When I first started going to yoga classes I would hear teachers talk about the “monkey mind”. (I immediately thought to myself that my mind is more like a two year old running with scissors and playing with matches.) About how the mind jumps from one thing to another telling us stories and we believe them as if they are the whole truth about who we are. I was completely destroyed when a yoga teacher said “don’t believe everything your mind tells you – it is not true most of the time”. I lived so much in my mind from such a young age, and my mind is what got me through so many things I thought, that it was incomprehensible to me that my mind would tell me things that are not true. And this began a journey for me that changed my life.
For the vast majority of my life I ran from any feelings. I had little to no tolerance for fear, anger, worry, resentment, terror, sadness, grief – and yet I had a lot of them. When I was a teenager into my early twenties I ran with alcohol, drugs, random sex with strangers, bulimia, suicide attempts. Anything and everything that would block out feelings. Then my life shifted and I gave up the alcohol and drugs and went back to school. And I substituted constant work for mood and mind altering substances. I worked full time and then went to college and law school full time. And when I graduated I worked Sunday through Friday 14 to 16 hours a day and never took a holiday or vacation. I worked Christmas, New Years, 4th of July. It didn’t matter. I just needed to work to the point of exhaustion to not feel anything. I still threw up everything I ate and slept with a loaded gun under my pillow for a long while just in case I could not take it anymore.
Then life changed again and I moved to another state to get married and have kids and gave up my career as an attorney. That is when things got really hard. And I’m not talking about the infertility and the adoption process. I’m talking about all the time I had with my mind with nothing really to occupy it. I still threw up everything I ate and struggled with suicidal ideation. More so in fact because I had so much more time with my mind. This continued until I found yoga, and a therapist trained in more Eastern practices. Then the real work began.
I did not even realize that I was avoiding feelings. It is only in looking back that I know this. At the time I was too busy surviving. In November of 2015 when I went to my second enlightenment intensive that I was able to tap into all those heavy and hard emotions and I sobbed for hours. I was not sure what was more sad. That I had not cried until then since August of 1993 or the fact that I was actually aware of this. But finally I was able to start to release. An opening of the floodgates.
Because I was now able and willing to feel things, I was more able to notice that there was what was actually happening and that I was telling myself things about what was happening. What happened and the story. So if a friend had to cancel plans I could notice that but also notice the story that I told myself about this that would usually go something like “I knew she didn’t really like me, no one does. I don’t belong here on this earth. I don’t know how to do this life thing.” And it was immediate. And so very quickly after would follow the despair, loneliness, etc. And I genuinely believed that these things were true about me and that this was the totality of my life and who I was.
Slowly, however, just by starting with noticing what I was feeling (with lots of help and support from an amazing therapist) I was able to sit with my feelings. I was able to get just enough space to notice the story and actually hold it up for examination to see if it was something that I really believed. I would get constant help with this asking others that I trusted for perspective and feedback. By no means do I do this perfectly or all the time. I still get led around by my mind a lot. But the more I practice noticing what is actually happening and separately noticing what my mind did with the experience, the better I got at staying present. And even when I was being led around by my mind, it did not take me as long to get back.
I had the first dramatic joyous result of this practice when my kids had their b’nai mitzvah. I had planned out that day practically since we brought them home as babies from Arkansas. But fast forward 13 years and a great deal of emotional and spiritual work on myself with a mindfulness embodied practice, I was able to stay present for an entire day experiencing a joy and pride I had never experienced before. Notwithstanding the fact that my husband and I were trying out a separation that summer and there were many challenges in our family, I enjoyed every single minute. I did not try to document the day with photos. I did not worry about how it was going to go, how the kids would do, whether they would have a good experience. I watched them and got to see their immense self pride, their joy in having everyone they loved celebrate with them. I got to see my friends who were there to support and celebrate with me. From the family dinner the night before, to the morning service and the party that Saturday night. And because I stayed present for every minute, at the end of the night when things broke up I had no regret, no wishing it could go on, no worry that I missed something. It was, for me, the culmination of several years of hard work on myself.
My gura Amma says something like we have to declare war on our minds. Hold them up for examination. And that is what I try to do every day. I try to stay present in the moment. I try to notice whether my mind is telling me a story (and it almost always is). I try to not believe everything my mind says. I allow myself to have feelings and when I start to judge myself for how I think or feel, I notice that too. And try to have compassion for all those places.
Through sharing my struggle with my mind and my feelings, I give myself permission to be human like everyone else. I step more firmly into who I really am every time I use these practices. And I have come to realize that everyone has this struggle. I used to think that it was just me or that I was somehow worse than everyone else. But I know now that we all struggle with our minds to varying degrees. That we all come from the same source however we each visualize that and the isolation slowly dissolves. It is still work every day but the benefit of this war on my mind stuns me. Lifelong loneliness, grief, isolation, anger, frustration eases. And I walk with my permanent self, with who I really am, with increasing grace, ease, and compassion.
And for this I am truly grateful.