Monthly Archives: April 2021

Loving My Anxiety

I recently shared this Pema Chodron quote with my Yoga students, which, as someone who wanted so badly to be “cured” by spiritual practice, I hoped it would strike a chord with them, too:

“When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘ If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.’ ‘ If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.’ Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, ‘If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.’ ‘If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.’ And ‘If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.’ But lovingkindness — maitri — toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.” ~Pema Chodron

It must have hit home with many seekers, who deeply resonate with the sense of defeat that tends to rise up alongside the demons that never seem to disappear for good. It is tempting to indulge in feelings of failure and inadequacy for continuing to feel the all-too-human feelings of angst, despite the sincerity of their spiritual practice. In other words, to continue to be perfectly imperfect, like every single human on this planet.

And in tandem with this call to love yourself, shadows and all, a student then asked me if it was necessary to experience a Dark Night of the Soul in order to awaken, spiritually.

I can only speak from my own experiences as a seeker, and consider myself to be a lifelong student, but with that said, I never thought of my own challenges as a “Dark Night,” as I never sank into the kind of despair that makes life feel unpleasurable. And I always considered myself to be a generally happy sort of person. But, we are complex creatures, and lurking behind the laughter is a kind of melancholic timbre that has likely colored my demeanor, the way the coastal fog renders the look and feel of Morro Bay. I never minded it, though. Quite the contrary, I came to see the familiar feeling like an old friend.

But it took a while for the relationship to settle into such copacetic intimacy and total acceptance. I remember the first instance of something like angst appearing after my biological father died, when I was a five year old girl. Shortly thereafter, I developed a fear of death that I was embarrassed to share with anyone.

When I began to experience panic attacks during my early college years, I suspected that traditional approaches in modern-day therapy would have limited reach. And they would have to reach deep, as this tendency seems to have a genetic inclination. My Jewish aunt used to joke when making light of her penchant for worry, “We’re just nervous people,” she’d say. But Jewish people are famous for falling on humor as a means of survival in a world that has been anything but kind. And it’s good practice to be able to laugh at yourself. Eckhart Tolle speaks of the ego-shattering capacity of laughter.

And so, my spiritual journey began. Although I never did “cure” my anxiety through spiritual practice, nor all the laughing that was always heard in my family home, what I did find was so much more beautiful than a cure. The things we’re not looking for are always better. Perhaps the universe knows best what we need. I now see the anxiety—or whatever it is that brings a person to seek—as merely a door that opens up to a world so rich and bounteous that the original “thing” becomes almost irrelevant.

It’s the kind of treasure that doesn’t reveal itself among everyday activities. It reminds me of that Irish story I used to tell my class about God being shy: The rabbits would wait until sundown to come out and frolic in the fields… because that’s when the farmers turned in for the day and the fields would become empty and quiet during that twilight pause just before sundown. Similarly, God waits until stillness abides in a seeker’s heart before revealing himself/herself.

The anxiety… or the depression… or the addiction… or the trauma… or whatever it is that often leads a seeker to the magical portal is merely the siren that activates the longing. For me, when that door opened, a tear flowed down my left cheek and for the first time, I felt love. But not a romantic love. Not a love that has any object, at all. Just love.

And with time, I began to experience other profound shifts. For example, I began to trust myself, with regard to everything. I trusted my judgment, I trusted my intuition, I trusted my abilities. I trusted my authority to speak up… to take action, and when necessary, to walk away. Most of all, I trusted my heart to guide me in the right direction. This last one was big for a philosophy student who had been nurtured on critical thinking and over-analysis.

It would be untrue to say that the anxiety has completely disappeared, but through the years, the triggers began to lose some of their charge, and I began to coexist with them differently. The relationship with the anxiety felt more easygoing. Less antagonistic. There was less of a fight. I could often laugh at it rearing its crazy ol’ head, and say, “you again?” It was like two old buddies that knew how to push each other’s buttons, but no longer felt so offended by the wisecracks.

I came to see that when the anxiety flairs up, it’s an indicator that something is off within. And those gifts that arose by way of the seeking, supersede its significance in my life. And for that, I can say I love it.

10 Houses of Suffering

I wrote these stories not only as a way to introduce Buddha’s Four Noble Truths to my students, but also as a way to reveal the general madness of the human situation…especially, the many ways that we all—ordinary people, living ordinary lives—make ourselves suffer. It is a special type of suffering Buddha calls Duhkha, which is similar to what is known as angst. And in virtually every case, the suffering has arisen because of an inability or unwillingness to accept and or take care of what is right in front of us.

The result is the pain we cause ourselves while persisting to look for our peace of mind everywhere else but within.

The people in these 10 Houses are all of us, in some way or another.

Lead-in—Imagine a row of 10 houses facing a creek. Each one is big and beautiful, except the last one, the tenth one, which is smaller and needs some upkeep.

Inside the first house is a man who suspects his wife is sleeping with somebody else. He spends every minute of every day, in a state of paranoid suspicion. Right now, listening to her phone conversation, creeping along, crouching under the row of expensive paintings in the long corridor, he hopes the floor doesn’t crack with his sneaky footsteps, giving him away, and betraying his jealousy.

Inside the second house is a 25-year-old woman with an eating disorder. At least five days of every week are spent alternately binging and purging, and taking no pleasure from the compulsive acts. Her throat, her teeth, and her stomach are destroyed, and she lives with the fact that she is killing herself, and can’t stop. The other two days are spent in isolation, hunger, and vile self hatred.

Inside the third house is a mother too afraid to answer the phone, yet simultaneously too afraid to stray too far from the house, because her son is in Iraq, and news of her only son’s status might be delivered at any moment.

Inside the fourth house is a 33-year-old aging cover model, losing jobs to 18-year-olds. She curses at her face in the mirror, and doesn’t have any more will to get out of bed in the morning. She owes 20,000 dollars in debt from lost pay, yet just accepted one more credit card offer to schedule plastic surgery on her neck and eyes, in the hope that it will make her prettier and simply… better, and that it will help her to like herself.

Inside the fifth house is a heroin addict. He is missing out on his children’s young years, but can’t stop. Making it worse, is his wife, who calls him a loser, taunting him daily for his weakness. Every time he tries to give it up for good, he gets violently ill, and gives in to the urge to shoot up again, even though he knows it is only a temporary pleasure. It’s gotten to the point where he stands to lose his job, his wife, and the house. He no longer enjoys being sober because of the sickness and because of the agonizing guilt that eats him alive.

Inside the sixth house is a 60-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She knows her body will soon start to break down, and that she will have to soon face her death. She will have to come to grips with the fact that she will never see her grandchildren, or her husband, or her dogs, again.

Inside the seventh house is an 85-year-old woman who lost her husband five years ago. Having lost her will to live, she lies in bed all day long, surrounded by the dusty antique knick-knacks she spent her life collecting. Her social security checks go entirely to the caretakers, paid to help her go to the bathroom, bathe and to take her to the doctor. She refuses to leave her home and go to an assisted living facility.

Inside the eighth house is a 19-year-old boy with agoraphobia. Stepping outside of the house is like hanging off a bridge… sweaty fingers slipping, and no one to catch you. He takes his Xanax to relax a bit, and then sits in front of his computer, wearing the mask of his artificial identity, chatting in forums while projecting a witty and sarcastic online personality, while hating himself all the while on the inside. The loneliness and self-loathing never seems to diminish.

Inside the ninth house is a 30-year-old ambitious office worker, who just missed out on a promotion due to the fact that his scheming female colleague in the next cubicle claimed his idea as her own, taking all the credit and the rewards. He takes his seething hatred out on other women, in the form of abusive relationships that leave him feeling more empty and worthless, rather than potent, and valued.

Inside the tenth house is a newlywed couple who bought this fixer-upper because it was the only house they could afford, given their loan qualifications. Because their house is at the end of the street, they are forced to drive past the other more expensive houses every day, going to and from work. He imagines his neighbors’ luxurious lives… weekend parties and expensive toys; and she is filled with increasing bitterness toward him, for promising a new kitchen, and bathrooms that she can decorate in coordinated colors just like in the magazines, none of which have come to fruition. Their relationship is quickly turning bitter.

This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness on the outside.
This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness at all – it’s not a thing to get!
This is why the masters say to wake up to what is… to love what is.