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#8 What to do with the things you don't want
This summer while in Italy I posted a picture of myself on a Massa Lubrense beach in a bathing suit with a damn inspirational quote written across it to Instagram. It was one of about five posts to my stories I made over a six month period, and it was something I did because for a minute I missed the internet.
A few days later, back in Rome, I was trying to take my friend Amity a plant at her yoga studio in between classes. Her studio is on the second floor inside a massive and opulent 18th century building, and when she didn't answer the door I sat in the stairwell doing what people like me do in stairwells, which is read all the DMs they claim they don't read as the smallest attempt to preemptively disappoint people.
That day, in those particular DMs, there were many messages in response to the beach picture. The messages were mostly nice, or rather all of them but one were nice, and when I read them I got the sensation I always get when I read nice things, which is a certain kind of relief threaded with a gratuitous awareness that it's a slippery slope to care at all about the praise or rage of strange people on the internet.
The nice comments, as they always are, were discounted, and the one that was terrible was examined closely and re-read enough times until my face burned red. It was an angry message filled with a lot of assumptions about me that were untrue but close enough to the truth to smart, and even though I am trained to eat internet pain, due to some combination of grief, emotional instability, scorching Roman heat, and a dozen espresso shots—this one just fucking nailed me. And so, I began to type a strongly worded letter of defense to the quarter-inch circle of a face of a person I did not know.
When I am Hate Replying To a Stranger on the Internet—a thing that doesn't happen often but sometimes does—I lose time. It's not different than a flow state; surroundings fall away, noise mutes, an hour will pass without my notice, I am not there, I am on another plane where my creative genius is mean enough to skin an animal. If I have a dial, and I do, the dial here is set to Destroy, and you have to find my kill switch, or I have to find it, and it’s hard to find, even after all that meditation.
At some point during all of this, and it could have been ten minutes or it could have been an hour, Amity came out of her studio, sat down next to me, asked what I was doing the same way I ask my cat what she's doing when she's killing a mouse. I was so relieved that she was there so I could be mad about it to someone out loud. I read her both the original DM and then I read her my response, and then she said (very calmly!!): “This doesn’t seem fun. Shall we delete this now and just go dance?" So that's what we did. I deleted my strongly worded letter, I deleted the DM, and then we went into her studio and we danced my hate away.
I know I said I took Amity a plant but I meant I took her flowers, flowers I bought from Campo de’Fiori, or “Field of Flowers,” a square named after its Midieval incarnation as an actual field of flowers, and one which now mostly sells overpriced produce to tourists but has the most honestly priced lilies in Rome. Those flowers I bought her needed to be put in water, and so after the dancing I left Amity at her studio to teach her next class and I walked to her apartment to do that (put the flowers in water). It was five P.M., a July day, 90 degrees or whatever celsius equivalent that is, and my friend Sally called. Her mother—a Reverend and Jungian analyst who owned lots of good books—had recently passed away and Sally was in Virginia going through those good books, and I was in Italy, in Amity’s apartment, looking for a vase and still looking for people to be mad out loud to, despite all that dancing.
Sally was listening to my complaints with her good friend ears, and to the best of my ability I recollected the whole drama: the original message, the response I attempted and did not send, the consolation dance party, how ridiculous I felt for being so out of my mind about it, how absolutely itchy and uncomfortable the whole thing was. Sally, knee deep in her mother's death and swimming in her mother’s books, said hold on I just read something about this, flipped through some pages, read me this:
"When we’re feeling aggressive—and I think this would go for any strong emotion—there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution. We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease. It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved. Right then we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience. But what do we usually do? We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering. We strike out, we hit back. Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there—if you can practice patience, you can catch it—but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness. You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind. It has a very unforgiving quality to it. With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain." - Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War
Then Sally says something like: "This morning I woke up and I read that passage and asked god to give me such an opportunity to choose peace instead of war; I longed for a chance to go to that place inside of me that is pushed to its absolute limit and wants to react so that I might learn peace in that way, and Hol: god gave that experience to you. And you did it. You’re doing it. You practiced patience, you practiced peace. You are so lucky.”
I think I laughed, and I know I was relieved, because how perfect. There I was, a screaming mad hot sweaty mess gathering her Generals and writing up her war plan, and here’s Sally telling me that what’s really happening is god’s blessed me with a mammoth opportunity to become.
I am lucky, she said.
In The Book of Joy He says that we humans are masterpieces in the making; that it’s only through actual life experience that a sort of purification takes place. We can read a lot of books and take a lot of courses and follow a lot of self-help gurus on social media and repeat affirmations and pray a lot and journal and learn breath work and meditate our fucking faces off and theoretically understand what a peaceful, whole person might do when challenged or squeezed or tested or tragedied; but none of that really makes our bones. What does make our bones are the really sticky, terrible, uncomfortable, lose our shit moments. Tutu said: “You learn when something happens that tests you. [Voice of God:] Hello, you said you wanted to be more compassionate.” I have said, many times: I want to be love in the face of anger. [Voice of God:] Hello.
There’s a saying in the book No Time To Lose (Pema Chödrön): “Bodhisattva’sdevelop a healthy appetite for difficulty.” Or, in other words: those who say they are committed to the path of truth (which I would say I am) are/should be delighted by the moments when we are completely fucking nailed by life because those are the moments that give us the opportunities to actually make the kind of change we are always claiming we want for ourselves.
We have ideas about how we want to live and behave and respond to adversity, but the truth is that oftentimes when we are confronted with the gross reality of what living into our ideals looks like and actually requires, we don’t fucking want it. We miss countless opportunities to truly grow because the way we grow isn’t some shiny annunciation moment where an angel and a dove fly to you on a lightbeam; often it looks more like the exact thing you don’t want to have happening, that is happening.
This isn’t a piece about how I learned to disregard shitty comments on the internet, even though that’s part of it because that’s a thing that turns me into a childish version of myself, and I would prefer that never happened at all or that I never reacted at all, etc. This is more a piece on this season of my life, and how I keep forgetting that it’s fuel instead of a mistake.
If you’ve read between the lines of anything I’ve written in the last few months, you might have picked up on this: I feel broken; I’m depressed most days; I don’t have a clear purpose or reason for existing that makes sense; I feel like I failed fantastically; there are many days I feel like I could completely lose my mind; I feel stuck; a lot of the time I cannot imagine a future that is good; a lot of the time I cannot get out of bed in the morning; I feel old and like I’ve missed every opportunity to build a joyous and fruitful life; I feel old and like I’m going to be alone forever; I feel old and like my vagina is just chalk; I feel old and like I keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again and that I’ll never learn never grow never never never; as I’ve mentioned before, there’s this toilet leak downstairs I need to get fixed and I keep putting that off. I could go on but I’m worried about you so I won’t. The point is, this part of my life fucking sucks. I don’t want it. I want the next part, or 2015. Either works.
In yet another Pema book, When Things Fall Apart, related to this concept of our ideas of what growth should look like and what it actually does, she says: “There is frequently an irritating, if not depressing, discrepancy between our ideas and good intentions and how we act when we are confronted with the nitty-gritty details of real life situations.” We say we want to grow, we say we want to transcend it all and be these kind of people that handle life with grace and joy and love and ease—and then life actually happens. We get fired from our job, our partner leaves, our five year old kid develops adult grade anxiety, a pandemic hits and everything we’d dreamed or imagined gets turned upside down or destroyed, our friend stops talking to us for no reason, our hair falls out for no reason, a tree goes through our car!, someone sends us a fucked up message on Instagram!!, we get humiliated in a hugely public way, [insert whatever shitty life thing that happens that we don’t want to happen here]. Do we meet these things with open arms, greet them with gratitude, treat them as a necessary part of the path of expansion? Do we recall our intention to grow at any cost? Probably not. If anyone is anything like me and what I’ve done this past year when presented with an almost unlimited number of things I don’t fucking want, you kind of remember that you want to grow up and wake up—like it makes theoretical sense to you—but mostly you’re just scared shitless and cursing God and thinking something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
What has surprised me the most about this past yearish of just completely falling apart is my total resistance to it. There’s a part of me that gets that this is all a necessary part of growth—the contraction, the regression, the dissolution, the confusion, the quietude. I can theoretically understand that I’m going through a cycle and some necessary part of my unique development so that I can dig deeper, expand more, love more, live more. I can also theoretically understand that as a human who is committed to growth, my prayers are actually being answered. But I still want my growth to be on a meditation cushion with rose colored light streaming around me and a lavender scent. I don’t want the kind of growth that includes extreme humiliation, loss of desire to live, creative bankruptcy, financial insecurity, perpetual loneliness, premature aging, or being, as one friend recently said, “the one who always starts over.” I have said in the past that I would swim to the bottom of the ocean to understand truth and God—that I’d do anything to get closer to being the light or love embodied or Jesus or whatever equals those things. But for some reason, I won’t do what I’m being specifically given right now? Going to the ends of the earth and walking through fire, and all that shit I’ve claimed I would do, is workable. But being groundless and challenged in the particular way I have been this past year and am right now is some kind of mistake that is actually running counter to my spiritual and human development?
The truth is, honestly, that growth is boring as fuck. It’s as vanilla as how kind you are to the guy checking you out at the Safeway or how bitchy you were in that text and sometimes it’s the literal sound of your life standing still while everyone else’s moves forward. It’s dull and monotonous and tedious and it is exactly the flavor of what you’re dealing with right now. That you think it shouldn’t be happening (or wish it wasn’t) is the telltale sign that it should. You said you wanted to wake up? Here’s a shitty DM. Go forth and grow and stop looking for the better path or lesson you want because you’ll miss the exact opportunity you asked for. Your prayer is being answered.
I love you. I love us. Hol
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I can’t remember who recommended this but one of you did; thank you.
A bodhisattva is “a spiritual warrior who is committed to alleviating suffering, or, “an ordinary person who acts like a true adult.”