Gratitude 9/25/12

I’m grateful for music which can lift me when nothing else on Earth can even come close. I let it take me away and for just a moment I surrender and am no longer groundless but am clinging to the notes, and not beating myself up for clinging, just enjoying, laughing, floating, and reveling in the happiness it brings me. Whether it’s STAX, Leonard Cohen, Francis Dunnery, bad House Music, ’80’s New Wave, ’70’s Soul, ’90’s Quiet Storm, or any of the other thousands of kinds of notes I let sink in my ears, it’s all good. All of it heals. It makes the groundlessness easier.

I’m grateful for another good Lois day, her laughing face giving me kisses, urging me outside, reminding me that there’s much to be learned…..outside.
I’m grateful for friends calling from afar, just to say hi and remind me I’m not alone in this unpredictable, crazy atmosphere and existence. We’ve all got our life to breathe through and even when I feel alone, I’m really not.
I’m grateful for unexpected kindness. You brace yourself for a lashing and instead receive goodness and generosity and kindness. So grateful and so much more valuable because you guessed wrong.
I’m grateful for birdsong. Just that. Trilling, rolling, lilting birdsong. Precious and beautiful. I want to hold onto it for the days in our winter woods when it’s completely silent. Too damn silent. For when I long for the song of birds. I take it in and hold it, before letting it float back onto the fall breeze. Surrendering it for someone else’s ears to cherish.

Listening. And Melancholia.

When I started my writing life almost 2 years ago, I charged forth, eager to create “WRITING” in all its artistic glory, in all capital letters each and every day. I said yes to every opportunity that came my way and ran like hell at every chance that presented itself. I was going to be the best, the biggest, the brightest. Basically, I attempted writing as a job. With every job I’ve had since I was fifteen, I charged forth and swore I would be the best and outshine everyone else. The first to get promoted, the first to get accolades. In development, as a teacher, office manager, even a bartender. I charged forth, got there early and eager and excited. I finished projects, or got the biggest tips, or earned gold stars before going on to the next challenge.

But writing isn’t about product, it’s about process. In most jobs you’re working towards a finished goal, it’s linear, you have an endpoint in mind, whether that’s making a drink, raising a certain amount of funding, or getting a student’s SOL scores up, that goal is always at the forefront of your brain. With writing, there is no endpoint. Sure you have projects, but writing is circular, amoeba-like. You write a little here, snatch some time for a journal entry or vignette there, come back to your main project here, post a blog there. It’s like raindrops of paint falling on a Pollack canvas, where my other jobs were linear, concrete shapes like Miro or Calder. Point A to B. Writing is point A to Z to G to H and every point in between.

In my eagerness to get to point Z, I forgot to get quiet and listen. But my muse, the lady with her hair up in a bun who wears overalls and paints pictures in the basement of my mind reminded me that to create you have to listen. And if you’re charging and achieving like some AP high school student with an Ivy League in mind, it’s hard to listen. It’s much easier when your neck is injured and you can’t move. When you can’t move, all you can do is listen. So that’s what happened.

My body broke. I hurt my neck and it felt as if somehow I’d been broken right down the middle, like a tree that’s been struck by lightning. My insides charred and died. The bolt tore through the middle of me, tearing away the old as it went. And from the smoldering ashes a new me has gradually begun to grow. My neck injury was just a physical manifestation of what I’m feeling emotionally and creatively.

The lightning struck and my body broke and it was all I could do to sit or sleep or lie or do much of anything EXCEPT listen. My body broke which felt physically terrible, but even more awful emotionally. I felt like a job failure. I canceled engagements, stopped writing, and was convinced that while I had been successful at every other job known to man, in this one I would fail. I just didn’t have the discipline.

But my body breaking was the best thing that could have happened. Because I began to listen. It was the only thing I could do. And when I listened, I discovered my muse. I began to meditate, to get really quiet, to simplify, and I discovered that in fact, I was stronger than I had ever been. My body healed and as it did, the gash created by that lightning bolt remained open rather than healing over like a scar. It remained open allowing the light to come in. It kept me awake. Where before I traveled through life covered in blankets of junk food, liquor, video games, and shopping, now I was able to stay awake and aware and really HEAR what life had to offer. I have a strong flow of creative river that runs through my soul, and if I had never injured myself, I never would have realized it.

Now I know that to write, all you have to do is listen. You are not creating anything. The life force, your muse, has the creations. You only have to take dictation, to listen for her, for it, and to write down what is said. I sensed this so strongly after my injury, and when I by chance happened to read it in Julia Cameron’s book, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It resonated so much in me. And it was so validating because my gut knew this all along.

As I healed, and listened, I also discovered life presents things to you only when you’re ready for them. You only have to listen. I read books about meditation and Buddhism, about getting quiet and as I did, I discovered friends who meditated but had never told me. Kismet. I read books on writing that so closely paralleled my study of meditation, books that talked about writing as prayer, writing as play, writing as no big deal, that it made me stop and say, “WHOA”. As my dad always says, it’s all too random to be random.

These books, these moments came to me now, in this time, because only now did I have the ears to hear them. Only now did I understand what to do with the information.

For so long I’ve looked for comfort in outside things to quell my anxiety and sense of doom and fear that constantly permeates my every cell every time I walk out the door. I put on a shell of courage and pretend I’m all right. But by getting injured, being forced into retreat and solitude I was able to get quiet and learn you only have to listen. Listening give you strength. Listening to the world, it will tell you what you need.

By listening I was finally able to give up the notion that I’m a bad person. That little voice inside me was silenced. I always compare her to a woman standing there with a clipboard, checking a big red “X” every time I do something wrong. For the first time in 40 years she was silenced. I’ve stopped looking for validation from my family and friends. Or learned to stop looking, can’t say I’m there yet. But of course if I was, I’d probably be enlightened. We all look to others for validation. But I swear, I’m learning that just by getting quiet, by listening, we will hear all we ever need to hear.

All those criticisms and suggestions people give you that make you feel bad about yourself? They are only beliefs. Beliefs are not facts. They. Are. Not. Facts. To finally realize this was huge.

The BIGGEST obstacle I’ve overcome by listening is finally becoming comfortable with groundlessness. I hate it, as we all do, but now, if I can remember to be aware, when I confront a situation where I feel uncomfortable, where I feel groundless, I say to myself, “This is the perfect moment,” even if I don’t believe it. Then I just listen. I listen to what my gut is telling me to do about it. And usually it’s to do nothing. What will be will be. All I have to do is breathe.

Today I watched the Lars Von Trier movie, “Melancholia”. Talk about being groundless! A planet is careening toward Earth. What do you do? There is nowhere to hide. The only thing you can do is gaze at the sky and watch as this big blue ball gets larger and larger with each passing day. Your breath becomes struggled and shallow as the interfering planet takes your atmosphere. Hail falls at odd times, snow in the middle of summer. Birds freak out then go deathly quiet. Electricity emerges from your fingertips. And you know you’re going to die.

The dynamic of how the characters react was fascinating. Where the most melancholic, “crazy” (note the quotes) sister turns out to be the most steadfast, the most comfortable with this most groundless and uncomfortable of situations, the calm, collected scientist is the one who goes mad and kills himself before the big event. The “fixer” character, the sister who’s always in control and making sure everyone is having a good time, ends up being hysterical, and the roles are reversed with the crazy sister taking care of her at the end. Only the child and the melancholy sister are able to breathe through the groundlessness. This most ultimate of fates.

I won’t lie, the movie gave me the creeps. It freaked the hell outta me. I’m learning to get comfortable with uncertainty, to listen. To breathe. But I ain’t quite THERE yet, and I don’t honestly know how I would react to something like this. Something tells me I’ll be up many many nights thinking about this movie. And listening. I’d love to talk about it with someone, but then I ask myself, what would that accomplish? You already know what would happen, how you would react. You deep down already know, and you don’t need to validate your actions and reactions by discussing it with another person. That’s just security blanket talk. That’s something to grasp, something to hold onto in the event a planet is somehow whirling you toward your ultimate demise. In the end you know what happens. You only need to get quiet to find out what that is. To listen. You know in your heart that’s the case. Right?

Tower of Security.

I had the most vivid dream recently. Actually, it’s been one of several. Since I’ve started meditating, all sorts of weird matter is vomiting itself out of my subconscious almost nightly. All with a good dose of Dada weirdness of course, and every single one highly charged emotionally. I awake feeling exhausted, yet refreshed. Like I’ve just run 10 miles. Or taken a gigantic shit.

In the latest one I’m in a room, faced with a gigantic tower of boxes. And when I say gigantic I’m talking “Martin Scorcese’s-Hugo-in-3D-materialized-in-a-CGI-Lab” huge. Not occurring anywhere in nature. Willy Wonka huge. Only occurs in dreams huge. I can’t even see the top of this box tower. But I know at the bottom, under all that brown cardboard, there is a trap door. Under that trap door is the secret I’ve been protecting all of these years. Under a mountain of boxes, under lock and key, is either a situation I can’t yet face, an emotion I won’t even attempt to fathom, or a painful memory I’m blocking. And the only thing to do is start unpacking.

So I do. Methodically, agonizingly slowly, I begin picking up boxes and unloading their contents, placing them off to the side. No matter how many boxes I remove, the tower never shrinks. But I plod on confident that someday, I will unlock that trap door.

Each box is labeled, things like: “Alcohol” or “Drugs” or “Music” or “Sex” or “Shopping”. These are the boxes at the bottom. Ones at the top are labeled with things like “Momma” and “Lois” and “Family” and “Career” and “Video Games” and “Chocolate”. There are multiple boxes all over the tower labeled “Sleep”.

What does it all mean? When I awoke, I knew instantly. Here, vividly depicted for my understanding (I am a visual learner after all), was every single security blanket I’ve ever used to avoid feeling groundless. To avoid pain. As Pema Chödrön says in her book, “When Things Fall Apart”: 

“The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far. We feel bad about ourselves. There’s no way we can manipulate the situation to make ourselves come out looking good. No matter how hard we try, it just won’t work. Basically, life has just nailed us. . . . . Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.” 

This is me all over. Depending on whatever period in my life I happened to be in, I was always addicted to something. Early on it was the obvious stuff, the contraband, the liquor. Then it became my mother after her accident. By focusing on her care I could avoid facing my own problems. That turned into saving EVERYONE I knew. Whether family member or friend, if you had a problem, I would listen, then lie in bed and worry how I could help. Spend money and time I didn’t have just to have something real to grab onto.

Then it was my job, I piled on the hours, worked three jobs at one point, all just so I could avoid facing that trap door. And the boxes kept on piling. Sleep? I’ve always dove into bed at any hour of the day to avoid pain. The bed is my ultimate “blanky”.

All these boxes are real, all of them my way to grab something. When you feel pain, when you face your fears, when you come face to face with something uncomfortable or fear-inducing you are groundless. You feel the breath rush out of you, you feel light-headed, your emotions start to run rampant. It truly feels as if you’re going to fall off a cliff. The wind is knocked out of you. You’re looking around for something to grab, a branch, anything. Anything at all. And nothing is there. Well, there’s these boxes…

Those boxes were and are my security. Now that I’m becoming more comfortable with that groundless feeling through meditation, I’m ready to unpack. To travel lighter. What’s under the trapdoor? I’ve got some idea, but right now it only remains in shadow, a dark, fearful, horrific vision. Those are the nightmares I’ve been having. I’m not even sure it happened, but my gut tells me it did. And my gut is never wrong. I’m just grateful I didn’t come to the end of my life without trying to become comfortable with groundlessness. I may never finish unpacking this tower of “blankys”. But I’ll sure as hell try.

The Four Maras.

In my last post, I made a big show about how I encountered an ugly situation occurring in my life, and successfully diffused it through meditation. An email was sent to me, from a person obviously suffering from sadness and anger, and all of it directed toward me. Like a bodhisattva warrior I stood tall, deflecting the arrows, turning them all into flowers. Feeling the anger, dispersing it, sending out love to the person suffering, as well as to anyone in the world at that moment suffering from anger or hate or pain. Afterwards, I floated off the cushion, “cured” of my ugly email through successful implementation of Buddhist tonglen and loving-kindness practice.

Except it was all a lie. Sure, in those first hours I felt lighter than air, cleansed of the situation. But slowly, assuredly, old habits crept back in as they tend to do. I felt so proud for having dissolved the hard edges of anger and turned them into flowers of joy. What I realized was I had sapped myself of every ounce of energy in the process. Rather than deflecting, I had absorbed.

So much so when I arose the next day I was completely useless. I spent the next two days in an emotional and physical tailspin, unable to do much of anything except get out of bed and shower, but unable to eat, unable to write, unable to do anything except obsess about why this person could possibly be so angry with me. What had I done? The possibilities, the thoughts, the stories we so often create, spun and spun around in my head like an out-of-control psychotic loom.

I was deep in the Buddhist notion of “mara” or how we react to obstacles in our lives. What do we do exactly? How do we fall apart? There are four maras, and much to my chagrin, I found myself acting out all four at the same time like some insane play.

Devaputra mara involves pleasure seeking. In other words, any time we feel uncomfortable, we run toward the nearest thing that will make us feel better whether it’s food, sleep, drink, shopping, whatever will help us forget we’re hurting. Let’s see, Zappos.com and a whole bowl of queso and chips anyone? Devaputra mara – check!

In skandha mara when pain occurs you automatically re-create yourself into the person you WISH you were. Paint on that smile girlfriend. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Tie on that emotional girdle and protect your emotions. Tighten those strings. Gird your emotional loins! You don’t need any help, you’re fine. Bury those feelings deep, deeper. And yes, this was me all over in the wake of my incredible meditation experience. Instead of feeling gratitude toward the amazing MOMENT I had just had, I felt proud. And that pride turned into skandha mara. I was fine. I would be fine. All will be well – FROM NOW ON. No more pain, no more drama. You’d think I was Mary J. Blige the way I was walking around.

With klesha mara, strong emotions are the order of the day. You feel pain and because of it, you’re going to stir the pot, and stir it, and stir it, until what was a cup of turmoil is suddenly an entire seething cauldron of anger, hate, and pain. If you hurt, so is everybody else. No need for you to go it alone. No need to suffer in silence – shout it from the rooftops! Not only will it get you sympathy, but maybe your friends will light some torches and go on the witch hunt with you.

The next day, deep in devaputra mara, this is exactly what happened. I stirred and stirred, obsessed and thought and conjectured, until my story was so illogical and out of control anger took over. I lashed out in my mind, on the written page, to everyone and anyone who cared to listen. I was being hurt didn’t anyone care? Like a wounded warrior fishing for compliments on his valiant courage I was unstoppable.

Finally, there is the beautiful and talented yama mara, maybe the most diabolical coping mechanism of all. Yama mara stems from feeling if you just did all the right things, you’d be perfect. Exercise, meditate, eat right, get enough sleep, never be angry, volunteer at a shelter, pat your dog on the head every day, and never yell at your spouse. Except perfection doesn’t exist. And neither does security. You can do ALL of those things, but eventually things still fall apart. You change. You fall apart. Life is flow. Life is change. There is no security blanket to hold onto and until you get comfortable with the groundlessness that is this life, you will suffer.

Boy, is this me! I keep lists, or I used to, checking off the amount of time I spend writing, did I take my vitamins, did I call my Dad this week, did I exercise? And you know what? It never fails to make me feel bad about myself. It’s never enough. In the wake of my incredible meditation moment I once again thought, “Well, I just didn’t meditate LONG enough. If I sit for at least 30 minutes, it will be easier, I will be better, and this anger will all go away. For good.” Except it won’t. Because life isn’t stagnant. Life flows apart, and life flows together.

 So what did I learn from this experience? Holding on to maras is TIRING. It’s a struggle to put up roadblocks to your emotions (queso and Zappos) and very exhausting to wear that fake, painted smile. That much anger and hatred and stirring of the cauldron feels like an enormous weighted pack of lead on your shoulders, and the checklist? Who’s it for anyway? I’m learning to have AN UNCONDITIONAL FRIENDSHIP WITH MYSELF. Why do I need a checklist for that?

Thank god I had this experience of maras. What a blessing. What a moment to learn! Even though it was shocking to discover I do these things, now I’m AWARE of them. The more I read, the more I realize, awareness is key. It’s the whole shebang in fact. And this is way they call it meditation PRACTICE after all. Surrender is a wonderful gift. And life is about being comfortable with groundlessness. As Pema Chödrön says:

 “The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride. 

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.” 

You think I could get that tattooed somewhere? ;D

The teachings on the four maras can be found in Pema Chödrön’s book, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”

Rug Pulled Out.

Guan-Yin, The Bodhisattva of Compassion.

I had the most vivid dream. I was doubled over, cramping in agony, puking my guts out. The kind of puking where you seriously don’t think you can take it anymore, you want to die, kiss the cool porcelain, cut out your stomach, anything to end your pain. Except it wasn’t food I was throwing up. It was emotional garbage, which oddly enough looked like bits of cardboard, paper, actual objects. Shit I’ve been holding onto for way too long.

I heaved and cramped and heaved again until there was absolutely nothing left. My two friends, Melissa and Jacque, sat hunched over me, rubbing my back, whispering consoling words. Melissa whispered, “Don’t worry honey, when this is over, you can go absolutely anywhere you want to go.”

I awoke in tears, feeling light. Like a feather. Like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. Like I had just puked up 25 pounds of who knows what. And that felt just fine.

Four months ago I dove headlong into some pretty strong meditation practice and Buddhist study. I was so tired of feeling tired, and in pain, and while I never feel hopeless exactly, I am on just this side of apathetic. And all I can say is, thank god for Pema Chödrön. If she’s taught me one thing, it’s that groundlessness, those moments when the rug is pulled out, when you feel like you’ve got nothing to hold onto, are okay. They are the moments when you become stronger. They are the moments when you train as a warrior bodhisattva.

And god, if it’s one thing I absolutely abhor, it’s feeling groundless. Feeling like nothing in your life is solid, there’s nothing you can count on, and you’ve got no creature comforts to grab onto. You are completely out of your depth, drowning, overwhelmed, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to who understands, and no solutions presenting themselves. These are the moments when I hide. In my house, in bed, in movies, in video games, in food and drink and daydreams.

I hide so I don’t have to face the things I fear. Like new opportunities. Family drama. Meeting new people. Public speaking. Being recognized somewhere and being asked to do something I don’t want to do, or am not willing to do, or am scared to do but can’t say no. You name it, I’m probably scared of it.

I hate change. Except change is the only constant. What then?

So I’m learning. Slowly. When you’re presented with moments where you feel uncomfortable, or angry, or scared, or sick to your stomach, if you can do the following four things – EVEN FOR JUST ONE SECOND – before you relapse and go running for the chips, you are training as a warrior bodhisattva. You are successful.

1. Don’t lash out
2. Don’t run away
3. Don’t blame yourself
4. Don’t blame someone else

As Pema says, life every day presents us with opportunities to practice training during difficult moments. Traffic. Long lines. Bitchy co-workers. Family drama. Then there are times when huge crises present themselves and you get BIG opportunities. Like what I seem to be experiencing these days. It’s scary and I hate it. But I’m also learning not to beat myself up about it, and not to run away. Because running TOWARD is so much healthier. Even if you can only do it for one millisecond.

I had an experience last night I can only classify as huge. I was sent an ugly email. Emotionally ugly. Full of anger, pain, resentment, accusations. This person is really suffering. A type of email I had received from this same person before and lashed out against. Which of course didn’t help. And once again my chest felt tight, my stomach began to ache. I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide under the covers. This person was so angry at me. Nothing I could write or say would diminish this anger. It was there, right there in my face. I wanted to run.

Instead I tried what Pema suggested, even though I had tried it many times before and it had never worked. I sat in meditation with this ugly feeling. And I REALLY felt it. All up and down and around. Underneath and up top. Every angle of ugly. I breathed it in. Then I breathed out purity. And contentedness, and peace, and healing, and joy. I directed it toward this person, my family, and to anyone else who had ever received an ugly email. Breathed in ugliness. Breathed out joy.

For several minutes I did this. And for the first time, I felt something. A softening. The hard edges of this feeling began to soften and the feeling itself began to slowly dissolve. After several more minutes all I was left with was joy. I felt my face dissolve into a gentle smile (I was reminded of Sheldon Cooper’s “Koala Face” 😀 and tears formed at the corners of my eyes. It was so lovely.

I can’t explain in words what I felt. It resembled how proud you feel when you accomplish something, the minute you accomplish it. But it also felt like the warm sun on a spring day. Gentle and hugging and light. The feeling surrounded me and when meditation was over I floated off the cushion.

And sent waves and waves of gratitude to Pema Chödrön. Because for the first time I understand – TRULY – what she is talking about. For the first time I know working with anger and fear is possible. Having the rug pulled out from under you, feeling groundless, is okay. It can even be a good thing.