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.

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 Trance of “Real But Not True”

Last night I accidentally erased six months worth of texts sent between my partner and me. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not *that* big of a deal. Sure, I sometimes indulge in looking back at a sweet message from a day or two ago, but I rarely scroll back through several weeks or months of everyday exchanges except to find some bit of information to reference, an address or someone’s phone number. Still, I found myself surprisingly distressed at the loss.

“I still have them,” my partner yawned as I curled up with him to go to bed, “and you probably have them in the cloud–I bet I could get them back for you.”

“I guess,” I answered, somehow not feeling convinced or comforted.

He quickly slipped off into an untroubled sleep, but for some time I lay there feeling vaguely uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down. In the dark quiet, my mind slid into mildly panicked thoughts–what if I weren’t able to recover them? What if something were to happen to my partner? Wouldn’t I wish I had these countless, mundane but faithful records of our steady, playful, rich  relationship. My heart ached just entertaining these thoughts. I felt my skin tingle with a “gut” feeling that I’d somehow jinxed myself, that perhaps the intensity of this moment was the universe’s way of preparing me for tragedy.

I do this a lot–well, less than I used to, but still more than I’d like: I get so caught up, so invested in a “feeling” that it seems more real than the world as it exists in front of me. Irritatingly, it happens most often when things are going especially well in life. It’s as though some part of me has never quite accepted that I might deserve good things. I always seem to be holding my breath, waiting for these gifts to be wrenched away from me.

My meditation practice has been helpful in learning to recognize that these thoughts, when they come up, are just thoughts, not pronouncements from a god I don’t believe in, not animal instinct of foreboding. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach’s phrase, “real but not true,” continues to be a useful one to invoke as a reminder that this feeling is real in the sense that it’s an experience I’m having but not “true” in any sort of factual way by virtue of the fact that any such fears are based on projections on a future that I can have no way of knowing at the present moment. Certain dreaded outcomes can be likely or even inevitable, but what can’t be known is what *exactly* my experience of that outcome will be. The suffering I am bracing myself for is imagined–whether it proves to be more or less painful than the reality, the experience itself will not be anything I can conceive of until I am in that moment. But still, even though I can label these experiences as such, I’ve spent my entire life worrying as a way of steeling myself up for the “unbearable” pain that’s just around the corner, and old habits die hard.

However, the thing about the unbearable pain  (when it arrives) is that, somehow, we always seem to bear it. As teacher Diane Musho Hamilton says, “Everything is workable.” This doesn’t mean everything will be “okay” in the sense that we will avoid loss, sadness, fear, and pain–all of these experiences are part of the human experience and inescapable–but instead everything will be as it is, and we will handle it, sometimes with grace and sometimes without. In either case, the suffering will shift subtly with each passing moment and will not be one solid block of pain but, rather, countless microseconds of more and less pain, of neutral numbness, of little hints of optimism and despair. And this “everything,” it applies not just to working through the suffering but also the bliss. There isn’t actually one way to approach what we like in life and another to approach what we don’t. Both must be accepted and not given undue bearing on our experience.

I’d like to say that a conscious acceptance of the neurotic nature of my mind is what allows me to step outside the fog of worry-ridden thoughts, but the truth is, more often than not, it’s the poke of the physical world that snaps me out of my trance. Last night, just as my mind was reaching a fever pitch, I found myself sitting upright with an abruptness that surprised even  me: inexplicably in the midst of this chaos, I remembered that I had not set my alarm for the next morning. Before I knew what I was doing, I scrambled out of bed and across the room to where I had plugged in my phone. “Babe, what are you–? I’ll sort it all out for you tomorrow, I promise,” my partner mumbled. “Come back to bed, try to sleep.”

Opening my mouth to explain, I looked up from my phone and over at the jumble of covers to see him extending his arms out to welcome me back. Involuntarily, I felt my lips curve into a smile, triggering a chain reaction relaxing the muscles in my face and shoulders. I finished setting my alarm, padded back to bed and nestled into the crook of his arm. And, for a moment, I lost myself in the pleasure of feeling my cheek against the skin of his chest and the sound of his steady heartbeat.

 

 

 

Inviting in a Crowd of Sorrows

Sometimes I feel as though I spend my life slipping into ruts and then struggling to climb out of them.

Each time I snap out of the trance of anxiety or fear or sadness, I look back on it and think to myself, “Oh, that again. How am I still falling into that trap?” However, when I’m lost in the fog of my distress, the threat feels so immediate, so inescapable that even when I pick up on subtle hints of familiarity, I have a hard time labeling this anxiety, this fear, this sadness as the same visitors who have come (and gone away again) countless times before.

And when I emerge from the fog, when I get to the other side, the path is almost always a familiar one as well: after a certain period of time feeling harassed by unwelcome feelings, I exhaust myself with obsessing over them, with wishing them away, to the point where I settle into a sort of numb acceptance of my discomfort, and it’s only then, after I’ve stopped struggling and relaxed into these feelings, that they pass.

But when they pass, it’s as though I’ve been given a new pair of glasses which I was unaware I needed until I had them resting on the bridge of my nose. The world looks sharper, colors more vivid, my experience more alive. To borrow from secular Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor, my focus shifts away from trying to solve the mysteries of the universe towards trying to penetrate them. In other words, rather than being driven to make sense of my experience, I feel moved to marvel at, to luxuriate in the senseless beauty of it all. In the glow of this fresh start, I am able to look back on the time I’ve “wasted,” dwelling in neurosis, with compassion and without regret–it seems clear that I needed to walk through that dark wood in order to appreciate sunlight waiting in the clearing where I then find myself.

This most recent cycle of discomfort into acceptance brought to mind Rumi’s often quoted poem, “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Of course, after navigating the ever more familiar path back to a place of contentment and joy with life’s mysteries, I can’t help thinking that “next time” I won’t have to suffer so much. “Next time” I’ll just be more patient with myself and cut right to the acceptance. Sometimes, when the afterglow is especially all-enveloping, I’ll imaging that I might even manage to feel gratitude as soon as I recognize that my demons have come calling as it signals that greater clarity is on its way…

That’s probably not how it will play out, however. Maybe I’ll be able to retain a bit more sanity in the face of my distress; maybe I’ll spend a bit less time spinning my wheels before I settle into acceptance; maybe I’ll navigate the cycle with a bit more confidence in my own ability to come out the other side. But these shifts will likely feel slight, almost imperceptible, while in the thick of my discomfort. Just now, it strikes me that perhaps my best chance at penetrating the mysteriousness of life is to work towards raising my tolerance for discomfort, rather than seeking to diminish it.

Slow and Steady Is the Pace

“How was therapy?” my partner asked me shortly after I sat down in the pub where we’d met for lunch.

“Good,” I laughed, pretty sure I knew what was coming.

“And? Any illuminating insights? Are you fixed?” he teased, leaning in for a kiss.

“Nope, still broken,” I replied cheerily. “But yup, some good insights as always–you know, nothing new–just more of the same.”

….

I’ve been in therapy for almost a year and a half now. I took the step initially after a particularly destabilizing breakup with a man I had cared deeply for, who also happened to be struggling with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. He had been on the edge of crisis when we met and just a few months into the new relationship, I found myself in and out of the emergency room, visiting him in psychiatric units after dissociative psychotic episodes, and helping him enroll in inpatient detox programs. I put my life on hold for six months while I did my best to help him navigate a nightmarish new reality as he confronted demons he’d spent a lifetime trying to deny or work around. Once he was finally in a stable place, I encouraged him to move back home to Oregon, where he is from, and finally allowed myself to take a step back. And it wasn’t until then, until he was out of the state and I was finally free to pick up my life again, that I started to fall apart.

To be clear, I’ve never been of the opinion that therapy is only for those with “problems.” It’s always seemed to me that this whole “living thing,” this human condition we all find ourselves in, is enough to merit enlisting the help of a therapist to help sort through the chaos. We each of us have our fair share of confusing/painful/traumatic experiences, even if they’re not extremes or so very different from what anyone else in this world has had to handle. In fact, I would argue that this is precisely why therapy should be for everyone–it’s a chance to open up to another person and find that everything one feels is so specific to them is actually so common that a psychologist can translate the inchoate feelings or habits into clinical language and confirm that these experiences are an observable phenomenon featured in the literature of the discipline.

However, having said all of that, it wasn’t until I had “a problem” that I sought help. In fact, just a few days before taking the leap, a dear friend had urged me to see someone to help work through all that had happened, and I said, “Thanks, but I’m really okay. The hard stuff is over.” The thing was…I’d been feeling great, on a high of relief that my now ex-boyfriend was halfway across the country and in the care of his family–I could finally relax, get back to living my life. And then, about a week after his departure, I went for a run and realized halfway through that I was having trouble breathing. I pushed harder, tried to breathe more deeply, but then found myself experiencing a choking sensation. Finally, I had to stop: my hand went to my chest, detecting a tight, sharp pain, and I did a bewildered inventory of what could possibly be wrong with me. Finally, the tickle of a tear sliding down my face snapped me out of my confusion as I became aware that I was sobbing, so intensely that my body was shaking with the effort of it. Maybe I’m not okay, intoned a fearful inner voice.

At first, there was a lot to wade through in my sessions. My therapist put no particular time limits on our meetings, instead allowing me to spin my ever evolving narrative until I either wore myself out or arrived at something resembling a bookmark for the week. He listened with compassion but was also completely frank when I asked for his opinions and insights. Slowly, I began to trust him not just with my pain and fears but also with my shame and anger, my unmentionables, the things that I had not dared share with friends and loved ones for fear of judgment. Each admission was met with matter-of-fact acceptance along with gentle observations regarding the harshness of my own judgement against myself. I began to feel less self-conscious, more sure that nothing I could say would shock him, and the more that I disclosed, the more I realized how much I’ve been holding back my entire life.

After six months or so, we were no longer spending much time on my initial motivation for seeking treatment but, rather, were exploring all the little big things that dealing with this particular crisis has unearthed. It turns out, I maybe did need to talk about my mother’s own struggle with alcoholism and premature death, maybe I did need to examine the patterns that have repeated throughout most of my romantic relationships, maybe the overarching struggle is not with others but with my own desire to be loved unconditionally, while fundamentally doubting that I deserve such a thing…but that’s another post (or fifty).

As I have relaxed into the commitment to longer term therapy, my sessions don’t tend to be particularly dramatic, and some weeks I walk in with little to report. Things are good; the waters are calm; my dreams are untroubled. Family members and even my partner have mentioned that they are surprised I still see my therapist. In their minds, it makes perfect sense that I might have needed a little help sorting through a stressful life event , but now, over a year later, I seem happy and well, more emotionally stable than many. “Oh, hun, you’re doing just fine–do you really think you need to continue?” my partner has said on occasion.

I don’t tend to say much to these questions except that I still find my sessions helpful. It’s true the urgency of the early sessions has dissolved, but I have come to think that it’s these more mundane ones that have been and continue to be the richest in terms of insight and growth. I am both stronger than I thought and more of a mess than I’d like to think. I both deserve compassion for what I have been through in my life and can recognize that I am by no means the only one who carries similar burdens. I am simultaneously unique and just like everyone else. These are things we all intellectually “know,” but, for me, there is something about the slow, steady pace of the weekly reflection provided in therapy which creates a space for these subtle truths to take root and actually enter my lived experience. For in this expansive, open space, I find the dark corners where I have been hiding ever since I can remember are becoming fewer and fewer. And it turns out, this is at once terrifying and liberating but, also, manageable.

Hanging Out With The Mess

“If we begin to surrender to ourselves — begin to drop the storyline and experience what all this messy stuff behind the storyline feels like — we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.” ~ Pema Chodron

The quotation above was one of the first I encountered when I first began studying dharma several years ago. I had heard a few teachers mention, “drop the storyline,” as advice for sitting with difficult emotions, and the well-crafted, pithy phrase stuck with me enough that I sought out the origins and discovered Pema Chodron, one of the most revered teachers and authors in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. It’s good advice: the further away I’m able to move from the narratives I create and the closer I’m able to get to the pure, felt emotion of the moment, the better able I am to catch my mind from becoming ensnared in negative thoughts that threaten to spin out of control.

I’ve used this technique to realize that flashes of anger are actually hurt feelings, to realize that anxiety I assigned to specific circumstances was actually much more deeply rooted in my general experience. I’ve watched the quality of the feeling shift subtly from moment to moment until the hard knot that had formed in my chest loosened just enough to give me a felt sensation of the solidity of my narratives crumbling. And along with these realizations, a side benefit that often emerges organically is that I’m better able to handle these emotions, better able to accept them, ease out of the scope of their paralysis, and move along with my day. I’ve come to think of dropping the storyline as one of my most effective coping mechanisms.

However, in the throes of some particularly intense worry, I recently found myself impatient with my favorite little mantra, stay with with the icy, gnawing pin-pricks of mounting anxiety without catastrophizing projections to keep me company. Pulling down a volume of collected dharma excerpts from my bookshelf, I ran across the quotation above, reminding me of the fuller context of the phrase I’ve come to use as shorthand for “getting on with it,” and it occurred to me that in my appropriation of “drop the storyline” for quick fixes of discomfort, I’ve been skimming over, just barely touching in with the the richest part of this practice, the chance to access and actually spend time inhabiting “the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.”

It’s true that there’s unquestionable merit in merely stopping to breathe through discomfort long enough to watch it dissolve. But if I’m able to hang out in the space created in that experience of dismantling my narratives, there’s also a wealth of bittersweet vulnerability that can give little flickers of felt connection to the currents of discomfort/distress/pain/ suffering which is intrinsic to this human condition. It becomes possible have compassion for my own confusion and recognize the confusion fueling the actions of others as the same burden.

The expansiveness of this space has no perceptible boundaries or familiar ground, which is both terrifying and freeing. It’s hard to stay with such a sensation, much less welcome it. But then, if I hang out a bit longer, I can see that even the perceived terror and freedom are potent, extracts of storyline, that they too can be dropped, And what is left is just open space where I don’t need to label my experience. This space doesn’t bar my thoughts or narratives–it has enough room to accommodate them all. It’s just that here, I can watch them float by with gentle curiosity before they are absorbed back into the nothingness from which they came…at least until the phone rings or I look at the time or I start to daydream yet another imagined storyline.