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 🙂 

Bringing Self-Care Home for the Holidays

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There’s a reason they call self-care a practice. Unfortunately it’s not something you simply learn to do and then go on your merry way, having leveled up in the game of adulthood. No, self-care requires continual energy and awareness, and about as many hours of practice as anything else needed for mastery (10,000 hours? 100,000 hours? Still trying to convince myself I could sit still long enough to learn to play the guitar. TBD on that one).

This has been the first year that I’ve headed home for the holidays with the set intention of continuing the self care practices I’ve put in place in SF. Over thanksgiving I diligently meditated daily, and made time to exercise- even if it was only going running for 20 minutes (in the COLD). As a result of this I enjoyed the time I spent with my family more, ate more mindfully and was able to enjoy it, and kept my spending in check (in fact, by rationalizing that the $125 Madewell dress wasn’t worth it I eventually found essentially the same dress at American Apparel, on sale, for $9. George Costanza levels of excitement ensued.)

What in theory seems simple, the notion of continuing the helpful routines of daily life when out of your regular habitat, has radically changed my ability to enjoy being in places and around people that would normally trigger old behaviors that bring me stress and anxiety. Binge eating is the most common of these behaviors, and when surrounded by a lifetime of historic stressors, and delicious holiday food, it’s not hard to see why. This may have been the first Thanksgiving I didn’t anxiously devolve into binge eating followed swiftly by a dose of self-hate and the desire to get back to the West Coast so I could, “be an adult again.”

Back in San Francisco, I had dinner with my cousin, and relayed the success I’d seen in mindfully recreating my routines while in New York. I reflected on the various practices I employ to try and maintain balance (exercise, meditation, therapy, medication and soul enriching communication with friends) and during the conversation I came to an interesting realization. For so many years I thought I needed to figure out how to strong arm myself out of making the decision to binge eat in the moment. What I really needed to figure out was the right combination of self love and self care to prevent myself from reaching my breaking point where I think, “fuck this- I’m binging.”

The hardest part is keeping that in mind when I feel bad, whether physically or emotionally, and I don’t want to go to the gym or be forced to sit with my feelings while meditating. I’m not even close to mastering this, and I still have weeks where I choose chocolate and wallowing over self- love, support, acceptance and motivation.

But I’m also starting to have weeks where I actively, mindfully choose the positive behaviors- and the practice feels like it’s paying off.

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My favorite Thanksgiving outtake

No Exit: Lyft Line Edition

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If there is one experience in San Francisco that provides an inordinate amount of potential writing material it is this: the Lyft Line. If you are not familiar with Lyft Line, it is a variation of your traditional ridesharing service, only with a carpool element that makes the fares cheaper for everyone. Naturally when you put yourself at the will of fate, (ie the Lyft app) chaos and absurdity will ensue.

During a recent ride, I was sitting in the front with the driver (a young Asian woman around my age) while an adult father-son duo sat in the back. They proceeded to bicker the entire way to our destination in a manner that can only be described as, “a perfectly written, Woody Allen-esque, family therapy session.” The father would make a comment and the son would instantly reply with a snarky quip, something along the lines of, “God, this is just so like you.” The driver and I sat quietly in the front until we’d dropped off the back seat passengers, at which point we laughed at the ridiculous lack of social awareness in San Francisco.

I had a driver who was visiting from Los Angeles entertain me with the stories of her Lyft line passengers in SoCal (after we dropped off our other passenger who had managed to cram an entire massage table into the back seat of the compact sedan, of course). These stories were always quite involved, given that taking a Lyft line in LA means you might be driving around with the same people for over an hour, sitting in all kinds of traffic. My driver recounted tales ranging from the time she picked up a man who immediately confessed to having just cheated on his wife, to the time she picked up a young woman in the wee hours of the morning from the home of a well known NBA player, only to have the passenger burst out in tears realizing she had forgotten her underwear in the house. That driver claimed she should be paid overtime for all the pro-bono therapy hours she was providing. Maybe this is the next million dollar startup- rideshares driven by professional therapists- god knows this city needs it.

Some of my Lines have been perfectly lovely and entertaining. I had a Lyft line driver who was a retired arborist, who gave us the English and Latin names of every tree lining Oak Street. There was the driver who recounted having three unrelated passengers assigned to her, all named Laura. The passengers celebrated the coincidental pairing by taking group selfies of the “Laura Lyft Line” and then sending the photo out to friends via snapchat. This is San Francisco after all. That same driver also told me about how she has had couples get into her car and proceed to have very serious arguments in her backseat, going so far as to ask for her opinion on their fight, the fact that she had met them ten minutes earlier not mattering whatsoever. This is one story I’ve heard over and over again from drivers, and I find it both curious and entertaining that a ridesharing app can turn unsuspecting Lyft drivers into marital counselors. And you thought you were just signing up to drive people to their destinations. As if.

The combination of these experiences has brought me back to my eleventh grade English class, when we read No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre. While clearly Sartre got a lot of it right about hell being other people, I think in modern day San Francisco one could argue that hell is being trapped in a bad Lyft Line. I joked about this with one driver, picturing what the most perfectly hellish Lyft Line would entail. We decided it would look something like this:

You’ve gotten into a full Lyft line where there are already three other passengers. The single rider in the back seat is talking obnoxiously on the phone while intermittently pausing to ask the driver if couldn’t they please just be dropped off first since they are running so incredibly late. The couple also sitting in the backseat is in the middle of an argument about something that you can’t totally make out, but it does seem to be extremely personal. They’re both close to tears. You quietly make a comment to the driver about how absurd this situation is, to which they laugh, and immediately ask if you’ve got a boyfriend. You’re going the furthest across the city out of any of them, and consequently will be the last to exit the vehicle. The next twenty-five minutes proceed to feel like eternity. *