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.

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Simon Berger on Pexels.com

Energy Flows Where Attention Goes

I keep focusing on the wrong things. Then the wrong things become everything.

The Front Bottoms

Last night I had a little, friend Christmas with my sister, our best friend, and their partners. It was a wonderful time. We had some drinks. We got super high. We exchanged gifts. We played games. And we shared delicious food along with each others’ company. Truly a night to be grateful for.

However, as I was driving home, I was angry. You see, I had a fancy mini bottle of Grey Goose Vodka that I was gifted at work. I had a few shots of it myself, and did bring it with the intention to share. However, my sister’s boyfriend was the only one who drank any of it besides the little I had. I have only met him once before this. He never asked before helping himself time and time again. And at the end of the night I made my way home with a practically empty bottle.

My head was swimming with accusations and indignation. The nerve! I don’t very much like this character any more! How rude can you be! I was fuming. But then I stopped in my tracks. Why on earth was I choosing to focus on that one small aspect of my night? It dawned on me that I always seem to do this. If even one little thing goes wrong, I fixate on just that. I ignore all the delightful parts of any situation in favor of a tiny imperfect detail. I am being ungrateful. I am taking the good stuff for granted.

I was so relieved when I remembered that I can choose where I want to place my focus. Yes, the vodka thing did happen, and it kinda sucked. But that was by no means the most important or significant thing that happened yesterday! I got to spend a Christmas-y evening with some of my favorite people in the world. I was given thoughtful, wonderful gifts. I was given good food, drinks, and drugs. I had a great time. I laughed and smiled more than I have in a long time. I got to watch the joy on my loved ones faces as they unwrapped their gifts that I put so much thought, effort, and love into.

What a difference attention can make. It can turn a wonderful night into something to be angry about. It can turn a banal day into an extremely stressful one. But it can also turn a tragedy into something to be grateful for. We can’t control what happens to us, but we always have the power to choose where we place our attention. And that is such an incredibly powerful thing.

Photo by Elly Fairytale on Pexels.com

Growing Pains

Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I think a lot of people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses often have the impression that these disorders have wasted days, months, even years of their lives. I certainly have been feeling that way, this year especially. Looking back on 2020, it seems like I didn’t accomplish anything. The whole year flew by in an isolated haze of anxiety and self-destructive behaviors. And I don’t think I’m alone in my view of this year given the global pandemic and the negative mental health consequences many are experiencing because of it.

The other day I stumbled across the quote included above, and it helped me to challenge this perspective. Perhaps the many days that were shrouded in depression and anxiety weren’t wasted after all. I mean, I certainly would not be who I am today without them.

When I was younger, I used to think bad experiences ruined you. But now I sort of think those experiences are what create the best among us. Has there ever been a truly inspiring, talented human being that has not known great suffering? While there is certainly a lot we lose in times of despair, I think we also gain quite a lot.

Personally I think I would be insufferable if not for the hardships I’ve dealt with in my life. I would be much more arrogant, selfish, and coldhearted. My struggles and suffering have humbled me considerably. They have given me immense empathy and understanding. Things I don’t know if I would have developed otherwise.

These times of depression and doubt were important, crucial even. The suffering we feel is simply growing pains. It is a needed dose of tough love from the universe. It makes us stronger, wiser, more caring. On the surface it may appear that this time is being wasted, but underneath significant changes are taking place.

This realization may not make these times in our lives any easier, but I hope it can at least provide some small comfort. Days spent in bed feeling defeated are not days wasted. Allow yourself this time. You are not broken. You are not ruined. You are not a waste. You are growing. You are healing. This suffering is a burden, but it can also be a blessing if we choose to learn from it.

Your worth is not determined by your ability to be productive. There is value in every experience, not just the pleasurable ones. So try to be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to spend a year resting. Take as much time as you need. It is not a waste.

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com