When the fantastic team at iBme asked me to write a piece for their blog, my first response was, “How long does it need to be?” The thought of creating 1,300 coherent words, that form coherent sentences, that form a coherent story, was the first of several thoughts that quickly spiraled me into Stressland, pronounced /’streslǝnd/, a magical place where everything I do is wrong. Will people care about what I write? What if it’s not good enough? My friend so-and-so could do this better than me. I’m not creative. I don’t like this feeling, so I’m going to watch youtube videos instead. I have practiced mindfulness enough to know that when I feel the pull towards watching videos, I’m avoiding something; so I forwent the youtube splurge to internally search for a topic to write about. ‘Self-compassion?’ No, too gooey. ‘Advice on how to practice?’ No, too pretentious. ‘Promoting iBme?’ No, too salesy.
Unable to settle on a topic, I found myself instinctively walking to my bookshelf to retrieve a small, worn, mother-gifted, leather-bound journal, which loyally accompanied me during a three-month-long silent mindfulness retreat in 2014.
Three Months of Silence?!
The first three weeks of the retreat were quite unpleasant to say the least. My mind constantly wandered, usually with self-deprecating fantasies. It then berated me for not “doing it right.” The teachers even asked me if I wanted to leave the retreat. Part of me did, but I also knew that I needed to face whatever I was running away from. Perhaps more pertinent to my decision to stay was knowing that I didn’t really have anywhere else I wanted to go. During my mid-twenties, I had checked all of the boxes supposedly needed to qualify for happiness – the job, the degree, the house, the relationship, the parties, the car, the money, etc – but none delivered.
As my retreat experience seemed to get progressively more difficult during the third week, I realized that I was expecting someone or something to magically bring me relief. I had never had to truly face myself, or fully rely on myself. While the teachers on retreat offered support if needed, the encouragement was to be with one’s own experience with curiosity and compassion (easier said than done). After three weeks of what felt like trudging through the muck of a mental and emotional swamp, part of me must have realized that no one else could relieve my suffering, that ultimately I would have to be my own savior.
This is my journal entry from Day 23. I’ve taken the liberty to slightly alter the entry for the sake of clarity.
As I was meditating today, I got discouraged from the unrelenting thoughts. A voice then sounded in my head, It’s okay, you’re doing great. It takes a lot of courage to do what you’re doing. You’re not alone. The unexpected wise voice spawned a river of tears, and the wondering if the kindness and goodness in the voice could really be coming from inside me. I began letting go into the meditation. I felt the observer, the watcher, dissipate as I became immersed into bodily sensations. This letting go usually causes fear that I will lose control and that something or someone will harm me. But I heard the wise voice say, so reassuringly, It’s okay. It’s okay. Let go. It’s okay. I reluctantly trusted it, letting my guard down. The voice met my vulnerability with a mellifluous, There…you’re not alone anymore. I. LOST. IT. I cried my eyes out. I fearfully wondered if this wise voice would ever leave me. I promptly heard I’m not going anywhere. I lost it, again. The sheer kindness, wisdom, and support of the wise voice tapped the depths of my reservoir of tears. Then it hit me, …is this voice… me?
I was used to the critical voice, but not to its counterpart. Slowly but surely, the wise voice became more and more integrated into my experience. I started to realize that it wasn’t just a counterpart to my critical voice, but it was my true voice. Have you ever been complimented by someone about your kindness, or wisdom, or compassion, or intellect, only to dismiss it outright, unable to reconcile their observations with yours? That’s how 29 years of my life were. When listening to the wise voice, I remember being a little shocked at its…my…decency. I thought, You know Logan, you do have some kindness and wisdom. You’re alright to be around.
While ample mindfulness practice was essential for uncovering my true nature, a combination of external and internal support was needed. Sometimes the external has to carry the load until the internal gains stability, and vice versa. Andrea Fella, a mindfulness teacher, once told me the importance of using “borrowed faith” when we can’t see our own worth. Whether from a friend, guardian, pet, plant, or historical figure, borrowed faith can serve as a rejuvenating respite from the occasional onslaught of self-deprecating thoughts and habits.
Meeting the Gandalf of Meditation
One source of such borrowed faith for me was Joseph Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and my teacher on the 3-month retreat in 2014. (Hear him speak about mindfulness at an iBme event). Before the retreat, my daily life afforded me myriad methods of distraction from unpleasant thoughts and emotions: i.e. conversation, television, alcohol, dating, surfing the internet, parties, driving, music, etc. On retreat, we were encouraged to renounce those activities in order to more clearly see and meet what was arising in our present moment experience. When deprived of methods of distraction, my self-critical and self-doubting mind went into overdrive. It was as if my habitual distractions had been a finger in a dam, and the removal of those distractions flooded me with doubt, over-analyzing, shame, and anger.
I was convinced that there was something wrong with me, and that until I found out what that was, I would suffer. During one of my weekly 15-minute chats with Joseph, I asked him (well, told him), “Joseph, really, tell me what’s wrong with me. Give me the ‘sword of wisdom’ here. What am I missing? I know there’s something wrong. I can handle it. Just tell me.” Joseph quite skillfully dodged the loaded questions/demands, but I was insistent, indignant. He leaned back calmly and raised his hand in that Josephy thoughtful way. I could feel my body bristling with anticipation, knowing that wisdom was brewing. This is it! He’s going to tell me my fatal flaw! I can then fix it and be happy and popular forever! Joseph broke the pregnant pause with a laugh and shook his head, offering the qualifier, “You’re not going to be able to hear any of this.” He then said, quite matter-of-factly, “Logan, you’re an incredibly lovable being.”
Everything Wrong with Me
Essentially, he was telling me that the only thing wrong with me was my belief that something was wrong with me. Joseph’s qualifier was somewhat accurate, but enough of his message seeped through my delusional walls to serve me in times of struggle. I don’t always believe that I’m an incredibly lovable being, but I can always believe that he believes it.
Psychologist, author, meditation teacher, and iBme advisor Tara Brach, who has been an essential source of external support for me, frequently reminds her students of the adage, “Our memories are Velcro for painful experiences and Teflon for pleasant ones.” To compensate for this inherent bias towards the negative, it is often helpful and necessary to place emphasis on others’ statements of affirmation, resisting our temptation to dismiss those statements. For example, when I receive a compliment, I write it down. I have collected a few pages of compliments that I read, sometimes reluctantly, to rebalance and widen my perspective.
Inner mindfulness practice and external social support form a beautiful and potent delivery mechanism for wisdom, compassion, self-acceptance, and peace. Perhaps most importantly, they allow us to know and trust our own internal compass, bringing relief to the exhausting project of building our self-image with blocks made of others’ approval.
We all have a best friend in the mirror, someone who will continue to pleasantly surprise us, support us, love us. Sometimes the mirror has just been too foggy for us to see, or hear, that person for a long, long time. The talented teachers and staff at iBme wholeheartedly offer a combination of internal and external support, helping us to wipe away the fog.
Remember the three topics I said I wouldn’t write about…that didn’t work out so well did it…