Choosing to be Vulnerable…or Not


“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are
when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved
and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed
and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time…
Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world
but to unglove ourselves so that the door knob feels cold
and the car handle feels wet
and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being
soft and unrepeatable.”

 

~ Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Over the past several weeks, the concept of vulnerability and its importance to intimacy has followed me like a stalker.  At the same time, I heard from a friend about how sad and hurt she is over my silence and disconnect; I swore at my sister (via text) for the first time in my life; and I annoyed another close friend with my narcissism (my words, not hers).

I believe without a doubt that I’ve lost the ability to listen deeply to others.  Compassion and caring used to be important to me.  They were qualities I purposefully cultivated and practiced.  I believed in the power of kindness to change the world around me.  I have also felt that belief dribbling out of me over the past decade.  I’m easily annoyed and impatient with other people’s problems. I avoid social settings and leave when I feel my tolerance unraveling. Mental illness has made me guarded, judgmental and mean.

There’s a reason therapists caution against isolation—not just because human connection is vital to all forms of health, but because the mentally ill are already vulnerable, and making real connections with others requires us to risk being more vulnerable.  It’s too hard, too painful.  So much easier to barricade behind thicker and thicker walls, then complain about being lonely.

I can see the path I’m on leading to life as a hermitic sociopath.  Maybe I’ve binge-watched too much Dexter, but I can identify with his lack of empathy and complete self-absorption.

Then, Tara Brach, or my therapist, or an article in a magazine suggests an alternative path—to “unglove” as Mark Nepo puts it.  It’s painful and terrifying.  It seems like too much work that requires more courage, more bad-assery, more, more, more.  To be fair, Tara suggests gentleness and tiny acts of willingness.  I’m not being asked to tear down the walls, just look at them.  Or sit with my back against them and feel their warmth and strength.  Still, I don’t know that it’s worth it.

And I don’t know if I have a choice.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Bodies—A Foreign Language

handmade greeting cards, collage artTara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, has offered me a treasure trove of learning and tools.  There’s so much, and the lessons run so deep, that I’m digesting it slowly.

Today I started the chapter on Desire and Wanting—what I’ve considered my biggest nemesis and Fatal Flaw.  Wanting turns me into someone else—ravenous, obsessive, and ultimately unworthy.  I’ve tried sitting quietly with it, holding it with curious compassion, but usually end up drowning it in whatever will make it shut up.  Of course, nothing does that for long.

Tara tells about a time when she was at the beginning of a new relationship.  She went off to a meditation retreat, looking forward to peace and rejuvenation, but all she could do was fantasize about her new boyfriend.  Here’s what she says about it:

After several days, I had a pivotal interview with my teacher.  When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?”  I was startled into understanding.   For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle.  Her questions pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice:  It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience.  She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind.  I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural.  The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment.  It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive.  Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness.  The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening.  Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena.  While this is not easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force and remain free in its midst.

Feeling my emotions in my body is something I’ve been practicing for only a short time.  I’m more used to sitting in meditation and simply noting my physical state, not pausing in the midst of emotional pain to find it in my body.  Frankly, it’s frightening.  But the more I do it, the more I can accept whatever my body feels.  It’s hard not to jump ahead and wonder if this might be another piece in the puzzle of how to deal with my compulsive symptoms (There’s Wanting, again).  So, I just note that—feel the jittery, acid-burn of Wanting in my belly; the buzzy energy lighting up my arms and back—and breathe into the experience.

This is new, and exciting, and scary.  I want more.  But not today.  Today I’ll just stick to paying attention to what this experience feels like in my body.  That’s enough foreign language to digest for one day.

Radical Acceptance

handmade greeting cards, collage artI knew I’d come to the right place when my new therapist went to her stuffed bookshelf and pulled down When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

“That’s one of my favorite books,” I told her, craning my neck to see what other jewels she had.

Unphased, she rifled through a few more.  “Then, you’ll like this one, I think,” she said.

I stuffed it in my bag and forgot about it in the wake of bronchitis and $500 spend on medicines that didn’t help much.  Yesterday, I decided I was done being sick—not physically, I’m a long way from well, but mentally.  I threw my book bag over my shoulder, took a slow stroll over the railroad yard to the Starbucks at HyVee, and settled into a cafe booth to journal.  And I found the book Megan loaned me.  Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

By the end of Chapter 2, I had to close my eyes and sit quietly while all the doors inside opened.

I could see how my fear of repeating last year (bronchitis—depression—hospitalization) pushed me into going to the doctor and obscured what I knew to be true.  Medicine has never helped me recover from my chronic respiratory infections and only drains my resources.  But Fear drowned out that quiet voice, the one that understands it just takes time, patience and healthy practices to get well.

radicalRadical Acceptance talks about waking up from the trance of unworthiness and accepting all our immediate experience offers.  From that perspective, I could see how I might work with my fear differently next time.  There’s nothing new in this approach—it’s as old as Buddhism—but coming face-to-face with the perfect example always slams home the Teaching.

To simply see that fear is in play is the first and hardest hurdle.  It acts as an underground driver, pushing, directing, demanding action.  So to be able to wake up in that agitation and See what stirs it takes practice.  Then, the task is to observe the fear, hold it gently, watch the stories it generates, feel the push and pull, and listen carefully to the quiet voice on the other side of it.  That quiet voice is my own Wisdom, something I don’t trust anymore, something that got lost in the sea of delusion my bipolar disorder created.  But, in accepting my fear I begin to Remember.  I remember that I do have a wiser self that isn’t delusional or lying.  I’ve ignored it a long time.  I’m out of practice finding it.

I sat in my booth and listened.  This wise part of me is so quiet, so gentle.  It offers suggestions that are kind and sensible, not the wild plans of my delusions.

I smiled, grateful for the doors opening, grateful for a new way to Practice, grateful for finding my new therapist and her glorious bookshelf.

I have enough.

I am enough.

All will be well.

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