Doing "The Work"

I was doing a guided meditation led by Sam Harris the other day, and at some point he asks you to focus on a strong emotion from recent history. My brain immediately went to the incident where some douche leaving the bar with drinks in his hand spilled beer on me (see my last post for the full story). Then I flashed back farther to a memory of my boss yelling at me.

He’s a larger guy – played rugby in college. He stood looking down at me, arms crossed, saying that I was acting shady and trying to give away merchandise and drinks without recording it. For the record, any time I give out drinks or merchandise, I enter it on a Comp tab. I hadn’t done that, yet, so when I handed one of our regulars a shirt for her birthday, it looked to him like I was just giving shit out for free.

“You really need to get it through your head that you’re not a fucking manager, Sean!” he said.

Reliving that experience pushed me farther back to my freshman year of college. I was in ROTC, and I was sitting with a group of my fellow cadets in someone’s shitty apartment. We were all drinking, and the guy in charge of the unit at my school (also a rugby player) snatched my glasses off my face.

I needed glasses since I was seven, my vision was absolute shit, and one of the forms bullying took for me as a kid was having my glasses knocked off my face. All the physical prowess and bravado I had accumulated by the time I was 19 went right out the window when I was sitting on that bed, and had my glasses ripped off my face like I was 8. I started to tear up, which only made him rip into me harder.

I finally got the glasses back, and got up to leave, but he followed me out the door.

“You gonna cry like a little baby?!” He slapped me across the face. Hard. “Huh?! What’re you gonna do?!” He slapped me again.

“What the fuck, man?! I thought we were friends?! Why are you doing this?!” I yelled, backing away from him down the sidewalk. More tears.

He finally retreated back inside. I don’t remember why. I just sat on the curb crying until one of my friends drove me back to the dorm.

He was never penalized. I never told anybody. He felt terrible afterward, but I’m willing to bet I felt worse. I was helpless in that moment. I couldn’t see, and I was being hit by somebody who I respected and looked up to. I didn’t know what to do. Should I have hit him back? Should I have told someone and gotten him expelled? Would I feel better now if I did any of that? Hard to say.

The guided meditation kept going for what felt like forever after that. I couldn’t recenter myself. My entire body tensed and my breathing went shallow. My dog snuggled up against me, clearly reading that I was upset and trying to soothe me. By the end of the meditation I had come back to neutral, but the residuals of my anger still reverberated through my consciousness.

In a podcast I recently listened to, a psychologist I respect a great deal said that the difference between a good therapist and a great therapist lies in their willingness to work on themselves. My friend recently commented on all the shifts I’ve made in my life and my aspirations of working in psychotherapy, saying that I’m making all these moves without addressing some of the root problems. She was referring to something slightly different, but this particular meditation session definitely felt like work, and it was fucking hard.

Honestly, I have a hard time with guided meditation sessions like this because my brain often goes to anger and sadness. Could I focus on happy moments? Sure could! But that’s not the route my brain has been trained to follow. Neural plasticity tells me that I can change that, and I know that to be true, but I also know that I’ll have to sit through countless more shitty experiences like this to get there.

Writing helps. Meditating helps. Exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep – all helpful in setting up the right embodied space to do the hard work of digging up your past and sifting through it for small flakes of hope and wisdom. It’s worth it, but boy does it suck.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 29

I know, I know – it was supposed to be a 28 day program, but I didn’t do anything yesterday so here we are. Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it.

As the photo here shows, I occasionally let my dog play too rough. I have fun, he has fun, but often I get a little damaged. That photo was taken about a week ago, right before I found out I was getting the barbacking gig at the fancy place (my first day is today, by the way). Since then, I’ve been careful to only use his tug-of-war rope so that my hand had time to heal. For the most part, it worked very well and he was very cooperative.

Then I got home from work last night, and after walking him around the block, where he both peed and pooped, I returned to my room to find a large poop in the middle of the floor. Now, I move my bed out of my room and lock up all my things each time I leave the house so he has a decent space to play in, and also to account for his mishaps. So really, this is kind of par for the course. But yesterday I was really looking forward to coming home, putting my bed back in my room, and getting a good night sleep in preparation for today’s shift, which I’ve been a little nervous about.

The poop in the middle of my floor meant that I had to clean the floor, but the smell clearly meant I was sleeping on the couch, and that pissed me off. I punched the wall and opened up two of my knuckles in the process. So now, not only was I not going to get a good night’s sleep, but my hand also had two fresh wounds on it because I couldn’t control my anger in that moment. I did not go to sleep in the best of moods.

I also did not wake up in the best of moods. The couch just isn’t as comfortable as my bed, and it smells like dog, and of course, Maximus woke me up like fives times this morning asking to go outside.

So! I finished reading the last bits of Real Happiness, and sat myself down for some good ol’ breathing. Holy crap did I need that. In the last bits of the book, she discusses how the point of continual meditation practice is not to become better at meditation, but to become better at life. I don’t sit and breath so that I can master sitting and breathing, I do it so that it connects me on a deeper level with myself, my emotions, and the events, people, and dogs in my life.

My practice itself hasn’t improved much over the course of the last month. I still get easily distracted, I still get washed away by torrents of emotion, I still get bored and restless just like I did on day one. But I will say that minus punching the wall yesterday, I have a much different way of interacting with my emotions. Meditation has, of course, made me no less of a human being – no less prone to the ups and downs of my own mind or less likely to experience positive and negative occurrences – but it has given me a powerful tool when it comes to my perception of those things.

So ends my series on Sitting and Breathing, but my journey on the road to better understanding the intricacies of my world feels like it’s just beginning, or at least beginning anew. Next up on the reading docket is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Enlightenment by Joseph Goldstein. I will keep you abreast of what I learn there, and regale you with more tales of my nonsense going forward.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read about my journey thus far, and I look forward to continuing it with you.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 22

Slow start today. I’ve been trying to take advantage of the fact that my cousin is out of town for the month to catch up on some deep cleaning. The apartment looks great, but – in part due to his absence, and in part due to the fact that I was busy and on my feet all day – my dog has been particularly anxious.

When I decided to take advantage of a short break in today’s rain, so too did every other dog owner in the neighborhood, so we did a lot of turning around and my body ached from trying to restrain him. Also, he was already amped up because there’s this rabbit that lives right outside the apartment next door, and once Maximus spots that little bastard, it’s nearly impossible to get him to wind back down.

I’m totally gonna kill that fucking rabbit, you guys/gals. I haven’t decided how, though. I don’t want to put out poison because I don’t want my dog or any other household pets getting ahold of it, and I don’t think bringing a gun out into the streets of Chicago is a good idea. Still brainstorming. Feel free to put in some suggestions.

Luckily, today’s meditation session was titled Lovingkindness Meditation for Times of Emotional or Physical Pain, so I got to pretty directly deal with some of the emotions that cropped up earlier in the day. There were a few different options for mantras, but I chose, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that my heart is not limited by them.” I was to start by repeating that for ten minutes or so, then switch to breathing meditation.

As I meditated, I customized the phrase bit by bit until I felt like it fit me a little better.

First, it became, “May I accept my anger, fear, and worry, knowing that they do not define me and my heart is not limited by them.”

Then, “My anger does not define me. My fear does not define me. My worry does not define me. I am not limited by them.”

Then I added sadness to the mix. I repeated the mantra again, but got overtaken first by anger, then immediately by sadness. Sadness took hold, and it took me about a minute to bring my body out of its physical response to the feeling. This seems to be a recurrent theme – the “sadness underlying my anger” thing.

I read an interesting article recently about how angry outbursts can be an indicator of depression. Apparently, nobody’s really been looking at anger as a marker for depression, but there’s a fair amount of evidence correlating the two. I can say with certainty that I related to the subjects in the article as I was reading it, and the things I’m digging up in this meditation practice seem to support the main point of the article (at least for me).

After I pulled my body back into the proper position for some intentional breathing things evened out again.

Earlier today I heard back from the admissions folks at the University in Vienna, and they seem to have confirmed that many of my plans are viable (still not assuredly in, but it was good news). I also got a job offer to barback at a Michelin Star restaurant on the weekends, so that’s pretty fuckin’ cool. As I write this, I’m sipping scotch and thawing a steak to enjoy in my clean apartment.

Life is alright, but clearly there’s some stuff that needs sorting out. More tomorrow, probably. And the next day. And the day after that.

And probably the day after that, too.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 15

I can’t say I was pumped to start today’s meditation, titled Meditation On Calling Up Negative Emotion (doesn’t exactly “call up” a lot of enthusiasm, right?). After procrastinating in the form of the Ted Bundy documentary out on Netflix, I finally sat myself down, reread the instructions about three or four times so I was doing the right things in what I imagined would be turbulent waters, and dove in (or sat, rather).

Per the instructions, I spent the vast majority of the time trying to conjure up emotions by examining my memories of the recent and distant past, and replaying those scenes in my head to try and illicit an emotional response.

My dog being a dick on our walks? Well he was just nervous and excited. The recent passing of my grandmother? Well she lived a long, happy life, and she knew I loved her very much. My personal and professional failures? Well I was young and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since then. My meditative practice over the last two weeks had me shooting myself in the foot today. Each time I put myself in a time and a place where emotions ran high, my mind quickly followed it up with a rationalizations, justifications, or explanations of circumstances. To put it differently, I wasn’t feeling anything.

FEEL SOMETHING – ANYTHING – GODDAMMIT! I heard my inner voice screaming.

Finally, I got angry with myself for not being able to do this right, and I pounded my fists on my thighs and exhaled violently. That break in my physical composure (up to that point, I had been sitting with [nearly] perfect meditative posture and stillness) was enough to let the emotion itself run through my body. My shoulders tensed, my brow furrowed, I clenched every muscle in my body as hard as I possibly could. Rage ran freely inside of me, then I was exhausted by the effort, and allowed a moment to refocus on my breath and come back to center.

My back straightened, and after some doing, I was able to relax all of my muscles throughout my body and face. Huzzah! I thought to myself. I gave myself a little mental pat on the back, then focused on my breathing again. If it worked with anger, maybe it’d work with another emotion. I gave it a shot with sadness, but I got nothing. So I reworded it as loneliness, and that struck a nerve.

I felt my insides hollow out as I repeated the word to myself. I imagined the loving embraces I’ve experienced in my life, and thought about how long it’s been since I’ve had that, and how nice it would feel. There’s a sweetness to that sadness, in that it’s centered around a beautiful memory and a warmth that aren’t present in that moment. I felt exhausted again, and I let my head droop down. One single tear streamed down my right cheek (like in a fuckin’ movie), and I brought myself back to center.

I finished my meditation just focused on my breath. I felt lighter than when I started – more airy. Also thirsty. Tomorrow will be positive emotions. I’m excited to see if I will have similar difficulties tomorrow.