Leaning Into Life’s Sharp Points

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My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.

I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby.  Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.

Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.

Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.

When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore.  Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.

The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths.  I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.

I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.

In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them.  They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment.  If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.

The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.

It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear.  As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.

I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward.  I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.

With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts.  Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me?  This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.

A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart.  The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.

Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare.  But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.

Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chodron

 

Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.

 

There’s No One Better to Take Care of Yourself….Than You

 

I just returned from a week-long vacation to Upstate New York where I used to live. I’m about to jump back in full time to the workforce and really needed a breather after nursing school.

I stayed with one of my best friends the whole time, and it was incredibly relaxing – alot of wine, alot of good coffee, shopping, touring the beautiful Finger Lakes countryside, and most importantly- sleeping in ridiculously late every morning.

One of the many reasons I enjoy being with this friend so much is she literally doesn’t think I can do any wrong. One day she’ll come to her senses and lose the biased filter she’s looking through, but until then I will continue to relish her encouragement and constant cheering on of everything I do.

Almost every time I talk to this friend, she says:  “Julie, I’m so proud of you. You are making such good decisions!”

Every time I hear her say this, my first instinct is to snort with laughter.  Me? Make good decisions?  And all the stupid choices I’ve ever made in my life flash before my eyes. She must have had a little too much Finger Lakes wine, I think to myself.

But then she’ll remind me of specific decisions that I’ve made over the last three years – really hard decisions, decisions that demanded sacrifice on my part, decisions that changed the course of my life forever, decisions where the end outcomes were entirely uncertain.  And yes, she’s right. I have been making good decisions.

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Lately, I’ve been using a neuroscience and mindfulness app to help me eat more mindfully. I’ve always managed to keep my weight within healthy limits, but its been a lifelong struggle. Even as a vegan or vegetarian, keeping the weight down isn’t easy when eating is one of your main coping mechanisms for life ‘stuff’.

As I was listening recently to one of the daily meditations, the app’s designer, a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, commented that ‘the best person to take care yourself – is you.’ I TOTALLY agree with this statement, but I think it takes some real convincing people to get them to trust in themselves.  Many of us are taught from a very young age not to trust our instincts, to receive external confirmation, and to rely on the experts.  This belief in the inadequacy of ourselves is a real disservice to us – it overlooks the divine within us and the fact that we know ourselves better than anyone else ever could.

It took me a long time to start trusting myself to know what is best for me. To reach this point, I had to get to a fundamental shift in how I viewed myself.

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When I was little, as young as 7 or 8, I remember thinking that I wished I could just push pause on my brain.  If I could just step out of my body and brain for 5 minutes, I would feel so relieved.  How I wish I had known about meditation back then, or even contemplative prayer as taught by Richard Rohr or Thomas Keating.

I thought that I was what I thought. Even as a youngster, I could conjure up thoughts that made me feel like a horrible person. And the constant stream of thoughts coming down my brain pipeline was relentless and overwhelming. Yet, I believed those thoughts and acted on those thoughts because I didn’t know there was an alternative.

Finally, in my 30s, I began to try out meditation, largely thanks to Rohr and Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. (I finally stopped believing that ridiculous notion suggested by a Frank Peretti novel that demons will stir up the soup of our minds when we try to empty them through meditating.)  I was astounded when I discovered through meditation that what I had desperately hoped for in early childhood was true, albeit in a slightly different way.

Inside me, there is the “me” I think I am and identify with, and then there is the “REAL ME.” This realization changed everything for me and started building the foundation on which I could trust myself.

I now know there is the ego, the false me – a ghost that thinks it really exists and will last forever.  It is the me that gets blown around by the circumstances in my life, that gets its feelings hurt, that feels it must have its way all the time.

Then, there is the REAL ME, the deepest part that is connected with the Divine and is eternal. This is the calm, still ME that isn’t afraid, that loves and accepts all, that knows that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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I really like the passage in the New Testament Gospels about the vine and the branches as told by Jesus (or I would interpret this as the Cosmic Christ, or Christ-consciousness). In the book of John (which I view as a mystical, post-resurrection view of Jesus), Jesus tells the disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches. If they remain in him, they will be fruitful, but if they aren’t plugged into that vine, they will wither away.

This idea makes so much sense to me now that I get the idea of there being two “me’s” – my false self, and my true self.  My true self is the vine – that divine part of me that brings life, and love, and creativity, and joy. It is the part of me allows me to make good decisions, decisions that aren’t rooted in fear and shame. The branches are my false self – the part of me that can look pretty and smart on the outside but doesn’t possess anything longlasting or of substance.

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We are complete and whole as we are.  We just miss this sometimes because we get so caught up in believing our false selves.  Yes, we are influenced and impacted by our environments, genetics, and so many other factors. But way deeper than any of that is who we really are.

Later in the New Testament there is a passage about the “priesthood of all believers.”  This is an area where Protestants grumble at Catholics. Whereas Catholics have priests in place for people to confess their sins, Protestants are adamant that we can serve as our own priests to go before God.  But I still think many Christians cut themselves a bit short in this realm. We believe we can enter the holy of holies, sure….but we usually crawl in on our hands and knees reminding God of how undeserving and wretched we are.   I think this is exactly what we shouldn’t do.  The holy of holies is the very deepest part of ourselves that is connected with all things, all creation, and the Divine. This is the place of original blessing that Matthew Fox speaks about (no, not the Party of Five guy). This is where real prayer and real connection with God happens.

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If the Vine is within us, and Blessing is within us, then it makes no sense to hang our entire lives on what other people think. Of course, there is nothing wrong with mentors and good advisors – they can help point out when we’re being driven by our egos and fear. But I’m convinced the more we start learning to separate the voices of our true and false selves, the more authentic we become and the more we can trust our decisions.

No more frantically running around trying to find the best book to tell us what to do.  No more making decisions after consulting a billion people so that if the decisions turns out to be a bad one, we can blame it on them. No more questioning our value and worth. No more feeling like we have to fit in with society or tow the party line.

The best part of all of this is: being able to hear and thank people for their opinions and advice, and then calmly being able to decide whether or not it resonates with you.  After all – you are connected directly to the Divine. You are connected directly to your eternal self. As such, you know yourself better than anyone, and ultimately, know better than anyone what is best for you.

Walking the Labyrinth

I walk in the circle of destiny

Winding road of twisting uncertainty

I start along this journey

Praying there is something waiting for me

Anxiety fades the lines; unclear beneath my feet

Unpredictable the turns; leaving no easy retreat

The road is one well traveled

Yet so much misunderstood

Why do I walk this lonely path looking for the one and only cure?

The crunch of sand beneath my feet, the deafening echo of progress

The rising moon over the tree breeds the light which lends to focus

Around the twisting turns, where control slips through my hands

I look up to the rising Goddess and continue to walk on the sand

I turn the familiar corner and look to the prize that awaits

Walking forward to the center, the conclusion of my pending fate

The reason I walk in the shadows, the reason I step through fear

In the center of this journey inward, suddenly it becomes so clear

I am the cure,

The answer is within my soul

One foot in front of the other,

The center was always the goal

The light of the moon looms above me and my feet are solid on the ground

For the power I was afraid to find, had already been found

I am the one I seek; I am the one I fear

In mirrors I see myself; in the labyrinth it becomes so clear

— Crystal Blanton

I Won’t Eat Animals But I Still Can’t Let Go of Lab Rats

 

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I have some major cognitive dissonance going on in my brain.  It’s been there for quite a while, actually.  As I’ve gotten older and really tried to learn to look at both sides of every story, I’ve realized that there isn’t always a pat solution that will make everyone happy.  There isn’t always a clear path that will ensure justice for each party involved.

This is probably why I like Taoism so much.  Life no longer seems to consist of black and white decisions, or clear right and wrong choices. Taoism, as my Western mind understands it, says there are two sides to every coin and life must exist in a balance. As Alan Watts has written, “Seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other.”

I have two primary struggles with what balance should look like in life right now.  The first is the balancing act of conservation and walking lightly on the earth versus the amazing benefits plastics and single-use medical devices have given us, and the fact that the latter have led to landfills and plastic-filled bellies of fish and birds.  I’ll talk about that one a different day. The one on my mind today is how on one hand I refuse to eat animals anymore, but I value and am so grateful for the tremendous medical advances we’ve seen because of drug and behavioral testing performed on animals.

I feel like quite a hypocrite, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I gave up eating meat about four years ago, and with it I have worked hard to be as non-violent as possible with my life. I instruct my kids not to killbugs just because they can.  I refuse to set out mouse poison or traps anymore.  A couple of days ago I accidentally smear-killed a bug on my computer screen when I simply meant to flick it away….and I felt a twinge of guilt for flippantly ending a life that was only days long to begin with.

 

But on the other hand, I cannot deny that the sacrificial lives of so many mice, rodents, fruit flies, and pigs have led to the most incredible medical breakthroughs. (I should clarify here that I’m NOT talking about cosmetics testing on animals). In the last decade or so, a novel method in genetic engineering called CRISPR has been developed and has gone gangbusters in the biotech world. It is a method for editing harmful pieces of DNA sequence in genes associated with diseases. This technology is offering new hope for devastating diseases like Huntington’s, hemophilia, and malaria, just to name a few. But at the very heart of CRISPR and other gene therapies and almost all newly developed pharmaceuticals, there are countless animals who have suffered and given their lives. Their lives were taken so we could know when something was safe enough to try on a human.

 

You may be thinking I’m nuts.  They’re just mice. Or, they’re just fruit flies, they don’t mean anything. I used to feel this way. But now, when I see that we are all interconnected, that all of us came from the same stardust, I can’t help but wonder what gives us the right to cage and experiment on other beings.

I don’t have a solution to my dilemma, but I’m beginning to feel very strongly that just like indigenous peoples would pay respect to animals that gave up their lives to be food, so we in the medical and science communities should pay serious respect to all of the critters in creation who have suffered that we might not have to.

 

That just like patients are made aware when someone has donated blood or organs to them, they should be made aware of these other sacrifices made for them.

That when we do ridiculous yet groundbreaking feats like growing human ears on the back of mice, we offer thanks in humility.

That when we clone animals without completely understanding how they will live and age and die, that we still call their lives valuable.

That when our lives improve because of medical and drug treatments, we remember to not only be grateful for scientists and health care providers but also the animals those treatments were first tested on.

I don’t know if there is any harmony at all in the way we are striving so hard to stay alive and free of disease at the expense of other sentient beings. Is it possible to find some sort of balance in this?  I don’t really have any answers other than that I don’t believe at all that creation was simply handed to humans to do whatever they want with. And maybe this is all a part of the journey to increased consciousness. Maybe this is a struggle we must go through to reach the next planes.  Or, maybe there is no ultimate solution, no ultimate way to be.  Maybe the whole point is to be grateful, and humble, and to recognize on a daily basis that life is not all about us.

When You White-Knuckle Life…

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Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass

 

 

 

 

This Is My Greatest Fear… And It Has A NAME!

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Photo credit: Elsamuko

“Fear can be known as the most virulent and damaging virus known to humankind.” 
― Gerald G. Jampolsky, Love Is Letting Go of Fear

I”m not afraid of dying.  It’s the “being dead” part that I haven’t always been so keen on. Which is kind of paradoxical because in the past I wasn’t always so keen on life either.

I’m not talking about angst over my corpse lying in the ground somewhere, or perhaps my cremated ashes scattered. I’m not really worried about whether or not people will come to my funeral or remember me for any amount of time after I’ve passed.

Like every other human, I don’t know what happens definitively after we die.  Do we join up in a great gathering of souls?  Do we reincarnate? Do we meld back into Ultimate Consciousness? I have fewer and fewer convictions about life after death as I grow older.

In general, what we do after we die isn’t quite as important to me as the “how long” that doing takes.  Does it have an endpoint, or do we just recycle indefinitely?

When I was very young, as I alluded to in my essay, The Surreptitious Subtleties of Space, I began to develop a panic disorder surrounding the idea of eternity.  It all began one evening when I was standing outside in the dark, on the ranch I grew up on in South Texas, looking up into the ebony night sky with its billions of stars. What I first saw as beautiful soon morphed into a terrifying expanse that drove crushing terror into me.

For the first time in my life, I had a real sense of my small-ness; I didn’t possess an understanding of the size of the universe at that point in my life, but it was pretty obvious when looking into space that I’m less than a dot…a nothing when compared to all the Something out there.  At that time in my life, I believed that when we die, we either go to heaven or hell for an eternity.  I had accepted Jesus at a age six, so I wasn’t so concerned about which place I’d end up at, but I was less than thrilled by the idea of “everlasting”.  How could something good last forever? And who really wants to live forever in some static celestial city where somehow God builds us mansions according to our particular preferences and specifications?  The ideas of the afterlife that had been passed on to me seemed dreadful.

My sudden fear of space didn’t help.  If I’m this small compared to all that exists, and there are millions of other people out there, I’m sure to be marginalized by God and pushed to the fringes of heaven.  My poor 7-year-old mind.

These horrible panic attacks stayed with me as I grew up, coming and going in waves.  I only told a few people about them because NO ONE understood what I was talking about.  Most people I was brave enough to tell about my paralyzing fear were dumbfounded, wondering how anyone would NOT want to live forever?  “Is nihilism a better option?” they would ask me. Others would blow me off with trite statements, like “You just need to trust God.”  Anyone who struggles with panic knows that you can not reason or logic your way out of it.

But, as is the case with all secret fears, they become less powerful once you keep speaking about them. As I expanded my understanding of spirituality over the years, the frequency and duration of these attacks gradually decreased.  And to my utter delight, I discovered a few people here and there who panicked over these very same reasons I did.

In the Old Testament book, The Song of Solomon, the writer proclaims that there is nothing new under the sun.  Everything, in general, that happens now has happened before.  This is why I’m now a firm believer that we who have walked through the fire of our fears and come out the other side need to talk about them, so that those who are still afraid know that they are not alone, and so they can loosen the grip of that fear that holds them by learning to speak out as well.

Dealing with big fears seems even easier when there’s a name for them, when enough people struggle with the same thing that they have to describe it with a fancy Greek derivative.  This makes you feel less crazy and less alone.  In my case, I accidentally stumbled across the name of my specific panic attack fear in an article in The Atlantic last year.  Apeirophobia.  I was thrilled…just one more area of my life where I realized “It’s not JUST ME!”

A while back I decided to do a search on Apeirophobia on YouTube, because what can you not find on this platform?  Amazed, I discovered a video where a man described this phobia, and people….it was like he was describing my life and putting into words all that I haven’t been able to say about apeirophobia.  Take a listen – it is SO good:

I still have occasional panic attacks in the middle of the night during periods of stress in my life.  They’ve changed over the years as my belief systems have molded into new ways of thinking and perceiving what is around me.  In some ways though, wrapping my head around the idea of eternity and neverending-ness is harder because of Einstein’s space-time contributions.  If time really is an illusion, are we just experiencing eternity right now, and will time not concern us once we die?  I also think of the Buddhist understanding of the temporal nature of everything.  Ultimately, we are just waves that rise up out of the ocean for a short time and then merge back in, coming up later in another form?  I still have apeirophobic tendencies with these trains of thought, but they sure seem to be much more appealing options than chilling out in my mansion over the hilltop for an everlasting period of linear time.

So, after all that, what is the point of this post?

  1. If you’re terrified of something, it’s pretty darn likely that at least someone, but more probably, many people, are worried about the same thing.
  2. Fears lose their power when you bring them to the light.
  3. Speaking your fears also brings freedom for you, and freedom for others to speak their own.

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

shame
Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.