Recognizing Shenpa and the Struggle of Attachment

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I hadn’t planned to come to Mexico City, but when my program at Esalen fell through due to the storms we had this winter I did a quick whirl through my mental rolodex of places I’d like to go and people I’d like to see. So here I am, staying with an old friend from my summer in Santa Cruz. I’ve experienced every emotion this week- the empowerment and terror of solo traveling, the peace and stress of moving through a new city, the joys and sorrows of being alive. I came here with lots of notes I’d made on things I wanted to write about over the last month, but sitting in Maria’s peaceful apartment this morning, this is what came out of my fingers as I sat down to write (and to wait for Sufjan Stevens tickets to go on sale, if I’m being totally honest :P).

Two things have been surfacing for me lately that I’m working on reconfiguring, both necessitating the release of attachment (which it turns out continues to be amply hard to do).

The first is my tendency- knowing or unknowing- to use stress to motivate myself through my perceived to-do list. On the days I don’t roll out of bed and bike to the gym, I have a few hours before I need to be out the door. And yet, I find it so difficult to relax in my routine. The notion that I should just trust myself to get everything I need to do done makes me anxious. Instead of focusing on making coffee, and then focusing on meditating, etc, I run through the list in my brain, trying to move as quickly as possible. I’m not sure why I’m so afraid of being late- I rarely am. This tension between my mind wanting to get everything done before I run out of time conflicts with the pace my body wants to move at, naturally creating stress. I get attached to the idea that if I don’t finish everything, I’ll be late, and then everything will crash and burn. (My subconscious really has its melodramatic side). I wrote myself a note on an index card that says, “It’s okay to not get everything 100% done. It won’t kill you.” We’ll see how the does for inspiration.

The second is something I’m realizing has been a long term shenpa for me, something that has caused me pain repeatedly. (Worth reading anything by Pema Chodron for more on this). I’m very aware that I try to create a sense of security in my life by planning, which gives me a false sense of control. Taking that idea further though, I’ve realized how much pain I’ve caused myself when I’m applying this to situations of uncertainly. I think it started with watching my parent’s relationship dissolve slowly over many years. As I progressed through my adolescence and teenage years I numbed out my feelings whenever I heard them fighting, turning to music, books, situations that took me outside of my house like summer camp and my first serious relationship. It always broke my heart to leave the seemingly stable “family” communities or dynamics I found among groups of friends at summer camp, and I’d cry the whole way home- from the time I was 12-15. I dealt with hard outcomes by not really dealing with them, and at age 17, when my parents finally announced they were getting divorced, I was utterly devastated.

So I took to assuming the most negative outcomes for uncertain situations, and then trying to prepare myself for them. Unknowingly, of course.

This, coupled with an inability to validate and communicate my needs and feelings (which two years of therapy has begun to finally resolve), has gotten me into a lot of bad situations. If you assume that people are going to disappoint you, that your relationships will fail, that people won’t return the effort you put in- then how can that not become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Attaching to these negative outcomes made me feel like I had the upper hand, that I could act first and not get hurt. Turns out that doesn’t work at all. (Shocking).

I’ve been reading and re-reading two books by Rebecca Solnit recently- A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and The Faraway Nearby (which I think everyone should read). I came across a section in the latter which reads, “Buddhism takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what you are going to do about it.” She continues later, “The coolness of Buddhism isn’t indifference but the distance once gains on emotions, the quiet place from which to regard the turbulence. From far away you see the pattern, the connections, and the thing as a whole, see all the islands and routes between them. Up close it all dissolves into texture and incoherence and immersion, like a face going out of focus just before a kiss.”

I connected wholeheartedly with these passages as the main focus of the work I’ve been doing through therapy, meditation, acupuncture and efforts of self-care and self-love over the last three years. As I begin to zoom out from my actions and understand what motivated them, I feel aftershocks of pain at the ways I acted and the ways I treated both myself and others. My therapist reminds me that I was young, and my friends remind me I can’t carry guilt for things others don’t want to work through. I’m surprised by the grief I’ve found in these reflections and new perspectives, but I’m sitting with it.

If nothing else, I can be empowered by the lessons I’ve learned, the actions I won’t repeat, and my continued effort to free myself from attachment across the board- however difficult and arduous of a journey that may be.

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Monday Morning Thoughts on (Urban) Planning & Meditation

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Here in San Francisco most of the houses are built so close together they are either touching or are only separated by a few inches. This makes sense given that there is such limited space (49 sq miles with height restrictions). You’d think if this was the case there would be some uniformity in the height of the houses on a single block, to give it some coherence. Occasionally this is the case, more often on blocks in the outer neighborhoods where a small handful of architects designed a good deal of the properties. You’ll still find sets of painted ladies (groups of three or more identical victorian style houses) where uniformity was clearly considered key, but you’ll also find blocks where a few of the painted ladies have been ripped down so these formerly neat rows are punctuated by boxy, modern-ish, rectangular houses. More often than not, most blocks are built with the heights and shapes of the houses jutting out at all kinds of angles and heights, like a miniature city skyline contained on a single block.

I was observing this phenomenon on my own block, while waiting for MUNI the other morning, and it reminded me of the way my mind works sometimes. As a natural born planner I’ve realized that one of my methods of attempting to feel secure and stable about the future is try to plan it all out- or at the very least, fantasize about what all the potential scenarios could look like in order to feel prepared. In this method, all of the houses on the block are built with intention, they all aligned evenly with thought out, corresponding color schemes and heights. A leads to B. Cause and effect relate with a clear sense of intentionality.

Ah, if only that was how life really worked.

But, of course, it doesn’t. We have no way to anticipate what the next phase of life, or even what the next day will bring. We can only be fairly confident, given all previous events, that it will all manage to fit on the same block- in spite of the unexpected shadows that will be cast. The most ironic part about trying to feel secure about the future by figuring out what it will look like is, of course, that it makes me really fucking anxious. So much for feeling secure and stable 😛

Luckily, through my meditation practice, I’m beginning to gain awareness in the moment that I’m trying to plan through fears or anxiety- whether it’s just forming to-do lists for the rest of the day, or those more long term projections that play out like telenovelas in my brain. Once I realize what my mind is doing, I can zoom out and ask myself what is triggering this defense mechanism. Because of the way my heart and brain work in tandem, it seems to often be a feeling that I need to really sit with and experience (while giving myself active self-love and self-support) before it will release me. The more regularly I’ve meditated, and then put into practice what I’ve learned through meditation throughout the day, the more of these types of windows I encounter, and the more opportunities I have to return to a balanced emotional equilibrium. As feelings of security and stability have begun to emerge from knowing I can support myself through what each day brings, the habit of descending into the frenzied feeling of, “if I can just get x, y, and z done, then I’ll feel okay” has slowly begun to subside.

I’ve been experiencing a new sensation lately. It’s one of being able to relax into my unstructured time with enjoyment- something that I didn’t even realize I’d lost until it started to return.

I’ll probably always be a planner, but as I’m learning to let go of the need for control, I’m beginning to learn the joy of spontaneity. Who ever would have thought that could happen?

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On Strength

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Back when I was young and naive, a phase that I’m hoping has passed but how can we ever really be sure, I thought that strength was about power. Having the power to lift, wield, dictate, reason,  choose, decide. To be in control.

The universe has a funny way of buffing out that naïveté, doesn’t it?

Today my understanding of strength is nearly the total opposite. I understand strength as having the will to overcome in the moments when you are at your lowest, the ability to accept fault, apologize, choose vulnerability over pride, and acknowledge the humanity of ourselves and others. Strength is not something you are born with, it is something you acquire slowly, with intention and support. It is the kind of thing you get more of by giving it away, and it is a thing to be worn, quietly but proudly, like a badge of life earned in battle.

Today what I associate most strongly with strength is the notion of resilience. I admire and work towards the ability to have awareness around the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of life. My succulent tattoo has something to do with that. I got it partly as a reminder of my own resilience, having made great progress on moving from a harrowingly negative body image to a much more positive (though of course not perfect) one. I wanted to adorn my body with something I thought was beautiful, and in that way remind myself that my body is a beautiful thing meant to be loved. (For the record, tattoo needles hurt a lot more than acupuncture needles 😛 )

These sometimes symmetrical desert plants have found a home here in San Francisco. They somehow thrive in this ever changing micro climate environment. The ones I love the most appear in the sidewalk cracks beneath established desert flower beds, escape artists making a break for it and surviving on their own. My succulent tattoo, artistically recreated from a photo I took of just one such sidewalk escape artist, reminds me about the beauty of survival, and the art of carrying on.

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Shoutout to Morgan for her monthly poetry nights, and giving me topics to write on 🙂 

Acupuncture, Mindful Eating & Meaningful Change

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A lot of interesting things have been coming together for me lately, intertwined in a typical style that prevents me from picking a single cause to attribute all the good stuff to. No matter- if it’s working, it’s working right?

On my last visit to LA, Lina suggested I try finding a student acupuncture clinic in San Francisco. Having passed along a few interesting nuggets of information from her first two quarters of acupuncture school, I was totally up to give acupuncture a try. I figured throwing some ancient Chinese medicine into the mix with therapy, exercise and meditation could only be a positive thing.

And fortunately I was 1000% correct- but not entirely for the reasons you might think.

My first acupuncture appointment lasted for two hours, and it cost me a whopping $30. I arrived and was introduced to the group of students I would be treated by, plus their supervisor Catherine (who reminds me so much of Lily Tomlin- or at least her character on Grace and Frankie- in the best possible way). The spent an hour taking turns talking to me, asking me about my thoughts and feelings, and giving supportive feedback in a way that no western medical practitioner ever has. As a true extrovert I couldn’t help moving into tour guide mode since I didn’t know any of them- resulting in me cracking them all up at several points as I shared intimate details of my life and the work I’ve done on self-love, self-care, and self-growth over the last three years. To me the set up was the extrovert’s dream therapy- I had a supportive audience giving me compassionate attention, plus they actively validated the work I’ve done- being told I was the most self-aware 25 year old they’d ever met was, to me, the highest praise I’ve gotten in years (from those who knew nothing else about me).

Two really crucial things came out of my initial conversation with Catherine and her team of students- and neither of them is related to the part where they put needles into me (though I’ll get to that later).

The first is that Catherine brought up mindful eating, something I’d read about long ago at the beginning of working through my eating disorder. At the time I first learned about it, I was nowhere near capable of carrying it out. Fast forward three years, with six months of daily meditation under my belt (or the spandex band of my yoga pants, if I’m being honest), I was able to add this to my mindfulness practice with really incredible outcomes. Instead of wanting to eat more at the end of a meal, I was totally full. Sometimes I even notice I’m full halfway through my meal and stop eating. I. Stop. Eating. This is unbelievable to me. I enjoy the things I cook more, and my roommates are benefiting from the most recent spate of broccoli-garlic-kale-chard-feta-toasted-hazelnut-flax-seed-quinoa bowls. (Today’s had roasted sweet potatoes in it- also bomb). I was able, for the first time ever, to truly decide that the way eating chocolate (and I drive in a tour van that has a box of Ghirardelli squares next to me… every day…) or other processed sugar makes me feel is not worth it. Now, instead of trying to prevent myself from eating candy, ice cream, etc, I physically do not want or crave it. I did not even know I was mentally capable of getting to this point. I’m sleeping better because I’m not longer coming home and binge eating at night, plus I’ve accepted that I don’t enjoy the effects of alcohol enough to want to drink it, 90% of the time. I’m in bed by 10 and waking up naturally between 5 and 6am. Every day. And I love that. I love waking up before the sun rises, having some time to myself, and being able to watch from my living room windows as the sky above the Bay turns orange, red, and pink. I love the color of the sky at dawn, and the feeling of biking through the city while it is, in essence, still asleep.

But that’s all for another blog post, because the second thing to come out of going to acupuncture has been even more striking, and undoubtedly related to everything I just said.

While running through all the typical questions, I was asked when the last time I’d gotten my period was. And well, I had no idea. I’d been taking my birth control continuously for the last.. 6 six years? Plus I’d been on it for 10. I figured it was just as convenient to not deal with getting my period if all of my healthcare providers were assuring me there was no reason not to. So I posed the question to women sitting in front of me- was there any reason I should go off of it? I’d been curious what it would be like to go off of, but hadn’t found any resource that convinced me life would be any different without it.

Needless to say, they very politically, in a non-pressuring way shared their views on the subject. They summed it up to, if it works for you great, if you are dealing with issues related to your emotions, sometimes being on hormones can have an effect on that. Those were the magic words I’d been waiting to hear, and I stopped taking it the next day. I assured them, with enough vocal emphasis to get a laugh out of the room, that I’m not currently sleeping with anyone- and since it’s looking like I may end up being celibate for nearly the entirety of my twenties- I’m not too concerned.  (Cut to me telling this (with fewer details) to my 87 year old, male psychiatrist and him telling me, “it’s always a good idea to keep some prophylactics in the bedside drawer.” Just laughed out loud as I relived the memory while typing that.)

I’ve now been off the birth control for three weeks, and the difference in my overall emotional stability is shocking. I of course need to point out that this is combined with daily meditation, exercise,  healthy eating, and bi-monthly therapy- but whatever the combination is, it’s working. Now, instead of heading for the kitchen when I start to be overcome with emotions (which is overall much less often), I sit and meditate, giving myself the self-love and support I need. Sometimes I’ll just lie on my bed or my rug and listen to bright eyes or death cab, the same way I used to when I was 15. And unlike the feelings of self-loathing I used to get after binge eating to try and cope with my emotions, Conor and Ben just make me feel better, by reminding me (through song nonetheless :P) that everyone feels angsty as hell and sad and upset and depressed sometimes. And diving into those feelings and really being present with them is so much better in both the short term and the long run than trying to stifle them.

I opened the freezer the other morning and took note that my roommate had obtained a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. For the first time in, well maybe ever, I felt nothing. No internal sigh, knowing that eventually I would eat all of it. No longing to sneak a spoonful even though it was 7am. Just, nothing.

And hell, what an incredible feeling that was.

Oh, and I almost forgot- you can barely feel the needles 🙂