Category Archives: Psychology

Opening to Dharma


I went to a series of yoga workshops this past weekend at my favorite yoga studio in Austin, Dharma Yoga.  It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  This time, they were hosting Katchie Ananda, an Anusara yoga practitioner and apparently a highly influential yoga teacher around the world.  Anusara is a highly codified system of alignment involving invisible loops and spirals in the body that is extremely revealing in the tiny ways that we hold our bodies in both good and bad ways.  I’d had limited experience with it at other studios but really enjoyed the way it was so organized.  I love a good system that has very clear ways of defining things, and this definitely fit the bill, as did the particular focus of each workshop.

The first day we spent working on how to keep our back body open.  It’s very common to collapse the back when leaning backwards or when doing backbends.  Even the word “backbend” can lead one to think that’s what’s called for when it’s really not.  Camel pose doesn’t come from the back, it comes from the front.  Crunching the back muscles in an effort to bend actually negates the positive benefits of a pose.  One of the reasons for that is the placement of the kidneys and the adrenal glands, which rest atop the kidneys.  The adrenals are responsible for helping us run away when we’re in danger.  In a more modern context, they are what help make us aggressive or angry when in a confrontation.  They’re also what make people often feel angry after doing backbends (raises hand), because the adrenals are literally being squeezed by the action of the pose.  Staying open in the back and doing all of the work from the front helps prevent that.

More metaphysically speaking, the back body represents everything that is not the ego, which manifests itself in the front.  That made a lot of sense to me.  Egotistically, we pay attention to what’s right in front of us, and the stereotypical image of someone very ego-filled is someone strutting with their chest poking out in self-importance.  If we crunch the back in an effort to bend backwards, we’re paradoxically ignoring the more universal side of things while emphasizing the ego, which is what yoga tries to diminish.

So we spent three hours talking about how to simultaneously bend backwards while keeping the back open to a more universal energy flow, rather than crunching it down and making it all about ourselves and how far we can bend, so on and so forth.  It was wonderful.  We worked on many poses, such as the warrior poses, that usually made me feel uptight and angry afterwards because I had been crunching my back.  Now I can do those without the crunching, and they’re much more satisfying, less painful, and more beneficial to the parts of my body they’re designed to help.  That seems to be the special magic of Anusara yoga: to change a single muscle group, even a small one, and notice how it affects the entire body.

The second day, we talked about dharma.  Dharma is your path, the place in life that you are supposed to go, or the journey you’re supposed to take.  Most Westerners have heard the term karma, but not dharma.  In fact, most Westerners have the concept of karma all wrong.  There is no good or bad karma.  Karma just IS, and it’s whatever is keeping you from your dharma.  She spoke of one’s dharma as being a combination of the things that you love and the things in life that have wounded your core.  It was hard not to cry in front of everyone as she spoke of these things.  Put into that very clear context of love and wounding, my own dharma was suddenly much clearer to me and I was flooded with a combination of relief and satisfaction that indeed, I am largely headed in the right direction.  I think I’ll start calling myself “the weeping yogini”, because every time I hear things like that that resonate with me, I begin to cry.  In fact, I cry at nearly every yoga class I go to.  I never know why, but the third day’s session would help me understand that better.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

She also spoke that day about metta, or “loving-kindness”, and how to apply that to our lives as well as our yoga practice.  Metta is pretty much the opposite of the internal judgment that I often feel not only in yoga but the rest of life as well.  The metta meditation basically started with the self and then went outwards.  We were to fill ourselves with compassion for ourselves, and then for the people closest to us, and then for the more peripheral people in our lives, and then for everyone, everywhere.  I wish I could remember the exact mantra she had us say, but there is no shortage of metta meditations on the internet.  What it meant for me was to remind me that I cannot fulfill my dharma without a hefty dose of metta, particularly towards myself.  I’m very good at having metta for everyone else in the world, but terrible at having it for myself.  There’s something amiss with that.  Backwards.  Upside down.

Enter the third day.  I began the day very tired, despite having slept extremely late that morning.  I was already somewhat depleted by the previous two days of workshops, which involved doing a lot of downward facing dog pose (basically turning your body into the shape of the letter ‘A’: hands and feet on the floor, butt in the air).  Apparently this is a “resting” pose in Anusara, and if my upper back were not the weakest part of my body, it would have also been so for me.  As it is, though, a lifetime of hunching over keyboards and hunching to hide my body from others left me with tight pectoral muscles and very loose, weak traps, rhomboids, and lats: basically my entire upper back.  Which means that downward facing dog is actually the pose I should do the most of, because those are the muscles that it strengthens.

My triceps were very tired, though.  They had been taking up the slack of my upper back, and while the triceps are certainly an important part of that pose, they had done more than their fair share that weekend and they really let me know.  I spent a lot more time in child’s pose the third day than the previous two.  I also spent a lot more time judging myself because of that than I should have, further indication that I really need to work on that whole metta thing.  The third day’s lesson was about the elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space (not the same as air).  She spoke about how each of the elements can manifest in our lives and our practices, and also about how each person tends to favor a particular element.

Space manifests in yoga practice as a kind of distance or separation from the people you’re practicing with, or from your actual yoga practice.  I know sometimes I’ve gone to do yoga and it’s like I’m really not present: that’s ‘space’ manifesting in my practice.  Fire manifests as anger, aggression, or competition.  I know all about fire on the mat: it makes me scrunch up my face and judge myself with a terrible harshness.  No sir, I don’t like it.  Water often manifests on the mat as weeping, and I know all about that one.  I try to keep myself in the corner so my crying doesn’t upset anyone else in the room.  I’ve come to accept that it will likely be some time before I am no longer a “weeping yogini”, and that I may always be.  I am a Scorpio after all: Fixed Water.  Earth manifests in yoga as a heaviness, an unwillingness to exert the effort.  I’ve certainly had my days where I feel like I’m made of lead and everything feels like it takes way more effort than usual.  Air is apparently the most desirous of the elements on the mat.  It’s the one that allows us to hold a paradox in acceptance, such as being able to bend backwards without collapsing the back, or turn to the right by engaging the left side.  When you hear it, you’re like, “Huh?”  But if you can hold the paradox without judgment and just try it, that’s air.

Regardless of the element, sometimes a yogini just has to dwell in that element as it’s happening.  Just look at it, say hello, and let it just be.  I think I experienced all five elements on the mat yesterday.  I started as earth, sitting there waiting for the workshop to start, feeling very heavy, like I just wanted to lay in savasana the whole time.  Then I moved to space, feeling distant and separated from everyone else in the room.  Then I moved to fire as I began to judge myself for my earthiness and spaciness and inability to stay in the poses as long as I wanted to or had been able to the previous two days.  Fire gave way to water as I became saddened by my perceived lack of strength and succumbing to the judgment I have been trying so hard to escape.  Blowing through the other four was air.  Even as I dwelled in the other elements, I could still stay outside of myself a little bit and hold all of those opposing thoughts and feelings in the same space and just let them orbit around me like protons.

Then we moved on to handstands.  O_O  I had never done a handstand.  As a woman who has weighed over 200 pounds for the better part of the last decade, I have an automatic tendency to reject things like handstands as a possibility since I doubt my body’s ability to hold all that weight up while upside down.  It’s just a lie my ego tells me, and I tried to let the automatic anxiety I was beginning to feel just roll away.  I really wanted to try this, and I was fairly sure that I could do it.  I’m much, much stronger than I was the last time I dove into the yoga pool seriously back in 2007.  I have a year of Seido karate under my belt and a much firmer core.

She started us off in preparatory poses.  First, face away from the wall, fold forward, and place the feet against the baseboards, much like a down dog but with the hips still over the feet.  Then put the feet on the wall and walk up until your body is bent 90 degrees, hands on the floor, feet on the wall.  I could not do this, and the fire flared in my heart.  The others encouraged me, telling me to really push my heels into the wall, which always slid back to the floor.  After trying this three times, I realized it wasn’t my legs that were the problem: it was my upper back, which was not strong enough to push in the opposite direction to counteract my feet.  I narrowly avoided bursting into tears in front of everyone and let my partner try.

The next preparatory pose was better.  Facing the wall this time, we did a similar folding, only this time, a foot was placed in the belly of our partner, who braced against us as we lifted the other leg up into the air.  I did it! I was mostly doing my first handstand and it was really elating.  I had a big smile on my face and I laughed joyfully.  My partner congratulated me and then asked if I could do it again, this time with my shoulders planted a little more directly over my hands.  Unfortunately, as with the first preparatory exercise, my upper back couldn’t handle it and almost completely collapsed.  If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have really hurt myself, but I half expected it to happen so I was ready.  I came back down, somewhat discouraged, but still happy that I had been able to do it at least partially, if not completely correctly.  I was ignoring a deep sadness bubbling away in my belly, though: water again.

It was the end of the workshop, and I happily engaged in the end of class meditation and chanting.  I gathered up my stuff and got in the car to head home.  I was hungry because I hadn’t eaten enough beforehand (not purposefully: it was just one of those lessons I had to learn about how much to put into my body before exerting that much energy), I was very tired from that day’s and the previous days’ workshops, and I was slowly becoming filled with a combination of fire, water, and earth that was turning into a burning emotional mud.  By the time I got home, I was in a terrible mood, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I tried to do what I was supposed to do and just sit there and be with my feelings, while my husband went out and got us some food.  I had a massive craving for protein.

I had a good long cry, then I ate my fajitas, then I took a really long, hot shower and cried some more.  Then I looked up the emotional effects of yoga on the body.  This was all very normal.  Not only had I spent the entire weekend essentially reversing my normal protective modes by working hard to keep my chest open and my shoulders back, I had done my first serious total inversion.  I had literally turned my world upside down after a weekend of making myself be more open to the world.  It was like trying to turn a purse inside out and upside down while expecting nothing to fall out.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  I had stood in the hot shower sobbing, looking at my “baggage” laying on the floor.  I had wanted to finish that handstand so badly, and I couldn’t do it, and I struggled mightily with my mind’s desire to blame me for it, to say I wasn’t good enough or strong enough or skinny enough while ignoring what a major accomplishment it was to have trusted another human being enough to help me get as far as I did, which was pretty far.  Like, 90% there.  A month of downward facing dogs for five minutes a day and I’ll be there.

Today I feel raw and naked, like my skin is missing.  I suppose it would be more accurate to say I’m like a pecan that has had its outer green shell taken off.  I’m still here and nothing’s wrong, but I’m missing a protective mechanism that I’ve had for a long time and my ego is screaming for it to come back.  It can’t have it, though: it’s bad for me.  And I’m not going to let it put all that baggage back into my “purse” either.  Maybe part of why it’s upset is because of all that exposed baggage sitting there on the floor.  It’s impossible to ignore its ugliness, even though it was useful from time to time.  Kind of like leeches.  I just have to acknowledge it all, give it some metta, and let it know it’s not needed anymore while thanking it for its service.  Job well done.  I have other uses for you now.

As difficult as this weekend was, both internally and externally, I needed that.  In fact, I need a lot more of it if I have any hope of really fulfilling my own dharma, which I have a much better bead on now (I would hope so, having been at Dharma Yoga all weekend!).  My mind needed it, and my body needed it.  I know exactly and precisely where my shoulder problems come from and how to fix them, and it has more to do with what’s upstairs than it does with my body.  Everything is connected, and if I want my body to behave in certain ways, I must tame my mind, or at least give it better direction.  Even right now, I can feel the difference after only three days of realigning myself.  When I walk, I feel ‘crooked’ but only because ‘straight’ feels odd to me after so long being actually ‘crooked’.

I’m sure I will be processing this weekend much more as time goes on, but so far, that’s what I got out of it.  No wonder I’m still tired.  *thud*

The Darkness


This post has been knocking about my brain since I first read the article that spurred the thought.  It’s an article about a man named Bill Zeller, whom I never met and whom none of you have likely ever met.  Bill Zeller was apparently a gifted programmer, and a couple of weeks ago, he killed himself.

At first I only took interest because suicide is a morbidly pet topic to me.  Both of my parents killed themselves (my father in October of 1974, my mother in October of 2003, six months following the birth of my daughter), and at least one good friend has chosen to shuffle themselves from the mortal coil over the years.  I would be lying if I said the odd suicidal thought hasn’t crossed my mind, but something about losing both of your parents to the most befuddling way to die (to everyone else anyway) caused me to make a long-ago deal with myself that I would never do that.  Mostly because I know what it does to everyone left behind.  I can’t do that to the people who love me, no matter how despairing I may ever feel.  And in all honesty, it has been a very, very long time since such thoughts have dwelled in my brain more than fleetingly.  Thank the gods.

Nevertheless, it’s a topic sadly close to my heart.  So I read Mr. Zeller’s very long suicide note with interest, and as I read, with growing empathy.  Mr. Zeller finally succumbed to demons that were given to him by someone else: notably, his childhood abuser, whom he does not name.  What he does do is speak at length about “the darkness”: that thing that prevented him from having intimate relationships with anyone else in his life, whether they were emotional or physical.

I know this “darkness” of which Bill Zeller spoke.  The darkness falls like a veil over every attempt at closeness and taints every pure sensation of love and passion with distrust and suspicion.  It is the worst manifestation of the curse of sexual abuse upon children, and it’s something most victims don’t even realize they’re suffering from until much, much later in life as they try to go about the business of being “normal” like everyone else.  Which is something that we never will be.  Not by everyone else’s standards anyway.  Until someone invents neurosynaptic erasure that won’t result in the fuckuppery of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind“, it is impossible to be a person unaffected by that kind of abuse and violation of trust.  We must simply accept and work through the things that have happened to us through the best of ours and our therapists’ abilities.  Even then, we may have to accept that, like Frodo at the end of “The Lord of the Rings“, there are some hurts that are too deep to heal completely.  We are changed permanently and irrevocably by them.

My heart ached for Mr. Zeller, whose darkness was clearly much more oppressive than it has been for me.  To be sure, my relationships have been deeply affected by things that happened to me when I was much younger, but unlike Mr. Zeller, I was not hindered by an inability to speak of those things.  Which does not mean those old demons do not still lurk in the corners and recesses of my memory.  I still suffer from a distrust of most men, whom some part of me perceives as predatory.  My impressions of men have been twisted and perverted by my earlier experiences and I often cannot help but interpret what is the perfectly normal sex drive of most human males into something dangerous that is to be avoided.  Each time I am approached with love, I must struggle through my brain’s automatic suspicion, which inevitably asks in fear, “What do you want from me?”  I often fail in this struggle, I have no doubt much to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to be close to me.

Which is when the real “darkness” sets in.  The darkness that made Mr. Zeller finally decide to give it all up, that it was no longer worth the effort.  The darkness that whispers, “You’re damaged beyond repair, what possible good are you to the world like this?”

And I whisper back, “Fuck you.  You don’t own me, and even if I’m 80 fucking years old before I banish you with the Light, I will destroy you.”

I wish I could retroactively lend that inner strength to Mr. Zeller, and to my parents, and right now to everyone who suffers from “the darkness”.  I do not know where this inner tenacity comes from that I possess and that has saved me from countless destructive paths.  Guardian angel?  God?  Fate?  Pure luck?  I have no fucking clue, but I wish I could bottle it and sell it.  No, I wish I could give it away.  The ability to speak.  The ability to point a finger and say, “That person’s hurting me.”  Even if they’re not around anymore.  The ability to say, “This was not my fault.”  The ability to say, “I’m bigger than this, even if it left some marks.”  Because secrets kill just as surely as cancer.

Slowly, the darkness dissipates the more I say these things to myself.  I am no longer ashamed of my mental scars.  At least, not AS ashamed.  They make me who I am, and people keep telling me I’m a fairly amazing person.  I am better at believing them than I used to be.  I still have scars over my mental ears, but they get a little thinner each time I make the effort to let in the truth and beauty.  It means I have to leave myself vulnerable to pain, but it is perhaps one of the oldest yet truest cliches that there is no love without pain and no light without dark.  If I want one, I must deal with the other.  Lest I fall victim to The Darkness.

Judgment


I’ve been trying to restart my yoga practice recently.  I first started doing yoga back in 2007 when a good friend needed people to take her very first classes so that she could complete her yoga teacher certification.  I realized that I had been doing “yoga” for a few years at least in the form of my own stretching regimen at home.  She asked me, “Are you sure you’ve never taken a yoga class before?!”  Like many things in my life, I had been doing something that others do, I just didn’t know that’s what I was doing until I found them!

I found yoga profoundly moving yet calming, and it instilled a confidence in my body that I had never had.  I have always had a *strong* body, but it wasn’t something I was really proud of or confident in, particularly after a childhood in American physical education classes.  I recall PE as something torturous run by lesbians-in-denial who were unsatisfied if I could not run cross-country without getting a stitch in my side or do the beginning-of-the-year fitness assessment as well as everyone else.  Chin-ups?  *points and laughs*  Consequently I spent the greater part of my life feeling inadequate and weak, not to mention just plain fat and ugly thanks to growing up in the 1980s and its standards of beauty that no one could possibly live up to.

A lot of that changed with yoga.  Spurred by the newfound knowledge of what my body could do, I searched for any and all outlets.  Fortunately I live in a city with so many yoga studios it’s not even funny, including an actual chain of yoga studios that is responsible for churning out a steady stream of fresh graduates from their training program.  I had no fewer than three yoga studios within a five minute drive of my house, and I utilized them heavily.  I wanted something more, though.  The local yoga chain largely caters to the segment of America that just wants somewhere quiet to stretch after work, which is fantastic.  I was more interested in the spiritual aspects of yoga and the teachings of Patanjali.  Yoga wasn’t just exercise to me: it was a form of physical enlightenment.  I found my way to another studio further away but with a heavy emphasis on Buddhism.  The classes were also much harder.

The journey to yoga’s enlightenment is not without its troubles, though.  Yoga teachers often speak of practicing without judgment, which is extraordinarily difficult in a society defined by judgment.  We judge each other constantly in Western society, for our appearance, for our careers, for our clothes, for the food we eat, for the subdivisions we live in, for the cars we drive, etc.  We are steeped in judgment from the day we’re born.  Yet judgment has no place in yoga and will in fact hinder the precise work one hopes to do.  It creeps in there, though.  It casts its glance about the yoga studio and says, “You’re not bending as deeply as that person.  Your shoulders aren’t as flexible as that person’s.  Your hips are too tight.  You’re shaking too much.”  So on and so forth.  Without a lot of care, an otherwise extremely pleasant yoga session can be completely ruined by the monkey mind upstairs prattling on endlessly about all the ways I’m not measuring up.

I have to remember that the only person I’m not measuring up to is myself.  My yoga teacher isn’t judging me.  The other students aren’t judging me, unless it’s to similarly get on their own case about how they’re not doing something well enough to their taste.  The thing is that there really isn’t any one right way to do yoga.  It’s so incredibly individual that to compare one’s practice to another’s is foolhardy and self-defeating.

I have to work with my judgment if I want it to go away, though.  I have to acknowledge it and tell it, “I see you.  What do you want?”  Because judgment wants something.  It’s trying to tell me something, even if it’s going about it in an unhealthy way.  I listen to my judgment so I can figure out how to make it happy and send it away.  More often than not, my judgment is unhappy with my shoulders, which are fairly stiff and inflexible after a life of sitting at keyboards and hunching forward in an effort to minimize what is some fairly ample boobage.  Many women would flaunt their boobage, but since I’ve been the object of unwanted sexual attention from the age of 7, I’ve unconsciously slouched since Mother Nature decided to make my chest expand at the age of 14.  But that’s another post.

All that has resulted in shoulders and chest muscles that are almost wholly unfamiliar with being flexible and open.  They’re also laden with emotional baggage: I’m a firm believer in the theory that trauma lives in our body until we figure out a way to process it.  When I work with my shoulders, a well of anger and sadness opens up inside me and comes pouring out.  Or tries to anyway.  I’m in a room full of practicing yogis and yoginis, so it’s really not the time to have myself a little tantrum, which is often what I feel like doing.  Then comes the flood of judgment.

“Why can’t I get my shoulders where I want them to go?  Why am I so stiff?  What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room?  Why am I even doing this?  I’ll just fail at it like everything else.  I hate my shoulders.  I hate my body.  I hate myself.”

And so I stand there in the remotest corner of the room possible with hot tears running down my face, trying to hide them from anyone else who might be looking at me, struggling through whatever the pose is.  When I first started doing yoga, when this happened I would just try to ignore it and plug through the rest of the class, suppressing my feelings.  I would usually leave those classes feeling terrible instead of better like I should have (and I have indeed attended some magical yoga classes, free of my internal judgment, that I left floating on a cloud of peace and calm).  Well what’s the fucking point in that?!  I actually stopped going to formal yoga classes for some time because I was unable to stop being so goddamned judgmental of myself.  I was standing in a room surrounded by beautiful people, a beautiful non-judgmental instructor, and statues of the Buddha: it seemed sacrilege to violate the space with my own negative feelings.

Over the next couple of years I continued to do yoga at home, and I continued to read about yoga and its underlying principles.  I also began to study Buddhism much more fervently.  It was no longer just something with pleasant imagery that made me happy to look at.  Slowly I figured out how to sit with my judgment and counteract it.  Not completely, but enough that I could do yoga without ruining it.  Eventually, I figured out what my judgment really wants.  It wants love.  Love from the most important source of all: me.

When I feel that judgment creeping in, when I feel that inner hatred rising up, when I hear the inner voice saying “I hate this part of myself,” I tell myself in another voice, “I love this part of myself.”  Because I really do, deep down underneath all of that judgment.  Judgment which actually DID serve a very important purpose in my life for many years.  It was a survival mechanism that allowed me to discern people’s loving behaviors from their damaging ones, which is a very difficult game to play with some people.  I got very good at it, and when there were no more people around to play the game with, my brain began to play it with myself, which was inappropriate.  It made me label parts of myself as bad when they really weren’t.

I’m still undoing some of that self-damage.  Going to yoga is part of that, because it brings me face to face with my feelings and my ego, which one of my instructors tells us manifests the “pain-body”: the ego’s attempts to prevent us from seeing things how they really are.  My ego was very, very good at protecting me for a very long time, and now that I don’t need that protection anymore, it’s giving up its post very reluctantly.  It’s convinced I’m making a mistake, that there’s still danger out there that I need protecting from, and even if it has to make me feel like a pile of shit, it’s going to keep its vigilant guard over my borders.

It has to go, though.  Like an overprotective parent who keeps telling their kids, “You can’t do that!”, it has to be told, “Yes I can.  I don’t need your help anymore.”

This particular journey is harder than anything else I’ve done in my life.  I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (and there was much rejoicing, yay!), and I’m halfway through losing ninety pounds (for the second time in my life): this is harder.  Loving myself is harder.  Loving my body is harder.  Forcing myself to look away from the mirror when I find myself being critical is harder.  Telling myself “I love my shoulders,” is harder than telling myself how much I hate them.  I don’t know why, either!  It makes no logical sense to me, but something else I’m learning as I shed the protective mechanisms that I no longer need is that logic often has no place in determining the emotional vagaries of human beings.  I may as well try to make sense of why cats find it necessary for doors to be open, at all times.

So that is my path these days.  The path of judgment, or rather, the lack thereof.  The path of self-love instead of self-hatred.

I love my shoulders.  They are strong and can carry impressive loads.
I love my arms.  They are strong and can punch targets HARD.
I love my legs.  They do a good job of moving me around all day long.
I love my feet.  They support this body impossibly well (have you ever really contemplated what your feet have to do?).
I love my hands.  They type amazingly fast and can create beautiful art.
I love my back.  It holds the rest of me up very well.
I love my belly.  It carried my daughter for nine months.
I love my brain.  It’s the only reason I’m not dead or crazy.

I love me, and one day I will believe that as strongly as everyone else who tells me that without bursting into tears.

Credit Where It’s Due


Around 1am on Sunday morning, I marked four weeks since I had my last cigarette.  While this is not the first time I have quit smoking, it’s the first time I quit just for me.  The last time I quit, it was for my unborn daughter.  Other times I’ve quit, it’s been for boyfriends, or because “I’m supposed to”.  This time was different, though I haven’t quite put my finger on all of the different ways that it’s not the same.

I suppose the most important way that it was different was that it really was mostly for me.  Sure, I was also quitting because I knew it would make my family and friends really happy that I had finally quit, but as any addiction counselor will tell you, the addict has to want to quit, way deep down.  They may be able to go through the initial stages of quitting a bad behavior for other people, but it won’t stick.  They have to want it badly enough and think they’re worthy enough of the effort.  It also helps to have actual evidence for how things will be better afterwards.  I had that in the form of knowing how much better I would be able to do karate and other exercise after I quit.  At least, that was the most tangible reason.  Others made themselves known over the next few weeks.

Like not being stinky, though my friends tell me I was unusually conscientious in that regard.  I could tell the difference in my vehicle, mostly.  I also noticed I needed less sinus medicine and had less frequent headaches.  Food did indeed taste a bit better.  My sense of smell improved, which was good and bad.  Good when I wanted to catch a whiff of a bowl of potpourri, bad when one of my aging cats laid a stinkbomb in the catbox (which was almost enough to make me want to smoke again just to dull my senses again!).

Then I went to the gym, where the difference was showed to me in red numbers across the stationary bike readout.  I had to work much harder to get my heart rate to its target zone and keep it there, whereas before I had to struggle to keep my heart rate under my target zone.  This meant I wasn’t heaving for breath anymore, but my legs were on FIRE.  Consequently I’m getting a much better workout than I was before and I suspect I’m incredibly healthy for my age, all things considered.  At least that’s what the longevity calculator said in my fitness book, which told me my life expectancy has gone from a frightening 59 to a more reasonable 72.  A few more adjustments and I’ll have that puppy up in the 80s.

The first two to three weeks were undoubtedly the worst.  And I’m here to tell you that whoever came up with that bullshit about cigarette cravings only lasting 3-5 minutes needs a swift kick in the ass.  Sometimes that shit goes on for hours, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it except keep busy and wait for it to pass.  Indeed, many cravings are brief, but not all.  Telling quitters otherwise is doing them a disservice.  I’ve become quite opinionated over the last four weeks about the phenomenon of cigarette addiction in America, and without going into too much detail just yet, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that if we really want to get that last 20% of the country off the smokes, we need to treat it much more seriously than we have.  Quitting smoking is just as important and as difficult as quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or any other addictive substance or behavior.  It’s not a weekend activity or something to be taken lightly.  If I ran things, everyone who wanted to quit smoking would get a paid month off work and a voucher to go somewhere nice for a week while they detoxed.  It’s that big of a deal.  I’m sure some of my friends who have met quitting with less success than I have might agree.

Indeed, if we treated things like smoking and food addiction with the urgency that we treat something like heroin or cocaine addiction, I don’t believe those problems would be as prevalent.  Of course, addiction treatment in general needs a serious overhaul in our country.  Namely, we need to ditch our Puritanical roots that make us think that someone who has trouble kicking something just isn’t trying hard enough or somehow deserves their fate.  Really?  Why not just shoot them in the head if that’s how you feel?  Or do they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in unhealthy misery as punishment for their inability to kick said habit?  Health begins with love, not punishment.

And that is perhaps the biggest difference between this attempt to quit and my others.  I wanted to do something good for myself, not punish myself by taking something away that made me happy.  And smoking did fill a pleasant niche in my life.  If it didn’t, I would have stopped long ago.  I had to give myself something bigger and more important to fill that gap, and I did.  I filled that gap with the love and support of my friends and family, and in doing so knocked yet another light-filled chink in my stalwart wall of self-loathing that I’d built for the last three decades out of fat, sugar, and cigarettes.  Now I’m building ladders out of karate, yoga, and community.

So, credit where it’s due.  It’s been four weeks since my last cigarette, and I miss them less and less every day.  I’m sure some gut-wrenching stressor will come up at some point in my future, during which I will have to resist the temptation to drive to any one of the four convenience stores within less than a mile of my house that sell my favorite brand and style, but I’ll just have to deal with that when it comes along.  So far a healthy dose of “be here now” has helped a great deal and I hope it continues to do so.  Not being afraid to have a good cry every now and then also helps a lot, something else our culture seems to have a lot of trouble with.  Mostly, though, I had to think I was worth the effort and give myself enough carrots to keep me going on the path.  And even if I had NOT successfully quit these last few weeks, telling myself I was worth the effort was a remarkable exercise in and of itself, because I still have trouble believing I’m as awesome as people tell me I am.

2010 in Review


I started to make a bulleted list of everything that happened this year and realized that was way too much information.  What was important wasn’t the events, it was what happened because of them and where they took me.  I feel like a lot has happened to me this year and it may actually be a while before I realize how it has all impacted me, but for now, here are the ways I’m different today than I was 365 days ago.

1. This year I learned some of the most powerful words in the English language: that’s not my problem. I was still a bit of a doormat last year.  Certainly far less of one than I had been in previous years: it’s been a long, slow process that has actually taken about three or four years, I think.  This year, I’m very much NOT a doormat.  I blame, if that’s the right word, karate.  I’ve been taking karate for just over a year now and I directly attribute what I’ve learned there, both for my body as well as my mind, to my increased inner strength.  I just don’t take shit from people anymore, no matter who they are.  I try to reject other people’s shit as politely as possible, and whenever possible try to find a way to work through that shit, but if that’s not possible, oh well.

2. I learned another powerful word this year, which is somewhat related to the ones in #1.  NO. Really, it’s okay to say no.  Do so as nicely as possible, but don’t be afraid to do it.  If it helps, say it like HAL in 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  This words for a whole lot of situations and people.  This year I said “no” to the media.  It was making me really, really angry to be exposed on a daily basis to the rampant asshattery that goes on every day, not to mention the outright shortsightedness and ignorance of the vast majority of our culture.  It’s hard enough to deal with people’s dumbness just driving from my house to the dojo, I don’t need to add more by reading things that piss me off and I can’t do anything about.

It’s also what enabled me to walk away from henna and housecleaning.  I lost a relatively decent source of extra cash when I ditched the cleaning, but I was happier.  The extra money wasn’t worth feeling resentful and bad about myself because I was cleaning houses instead of doing research like I thought I would be when I was 19.  I realized that at the end of the day, and certainly the end of my life, I would be answerable to absolutely NO ONE but myself.  That set off a mental chain reaction that is still yielding good things for me.

3. Like not caring quite so much what other people may or may not think of me.  I believe it was William Burroughs who basically said that it’s none of your damn business what other people think of you.  And since I don’t think much of people who like to pass that kind of judgment on others anyway, why should I care what those kinds of people think of me?  Again, the inner strength imparted to me by my karate teachings helped a great deal in this endeavor.  The only important question was, “What do YOU think?”

4. Which made me realize, “I think I suck, and that’s a problem.”  I began addressing my life-long self-esteem issues this year.  Issues I didn’t really realize I had until I started examining my behaviors through the lens of love and compassion.  I found myself asking questions like, “Would you treat another person this way?  Why do you treat others better than you treat yourself?  Why do you think so little of yourself?”  I still do not have all of the answers to those questions, but at the very least, I was cultivating awareness of the fact that on many days, I feel like a complete piece of shit.  I know that’s not true, which tells me I have a severe disconnect between my rational self and my emotional self.  Reconciling those two aspects of myself is going to be crucial if I really want to continue to grow as a person and accomplish some of the goals that I have.

5. One of those goals is making sense of my family’s past.  I received what I call the Box of History this year: a box full of more than sixty years of letters between my late grandmother and her best friend.  With very few gaps, I have a nearly complete history of my grandmother’s life from 1940 until her death in 2008.  Which means I have at least some of the answers to very long-standing questions about what happened between various family members and why there was so much estrangement.  I also wrote down my memoirs up until about 2003, when my daughter was born.  It was an amazing thing to plow through my memories the way that I did.  I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo, and after some encouragement from a friend, I started at the beginning, and I did not stop for three days. At the end of that marathon, I had nearly 72,000 words chronicling a good 90-95% of my life from 1971 to 2003.  I was forced to finally admit to myself, “Yes, it really was all that horrible,” after years of my brain’s efforts to play down some of the events of my life and in some sick and twisted way make it all a flaw of my own perceptions.  See #4.

Another family-related catalyizing event was the death of my Wicked Stepfather.  Technically he was my adoptive father, but I refused to acknowledge that intimate of a connection given that he was a drunk, a wife-beater, and a pedophile.  His death, despite our having not talked in some 14-odd years, released a flood of strange and conflicting feelings, as did the fact that he left me a small amount of money, which blew me away.  Only enough to take care of a few things, but enough to make me question the nature of wickedness in people.  I began to think a great deal about the nature of compassion and understanding, and it is during this time that I consider myself to become a “real” Buddhist.  That is, the first time that I really begin to apply its concepts to my life in a practical and useful way, not just in an ethereal, more meditative way.

6. In that course of various family realizations, I began writing again.  Really, really writing.  Writing has been a constant in my life since I learned how to type at the age of 10.  I’ve done so seriously from time to time but never to any kind of fruition or completion.  I’ve kept everything I wrote, though, and all of that combined with what I wrote this year finally comes together into something cohesive and understandable.  All of that writing is ripe and fecund and just waiting to be turned into something else that I have a deep feeling will not only benefit myself but also others.  Hence the birth of this blog.

Many doors closed this year, and just as many opened.  I found myself questioning many things in my life and why they were there, and much in the way that an ancient Greek god could be controlled by merely acknowledging it and uttering its true name, I found many demons dissolving into mist just by being called out by me.  “You there lurking in the shadows, let me see you.”  One by one they stepped forward, and either disappeared or transformed into something positive.  Which is not to say my corners are completely lit and my secret closets empty, but they are much lighter and less crowded than they were.

I’m still processing a lot of what happened this year, and I will be writing about and sharing the Box of History as well as the fruits of NaNoWriMo in bits and pieces, but I feel as though, finally, things are coming together.  I have enough to complete a puzzle I have been working on for many, many years.  Or if not complete it, at least form a picture complete enough to read the story.

The Death of a Passion


I’ve been going through a lot of changes this year, many of which I’m quite sure I’m not even aware of yet and won’t be until I can look back on 2010 with some context and perspective.  Astrologically speaking, this was the end of my Pluto Square, which is one of the top three major life-changing transits that people go through in their lives and correlates to what we refer to as the Midlife Crisis (TM).  I’ve spent a great deal of time for the last two years feeling like I have utterly wasted the first thirty-odd years of my life, mostly because where I am now has absolutely NOT met the expectations that I and others set up for me when I was growing up.  Looking back I realize I was shoehorned into the unenviable position of being that first family member who’s supposed to go to college and make something of themselves and redeem the rest of the family.

*great guffaws of laughter ensue*

Firstly, that’s a cruel thing to do to your children.  Secondly, given the people I grew up around, there’s no way I would ever do anything to make them look better than they were, either purposefully or unconsciously.  So I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to extricate myself from those expectations, and believe me, it was the self-imposed ones that gave me the most trouble.  They had their hooks in good.

During that process, I went through a lot of ruminating about what it is that makes me happy, what it is that I feel is supposed to make me happy, the difference between the two, and how to go about setting my path up properly so that I actually AM happy.  Or at the very least, content.  I often wonder if true happiness isn’t a pipe dream and that the most any of us can hope for is contentment.  But that’s another post.

Oddly, I wound up ditching one of the things that had made me extremely happy for several years: mehndi, the art of applying henna paste to the skin in decorative patterns.  I learned how to do mehndi back in 2000 when a friend of mine had a workshop in which she prepared a massive bowl of henna and then gave everyone little plastic cups, paintbrushes, and toothpicks to draw on themselves with.  I sat down with my cup and my brush and drew a spiral on my left palm.  I carefully left the paste to dry for a few hours, then flaked it off and stared with utter wonder at the entrancing orange stain the green mud had left upon my hand.  That was only the beginning.

Through the magic of chemistry, the dye molecule in henna, lawsone, oxidizes with the air, slowly turning darker and changing color from orange to red to brown over the next 48-72 hours.  Indeed, a mehndi pattern is a living piece of art, for it is different from day to day, sometimes hour to hour.  I spent those two to three days utterly entranced by my hand.  I would find myself just staring at it, marveling at the color and the small details of the palm of my hand that I had heretofore never seen.  Mehndi drew my attention to details of my own body and as such was extremely grounding.  Something I have always needed.

The next Monday after the campout we were all attending, I went to an Indian grocery store as soon as it was open and bought my first box of henna.  Reshma brand, $1.99 for an 8 oz. box.  Possibly some of the crappiest henna available, though I didn’t know it yet.  I also went to BookPeople, Austin’s finest bookstore, to look for books.  I found a copy of Loretta Roome’s “Mehndi”, which to this day is one of the most beautiful books about henna ever published, and is regrettably now out of print.  With that box of powder and that book, a passionate obsession was born.  I spent the next two years deeply engaged in exploring this strange form of body art that almost no one in the West understood beyond knowing that Madonna had some on her hands in her “Frozen” video.

I took a break from mehndi when I got pregnant with my daughter.  The last piece I did before she was born was in honor of her impending arrival.

Obviously since my hands were constantly busy for the next two to three years after Zoe was born, there was zero opportunity to do mehndi.  I doubt I would have wanted to even if I had the time, for I was utterly exhausted and depressed for those first years.  As she got older, though, I slowly had the opportunity to rekindle my art.

In 2006, I found an online community of mehndi artists at The Henna Page, a website run by a woman who probably knows more about henna and mehndi than any other living soul on the planet.  In fact, she has a PhD in henna and its history, which extends back for many thousands of years and predates virtually any other form of body adornment.  Through that community I was exposed to more patterns and techniques, not to mention finally having a group of people with whom I could talk about my art.

The following year, I had the opportunity to attend the Sin City Henna Conference in Las Vegas, which will remain a singularly beautiful week in my memory for as long as I live.  For the first time, I got to watch other people do mehndi.  Up to that point, it had just been me for the previous seven years.  I had been learning and practicing in a vacuum, the bell jar to which was lifted and thrown away when I went to Vegas.  I did very little art that week, but I watched, and it sunk in.  I returned home to find that my abilities as an artist had easily tripled.

I finally felt worthy to do what my friends had been encouraging me to do since I had started seven years before: start a business.

Enter Laksmi Skin Art, later to be Bodhi Body Art.  Laksmi is the Hindu goddess of prosperity, fertility, and abundance.  She is said to live within the designs themselves, which is why Hindu brides and grooms are always decorated with mehndi, so that the blessings of Laksmi will be bestowed upon the newly married couple.  The tradition of wedding mehndi is deep and rich.  Some traditions call for the husband’s name to be hidden in the bride’s designs for him to find on their first night together: he can do nothing more with her until he finds his name (that sounds so fun! and can you get more romantic?).  Mehndi had always been a meditative practice for me as well as an artistic one.  I felt it would be rude to attempt to turn something so sacred into a business without properly honoring Laksmi.

Regrettably, my business never did very well.  I live in a city where mehndi is fairly accepted and there were already several well-entrenched artists here with whom I had to compete.  I also soon discovered that competition is fierce and unfriendly, with a couple of exceptions.  I suffered through being outright ignored by other artists as well as having my art stolen from my website by yet another, who didn’t seem to understand that just because she found it on Google image search didn’t mean it was free for her to take.

Not to mention that I was increasingly battling the growing trend of “black henna”, which isn’t henna at all: it’s concentrated black hair dye (paraphenyldiethylamine, PPD) made into a paste and drawn on the skin in the same sorts of patterns.  It stains almost instantly, lasts for weeks, and happens to be a potent toxin that renders many people highly allergic to just about anything made of certain kinds of plastic.  It also leaves scars in the shape of the original design.  And the unknowing public LOVES it, because it’s fast, easy, cheap, and long-lasting.  Reactions to it happen sometimes weeks after the initial application, and may also happen after using it for a long time without incident.

I also had another mark against me: I’m not Indian.  Now, before someone gets all upset and accuses me of being racist, please understand that’s not where I’m coming from.  The tradition of mehndi as associated with weddings is deeply entrenched in family as well as religion, and I cannot say that if I were an Indian that I would not also want another Indian, preferably a family member, to do mine or my daughter’s wedding mehndi.  That is their sacred tradition, and I am not disparaging that.  I was simply not what that demographic in my city wanted, and the other areas of business were fairly monopolized by the other artists.

Nevertheless, it was a contributor in a whole melange of factors that eventually led to my abandoning my business this year.  The sacred thread that I tried to keep within it was constantly violated by the general selfishness of American capitalism.  People didn’t care one whit about the energy and time that I had put into my art, nor that it was something sacred to me.  They wanted their art done, they wanted it done their way, and they wanted it done cheaply and quickly.  After being repeatedly disrespected, not to mention stolen from on more than one occasion (who steals a Buddha? talk about bad karma!), I abandoned my venture.  The passion had been sucked right out of my art.  I simply did not care about it anymore.  It was too difficult to compete for business, which was increasingly scarce due to the tanking economy, and too difficult to maintain the positivity necessary to keep my chin up.  I was also sick of doing business alongside and competing with the “black henna” artists along with hacks who had no business putting art on people and charging money for it in the first place.

I was glad not to have to worry about the business things anymore.  It was a serious pain in the ass, and I was getting so little return in exchange for what I was putting into it.  Regrettably, I should have killed my business much sooner, because it killed my passion for my art.  And I miss it.  I miss the exciting pull of a bag of freshly made henna cones, just waiting to freshly stain skin with something beautiful.  Part of the problem was (is) that I completely lost perspective of my own art.  Everyone around me oohed and aahed over my designs, positively gushing over how beautiful they were, but I couldn’t see it anymore.  Everything I did looked like ass to my eyes, no matter how much people praised it.  And perhaps most importantly for that reason, I stopped doing mehndi this year.  I was no longer compelled to sit for hours as I once had, just lost in the trancelike mindset I would achieve bent over a hand or a foot.

Ironically, getting really fucking good at my art is part of what changed that dynamic.  When I wasn’t very good, I had to spend hours doing it, and because I wasn’t living up to anyone’s expectations except my own, I was able to enjoy the discipline for what it was without judging the outcome.  By telling myself that I needed to be better and faster in order to run a business, I took that away from myself, and if I had realized at the time that’s what I was doing, I never would have started a business.

I haven’t done any mehndi on myself in months.  The last time I did, I was utterly UNcaptivated by my own skin as I had been in the past.  The process of applying the mehndi did not fill me with peace as it once had.  Rather than lovingly caring for the designs as they slowly faded from my skin, I found myself wishing they would hurry up and fade so I wouldn’t have to look at them anymore.

I still wish I knew precisely what happened, and whether or not the passion for my art will ever return.  I do miss it, though I think I miss the state of mind more than anything else.  I didn’t just lose a passion, I lost something sacred.  And I am still looking for it.

Insomnia


I hate insomnia.  It’s one of those perks I get as a woman with bad PMS which is probably bad enough to qualify as PMDD (premenstrual dysphoria disorder: not just irritable at “that time of the month”, downright psychotic on occasion).  Hence the fairly dour tone of my post.  Move along if you’re not in the mood.  I know I’m not.

Actually, I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a child.  I remember asking my mother when I was about six who I needed to write to to add more hours to the day.  Too bad it’s not that easy.  Now, if I could figure out who to write to to just move the Sun about 8 hours, that would be fabulous.  Because I also have delayed sleep phase disorder.  Which is Western medicine‘s fancy term for a night owl who really can’t help it.  Really, I function best on a schedule that lets me go to sleep around 2-3am and get up around 10-11am.  It doesn’t matter if I get those same 8 hours of sleep at another time of day or night, I don’t feel as rested or feel like I have as much useful time during the day.  Such is my life.

Unfortunately, our world doesn’t work on this schedule, and is fairly harsh to anyone who can’t adopt the standard 8-5 routine that our culture and society demands of us.  When I had a child in 2003, it became painfully evident how out of sync I am with the rest of the world.  If you have a baby, every activity you can take the tot to happens at 9am, almost without fail.  Certainly not after lunchtime, when you should be putting your baby down for a nap like a good mama.  I’m sorry, did I drip some sarcasm on your shoes there?  My apologies, let me clean that up.

Buddhism has helped me somewhat in the acceptance department.  I can either bellyache continually about being off sync with the society I was born into, or I can try to accept it and do as much as I can about it myself.  I’d rather not take sleeping pills continually, mostly because, well, I like them too damn much.  I’m also just as likely to wander around my house finding ridiculous projects to work on in an OCD haze under the influence of things like Ambien as I am to do what I’m supposed to do, which is lay down and try to calm myself.  A love of mind-altering chemicals is one of those things I regrettably inherited from my parents and I learned long ago, and blessedly without becoming addicted to anything other than cigarettes, that I should just stay away from certain things.

Besides, long-term, they don’t work.  Not for me anyway.  Not just sleeping pills, but any kind of psychiatric medication.  I suffered from fairly severe postpartum depression after my daughter was born, for about three years.  The last year and a half of that I spent heavily medicated, largely as a result of trying to counteract the various side effects I had from the various drugs.  First it was Zoloft, which did indeed lend some “loft” to my mood and helped me lose some weight, but kept me from sleeping.  It also did nothing to address my anxiety.  Enter Buspar, which is marketed as a “safe” tranquilizer/sedative but which fucked me up far more than any benzodiazepine I had ever taken.  It took me two years to realize that it was the Buspar that prevented me from driving for a year and a half, not the other suspect: Seroquel.

Now, Seroquel is for psychotic manic depressives and schizophrenics/schizotypals.  Why on Earth my idiotic GP decided that was a good antidote to what was bothering me with the Zoloft, I will never know, though I suspect it had a lot to do with Seroquel being a new drug that its maker really wanted the doctors to ferret out to their patients (don’t get me going on the evils of our disease care system, I’ll set your ears on fire).  Seroquel turned me into a zombified eating machine.  Sure, I could sleep, but I was utterly compelled to eat in the evenings.  I literally could not stop myself from going into the kitchen and engaging in the worst kind of munchies possible, switching between sweet and salty until I finally passed out for the evening.  I put on 40 pounds in a month on that horrible stuff.  I’d probably kill myself before taking that drug again.

The worst part?  I lost a year and a half of my life while I was taking Zoloft, Buspar, Seroquel, Ambien, and Valium (the last two tacked on to address lingering anxiety and sleep issues).  A year and a half of my baby’s life.  It’s all a blur that makes me incredibly sad when I think about it too much and I’m really grateful that I was at least taking pictures of that time of her life.  Otherwise, I might not remember a goddamned thing about her from the time she was 18 months old to the time she was 3.  Yay for Western medicine!  *eyeroll*

So, yeah, homegirl’s not too hip on the Western brain meds anymore, not between my own experiences and watching doctors try to treat my mother’s mental illness to no avail.  Hence my deep and abiding interest in Buddhism, Buddhist psychology, mindfulness, meditation, and the other things I’ve taken up in the last three or four years to counteract my lifelong headmeat troubles, which thankfully pale in comparison to those of my parents’.  I still believe that awareness is the most powerful tool available to anyone suffering from mental difficulties (though I certainly don’t condone going off one’s meds without some deep introspection and guidance from a qualified health practitioner, nor do I believe that meds are unnecessary for everyone).  I’ve also come to appreciate the places that my brain will take me when it’s insomniac and too tired for its own good.  It’s almost trancelike in its quality, and if I just follow the meandering path that it’s on, I’ll usually learn something very interesting.

For the other bad spots my life hits from time to time, I’ve learned the value of a good cry and just being with my feelings.

Hey there, anger, how’s it going?  Not well, I can see.  What pissed you off?  Can you fix it?  Work on that tomorrow.  Or just accept that you can’t.  Let’s just sit here and feel how much this sucks for a little while.  And remember, this moment sucks, NOT you.

And when I do that, it doesn’t last nearly as long as it does when I try to put on my bravest face and just pluck through life the way we’re taught we’re supposed to.

See?  Insomnia takes me strange places.  Now it is 3am and I should really go and sit on a pillow and stare at a candle or something until I get tired enough to fall asleep.  Mother Nature will turn my cycle soon enough and I’ll be able to slumber normally.  And think normally.  Mostly.  🙂