The first time I was formally introduced to the concepts of mindfulness and maitri (aka metta or loving kindness) was during an epic meltdown freakout after a relationship tanked in the mid 2000s. I was in a bad way, and my verve for life and allegedly boundless energy had morphed into this rocket fuel for anxiety that had until then been relatively in-check.
I’d tried some therapy and not found much success there, plus it was too expensive and I didn’t feel like trusting my well being to another human- so deep were my misgivings about all people and things after my experience. I turned instead to the comforting search engine on Amazon.com, (“anxiety” “guilt” “unlovable”) which offered me audiobooks from slick-looking Ph.Ds and motivational speakers, and a set of 3 CDs from a tiny woman wearing a red sheet with a nearly shaved head.
Add to cart.
This was Pema Chodron, formerly Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, and her teachings (and the teachings of her teachers) were unlike any of the classical western coping methods I had ever heard of. The primary difference is that there is no advocacy of escape or dealing with pain and suffering. Instead, you are asked to develop a curiosity about the pain and experience it, unadorned, without the nightmare CNN crawl of “awful things I think about myself and my life” churning away at your guts. Part of the theory is that our desperate desire to avoid pain plays a starring role in our suffering. For the first time, I heard someone articulate that unhappiness is part of life, that it is normal, and does not reflect our worth or reveal us as impostors when we struggle with it.
So my anxiety was cured. Yay!
No, no. Of course not. Though her perspective did in fact relieve me of the immediate burden of misery in the year that followed. But because my mind is convoluted, I managed to take this knowledge and use it against myself the next time the wheels started spinning too quickly for my mental driveshaft- I managed to tell myself, “This is true for everyone else, but not you.”
I would listen again and again to the lectures (I now have all of them and even a crackly 8-bit bootleg from Nova Scotia) and I could comfort my most sorrowful friend or wayward student with these ideas and strategies, but would retreat into brokenness and shame shortly thereafter, retracing in my mind’s eye the mile-long shit list of reasons I am not okay.
I wanted to begin this paragraph with “In the end, this has been..” but I realize that I am probably nowhere near the end of any of this. And Pema would gently remind me that this is normal, even the self-eviscerating. It doesn’t mean that it’s good, but no sense in punishing myself for punishing myself.
Anyway, as I investigate a future in the burgeoning field of arts in mental health, I don’t know that I would trade any of the tough stuff for calmer seas. Knowing what 5am hopelessness feels like -and surviving it- may well make me a better practitioner when the time comes. That said, the past few years have left me with added impetus to strengthen my battlements in the hopes that fewer arrows pierce me so deeply. Being sensitive is one thing, being brittle is another.
I’ve learned that I have perfectionist attitudes. Not all the time, but enough of the time. Too much of the time. Back to Amazon, iPad edition of Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, which I actually did not love, despite its promising title and subheading. At the very least, I have come to the academic understanding that the equation for happiness does not look like this:
If only x, then I would be happy.
It’s more like:
Huh. Life is really complicated. Let’s see if I can find a small piece of happiness right now and cultivate it, despite z and even though x will probably never happen.
So I know this much in the academic sense, meaning that I cannot always apply it but I sure do try, most of the time.
Back to Brené Brown. I like to listen to On Being with Krista Tippett, and Dr. Brown was on it towards the end of 2012. I’m just now getting caught up, and as I drove out to run some errands the other day in Rockville, I hit play. The podcast is called Vulnerability, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. Over and over again.
What I like so much about hearing her speak extemporaneously is that she is very clearly both a researcher and someone who has a tendency to fall on the unproductive side of the happiness equation. One thing I was struck by when she was listing qualities of people who live “wholeheartedly” (those who don’t experience fluctuations in self-worth when things get tough) was the relationship of creativity to comparison. Comparison kills creativity. Smothers it, sets limits, establishes doubt before failure is even an option.
Huh. Wow. I’ve been comparing myself to an invisible optimal version of myself* for years. My creativity is being smothered. I do feel stifled. I’m doing what other people say I should be doing and I am not any happier. I am risking everything, and for what?
She gave a TEDx talk in Houston, and another one at the big TED conference later in 2010. I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a little bit of what she has to say. I share this, in my own moment of vulnerability, even though it scares the living hell out of me each time I hit “publish”.
*based solely on the negative input of others because, you know, that’s clever.
Brilliant Dr. Who/Van Gogh painting from LimeFish Studios.