All in a Morning’s Meditation

canstockphoto1432692This morning, as I sat in a meditative pose, I could feel the throbbing pain of my knee. I let my thoughts tumble one over another – how I’d failed to do the daily exercises to deal with the injury, forgot to take ibuprofen, took the stairs too frequently. They continued to tumble down on me – I hadn’t met my writing goals for the week. I ate too much. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. I wasn’t patient with the cats. Tumble, tumble, tumble.

When I find my meditation the center of a campaign of me-shaming, I can only practice acknowledging the thought and letting it float by. I try to loosen its grip on my psyche, imagining stepping on its fingers as it clings to the side of a cliff. My meditation is not a peaceful one. A thought steps out of the shadows. No more suffering.

There is pain and then there is suffering. I began to think about the pain I was feeling and how every action I took or didn’t take, prolonged the pain to the point of suffering. Why would I make myself suffer? Intellectually, it makes no sense, but emotionally, it’s apparently my jam.

I come from a long line of martyrs/survivors. It’s a mindset I both admire for its tenaciousness and despise for the very same reason. The problem is when the abusive parents are dead or reformed, when you can stop turning in pop cans for a meal, when you finally stand on your own two feet, find stability and have the potential for happiness less than fleeting, your brain is still in crisis mode, still waiting for the next shoe to drop. And when it doesn’t happen, the brain gets creative.

canstockphoto5504066Even as I write this, I’m chastising myself for writing about first world problems – that all I have to do is watch the news and I’d see real suffering. But suffering, regardless of the source or how minor, does not make someone a better person. Pain is different – pain tells us something is wrong. Pain tells us we are in need of a solution, a palliative, a different direction. Suffering is like guilt or anxiety – only good for the lesson, a reminder to change course. Beyond that, it’s cruel and exhausting and pointless.

I finished reading a book about overcoming perfectionism. I gave it a B- in my notes and that made me laugh. The author’s target audience would not be generous in their reviews. She did a good job of building and explaining scenarios from whence perfectionists emerge. And it wasn’t about people with high standards for their own work. It was about people like me, who nearly choke on the phrases “This is good enough. I am good enough.” When good enough seems like an insult.

Sometimes when I write things, I think how often they’ve been written about, how often I’ve heard “get out of your own way” or “say positive affirmations”. I can hear that advice a thousand times over and I never absorb it. It sits in a mental waiting room. It waits for a connection, like a call on hold. Waiting for me to figure it out.

I rarely read newly published books or go to movie theaters. One day, I’ll be in a bookstore and pick up a book on the clearance shelf. It was published ten years ago. I’ll read that book and it will feel like this new, wonderful discovery that no one has any interest in discussing. It’s mine – an organic discovery. Like most lessons, they don’t take hold until we discover it ourselves.

canstockphoto5927403Meditation can be one of those westernized new-agey things that can come couched in a lot of fuzzy terminology and equipment (you can buy meditation pillows, stools, incense, books, CDs etc.). For me, these are things that give meditation all the appeal of a new exercise class using bowling balls and colanders (I’m sure it’s coming).

There are enough books that tell you how to meditate. There are testimonials that make it seem like you are shortly to be transported to nirvana if you can just touch your fingers and thumbs while sitting cross-legged. But you’ll need the special magic carpet. Or you can read accounts of people who sit and do this for hours on end.

I just wanted to make space in my life to stop everything. I can be very self-assured when I talk about running and gardening and how it’s meditation in motion. And then my body smacks me upside my ego and kneecaps me until I’m shuffling about and wincing at every move. So what are you going to do now, you smug bastard?

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Am I done yet?

My meditation is messy and imperfect. I remind myself to adhere to the advice of Pema Chödrön. Approach it with curiosity and see what arises. So I get up in the morning, grab a pillow and timer and I make myself sit, breathing in and out until the timer beeps. I started at five minutes and now I’m up to a grand total of seven. Seven minutes in which I implore my brain to let the thoughts float by. Seven minutes that I fidget or, as happened last week, begin to snore softly.

Sometimes I imagine it’s like having to watch an entire campaign speech just to get the sound bite for a news story. I have to sit every day, rolling my eyes at my attention-seeking brain, just to find that sliver of light, that second of wisdom or insight. But I’ve made the space and I am curious to see what’s next.

A Birthday, Allelopathy, and an Epiphany

canstockphoto8352036This summer has been one of my worst summers since that year I had to go to church camp and make macrame owls, alongside girls who wanted to try on my glasses and giggle hysterically about how bad my eyesight was. Haha, dumbasses, you can’t Lasik stupid away.

When they say someone has snapped, I always think that must be a relative term. One person’s breakage is a trip to the grocery store for another. My trip to the grocery store involved me being angry for weeks on end. I’m still feeling pretty hostile.

It’s a child’s rage and it took me completely off guard. I turned 48 last week and for the months prior, I felt this anger build. We’re told that women tend to turn their anger inwards, but my depression was not a big enough vessel to contain it this time.

As hard as I try, I think I’m kind of a shitty human being. Some people go through life effortlessly, with little introspection or regret. Part of me wonders what that would be like. The rest of me thinks they’re either extremely healthy or sociopaths.

canstockphoto1830736Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with the do-gooder me. Like a cheesy answer to a job interview question about weaknesses, I feel overly responsible for others. Leading the parent-teacher group, taking care of my mother-in-law, stepping up when volunteers are asked for, donating money, goods, time. I’ve done a lot of organized volunteer work in my life, as well as the informal saying “yes” when someone asks for help. I was a problem solver, reliable, responsible and generous.

Something has changed. I’ve become so angry and resentful that I’m blurting “NO!” even before someone finishes the question. The pendulum has swung. My motivation for doing good often lay with my sense that I was not good enough. And that no longer seems a good enough reason.

It starts young, this goodness of the heart that really isn’t. It starts with the oldest child in a family of alcoholics. It starts with words. Lowbrow versions of not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not outgoing enough. Thoughtless words tossed off by adults who were never enough, either.

canstockphoto10740080It starts the first time you believe that a fundamentalist God will strike you dead because you lied about sneaking food at night. Dear god, please don’t kill me. I’ll be ever so good. It starts when adults praise and fawn over you because you are such a good, polite little girl, but you know that it’s an act. Theirs and yours.

It starts when you’re 11 and your stepfather passes out while driving and you desperately tug at the steering wheel and push your foot on the brake to steer to the shoulder. It starts when you quickly gather your brothers and sister, herding them out of the house before the punching starts. You are 13 and responsible for their lives. From that point on, you feel responsible for everything.

It continues when you have trouble making friends, because you’re an introvert. So you do favors. You give rides and money, make them laugh, drink enough to be outgoing. They seem to like you. You try to be agreeable, even though you think their latest perm makes them look like Carrot Top and that their boyfriends are numb-nuts. You keep your sharper opinions to yourself, smile when you don’t feel like it and drive them to the movie theater to see a movie you don’t want to see.

It continues when your boyfriend calls you a whore for not being a virgin and you think he is right, because they all are. You thrive at Army basic training because being screamed at that you’re too slow or fat or stupid or woman is nothing new. It doesn’t phase you. You think you’ve got it under control. The rules are laid out for you to follow and you follow them.

It continues for decades. You are a good employee, loving spouse, decent parent, reliable friend. Your anger is this vague, pulpy mess that you sort of, kind of, blame on others’ expectations and exhaustion. And that works for awhile. Until it doesn’t. Until one day, you wake up and realize that it’s all you. Your expectations and demands of yourself are holding you hostage.

canstockphoto9946409Insomnia has become my new thing. I lay wide awake at 3am, my witching hour. I think, what if I stopped doing it all? Would anyone even notice? Bit by bit, as I do less, no one really has. For a moment, I mourn the wasted time and feel a little sorry for myself. And then there’s the anger that smells like childhood. How could you be so stupid, so misdirected, so delusional?

No, no, that’s not right. I’m confused. I thought I was less than, so I worked to be good, but now I’m angry about the fact that I was “good” for all the wrong reasons and because of that, I’m less than. Dysfunctional math at its finest.

They call it a midlife crisis, as if it’s a one-time event solved by a racy car, a gym membership, a young lover, airline miles. Maybe for some, it is. For me, it’s a slow burn in place, growing more intense by the moment. It’s not a lifetime of regret, it’s the thought oh no, I want to do so much more. Time has taken on a physical quality. Every activity is weighed and measured and found wanting.

There will be a contingent of people who tell me none of it matters as long as good was done. It reminds me of a term in nature called allelopathy. The word allelopathy comes from the Greek, meaning “mutual harm” and defines the biochemical effect plants can have, both positive and negative, on the organisms and plants around them.

canstockphoto10644936In my case, I have this old, scraggly tree that grew from those childhood years, overshadowing the ground around it. But there is a seedling, borne of the love I’ve given and received, of those moments of happiness and creativity, of contented solitude. It has grown as high as it will be allowed to while that old tree shades it. And that, my friends, is an epiphany.