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When my internal monologue gets really belligerent on a topic, it’s generally because it’s trying to protect something that hurts, and either I can’t quite see it or don’t quite want to see it. When I easily fall into imagining angry conversations with people, defensive and strident conversations, then something underneath is definitely aching.
On the way home from taiji class last night, all my internal voices were mad, anticipating attack and rallying violent defense. Because taiji is not altogether a source of peace or strength right now, and that does hurt. Not all the time, but sometimes it catches me out.
My class has been working on an advanced form this year, a difficult form. I got through the beginning all right, but it gets harder as it goes and progress didn’t last. Moving into the harder second section coincided with the beginning of the summer’s terrible onslaught of anxiety issues, and for the first time since I started my practice taiji became a problem instead of a joy. I ground my way through classes, awkward and angry, sometimes determined to beat the damn thing out of spite and sometimes ready to throw up my hands and just walk away entirely. I stopped practicing outside of class, because I couldn’t make myself do it. I couldn’t face the extra reminders of how terrible I am and how hopeless it all was. I hated not keeping up, hated not practicing, hated the idea of practicing, hated that I wasn’t getting anywhere, hated that I couldn’t keep a lighter perspective and laugh off the awkwardness. Hated everything, and anticipated hating everything for the rest of the year, until Stupid Hard Form would finally go away in January and I could stop my slogging, demoralizing fight with it.
January is too far away. After a couple months of this I got mad enough to make an executive decision: Stupid Hard Form is fired. I’m not going to work on it. I’m not going to learn any more choreography for it, or have anything at all to do with it. I am so finished here. Because I realized that I still loved taiji and I missed it, and Stupid Hard Form was just getting in the way of getting back to a thing I loved and that used to help me. I couldn’t cope with flailing away at something extremely hard and having no perceptible progress, not when everything in my life felt extremely hard and was showing terribly little progress. This one thing, at least, I could opt out of. So I did.
It was the right choice. As soon as Stupid Hard Form was fired, my interest in working on everything else came back. I’ve got several short forms I can study, ones which still have lots to teach me. I’m considering entering the next round of belt testing, maybe even entering a small competition, when those were unthinkable before. I have no doubt that it was the right choice.
Except, Stupid Hard Form didn’t really go away. This dumb form pretty much is the bare-hand taiji program for this year. It’s what all the classes are working on. Except for me, because I fired it. So I find myself in a weird place. My program director is totally understanding, and has been very helpful in letting me absent myself from Stupid Hard Form, to go off on my own and work on something else while the rest of the class does whatever it does. But it’s not comfortable being on my own. It’s weird to find a corner of the room and try to ignore what else is going on, to choose what I want to do and try to learn something by myself. I’m separate now, and I don’t like it. I feel like a special case, a problem child, a “that student.”
There’s no truly comfortable ground here. My choice is either stay with everyone else and do something that has become a source of anxiety and pain, or segregate myself and feel the pinch of sticking out, of not fitting in. Even inside this truly understanding and accommodating environment, this place of good friends and real support, that still pinches me hard.
That not-fitting-in place is one of the hardest things for me, and I find myself uneasily confronting it more and more often — only inside the bounds of my own heart, because it’s too risky a thing to let out into the air. I find myself developing my own opinions and ideas, and then discover they separate me from the spoken opinions of my family, my closest friends and social groups, and I’m stuck. My own deep sense of truth won’t let me “just go along” with ideas I believe are wrong, but expressing what I believe is right will instantly separate me from people who are really important to me, and that’s emotionally treacherous ground. I can’t live alone. I can’t be separate, I won’t thrive on my own. But I won’t thrive unless I can find and speak my own truth, either.
I’m good at holding my tongue, and I give few people reason to suspect how contrary I can be. But taiji is pushing me right now to make my own right choice and live with the uncomfortable consequence of separation, of sticking out and not fitting in. Maybe this is a lesson I need right now, more than any refinement of physical movement. Maybe this is what Stupid Hard Form is going to teach me in the end: to get a little better at standing up inside my own truth, whatever the consequences may be.
This morning I wrote out a list. It’s a sort of weekly to-do list, but sort of not. It’s actually bigger than that.
The to-do items on this list represent some first steps in bigger projects, things that I really want to do. Things that have been on my mind for a while, which I haven’t done anything about. Things that scare me. Things that I really want.
It’s hard to actually really want something. I find that it is, at least. If you really want something, you can really get hurt by not having it. I’ve never really wanted anything too badly, as an unconscious defensive mechanism. If I don’t want something too much, I can shrug it off when it doesn’t happen. If I only really want things that I can be sure of, then there’s little risk involved.
This morning I wrote down a list of things that are not at all assured. A scary list. An I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this list. An I-don’t-even-know-how-to-do-this list.
It’s only a list. None of the things have happened yet. There will have to be a lot more lists before any of the things come into being, if they ever do. But the list has escaped from my head. All of these things are just a little bit more real than they were yesterday. Doing the things on the to-do list will make them a little more real still. Making the next to-do list could make them even more real.
I’m not good at really wanting things yet, and I’m not very good at chasing things I want. But I have a list. It’s a start.
Last weekend in my internet ramblings I wandered into a conversation about signs and portents, started by a good friend and wonderful lady who stumbled across something in her family history that took her aback, and about which she was wondering, is this some kind of message? Is there even such a thing as getting “messages” from the great beyond, in some fashion?
I can’t answer that question in any specific case, but in the general case, I believe very much that humans get messages from “the great beyond” — in more plain terms, God speaks and God acts, in many times and at many ways. He doesn’t always use plain language, so sometimes there are signs and cryptic messages seeded into our daily lives, things that could be very ordinary but which are suddenly not ordinary at all, things which compel our attention even if we don’t understand why.
It’s that internal attention bit that I’m thinking about, and which I gave my friend some food for thought about, because without the internal hook which grabs onto a “message” or “portent” and digs to find significance in it, whatever external thing constitutes the “message” would just go on its merry way and not mean anything in particular at all. Whether or not some external agency is trying to speak to us by sending a sign, if something really hooks our attention, then something internal is trying to speak, something inside us wants to be heard, and if we’re not paying conscious attention it will grab hold of unconscious means and keep yelling until we look at it. A message is meaningless if you can’t read it, or can’t even see it. What we really see and what attracts our attention are signs about what’s important to us, and well worth paying some attention to.
I was thinking about this later in the week while skimming through my blog reader, and so an internal thing said “A-hem” and finally pointed me at the contents of my blog reader, the sites I’ve collected over time to read because they interest me the most. Things like Jon Acuff’s blog, author of Quitter and strong advocate for chasing dreams. Things like Don Miller’s blog, author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and the brand-new Storyline, about to be released. The kinds of posts I bookmark are nearly always ones about how to chase something bigger or live a more meaningful life. Signs. Portents. Stuff that grabs my attention. Am I listening?
“So it’s about encouragement, then.”
It must have been, because on hearing this brief sentence from my counselor, I started weeping, and didn’t stop for near on five minutes. Yeah. It’s about encouragement.
It hadn’t been an easy or auspicious day to begin with; I’d been filling up with anxiety tension for a week, feeling more and more stretched by it, always aware, hardly able to slip it and relax at all. Earlier that day tension finally boiled up into anger, stomping and screaming around my house, yelling about everything I’m sick of and can’t magically change. I didn’t want to visit my counselor, because I was sick of her too: sick of how she has been making one suggestion after another for things I might try, nudging me to make choices, and all the while making me feel pushed, pushed and judged and not accepted and not acceptable. It wasn’t her intention to push me or to judge me, but her chosen tack in trying to help me wasn’t helping. It took me a long while to realize how much I hated this developing trend in our relationship, until I was finally, really and truly fed up with it. So I didn’t want to go talk to my counselor, I was full-up with anger and with anticipatory tension over having to engage in confrontation, even polite confrontation, feeling nearly ill with it. I left the house early for my appointment; I knew I had a bone to pick, and I wanted to get it over with.
It wasn’t an easy day, and it didn’t feel auspicious, but maybe underneath it was — maybe it was the divine assembly of conditions to help me see something I needed to see. Because I don’t need suggestions for what I could do or what I maybe ought to do; I’m clever enough to work out my own ideas, and suggestions from outside right now are unhelpful and unwelcome. I’ve got to find my own way through, and even the best-intentioned suggestions feel like meddling and put my back up. I don’t need advice. I need encouragement. I am desperate for it, in fact, and the lack of it hinders everything I need and want to do.
Look, none of the problems I’ve got right now are that complicated. I’ve got to find a new job. I’ve got to figure out if I want to advance my writing career and how I want to do it. I’ve got to take better care of myself physically and emotionally, to let the anxiety problems dissipate. I know what I need to do, and what I don’t know yet, I’m smart enough to figure out. The problem is believing that any of it matters. The problem is believing that I matter.
The one thing in the world that I really, terribly badly want is to hear “I love you, and I believe in you.” That’s all. I want that to be true, and as an intellectual exercise, I know it is. But only in an intellectual way. Sure, I “know” some people care about me, but I never hear it, and I need words. I need it to get said. I need to hear it, I need to read it, I need regular infusions of it, or it never actually sinks in and becomes real. It’s like hearing someone tell you that a kitten is soft or snow is cold or honey is sweet — it’s nothing like having the real experience of those things. Facts are pretty useless on their own. Without experience, they don’t sink in or take on real shape, they don’t become truth. And these ideas, that I matter, that I am loved, that good folks believe in me, are just facts. They don’t feel true enough for me to believe in all the time. And then all manner of badness ensues, because I can’t live without feeling like I’m loved and believed in. I feel like I’ve only lived half a life so far, so unsure of myself, avoiding so many things out of fear, not taking on challenges to stretch me or new experiences to enliven me. I’m hobbled by not believing in myself, and I don’t know how to believe in myself without the help of someone else believing in me too — and it doesn’t even matter if all I’ve got is the intellectual fact of it. I need words. I need to hear it, or it’s just not real.
It’s difficult to write this, because it’s a thing that I can’t create or demand. I can’t dictate to anyone in the world that they care about me, or that they believe in me, or that they say what I need to hear. But for once, I can at least say that I need it, and I can acknowledge the pain of living without it. I can acknowledge who I am: a sensitive heart, one who craves endearments and affection, one who needs acceptance and good friendship, one who needs encouragement and reassurance, and I need them in words, if they are ever to become real.
I love you, and I believe in you. I’m not sure I can imagine a life where I get to hear this regularly, because I’ve never had one. But it is what I desperately want. Without it, I will struggle forever. With it? I don’t know yet. Maybe I could do anything.
I’ve had all too much time over the past two months to observe the effects of anxiety on the body, in various kinds of circumstances. For me, anxiety is energy, nervous energy that clings on high in my body, in my neck, my chest, my shoulders. It’s a little like a perpetually held breath, or a constant state of startlement, something that draws the body up and keeps it there. It’s stiff, static, stagnant. It’s tiring.
It’s a hard thing to fight against, because my instinct when I don’t feel well is to pause until I feel better. I’m not good at pushing myself through discomfort, even when it’s good for me. In this case, it seems like pausing is one of the worst things. Pausing just makes all the stuck anxiety-energy stick even harder, and lets more energy pile up behind it, and everything gets worse.
I’ve been studying qigong (“energy work”) at the martial arts school for a couple of months now, long enough to have heard my teacher say this a few times: you can’t force energy to move. You can’t bully around the energy in your body, all you can do is guide it, and be as patient as it takes for it to go. I am so new to this study, I barely feel like I know anything about guiding energy or moving energy or what that should feel like or how I can tell what’s happening, but I think about that saying, and I think about how I feel when I experience anxiety, and it helps me understand. I can’t wish away anxious-energy and I can’t force it out and thinking that way just makes me feel worse. I have to find ways to lead that energy out. I need to be patient with myself.
It’s hard. Always hard to wait to feel better, when one is sick or hurt or weak. It’s hard, when I just want to curl up around myself, to straighten up and move. It’s hard, when I feel weak and incapable, to put myself out in the world and make contacts with people, personal contacts, professional contacts. It’s hard, when I don’t know what to say, to sit down with a keyboard and write something and let other people read it. It’s hard to encourage people when I just want a hug, or to cry.
Patience is needed. Intention is needed. Some degree of determination is needed, because movement is needed: movement in all these difficult ways, internal and external ways, physical and mental ways, uncertain, no-guarantee ways. I need to move, and sometimes it’s so hard. But I need to move.
In the midst of Olympic coverage last week, I saw a couple of different interviews with current and former athletes who talked about the relationships they had with their coaches. In each of them, the athlete said that they didn’t always like what their coach made them do, but they appreciated enormously that the coach pushed them to develop their skills and compete at the highest levels.
The most extreme was Michael Phelps’ personal coach, Bob Bowman. Apparently over the years Bowman has played a whole range of tricks on Phelps, forcing him to swim under difficult conditions — stepping on his goggles so they’d fill up with water in the pool, making Phelps a little bit late for competitions to add extra pressure. Because of this extra-credit training, Phelps has developed the mental focus to deal with pressure and out-of-the-ordinary situations. In one of his Beijing Olympic races, his goggles did fill with water — and because Phelps didn’t panic, and because he had trained in such a way as to know where he was in the pool even when he couldn’t see well, he still won the race. Being forced into hard situations earlier in his training enabled him to win his historic eight gold medals in those Olympic Games.
In some respects, training is training, and right now I’m thinking about spiritual training in my own life. There are so many passages in the Bible about discipline and training, urging us to accept discipline as an act of love from our Father in heaven. One extended passage on discipline comes at the beginning of Hebrews 12, including this frank reminder:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
We don’t get our choice of how to be disciplined, like a swimmer doesn’t get to choose all of his or her own training exercises. It’s the trainer’s job to watch and see what the swimmer can’t, and to assign work that will strengthen what’s week and sharpen what’s coming into focus. It is a collaborative relationship, because only the swimmer can feel what’s happening in his or her own body and set to doing the work, but the trainer’s job is to push the athlete along, and that may well mean handing out work that isn’t welcome.
I’ve had a lot of experiences over the last 18 months that I didn’t want and that hurt a great deal. Some of them I’ve wrestled with and overcome, some are still underway, some have only just begun. It helps me to reframe these difficult things, thinking about high-level athletes and their trainers. They work together to push their level of achievement forward, and that’s no more or less than God is doing with his people — acting as our trainer, giving us hard, practical experiences that will teach us how to take on life’s difficulties and overcome.
I keep a small battery-powered clock on my downstairs bookshelves, where I can see them from the cozy spot I sit to read sometimes, or sometimes when I need to cry and feel some comfort. I’m sitting and looking at it as I write this. It’s not giving me the right time, though. The battery in it is wearing out, and for a few days it’s been stopped at 3:50. The second hand feebly twitches, but there isn’t enough juice to propel the larger hands around the dial. (I’m sure I have batteries somewhere, but I keep forgetting to change this one.)
Today I feel a lot like that clock. I know what my next steps in life need to be, but I am stuck at taking them, not enough power to propel me forward. Perpetually hung at 3:50 in the afternoon, never getting to tea-time, never a good supper, no evening of relaxing knitting or reading, no promise of dawn and morning coolness and new, exciting things in store.
How do I change my battery? What will it take to move me on from here?
I’ve been watching the Olympics this week, and a big highlight of these games, as always, is the gymnastics competition. I don’t know anything about gymnastics except that the people who perform them at this level are astonishing to watch, and I’ve been enjoying both the women’s and men’s competitions so far.
I was watching the women compete on uneven bars a couple of evenings ago, and wondering how they ever learn to do it. Not merely how to swing loops from a single bar (difficult enough!) but how to switch from one to the other on the fly and back, how to throw themselves high over the bars and catch them on the way down, and turn and loop and switch and twist and trade bars and trade back again. It’s such a dynamic thing, and it depends on momentum to work — you have to learn it on the go, learn it by going. They must fall off a lot, I thought.
That idea caught my attention. Of course they fall off a lot; all of gymnastics involves falling a lot. Every beautifully polished routine in these games must represent so many falls, so many misses and not-quite-theres and not-even-closes. Gymnastics training centers are full of thick mats and pits full of foam blocks, because falling a lot is taken for granted. It’s an integral part of the program.
I still find myself thinking about the grace of those training rooms, filled with mats and foam. How it’s so taken for granted that learning gymnastics skills means doing a lot of falling, and thus the means for falling safely are provided everywhere. Go ahead and fall; get up and try and fall again. With those big foam pits, falling might be as much fun as succeeding.
It’s no secret that gaining success in any arena means falling a lot, falling and failing as many times as it takes to perfect the needed skills. One has to take some risks, and that means risking falls, figurative ones at least. I find it so hard to do, and thinking about gymnastics makes me realize that I put down no mats for myself, build no pits for soft landings. There’s no possible floor surface but concrete, in my mind, nothing to break a fall, and so a fall must break me. Better not try anything risky. Maybe it’s best to just sit down and keep still. I don’t often fall down when I’m sitting still.
How do you lay out mats for yourself, when the falls are metaphorical ones rather than physical? Can you learn how to make it safe to take some chances in life — dare I say, is it possible that some falls could be as fun as tumbling into a pit full of foam blocks? I don’t know, but I hope so.
Today I am considering this:
This is the chart of all the walking I did during the month of July. I wrote about my calendars back in April, when I first printed out the months and taped them to the wall of the room where my treadmill lives. I said how motivating it was when I made my progress more visible, when I could tell at a glance how well I was doing at my goal of walking regularly — here’s what May looked like, as an example. Lots of walking happened in May.
There was a problem I hadn’t considered back then. Making progress really visible also makes lack of progress really visible. Looking at July is painful. I did so little work and lost so much ground. Not just in walking, in nearly everything. In many areas it’s not quite as obvious as my walking chart makes it, but I know it’s true. I can feel it. It’s been a huge struggle to restart any of my stalled habits, all the things that I thought I was doing so well with and that were helping me be more healthy and feel better about myself.
I’m trying not to be hard on myself. July was an exceptional month — I don’t want to dwell on the ways in which it was exceptional and hard right now, but it was. I’m not back on track anywhere yet, I don’t even know where all my tracks are or should run now. I feel more than a little lost, a lot of the time.
What to do with July? I don’t know if I can do anything with it, July is over now. Now I have August, and here’s what I’ve done with it so far: