What if pain is a place brave people visit?

“Do not say that you do not want to know anything about pain or about suffering, that you only want to know about happiness—that would be an impossible thing. We know well that suffering helps us to understand, that it nurtures our compassion, and that for this reason it is vitally necessary for us. So we must know how to learn from suffering, we must know how to make use of it to gather the energy of compassion, of love, of understanding.”
–Author Unknown*

“I just got home, and when I texted her she told me she’d call me later. What the hell? We haven’t talked all day!”

“Struggling through some hurt because she hasn’t sent a single text or picture of her party, even though I asked her to.”

“I sent her an email this morning, and it’s been an hour and she still hasn’t read it, which makes me feel like my words and thoughts don’t matter much to her.”

The words make me cringe. Actual entries from the journal I kept over the last five months of my last relationship. It’s painful to read them. Painful to see how insecure I was. How insecure, in some ways, I still am. But I’m getting better.

In childhood, due to various events and circumstances, I developed a belief that love had to be earned and could easily be lost. As a result, I have spent most of my life looking for evidence that I’m not loved. Sound crazy? It’s not. It’s a psychological principal called confirmation bias, and we all do it. Confirmation bias (which I wrote about in more detail HERE,) causes us to interpret otherwise neutral behaviors according to the beliefs we already hold (Ie: That person didn’t smile at me, she must not like me; my friend didn’t return my call, she must be mad at me; my husband came home late, he must be having an affair.)

When I learned of confirmation bias and how I was often causing my own pain and the pain of others by constantly searching for evidence of rejection, I did what I always do when confronted by a difficult truth: turned to writing. I started a journal with one goal in mind: “I will learn to love others, love myself, and beat the confirmation bias of insecurity.” In my first entry, I wrote:

“I know this wont go away unless I put the work in. There’s nothing [my partner] is going to be able to do to make it go away, because the minute she starts doing the things I think I need, there will be some new thing to make me feel this way. Because the problem isn’t her. The problem is me.”

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of seemingly negative traits like anger, fear, and pain as the waste materials that can be formed into compost to nurture the flowers of traits like faith, hope and compassion. I determined to use my relationship to face those fears and insecurities that normally lie hidden and transform them into the very things that would nurture my soul. In an attempt to do so, I began an experiment. An experiment with love. Not romantic love, but unconditional love. An experiment in loving someone exactly where they are without attempting to change them.

For the next five months, rather than talk to my partner about my fears and insecurities, I allowed my heart to hurt if she said or did things that caused pain or discomfort. For five months, I allowed my heart to be trampled by someone I trusted DID NOT intend to trample it, for the purpose of learning radical love and acceptance, and to cultivate my own sense of security. For five months, I used my journal as a dumping ground and recorded every negative thought and emotion, every hurt received, every hurt inflicted, every mistake made, and every victory won. I read books on love, compassion, and meditation. I learned to pay attention to how I was feeling and the things that triggered those feelings. I learned how to sit with my pain instead of attempting to fix or rid myself of it.

A funny thing happened during that time. The more I wrote in my journal and the longer I sat with my pain, the less I had to write about and the less things began to hurt. I discovered that all emotions are part of what is called “The Learning Circle.” Bear with me for a moment while I explain:

The learning circle is made up of one large circle with two inner circles, like a bulls-eye, in which all knowledge resides: the comfort zone, the learning/fear zone, and the panic zone. In the comfort zone are those things we already know how to do and don’t need to think about (for an average high-schooler, this would include things like simple addition.) In the learning/fear zone we find the things we don’t yet know that stretch our capabilities but are possible with hard work and practice (multiplication.) In the outer circle, the panic zone, we find things so far outside our capabilities they can cause panic (advanced algebra.) These are things that are not (yet) possible for us to learn, but as we develop new skills, things move from one zone to another. For instance, as multiplication moves into the comfort zone, advanced algebra moves into the learning zone, and eventually it, too, will move into the comfort zone as we take the steps necessary to learn. (For a more detailed explanation, click HERE.)

The interesting thing I learned during this time was that rather than doing things to overcome my insecurities (as you would when learning multiplication, for instance,) my feelings of abandonment, unworthiness, being unloved, etc. were best healed by doing nothing. Rather than try to fix these feelings, or get rid of them, I discovered that the simple act of paying attention carried a mysterious healing power that not only soothed me in the moment, but also began to transfer things from one circle to the next. Events that once caused pain (she hasn’t called in three hours!) eventually stopped hurting, and things that once sent me into full-fledged panic simply caused pain.

I also learned that just as you can “blank out” on something you know when facing an extremely important test, things could jump from one category to another when life was a bit more stressful than usual or my routine changed a bit. It soon stopped bothering me if my partner didn’t respond to a text right away, but if I was feeling especially sensitive or if we’d recently had an argument, those actions could once again cause pain or panic.

I learned to be gentle with myself.  I learned to allow the feelings to come rather than fight them. I learned to write and pay attention to what I was feeling instead of trying to “fix” it, and I learned that writing and paying attention often did fix it. I remember one moment, in particular, which was especially bad and found me standing in the shower, sobbing, knowing that this time it was all too much—all too big, all too painful for me to ignore. I just knew I would have to confront my partner about this. She wasn’t yet available to talk, so I did what I had trained myself to do. I paid attention to all I was feeling. Paid attention to the way this pain manifest itself in my body. Examined every single thing I felt—how my heart raced, how my hands shook, how the tears felt rolling down my face. I listened to the thoughts running through my head without judging them or participating in the “conversation” my mind was having about it all. And, much to my amazement, the feelings began to subside. By the time I left the shower, the pain had gone. I never spoke to her about it. I didn’t need to.**

Over time, my already wonderful relationship got even better. More understanding. More loving. Until one day, we were having a conversation and I mentioned, for the first time, that I’d been making efforts to work through my insecurities “for a few months.”
“It’s been about six,” she interrupted.
“What?”
“It’s been about six months.”
Stunned, I asked her how she knew, and she told me I had changed during that time. Become more “mellow.” That our relationship had gotten better.
I looked up the date in my journal.
It had been exactly 5 months.

Today, I find myself struggling with insecurity much less often. I don’t worry when someone doesn’t call back right away, don’t assume it’s because they don’t care, don’t ask myself 3,587 questions trying to figure out what I might have done to make them angry. And when I do struggle with insecurity? I find myself a comfy spot to sit and hang out with those feelings until time and attention bring relief. Sometimes, I have to repeat the process throughout the day, but the more often I engage in this practice, the easier it becomes. I am loving others better. I am loving myself better. I am learning.

“What if pain—like love—is just a place brave people visit? What if both require presence, staying on your mat, and being still? If this is true, then maybe instead of resisting the pain, I need to resist the easy buttons. Maybe my reliance on numbing is keeping me from the two things I was born for: learning and loving. I could go on hitting easy buttons until I die and feel no pain, but the cost of that decision could be that I’ll never learn, love, or be truly alive.”
—Glennon Doyle

 

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*Unfortunately, I cannot remember where I read this. My apologies to the author.
**I never spoke with her about it, that day. We did eventually talk about what had happened, months later, as part of a larger conversation. But by that time, the pain was no longer there in the same overwhelming way, and we were able to communicate from a place of healing, rather than hurt.

 

Confirmation bias – how our thoughts shape our reality and how we can use this to create a better life

Move Closer, Stay Longer

 

 

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Evergreen

All my life, I’ve been told I’m “too” something.

“Too intense”
“Too chaotic”
“Too idealistic”
“Too sensitive”
“Think too much”
“Talk too much”
“Read too much”

And today I realize that my desire to cling, my incessant questions regarding whether things can work, my tendency to hold myself back from fear they won’t, my constant seeking of assurances and commitments, my need to be understood, my attempts to fit in, my longing to belong—it all makes me small. It makes me forget who I am. Who I want to be.

I try to ration the number of quotes and poems I post on facebook, for fear I’ll seem obsessive.
I spend months digging for anything I can find on every new artist I fall in love with, but never, ever share more than a few excerpts in a row for the same reason.
Every time I’m faced with a blank page, I’m certain I have nothing left that’s meaningful to share.
Every time I’m faced with a blank canvas, I’m terrified today will be the day I have forgotten how to paint.
I’ve written entire books of unshared poetry and entire libraries of unshared chapters,
Certain none of it is worth reflecting the light in someone’s eyes.

Sometimes I worry what all that endless reading/writing will do to my body.
Am I going to become a shriveled old lady, bent at the neck and hunched at the shoulders from sitting like Schroeder all day at the keys?
Am I going to develop deep lines around my face, a permanent scowl, from studying and reasoning and researching (“I’m not angry, I promise!”)?
Will my hands always be the only parts of my body not flabby from lack of exercise, because I’d rather work my mind than work my abs?

I had a friend who once advised I stop reading “such depressing things,” not understanding it’s the darkness which often guides me to the light.
I had a friend who once suggested I stop “picking at scabs” in my journals, not understanding I’m not tearing wounds, I’m sewing them closed and the needle that hurts also heals.
I had a friend who once chastised me by shouting “Just be positive!”
Not seeing that I am.
But my dark is equal to my light
And no tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell*
And I intend that every one of my branches be full and tall and wide enough to become the billion pages of all the books I’ll someday use to scale the sky.

We’re all growing, stretching, reaching for clouds, dropping our leaves with the fall of our faith and budding again with the spring of new hope; trying so damn desperately to belong that we haven’t yet learned how to stay evergreen.
But if the only place we ever belong is to ourselves, and the only peace we ever make is a peace we make within ourselves, it is enough.
It is as it should be.

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
—Maya Angelou

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*No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” –Carl Jung

(This piece was inspired by the poem Panic Button Collector by Andrea Gibson, the artist I’m currently obsessed with and trying to refrain from posting so much about. ;) )

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The Shush Words

Last night, I contacted a friend about my recent article, worried I might have put a little too much out there. I thought of all the people over the years who have accused me of sharing too much and couldn’t quite get past the fact that I was writing about sex, orgasm, and masturbation in a public forum. Because although I do my best to be transparent and not worry too much about how my words will be received, there are times when I feel especially tender and vulnerable and fear what others may think. Her reply, as usual, was beautiful and kind and encouraging and, as her responses often do, made me brave. And I share it now, because she’s right. We live in a culture where the president of the United States is allowed to talk about grabbing women by the p*ssy, but women are condemned when we speak about our sexual lives. According to a recent survey, most women don’t even know the proper names for all their genital parts. This needs to change. This is my friend’s response…

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In our culture, these are the shush-shush words and topics we shouldn’t mention unless we’re porn stars. God forbid a woman actually has, or wants to have, a healthy sex life. Just don’t talk about it. We’d rather you stay insecure and suppressed.

Rina, the real question here is: do YOU want to mention masturbation? Is it pertinent to what you’re trying to express? To me, it’s in context to what you’re speaking about and presents an angle on how far back and personal/real this struggle has been for you.

You’re right, there are going to be people who think this is way-over-the-top-crazy-definitely-OMG- too-much. Just cause it’s the word it is. It makes me want to find them in Walmart, walk sweetly to their buggy, and start belting out the word masturbation to the tune of the national anthem like Mariah Carrey at half time. But, you know, those same people might just think you’re over the top anyway. Hold on, okay? Just a sec… I’m looking for the middle finger emoji.

Changing people’s perspectives or even just challenging them with new ideas and thoughts has never been easy. Your boldness to tell your truth and be real about your story does this with or without the “M” word.

You make up your mind, girl. Then totally call me if you see any torches or pitch forks coming your way. I’ll head right over, ready to kick some ass.

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I Am Here

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I Am Here

(Originally written July, 2018)

Jon keeps asking if I’m gay.

How do I answer that? How do I explain what has happened to me? Who do I talk to? Who can relate to what I’m going through? Who can provide me with the map of this experience and point me to the words which mark the spot you are here?
I don’t have my aunt’s story, of always having known. Or my mom’s story, of always having suspicions. I’ve been attracted to boys since my earliest memories, though now I can’t help but wonder: Was I attracted to them, or did I simply want them to make me feel attractive?

I do know I’ve never enjoyed sex.
That’s not true.
I’ve enjoyed the mechanics of it. The experience of orgasm. But sex has always felt shameful to me.
I thought this would change when I got married. I thought, under the sanctity of the preacher’s blessing and the approval of the church, sex would suddenly feel right
And good
And holy.
But it never did.
From my first awkward attempts at masturbation, through 17 years of marriage and a few partners in-between, sex has been a source of shame.

Then I met her.

And for the first time, I met my own body. Under the blessing of her hands, it suddenly felt right.
And good
And holy.

Am I gay?

I can’t answer that.
All I know for sure is…
Everything has changed.

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Posted in PERSONAL | 2 Comments

Love makes it work

People sometimes ask how Jon and I handle our lives since I began dating women (if this is news to you, please read THIS.) How do we make it work? How do we get along?
Last night, Jon said one of the most beautiful things to me, which I think perfectly sums up not only our relationship but who he is as a person and how we’ve somehow managed to make all this work. I told him something about causing pain and he responded:

“You would never do that. That’s not the kind of person you are.”
I sat, stunned. How could he say this to me? I’m not the kind of person who would cause someone pain? He, whose life got turned upside down two years ago when I fell in love with a woman? He, whose dream of a future—a future he’d been working toward for almost 20 years—had been completely destroyed? How could he—of all people—say I’m not the kind of person who would cause another pain?

I am, of course. The kind of person who causes pain. We all are. It goes with the territory of being fallible human beings. But somehow, this man still believes the best of me. He encourages me and supports me and talks me off ledges and he fought just as hard for my recently ended relationship as I did. And I know he will embrace and love anyone else I bring into our lives and fight just as hard for them. He’ll fight for me. And I will strive to do the same for him. We support each other and love each other and even though ours is no longer a marriage in the conventional (ie. sexual) sense, we are still very much a family. We are still the best of friends (more so, in fact, than we have ever been.) I am so thankful for this man who always sees the best in me and always helps me see the best in others. I am so thankful for this man who chose, two years ago, to lay down his ideas of what a relationship ought to be and somehow found the strength and courage to create a new one.

Do we still fight? Of course. Do we still get on each other’s every last nerve? Absolutely. Are there still times when I can’t stand him, and he can’t stand me? At least once a week. But each day we wake up and start again. We have been through fire and are working every day to forge a new, and in many ways better, relationship. I am grateful.

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“Don’t be consistent, but be simply true.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes

This is a map of the Mississippi River, created in 1944 by a cartographer named Harold Fisk. It’s called a “meander map”. It demonstrates all the different paths the river has taken over the millennia. Each color represents a moment in history when the river dramatically changed course, until the 1940’s when the Army Corps of Engineers built walls and levees to lock the river into a certain course. Liz Gilbert, speaking of this map, writes:

“I’ve been thinking lately about the ways that I keep trying to control my own nature. I see the rules and boundaries that I have set for myself over the years, and how often they have failed. I think about the vows I’ve made to myself and others… Endless, expensive, stress-inducing efforts to civilize the river of my being. But if you were to look at the history of my life, it looks a lot like this map right here. This map could be a portrait of my heart’s own journey.
Maybe yours, too.
I often say that, after a certain age, everyone in the world could write a memoir called: NOT WHAT I PLANNED. We change. Life changes. We often feel shame, confusion and anger about about those shifts and pivots. But what if we just trusted the river? She seems to know where she wants to go.”

One of the questions I am asked most often when it comes to the recent changes in my life is “what about the kids?” It’s an understandable question. Having given them a mostly fundamentalist, largely conservative, slightly patriarchal Christian upbringing, one can imagine why the news that their mother is now romantically involved with a woman might turn their world upside down (if this is coming as a shock, please read my post on the subject HERE.)

But one of the the best gifts we ever gave our children was inconsistency regarding our beliefs. From the beginning, we have never been concerned about change, only remaining true to where we felt God was leading at any given time. Many years ago, when we were going through one major shift in our religious practices, a friend asked if I were afraid of raising my children with an inconsistent set of beliefs. She expressed concern that she needed to have it all figured out before her own children were old enough to understand. But will any of us ever “have it all figured out?” And isn’t change the defining characteristic of growth? I’ve always believed that if I hold the same beliefs today that I held five years ago something is wrong. If I’m not changing, I’m also not growing. I want my children to know that it’s okay to have their beliefs challenged, and it’s okay to change their minds. So rather than consistency, we’ve held honesty and transparency as a goal. We’ve never tried to act as if we had all the answers, and as our beliefs went through changes we explained them as best we could and were open about the fact that we could be wrong. And sometimes we were. And once we gained that understanding, we admitted our failures and redirected our course.

So when it was time to sit them down and tell them about this, that’s exactly how we did it. And I was nervous about how they’d take it. But they shrugged their shoulders and answered, literally, “okay.” One of my kids did eventually ask “isn’t it a sin for you to be with a woman?” and I answered what was honest for me at the time: “I don’t know.”

Our beliefs are still very complicated. We eat pork now, but continue to keep the Sabbath. We don’t celebrate Christmas, but the kids dressed up for Halloween for the first time this year. I date a woman, but continue to censor songs with explicitly sexual lyrics. We’re just doing the best we can, taking the next right step, one step at a time. There’s a faithfulness and, I hope, humility in that.

“To grow is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” —John O’Donnohue

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Full of beauty

Today I watched a group of high school drummers perform using nothing but their sticks, their feet, and the chairs they were sitting in. After the performance, the audience erupted into cheers and I thought about those cheering kids. How many of them didn’t know those drummers before the performance or avoided them as “band geeks?” But judging from the applause, those boys will enjoy at least a few days of popularity after today. I saw this happen many times during my own school years. The kid everyone avoided or overlooked would perform an incredible dance and suddenly gain celebrity status. Girls were suddenly competing for the attention of a boy they’d previously ignored after hearing him sing. Boys were suddenly tripping over themselves to compliment a girl they’d previously made fun of after seeing her perform in a school play. Most everyone has had the experience of seeing someone we previously considered unattractive become attractive by virtue of their personality. Most everyone has fallen for someone so far outside their “type” their friends can’t understand what they see in them (sometimes they themselves can hardly explain it.) Why is this?

I think this is because we recognize beauty—real beauty—when we see it. I recently read Glennon Doyle’s book, Love Warrior, and came across her definition:

“Beautiful means ‘full of beauty.’ Beautiful is not about how you look on the outside. Beautiful is about what you’re made of. Beautiful people spend their time discovering what their idea of beauty on earth is. They know themselves well enough to know what they love, and they love themselves enough to fill up with a little of their particular kind of beauty each day.”

The drummers, the dancer, the singer, the actress, all spent their time filling up with what they loved. Then they shared it with the world. And we could see their beauty.

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