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 

Forging Meaning Building Resistance

When we are in the fire, we cannot escape the pain and fear of annihilation. It feels like it will never end. Yet one of the few things I know to be absolutely true is that emotions are fleeting. In my somewhat wise middle-aged years, when someone sets fire to my body yet again, I know to breathe and breathe and chant “this too will pass.”

I’m not saying this is easy. I have been brought to my knees in tears and pain over and over by the cruel and abusive acts of former partners. Yes, I must sheepishly admit that I have been in more than one abusive relationship. The particular way I shape myself around partners causes me to ignore controlling and violent behavior for far too long. It also recently occurred to me that one becomes conditioned to such behavior; after one abusive relationship, the next one seems normal. It took many years of living under the control of another person for me to finally gain clarity about what constitutes healthy relational patterns. At this point, I am confident that I can say “never again.” Learning has occurred!

When dealing with acts of cruelty, it would be easy to revert to my own unhealthy coping skills, namely calorie restriction and substance use (though hiding under the covers, binge watching Netflix, and isolating myself would also not serve me). I am happy to say that in the midst of pain and conflict, I haven’t engaged in any of the above activities. Rather, I work diligently on my PhD, dance, spend time with nature, write and write, listen to music, eat and eat, sit in meditation, and engage with community. Look, friends- HEALTHY COPING SKILLS! It is possible to make use of them!

I was recently catching up with a dear friend with whom I had not spoken in a while and was musing about my role regarding a former toxic relationship. Where could I hold myself responsible? Is there something I could have done to prevent the onslaught of cruelty that followed my exit from the relationship? My friend asked, “is anyone else in your life telling you that you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control?” Uh, nope. Not even my doctors and therapists. In fact, they observe strength of character, healthy coping skills, and an ability to hold myself accountable for my choices. My friend then said, “so if one person is telling you you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control but no one else is, doesn’t that say more about that person than you?” Zoiks. Thank Goddess for the rational reflections of people who love us.

Acts of cruelty, abuse, prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions… these are all occurrences which plague queer people, sometimes on a daily basis. These are the matches used to set our bodies on fire. We will walk through that fire again and again. If one lives a non-normative life, it is nigh impossible that such things can be avoided. So I figure I have a choice: I can curl up in the fetal position under my covers, never to emerge except to hit the bottle or pop a pill or I can forge meaning and build resilience from these very acts of violence. That latter choice makes me smile.

I kind of enjoy the idea that a person or a group of people are so intimidated and frightened by my power and non-normativity that they have to spread rumors, target me through social systems, attack my choices, and exert a tremendous amount of energy to try and annihilate my existence. To those people I say, neener neener neener, I still stand. Like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore before me, I am more powerful after I am attacked. Resilience to adversity makes us stronger and at this point in my life, I am like a Bristlecone Pine and may be around for thousands of years. Tee hee.

I recently watched a Ted Talk about forging meaning from adversity and want to credit Andrew Solomon with the concept. If you’re interested, here it is:

The stories we tell about our lives are the building blocks of our reality. Will you choose to tell a story of victimization or will you choose to tell a story of resilience? When you’re in the fire, remind yourself that it cannot last forever. Let the flames increase your power so that when you emerge, you have the strength to tell your truth.

Love before hate. Always.

How to Survive Acts of Cruelty

This is what it feels like: Someone reaches into your chest, grasps your heart, yanks out a chunk (they always leave some behind so you can really feel the pain), throws it on the ground, and stomps on it. You are used to this feeling because it has happened before. For some people it happens on a daily basis. For others, the pattern is once every few weeks or months. An act of cruelty inflicted by a spouse or lover, a former partner, a current partner. How do we survive? I mean, we only have so much heart to rip out, right?

Breathe.

It seems our hearts might have the capacity to regenerate. Yes, it is painful to regrow bones and it is painful to regrow myocardium, but when it does regrow it will be stronger. And our abusers are not counting on that.

Cry.

When an act of cruelty is initially inflicted, it is important to feel our feelings. For me, that generally shows up as tears. Sobbing, actually. Big, deep, gulping-for-air, holding onto the wall sobs. Ideally, a beloved friend will be nearby to ask if you want support, to hold you if that feels good, to wonder at someone’s calculated ability to rip out a chunk of your heart. Cry it out, feel the pain, let it move. If we don’t move the pain and sadness it gets stuck somewhere in our body and will leak out later in an unproductive way.

Get angry.

This might show up immediately or it might not manifest for months or years. Whenever Anger decides to present xemself, let it move. Write about it. Speak it. It’s OK to feel and express anger. It’s not OK to turn that anger towards another living creature, so be careful how it gets channeled. It’s easy for people who have been bullied to turn around and bully others. Don’t perpetuate the abuse.

Make art.

I cannot stress how important this is for survival. Paint, play music, write poetry, dance; engage in whatever artistic endeavor feeds you. Paint your anger, dance your sadness, collage the pain, sew your future… there are an infinite number of ways to foster healing through creativity. Even if you are not the recipient of personal acts of cruelty, the people of the United States are currently in an abusive relationship with the White House (in case you were wondering what an abuser looks like, look no further than Trumpie Wumpie) and we need art to maintain our sanity.

Go outdoors.

There is solace to be found in nature. The unfolding of a fiddlehead fern, softly falling snow on a pond, the scampering of squirrels or the grazing of deer can all offer balm for the heart. Even a short moment of mindful connection with a tree can be the medicine needed for heart regrowth.

Breathe.

Acts of cruelty have forced me to examine my beliefs and values. What matters in life? The material things that were destroyed? Loss of money? Slander? Stolen ideas? Despite the intense pain of loss, I have had to admit that ultimately, none of this matters. I am not here to amass wealth, lie and cheat my way into a powerful position, or remain emotionally or spiritually stagnant. Sigh. So I take the long view and attend to the ways that survival will strengthen my heart. I will not be crushed by cruelty. I will notice yet another lesson in non-attachment. My heart will grow.

Breathe.

It also helps me to recognize that I am not alone. Acts of cruelty are inflicted on people all the time, every day. My white privilege ensures that I do not endure racial taunts by strangers, nor do I fear deportation or harassment by police. As a non-disabled person I move through my world with ease and do not have to face daily microaggressions pertaining to my body. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence tend to follow a script. I sometimes wonder if they realize how stereotypical they are in their cruelty. So anyone who has survived such acts knows what this feels like. You are not alone.

First we survive, then we heal, then we grow. No one’s heart deserves to be ripped out. No one’s spirit deserves to be crushed. You did not deserve to be treated cruelly. Breathe, cry, get angry, make art, go outdoors, breathe some more, regrow your heart.

Love before hate.

Always.

What Does it Mean to Heal From Abuse?

It means finding your breath and breathing deeply again.

It means seeing the beauty of a sunset.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

It means letting the tears flow, letting the anger grow

and not getting stuck

When the crying stops, when the raging ends

you feel your heartbeat

the wind on your skin

your feet on the ground, supporting you

supporting you

and you move on.

Healing from abuse means one day you find yourself spontaneously dancing

One day you do not flinch when someone gets close

One day you do not walk on eggshells

or fly under the radar.

One day you allow yourself to be big

without fear

or maybe with a little fear but you face it anyway.

It means listening to the plea of your heart

and trusting that your heart carries wisdom.

Healing from abuse is a journey

A journey that gets easier as we travel the path

and practice the art

the art of healing.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

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Dear Abuser…

You likely have no idea who you are because insidious acts of emotional abuse are often inflicted unintentionally. However, in quiet moments of self-reflection, you may wonder if you have acted in hurtful ways towards your partner. Domestic violence shelters determine who is a perpetrator and who is a target, in part, by noticing whose life has gotten bigger and whose life has gotten smaller. In your partnership/s, who is shrinking and who is dominating?

When you tell me my experience isn’t real, you are abusive

That’s not what happened!

You’re wrong

I remember it correctly, you don’t

You do it wrong

I do it better

I didn’t say that

You don’t want that

You didn’t say that

You’re having a breakdown

When you react with emotional aggression, you are abusive

Fuck you!

Get out and never come back

I hate you

I can’t wait till you’re gone

Your brain is fucked up

I wish I was with someone else

[throwing things]

[kicking things]

[slamming doors]

When you insult and humiliate, you are abusive

Put your grown-up pants on

Stop being emotional

You’re hysterical

You make people feel badly about themselves

You’re too sensitive

You don’t know how to act in social situations

You’re having a midlife crisis

When you overly control situations, you are abusive

We have to do it my way

Move over, I will do it

Give it to me, I will do it

I don’t want that, I want this

We have to go here, do that

I don’t care how you want to do things

Your way is wrong

You have to eat this

You must do this

Sign this

I will spend whatever I want

When you explode in anger because your partner made a request or set a boundary, you are abusive.

When you tell your partner what they are like and what they should do, you are abusive.

Healthy expressions of anger are necessary, but reactive, emotional aggression is not healthy.

Violating a partner’s privacy is not healthy.

Attempts to control a partner’s life are not healthy.

You may think you are “helpful.” You may think you know better. You may believe your way is right, but these beliefs and subsequent actions do not leave room for body autonomy. I get to be in charge of my body. It’s ok for me to set boundaries even if you don’t like them.

To you, I say never again. Find your anger somewhere else.

Intimate Partner Violence in Queer Relationships

I suspect that I will have a lot to say on this topic over the course of the next few years because it is the focus of my doctoral studies. Even though I am completely immersed in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) as a course of study, I still want space to talk about this issue outside of the ivory tower of academe. Why? Cause it is happening in relationships all over the world but people aren’t talking about it and that is scary.

What is IPV?

IPV is defined by the Center for Disease Control as “a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner” (2016).

Unfortunately, most research and treatment programs still view IPV through the lens of Domestic Violence (DV) which upholds the outdated notion of IPV as “wife bashing,” and contends that IPV can only exist between a woman and a man. You are likely familiar with the image…

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A scared woman is beaten by her aggressive husband. This does happen! I don’t want to imply that we shouldn’t attend to IPV in cis-het relationships, but it exists across cultures and is pervasive in relationships of all kinds in the United States. Cis-het IPV in which a man beats his wife is not the only type of IPV being perpetrated, yet instances of IPV in queer relationships or IPV where a woman is the perpetrator go largely unreported.

Why?

Misogyny.

In order to understand queer IPV we need to understand straight IPV.

If a woman is beaten by her husband, she is seen as weak, vulnerable, and helpless while he still retains the “masculine” qualities of aggressive power and strength. If a woman beats her husband, he is seen as weak, vulnerable, and helpless and we can’t have that. God forbid a man embody “feminine” qualities. An additional factor contributing to this misogynistic view of IPV is the labeling of the victim as weak and helpless. The victim is vulnerable to abuse but that does not make them weak. They may be an incredibly strong person in many areas, but they have become desensitized to abuse and aggression and are likely trying to support the perpetrator in some way.

How many people have heard a perpetrator say, “I don’t want to be this way. Please help me.”

Mhm.

While I can feel anger begin to tense the muscles of my jaw and my left arm is twitching in a rather alien way, I am trying to remain committed to holding compassion for perpetrators as well as victims. It’s hard. I feel hate. I feel anger. I feel grief and overwhelm and sadness. I want perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions instead of crying and begging for forgiveness. But underneath all that, I also understand that most perpetrators are products of our fucked up culture. That doesn’t mean I excuse their actions. No way. But I hold compassion. Or try to.

So what about IPV in queer relationships? What happens when gender roles and genitals don’t adhere to the norm? There are people who think IPV can’t exist in lesbian relationships (cause all lesbians live in lesbitopia?). Those people are wrong. ANYONE can attempt to maintain power and control through aggression and coercive acts no matter what their genitals look like.

And what about IPV that is more insidious? The subtle, verbal insults and humiliation tactics? This type of IPV is very common and highly invisible. While physical violence does occur in intimate partnership, 80% of IPV consists of emotional and verbal violence. Expressive aggression is defined as “verbal abuse or emotional violence in response to some agitating or aggravating circumstance” (Carney & Barner, 2012, p.2).

For example:

Does your partner explode when you express a feeling? Do they get angry when you set a boundary? Do they kick furniture, throw things, or otherwise act like a toddler when something pisses them off? That is expressive aggression and it’s not OK. There is nothing wrong with the Feelz; we all have them, but there are healthy ways to express anger, most of which begin with the statement, “I am angry.”  We all get happy, sad, angry, and scared. Children scream and kick and bite, but they should learn how to express emotions in a safe and healthy way as they get older. Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t offer parents much support in teaching kids healthy emotional expression. Most adults can’t do it! This is why some adults think expressive aggression is A-OK. It’s familiar. But it scares loved ones. And when it is directed at loved ones because of the aforementioned boundary setting or feeling expression or a myriad of other ways that are attempts to exert power and control, it is IPV.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that IPV affects more than 12 million people each year in the United States. They also note that “members of the LGBTQ community are slightly more likely to experience abuse than straight couples.” Yet most shelters for victims of IPV are not queer/trans friendly or queer culture informed.

Grrr. Argh.

suffering-in-silence-domestic-violence-in-the-lgbti-community

It feels like time to end my silence on the subject.