Shadow

My shadow follows me around everywhere like a little sister, like a sorrowful child. My shadow tags along everywhere, getting in the way when I want to be with my friends. She doesn’t understand the things I am doing; she cannot help me with my work or with relationships. She doesn’t understand; perhaps she doesn’t want to understand, that we are not the only ones here. If she decides she likes you, she will want all of your attention; I cannot break her of this habit of latching on to unwilling parental figures. When she finds someone she loves this way, she will smile and laugh, and the sorrow will recede for a while. She will let me work, let me write, let me care for us two. But eventually she will tap the vein of impatience in her current target, and, feeling abandoned, she will drown me in her tears. For days, perhaps weeks, she will refuse to move, chaining me to my home. She will swear hatred for her recent love, and hatred for herself, and in the next breath she will swear love, trying vainly to charm things back to the way they were. After a time, exhausted, she will sleep, and wrap me around her like a blanket. Winter will come and I will forget, we will forget, what we wanted, if we ever really knew.

My shadow, my sister, follows me around everywhere. I am trying to get to know her better. The last love of her life has grown impatient, and I am trying to keep the two of us awake. Her declarations of hatred are less pronounced than before; whenever she starts to curl into herself with hatred, I remind her that there is nothing for her to hate and nothing to gain with declarations of love. I sit with her tears, but I refuse to let her make up stories. I try to be patient with her; she’s just a child, and we are still learning what it takes people years to learn about how to love ourself and how to accept and give love.

Today I was listening to a song. Nancy O was singing about her Little Shadow, “to the night will you follow me.” I realized in that moment that my shadow is a shadow. Though I have been taught about ego, I did not really know until then what this child is that follows me around. And now I know that she is a shadow and that one day, when I have died, she will die. All that will be left is the darkness, or perhaps the light, or perhaps something that transcends light and darkness; for a spiritual seeker and practitioner that is enough. But all my shadow knows is that she will die. She will dissolve, like all stories do. And she is afraid.

And though I know she is a shadow, just a story, I feel compassion for her. And, I cannot help but love her.

Profound Trauma; Primordial and Finite Brilliance

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“How can you live in the moment if you are too busy warding off what is? What is, is the suffering inherent to being a human being. You must accept the fact that your heart is breaking all the time.”   ~Ram Dass

I was sleeping off a difficult night, several weeks ago. I fell on my left knee, hard, bruising it badly and scraping it badly enough that laying with it on the mattress was uncomfortable, so I’m wasn’t getting good sleep, and at 9 in the morning I seemed to want more of it. Dad walked past the bed, and I heard him close the apartment door. Then I heard the outer door to the building slam – a heavy door with an old hinge that slams loudly whenever someone lets it close on its own. And I had a memory:

It is my birthday. I am eight years old. Dad and I went out to the movies several hours ago and had some of my friends with us. It was a good day. Now I am home, and one of my pet guinea pigs has died in my absence. I was worrying about them for days, and now I am badly grieved. These guinea pigs may be the first creatures I’ve cared for, and now one of them is dead, and I feel an unarticulated sense of self-blame. I feel the senselessness of the death of this creature. I am starting to come apart in a way that will eventually become so familiar to me, but which right now is still new.

Dad needs to go. My birthday has fallen on a Friday, and that’s the day he goes out in the evening. It’s something he needs to do. I don’t attempt to understand why he needs to do this; I just accept it as a matter of course. I don’t think it odd that I am not inquisitive about this, but the dysfunctional family is known for a culture of secrecy, and mine has been no different. Dad tries not to play into that, explaining things to me all the time, so maybe I don’t feel I need to ask about anything and maybe anything that he doesn’t explain is just something I don’t need to know. All of this is left not verbalized, of course. So when Dad tells me that he needs to go, I understand, or think I do, that this is a necessity, and so while he offers to stay, I let him go.

He leaves, and in the middle of my bedroom, I fall apart. I sob and keen for a long time. I feel, for a moment, the full weight of my fear and sadness of death, and the abandonment that started a long time ago when I was only four or so and Dad left in the night to see his girlfriend. I cry as loudly as my body wants to – a full body experience. Eventually I cry so much that I am numb, drowning in my snot and in dire need of a handkerchief to clear me out so I can breathe again.

Later on in life, after a painful session in which I wanted so badly to somehow obtain nourishment from my therapist – a nourishment I could not even articulate, much less satisfy.

At 30 years old, I am distressed. I return home from a session in a darkening state of mind. The storm clouds are gathering in my head; I can feel the pressure within my forehead and the flushing of my cheeks. I start to cry before I make it halfway back to my home, and when I get home I sit and start to weep openly. I am sobbing here in my living room; crying out a fear that I have not been fully aware of in years. The pain fills me like a vessel and I overflow. The room might be filled with the thunderstorm, but it’s all me; all the rain flows from my own eyes. The fear that forms in my head can only form two statements: Mommy doesn’t love me. And, I’m going to die. I know this as a very young self from my past, an infant self that may have split off when I was only one or two years old.

Mark Epstein, a popular author who blends Buddhadharma with psychological insight gives a beautiful insight on trauma:

I once had the chance to speak with a renowned Thai forest master named Ajahn Chah directly about all this. […] We asked him to explain the Buddhist view. What had he learned from his years of contemplation and study? What could we bring back to share with the West? His answer touched my own sense of residual trauma, my own fear of everything burning. Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

The Trauma of Everyday Life

Impermanence runs through the core of our existence – a basic truth: the end, the break. To stand outside time is to see that all beings, ideas, and objects, in their unique brilliance, are as broken as the glass fallen on the floor – our existence is a non-dual whole with our nonexistence. As fundamentally aware beings, we must feel this. The untrained mind must be in a perpetual state of darkness just to function in the face of existential dread. This basic dread must exist in the body as a state of panic for our bodily existence: this is evident in other creatures – the more primitive the being, the easier it is for us to observe the primary state of hyper-vigilance. We scurry from stimulus to stimulus, rebounding from frightening stimuli and searching for and consuming pleasurable stimuli. Despite evolution and sophistication, we never quite lose this profound hyper-vigilance – we sublimate it, we split off from it, but the fear of destruction drives our continual search for pleasure and avoidance of pain – it also drives a fundamental rift in our consciousness: we don’t think of our death. And by ignoring our eventual death, we turn a blind eye to a fundamental truth of our existence.

If we are aware of our frailty then there is an awareness that holds that frailty. More profound than our fear is that awareness, that basic wisdom. Although we feel driven to flee from our fear, we have a duty to ourselves to settle into the body and face our fear. Our brilliance may even be inextricably tied to the finite nature of our existence. Like the changing patterns in a kaleidoscope, our beauty may be tied to our unique nature. There is something poignant, something that pulls at the center of our being, a pang in the heart, when we see a flower or the smile of our friend and contemplate the reality that this moment will never come again.

Frustration

So, I have been avoiding the reason I started this blog. I meant this to be a process of opening my heart to you, and I have instead been offering you lessons. Circumstances inspired me to share a few insights here. Honestly tho, I suspect these will not be nearly as helpful as it would be if I were to simply open my heart.

So, falling in love: yes, I have a habit of falling in love with men who are not suitable for me. The last one was a therapist; the current one, well, I won’t mention him. It’s not important who, but they are generally therapists, professors, mentors – people with brilliant minds. I used to go for more attainable targets – brilliant men who were peers, but I always managed to wind up infatuated with men who disdained me or took me for granted. So, eventually I stopped falling in love. I made a conscious decision to stop. I was frightened and hurt, so I withdrew into myself to avoid being in further pain, and because I felt I was causing discomfort to others.

Then I found myself in therapy with the beautiful Isaac – a blonde-haired angel with a cupid-bow mouth, a phenomenal intellect, and a wicked sense of humor. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but God laughed and there Isaac was. He was a bit of a bad boy, willing to curse in session and unflinching in the face of my own vulgar sense of humor. He truly admired my intellect, opening to my mind in a way that most people don’t. Or perhaps it was that I opened to him in a way that I don’t normally do. When I found myself falling in love with Isaac, I allowed that love to blossom, telling myself that it was in service of the therapy. I opened myself to the experience, hoping that I would somehow learn what it was that I was looking for in my infatuations.

Falling in love opened me up to my life in a way that hadn’t happened in years. I suddenly found a capacity for tolerance with the irritations of life that I hadn’t had. I found a strength, and spontaneity. And my creativity opened up, as well as my drive to learn. In other words, I started to live again. The problem was that even though I had found a source of strength and joy, being in love was also a source of truly painful frustration. I could not bear the limitations of the therapeutic relationship. There were not enough minutes in the session to share what I wanted to share with him: everything. There was so much of me and so much of him, and only a tiny window through which to communicate. I wanted to give him all of me or else find a way to consume him whole. I could do neither. That he was a separate being who existed outside of me was intolerable. Clearly there was something going on here that was bigger than the usual attraction one might have for a potential mate. Anyway, Isaac withstood my attraction and provided me a place to vent the frustration associated with it, but my desire for all of him stood like a wall between us. If I couldn’t have all of him, or give him all of me, I didn’t want to communicate with him in any way.

In the wake of that relationship I found myself in a quandry. How could I have that feeling of being alive? How could I be that open again, but this time without being so painfully attached to someone who I could never have? What was wrong with me?

The relationship with that therapist was frustrating and painful, but being in love opened me to a range of experiences that I could not otherwise have investigated. Without that relationship, without that person willing to allow my attachment, I don’t think I would have discovered the mindfulness practices that have been so helpful to me lately.

But that’s a story for another time. I feel as if I have somehow missed the boat in this posting, as if I haven’t quite said anything useful. But I will keep trying.

Welcome to My Process

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I have many good friends. It’s amazing, therefore, that I manage to be so lonely. In fact, I think it may be a testament to the stubbornness of the wounded spirit.

Several weeks ago, in part due to the encouragement of one of those good friends, I started writing again. After sending him page after page of raw material that consisted of about fifty percent potentially interesting teachings and fifty percent meaningless drivel, I stopped sending him my writings. And then I stopped writing.

The reason my writing was so easy to unlock and why it shut down when I no longer allowed myself this muse? Well, my muse was one of the “special” people.

I get very attached to my “special” people. And I tend to throw myself away in the process of relying on the Shiny Ones to provide me with the fantasy of meaningful companionship. And in the meanwhile, I tend to ignore what’s right in front of me – namely, the world.

So now, I want to start leaning on you, that is, my friends. Real people from whom I have shielded my heart. I want to be real, and take just a little of the shine off of the people who I’ve gilded and throw some of that gold dust into my own life. And I want to share that shine with everyone here. Right here in this blog space that I have neglected for a long time.

So, pretty words aside, I am making a commitment. I will write a blog entry once a day… Well, ok, at least five days a week. Hrmm… Once a week? Ok, I will definitely write a blog post at least once a week (maybe more), sharing my healing process in this space.

So welcome, and here is my heart.

Stay tuned.

Holding the Kitty

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Old Lady Kitty says, “Get off my lawn!”

Is there something or someone in your life that really annoys you? I have this cat who won’t shut up. I love her, but she’s annoying. She’s getting on in years, and she just won’t shut up. Sometimes there is something she definitely wants, and often I can do something about that: sometimes there seems to be nothing that she wants, or at least nothing I can figure out. I suspect sometimes she just likes to yowl because she wants the attention. My response to this has been to holler at her to shut the hell up. You can probably imagine how useful this has been.

One of my teachers likes to say that our minds are composed of different parts, that there are parts of our personality that formed before we were verbal, perhaps even before we were even human. These primitive parts of our minds don’t have words or even concrete ideas. All they have are feelings: a sense of danger or of wanting. Without a real clue about what these feelings are, and often without even knowing that we are even having these feelings, we automatically come up with reasons for them. That inner cat yowling for whatever it wants demands a response. Rather than actually hear the annoying feline in our souls, we immediately jump to a habitual desire, trying to settle that sense of disquiet that follows us everywhere. These habitual cravings lead us – nowhere. They don’t quiet the cat, and they certainly don’t do anything to help us become better, kinder people.

A daily sitting practice will slow us down enough to sense these inner voices, but I have found that often I still find myself at odds with my own tendencies. Just knowing the cat is there and that it’s loud doesn’t really make it go away or be less annoying. I would like to suggest something else: look around in your life. Look closely at these things that annoy you in your daily life, and ask yourself: is there a parallel between these things and the unsettledness in my own mind? And, is there a way I can approach these situations and my own mind with more gentleness?

I have found that the best way to get the cat to shut up is to stop whatever I’m doing, go find her, pick her up, and pet her. I hold her and talk to her, and pet her. I get the additional benefit of hearing her purr, which has proven health benefits. I wonder if doing this on a regular basis, in addition to my daily practice, will somehow carry over into a kinder attitude towards the primitive wordless yowlings in my own mind.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to deal with this. I’m too busy to (metaphorically) pick up the cat every time she starts meowing.” What I would like to ask is: how much time are you spending now stewing over whatever is bothering you? How much time do you waste getting distracted by these annoyances? Would you actually be more productive in the time you spend trying to avoid daily annoyances if you were able to just give yourself and the situation a moment of your attention?

I think it’s worth a shot.