I’ve chosen to lead a life in which I am awake. Awake to suffering, to the void, to the darkness. For as long as I can remember, my story has read “How can I fix this? What can I do to make things more fair? How can we serve each other?” I’ve dedicated my career to my personal mission of answering these questions—something I recognize I am incredibly privileged to be able to do. Beyond my darkness, I double as a collector of joyous moments, in work and in recreation. Giggling with my clients’ children, standing on a mountain top watching the sun rise, holding my best friend’s hand, counting shooting stars—“this is why I’m here,” I tell myself every time.
A lot of the time, you will find me laughing, making inappropriate jokes, singing my heart out in a crowd, skipping full speed downhill, tripping over the clunky vessel that is my body. On other days, though, my laugh sounds like it belongs to someone else. Those days, I find it harder to hold hands with the people I love, because I can feel in my bones that, someday, I’ll never be able to hold their hand again. My therapist recently made me aware of my tendency to avoid getting specific in order to avoid getting emotional, so let me clarify: it’s when I draw my awareness to the warmth and weight of their hand--the way I know it by heart—that I can’t stand to hold it in mine anymore. Awake, I can already envision the empty space where their hand once was, the chill of the air around it. How will I manage? How could I? I would, I will because I will have to, but why? Why do I have to? Why should I have to? Why does anyone have to? It’s so unfair that I want to shatter into a thousand pieces.
I’ve spent hours being angry with myself, wondering whether, beneath my shell, all of my depth is just sorrow. Afraid that I’m too much, too wretched, too traumatized. Baffled by the way I can be roaring with laughter in one moment and welling up with tears in the next. Unwilling to let it sink in that I am not one self, but a host of selves. I run full speed down my city’s streets with music blasting in my ears, trying to drown out a feeling I can’t explain or understand. And eventually it leaves for a while, and I can smile again.
I work in a unique sector. I’m in a direct service role, where my nine to five is filled with impactful moments that can have long term repercussions in others’ lives (lucky, spoiled—trust me, I know, I really am). Any moment that isn’t spent doing something productive can feel like a guilt trip added to my list of places I have to travel, and travel I will: “People are counting on you, how dare you,” my brain waves tell me, crashing against the contours of my body with all their might. Being awake requires noticing what’s in the shadows. How can you look the cruelty of the world in the eye, day in and day out, and continue to trudge forward with hope and grit, without ever losing momentum? Perhaps it’s time I let down the rope and allow my techniques to change along with me—maybe keeping the same momentum isn’t the goal. Both the lightness and darkness we experience change us after all.
We expect a lot from ourselves: exercise, eat healthy, be productive at work, be a good parent, be a good child, be a good friend, make money, save money, follow your dreams, be kind to others, don’t forget your keys, pay your bills on time, be funny, be happy, be skinny, have a six pack, look put together, get enough sleep, call your mom back, send that birthday card, keep up on the news, be on time, don’t disappoint anyone…the list just grows and grows, and the result is that we spend our lives punishing ourselves, convinced that everything we need is on the other side of those conditions. We set ourselves up to be disappointed every single day.
I’ve been learning about my body and the way it carries me through the world. My brain may push things aside when it’s too preoccupied to focus on everything thrown its way, but my body doesn’t. Our bodies pile up our experiences and emotions, brick by brick, until they weigh a thousand pounds and, all of a sudden, we find ourselves suffocating beneath their crumbling walls. When it comes to living a life of fulfillment, self-compassion and self-care aren’t cute, they’re required. The thing is, that doesn’t always look like adding more things to your list—sometimes, it’s actually more of a stripping away. It might look like appreciating what you did get to today, rather than what you didn’t. It might look like laying on your floor for five minutes instead of forcing yourself to go to the gym, giving your body permission to make space for the rest of your day’s tasks. Personally, I’m learning that part of this shift includes accepting that living an “awakened” life comes with equal parts dark and light. My joy wouldn’t be so pure if it weren’t inextricably stitched to an intimate relationship to grief—it’s just part of the package. If others can’t handle my layers, it doesn’t mean I’m doing it all wrong, it may just mean they’re not for me, that they don’t see me for who I am. Are you loved already? By anyone at all? A parent, a sibling, a partner, a friend? If you’re reading this, chances are, you’re probably loved by me just as you are. I’m working on convincing myself of a truth you ought to let sink in too: you are already loved without conditions, you are doing your best, you are already succeeding. There is nothing about you that you need to water down, add, or hide behind to be loved and accepted. You are seen as you are, and you are as perfect as you’ll ever be. “Can you be a little bit of a better friend to yourself?” asked Elizabeth Gilbert, in a podcast I listened to recently. My friends, let’s work on that. We only get to do this thing once. There is no such thing as convincing others that they matter if none of us can believe that we do.