The weather here in Colorado has been awful–by my standards–for the last week: dark, gloomy, rainy, unseasonably cold. This isn’t good for either my physical health or my mental health. Since Tuesday, I’ve been all but incapacitated by a migraine. Add in the fact that tomorrow is Mother’s Day, which is an incredibly problematic holiday for me, and, well. I’m not doing too well.
Migraines are frustrating for me. Not just the pain. That’s bad, sure. The unpredictable physical awfulness is exhausting. But I’ve been dealing with that part almost since I can remember. I don’t like it–you can’t LIKE it–but I’m used to it. I have my coping mechanisms. I have a partner who’s willing to run to the store for a Coke and massage my neck. If I absolutely can’t stand it, I can call my doctor and get a shot of Toradol and Phenegran. I get through it.
The worst part of it is the boredom. Pain is boring, once you get past the ability to indulge in it. Migraines limit my ability to participate in my life at the level I’d like. I spend a lot of the time lying on the couch with a heating pad on my head, sometimes fretfully dozing but not truly sleeping. When I get bored with that, I read random stuff on the Internet. I don’t feel well enough to DO anything, and although some ideas might drift in and out of my mind, I don’t have what it takes to set them on the page. Everything is grueling and colorless, the same grey as the sky outside the window. Uninteresting. Passionless.
There’s always a point where I become almost unbearably depressed. It might be from pain and exhaustion, or it might be from spending so much time with only my thoughts and process for company. Physical pain forces me inward, to the place where my emotional pain lives. Without exterior distraction, I have to co-exist with it. I look at it, and it looks at me. We take each other apart and rearrange ourselves in new patterns. Insight arises, and it comforts no one. I see a particular truth or explore an old wound, and there’s nothing at all I can do about it
I think there are some wounds that never heal. They’re like a chronic abscess. From time to time, you open it up and drain out the poison, but there’s some deep impurity you can never quite access. Over time, the infection builds again. The pain increases. You try to live with it, get through it, get past it. But eventually you have to go back in.
I think this truth is the reality behind the stories in folklore about unhealable wounds. Some things, you don’t get over. We like to think, in modern society, that everything is surmountable. That we shape our own destinies and own our Fates. But it’s not true. Some times it IS too late to realize your dreams. Some things ARE impossible. Some things, once broken, can never be put back together. Some things are never put together right in the first place.
In places along Glenwood Canyon, trees grow out of rocks. They cling through winds and storms, twisted and stunted, some many years old. Roots find small pockets of soil, water; never enough. Those trees will never be like the straight trees in the woods above. People might think it’s amazing they grow at all. They might be admired for their strength and tenacity. I wonder if the trees feel strong, or if they simply do the best they can without the resources they need. Seeds sprout and grow, mindless. This is what they’re programmed to do. But perhaps one day, the wind will be too strong and the roots will give way.
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I read an article on mindfulness the other day. It upset me.
For those who don’t know, mindfulness practice in its varying forms grew out of the Buddhist tradition of meditation. To put it simply, when you sit quietly with yourself and focus on a single thing–your breath, a candle–and let your inner thoughts arise without judgment, you gain insight into your own thought process. This, in turn, allows you to release patterns of thought and action, and relate to the present moment instead of instilling it with your ideas about what it “should” be or projecting past experience and/or future desires onto it. The idea is to become detached from your solid sense of self, the “ego.” This is supposed to be beneficial because it makes you more adaptable to circumstances as they are, rather than as you interpret them, and this, in turn, can help you get through crises, triggering events, and the like.
Like I said, that was a very simplistic definition.
Mindfulness practice has become pretty trendy over the last twenty years or so, particularly as a therapeutic tool. And it definitely has its benefits. It’s a good thing to learn more about one’s own mind and how it functions. It’s a good thing to be able to take a breath and be able to interact with things as they ARE, rather than as you expect them to be from a bad childhood experience, or whatever. So in that respect, I have little disagreement with using it as a therapeutic tool.
The thing that upset me about the article was the title: ” ‘You’ Don’t Exist: Why an Enduring Self is a Delusion.” Up front, that phrasing is a personal trigger. And I got triggered more and more as the article went on, talking about how amazing it is to realize that “self” is a construct made up of constant chatter and how since the self is the source of suffering, working on self-esteem and the like is actually detrimental to health. In my opinion, this is a place where trying to fit everyone into a box described by a particular facet of Eastern philosophy can be damaging, if not downright dangerous.
I majored in Dance Therapy at a Buddhist college where mindfulness practice in the form of sitting meditation was part of the curriculum. It was presented as the “One Wonderful Thing” that would solve everyone’s troubles. But it’s not, because people are different. It may be true that learning to transcend the self is beneficial for people who have a solid self concept. However, this idea does not take into account the experience of those people who never had a solid self concept to begin with. People, that is, like me. When you’ve lived a great deal of your life on the receiving end of messages like, “Don’t bother me,” “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t get in the way,” “Don’t take up space,” and simply “Don’t BE,” hearing that self is the problem is re-wounding. People whose experiences have been dismissed and minimized need to RECLAIM the self, not give up more of it.
* * *
Today I read this article on toxic parenting (it’s actually about breaking up with a toxic mother, but I think the ideas apply to any primary caregiver). It cites a study in child development which included an experiment called the “Strange Situation” scenario, in which an infant is introduced to increasingly stressful situations, e.g., a stranger entering the room while the mother is present, being left alone with the stranger, being left entirely alone. The researcher posited that an infant needs a secure base from which to explore the world and interact with others. If the caregiver consistently meets the infant’s needs beyond simple food and shelter, she (the study was done about mothers, so I’m sticking with that pronoun) provides a secure base. If, “on the other hand, if a caregiver is inconsistent or absent, the infant forms an insecure attachment and becomes incapable of exploring or regulating their feelings in moments of stress.”
To me, this resonates with the deficiencies of mindfulness practice as a therapeutic tool. If you don’t have a secure attachment to begin with, focus on overcoming attachment–as in meditation practice–is wrongheaded if taken too far.
The mindfulness article pointed out that “in other cultures” identity is less individual than it is in the West, being equally divided between the community, nature, and other elements, and went on to argue that this diffuse ego is innately healthier than the centralized Western ego. Aside from this reeking of the “noble savage” trope, it strikes me as exceptionally short-sighted. I would posit that in cultures with less centralized ego structure, care-giving is also less centralized. That is, a child would not be dependent on a single person (the mother) to help them establish a secure base. There would probably be a network of grandparents, other community members, and so forth. Some people get these things in Western culture. Some don’t.
* * *
At my core, where I am supposed to have a self, there is a crater. A gaping emptiness that nothing ever seems to fill. The wound that won’t heal. I have no secure base. I pretend to, because I have no alternative. But nothing is there.
I fling myself into the abyss, over and over. I strive to BE. I have no reflection in the eyes of the people around me. When I leave the room, I cease to exist.
Some of the ways I have learned to cope look like strength. I ask for what I need or want, because I have been taught that this is healthy, because “you can’t expect people to read your mind.” Yet every time I do, it rubs salt in the wound. I know that if I don’t speak up, if I don’t ask, I become invisible. I have no faith that anyone would piss on me to put out the flames, were I to catch on fire. Not unless I ask. If I don’t ask, I must be fine.
I cry from a broken mouth. I want to be heard before I ask, to be seen before waving my hand in front of the face that turns away, intent on its own business.
These have been my thoughts over the past week.