Sometimes I Think I Know Stuff but then Pema Chödrön Reminds Me I Know Nothing

I have not hidden the fact that 2016 was a rather tumultuous year for this writer (to put it lightly). In my reflections on the explosive events of last year, it occurred to me that the mantra I started chanting in early February 2016 included these words: “what is best for me, what is best for me, what is best for me.” As someone who understands a bit about that murky place where science meets magic, I should have known that such a mantra would result in the fiery explosion of all things in life that did not serve. It wasn’t long before I was ejected from a toxic work environment and fleeing a toxic relationship. I lost my pets, most of my belongings, 15lbs, and pieces of my heart. My friend died and my bike was stolen (methinks it carried some horrendous juju). What’s best for me, I said?

There were times when I was tempted to shake my fist at the universe and scream “what the fucking fuckity fuck?!” I did shake my fist at my former place of employment and former partner and scream and cry and hate and hate and hate (all in the privacy of my own home or my own head or sometimes in the middle of the woods and once accidentally on an airplane but just for a moment). But when those feelings finally moved through my dancer’s body and found a place of rest somewhere else, I turned my attention to a more sophisticated understanding of this journey called life.

It is so easy to blame isn’t it? It is so easy to point fingers at our spouses (former and otherwise), lovers, parents, Republicans, cis-hets, bosses and say “it’s YOUR fault.” It is so easy to puff out our cheeks, turn red in the face, and say with righteous indignation, “it’s because they/he/she/xe do it wrong!” It is so easy to jump on a moral high horse and proclaim everyone on foot to be a heathen/sinner/adulterer/bad dancer without actually stepping into their lived experience with compassion and an open heart.

I know cause I’ve done it. I’m fairly certain we all have though I won’t profess to speak for Jesus or Ghandi or Buddha or Mother Teresa or anyone else for that matter. It’s just so easy. I feel better when I have someone to blame because it takes some pressure off me. It eases my pain to know it was caused by someone else. Or does it? In those moments when I have been righteously indignant (and there have been many), MY body is the one that is tense and red, MY brain is firing on all cylinders, and I am the one who feels angry or incensed or frustrated or whatever. Does my righteous indignation actually have an impact on the people with whom I am righteously indignant? Not so much.

Enter Pema Chödrön. Sometimes I think I know stuff and then I listen to people who actually know stuff and I realize I don’t know anything. I do know how to breathe. I’m pretty good at that these days. Conscious breathing… deliberate, intentional inhales and exhales as a tool to regulate my nervous system. Since I live with PTSD, conscious breathing is my Jesus Christ; it is my personal savior. Without it, my prefrontal cortex would easily fly offline and my scared amygdala would run the show. It’s not pretty when that happens. So I breathe and I name colors and I look at clouds and I smell the wonderful essential oil blend given to me by one awesomesauce member of my tribe and I remain calm. It was from this place of calm that I was able to open up Pema’s books (again) and read her wise words (again) and be reminded that all the shit of life is simply that… shit of life. Life is not throwing shit balls at me because I deserve them or because I attract shit throwers, life throws shit balls because nothing is stable and permanent; sometimes life throws daisies and rainbows and sometimes life throws shit balls. Pema does not advise running from the shit balls, but rather, asks how we might turn the shit balls (she uses the term “arrows”) into flowers. Shit flowers? That I can work with.

I have recently been the lovely recipient of yet another act of cruelty, yet another pointed attack by someone who hates me. This hurts. This feels like a giant mother fucking shit storm. It comes with all the shitty emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, fear, anger, hatred. When I first learned of this attack, I wanted to blame BLAME BLAME the person who targeted me once again through a social system. I wanted to blame BLAME BLAME this person for their projections and attacks on my life. I did blame them. I do blame them. It comes in waves. But then I return to the teachings of Buddhism and ask myself, “how do I turn this shit storm into a daisy storm?” This does NOT mean bypass all my emotions and pretend that daisies grow from my butt. Au contraire, it means sitting in the shit storm with my shitty emotions and simply examining them. “Look at this shit puddle. Isn’t it interesting?” “There is a shit shower of blame descending on your body right now. How quaint.” “Maybe I should dance in this shit. Or paint it.”

This is NOT about blaming someone else or even examining how someone else is throwing the shit. This IS about examining how I feel in the midst of a shit storm and the shitty thoughts and emotions that arise in MY body. This is about me taking responsibility for myself and my feelings even if I feel (gulp) wronged. Pema also says we have to let go of this notion of right and wrong which I totally agree with in my brain and have a hard time internalizing in my body especially when it comes to abuse and oppression.

I want to be clear that I am able to sit in the shit 12 years after ending abusive relationship #1, and after 6 years of intensive therapy, and after 12 months of solitude/intentional healing time. If you are currently experiencing abuse or harassment or lack of safety in any way, don’t feel like you have to turn anything into daisies. Your #1 job is keeping yourself safe and sane.

The big question I am holding for myself (and the one I will pose to you) is how to put this into practice in the midst of a social-political climate that, frankly, is begging to be blamed. It is easier for me to apply this at a personal level (using a loose definition of the word “easier”). How do we rest into impermanence, groundlessness, and blamelessness when our country is led by… well, the person who is currently residing in the White House? How do we hold others accountable for acts of cruelty and oppression? Pema? Anyone?

I suspect that if Pema read this post, she would chuckle slightly at how I missed the point. In terms of knowledge and wisdom on par with our great teachers, I am a single-celled organism with some major evolution ahead of me. Yet I can feel the breaking of habitual patterns in my response to the current shit storm. Twelve years ago, when I last experienced a shit storm of this caliber, I did three things: 1) pretended it didn’t really happen, 2) denied most of the emotions it brought up, and 3) blamed myself, blamed someone else, blamed the gods for the storm. This time I choose to feel my feelings and hold compassion for myself and others. I still want to blame. I still do blame. But when I notice myself blaming, I sigh, look at it, and let it go. Conscious examination of thoughts and feelings. That’s all.

Thanks, Pema.

“Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.”

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart 

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A Theatrical Dialogue Between Consciousness, Unconsiousness, and Body Wisdom

I am often angry when I write blog posts. There are so many things to be angry about in our current social-political climate. Anger often fuels my drive to say something. But today is different. Today, not only is there an absence of anger, there is an abundance of joy and happiness. In fact, I have been joyful and delighted most of the time for the last several weeks.

Why?

Body wisdom.

To fully understand the magnitude of this phenomenon, I must include some backstory:

2016 was a tumultuous year for many individuals, myself included, as well as whole groups of people and countries. Electing Cheeto Head was the proverbial cherry on top of a rather craptacular year for many of us. My year sucked so badly I went digging into the archives of history to find a year that sucked worse; 1348 was none too good. The Black Plague had reached England and was rampaging towards its final death count of 50 million people or 60% of Europe’s population. That was a sucky year and I’m glad I wasn’t there… or glad I can’t remember it if I was. My year of ending a relationship, the loss of beloved pets, moving four times in eight months, the death of a friend, bike theft, and the most profound grief I have ever experienced due to a major loss wasn’t as bad as the Black Plague. Thank you, Perspective.

So why am I so happy now?

Because half way through the year I started listening to Body and I am now reaping the benefits of that practice.

It is no secret that I have struggled with an eating disorder for a very long time. Growing up in the dance world lends itself to food trauma at an early age. After a decade of extreme restriction, I got some treatment and started to heal. For the next decade, I had years of healthy eating, followed by some months of unhealthy eating followed by months of healthy eating…the revolving door of health just kept turning. This will be a familiar scenario to those of you who struggle with disordered eating or other addictions.

My last bout of unhealthy eating surged in early 2016. I was under an extreme amount of stress at home and at work. I didn’t mean to stop eating, it just sort of happened. Two therapists and a nutritionist later, I learned that food restriction is just a response to stress. It does not mean I’m a bad person. It does not induce psychosis or otherwise cause poor judgment. Some people binge watch Netflix or drink beers when they’re stressed. I stop eating.

The other thing I learned about this pattern of unhealthy eating is that it is my body’s way of getting my attention. This is incredibly important so I am going to repeat it for clarity:

Food restriction is my Body’s way of saying WAKE THE FUCK UP

So are cravings for drugs and alcohol.

Carl Jung often noted that there is opposition between unconscious knowing and conscious awareness. Consciousness helps control the wildness of the unconscious while the unconscious keeps consciousness from ignoring everything besides rationality (that was quite an oversimplification. Check out Jung for more detail).

This last bout of disordered eating reared its beautiful head at the end of a period of years during which I lived a life that wasn’t mine. It is so easy to fall into the trap of following the normative script we are given at birth because the plot is beaten into our consciousness from that moment forward. You’re familiar with the lines: get your gender assignment at birth, grow up according to that gender assignment, go to college, meet people, get a job/forge a career, fall in love, marry that person, buy a house, have kids, retire with a pile of money. Or some version of that outline. If you’re a person of color, queer, disabled, not a member of the professional or owning classes and/or any combination of those social identities, you are still expected to follow the normative script but you’re not given equal opportunities to do so. And Goddess forbid if you want to throw the damn script out and do something different.

I’m not a script follower. Never have been. Yet there have been plenty of moments in my life where, I too, was sucked into the normative vortex and obediently attempted to follow the predetermined plot. The years of my life when I did this never went well. Mostly they were riddled with drug use, violent relationships, and a desperate me trying hard to play the part of “woman” as it was assigned to me at birth. More recently, it was me trying to play the part of “professional class person on a career track in a life-long relationship.” I tried really, really hard. My consciousness kept telling me this was the way to go.

Consciousness: Follow the plot! It leads to happiness.

Me: Really? Are you sure? Cause I’m pretty fucking unhappy.

Consciousness: I’m sure. This is it! This is what people do. Settle down. Give your life over to your partner, you’ll be fine.

Me: OK. I guess you know best.

Meanwhile, my unconscious was screaming.

Unconscious: NO! NO! What the hell are you doing? This isn’t right!

Me: [Can’t hear anything]

Unconscious: Hey you out there! Are you listening? I’m telling you this isn’t right. This is not your path of highest truth. You’re meant to do other things, live another way. Throw out the damn script!

Me: [Can’t hear anything]

Unconscious: [Fuming] Fine. You can’t hear me shouting? I’m calling in the big guns. Hey Body, get in here.

Body: Yes?

Unconscious: Our person isn’t listening. Will you please induce a months long bout of depression? Make sure they take no joy in other people or activities; make it so they can’t get out of bed.

Body: Done!

Unconscious: Maybe that will get their attention.

Months go by. I feel incredibly depressed. I assume something is horribly wrong with me. This is reinforced by my external environment. Consciousness is no help. I still can’t hear Unconscious.

Unconscious: [Sighing] This is worse than I thought. They are in deep. OK Body, bring back the disordered eating. And the craving for substances. Throw everything you’ve got at them. We need to get their attention.

Body: Done!

More months go by. I am shocked by the intensity of cravings for substances that I haven’t used in years, some I have never used. I continue to think something is horribly wrong with me. I stop eating. I feel shame. I am told I’m a bad person. I feel more shame.

still don’t listen.

When Unconscious tells us to do something as risky as throw out our whole life, it’s really hard to listen. This is a scary move. In my case, when I did not make the decision to leave a toxic work environment and relationship, it was made for me. Everything blew up in a dramatic fiery explosion of life events.

And then it was quiet.

Then I was able to spend months in solitude, sitting in the mountains or dancing in my home. It was quiet enough that I could finally hear. Body made their wisdom known through art, movement, writing, and epiphanies. I heard the call to move. I answered. I heard the call to move again. I answered. Find the place in the world where you can heal. I heard the call to change careers, to give up the script of my master’s degree, to do what brought me joy. I answered. I heard the call to connect with people on my terms, in ways that felt good to me. I answered.

It has been eight months since the fiery explosion of my life. It has been eight months of quiet reflection and deep listening to Body and Unconscious. They were right. I threw out the script. I’m living life as I want. I’m queer as fuck and writing my life to match.

And guess what?

I’m happy. I am happier than I have been in many, many years. I find myself surrounded by community that is full of love and support. I am on an intellectual journey that satisfies my need to know things. I am on an emotional journey of intimate connection with friends and family. I am on a spiritual journey of walking lightly on the earth and connecting to our planet. I am on a warrior’s journey of challenging the status quo, engaging with The Resistance, and examining my privilege.

Most importantly, I have forged a relationship with Body that cannot be severed. I have vowed to never again ignore Body or intuition, but heed the calls and intentionally serve wisdom as it arises from those places no matter how difficult the actions may be. Because I now know that love, peace, connection, and purpose come when I listen to Body.

Guess what else?

I have been eating well since the moment I started listening to Body. I have not had one craving for substances since I left my toxic life and set out on the path of my truth. Not one.

There was nothing wrong with me. I just have a loud Body.

Two Dogs, Gourmet Nachos, and Dancing in the Living Room

Sometimes I move through the world with a sword drawn, shouting about injustices and forcing everyone I meet to feel things through the bodies of the marginalized, even for just a moment.

Other times I move quietly; sword at my side, eyes turned to the mountains or the sunrise. I feel defeated and concerned that change will never occur. Unable to educate one more person who defends their privileged position while simultaneously telling me they “get it.” During these times, I am tired. Too tired to speak or write; battling the urge to flee into the wilderness, find my tree ancestors and never return.

I have not posted anything for a bit. My eyes and ears have been focused on the wild places; my thoughts turned inward. This morning, as I hiked with my two dogs up an icy, slippery trail, I pondered my lack of interest in writing. I have spent many days in the last month telling myself to write. I started drafts. There are always issues, wounds, and events that bring on righteous indignation about which I could write, but lately I have been asking myself, “what’s the point?” The people who need to see and hear are not reading my blog. I dug my heals into the frozen earth and pushed myself up the mountain, ruminating on my existential crisis. Who is reading my blog? My fellow gender variant and queer trailblazers! I heard a small avalanche in the distance as the sun warmed the snow, causing it to slip from its rocky bed and thought, “what can I offer my community?”

So rather than preach to the choir, this post shall outline how I attempt to remain whole, healthy, vibrant, and vital in the face of discrimination, ignorance, hate, and injustice. Maybe these words will act as a cozy, queer* blanket for other people who face injustice on a daily basis.

Ways To Stay Sane When the World is Such a Mess:

  • Eat really, really good food: Seriously. I buy the best locally sourced, organic food I can find. I spend time looking at recipes and trying out new things to cook. I thank all of my food before I eat it. A warrior needs sustenance. We can’t fight if we aren’t fed and we can’t get nourishment from processed chemicals. Gourmet nachos are the way to go.
    • Note: I am privileged enough to be in a position to buy really, really good food. I hope that one day local fresh food will be affordable to all people. I am so sorry that it is not.
  • Share above really, really good food: I like to feed people. I make feasts, I invite people over, and I feed them. It is so satisfying. It makes me feel connected and I get to have time with good people. I’m lucky because even if people can’t come over I can always feed my spouse! I made a chocolate cake after work the other day (double layer, round, huge and delicious) and the two of us ate the whole thing (not in one sitting). I also sent some over to my neighbor. Goodness.
  • Body love!: I am worried that people will think I’m nuts when I share this, but it helps me so much. I try to spend mindful time telling my body how much I love and value it. I write letters to body parts that I used to hate and thank them for existing. I stare at myself naked in the mirror and whisper, “So beautiful! An exquisite rendering of the human form!” I remind myself there is no wrong way to have a body. 
    • Note: I do not have Body Dysmorphia or Gender Dysphoria. I understand that engaging in this type of activity could be counterproductive or harmful for some people. It helps me, but is not universal. 
  • Time in the wild: I cannot live without connection to earth and wild places. I believe that all people need connection with nature, but our consumerist, indoor culture is great at severing us from the earth. May I suggest bare feet in soil? Arms wrapped around a tree? Watching the sunrise or sunset? Nature offers solace and comfort in the face of environmental destruction, discrimination, and hate crimes.
  • Dance! Dance! Dance!: I would be a sobbing mess, face down on the floor, if I did not dance as a way to resource myself. When I start to feel way too full of anger, sadness, despondence, or hopelessness, I get my groove on. Sometimes that is in a formal class, but more often it is in my living room. I dance the pain; I dance it and feel it and transform it through movement until it gives way to something else. Movement is life. It works.
  • Live your creative self: I also wholeheartedly believe in creative expression of all kinds. It matters not if that expression is oil painting, song composition, quilt-making, or writing. It could even be finger painting, sing-a-longs in the hot tub, dancing with your partner in your bathrobes, or building snow creatures. Someone built an igloo in our neighborhood park last week! If we stifle our creative selves, we block energy and lose vitality. We cannot be warriors if we feel blah.
  • Find your community: For me, this means hanging out with my fellow queers*. It is so refreshing to have some time with people who I don’t have to educate! We do call each other out on privileged blind spots, but I am grateful for that. I never want to stagnate and I hope that I am always examining my privilege. More often though, we just get to laugh and relax in an environment that isn’t threatening (until the board games come out, then it’s every queer for xemself!).

Engagement in the above activities does not guarantee a happy happy joy joy mental state all of the time. Rather, the above self-care routines simply support my continued desire to exist. Sometimes I am blissed out, ecstatic, joyful, and happy, but at other times I am sad beyond all reason. I think if one is remotely awake in the 21st century, then one is sometimes sad. Besides, emotions are fleeting. Nothing is permanent. Beyond the doldrums are the sillies which roll back to the doldrums which move towards the sillies. Whoa, I just felt that wave I created. We live the tides of the oceans and there must be a reason for that.

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Each day that I wake, I will praise, I will praise.
Each day that I wake, I give thanks, I give thanks.
Each day that I wake, I will praise, I will praise.
Each day that I wake, I give thanks, I give thanks.

-Nahko and Medicine for the People