I used to think that downing cups of coffee all day long would give me sustainable energy. That if I was slimmer, I’d be happier. If I was nicer, more people would like me. And if I could practice this-or-that challenging asana, I’d prove myself to be “stronger.”
I was stuck on being “strong” or “having it all together” for a long time. And it’s easy to buy into that kind of thinking.
Contemporary culture is rife with images of unconquerable people. Walk through any self-help bookstore aisle and you’ll find cover images of awakened souls who have much to teach you. Open any tabloid and you’ll generally find that celebrities are either “breaking down; totally going nuts,” or that they’ve “found a new love, toned up, moved somewhere fabulous, and kicked their old life in the balls.”
When I began practicing yoga four years ago, I realized that the media's depictions of practice often represent similar idealizations of invulnerability. We are presented with the strong person who is culturally on point because they’re a yogi, totally in tune with themselves, and maybe even the universe.
The strong person is always totally unshakable.
What I didn’t realize was that I was buying into that kind of hype anymore.
It took me six years to learn how to process his death. It took traveling to Portugal, where I found myself at the feet of a master teacher.
Ten years ago, a friend of mine was murdered. It’s something I rarely talk about, but it totally changed my life—I’ll never be the same. It took me six years to learn how to process his death. It took traveling to Portugal, where I found myself at the feet of a master teacher.
During the 18 days I spent there, I simply allowed myself to break. I cried more in those weeks than I had ever, in my whole life, allowed myself to cry. I wept every day. Every minute of every day. Every moment. And it felt amazing.
When I arrived all I could think was, Jesus. I really, really needed this. I really needed yoga, and this ashram, this holy space, this teacher, a soft place to fall. Like some out-of-time, out-of-ordinary reality realm where I could be all heart.
No grit. No muscle necessary.
But when I left, and returned back to the States, I put the experience away in a neat little box. And I put my proverbial boxing gloves back on and thought: Surely if I could let go of this kind of loss, after carrying it around for so very long, I have no more attachments. Surely nothing can ever affect me so greatly again.
Alright, so, there’s actually a lot of truth to that. I am stronger. There’s something to be said about hitting rock bottom. People generally don’t fall back into that kind of hole. But I was a little too literal about the “nothing” part.
Looking back, maybe I thought I was enlightened or something. But that would have been far too simple.
In the yoga world, enlightenment often becomes our version of “found a new love, moved somewhere fabulous.” And maybe some of us are a little too quick to claim it, or at least to claim a sense that we cannot be defeated. According to Ram Dass in his epic book Grist for the Mill: “The predicament is that enlightenment is not an achievement; enlightenment is a transformation of being.”
So what does this transformation of being entail?
I’m still not totally sure what it means to find lasting bliss, or unshakable happiness. Or what it means to surrender completely to wild, wild life. But I am starting to see that experiences (like happiness, even enlightenment) aren’t objects we can gather, or goals we should or can (again) achieve.
In order to be strong, we don’t necessarily have to conquer our human experience. We probably just need to get deep and honest about our inner work.
We probably also have to relate to, rather than avoid, suffering.
Years ago, when my grandfather was dying, my sister and I alternated spending time alone with him to express our goodbyes. When she returned from his room, she looked bewildered as tears streamed down her face:
“I just did the weirdest thing ever.”
“I had this feeling that I could breathe in his pain, so I did.”
“And I mean, who does that?” she continued.
“Who breathes in pain?”
I was spooked; immediately worried that on some psychic level she’d really harmed herself. Maybe she’d sucked his soul in somehow? That probably wasn’t good for her, and maybe not even him! (You know, just everyday thoughts.)
I felt I’d already found my teacher, my path in yoga; what was this Buddhism stuff?
Weeks later, I was standing in her kitchen. We’d just gone thrift shopping, and she had Pema Chödrön’s classic book Things Fall Apart in her hands. She was reading passages, trying to convince me to get the book myself. At that time I felt I’d already found my teacher, my path in yoga; what was this Buddhism stuff? And my belief was: Life can be hard. I get it. And I’m dropping it. I’m moving on. It’s time for me to be happy. I don’t want that “pain stuff” anymore.
But then we got to the part about tonglen practice, we both looked at each other wide-eyed, realizing that this practice was essentially what my sister had done when my grandfather was passing away. The practice, in brief, involves breathing in pain (whether personal or universal pain) so as to feel it fully. And on the exhale, if we have joy to send out into the world, we can. All of which is to suggest that instead of avoiding suffering, and all the uncomfortable aspects of life, we bring it in—into our lungs, into our being, into our experience. We bring it on.
And here’s what that little revelation, over the years, has taught me (and continues to teach me):
I’m not over life.
I’m still having a human experience.
Sometimes it hurts to be human. And I can’t always “win.”
I can’t always be strong.
What could softness, tenderness, vulnerability teach me instead?
The person who thinks she has to be strong still presents herself every now and then. But if I listen carefully enough, I begin to learn what she needs. Why she’s here. What she’s truly showing me. And in those moments, I have the opportunity to breathe her in—everything she is afraid to feel, whatever she’s running from, however she can’t “measure up”—and set her free.
Maybe that’s how we discover true strength.