Growing Up

They didn’t really do anything to be punished for, except be themselves, right where they’re at, and that’s not exactly who you wanted them to be. Growing up is hard to do.

Linda is who she is. She pushes my buttons, but I know it’s not intentional. Mort pushed mine too, but I’m over it now, and we seem to accept each other, and give each other space~ at least for now. There is life after challenge, but I know there’s also challenge after challenge. No honeymoon lasts forever. The interviewer did a poor job of interviewing. Maybe she was afraid, and maybe she’s not the best supervisor. There are good ones and bad ones. I felt surprised and then dismayed at the prospect of having to work with her for 11 weeks. I am doubting that I could even do it, and wondering what will happen if that’s all the choice I’m given. More challenge?

What is it about Ms. P that is so difficult? She’s like my mom, the way she is super positive, and doesn’t seem sensitive to my moods. The way she misses the moments to hear her children, instead bringing the conversation back to herself. The way she misses the fact that something’s bothering me. It makes me angry, and I feel unfriendly, blocked and confused about how to relate.

What do I want from people? Do I expect them to be perfect? Yes, I guess that’s partly true. Just like I wanted my mother, and then my husband, to comfort me, to come find me, pull up a chair, and ask me to tell them all about it. I’m behaving like a child who wants more attention, and wants to be noticed more. That doesn’t mean I’m bad, but it does sound like a growing up issue. And I definitely don’t want to be dependent on others to make me feel ok about myself.

My therapist reminded me that I’m going to keep running into these situations, and these people. Like the teacher at the workshop who never stopped talking. My anger and resistance didn’t help. I don’t like it when he launches into his stories. They are always way too long, and too energized, and I feel I have to agree, or something similar, when he ends each sentence with, “Right?” It feels like someone is invading my space, demanding a response, like Mom still does sometimes. I could say it feels like a boundary violation, and that’s probably what it is. How then do I protect my boundaries? I want more space to reflect, and to feel my own unique response, not to have to be in agreement with someone else. I want to be asked what I think, not told. As long as I think I’m being coerced or ordered, I feel taken advantage of, and sullen. Mom calls it ‘sulky.’ When I’m sullen and sulky, I want to be given room to respond, not have to fight for it.

I’m angry at Ms. P, and anyone else who stimulates these childhood feelings that I had when I was growing up. I want to figure it out because it reminds me of my own style. I’ve become the very thing I find so distasteful in others. I know I do the same thing to my daughter, and my husband~ talk too much, take too much of the attention for myself, and overwhelm them with my strong enthusiasm, when they need something else from me. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing it so clearly in others: it’s something I have to look at in myself. So here I am, confused, angry, and feeling stuck about the whole thing.

My advice to myself, as hard as it is to accept, is that maybe it’s time to drop the unrealistic expectations of what a good friend, a good husband, or a good teacher, should be. They may be a better friend, husband, or teacher than I realize, just by being themselves. After all, they’re giving me a chance to look in the mirror. What you see may be who you are, Robin.

Maybe I’m not letting myself be myself, and so I can’t allow others to do so. Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at myself. Do some therapy maybe? That’s what I’m doing, and just when I’m feeling better and I think everything’s going really well, I hit a brick wall and can’t keep going. I’m stuck again, and I don’t think I’ll ever be a good person, able to deal with life well, able to let go of the unhappy thoughts and feelings that keep pulling me down, or the expectations that keep disappointing me, able to have a sense of humor about it all and just like myself and the world. I feel like throwing in the towel sometimes, and hiding under my pillow. That’s what I did yesterday. Then I picked up Pema.

Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times, has been my guide for a while now. She always has something to say that applies to what I’m going through. This time I found it in the chapter called Growing Up. Here’s what I read:

“The reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves…All wisdom can be found in our own experience…By looking directly into our own heart, we find the awakened Buddha, the completely unclouded experience of how things really are. In all kinds of situations, we can find out what is true simply by studying ourselves in every nook and cranny, in every black hole and bright spot, whether it’s murky, creepy, peaceful, inspiring, or wrathful.”

I thought right away of Emilie’s struggles with her downstairs neighbor. I didn’t know what to say, but I knew she had some work to do on herself, just like I do. I’ve been studying myself with a therapist and guide for almost a year now. The system we are using goes something like this: an intensive period of private sessions over the course of several weeks or longer, and then a period of getting back into the water and seeing how well my stroke has improved. Water is a good metaphor for my life. It reflects back to me just exactly who I am.

One of the things the therapist pointed out is that I don’t have the habit of recognizing and holding on to victories accomplished and lessons learned. I tend to fall back easily into old habits of self-condemnation and judgment. She describes the life of spiritual healing as a spiral. We keep going around, and the challenges keep repeating themselves, as disruptions, like snags in the line. As we learn to recognize and deal with them appropriately, they get smaller, and the spiral tightens as well, so it’s quicker, and less painful, and we get less de-railed and find ourselves on a new level. Like swimming –  the more you practice, the better you get. Deep water doesn’t look as scary anymore, you get stronger and can cover longer distances, and you get a pair of goggles so your eyes don’t get affected by the chlorine. The right tools are really useful.

“Meditation gives us the method…I was told from day one that, just like Bodhidharma, I had to find out for myself what was true…However, when we sit down to meditate and take an honest look at our minds, there is a tendency for it to become a rather morbid and depressing project. (Ha ha~ that’s where I’m at now!) We can lose all sense of humor and sit with the grim determination to get to the bottom of this stinking mess. After a while, when people have been practicing that way, they begin to feel so much guilt and distress that they just break down, and they might say to someone they trust, ‘Where’s the joy in all this?’”

“So, along with clear seeing, there’s another important element, and that’s kindness. Honesty without kindness makes us grim and mean, and pretty soon we start looking like we’ve been sucking on lemons…The sense of being irritated by ourselves and our lives and other people’s idiosyncrasies becomes overwhelming. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on kindness…Sometimes it’s expressed as heart, awakening your heart. Often it’s called gentleness. Sometimes it’s called unlimited friendliness. But basically kindness is a down-to-earth, everyday way to describe the important ingredient that balances out the whole picture and helps us connect with unconditional joy. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘Suffering is not enough.’”

Yesterday I felt like I’d been sucking on lemons, and I’m sure my face looked like it too. I usually can’t hide what’s going on inside. I definitely felt mean and unfriendly. I snapped at Linda quietly, and vacated the room as soon as I could. I was sitting in that dark familiar cloud of aversion. I was doing just what used to drive mom crazy~ I was sulking. It’s what I do when I’m angry at someone and I don’t know how to express it. It feels like there’s a rope around my neck and when I try to speak, the words comes out strangled. I want someone to save me, and when no one does, I become more sullen.

More from Pema:

“Discipline is important. But why do we have to be so harsh?…The challenge is how to develop compassion right along with clear seeing, how to train in lightening up and cheering up rather than becoming more guilt-ridden and miserable. Otherwise, all that happens is that we all cut everybody else down, and we also cut ourselves down. Nothing ever measures up. Nothing is ever good enough. Honesty without kindness, humor, and goodheartedness can be just mean. From the very beginning to the very end, pointing to our own hearts to discover what is true isn’t just a matter of honesty but also of compassion and respect for what we see.”

“Learning how to be kind to ourselves, learning how to respect ourselves, is important. The reason it’s important is that, fundamentally, when we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe. When we discover the Buddha that we are, we realize that everything and everyone is Buddha. Everyone and everything is equally precious, and whole and good…There’s an interesting transition that occurs naturally and spontaneously. We begin to find that, to the degree that there is bravery in ourselves – the willingness to look, to point directly at our own hearts – and to the degree that there is kindness toward ourselves, there is confidence that we can actually forget ourselves and open to the world.”

Yesterday was awful. I couldn’t really see the blue sky or feel the sun. Even though I’m sure they were both calling out loudly to me, I couldn’t hear a thing. I felt angry and nasty, and couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. So I went in my room and lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling. I had been right in the middle of a job when I hit the familiar snag, and knew I couldn’t leave the potatoes on the stove, or the lentils cooking. The water would boil down, and they would burn if I didn’t get back out there and finish what I’d started. I’d gotten disrupted by a black cloud in my heart, but I only had about 20 minutes to fix it. How could I enter the room when all those people were out there now? I read on:

“The only reason that we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”

“The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. Often the only way we know how to react is to use it as ammunition against ourselves. We aren’t kind. We aren’t honest. We aren’t brave, and we might as well give up right now. But when we apply the instructions to be soft and nonjudgmental to whatever we see right at that moment, then this embarrassing reflection in the mirror becomes our friend. Seeing that reflection becomes motivation to soften further and lighten up more, because we know it’s the only way we can continue to work with others and be of any benefit to the world.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, hand on my heart, I was telling myself that it’s OK to be angry, mad, sullen, sulky, hateful, wrathful, sad, or lonely. “Accept it all, it’s all OK,” I was talking to myself like I would talk to a little child who was pouting and angry, but trying to make sense of it all. “Be kind to yourself,” I was saying gently, as lovingly as possible.

I was on the verge of getting up, wanting to be brave and asking God to give me strength to go out of the room without putting up my usual defenses~ the frozen mask and the stiff walk~ when there was a knock at the door. My friend entered, and I was saved. The question now is, how do I save myself?

“That’s the beginning of growing up. As long as we don’t want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants. When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up considerably. Finally, there’s room for genuine inquisitiveness, and we find we have an appetite for what’s out there.”

I’m out of the room, and the clouds have lifted. I felt myself return to balance, and ran outside to see the sky. Yes, it’s blue again! But life happens, and I’m going to keep my heart open this time, and try to see what it is without judging the hell out of it. 🙂

“When Things Fall Apart~ Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chodron

My latest guidebook, and the one I turn to for ‘heart help’ in this Time of Trouble, is a book given to me recently by a friend of my mother’s. It fell into my hands at exactly the moment I needed it, as usually happens to me with books. The day before, Mom and I had watched Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday program and Pema Chodron was her guest. It was the first time I had ever heard of her. Mom had never seen or heard her speak. We were both enthralled.

The next day, Sheryle brought the book over for me to read, and I was thrilled. The day after, when I was being turned down for the CPE internship, Miquel Santamaria gave me a slip of paper. “You may want to read this,” he said~ “When Things Fall Apart.” It was the third time in as many days~ I knew it was a book I was supposed to read.

I carry it around with me, and open it up whenever I find myself in the space to receive. I’m reading Chapter 8 today, about the Eight Worldly Dharmas, which are four pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame. Basically, when we are caught up in any of the eight worldly dharmas, we suffer. In each of the pairs, there is one we like and one we seek to avoid. The fact however is that none of them is permanent, and all of them fluctuate back and forth continually, out of our control completely. As Pema says, “We have all kinds of mood swings and emotional reactions. They just come and go endlessly.” She suggests that when we find ourselves hooked by any of the worldly dharmas, we can let ourselves “feel the energy, do our best to let the thoughts dissolve, and give ourselves a break. Right there in the middle of the tempest, we can drop it and relax.”

Today, I was unable to get up and go about my day as usual. I woke up wondering who I am and what I am doing in my life. I was feeling alone and scared, and I couldn’t seem to move so I just lay there in bed and tried to focus on my breath, saying, “I’m alive. Thank you,” an affirmation I took from HJN. I use it whenever I need to relax, and especially when I feel a great deal of fear~ in the dentist chair, for example, or in a scary relationship. It has never failed to be a comfort. I admitted to myself that although I was in emotional pain, it wasn’t excruciating, and I could bear it without the help of an anxiety pill. That gave me a measure of satisfaction, as I want to learn to experience my pain rather than medicating it away or eating it into oblivion. I want to become less terrified and more familiar with my loneliness and fear, and eventually be able to embrace them as any other part of my life.

I’m at Patty’s house. She’s my other spiritual guide, in the flesh. She arrived last night unexpectedly. Neither of us was expecting the other to be here. I came out into the living room, hesitant and fearful after hearing a soft swishing noise. Was there someone in the house? The sound was coming from her room. I called out, “Patty???” and was deeply relieved to see her bright cheerful smile when the door opened.

I couldn’t get to sleep, and came back out to find her still awake and willing to listen. She sat on her desk chair and gave me the big stuffed armchair, with a blanket between me and the cool leather, and I began to tell her the story of what’s been happening since I arrived here in September. Part One was about Mom and the family drama. I asked her if she had time for part 2 the next day, and she did. We went out for breakfast to Papa’s New York Diner, and I told her that I needed guidance about what my next step is. I feel like I’m in some kind of sticky syrup and can’t get myself out. These are some of her words of advice:

“Listen. God knows. There will be a sign. You won’t have to worry. You need to pray. And you don’t have to pray perfectly either! God is so merciful~ you only have to turn a tiny bit in His/Her direction to get an answer. Divine Guidance is there for the asking. Pay attention. Rewrite the Headline. Ask, Who’s in Control here? Don’t ask for tomorrow. Think only about NOW. What is this moment intended for? Fear paralyzes right action. Be still. ‘God will supply the wisdom and the occasion for a victory over evil.’” That last was a quote from Mary Baker Eddy. Patty is an avid Christian Scientist.

I dropped her off at the bank and came home to her house still feeling lost and not sure what to do with the time available to me. All I have is TIME, and so often it feels like we’re killing each other. I could call Laura. I could go sit in the sun. I could go eat something. All the usual. I was still trying to run away, to avoid the pain I was trying not to feel. Wait, I told myself. I lay across the bed and looked at the ceiling. Be still. Listen. That’s harder to do than I thought. It’s so much easier to just make myself busy. Old habits die hard. I told myself it was OK not to have anything to do but be with myself. Hand on heart, I let myself just be.

The day is almost over now. I am sitting on Patty’s couch, and she’s in her office eating her dinner and working on her computer. It’s 7:57 pm. I spent some time swimming and talking to Edna in the pool, a little time in the sun, and a little time with Judy hearing about the latest updates. I noticed I wasn’t as engaged or interested as usual. The emotional element has definitely taken a back seat to the concerns of the moment NOW. I took care of some shopping for both Judy and for myself, and came back here to Pat’s, walking down to the water’s edge and sitting on one of the benches looking out over the bay while I listened to some of my recent recordings. Tired, I came back ‘home’ and started to write.

I’ve been struggling and suffering terribly lately. I don’t like pain. Who does? And I’ve been caught up in lots of it~ feelings of loss, criticism, blame, anger, and fear. I’ve felt attacked and insulted by a member of the family, who doesn’t see what a good job I’ve been doing taking care of my mother for the past 9 weeks. I’ve been accused and raked over the coals for next to nothing. My emotional reaction has been to run and hide, and try my best to avoid contact in any way possible~ like a man resisting entering the lion’s den knowing the sharp claws that await~ but that has only made things worse. I’ve been clinging to a concept of myself that has been continually called into question, and I’ve been responding with anger and a desire for revenge (“Let them all just go to Hell!”) But Patty said all the pain has been my own doing. You mean there’s no one to blame but myself??

We all respond with habitual patterns to praise or blame, pleasure or pain. We puff up with pride when someone notices and comments on our contribution, congratulating ourselves for all the goodness we embody. We withdraw when an aggressor steps up and screams into our face, or lash out with our tongue when we can find the strength. If we perceive that something has been taken away from us unfairly, we often resort to a tit for tat like children fighting over a toy. I can see that I’ve been childish in my responses to the eight worldly dharmas. Rather than try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, Pema advises us to “get to know them, and see how they hook us…Then the eight worldly dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content.”

I wanted to call my sister today and ask her if there was anything I could do to help~ but it seemed so scary, and the coin said no. I still toss it sometimes. Yesterday I wrote her a birthday card but was scared to deliver it. My habitual response to being attacked is to crawl away and hide, hoping to be unnoticed and left alone. But it doesn’t feel any better over in that dark corner. It’s lonely.

Today I tried and was moderately successful at letting go, dropping the drama, and relaxing. As Pema writes, “We want to know our pain so we can stop endlessly running. We want to know our pleasure so we can stop endlessly grasping….We want to know about loss so we might understand other people when their lives are falling apart. We want to know about gain so we might understand other people when they are delighted or when they get arrogant and puffed up and carried away…When we become more insightful and compassionate about how we ourselves get hooked, we spontaneously feel more tenderness for the human race… If we don’t look into hope and fear, seeing a thought arise, seeing the chain reaction that follows~ if we don’t train in sitting with that energy without getting snared by the drama, then we’re always going to be afraid.”

I was able to look at myself a bit more clearly today, and stay with the difficult feelings a little longer. I didn’t do my usual and give into my panic, running blindly into the comfort zone of eating, talking, or jumping into the car and going somewhere, anywhere, just to avoid the pain of my discontent. I stayed on my bed and let myself experience it, breathing through it with my hands over my heart, simply saying, “It’s OK, Robin.”

Pema writes that as our practice evolves, we “start understanding that, just like us, other people also keep getting hooked by hope and fear…Our motivation for practicing begins to change, and we desire to become tamed and reasonable for the sake of other people.”

I love those words ‘tamed’ and ‘reasonable.’ I want to be around people who have become masters of themselves. Tonight I feel better, and more connected to my inner strength. I know Patty would say it’s not my strength but God’s. I feel less shaky and desperate, and more whole and like myself.

As I listen to Patty’s stories of listening to the guidance of divine law, not limiting ourselves to our human expectations, and then discovering God’s ‘over-the-top’ abundance, I don’t feel as out of touch with that kind of experience as I did this morning. I have been there, too, and I know I can get there again if I let go of what I think should be happening here, and let God show me what She has in mind. She has an intention for me this very moment, right NOW. I have to pay attention and listen. It is a big work, and no one promises that it’ll be a bed of roses, but as Patty said when I left, “It’s worth the effort.”