A Difficult Conversation
Tonight I’ve just returned from my third MBSR classroom. Jim is watching an episode of Black Mirror and I’m snuggled up next to him on the couch. All is good.
Before class, I got to Cambridge early, got some shopping done at the Korean grocery story, and stopped by 1369 Coffee House to get some writing done but the tiny cafe was packed. Each seat was taken by studious Cambridge folks with round eyeglasses and cups of caffeine, so after a few sips of my latte, I got up to find a roomier place. Walking east down Cambridge Street, my mind was rocking with emotion.
On my drive up to the city from the Cape, I had a difficult conversation with a family member that had gotten me riled up. I felt unheard, confused, invalidated, and attacked. I tried to maintain my cool but could see from a perspective slightly outside the conversation that I was attached to a specific outcome, not accepting of what was occurring, and therefore getting sucked in. My palms were sweaty, my throat choked up, my chest thick, heavy, and compressing, and the feeling was of being attacked. Most of this dissipated after I shared what happened with a close friend, but some still stayed with me and sank me like a deflating balloon.
And just like that, my afternoon has now taken on a sullen turn. So quickly and easily I allow these little hiccups throw me off course. How does one practice emotional resilience?
So there I am walking down Cambridge Street, in a sour mood, lips terse and down, face tense and knitted into knots when suddenly I feel warm sunlight on my face. I appreciate that for a second and realize the wind is also quite lovely and the sounds of a live city were humming all around.
My mood lifts and I step away from my cloud of sullenness to savor the beautiful moment I am in. This space reminds of all the things that I can be grateful for in my life: the beauty of the moment I am in, my new practice of mindfulness, my relationships, the work I am doing, and the purpose I am coming into alignment with. How quickly perspective can switch how the world occurs to me. One minute I am walking in the cold shadows and the next, beaming with sunlight.
One of the week’s homework assignments had been to notice and write about one pleasant experience daily, answering questions like what are the sensations in the body as I go through the experience, what are my moods, thoughts, and feelings, and was I aware as it was occurring?
As the week progressed, I began to notice more pleasant experiences in general. I caught myself in moments of unawareness and lifted my head out of the cloud of busy-ness and distraction, noting where I was and what I was feeling. It can be a starting revelation how often the veil descends and I am not in my body or in the moment.
In the past, I plowed through life haphazardly without taking time to smell the roses. I might fake smelling them because it was something I knew I “should be” doing, but my mind was on other things I ought to be doing. Even if there was a moment that was truly spectacular and wonderful that I wanted to savor, I didn’t know how to be present enough to do so.
Now, I am practicing how to relish and appreciate a moment. I am getting practiced in pulling all my energy in buzzing awareness, to feel this wonderful moment in its entirety. I am beginning to notice subtler physical sensations that I hadn’t been able to identify before. I am able to name things that I hadn’t been able to put my finger on. I am learning the faces of my many moods and feelings. Sometimes, they scurry and hide behind each other so I think I am feeling one thing when it’s actually another. It’s a great tool to have in my repertoire.
I notice myself sitting at my laptop and writing a blog post. I feel me sitting in this power, in this creative flow like I never have before. I identify this finally as that flow-state I’ve been yearning to find. Asking myself for many years, Annette – what is the thing that puts you in that flow?
In my adulthood, I didn’t give writing serious consideration because it was so innocuous, so pedestrian an act for me. Even though over my lifetime I’ve spent countless hours writing – stories, poetry, prose, narratives – everything just spilling out of me onto paper. Hours go by before I even think to move or take on another task. And here I was, seeing the act as just a girl writing in her diary.
What do I feel in this Flow State? My chest is full and expansive, down my arms emanates a buzzing like power lines to my fingers that touch the cool keys of the keyboard. It is a deep relaxation, a gravity that grounds me in my seat, deep energy like magma in the earth, that’s rooted in the heart. And with every electric pulse, my fingers fly over the keyboard, tip-tapping my words into existence.
Many times, I don’t even know what’s coming out of me because my fingers know what to write faster than I know what to think. Rarely do I spend time creating an outline or structure for how my writing will go. Instead, I have an idea of what I want to write and my fingers take on the work. It is composed entirely from my heart.
A New Body
This week’s class introduced a yoga sequence that was at least thirty minutes long. The entire time, I kept my eyes shut, feeling the way my muscles strained and flexed. Grasping my left leg close to my body, I really felt this leg of mine for the first time, it was like seeing it with new eyes.
It feels wacky to be saying this, but I marveled at it- this leg, is mine! It’s attached to my body. How I love this leg! How wonderfully heavy, solid, and strong it feels! I was that meme of the kid tripping out looking at his own hands in awe, seeing them for the first time except I was sober in a crowded room doing yoga with 20 other overdressed adults
During the class, I was again dying to share but the mechanics of my mouth had gone inert. Some block had formed from last class and I was unable to take the action to speak up in the large group. Now, it felt even more daunting of a task. In the moments when the group was asked to share their experience and a hushed silence fell over all of us, I locked eyes with one of the teachers several times.
As we drew nearer towards the end of class, she gently volunteered me to share during one of those silent moments and internally, I thanked her, was so grateful to her. I knew she felt my energy spilling over, bursting to share, and desiring to be expressed. Maybe she saw the Me trapped behind bars, clanging loudly and demanding to be seen and heard. In any case, I took it and ran with it. Though I heard my voice trembling and felt my chest pounding loudly, I raised my hand again and again, a second and third time, before the end of class.
Sharing the Fear
At the end of the class, I walked up to the two teachers and shared my fear of speaking up in front of the group. In the past I would have shut down about my vulnerabilities and write it off as being too small and unworthy of anyone’s time and attention. As I’ve been growing into myself, I’ve been finding that more than ever, in these times, sharing is the antidote. It dispels the anxiety, brings the darkness into light, and bridges the gap between my inner world and the outer.
They were so encouraging and supportive, I left the class in high spirits. While the rest of the time had been uneventful and riddled with anxiety, this shift at the end made all the difference to my perception of the class. And it was in this observation of how I felt before I talked with the teachers and after that I am seeing how much self-talk plays a crucial piece in my constructed perception of life. Self talk is not only a way to build self esteem or confidence, but also functions as a part of living mindfully. Am I mindful of how I talk to myself? Do I judge myself for it?
One of our exercises for this week is to fill out an unpleasant experience chart; it asks the same questions as the pleasant experiences exercise that I described earlier. By now, I’ve already filled out two unpleasant experiences as they occurred and was startled to see the kind of thoughts that appeared during the event. Words and phrases like “Fuck this”, “Fuck him”, “Abandoned”, “I fucking suck”, and “I am worried”. None of the thoughts were remotely supportive or encouraging, let alone neutral. Instead, they were pointedly mean, anxious, and isolating.
I wasn’t aware this is how I talk to myself when I go through difficult experiences, and it’s not a surprise. People say that how someone speaks to you is how they speak to themselves and I have definitely hurled these biting words at another person during an argument. Even if I didn’t say it, I’ve definitely thought it in my mind. As we think, we create.
As the week progressed, I found it difficult to remember to fill out the unpleasant experience chart, but was eager to complete the pleasant experiences. It seems I prefer to repress unpleasant experiences than to process then. I am apprehensive to review my thoughts during the experience because I don’t want to see myself this way. I don’t want to acknowledge how mean my thoughts can be.
As for the exercise on mindful eating that I was so confronted by since Week 1, I still have not completed it. It is much too unpleasant an experience for me to even attempt! I avoid this and let it completely slip from my mind so conveniently. It is an arena I don’t even want to touch.
In fact, last night I declared myself vegan after watching What the Health and learning the deal with the egg industry, and here I am sitting in a cafe sipping on a whole milk latte. I mindlessly ordered my usual go-to cafe drink and drank it for a full 15 minutes before face-palming myself.
This is a place for examination.
The Long Game
Over the weekend, I attended an important family event, my sister’s baby shower! Leading up to it, I was nervous and stressing over my family and how the party would go. I wished I hadn’t taken on being the organizer. Tensions were high with my sister and it was causing my enthusiasm to wane. I fantasized about saying, “Fuck You” and forgoing decorations and other accouterments of a party.
Jim pointed out a pretty profound insight this week: about long term versus short term outlooks on relationships. In this moment with my sister, I was looking at things from a very short term perspective, i.e. what was going on Right Now, rather than over the length of our relationship.
When I examined further, I realized I was viewing all my relationships with family through this lens and it, subsequently, was driving me up the wall. It was creating in me an attachment to How Things Should Be, rather than an acceptance of How Things Are. It bothered me that they were doing X, rather than Y. And that they weren’t who I wanted them to be.
When I flipped the switch from a short term perspective to the long term, patience and understanding replace criticism and judgment. I saw that my relationship with them wasn’t the cross-sectional slice of life like I was seeing it as, but rather an unfolding story and journey. What is going on right now, will not be happening in 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, and so on. Allow it to blossom and grow. “It” being life, them, me, the relationship, just everything – the ebb and flow of breath, the ocean, the sunrise and sunset.
On the way up, I listened to Marianne Williamson’s Commune seminar on Relationships as I drove through NYC. In the video cast, she spoke about sharing love in what you do. As I approached the event, I cultivated this mindset instead of anticipating turmoil and stress. I was reminded of what I bring to the table and my responsibility in creating an environment that is warm, inviting, and fun. And it was everything I could have hoped for.
Read more about what I am learning from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course:
week 1: a beginner’s mind
week 2: i hate sharing in big groups
I’m taking this at the Cambridge Health Alliance – Center for Mindfulness and Compassion in Cambridge, MA. Check out link here for information on this course and others like it.