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You are both the poison and the antidote
The wholeness that you’re looking for is what you already are.
“I am both the poison and the antidote.” - Rupi Kaur
He who creates a poison, also has the cure.
He who creates a virus, also has the antidote.
He who creates chaos, also has the ability to create peace.
He who sparks hate, also has the ability to transform it to love.
He who creates misery, also has the ability to destroy it with kindness.
He who creates sadness, also has the ability to convert it to happiness.
He who creates darkness, can also be awakened to produce illumination.
He who spreads fear, can also be shaken to spread comfort.
Any problems created by the left hand of man,
Can also be solved with the right,
For he who manifests anything,
Also has the ability to
― Suzy Kassem
It is the summer of walking. I walk until my body aches. Already exhausted by working from home with four kids, I shove my feet into scuffed Nikes, double knot the laces, and walk out my front door. I don’t look back. Sometimes I slip in earbuds. Other times, opting for quiet, I shove the always tangled cord in my pocket and walk for hours and miles around the Pennsylvania valley in which I live. I return home feeling like a different person.
I know the path I take through the emerald summer countryside as well as I know my backyard. I know which Amish farmers I am likely to pass depending on the time of day and who among their many children likes it when I wave to them and which ones will duck their heads shyly then goggle-eye me after I pass. The “English” woman with the scandalous skin-bearing tank tops and short shorts.
I know which animals are interested in my appearance and will keep pace with me as I pass their fields and the ones that startle and bolt when I enter their senses. I know which dogs will bark guardedly, the ones who will wag hello, and the ones who will disinterestedly sniff my scent on the air before lazily returning snouts to front paws.
I know exactly where I turn and the green hills open up like a wide smile and allow the breeze somersaulting down the valley to lift the damp hair from my forehead and dry the sweat. I know the exact part of the steep road that leads past the centuries-old cemetery I rest in where my quadriceps muscles will begin to burn in a way that pleases me.
With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
But there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself
Where is my mind?
Four notable things happened to me in 2020. The first, obviously, was a pandemic that also happened to everyone else on the planet. The resulting lockdown allowed me the privacy and time to finally grow out my eyebrows after three decades of violent over-plucking - that would be notable thing two. Anyone who has tried to grow out their eyebrows knows it is a daunting process requiring dedication and seclusion. Third, I fell in love with a woman. Lastly, I experienced a great - what some people call - “awakening.”
One of the most simple definitions of that which is so difficult to define comes from psychotherapist and meditation teacher, Loch Kelly:
Because we’re in the habit of focusing on fast-moving thoughts and strong emotions, and of seeking happiness outside ourselves, we don’t notice awake awareness, which is always here. We’re too busy focused on the past or the future and not on what is right here. Awakening begins with shifting out of the way we organize our current mind and identity. When you shift out of your conventional sense of self, there’s a gap of not-knowing. Awake awareness is who we are prior to the personal conditioning we usually turn to for our identity. Rather than looking to our thoughts, memories, personality, or roles to identify ourselves, we learn to know awake awareness as the primary dimension of who we are…One of the most important things to learn is how to separate awareness from thinking. Only then can we see that thoughts and emotions are not the center of who we are.
A different way of existing in the world. Another vantage from which to take in reality. It changed the way I perceive and experience life. The newfound ability to transcend not just the labels and categories we rely on to organize the world but to be able to shift out of my ego-driven personality into a kind of limitless awareness has resulted in the most intense relief I have ever known.
Like everyone, my life has been riddled with anxiety, stress, shame, sadness, guilt, anger, and hurt - until I realized that all these emotions stem from being lost in an identity created and operated by my thoughts and perceptions.
“I am both the poison and the antidote.”
On the walk around my valley, I play with my awareness and perception in delight and incredulity. This has always been here and I never knew it. How can that be?
Neo unplugging from the Matrix.
As I walk I try to send my consciousness somewhere outside of my head. In fact, I try to forget I even have a head. Sometimes, I walk behind myself and see me as if I’m following myself. Or I send my consciousness to a bird and view me from that drone perspective. A carload of people drives by and I see myself - the middle-aged woman walking on the side of the road - from their eyes. I shoot my consciousness into the horses and cows and experience me - this strange, other being - staring back at them with grave curiosity. What is it like to be a cow? How do I appear to a cow? How does a cow perceive the universe with its cow retinas and corneas and other cow senses?
Humans are vision-based but some animals have different dominant senses. They say cows can smell something up to six miles away and as I stare into their enormous, doleful eyes I wonder if they knew I was coming long before I arrived in their field of vision.
Often they trot right to the fence to experience me. Ever seen a cow run? It’s the fucking meaning of the universe, I tell you what. Breathless, they arrive as if they have something important to share. But they only stare. We’ve been expecting you, they seem to stoically impart.
Cows have almost panoramic, 360-degree vision. They can see nearly all the way around them so while they may appear to be looking at you they may be checking something out in an entirely different direction.
“When a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.” - Alan Watts
During that surreal pandemic summer of 2020, after years of yoga-ing, Namaste-ing and mostly frustrating meditating and wondering what the hell all this “non-duality” talk was about I finally, empirically, understood the concept of No Self. Full, experiential awareness that 'Monica' is just a construct. A collection of experiences and memories my brain clings to in order to create an identity and validate all the bullshit in which I immerse myself.
That psychic construct stands firmly in the way of new dimensions of experience for most people. It’s your ego running your mental show like some kind of wild-haired, frothing conductor forcing the orchestra to play the same song over and over even though thousands of achingly beautiful symphonies are out there for the listening. For the experiencing.
At first, it was scary. This new existence felt all loosey-goosey, like riding in a car without a seatbelt. After years of believing I was a unique soul, a special child of God, capital G, elevatored down from Heaven, capital H, to live in this world before returning home to Him, capital H, I was terrified of this vast, interconnected oneness with everyone and everything.
Turns out, understanding that the thoughts that ‘Monica' thinks are just random projections on the screen of my mind based on the way experience has conditioned my brain to respond over the years is a DELIGHT, all caps. It is a delight to realize that this internal dialogue of thoughts I previously took to be me is mostly bullshit. They are clouds passing in the blue sky of ever-present awareness. Now-ness.
How do you describe what is ultimately indescribable? That which transcends language? The thing about most Buddhist-y/awakening notions is that you can read and listen and read some more and feel like you know and understand a thing intellectually but experiencing it is an entirely different matter. Or you read and Reddit and it all sounds like unattainable mystical/self-help nonsense.
For years - a decade, even - I thought I understood the point of meditation. I believed it was a kind of struggle to tame your “monkey mind” and attain some mysterious bliss or nirvana state that maybe looked like a beautiful person enjoying a summertime soda in a nineties 7Up commercial. I just needed to keep working at disciplining my rowdy mind and I, too, could appear to be a blissed-out soda freak.
I became lost in the mechanics or performativity of it: How long should I do this? Am I sitting right? What if I can’t do full lotus? Should I put my legs like this? That hurts. Does hurting mean I’m doing it right? Or is that bad? That person looks like they know what they’re doing. What cushion are they sitting on? I should buy that. Do I need to hold my hands and fingers in the ways I see supposedly enlightened people doing on TV and Instagram? What does that finger positioning shit even mean? The longer I could sit, regardless of aches and pains and squirming – the closer I was to Buddha-hood, I thought.
Funny how my meditation endeavors ended up so much like my experiences in Mormonism. Striving, struggling, always trying to do better but feeling like I’d never be good enough. Just like praying to the Mormon god, my meditation practice was all posture and no substance. Trying too hard for frustratingly little gain.
Finally, I realized that trying so hard was actually the problem. I should’ve known. Time and time again in my life I have learned that it’s in the letting go where the true leveling up occurs.
Meditation, for me, is no longer a quiet mind, a mental place or state I try to reach. It is in recognizing what is already here. The universal awareness that is omnipresent beneath a mind constantly spinning thought webs. After all the struggle it was ultimately as easy as changing the channel on my perception. A shift, an upgrade of my awareness, mind, and self. I finally understand that my limited Monica perspective is only a tiny part of a vaster reality.
“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusion.” - Alan Watts
Sweating, bonneted Amish women wield gas-powered whackers and give roadside weeds the same flat-top haircut the Walmart stylists ‘round these parts will give your kid no matter what cut you ask for. The weed-whacking brigade wears cumbersome dresses defying the temperature and black plastic, wraparound gas station sunglasses. They dutifully throw the obligatory Amish Wave my way, tan lines befitting a long-haul trucker’s window arm peeking at me from beneath their sleeves. We are so different. But the same.
I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together.
- Paul McCartney/John Lennon.
I routinely rescue caterpillars and centipedes from certain tire death, gently placing them in the grass and weeds alongside the road. The wind blows deliciously. An Amish kid scooters past throwing a nod as conspiratorial as the ubiquitous motorcycle wave. In the distance, some country bro with a custom exhaust system revs his rig and I realize I’ve been having an argument in my head with someone in my life with whom I constantly struggle.
The same fucking person. The same tired script.
The instant I clock that I’m lost in thought I snap back to now. Awareness. Relief from the orchestra playing the same goddamn symphony. Sometimes I imagine a thought as if it’s a bird in my hands and I open them wide and watch the bird/thought fly away, like a wedding day bride releasing some sad, imprisoned dove-for-hire in a strange celebration of love. Other times the thoughts are like cars whizzing past me on a road. I observe the cars as they pass. Inevitably I get in one and it whisks me away. When I realize I’ve been kidnapped by a thought again I come back to the present, stop the car, get out and watch as it continues on down the road.
Keep releasing birds, getting out of the car.
We spend most of our lives lost in thoughts we mistake for reality. Over-analyzing the past which almost certainly invokes shame and guilt or anger and self-righteousness. “I can’t believe I did that” or “How dare that person treat me like that.” Or we experience dread and anxiety about future events that haven't happened and will most likely never happen.
Thoughts aren’t reality, just projections on a wall. As Nancy Colier astutely points out in Psychology Today, "We are all in our own separate theaters, witnessing entirely different shows, and yet we behave as if we are in the same audience, watching the very same event we call life."
Our thoughts do not exist outside of our own awareness. Think a thing about your mom, your partner, your spouse. Or your ex. Think something, a familiar narrative, about someone you dislike. You are certain it is the truth. Fact. It is a thing you know. You righteously tell it to people because it is your truth, dammit! But the person you think the thought about isn't thinking that thing. They have an entirely different narrative. Quite literally, if you stop thinking the thought, it doesn't exist.
POOF. Gone. Magic.
Furthermore, you didn't even choose to have the thought. It just clouded the blue sky of your awareness when you were enjoying your day. You can choose to make a thought real by focusing on it and talking about it with other people and trying to convince them of its validity and then it seems even more real. You are manifesting a reality, essentially. A reality only you experience so is that reality?
Conversely, if you observe the thought without judgment, let it pass like watching a cloud take different formations as it moves overhead or a car passing you on the road... It's gone. Like standing up in the movie theater, turning on the light and looking at the wall where the movie you were just deeply lost in was being projected. Nothing's there. It's just a wall.
A little freaky to realize most thoughts are just mind projections we don’t necessarily choose or control but also super liberating! Because I think a lot of fucked up shit, mainly directed at myself. To let it all go as random bits of mental phenomena is a gift. As Pema Khandro Rinpoche wrote, "…the more willing and able we will be to let go of this notion of an inherent reality and allow that precious pot to slip out of our hands…We start to see how conditional who-I-am-ness really is, how even that does not provide reliable ground upon which to stand.”
“The future is a concept, it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as tomorrow. There never will be, because time is always now. That’s the one thing we discover when we stop talking to ourselves and stop thinking. We find there is only present, only an eternal now.” - Alan Watts
If you think about it, the present moment, RIGHT NOW, you realize it’s all you have and the only true reality. The past is gone and any thoughts you have about it pollute your present. The past only exists in your thoughts. A study from Northwestern shows your memory is like the Telephone Game. Every time you remember an event your brain networks change in ways that can alter the later recall of the event. The next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but what you remembered the previous time. Eventually, what you remember may barely resemble the original event.
“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event -- it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” said Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.”
Okay, so yeah, let the past go, right? But even attempting to maintain awareness of the present is a tricky business. Just like my struggle to meditate “properly” ended up hurting me. Jeff Foster describes it best.
What I’d say is forget about trying to become more present; that can just be another form of seeking. It’s a beautiful idea, but it’s still the same seeking mechanism. ‘One day I’ll be present!’ Ultimately, you cannot become more present; for you are presence itself. Like the word ‘non-duality’, presence is just another pointer to life as it is. It’s another pointer back to who you really are. There is already presence and there is only presence. Everything is already appearing in presence.
There is only this moment. The past and the future happen now; they appear in this presence, as this presence. There are memories about the past and thoughts about the future appearing in this presence. It all happens now. Every sound is a present sound; you’ve never heard a sound that wasn’t now. You’ve never heard a sound in the past and you don’t hear a sound in the future! You’ve never smelled anything that wasn’t smelled now. Ultimately, you’ve never seen anything that isn’t seen now. It’s all present! - Jeff Foster
I have spent years of my life obsessing about the past - whether it was self-righteous anger over what I think someone did to me or, more likely, shamefully reliving what I perceive as my own embarrassing or bad behavior. Similarly, I have lost hours to dread and anxiety about possible future scenarios usually about work, money, and relationships.
What a waste. All I can react and respond to is right now. The future will be now at some point and I can deal with it then. I want to be an open space in which all stories come and go without me holding on to them or rejecting them.
As I walk I allow my mind to gently slide into a hyper-aware, panoramic flow state, fully experiencing my little part in the universe expressing itself. Millipedes and ants trundle between my Nike steps, birds chirp, swooping and diving overhead, rustling leaves create shifting light patterns on the road, and cars pass over the kaleidoscopic leaf impressions.
The people in the cars are on their phones talking to loved ones in other cities, states or countries and those far away people are living their lives stepping over ants and under birds. Those birds are flying above people walking along roads as other people drive past them talking to their loved ones… All of us interconnected, our lives like waves forming for a few brief moments before cresting and rejoining the ocean. The wave is separate from the ocean but it is also the ocean.
It’s a miracle any of this, any of us, exists at all.
“Reality is thin ice and most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.” - Stephen King
The awareness that is always there beneath my thoughts doesn’t feel attached to my Monica-ness. It’s the space that opens up in my consciousness when I smother my ego. My mind resting without attachment to my narratives. Free-floating, timeless space where I can mercifully drop out of the stories my thoughts tell me are reality. A place of no time. No past, no future. No want or need. Empty, open, awareness revealing itself.
Stop trying to improve your experience. Let it be what it is. Experience what is happening without judgment, without labeling it as good or bad, and without trying to alter or escape it. Play with your awareness. Observe how your mind works. Eventually, you’ll find what’s deeper than the obvious narrative your ego is telling you to fixate on e.g. “I am late for work and stuck in traffic and this sucks.”
What lies beneath that experience? The awareness that is always there, even when you aren’t aware of it.
And I’m not talking about the self you have constructed as the experiencer. YOU ARE THE EXPERIENCE.
You are a verb, not a noun. Be aware of that as often as you can. Author and psychologist John Astin explains it so nicely:
What are you? Look at your experience right now. This vast symphony of sensations continually arising and then passing away. This multitude of energies that appears and then vanishes in a flash. This kaleidoscope of flickering thoughts and feelings, here for an instant and then gone. An infinite array of experiential textures and qualities bursting forth and then disappearing just like that. Could it be that all of that is what you are? Now ask yourself if this matches the conventional notions you may hold about yourself as a fixed, solid, bounded creature. Really look at what’s here and you may discover that you’re not, in fact, fixed but are forever on the move, always shifting, always being reshaped. Maybe what you are is this ever-flowing ever-fluctuating dynamism that has no discernible edge or boundary to it. A ceaseless unpredictable explosion of life that never holds still for even a second. Could it be that what you are is quite literally beyond any definition or classification? Maybe the best we can say about ourselves is that we are cosmic shape-shifters. Never resolving as any one thing but only ever a universe of inconceivable, indescribable qualities and characteristics, like a thousand, million flavors being tasted each instant.
“Wake up,” your consciousness whispers to your cluttered mind and it all comes together in a lightning strike of awareness.
Yet, the present is so slippery. We flail. We grasp for The Next Thing. The next identity.
I am learning to pause and float on my back in the river of life. Full awareness within as many moments as possible. A kind of gut check, eye contact moment with myself as often as I can.
Hey girl, heeey…
So much life wasted. All of us are burdened by deep canyons we've climbed out of or steep mountains looming ominously on the horizon. Most of us spend all the moments between birth and death in that past/future thought trance. As Alan Watts said, “No amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is going to happen.”
All of life is one big transitional state between birth and death. Be here now. Drink it up. Big thirsty water gulps or savoring red wine sips. Whatever your pleasure. Savor it all. Unzip your skin suit and let your awareness fly free, you beautiful freak.
I see you baby, shakin that thang, shakin that thang, shakin that thang...
Reading: What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing From Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo. This one was recommended by my therapist and I’m seeing so much of my own life struggle on every page. The perfect mix of memoir and self-help, Stephanie chronicles her diagnosis with C-PTSD and the work she’s doing to heal herself.
Watching: I don’t pay attention to pop culture as much as I used to so maybe this one is obvious for most, but if you haven’t seen the movie The Worst Person In The World, it’s streaming now on Hulu. It has subtitles. I watched it alone in bed when Cory was out of town and it was the perfect experience.
Listening: Daisy Jones & The Six. This was my guilty beach vacation audiobook. I always have one or two books going on Audible and one or two actual books on my nightstand. I finally caved after all the praise and listened to this and I really loved it in a guilty pleasure, watching 90210 reruns kind of way. The audiobook experience was superb because there are so many characters and it’s really well done. I suspect I wouldn’t have liked it as much had I actually read the book. If you haven’t read this one yet, go for the audiobook! Then wormhole Fleetwood Mac, listen to the Rumours album and google Stevie Nicks & Lindsey Buckingham. Stevie Nicks, man. What a powerhouse of a human. A real woman’s woman.
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