When things are shit. I mean when you literal feel stuck in the most bug-ridden, stickiest mess of your life, the things that steadied you may no longer carry the same potency– you are, afterall, stuck in a grotesque position–the problem is that ripping yourself free might mean that you lose a favorite boot or sandal and have to walk barefoot through the muck for a while. It may mean that you have to admit you played some part in getting yourself in this pile in the first place. It may mean that it gets worse before it gets better, because let’s admit, standing stuck in mud sucks, every step is laborious, but pulling your foot out of the boot to scamper stickily away will feel pretty nasty for a time, too. Sure, you’ll be free of your immoveable position, but you may end up knee deep in stink before you make it to the shower or at least to dry land. All that to say, that the way we define success in these seeming life-sucking situations must change, or else we also succumb to judging ourselves for not smelling like roses when we’re covered in shit, it’s just not realistic.
I am reminded of the end of a long, hot day of backpacking in the Porcupine mountains—heels blistered, the water ran out, stomach grumbling and menstrual cramps setting in—attempting to pump water through the filter only clogged it in the muck of a leech, deer fly, and mosquito ridden pond. That night it rained, and donning packs to hike the next day was delayed by airing camping gear dry on a rope between trees. Ironically, this memory recollection more often brings laughs and joy than the distress that may have been felt in the moment.
Of late, my day to day, breath to breath has felt much like that evening. I have gone from being a planner, thinking months ahead, plotting dreams and plans for work and pleasure, to only being able to bat away the bugs of the present moment—coaxing myself to get out of bed, to eat, to move, to sit quietly and breathe and not jump all over myself if the tears flow anyway. I am learning to redefine success, and at times to let the bugs buzz without batting them. Recent successes have been:
- Allowing myself to sleep as much as needed
- Jogging 5 minutes without stopping or having pain in knee or hip
- Reading scripture and sitting in the belief that all will be made beautiful, in fact, the beauty is all around me even now
- Moving my body through 30 minutes of Yoga asana
- Sitting in 25 minutes of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and coming back to my breath, even after the sobbing co-opted a few minutes of my focus
- Taking myself on a date to a favorite bar, alone!
- Appreciating my physical appearance and self-care practices
- Leaving my phone at home when on a walk in nature or turning it to silent for an hour at a time
- Reflecting on my needs, intentions and expectations before making even the smallest decisions: what to eat, whether or not to get out of bed, how to spend time while sitting in the unsettling looming of the unknown
- Smiling without expecting a smile in return
- Eating something good for me, slowly, without also reading, texting, or otherwise distracting myself (other than my raging thoughts)
- Preparing food for ailing loved ones, sitting quietly beside and respecting a gentle “no, thank you” when help is offered
- Swinging my leg over my darling bicycle and peddling into town to write this, albeit 2 hours later than previously intended—no judgment, Andi, you’re here now
In times like these it is crucial to come back to my intention of self-acceptance, believing I am beautiful, whether or not those I wish would tell me so are able to say it—I have found that telling myself this is more powerful, anyway!— to come back to my breath, to notice that an inhale and an exhale are gifts in themselves, not to be taken for granted, they are the essence of human life. In months like this one, when time passes too slowly and it is only the reminders I choose to repeat in mind, like I am able to cope with this moment (thanks to a dear friend for this mantra), or I want this or that, but I don’t need it. I am content, I can accept reality, I can accept not knowing (but of course, I wish I knew—again, no judgment). In times like these, success becomes as simple as keeping my commitments, as staying present, keeping the awareness that I am worth life, that there are still those who benefit from my presence, including me. And the biggest successes come when I can own that my emotions are responses to what is actually happening, but not what is actually happening itself. Then I can let lips part and teeth come together, cheeks lift and beam like I mean it, until I do.
Rather than lofty goals, my success is being redefined by self-imposed limitations that involve avoiding putting myself in a situation that could give me enough information to bring up, again and again, pain from which I have been healing. (I am not always good at this. Turns out delaying knowing a painful truth is just as challenging as delaying gratification. Why do I crave knowing even the ugly things?) It also involves making some changes for myself. In times like this, it can feel as if I have no control over my own life, so I take some: I start running again, I let myself sleep in if I need to, I sit quietly and cry and pray and scream instead of calling someone else every time I panic, I cut off all my hair, and then do it again, and enjoy the unending compliments, and more so my joy and freedom in the burden feeling lighter and lifted from my shoulders.
To sum it up, Pema Chodron in her beloved book, Comfortable With Uncertainty (pp. 79-82) does it so well:
“We practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.
“There’s no problem with being where you are right now…We can be where we are and at the same time leave wide open the possibility of being able to expand far beyond where we are now in the course of our lifetime…As we continue to relax where we are, our opening expands. When we say, ‘May I have happiness,’ or ‘May I be free of suffering,’ or ‘May any individual have happiness or be free of suffering,’ we are saying that it is the potential of a human being to expand our capacity for opening and caring limitlessly…the full human capacity for connecting with love and compassion, which is limitless, free-flowing warmth…This is our human potential: to connect with the true state of affairs. It begins with where we are.”
This refocusing on equanimity, on contentment, on undisturbed stability is the core of my new perspective of success. While nothing actually feels stable around me, I settle myself in the knowing that life continues to gust, blaze, bloom, wave, grow, die, and change; I imagine being like the rock at the shore allowing the waves to polish my sharp edges or like the iris outside my work building, bending and swaying with the Spring breeze, while staying rooted deeply in the soil that allowed it to bloom. Never has life been about achieving happiness. Ooh, did I burst your pretty little dream-like bubble? Happiness is fleeting. “It’s joy that is peace in action, and peace that is joy at rest,” says the beloved Anne Lamott, in her recent book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. These words, joy and peace, sustain themselves when feet are stuck in the muck of life, when all the air we breathe seems stagnant, when we may have to pick our feet out of soiled shoes and run through the sludge in order to get free and clean again.
So what can you do if you feel stuck due to the uncontrollable chaos around you—be it deep loss or disturbing change you never saw coming? Perhaps today is in allowing yourself to not do. Perhaps you sit quietly by with your screaming, sobbing mind a moment longer before raging against your own emotional machine. These emotions, they may be trying to tell you something! And I have noticed that when I can acknowledge them to myself (and not first pour them out to others), I can accept them, I can love me through them, in a way that no comforting word or even embrace can. Sigh. I am beginning to recognize that no love can soothe like the silent, humble loves of God and self, and I mourn. I mourn the loss of who I thought was me, or the needs I thought I had—comfort from others in words and hugs, attention, time, and affirmation, and then I bid them farewell and celebrate the sustaining spirit within me. Turns out having 10s of close friends offering empathy deeper than I imagined, can never solve my struggle, will not resolve my pain. This beginning to clear, this ability to look out rather than down, to lift leg over bike on a day of no real commitments other than to myself comes alone from the faith that God has this. It is too big for any human to hold, and all I can do is stand beside myself in the deep and compassionate love of Christ, hold my own hand, rest my own head on shoulder, whisper my own sweet nothings into my ear, catch puddles of giant, warm tears on chest and lap and notice my love for me growing. This is success. This is more successful than 7 days/week of neti and nasya, than regular meditation or bed and rise time, even more than smooth digestion, and even more than sustained positive relationship with another.
This possibility, and actuality of moments of stillness, of gentle appreciation for who I have been created to be, this is a success beyond any I could have ever imagined. And it can be achieved even while struggling to move slowly through the mud, even when noticing I am inhaling and exhaling is the only progress I make. For, in fact, I have not changed in these moments. I am still a daughter of God, I am still fearfully and wonderfully made, and so are you. The thing is, I did not learn any of this upon summiting a blissful mountaintop. I am only learning this by trudging through it all, pulling leeches from feet and waiting for the iodine to purify the water when the fast acting pump is broken. It is only here that I can see that it is possible to find peace amidst the pain. When I lift my heavy boot to move, that peace becomes joy, because here I am, moving, slowly and aware, not running away, not standing still and afraid, but taking my time to preserve myself in the grace of God.
May you begin to look up today, to take in the beauty beyond your gaze upon a blurry horizon. May you feel the sun warm your face as it peeks through the clouds. May you invite eyes to close and invite a smile across your face despite the darkness. May you redefine success, and see yourself like a beautiful lotus, making it’s way out of the muck.