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.

The Process

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Look at how contemplative and artsy that shit is! LOOK!

Ya know… I didn’t go into this writing thing with the thought that my perspective on the world and its goings on needed to or would change in any way, but I’ve noticed a shift that’s worth mentioning. The process of sifting through my past for things worth discussing is a strange combination of cathartic and anxiety-provoking.

I find myself flying over forests of memories, then every so often a single tree catches my eye. Most of the trees are too obfuscated by time, a life of rotational inebriation, or a lack of enough interest to recall their details. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I see one clearly – I circle over it, looking at it from different angles, trying to decide if it’s worth landing on. Sometimes it isn’t, and I resume my aloof perusing from the comfort of the clouds, but other times I like the shape of the branches, or the feel of the bark, or the color of the leaves, so I land.

Some trees have a beautiful aesthetic, and I can play around in them for my enjoyment, and ideally the enjoyment of the reader. Some trees are riddled with thorns that I must endure, ideally also for the enjoyment of the reader. Some feel like coming home, some feel like I’m standing on fucking thorns the whole time (I don’t need another metaphor there – thorns suck and so do some of my memories).

Sometimes the damn things are just too uncomfortable to get close to. It’s both exciting and frustrating to find these particular memories, because I know I’ve struck writer’s gold when I can’t bring myself to confront them, and eventually, I’ll have to endure the shitty feelings for long enough to get it in writing. I’m sorry to say, you’ll have to buy the book to get those stories (I’m not that sorry – it’ll be a good book).

I suppose that even in those instances, I get some sense of enjoyment, or at least some long-term benefit. Even when it’s at its worst, this process can offer some degree of healing. I had a spent bullet casing lodge itself in my collar once, and by the time I got it out, the water forced from my skin had already cooled it to a manageable temperature. I ignored the burn for what was probably too long, and it got infected. After my first shower in a while, I scrubbed away at the wound with a rough washcloth until it was raw again. Now it’s healed and you can barely see the scar.

Point is, the process can be like scrubbing an infected burn wound with a rough washcloth, but eventually it’ll heal over more completely than it would have if you hadn’t done that. Or at least that’s the hope. If it doesn’t, I’ll at least try to make the scrubbing look choreographed. Either way, I hope you enjoy the spectacle.