pain

The Wizard of Pos(itivity)

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What is to give light must endure burning.

-Viktor E. Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

Very recently, I was invited to share a story of my life in a public setting. When I solicited suggestions from my Facebook followers and friends, one person said this:

"You're just such a positive person. I admire that about you. Was there ever a time in which you struggled with loving and accepting yourself? I just feel like someone else who may be struggling with that would be inspired by you."

It's really beautiful and very important to me that people experience me as a positive person now, especially if it inspires them to transform their own perspective on life. But I realized there is an important story to tell about my path to positivity. My journey reminded me of a similar story, so I'll call this The Wizard of Pos(itivity).

When I was in college, I had the Midas touch. Do you know that story of King Midas? Everything he touched turned to gold. That's how I felt in college and into my early young adulthood. I'd say I wanted to have or do something and it would literally materialize before my eyes. On the first day of college, I squinted at the people moving us into our dorms and said, "that will be me, someday." Indeed, two years later, I became a hall/resident advisor. It was also that year that I was granted the opportunity to study abroad in South Africa. I needed to raise a lot of money, but I applied myself that summer and raised $3500 to fly myself across the Atlantic and made my 10-year dream to go to South Africa come true.

Things like that kept happening for me well into and throughout my young adulthood.

And then, a few years ago, something happened. I fell into some kind of rut where things worked decently but not the way they had for many years. It got worse with each month and then things sort of bottomed out for me. It didn't look like that to a lot of people, but it FELT that way to me. My business was suffering and my mental and emotional health had plummeted. I grew increasingly discouraged and disheartened with each passing month until last year, I heard myself say, "I lost my Midas touch. I can't make things happen like I used to."

My light had almost gone completely out. I was growing increasingly negative and fearful. I had become spiteful and often complained and compared myself to other people and their perceived success. Despite achieving so much, other success or accomplishments seemed elusive. The infamous Gemini tendency toward duplicity sort of ran the joint on a daily basis.

I hardly recognized myself. Despite my awareness of my behavior, I felt unable to turn things around.

I was desperate to understand what was happening and what I could do to change it.

I started digging deep, really deep. I came to fully embrace that was raised in a family that tolerated my existence but rarely celebrated it.  To overcome that neglect, as a child, teen and younger adult, I sought out a lot of loving and wonderful people once I realized what love could feel like. From the time I was young, I was always gregarious and loving so I always seemed to find these people, even if they were sometimes hidden among the weeds of a toxic or dysfunctional environment or community.

But the part of me that knew neglect, abandonment and the feeling of not being cherished or adored, still sought out people and places that would reinforce that experience for me. It was familiar, after all, if not all that comfortable.

Despite making some really great decisions to remove myself from situations or relationships like that during the past few years, I was still subconsciously doing it in other areas or with other people. Since I had made great progress and so much WAS working, I couldn't see these blind spots. But they were there, and eroding the confidence and strength I strived to build in other areas. They were counteracting the progress I'd make and set me back for days or weeks.

But I began to see it. Ever so slowly. I started experiencing the same patterns in every aspect of my life--a person here or there would be a clone of another. I heard these people complain about others, compare themselves or speak in ways that revealed a lack of self-awareness of their actions. They all seemed, in varying degrees, unwilling or unable to see or be responsible for the impact of their choices and behavior. They were resistant to the actual hard work of personal growth and appreciation of themselves and their own gifts, despite evidence to the contrary. From the outside, they presented the image of being "put-together" or "the pinnacle of positivity" but were actually very different if triggered or shaken or confronted in some way. These were very different relationships from my old friends, those people I had found earlier in my life, who had lit my path with the light of self-awareness and a passion for growth and healing. These people in my life now seemed to be showing me one face and the world another, and it confused me so much--particularly when I confronted them and suddenly became the focus or target of their projections. I went from trusted confidante to Enemy #1 sometimes overnight.

And then I realized why: I was acting as a mirror for them and vice versa. As I spent more and more time around people who were resisting their own vulnerability, authenticity and inner demons, I took on their secret negativity and insecurity. As I surrounded myself with people who focused their energy more on putting up appearances and avoiding the painful complexity of life than confronting it, I did too. I complained. I gossiped. I hid. In this environment, my gender transition, an already delicate and vulnerable process, became increasingly less of a celebration and more of a prison as I rejected and resented people more each day. I saw threats at every turn and doubted myself and my abilities. It wasn't who I had ever been, but I absorbed it and sent it back out into the world.  And, just like these people, I managed to develop two versions of myself: the one I was "behind the curtain" and the one I showed the world.

I had become the Wizard of Positivity--pulling off the feat of impressing the world with my strength and courage but also feeling like a fraud as I feverishly manipulated controls and switches to keep up the illusion of happiness, confidence and inner peace.

The more I did this, the more I experienced rejection and reprisals. My own behavior was literally creating the alienation I experienced from people and opportunities. All the healthy food and personal development trainings in the world weren't filling the void of not feeling appreciated, valued or cherished for who I was.  It felt like a sinkhole and the more I tried to grasp at a solution or a person, the more I felt them slip through my fingers. The way out was elusive and I knew a despair deeper and darker than any that Anne Shirley could ever imagine.

But I knew why I was experiencing all of it. It was my creation. I had allowed the parts of me that didn't believe I deserved love, recognition, support or success take over and I had put myself into environments or among people who weren't truly thriving themselves, despite their illusion to the contrary. I had fallen for those illusions, just as others were, and now had to reconcile with the truth. A lot of things look and feel a lot like love. But where there is a question, there is no love. And where there is real love, there is no question.

I had chosen to settle for less because it resonated with a part of me that felt it was all I deserved. And conflicts that came up were from a different part that knew I deserved better. Despite the pain and fear of changing, I knew I had to remove myself from anything or anyone that wasn't real love--in work, relationships and anything else.

And that's exactly what I did. Hand over hand, I climbed out and through and away from identities, behaviors, habits, situations and people that kept me from being fully expressed or fully seen and appreciated. The more I did, the better I felt and it gave me confidence to keep going.

The pain of whatever was lost wasn't stronger than my will to overcome that dark, negative place I had been in for so long. I began to see everything come into relief--everything made sense as my life improved over three months and then six and then nine. Positive and encouraging oppportunities seemed to serendipitously find me again, effortlessly. When I found myself chasing something or someone like I had before, I instantly saw the dead-end sign and would turn back.

And that's where I am now. I'm experiencing relationships and business/life opportunities like the ones I knew before and also the ones I dreamed about. I'm rather feeling like I've been raised from the dead. Things are happening in my life that make no logical sense and are mind-boggling for me, but they are the things I used to want so much---so I won't second-guess the Universe and look a gift-horse in the mouth. It seems I've definitely got my Midas touch back!!

The work keeps expanding in front of me, because the old habits are strong and deeply rooted in that part of me that needs to heal fully and completely. It couldn't heal in environments that reinforced it--it is healing in atmospheres of abundant love and reciprocity.

It would be great to say my transition made this all possible, that it inspired the change I needed to make. But the truth is, I've never felt more like the "old me" than I do right now. I just sound a little different and have bigger muscles.

Perhaps it was the courage to transition that allowed me to finally overcome whatever held the "old me" back. It was the genesis of finally exposing what hadn't ever really been given room to breathe.

And being alive feels great--especially since I've known what not living feels like. I've known all that fear, shame, rejection and neglect. I remember how it felt to be around it and who I became as a result and how hard I had to work to keep up the dual identities. I don't want to experience that again so all I can do now is be love and feel love and share it.

And the most important part of all is now when people call me positive, I can agree with them.

Feeling All The Things

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"That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt." - The Fault in Our Stars

Haven't seen or read this book, but I heard this quote in a clip and I thought it was pure truth. :)

One of the greatest lessons I learned from all the stuff of my life was how to feel my feelings. The more I walk amongst others, I really get how few people actually do this or know how to do it.

And I get it. I really do. It doesn't actually feel very good, especially the hard feelings. The good ones are hard to feel, too, I think. For me, good feelings sometimes bring a bittersweet quality because I know they won't last.

This fun BBQ with friends will end and I will have to go home.

This great movie will end.

This book will be over.

This gorgeous sunset will become night.

etc., etc.

Welcome to why I became a Buddhist. I find it helpful to have a tool to manage impermanence. Impermanence is reality, it's what is real and true about life. Before I realized this, I suffered a lot.

My relationship to and with impermanence began long ago.

I struggle with "issues" around abandonment and attachment from my childhood. I put the issues in quotes because, well, I think it's bullshit to stigmatize something that almost every person experiences an "issue". How about we just call it, hmm, the human experience.

OK.

So, I struggle with the experiences of abandonment and attachment from my childhood. My parents divorced when I was year old and my father moved out, remarried and had two sons. I have one sister and two brothers. I don't call them half-brothers--there is nothing half about them. It really doesn't matter that we have different moms. They are my brothers, end of story.

Because psychology is what it is (whatever we understand it is, really) I experience the impact of this family arrangement. It trickled into my childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood and, presently, my adulthood. It impacts how I interact with other people and how I relate to work, exercise, food and spirituality.

It's good for me to know this so I can make sense of everything I think, do and say. Some people don't think this is a good use of their time. Different strokes for different folks, I say. I find it helpful to make meaning from life because it's how my brain works. Before I had tools to help me, I really struggled. Now, I apply the many tools I've acquired over the course of 15 years and they help me adjust and recalibrate to make my life more positive and so I can experience less suffering. As long as I'm here, I might as well enjoy it, right?!

One way I do this is to feel all the things. Even the dark, nasty, horrible things. One of the worst feelings I felt was at the end of romantic relationships. There were times I felt like my body was coming apart at the seams. I felt like I was being squeezed out like a sponge or like someone was reaching down into my intestines and pulling them out through my throat.

So, trust me, I know why people do anything in their power to avoid feeling hard feelings. I know how it feels. But I have spent years practicing how to do it because each time I do, it makes it a little bit easier, ironically. It doesn't seem like it would work, but it has for me.

Sort of like waves of nausea. We all know that feeling.  You know how sometimes you wait it out, and let it pass, it goes away? Sometimes it's the flu or food poisoning and it doesn't go away. I'm not talking about that kind. haha.  I'm talking about the kind that makes you sit down and stop for a minute. And when you take deep breaths and a sip of water, it passes. And you feel really relieved because what felt so horrible a minute ago now isn't there and you feel so much better.

You realize that you didn't need to do anything other than sit and wait it out. And you are ok. And maybe next time the nausea comes, you will know what to do and it won't feel so scary.

I tried this the other day when I felt incredibly restless. OMG. I was like a Tazmanian devil, moving from thing to thing, picking things up, putting them down, literally walking in circles. This went on for about two hours until my mindfulness practice kicked in. I caught myself and I stopped. I felt the twitches and tics in my body. I felt my muscles tense and relax. It was like I took a picture of myself. I watched myself from about two feet away. And I sat down, put my palms on my thighs and I sat there. I felt like my head was in a vice.

I took a lot of deep breaths. I realized what was happening and that I'd been here many times before. I knew I was safe but I said it out loud, just to remind myself. I knew I had nowhere to go and nothing important to do and this was a perfect time to be fearless and face whatever wanted to come up.

I allowed myself to REALLY feel the depth of the loss, the pain or the grief I was experiencing. I wanted to know what it was like to really FEEL it and not run or move around anymore, because all that moving around clearly wasn't making it go away.

WOW. Tears came up from the depths of somewhere. I let them pour out and down like they did when I was kid. Did you know that tears perform the essential physiological function of cleansing stress hormones out of our bodies? I didn't know that. Since I learned, I'm always thrilled when I can manage a good cry.

When the tears were over, I felt like someone had uncorked me. The tension was gone. The grasping, restless feeling was gone. The headache was gone. My focus was back. When I released my resistance on feeling those hard feelings and just allowed them to come up and out, something horrible didn't happen. Instead, I felt much better on the other side.

Let yourself ride the tide, the highs and lows of life. Don't try to feel "good" all the time, it isn't natural or realistic. Nothing in life or nature is like that. It isn't always sunny or rainy (well, depending on where you live, of course).

Feel all the feelings and remember none of them are permanent. Not the good ones or the not-so-good ones. 

 

"Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final."

-Rainer Maria Rilke, poet

How Bliss Feels

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I surround myself with a lot of folks who are into health, wellness and spirituality so I see a lot of people talk about bliss. They mention being "blissed out" or "in the flow".

I've known bliss a few times in my life. It is fleeting, not the kind of thing that is a permanent feeling. I don't know that humans can achieve a constant state of bliss--maybe it's possible, but I haven't had it happen to me. But it is pretty awesome when it does happen.

Now that I've experienced it more often recently, I want to tell you how bliss feels. Or how it feels to me.

You may have read my post about meeting Pema Chödrön last year. It was a life-changing moment for me, one of those, "I can die happy now" experiences. Sitting in the same room with her was already cool enough but I actually got to stand at the microphone and engage in conversation with her. Truly extraordinary. And I have it recorded on DVD to watch whenever I want to remind myself of that moment! If you want to buy that retreat on MP3 or DVD, you can click here.

Well, I decided to return to the Pema Osel Do Ngak Choling in Vershire, VT, this year for some much-needed time away. It wasn't enough time, I can tell you that much, but it was valuable for what it was.

I got to see people I had met last year and felt the feelings of overwhelm and pure gratitude when they recognized me. It was equally weird and comforting. I have this weird story in my head that I move through the world relatively invisible--and if I wasn't already addressing the origins of that silly myth, I am doing so more deliberately now. These people remembered me as much as I remembered them. It was intimate and beautiful.

We were led in teaching and conversation by the Buddhist author and teacher, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel on the topic of the Middle Way. We began the instruction each day by sitting for 30 minutes in silent meditation. I was really looking forward to this because I have hard time making time for this each day in my own life--I find it easier when people structure it for me.

I can't speak about the sitting part without talking about my hips. Of late, I've noticed a growing tension and inflexibility in my hips and legs. I desperately need to address it because it is affecting movement and sitting for meditation. I've tried stretching but need to do more of it more often, I think. Is there an area on your body causing this sort of experience for you?

After the second painful sitting experience, I moved to a chair. I was tired, no doubt about it. I've been burning the candle at both ends and it was catching up to me as I sat there. My eyes began to get very heavy but rather than fight and try to keep my eyes open, I let the sleepy be a part of my sitting. It was part of it, not wrong or unwelcome or bad but just there.

But I didn't fall asleep. I sort of dozed or drifted in and out. I wasn't blaming myself or feeling  badly about my eyes being closed. I was present to those thoughts but didn't get consumed by them.

And then, I decided to open my eyes for a second.

It felt like someone poured soothing hot water through my veins. Every muscle was relaxed. My stomach, which is often clenched, was soft. My throat was loose. I could feel every muscle in my face had softened. My heart was beating slowly, but my mind was clear and then I had this thought, "oh my goodness. This feels sublime."

I don't do drugs--is this maybe what it feels like? I'm not sure. But if I can achieve that with nothing but my own breathing and mindfulness and some sleepiness--sign me up for more!

The only other time I felt this way was when I fell in love for the first time. I don't think my feet touched the ground for a few weeks back then.

This time it was a minute of total bliss, physically and then mentally once I was aware of it. And just like that, in one second, it was gone. I tried to cling to it and make it last and then closed my eyes again because I realized I was grasping.

I drifted in and out like this a few more times to recapture that mellow, blissed-out feeling. It worked and amazed me.

And it's powerful and wonderful to know I can achieve it anytime I want!

You can listen to more about how to get to this state ("shamatha") by clicking here.

More and more I am finding I can achieve moments of bliss off the cushion, too. I find it harder to do now than when I was younger. Life stressors have increased and self-consciousness is more present some days more than others, but I know it's possible. I find that same feeling of bliss in the company of friends, doing work I love and those precious moments when I am about to fall asleep after a long, amazing day.

 

Is this something you want to try or experience? Is it something you know well?

Share your thoughts below. :)