I began running last spring, but I was doing it on my own and suffering through the stupidity of wearing worn shoes and consequentially, shin splints. After wising up and getting new shoes in November, I still continued on my own, with less injury. I took time off in December for the busiest holiday season I’ve had in my adult life. So, I didn’t start training with a running coach until this February.
To my great surprise, my coach began with telling me to be patient. Considering that we’d only just met and that he clearly didn’t know how impatient I am, I cut him some slack and didn’t protest—first impressions and all that. He was direct about how long it could take to get me to a base-level of fitness. Before becoming a yogi, that kind of honesty in relation to my physical fitness and ability would have thrown me into a tailspin full of negative self talk and food restriction as punishment. Armed with a yogi’s approach to exploring new physical challenges, I accepted what my coach was telling me without judging myself, and I committed to our training plan 100%.
Sticking to the plan has conditioned my body to be a better runner. I take shorter walking breaks, and when I walk, it’s more brisk than before. I run farther than I’ve ever run before, too. Physically, I know the plan is working. Moreover, the plan is working on a mental level; and I think it’s made me more patient. The daily commitment to this plan is an active exercise in developing patience. Every day I do my pushups and core work; every day I work on strengthening my legs and improving my breathing; and every day I am slowly working toward a goal that is so far off in the distance that I can barely fathom it.
With each new two-week plan my coach develops for me, he almost always sends words of encouragement as well as caution to remain patient. Again, in the beginning, this really threw me off. My initial perspective was that runners are not supposed to be patient; the goal is to be first. People who are comfortable with waiting around typically are not also motivated to necessarily improve or be competitive. But throughout this process I’m learning that people who are motivated to improve are not necessarily competitive with others. Self competition and self improvement are quite enough for me at this stage of running and fitness. Also, this improvement takes time and daily work, thus patience to stay committed and do the work in spite of being so far removed from “peak” performance that I don’t even have a goal for it.
Room for Improvement
As part of my half marathon race plan, my coach reminded me to be patient—to not let the emotional high of the race experience undo my training. He set time goals for each mile that were challenging but still consistent with my previous long run performance. I did consciously try to stay within those goals, but I’ll admit I definitely got caught up in the adrenaline rush of race day, evident in how fast I ran my first three miles. Looking back on that experience, I see how I am developing the daily patience, but that I still need to work on exercising that patience when it counts on race day.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am focusing on shorter distances and increasing speed over the summer. As part of that goal, I will participate in several 5Ks and 10Ks this summer. The distance may be shorter, and the speed may be picking up, but this requires patience all the same. I ran the first of these 5Ks on April 27th, and as with my other race, my coach sent me a race plan with time goals for each mile split. He also encouraged me to stick to these goals and not let the race day high push me harder or faster than I needed.
This race was only three weeks after my half marathon, so maybe I hadn’t developed adequate stores of patience in that time because I blew our set time goals out of the water. First, maybe this is a good thing. There’s nothing quite like having a goal and consistently running under it throughout an event; it feels amazing. Second and on the flip side, maybe this is how I injured myself.
I finished my first 5K of the summer about two minutes under my goal time, and both my coach and I were proud of my performance. I walked to cool down, stretched, and ate as all runners concerned with post-run recovery do. I went home and spent some quality time with my foam roller and hot shower. Then I napped. When I woke, I felt stiff—not uncommon the evening of a morning race. Ready for a meal, I moved to get out of bed and walk toward my kitchen. My body did not cooperate in the least. Getting out of bed was difficult; and walking was almost impossible as pain radiated from my right hip and groin. Clearly, I’d pushed myself too hard that morning. By that evening when it was hard and uncomfortable to stand, sit, or lie down, I was concerned. I took Aleve and alternated ice and heat as best as I could on my hip (a seriously hard place to reach with ice packs and a heating pad).
Last Sunday, I couldn’t walk without excruciating pain, and I was grateful that it was a rest day. Monday marked a return to my training plan, and with my first steps on the treadmill, I knew running just wasn’t going to happen. I did my mileage on the elliptical instead, and I made sure to let my coach know that I’d deviated from our plan. Tuesday I made an appointment with the Physical Therapist my coach suggested, but to do that, I also had to make an appointment with my primary care doctor. I took the week off from running and from elliptical work, and I just focused on my daily workout of pushups and core work. I stretched and did easy yoga as much as possible, but it seemed nothing was touching the pain in my hip.
I saw my doctor on Friday, and after a brief physical examination, he concluded that it was a hip flexor injury, and he sent me for an x-ray to make sure my hip joint was okay. The x-ray showed signs of “arthritic changing,” which could mean anything from a slight deterioration in cartilage or inflammation to actual arthritis. I’m not entirely sure what the x-ray results mean, but I’ve been advised to give my anti-inflammatory and PT two weeks before returning to the doctor. If things get better, great. If not, then he wants me to get an MRI. We’ll see how things progress.
Unexpected Side Effects
As much as I appreciated the week off from running after my half marathon, I hated last week away from running. I think I was so exhausted during the half-marathon recovery week that the rest was welcome. But last week I was not exhausted. I had only run a 5K. I should have been feeling perfectly normal on Sunday, but I wasn’t. I became increasingly more restless as the week progressed. I couldn’t sleep well, and I woke up several nights with panic attacks and lingering anxiety through the day.
I never thought I’d be one of “those people” who rely on running for anxiety management. Mindful breathing and yoga were my go-to methods, but with the absence from running, they barely seemed to touch my anxiety. I never thought I’d be a person who runs several times a week, either. But now I am, and my body (with all its anxiety) has come to depend on running as an outlet. It was on reflection of these new developments that I realized just how I had become more patient as well as how I need to continue working on it. And now with an injured right hip, I’m getting a full dosage of forced patience.
Life on the Injured List
I started physical therapy yesterday. I’m again grateful for being a yogi throughout this process because I think it gives me the perspective to be very clear when it comes to things going on in my body (Thanks, JN). I gave specific examples of what causes my pain, where it’s painful, and what I’ve been doing to alleviate and compensate for it. For now, I’m taking a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory and will be in physical therapy three times a week. I’m doing my baby exercises in addition to my daily pushups, core work, and elliptical for cardio. I’m biding my time until I can run again. I won’t be running in the 5K this weekend and likely won’t be running in the 10K on the 25th. I’m not even looking beyond the end of this month because I’ve learned that too many things can change in that much time. Maybe I’ll be ready to bounce back stronger than ever by the end of this month. Maybe it will take longer than that; to stay positive, though, I’m trying not to think about that possibility (avoidance is sometimes a useful coping mechanism).
Life on the injured list is depressing and stressful. Whether it’s asthma, ovarian cysts, my weight, or now an injured hip flexor & hip joint, it seems like my body is my greatest adversary when it comes to adopting a healthier, more active lifestyle. Several times in the last week I’ve fallen into the trap of asking why things like this happen to me, and that’s about the most unhelpful thing I could be doing. It doesn’t matter why my body has these challenges or limitations. And finding an answer wouldn’t be helpful either. If I allow myself even the smallest particle of thought that my body may just be designed to be overweight, flabby, and sedentary, then I risk abandoning my current pursuit of an active life. I know it’s also not helpful to have such a rigid perspective. I’m aware that just because I can’t run right now doesn’t mean that I am risking a slip into inactivity. But just as alcoholics and drug abusers require a sense of rigidity to keep them sober, I fear that being too accepting of my limitations will lead to falling off the wagon of my healthy lifestyle. So I acknowledge my obstacles, and I acknowledge that their presence means I need to learn ways around them. But I will not accept that I am made to be an immovable object.
I’ve also questioned whether running is a realistic way for me to be active. As I am queen of unrealistic expectations and stubborn to a fault, I’ve had to seriously consider if what I am doing is right for me. The yogi in me tells me it’s wrong to continue doing something that hurts me. Maybe I should do rowing or pick up cycling? Maybe I need to take an adult swim class at the local Y for no impact cardio? I might try those things, but I’m not giving up on running yet. My physical therapist and running coach both know that I want to return to running, and they’re both committed to making that happen. Now it’s time for me to be both patient and committed to this recovery plan so I can return to running.
Thank YOU for being patient in waiting for this post. It’s been a long time in the making, and as much as I wanted to post this soon after my half marathon, I think the additional time has given me a better perspective on patience and especially of envisioning myself as person with more patience than I thought. Thanks also for reading, as always.
Have you ever come back from an injury? What was that like?
In a comment on my most recent post, Comfortably Numb asked for more information about ovarian cysts, and because that was my first post dealing with that topic, this post is my attempt at providing her with more information. This is much more personal than I ever envisioned being on my blog, but I think women should be as informed as possible about their reproductive health.
My Personal History of Reproductive UNhealth
My struggles with reproductive health have existed since I was 11 years old. To give you some perspective, my “first” period was waking up with severe abdominal pain while being covered/soaked in so much blood that my mom thought I’d been stabbed. I’ve always had pain and been irregular (e.g., three months straight of menstruating to the point of anemia from that initial experience). I also had considerable weight gain and hormonal imbalance. At 11 years old, my doctor put me on Premarin (a hormone treatment for menopausal women) to shock my system with hormone therapy, and that was disastrous after only three days on the drug. My only other option at 11 years old was a surgery that could have potentially left me sterile, and my parents left it up to me to make the decision on whether to go through with it or not. I chose to take my chances with the pain and did not have the surgery. Since then, I’ve been on more birth control pills than I can remember, changing each time to address my body’s changing hormones. I’ve missed school and work because I’ve been crippled with painful menstrual cycles. I’ve had to spend entire summer breaks mostly confined to bed or limited movement also due to the pain. I lived like this for 17 years. Inescapable pain is a prison.
When I started having digestive issues a few years ago, I kept complaining of either sharp, stabbing pain or dull, soreness in my lower right abdomen. Thinking it was related to the digestive issues because of the unbelievable nausea that accompanied it, I went to expensive extremes to resolve it. Some of my nausea and stomach pain actually was related to digestive stuff, but my doctor referred me to a reproductive specialist in my city, and she found a string of cysts, some of them measuring 3.5 cm in diameter around my right ovary with an ultrasound.
In my case, the cysts dissolve on their own, though it may take several weeks. I have noticed reduced frequency of cyst-related pain since I started practicing yoga & added running, and because I now eat foods that are less processed with less sugars. I actually started taking yoga in October 2010 as an alternative to the physical therapy my doctor prescribed to me for the cyst pain, and it’s been the catalyst for the lifestyle overhaul I’m living in right now. However, even with reduced frequency, the pain level hasn’t changed when I do get them. It’s severe, and it wipes me out.
Because repeated, multiple cysts are typically linked to a hormone or insulin-related imbalance, it is treated as a precursor to diabetes, and many doctors prescribe medicine like Metformin, (which is traditionally used for Type II diabetics) to help cyst sufferers lose weight and manage cyst formation. I have NOT been prescribed Metformin because my cysts do eventually dissolve on their own and because I have been losing weight with diet and exercise, though it’s an unbelievably slow and arduous process. I have, however, had to change birth control several times to address the hormonal aspect of my condition.
Symptoms & Dangers of Ovarian Cysts
Symptoms that are red flags for me are (in the order they tend to appear): bloating and more density in my lower abdomen especially, soreness (like cramps), and severe sharp pain (like being stabbed) with nausea. For me it either happens the week before or after my cycle, and sometimes it can make my cycle much worse, even considering that I’m on birth control. Additional complications of ovarian cysts include urinary incontinence and frequent urinary tract infections as well as pain during sex or even during sexual arousal.
Dangers of repeated and multiple ovarian cysts include: cyst rupture, which can cause the ovary to rupture along with it, consequently resulting in internal bleeding and a necessary trip to the ER; twisting the ovary, which can essentially “kill” your ovary; and infertility (because the eggs that are released are too hormonally imbalanced to be fertilized).
When to See the Doctor & What to Bring
If you are experiencing frequent, sharp lower abdominal pain, usually (but not exclusively) limited to one side, I’d start making a log of it, especially in relation to your cycle. I’d also include in this log what you’re eating and drinking. Be specific: Does the pain interfere with your daily life? If so, how long does it last? Do your cycles change (get heavier or lighter, skip or last longer)?
Take the log to your reproductive health doctor and discuss it. He or she will most likely conduct a pelvic exam and a trans-vaginal ultrasound, both of which can be painful with ovarian cysts present, but these exams are necessary because a regular abdominal ultrasound doesn’t always pick them up clearly. If ovarian cysts are present, your doctor will then determine what kind they are and make a plan accordingly. Some people require laparoscopic surgery to burn the cysts off and clean up any scar tissue that may have developed on the ovaries or fallopian tubes; others in danger of becoming diabetic may need to take Metformin; or people like me need to switch up their birth control to manage the hormone imbalances.
Fertility & Ovarian Cysts
Issues like this have made trying to conceive quite challenging. If I have to stay on birth control just to manage my hormonal imbalances, then what happens when I go off it to conceive? Well, I personally have a three-month window off birth control before my symptoms get too severe for daily life. If I can’t conceive within three months, then I have to go back on my pills to prevent cyst/hormone overload on my ovaries. This back-and-forth with hormonal birth control is enough to make me think I’ve lost my mind, and it kills my husband to watch me go through this without being able to do anything about it.
With hormonal imbalances, unavoidable and hard-to-lose weight, crippling pain, and embarrassing facial hair, issues of infertility seem (to me) to be icing on top of the torture cake. While I have suffered beyond measure for almost two decades, I have to face my culture’s pressure to have children (which I absolutely want), and I have to see all my friends and family members fill up mini-vans and SUVs with their ever-expanding families. I have to face questions about why we continue to wait as we are, as well as horror stories of waiting too late to have children. At one point I had 14 friends on Facebook who were simultaneously pregnant and sharing their “baby trackers” online, and I had to unfriend them because I just couldn’t take the frequent updates without feeling sorry for myself. These issues are usually silent struggles shared between couples behind closed doors and in exam rooms, and I would typically say a person’s health issues (reproductive or otherwise) shouldn’t be a matter for such public conversation as this. But clearly people don’t feel they are crossing a line when they repeatedly ask me these questions in public; so I’ve been quite (embarrassingly) forthcoming with this post.
Aside from birth control, laparoscopic surgery is also an option for me (though an unaffordable one right now thanks to the medical debt from troubleshooting these issues). Within three months of having laparoscopic surgery, I’ve been told I’ll be a “fertile Myrtle” very much able to conceive, but the danger then lies in increased complications with pregnancy and increased likelihood of miscarriage. Because being off birth control is obviously necessary while pregnant, the cysts can return while pregnant and cause complications. Pregnant women who are prone to repeated and multiple ovarian cysts are also likely to develop gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
We’ve also considered adoption, and you wouldn’t believe the expensive hoops we have to jump through just to be qualified. It’s as expensive as IVF, and as heartbreaking if surrogate parents decide to change their minds or if adoption boards don’t approve of any number of things on our adoption application.
I’m doing everything in my power to make my body both fit and strong enough to handle the ovarian cysts and to get & stay pregnant. Every ounce of my energy is going into working (to pay off medical debt and pay for preventative healthcare), exercising to lose weight, and observing a healthy diet to help regulate my hormones all so we can have children, whether biologically, with medical help, or through adoption. I’m well aware that I am approaching 30 and still childless. I do not need public reminders or questions of why we’re still choosing to wait. And I do my best to share in the happiness of my friends and family members who are having kids, but I have to admit it is a bittersweet joy.
For More Information:
Just over a week ago, Jim over at The Running Father Blog posted a callout for transpersonal testimonies, and I took the bait. What follows is my personal testimony…of faith and doubt, of a childhood steeped in fear and abuse, of an adult living with the fallout, of many deaths, and of surviving.
Stages of Development
According to Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Human Development, the first thing we learn is either to trust or to mistrust. The easiest example is a parent responding to an infant’s cries. Whether the baby is hungry, tired, or needing a diaper change, the baby has a need, and it is communicating that need with shrill wails. If the parent responds to the baby’s cry with feeding, holding, or changing, then the baby learns to trust that the parent will provide and care for its needs. However, if the parent lets the baby wail and does not feed, hold, or change it, then the baby learns that it cannot trust the parent.
Because the parent is literally the whole world for a baby, this lesson of mistrust then influences the baby’s worldview (and according to Erikson, the potential for successfully mastering the subsequent stages of development as they come up). The subsequent stages of development are: autonomy vs. shame (in the toilet training timeframe), initiative vs. guilt (preschool aged), industry vs. inferiority (primary school aged), identity vs. role confusion (adolescence), intimacy vs. isolation (in young adulthood), generativity vs. stagnation (in middle age), and finally ego integrity vs. despair (in elder years).
It’s fairly safe to say that I was on the losing end of these stages until at least elementary school or adolescence. I essentially survived my childhood as best as I could, and my saving grace in my early life was being in school. Once I learned to count, I counted everything…all the time. Then once I learned to read (in Head Start), and was able to bring books home (in elementary school), I read…all the time. Counting and reading transported me from an unstable, scary home situation into a world of order, patterns, and escapism. Of course my parents, siblings, and school kids thought I was freakish for being a space cadet, tuning everything (and everyone) out most of the time and that I was a lazy loner for choosing to read alone over hanging out with the neighborhood kids.
By the time I was 11, I had a bike, interests of my own, and I had learned to avoid home at all costs, and that’s how I survived. Considering the trauma in my formative years, it’s no wonder I have a hard time trusting people even now, or the gravity of things I walk around with daily. I know I’m lucky to have survived my childhood, and I’m luckier still that I’m not locked away in an institution, either mental or prison. That’s not an exaggeration. I’m literally a statistical anomaly considering my socioeconomic, dysfunctional background.
Of course I’ve been to a variety of therapists, and you know what they say? All of them? “Well, you’re quite well adjusted!” No fucking shit, Sherlock. That I haven’t succumbed to homicidal rages, been successful with suicide, or fallen into the abyss of criminality either means I’m a moderately high functioning sociopath…or I’m okay in spite of everything I’ve experienced.
Snake Oil Salvation
When you take a young girl with my history and add an element of charismatic, evangelical Christianity to the mix, what you end with is a girl who’s suffered unspeakable things thinking she was born damned into the world and deserving of her tragic lot in life. And that’s a goddamned shame.
Drawn to Christianity’s promise of eternal love, I ran to, begged, and pleaded with God to save me…or to let me die. I remember being nine years old and literally praying to God to let me die so I didn’t have to live anymore. (WHAT THE FUCK, INDEED?) But with the resilience that ONLY comes from youth, I embraced the concept of eternal salvation; and I became a proselytizing, evangelical Christian teenager. I channeled all my anger and fear into rigid religious fervor. But I still had questions, so I read the Bible, and I took Biblical courses at church.
When God never rescued me despite all my trying and learning and in the depths of my despair, I chose to let myself die and attempted suicide at sixteen. Though I survived, I think part of me did die then. I’ve felt very much in-between ever since, partly alive and partly dead. I was both corporeal and ethereal at the same time. Some might say I was fragile (they have). I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say there’s a single fragile thing about me, then or now. I’m as hard and cold as a corpse, and it takes an unbelievable level of effort to force myself to be warm with people.
I had even more questions about faith, and I was desperate for a loving community, so I chose a Christian college when I was lucky enough to have the opportunity. College. Well, it really was the best of times and worst of times. I went through an early marriage, miscarriage, and divorce all before graduating in four years…with two majors… three part time jobs…and a chip on my shoulder the size of Alaska. I was villainized by some for mustering the courage to hold my head up and for bouncing back after the divorce. I was publicly humiliated for wearing a Kerry/Edwards t-shirt while cleaning in the cafeteria on voting day. You read things like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, or anything by Flannery O’Connor, and you think despicable people like that can’t possibly exist in real life. I’m telling you, I’ve met more than one Bible salesman willing to steal a wooden leg!
As rough as it was, college was also a period of awakening and of finding the deep love of a Christian community, when I wasn’t angry at it, of course. My friends and I would walk barefoot by Buffalo Creek quoting Adam Bede, writing songs, and living out our social justice in the form of hospitality for one another. I never locked my doors. I always left my keys in my car for any of my friends to use as they needed. I never knew if people would be in my apartment…or not. I never claimed ownership over much, but I also never went without anything I needed. I ate well. All my bills were paid…in spite of the money I had or didn’t. It was faith inspired socialism, and it was so beautiful. We lived out the miracle of the loaves and fishes in my last couple of years at college, and it sustained me on more than just material levels.
With my college experiences, my questions about faith only grew, and I became more vocal about my universalist leanings. And then I went to seminary. I realize now that probably wasn’t the best route for me; but I was fresh out of college and not ready to leave my community…so I went to the seminary on the holy hill across the street. I only stayed a year.
In seminary, I gained a love of textual criticism, early Christian tradition, liturgy and ritual, Biblical languages, and early American Christian History, but my doubts than any of it was real, meaningful, or nourishing had also become overwhelming. So I took some time away from church when I left seminary.
In the four years after leaving seminary, I tried going back to church several times, but I just couldn’t. I tried the Methodists because I love John Wesley. I tried the Episcopalians because they drink and have great senses of humor…about faith…and life. The most pleasantly sarcastic people I know are Episcopalian. I strongly considered joining an Episcopal church here in Knoxville, but my husband and I were the youngest people in the congregation by at least a few decades, so the search was still on for a spiritual community.
Dark Night of the Soul
In those same four years after seminary, I struggled in the typical post-collegiate ways. I was overworked, grossly abused by my employer, underpaid, and had no benefits at all. And then I quit that job and struggled with unemployment. But wait…there’s more! To deal with…gosh everything in my life, I started taking an anti-depressant while working for said abusive employer. I was on it a whole month before I quit that job. With all my medical experience, I figured it was okay to just stop taking it. It had only been a month, right? Biggest mistake of my whole life. Ever.
I don’t remember much about the month of November, 2007. I am deeply ashamed of everything I put my husband (then boyfriend) through at that time, but I also know I wasn’t really in control of what was happening. I’m going to blame it all on very bad judgment and quitting my new medication so suddenly (because taking someone with so many demons and fucking with their brain chemistry that way is a disaster just waiting to happen). And it was a disaster.
Some people have a period of depression after confronting (and being consumed with) religious doubt and life struggles. It’s normal, really. But ever the over-achiever, I actually had a certifiable mental breakdown. My beloved took me to the doctor, told him I was broken and lost and not the woman he fell in love with, and he asked for the help that I couldn’t ask for. It took me over a year of taking the right dosage of the right medication to level my brain back out, and the process of figuring out that perfect cocktail was a nightmare all on its own (for me and especially for Daniel).
When I felt better and stronger, I told my doctor I wanted to go off the meds; and I’ve been successfully off of them since early 2009. But I’m not the same. I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same. Maybe part of me died then, too. In all the things I’d been through, I had never experienced debilitating anxiety like I have since living on the flip side of that coin. The constant tentativeness and fear that seems to follow me around since then are like stormy clouds always on the horizon, or a flock of dark pixies overjoyed at my torment.
In the summer of 2010, I started going back to church. I was so skittish. And they let me be. They let me stay on the edges as long as I needed. Even now, they don’t judge me for the times I’m the Roadrunner out the door after service. Or, if they do, they love me the same anyway, and that’s all that really matters. They preach love, and they practice social justice. They care for the people in the margins. They give space and time and validation to people who are experiencing moments of brokenness, and they offer healing to all who would take it. They are made up of people who’ve been rejected and hurt by their loved ones as well as by the Church. They’re religious scholars with rich theology. They embrace and use liturgy regularly, and I’m sure services are planned; but no one gets bent out of shape when something goes awry. I dare say no music leader is as quick with the witty, musical improvisation as ours! And the children’s/youth’s presence in the congregation and service sets the most beautiful example for us as adults.
Along with my return to a spiritual community, I began practicing yoga in October 2010. It really did start as a practical alternative to physical therapy. But it became the first way I ever learned to be comfortable in my own body and mind. I learned to breathe. I learned to be still without relying on obsessive counting, or escaping through literature. I became physically stronger, and then I became inspired…to see what I could do…to learn what challenges I could overcome.
Last year for Lent, I started practicing yoga every day, and so many unexpected obstacles arose. Uncontrollable crying. Anger. Shaking. A return of nightmares, sometimes night terrors. I think my body was finally experiencing a delayed reaction of sorts to all the pain that had been inflicted upon it. And then last summer a friend committed suicide. In my emotional rawness and because of my own near-miss as well as our communication just a couple days before it happened, it hit me and left me down for the count. I gave myself time to grieve, and then I started moving on before I drowned in it. I went back to church, kept up with my yoga practice, added running, and started practicing Buddhist metta meditation.
I’d say I’m still in the process of reclaiming my life. I still cry sometimes when I do certain yoga poses. When I run, listening to loud, screaming types of music, I feel like my whole body is exercising/exorcising out all of my demons. I’m mostly sleepless, unless it’s out of sheer physical exhaustion. And sometimes it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts from my mind. But I’m still active in my spiritual community. I continue in my yoga & meditation practices, and I’m getting better at running every single day. I journal my reactions to life and culture here on this blog. In reading it, I sincerely hope this stage of my life is as inspiring as it is for me to be living it. Because as hard as all of this is, it’s all worth it.
So what am I? What do I believe? What is good or evil? What is my salvation?
Because our culture likes labels, I guess I’m a Post-Traumatic, Post-Evangelical, Post-Fundamentalist, Post-Academic, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Yogi. I wouldn’t say I’m a mystic because of my cynicism; but I’m probably more authentically mystic than all the people rushing to India to kiss the feet of their gurus and get new names. The very definition of mysticism, as Wikipedia goes, is “the pursuit of, communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct, or insight.” Yup, I’d say I’m probably a mystic; but I don’t dig the talk of chakras or of chanting, or of faith healing. So I’m a cynical mystic as well as a statistical anomaly. Somehow that all seems fitting.
Similarly, the term “charismatic” takes me back to the scary days of life in a Pentecostal church with speaking in tongues, demon possession, and spiritual warfare. I would absolutely say I am not charismatic at all. But the literal and original meaning of charisma is “grace,” and were it not for receiving the grace of all the people who’ll have me, I’d be completely alone in this world.
What is good and evil? Well, I’m an expert at evil, so I’ll start there. Evil is anything that tells us “I am me, and you are you.” If “I am me,” then that means I exist outside of “you.” It means that we are different. It means I can pass righteous judgment on you and you on me. It means I create a sense of self and a sense of other. As long as I have a sense of self and a sense of other, I can debase whatever is “other.” This is the foundation of poverty and war, which are also evil. It is the foundation of thinking one person can own another person and therefore treat “their” people however they please, which is usually to say abuse. And its result…well its result is utter separation, which is hell. Good, on the other hand, is the coming together of You and Me. It is the abandonment of the sense of self and the sense of other. It is the connection of all living things. It is love and charity, grace and peace. It is salvation.
And what of salvation? Well my salvation is Jane Eyre, and all of Dickens’ orphan tales. It’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Austen. My salvation is The Smashing Pumpkins, Sarah McLachlan, and Mumford & Sons. It’s absolutely yoga, running, and meditating. It’s Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. It’s the Mandelbrot set and MC Escher’s Relativity. It’s the Buddha and Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today and specifically in my life, my salvation is Son’Cia Humphries, Meghan Sizemore, John Henderson, Mr. Owens, Ms. Rhoton & Mr. Wilson, Dr. Ruth Lavender, Dr. Jill LeRoy Frazier, Marvin Glover, Brittany Love, Evelyn Tachau Brown, Judson Nichols, John Gill, Leslie Etheridge, Victoria Medaglia, Ceil Sheahan, Sam Rosolina, Marcia Free & Fred Martinson, and Jim & Sandy Foster. It’s my beloved Daniel and his truly long-suffering love. It’s all the things and people that help me know I’m not alone…that I’m connected. My salvation keeps an eye on me in the moments I’m not able to look out for myself. It challenges me and makes me stronger. It holds me accountable to my vow to love myself.
This post covers my transpersonal journey to this point, which is almost 30 years old. It may seem too short a time to have lived through so much. But I’ve died a few times in the process, and I see it more as if I’ve just lived a few different times even if it’s only in this one lifetime. I’ve certainly had a plentiful serving of tragedy, but I’m living in the midst of the happiest time of my life, which is more than making up for all the doom and gloom.
“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
This week has been a struggle. I could list all the reasons I can think of to explain why, but that hardly seems important or helpful. The bottom line is this week I have lost the meaningfulness of what I’m doing…with this blog…with trying to change my life…with yoga…with running…with weight loss…with anxiety & depression. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” Am I the “best without conviction” or the “worst full of passionate intensity?”
If you actually read this blog from the beginning, I think (hope) you’ll find a huge transformation has taken place. Without this blog it’s hard for me to see it because I’m living it every day. The small investments don’t seem that important in the big picture of life, but on the reflection of it, the devil seems to be in the details. And this week I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture; and I question whether that’s as it should be or not.
This week I read this Zen proverb:
A Zen student has a penchant for writing to his teacher monthly with an account of his development. His letters began to take a mystical turn when he wrote, “I am experiencing a oneness with the universe.” When his teacher received this letter, he merely glanced at it and threw it away. The next month the student wrote, “I have discovered that the divine is present in everything.” His teacher used this letter to start his fire. A month later, the student had become even more ecstatic and wrote, “The mystery of the one and many has revealed itself to my wonderment,” at which his teacher yawned. The following month, another letter arrived, which simply said, “There is no self, no one is born, and no one dies.” At this his teacher threw his hands up in despair. After the fourth letter, the student stopped writing to his teacher, and after a year had passed, the teacher began to feel concerned and wrote to his student, asking to be kept informed of his spiritual progress. The student wrote back with the words “Who cares?” When the teacher read this, he smiled and said, “At last! He’s finally got it!”
This story was included in the Tricycle Daily Dharma for February 19th. The entire article was entitled “Letting Go of Spiritual Experience,” and it hit me like a sack of bricks. It explained that experiences on a spiritual path, though they motivate us when they’re positive, are fickle. The article essentially explained that the mountain-top experience comes only because of all the efforts of climbing that preceded it. Somehow when we’re on top, we forget the struggle it took to get us there. But these mountain-top experiences AND the climbing experiences are all just experiences. They come and go, and there is little if any meaning in them. And I can’t seem to shake this. All these changes I’m pushing myself to live through are just meaningless experiences.
So what’s the point of losing the weight or of learning yoga or how to run a half marathon? Aside from my yoga teacher and running coach who have vested interests in my progress, I’m doing this on my own and for myself only to find that there’s nothing of substance in it. I can’t seem to find a good reason for willingly putting myself through all of this. And I don’t think the apathy of the Zen proverb is the answer. I don’t want to be the ignorant and misguided Zen student before his realization, but I certainly don’t want to become apathetic either. I’ve been there, and when you’re already prone to depression, apathy is definitely not healthy to flirt around with.
Despite the lack of motivation this week and despite how hard it has become, I’ve still done everything on my training plan. I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I am. And this week hasn’t been a mountain top experience, but I’m still climbing. And I’m only wrapping up week 3. I have 11 more weeks of this ahead of me. I hope this experience passes soon. Until then, it’s chop wood, carry water.
Last month, Firdaus from Delirious Daddy commented on a movie review I did on the Guy Ritchie film, Revolver, over two years ago. He asked for more on the topic of letting go of the ego. His comment led me to the statistics section of the site, where I found that this post is my most popular post…ever. Over 20% of my total audience in the history of the site goes to it. Most people are finding my post after Google searching for clarification on Freud’s model of the psyche. So, I have a follow up post to the original Let Go of My Ego post. Hopefully it will answer some of Mr. Firdaus’ questions and also provide readers with more of what they very clearly want in terms of content on this blog.
I originally planned to post this right away, but it was the same week as the Sandyhook shooting, and I thought it might be insensitive to put up, considering the title of the film is Revolver, and considering I’m essentially recommending this film for personal development knowing it is chock full of gun violence. I do have opinions about gun violence, but this post is not about any of that.
This post will most definitely contain plot spoilers, but as I mentioned in the first post, it’s such a deep film, you could watch it several times, and still miss important details. I know; I’ve watched it several times in the writing of this second post, and I’m still not covering everything. Reading these posts should not spoil watching the film, but if you like getting the details fresh, it’s best not to read either post until after watching for yourself. Also, it’s best if you read the first post, well…first, because it provides brief/basic plot and character description.
What is the Ego?
In one of Jake’s first interactions with Avi and Zack, Zack’s character tells Jake, “Wake up, Mr. Green.” I think it’s important to note that he says this to Jake several times throughout the film. In this way Zack is being clear and honest from the absolute beginning as to what he and Avi are doing for him. Their ensuing dialogue is as follows:
Avi to Jake: “You can’t see what’s right in front of you.”
Zack: “Wake up, Mr. Green.”
Once the driving forces of the plot are going, and Jake Green begins to notice his role in the bigger picture, he narrates the following:
“There is something about yourself that you don’t know. Something that you will deny even exists until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s the only reason you get up in the morning, the only reason you suffer the shitty boss, the blood, the sweat and the tears. This is because you want people to know how good, attractive, generous, funny, wild and clever you really are. “Fear or revere me, but please think I’m special.” We share an addiction. We’re approval junkies. We’re all in it for the slap on the back and the gold watch. The “hip, hip, hoo-fucking-rah.” Look at the clever boy with the badge, polishing his trophy. Shine on, you crazy diamond. Cause we’re just monkeys wrapped in suits, begging for the approval of others.”
This, friends, is the ego, balancing the base desires of the id, while also meeting the social mores of the superego. It is what tells us we’re special, and we do it in so many ways. As students, we attribute our self worth to our GPA. In the corporate world, we find our self worth in how many people we’re managing or how close we are to the CEO’s position. Culturally because we’re capitalists and ultimate consumers, we define our self worth by how much stuff we have or how successful we are, typically defined by someone else equally obsessed with the same pursuit. Keeping up with the Jones’ (or the Kardashians, or the Real Housewives, or Honey Boo Boo) gets at the heart of what the ego is.
But none of this answers the question, “Who am I?” You are not your GPA, and what does that matter anyway? I’ve met salt of the earth people who may never make it into college, as well as scoundrels with advanced degrees. You are also not your career, though that’s typically one of the FIRST things we use to categorize and judge/compare others, isn’t it? Maybe instead of our first question to someone being, “So, what do you do?” it should be, “So, who are you?”
Practice: Can you answer that question for yourself? Who am I? Give it a try. Maybe make a list. I’ve got mine on my bathroom mirror so I can confront it often. See how your answers change over time with greater reflection and introspection. See how many of those definitions you can remove.
Distinguishing the “ego” from the “self”
After reflecting on “Who am I?” you might find that your definitions of “self” usually fall into some type of ego fulfillment. If that is so, then what is the “self”? Typical Western psychology would suggest that a healthy sense of self is one that can successfully function in the midst of challenge; one that can create; and one that can be both autonomous and altruistic. By this definition, the healthy sense of self is indeed the ego that successfully negotiates the balance between desire and socialization. But this definition comes from within a culture that is ego-driven, so doesn’t that make it circuitous?
A Buddhist perspective of the “self” seems to be one more aligned negatively with self-absorption, and attachment to ideas, thoughts, or feelings about the self, mistakenly taking those as the actual self. Therefore the ultimate goal in many meditative practices is to identify all the ways we cling to our sense of self so we can let go of it. The Buddhist concept of not-self is this discovery.
Revolver identifies the egotistical sense of self and an abandonment of that pursuit close to Jake’s epiphany:
Avi to Jake: “You’ve heard their voice for so long, you believe it to be you. You believe it to be your best friend. Where’s the best place an opponent should hide? Do you know who Sam Gold is, Mr. Green? He’s all up here? Pretending to be you. You’re in a game, Jake. You’re in THE game. Everyone’s in this game. And all of this is his world. He owns it. He controls it. He tells you what to do and when to do it. He’s behind all the pain there ever was. Behind every crime ever committed, and right now, he’s telling you that he doesn’t even exist. We’ve just put you into a war with the only enemy that ever existed. And you, you think he’s your best friend. Where’s the best place an opponent should hide? In the very last place you ever would look. He’s hiding behind your pain, Jake. Embrace the pain, and you will win this game.”
Avi and Zack’s Rules of the Con:
- The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look.
- The only way to get smarter is to play a smarter opponent.
- First rule of business, protect your investment.
- There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy.
- The only real enemy to have ever existed is an eternal one.
- Your friends are close, but your enemy is closer.
Jake Green’s Lessons on Letting Go of the Ego
- Jake Green (narrating): “One thing I’ve learned in the last 7 years. In every game and con, there is always an opponent. There is always a victim. The trick is to know when you’re the latter so you can become the former.”
- Before we can let go of our ego, we have to observe where we are in the game.
- Jake Green (narrating): “When you’re winning, who thinks about losing? But when you’re faced with what I’m looking at, a new and cold reality dawns—a fact that we like to ignore. You cannot win. The only prize they guarantee when you play this game is that you will lose. It’s only a question of when.”
- Once you realize where you are in the game, then realize there is NO WINNER.
- Jake Green (narrating): “I know I can’t take it with me. So why the pain? Why the fuck does it still hurt?” Hang the old brain up for a while. It’s just been getting me in trouble.
- Pain comes from holding onto things we know don’t really matter: (greed, fear, etc.)
- Take Zack’s advice: “Wake up.”
- Take Avi’s advice: Your opponents and fears hide behind your pain. “Embrace the pain.”
Do the short practice identifying who you think you are. Then, give yourself time (months even!) to see how this changes you. Maybe right now you’ll define yourself as “one who procrastinates.” Maybe this is “true,” but is this really who you are? Maybe confronting this definition of yourself regularly will help you not procrastinate.
Over time, try to let go of all the ways you identify yourself (roles, attitudes, thoughts, feelings, judgments). What’s left? How do you define it? How are you a different person? Using the above example, do you procrastinate less? Why does something like time management matter if you’re letting go of defining self as procrastinator?