In one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, "Thumbing My Way," Eddie Vedder writes...
There's no wrong or right, but I'm sure there's good and bad. The questions linger overhead. No matter how cold the winter, there's a spring time ahead... I smile, but who am I kidding?
Taking on this principle, that I think of as everything is shades of gray, I have found a freedom from the heaviness placed upon my spirit by a society that values labeling everything so that constructs of conformity can be created to judge oneself, their social position, their righteousness, and their ability to succeed over the likelihood of failure. In other words, a view of people and situations, being defined as "positive" or "negative" in nature by the stories and principles which precede them, and therefore the experience you have of them following suit. So much of our lives are labeled along this dual spectrum before we even have the opportunity to fully experience it ourselves. It equates to us being told what to experience, how to react to it, and what we should feel about it. It can so muddy the way we access life, that many of us become dull or unsure of what we actually feel or enjoy. How do we know, if everything comes to us prepackaged, label applied?
To experience things labeled as "negative" has become so unacceptable in our culture that a space to process our feelings around those experiences, we inevitably have, is hard to find. To express feelings that are considered "negative" has become taboo. Frustration, under these conditions, if expressed, can result in our own label as a "negative" person. Our grief process suddenly has an arbitrary time limit, and it too is labeled "negative" as we're accused of dwelling and being unable to "just let go." Yet, in this human experience, to deny the importance of the entire gamut is to drown the possibility of anything to have significant meaning -- for us to better understand ourselves or others. How is a fullness to be experienced without access to the complete range of the spectrum?
There is no doubt that tragic life events mark us at times in irrevocable ways. Not all of them can be said to be advantageous to our own well being or even, perhaps, to those our wounded self encounters. For myself, multiple childhood traumas left me with reactionary patterns, physical and sexual shame, and social anxiety in particular situations that I've had to work very hard to accept or transform into something that gives me the space to have my fullest expression as an adult woman. These traumas were reinforced, changed, or exacerbated by several additional traumas I have experienced as an adult. Without going on about the details of those traumas, I want to express that to varying degrees, I understand trauma to be a universal experience. How we process the trauma, while following certain tendencies identified by science, is largely individual. What seems a minor occurrence to one individual may send another to the brink and vice versa. Neither individual is wrong in their experience of the occurrence. Many variables are at work, and it is unhelpful for us to classify another's reactions based upon our own or our analysis of what they should be, as we are outside players.
I am writing this during a pandemic where we have been asked to shelter in place, practicing physical distancing from non-household members as much as possible. Those in positions and careers deemed non-essential have been restricted from work and providing for their families with no tangible timeline for a return to anything resembling normalcy. Children are home from school and separated from friends. Some parents are juggling attempts to earn income from home while also helping their children complete school work there. This assumes every family has a laptop or other device that can be used and that there is enough time in the day for everyone to do their tasks on that device if there are not multiple of them. Essential workers and healthcare professionals feel more at risk for contracting and spreading the virus so much so that some are choosing to house themselves away from their families, causing further isolation and financial burden. Unemployment has been expanded to the self employed and small business owners, but computer systems have not caught up to the demand or new parameters, and some are being denied. Again, no real timeline. No idea of what we'll return to, and many unsure if the job they worked so hard to create for themselves will exist in our future.
I'm writing this at the hardest moment I've experienced in all this. A tornado like storm has taken out power for thousands of people in my area. Mine has been out for 3 days now. (It was out 5 total.) It's maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit in my house. I'm sitting on my couch in my winter coat, under quilts, my hand is almost too cold to move my pen across the paper. I was once building my local yoga and movement clientele, living in a two income household - jobs which were built from the ground up so we could remain in our community where we were raised and contribute to creating whatever could be mustered in our economically struggling area. My philosophy had always been not to sell my soul to money and a rat race when I was free to build some version of a dream and come home from my work more fulfilled.
Now, no one in my household is allowed to work outside of the home. Our work, as it was known, may not exist for some time. The task is, now, to try to obtain unemployment, and create income that's possible from home, trying to sale online classes, artwork, editing services... something. Sales of anything in such an economically dire time is a shot in the dark.
In the last month, I have found myself needing to accept donations of food and money, worrying if I will need to relocate during a pandemic, concerned about the future for my children, distrusting information from most sources, playing out scenarios to earn money, unable to do anything aside from hours of yoga and physical movement, and now, being reminded of times when I was younger and entire days were spent trying to stay warm and find food.
There have been countless opinions written in the last weeks about how we should be spending this time. People telling us how we should be feeling. Most seem to be saying that we should be taking this time to replenish, reassess, and reevaluate. Recommendations are given to get creative, play, explore new hobbies, and enjoy time with the family. All of these things are worthy endeavors and may be accessible to some, but for others of us getting to a state where those things are mentally possible can feel rather impossible. For many of us, including myself, this time is the ultimate test of our resiliency and the tools we have worked so hard to obtain for our personal wholeness and growth. This is a trauma. A collective trauma, and with everything we have we are battling reverting to old ways of coping, of simply hoping to survive while discarding the goal of thriving for the time being. Keeping afloat is overwhelming enough.
It's April. This morning, the temperature is cold for this far into spring. I'm wearing a flight jacket with Navy patches that belonged to my Papaw Hansel who served in the Korean War as a frogman, which he explained to me was a precursor to the Navy Seals. He once told me a story of standing on the deck of his ship in open ocean. Enemy planes had been circling overhead for hours and they were sitting vulnerable. He said that tension got so high many were locking themselves away below deck puking in fear. He chose to be there, on deck, watching the enemy and flipping them the bird. He told me sometimes they'd fly low enough that he could see the whites of their eyes and he smiled. All they could take from him at that point was his life, and he wanted them to see his smiling face. They eventually abandoned the intimidation tactics and flew away. Papaw died of bone cancer an octogenarian. No too long ago, but long enough.
Sometimes, though, smiling in the face of threat is not possible. Perhaps a greater good is to be considered and no one can agree on an approach despite working toward the same goal. My dad is a huge fan of the Webber and Rice rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I grew up with it as a regular lullaby. He can sing every word to every song from beginning to end. Judas Iscariot opens the story and as much as it is the story of Jesus the Christ, I always felt more drawn to Judas. The empath in me felt his worry and his desperate attempts to preserve his friends and their ideas when the world seemed to be falling apart. What do you choose to save under those circumstances? What do you trust? Judas opens, "My mind is clearer now. At last, all too well, I can see where we all soon will be." He goes on to implore Jesus to listen, to remember they are the weaker underdog. That if they make too much noise, they'll be crushed, and that he is a man and will die, perhaps taking out the rest of them too. Judas asks his friend to remember his loyalty, saying, "Please remember that I want us to live, but its sad to see our chances weakening with every hour..." Judas did not want to betray Jesus. He wanted to live. He wanted the principles they were teaching to live. In his duress, the only way he saw to do this was to sale out his friend. "Our ideals die around us all because of you. And now, the saddest cut of all -- someone has to turn you in like a common criminal, like a wounded animal..." I cannot help but see this very scenario playing out with everyone spouting the results of their fears on social media.
My maternal grandmother, who I called Mimi, told me the story of the Judas Tree. The Judas Tree is another name for the redbud tree common in the eastern Kentucky hills. It blooms in early spring, right before the dogwood, heralding the coming relief of a break in the weather. Mimi said that when Judas decided to end his own life after ushering in the death of his friend, he chose to hang himself from a sturdy, tall tree with white blooms. The tree took the shame of Judas as he died, shriveling and gnarling. Its blooms shrank and blushed with the guilt and embarrassment. It became our beloved redbud tree. It grows in our hills alongside the dogwood who's blooms are known to tell the story of Christ. Judas still the dark harbinger of beauty and light. I always found it hauntingly comforting that the leaves of the redbud are heart shaped.
In Hermetic philosophy, the Principle of Polarity/Duality, is stated as follows: Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has a pair of opposites; like and unalike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet, all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled." Everything existing on this plane that is experienced through individual perception is a spectrum, a double sided coin, no matter how seemingly concrete. Our existence is multifaceted, double jointed, layered, and told back to us in stories. In the bittersweet story of Judas and Jesus, the idea of duality is clearly illustrated. Even in the sequencing of the blooming trees that carry their tale, it is clear. Without Judas, Jesus is not possible. Their story plays out in a full spectrum of continuous love.
During the last argument between Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas delivers the lines -- "To think I admired you, for now I despise you!" Jesus answers, calling him a liar. Judas understands that Jesus realizes the necessity. Judas asks him what if he didn't betray his whereabouts, stayed, and ruined his ambitions. Jesus screams at him to go. Love and hate are the same in nature, only varying in degree. One can quickly appear to be the other, as the energy applied toward the feeling of it shifts.
It seems then, that on this plane of existence, that duality is necessary for us to make sense of ourselves and the lives we are living. Otherwise, would we even know we are alive? Would it matter? Have we become so adverse to the range of human experience that we are paralyzing ourselves to life until death stares us in the face and we have to pay attention? Are we so appalled by and fearful of death, we forget to live? How often does hardship become the impetus for the most beautiful growth?
I know, sometimes, within our awareness, nothing good comes of tragedy, especially that which we perceive as preventable. One of the things that happened to me repeatedly over the course of a few years when I was a small girl can be described as nothing but atrocious. I didn't ask for it. I was powerless. I didn't deserve it. I still wear its physical and mental scars. I cannot see anything good for me that has come of it. Yet, because of the experience, I feel I am more open to being present for the story of others. It has led me to a portion of my work, and perhaps, even the ability to write this piece. I wouldn't be the me that I am without it, the wounded animal that I am. Is that good? Bad? Does it matter? That event continues to impact me and those I encounter. When I listen to another's story without judgement, is the thing that happened to me made new and good?
I know this current experience is marking me. I know it is changing the story for all of us. We didn't get the trigger warning, and here we are. Dust made of many of our plans. All we have is now and the opportunity to interpret the conditions we are actually in, and decide to do one of three things -- accept them, change them, or wait for more information. The alternative is to wallow in the mire. But, the time to hesitate is through. Try now. We can only lose, and our love become a funeral pyre. Regardless, I am lighting my fire.
I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist...
This is one understanding of disorders like PTSD and CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). It will not matter if that individual can reason and they know, for example, that losing their keys and being late for work won't kill them, the body and the primal functions of the brain will respond to that occurrence in a way that resembles being chased by a hungry predator. The brain is wired to this response indefinitely. It can be rewired, but it takes very focused and personal inner work to do so, as well as a conscious understanding of your behavior patterns, from where they come, and how their origins differ from the experiences you have now. It also takes consistency in whatever method you choose and a long period of time to see those changes.
I don't really talk about the specifics of my personal mental health struggles in terms of diagnosis and the medical treatment of them. I have made this choice in the past because of stigma and in my line of work - teaching, writing, and physical/personal health and wellness through yoga and movement instruction, I was afraid that the fact that I had been diagnosed and have received medical treatment for mental health issues would cost me opportunities. I'm not afraid anymore. I have, among a few other things, been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and CPTSD. I have been medicated off and on since my early 20s for these struggles. For the last 2 years, I have chosen to not be medicated and to work primarily with trauma informed movement, yoga, weightlifting, and mindfulness practices as my discipline and medicine. In August 2018, I was diagnosed with a heart condition called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). It is a dysautonomia and has been correlated with the experience of trauma. I am taking two heart medications for that issue. I feel like I am actually dealing with the results of the trauma that I have experienced in tangible ways that have altered the way I live my life for the better. This does not mean I won't need medication in the future or that I have ever regretted being medicated in the past. I am, however, feeling that the changes I am seeing in my response to stress are more permanent, making the possibility of needing medication in the future less.
But... during a pandemic where everything about my day and ability to earn income has changed without a timeline of when it will end, it has never been more clear to me how important it is to be with my body. These past three weeks have seen me become more of a sensualist, as Bourdain mentions in the opening quote. It has become imperative in order to stay on top of processing how my brain and body are communicating this stress with each other. How do I effectively become the middle man, if I rely on one over the other? Older and easier coping patterns will take over. On some days I feel them creeping closer than on others.
Bourdain is so right. The body is an amusement park. Five plus senses guide us through life. We have emotions and the feelings felt and unfelt that create them. We have the need for the body to be in homeostasis. It is a smorgasbord of sensation. The body is perfectly ok with this. It is our brain that sometimes muddies the situation. We interpret and experience the sensation of the body through the language we use to define it. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to experience what we are experiencing and why. Sometimes the opinions, morals, societal norms or religious doctrine of other individuals cause us to experience shame and guilt in regard to the experiences of our body and the consequent emotions or states of being they create for us that we otherwise would not have, if the only story that dictated our experience was our own. Those same things cause us to try to limit "the flesh" and label the sensations it gives us as faulty. The body is not capable of giving us "bad" information. Its function is to provide us with an initial signal and subsequent feedback loop based upon our brain's interpretation of the initial signal. Think two people about to bungee jump. The first is psyched and ready to suit up and go. They describe the sensation in their stomach as excitement. The second is horrified. They feel forced to take the risk by peer pressure, or fear of looking cowardly. They begin to cry. They describe the feeling in their stomach as a seizing of horror.
These pictures of my face illustrate the spectrum of any given day and the experience of the body. The tiredness we may feel. The peace. The weariness of heart and soul. The hope we may or may not have. If you take the time to look at someone's face, or more importantly, your own, you can see subtleties that you may not be otherwise aware of. The ones that you train yourself to ignore because we've been taught to hide feelings. Who knew selfies could have a therapeutic use?
My body has been lit on all fronts since life as I knew it stopped. All the memes suggesting we should take this time to enjoy family, clean, start creative projects, meditate, are all reliant upon one's ability to separate from the trauma response brought about by an uncertain, high stress situation. Perhaps, for some, their particular configuration of personal privileges (which we all have) provide for them the space where their stress is lesser and they can access the places of the brain that allow them to do these things. For me, all I want to do is move and process through movement the sensations of my body. Otherwise, the sensations would overwhelm me into feeling dangers I am not presently in. Through movement, I am able to slow down and find connection to things that I can control, such as my breath and how I direct the energy of the sensations I feel. The butterflies only become tension if I deny the feelings and hang on to them in some mental compartment which then stores the energy in my body as a knot in my trapezius. My heart palpitations only become an emergency if I don't breathe through them and take a moment to hear their message.
I'm covered in scrapes and bruises. I've been so diligently in my body, experiencing limits and new space I have created, that the effects are beyond average for me. These effects are not abuse, but a learning. Where can I go and how do I utilize the understandings of where I have been? I'm going here willing. Gratefully. For, without this discipline (it is nothing about motivation), I would be utterly lost in this time. My focus for writing is not there. This is the first time I've been able to write a longer piece of anything in a long time. Those higher functions stifled by stress. Yet, that stress is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Through movement, I am learning the language of my body and learning to speak back. I am learning to alchemize the energy of my feelings into greater understanding of my experience and capabilities. I am learning to drop the shame and guilt associated with sensual experience and instead approaching it with consciousness open to the fullness it brings to being human.
So, am I ok? I am. I'm not spiraling into the abyss. The changes that may or may not be coming to the way I have to live my life are concerning, but I am not yet laying down to the uncertainty. I may not have a spotless house, a perfectly organized writing space, a book written, tons of craft projects complete with my daughters, the read-alouds I volunteered to record for their school, or even a daily schedule to keep us on track, but I am here and fully present in my body. I'm not storing away the stress. I am not overreacting. I'm forgiving myself. Giving myself the space to breathe and feel what I am feeling. I'm feeding myself and my daughters as well as I can. I am opening to new experiences and new ways of seeing myself through how the truth of it feels in my body.
In two aspects, I contest Bourdain's quote above. The body is a temple where we come to worship at the feet of being human. It is where we experience our own divinity and that of others. I also believe that being a sensualist should not be merely labeled as "bad", but what motivates the sensualism should be understood. Seeking thrills and being hungry for pleasure can be the catalyst for being fully alive, depending upon the approach and from where the desire is led. Perhaps I am understanding myself as a spiritual humanist and sensualist. I believe in a Source and Higher Purpose, but I duly believe we are here derived from Source to experience the spectrum of Truth. The body experience. The human experience as divine.
Which brings me to the questions of duality, but that will have to be another blog post.
So save your predictions
When was the last time you asked your body how you were feeling? I don't mean doing a physical scan to notice aches and pains or other maladies, though that is good information. I mean asking your body how you are feeling. Feelings, those things that precede emotions and become emotions if they are not felt in totality. Would you know your body's answer if you asked? Do you still speak your body's language?
Some holding patterns become do deeply ingrained that you are no longer conscious of them. It takes intense focus to notice they are there. Sometimes it takes someone else's touch or eyes to see them and guide you to feel them again. I noticed that I was holding a very heightened energy around my heart center. A tight and anxious energy. When I deepened my breath and I asked it to relax, I experienced the feeling of fear. My ego did not want to feel the feeling of that release. This told me it was a protective mechanism. My body was storing a wound there and to release it would create a vulnerability.
Since injuring my SI joint and having to take a new approach to my yoga practice, I have been learning how most of us, including myself, walk around outside of our bodies as if we are a big giant brain. Even those of us with physical practices do it. Our bodies become a side note to our goals, an afterthought to our obligations, or at worst, that thing in our way.
This relationship to our bodies is reinforced by our western culture. Yes, people are praised for having a certain type of physique, but are we really allowed to celebrate any body? Are we really allowed to experience the body as art? If I wanted to make a video of me spiraling my hips and ribs to my favorite song while standing in goddess pose, could you celebrate movement with me? Could I let go enough to make such a video? Our bodies often times are either shamed, characterized, made into a commodity (in regards to athleticism or physical disciplines), or over sexualized. You're not this or that enough, therefore you must be ___. "Ooooh, I saw some side boob. Damn, she might want some." (I'm not saying that having a biological physical response to someone's body is a bad thing if that person is an adult. I could write a whole post on this topic alone, and I may someday. It's how you process those sensations that matters.) These aspects of our culture leave most of us unsure of how to safely inhabit our bodies. Then, the microaggressions we meet on the day to day in regards to our bodies can cause us to begin to disassociate so that we are not so sensitive and raw all the time. That person didn't mean anything by that after all. (ex. "Gosh, you're so skinny.") Add to that the acute experiences of trauma that some of us will experience, and there is a whole other level of needing to leave our bodies to survive.
This pattern allowed me to continue to be functional despite a lot of daily physical pain. It was useful in that sense. Yet, when I began to place certain types of aspirations over the effects it was having on my body, I entered dangerous territory. It resulted in my injury.
We often wonder things about our bodies like - Why doesn't sex feel as good to me as everyone else acts like it is? Why do I want to eat the whole box of Little Debbie cakes and not just one? Why in the world does my back hurt like this? Why do I feel overwhelmed every time I am out in public? Most of the time, we can't answer these questions. Even our doctors, often, cannot answer them. But, our bodies can, if we can learn to trust them again and listen.
As I laid there in savasana, I kept trying to get that stuck feeling energy to move out of my heart space. I could feel it engulfing the entire area. The tightness crept into my neck and shoulders. My abdomen felt fluttery. Every time I told myself it was ok to let go and I felt an inkling of release, my ego jumped in and said - NO! When I asked myself why I couldn't let it go, ego told me that I didn't want to feel lonely. What would my identity be if I actually allowed myself to experience the loneliness my body feels? Could I continue along this beautiful path of discovery I am on undaunted? Could I continue my work? Or, would I be paralyzed with the emotion of it? It was that I do not want to be interrupted by whatever it would mean to feel that feeling. I will be doing the work around this topic in my life on my mat and through my means of sharing. It is more uncomfortable and difficult to process the dis-ease that develops in our bodies when we ignore their cues.
In July, I will have completed a certification program in Embodied Healing as credits for my Yoga Alliance certification. I am continuously fascinated by what I am learning and that it was an injury that began to close the door on the body abuse I was inflicting upon myself and provided me with the tools, through what appeared to be a lost practice, to find a depth of practice I had never experienced. My plans are to write, develop workshops, and possibly to begin podcasting and doing videos. If you are interested in seeing some of these things from me, I'd love to know as I am feeling things out.
This post is difficult to share. My yoga practice and healthcare journey are a significant part of my heart and soul. As much as I hear that my yoga/physical/dietary/spiritual practice is an inspiration and motivation for others (for which I am immensely grateful), I hear comments in the negative. I am often told I am too skinny. That I need to be more lenient with my diet. That I go too hard or do too much. Those comments wouldn't bother me if it didn't give me pause to consider if there is truth there. However, the fact that I will question myself and re-examine my approach to these things doesn't mean that the path I am on is the wrong one and that the comments about my body or my discipline are warranted without there being compassion attached to them. And, honestly, unless you want to confront me about my weight because you're concerned I am not healthy and you want to offer me help or hear me out, you have no business commenting on the size of my body. Unless you are willing to hear about why I am so disciplined and what I see in my patterns in regards to my physical practice, including the risks I'm willing to take to achieve certain goals (including why those are goals I want to reach), there's no need for you to comment there either. So, I do welcome compassionate observation, relaying of experiences, advice, and research sharing in regards to this post. However, comments about my body or practice without compassion and only judgment are not necessary.
My current and slower, more deliberate practice. I'm finally feeling stronger again. I am working on not repeating old patterns in different ways.
I was going all out. I was going to push to the point of dripping sweat, shaking muscles, the feeling of my entire body turning to jello. That, in and of itself can be a great workout goal, but for me, it was a way to punish the anxiety beast. It didn't matter that I was already tired. I hadn't slept well for days. Waking up nightly with adrenaline rushes was common. It didn't matter that my body ached or that I was sore from my Buti Yoga practice the day before. Chronic polyarthropathy means my body always hurts to some degree. To find my capacity for strength and endurance in middle age would obviously be to do the work regardless. I had even asked about fatigue and working with shaking muscles and was advised that both were goals to achieve when strength building from both yoga teachers, trainers, and online yoga groups. They weren't wrong. Pushing was not giving in or up. It was refusing to let my rebellious body get beyond my ability to control.
I rolled out my mat. I was already out of breath. My heart was pounding. I had the cliche overwhelming sense of dread that those of us who live with anxiety either choose to give in to or actively ignore. I was practicing a familiar sequence. I was practicing in my living room. What the hell was wrong with me? I was having a panic attack. It felt like I was turning inside out. I didn't understand. Yoga is my passion. It saves my life. I tell my yoga clients all the time that if they are not with the breath that they are not doing yoga. It was hard to breathe. I ignored my own advice and went on with it anyway. Yoga couldn't be the trigger. Yoga was the tool.
I decided that what I was feeling was related to something I wasn't conscious of and I just needed to move. I completed the practice. My legs didn't want to lift, but I made them go. Every time I felt I was about to reach my limit, I pushed harder. Mind over matter. If I didn't land a movement on beat or my balance was off on one side, I fought the urge to go back and repeat. I tell my yoga classes that our bodies are different every time we get on our mats. I took this advice, working on meeting myself there. Except was I?
but it didn't burn off the fog in my brain (another symptom I have grown accustomed to with Hashimoto's). My muscles ached more and I couldn't initiate movements without wincing and stiffness. Normal aging? I had been told. I looked forward to bedtime. I was glad to know I had worked hard.
If you follow me on social media, I've recently posted about being injured and having to come to terms with changing my practice from high intensity intervals mixed with yoga to a more "traditional" vinyasa practice that is little to no impact. My injury was with my SI joint and piriformis, but has been nagging as many muscles around them began to spasm to compensate for moving through the pain without pause. I don't know if I'll be able to return to the strenuous schedule of training I kept before, or if I will desire it. With functional strength movement, pelvic floor and core training, and bodyweight movements, I am adding the slower is stronger approach to my practice. Floating and flying. What I am doing now is equally as challenging, but in a different and more grounded way.
I've learned a lot since the original injury this past August about the ungrounded and unconscious patterns that brought me to injury. About a month ago, I realized that those panic attacks I had started having before my sacred practice was my body's way of resisting the abuse I was inflicting upon it. I have been angry at my body. I sometimes still am. Self love is not known to me. As glorious, cherished, and sacred as my yoga practice is, I had begun to use it as a way to work against my body instead of with it. I was a bully. A dictator. I had allowed self loathing to masquerade as self care.
I gave in to fears that I conjured to sidestep the real work that I needed to be doing which was embodiment and learning to love myself. I had begun to fear gaining weight because I had developed an association between that and my thyroid hormones being sup par. I was angry that I can't sleep at night without pain, so I sleep propped on a loveseat where my cats and street lights keep me awake. I was/am scared that one day I'll wake up and this body that I currently have... this strong and useful body... will be gone and I'll once again feel like I inhabit an alien body that looks nothing like the me inside of it. I've worked hard to bring my body to represent the temple in its physical expression. Always more work to do. I have vowed to be as healthy as I can. This, I often feel is akin to holding water in cupped hands.
In this fear, I held myself to standards that were not sustainable. Rest has become lazy and unproductive. I used the fact that I had a lower income to criticize myself for all the things I've failed to accomplish because of this mission I've had to heal myself and help anyone who asks. I let fear of rejection keep me small. The unknown controlled by my experiences of lack. I hated chronic illness. I hated my self sabotage. I am ashamed. I am embarrassed. As long as I could "succeed" at reaching my yoga goals, I could feel ok about something. There was no compassion in this scenario - only loathing.
I have trained myself to override intuition and bodily cues in favor of a prescribed plan that I didn't develop for myself, but adopted from another's idea of fitness and health. A rigid formula, an overly analyzed schematic. I took literally the instructor's cues to "push, push," "dig deep," and "keep up." I had become a slave to the idea that I cannot trust myself or my body. That where I am is not enough. In ignoring my body's signals and in my own self disgust, I have gained another opportunity to learn. I'm not a quitter when I am passionate. I want to break these harmful cycles/patterns. I want true healing, or at least contentment rather than an identity as someone on the healing path. I am being diligent to opening my eyes to the shadow side of me, and to use it to transform to truth. To acknowledge that I created this scenario for myself in order that I remove my own blinders. My basketball coach always said, "You have to make Hansel mad to get her to play ball." Do I step forward in freedom? I am stepping back to yoga.
It's a marked and steady decline from my youth. It would take me an entire essay to explain to outsiders how living here is so unlike the urban American experience that it is as if you're from an entirely different country. Cultural norms, stereotypes, and etiquette are difficult to translate. It's a place that the developed world over still finds it politically correct to publicly and openly insult without most people thinking less of you for doing so. I've experienced it often firsthand, even from people I thought respected me. It may be worse from within our own state where whole swaths say, "We're not THAT Kentucky," when referring to the eastern part of the state.
This place, more so the landscape, is my home. It is the substance of my blood. It's a place you should experience with a guide. Not just any guide. Not a romanticized reframing narrative of how its quaint, enduring beauty has been falsely portrayed. Not the resiliency narrative of a people perpetually oppressed and misunderstood as if they were the butt crack of society. The scapegoats. While both hold merit and are important pieces of the story, they are glorifying oversimplifications. It's far more complicated and nuanced. In not taking the time to convey or discern the big picture, many efforts of revival here shoot off their own toes, spin wheels, and self sabotage.
As much as this place is a part of me and what I want to keep in my life, there is a significant aspect of me that feels stifled, put down, and silenced. Working on my own groundedness, I have realized that the place I call home has never fit outside of a few mossy rocks and rolling mountain streams. That part of me wants to go. I imagine some sort of balance where my permanent dwelling is here or another part of Appalachia and I travel for my work. I have both worlds in that scenario. I have my landscape. The microcosm that created my body and foundations, while at the same time finding a wider interpersonal community where I can contribute through sharing embodiment workshops, yoga, and my writing. I can share with people who are interested in my perspective and experience, while I learn from them and their offerings.
I have some beautiful opportunities to share some aspects of who I am here. Those chances keep me from feeling devastated. Yet, overall, I often feel a waste. I feel as if I am an odd peg with a chipped corner and one side swollen from getting wet. I belong to the set, but I don't fit well in the hole. The only time I don't feel awkward here is when I am teaching a yoga class. As soon as I end with "Sat Nam," the awkwardness floods back in. I have stopped being in public here aside from errands, school events for my children, teaching yoga, and wherever I can escape into the woods.
There are ghosts here to dodge. Eyes that have shared with you behind a screen like a confessional, but won't look at you in the grocery store. Ducking behind displays on aisle end-caps to avoid small talk that is only cordial. Empty store fronts of inaccessible, unsustainable opportunity. A community you love so much it breaks your heart, but has only so many tiny spaces where you can squeeze in for a moment if you can behave not pushing too many wrong buttons. I've pushed those buttons, and like a mouse in a scientific experiment, received the electric jolt to associate with the behavior. I use the word "afraid" a lot. I'm adverse to small town drama because it is no longer worth the consequences. I'm happy to risk when my heart is passionately led. Other than my personal work in my little room and teaching yoga privately and at my local library, I haven't felt passion in a very long time. I have not felt the space for it. I have not had what I need to add fuel to what burns in me. The burning turns to sadness unexpressed and dies there uncomfortable to breathe.
I don't know my answer. I want to trust that the opportunity comes where I find that balanced place I mentioned before to feed my soul. I know that it is becoming harder for me to accept as when I visit away from here, even conversation in the checkout lines feels so much warmer and genuine. There are more spaces for me than I have the ability to fill. Here, I find myself more insular and reclusive than is healthy for me, and I don't have much impetus to change that in the current configuration of home.
Maybe... just maybe... I haven't been home yet.
Some of the writing I am about to do is going to be not only uncomfortable for me, but it could be uncomfortable for those who choose to spend some time reading it. Where I find myself in my spiritual journey (awakening) is refinement. Layer by layer my inconsistencies, untrue beliefs, and outdated operatus modi are being revealed to me in order that I do the work to shed them. Sometimes the shedding happens immediately upon a no longer useful pattern or outright contradiction coming into consciousness. Most of the time, the process is slow as these things become deeply ingrained into our body's pursuit of homeostasis, however it has come to expect that familiarity to feel. What I reveal might be embarrassing to me. It might provoke comments that will trigger me, and I will have to pause to harness the opportunity choose to see truth instead of reacting.
For a long time, I have tried to spiritually bypass working through some of these layers. A really good description of the effort that takes was written for Psychology Today by Ingrid Clayton Ph.D. "The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are feeling." I wanted to fix myself desperately. I have felt guilty and ashamed of my path, and I continue work on shedding that layer as I will mention again later.
Then, there is the segment of our spiritual culture that will refute my work also through spiritual bypass. As facing our darkness, owning it, and accepting it, can feel the opposite of the bliss that should come with discovering spiritual truth, many disown this process. That which we don't give our attention to, in theory, will fade away. It's the method of ignoring or shaming the "negative" in favor of identifying with or being identified as "positive." As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, "All that glitters is not gold." Psychoanalyst Carl Jung adding, "What you resist, persists." If we are all mirrors for one another, that which we readily identify as a hang up in another, is likely something to be unburdened within our self. I find I get really prickly at the "accentuate the positive" and "I have no time for negative people in my life" memes. My insides react as if I am being personally attacked. That reveals to me that I am still hoping for approval from the wider spiritual movement as someone who has a relevant voice, but I know that my very nature sets me up to be rejected by many of those who do have the capacity to "choose happiness." I won't be palatable with my darkness. I will be told I should smile more as I have been told again and again. My smiles are a currency greater than gold.
She meant no ill, but the part of my ego that felt I had accomplished something important by posting the video in spite of being self conscious, and sharing the truth of this uncomfortable self concern, didn't want to hear that it could be seen as simply a contradiction to what I already understand is truth. Like the Green Day song, "I'm a walking contradiction, and I don't have the right." Consciousness outgrows habits and old systems of belief, but those old ways hang on for as long as they can. What struck me more was the question of whether I should only share the ways that my consciousness is growing and not reveal the truth that ego and shadow fight back to win. I questioned the relevance of sharing my journey at all. Do I only seem like someone milking struggle? Identified with struggle?
If so, I am beyond embarrassed. I don't want to be so pretentious as to think that is my contribution to life. I graduated with the same GPA as many in my high school class who are now doctors and lawyers. Currently, I would be homeless in a month if I made any kind of slip up. I have a Master's Degree in Education, a Bachelor's Degree in English and Creative Writing, and a slue of certifications. What good am I aside from motherhood? How important is the contribution of a writer, yogi, and someone fully immersed in a spiritual path if there's nothing monetary to show for it? In a society where you are measured by your financial worth and achievements, where do I fit and what is my excuse? I am not a monk or a nun being supported by my service to Source. Again, judging myself based upon the perceived judgment of others.
Then, I had a conversation with a yogi I follow on Instagram and am greatly inspired by. Their posts are their practice and snippets of their daily life. They told me that through my posts (we don't know each other personally) they "see that life is challenging and I'm sorry. It can't be easy. Your strength and perseverance are a model for everyone." How could someone like me be a model? They were trying to encourage me and tell me that I am seen, but I was taken back to the question of the first conversation - Do I appear as someone seeking sympathy or highlighting struggle over perseverance/strength? How is my struggle any different than anyone else's? I began to tell myself I am not exceptional in any way and I should be ashamed to accept such a compliment. I'm not doing anything more than any other human. I wrote back a long message of embarrassment saying I hope I don't seem pretentious, whiny, or a complainer, or at worst deemed a "negative" person. I was worried by not seeming "good at" practicing spirituality even though I claim it as my nature. What is that again but and identified ego? Honestly, I admire this person in such a way that part of me feels embarrassed and judges myself as weak despite their use of the word "strength."
The last conversation was with a young teen who follows me on Instagram. Ultimately, this conversation is why I am choosing to continue to accept myself where I am and share as much as I can of all parts of the journey. She asked if it ever gets easier to openly write about hardships and struggles. I answered both yes and no. I have gotten used to vulnerability and I am drawn to do it regardless of fear. Yet, part of me still worries that I will be wrongly seen and judged because it has happened before. I don't want to be accused of tainting the vibe, or become that "negative" person no one has time for in their life. I know I shouldn't care, and in the end, I don't because I choose to go ahead and share. I can discuss very difficult things without being depressed or hopeless. We don't respond to difficulty in a uniform way. I have some level of desensitization to many things I discuss which gives me the space I need to analyze it effectively. In fact, telling the tale gives me the means to separate emotions from truth and apply logic and intuition to things that have happened or are happening. I could tell the story to a live auditorium of people and be fine. When this young woman responded that what I said was helpful, I felt a renewed responsibility to keep being open.
Those who can relate, find comfort, be inspired, learn from, challenge, or guide me from what I choose to write about are worth continuing in the shadow of a landscape that unveils the tendency in me to see my healing process as stages of failure instead of growth. With work, I will accept that a spiritual path is a legitimate path.
When I get down, I go to tattoo therapy. Here's what I worked on last night. Tattoo by the amazing apprentice tattooer Mikie Burke.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.