Categories

Archives

I want my feelings back

Rain ot ocean beachOver the course of the last decade or so, I have spent a great deal of time learning to recognize, understand, and practice healthy ways to express with my feelings. There are many ways to do this. I’ve done therapy, meditation, journaling, group therapy, art, dance, and more. Maybe some of these activities helped me prepare for the onslaught of overwhelming, and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable feelings brought on by the birth of my daughter, but maybe not. Nothing really can.

Perhaps I should have taken this as a clue that there is no promised land where we are totally okay with difficult feelings, but I didn’t. At some point I had absorbed the idea that if I was truly enlightened or healthy or whatever  I would be totally serene and centered when dealing with the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from all the joy and rage and terror and happiness that babies bring. I didn’t give myself a break and listen to what my trusted friends and mentors told me; parenting is hard, go easy on yourself. Instead, my inner critic kept saying things like, “If your were healthy you wouldn’t be so scared. You wouldn’t get so angry.” So I took already difficult emotions and piled judgement and censure on top.

I don’t mean to pathologize myself particularly. We all enter parenthood singularly unprepared for its demands. I don’t care how old or young you are, or what gender. Parenthood is the ultimate humbler, and I think the more together your shit, the further you have to fall. We all start off totally incompetent and inexperienced. If it was a job we were interviewing for, we would not get hired.

However, my  daughter has recently forced me to recognize that everyone tries to get away from bad feelings, including little kids who hopefully haven’t been on the planet long enough to have trauma-induced behavioral patterns. She is learning to recognize and verbalize her feelings. It’s an amazing thing to see – if she is having a totally non verbal tantrum, and I can help her verbalize her feelings, the intensity of the feelings instantly decreases. As soon as she says, “I’m sad!” the emotion starts to dwindle. When another kid knocks her down or takes a toy, she tells them what she wants and how she feels about it – she doesn’t automatically run to an adult to mete out judgement and punishment, because that’s not how her parents and her school deal with it. I’m very proud of all these things.

But what is remarkable to me is how hard it is for her to get out of her lizard brain and activate her verbal centers. I mean, here is a kid with an amazing sense of self.  She is loved and loving, spunky, and resilient. Hopefully we have done well (so far) in setting boundaries without shaming her and damaging her self image. Not that we are without daily screw ups, but I have yet to see her really internalize a bad feeling about herself. She gets angry or sad when she doesn’t get her way, but not ashamed. Shamed children tend to look hunched over, or frozen, or have a glazed look in their eyes. I’ve watched it happen to other kids and it’s not pretty.  The funny thing is I had this unconscious assumption that her strong self meant that she would exhibit my idealized zen monk-like ability to tolerate her  emotions.  As it turns out,  my fairly healthy and normal three year old really dislikes being sad or angry or scared, too. Go figure. A couple months ago when she would cry about something (usually something I wouldn’t let her have or had to take away from her – no, you can’t play with the screwdriver, or splash in the toilet bowl, or sit on the dog) she would tearfully say. “I don’t want to be sad! I want to be happy!” Because being sad is really uncomfortable. It’s not a learned thing, and it’s not a product of our weird society. It’s just hard. She has yet to understand that all feelings are transitory – every moment looms very large in her experience. Her latest cry is, “I want my feelings back!” I’m not sure how to interpret this, but I have an  idea. Feelings like sadness or anger are usually brought on by an external event – often another person. I can imagine that when something makes her suddenly sad or scared she feels like her good feelings had been taken away from her. A few months ago our dog Persephone grabbed a piece of bread out of her hand. She spent the next 30 minutes screaming, “Give me back my bread Sephy! Give it back!” I guess Persephone took her good feelings away when she stole the bread.  The harder thing is to teach her that emotional pain is temporary and usually not physically dangerous. It doesn’t make it feel better in the moment, but it helps to tolerate the feeling until it passes. Her sense of the passage of time is still very different from mine, so this is a challenge. Who am I kidding? I have a really hard time remembering the same thing, and I have almost 40 years on her.

Anyway, the thing that my daughter has taught me is that everyone dislikes feeling sad, scared, or angry most of the time. Occasionally sadness is cathartic and feels like a huge relief, but I think it’s rare. There is a part of our brain that can’t distinguish between physical danger and psychological danger, and that part can get very loud (much like a three year old) when we are upset. Everyone retreats to that non-verbal, lizard brain place when the feelings become overwhelming, and that is where it becomes difficult to remember that this feeling isn’t forever, it’s just right now. So watching my daughter struggle with what is is to be human has helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my struggle. And anyone who tells you that you are having uncomfortable feelings because there is something wrong with you, instead of because life is just that way, is full of it.

Desperately Seeking Solace, or What I learned from Buddhism

This is a long rambley entry, so bear with me (or skip it.)

There is a lot to be learned from Buddhism, and it would be impossible absorb it all in one lifetime. Since I’ve moved away from the secularized version that is often practiced in America, and more towards Vedic, or Yogic traditions that form the foundations of both Buddhism and Hinduism, I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t serve me when I was practicing in the Shambala tradition. Namely, what I saw as a nihilistic need to regard a mystical experience of God as a crutch, and some ethical problems stemming from guru worship.

Recently I’ve started to realize how much I have integrated into my world and self-view, and how it has helped prepare me for this next phase of my own spiritual journey. At the same time, I’ve begun to observe a pattern among my friends and peers in the 35-45 age range, and my Buddhist studies have helped me frame them.

Things change. I can’t ignore it anymore. What’s more, I’m old enough that things are starting to fall down faster than I can build them up. I may build a successful company, and I may write books. I may start a family. But I can’t not get sick, I can’t not age and die, and I can’t keep those I love from experiencing the same things. I couldn’t keep Simon from dying, and though the death of a dog may not seem that big on a universal scale, it shook my foundations. If Simon could leave, so could everything else.

Yes, everything is impermanent, and no, just trying to get used to that idea is not enough to make it tolerable. Not for me, anyway. So ultimately, I needed more than Buddhism (or at least the version I was studying) had to offer. I suspect that a lot of people my age are struggling with this transition, from the attaining/building/growing phase of life, to the beginning of the slowing/ending/dissipating part of life.

I’ve sought solace in relationships for a long time. Friends, lovers, family, pets; I’ve sought peace and balance, love and acceptance from other beings. Buddhism says that this seeking is itself a cause of suffering, and that when we cease seeking, we can find our own innate place in the universe. Only last year, after losing my certainty about my career (after I left my last job), and my dog Simon was I able to admit that I didn’t know where I was going. That was really hard for me, because while I’ve never been one to join groups, I’ve always needed to identify myself with a verb of some kind: Student, Musician, Designer, Manager. I didn’t know anymore what word to use to identify myself, or what words I might use in the future.

It was in this place of uncertainty, when the some of the things I clung to were no longer there, that I was able to start listening to my higher self, or the collective unconscious, or God, or whatever I choose to call it on any given day. Whatever. I could feel this connection and recognize it consciously at the same time, and I couldn’t do that before. Why is this so important to me? Because life (and Buddhism) had taught me that nothing is stable, that things fall apart, and that clinging to them doesn’t change a damn thing. Buddhism helped me realize that most people struggle with this, whether or not they know it. But my core, or soul, is always there no matter how much things change.

Some people I know just keep speeding up. They’re the ones who have always been achievement focused, and have never really given themselves the option of just saying, “What the fuck am I doing?” and putting on the brakes for a while. If it worked before, and it’s not working now, just do more of it. In these people I recognize the same aversion that I see to sitting with my mind quietly and seeing what arises, rather than trying to plan and control everything. It’s funny how society brands depression as dysfunctional and those who experience it as less successful than those who just never stop. One way or another we all need a mental break sometimes. I think often depression is just our body-mind’s way of letting us hibernate and germinate ourselves so we can deal with whatever just happened, or what comes next.

Others have gravitated towards ideologies, or organizations that have cult-like qualities, be they for work, self-improvement, or religion. Where the power of groupthink seems to momentarily free them from the fear of the unknown, but the anxiety that drives them is still readily apparent. This too, I feel like I’ve dabbled in myself. I certainly felt for a while that in Shambala, perhaps I’d found a belief system trustworthy enough to leave my critical mind at the door. That didn’t work out so well.

Others have done what I was forced to do, and now am trying to sustain. Slowed down a bit. I still struggle daily with feeling as if I need to do more, be more, accomplish more. But on the other side of the equation, I can’t really understand who I am and who I may become if I’m always running towards or away from something. I’m not saying I’m good at doing things slower, far from it. But between the two polarities of the drive of individual accomplishment and the pull of groupthink mentality, it’s the only place that makes sense to me.

Buddhism prepared me for this place. I learned how to meditate, I learned to observe how the qualities of emotions and thoughts change when we observe them. I learned that there is no “being good at” in meditation, and that it’s just as valuable when it’s frustrating as when it’s transcendent. I started to learn to listen and be, instead of talk and do.

It seems as if we’re all finding ourselves well out of the barely post-adolescent mental state that is our twenties, and we’re all trying to figure out what that means. We’re losing grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and all the wisdom that we lose with them. We’re creating new generations. We’re trying to figure out what is really important to us, and what doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore.

I know now that peace and contentment are way more important to me than excitement and drama. I like solitude and quiet a lot. Rather than condemning those who join religions, I believe in some form of God. I’m not so quick to judge people who believe different things than I do – spiritually or politically. I’m more interested in the creative process and less interested in showing off the results (though I think I will always be kind of a show-off). I’m more interested in healthy, strong relationships, and less interested in flattery and adulation. I know the difference now between real courage and empty bravado.

So what do you think? How are you dealing with this transition and how is it going? How have your values changed in the last few years? How are you finding meaning and fulfillment now as opposed to when you were younger? Drop me a line sometime and let me know.