Silent hours amongst the company of thinning, yellowed pages feeling the heart unravel within the words of another A ghostly kinship that spans the gulf of time the strange comfort of being seen by someone long gone The purest yearning to add something of your own to a new age and become a soft place of belonging for someone else someday Sisters of spirit scattered across so many trailing decades warm embraces can be exchanged within the binding of a book
The need to understand becomes the thief of sensation how many moments have been thrown away through analysis? The inability to understand certain forms of suffering intensifies and elongates time spent in those spaces Questioning simple joys steals the innocence of happiness do I really need a reason to feel buoyant and free? The intellect I've so prided myself with has been revealed to be a burden intelligence can sever the tether between body and spirit Simple animal satisfactions evaporated under a microscope intuition silenced from years of skepticism and scrutiny Allowing myself to merely exist has been the greatest challenge the most beautiful form of art is a life well-versed in letting go
Spirituality is religion without shame detaching from the dogma to discover the true essence of the soul a soul that's not sinful and soiled but a small part of the grander perfection that swirls throughout the cosmos and stitches the universe into one cohesive cloth deconstructing the hierarchy propped up by people with impure intentions a recognition of my inner light in the eyes of all others a curious innocence allowing everyone to be their own guide, their own fractal of God energy not offering ultimate, immutable answers but instead offering peace and patience in the shared presence of the unknowable the loving awareness of uncertainty merged with a deep, yet inexpressible inner knowing a humble surrender to our own unanswered prayers
Childhood and Developmental psychology classes helped me learn and understand the different stages that children pass through as they grow, particularly the stages of awareness and consciousness. Piaget’s 4 stages of cognitive development highlight the ways in which we all expand our perception of ourselves and the world around us as we age.
In the first stage, we gain object permanence, we begin to understand that we are separate entities from others, and that our actions affect the world around us. In the second stage we are largely only focused on ourselves and our own perspective. This stage is also where we first begin to be able to think symbolically, grasping that images can represent ideas and objects. We still think in concrete terms and struggle with abstract concepts. The third stage is where we begin to develop our logic and reasoning skills. The fourth and “final” stage is where we form the ability to think abstractly and contemplate hypothetical situations.
You may notice that I’ve put the word “final” in quotation marks, and I have good reason for that. It occurred to me the other day when I was thinking about the idea of faith and the many aspects of reality and life that we cannot know. I began to wonder why it is that it seems so absurd to consider there being more to reality than we can hope to conceive of in our current human state. Psychology has already laid out the ways that a child’s brain is different than an adult’s and has a more limited ability to process the world. Why do we assume then that a fully formed adult brain necessarily has overcome all of these cognitive limitations? In fact, based on Piaget’s theory, it seems logical to infer we may still not have all the pieces of the puzzle when it comes to perceiving ourselves and the world around us.
It practical terms, it does us no good to try to operate in the world on this premise. All we can do is use the information available to us in order to live. However, this idea that there is potentially much more to this world than we are able to understand is one that brings me comfort. This is my rather garbled attempt to emphasize the fact that faith may not be as groundless as I, myself, once thought. It allows me to more easily surrender to that unknown aspect of this universe and trust that, even when I don’t understand it, there is some higher purpose, or meaning to all of this. There is much more going on than my brain is capable of grasping. Perhaps death is the final stage of cognitive development.
A grandfather is talking with his grandson:
“I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”
The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”Cherokee Parable
One of my favorite podcasts recites this parable at the beginning of every episode. I’ve always loved this story, even if it does get a bit annoying hearing it every single time I listen to “The One You Feed.” Still it’s always interesting to hear what each guest has to say about it. My favorite spin so far is from a guest named Steve Hagen.
Hagen made the distinction that it is not just about which wolf we feed, but what we are feeding them. We still have to feed the “bad” wolf. We feed it kindness and love and compassion, the same as we do for the “good” wolf. For me this is such an important thing to remember. While the parable of two wolves is profound and inspirational, it can also be the first step on the path toward toxic positivity.
We all have these two conflicting sides inside of us. It may not always be as simple as “good” and “bad” though. It might seem straightforward enough to starve the bad wolf, imagining eventually that dark side of ourselves will lie down and die. It’s much harder to comprehend and accept, that although we may dislike aspects of our character, we need both of these wolves. Ultimately they are both a part of us. To truly heal and grow, we have to make peace between the many facets of ourselves and learn to integrate them all into a cohesive whole.
For many years now, I have been attempting to starve my bad wolf. Ironically, this hateful energy, even when directed towards hate itself, does the exact opposite. The parable never really gets into what precisely it means to “feed” these wolves. The “bad” wolf is being fed from the very bitterness we feel towards it. In the same sense, if we try to disregard it and ignore that side of ourselves completely, it becomes more depraved and more unpredictable in its desperate attempt to avoid starvation. A hungry wolf is a fearsome animal indeed.
Labeling one side of ourselves as bad, and the other as good, is doing a disservice to the complex tapestry we call life. Saying that we have a bad wolf elicits feelings of anger and self-hatred rather than equanimity. It’s our job to befriend both wolves and find harmony within the chaos.
The anxiety disorders that we suffer with as a society today are a mutation of the primitive mechanism that once helped us to survive. Our nervous system is structured for attending to sudden, short-term danger that we would respond to by either running away, fighting for our lives, or freezing and camouflaging ourselves from predators. Unfortunately our society and technologies have far surpassed our biological evolution at this point. Our old ways of dealing with the original stressors we faced in nature are no longer translatable to modern problems.
Despite our problems being more long-term and complex, our nervous system’s response still manifests itself in similar forms to address stress. It is not always easily recognizable as what most of us think of as anxiety. I believe we still have the instinct for fight, flight, or freeze, it just looks quite different now than it did for our ancestors. I believe a lot of the behavior exhibited by people today is in fact due to anxiety.
Our flight response is what I believe most people mainly associate with the modern expression of anxiety. While we may not actually run away, this is the sensation we are used to describing as anxiety. It is easy for me to identify this inner urge to get away from the situation. This is the only mental state that I attributed to my anxiety disorder for the majority of my life. However, recently I’ve discovered that a lot of my other behavior can also be traced back to my nervous, unstable mental state.
I have struggled with anger since my teenage years. I never really considered that it had anything to do with my mental illness though. I felt that it was just a part of my personality or temperament. I’ve come to realize that, in fact, it is my anxiety that makes me so quick to anger. I had heard that underneath anger, there is often fear, but even then I didn’t make the connection. While anger may not always be a reaction to anxiety, I feel mine usually is. Understanding this has allowed me to be much more compassionate with myself when I become angry, as well as have more sympathy for others when they exhibit this violent emotion. When we know that anger is coming from a place of fear, it shifts our response to it immensely.
This is another possible reaction to anxiety that I’ve only recently identified. Most people attribute procrastination to laziness or simply not caring. I suppose it can certainly stem from these things, but I believe now that it is primarily another carry-over of our nervous system’s primitive reactions to stress. If we can’t used our increased adrenaline to run away or fight, we freeze, or in other words try to avoid the problem or dangerous encounter. Unfortunately, avoiding a midterm paper won’t result in the deadline disappearing or going away like a predator that hasn’t spotted us would have.
I’m not suggesting that these behaviors are justified because they come from a place of fear, discomfort, or anxiety. However, I do think that it’s important we understand the source of these troublesome habits we or others in our lives might display. At the very least, it can give us some insight into our own behaviors that will be crucial in learning to change them. Many people feel badly about themselves for things like procrastinating or having a short temper. They internalize society’s view of these things and make matters worse by believing they are just a lazy or mean person. Getting a deeper understanding of the root of these issues can help us offer more patience and grace to ourselves as well as others.
I’ve struggled with my body image and my weight since I was a child. I can remember being so small and looking at my pudgy little belly wondering if it was really “baby fat” like my mom and sister had told me and would go away as I got older. I remember being in elementary/middle school drinking SlimFast shakes as meal replacements. Looking back I honestly can’t believe my mother allowed me to do that. I suppose as a child, drinking those shakes would end up being more calories than you needed anyway.
It was hard for me growing up with friends who never had to worry about their weight or what they were eating. All of my friends were, in my eyes, perfect, pretty, and skinny. I still remember a phone conversation I had with my best friend in 6th grade about this. She may not have been able to relate to my suffering, but the things she said to me that day nearly brought me to tears and have stayed with me ever since. She told me that one day I was going to wake up and look at myself in the mirror and love myself. She told me to look forward to that day and plan on being very kind to myself, to take a bubble bath, wear my favorite outfit, do my makeup, and just enjoy being me.
Sadly, I’m still waiting for that day to come. But I’ve never forgotten the gravity of those kind words my friend spoke to me all of those years ago. I still get tearful when I think about them. This was probably the first time in my life that I had even considered being kind to myself or that it was possible for me to love myself, even in the future. It didn’t seem likely or even possible at the time, but just the idea changed me. It opened up a new perspective in my mind.
We don’t always realize the effect our words can have on someone else. We may have forgotten all about a conversation that the other person is still thinking about years later. I no longer speak to this childhood friend of mine, but I think of her fondly, especially when that conversation we shared enters my awareness, which it does quite frequently. I have no doubt that she has no recollection of it or any idea how much what she said still means to me.
This anecdote serves as a reminder to never underestimate the power of our words, whether they be kind or cruel. Something said carelessly out of anger may permanently damage someone. A smile or a kind word to a friend may be enough to get them through another day, another year. Sometimes it can feel impossible for us to make a meaningful difference in the world. We forget what immense power we hold in the words that we choose to speak. Don’t hesitate to tell those around you how much they mean to you or express your heartfelt gratitude or appreciation. You never know what impact you may have. If a similar situation came to mind while reading this post, perhaps it would be nice to let the other person know how much what they said meant to you. If you have said something hurtful to someone in the past, maybe it’s time to apologize. Even if it was years ago, you never know if it is still affecting them, or how much peace it may bring them to receive an apology. It’s truly incredible what little energy and effort it takes to be kind and what huge ripple effects may follow as a result.
Speak mindfully. Speak kindly. It matters more than you know.
I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I was getting ready to leave to go get another Covid test, which I finally managed to schedule after my exposure last week, the phone in my office rang. I smiled in spite of myself as the caller announced herself to be the very person who was responsible for my exposure. I felt a tightness in my chest as I battled internally with the decision of whether or not to go through with the unfriendly, short way I had decided to treat this person after the incident.
I’ve found myself in this predicament quite a number of times throughout my life. I am wronged by someone. I decide that I will no longer be happy and agreeable with them, but maintain a cool distance. In some ways I suppose I expect this to “teach them a lesson.” It is a personal consequence I like to deal out to people who have betrayed my trust or friendship. Usually when the time comes for me to enforce this inner law, however, I have already gotten over whatever the issue was that inspired it. Sometimes I stick to my guns, other times I forgive and forget. Although when I do choose to let my anger go, there is a pang of guilt and self-criticism. I feel weak or foolish for not “sticking up for myself” or something. Even when I know that my plan was likely immature and would be ineffective anyway.
I felt that twinge of unease today as I happily took this woman’s referral and was very pleasant to her on the phone in my usual way. There was something different about today though. My unease quickly dissipated and was replaced with a swelling sensation in my heart space and a nearly tearful self-pride. This feels much better than being spiteful, I thought to myself. So what if I don’t “teach her a lesson” by withholding my kind nature? It would do little to no harm to her, yet it would be a shadow over my soul for the indefinite period of our future work acquaintance. I was so happy and relieved to be freed from that burden of anger and revenge that I had been harboring for nearly a week now.
Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To forgive someone is not only a gift we give them, it is even more so a gift we give to ourselves. The gift of letting go. The gift of unbinding the tethers we have wrapped around our own heart. Sometimes my ego tries to snarl “they don’t deserve forgiveness.” And sometimes this is able to sway me back towards anger. But today it only caused me to reflect on all of the many time in which I had not felt worthy of the forgiveness given to me by others. I felt honored to be able to pay that kindness, that compassion, forward. In this way, forgiveness is also a means for us to repay those that have forgiven us.
Human nature is not so simple that it can be reduced to positive and negative reinforcement. When I feel I have earned rejection and scorn, but am instead offered understanding and unconditional love, I am not emboldened or spoiled by this generosity. I am healed by it instead. I am inspired to be better and prove myself worthy of it. I’d like to think that we all share this hunger for redemption after a mistake.
It is not foolish or weak to offer kindness and love in the face of indifference or hatred. It is one of the most beautiful things that we are capable of. It is with this thoughtful, compassionate, patient energy that the great men and women throughout time have turned the tides of history and earned their place in our collective conscious. We cannot allow ourselves to be concerned with the personal motivations or inner growth of others. We may hope for the best, but ultimately it is a waste and a shame to darken our own experience in an attempt to shape or control another’s.
Give yourself the gift of forgiveness. Give yourself the gift of letting go. Don’t concern yourself with what someone else may or may not deserve. This is not for us to determine, nor is it our burden to carry. We are not the grand arbiters of justice in the universe. I’ve let myself believe such matters were my “duty” for quite long enough. Now I see that truly my only duty in this life is to give back all of the love, kindness, acceptance, compassion, and understanding that I have received (with interest).
I struggle with anger nearly every day. The smallest things can set me off in an instant. A pattern has begun to emerge from these occurrences. The common denominator for my anger always seems to be a sense of “not knowing.” For example, I’ve been getting extremely frustrated with my dog the last few days. She goes through spells of refusing to go up and down the stairs. I try to carry her, but she won’t allow that either. She makes me chase her around in circles before finally she goes on her own. This has been happening on and off at random intervals since we’ve moved here, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what it’s all about.
I’m obviously not mad at her. She’s just an innocent animal who is clearly scared or in pain of some kind. (I’ve wondered if it may have to do with arthritis inflammation that comes and goes.) Regardless of what the explanation is, I think what it really comes down to is the fact that I don’t know. As someone who prides themselves on their quick wit and intelligence, not knowing anything is a threat to my ego. It’s not as if I’m consciously aware of this in the moment though. I make lots of excuses for myself to explain why I am actually angry. Normally it has something to do with believing the whole situation to be utter nonsense. If I can’t understand it or find a good reason, I assume that it’s impossible to understand, that there is no reason.
I realize that this isn’t true. There are many motives and reasons that guide people that I cannot fathom or understand from the outside. It’s a bad habit of mine to assume they must not have a good reason, and they are just being difficult. I guess it feels like deep down one of us must just be stupid, and since it absolutely cannot be me (because I am so very smart *eye roll*) it must be them. This is yet another way my black and white thinking causes problems for me. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that two people can just misunderstand one another. One person doesn’t inherently have to be of lower intelligence.
I’ve been trying to practice compassion in the face of anger recently, but it hasn’t been going as well as I might have hoped. I think the missing piece is that, while I’ve been trying to foster compassion for the other person, I have not offered myself the same compassion. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to not understand. It does not mean that I am any less intelligent for acknowledging that. You don’t have to know absolutely everything to be smart. No one knows everything. We all have our blind spots.
I think if I afford myself the grace to not know, I will finally be able to relax enough to get curious again. The double edged sword of intelligence is the ego’s desire to protect and prop up that intelligence. Sadly, if you never allow yourself to not know, how will you ever be open to learning something new? Learning, coming to new understandings, and finding new perspectives are some of my favorite parts of life. How boring it would be to think there is nothing left for me to discover.
By turning to anger so quickly in any situation I don’t immediately understand, I am robbing myself of the opportunity to learn something new. The next time I find myself overcome with frustration, I am going to try my best to pause and ask what is it about this situation that I am not understanding? Can I allow myself to not understand for the moment? How might holding space and staying open allow me to benefit and grow in this moment?
Maybe if I were to resist my anger, I may notice something new about the periods of time when my dog appears afraid to go down the stairs. Maybe I can help her more effectively if I give myself the space to discover her hidden reasons. And ultimately, even if I never understand, can I offer compassion anyway? Can I have the humility to accept that there are some things I may never understand? Can I acknowledge that compassion does not always come from understanding? Compassion and loving kindness are mine to give freely and are applicable and beneficial in any situation regardless of personal comprehension.
In the same vein this mindset would do me good in regard to the way I feel I’m perceived by other people. I tend to think that if I am not fully understood by someone, then they cannot truly love me. Now I am beginning to see that isn’t true. I’ve certainly loved people that I may not have understood 100%. I don’t think we can ever understand another, or even ourselves, fully. But that does not lessen or cheapen the love that we can offer. The best love is unconditional anyway. I don’t have to reserve my love and compassion for only people and situations that I understand. Perhaps it is even better given in those instances. Love and compassion transcend understanding, and that is part of what makes them so poignant, beautiful, and worthwhile.
Opening myself up to others has never been one of my strong suits. Yet I know from experience, and many things I’ve read, that vulnerability is necessary in order to achieve true intimacy. This is exactly where my dilemma lies. I was fascinated by the realization I happened to stumble upon the other day surrounding this idea and how it has influenced my own life.
Sometimes I end up resenting and pushing away the people I most admire. I become frustrated by how much better I think they are than me. I paint this picture in my head of someone on a pedestal. So far above my strange little eccentricities and flaws that they could never possibly understand me. At first I feel embarrassed and unworthy of their attention and/or affection. I think to myself: well if they knew who I really was they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Whether that’s really true or not, that thought eventually turns angry and I think: oh, fuck them then. I don’t need them anyway. I grow tired of pretending to be someone I’m not to maintain their approval. (Whether I even need to do so or not, remains unknown.) I either retreat myself or begin to push them away. This seems like a better option than what I view as the only other: that I am seen for who I really am and rejected.
I was running this problem over in my head the other day, when I began to wonder how I have any intimate relationships at all. I mean, of course there are plenty of people that I am able to be vulnerable with, people that I feel safe showing myself too. So what’s different about those relationships? I discovered that there are really only two ways I’ve been able to get close to someone in the past.
One way is when a person gets to know me before I decide I really give a damn about them or what they think of me. This happened more often when I was in high school and college. My first boyfriend knew all of my dirty little secrets before I fell in love with him or even became close friends with him just because we had classes together. In these instances, the fact that this casual acquaintance does not reject me for what they discover is extremely endearing to me. I begin to like them more because they’ve seen who I am and have not turned away, or perhaps even like me better for it. It feels so good to be seen. And I feel that they must be an exceptionally kind and compassionate person if they could still like me after truly seeing me.
The other way is when the other person is very outgoing and open. If they pour their heart out to me, I am usually so touched by their vulnerability and trust that I feel safe enough to offer my own. The closest people in my life have historically been extremely extroverted. Their bravery gives me the courage to open up. They also tend to ask me lots of probing questions, which I actually enjoy. Some people might find that rude, but I love nothing more than having someone ask me about myself or my experiences. I’m far too self-conscious to offer up that information willingly. So unless I’m directly asked, a lot of my life remains unknown to even my friends. Even if I desperately want them to know. I just feel too embarrassed to offer up unsolicited information about myself because I think no one would care.
So having noticed this pattern, how can I get close to someone who does not fall into either of these two categories? I am genuinely at a loss on that one. Not only am I too afraid to let this person find out too much about me and my past, they also don’t ask about it at all. Even if I wanted to tell them, I would have no idea how to bring it up besides just blurting it out randomly. And I don’t think that would be helpful even if I could muster up the courage to do it.
I’m not sure where this fear of being seen began. I cannot even remember a time where I was rejected for showing someone who I truly am. I’ve always been accepted and shown compassion. And each time this simple act of decency and kindness has touched me deeply. Each time I can hardly believe it, can hardly accept it, and feel certain that I don’t deserve it. Even though I know that I only end up liking someone more after they’ve shown me their flaws. I don’t love them despite these imperfections. I love them more because of their imperfections and the fact that they trusted me enough to share them with me.
I can’t seem to let go of this belief that I am not worthy of anyone else’s love until I am perfect. But that is obviously ridiculous. People don’t want someone who is “perfect.” (I certainly don’t.) People like other real, imperfect people far more. Consider the popularity of the anti-hero. Everyone loves a deeply troubled TV or movie character with redeeming qualities more than one who is infallible. Because no one is perfect. We see ourselves in the revealed shortcomings of others and we love them for it, as we can only hope others will love us for ours.
I am not being fair to myself or the people I hold dear by withholding and hiding these imperfect parts of myself. It’s not fair for me to breed resentment towards someone for my perception that they could never accept or understand me. Especially when I refuse to even give them the chance. I know deep down that I don’t have to be afraid. Certainly some people will reject me, but so many more have already embraced me and my flaws. Not only that, but by hiding myself away for fear of judgement, I am sending myself the message that I am not enough as I am, that I am unworthy of being seen and loved. And that’s not what I believe, not really. What I really believe is best summed up in the words of my favorite poet:
No matter how insignificant I may be, I believe I deserve to be loved.Federico Garcia Lorca