Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Honesty, Openness, and Vulnerability

I just came back from a six day meditation and spirituality retreat. We were silent from 9 p.m.-1 p.m. daily, and during the afternoon we had religious study related to mindfulness and transformation, and were able to engage in mindful speech if we chose to. We had a lot of opportunities to share our personal experiences with the whole group, and I took advantage of that.

If you look at my blog from 2011, you'll see that I have virtually no posts. It was hands-down the worst year of my life. Here's the summary: February, massive pain flare leading to huge setback in physical ability; April, my husband gets very sick with mystery illness I; May, lose my 59 year-old father to cancer; June, lose my nine week old baby to God-knows-what; August, my husband gets terrifyingly sick with mystery illness II; October, major depressive episode; December, husband needs emergency surgery. The whole year, since May, was set against a backdrop of the after-effects of my father's poor estate planning, which left me with a lot of emotional pain, anger and resentment. I was so raw, I didn't want to write about anything going on, and I didn't feel able to write about anything else. I also really struggled with the idea of how open to be on this blog. My readership on my blogs has always been highest when I'm raw, transparent and vulnerable. That's a scary place to be among loved ones, or just yourself, let alone on the void of the Internet where the crazies loom.

Anyway, I decided if I was going to get anything out of the retreat, I had to be honest about where I was. The group of people I retreated with made a really safe space to do that in, but even before I knew them, I took the leap. For example, the first group interview on the second full day of the retreat was a little intense. The background is that six of us were in a circle, and each of us, in turn, had a personal conversation with the meditation instructor about our practice (we had individual interviews at other times) while the others just listened. Most of the other participants said things like, "I can't keep following my breath during seated meditation. What do I do?" or "I get really sleepy." Some delved a little deeper, touching on the general nature of their distractions. Finally, James gets to me and I pour out the following:

"I'm anxious. The focus of that anxiety during my meditation is how many needs I have, and how terrified I am of not having those needs met. I'm scared of there not being food here I can eat, I'm scared I won't be able to sleep with four other women in my room and how badly that will make my pain flare, I'm scared of there not being an available bathroom when I need one. I'm scared of having to wait 25 minutes for a shower! Worse, I hate that I have all these special needs, and I'm just so aware of how fucked up that makes me feel. I feel fundamentally broken, screwed up, weird and unlovable. And I hate it."

Tara Brach, a popular D.C.-based meditation teacher, talks a lot about the "trance of unworthiness" that people, particularly Westerners, feel. This was at the heart of what I was expressing to James in that group interview. I heard this come up in other guises at the retreat, and was shocked to learn that even seemingly perfect people, like Demi Moore, feel this way. In a February interview in Harper's Bazaar magazine, Moore described her greatest fear: "What scares me is that I'm ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I'm not really loveable, that I'm not worthy of being loved. That there's something fundamentally wrong with me ..."

But back to me. James says in his lovely James-ian voice (now permanently etched in my head), "It's ok to have needs. The first thing I want you to do is acknowledge that you want things: you want to have food to eat. You want to sleep. You want to shower. That's ok. The second thing is, when you encounter this, I want you to say, 'not me.' It's not you. You may have needs and you may have anxieties, but they are not you." I'll have more to say about this in another post about Jan. 6, but in the meantime, I'll leave this with a comic illustration of this proposition.

I felt so odd after I spilled my deepest-held feelings about my trance of unworthiness in front of five strangers. After our interview, two retreatants who were there came up to me and thanked me for sharing so openly. They said it took guts and helped them. Emboldened by the votes of confidence, I started putting out really personal, embarrassing things during our afternoon group discussions if I thought it could help other people, or would otherwise be relevant to our discussion.

At the end of the retreat, when we were saying goodbye to each other, the feedback others' consistently gave to me was how thankful they were that I shared such intimate things. That it helped them immensely, and gave them hope that they could be resilient and make it through some pretty awful times. After about 15 people said that to me, it really reinforced for me that I am most myself when I am open and honest, especially on my blog. I don't do inauthentic well. It's not that I'd share everything (ok, I would share almost everything...), but I am going to just try and be myself and accept the consequences. I also take a lot of inspiration in this from Heather Armstrong, who was so open about her mental health problems, especially as they concerned her second pregnancy, and has taken a huge amount of crap from the true Internet crazies for it.

So, I hope that 2012 is a much more active year for this blog, and that I can be myself, make myself vulnerable, and hopefully enrich someone else's life because of it.


Stef said...

A group of wise folks say if a person is honest, open, and willing, that nearly anything is possible. I value your real, honest self - "crazy" and all. (And if you think you are 'crazy', I hope you also know that you are in good comany.) :)

blck said...

Thanks for writing this and putting it out there. The internet does have many crazies, but there are also many people who are silently reading and saying "yes" and feeling more ok about themselves and their needs. For these silent people (I normally am one of these), I say thank you.

I also get a lot of inspiration from Tara. Haven't been to her class in ages, but I listen to the podcast.

Sarah said...

Thank you Stef and blck. That gives me a lot of strength to continue to put stuff out there. If it helps one person, I'm happy. That's why Tara's "trance of unworthiness" concept is so amazing for me; it helped me see that my feelings of being defective are quite universal, or at least very common in the West.