go away by thinking about other things. I don’t try to make it bigger than it is by looking for a million reasons for why I feel sad, I simply feel the sadness. Here I am and here is sadness coming through my body.
The most profound difference about this, especially as a writer, was to not make a story about it, to not dwell on on why I was sad, what happened, who could have influenced this, when it would change.
Rather, sadness, or happiness, or depression, or fear, or disgust, or annoyance, became no big deal. I feel them all when they come, and then they’re gone.
*This is a term I’ve used often, heard often, and can search for on the internet, though it does not appear in my dictionary 🙂
I have a distinct memory from childhood. There is an argument, between my parents, between me and my parents, our whole family gets involved, yelling, gesticulating. We three children are old enough to talk back, but not old enough to get in a car and drive away.
My brother whines. My sister starts to cry. I yell. And then it passes. Our weekend day continues. We are home together in our house. Dad goes back to vacuuming, my brother and sister go back to their television program, my mom to cooking lunch. I see so clearly in this moment from my view on the kitchen floor, all of our roles and how we are playing them, how we are missing the point by being somebody’s with to do lists and ideas and pressing problems.
I am rocked by what I see, though at the time I cannot name what it is. I can’t find words to express what is inside of me, begging to come out. I lack the skills to say anything at all. I feel the urge to fall screaming to the floor, to pound my fists and bang my heels into the tiny blue tiles of the kitchen, which is the thoroughfare of our lives, connecting family room, hallway to upstairs, and backyard. I want to say over and over in that public place where everyone will hear me, “We’re alive, we’re alive, we’re alive,” my voice getting louder with each chorus, “We’re ALIVE, We’re ALIVE.” I want everyone to stop and look at me and acknowledge this fact, this one obvious yet in almost every moment ignored fact, “WE’RE ALIVE, WE’RE ALIVE, WE’RE ALIVE!”
I don’t know what I wanted to happen after that. I just wanted a pause in the busyness of our lives, in the way that we talk to each other but don’t, in the quickness with which each week passes, I wanted to slow it down and feel it fully but with everyone, not alone.
It is a strange fact that we love so fully. So bizarre to realize that we throw our hearts completely into love and life, and also that we will all die. “Every person you know will die. Every single one, including you.” My mentor Jennifer said this to me once. The words penetrated my brain, dripping down through the tissue like standing water into a porous rock, slowly, slowly until I could feel them. Until they weren’t just a concept, until they were more than words.
“Everything is going to end and change. Everyone I love is going to die, I am going to die.” I repeated this to myself for weeks, mulled it over, ran it between my fingers to feel the fabric of it, drank the words like a secret elixir that everyone knows but few acknowledge.
“We’re alive and it will not last. We’re alive and it is fleeting and precious. We’re alive and what we do or don’t do with our lives is not such a big deal as we make it out to be.”
When I was a child I understood this. When I was in my twenties I read about “the human condition” and remembered it from an intellectual standpoint. Now, I feel it everyday. It is this teaching about death that reminds me to be fully alive in this world, no matter how fleeting, now matter my age, no matter the circumstance. It is the most humbling of all things. We will die. And right now we are alive.
“You are never going to get it all together.” ~Pema Chodron, American-Buddhist nun
This is one of my favorite teachings from Pema Chodron, every few months I stumble back onto it. Each time I find my way back I realize, “Ah, I’ve started trying again.” I’ve started believing in the possibility of getting it all together, getting it all done, getting my life in order, tying up all the lose ends of the moment, being “on top” of my email, workload, household chores, even my emotional states.
There is so much support in N. American culture for the idea of “getting it all together.” It’s easy to start believing in the possibility of it.
“If just get those new storage cubes, and a shoe rack for the hallway, a more comfortable work chair, faster computer, new internet modem, better vacuum…then...”
What is at the end of that “then.” I’ll never know. Each time I catch myself in this pattern I remember that then is now. And that I don’t have to wait to enjoy my life. Life is not a never ending to do list, unless we make it into one. Life is washing the dishes, cleaning the floor, doing my work, writing this post, tending the gardening, sleeping, being with friends, going to meetings, drinking a cup of tea, watching my cat snuggle with a turtle.
When something crazy happens, or something we call crazy but which is actually normal in the grand scheme of things:
a massive flood, a hurricane, a friend dies…
all the stuff is dropped and people are suddenly out on the streets surrounded by muddy possessions, accepting help from neighbors they’ve never met, sobbing into the arms of a person that a day ago they would have called an “acquaintance,” holding hands, giving love, living wholeheartedly with one another and we think,
“What was I so worried about yesterday? The sun was shining, the rain was a pleasant relief from the drought, my friend was here, our basement was dry.”
For a few months, days, moments, no problems exist within the scope of something bigger than. And then the dust settles. The grief lifts…little…by…little.
We start to try again,
to get it all together, until we remember we cannot.
And we have a good laugh because we catch ourselves trying.
When I first began watching the thoughts that came through my mind I was astonished at how little useful substance they had. Then I started noticing that if I followed thoughts they often created “problems” where there were none.
I began to experiment with this is in my life by paying attention to small details of my day. If I was making the bed, a task I enjoy immensly if I pay attention when I do it, a thought might come through that said “hurry up, you’ll be late.” If I listened to that thought, or followed that thought, then all of a sudden I wasn’t just making the bed and enjoying the feel of the fabrics on my hand, or the morning light shining through the window, I was anxiously making the bed, hurrying and stumbling through the process, my mind on what was next rather than what was now.
Later I’d be cleaning dishes, “That’s not good enough, do it over.” If I believed it and looked closely at the pot and saw a smear that I missed or an old stain that had settled into the pot’s enamel, I’d suddenly be getting out the cleaning supplies and starting a pot cleaning project that could last me an hour. These are simple concrete examples but I’ve found them to be the most profound teachers because I learned that they applied to just about everything in my life.
With some time watching my thoughts, I noticed a pattern to what my mind had to say. The specific content would change but the general message was almost always either: “hurry up” OR “do it better.” This applied to conversations with people in my life, relationships, work projects, exercise, you name it.
I was familiar with the idea that there were different voices of criticism, judgment, or praise in my own mind. What I wasn’t familiar with was the idea that I had a choice about whether or not to believe what those voices had to say. In the past I’d always heard those thoughts and listened, now I began to question their validity in the first place. This was a slow gentle process. There were plenty of times when I believed the thoughts, “hurry up, no good, you are late, you are…” and found myself needlessly rushing, pushing, or anxious, but with time and the fact that the thoughts, though different in exact content, were saying almost exactly the same thing over and over with different words, I began to find some freedom. It was stunning in its simplicity.
Meditation, that old friend that I found during a grief-filled divorce, continued to be an incredible teacher. After my divorce I did not continue meditating regularly. Once my crisis moment passed I abandoned it until I got my homework assignment from our first women’s group–mediate for five minutes everyday. This seemed really easy. “5 minutes,” I thought, “that’s nothing!”
In fact it was at first incredibly challenging. I was amazed by how hard it was to have the discipline to sit still for five minutes daily. There was always something more urgent, pressing, or fun to do. However, once I conquered the hurdle of whatever reasons my mind came up with for why I should not sit still, I loved it. 5 minutes quickly grew to 10, 10 to 15, and 15 to 20 or 30.
I learned that I loved being still and alone every morning. Everyday I sat quietly with a cup of coffee to wake up, read a chapter from a wise book, and then set my alarm for mediation. The most wonderful part of meditating within the instructions of my women’s group, was that it was not complicated. I’d been turned off in the past to the idea of meditation because I thought it tied to a religious practice and therefore to a strict set of rules. Jennifer, my teacher, invited me to: “Just sit still and let what happens happen.”
Her instructions were so simple, in fact, that my mind had a lot of questions about exactly what I should be doing during that time. I’d read about meditation and had a lot of ideas about what was supposed to happen, or not happen, or how long, or how to sit or what to sit on, or how to begin and how to end or…
No matter my questions, Jennifer just invited me to sit quietly and comfortably, with a straight supported spine and “let what happens happen.” After some months of frenzied and difficult meditation, during which I tried to do things right–whatever right was that day–I slowly I let go of my preconceived notions about meditation and began to trust the practice of meditation itself. Gradually that quiet stillness inside, that I found by chance in my backyard years earlier, revealed itself again.
It is this quiet stillness that I mean when I say “follow your heart,” or “listen to your intuition.” It’s always been here, and remains here now, but it gets covered up easily by noise, activity, anxiety, worry, and perceptions of what should happen in everyday life. I give myself these instructions on a daily basis.
I am slowly learning to release thoughts and perceptions about what is happening in my everyday experience, to follow instead the stillness that let’s life unfold. I’m reminded and humbled everyday by the difference in my quality of life when I live from jumpy and erratic thoughts that float through my head, or from the quiet stillness inside.
“Trying to keep your territory enclosed and safe, is fraught with misery and suffering. It keeps you in a very small, dank, smelly introverted world that gets more and more claustrophobic and more and more misery -producing as you get older.” ~ Pema Chodron from The Wisdom Of No Escape
The path of the warrior is to find that beam of guiding light that cuts through everything else rattling around in my mind– the voices of doubt, worry, fear and clinging that try to guide my body’s every move. “Sit still long enough to let that light shine through,” I tell myself this morning.
“Follow your heart,” I told my roommate last night. She is making a life decision about job and income, I laughed out loud after the words exited my lips. “That sounds so cheesy,” I said to her, “because the only place we’ve heard it said is in Disney movies where the princess finally gets her prince. But actually if you feel into it and find what it really means i, it’s great advice!”
It turns out, after several years of meeting, that the common thing that all of us were looking for in that women’s group, was a place to follow our hearts and to be supported in doing so. We were looking for a place to explore breaking free of each of our “territories” as Pema Chodron calls them. We wanted to discover what it looked like to exist in ourselves while breaking down walls and letting light shine through, rather than protecting our ramparts.
For some women in our group, over the past five years, that has meant making external changes in our lives: job, relationship, home, but for the most part it’s meant the opposite. It’s meant taking a deep breath and sitting back into our lives. It’s meant stopping the frenzied searching and leaning back into our own existence, resting into the choices we’ve made and finding peace in what already is.
One of the quotes from our women’s group that I love– ” Enlightenment is the deep understanding that there is no problem.” Investigating this statement in my own daily existence astonished me… not because I took this pearl of wisdom into the world and felt better about myself / life / choices, but because it helped me to see that according to my mind, my fairly cushy and peaceful existence, was fraught with “problems.”
As I explored this statement I began to notice that from the time I woke up in the morning, to the time I went to sleep at night the majority of the thoughts that came through my head had to do with a problem, complaint, or issue. WIth what? Well, with just about anything! Over the course of a three week period (the time between our meetings) I watched my mind come up with problem after problem…
“Ugh, someone didn’t put the dishes away last night. And there’s crumbs on the counter. I just cleaned this floor last night, how can it be dirty again?”
“Oh no I didn’t get up on time, now I’ll be late. I don’t have time to check my email because I got up late so… oh now I’m really late. And now that I’m late, I’m flustered.”
“Yep, I’m flustered. Now I’m having a bad day. I wish I could just go back to bed. Oh man, I haven’t checked my email I bet it’s really full, don’t think about that now just focus. Come on Paige, I mean you’re already late!”
“I bet that document is in my email that I promised I would finish today. Oh but I’m late, I over slept, and the house is a mess! He’s going to be waiting for my response, crap!”
“Did she look at me funny? Did I say something wrong. Why did I have to open my mouth, I’m too damn direct all the time!”
I was astonished at how the thoughts that came through my mind could create a hurricane out of a light breeze, if I followed them. If I followed them. And that was a big IF.