Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Stripping it all away

Step into the fire of self discovery.
This fire will not burn you,
it will only burn what you are not. -Mooji
So, I was thinking the other day. Who would we be if we stripped our lives away to the bare basics? What is left? Who are you underneath it all? Who am I underneath it all?
I think I have had an identity crisis in the last few years. I worked really hard my whole life to build up my identity. I have been very conscientious and anal in doing the proper things in life. Everybody's idea of proper is different, but I was one to color in the lines very carefully. Get a decent college education, don't touch drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, don't get pregnant before you're done with college, start your career, be independent and stable, and don't ask for help too much. Maybe get married, but always keep your independence and your career. Don't take too many risks, don't rock the boat, be sane, and make sure people think you're respectable.

I thought I did pretty good in following these guidelines and building up a good identity. Looking back now, it sounds like a rigid, silly and boring identity, LOL. I say this with a lot of self love and laughter. However, at the time I thought I was on point.

What I secretly wanted to do career wise at this point was just go sit in the woods and day dream and write poetry all day. Or build a little hut in the woods and draw peoples' portraits for a living. And adopt a room full of bunnies, and a hut full of kids who had no mothers. Or go overseas and get lost in another culture for awhile. But my family was not impressed with my lack of a suitable career, and warned me that God would not bless a person who wasn't responsible and taking care of themselves financially. In fact, the evil one would come and wreak havoc on my life if I didn't do the Godly thing and get responsible. I was under much internal and external pressure to get a solid job in a good, stable career. My dad told me basically I was a lost cause because there weren't any stable careers out there that would match someone as whimsical and odd as me, but maybe I had enough IQ to manage to be a school teacher. Agghh.

So out of compulsion, I bit the bullet and decided I would become a teacher. I got my bachelors and masters degrees, as well as certification. I drug my feet in the whole process, though, not knowing if I would like teaching, or even be any good at it. After graduation, I dallied around for awhile. I was a substitute teacher for a couple years, and a nanny for a couple years as well. Until suddenly I realized my certification was about to expire, so I decided I might as well apply for a 'real' teaching job. So I did, and immediately was hired. What do you know? So I started my first teacher's position when I was 29, but to do so I  had to oust myself from my comfort zone and do a make-it or break-it move by moving to NYC. I figured I'd teach in the city long enough to make my resume look good, then move back to some rural area and continue teaching.
But once I was in NYC teaching, I was ecstatic. First, because it took me so long to achieve my goal of starting a solid career... finally. My goal, or everyone else's goal for me... it was all the same. And second, because I really did find my niche in life. This is what I was meant to do at that point in time, and I loved every second. I felt useful, needed and inspired. And I felt like I was making a difference in the world. The energy vibration in the school was low, and the atmosphere was stressful. But I adored the children in my class, especially the 'bad' kids... I knew they were hurting, and that's why they acted out. I realize this now even more than I did then. I loved the light that would come on in a child's eyes when they grasped a concept for the first time, or when they became so immersed in a book I was reading, that their whole face was lit up and they were actually in the story, in that character's shoes. To witness a kid fall in love with a book is priceless.
I also liked being independent, having my own apartment in NYC, living as a single female and having my summers off, soaking up the vibrancy of life in a big city. I feel like I was lucky. I often went to bed on Sunday nights not able to sleep because I was so excited about a certain lesson I had designed over the weekend for my class. For example, we taught probability and statistics in first grade. It was one of the state standards. I loved the challenge of taking potentially dry concepts and making them easy to grasp and fun. So I got a bag of skittles and some chart paper and some markers that each smelled a different flavor. And on Monday, each kid drew out a skittle, and we graphed what colors were drawn, and if a certain color inevitably was drawn quite often, we joked about the 'chances' of that color being drawn so much... was it magic, was it the way the bag was shook, was it how deep you put your hand, or was it just 'chance'?

I would try to think up ways for the kids to teach an abstract concept by translating it into something the kids could do actively with their hands and bodies, moving around and exploring, singing and dancing or making art. For example, we had a unit in language arts on writing sequentially, focusing on a four page book with starters like "First," "next," "then" and "last." So I decided we would do a whole class adventure called "Making S'Mores in the Classroom Microwave." First, we opened a box of grahams. Next each kid put a marshmallow on top. Then we added a bar of chocolate. Last we microwaved it. After our eating adventure, I had a chart paper made up where I made four drawings of our major activities, and the kids wrote in what they did in sequential order. Then, they made their own little books with drawings. Motivation was high, because they were all still tasting the chocolate in their mouths, and it was fun for them to remember and write about something they actually just did.

Every day, while eating lunch, while going home on the train, while cooking dinner... I was thinking of ways to make my lessons more vivid and creative like this. It wasn't work... it was a privilege. It was such an honor for me to be entrusted to 28 plus kids for a whole year at a time, and I lived it up as much as I could.
Life was good. I would come home with notes and drawings from the kids in my class saying "I love you!" and I would post them on my fridge. The kids were always hugging me and kissing my cheeks. Many of them couldn't speak English very well yet, and yet I was teaching them English and how to read in English to boot. It was so gratifying every year to watch them come in shy, not even knowing the sounds of the alphabet, barely on a pre-kindergarten level and by April of each year, they were reading on a first grade level right on target and speaking English with more confidence. When they are that young, they are sponges and soak up new learning so easily, especially when they are encouraged and given the tools they need.
Of course, life wasn't all about teaching. On the weekends for the first year I taught, I would hole myself up at an internet café with iced coffee, typing out lesson plans for 6 hour stretches on end. But by the second year I loosened up and enjoyed the city, dated a lot of guys and fell in and out of quite a bit of drama, in and out of love. Summers were nice because school was out, but I often felt antsy because I didn't like idle time on my hands. The busier I was, the better things were.
Then suddenly, the illness occurred, and the world flipped upside down. Not overnight, though. But eventually, I was too ill to work anymore. Had to give up my apartment and move back home with my family.
By the second year of not working, I eventually came to grips with the fact that my 'year off' wasn't just a year off, it was the introduction to a new life phase. A phase called 'Sitting at Home Doing Nothing and Being Too Sick to Care.' This was extremely painful for me. The first year, I treated things like a holiday, thinking I would just go back to teaching after the year was out. This didn't happen. The second year off, reality hit and I became very angry. I didn't want to accept it. But I was so sick, I didn't have the energy to be angry that much. I went into a vacuum where I didn't know who I was or where I was. I was pretty much delirious for a few years. Then I improved in health, and regained a bit of consciousness, but felt like I was emerging back into life... naked.

Summer 2012,  half a year before I woke up.
Yes, naked. I remember sitting for long periods of time looking out a window, or looking at my kitchen cupboards without seeing them. Just staring. Too sick to get up and go do anything, but aware enough to be able to think. And I was disgusted with myself and my circumstances because I felt like a looser. I felt like a kid again, but without the advantage of having a child's body. Here I was an adult in an adult's body, but I was back again at square one with nothing to show for all those years I was an adult. Here I was dependent on my sister for groceries, dependent on her good mood when asking for something from her, without a car, without independence, not able to go anywhere on my own, stuck in this apartment and life with no hope of improving health and getting my life and career back. And I had struggled so hard to get my career going... I had forced myself into it kicking and screaming, and here even that fell apart. I had struggled so hard to build up my identity, trying to find out who I was, and I thought I had found out, but now I didn't even know who I was anymore.
I felt like a ghost, like an empty nothing.
I would sit and wonder things like,
"Who am I now that I don't have a job?"
"Who am I without my health or strength or ability to care for myself?"
"Who am I now that I can't contribute to society like people think I'm supposed to?"
"Who am I as an adult without my own apartment, transportation or independence?"
"Who am I without the nice clothing I used to wear?"
"Who am I as a female without a boyfriend or husband or any man to love me? Worthless?"
"Who am I without friends to support me?"
"Who am I when my body is in constant pain?"
"Who am I, when I'm told there is no cure for this illness.... ever?"
 "Who am I if I don't have a way to support myself?
"Who am I when I have nothing?"

My answer to each of these questions: ummmm, worthless?
My family certainly answered that for me. I was treated like dirt because I wasn't contributing to anyone anymore. But I knew they were wrong. I couldn't just simply be the sum total of my job, my ability to give gifts, my ability to function like a 'normal' adult.

I was in a dark place for the first three or so years of the illness.
I guess I expected that because I was nothing anymore, I would just have to melt away, and not be a human anymore. I mean, if you have nothing, how can you be anything? And yet, for two years, I still existed. I was still there. So since I was still there, I guess that I expected that my life would have to be miserable, and there would be nothing I could do about it. So I woke up each day bracing myself for miserable, content that that's all that I could hope for in my circumstances. I figured I just had to bear it, because this was my lot in life.
This is where a silver lining popped up. The silver lining to having an ongoing illness is that it stripped literally everything away.
And in the nothingness that was left, I was still there.
Yes. In the nothingness that was left, I was... still there. 
The intangible things that made me 'me' were still there. I was still able to feel satisfied and joyful just sitting in the sun on the back patio watching the sun filter through the grape vine leaves, making dancing shadows, chasing each other across the table and across my arm resting on the table. No matter that I had no energy to get up and move at that moment. I still was able to experience highs like this, moments where my spirit sang. What a novel concept! How could this be?
I started going through some kind of shift that started in December 2012 and lasted into the spring and summer of 2013.

I decided that yeah, I could loose everything, but the real me would never disappear... and I wanted to get to know that me inside that was so resilient and strong.

The me that could still soar with joy even after loosing everything. So I set out to find that inner me. I started seeing hints of the real me popping up more often. When I played the piano, I started noticing my creativity more. I started seeing reflections of myself in things I admired, and I started noticing the inter-connectedness of life.  I started becoming more aware of my spirit, and I became aware of how powerful and alive it was.  I started noticing how awesome, courageous, beautiful, complex and amazing the spirits of different people were... and in so doing I realized I was seeing glimmers of myself in them.  I started to become fascinated with the beauty of life that is unrelated to those tangibles that I used to think I needed in order to be somebody.
My identity has shifted quite a bit. I feel more grounded, and more free at the same time. If I go to a party and someone asks me what I do for a living, I will probably answer, "I help people discover their true awesomeness. But I don't do it for money, ha hah."

I am not my career, or lack of one. I am not my circumstances. I am not my independence. I am not my status. I am not what I do or don't do for a living. I am far more than that. I am the eternal, fiery, lovely beautiful, strong me in my spirit that transcends it all. I am strong. I am worthwhile! I am me. My happiness doesn't rest on external factors anymore.
Sometimes I wonder... would I have ever learned this truth if I hadn't gotten sick and lost everything? Am I that thick headed that I needed to learn this lesson through direct experience?

How do other people come to discover their true inner self? Do most people just "get" this naturally? Am I one of the few who was blinded for most of my life? Do most children learn this from their parents, or do they just stumble upon this concept passively and just meld into it, assimilating it without trouble? Why did I need to get beat over the head with a two by four in order to learn this? Because the path I was on, I couldn't foresee myself learning this any other way. For me, it seems like the only way I was going to wake up was getting the rug pulled out from under me, experiencing an extended period of extreme loss and contrast.

Kind of like this song "Let Her Go" by Passenger that I keep hearing on the radio:

"Well you only need the light when it's burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go
Only know you've been high when you're feeling low
Only hate the road when you're missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go
And you let her go."

I don't know. It's true that we often miss something in sharp clarity when it's no longer there. But this doesn't mean you have to loose something in order to appreciate it, and on a larger scale... I don't think we need to experience pain and sharp contrast in order to learn.

There's this part of me that strongly believes that we don't have to loose something, or heck, even loose everything, in order to grow and learn. We don't need to go through hell on earth just to learn and change. I mean, it hurts! Who would willingly choose to step into my shoes for the last four years? Heck, if given the choice before hand, I wouldn't have chosen to have taken my life path these past few years.  But here I am.
I don't think that having the rug pulled out from under you is the only way to wake up, grow and change. It surely is one way of opening a person's eyes though.

There has to be a simpler way to get to a point of self discovery, other than trauma and extreme contrast. Some people take LSD, and they get 'there.' To a point of awakening. So, OK. Trauma or psychadelic drugs. Take your pick. I have a feeling that meditation might get you there. Maybe some people are born to parents who 'get it' and the kids get a free pass, so to say. Not to take a side tangent, but this is one reason why I would really love to have a child, whether of my own or by adopting. I could teach him or her their true nature... which by default they would already know better even than me while still a young child. But as they grow older and are at the point where other children start to forget, I would remind them. If all parents did this, this planet would be heaven on earth. Is that what John Lennon was referring to in "Imagine"?

I was thinking about this for the last few months. I was even asking a few other people, "Is there anything deep and insightful you learned in life without learning it the hard way?"
And nobody could give my an example of learning something passively. I find this hard to accept! The other day, though, I remembered that I did learn one deep life lesson without learning it the hard way... at all. I learned how to be calm and resilient from my mother, just by being her daughter. I watched her without knowing I was watching and I just soaked it up. I assumed it was just simply the way to be, and that's how I was. I also saw my dad flipping out like a mad man, easily upset by life, so I had a choice of course. I did choose. I saw the contrast between the two of them, like polar opposites, and I easily leaned into the calm and unruffled nature of my mother. There wasn't any pain or drama there. So yeah, I think we can learn life lessons easily. We can learn by observing the mistakes of others, and emulating the lifestyles of those we admire.
So there are ways we can grow and learn without chaos and pain. I sure as heck don't think people have to go through jarringly awful things to learn about life. Even though pain sure is an eye opener.

My heart is roaring in a way I secretly find magnificent. Although when I come around in my next life, I probably won't  pick pain as my catalyst. I will choose gentler methods, and I will share what I know about my inner nature with my children and those around me so they don't have to burn out, burn up in their own ashes and come to life again in order to see truth.
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