vulnerability and trust

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My intention when I started writing this blog again was not to filter myself. I wanted to write about everything: success, failure, good, bad, fears, hopes, dreams, devastation.

In keeping with that intention, i’ve shared some deep things here. I’ve talked about my anxiety, about some of my deepest fears, about what it feels like to fail, about making mistakes and taking leaps.

When I get really personal in my blog posts, something kind of interesting happens: the number of people who visit my blog skyrockets. Just to be clear: “skyrockets” is a totally relative term. most blog posts of mine get, tops, 15 visitors. When I write about the deep stuff, I’d say I get more than 150.

Which is pretty scary. It’s scary to look at the stats on my blog and see that many people have now read some of my deepest, darkest thoughts. It’s scary to know that I am on display — and that i put myself there! And while several of you have written me to thank me for writing about some of these topics, I can’t seem to help sometimes getting wrapped up in the idea that maybe some of you are judging me, pitying me, putting me in the category of “whack job.” It’s disconcerting, and it makes me nervous about sharing.

But, every time I find myself thinking this way, I eventually get back to the headspace where I remember that that feeling, that nervousness — it’s the whole point that I’m so focused on being genuine and vulnerable here. I feel nervous about sharing the messy stuff because the world doesn’t always feel like the safest place. I feel nervous because I fear that i’ll be cast aside once I lay all my imperfections out there. And I don’t think I’m alone in this nervousness. I think a lot of us feel it. And as I see it, the only way to change this is to talk about the “bad” more. To make talking about the “bad” stuff normal and accepted and expected, instead of scary and shameful.

Why do I think putting our most genuine selves out there is important?

Well, I guess I kind of view the world like one giant cocktail party in which we all think we’re the host: We put on our best clothes. We do our hair and make up. We clean the house. We make sure everyone is on their best behavior. We make a delicious meal. We pair it with the perfect wine. We are the perfect host. And our guests, man, they are perfect too. They are dressed to the nines. They bring a fancy wine as a party gift. They talk all about their new responsibilities at work. How fantastic their last vacation was. How wonderful life is.

And I know I’m being hyperbolic, that the whole world isn’t always like this, but, on a whole, I think it’s an okay comparison. We put up walls. We put on masks. Your house, that dinner, your family, those guests — it isn’t real. The children aren’t that well-behaved. You don’t usually look that put together. The dirt and grime will build up again tomorrow. But, nevertheless, you and your guests participate in the sham. It seems rude not to. You do such a good job pretending that both of you start to wonder…maybe the other isn’t actually putting on a sham? Maybe their life really is that good? Maybe they really are that smart/put together/kind/pretty/calm? Both host and guest end up feeling like they’ll never live up to that kind of perfection, like there’s something wrong with them because they’re not as perfect as the other, that they should be ashamed of their imperfections, hide them better.

How much effort it takes, to pretend to be what we’re not! How scary it is to worry that someone might find out our secrets — that our biggest fear is being unlovable or that our marriage isn’t so great after all or that we worry our children will hate us?  It’s exhausting to pretend!

But if we’re open about who we are — about our messiness and imperfections — then there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to hide. There’s no secrets to keep safe. If we could just be ourselves, imagine how liberating that would feel. What a deep breath we could take. Imagine the togetherness, the safety, we would feel if we knew that when we shared our “secrets” we’d be accepted, no questions asked. Imagine the kinds of issues we could tackle if shame wasn’t attached to them — depression, anxiety, abuse, self hate. And so many more.

On this blog, I put myself out there in the belief that change starts with a single person. That making the world a safer place can start with each one of us.  So even when it’s scary to write about the deep stuff, I do it anyway and I do my best to ignore that it scares me. I make myself vulnerable to you. I leave myself open to your criticism. I trust that you’ll love me anyway. Thanks for showing me so far that I’ve been right.

If we all just come as we are, i think the world will start feeling safer. I think we’ll realize that we’re all doing our best, that none of us are perfect, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. That we’re not alone.

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orlando v. providence part 1

Every time I come to orlando, I’m struck by the mundane, funny differences i notice between it and providence, from the Hummers that fill the road here (i didn’t realize people still drove hummers either!) to the predominance of old people (that stereotype is true, folks) to the way the sun always seems to be trying to kill you with its death rays.

below are some of the smallest, best, weirdest, or most classic differences that have stood out to me the last few days…

in providence, you share the sidewalks with pedestrians, generally college students, runners and strollers, or people walking to and from brunch. In Orlando, you share the sidewalks with squirrels and lizards; no humans walk on sidewalks. why would you do that when you have a car? 

in providence, driving to dinner 20 minutes away wouldn’t just take you out of your town, it might just take you out of the state. In orlando, driving 20 minutes away for dinner is just what you have to do to get to your favorite restaurant.

in providence in the fall, when night falls, the cold rushes back in like its been waiting all damn day to settle in. in orlando in the fall, when night falls, the warm humid air hugs the ground like it’s its BEST FRIEND, and the only time you get any relief from the heat is that one hour right around sunrise when it’s light enough and cool enough and non-humid enough to run carrying only one water bottle with you instead of two.

in providence you see a lake in the summer and you’re like, A LAKE! LET’S GET IN! It’ll be cold but it’ll also be awesome and then we can sun out on that rock over there! In orlando you see a lake and you’re like, omigod, did you hear about that tourist lady that got eaten by the alligator in that lake last week? she didn’t run in a zigzag.

In providence, you wear a jacket when you’re outside. In orlando, the outside is trying to kill you with heat, and the inside is where air conditioners are jacked up so high all the time, so you end up wearing a fleece indoors so you don’t freeze to death.

in providence, you hear fireworks and you think, god damn those kids still have new hampshire fireworks from july — they are going to blow their hands off! In orlando, you hear the scheduled nightly fireworks, and you thank disney for helping you keep time.

After sitting in silence: finding balance

its been about fourteen days since I got back from the meditation retreat, and those days have been pretty intense.

after getting home from the retreat with the instructions from goenka to meditate twice a day for an hour each, I did a pretty good job for the first day or two. All I really had on my plate (other than writing the next great American novel of course) was working on moving since joe and I were headed to the second floor from the third. It was easy to make time for meditation, but the meditation itself wasn’t easy. My intention was there, but my focus wavered. I was no longer able to tell time with meditation (of course I always overestimated — “it’s been 40 minutes!”  Nope. 20.). And the sensations I got were different. From sounds to temperature to a different posture to the brightness and darkness, it all felt different. All my sensations were also dulled, harder to notice, which I kind of expected.

Then, a day or two after getting back, I started getting angry again. I was still unhappy about the things I mentioned in the last post, and a few other things started nagging me. In his discourses, Goenka had noted that vipassana was the “true, undiluted” meditation that the Buddha himself had taught so many years ago but that had been lost for ages. He also alleged that vipassana was the only true way to reach enlightenment.

It took me all of the ten day course and three days after to realize that I thought this was kinda bullshit. So I got angry. I talked to Joe’s sister, Sarah, about it, and she agreed that the idea vipassana was the only way to enlightenment was pretty ridiculous. But, she asked — did it do anyone any real harm to believe it? No, not really. And did vipassana help me anyway even if it wasn’t THE path to enlightenment? Indeed, tons. Sooo…..does it really matter what was said?

No…………buuuuuttt.

But what? But I felt foolish! Like I’d been taken in and it took me what felt like forever to even question it. April, who it turned out was having pretty similar thoughts to mine, put it best:

There’s a lot of different kool-aids out there and that one tasted pretty good, but it was kind of the first kool aid for both of us, so of course we’re going to think it tastes the best. And of course everyone that sells the kool aid is going to think its the best.

Ha!

Maybe vipassana is the only true way. And maybe the only way to know for sure is to take it to its limits — to do a  45 day course, or become a nun or something like that. maybe the only way to know is to try every type of meditation out there and see what happens.

Or, maybe I can forget all that stuff, all the old stories and the buddha and karma and past lives and true enlightenment and everything that felt wrong to me. Maybe i can just use the vipassana techniques i know and see how they better my life.

And they do better my life. What I do know is that days I meditate, I’m happier and calmer. I know that when I sit for a hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, it feels right. I know that I feel more patient, that my anger and sadness are over more quickly, that I’m more likely to deal with “annoying” situations as if they are just neutral ones. I use waiting in line as an excuse to meditate.

And, I see the world a little differently, and myself differently. Now, when people say something unkind to me, I am aware of whether or not I wallow in sadness or anger about it (and sometimes I do wallow). When I get sad or angry or I panick, it passes more quickly. When pleasant or unpleasant things happen, I’m aware of anicca, that everything changes, and while I enjoy or dislike them, I try to temper my reaction. It’s as if the world I saw before the retreate was slightly off-axis, unnoticeable until attention was drawn to it, and now it feels like I’m seeing straight. Or maybe like now I feel like I can take a step back and see situations for what they are, instead of feeling as overwhelmed by them.

Its a good, stabilizing feeling.

So, ten days after my ten day course, I’ve moved, got a new part-time job teaching at-risk middle schoolers science in an afterschool program, starting writing again, and established a wavering but good meditation practice that improves my overall well-being. My meditation is also helping now that I’m in Orlando, planning to stick around for a few weeks to take care of my mom after a surgery. I had to take a leave from the teaching job, and writing will be more difficult to fit in, and sometimes those things are stressful to think about. But the reality is I want to be here now and those other things are less important right now. Anicca. Everything changes. 

So, I’ll keep you updated here and there on how the meditation is going, how everything is going, but if you have any questions about or the retreat, please feel free to reach out. And thanks for reading…I’ve enjoyed sharing very much.

Sitting in silence, day 10: make some noise

Noble Silence is lifted

We couldn’t start talking right away on day 10. Instead, the day started at 445 am with a required group meditation and chanting, after which noble silence was lifted.

It was a weird morning. I had mixed feelings about starting to talk. On the one hand, starting to talk meant i was going to be going home soon to the people I loved, to books and writing and whatever life was going to look like now that all my adventures were done. But on the other hand, I had really, overall, enjoyed the silence, how it had affected my mind and the space it had created around me in which I was free to change and think and just be.

 

What do I say?

I was also unprepared for what I would say. Over the last nine days, I’d realized my urges to speak were often just to fill silence (“so how’s it going for you?”) or to talk about something obvious (“hot day, huh?”) or to bounce my opinions off other people (“what’d you think of _____?”). All normal human ways to communicate, but those last nine days, I’d discovered that sometimes not speaking was better. Sometimes it didn’t matter what someone else thought. Sometimes I didn’t need to fill the silence.

So when noble silence was lifted, I ran off to the pagoda for a little more meditation instead of jumping right into the fray. And after that, I snuck back to my room so as to sidestep the sounds of conversation and the risk of getting pulled into one.

And in my room I found April! Awesome April! With April, I felt calm and at ease and we basically spent the rest of the day, except when we were meditating, talking about life, meditation, the last ten days, everything. We made plans to come back and volunteer at the center, to visit each other, we shared challenges we knew we were going to face when we got home, and how to handle them.

The experience would have worked without April, but having her at the end to talk to and feel at home with was a joy, and I was really thankful for it.

As I started to talk to other people at the course, I realized that everyone had a pretty different take on almost every aspect of the course: one girl said she had received no benefit whatsoever from the meditation. Some people thought every word out of goenka’s mouth was gold. Some (me) were getting turned off with the more spiritual and repetitive side of the discourses. Some people revealed they hated the pagoda. Others couldn’t wait to eat meat. Some had had surprising, tearful revelations. Others were surprised they hadn’t.

It was overwhelming, the different ways those ten days affected everyone. It was especially this day that I was so thankful for the silence we’d been forced into, for the ability those last nine days to only worry about what WE were thinking and experiencing for ourselves. What a gift.

 

Selling me vipassana, past lives, and things I don’t believe in

The discourses by day 7 had started to frustrate me and by day 10, I was over them. Day 7 had felt like an advertisement for vipassana, talking about all these old stories of people who were helped way back when about vipassana. The drunk whose alcoholism was cured. The woman who’d lost her entire family who found piece. The many people whose lives had seen profound changes because of vipassana. The thing was, I didn’t doubt these benefits. But it just felt too preachy, especially for a technique in which you’re supposed to only depend on or believe in what you experience. It’s great that it’s helped other people — one of the reasons I did the course was because I felt it could help me. But I was annoyed by the discourses that seemed to be trying to sell me on it with highly charged stories meant to make me think that vipassana was the true and only way to be totally happy. “Back off!” I wanted to yell at the TV.

I was also tired of the talk of karma. I’ve always thought of karma as something that happens in this life. So, you act like a dick to everyone and karma was probably going to bite you one day. But in the discourses, goenka talked about karma from past lives: “this man was poor because off bad karma from his past life.” “This woman was rich because of great karma from previous lives.” Screw that. Maybe maybe maybe there are past and future lives,  other dimensions in which we live infinite versions of our lives. But to me, what we get in this life is a combination of luck (where were you born, to who, in what health, and what happens to you) and character (how you treat others, how hard you work, what you spend your time on).

 

What we deserve

The biggest issues, though, came during the discourse on day 10. The first issue was in how goenka talked about how we might handle the philosophies or ideas he shared over the last ten days that we didn’t buy into – karma, past lives, sankharas, etc. His (good) advice was that it didn’t matter if we didn’t believe it. If we don’t believe it, fine, “take it out,” and just focus on whether vipassana creates positive change in your life. That, I was good with. But then he went on…

He compared this to a mother making her child a delicious sweet pudding with cardamom seeds (which are black). The child sees the black seeds and says that he won’t eat the whole pudding because there are black rocks in it. The mom tells the child they are cardamom seeds, but he still doesn’t want to eat it. She says to just eat around them, it’s still tasty. The child says no. She picks out all the cardamom seeds so that the pudding has no more black spots. But the child still says no and pushes the bowl away. The child still won’t eat any of it, because the cardamom seeds touched the pudding. The mom smiles and shakes her head knowing one day the child will understand the pudding and the seeds are tasty.

I didn’t love that in this story, I was the child, foolishly throwing out tasty morsels of knowledge (karma, past lives, etc) because I was too immature to see their tastiness, while mother goenka sakes his head with pity, knowing he is right, knowing I’ll come around eventually, when i grew up.

The last thing to turn me off was the biggest. In his last discourse goenka talked about how he’d received letters from all over the world from people who had attended his vipassana courses and gone home only to have amazing events take place in their lives.  Raises. Promotions. More money. Better relationships. “Don’t expect this to happen for you, but it might!” While I believe that vipassana and the meditation practice can improve our outlooks and improve our lives, I though that to even suggest that something like getting a raise could be related to having attended this course was just mean. Like those who go home and don’t get a raise or who instead get sick or lose money or experience the death of a loved one — like those people didn’t meditate hard enough or try hard enough.

No, I don’t think so.

I believe life is wonderfully, and sometimes unbearably, random, that pain and suffering are just as likely as joy and harmony. I firmly believe that bad and good things happen to good people and bad and good things happen to bad people. I don’t believe that wonderful things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them (or because of karma) and I don’t believe that horrible things happen in mine or anyone’s life because we deserve them. I think things just happen. And we do our very best.

 

yet still…

Nevertheless, meditation was still working for me. I felt calmer, more stable, more able to listen to others, to focus, to move with intention. I planned to continue doing it at home. I was happy I’d done the course.

So, just like goenka said (which yea, annoyed me as i decided it), I decided I would ignore the parts of the course I hadn’t liked. I’d take them out.


Last meditation post, on how the two weeks post retreat have gone, coming soon.