Cry, Heart, But Never Break

When life brings us face to face with impermanence, it can be transcendent or agonizing. Have we acted as we were moved to act, have we spoken as we were called to speak? If we don’t have the opportunity that Alfred Nobel had to see what our death might be like and get a second chance, what will wake us up to our lives? Will we avoid death’s gaze, or will we have the courage to look it straight in the eye?

I think about my parents dying a lot. More than I think is healthy, strictly speaking. Here’s a fact: they’re far older than average to have had a child my age. Here’s a feeling: losing them is the worst thing I couldn’t imagine. I mean that–I actually can’t imagine it. To even consider losing the people who brought me into this world, showed me what love was, and held my hand as I learned how to walk, talk, and grow, seems unfathomable. I am literally unable to envision what that would be like. When I try to imagine it, there’s just a big black hole, and then I start crying. My heart, or something, tries to protect me from that painful truth.

And that, I think, that not-being-able-to-imagine, is the scariest part. I can imagine many more crazy things. I can imagine losing almost anything else. But my capacity for understanding what it would be like to lose my parents is something utterly out of my scope. When I still lived at home, when putting my hand on the doorknob of any closed door and starting to turn it, an image would flash through my mind of one of my parents dead inside. It was never gruesome, it was just clear they were not alive. It happens still when I go back, perhaps even more now because as I get older, they do too.

I know they will die, because we all die. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. If history can be trusted, there is a 100% chance of death. Strangely, as Soryu Forall recently mentioned in a talk at his venerable Center for Mindful Learning, we seem to think that people die less frequently nowadays. Although I yet live, death’s spotless record suggests that to be temporary. Strangely enough, the thought of my own death doesn’t bother me in the same way; I wouldn’t have to deal with the aftermath. The consideration of my own death feels important. I need to attend dutifully to my impermanence to ensure I don’t run from it, and in running, deprive myself of the fullness of life.

During my meditation today, I tried to breathe each breath as if it were my last. I found  an incredible amount of sensation, joy, attention, and presence, as if each inhale would never again rush in. The truth is, I don’t know when my last breath will be. It is challenging to remember that each moment might be my last, to be as kind as I possibly can to myself and everyone I come into contact with. To feel the fullness of life as if I were dying, because I am, we all are, and each moment is one moment closer to death. It’s scary, but it’s a type of scary that invites truth and life in their full reigning capacity.

There is a way to negotiate life that is grounded in a profound respect for the fragility of our existence as individuals, as a civilization, and as a planet.. There are no promises; nothing is owed, and nothing is deserved. We get a breath, and then another, and another, and that’s it. I have wasted many of those breaths hoping reality would reflect my imagination, or feeling indignant that it didn’t. What makes a breath worthwhile, and does it matter if I “make something of my life”? How can I accept each breath as the only guarantee while creating a life that assumes a tomorrow? How can I form deep relationships when each moment with someone I love may be the last? As I ask these questions, it dawns on me that this might be the only way to truly come alive.

The love I feel for my parents fills me, and is all the stronger for the reminder that they won’t always be here to talk to. Acknowledging their impermanence lights my path to a way of breathing, talking, and loving that affirms the value of each moment. Ultimately we are at the whim of impenetrable powers. We are each only here for a brief time. What will you do with your life? What will you do with the one moment you have, right now? Now? Now?

 

The Garden Entrusted to You

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,”
the wind said to me,
“I would like to trade you for the smell of your roses.”

I said, “I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then,” the wind said,
“I’ll take your withered petals
and your yellow leaves
and the waters of your fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept.
And I said to myself: “What have you done
with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

~ Antonio Machado

 

Additional Resources

  1. A relevant song for country fans
  2. A relevant song for non-country fans
  3. An excellent piece by the ever-inspiring Maria Popova at brainpickings.org on the children’s book Cry, Heart, But Never Break, from which the post’s title and image are borrowed

 

What Does It Take To Dive Headfirst?

Sharing opinions comes easily to me, perhaps too easily at times, but sharing feelings has always seemed akin to torturing myself and then handing the baseball bat to my worse enemy. Growing up, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would belly up like that. Choosing to show weakness? It made no sense. I did my best to keep my emotions where I thought they ought to be: out of sight and out of mind.

In college I came across the now classic talk on vulnerability by the venerable Brené Brown. As she spoke about having the courage to be imperfect, the strength to be kind to ourselves, and the willingness to abandon who we think we should be in favor of who we are, something in me sank. I had never put my finger on precisely what I was doing, but it sure as hell sounded like the opposite of vulnerability. My modus operandi was to protect myself emotionally and psychologically against potential threats. And everything was a potential threat… I would have been horrified for people to know the full range and extent of things that I cared about. Things were so bad that I was embarrassed to admit I had watched such a video. For goodness’ sake, I could hardly say the “V word” out loud without getting nervous! The topic felt too dangerous to broach.

If the way I judged myself and those around me was any indicator, vulnerability was nothing more than a credibility eraser. I spent a great deal of time pretending to be invulnerable and wishing others would do that same. But I couldn’t unwatch that video, and I couldn’t unlearn the revelation that I was selling myself short. After a few futile attempts to ignore this pressing need for change, sense came knocking.  Just because I’d done something poorly for a long time did not mean I should honor history and keep up the bad work. So, with a sigh, I admitted defeat. The way I was doing things might be flawed. Pretending to be invulnerable might not be all that. Pretending to be anything might not be all that. But if vulnerability wasn’t about being weak, what was it?

Once I started paying attention, I noticed that all those out-of-sight-out-of-mind feelings were still there, unadulterated and unmitigated. I thought I had been doing such a good job of cleaning up! Yet there they were, bubbling up, triggered sporadically by this and that. My feelings were so fully out of my control that I was embarrassed I had ever believed them to be properly managed. Like when you “clean your room” by shoving everything into your closet, and a few days later you open the door to grab something and it all tumbles out. Turns out that doesn’t work so well emotionally either. No one ever told me that! I wasn’t taught how to do this! But all complaints aside, I knew I had to figure out how to deal with my feelings.

So I read a few books and tested out various strategies (this is how I solve problems), and slowly I started to let myself feel more. I practiced accepting my feelings and emotional state exactly as they were and experiencing the fullness of my psychological landscape. I felt more free. It was as if I had been policing myself constantly without realizing it, and I had finally given up and said to myself, “well fine, just feel how you do!”. The burden of control was lifted from my mind and it went off to play joyfully in a field of flowers before I could change my mind.

At first I wielded vulnerability like a weapon. I imagined it to be a panacea. If I were vulnerable in all the ways I had never let myself be, difficulties would work themselves out. I may have oversold myself on it. But I sure went for it. I walked around trying to be vulnerable, just like that (after a few years of deliberation and some serious personal lessons), and I went for it.

I asked the guy I was dating what he wanted from our relationship, and I told him what I wanted, and it didn’t work out. It didn’t work out in a painful, struggling, way that made me question if I knew how to live with myself. It was scary, and it hurt, but let me tell you, it felt so freeing. I realized being vulnerable doesn’t promise you anything in return, not even that another person will show themselves too. The only way to be vulnerable is unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean to abandon discernment.

I cried in public, tears rolling down my sticky face as I walked down crowded sidewalks after another afternoon in the hospital with someone I love. And then I did it again, and again. I survived, and felt stronger for it.

I let myself be wrong, I let myself be corrected, I let myself believe that not everything is certain, that nothing is guaranteed past this moment of life.

I did things I wasn’t sure I would succeed at. I tried to teach myself how to program and I doubted that I was capable enough, that I was smart enough, that I had what it took, and then I made something and got paid to do it and finally thought that maybe I was good enough.

I started to believe that I was just that: enough. That just as I was, nothing more and nothing less, was enough. That one more book, five more articles, ten fewer pounds, a thousand more dollars, an extra hour of sleep, more yesses, fewer nos, another degree, and a full dose of luck wouldn’t bump me over the edge into the magic valley of perfection. My belief in my own enough-ness was the only thing that could take me there. That doesn’t mean I stop learning, growing, or changing. It just means that I start from where I am instead of where I wish I were.

I’m no beacon of voluntary vulnerability, but I remember to check in on my motivations more often, especially where feelings are concerned. There are still so many scary things to admit to myself, much less other people, but it’s a process. I see the progress I’ve made and how far I have yet to go. It’s a shift that has fundamentally changed the way I experience and interact with the world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Be forewarned if you’re not familiar with this path: there’s pain there, and sensitivity, and difficulty. It’s no smooth sailing waterway down to the end. But it’s so worth the challenge.

Here’s a vulnerability I’m wrestling with now that’s raw and terrifying, and likely familiar to anyone who’s been in a serious relationship. There’s a boy I love, and I haven’t told him I love him. I’m too scared that it will be too much, too soon, that he doesn’t feel it too, that I’ll get hurt, that it will be terrifying and I’ll never recover. Maybe I should wait until he says it first, just to be safe. But someone has to be the first.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

~Anaïs Nin

Is My Intuition Intuitive?

“Intuitions are not to be ignored […] They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend.” -Sherlock BBC: “The Six Thatchers”. Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Stephen Thompson.

Have you ever made a decision quickly without question, even when your choice defied logic?  Did that feeling blossom into an experience that made you wonder if you were blessed with foresight? We call it intuition, but what is that ever-so-elusive twinge of knowledge?

For the past few months, I’ve been diving into this fully loaded, thick, and gooey question: what is intuition? I considered googling it, but it seemed counterintuitive–pun intended. I mean, shouldn’t I intuitively understand intuition? What is so hard for me to grasp? I trust myself, don’t I? Don’t I?

I have two beautiful, life changing opportunities in front of me. The first is a safe option that entails a paid job and everything I’ve asked for in the past few years. The second offers me an adventure, a taste of the unknown, and the promise of possibility–but not stability. I’ve chosen the latter. It is a choice I made valiantly with logic and intuition working hand in hand! Or so I thought… Days after I decided on My New Life Path, in crept doubt. Was my logical brain apprehensive, or was my intuition warning me? Ever since this uncertainty set in, I’ve been weighing consequences, thinking, making excuses, reasoning, thinking, and thinking more. I’ve reached a point where I’ve lost both intuition and logic. Where do they exist within me, and when do they interfere more than they help each other?

At my last dance rehearsal, the choreographer asked us to do a series of exercises intended to unravel the results of changing our internal leaders (the mind, body, spirit, and soul). I journaled and made a list of each leader’s characteristics. The mind: intellect, logic, rationale. The body: sensation, emotion, heat. The soul: vibration, intuition. The spirit: BLANK. Without dwelling on this momentary lapse, I continued into the physical practice. We danced with our minds, our intellects leading first. Luckily, I was able to laugh at myself—a gift from the heavens. I always move from my intellect when choreography is fresh and unfamiliar, so I didn’t change much. However, I became acutely aware that my movement range was limited. My dancing wasn’t energetically efficient, so I expended more effort than necessary. My ability to move freely was hindered as my mind scrambled to control my body. “This is not ironic,” I thought to myself. How many times have I tried to control something and succeeded instead at making it frustratingly limited? My first revelation: control is an illusion.

Moving from my body I experienced grounded expansion. I felt vibration beneath my skin, in between my muscles, and in my breath. I noticed my lungs; it was as if every inhale pushed space between my cells. My body was experiencing sensation and my brain created beautiful pictures to make sense of it. Second revelation: My biological body understands things my brain does not.

Moving from my soul, I felt myself arrive first. Was this instinct? I was there, standing in space, ready to move with the rhythm of the world. I didn’t think first, I simply moved. For a moment, I felt connected to everything. The small, earthly version of me was merely a vessel for picking up vibrations and moving them along. I felt like a blank canvas. Third revelation: blankness is not absence.

After my rehearsal I revisited my journal. “The spirit: BLANK” flashed at me from the bottom left-hand corner of the page. “Perhaps BLANK isn’t wrong,” I thought. Blankness exists in meditation, orgasm, performance, primal fear, and countless other moments. In these heightened or quiet moments our minds become attentively at ease.They’re less busy and more alert.

The blankness is simultaneously a vibrating absence and the fullness of all things. In other words, our spirit can be identified as our Big Self, God(s), Love, Energy, or the feeling of connection among many other terms. Our spirit is the oneness of all things, but also the oneness within ourselves. The human race thrives on categories and identities, but these are sparse and fluid reference points. If identity is simply a guideline, a blueprint, a skeleton, what is the fluidity that constantly fills and recreates them? Is that where the spirit is? Through all of the thinking, feeling, vibrating, moving, is the spirit already existing in these moments? That was another “Aha!” moment for me. Intuition wasn’t hiding buried in my soul as I first thought. I was overworking and over controlling every part of me. I put too much stress on my logic to rationalize the right path and on my body to feel the right direction, when what I needed was collaboration within the entirety of my being, a grand negotiation among my logical brain, my primal instincts as a biological being, my soul, and my spirit. Fourth revelation: intuition is an ecosystem.

After a few long months of contemplation and experimentation, I can see that my intuition isn’t a separate entity. It is a result of my entire organism working in cosmic union with itself and everything around it, and it is my job to sit back and release the illusion of control. I choose to equally observe and experience my journey. I will see every oscillation, doubt, and intuitive undertaking. I have a feeling deep down telling me one day I might recognize that uncertainty is ever so nebulous. Trusting myself and the fluidity of my intuition through every phase of my journey is far more fulfilling than falling into the illusion of control.

Know Thyself (but don’t try too hard)

I used to play this game where I looked for answers. The words I used changed, but after a while I realized that what I sought was constant. I was pursuing a better understanding of myself.

I spent countless hours pouring through psychological literature and personality inventories, and applied what I absorbed to the world around me. Whenever something confusing came up in my life, I would hunker down and explain it through my favorite theory of the month. I could analyze and justify anything, but not always for the better. I started using it as a crutch and stopped looking through my own eyes.

A pattern emerged. I would find a new framework for understanding life, experience new insight from its content, start analyzing everything through it, find the bottom of its depth, get frustrated, find a new one, and repeat.

I was probing for something in particular–the knowledge and clarity I thought I needed to be able to trust myself. There were too many things I lied to myself about: my motivations, the reasons I did things, what mattered to me, which of my beliefs held water, what I was really capable of… These lies kept me from believing I could trust myself. What it came down to was that I wasn’t willing to really look at myself and all of these lies, because I was scared to give up their comfort.

I started asking myself questions instead of posing them to the world, searching the internet, soliciting advice, or scanning for answers in a book. I tried to hear my own voice. When I noticed I was scrambling to understand something, I would try to be quiet inside myself and see what came up. With this repetition I created a space for myself, again and again, to listen in. I became willing to sit in the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, of fear, of doubt, because every path around them led me to deceive myself. I learned how to trust myself, moment by moment, day by day, because I became willing to look at all the uncomfortable truths and insecurities from which I had tried to avert my eyes for so long.

It feels urgent for me to learn from each experience to better listen to and trust myself. If I do not attend to this, I continue to wander, searching for understanding I can only find within myself. I used to play this game of looking for answers; now I open my arms and free my mind so I can welcome them when they come.

My ongoing practice is to listen to the answers that arise when I beg with questions so desperately, even when, especially when, they are answers I may not want to hear. Sometimes the truth doesn’t come out with the first answer, or the second, or the third. These truths are gentle, subtle, easy to paint over with desires and fears. Let them be free, let them show themselves, let them express their life. Then wonder what’s so real about this self anyhow.

 

“There is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.”

~ Simone Weil