Sometime this past summer, when I was faced with a challenging event in my life, I found that my trusted coping mechanisms were gone. When it was necessary for me to pause, take a deep breath and try to bounce back as usual, I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. Very suddenly and unexpectedly, I had reached my threshold of what I was able to take in and process. There was no room in my lungs (or in my life) to take in any more. No more understanding. No more forgiveness. No more patience. No more pleasing. No more justifying. No more protecting. No more pretending. No more fixing. No more blaming. No more judging. No more making excuses. No more toxins, mental, emotional or otherwise. No more drama. No more pain. No more taking on more than my share of responsibility. No more guilt. No more shame. No more procrastinating. No more displaced anger. No more repeating unhealthy patterns. NO MORE HIDING WHO I REALLY AM.
That experience shook me up because I am not used to being unable to cope. It really got my attention because something big had shifted and it scared the hell out of me. It felt like I had no choice but to just stop breathing, which brought on a brief, but intense, state of panic. I quickly realized that I had to stop what I was doing and break some of the repeating patterns in my life that, until now, I had thought could be “fixed” by knowing more, doing more, trying harder, being more compassionate, more helpful, more aware and so on. It became painfully clear that many of the strategies I have told myself were “the answer” to this or that were, at best, ineffective and, at their very worst, extremely destructive and ended up bringing about the very things which I was hoping to avoid in the first place. The universe had hit me over the head, yet again, and it felt as though I had no choice but to set some pretty firm limits. Now, that may sound simple, but for someone who is hardwired (meaning it has become part of my identity and how I measure my self worth) to “be of service”, “fix” or “figure out” and whose mission it is to say “Yes” whenever possible, setting limits in these particular areas was not only unfamiliar, it was a terrifying risk. I had invested so much of my “self” into this way of coping that if I were to “stop” being or behaving a certain way, wouldn’t I just disappear? Wouldn’t I become irrelevant? It was so frustrating to think that I had come so far but had completely lost track of ME – AGAIN! And so, setting new limits from this new place of awareness became both vital and impossible to avoid.
Didn’t make it easier, though, I can assure you of that.
Since then, I have made some uncomfortable and often painful changes. The way my life is balanced has shifted, quite dramatically. You could say that, for the past 4 -5 months I have been in an extended state of exhalation. It is as though I have been breathing out thoughts, beliefs, patterns and karma that have been active inside me for decades, even lifetimes. This has taken an incredible amount of awareness and focus and I have had to step well outside of my comfort zone to face some very dark truths about myself, my past trauma and the painful realization that – and this is huge – I have added to my own suffering by re-creating this trauma over and over again. This part of my journey has not been easy, but I am grateful that it has come with the insight of how necessary it is in order to discover the inevitable joy of self-acceptance.
What? Self-acceptance you say? How did that happen?
Well, it’s in the process of happening as we speak. It may still take the rest of this lifetime, or longer, but I believe I have found a doorway that opens up to it and, as incredibly miraculous as that may sound, the even bigger miracle is that I’m actually willing to go through it.
If you’re having trouble imagining what that feels like, picture yourself in a large ocean, treading water frantically to try to keep your head from going under. In this metaphor, the ocean symbolizes our Emotions, but it also symbolizes our Being, our Truth, our Duality, our Darkness and our Light. We spend lifetimes (yes, lifetimes – plural) trying not to become submerged because we are so afraid of being overwhelmed by what we will have to face if we allow that to happen. But the reality is that, as hard as it is, we must surrender and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We must challenge ourselves to take a deep breath, hold it, and sink down with eyes wide open into the depths of our Being, to find our Truth and confront all the parts that we have been hiding from the world and from ourselves – our mistakes, our pain, our ideas, our faults, our power, our fear, our dreams, our brilliance, our habits, and ultimately, our shame about all of it.
We have to face these things because it is the only way we will ever really “see” ourselves or “know” ourselves. Wanting to be “seen” is one of our basic human needs, but how can we be seen by others if we remain unwilling to look at ourselves first? It is uncomfortable and scary and may even feel counter-intuitive because we are programmed to believe that discomfort and negative emotions are “bad”. In reality, Emotions are a signal from the brain telling us that something needs to be addressed. If ignored, these Emotions may become toxic to our mind, body, behaviors and relationships. Our Emotions are designed to guide us and help us gauge how close or far we are from what we really want, We might feel panicky and unsafe in allowing ourselves to feel them but the amazing thing is that, as we move through these Emotions, we begin to understand that they only have as much of a hold on us as we allow them to have.
At the bottom of that infinite “Ocean of Emotion”, if we have the courage to sink deep enough, is the doorway to self-acceptance. It is the ultimate discovery, the sunken treasure that so few of us ever find because we are so conditioned in our society not to take emotional risks and spend all of our energy merely trying to “stay afloat”. If we never allow ourselves to explore the depths of who we really are, we will never discover the infinite joy that comes with accepting and loving ourselves, just as we are, fully and completely.
Now that I’ve just about exhausted that metaphor, I must tell you that, sometime in November, I fell into that Ocean. It was not something I had planned for or “decided” to do, but I was not unprepared for it, either. I had just begun a 7-part weekly meditation workshop with my friend and mentor, Bart Smit. After week 1, Bart suggested (no, urged) that we watch two TED talk videos given by Dr. Brene Brown: one on Vulnerability and one on Shame. While I watched the videos, Dr. Brown’s work and her message resonated with me so strongly it was as if a lightning bolt was hitting me and sending an electrical charge through my body. I knew, from that moment on, that my whole life was about to change. I immediately understood that Vulnerability was a doorway which I had been avoiding and at this point in my life, after trying pretty much everything else, I knew I could not avoid it any longer. It wasn’t until the following week, when my heart was wide open after the meditation class, and I was, as I realized later, completely vulnerable, that I “fell” into the Ocean.
Suffice it to say that the experience of my own Vulnerability was excruciating. Dr. Brown warned me. She said it would take courage and she was so right. However, I understand now that what true Vulnerability requires is not the kind of courage that wins battles. This kind of courage is the kind that saves lives.
It has only been a few months since then but that experience, and my ongoing commitment to remaining open and vulnerable, has affected me immensely. I notice how things are changing. I’m acutely aware of my tendency to fall into self-talk and behaviors that can re-activate the old patterns and I have begun to practice an essential part of self-love, which is accepting that we are not perfect and that we are “enough”, no matter what the situation. I accept that I will stumble. I accept that I will screw up and I accept that getting out there and risking failure is the only way I can experience living with my whole heart. It feels risky to make different choices for myself such as setting new limits and honoring them; reviewing past mistakes and approaching them with a renewed perspective; allowing old wounds to heal by not ‘re-activating them” with my old programming; letting myself “just be”; forgiving myself; making what brings me joy a priority, not an afterthought – or worse, something I avoid; saying no when it feels right; speaking my truth and, in general, not hiding who I really am. But these are all risks that I am now willing to take because, quite simply, I deserve to be happy and its nobody’s responsibility but mine, nor is it in anyone else’s power to make it so.
And here’s some more good news. In late February, I attended a week-long meditation retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with Bart Smit and the group from the 7-week course. It was transformational on so many levels, not the least of which was the fact that I actually WENT. At ALL. In the past, I would have convinced myself that there wasn’t enough time, or money or need or that someone wouldn’t approve or that I didn’t know anyone or these weren’t my “people” because I was afraid of feeling isolated or rejected. What I discovered was that it was me who was not allowing myself to make the time or find the money and it was a part of me who was ashamed and not fully accepting the parts of myself I didn’t want to be fully identified with because I was afraid of being called “flaky” or “way out there”. But the truth is that this IS who I am. Not all of who I am, but a big part and I have been judging myself for way too long. I am so grateful to MYSELF that I have finally stepped up to the plate and come through for ME, FINALLY.
Its important to note that, ironically, that was one of my familiar complaints about others when I was feeling vulnerable in the past: That I’m all alone and nobody comes through for me. I never realized how twisted and toxic that belief really was until I confronted my own shame around it. The truth I discovered, and which I tried so hard to avoid, was that I was so invested in my self-worth being measured by how much I could “fix” things that, when things got chaotic for the people that I loved and I become overwhelmed with the knowledge that I could NOT fix it, I panicked and withdrew. Tragically, I behaved in exactly the same way as those I felt had let me down and whom I had judged in the past.
Talk about a wake up call.
So, I think its time to take that complaint off my list for good and just “show up”, as myself, in whatever capacity I can. I am enough. I can’t fix the unfixable, nor am I expected to.
I’m back from the meditation retreat and its time to begin my renewed life. The week I spent in Mexico, with those 50 or so kindred spirits, felt like the “pause” at the end of the “out breath”. It provided the stillness I needed to connect back with my “Self” and my Truth. I plan to give myself that gift every year, from now on.
And I’m breathing in again.