Here’s some Emerson for you this evening all about the getting out of your own way and getting out of your own head. If you’ve got nasty little gremlins in your consciousness talking trash and making a mess, let them know in no uncertain terms that it’s time for them to take a hike.
2006 was kind of a rock bottom year for me. Or the year that everything started to turn around, depending on how you look at it. I was in college, feeling helpless against my eating disorder, and lost in a pretty deep, dark depression.
One of the things I remember most from that period was what my paternal grandmother told me when she found out I had been struggling. Holding me in her arms and shaking me a little for emphasis, she said, “We’re survivors.”
She said, “Every facet of your being, and of your hurt and pain, make you who you are.”
She said, “Russians — we just feel, emote, to such a great extent; we’re very emotional people. Very happy or very sad; laughing one moment, crying the next.”
She was half Russian. Me? Only an eighth. But I guess a little goes a long way.
That was eight years ago, and she’s been gone for two summers. But I remember the things she said because I copied them into my diary right away. I knew then that they were important, that they held some very simple but very profound answers for me.
See, Grandma was what some people would call a sensitive person. I guess I am too.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m a textbook Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I just mean that I really internalize whatever’s being dished out around me, you know?
When someone else in my general vicinity is not right, I definitely do not feel right. Just a whiff of conflict and my body goes into full fight or flight. I get anxious — a lot. A gruff interaction with a stranger on the subway will stay with me for hours. If one of my mistakes adversely affects another, I can assure you that I’ll have sleepless nights over it for years. And yes, I can go from laughing to crying at the drop of a hat.
All too often, my first instinct is to assume that any unpleasantness is my fault. I’ve done something wrong. They’re mad at me. I need to fix this.
Which of course is rarely the case! First of all, not everything is about me (thank the universe). And second, everything can’t be perfect all the time (thank the universe).
Still, it’s overwhelming to feel this much, and it can’t just be turned off, however hard I try.
I’ve known a person or two whose dispositions trend towards sociopathy, and I’d be lying if I said I’d never once wished that I were more like them. I mean, it must feel pretty freeing, in a way, to have no concept of other people’s feelings whatsoever. But who would really want that?
I was talking about all of this with the incredible soul that is my aunt. See, my grandma is her mother, and she too knows something about being a sensitive person. Then she said this:
And you guys, she’s totally right. I may struggle sometimes with the kind of pain that tends to seep through thin skin, but I’ll be damned if I’m not squeezing every inch of feeling out of this one life I have to live.
And let’s not forget that the sensitivity causing me trouble is the very same sensitivity that makes me an empathetic listener; a helpful coach; an intuitive yoga teacher; a kind leader, and a caring and thoughtful friend to those I love.
Every piece of art I’ve ever created, on stage or on paper, has been informed by my ability to feel things deeply — to feel sad like I never thought I could feel sad; to feel joy like I never thought was possible.
And for that I am grateful. Even for the pain.
What about you guys: Do you sometimes wish that you had a thicker skin? Has anyone ever told you that you were being “too sensitive”? What are the overlooked benefits of being you, exactly as you are, tender heart and all?
Have you ever taken time to meditate or sit quietly in the hopes that it would help you through a stressful time, only to find yourself even more wound up afterword? What went wrong?
Or how about this: have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’d love to meditate more often, but I’m just so bad at it. I can’t get my mind to stop thinking about things!”?
Well, I’ve been reading an excellent translation the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali by Chip Hartranft, and he has something to say about the process of stilling the mind that I think addresses some of these meditation issues pretty well.
Hartranft tells us that, “as we sit in stillness – meditation – we inevitably find ourselves struggling to acquire more power over some aspect of our lives. Without necessarily knowing it, we are trying to feel happy or to conquer a physical or emotional problem or to become more attractive to others or simply to do a better job of meditating than we did last time. Each of these types of effort arises from attachment to previous thoughts or actions. Even our desire to let go of all this is mired in concepts about what letting go should feel like or what it might bring us.”
In other words, it’s natural for us to get somewhat tangled when we attempt to still our mind, because the very act of trying to still the mind is – paradoxically – the opposite of stilling the mind.
So what the heck are you supposed to do when you meditate, then? I mean, if you can’t try to still the mind and the mind is going crazy, with thoughts zigzagging across your consciousness like a bad laser show, what then?
Luckily, Hartranft doesn’t leave us hanging.
He explains that “exerting the will to arrest or blockade thought… [is] unlikely to succeed though certain to perpetuate suffering.” Instead, he says, one should try “repeatedly relaxing back to the ever present object. Concentration (dhāraṇā) builds spontaneously as the yogi softens and opens to experience, not through steely attempts at mind control.”
Did you catch that? When we meditate, our aim isn’t to do anything at all; our aim is to relax into the present moment, to stay soft, and to open to experience.
That means just noticing those thoughts as they ping pong inside your head – just noticing them: hm, isn’t that interesting. That means giving yourself space to be “not good” at meditating. That means accepting that there is nothing wrong with whatever you are experiencing at this very moment. And again in this new moment. And again in this one. And again and again.
Not so intimidating after all, when you break it down like that.
So, whaddya say? You up for 5 minutes? xo
MBP3 IS A SERIES DEDICATED TO WALKING THE WALK. WHAT ARE 3 THINGS YOU’VE DONE TODAY TO NOURISH YOUR MIND, YOUR BODY, & YOUR PLATE?
Life gets messy. We make mistakes. Things go wrong, and it’s not always possible to make them right. But no matter how hopeless a situation may seem, there is one thing that is always in our control: the extent to which we have our own back.
If you’re a sensitive soul, it’s all too easy to take everything that’s gone wrong and use it to punish yourself. Depending on how many years of practice you’ve had beating yourself up, having your own back in the midst of conflict might seem like an impossibility. So it’s important to start small. Little acts of self-care go a long way in getting you through the mess.
The next time you’re struggling to uplift yourself, remember the MBP Daily Three. Relentless self-care in the form of tiny but deliberate acts of self-kindness will give you something to grasp onto when you feel like falling down.
Mind – Seek out emotional scaffolding.
When I’m faced with highly emotional conflict, my tender heart takes my physical body for a ride: nausea, elevated heart rate, dry mouth, the works. And since I’m still learning to have my own back, my mental health feels similarly precarious. I liken my state to a tower of jello: the form is there, but the structure is shaky. So I reach out for what I call emotional scaffolding (emotional buttressing might have been more appropriate, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it). I reach out to my loved ones and picture building an all-encompassing scaffold up and around my shaky tower, plank by plank. With each phone call, text message, or lunch date my scaffolding grows higher. I reach out to others like it’s my job, even if I want to hide at home under the covers. I reach out not so much to commiserate as to remind myself that I am surrounded by people who know me and love for for who I am, as I am.
Body – Get outside and get moving.
When your body feels like a shaky tower of jello, running a 5k doesn’t make a ton of sense. So go easy on yourself, but do get moving. A walk to the mailbox or the local coffee shop might be all you can muster, and that’s just fine. When last I felt this way, I met a friend near Bryant Park and asked her to peruse the Alice + Olivia showroom with me. Window shopping may not be an Olympic sport (yet), but it gets the blood flowing, and in my case, it felt therapeutic and safe. Simple upper body strength training is another great option, as weight lifting tends to inspire more than just physical strength. And if your nerves are steady enough to hit up a restorative yoga class, do it. Any activity that gets you moving and stills the mind is really where it’s at.
Plate – Keep it simple.
If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you know the curse of the anxious stomach. You feel too queasy to eat yet become increasingly weak as your blood sugar wanes. You’re not doing yourself any favors. But I have some surprising and delightful news for you: you know all those refined grains and simple carbohydrates we’re supposed to steer clear of? Now’s their time to shine. Refined carbs are much more gentle on the digestive tract than whole grains and most other foods, so when your nerves have got you queasy, feel free to bust out the white rice, saltine crackers, and French bread. At this point, providing your body with the energy it needs to function is far more important than achieving some kind of arbitrary dietary perfection. If your nervous stomach wreaks havoc on your intestines as well, you might be interested in congee, a Chinese porridge that is super gentle on the stomach and has, ahem, a binding effect on elimination. Warm, non-caffeinated herbal tea and broth are also good choices that will help you to feel more grounded and calm.
I hope it’s clear that one or two small acts of self-kindness can go a long way in bolstering your spirits when things go awry. While it’s important to admit when you’ve made a mistake, you don’t earn bonus points for torturing yourself about it for days, weeks, or years to come. Self-awareness must be tempered with self-forgiveness. If you’re struggling with that, then follow the MBP Daily Three like it’s a prescription, and you’ll find it gets easier. Because cultivating self-care, having your own back, and putting yourself first actually feels pretty damn good. Even and especially when life gets messy.
Okay, are you guys ready? ‘Cause I’m about to get a little philosophical. You see, sometimes, when I sit for a formal meditation practice, certain visuals help me to center down, so I thought I’d share one with you today.
Step outside of yourself for a moment and think about the fact that, to a certain extent, “Reality” is what we make of it. Neurologically speaking, the human brain is notoriously fallible when it comes to processing stimuli (just think of your favorite optical illusion). But this is also true on a more subtle, emotional level. The way you perceive a certain event or interaction is bound to be different than the way I perceive it.
Since what you know to be Reality is very much a reflection of you, imagine for a moment that you are some kind of reflective surface. What kind of reflective surface are you? What version of Reality do you reflect back?
When I’m feeling high strung, anxious, agitated, distracted, or overworked, my reflective surface feels like a highly faceted prism, or a broken mirror, or… a disco ball. In those moments, my perception of Reality is rigid, complex, ornate, confusing, and overwhelming. It often feels like there is too much going on: too many thoughts, too many images, and too much to deal with.
So when it’s time for me to slow down and turn off the monkey mind, I like to visualize my reflective surface as a single drop of water. When I do, my perception of Reality becomes far more fluid, simpler. Anxieties seem to wash away, and I begin to feel as though I can see more clearly. Things that were eating me up inside don’t seem to matter so much anymore; in fact, they’re no longer reflected in the big picture.
We cannot change the true nature of things, but we can control our perception of them. Like a multi-faceted mirror distorts the reflection of everything it captures, the ego has a way of making things much more complicated than they need to be. Choosing simplicity and acceptance may not come easily, but things get much easier when you do.