Unrestrained by Demons

It’s been quite a year. Can you relate? I’m not speaking of 2016 (although…my heavens, 2016 has been filled with revelations and reckoning), but rather the last 12, 13, 14 months themselves. The last…long while. So much self-reflection and quite painful investigation into the what’s and why’s of this life.

It can get heavy. Being an emotional being can at times be draining, can leave us feeling depleted and weepy. The lows can get as low as they get high. It can become incredibly daunting to process the ups and downs of life, to navigate one’s own emotional liberation, while still going out everyday and operating as a functioning member of society. That sounds dramatic, but do you ever feel as though the sheer weight of processing your own grievances feels like a full-time endeavor? One you want to just commit yourself to for a week (or five), in solitude, surrounded by healing, supportive space and silence? It’s so challenging to sort through our thoughts when we’re burdened by the need to simultaneously work, maintain relationships, construct the outward appearance of having it all together (not that we’re meant to pretend that our suffering doesn’t exist, but most days no matter how lost in our heads we want to get, we still have to be adults and live our lives). This is reality, despite the suffocating moments of fear and anxiety that visit us all, from time to time.

It can be really tempting to live a life shut off from that emotional processing. Because it’s just hard. The idea of avoiding all that mess can seem easier. Sometimes denial can look, from afar, like such a cozy alternative; not having to feel our feelings, not being blindsided and ambushed by the underbelly of what it means to be an emotional creature in this huge, undulating universe.

But I would never again choose that alternative. I’ve lived in it before; the stuffy, damp, darkly shrouded realm of denial. It’s isolated. It’s claustrophobic. It actually doesn’t feel safe at all. If you’ve ever been there, you probably know that it feels like laying in a dark room with a heavy box on your chest. Even though the box may be like Pandora’s, filled with a whole mess of stuff, it can be far more productive, albeit terrifying, to throw open the windows and start sorting through the aching feelings and thoughts that lay locked up and waiting for our attention.

This stuff – the wading through the suffering, I mean – is, as I view it, the price we pay for being alive.

I’m currently reading (slowly, savoring) my favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert’s, newest book Big Magic. Liz’s prose slay me. She is, as I say, one of those authors that “makes you feel so much more comfortable with being alive.” Because, let’s be honest, the human condition can feel really intense, lonely, daunting, and uncomfortable at times. Liz reminds us that fear (insert: trepidation, personal demons, struggles – all manifestations of fear) is always with us. She suggests that we be inclined to accept and embrace our fear. Invite it along on the journey we are taking with creativity (insert: love, joy, adventure, abundance – all manifestations of creative living). Her brilliant concept is that, on this road trip of life, we are driving, creativity gets the front seat, and fear gets the backseat. Fear is welcome to come along (because we don’t actually have any choice in the matter, do we?), and it is allowed to speak up, but it does not get to decide where we’re going. It does not get to lay its hands on the map, or even fiddle with the radio station (Liz, seriously, is my greatest inspiration as a writer – this stuff comes from the creative depths of her imagination – what a vision! – get thee to a bookstore and buy yourself Big Magic).

What a notion, right? I feel, and I’m speaking for myself here, that the overwhelming urge is to banish fear, and all its expressions, from my life. I have been standing outside the car, arms crossed, brow furrowed, tapping my toe impatiently waiting for fear to unbuckle, get out of my backseat, and let me get on with my journey.

I might as well turn my distressed gaze upward and start looking for pigs flying.

I’m not proposing, nor is my great hero Elizabeth Gilbert, that we should be super comfortable with the idea of carrying fear around in our back pockets. It’s uncomfortable; it’s supposed to be. But this is the non-negotioable byproduct of having been gifted the most exquisite opportunity of creative living (which we all have been gifted, by being born as human beings with opposable thumbs and incredible cognitive function and hearts so gloriously capable of being wrecked by love that they could just swallow up the whole world with their power for adoration).

We all have our “things” that hold us back. We all have our demons. But we are worthy of living lives unrestrained by demons. If we can, collectively, stop waiting for the demons to release us, for fear to get out of the car, and just realize this uncooperative passenger is going to endlessly serve as a beacon of where we don’t wish to go (because, at its root, fear is a mechanism of self-preservation, sounding off when danger might be present), we can see its purpose. We are high-functioning human beings with the discerning power to notice when we are being chased by a lion and fear should get to use its lung power with all its might, for good rather than evil…and when faith, love, intuition, and creativity are being drowned by the drunken, garbled hollering of our backseat fear (who somehow seems to have climbed onto the dashboard and got its sticky hands on a microphone).

We have the capacity to take a step back, look at our lives, and see where we’re being pinned (or, sometimes, glued) to a spot we no longer wish to be. We have the power to investigate why we’re immobilized. We have the capability to change that.

I have a tendency of getting stuck in a rut. I am fearful of change, and the unknown brings me great anxiety. A life of ritual and routine has brought me great comfort. My chest grows a bit tight at the image of jet-setting wanderlusts, living out of suitcases and going where the wind blows. No, no, I’ll wait patiently for my niiiiiiice, detailed itinerary please.  But that’s just me. And a huge part of this presses is in getting to know ourselves, and embracing our quirks and tendencies. Learning, through trial and error, where to push our boundaries and where to respect our needs. I went heaving and hyperventilating into a 3-month study abroad venture overseas back in 2009. I literally fought for breath and sucked on tears as I wrestled with the militant French operator and a dinky little calling card in a Parisian phone booth, begging my mom to come and visit because WHO DECIDED IT WAS OKAY TO PUT AN OCEAN BETWEEN US FOR A QUARTER OF A YEAR and I hadn’t slept in 36 hours and HOW DID I GET TO FRANCE?

By the end of my trip I was seriously devoted to finding a way (ANY way) to stay in Italy, cash in my plane ticket, and preserve the little world I had created with my friends in this foreign land where everything exotic had become familiar and reality was suspended in favor of 20 year old, wide-eyed, first-time independence.

…didn’t see that coming.

What made it so wonderful and tolerable was that, after the initial shock and severe discomfort of having no familiarity, no routine, and no way of predicting what was ahead…I reestablished all of those things that kept my needs met. I made routines. I settled into my Florentine flat, put my belongings in their new places, found a local market, carved new neural pathways in my brain, got to know my surroundings, created nourishing relationships, and set up a daily routine. All while testing my boundaries.

I did return home as planned, fortunately, but I do think back regularly and fondly on my time living Europe as an experience I’m so deeply grateful I had. It showed me I am capable of wrestling fear to the ground and making a run for it.

Letting go of control and powering through the impending horror such an act produces makes for a sweet, intoxicating exhale; like a flood of dopamine, or (on some much smaller level) the ecstatic amnesia a new mother experiences, forgetting the pain and agony of birth upon beholding their precious infant.

It is so tempting to stay on the shore where everything is safe and protected. But, the reality is that we only perceive this space to be safe and protected. It’s a deeply seductive act, for many of us, to try and preserve a sense of stability and safety by putting on our control freak panties and hyper-managing every aspect of our lives. This doesn’t make us safe. This sacrifices sanity for perceived safety. Not even real safety. Just our carefully constructed belief patter of “if I do this, and this, and this, everything will stay okay. I will be safe.” That is a very sad and disappointing way to live each day, I think.

I’m not saying we all need to turn our lives upside down, or go jump on a plane and live in Europe for 3 months in order to experience life from a place of love and creativity rather than fear (though maybe the thought makes your heart skip a beat and, actually, is just the type of experience you do need). For many of us, though, the healing medicine can be found on a much smaller scale. It can be accessed in our day-to-day lives. It might just mean doing things differently today than you did yesterday (that is often a big enough shake up for me, honestly, as a diligent creature of habit). It also doesn’t mean things have to be different every single day, because ritual and routine are beautiful and holy, just so long as they don’t come from a place of fear and seal every crack in the structure where love and creativity might try to seep in and stir things up.

Maybe it means starting a creative project or finishing a degree. Maybe it’s finding the courage to use some of that built up PTO and taking a trip. Maybe it’s climbing out of the unemployment shame and getting excited about a new career. Maybe it means going to a yoga class for the first time or revisiting a forgotten passion for hiking. Maybe it means going out to eat, or maybe it means staying in and preparing a favorite recipe. It could mean asking for help. It could be breaking a pattern of isolation and going out with friends, for an introvert. It could be a day or night of self-care and indulgent alone time at home, for an extrovert. Perhaps it’s looking at your body in the mirror and not breaking your gaze until you are able to see yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally. Maybe it’s a commitment to a new routine, or maybe it’s the courage to break out of a rut. Maybe it’s the act of daring greatly enough to build an avenue between the two.

Whatever it is, whatever your sweet, pulsing heart knows in its very depths is an act of great courage…that is the first step in your journey. We all have demons (not a one of us is immune, no matter how “perfect” someone else’s existence and “put together” life may seem…they too struggle, I promise).

We all experience loss, fatigue, sadness, anxiety, depression, negative self-talk, FEAR. We are all united in this human condition, no matter what ways our fear and creativity display themselves. We may look different, but we are not. We are all the same. We are all paddling our little boats furiously towards freedom and love. But perhaps, in a joint effort of all the eyes reading this, we together can start to see our fear as something new. Rather than a block of darkness, threatening to sink our boat, we can view our fear as something useful. As a necessary component on our journey, an irreplaceable cog in our wheel of healing. A threatening shadow of heaviness to keep the brilliant light from blinding our eyes; a little hunk of pressure providing just enough weight to slow our speed, so that we don’t race feverishly past all the opportunities to pause, and be shattered by the staggering beauty of how very far we’ve already come.

 

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Samatha

I discovered something about my mind tonight.

That sounds so funny, referring to my Awareness as separate from my mind…ahh, yes, and here the effect of yoga practice is made evident 🙂 we are separate from our minds. We are separate from our bodies. That’s what has kept me returning to my bolster each morning and evening, to sit by candlelight in meditation. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m human, and in the depths of anxious spells I’ve been known to abandon my meditation practice. It was not a priority, I guess. I’m admitting that, as taboo as it is in the yoga culture to say “meditation just wasn’t a priority for me.” It is now, but there’s certainly something addictive about the go-go-go nature of Western culture, particularly the west coast, Bay Area vibe of movers and shakers. I suppose that’s part of the silver lining, though, is that no matter how moving and shaking your environment, no matter how busy your culture, no matter how bright the lights and loud the noise outside your windows (or how quiet and dark, perhaps)…you have this space. You sit, you practice meditation, you observe yourself from afar.

Just like in asana, the practice shifts. It is never the same. You never come to your mat exactly the same as you did the time before – literally, our cells are changing, dying and renewing, with each breath we take – just like you never kneel before your alter or take to your meditation cushion as the same physical being. We are changing physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, energetically, always.

When I say I discovered something about my mind tonight, I suppose the magic in that discovery is in the details. I’m beginning to normally reference my mind as a separate entity. For me, as a practitioner, this feels like leaps and bounds. Sure, when I take to my cushion the morning, I may fully identify with my mind again. I may fully identify with the ache in my knees and the fact that I feel bloated and sleepy. I may totally identify with all of that. Or I may not. I can’t say now. What I can say is that tonight I closed my eyes and sank right into that safe space. I slipped away from my mind and body, away from identifying with them, and away from attachment to thoughts. Thoughts still swam around a bit, but I felt safe in a harbor, a little nook I’d created for myself. That’s what meditation has become for me, a quiet little port to anchor my vessel for a spell. Whether I hum, practice pranayama, chant mantra in my mind or simply slink into the warm darkness of my own Consciousness, there’s a system reboot happening in my mind and on the astral plane.

The discovery that came to me tonight was my mind’s tendency to obsess. This is nothing new to me, I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been conscious of my own thoughts. It’s a behavior I have, a coping mechanism most likely, and a karmic tendency I was born with. It’s my karma to work this out, to practice the release of compulsive thinking. I find myself planning my days out a week in advance. But that’s not enough, it’s not enough to have a plan and to “know” how things will unfold. No, my mind continues to turn it over…and over and over and over. Until I’m hardly even feeling the satisfaction of having the plan in the first place and am almost waiting anxiously to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. That’s no way to live.

…whiiiiich leads me to yoga. This is precisely why I am a dedicated practitioner. This is precisely why I know I will practice yoga, everyday, as long as there is breath within me.

The discovery that I keep dancing around was so simple. I suddenly had a flashback to myself, three years ago, sitting in my car, hands resting in my lap. I was dressed in black slacks, my trusty clogs, a crisp collared button down, hair pulled back, eyes closed. The sun was setting in the distance, purple and gold on the horizon. I was breathing deeply, full inhales and long exhales. I was trying desperately to cleanse my mind of nagging anxiety before going into work for the night. I was still in college and bar backing at a fancy restaurant downtown to pay the bills. Let’s just say I was way over working in the restaurant industry at that point. This little pranayama before work had become my routine, to try and make peace with the compulsive broken record anxiety that, otherwise, would play round and round in my head all night. There’s nothing worse than having obsessive thoughts banging on the windows of your brain and not being able to focus your attention on them. That’s the nature of the beast, with compulsive anxiety; you have this convincing sense that, if you could just give the thoughts your energy, fully dedicate 100% of your attention to them for a moment, let them stand on their soapbox and leak out all their obsessive glory into your awareness…that then they’d be satisfied and you could dispel them. That’s really not the case, though. Once they leak into your brain they have to be mopped up. But what’s the better decision – to let them come in and make their mess, or to lock them out entirely? Neither way is healthy. Locking them out entirely can result in denial which can become a prison all its own.

So, the me from three years ago sat in her car each evening before the dinner shift, practicing the only method of anxiety quelling she knew at the time. This angst that plagued me so regularly had become regular, almost comfortable. Comfortable in an I can’t really breathe, tightness in my chest, jaw clenching kind of way. It was guilt mixed with anxiety. So I’d breathe. That was my means of slowing down enough to get myself into the restaurant and through another night of drying hot glasses and pouring rich people their cocktails.

What I realized tonight is, that one thought that used to plague me for years, is now gone. It’s simply not relevant to my life anymore, and so my anxiety has let the thought flee from its clutches, out into the world to be claimed by the air. But did I really even notice it left? Not completely. From time to time I breathe a sigh of relief that I no longer circulate around that guilt-fest that used to occupy my precious Awareness so often. But, for the most part, it goes unnoticed because it’s been replaced by just another, more relevant symphony of obsession.

Where does it end?

Again, such is the nature of the beast. But I heard a teacher recently say something beautiful. We so often identify ourselves, they said, we claim these titles like, “I have an anxious mind,” or “I’m a stressed out person.” We develop these identities, and then we just live with them. When we stress out or have outburst of frustration or fall victim to a fit of obsessive thinking, we just rationalize it with, well I’m a stressed/angry/nervous/obsessive/whatever person. It’s normal for me, this is who I am, we tell ourselves.

But it’s not who we are. At our core, we are peaceful. Silent. Perfectly imperfect. By nature we are untouchable, divine and exquisitely handcrafted. Our bodies and minds cannot hinder our supreme existence. But we so often fail to see ourselves in this light. Even after moments of greatest clarity, I find myself slipping back into the conditioned thought patterns of identifying with behavioral or personality traits. We are none of those identities.

We. Are. SO. Much. More.

We are infinite, limitless, astral.

When I came out of meditation tonight, I felt a surge of emotion. From root to crown, the feeling just sort of bubbled up, a gentle eruption. I felt compelled to just let it flow through me. My face crinkled and a few tears crept out. I couldn’t pinpoint what had made me cry, nor did I really feel the urge to. It was definitely a release.

I think what happened was subtle, and made even subtler by the meditative state in which it came to me. The flashback stirred up some emotions, like sand at the bottom of the sea, some long forgotten truths that had lain down on the floor of my mind. Its habitual tendency to latch onto a thought and obsess over it, the years I spent gnawing on this slice of guilt and regret, chewing it to pieces and choking on the shreds. It all shifted tonight and rose to the surface, and it wasn’t pretty. It hurt my heart. This realization that I spent so long feeling this way, worked so hard to erect walls around the thoughts, to try and keep the spillage from pouring over the dams I’d built…the realization that, even though I’d wriggled free of that particular mental shackle, I’d opened the gates for replacement obsessions to step in and take its place. I just felt so sad for my Self, for having let my poor mind be tortured by these obsessions, for having wasted so much of my energy trying to squirm out from beneath the oppressive thumb of guilt.

I know it was all unconscious, but the understanding finally set in tonight; this is why I practice. I always knew that, deep down, but never before had I been presented with such a tangible, real example of why I practice. Interestingly, it poked through my Consciousness during meditation, probably because my mind is too busy planning out every next step when the sound is on and the lights are up. This discovery had to wait until the lights were low, the mute button had been hit, and it could lurk in, unannounced, as I sat in silence.

The discovery didn’t feel like a violation of my safe space. It felt like I’d unconsciously agreed to meet my demon, in a mutually neutral area, to peacefully hash this out once and for all. This karmic tendency of mine causes me suffering. The root cause of suffering, however, is ignorance, say the yogis. My demon and I agreed to identify the interplay and call a truce, neither of us agreeing to step down from our role, but neither of us threatening any action. I’m certainly aware of this tendency, and of this demon. They’re certainly aware of me. And, for now, I think that’s enough. I’ve identified the karmic tendency, seen it in effect, and realized that I am not that tendency. I am not bound by that tendency. I will work through that tendency. I feel the release. And that’s enough.

I suppose that’s the nature of release, after all. The deep and gentle sense of liberation that’s left in its wake. Even if the situation isn’t solved, even if there are still pieces to fit together, there is a vibration of freedom nonetheless. The truth is that there will always be pieces still to fit together. There will always be more to discover. So why label anything as finished, or unfinished? We are always unfinished. Beautifully unfinished. Limitless. Release is always followed by another mount of energy and, subsequently, another release. It’s an ebb and flow. A cyclical process. The “circle of life,” if you will, spiritually. Practice, practice, practice. As Byron Katie says, “What would my life be like without that thought?” We have the power to change our reactions to the thoughts we’re having. We have the power to liberate ourselves. It’s an exhilarating truth, one that keeps me returning to my practice day in and day out. Reach for the stars, eager spirit. We are made of stars, after all. For tonight, though, I will rest in this release. I will savor the liberation and welcome tomorrow with clear eyes, ready for whatever release it has to offer.

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[*Samatha meditation is the practice of pacifying the mind, practicing tranquility.]