Since creating this blog in the summer 2010 when I first moved to a small bush community in Alaska, I have posted at least one essay each month for nearly 10 years. There have been a few months out of the entire decade when I have not posted at all. I realized just the other day that I had missed the entire month of April 2020.
This was kind of surprising to me, especially considering the entire world, myself included, has been in a state of lockdown. I have personally been glued to my computer and not in a healthy way (does that even exist even in times of alleged “normalcy?”).
I have essentially been experiencing a rising level of stress since Belgium went into lockdown at midnight on the auspicious date of Friday the 13th of March. What I notice more and more is that anytime I sit and have a moment with myself—and by this I mean I am not distracting myself by reading the news or looking at social media sites, online shopping, late night comedian monologues on Youtube, etc.—I notice that my body is literally humming with a very uncomfortable, seemingly all-consuming stress energy.
There are moments when I feel like I am going to simultaneously begin to vomit, weep, and scream uncontrollably. Yes, I feel that good!
Let me say that my “normal” resting state is not very restful. I am always on high alert for my body perceives as danger. I have a very sensitive startle response. By way of example, the other day I pulled the shade down over one of the windows in our bedroom. When I let go, the shade went flying back up and my nervous system went from zero to 100, causing my heart to race and my breath to become shallow and short.
Essentially, what I am trying to communicate is that being in lockdown during a very uncertain time for the world and for my own reality and has not improved my anxiety. My life plans have been tossed out of the window (now that the shade is up).
I have studied so much about personal health and wellbeing. I have been studying yoga for several years and gone through thousands of hours of training to be a teacher. I have been studying and practicing meditation for many years. I wrote an entire dissertation on the concept of putting the self-first to learn how to shape a balanced, sustainable existence. This work involved taking the steps to get into the practice of determining what I want to do with my time to bring a level of fulfillment to my existence. This work also involved learning how to recognize people and places whose influence was unhealthy for my system, and especially those bordering on abusive. Finally, this work helped me to create positive practices to restore balance to my system when people’s actions and/or life events happened that were out of my control.
And so here we are now in a global event that is beyond all of our control, and I am experiencing the shock waves. After nearly two months in lockdown and a 180 degree shift in my husband and my plans for the future, I can feel my body hovering somewhere above the earth, completely ungrounded. My mind is a complete mess. The monkey has gone wild, you might say. All previous training has gone out the window. It’s like the monkey knows our routine has shifted and we are on some kind of “vacation” status, so it thinks it can get away with any and everything.
At the start of the lockdown, I was very concerned with maintaining the path I had been on I have just published a book of many of the migration songs I wrote with asylum seekers in Brussels since moving to Belgium. I was consumed by efforts to try to push the sale of books, and I was consequently distraught when very few people responded beyond clicking “like” or a heart on my Facebook posts.
I had just created an online GoFundMe fundraiser to try to begin raising funds to record as many of the songs as possible. See previous note about the nonresponse to the book sale, and you can pretty much envision what happened with my fundraiser.
As the days turned into weeks, which have now turned into almost two solid months, the urgency has died down. I wouldn’t say the disappointment has disappeared, but I have had to put into perspective the almost complete failure of the project.
Lesson learned. Do not try to sell something during a global pandemic unless it is directly connected with social media or a virtual solution for people to connect via the internet in some way. A global pandemic is not a time to try to encourage people to be concerned about the arts or people they have never met.
Knowing that study of yoga and the arts can help me to bring my thrumming Self back down to earth, I started listening to an online yoga course about the Bhagavad Gita this morning. I listened the introduction and still felt completely restless and groundless, so I returned to this now 25 page single-space document I began with the start of the lockdown here in Belgium.
I saw with relief that at least I had begun to write a post on the third of April, though I did not manage to finish it or post anything for the entire month. As my sibling said on a Skype call several weeks ago, maybe this is a time to feel good about not doing stuff. The capitalist in both of us thinks, hey, look at all of the time we have. How can we be most productive with this “gift” of time?
My inner voice of wisdom, which I have been encouraging to speak for the past decade, has suggested that maybe this would be a good time to try not efforting quite so much and certainly to not berate myself for being an epic failure if I do nothing beyond sitting quietly all day and going for a walk with my dog in the forest.
My sibling shared the experience of a friend, who said they were really proud of themselves for just getting out of bed and brushing their teeth one day.
Couldn’t this be good enough?
Cognitively, I want to believe this, but then I have not yet succeeded in fully embracing and embodying what I know to be true on a cognitive or even heart level. I can celebrate another person’s success in letting go of the tenets of capitalism and beyond, but if I do that I am still a failure because I will still continue to compare myself to other people (even though I also know very well that the act of comparing will only lead to misery and suffering).
It’s the same for most areas of my life. I celebrate women with curvy, real bodies, but I maintain a tenacious hold of control over my own body. It may look small to you, but that is not what I see when I look in the mirror.
Suffice it to say that as with this time of lockdown, I look back on these two months and the past two decades of my life and wish I had been more productive (and more successful, at least in the capitalist sense of the word).
I look back and generally notice the negative. Somehow, the voice of my inner critic (and that of the external critics whose perspectives have shaped so much of the personal and professional spheres of my life, as well as my sense of self-worth) has a far more enduring and overwhelming power than my voice of inner wisdom or the voices of friends, family, and colleagues who have celebrated and offered words of love and support and encouragement over the years.
I remember when I was a graduate student in my mid-twenties. I was living in a house with another student at a small university in Bellingham, Washington. She had a friend who was studying to be a nurse and who shared the story of an older woman asking if she could stand backwards on the scale so she couldn’t see her weight. I was so overcome with sadness because I understand this concept very well. Seeing the number would either fill me with relief if it was on the lower side but also a simultaneous need to do everything in my power to maintain that lower number. Seeing a higher number would incite the obsessive behavior required to bring that number down. There was no way to win. I couldn’t relax if it is was low for fear that it could go back up. I couldn’t relax if it was high because I needed to get it back down. Vicious cycle, to say the least.
I also remember thinking and wishing that by the time I was in my 60s like this older woman I was not still all consumed by my need to control my body and by such a negative self-image.
I was maybe 25 at the time, and I felt like I still had all the time in the world to overcome this very tenacious need for control and low sense of self-worth. Looking back, I wonder if I just assumed I would wake up one day and look in the mirror and decide that I was beautiful and that my body was perfect as it was.
Suffice it to say that magical moment has never arrived. I have continued to struggle with my body image and to try to not allow myself and my self-image to be directed and/or consumed by the people and places whose forces of negativity have proved far more powerful than my own tenuous hold on my wellbeing.
So here I am, 10 years after leaving my first husband and seven years after completing my dissertation. I have completed two yoga teacher trainings. I have been meditating every day at least once a day for four years. I have been writing music and writing about life. I am as the yogis say, “On the path,” yet it is my husband who has to remind me of all the important work I am doing. My husband reminds me that this work transcends the modern, capitalist definition of success.
I have joked about it and claimed to be redefining success through what I refer to as my “karma career,” but that capitalist voice is so strong that I have not been able to full embody the belief that it doesn’t matter if I do not make any money or sell any books or raise enough money to record the music I have written because I am doing the work and it is the doing that matters and not the outcome. In yoga, this is the concept of non-attachment or Aparigraha in Sanskrit.
Here I am, treading water in the middle of a very strong current of people who are being drawn along by the current without a fight. I am overwhelmed and surrounded by a world where the work I am doing is valued by the few rather than the many. And it’s not easy to keep my spirits lifted.
While I want to believe in magic, I also am beginning to realize that my own work is far from done. I went through such an intense, stormy transformation when I went through a divorce, a PhD program on the concept of sustainability, and about four jobs in search of one where I would be treated with respect, love, and humanity. I thought I was all finished. Good to go.
Then I surveyed the domain of my existence and noticed there was a cliff in one corner. I walked over, and when I looked over the edge I discovered an entire realm I had not known was even there with a teeming mass of writhing, wriggling shapes all moving around. Did I dare dive in? It was not pretty, nor was it inviting.
However, every yoga teacher I have studied with has shared the wisdom from their teachers, which essentially goes something like this: If you are not uncomfortable, you are not growing.
Even my most recent therapist informed me that my inexplicable bursts of rage and anxiety and frustration will not go away until I dive deep into the darker, more tumultuous realms of my being. I have to immerse myself in the pain and grief and sadness that is writhing around just below the edge of that cliff. I have to feel it, honor it, and somehow convince myself that I can be safe and uncomfortable at the same time before I can ever hope to be free from its very tenacious grasp on me.
In other words, if I want to be happy and free, I have to turn my awareness and my heart toward the elements within me that are practically screaming for me to pay attention to them. Dissociation and ignoring painful, traumatic memories does not make them magically go away just as buying a pretty dress will not magically make me love and accept my body and find it to be beautiful just as it is. I have to actually do the work to shift my perspective from one of self-loathing to self-love first. Then, it won’t matter what I wear. I can put on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and feel beautiful.
I do believe in magic, but I think it is the magic of transformation that happens with practice, intention, awareness, and the deepest, most profound sense of love that can be experienced with acceptance of what is and the perspective that what is is “good enough,” as my husband reminds me.
It is with all of these revelations in mind that I am embarking on my own self-propelled post-doc, a sequel to my research into self-sustainability and my own path toward wellbeing. I am funding this project with my time, my heart, my dedication, my passion, and my most fervent desire and willingness to be willing to be believe that I can be happy and free and that it is my right just by virtue of existing to be free, happy, and experience the world with heart wide open (to love myself and everyone else).
To do this work will require that I delve deeply once again into a self-study (svadhyaya in sanskrit), bolstered by research and time spent learning about the areas of my being that are suffering, asking questions to get to the reasons for this suffering, and determining what I need to do to get to the other side. This work will be difficult, but I am already living in a space of discomfort because I am losing the battle of fighting the current. I am growing tired from all of the treading of water in a very strong current. If I am going to get to the other side (or wherever it is I need to go), I have to do the work. The answers will be revealed to me, of this I am certain, but they will only become clear if I put in the time and energy to find them.
Wish me luck!