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.

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.

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.

Apparently I’m Writing in Poetry Now

“The body, and what we do with it, has ramifications for both the person and those with whom their life is performed…the body is a surface on which the social is inscribed” –David Alderidge, “The Body, Its Politics, Posture, and Poetics”

 

My body is a surface on which the social is inscribed

On my body are written the words of you

 

When Mind cannot comprehend

control

pain

It turns away towards a screen of

pretend-it’s-ok

 

But Body moves towards

What Mind cannot hold

And inscribes relationship on skin

And bone

In blood

And breath

 

As I dance through my day

Eyes fixed on the shadows of

Plato’s cave

Body quietly begs to differ

 

The suffragettes chained themselves

to railings

Monks burning in protest

And I, refusing food,

Somatic graffiti, a message

that something

is horribly wrong

 

My brain is not “fucked up”

I am not unstable

My body is a beautiful rendering

of the human form

And though I do not speak

much

in verbal words

My body speaks

Loudly

Clearly

Something

is horribly wrong

 

When I stopped listening

to you

And started listening

to Body

I heard a political protest

A rally of thousands

crying “revolution!”

Body will starve itself out of

this political prison

Until you (and I)

start paying attention

 

There is wisdom in the body

Even if we want to call it

Pathology

The body moves towards

What the mind cannot hold

And speaks to us in the only

language it knows

Inscribes relationship on skin

And bone

In blood

And breath

 

My body is a surface on which the social is inscribed

On my body are written the words…