Practice Makes Presence
For me, Anxiety is like an annoying semi-acquaintance who knows exactly when it would bother you most to call and how to make that conversation as awkward as possible. Ring, Ring, Ring! Ugh.....
At first, I would mute the calls but Anxiety knew that I was there trying to avoid the calls. The calls would come in one after another, sometimes at odd and inconvenient time. First, I silenced the calls, then I put the phone on permanent vibrate, later I learned to turn off the phone. However, as soon as I turned the phone back on, a new call come in. Avoiding the calls only made more of them.
One day I answered the call and said "Hello" and heard only breathing on the the other side of the line. "That's creepy," I said as I hung up.
The next day I left the phone on and waited for the call. When it came I asked it to speak and tell me why it was calling. After a long pause anxiety said, "You called me." This made me angry and I responded by saying, "There is no way I called you, stop calling me" and I hung up.
A couple of days went by without calls. During this time I couldn't stop thinking about how Anxiety had thought that I called them first. It was time for a plan. Anxiety liked to call as much as I hated to hear or even see the phone. I decided to be proactive and call first with a list of questions that I hoped would close the matter. My questions and the answers were:
'Who are you?" Answer: I am your conditioning. Your thoughts have made a comfortable place for me to live. Remember how you decided that thinking was the only way to solve and avoid pain in your life?
"Why do you keep calling ?" I miss you if it has been too long, I grow weaker without reminding you of the pain that you ignore. Remember how you learned to stay level because it wasn't long before trouble returned?
"Why are you calling?" Because you keep ignoring me, we are connected and we need each other to survive. Remember what it's like to feel like you aren't going to make it?
"Why do you call so often and so randomly?" We have to keep up our guard, the world is hostile and other people are unstable and some of them want to hurt you. You need to be reminded that it is just us against them. Remember how many people have let you down?
I didn't sleep that night. Neither did Anxiety. All of my life I had felt something troublesome was always around the corner. It didn't help that anxiety told me that what I am afraid of most is me and my painful memories. The next day and the days after I called first. I decided to use my phone not to avoid, but to listen to my conditioning, to feel its hidden pain, and then speak back words of acceptance, respect, and love.
At first, these calls were very difficult and anxiety often screamed at me in return, only to crank call me later. As weeks turned into months, I learned to look forward to collecting my feelings and thoughts before the calls. My new experience taught me that how I think determines what I feel and how I behave. At its most destructive, this pattern had made me equally isolated and lonely. I chose to accept those feelings as being real and true and that living my life to avoid the calls from my conditioning only made them stronger.
These days I initiate the calls most of the time and fill the dialogue with commitments to gratitude and loving awareness - especially on the days when circumstances tell me I shouldn't feel those things. I even call some trusted friends who understand and now I listen when they call, too. Anxiety still calls sometimes but when it does, I greet it with love, respect, and understanding. With practice, it's possible create an environment for your life that turns down troubling noise of fear. We need only self-love and care supported by our allies.
My little sister was an escape artist. Once when she was three or four she disappeared during a family trip to Montgomery Wards. My parents were distraught after they tried to leave the store only to discover that our group of four was now a group of three. A few minutes later my sister was located, gleefully grinning as she pretended to steer the large riding lawn mower in the power tool section of the store. She hadn't the slightest clue as to how much her disappearance act had traumatized my mother.
I came to accept that this was just something my kid sister did for fun, so I took it upon myself to keep an eye on her. After all, it's your siblings who really know what kind of trouble you are capable of. A couple of years later she did it again at our local grocery store. We had made it through the check out and back to the car and that is when my mother realized we couldn't find my sister again. I ran back in the store to find her saw her walking away from the front door, hand in hand with a strange man. Immediately, I wanted to scream "Hey, that is my sister!" but I played it cool. I figured that there was a chance this stranger was actually helping my sister. However, this scene occurred in the 1980s amidst the rows of milk cartons with the photos of missing children which made me aware of the danger. To be safe, I ran toward her while making a plan on how I was going to get an employee to help me if the stranger meant harm.
As I got close, I yelled her name and both she and the strange man turned around. Thankfully for us, there was nothing but concern on his face as he turned to me, he had only planned to walk my sister to the store manager. That day, with streams running down her face, my sister first met the terror of her escape artistry. Overcome with boredom, as kids at grocery store often are, she had wandered off and when she realized she was alone, she began sobbing in the store.
It is easy to blame an incident like this on child's play except that this kind of escape artistry seems to be a specialty for the most mature adults, too. Meaninglessness, self-absorption, and pain leave many people with strong desires for immediate relief from their discomfort, so they hide. Some hide in illusions (even ones with noble intentions) others in substance abuse or through physical isolation. Escaping and hiding are choices of Individuals who have come to believe that their future only offers more pain.
As I have been working toward present awareness, strange echoes of the past like this story about my sister bounce in my mind from time to time. What I remember most from this incident isn't my sister's choice, but rather my instinctual need to run to find her while carrying feelings of anger that a stranger had my sister. Opening up in awareness has given me the space to feel the same way about those I encounter who are in the midst of suffering. If awareness is the goal of meditation then affectionate care is its outcome. When we stop to listen and see long enough, we will notice the modern escape artists who surround us. Life is difficult indeed, and those with unwelcome (but familiar) visits of fear, sadness, and despair often withdraw, become distant, or disappear altogether.
How do we help someone who is hiding? With the opposite of hiding, our affectionate presence. This takes the shape of listening, understanding, and the delivery of an open mind and heart. Like the grocery store incident, you can only be found by people who believe, with all of their heart, that you belong. Compassion in action requires that we run toward our lost brothers and sisters with a motivation that knows that the direction where they are headed toward is not where they belong. When someone belongs with you, it's natural to feel scared and sadness for them, but it's more important to remind them where home is - even if they just tried to leave it.
*Image courtesy of pixabay.com
I was eight or nine when I first remember my parents watching the John Ankerberg TV series. He was a well known christian televangelist that would hold a talk show that would invite experts on the Bible to defend the accuracy of christian faith. Watching this show had a powerful effect on me and now, I recognize that it was the public attention these experts received that hooked me into wanting to enter christian ministry. In every church I have attended the pastor was a pseudo-celebrity and I wanted that kind of attention. Over the years, it became evident that the kind of attention these families gained was actually a serious burden. Each church I have attended in the last twenty years has suffered a leadership scandal, usually of an illicit sexual nature. One pastor I knew coldly preached his morning sermons then met his girlfriend that Sunday afternoon and never returned to the church or his wife and kids. His choice was devastating to his family, sad for the church, and was met by strong condemnation from those who knew him. I kept wondering, what about the position of pastor made this type of desperate escape so necessary?
I graduated from Bible college and briefly attended seminary while I worked with youth at a local church. I enjoyed the connection with teens and young adults and I have continued to work with them professionally for last twenty years in various organizations. What I didn't enjoy was the hierarchical leadership structure that usually gave one person (usually a man) vast power over the organization, its mission, as well as regular access to the most fragile and hurting members of the community. By design, church ought to function in a community as a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, I began to see that the so called spiritual elite were still saddled with the same human traits of selfishness and impulsiveness as everyone else. It is hard to see hope in that.
I do not intend this post to serve as a pro/con statement about church attendance. I do accept, however, that my experience resembles the suffering called "special person" by Tara Brach. In her book True Refuge she describes the attitude of special person as someone with strong desires to be in charge, to be looked up to, to be revered. When It becomes a near obsession, it creates separation from others and eventually a form of emotional emptiness. Much of this attitude led to my initial desire to enter ministry and still fuels a lot of my professional goals. To be clear, I am not saying aspiring to or even holding leadership or authority positions are wrong, per se, or that this special person suffering is only found in church communities. It just happens to be were it first awakened in me. Regardless of the cause, I think we could be better served by examining the motivations we have for wanting (or needing) that kind of attention.
I once heard a retired CEO answer the question "what was the biggest adjustment to your retirement?" His answer was "accepting that my phone had stopped ringing." This leader acknowledged that we can unconsciously build a career that makes the approval of others the mirror in which we see ourselves. When that mirror leaves, loneliness is what enters. The special person suffering comes from the separation and need for protection that it creates. If we are what other people say we are; then what people think and say of us must be guarded. Handing over control of your self understanding is a recipe for misery.
One challenging mediation I have been doing for a couple of weeks is called "I am." It lasts fifteen minutes and involves you mentally repeating "I am" while not filling in the blank that follows the phrase. As thoughts come and go, my role is to gently return to the mantra without resisting any intrusive thoughts. Its goal is to help you connect to your fundamental state of being. In a cosmic sense, its like filing out a bio and listing occupation as "here" or "being." This grounded look at existence takes a lot of work. I can't help but think it would matter a great deal to those suffering from the endless and dependent feedback loop of special person. After all, the most special people I have known have three things in common: comfort with self, a relative awareness of their deepest needs, and a developed sense of inner refuge that grounds them.
This week's practice is to meet the desire for validation with a repetition of "I am". Finding our deeply (often ignored) sense of being is the connection to truly living in the present. This sense of being is independent of our circumstances and I welcome it as foundation to my inner refuge.
Last year, I took some steps to improve my professional life. I was in the "caring business" and had built a nice body of working helping others and training staff to do the same. The trouble was, I began to have panic attacks at work. For the most part I was able to hide them well and keep working. Then I stopped working and then they wouldn't hide any more.
I have had battles with panic since I was a kid. When they visited last spring, a google search led me to Tara Brach and her work Radical Acceptance. I read it, loved it, talked about it, but mostly misunderstood it - all because of decades of my personal experience. From that panic ridden work chair, I couldn't have been more unprepared to embrace mindfulness and any form of acceptance. This is no fault of the author or the book, it was like playing Chopin to a six year old who has just opened a keyboard at Christmas. We can hear the beauty but our stabs at imitation are murderous to the ears of everyone around us.
Eventually, a treadmill taught me that I was truly stuck. Rather, the treadmill on the gym that I joined in January where I had a notable, non-work panic attack. Over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend I browsed through Psychiatrist's listings on my cell phone. I found a local therapist with specialties in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. In our first meeting, she kindly asked if I was interested in her help. She wasn't done asking when I blurted out "Yes, I need your help." So much starts with those four letters H.E.L.P.
Since then, I have started to take my therapist and a few trusted others on a tour of my past, re-read the works of Tara Brach, and embraced the message of Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The concepts are flowing. the intention for mindfulness is growing; however, the implementation needs practice. This practice will take the rest of my life and I am okay with that. There have been several moments where the limited skills I have developed in mindful presence have captured moments that I would have otherwise missed. My gratitude for presence growing.
For reasons that will be discussed further, I grew up in an emotionally chaotic environment and choose to ignore strong feelings, and learned to fear emotional outbursts. I choose to believe that I could do the best for my sister, my parents, and later for my own family if I was the strong stable one. This meant I should be impervious to my pain, but strong and supportive of others. It was never in my intention to hold my self in such low esteem. By denying the real experience of tumultuous times in life, I was torturing myself. This over driving sense of survival was killing my future but only after it murdered my awareness of the present moment.
Dear reader, I do not make claims to have originated any insight in this blog. I am a mimic, a mime, and a thief. Like Robin Hood, I hope I can steal some wisdom from the emotionally rich and connect to the emotionally poor. Others do this for me, and while I may never meet all of them, allowing them their place as allies in my life is the foundation for practice makes presence.
May the life you save be your own.