Emotional storms? Stop fighting and watch it pass…

Feelings are powerful and complex creatures that can easily make or break your day. However, in today’s rational society, we like to believe that we can “think away” emotions, because we assume feelings are unnecessary and fluffy obstructions to achieving our goals.

I once knew a person who swore never to vote for a female president because of a belief that women are inherently more emotional than men and thus would make rash decisions.

Feminist sensibilities aside, I think people who dismiss emotions are missing out on some of the most rewarding aspects of their own lives. After all, why do we do anything in life? Why do we get married, chase dreams or spend time with friends? Because we like these things. They make us feel good. All things considered, we live for emotions.

That said, emotions often guide and inspire us but occasionally can hold us back from our full potential. Haven’t you ever let a negative emotional response influence your actions and ended up suffering for it? If you ever became bashful and tongue-tied when chatting with an attractive member of the opposite gender or if you ever lashed out against someone who didn’t deserve it, then you understand. Sometimes feelings of heartbreak, devastation or hopelessness can shroud everything in despair. Normalcy starts to seem like a faraway illusion.

No matter what you’re dealing with – stress, hopelessness, fear, frustration – I can tell you with certainty there’s a way out, even when it all seems impossible to deal with. Trust me, I’ve been there many times. When you’re in the midst of an overwhelmingly difficult emotion, you have a few choices. You can use some sort of mental trick to bend you out of your negativity, or you can let go of it. Transforming fear into excitement and tracing your emotions back to a source are a couple helpful tactics, but I find that sometimes the effort you use to disentangle yourself will only feed the fire. Once, one of my co-workers was in a ridiculously bad mood. After muttering plenty of insults behind customers’ backs and giving away lots of glares, he started to say to himself, “I really need to calm down. Man, I should really get over this. It’s getting ridiculous.” But he couldn’t quite seem to do it. If anything, he just grew more furious. I told him that he could just be making himself angrier by trying to stop it, that he should just accept the anger so he could forget about it more easily. He nodded and said I was probably right. Let’s think about it for a moment. If you are getting sad that you’re sad, worried about being worried or insecure about being insecure, how on earth is that helping you?

The most lasting method I have learned to deal with overwhelming emotions is by relaxing – by simply accepting whatever is going on inside of you instead of incessantly worrying about fixing it. When I stop worrying about my bad feelings and stop trying to find a way out, they simply fade away. But this gets tricky, because if I tell myself I’m going to relax my feelings away while really I am only telling myself this to see if the feeling disappears, then it won’t work – I’ll just keep worrying! I must accept negativity without pretense or agenda, something completely counter to our “go get ’em” culture. From a spiritual perspective, the suffering you feel actually is teaching you and guiding you. You will eventually turn that pit of despair into an equally affecting glow of happiness when you stop trying to resist it. Let it in, let it do what it has to do and it will fade away instead of continuing to bang obnoxiously at your door.

Observe yourself regularly to measure your success. Emotions are sensations within the body, not just imaginary wisps floating around in your head. Anger appears in a different part of the body than joy or sorrow does. I feel sorrow in my throat and anger more in my chest and forehead, for example. Note the sensations and look at your pain as objectively as you would an aching back. Both of these hurts are trying to tell you that something is wrong, so paying attention to what they tell you is important, unless you can’t control the situation causing your distress. In that case, let go. Let go. Let go. Repeat as needed.

But here, listen to someone much wiser than me explain:

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The release of self-forgiveness

Followers of the Jain religion believe the universe is shaped like a human body. Likewise, Taoists think society at large functions the same as a single person. Thus, when you understand yourself, you can supposedly understand the workings of the entire universe.

Similarly, I’ve noticed I reflect my inner state of mind onto the outside world. If I love and accept who I am, other people tend to pick up on my positive, carefree vibes and treat me more benevolently than if I despise myself. Like most others, I go through periods where I am less than happy with who I am. But I’ve realized this isn’t healthy for me or for anyone I come into contact with. Thus, personal growth is no selfish act. When you shine with joy, you contagiously spread beams of radiance while negativity simply dissipates into the air.

Once I worked with someone who made my blood boil a little. Although he was just a server in an average restaurant, he sauntered around the place reeking of arrogance. He wouldn’t do anybody a favor unless it made him look good. I hardly could have a conversation with him without consciously restraining myself because his stories of womanizing offended my feminist sensibilities.

On the flip side, I know my attitude toward him was just as immature as his cockiness. Seething about the guy only made me look down on him, just like he probably looked down on me.

Someone once told me that hate only hurts yourself. So true. When hatred – or any negative emotion – invades, it swiftly immerses me in a little bubble of red-hot fury. I become irrational. My nemesis appears subhuman in my eyes, and I stop treating him with dignity and respect. Anger never solves a thing. Hating him never made him a more compassionate person – it only transformed me into an immature little kid filled with an exaggerated sense of pride and entitlement. This uncontrollable anger always gripped me when I talked to him. A critical, judgmental coldness overtook any natural sense of goodwill.

Intuitively, my conscience says I should stop looking down on him. Countless religious and spiritual seekers have proven that happiness isn’t becoming superior to everyone – it’s letting go of your big, cumbersome ego and embracing a sense of humility.

Truly strong people don’t spend all their time sabotaging others or thinking about how much other people suck because they don’t need such petty compensation for their insecurities. Strength is kindness in the face of cruelty, not domination and superiority. The Dalai Lama said, “If the love within your mind is lost, and you see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education or material comfort you have, only suffering and confusion will ensue.” Any guru or priest probably will tell you the emotional and spiritual benefits of humility and love hugely outweigh the small and selfish satisfactions of hatred. I’ve noticed that when I am filled with love, I physically feel expanded. I am more connected and receptive to other people, and people sense and reflect my positive energy. Suddenly, the little things don’t seem so irritating. I am a lot happier when that screaming little ego isn’t getting in my way.

I’d love to claim that I am one of those untouchably positive souls who emits beams of radiance and loves everyone. But alas, I have a lot of work to do. And I can’t just tell myself, “Start unconditionally loving humanity, dang it!” You can’t just force yourself to love, like you make yourself get out of bed to get to class in the morning. Your efforts at compassion will seem just as groggy and reluctant as your weary face. Love is a strenuous and nearly impossible task when you feel about as compassionate as a block of concrete – when you’re locked in the haze of frustration, fear or defense. We’ve spent our entire lives programmed to look out for No. 1 and that won’t change overnight. The only thing that works for me is simply watching myself without judgment. When I’m angry and critical I watch my responses. Amazingly enough, when I simply observe my actions without constant critique, my flaws don’t seem to bother me as much. Then, these flaws are no longer despicable parts of myself – they are something separate from me that I detachedly observe from a distance, like watching a lion in a zoo cage.

You see, my co-worker embodies such an enormous threat to me only because I deeply fear becoming like him: arrogant, selfish and uninteresting. This guy probably makes me mad because he represents something I dread and repress within myself. Otherwise, he wouldn’t challenge me so much. Sometimes I feel selfish, which makes me so ashamed that I have spent my entire life running in the polar opposite direction, dabbling in spirituality, activism and volunteer work the entire way. Meanwhile, he shamelessly flaunts the very things I’ve spent my life running from. No wonder I can’t stand him. But here’s the irony: When I see him as a selfish bundle of pettiness, don’t I begin to engage in that very same pettiness?

Thus, when I unconditionally accept myself, flaws and all, I suddenly can tolerate my co-worker. Once I am in touch with my darker motives, they instantly loosen their iron grip on my actions. So what if he’s arrogant and rude? It doesn’t have to make my life any worse. And after all, he has good points I overlook when I’m seething mad. He makes conversation with me when I’m bored. He can be funny. He apologizes when he knows he has offended me.

So don’t waste your good intentions by suppressing your darker side. Accept yourself simply and fully because you can’t magically become someone you’re not. Only when we stop giving so much power to our darkest nature can it truly disappear.

Surrender your agenda and breathe peace

Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by giving up. Every major spiritual strain I know of insists we can only discover true happiness by letting go of our own agendas and handing our lives to forces unknown.

Christians might recognize the concept as surrendering to God. Taoists call it “wu-wei” or non-action. Hindus call it Saranagati, surrendering to the underlying force behind the universe. The word “Islam” means surrender, among other definitions. Look at Jews, Buddhists, Jains. Pick any religious strain, and you probably will discover this universal thread embedded in the system.

Surrender features so prominently within every religious system, and they can’t all be wrong. But why is it so popular – do a few power-hungry leaders use surrender as a religious tool to subordinate the masses? Or does surrender actually help us to grow spiritually?

I believe it’s a seed for growth. Ironically, giving up fills the practitioner with a greater power than one person alone could manage. When you willingly become weak in the face of the Almighty, a divine force supposedly will encompass you. Once you have let go of your own agenda, you become a divine vessel. Your actions and your will no longer belong to you.

Although I recognized the concept of surrender from my Christian upbringing, my Taoism class this semester reintroduced the idea to me as “wu-wei.” The Taoists believe in an underlying force, Tao, within the entire universe that encompasses anyone who lets it guide them. When you surrender, you let the course of nature take you where it will.

The Tao Te Ching states in verse 22, “Surrender brings perfection / The crooked become straight / The empty become full / The worn become new.”

This sounded like a logical idea to me, and I decided to try it. I found going with the flow makes life less stressful, mostly because forcing my own will on what I do never completely works. Let’s say I’m driving during rush hour in the middle of a city. I have a few choices. I could make a fuss about getting home quickly or I could stay in traffic, quietly getting home whenever I arrive. Choosing the former means I watch every moment for a free spot in the next lane. I move over, forcing myself between two cars – blocking both lanes of traffic in the meantime – until I have enough room to move into the lane. I do this repeatedly. I honk my horn. I am spending most of my time stressing out about what to do next, my mind spinning with frustration and plotting my next move while the car continues to stand still.

Meanwhile, I could just keep my place in traffic. Sure, it will be slower, but what do you really have to do that absolutely cannot wait for 20 minutes? You at least will get home relaxed and stress-free. And besides, why worry about something you can’t control?

Whenever someone offends or aggravates me, I find snapping back in a spiteful and defensive manner doesn’t cool the boiling water quite like a humble and empathetic attitude does. I’m sure you can relate. On Sunday morning I was meditating – early, because I had to catch the 7:45 a.m. train back to La Plata – when my dad interrupted me twice to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. The second time, I barked that I was awake and had plenty of time – in an ironically hostile tone for a meditator, I admit. I felt slightly guilty afterward, and my dad told me later that he was offended by my reaction. If I had quietly told him I was on time and would be out in just a few moments, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all those injured feelings from acting hastily and attempting to bend the situation to my will.

The Taoists would say strong winds will uproot a giant tree rather than the pliant, supple grass, which can withstand just about anything. That’s how surrender brings you power. A Taoist warrior trains for flexibility, because an effective warrior must stay attentive to changes and surprises – inevitable in the battlefield – and react to whatever comes their way. The alternative – planning a stoic strategy and training soldiers rigidly – will fail.

The Tao naturally directs the willing and guides them toward a natural perfection. The Tao Te Ching compares this to water: “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water / Yet for attacking the hard and strong none can triumph so easily / It is weak, yet none can equal it / It is soft, yet none can damage it / It is yielding, yet none can wear it away.”

Christianity, moreover, asserts that when surrendering to Christ you become infused with him. I have heard many Christians talk about its most enthusiastic and loving followers as “shining with Jesus’ light.” The Bible itself states, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. Although different paths conceptualize different reasons to explain the potentially divine force that replaces the surrendered human will, I see very little difference between them all. I have seen followers of many different faiths who seem to shine from an inner light of joy, which is almost contagious to witness. Their eyes beam with abundant generosity, solid devotion and an eagerness to share their joy with everyone. If such wealth can spring from surrender, then I’ll definitely allow the forces that be to guide my actions rather than go it alone.

Meditation’s fruits: clarity, peace, relaxation

“You get all that by just sitting there?! I don’t believe you.” That was my dad’s abrupt response when I tried to explain how meditating actually improved my mood and concentration. Somehow, the idea of “just sitting there” seems almost daunting. No text messages, no Internet, nothing to look at and not even music to listen to. It sounds dull at best, frustrating at worst.

Like my dad, I also was skeptical about meditation – until I tried it. One day I couldn’t focus on my homework – my mind was buzzing, and I was flat-out lost in distraction. I was curious to test the lofty claims of meditation, so I went down the hall into an empty lounge and played a guided meditation I found on YouTube. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it so much that when the 10-minute video was done, I kept sitting. I found when I least expected it, a massive wave of peace hit me. I felt completely open, loving and content. I didn’t want anything. When I finally stood up, I found “just sitting there” for a few minutes had left me feeling lighter and more alert. I left feeling the inner glow of true contentment.

You know how you feel when you can’t concentrate – like there’s a cloud of thoughts buzzing around your mind like gnats? Whenever I sit down to work, and my mind is restless and flighty, it’s usually a symptom of some unresolved worry I am subconsciously trying to wrestle with: stress about all of my homework, people in my life, the cold weather or any number of things. Meditation clears away all of that clutter. Somehow, when you “just sit there” for a few minutes, no longer distracted by the endless enticements of the external world, you temporarily surrender control of all those concerns – you are letting go. Ironically, when you sit down to meditate and stop trying to solve everything, you leave feeling more alert, thus more capable of fixing your problems.

Millions of Americans regularly meditate to reap the priceless mental and physical health benefits. Meditators generally have low stress, a relaxed demeanor, a boosted immune system, mental clarity and improved health overall. A huge body of research exists on the benefits of meditation. One study that caught my eye was conducted at University of Madison-Wisconsin. Brain imaging of meditators suggested meditation gradually rewires the brain, conditioning it to react favorably to stressful situations. Instead of the typical fight-or-flight response, regular meditation cultivates an attitude of acceptance, which fosters contentment. A Harvard study found that meditating shuts down the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory perception. This allows the subject to loosen their sensory limits and achieve a feeling of “oneness” and connectivity with the wider world.

A few months ago, I upped my semi-regular meditation practice to twice a day for 20 minutes per session. But those 40 minutes a day bring me astounding results, my favorite being that most days I can sit in a classroom and do something I’ve never done before: effortlessly pay attention. I am absolutely convinced the change was due to meditation. For years, I always had my Adderall prescription on hand so I could focus and work efficiently, but now I easily do without. I tend not to sweat the small things quite so much. As a general rule I’m less irritable, more pleasant and happier.

The point of meditation is not necessarily to clear your mind of all thoughts. That’s nearly impossible, because all your life you have been conditioned to constantly think. If you try to force yourself to stop thinking, it will not work unless you have been meditating heavily for many years. Rather, the point is to let go of the world for a few minutes. If your mind overflows with thought, let it happen. If you think something unpleasant, let it happen. If you feel some emotion, let it happen. If you get bored, let it happen. The only thing you can do wrong in meditation is to try to do it right. As soon as I started grasping for moments of deep contentment during my meditations, they slipped away. The sensation only struck me when I wasn’t looking for it. That’s when I learned that meditation only works if you don’t try to do it right. This gets difficult, because once you experience the joy and lightness that can occur during and after meditation, you naturally want the same effect every time. But as the Buddhist ideal dictates, only by giving up your desire for something – in this case, peace – can you truly find it.

If you’re curious about meditation but would like some help, try a guided meditation hosted by the Art of Living club (for all of you at Truman) at 4:30 p.m. each Wednesday in McClain room 209. All are welcome. You might leave with a clear head, a lighter load and a smile on your face. I leave you with the words of Remez Sasson: “Your mind is your instrument. Learn to be its master and not its slave.”

Zazen meditation instructions
Online Meditation center

Tides of Change

Michelle Martin
Column Three

Life seems slightly grey-tinted during winter. As I ride my bike from class to class I simply endure the wind chill while wishing for spring, when I can cheerfully ride my bike in a skirt and tank top, pleasantly warmed by the sun overhead.

Alas, the overcast sky often leaves me feeling a little overcast as well. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not depressed, but mood swings seem universally prevalent in the winter, as demonstrated by the existence of Seasonal Depressive Disorder. But throughout winter I try to remember that for every miserable day, I will later enjoy a bright day during spring. I remember that the earth must spend a season encased in its frozen tomb before it rejuvenates with the joy and brightness of a new season.

The constantly changing seasons are a powerful metaphor, reminding us that life works in opposites and cycles. The earth gives us both the frigid extreme of winter and its opposite—sweltering summer. Maybe if I patiently endure winter (sipping frequent hot cocoa along the way), then I will value spring that much more when March rolls around. I’ll never miss an opportunity to be outside—and trust me, I usually don’t.

The existence of natural contrasting forces illustrates a fundamental Taoist principle, symbolized by the Yin Yang image. I remember seeing Yin Yang on earrings, posters, pins, and shirts but never knowing what it meant. Now I realize that it embodies two opposing energies which, together in harmony, create the world. The Yang is the active force: bright, pure, and stimulating while the Yin is the receptive force: dark, passive, and tranquil. You need both Yin and Yang to create anything of substance. In Taoist thought, Yin and Yang literally create the Tao, or the underlying force which creates and guides the universe. According to the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, “As the Yang and the Yin displace one another, change and transformation arise.” Although the Chinese philosophers might view notions of good and bad as human constructs, sometimes you have to endure the unpleasant to fully savor the pleasant. As the cliché goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Let us briefly consider an example. I can’t have a genuinely healthy meal unless I take the time to cook it and purchase the right ingredients. This is a balancing act—the benefit of a wholesome, delicious meal requires a sacrifice of equal proportion on my part. However, if I spend money on cheap ingredients, like using canned tomatoes instead of farm fresh tomatoes, then I sacrifice nutrition and taste in order to save money. And often cheap food incorporates questionable production methods, such as factory farming, so someone or something pays for the cheap price tag, while the production shortcuts comes boomerang back to us in the form of lower nutrition and hormone-laced food. In short, if I bring less to the table, I get less in return.

This balance of give and take is the quintessence of Yin and Yang. If imbalances exist, nature will find a way to correct them. If you burn yourself out working on projects (too much Yang), then you will probably crash for the whole weekend afterwards (corrective Yin). Nothing can exist without a “flip side.” Every brilliant idea requires hard work to actualize it. Every Saturday spent partying or relaxing requires a Sunday of homework and meetings. And all money earned requires a proportional amount of your time. If you think you’ve found a way to take a short cut-like taking a diet pill instead of exercising-the balances of the universe will surely catch up with you when you start experiencing the side effects. Verse 36 of the Tao Te Ching (the primary Taoist text) states, “To overthrow someone, first exalt them; To take from someone, first give to them.”

Examine your families’ and friends’ personalities. Each one of them has both pleasant and unpleasant traits. For example, perhaps your friend is tons of fun to hang out with, but she’s flaky. Maybe you have a teacher who is a brilliant thinker but is intimidating, or a kind, friendly coworker who talks your ear off. Every positive trait has a shadow-its complementary opposite. Likeable people can be arrogant, quiet people are often thoughtful, and even cruel people could be intelligent or determined.

Accepting the necessity of opposites creates a sweet sense of tolerance during times of unpleasantness and cultivates the wisdom that we reap what we sow.  When homework overloads us, when friends and parents clash with us, or when the sky is dim with clouds, we can remember that this isn’t the apocalypse. Like the changing seasons, our lives will forever cycle between winter and summer. As the Tao Te Ching states, “It is the flow of nature, an eternal decay and renewal. Accepting this brings enlightenment, ignoring this brings misery.”

Mindfulness Tames Clutter

NOTE: I haven’t posted here for over a semester, but I just started writing a column for the Index on spirituality, so I’d like to revive this blog. Sorry for the inordinately long delay. I’ll post something most weeks (for sure, now that I have a weekly deadline), and I’ll try to keep adding fun little things in between to keep you coming back. Here you are-hope you enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback!

My friends and family tell me I am the spaciest person they know. All my life, I’ve been dubbed the “space cadet.” Since my first years of grade school, I struggled with inattention and took ADD medication for years before deciding in college that I couldn’t depend on a pill to solve my problems anymore.

Unfortunately, a running commentary of fantasy, worry and analysis constantly streams through my head. If I absentmindedly wade into this seductive current of daydreams, it lures me into the tantalizing world and keeps me distracted from whatever is actually happening. Despite my most valiant efforts, I am simply not the student who raptly follows a teacher’s every word during a lecture.

Although I realize my issues with inattention are at least somewhat worse than average, I think most Americans struggle with it to some degree. We avoid boredom like the plague. A friend of mine tells me that her house literally has a television in every room – even the bathroom. We have iPods to drown out dullness when we’re walking around campus, and we usually read or talk to friends while we eat. TV commercials have reached a five-second run time and USA Today no longer prints stories that are long enough to jump to another page because readers might get bored and never finish the story.

With a new distraction around every corner, I am not surprised that ADD diagnoses rose among school-age children by three percent per year between 1997-2006, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Something in us always wants something more exciting than what is in front of us.

The downsides of this mentality? First of all, we waste our money funding our distractions, and we waste our time planning for future distractions simply to avoid existing without something colorful or interesting around. Second, we lose when we forget the moment we are in right now. I have read the words of Eastern mystics who claimed the present is the only thing that exists. After turning over the idea, I decided this was true. Yes, the future will come, but the future only exists when it becomes the now – when we are living it.

When we spend all our time fantasizing about the future or wringing our hands over what could happen, we miss out. The same idea goes for the past. The cliché holds true – don’t cry over spilled milk. If you spent all last weekend procrastinating instead of studying, then stressing out about it won’t help. Just do the best you can right now.

On a side note, I don’t think the Eastern philosophers meant that you can’t plan ahead. As we all know, a degree-seeking Truman student probably couldn’t emerge from college unscathed without planning ahead. But agonizing over what you cannot control is anything but productive.

Although I will probably never be rid of my inattentiveness, I have learned that practicing mindfulness – living in the present – helps me immensely. Mindfulness slowly tames the mind to ignore the mental clutter, but Lord knows I haven’t mastered it – mindfulness is about as easy as capturing jelly in a net. We have hardwired our minds to sniff out the most interesting objects around, so change takes some time. But I have discovered that when I consciously focus my attention on what I am doing right now, the present becomes a lot more interesting. My mind stops trying to plan out my next ten minutes or ten years, and I can relax and enjoy myself.

Anyone who has tried to pay attention in a boring class knows that mindfulness is pretty difficult. But from what I have experienced, simple practice eventually pacifies the wild beast. The more I think about mindfulness, the more frequently I remember to be here. When your mind simply cannot come down from the clouds, try breathing. As someone once told me, breathing connects the body and the mind. That sense of physical stability will focus your mind and bring you back. Meditation clears and sharpens my mind-without it, I would never have survived school sans Adderall.

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” I distinctly remember one passage in which Hanh explains that even when we undertake tedious tasks, like doing the dishes, the mindful individual doesn’t do the dishes simply to make them clean. Rather, he or she does the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes. Hanh writes, “While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

Those dishes are sort of fun to wash when you are living every moment, and the tea afterward tastes quite robust when you savor every taste.

Embracing Imperfection

Sometimes the hardest part of spiritual growth is overcoming the expectation that my problems will disappear once I’m “good” enough.

I often assume that I must fix myself: I am acting too disorganized, emotional, insecure, stressed. Then, I seek answers. (Enter this blog, spiritual efforts, and personal growth.) During the process of searching, I uncover some epiphany: perhaps a lesson or a quote that awakens me a little. Maybe I learn that I’ve been too self-absorbed, or that I haven’t been living in the present. Maybe this time, if I really let go in meditation, or maintain the right frame of mind, or if I stop straying from my chosen spiritual path, essentially if I do it right, then I will reach some plateau of infinite fearlessness, calm, confidence, ambition…all my issues will disappear, and I will become effortlessly loving and accepting toward all humankind.

One important piece of wisdom I’ve recently uncovered is this: a lot of my life has consisted of my searching for something I’ve thought to be missing inside myself. While perhaps my goal is to come to terms with the fact that there is nothing missing. I am a process, a work in progress, and I always will be. There is no perfection, only the beautiful acceptance of imperfection.

Goal: to embrace the natural incompleteness of existence!

When I think about it, perfection is one of the most unrealistic expectations anyone could put upon themselves. I’m learning that life is usually an uphill battle. We don’t work hard all our lives just to get to a stopping point, where we can sit and bask forevermore. The turmoil is what shapes us. You will always make mistakes. Sometimes, you will be unreasonable. Angry. Confused. Hurt. You’ll hurt others. You’ll hate people, or even yourself. But over time, we learn and gradually see through our shallow shields of defense. They will slowly subside.

But one quick-fix solution is highly unlikely.

And yet, I keep assuming that if I can find that one thing to change my perspective, then I will be cured of the human experience? No. The principles I uncover in my spiritual path help me gradually, but not immediately. Not at once. And that’s okay.

There are only a few principles I can cling to, which I know will never fail: choosing love over fear, hope over despair, and letting go over a false sense of control.

Maybe the most I, or anyone, can do is to accept our beautifully flawed selves the way we are but to never give up trying to become better.

Let go of a teardrop…gain the entire ocean

If you want something, let it go. Then, you will uncover what you were looking for in the first place.

Today I used a meditation technique to improve my concentration. My attention span typically lasts only a few- look-a-bird! -moments, and my new short-term goal is to develop focus. Here’s the technique I used: I counted each breath, flowing in and out, for ten breaths. And if any distracting thoughts invaded the arena of my focus, I started over.

This was, of course, notoriously difficult. I started over repeatedly and repeatedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even count to two breaths. With a steely determination, I continued…one (in, out), two (in, out)…and as I tried harder, a voice of authority started overseeing the meditation, “fixing” my improper technique.

You shouldn’t try so hard. You should stay in the present. You should observe yourself more. You’re sliding. You’re sliding…

Eventually, this voice became another distraction, and I re-started my counting sooner each time.

Then, I gave up. My mind isn’t used to focusing for this long, I thought. I need a break. And the moment I stopped trying, I was there. My mind was crystal clear, and I counted my ten breaths with ease. Surprised, I stopped and checked myself, and counted ten more breaths without a glitch.

As soon as I started trying again, the same voices and clutter and limitations emerged. Whenever I honestly gave up, I stayed in the present without a problem.

The object of meditation is to let go of the meditator-the part of you trying to do the meditation right. This effort is the voice of your ego (the part of you that needs, wants, desires, and hurts). But when you clear away this ego-clutter of wanting and striving, you are free. And when you are free, you achieve the fulfillment you sought in the first place. You find happiness and peace, by letting go of the need for happiness and peace.

I believe that when we trust ourselves completely instead of obsessively controlling our actions, we will naturally do right. As I wrote in my last entry, love is our very core once we strip away the rest.

Try it right now, as an experiment. Take a breath, and notice how you’re feeling. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just sit…notice that if you try to achieve anything with this exercise, it won’t work. If you’re just sitting, with no underlying intentions, you will feel peace.

What won’t work is controlling your desires- whether you want comfort, possessions, or validation. Let it be. Don’t tell yourself you’re letting go of your desire to stop craving when REALLY you’re just doing it so you can get rid of the craving, because you want to stop hurting. Letting go must be honest, and if it’s not, desire still controls you. Relax- we’re human. It’s natural. (By writing this, I do not imply that I am at some expert stage of “letting go.” It’s not easy for me at all, but it truly works.)

When you stop fearing the loss of what you want, then nothing can hurt you.

Great meditation instruction website here.

Enneagram: Pinpointing your Compulsions

Everybody’s compensating for something.

Maybe back in the playground days, the kid you really wanted to be best friends with shot you down in rejection. Maybe you had a tumultuous home life that molded you into a peacemaker who would never cause trouble for others. Maybe you could never measure up to your dad’s standards, or maybe you always felt endangered.

When you are young, you put your trust in life and people and at some point, something fails you. You unconsciously build up a protective guard so this will not happen again. Thus, most people spend life developing an entire personality defending themselves against these fears. This is your ego: a set of defense mechanisms and insecurities locked into satisfying the desire not to be hurt. The ego is your individuality and your self-image. It’s the part of you with wants and needs, that rages when these aren’t met.

Enter: the Enneagram, a psycho-spiritual personality typing system rooted in mysticism, like Sufi thought and the Kabbalah. Unlike other personality systems, it hits the root of you. The heart of your motivations. The core of your behavior. And once you pinpoint your type, Enneagram doesn’t box you into some category. It identifies your own automatic ego tendencies so you can free yourself from them.

Enneagram views your personality as a constant cycle of wants and needs which will ultimately never satisfy you on a deeper level. Most importantly, who you are is not limited to these tendencies. You can find liberation from the constant clinging and worrying by letting go of yourself. A long but infinitely rewarding process.

Some philosophies speak of annihilating the ego, but I personally believe that we are not to destroy it (you will be an individual as long as you are alive, like it or not.) but that we must learn to see through its tricks so that they no longer control our actions.

Enneagram has helped me immensely. Since I discovered it in a workshop over four years ago, I have a pretty firm idea of what I’ve spent my life hiding from…mostly fears of unacceptance and rejection from elementary and middle school days. Frought with the notion that I was inadequately different, therefore rejectable, I tried to prove my worth to others and myself by strengthening my individuality and uniqueness and living in an inner world of emotions. The incessant effort I spent maintaining this image and dealing with turbulent emotions was NOT worth the few moments of triumph I felt when my vision was satisfied. I’ve learned to see myself as a continuous process rather than a fixed entity, and I no longer have to define my worth to anyone. I’m still trekking the road to liberation (will be for a while), but so far the process of letting go has been infinitely rewarding.

There are nine different Enneagream types: one (the perfectionist), two (the giver), three (the achiever), four (the romantic), five (the observer), six (the loyalist), seven (the enthusiast), eight (the challenger), and nine (the peacemaker).

Notice the interconnected design. All types are connected. Each one displays tendencies of other types when stressed and secure. I’m a type four, and when I’m productive and generally secure with myself, I become discerning and perfectionistic, like type one (my security type). When I’m insecure and feel inadequate, I go to people, telling them about my problems. This contains shades of type two, the giver (my stress type). You’ll see bits and pieces of yourself within the entire Enneagram, but pay attention to how well you identify with the root dilemma of each type rather than the traits. What’s causing the turmoil?

The best way to discover your Enneagram type is to talk with someone who knows a lot about Enneagram. I’ve helped a LOT of people find their types, and I have a pretty solid grasp of the system. If you need any input, I’d be glad to offer my intuitions. Just let me know, or leave a comment. The second best way is to read about the different type descriptions. Taking a test is probably one of the least effective ways to discover your type (Tests measure traits while Enneagram measures root impulses) but it can point you in the right direction. Here’s a free test you can use.

Oh, and chances are, you won’t like your type at first because no one likes to face up to their shadow side. Pay attention to that. Once, I typed another type four and when I talked about the underlying sense of shame felt by most fours, he exclaimed (while turning red), “We don’t talk about those!”

The Enneagram has a lot of depth…subtypes, variants, levels. If you are all interested in knowing more, I can totally continue to write about Enneagram in the future.

Here’s some reading: Enneagram and Spirituality, and some good sites: Enneagram Institute and Enneagram Explorations and Enneagram Book.

Happy typing! 🙂

Heavy Emotions

Emotions can weigh down like a heavy shroud.

This is something I’ve struggled with this summer, which has been a bit of a wake-up call. Normally, I don’t let my emotions control me for long. In fact, I sort of pride myself on my ability to keep my attitude in check.

But sometimes it’s not that simple. I’m not going to lie, my emotions have driven me to the point of physical exhaustion at points in the last few weeks. Dramatic though it sounds, a few days ago a pit of despair (such as I’ve rarely experienced) hit me over my head like a ton of bricks, dragging me to the point of physical immobility. Only lots of willpower got me through daily routine. I’d let stress and anxiety build up within me, then the smallest catalyst threw me into the deep end.

(Please note: I’m not trying to feel sorry for myself. I’m truly fine now. Just using this as an opportunity to explore.)

I did a CD meditation on managing emotions, which helped. The focus was accepting, not resisting, negativity. Letting it “solidify.” I heard an applicable saying, that resisting duhkha (suffering) is still duhkha. Repressing those gnawing feelings is like too many strong antibiotics. It ultimately creates a stronger and more uncontrollable strain. If you’ve ever tried ignoring your emotions, then you know to expect an eventual break down (that will probably hurt someone in the process).

I find that vexing emotions -impatience, irritation, discontent, stress – evaporate when I allow them to flow through me. Honestly embracing the negativity, with no underlying intention of driving it away, can instantly dissipate the tension. Emotions are not what hurts you. Only your reaction to them does.

Looking negativity straight in the eyes is essential. Sometimes emotions are bright flashing arrows to turn around and look within. Maybe there’s a deeper root to that jealous or angry instinct inside yourself. It could point to old fears or a need for self-love. (Negative emotions usually stem from fear, I believe.) And remember that emotions are physical, not just mental…try to notice where the feeling is located in your body and to describe the sensation. Is it in your chest? Your back? Your throat? Stomach?

This is a tricky process. Perspective helps. During my downswing, the more I dwelt on the feeling as something hopelessly consuming me, the deeper I dug myself into a hole. On the contrary, the more I thought of myself as a person with temporary problems, the more manageable things seemed.

This particular doozy disappeared when I came face to face with the root cause of the conflict, but other things helped in the meantime: attention to other people, exercise, artistic release, meditation. Meditation helped me to regain touch with myself as pure consciousness, rather than overwhelming sadness.

Here’s a beautiful article on managing emotions, from a spiritual perspective.

In the words of Eckhart Tolle: “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.”

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