I have a confession to make. I am pretty sure that all of the yoga and meditation work I have been doing is actually turning me into a worse person than I was before. All of this self-work toward becoming awake and aware seems to have set off some serious triggers in my energy bodies, such that I find myself constantly teetering on the brink of madness brought on by extreme crankiness and irritability.
Becoming awake and aware is difficult work. It reminds me of when I first began birding, learning techniques for how to train my senses to notice the sights and sounds of birds.
When I first began “birding,” it was to take a French volunteer out to look for birds. He was definitely what I would term a “crazy birder.” I remember one time he screamed, “Stop the car” in his thick (and also adorable) French accent. I slammed on the brakes and had not even come to a complete stop before he had jumped out of the car and taken off running up the road to see what I learned later was an American Kestrel.
Oh-kay, I thought, not imagining that I would mimic this exact behavior on dozens of occasions in my own “as yet unrealized” life as a crazy birder, but that is a story for another time.
I also learned about birds from a friend who was a ridiculously amazing birder. He would hear a sound or see a dot in the sky and say, “That’s a na nana.” I hadn’t heard anything, and I definitely hadn’t seen anything. However, like any pursuit that is difficult but worthwhile, I practiced. A lot. It made me a little crazy (the term “crazy birder” is definitely apt). I recommend watching the movie “The Big Year” and/or reading the book for context. I vividly remember visiting my parents at my childhood home and noticing all of these birds everywhere I went. Were there always this many birds in our yard, I had wondered at the time. I am sure there were; I just never noticed before I became “aware” of their existence.
Awareness comes with practice and intention. I wanted to pay attention to birds, and I set my intention on nurturing this ability.
I have set similar intentions for embodying awareness in my spiritual and emotional bodies. I practice creating this awareness through yoga (on and off the mat); meditation; reflecting on how my behavior makes me feel; reflecting on how other people’s behaviors make me feel; etc. etc.
This practice involves a lot of reflecting and processing, tools I did not develop for the first several decades of my life. Suffice it to say that I started on this path in pretty bad shape with some very rusty tools, which I had no idea how to use. I tell my husband on a regular basis that I am definitely not the tinkering mechanic character in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I want things to work, and when they don’t I would rather just buy a new one than take the thing apart and try to fix it.
I am not very Zen, and I am not very patient, which makes this path that much more challenging.
What I have noticed over the past several years of working to create awareness of self, balance, and equanimity is that I am very sensitive; I take pretty much everything the universe throws at me completely personally; I have zero armor to protect me as I peel back the layers of external expectation to get to my most authentic, inner Self.
I think the folks who coined the phrase “ignorance is bliss” were seriously onto something. I can tell you that Self-work (aka, overcoming ignorance and autopilot) is not blissful.
With my newfound awareness, I notice everything. When I say everything, I mean: Every. Little. Thing.
I notice the guy who lives around the corner from us who has pretty much trained his rotund chocolate lab to poop in the middle of the street so that each substantial clump gets flattened by traffic, thereby rendering it impossible for him to pick up the pile.
Note: It is fairly shocking how few people pick up their dog’s poop. This is an area with people who seemed to be from some privilege and education, yet no one seems to understand that poop (with all of its nasty bacteria that does not belong in the natural ecosystem) runs straight into the water system when it is not removed from the sidewalk.
I notice every single person who lets their dog(s) off leash in the protection zones in the forest where people are required to keep their dogs on leash. There are signs everywhere, but most people don’t heed them.
I keep picking up my dog’s poop (there are signs everywhere about this as well, along with threats of fines for people who don’t follow the rules) and keeping him on leash, all the while wondering, why am I following the rules when so many other people break them?
I notice all of the lovely piles of horse shit on the trails in the woods, which are like a free, all you can eat buffet for my husky, who feasts until I run at him, screaming at the top of my lungs for him to stop (I am pretty sure other people think I am that insane lady from the US; and they wouldn’t be too far off in this assertion).
I notice when the drivers of the 17, the bus that connects us to other transit to get to destinations around Brussels and which runs quite infrequently (every 20 minutes during the week and even less often on the weekends), decides to leave 2-4 minutes before the app schedule indicates. I have on more than one occasion been walking up to the bus with my bag and ukulele in tow, feeling relaxed because the little lighted banner across the back of the bus reads 2 minutes, only to be left standing in the middle of the street, shaking my fist at the prematurely departing bus. I have been guilty of yelling out expletives on these occasions and then promptly sitting down on a bench to cry.
I think I have made the point here that I notice everything that goes on around me. I also notice how these events make me feel. Finally, I notice how I feel, depending on how I respond.
For example, I recognize that much of what goes on around me has actually very little to do with me. People not picking up their dog’s shit, walking their dog off leash in on-leash zones, putting “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” signs next to items that are not actually part of the promotion, talking loudly on their cell phones on public transit. These are all examples of people living in their own bubble, making choices based on themselves alone and no one else.
Engaging with people who make these kinds of choices is a recipe for disaster. In spiritual terms, it perpetuates Shenpa or negative energy. As my husband (aka, my live-in guru) has explained to me on several occasions, don’t enter into their nightmare.
In my experience, entering into another person’s reality (or nightmare) does not improve a situation or lead to balance. While there may have been a rare occasion where I have managed to diffuse the situation (thanks to years of training in non-violent communication and customer service), the vast majority of these situations are better left alone.
For example, there is no point in engaging with someone who already thinks there is nothing wrong with ignoring the right to peace of everyone around them by talking loudly on a cell phone on a bus. The other people around them simply don’t exist. They live in a literal bubble of their own existence.
As a person practicing awareness and the creation of balance and grounding energy, I would be a fool to ask this person to talk more quietly or to wait until they get off the bus to make their call. Rather, I can choose to move somewhere else on the bus, listen to music or a narrated book, or get off the bus and wait for the next one.
Of course, I have learned about these choices by regularly diving right into that other person’s nightmare. As recently as just last week, I got super bent out of shape over a display at the grocery store that falsely advertised items on special. When I informed the counter clerk that the items that were marked “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” had not been discounted on my receipt, he asked another staff person to go and check. The second staff person returned and said they were not on sale.
What I should have done just then was to say, “Ok, then. I do not wish to buy these two items.”
What I did was to give in to my irritation and to say that they should not display promotional signs next to items that were not actually part of a promotion.
Shockingly (note the sarcasm here), the situation did not improve. The staff person got super amped up and irritated, telling me that he would take me to the display to show me and that I needed to learn to read so as to avoid this mistake in the future.
Did I stop there? Oh no. I responded in English because I was so wound up that I did not have the energy to pause and devise a response in French. So now, I had not only given in to the Shenpa trigger, but I also had become “that entitled expat.”
How did this feel?
Not so great. I was fuming as I walked home, and it took a long time for my emotions to settle.
Was it worth it?
While I did not notice the next week that the “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” signs were only posted next to items that were actually on sale, I don’t think my behavior and the energy it stirred up within me or the other person was necessary or helpful.
What to do now?
Pëma Chödron says that beating myself up over my behavior is yet another example of responding in kind to the things that trigger us. Instead, I can take a note of how it feels to give in to the madness and try to remember that feeling so that I can pause the next time and make a more grounded choice.
Self-work is a practice, and I have found that simply getting into the habit of practicing takes practice. It is far easier to behave in ignorance, which really only seems to serve to create a false sense of bliss for the ignorant individual while simultaneously creating a rippling effect of non-bliss for everyone around them.
In my experience – or at least where I find myself at present on my path to awareness and awakeness – things get worse before they get better. If I were in an emoticon-fashioned, self-work variation of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, I would be at the emoji facial expression of craze, out of my mind with the roiling trigger energy that seems to arise from every little thing that I notice in the world around and within me.
I am at the sinus pressure, mucus packed stage of a cold. The frizzy football stage my hair undergoes when I am growing it out and gravity has not yet taken hold enough to draw my curls down instead of out to the side.
I am doing my best to stay hopeful that the spiritual equivalent of gravity will eventually take hold, hopefully sooner than later and well before I pick up the dog poop and smear it somewhere.
Things must get better. There are grounded monks and practitioners all over the world.
While I have some serious doubts that I will ever manage to ground my inner cantankerous squirrel energy, I do hope that I will someday be able to respond to the world’s madness with equanimity and perspective.