Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Ultimate Self-Help Tool 
and End to All Suffering

So in the dark place I visited last week - that place to which I might as well bring a toothbrush and extra change of underwear because I know I will visit it again -  I found that there was only one way to ease my pain. My brain tumbled and coiled, bit its own tail, spun like a top, sank deep into the muck of resentment, fear, and jealousy and then breached into the clear air of love and tenderness, only to splash back into the dark water again. It was like watching a lava flow, if the lava flow was also accompanied by the emotional equivalent of actually physically touching the molten, red rock.

As I drove into the tawny hills of the Napa Valley trying to escape my discontent, I noticed little flashes of clarity, like brief openings to the blue sky between the clouds of a rainstorm. In those moments, I was able to become present with my own tender heart, and to find the love and care for another that is always there, inside, glowing like a fireball in my chest.

I discovered that I could send love to the people I was eating out my own heart about. That if I chanted "I send you all my love", the pain would cease, briefly. It was the only relief I could find, but it was also hard to stay there. I wondered why I didn't just reside in that place, but for some reason I kept kicking myself out of it, returning to the dark fires of my tortured soul. But then I'd remember again, and I'd send my love again. During meditation, I started visualizing a white light coming from the heavens down into the center of my skull and through my body and entering the earth again. Then I visualized a beaming white light from my heart, shooting out in all directions, like a balm of love. I found myself sitting up straight on my cushion, the beam of light holding me up almost like an extra spine, and the white light from my heart throbbing with my pulse.

It's hard to send light and love to people you feel have wronged you. In thinking about my own experience, I'm aware that it's the "wronged" part that I cling to. The self-righteousness and indignation at being treated this way is what feels so painful. And I think that's true for most of us. If you suggest to a hurting person that the way past the pain might be to do the exact opposite of what our instincts tell us to do -which is to ruminate, stew, pick the scab, and seek refuge in anger and self-righteousness - you so often get the 'Yeah, right" response. It's like this is the hardest thing in the world to do. Like to suggest that sending love and regard and letting go of resentment is the same as suggesting that we aren't important enough to be treated well. But this clinging to hate and anger, self-righteousness and victimhood only hurts us, it doesn't hurt the people who have "wronged" us. I know how it feels to not want to let go of the sense that we are victims. It's a safe place to be and it feels good, in a weird sort of way, like playing with a loose tooth. I also know how it feels to, even briefly, drop that story and send love to someone I'm angry at. I know the relief from pain that accompanies this, even if I can't usually stay there for very long.

Tonglen is another technique that I often forget to use, but that works in those moments of intense anguish when I feel backed against a wall of emotional pain. With Tonglen, we breathe in the pain of all creatures who are feeling the way we're feeling - hurt, betrayed, angry, lost, sad, abandoned, frightened - and we breath out healing, love, and light to ease the suffering. It goes against all human instincts to take on more pain, but with this practice, we take it in in order to ease the suffering of others. It's the ultimate act of selflessness. But when we do it, we find that the pain is transformed into sympathy, care, and a desire to help, and instead of pain, we find that we are breathing in the connection we have with all beings who suffer. It connects us all.

So, in moments of pain, when every fiber of your being wants to lash out at others or yourself, disappear, escape, or lose yourself in helpless rage and self-destruction, can you:

1) Chant "I send you all my love" to one who you feel has wronged you or not treated you right?
2) Visualize a white light from the heavens coming into your heart, and your heart spreading that light out in all directions, like a nimbus of love?
3) Breathe in the pain of all beings who feel that pain that you feel, and breathe out ease, light, and healing?
4) Chant "May you be healthy/May you be happy/May you be wise/may you be free from suffering", changing the 'you' to 'I', and to the name of not only people in your life who you care about, but the people in your life to whom who you feel anger or pain?
 And if the answer to this question is 'No', can you look at that and discover where your resistance lies? We all must start where we are, but it's useful to understand just why we choose to suffer rather than ease suffering. I find this resistance in myself, as well. It's as if suffering feels so much safer than letting go, that we'd rather writhe in pain. Like touching a hot stove, feeling the skin burning, but choosing to keep our hand to the flame rather than snatching it away. I don' t know why we forget these lessons so often, but if I'm confident of nothing else, I'm positive that the Universe will continue to send us into situations that will remind us to keep letting go, letting go, letting go, until we Remember.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not All Little Girls Who Wander are Lost

I’m sitting in the Oakville Grocery on the plaza in Healdsburg on a Sunday evening at 5:30, enjoying a glass of Chardonnay and a salad of greens, currants, chicken, walnuts, and goat cheese. There’s a table of three guys at the other side of the outdoor patio who are trying to figure out why women are the way they are. At another table, an Australian man assails his friends with tales of a woman who’s chasing him even though she knows he’s married. Ah, love.

When I get agitated, I wander. As a little girl, wherever I found myself, on trips with the family, summer camp, staying with friends on their ranch with their horses, I would inevitably find myself wandering off into the wilderness. I would wander and I would daydream, away from people and whatever they wanted from me. I would get lost in the heat and the smells, especially around water. If possible, I’d sit in water or have my feet in it, if I couldn’t swim in it, and I’d just let my mind run, like a Border Collie off the leash.

I’d spin stories in my head of being a brave, strong, beautiful woman. Inevitably I’d be living a life of my own – passionate, creative, unique - and never the same life twice. Sometimes I’d be riding a fiery horse, sometimes I’d be driving some powerful car, but I was always in control. Except when I was being saved by the strong, sexy hero. But just as often, I’d be the one saving him.

I’m always needing to move, like a shark, so this weekend, having no plans and nobody to not have plans with, I decided to get in the car and drive. Yes, I know, the Gulf is on fire with spilled oil and we should cut back on our driving. I’m an environmentalist; I get it. But driving calms me, even more so if I don’t know where I’m going. I had a vague plan: the Napa Valley, possibly Calistoga. It’s warm, looks like Italy, the hills are the color of lions and the air smells of sage and wine.

Of course, it being a summer weekend, I could find no reasonably priced hotels online, but I decided to go anyway. It’s only a couple of hours from home, after all.

Highways are like constant choice-points. The signs taunt us with unexplored roads. I mean, what if I got off at Old Mill Road from Highway 12 North? What does it look like? Who lives there? What experiences might I have? As a kid on road trips – and even as an adult on them – my eyes would always follow those roads that crawl to meet the horizon, wondering where they went and half-wishing I could be on them to find out.

So when I saw the exit to Sonoma, I decided, at the last minute, to take it, and found myself in the midst of a half-marathon. Hundreds of sweaty women with numbers pinned to their shirts, drinking water and wine and shopping in stores that were dark from a recent power outage. In the plaza was a small wine festival, and somewhere, a band pumped out rock & roll standards.

After perusing Sonoma, I got in the car again and drove north. Hwy 12 was clogged with a mysterious backup right around the turnoff to Sugarloaf State Park, so I took that road, and found myself, within 30 minutes, soaking my feet in a shady creek, writing in my journal. After that, I hiked up the dusty hill (Having quick-changed out of my summer dress and into shorts and a tank top) and found a burbling creek of tiny waterfalls tucked into a small canyon. I sat, and as my blood pumped after the climb up the hill, so did my creativity. My heart opened. I thought of that little girl, wandering the hills. The dusty smell of my hike had brought her back to me.

I thought about her wandering, and, my grownup wandering. I felt in that moment, perfectly balanced in the in-between place that is reality: not happy, not unhappy. ;Just there, observing the water-skeeters riding the surface tension of the clear water, doing a dance with my toes. I was shaded by pines and bay and something I couldn’t identify. A delicious little breeze dried the sweat on my arms. Nothing had to happen in those moments, nothing had to be decided. I just sent out the wish that everyone – including myself – could find peace and release. The mood ring I wore that said ‘I Love You’, in that moment became not so much a symbol of one person’s love, but of the love of the universe, which a friend had just reminded me, is always coming to us if we can only see it.

Then I hiked back down the hill, quick-changed back into my sundress, and drove north to Healdsburg, where I knew a little cheap motel off the highway that just might have a vacancy. I had stayed there once on a cold birthday in May a few years ago, running from the fog and seeking the sun. The sweet woman behind the counter greeted me cheerfully, gave me my choice of rooms, and showed me the pool, hot tub, and dry sauna, and then I drove into town, and here I am. The sun is sinking, the wine has warmed my blood, and the light is playing yellow-green in the leaves. ;Three police cars – Healdsburg’s finest – just almost collided in the intersection, en route to some local tragedy. My wine is gone; time for the next adventure.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Yesterday, I went to have my astrological chart read. I'd never done that before; I mean, I've always known I'm a Gemini, but that was about the extent of it. I still have barely a grasp of what it all means, but the reading itself was fascinating, if only as a way to look at my life in larger terms, as a journey and not a series of events that have nothing to do with one another. This man knew nothing about me, not even what I did for a living, before he started my reading, and all I could do while he talked was to nod 'yes.' Yes to the intimate familiarity with the scary Underworld places, yes to my ability to sit with the scariness, to accept those experiences as helpful and meaningful; yes to me ability to have insight into mine and others' motives and the complexities of the psyche, yes to my ability to sit with others' scary experiences, to make it OK for them to be there; yes to my tendency to get codependent in relationships, yes to my continual need for new experiences, new knowledge; yes to my deep contact with spirituality and with the larger global consciousness that makes itself known in symbols; yes to the sense that I've always had of a staggeringly powerful life force within me that yearns for freedom; yes to the intensity of my pain, to my tendency to sacrifice myself and then get caught in a victim/martyr story; yes to my deep empathy that makes the world difficult to be in, yes to my struggles, yes to me constant yearning for a nest, a place of comfort, a safe harbor in relationship; yes to my need to create, to process, to integrate, and to witness life's coiling mysteries; yes to my constant moving, thinking, and seeking, yes to my feeling misunderstood and separate. There was so much information to process, I still don't know whether I grasp it all yet.

But the next day, today, right now, I was sitting in a meeting at work and all of a sudden I knew I had to get out of there. Blood sugar crash. I felt like I was going to faint. All of a sudden a wave of pain engulfed me, like I was sitting in a pit of fire. I actually felt like there might be steam rising from me. A friend of mine might suggest that maybe it wasn't my pain, but it might as well have been. I sat in the meeting pulling on my hair the way I do when I'm nervous, waiting to see what it would do. I felt faint, I felt constricted. Finally, in the middle of the meeting, I got up and left, raced to my office, ate some fruit, drank some water, then lay on the floor. And as I lay, the sobs came and I cried in deep gasps, like crying for the whole universe of suffering that exists, not only my own. My brain roiled and coiled frantically, like a cat in a bag. It kept telling me: I can't do this. I can't do this. It hurts too much. I need too much, a need that nobody can ever fill. And if I can't be filled, then I won't survive. The pain alone will kill me. I was frantic, desperate. When the tears subsided I got up from the floor and knew I had to write it all down. Out of me.

Now I'm writing with trembling hands, the vestiges of my blood sugar crash, and a deep childlike terror in the pit of my stomach. It's like being on a life raft in the middle of a huge ocean, with no ships in sight and no rescue. I am the only one I can count on, and I can't even count on me.

It sounds so dire. And it is. Is this post a cry for help? Possibly. Though I doubt any help exists. I kept asking myself in the meeting: Are you strong enough to handle this pain? Can you take it? And I kept answering myself: I don't know. I don't know. But here I am, typing. I did survive it. Do you think I'm crazy? Possibly. But maybe I'm really, really sane. Maybe, as the astrological guy suggested, one of my karmic lessons is to trust that the Universe will provide for me, and confronting these intense fears - even in a Friday late morning staff meeting -  staring them in the blood-filled eyes,  is a way to learn to trust, the way people with phobias have to confront their fears in order to get over them.

I still don't know if I can do this. I suppose eventually we get used to the waves crashing, or we don't, and we let them take us back to the place where we started. But here I am, still doing my work, still making plans with my friends. When things are dark, we let habit take over until we can exert more control over ourselves. I'll sit here and wait for the sun to rise, as it always does.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Light Around the Door

Last night, loneliness sat with me in my bed. For some reason, the quality of the darkness in the room was different than normal. In my bedroom, there's a pocket door that leads into the kitchen. Who knows what the builder was thinking. But there was a light around the door that isn't normally there. I was dozing off and the breeze from the open window ruffled the curtains, sounding like the ruffle of someone's dress. I woke from a half-sleep and didn't know where I was, and felt that there was someone in the room with me. The room felt like it had disconnected from the rest of the house and was a spaceship, hurtling through the cosmos, untethered to the rest of the world as I knew it. I felt like the only person in existence. Like if I opened the bedroom door, I would step out into nothingness. I lay there in bed, my mind not quite grasping the light around the edge of the door, the ruffle of the wind through cloth, and the deep emptiness of the world outside the windows. Eventually I went to sleep, dreamed about champagne, and awoke still feeling like I was in a dream. But without the champagne. I went into the kitchen and the light was still on in there, and the room smelled like buttered popcorn.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Building Fairy Houses

When I was a little girl, I used to spend hours playing in the front and back yards of my parents' house. I'd sit in amongst the plants, mesmerized by the flowers, bugs, sticks, and stones that I found there. I used to build little tiny fairy towns out of leaves pegged together with sticks, packing the dirt in to indicate the floor plan, then adding furniture, walls, and roofs. I was fascinated at the thought that these little creatures of my imagination would people the little villages at night, after I had gone to sleep. I imagined them living their quiet fairy lives, darting in and out of the doors of my little leaf towns.

When I was 25, the summer after I graduated from college, I decided to go on a solo backpacking trip around England and Ireland. I had never traveled alone before and the trip proved to be one of the defining times of my life. I still sometimes smell a smell like that of the peat moss burning in the grey skies on the west coast of Ireland, even though I sincerely doubt anyone in Richmond, California is burning peat moss. One of my adventures involved traveling by bus to the city of Cong, outside of Galway, where they filmed the John Wayne film "The Quiet Man." Cong was a tiny little town, basically a bar and some houses. I stayed in a hostel a little outside of town. I knew nobody, but soon struck up one of those insta-friendships with a gender-bending punk rocker from Seattle. Anyway, during my visit to this creepy little place, I started feeling anxious. I can't remember why, but it might have had to do with being lonely there, having no transportation and very few buses out of town,  and sensing a strange, dark energy in that town. I can't remember where the punk rocker was the day I went on a hike and found myself in a mystical forest, like the kind you'd read about in kids' books, with green moss all around, wet, dripping, primordial branches, and a still, dark pond in the middle of it. It was like I had stepped out of the modern world and ended up in a Tolkein novel.

I was anxious, lonely, and probably a little bit frightened. I was alone on my first solo trip, away from family and the comforts of home. I was in a place of weird vibes. So, to quell my anxiety, I sat down in that wet forest, by the edge of the silent pond, and started making fairy houses.

You may have heard of the term "flow", coined, some say, by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, and referring to a state of relaxed, focused, joyful attention to a task, when nothing else seems to intrude and we lose time. You may have had experiences of getting so lost in a task that you looked up to find that hours have gone by and you didn't even notice. That's what happened in that damp forest in Cong, Ireland. I lost time, and in the flow state, the agitation and anxiety left me.

In that hour or two that I spent building a tiny little town for nonexistent beings, I went back into my childhood and was five or six or seven again, finding solace in the miniature world right in front of my eyes. Nothing else mattered and there were no threats out there. When I came back to my world again, I felt better. I went back to the hostel, and, I believe, took the next bus out of town (which was the next afternoon.) But that afternoon in the forest stayed with me and the memory comes back to me sometimes. Inevitably I wonder when I lost the instinct to play the way that little girl - or the 25-year-old about to go out into the world of grownups - played. 

Last week I was at my sister's house for dinner to celebrate my mom's birthday. It was dusk and the sun was sinking. The front door was half open, and from my chair I could look out and see my four-year-old niece standing in a patch of flowers, mesmerized by the flowers and bugs. She and everything around her was limned with golden light from the setting sun; everything glowed. She hummed as she peered under the leaves of the yellow dahlia, looking for who knows what. I sat, entranced, remembering myself as a little girl and how it felt to be wandering in the world of the plants and tiny folk. It's good to know that world still exists out there, and that I can still - at 40 - find it anytime I want. 

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Life wobbles and flows, like some child's toy. There are the highlights - the sitting in the sunlight with a dear friend, talking, making plans, getting excited about the coming days - then the mistakes and the hitches when I act in ways I'm not proud of and feel the stabs of guilt and shame, and feel like throwing myself in the water in my frustration at not being perfect. There are the days waking up when it hurts to even think about getting out of bed, but there's no choice, then the successes at work where I feel the elation of doing something well. There are the lonely nights and the distinctly not-lonely ones. There are the extended periods of joy when I try not to worry about the dark cloud coming back. There are the moments of realizing that, in that moment, I'm happy, and feeling stunned that that's the case, as well as worried, wondering if that joy is too dependent on someone else's place in my life. There's the crabbiness,  the pettiness, the disliking someone for no apparent reason, and then the bouts of compassion, kindness, and liking someone for no known reason, either. The moments when the most subtle shift of moods happen, where it's clear that the other side of the coin of irritation is an amused acceptance, the other side of the coin of a schoolgirl crush is the moment when I see the crush for who he is: a maddeningly imperfect human.

It's getting harder and harder for me to pretend or to expect that life will ever offer anything constant, certain, or trustworthy. And at 40, finally understanding, or beginning to understand this anyway, is really sort of frightening. It's scary to know that I can't trust my own mind. The difference between the moments of joy and the moments of pain are so staggering that it's like I experience them as two distinctly different people. How on earth can we humans handle this, hosting this ghost in our heads that tell us things that aren't true, and feeling, in the moment, that those emotions are the truest experiences in the world?

But the flip side is that as I get more and more frustrated at my inability to foresee the troughs and peaks of the waves, there's part of me that is giving up trying to foresee them, and I suspect that this is the key: giving up the expectation of anything ever staying consistent is the way to stop the suffering at this unchangeable fact.  But the core longing for something I can count on, absolutely count on, is so strong that giving up that hope seems impossible, like letting go of my arm, or just choosing to stop breathing forever. You can't let go of or stop something that is so intrinsic to you. I think if I learn enough from my mistakes, that i won't keep making them, or if I just discover that one hidden secret that will unlock the universe, I will no longer have bouts of depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness. Or that if I can fit the right key into the right lock, I'll be guaranteed success in everything: relationships, work, enlightenment, family life, I'll even become more attractive and people will like me more.

What is it about the human brain that thinks there's an answer out there, anyway?