Well, it’s been over a month now since Sarah and I did the big exchange of leadership for the center – and what an emotional roller coaster ride it’s been for me! For nine years a huge part of my world was being the director of Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center, and suddenly that was gone. I’ve been reading Sarah’s emails, both to the whole community and just to the teachers list, with a mixture of so many feelings: bemused relief that I’m no longer the one having to manage the endless tasks and to-do lists of running a studio, excitement and interest over the new innovations she’s introducing, sadness and regret that it’s no longer “mine” (as if it ever were!), fear that I made a big mistake in my decision, guilt that I’ve abandoned my responsibility to the community, and just a whole lot of big, gnawing, extremely uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Without the myriad of daily responsibilities to tend to, my mind suddenly had a lot of open space to meander in – and that can be a pretty dangerous thing… As I’ve heard so many times: “The mind is like a bad neighborhood – you don’t want to go in there alone!”
We just love to have solid ground under our feet, and anything that shakes that ground can feel like a direct threat.
Transitions – and especially big ones like divorce, death of a loved one, loss or change of a job, moving homes – are always fraught with the anxiety of change and uncertainty. We humans just love to have solid ground under our feet, and anything that shakes that ground can feel like a direct threat to our very survival. In yogic terms we would call that the realm of the first chakra, “muladara” the root chakra – the part of our energy where we process our relationship to safety, security, protection and a sense of belonging. With a healthy, well balanced first chakra, we feel relatively safe and secure in the world, and even in the midst of great change we are able to navigate our way through without a complete breakdown of our ability to function. When the first chakra is seriously impaired, a general feeling of danger, anxiety, even terror and paranoia can set in and color everything that we perceive.
Big life transitions can trigger any unresolved issues that the first chakra center has buried – all of the traumas that we’ve suffered throughout our lives that left us feeling vulnerable, attacked, weak or exposed – and for a while it can seem as though our entire system has descended into the abyss of a panicked and unstable first chakra, similar to the syndrome of post-traumatic stress that earthquake victims experience – it literally feels as if the earth is still moving. Remember the children’s story “Chicken Little?” Any minor event can be perceived as “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Our first chakra is formed early in our life, from our time in the womb up to about 18 months of age. If our family and cultural environment is fairly stable, loving, protective and nurturing, then our relationship to the world will be fairly trusting and confident. If however, there are factors that cause a chronic feeling of tension and fear, then we will absorb an energy pattern deep in our gut that says “Life is not safe; there is no one to take care of me when I’m vulnerable; I’m alone, adrift and in danger.”
That’s a little bit of what I’ve been feeling lately. It’s no secret that my early life had more than its share of confusion and chaos, mixed in with tremendous love and support – a real rich smorgasbord of experiences, but definitely not stable! The default setting in my first chakra is fear, anxiety, dread and shame for being so “needy.” It calls for tremendous self-love and tenderness to soothe oneself through these murky, scary feelings. For me, what happens is that a vicious cycle gets set in motion: an unsettling change such as the sale of the studio – no matter how welcome and right it feels – triggers these feelings of anxiety and uncertainly, and in response, a whole truckload of self-judgment and abuse kicks in:
“What’s wrong with me that I feel so out of sorts, so depressed, so confused? Why can’t I just ride through this with a feeling of appreciation and gratitude for all the wonderful years I had as the director of Shambhala? Why do I feel so lost and lonely and abandoned? (No one abandoned me, after all – it was I who chose to leave!) I must have been a fraud all those years – teaching about acceptance and abundance and seeing the good in everything – and now I can barely get out of bed in the morning without feeling like I’m dragging the weight of all my unrealized dreams and longings and regrets! Who the hell am I, anyway?!!!”
Pretty vicious stuff! One of my teachers, Pema Chodron, talks about times like these as being the gift that opens the door for us to soften our hearts and once again learn the deep lesson of compassion and mercy. If we can’t learn to offer acceptance and love to ourselves, and to stop using ourselves as a punching bag, how will we ever truly be able to accept and love others? Another teacher, Stephen Levine, says that for every question and confusion, the answer is always “Have mercy on yourself.” And Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic, said that it’s during the times when we feel most lost, miserable, disgraceful and unworthy, that God’s grace and mercy are most tenderly available and waiting – longing! – to comfort and hold us through our dark night.
Times like these are gifts that open the door for us to soften our hearts and once again learn the deep lesson of compassion and mercy.
And so I find myself – once again – waking up in the pre-dawn hours with a mind full of racing thoughts and a heart filled with confusion and dread. I always think of that old Billie Holiday song “Good morning, Heartache, here you are again… I tossed and turned last night ’til I was sure you were gone, but here you are with the dawn.” And just when it feels like I’m going to go crazy from the relentless assault of these psychic muggers, as I call them, a door suddenly opens just a crack and that tender grace appears.
For me, it most often appears in the very particular, personal form of my envisioning of God – the orisha Yemaya. She comes to me with her soft, knowing eyes and her sweet, soulful smile, and just holds out her arms. I crawl into them and pour out my troubles to her, repeating all of the mean, cruel things I’ve been saying to myself: “I’m such a loser! I’ve blown it! I have no friends, no community, I’m a big fraud!” And she just listens and rocks me in her arms and soothes me with her sweet lullaby voice, and surrounds me with the healing balm of her deep, accepting love. And finally, little by little, my body softens as I release the grip of these lies, and I can often fall back into a soft, peaceful sleep.
I am sometimes dumbfounded at my willingness to expose myself so intimately in these musings to you all. After I send them out, I often go through a bout of “Oh my God, why did I send that? That’s WAAYYYY too personal! But I know that the teachers who have made the greatest impact on my life have been the ones – like Pema Chodron and Stephen Levine, and my yoga teacher Todd Norian – who have been willing to bare their souls and spirits to their students. No guru up on a pedestal here! Just regular, complicated, messy human beings who are “still struggling after all these years” to paraphrase Paul Simon.
For me it has always been deeply reassuring to know that these wise souls who have worked diligently on themselves for many, many years, are still facing the same dilemmas, the same challenges that I’m facing, and are bravely marching on and, like hikers on a treacherous mountain trail who have taken the point position, are turning around every so often to call back “Watch out for that loose rock over there… be careful as you make this turn… there’s a snake up in that branch!:.” And so I continue to make these humble offerings of my own perfectly imperfect humanness in hopes that it will encourage at least one other soul who is feeling lost and confused and down on themselves.
A wonderful American Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, wrote a beautiful book called “Radical Acceptance” in which she talks about the terrible burden of the “trance of unworthiness” that so many of us suffer from. And that the remedy for this is complete and radical acceptance of ourselves, no matter how flawed, how mean-spirited, petty, selfish, and cruel we may believe ourselves to be. To have the courage to see ourselves in all of our muck – and glory – and say, “That is a human being, no doubt about it! That is exactly what it looks like to be a human being on this planet at this point in time.” And to recognize that there is a vast, vast difference between who we REALLY are – our essence in its truest sense, our shining perfection – and the personality that has formed around that essence in response to life.
Radical Acceptance means having the courage to see ourselves in all of our muck – and glory.
There’s a delightful story about a great Tibetan master who, even in his later years when he was considered a saint, had a terrible, uncontrollable sweet tooth – an addiction really. Every time the cook in the monastery would prepare a special dessert, usually just once a month or so, this master would sneak into the kitchen to steal as much of it as he could, stuffing it into his mouth, pockets, anywhere he could hide it. But after he had done this, he would call out in a loud voice, “Thief! Thief! Help! Come quick!” And all the other monks would come running into the kitchen to find him there, his face coated in a gooey, sugary mess, pockets bulging with the sweets, and a big sheepish grin on his face. It was his way of making light of his wonderfully human, flawed personality. By “telling on himself” he removed the burden of shame of carrying the secret of his imagined unworthiness.
What would it be like if we could all have that same light-heartedness about our own character flaws, our own predictable, embarrassing, shameful patterns of craving and self-protection, ruthlessness and greed? To be able to say, “Yeah, I’m pretty judgmental, self-centered and sometimes an awful gossip. What else is new?” And to be able to add to that, at least to ourselves, “And I’m also kind and loving, a wonderful, caring friend, a good listener, and a great dancer!” Kind of like the old Dick Clark “American Bandstand” song ratings: “The lyrics are a little corny, but it has a good beat and you can dance to it…”These days I’m spending a lot of time out in the park with my new puppy Gus. He’s the gift I’ve given to myself and my sons after years of living dog-free (or dog-deprived, as I think of it now!) Every day I’m out in glorious Prospect Park, often way before sunrise, reveling in the wonders of the crisp, late fall mornings, running and playing with this amazing spirit who drinks in life like every moment will be his last. We spend a lot of time working on our training (my 13-year old son and I are taking him to weekly sessions, and then we work with him on what we’ve learned in between lessons).
It’s a wonderful metaphor for training the mind. This wild, exuberant puppy is like my crazy mind – jumping everywhere, nipping and biting and foraging for rotten old food that if he eats it will make him sick, but still he clamps down on it with jaws of steel like he’ll die if he doesn’t get to have that! And I tell him over and over and over, all day long, “Gus, come… Gus, drop it…. Gus, sit…. Gus, don’t bite…Good boy, Gus, good boy…”
That’s the way I have learned I have to work with the mind, with those cruel psychic muggers. Patiently, but very firmly. “Drop it… drop it … drop it… Sit… be still…” And to offer to myself the unconditional love and endless forgiveness that dogs are so beloved for offering to their masters. It is truly one of the greatest gifts of having a dog — to experience the love in their eyes as they melt into a kind of rapturous frenzy when they see your face. It’s as if they are incapable of seeing the personality — they can only see straight through to your beautiful, glowing essence, and they are madly in love with that. (And the food that you feed them, of course!)
May we all enjoy these last beautiful days of fall. And may all beings, everywhere, be free of the suffering, and come to know the love and mercy that is always surrounding them.
I look forward to seeing you all around the neighborhood. I love you all…
Peace & blessings,
Cathy (& Gus)