I did go to Denver for Jen's memorial. There was never really any question in my mind that I wanted to be there, but it was a hard decision in many ways. Difficult in large part because CK was co-chairing an event in Portland the same weekend and wouldn't be able to travel with me. A good friend offered to travel with me and I lucked out in being able to get her on the same flights that I was booked on, particularly for the flight home to Portland out of Denver International Airport, which has the "advanced imaging systems" well in place.
I haven't wanted to fly anywhere at all since TSA began their policy of doing invasive pat-downs if you opt-out of the full body scans. As someone who had at least one set of chest x-rays a year throughout my entire childhood and well into my 20s and 30s, I am mindful of how many times I get exposed to those kinds of radiation levels. Being asked to submit to a full-body x-ray type blast in order than some person in a dark room somewhere and peruse my nearly-naked image really kind of bothers me. It bothers me more to have a complete stranger, regardless of gender, touch me in my genital area and my breasts. It bothers me a great deal that to travel I must submit to being seen by a stranger nearly naked or submit to a level of touching that would be considered felony sexual assault if someone not in a TSA uniform attempted it.
So I felt I was faced with two choices that were not good for my physically or mentally. Given that I have a very small number of very private, but very meaningful, piercings, I worried that these appearing either on a full-body scan or during an invasive pat-down would be cause for even more invasive, triggering, traumatic treatment. By biggest concern was clearing security to come home and I was very worried that if things were traumatizing that I wouldn't be mentally capable of getting myself onto my plane. Having a friend travel with me helped alleviate these worries to the point that thinking of the travel didn't make me feel nauseous with anxiety.
As it was, I was on full-alert mode by the time we passed through security at PDX to board our plane to Denver. It was the way a TSA agent was telling a man in the security line behind me that he was going to give him a pat down. The agent carefully and clearly explained to the man traveling that he'd be running his hands over and around the buttocks, groin and genital area.
My travel companion hadn't even noticed. I had noticed and it made me shiver with anxiety despite my own uneventful trip through the security line. We made it to DIA without any problems, got our rental car, some amusement ensued around using the map function on my phone to try to get to a Whole Foods; we ended up at the distribution center near the airport.
We found the house and it swiftly filled up with college friends who had all come to Denver to honor Jen's life. I was so grateful for the simple lentil-based spaghetti sauce BD & VD had put together upon arriving to the house first. It was a huge relief to get there and have tasty, vegan food waiting for me.
It was on my third gin & tonic that I realized that my hyper-vigilance, which almost never turns all the way off, was out-of-control. I don't make ridiculously strong drinks, but under "normal" circumstances I'd certainly have noticed the affect of 3 drinks. I wouldn't have been so foolish as to get in the car and drive to prove to myself that I wasn't affected, but I know that if some emergency had arisen I would have been perfectly focused.
Even much later, after taking Xanax to help me sleep and give my muscles some relief from the tightness and muscle spasms, I was still completely wired. I was pretty much that way all weekend long and didn't manage to drop off into fitful, troubled sleep any earlier than 4AM. The first real sleep I managed to get was on the plane back to Portland.
The trip itself, seeing many friends from college, was bittersweet. I really enjoyed connecting with folks again, and it seemed right to share our sorrow about losing Jen. However, I felt I never left a state of hurt and shame. Many times I found myself feeling like I was not really a part, having not returned for my senior year.
Seeing my EMDR therapist a couple of days following we started to look at why talking about college just leaves me stuck in so much suffering. There is just so much shame for me around not finishing, feeling like I let myself down, my family down and my friends. Jen went through so much hell during what would have been our senior year. I feel like she'd tried to help me during my big crash our junior year, and my not being there for our senior year let her down.
I often felt like I kept monopolizing the conversation while in Denver. I just felt so awkward. I felt a lot of anger too at the advisers I had who utterly failed me. In hearing about how the school psychologist made some demands upon Jennifer her senior year I was angry for how she was treated, but even angrier that I never even know our college had any kind of mental health office at all. I was never told about one, referred to one... I don't know if it would have kept me from having a nervous breakdown, but it sure has hell would have been nice to know then that there was any kind of option.
VD, my other college best friend, reminded me that my two academic advisers were known assholes. While it was good to be reminded, it was also a reminder of just how little they did to help me. If I wasn't giving it my all, they didn't have much time for me. If I was floundering after being raped... they never asked. Not once. Instead I was told by both of them to get my shit together and get my grades back up.
Everything about college brings me around and around to being hurt, betrayed, and having my faith in men destroyed. From the fiance who raped me to my advisers who never tried to help in anyway. With that there's this constant feeling that all of that was my fault. My bad choices, my not saying "No" loudly or forcefully enough, my not standing up to my advisers.
Seeing my college friends kept me in a constant state of shame, hurt, and anger. On top of that the profound grief around Jen's death and terrible guilt that I should have done more to go see her while she was living. Stir in a good dose of awkwardness and the feeling like I was talking way, way too much.... Yeah, no wonder I didn't really sleep at all there.
Ultimately I am glad I went despite the deep discomfort I felt while there. Also despite the EMDR appointment afterward that left me totally unhinged in looking at all the stuff that's wrapped up in not finishing school. Reliving and pulling this stuff out into the light of day is contrary to everything I was taught (via intimidation, isolation and shame) as a child, but I do really see the correlation between the chronic pain I've had for over 11 years as well as a lifetime of insomnia.
I'm also glad I went for the time shared in the afternoon before Jen's memorial. We hung out in the morning and chatted. I made a paper memorial and MK told us about letterboxing. We set out to find a couple of letterboxes, only finding one. We gathered and did a small memorial of our own alongside a stream. We hung tokens we'd all brought and/or made into the tree above the stream. We hid a letterbox as a memorial for Jen. Then we all rushed back to change and go to the "official" memorial. These moments were the small window during which I felt a little more myself, and not emotionally raw and wired.
Maybe, just maybe the reason why it is easier to rest in the anxiety of blaming myself for some events in my life, "my failings", than it is to look truly deeply, openly at the real causes. The anxiety, the shame are the lesser pain and they are they pain I'm accustomed to. Comfortable suffering.
It is far easier to blame and castigate myself for "allowing" myself to gain over 150 pounds than it is to realize the truth of my family's deeply disordered behavior around food, body image and personal interaction. Less painful to say that my marriages "failed" or to just rest all the blame on being gay than to look at how the faith and energy I put into those relationships was not met with equal effort. The pain of saying I failed at college is far, far less significant than looking at how a combination of my family environment & childhood abuse and 2 sexual assaults in the 3 years I was at Beloit led to a breakdown.
Anger is merely intensified aversion and Buddhism teaches that aversion (anger) is one of three root causes of suffering (attachment/greed and delusion/ignorance being the other two).
On Wednesday my therapist was shaking her head and half laughing as she asked me if I really, truly was trying to blame myself for all these things. She asked me if I could really see how I was turning into failures things that everyone else in my life sees as amazing successes. She smiled and said that she really thought that only I would find some way to blame myself for behaving exactly the same way as everyone else.
Self-directed blame becomes just another way to avoid being present to the grief and pain. Generating anger at the self has a kind of delusional quality to it, distorting reality until I always come out the failure. Clinging to the idea that things really weren't that bad, attached to my comfortable, known suffering out of fear of sinking into the whole truth.
It was one of those realizations during zazen that felt like it kind of thumped into me. Why writing about, talking about the weight loss is so difficult.
I feel shame for having gained all that weight in the first place. For having abused my body so much.
Every day I'm reminded of it by the skin. I mention it sometimes, like wanting to wear something with long sleeves to cover my upper arms, the underside of which have a great deal of loose skin. People shrug and say how that happens to a lot of people, it is genetic.
Only really, this isn't like that. It is extra skin. One of my dearest friends, who has had a lap band surgery, calls them her "Bat Wings". More exercise and different body care products will not make the skin go away. There or any of the extra on my belly (upper and lower abdomen), breasts, and thighs particularly. There is quite possibly 10 extra pounds of skin. That's what happens when someone goes from 290+ to 140 +/- (I stay within a few pounds of that in either direction).
I mentioned it to Chozen and Hogen after sitting. I was reminded that instead of shame I need to honor my accomplishment by helping others. I joked with Hogen, asking if he kept a tally sheet under the sazen cushion for how many times I'm told this lesson. He laughed and said only for me. Chozen noted that I needed to go back to the piece I'm writing for her with this mindset.
And Loving-Kindness, of course.
I haven't done it yet. We were in Sacramento all weekend visiting CK's family. It was an inferno there compared to Portland, painfully bright. There was a lot of family dynamics and tension I was getting introduced to at the same time. It brought up some tough stuff in my past.
On top of that CK's step-dad, a professional photographer, took a series of photographs of me. Well over an hour of going through yoga poses again and again, turning to get different angles. It was exhausting on so many levels.
I shouldn't have looked at the images mid-way, but he was making a light adjustment for me to do standing asana, so I looked. He was complimenting my chaturunga, how great it looked to get it in series. He does yoga, so often he had a comment or suggested a couple of poses I hadn't done.
I couldn't stop looking at the way the loose skin on my upper abdomen hangs down. Gravity being what it is there's just this round line. It doesn't matter how strong or lean my core muscles are in my abdomen, nothing will make that skin hang smooth against my body again.
I continued on with the asana, working up a real sweat in the warm house in my yoga outfit with long sleeves and pants. CK expressed surprise several times, noting how I could do some poses she didn't even realize I was capable of. I wasn't able to move away from feeling shameful about my body for a while, it wasn't until I looked at other poses that I could work my way back to appreciating my alignment in the asana the way a teacher would. Moving towards looking at my body as just a students, not actually my own.
Back to the writing for Chozen. Now that I'm out of excuses and have zeroed in on at least one big reason I'm so uncomfortable with it. I suspect there's others but this appears to be a good one to start with.
For the first time in days, weeks really, I felt like I was getting going again on some projects at work. I've felt so unfocused these past couple of months that it has been really hard to dig in and get things started, much less finished. I feel like I could just use a little time to not need to be tied to that paycheck to recharge. That life doesn't just stop to let me process everything is a pretty irritating reality!
It hit me today that since high school I've never had a real break. I started working jobs in the summer and during school then and haven't ever stopped really. The couple of times I've been laid off from work the stress and worry about not having an income did not constitute a break. Things just keep moving along and I just try to keep up. I mentioned this to Hogen right before the Loving-Kindness sesshin started, that I'd just gone through an especially rough week. He reminded me that my whole life has been filled with what most people would classify as especially rough weeks. That I know how to do this getting-through-the-hard-stuff already.
Doesn't make it feel anything but really hard. In fact all of the Zen practice means that at times it almost feels harder than ever before. I've taken away the distractions and denials that got me through into my 30s and am left in the authentic space of really feeling the emotions. All the fear, anxiety, grief and anger simmering there, waiting to be acknowledged. Years of it.
GM told me on Wednesday that I was to stop beating myself up. I keep feeling this awful shame that I let things with AM go on for too long, didn't enforce boundaries, didn't stand up for my needs, told him how much his choices hurt me and then didn't say anything besides express my sorrow when he'd make the same ones over again. She said it took as long as it took for me to learn how to be clear about these things and make them stick.
Hogen commented this evening on my brightness again. I noted that there are still some hard things but that I'm just trying to be present for them. He said whatever I was doing looked like it was working well for me since I looked so well, to keep up the good work.
Be present, stop beating myself up, and keep up the good work. Should be easy...
At least making real progress and a couple of great coaching interactions at work help me feel like I'm moving forward again. Overcoming the out-of-focus-inertia feelings that have churned around spitting out shame, anger and guilt for weeks. Momentum helps with being able to keep moving forward when things are really hard. I guess recognizing that is evidence of Hogen reminding me that I know how to do this.
Today was the start of getting back to routine. I worked from home, conducting or joining four meetings throughout the day. Spent a fair bit of that time showing users how to use tools. Some of the time was devoted to clarifying some questions about automated messages a tool will send out and in the late afternoon I was able to settle into some productive coding.
It felt good getting back into routine today. I enjoyed sitting in my little room with my headset on, laptops both handy, and plugging away at my projects. Zonker came upstairs around noon and kept me company for the rest of the day. When I got a chance to grab some lunch Phoebe came and lay on her back beside me while I at, patting me with her paws so I would rub her belly. I missed being around CK, I've come to realize that her energy around me, even when she's working on her projects, just feels good to me.
I'd thought about going to Dishman for a swim this evening, but at 5:50 I was just wrapping up a couple of code changes, fixing some bugs. I went downstairs and helped AM make some Thai style curry for dinner; chopping veggies for the pan. It was a nice, companionable to be chatting while making dinner together.
I've spent the evening writing about the fun Friday CK and I shared in Eugene. I also tried playing a bit with the layout and look of this blog. AM have watch episodes of Top Gear, DW has been off babysitting for some friends. I also wrote to my teacher.
At the New Year's party I had laughed when my teacher forgot my name. Mere moments before I had been introduced to someone from the Dharma Rain Zen Center and had chatted with her for several minutes. When CK came up to us I found I was uncomfortable with the realization that in my nervousness I'd forgotten the new person's name entirely.
I was feeling the anxiousness of being in a room full of people I don't know very well, if at all. Tight tension across my chest and my mind feels scattered. Add to it the hum and murmur of many people chatting in a small, hard walled space and it is difficult for me to focus on things like names. It has improved in the years I've practiced with ZCO, coming to trust in the ways my complete self fits into my community, but it is still difficult.
When HB could not recall my name while introducing me to someone I felt so relieved at his humanity that I forgot that he's been troubled lately by forgetfulness. This is the kind of mindlessness that leaves me feeling mortified that I could be so thoughtless as to laugh. Who cares about my relief at the simple humanity of my teacher, it is all about my Inner Critic shaming me for not being perfect in remembering the potential uncomfortable spots for people.
In the past I'd have sat with my Inner Critic. Cringing away as my faux pas was replayed for me again and again. Letting the shame and guilt close my mouth and heart up tight. I'd have said nothing, avoided contact and hoped it would eventually be forgotten, not used to punish me.
Instead I wrote HB an email this evening. I am not sure if I wait until Thursday to very rightly apologize in person I'd be able to do it. Too many days of hearing nothing but my Critic's voice. The email leaves a bridge for me to say something on Thursday, now that it is sent.
What I realized is that I'm not perfect compassion. I forget sometimes because the anxiety can leave me so clouded. Other people forget sometimes too.
I appreciate my teacher for what he teaches me. I know that I appreciate his humanity immeasurably.
I woke up anxious today. I'd been dreaming that I was living in a more rural area, open fields around with houses dotted along a road, and Phoebe had gotten out. I was calling her, dashing after her across one of the fields. She just seemed to get further away from me.
I was tired too even though I'd slept a bit longer. Yes, I had gotten to bed rather late last night after writing and I had ached from my major stumbled while walking the train. I didn't hurt as badly as I'd feared when I woke up, but I was tired and anxious. Today my left leg hurt from the back of me heel into my lower back, the reaction to catching myself and jarring that leg.
Then onto the rush of the morning -- trying to use the Java client to answer emails and remote into my work laptop. Things weren't working right and kept stopping on me and I didn't get much done. I was then off to read for SMART, which is always fun, although my kindergartner has moved.
Had lunch with my friend DH today. Since I was coming from SMART I drove downtown and had to find parking. I brought her up to speed on the changes going on, which didn't surprise her overly much. She's very happy to know that AM and I are getting divorced so we can maintain our friendship.
I didn't get out of the office as quickly as I'd wanted. I had hoped to have a little time to spend with CK before we drove over to the house so I could change and grab my yoga gear. Between leaving late and bad traffic I got there with only a few minutes to spare before we rushed out into the rain.
On the way to the studio we found ourselves at mild odds with one another. CK felt criticized and in responding I began to feel chastised, foolish. The weight of the anxiety this morning, the work of talking to so many people this week, and the ache in my body just felt huge.
At first class helped. The warming postures and Pranayama grounded me. It was in the standing postures, after doing a series that seems to aggravate my hips hugely every time I try it, we were doing revolved triangle when JW came by to suggest a small correction to my alignment. It hurt so badly that I had to stop.
I stood with my head hanging down and felt my breath catching, my face burning, tears springing to my eyes. I had pushed too far, too hard and gone into that space where the effort, intensity and pain combined to leave me feeling demoralized, stupid, ungraceful, and wondering why it was I thought I belonged there.
I tried to switch to the other leg but immediately felt overwhelmed and left the studio for the bathroom. My breath was all at the top of my lungs, held tightly there by the feeling of pressure on my heart and belly. I put my face down on my crossed arms and felt the heat burning my face. I looked pale and worn.
I went back to my mat and tried to rejoin the pace of the class. Nothing felt right, nothing felt OK. On top of it my inner critic was noting that I should just knock it off and stop acting like a big baby. I kept trying to tell myself I was just fine, merely in pain and needing to rest. All of the techniques I use when I feel triggered while sitting zazen.
But I was crying and miserable. I felt like a little kid, in a bad way, and exposed, vulnerable as well. CK came over to rub my back and check in with me. I told her I was going to do shoulder stand while everyone was doing savasana at the end. It helped alleviate things a little, centering me a little and helping me feel my breath again.
I was thinking about what HB had talked about last night. Talking about how when we are practicing stuff bubbles up -- emotions we never had the space to feel, things we try to avoid thinking about. Maybe there's something about pushing too hard, going into the pain and exertion too far, that stirs up the muck and the feelings of not belonging, not being good enough, the-last-kid-picked-for-sports embarrassment, and the messages to behave, not cry, to stop acting like a baby.
I had a session with GM today. Spent some time discussing the whole situation with DW. I said what had finally settled in me was recalling how unsupported I felt at that time in my life, how quick my Mom was to get me out of the house and working even though I was clearly at a loss, depressed after breaking my ankle. I remembered listening to a woman at the Dharma Center give her Way Seeking Mind talk to us, noting that when the memory came back to her that she'd been raped by her father she just shut down and spent six months just healing, crying, screaming, and coming to terms with it. I recall feeling a little envious that her friends and mother and supported such a period of recovery for her and immediately felt a little guilty for it.
A little over a week ago I finally screwed up my courage to discuss a topic I've been avoiding. It was easy to avoid for several weeks while my teacher was traveling, but HB was back in town, I was going to be at the Dharma Center just before zazen teaching yoga on the day when sanzen is available. Months ago I had mentioned the feeling to him and he said I could not work on that for a while, to focus on understanding the anger and other emotions.
For the last several weeks I've felt shame very acutely. I am embarrassed by the passion I feel. On some level I've thought the intensity of my body's response to CK might settle down, but it has only grown as we go more deeply, feel more comfortable with each other. I feel like I'm being inappropriate, wanting too much, unable to control my body, and as though I'm 14 again.
When I've talked to GM about it we've discussed how it very clearly relates to a childhood of being told my emotional responses were out-of-control. A pattern that continued during my first marriage. That I also have a traumatic experience related to being caught naked with a female friend as a child only compounds the problem. Since I'd never been in a very deep, open relationship with a woman before most of this seethed below the surface.
GM said I needed to spot the shame, watch it come up and know that the shame itself is what is inappropriate. Know that when inappropriate feelings like the shame arise it is the voice of my Inner Critic speaking. Remind myself of where I am at, that CK loves me and, far from finding me inappropriate, delights in my passion for her.
Yet still the shame comes. I watch it, name it as wrong, say to it I know where it comes from. And there we sit in impasse, my shame and I. So off to sazen with the impasse.
HB first said that reflecting on where it all comes from is irrelevant, truly, since the events already took place and nothing can be changed about that. He said to use the Precepts as a touchstone, run through them all to be certain I am observing them. If I find I am in accordance with them then I clearly do not have to experience shame for being who I am.
I realized this is another way of exactly what my therapist wants me to do, only deeper. Not only do I bring myself to the present moment but I have my ethical guideposts to affirm that I am not making a poor choice. I thought about this a second and asked HB, "Then what?"
I went on to tell him that I have reached a point in my life that I feel I am living more honestly, true to my essential self, than ever before, ever. It feels exposed most of the time, fragile, I'm more accustomed to maintaining a persona. It is the truth, even when it feels hard.
He said then I need to work on drawing the shame in. Not to hate my past. It isn't that I have to love the trauma, but I should include the child I was in my love. I want to do this, it is why I have tried to mourn that child in ceremony. Yet when I try to process, touch these places that hurt so much, I feel myself recoil. The fear, the shame, the humiliation... all of these feel sticky, like tar, and I feel myself resist going into them.
"My pain." This is the answer I give when I see HB in sanzen and he performs the ritual of asking, "What is your practice."
Sometimes the practice is my physical pain, the fear and tightness around living with that. Other times it is the deeper, darker emotional pain.
The morning started with my not feeling entirely rested and grateful that AM was driving me into the office. While getting ready I checked into to work email and found that the contract had not been ratified by the union. We're back under the threat of work stoppage and everything that entails. I've asked for a waiver for Saturdays since I have teacher training. Not working a contingency schedule yet, but just trying to plan for it.
Chozen noted toward the end of her talk last night at the Dharma center that the small mind is like a very young child. When it sinks down to those feelings that bring suffering it needs to be picked up and moved to something like metta meditation. She said that the Buddha had taught that the mind either moves towards thoughts that cause us further suffering or those that move us towards happiness. When we pick up the mind as it spirals into fear or anger, turning it instead to something like metta, we are moving the mind purposefully towards happiness.
When we are able to do this we begin to reside in the space of the Big Mind. That place of boundlessness, within the heart of wisdom. Without judgment and able to contain everything. As Patantaji would say, the Essential Self.
There are nights I can't seem to shake the fear, the shame. Times that it is so close and I'll toss and turn, startling awake until dawn. Or rising up when I am struggling, aching in my back & hips in asana practice, and feeling tears springing to my eyes. Very certainly it is my small mind sliding down into an abyss. My skills at recognizing, stopping, and moving my mind are not strong enough. Yet.
I was editing some older posts in this blog and noted the times I've mentioned doing something like metta when I'm feeling anxious. When I've done this, it has worked and pretty well at that. I perhaps didn't drop off into blissful dreams on those nights, but I was able to more peacefully rest. I actually sleep. So, clearly it works.
Like everything else, this is practice. It is the same practice my therapist reminds me of, watching for the overwhelming shame, panic and fear. When I do recognize those things coming up, stopping myself so I can see that the emotions are too much, misplaced. If I add Chozen's direction it is at this point I should strive to do metta. For anyone at all, myself if I can keep focused on it. Just pick up my small mind, with deep compassion, and turn it an activity of the Big Mind, generating loving-kindness.