“Sometimes I think
I need a spare heart to feel
all the things I feel.”
― Sanober Khan, “A Thousand Flamingos”
I have a lot of them. All the time. Mostly of the variety one would call “challenging”. Anxiety? Check. Depression? Yup! An intimacy with many different shades of sadness, flavours of fear? Oh yeah.
Like a lot of people, I came to meditation practice in a time of great emotional upheaval. I was reeling from the spectacular implosion of a decade-long unhealthy relationship, coming to counselling for the first time and facing the unresolved trauma I’d carried my whole life that led me to that precipice. The counsellor pointed me towards mindfulness, and the fates aligned to bring me into CEC’s sphere, where I found much needed community and guidance within the wonderful world of weirdos who were meeting to meditate each Monday just down the street from my house.
I sat. I learned some stuff. How to turn towards those feelings I’d been pushing away, that my emotions were only an aspect of a larger experience, and that nothing, even the hardest feels, lasted forever. These new ways of noticing gave me space where once there was none. It went on like this for years, incremental bits of breathing room that kept me alive. Then something strange happened.
Three months ago, I found myself happy. Not at anything, or in response to anyone. Just…happy.
Like, really happy. All the time.
Accepting myself. Trusting myself. LIKING myself.
It was as if the veil of self-doubt and fear that had long sat between me and everyone/everything else just slipped off. I could see things more vividly, be present and free with the people in front of me. I felt at home in the world, wherever I was.
My meditation teacher Shinzen Young talks about “happiness independent of conditions”, which at first I thought must be made up, and then I started to catch occasional glimpses of in my own life until now, suddenly, it became the ground on which I stood.
It felt like a superpower. I could see negative thought patterns coming a mile away, reframe them before they took hold. Some days I could feel in my body the physical manifestations of what would usually be a depressive state – low motivation, brain fog, lethargy…- but without the negative thoughts and stories to accompany them, their power to pull me under was removed. It was remarkable. I was transformed. Maybe after seven years of practice, I had finally “arrived”.
And then it ended.
I got sick and I got busy and I got stressed. I could feel the happy slowly slipping away, getting further out of reach with each passing day. The doubt and confusion and negative thoughts came rushing back, seemingly bigger, badder than ever. I felt forsaken, a strangely biblical way to feel for someone with my level of religious faith (i.e. none). I scrambled to get back to that place of peace – maybe a weekend away in nature will do the trick, maybe an evening with friends, maybe a meditation retreat… Nope. It was gone.
Riiiiight. Nothing lasts forever. Impermanence seemed a lot less comforting when applied in this direction, taking away the good stuff.
With deep resignation, I eventually gave up fighting to get back where I’d been. I started again the hard work of trying to accept where I was, without judgement and self-recrimination. It was a slog. But to my surprise, a third turning happened, and it was only then that I realized how the practice really has changed me.
I began to notice there was something underlying this challenging experience and the last effortless one, and possibly all of them. Somewhere deep inside, there’s a part of me that wants me to be well, that urges me towards freedom and connection, that offers comfort and care. Sometimes it’s hard to access, almost drowned out by the internal tumult, the long ingrained habits of mind and body forged in early trauma and perpetuated unconsciously over a lifetime. But that wise and nurturing aspect is there, and every time I recognize it I boost its signal.
I don’t think there’s actually a destination for this work. Except maybe to arrive every day in the reality of my life with my eyes and ears, heart and mind as open as I can muster and do the best I can with what I’ve got to offer. Some days are easier than others. Meditation practice has given me an increased capacity to accept, to care for myself through it all.
That’s something to feel good about.
In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.
― Albert Camus, “Return to Tipasa”