Spaciousness Within the Mundane

I hate doing laundry.  I realize this is somewhat ridiculous. It would be one thing if this chore was an all day affair that involved boiling a huge vat of water over a fire, scrubbing clothes on a metal washboard with hard soap, and hanging the clothes on a line to dry. But in our modern world of convenience, washing  and drying clothes in a machine is one of the more low impact chores.

And yet…I resent having to lug the clothes downstairs to my building’s lobby. I always marvel at how much longer it takes to sort the light and dark into their respective drums than I think it will. I am irritated by having to stop whatever I’ve started after half an hour to sort the wet clothes into those which will air dry and those that will be transferred to the drying machine. I loathe the clutter created by the drying rack in my living room. And then, before I know it, the timer sings its little reminder that it’s time to collect the remaining clothes from the dryer and fold them.

This morning, as I grudgingly hauled the laundry basket downstairs, I found myself getting utterly consumed by such disproportionate feelings of annoyance that they startled me. In that moment I knew that I should be laughing at myself, at the exaggerated grief that had emerged seemingly from nowhere…but I was already hooked. As I went through all the little motions, the starts and stops of completing my task, I watched my mind indulge in petty imaginings of injustice and hardship–if only everyone else in the building didn’t hog the machines during the afternoons and evenings so that early morning (my favorite time of the day) was the only reliable time to do it; if only my partner didn’t have so many dress shirts that couldn’t be dried, I wouldn’t be spending so much time hanging up wet clothes; if only the washing/drying cycles were at longer intervals so I could have some little pockets of peace within the chore…

Then, as I did my morning sitting, I watched these petty thoughts flare up and dissolve into feelings of anger, which I watched morph into a disappointed sadness of sorts. Interestingly, when taken out of the context of judging as good or bad (justified or unjustified), I experienced both a welling up of compassion for myself and a gentle understanding of what a misguided and confused set of ideas had taken hold: of course most people don’t want to get up early on a Sunday to do their laundry–they work hard all week, just like me, and would rather be sleeping or enjoying their mornings; so what if I spend a few extra minutes sorting out my partner’s clothes–it’s actually my pleasure to let him sleep while I do this tiny service that doesn’t even begin to repay all he does for me without a second thought; and sure, it would be nice if I could dictate the exact timings of any given chore such that it is exactly to my liking–but let’s be honest, having affordable, reliable access to a washer and dryer is already pretty damn convenient in the scheme of things.

Breathing in and breathing out, labeling thoughts as thoughts, letting myself feel the feelings without judgment…the hard, solid sensation of dissatisfaction lifted. And as usually happens at such moments, I thought to myself, how much easier this feels–I shouldn’t get caught up in such a narrow view. But then, as is happening with a bit more frequency these days, I smiled and conceded that I probably would get hooked again, perhaps in only a few minutes’ time, in fact. But if I do, when I do, there’s some peace in the sense that I can treat it just like any other experience in this life,  can let it be simply be what it is.

Training the Mind for Realization

When I was first establishing my meditation practice and studying Buddhism at the Shambhala Center of New York, I remember telling a teacher that it was hard for me not to berate myself for realizing that my attention had wandered, that it was actually getting in the way of returning my attention to the breath. His response was I might instead try being grateful I had noticed.

Of course, like most of the pithy tidbits of wisdom encountered in Buddhism, this shift from blame to grace is easier said than done. However, as is also often the case, the longer I’ve lived with my teacher’s advice, the longer I’ve spent on the cushion, the more comfortable I’ve become with this moment of noticing I’ve been in a trance, and I’ve been able to watch that familiar judgment materialize only to dissolve into nothing. And with each passing year, I appreciate the profundity of what it might mean to make this shift more generally, to “make friends with yourself” (to borrow Chögyam Trunpa’s famous words) both on and off the cushion. After all, the time spent cultivating mindfulness in a meditation practice should be laying a foundation for a more awake existence as we stand up and immerse ourselves in the chaos of our daily lives. Ideally, realizing that our attention has wandered is training for all sorts of realizations.

Often it’s pleasant: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing the beauty of the sunlight streaming in my window with fresh eyes; sometimes it leads to refocusing on the task at hand with new energy. Other times it’s soul-destroying: sometimes realizing my attention has wandered leads to seeing how blissfully ignorant I’ve been of the misfortune of someone right in front of me; sometimes it leads to understanding how impossibly far I am from the person I would like to be. It’s really difficult, being grateful for all realizations equally, and I hasten to say that I don’t manage it much of the time. But something that has made a difference for me more recently has actually been a realization about realizations.

When you think about it, aren’t realizations in and of themselves kind of amazing? Isn’t it a bit mind-blowing that humans are capable of synthesizing both the external stimulus of the world and the internal chatter of their minds’ constant commentary into a moment of insight that helps us understand our existence in a completely different way? Isn’t that something to be grateful for, even when the insights make us uncomfortable or sad? While I’ve certainly felt homesick for the security I felt pre-realization many a time, I would never wish to “un-know” any insight. Even at their most painful, I’m noticing more and more how hard won these little glimpses at truth are, how much tenacity and resilience is required, how long they take to incubate, and perhaps most affecting, how mysteriously beautiful they are compared to the long-winded, contrived stories I spin denying their truth.

“What’s Next?”

As a one friend celebrates his birthday today, and two other friends are getting married tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we mark the different chapters of life. It seems as though childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood are full of clear transitions–school is littered with fresh starts as we make our way from grade to grade and then navigate each new semester of college;  once we pass through the ritual of graduation, we embark on first jobs, homes of our own, committed romantic relationships. However, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer clear markers of transition from one chapter to the next. Years begin to blur together, and starting a “new year” on the first of January can feel a bit arbitrary and lack luster.

For my friend, Nick, who celebrates his 34th birthday today, life has more or less followed the prescribed path. Since graduating college eleven years ago, he got a dream job within his field of engineering and has been promoted steadily (and more quickly than any other employee at his company); he married his college sweetheart; he bought a house…and yet, he’s expressed on several occasions a sense of nostalgia for the cut path of childhood with its specific hurdles to clear. More and more, the question, “What’s next?” hangs in the air.

I did not exactly follow the prescribed path. I was good at jumping the concrete hurdles set up by institutions, not as good at navigating the meandering expanse of life after graduation. For me, the last 10 years since finishing college have at times seemed like a long haze of optimism and false starts, self-discovery and  insecurity, joy and fear,  excitement and instability.  Up until very, very recently, I’d not managed to achieve most of the common markers of adulthood–full time job, long-term partner, etc. As a result, I often felt stuck in a strange limbo where I both felt terribly behind my peers while simultaneously wondering,”what’s next?” because I had no sense of the path to achieving these milestones, much less a larger purpose with my life.

Now that I’m more comfortably situated in a concrete way, I feel as though my long stint of frustrated adulthood may come in handy. If I’m able to derive some basic confidence from having weathered ups and downs without many anchors, then perhaps I’ll have the courage to create my own transitions, keep life from stagnating, asking, “What’s next?” with enthusiasm rather than dread. And when that courage wanes, perhaps I can draw strength from others grappling with this essentially human (albeit privileged) question for themselves.

After years of searching, Nick has created his next big milestone by taking a leap of faith this year. In another month, he will leave his prestigious, well paying dream job to teach engineering at a South Side Chicago high school, helping students gain confidence in math and science, encouraging them in their aspirations to be the first in their families to go to college. For him, and perhaps for all of us, the natural “next” step after ticking all the boxes in the usual checklist to establish ourselves is to turn our gaze outward and ask ourselves how we can contribute to what’s next for someone else.

 

Optional Suffering

The Buddha did not present suffering as the first noble truth just because he had figured out that everybody has a hard time in life. He said that there is something much deeper going on. We suffer because we are projecting the myth of permanence upon a situation that is actually conditioned, selfless, and constantly changing. Everything is interrelated and interdependent. There is nothing substantial and separate that we can lean upon. Samsara, “the cycle of suffering,” is a direct result of our desire for permanence.

~ Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche

Recently, a lot of things which I’ve struggled with for many  years (my entire life?) have come together. For the first time that I can remember, I feel a sense of stability in my career, partner, living situation, and friendships. Most days, I have at least a moment or two of disbelief that I’ve come so far in the last year, and my heart feels as though it might burst with gratitude. In short, life is good.

And yet, underneath my joy there always seems to lurk a current of anxiety, a tensing up in expectation of hardship that *must* be just around the corner. My dreams of both past and imagined distress sometimes startle me awake with fight or flight adrenaline coursing through my veins; the pleasure of gratitude is often spoiled by an underlying sense of unworthiness; there are days when I can’t shake the sensation that everything I have been blessed with is about to be violently ripped away from me.

“Everything’s okay now,” my partner says as he holds me during one of my attacks of inexplicable uneasiness. “All of that is behind you. After a bit more time, you’ll relax and feel safe.” His words, his touch, certainly provide comfort, but a voice in the back of my mind whispers that I know better, that life won’t always be this good.

And the thing is…I know I’m right. My partner’s soothing words are not true. Life undoubtedly will not always be as it is right now. There will be bumps ahead. Whatever stability I relax into will not stay constant–even if I am lucky enough to maintain a stability of sorts, the quality and nature of that “constant” will change in countless micro-adjustments as life continues to unfold. There undoubtedly is pain lurking around the corner in some form or another. And of course, my deepest fear–that I must face all of this alone–is simply one of the conditions of this human existence.

And yet, it’s not the fundamental unreliability of life that is the problem. After all, impermanence is just the state of things. Were I to get my wish and have everything stay exactly the same, my elation would soon fade, a restless impatience with the sameness would set in, and the very situation which I so desperately want to preserve would become a prison of frustration. It is the ever shifting nature of reality which gives life its color, its dynamism, its vibrancy. The problem is actually that I continue to trick myself into believing those well intentioned words, that I am now “safe.” The problem is not that I will never be safe from suffering; it’s that I persist in resting in a false sense of security. It’s that even now, as I write these words, part of me regards the (very reasonable) distrust of stability I’m experiencing as a malady, as the thing which is the cause of my anxiety.

But really, it’s not that I need to quit expecting bumps in the road; rather, it’s that I need to quit clinging to this “myth of impermanence” which obscures and limits the rich, complicated, messy grandeur of existence. There is actually more comfort to be had in accepting life on its own terms than attempting to fit it into a narrative so hopelessly narrow that it cannot contain the expanse of our experience. Is it any wonder that we’re constantly thrown into a panic when we persist in expecting life to play out in ways that are contrary to its most basic nature?

Perhaps more comforting than trying to sustain a feeling safety in an uncertain world is leaning into the uncertainty, dancing with it. That way, when the suffering comes, we’re at least spared the rude awakening, the sensation that we’ve lost control. After all, we never had it in the first place. As Haruki Murakami puts it, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

 

 

 

 

 

Going to the “Compassion Gym”

After taking a break from running for several weeks, I’ve started ramping up so that I can participate in the Chase Corporate Challenge this next Thursday, along with an expected 25,000 runners in downtown Chicago. Whenever I return to regular exercise after a hiatus, I’m always struck by how hard the first couple of runs are and how quickly my muscles “remember,” allowing me to get back up to speed and even push beyond it. It’s simultaneously humbling and invigorating. Adding to all of this is the fact that I have spent most of my life declaring (almost defensively) “I am not a runner,” and I have to chuckle at the little unexpected currents running throughout life: five years ago, I’d have never believed that I could successfully run one mile, much less take part in a race. It makes me wonder what else I’ve walked around thinking is “just not me” that actually, maybe could.

When I lived in NYC and was attending classes at the Interdependence Project, Ethan Nichtern often spoke of meditation as a “compassion gym”: in the same way we go to the gym and lift weights to build stronger muscles, thus increasing our stamina and endurance for physical activity, we can turn approach meditation as a practice that increases our stamina and endurance for being generous both to ourselves and other people, strengthen the muscles required to extend genuine wishes for well-being and empathy for suffering beyond ourselves and those of our immediate circles of loved ones to strangers, even enemies. I’ve always liked this idea as it contrasts with what seems to be the prevailing attitude:  compassion and empathy are often treated as fixed character traits–qualities one is born with, an innate part of one’s personality, qualities one either has or doesn’t. “Well, he’s just a nicer person than I am,” gets bandied about with a shrug, both denying the agency of the actor and letting the observer off the hook.

If we can think about compassion and empathy as qualities one is capable of cultivating and strengthening like a muscle, it actually allows for a much wider range of possibility within the human experience–for all of us. It means that no one is exempt from the responsibility of making the effort to not only treat others well but, also, to understand others, to look for themselves in the behaviors that challenge or irritate or enrage. It means saying to ourselves, just like me this person is so worried that she’ll be taken advantage of that she’s behaving defensively. If that recognition is possible for all of us if we look for it, it means that it’s never too late to “be a nice person,” even if we’ve never been seen that way, even if we’ve never seen ourselves that way.  For those of us who are labeled “nice” (seemingly inherent in our very nature), it means that there is a practice that helps to examine what lies behind our niceness–is it “idiot compassion” as Chögyam Trungpa warned against, in which we enable others because we can’t bear our own discomfort with another’s suffering? is it generosity just for show? If our niceness must pass muster, must be rooted in working to see the suffering in others, to bear it with them as best we can, then it pushes us beyond the passive, superficial connotation so often associated (and embodied) in “niceness,” to be of real benefit to others while also expanding ourselves.

Beyond all of this, the other possibility that is opened up by thinking of meditation as a “compassion gym,” is that there is a refuge for each of us from the ticker tape of thoughts, worries, anxieties, pain, boredom, etc. In the same way that a good sweat can clear one’s head and realign our priorities when we get caught up in the repetitive cycle of neurotic mind, so can sitting on the cushion to focus our hearts and minds on wishing joy for ourselves, a loved one, a stranger, and enemy, all of these, and finally, all of us humble and invigorate us as we approach our day-to-day existence.

 

 

Life for Rent

This has been a long week–a long two weeks, actually. I edit financial news releases, and we’re in the second busiest quarter of the year. This means working overtime, which is physically exhausting, but more than that, it means hectic, frenetic days in which the phone never stops ringing, deadlines are tight, and the mood is tense. I’ve found myself feeling guilty when it’s time to take my lunch break and realizing that entire hours sometimes elapse between having the initial thought that I need to use the restroom and actually leaving my desk to take that 30 second walk.

In a way, I don’t mind all of this *too* much–the days are long, but they’re absorbing and go by quickly; there’s a certain stress in the air, but it’s shared among all the editors, and the basic comradery that I’ve come to appreciate in my co-workers remains. What has been a bit harder has actually been managing my expectations once I’m finally leaving the office.  It feels as though I throw myself into the day’s work, all the while looking forward to going home at the end of the day to relax and decompress, but once I’m actually inhabiting those precious hours I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. After reading all day, picking up the novel I was so engrossed in a few weeks ago doesn’t have the same appeal; after a twelve-hour work day, the idea of taking a run feels out of the question. Watching a movie or mindless television show usually wins out, but once it’s over and I realize that it’s (already) time to go to bed so I can get up and do it all over again, I’m left feeling hollowed out, numb, and as though I’m renting a small space in my life to live in and too exhausted to enjoy it.

And in the midst of the physical and existential weariness,  I do know that I am lucky: I don’t feel this way *most* of the time, and I have a good job in an economy where good jobs are not easy to come by. Looking around at the same tired passengers on my daily commute, I can see that what is a notably long day for me is the norm for many, and I think with shame that I’ve really no right to complain. Everyone is dealing with his own dissatisfactions in life, managing them as best she can.

From a Buddhist point of view, getting caught up in my own hardships is 99% of the suffering I’m experiencing, and it’s true that waking up to the shared burden with my fellow human beings does lighten the load. However, it strikes me as I’m writing that this realization that, if we stop there,  we run the risk of slipping into an almost apathetic, pessimistic (in the philosophical sense) attitude of, well, I guess this is just how life is, which I’m not ready to accept. So I suppose my challenge this week is to use the shared dissatisfaction as point of departure rather than a conclusion.

We are all tired, all doing our best to avoid pain and experience joy. How can I use this knowledge to think beyond my own narrow circumstances, to take my own discomforts less seriously? But also, how can I think more deeply about this dissatisfaction that, when I look around, is clearly shared in one manifestation or other with everyone I encounter?

Built In Fresh Starts

Every year around this time spring creeps up on me and takes me by surprise: I’m going along, living day-to-day, probably a bit caught up in the grind of work, and have basically accepted the winter chill as an immovable fact of life as I know it…when one day, I wake up and find myself opening windows, digging in my closet for tee-shirts, buying sunglasses to replace the ones I’ve long since lost from last year, and marveling at the inexplicably good mood I’m in for no reason whatsoever.

As children, school vacations mark transitions between seasons and give us built in fresh starts, but for most of us, the adult world does not provide these little reminders, and it’s very possible for the months to simply pass in a blur. So, for me, the little nudge of warmth that enters the air, the first awareness of the lengthening of the days, the freedom from my heavy winter coat have become precious markers. The optimism and excitement that they breed is almost Pavlovian, such that before I can say to myself, “Laura, this happens every year–you always feels this way when spring first arrives,” I’m humming to myself, finding renewed energy, feeling invigorated by fresh hope.

One of the things that first attracted me to the Shambhala Buddhist tradition as opposed to other lineages was the “not too tight, not too loose” approach. I remember one of my first teachers pointing me to Chögyam Trungpa’s discussion of the beauty of “fresh start” as a way to to help me emerge from the exhausting, well-worn cycles of over-thinking to which I am prone. Sometimes, even with one’s meditation practice, you need to shift your awareness from the object of your focus to drink in the sensory world, gain some perspective, and remind yourself of the aliveness of the present moment. It can be transformative…when I remember to do it.

That’s the magic of spring, though: the change that comes over me around this time every year comes whether I remember it’s coming or not. I suddeny feel as though I am airing out the stale patterns of thinking I’ve slipped into without even realizing it, as though I’m rediscovering what it means to be alive. That the same thing can happen and feel very different each time reminds me that this actually true of all things, all days, all moments. Too often I stop myself from delving into the mystery of my existence by picking up on familiar threads of feeling, scanning my memory for when I’ve felt similarly, and then labeling it as an already known quantity–“Oh, this happened last time I did…”

But this has never happened before. I have no idea what the next moment will feel like. And if I can stay with the moment I’m in, investigate it, I’ll get a breath of fresh air, even in the middle of winter.

The Space in Between

“We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart. That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.” ~ Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Yesterday morning, I sipped my coffee and stared out the window, allowing my mind to wander as I eased myself into the day,  It was one of those rare moments of pure appreciation: I was so grateful to have the leisure of sitting there, for the silence, for the warm mug I held in my hand. From there, my mind shifted gears to focus on the more concrete, overarching points of gratitude: work, partner, friends. It occurred to me that I just don’t have to work as hard to be happy these days, that I feel perhaps the most settled and contented that I ever have in my life up to this point. And then, in a matter of seconds after having this thought, I found myself experiencing a wave of anxiety, a little pocket of panic, that seemed to come out of nowhere.

This experience of sliding between immense gratitude and paralyzing fear is a familiar one for me. I’ve noticed it especially this past year as quite a few loose ends have come together after years of struggle. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the better I feel about life in general, the more little spikes of anxiety pop up. And even though I know they are feelings/thoughts, as fleeting and impermanent as any other, it’s hard not to read into them, to wonder if these are somehow foreshadowing some heartbreaking upset of fortune, if some part of me knows that tragedy is just around the corner.

I’ve tried to dismiss these panics as a habitual pattern, a conditioning to worry born of so many years of uncertainty. I often attempt to distract myself with work or physical activity, inpatient for the feeling to pass and pressuring myself to get back to “normal.” And sometimes it works: I come back from a run and wonder at how I could have ever let myself get so caught up in a bit of dark fantasy.  And as time has passed, I’ve noticed that the strength of these attacks has weakened as I’ve begun to trust the good things that have come my way a bit more, little by little.

But yesterday morning, the potency of the anxiety took me by surprise. I felt it rise up in me so quickly that it almost felt as though it was too late to cope with it in any of my usual ways. And so I had no choice but to let it come, to feel myself eroded by a fear so intense that it felt like I was experiencing a grief for enormous losses that had not yet occurred. However, something interesting happened: when I surrendered, allowed myself to experience the grief without marshalling all my energy towards ignoring it or denying it or calling it names, a much broader spectrum of experience opened up for me. It was like sipping a drink of amazing complexity: up front and right away I tasted the fear–that I don’t deserve such good things, that they’ll be wrenched away from me any moment, tensing up for unimaginable pain; yet as I stayed with it, no one stab of fear took over, and gradually this fear softened into a recognition of the sweetness of that which I was so desperate to lose; this sweetness flowered into an appreciation for the substance of these blessings, a richness so often cut off from my day-to-day, surface level acknowledgment. It was here that the fear of loss and the appreciation for what I have merged into a kind of infinitely deeper gratitude that somehow fostered a comprehension of beauty which not only accommodated fear and pain and sadness but was dependent on these experiences.

There, sitting quietly by the window, letting my mind wander to its darkest places, I discovered that there is a space in between dwelling on the fear of impermanence and shutting down all at the first hint of change. It is possible to acknowledge these fears as imaginings of very real inevitabilities and to also harness this knowledge to see something much more complicated and enriching. I realized that, much more than even the absolute worst-case scenario,  what I’m most afraid of is that I might live my entire life tensing up in expectation of the very pain which is an essential ingredient to a rich, complex human experience. And that would be such a shame.

 

Socializing With the Past

Yesterday a dear friend whom I know from graduate school visited from London. Even though I adore her and have been excited about this visit for months, there was part of me that was undeniably anxious as the time to meet up with her drew near. Some of the anxiety was purely logistics–finding her when she doesn’t have a working cell phone in the States, coordinating with the other people who came to town in order to see her, worrying over entertaining her.

But as I meditated first thing yesterday morning, the ticker tape looping through my brain was less to do with logistics and more to do with a discomfort in my own skin. It had been five years since I saw my friend last, seven since we were in school together, and when I look back on both of those periods of my life, it doesn’t take long to summon the visceral feelings of insecurities which occupied so much of my psyche–that I didn’t deserve my admission to our prestigious university  (seven years ago), that I had not kept up with my peers in life achievements (five years ago). A lot has changed for me since then: I’ve gained stability in my career and the love of an amazing partner; I’ve learned to laugh at how seriously I took myself in graduate school; I have compassion for the inferiority complex born of floundering with a liberal arts background in a struggling economy. And yet…it was almost as though I was afraid that I would somehow lose all the ground I’d  covered, be infected by the ghosts of my former selves once I was surrounded by these people with such strong associations for me.

However, an interesting thing happened as my meditation session came to a close: as the sun came up, filling the room with the first hints of daylight, my attention was overtaken by the new day seeping into my awareness. It was just a moment, a flicker of absorption in something outside my own mind, but it was enough to remind me of the ease that comes with opening myself up to whatever is happening here, now. It occurred to me that, rather than being threatened by my own reaction to these people from my past, I could be curious to see what would come up as we all mingled our past and present selves together. That this could be just an extension of my practice, watching my mind go to darker places but also bubble up with joy as we reminisce, treating both extremes as familiar cycles of thoughts that would be here one moment and would be gone the next.

And it turns out, the less caught up I am in my own mind, the more present I can be with myself as I am, with others as they are now. The more curious I am about another person’s experience, the more opportunity I have to take a fresh look at my own.  And maybe, just maybe, my former selves can be old friends, rather than heavy burdens.

 

The Cost of Being “Real”

This week I’ve been thinking back on the books I loved most when I was a little girl as I tried to decide on a gift for the son of a couple of dear friends. Stuart Little, Le Petit Prince, Rikki Tikki Tavi were some of the first that came to mind–stories of spirited adventures and courage, all of them fun and wise in their own ways. And then last night, with the nostalgia of childhood fantasy still swirling around in my brain, I dreamt of a favorite stuffed toy, “Bunny,” as I had imaginatively named him, which I had received along with a picture book when I was quite small.

Bunny had been my constant companion. I dragged him on road trips and to sleepovers, insisted he be at my side whether I was taking a bath or making mud pies. Poor bunny had to endure many cycles in the washing machine and was eventually left behind in a hotel room on a Disney vacation when I was four or five, causing possibly my first experience of grief.

While I do have vague memories of my mother reading me the book that had accompanied my favorite toy, “Bunny” has tended to overshadow much reflection on the actual story. But this morning,  with hints of my dream still lingering, I found myself googling for plot points and illustrations, eventually stumbling on the following quote:

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Reading this excerpt, I felt the familiarity of the words so often experienced in childhood–rote memorization of the sounds and cadences largely empty of meaning–along with the subtle newness that comes when one discovers a way to articulate something felt but not often put into words.

This feeling of wanting to be known, to be “real” as the rocking horse says, while being simultaneously afraid of the cost is one that has been with me as long as I can remember. In Buddhist terms, we could talk about this feeling as the longing that is born from not recognizing the barriers we erect between ourselves and others . We cling to definite, solidified conceptions of ego to fiercely defend the line between ourselves and others. In so doing, it becomes necessary to focus on what makes us different, farther apart, from our fellow human beings, rather than what we share as equal inhabitants of the human condition. At times, I catch myself digging my heels in to defend myself against those whom I love the most, only to realize a few moments later that there was no need, that this person was not trying to invade and change me but, rather just extending a hand through an invisible barrier that only I can see to invite me outside of my narrow world out to play in the expanse of possibility.

In this expanse, I can no longer pretend that I have any control over whether I will be hurt, how I will be perceived, where my path will lead. It’s scary to think of giving up on this illusion of control–after all, I’ve planned, manipulated, and self-sabotaged throughout my entire life as a way of coping with the anxiety of a constantly changing existence in which pain, rejection, and the unknown is always just a heartbeat away.  But of course, the other side to this coin is that so long as I try to micro-manage, to control what is outside my control, I forfeit the bliss of losing myself in  the bliss of connection, of being generous of myself, not just to those dearest to me but also to the world itself.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” says the rocking horse. How terrifying, whispers a tiny voice as I breathe in. Oh, but what a relief, soothes a steadier, “real” voice as I breathe out.