No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.
Remembering criticism is easy for me, but I’ve never been able to remember a compliment. I wonder if learning to acknowledge my victories will begin to change that dynamic. Maybe as I practice, I’ll build a kind of scaffolding, a structure that lets me store good things about myself. Arinna Weisman encourages us to appreciate our goodness. It goes beyond counting our victories, counting our efforts, our successes. She mentions things like holding the door open for someone, the small wholesome acts we do every day, maybe without thinking. Ian tells me Arinna made a joke about it, too, how if we need to we can even lower the bar (like I did with my incremental progress). She talks about how we probably didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone today. Arinna urges us to feel into those kind or generous impulses of ours. She’s asking us, I think, to seek that fine line between wholesome and unwholesome pride. My unwholesome pride tends to be more knee-jerk, cocky, too quick to puff myself up in an offhand way, even for something I deserve to feel good about. I can feel that wisp of arrogance, that taint. (Sometimes, after, the universe gives me a small smack on the side of my head.) The wholesome pride for me comes in quiet. It eases in slow, this tender pleasure in a thing I’ve done that’s good, like a small papier mache animal or a piece of writing that makes me cry or the small black ant I rescue from the splash of water on the edge of my kitchen sink. Gratitude tends to wash in next, like a gentle swell in a quiet sea, or the treasured feel of warm cement on the first barefoot day in late spring. And a kind marvel, too, that I am allowed each small grace.
Monday morning I say prayers for the spirits of Syrians killed by poisonous gas and for the people who love them. I pick dead blossoms from the three big pots of pansies and pull soft, fuzzy, pale green weeds nestled among them. (I’ve decided to do one task each morning toward a clean courtyard.) I break off a pansy bud by mistake. I set it in water, place the small glass beside my bed. The deep purple against the white wood and the soft curve of the tiny stem makes me cry. I cook brown rice, pack pears and peanuts for my snack between writing group and sangha. I still want to do my sitting practice and a tiny bit of yoga before I have to leave, so I keep my writing short. I cry more often these days, small things like the bread and butter or the pansy life stopped short. Big things like dead bodies in Syria, like being afraid about my health or feeling like a failure. But they are brief, quick moments only, and I tend to be kind to myself when they arise. I count to 29 to blend my garlic lemon drink for my liver, and I remember seeing Amma in the grocery store last night, how much better she looked. The memory makes me glad for her, grateful for her Tibetan doctor. And in the same breath, still counting seconds while the blender fills the room with its loud machine noise, I recognize again the part of me who still believes nothing I do will ever be enough. The tears come, but so does a deep certainty that I am healing (louder than that other voice? louder than the blender?) and a wash of dearness for myself and my good efforts.
I lie on my left side for four hours in excruciating pain. I think I may be passing a gallstone. In between I go to the bathroom and vomit. At one point, the pain drops lower in my belly, and I become afraid it might be my appendix. I debate going to the hospital. I am angry that money factors into the decision, that our healthcare system is so messed up in this country. Marylou and Richard come get me, take me to the emergency room, tend to me with sweetness even though I don’t seem to be able to be nice. At least seven people work with me there. One doctor who does the ultrasound is both present and kind. Another man who brings me back from my CT covers me with a heated blanket and tucks it around my feet. The gesture makes me want to cry. In the end, there is no diagnosis. I go home and sleep, restless. The pain eases by morning, all but disappears by the afternoon. I’m sorry now I went to the hospital, but I’m alert for the silver lining(s) to be revealed over time. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be a better advocate for myself, that I didn’t insist they do an ultrasound on my gallbladder. (Though I know I could be wrong about that.) But it was all I could do to handle the pain. I’m glad no one wanted to take out any organs, and that the experience wasn’t terrifying. I imagined it would be. But I’m more disappointed than ever in the way our system works. May my first trip to the hospital be my last. And thank you, Marylou and Richard, now and always. What would I do without you? Oh, and the orchids you brought me are exquisite.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.
I am on the phone with my friend Richard. He is talking about rereading a mindfulness book, about the idea that all we need to do is shine a light on a problem. We don’t need to do anything, only shine the light. I am grumpy with him, get an icky tone in my voice. I’m annoyed—angry, really—because I have been shining a light for years on all kinds of problems, and it hasn’t done any good. (Well, not any good, of course, but the problems persist.) After we hang up, I think about this for days. I try to understand why it makes me angry, why I am so bent out of shape by this claim, so twisted up inside. Then it comes to me. This only works if you accept whatever it is you are shining the light on. This doesn’t work unless we accept ourselves or the situation. There is a letting go in it, an opened palm. I know I am not there yet. But maybe I am inching my way toward it?
In one week in October I cause seven scenes. I rant in a public email in my new job, take an exasperated stand against a colleague I never liked in a public email at my old job. The first turns out to be a mistake—I jumped the gun. The second makes me feel mean, even though I think she had it coming, even though people are glad I said what I said. I end up having to send another public email to apologize. I should have sent a private note, I say. In the real world, I storm out of a mail center after trying to get a form notarized. “I’ve never had a good experience here,” I say in a loud voice as I push my way out the door. The city bus I’m on pulls up at the bus stop directly behind my transfer bus, and I hurry toward it. The driver pulls away as I approach. “No!” I yell. And then, “Fuck! Fuck!” I can’t believe this is happening. No one says a word, and I hate that I am spewing this ugliness out into the world. I now have six blocks to walk with my heavy bags to catch my Amtrak bus downtown. At Mami’s, the universe gives me lots of practice, endless chances to respond with composure and grace. I fail again and again and again. As the weeks unfold this pairing of opportunity and shocking failure presents itself so often there is no time to dwell on my shortcomings. I can only exclaim, only keep trying. A friend at sangha tells me his zen teacher says we do this until we wear ourselves out, until we are exhausted. I wonder when that will happen to me. And what might happen next?