Unlikely Lessons From Charles Dickens

Reading in the evening has become a very meditative and often insightful time of day for me. It has been a great joy and comfort to snuggle into a nest of pillows and blankets after a hearty meal with a warm cup of matcha tea and forget myself for a few hours before bed. Novels are a medium for self-surrender, an opportunity to lose yourself in the plot of another’s life. They are also a chance to gain fresh perspective once we reemerge to take up our own life once again.

Particularly for people like me who suffer from social anxiety, it is a good way to get a feel for the way others think, feel, and act. Observing the real people in my life or analyzing my own relationships has always felt a bit too close for me to understand objectively. It’s rather hard to learn from or concentrate on what someone is saying to you when your entire body is in a state of utter panic. Novels provide a safe cushion of distance and detachment that creates the perfect environment for personal growth and self-discovery.

Even when I think I’ve already learned a lesson many times before, there are always instances that present the essence of this knowledge in a new and penetrating way. For instance, one of the common themes that stands out to me in the works of Charles Dickens is the resilience and near stoicism of his characters. They encounter unbelievable hardships day after day, yet seem to be unmoved by them. They bravely face whatever fate lies before them with dignity and acceptance. Whether they be robbed of all their earthly possessions on a filthy street or arrested and sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit, never have they added to their suffering by lamenting the injustice of it all. It’s almost as if they move through the world with no expectations whatsoever. Whatever comes upon them in the course of their lives, they take it without complaint.

As a yogi, I am constantly confronted with the idea that we prolong and worsen our own suffering when we pile our own rejection and stubborn indignation on top of it. This truth that I’ve carried with me for years now felt all the more poignant when I experienced the living example of it in the form of Dicken’s colorful characters. Even thinking of it now, in David Copperfield, there is one character that is constantly in a state of depression or distress. They moan, “I am a lone, lorn, creature, and everything goes contrary to me.” They agonize over their belief that they just “feel things more” than everyone else. Despite a relatively decent existence compared to many of the characters, she suffers immensely. It is primarily her own perception of herself and said suffering that is the cause of it though.

Sadly enough, in spite of myself, I find that I tend to identify with this character. I get upset, then am upset and ashamed of being upset. I want to be comforted, then am embarrassed for needing constant comforting and being a burden on my loved ones, and the cycle continues from there. In contrast little David Copperfield himself is a shining example of how I would rather face the world and the difficulties that come with it. In addition to not resisting the unfortunate events of his life, David also does not blame himself for them. I’ve found that if I am not blaming the world for being against me or being unfair, I am blaming myself for being naive or foolish whenever something bad happens.

Because of these simple lessons and many others, I truly feel that reading these books has been healing for me. Although they are fictional, the truth behind them remains. We can gain a new perspective of ourselves and our situation through reading. We can also find powerful examples of how we might choose to be instead. When I see these characters accepting their lot in life, suffering, injustice, and all, I feel more capable of accepting my own life and all it entails. When I see these characters making “mistakes” that I would have torn myself apart for, I am able to view them with compassion and understanding. It fosters a willingness to forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know. Often the hardest hurdle to face with our problems is not knowing an alternative way to respond to them when they arise. Reading is the opportunity to find that alternative.

The Personal History of David Copperfield. by Dickens, Charles: (1849) |  Raptis Rare Books, ABAA/ ILAB

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Meditating in my office a week or so ago, suddenly my heart leapt out of my chest at the sound of an airhorn. My friend was in one of his more incorrigible moods and decided to play around with our new coworker. I, of course, was not amused. However, afterwards, I did find a lot of things to be grateful for about that irritating experience. Firstly, there were many lessons to be learned through my reaction and subsequent internal dialogue. Because I was in the process of meditating, I was in an especially good position to be able to observe these thoughts and reactions.

The first thing I noticed was my unwillingness to let my anger and annoyance subside. I kept replaying all the reasons why that was so rude and aggravating, instead of just being in the current, once again peaceful, moment. The other thing I noticed was the tension I continued to hold within my body. It was as if I was trying to brace myself for yet another piercing sound to impinge upon my quietude. This I found particularly interesting to witness. What good was this state of tension and anticipation doing me? How was it serving me?

It wasn’t serving me at all, actually. I’ve often heard and believed in the idea that anxiously anticipating suffering in the future does not lessen that future suffering, it merely brings it into the present as well. But for some reason, this incident made a particularly strong impression on me as a metaphor to emphasize that truth. I think despite ourselves, a lot of us still fret about possible displeasure in our futures in an effort to somehow prevent it from happening. Yet a lot of the most painful things that happen in life are not things that we can plan for or prevent. It may behoove you to feel stress about losing your job, if you’re not performing your responsibilities. That may be something you can take actionable steps to prevent. However, I think more often we worry about things like death, aging, accidents, or other such sudden and inevitable things.

One of the most striking parts of my air horn meditation was the realization that no matter how tense or focused I was on being ready for another sudden sound, I would undoubtedly still jump and be surprised if and when it occurred. It would still be jarring and angering, despite having expected it. Although some part of me felt like I needed to be prepared, I knew logically that I simply couldn’t be. In these situations it is best for us to just accept that we may or may not encounter this experience, then let it go and return to the present moment. What good does it do us to discard the peace of the present in order to make futile efforts to deflect the effects of something in the future?

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst” is a turn of phrase that at first seems like sage advice. And as I said, in specific situations, it is. The tricky part is determining when there is a benefit in this strategy and when there’s not. I think the only way to determine this is to ask yourself: what practical steps can I take right now to mitigate this future event? In my scenario, there was obviously nothing I could do. I suppose I could have paused my meditation and kindly asked that he be silent for the next few minutes. But I don’t think that would have necessarily brought me any peace of mind, because knowing what a goof this man is, I wouldn’t have been confident he would respect my request.

So say you’ve determined that there is nothing you can do to prevent this future suffering. What now? Logic doesn’t seem to have the ability to diffuse emotion or the response of our physical bodies. What we can do is make an attempt to refocus our minds, despite our anxiety, on what is happening in the current moment. We can work to remind our bodies and minds that despite what may happen, right now we are safe and content. This is the perfect time to practice grounding exercises that can bring us back to the here and now. Pay attention to the sensations of your physical body. Notice any tension that you are holding in preparation for your fears. See if you can release that tension and instead center your mind on your breath, or perhaps the weight of your body on the earth and the points of connection to the ground below you.

This is definitely a practice and something that I still need a lot of work on myself. However, with this in mind, I think it’s a great place to start to view these minor incidents as excellent opportunities to do so. That’s one of the beautiful things that my yoga and meditation practice have given me. Now I am able to view even distasteful or outright painful experiences as gifts and opportunities for growth. Rather than focusing on my own pain and suffering and feeling like a victim in life, I can ask myself, what can I learn from this? What is this experience teaching me about myself? How can I use this misfortune to improve myself and my life in the future? It’s never easy, but it’s always worth it.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Humility and Shame

How to Deal With Shame

Humility is generally viewed as a good quality. Without it, the most incredible people can become narcissistic and unpleasant to be around. Shame is a bit different. It’s not thought of in a positive light. The mere word brings up feelings of discomfort and maybe even a vague memory of a time when you felt shame in your own life. However, at least in my experience, suddenly encountering a shameful moment is what deflates my ego enough to allow me to find humility again.

Shame is a very interesting emotion. It is definitely one of my least favorite. It cuts deep and leaves lasting scars. But I think that this is because shame may have developed as a means for us to make sure we don’t become separated or exiled from our herd. Shame is generally something that we feel when we are behaving in a way, or doing an act we wouldn’t want others to see or even know about. It’s an important inner valve to help us determine what will cause friction or change the way others in our group view us. Which, in the past, it could have meant a death sentence if we were cast out.

There have been many times in my life where I can recall a jolt of shame immediately redirecting me towards humility and self-reflection when moments before I had been boisterous with an overly-inflated ego. There is nothing wrong with being proud or confident, but sometimes it can get a bit out of hand and start to tip over into conceit. That’s when shame can really come in handy to help us check ourselves before we get out of control.

I had a particularly shame-filled encounter yesterday evening. I won’t go into detail, but I’ve been internally cringing ever since. Part of me still wants to jump out of my skin and pretend it never happened. In the past this would have sent me on a downward spiral of destruction. (Sometimes I go a bit past “humility” and into the realm of self-hatred.) This time, I refused to close my heart to myself and to the world just because I’ve made some big mistakes. Instead of turning away, I’ve been examining what happened more closely. I’ve been asking myself: What has this incident taught me? Is there something to be grateful for in even the most painful, embarrassing moments?

Though it still makes my insides contract whenever my mind glides over the memory, I’m actually glad that it happened the way it did. For one thing, it certainly could have been much worse. Simple embarrassment was a small price to pay considering all the possible alternatives. I’m also glad it happened because it shook me out of my stupor. It quelled my growing rage and judgement of others and deflated my foolish ego. If given the choice I’d pick humility over hubris every time.

Instead of my normal, borderline road rage on my drive home that evening, I drove slowly, mindfully, with grace and compassion for all my fellow humans on the highway. A humble heart is quick to kindness. It’s much easier to hold space for the errors of others when you’ve just been reminded of your own shortcomings in such a direct way. Being embarrassed is a reminder that we all make mistakes. It offers insight into our hopes of how others would respond to those mistakes we make and, in turn, makes us more willing to offer that same understanding to those around us.

Shame is also often the catalyst for a much needed change of direction. There is a small thrill in getting away with a shameful act, and the more often this happens the bolder and more obnoxious we become. Being found out is often necessary before we can really recognize the need for change. And yesterday was definitely a blessing in disguise for me. It was a huge wake up call. It was the kick in the pants I’ve been needing for awhile now. So even though it stung and continues to sting, I’m grateful. In fact I hope that memory brands my soul for years to come as a reminder of who I truly want to be. Shame shows us when we’re not being that version of ourselves.

Now, none of this is to say that shame necessitates some kind of personal change. There are plenty of examples of society teaching us to be ashamed of things that we shouldn’t be ashamed of. For instance, LGBTQ people may feel shame for simply being themselves. Promiscuity in women is often shamed. Victims of violent crimes are even shamed. And there are many more examples of unwarranted shame that is not a call for inner change or redemption. Deep down I believe we are able to decipher the difference. If you’re unsure, as long as you’re not hurting anyone or betraying your own sense or morality, then any shame felt is a challenge to overcome within ourselves, not a call to change.

Humility and shame are a beautiful example of the duality of our experiences in this life. It shows us that even in our darkest moments, there is something to be grateful for. As someone who is a deep lover of learning, I can’t deny that pain is often our greatest teacher. And I’m so thankful that the lesson wasn’t harder. I’m going to make sure that I take it to heart so I don’t have to be taught this lesson a second time. I know that I have been acting against my own interests for many years now. I thank the universe for offering me this opportunity for insight and redirection. I will not waste it.

Lessons Learned

There are so many valuable things I’ve learned in my twenty-seven years of life. Working with kids always leaves me wanting to teach these lessons to the amazing little people I meet every day. This is especially true when it comes to the teenage girls. It’s painful to see so many of them who remind me of myself at that age. I want to tell them that high school drama isn’t going to matter in a few years. I want to tell them to let it all roll off their backs and just enjoy their youth. I want to tell them they don’t need someone else’s love to make them happy, that happiness is something we get to choose, that comes from inside us. But I don’t say any of this.

I don’t say it, because all of these things were said to me a million times as a teenager. It’s frustrating to grow up and realize it was all true. So why couldn’t I believe it back then? Why did I have to suffer long enough to learn these lessons for myself? And what is it that finally allowed me to accept these messages? It certainly isn’t just getting older. I know many people that are adults and haven’t yet embraced these truths I now hold so dear.

While I may not have an explanation for all of these questions, I did listen to a podcast recently that shed some light on the situation. Our brains simply learn better through personal experience than they do by being taught by someone else. So no matter how much we want to spare our own children and the young people in our lives from unnecessary suffering by just telling them what we’ve learned from ours, it isn’t going to work. Perhaps that suffering isn’t totally unnecessary after all. This is why Socrates didn’t go around preaching the things he knew. Rather, he asked his neighbors questions, nudging them towards their own truths. This is why therapists don’t just tell you what you need to do. They help you discover these answers for yourself. When we realize an answer or solution on our own, it hits us differently.

I suppose this is also why telling people about veganism never seems to change their minds at all. There is truly nothing I can say to someone that will make them go vegan. Deep down I think I’ve always known this. I think all vegans do to some extent. After all, most of us were once the meat-eaters shrugging our shoulders at all the information we now desperately try to show others. In the same way, I’ll never be able to get a teenager to realize that high school doesn’t matter, that their emotions won’t be this intense forever. I certainly didn’t believe it when it was told to me. It feels like I hardly even heard what these adults were saying at all. If anything, I resented them for acting like my problems weren’t real. As if I was choosing to feel the way I felt. Hell, I don’t think I realized the importance of loving myself and not waiting for someone else to come and make me happy until I was like 25!

While the idea of needing to learn something for yourself for it to stick makes perfect sense to me, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I feel helpless to make any kind of difference at all. I’m left biting my tongue, just hoping that somehow these people will find their way on their own. The hardest part is I don’t even know how to turn them in the right direction. I don’t know the right questions to ask them. I’m not Socrates. I’m not a therapist. And worst of all, I don’t even know how I eventually made these connections in my own head!

With Veganism, I’m ashamed to say, I think it was a total accident. I didn’t have this noble, benevolent change of heart one day. I went vegan for purely selfish reasons. Then once I was already living that way, my cognitive dissonance about eating animals lifted and I was able to see things as they truly are. However, when it comes to my personal life lessons about self-love and letting go, I have no clue how I came around to them. Especially knowing the kind of teenager I was. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d become the person I am today. The only thing I can think of is that maybe it was because I started a yoga practice. Even when you approach it for purely exercise or weight loss reasons, something about the physical practice clears away the clouds inside of you and teaches you the most important things in life without you even realizing it.

Honestly, now that I think about it, I’m starting to see how my biggest insecurities and struggles have actually been the things that led me exactly where I needed to be. Both yoga and veganism were only of interest to me at first to the extent that they could help me lose weight. Yet despite neither really doing that, I was given things far more important. Now these things are core parts of my identity, things I practice every single day, things that bring me closer to that all encompassing loving kindness and peace that I’ve always urned for. If I had been born into a itty bitty, “perfect” body I doubt I would have found the things that really give my life meaning. And I certainly wouldn’t start eating animal products again and give up yoga for something as silly as physical appearance.

I guess ultimately all we can do for the kids and other people in our lives that are struggling is be there for them. We may not be able to spare them the suffering we all experience in this life, but maybe we can at least show them by example that, though we may suffer, it’ll be worth it one day. We can’t take away their problems or expose those problems as mere shadows on a cave wall, but we can sit next to them and hold their hands while they work to figure it out for themselves. We can only offer our compassion and our unconditional love and acceptance. And maybe that’s better than any lesson we try to teach anyway.

How to be a Healthy Role Model for Children - NurseRegistry

Learning to Be Happy (Even When You Don’t Get What You Want)

True Contentment: In Simplicity — SECOND CITY CHURCH

The other day, while listening to a talk given by the American spiritual teacher and guru, Ram Dass, he said something along the lines of: Learn how to be happy even when you don’t get what you want. For some reason, the way he said these words really struck me. There is something about listening to the gentle, slow, thoughtful voice of a spiritual leader that allows simple ideas to penetrate directly to your soul. Since then I have kept that idea close to my heart.

It’s so easy to forget that external circumstances don’t dictate our internal state. Finding contentment where we are now, doesn’t mean that we won’t want things anymore. However, we won’t allow the outcome of these wants to decide how we feel. Certain desires are easier to let go of than others, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have the power to let go and reside in happiness.

All of us already know how to do this to a certain extent. We have varying levels of wanting. We may want to have a certain fruit for breakfast only to realize that it has spoiled and we must find something else to eat. Depending on who you are, this usually isn’t enough to ruin your day or mood. We simply think, “oh, rats” and prepare another food. On the other hand, we may be planning to get married only to have our
fiancée leave us at the alter. That’s not going to be as easy to let go of as a rotten mango.

I wonder, though. How much the variation in reaction has to do with our preconceived ideas about the “appropriate” reaction in each scenario. When I used to get upset, it genuinely felt like I had no choice. Then in addition to not getting what I wanted, I felt an added level of suffering due to a feeling of powerlessness. There is a certain freedom in simply knowing we have the ability to choose.

When my ex left me the last time, I remember feeling frustrated that now I’d have to go back to being sad and miserable. The idea of doing that seemed so repulsive to me that I decided I didn’t care if that’s what I was supposed to feel. I decided to discard my ideas of what I thought society expected of me in that scenario. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and for the first time in such a situation, I realized I had the choice not to be.

Sometimes just remembering that we have that choice is enough. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anger, frustration, or suffering again. There are some times in life that we actually want to feel sad, and that’s okay. There is a difference between holding space for a genuine emotion and feeling trapped by one.

The next time I find myself not getting what I want, rather than getting upset and ruminating, I’m going to use it as an opportunity. Each time something doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s an opportunity to practice being happy anyway. One of my favorite questions to ask myself is: Can I love myself even though…? Fill in the blank. Now I’d like to add another question: Can I be happy even though….? Sometimes phrasing the issue in this way allows us to see the choice we have. When I’m getting down on myself because of some small flaw, asking the question, “can I still love myself,” brings things back into perspective and reminds me what really matters. If I can still love myself anyway, why bother being upset about whatever it may be? The same goes for “can I be happy anyway.”

Asking these types of questions also helps me be more lighthearted about the problem. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear in that moment. Then I become curious. Can I? Let’s find out. It can be fun to explore our own hearts and minds and find a path back to happiness. And just like paths in the forest, these paths become more worn and easier to follow the more we use them. So don’t worry if your mind seems like particularly dense woodlands right now. You can still make those paths. Even if it’s hard at first, know that it only gets easier.

Ram Dass talks about 'Becoming Nobody,' the documentary on his spiritual  journey | Datebook

Decisions & Intuition

A lot of the spiritual and mindful videos and podcasts that I listen to talk about doing what feels right in the moment or doing what will make you happy. I always catch myself waiting for them to explain to me how I will know what that is. Of course, they never do. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be self evident or if it’s just something that no one else can teach you. People always discuss intuition like it’s so clear. As if there is one particular thing you know you want, but you’ve been denying yourself. It’s never seemed that simple for me.

I’ve always been a very analytical and indecisive person. It’s hard enough for me to pick something to eat at a restaurant, let alone what path to take with my life, or what to do each day to best serve that path. I’ve never quite understood what people mean when they talk about intuition or just knowing they have to do something. I even remember learning in one of my psychology classes that most people feel more confident about a decision once they’ve made it. However, people predisposed to depression and anxiety don’t feel this same self assurance after making a decision. Instead they continue to doubt and question themselves. I would definitely count myself among the latter group.

I’ve been trying to listen for that voice of intuition in my head, but there are just too many contradictory voices. I’ve never known who to listen to. One voice may say: It’s a beautiful morning, let’s go for a walk. Then that voice is immediately shouted down by other voices saying: There isn’t time. The dog is going to make it too stressful anyway. You need to eat breakfast. You forgot to buy bug spray. Which voice is the one looking out for me? Which voice is guiding me towards what will make me happy? Some people may choose to just take the walk anyway and then feel confident it was exactly what they needed. However, for me, I’d just continue to wonder if I made the right choice and waste the walk ruminating anyway, over analyzing and second guessing myself. I guess that’s why I gravitate toward finding a routine and sticking to it no matter what my inner voices are saying.

Still I long to find fluidity and flow in my days. I don’t want every day to be exactly the same. I don’t want to remain stagnant and never experience anything new or novel. I want to be able to give my body and mind what it needs to flourish in each moment, not try to cram myself into the same box every day. My soul often cries out for more, but I feel I need an interpreter to decipher exactly what that “more” is.

Yesterday, I was weeding my garden and listening to an audiobook called, Siddhartha. At one point in the book, Siddhartha realizes that he has been seeking knowledge of himself from others. However, he is the only teacher he needs if he wants to learn about himself. Although this seems rather obvious, it struck me as profound in that moment. Perhaps my problem is that I keep waiting for someone else to teach me how to listen to my own intuition, for someone to teach me how to make the “right” decisions. I suppose I’m really the only one who can teach myself how to do these things.

The first hurdle I must overcome in this classroom of life is agonizing over making the “right” decision. There is no right decision. No matter what decision I make, it will teach me a valuable lesson about myself. The only way I’m going to find out which of these voices inside my head truly reflects my heart’s wishes is by listening to them. It’s time for me to start studying myself as an impartial observer. I’ll make decisions and let go of worrying about whether or not they are the “right” ones. I will never be able to know that. What I can observe, though, is how different decisions make me feel. Hopefully by being mindful of this trial and error process, someday I will be able to truly connect with that evasive intuition.

For now, I am just going to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to not know. I don’t need to always have the answer. It’s okay to trip and fall along the way. It’s okay to make the “wrong” decision. It’s okay to feel disconnected from myself, from my body and my spirit. I forgive myself for all of it. I’m learning how to rebuild that connection. With so much external stimulation bombarding us at every moment, it’s no surprise that I have a hard time sifting through the noise and hearing my true self clearly. There is no shame in that. I often get so frustrated by not knowing that I forget how much I love learning. How sad it would be to know everything. I am so grateful for the complexity of this world and of myself. Whatever you choose to focus on there is always more to learn. It’s time I got excited to learn about me, to tap into my inner wisdom and honor how unique and intriguing I really am.

Photo by Alina Vilchenko on Pexels.com

Moderation

When I first learned about yoga philosophy, I became convinced that by following the Yamas and the Niyamas, it would be possible to truly find peace and happiness in this life. The only trouble is, these principles, while simple and straightforward, are very difficult for me to adhere to. The Yamas and Niyamas are similar to the ten commandments, the eightfold path, or other religious guidelines. Like most others, they include principles like not stealing, not lying, not killing, etc. Every now and then I’ll be reminded how important it is for me to practice these ways of living.

One of the Yamas I always consider my favorite is ahimsa, which means “non-harming.” In the beginning I liked to imagine that I had been living in this way for years given that I am a vegan and don’t cause any harm or suffering in order to feed myself like most humans do. However, this was foolish of me. Instead of casting judgment on others, I should have been looking more deeply at my own life. While I may not contribute to the unimaginable suffering of farming and eating animals, I still cause plenty of harm to myself and those around me in other ways. In the end ahimsa could cover all of the other Yamas. After all why avoid lying and stealing? Well partially because they cause harm to others or even yourself.

For a few months I tried to practice Satya, non-lying. It really opened my eyes to how often I lie. I didn’t really think I lied very much at all before trying this. After all, I’m not one to make up tall tails or be untruthful about important issues. However, what I came to realize is that I lie almost without thinking every day in very small, seemingly insignificant ways. Maybe I’ll make up an excuse for why I was ten minutes late for work. Or tell a friend I’m busy rather than being honest about why I’d rather not hangout that evening. Just little “white lies” that I’m sure all of us tell from time to time, more out of convenience than malice.

Despite the importance of these two Yamas I won’t be focusing on them today or the other two I’ve yet to mention (asteya – non stealing & aparigraha – non attachment.) Today I wanted to focus on the fourth Yama, brahmacharya. A lot of people throughout history have interpreted this Yama to mean sexual abstinence. However, now it is often translated more broadly as moderation. The purpose of this Yama is to remind us that more isn’t always better.

I’ve been confronted with that simple truth a lot recently. I love coffee, yet when I get carried away and drink too much it makes me incredibly anxious rather than energized. I also love exercise. It it a wonderful stress reliever for me. However, I tend to overdo that as well which ends up causing stress instead of eliminating it. I’ve even begun to get carried away with how much kratom I use, adding more and more powder to every glass when it actually works just as well or even better when I use less.

Moderation has always been a very difficult concept for me. It always seems to be all or nothing, never a healthy balance. Perhaps I am just too careless to be bothered to pay attention to my body and listen for it’s cues telling me when enough is enough. My tendency to be rigid in my routines doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for the natural fluctuations within me to be honored and addressed. That is one of the most difficult parts of this Yama for me. There is no one else that can tell me what moderation means to me. I have to discover the right balance for my own life. And in order to do that, I have to be open, curious, willing to experiment, and practice listening to my intuition. Brahmacharya requires looking inward. It requires me to be honest with myself, to trust myself, to respect my own needs and limits. Sometimes I’d even prefer to interpret it as abstinence. Not having sex is much more straight-forward and easy for me. (I’ve been doing it for years without trying!)

Moderation becomes a more and more complex concept the longer I think about it. I’ve spent so much of my life living in excess that I don’t even know where to start. I want to start regardless though. Someday I hope to be able to live my life in accordance with all of the Yamas and Niyamas. I have been blessed with this wisdom from ancient yogis passed down to me through countless generations. I am so grateful for their guidance. But now it’s up to me to apply this sacred knowledge to my own life in order to finally live in a way I can be proud of.

Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

Sketchy Sexual Experiences

I was talking to my friend the other day on the phone. I wanted to know some of the less discussed details about the beginning of her relationship with her now husband. When did they first kiss, how long did they wait before having sex, etc. Even though I know that these things are highly personal milestones in any relationship, I felt like it would help me to have some idea of the timelines for other people. Discussing this with her was highly therapeutic for me. I realize that I don’t need anyone else to justify my decision on waiting to have sex. In the end it’s my decision and whenever I choose to have sex with a partner is valid. Yet it did help me feel more confident and reassured after hearing someone else’s perspective and experience.

Working at a child advocacy center for over a year now, I’ve learned a lot more about sex and consent than I expected. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear the stories of some of these teen girls who we see here. Their stories all sound so similar. They tell us they didn’t want to scream or make a scene. They second guess and doubt their own intuition and perspective. They are ashamed. They blame themselves. They don’t know what to do. They feel bad for their abuser even, at times. After a while, something finally clicked inside of my head and I began to see my younger self in a lot of these girls. Some of the scenarios they describe sound so familiar.

When the Me Too Movement first started a few years ago, I felt somewhat conflicted. I saw everyone around me sharing stories of times they had been abused or disrespected by men. It seemed like all women had at least one story. Yet after searching my memories, I felt I didn’t have any of these types of experiences. I felt lucky, of course, grateful, but I also felt confused. Why didn’t I have any of these stories when so many other women did? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. Of course my self-hating, low self-esteem mind told me that it must be because I’m not attractive enough to be assaulted. Which I know is offensive and ridiculous.

Since that time, I’ve thought about a lot to different sexual encounters I had growing up. It feels weird to say, but looking back, I feel like I was victimized at least twice without even realizing it or acknowledging it. How can that be possible? I’ve asked myself that question, and I still don’t know. Maybe the only separation is whether or not you feel like you’ve been traumatized. That doesn’t seem right to me either though. Just because a lot of the kids we see at our center are in love with their abuser or even enjoyed the sexual experiences they’ve had, doesn’t mean how things happened wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t mean these adult men haven’t broken the law and done egregious things. Does the fact that at the time I was complacent or believed I deserved what happened because of the situation I put myself in make what happened to me acceptable? I don’t think so.

It’s not as if I want to go after these boys from my past or have them prosecuted. Although I’ve come to accept I wasn’t to blame for what happened back then, I don’t necessarily put the blame on those boys either. I think what’s more important is to address the toxic, sex-phobic culture we were raised in. The culture that led me to believe being drunk and alone with boys meant it was my fault if I was then sexually assaulted. The culture that taught these boys what they did was normal, perfectly alright behavior. This is what I want to address. I don’t think the boys from my past had any intention to harm me or even disrespect me. They were just doing what young boys are expected to do. I doubt they viewed themselves as sexual predators, nor do I necessarily want them to. I just want us all to learn together how we can communicate better and respect one another so we can facilitate healthy sexual experiences, especially for teens and young adults.

During that phone call with my friend, we talked a lot about my sexual promiscuity when we were in college. Her impression was that I just had a high sex drive, that I was being care-free and having fun. She seemed surprised and somewhat saddened when I told her that actually wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know myself well enough, didn’t understand relationships enough, to make the right decisions. Given that my first sexual partner was someone that I was dating and who I was deeply in love with, I didn’t really grasp the correlation between love and sex. Desperate to feel that same emotional intimacy, that spiritual closeness, I found myself confusing it and conflating it with physical intimacy. I really didn’t have desire for the actual act of sex with most of the men I’ve been with. What I desired and hoped to obtain from sex was actually love and tenderness. As you might imagine, it took me a long time to understand and process the pain of never finding it.

This is one of the many reasons why we need to teach our children how to have these important conversations surrounding sex. The more prepared we make them, the easier it will be to talk about with their partner when the times comes. I wish I had been wise enough, brave enough, to ask more questions of my partners before having sex with them. Questions like: what does sex mean to you? where do you see our relationship going, if anywhere? do you have romantic feelings for me or are you only interested in a physical relationship? I always made the mistake of just assuming we were on the same page. Then I felt heartbroken and wronged upon discovering that wasn’t the case.

In addition, we need to emphasize that while no means no, only an enthusiastic, informed yes is true consent. Pressuring someone until they eventually give in is not consent. An obviously reluctant partner that hasn’t verbally said no is not consent. It is so important that we all work to improve society when it comes to its ideas and understanding of the complex issues surrounding sex. I only wish I could go back in time and share this new, deeper understanding with the young girl I once was. Instead I will try to help other young girls avoid my same mistakes.

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Working with Resistance

Once again, my yoga class this morning has inspired my writing topic for the day. In my yoga teacher training we learned about something called PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.) Essentially this is just using your muscles to resist or push against whatever stretch you are in for a few moments before relaxing the muscles, allowing you to sink and relax even deeper into the pose. It is similar to the idea of clenching different muscles before releasing them to relax more fully and release stress. It is a fascinating and useful technique to be sure.

One of the beautiful things about yoga is that we can take what we learn on the mat out into the rest of our lives. So what can we take with us from PNF? Well it draws our attention to the idea of working with resistance. A lot of the things we do in yoga class can be looked at as metaphors for how to live our lives with more ease. For the most part, people don’t like resistance. We don’t want to have our plans altered or interrupted. We don’t want disagreements or dissent. We just want everything to run smoothly in exactly the way that we want it to. We can even start to feel cheated or hopeless when things don’t go our way.

Using PNF in yoga not only allows our bodies to become more flexible and go deeper into difficult postures, it reminds us that we can use resistance in our everyday lives to our own advantage as well. We just have to be patient and use what life gives us rather than trying to reject it or avoid it. The other day at work my friends and I were discussing the idea of having bad memories changed or erased like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although it is undoubtedly an interesting, tempting concept, none of us were convinced actually going through with such a procedure would be a good idea or something we would choose for ourselves. Thought experiments like this help us to reflect on the ways in which we can actually be grateful for all of the hardships we have experienced in our lives. In the moment, a lot of the things that happen to us seem unfair, unbearable even, but later on we come to realize that those same events have allowed us to become who we are today. Perhaps they made us stronger, wiser, more resilient, or even led us down a new path we wouldn’t have taken otherwise.

Looking back, it can be easy to see how some of my worst life experiences were worth the pain I went through. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the difficulties I face in my present. I’m trying to remember that PNF perspective though. Even if at first it seems like I’m being held back or led away from where I want to be, it may actually be the opposite. I’m trying to stay strong in the face of adversity and trust that one day I will be grateful for even these painful times. I’m even trying to be grateful for them right now, even though I don’t yet know what they may lead to down the road. All I can do is keep moving forward and have faith that I’ll get to where I want to be one day, despite (or even because of) the struggles along the way.

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Cycles

Everything’s a cycle. You’ve gotta let it come to you. And when it does, you will know what to do.

– Bright Eyes

Happy spring, everyone! I am so pleased to welcome this most lovely of seasons back again. While I adore the summer months, spring is probably my true favorite. There is nothing quite like the fresh, bright, vibrant energy of this time of year. There is so much beauty in contrast. I’ve always found it funny the way 55-60 degree weather in the fall seems dreadfully cold to me, yet the very same temperature is a godsend in the spring. At the end of the year I’d consider this weather too chilly for a walk, but now I am itching to be outdoors in the sunshine again. I used to dream about moving somewhere south so that I wouldn’t have to experience the snow and bitter cold of winter every year, but as I’ve grown older I’ve developed an attachment to this area of the country. Sometimes we need to face discomfort or adversity in order to fully appreciate and savor the rest of life. There is a lot that the cycling of seasons has to teach us if we are willing to witness their endless unfolding.

There is a strange comfort that repetition brings us. This constant ebb and flow that exists everywhere in this life is truly something beautiful to behold. This constant churning keeps life from becoming stagnant. It really is true that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Without the colorless cold, the bitter wind, the once lush trees reduced to creaking black skeletons, we would not be able to fully appreciate watching the landscape come alive again. We wouldn’t be able to experience this bustling, rustling, vibrating energy as the earth comes alive once more. The sensation of new life, of awakening, of hope that spring stirs within us is unparalleled. It never gets old no matter how many years we have had here.

Spring reminds us that we need not fear the winter. It also insinuates that we need not fear even death. Imagine how frightened the first conscious creatures were that lived through winter. Surely with no guarantee, I would have assumed all was ending forever. Just as many of us feel facing death without faith in a god or an afterlife. There are no guarantees. No scientific evidence that we can analyze to suggest that anything exists beyond our final breaths. Still I find my own kind of faith in all of the cycles I see around me every day. Some cycles are as short as the ever-present rhythm of the breath, some are too long for us to comprehend or observe in a single lifetime. But I trust in the cyclical systems that surround us, that are within us, that we are inextricably involved in. While I may not be able to say what the cycle of life and death fully looks like, or even what it means for me, I am confident it is still a cycle all the same. I may not be there to witness the spring that blooms on the other side of my existence on this earth, in this body, in this mind, but I am confident that that spring exists. But for now, while I am still here, I am going to keep trying to learn from these cycles, to be mindful of them, to be grateful for them, to be patient with them, and to honor and accept where I am within them.

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