Monthly Archives: May 2018

Sahasrara

woman in grey cardigan with grey and black striped pants walking at the pathway

Photo by Bas Masseus on Pexels.com

 

There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting. – Buddha           

We often think of yoga as a body practice. And I love yoga for the way it encourages me to drop down into my body and create more strength and flexibility and space in this container through which I experience the world.

But yoga is also a spiritual practice. And right now, yoga is reminding me to stop playing caregiver, to stop abandoning myself, to pause for a moment to listen to my inner voice about where to go next on this journey.

As human beings, we have an extraordinary ability to to be rooted and flowing at the same time. As we flow through our practice, we can celebrate the literal and figurative changes that are an integral part of our life path.

And change is inevitable, whether we are open to it or whether we resist it.

Sahasrara, the seventh chakra, asks us to transcend our habitual, sensory ways of knowing and open our awareness to the infinite unfoldings of the world beyond that which we know.

Meditation is essential to the practice of seeing beyond the habitual patterns of our minds and the maze we move through, mostly by rote.

Meditation isn’t an addition to yoga; it’s the essence of yoga, and woven into the foundation of the practice. Through meditation, we can systematically tune out the outside world and cultivate sensitivity to the inner. Through that sensitivity, we can connect with all things. We are the vortex of all that we experience. We are the center from which our perspective flows.

Sometimes we forget where we are going and have to reset our compass. I am at such a juncture. One of the things my practice has taught me is that falling out of a pose is human. The choice to get back into the pose, over and over, is the path of the yogi.

Katherine Hurst offers these mantras, which I take with me as I find my way:

  • “I am attuned to the divine energy of the universe.”
  • “I know my own spiritual truth and I live in accordance with it.”
  • “Today I am open to divine guidance.”
  • “I see the beauty in the world and I embrace it.”
  • “Lovingly, I emit light that attracts others who will bring love into my life.”
  • “I am love, I am light, and I am joy.”

My practice is taking me off the mat. I am leaving on a journey for the next few days and will be temporarily unavailable and unreachable. This is difficult for me to do, but as Brene Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

The divine light in me sees, recognizes, and honors the divine light in you. Until we meet again, may you treat yourself with kindness, compassion and unconditional acceptance, just as you would your very dearest friend.

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Savasana

 

woman in black top beside green leafed plant

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

“When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.” Brene Brown

Several years ago, I began practicing yoga at a local gym. I was a busy woman, juggling a full-time ascending career and a burgeoning bundle of children’s activities. I was battling chronic back pain, so I conceded to what, at the time, was a gargantuan gesture of self-care. I signed up for a yoga class. I rushed into the gym once a week to get my stretch on, and then I would rush out to proceed with the obligations of my overbooked schedule. When it came time for the final resting pose at the end of class, I would roll up my mat and leave. I didn’t have time for savasana.

In a gym, you can do that without seeming inordinately rude.

Or, at least, I thought you could.

At the time, I would have told you I didn’t make room for stillness in my chaotic days because I literally couldn’t find the time to squeeze it in. And that was certainly part of it. But the larger truth is, I couldn’t live with the pain that came up in the quiet, so I avoided it at all costs.

I had been running non-stop since I was 17. I didn’t drink or smoke or have any recreational habits that slowed me down. I was intentional and purposeful, productive and efficient, building a secure life for myself and my family. I had never taken a nap in my adult life.

But I kept showing up, once a week, to stretch. And I started to feel better, to feel more at home in my body, to move a little differently throughout my day, to breathe a little more mindfully, to pause a little more reflectively, to notice the stresses I was putting on my body, to ease up a little, soften, slow down, to notice when I was hungry and what I was hungry for. Eventually, my commitment to my yoga practice yielded an invitation I felt ready to accept. After two years of consistent practice, I stayed on my mat for my first savasana.

It was worse than I predicted, in every way. Inexplicably excruciating. I left the gym in tears.

I tried to drive, but I was crying too hard to see. I pulled over on the side of the road, locked the car doors and dialed my mom’s number.

I was surprised when she answered. We hadn’t spoken in well over a year and I struggled to find words. Finally, from the quiet of my sealed car, I said, “Mom, I’m not blaming you, I know you did the best you could, but what happened when I was a kid, why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you try to help me when you found out? Why did we just keep having those men babysit us and live in our home? Why did you let it keep going on? It’s caused me decades of pain, mom. I’ve made so many poor choices. I feel destroyed by…”

She answered abruptly, “Michelle, what’s the point in talking about this?”

I took a breath. “Are you busy? Is there a better time?”

“It was a long time ago,” she said, “you need to get over it.”

“But I felt so unprotected. Why didn’t you protect that little girl? Why didn’t you say you were sorry? Why didn’t you love me?” I was crying audibly now, but she had already hung up. My mom hung up on that conversation and neither of us have spoken of it since.

I forgive my mom. But we don’t talk. She doesn’t reach out and neither do I. What more is there to say?

I’ve thought a lot about love since then. How to give it and to receive it, what I want and how far I am willing to go to protect my loved ones.

For me, loving someone means staying for those painful conversations, even if you don’t have answers. Loving someone means you can sit with pain and not turn away.

This week, someone I love hurt me. We all know the pain of being let down or betrayed, and we know that sometimes we hurt those we love the most.

But it hurt more than I expected.

I sat with the pain and it felt hauntingly familiar. I thought of where I come from and how nothing is ever talked about or resolved. The abuse in my childhood wasn’t personal. A celibate man in his twenties needed touch. There were limited women available. It wasn’t personal. I was just there. He took my innocence from me when I was seven because I was the one who was there.

It continued because no one noticed how much I hurt.

I thought of the years and years of covering up for my family, of saying it’s not their fault, of understanding they were trapped in their own heads, their own fears, their own flawed systems, a swirling ecosystem of unmet needs, a drama in which I was just collateral damage.

In the past, I would apologize when someone would hurt me. I would say I was sorry for being too sensitive or needy, for wanting too much, for having unrealistic expectations. I would say, “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I’m fine.”

It takes more vulnerability and more love to say, I’m not fine. It’s not ok and I want better.

I survived this week, but I want to hold my close relationships to a higher standard than survival. In love, fine isn’t good enough.

We can forgive without an apology. But that forgiveness will be from a distance. We let the person go and move on with our lives, without wanting to hurt them or wishing them ill. I love my mom. I understand the culture she was raised in and how she was unable to transcend it. But as much as it breaks my heart, I have stopped trying to get her attention, and I have given up on closure.

Forgiveness comes easy to me. Sharing my pain makes me feel weak and small. But I’m starting to realize being honest about what hurts is less about whether the other person changes and more about acknowledging what is and isn’t acceptable. And that’s not weak at all. Apologies matter. Apologies matter because when someone sits with the pain they caused us, it honors our journey, heals our relationship, and helps us regain our self-respect.

Savasana helped me recognize there was something terribly wrong with my childhood. Savasana helped me hear that quiet voice in my head, saying, “You didn’t deserve that. It wasn’t right. She should have protected you. She should have said she was sorry. It wasn’t your fault.”

Now it’s my job to protect myself.

I respect myself enough to recognize when something is terribly wrong. And I am finally healthy enough to see that it is my responsibility to set boundaries to protect myself from further abuse.

When I protect myself and ask for what I need, when I treat myself with respect and kindness, I show those who love me what love looks like to me. And this is a gift not only to myself, but to anyone who chooses to love me.

 

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Toward Integration: Part II

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Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.

–Audre Lorde

Every day a student tells me a story that broadens my world view.

Last week, a young woman told me about working at a bakery counter in a chain restaurant. Every single day, women come up to the counter and look through the glass with wide eyes. Alone, or in pairs, they pace back and forth, talking to each other (or themselves), as if they’re about to commit a crime. The ones who come up to purchase something look at her with pleading eyes, asking her not to judge them. They are buying for their children, they say, or an office party or their book groups, and they explain the details. If they’re buying just one or two items, they offer a rationalization,”I worked out this morning,” or “I’m just going to have this one macaroon,” or “I’m celebrating” or “It’s my cheat day.”

I asked her what men say if they ponder over a baked good. She tossed her head and laughed out loud. “Never. I have never heard a man give me a reason why he’s buying a pastry. He gets one or he doesn’t, but there’s no explanation or weird ass shame.”

The next day, a student told me she’s in cognitive therapy to cope with a persistent sadness left over from childhood trauma. Her therapist suggested maybe she’s depressed because she’s overweight. My student told the therapist she’s trying to lose weight, but when’s she’s depressed, all she wants to do is eat. Instead of encouraging her to see her emotional eating as a strategy to manage repressed anger, the therapist put her on her scale and recorded her weight. Every time she came in, she would weigh her, and if the number on the scale didn’t go down, she would scold her for not making more of an effort. My student asked me if I think it’s ok that she stopped going to therapy.

In her newest book Hunger, Roxane Gay details the way she is treated publicly for living in a fat body, “where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged.” She tells the story of being gang raped at age 12 and how it changed forever her relationship with her body: “I was marked after that. Men could smell it on me, that I had lost my body, that they could avail themselves of my body that I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because I knew my ‘no’ did not mater. They smelled it on me and took advantage, every chance they got.”

It’s nearly impossible to feel safe in our bodies after we’ve been sexually assaulted. Most victims initially react by turning their anger inward and blaming themselves. Whether the perpetrator is known or unknown, it feels too dangerous to fling it outward, even among family or friends. There are centuries of social conditioning to keep us quiet.

Anger is difficult for many of us to recognize or name. Because it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to be sad than angry, female anger rarely looks like the “norm” of male anger. Other than the rare times women snap and “lose our shit” (coming across as a raging, crazy woman), we frequently turn our anger inward, registering as depression. And sometimes we construct a blockade of protection against whatever it is that has made us angry. This protection can be layers of extra body weight, self-medicating through various addictions, or overcompensating to make a bid for love (codependency).

Psychologist and columnist Avrum Weiss argues that “Men have always had a problem with anger in women.” He quotes studies that show how “boys are socialized to feel OK about their anger, while girls are taught to feel ashamed. Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, even threatened. Sad women make men feel gallant and protective.”

Through a yoga practice, I have worked to recognize and acknowledge my feelings, positive and negative. But even after years of dropping into my body to feel, I still struggle with anger. When it begins to surface, I panic.

After being molested repeatedly as a 7 year old child, I learned to live outside my body.  I no longer possessed the ordinary sensors healthy people do. I could withstand hunger and thirst and other sorts of deprivation by watching the girl who felt them, as if from a distance. For years, when I would get injured, I did very little to defend myself or to heal. When sick, I never took time off.  And when confronted with violence, I made myself small, burying the feeling part of me so deep, I didn’t recognize it as mine. I compartmentalized myself so completely, the girl who was being abused wasn’t me. I could feel sorry for her, and sad, but not angry. By 16, I struggled with anorexia and a suicide attempt. After two hospitalizations, I learned to perform normalcy through the more subtle self-abuse of bulimia.

I had become caught in a cycle of repressed anger and self-punishment. I had so much unresolved pain, when it began to hurt, I didn’t think about how unjust the situation was that brought me there. I just wanted it to go away. And so I ate whatever I could find that would fill the gaping hole in me. Then I would experience intense feelings of guilt and shame and vomit it up. Guilt and shame reinforced self-hate, which told me I deserved the pain. I didn’t know how to be angry at the pain in my past; instead, I was angry at myself for causing pain in the present, and that feeling of anger would send me right back to shame.

Audre Lorde says that “Anger is loaded with information and energy” and we can “tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”

In my second semester of college, I took a course in the humanities and the assigned reading included The Bell Jar, Surfacing, The Women’s Room, and The Feminine Mystique. The professor made us write an analysis that required us to look back at the past 100 years of women’s magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping (circulating since 1883 and 1885, respectively). The products advertised in these publications varied over the years, but the majority of the slogans and hooks were frighteningly similar. She encouraged us to to notice how the advertising was aimed toward getting women to feel inadequate so they would to spend money. I began to see the the institutional ways we are taught to feel bad about ourselves. And I got dramatically angry.

I haven’t counted a calorie since.

When I began to acknowledge the systemic cause of my anger, something significant shifted. Recognizing the rationale, I was freed from its control. As a result, I adopted a more intuitive eating style. Since early college, I haven’t gained or lost more than 10 pounds (except during pregnancy). I eat what I want, when I want, and I never step on a scale. I’m not perfect about my choices. Sometimes I binge on sugar or forget to eat altogether, but I no longer allow my weight or anyone else’s perception of it to dictate what I put in my body.

Both genders suffer from the scripts we’ve been handed. When we perform gender, we limit access to our full humanity. Our expectations that we should narrow our field of emotions to those we’ve been told are appropriate for a good woman (or nice lady) limits our ability to combat shame and to integrate disparate pieces of ourselves into a cohesive and healthy personhood.

I asked the two students this week what they thought about their scenarios. They both declared vehemently that it was fucked up. I told them I didn’t have the answers, but the first step toward healing is recognizing there is something wrong.

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Toward Integration, Part I

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–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros

Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.

Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.

But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.

I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.

I think it’s time we redefine our gender.

The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value  themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.

And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.

Dis-integration.

This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.

I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?

If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.

As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.

Sometimes, I feel resentful.

I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.

And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.

How do I change the terms of engagement?

I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?

In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.

When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.

Where does that shame come from?

I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.

And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.

I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”

I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.

I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.

I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to. 

If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.

I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.

I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.

 

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