The ego-mind lives in fear of so much that cannot be avoided or controlled: change, failure, loss, weakness, judgment, shame, pain, and death. My ego-mind, for instance, does not want you to know that I have a son who I was never there for. Fulfilling the archetype of the absent father (as my dad and grandfather both did to some extent), I missed out on his entire childhood, and now he’s grown into a man. My ego doesn’t want you to know that there have been entire years of my life ruled by addiction and inertia. It doesn’t want you to know that I never followed through on the career path I used to think defined who I was, the novel I worked so hard on and then failed to publish, the marriage that fell apart. I have an impressive track record of failures, a killer resume. We so often think of compassion in terms of others, but genuinely feeling a soft-hearted tenderness for ourselves can be one of the trickiest flowers in our garden to grow.
Throughout my life, death and loss have always seemed to be uncomfortably close, refusing to keep their distance. At sixteen, breast cancer took my mother after a multi-year battle. That same year, both of my great-grandparents – well into their nineties – succumbed to stroke, memory loss, old age. Years later, cancer crept into my grandmother’s kidneys (my mom’s mom) and she chose assisted suicide in her home-state of Oregon. I was living three-thousand miles away in upstate New York when she called to tell me about her decision, on my birthday with a party going on in my house. “Here’s lookin’ at you kid” she would tell my sister two weeks later, drink down the martini with the drug swirling in it, and fade to black. Some years after, my uncle died of cirrhosis of the liver. Both of my dad’s parents recently passed away. My fourteen-year marriage ended in separation and divorce. I lost my relationship with each of my ex-wife’s family members. After fourteen years they had become my family too – I was close with each of them. But we all lost each other. Loss persists, and grief is a landscape through which we wander and roam without any clear endpoint. There are times when moving through grief, and all our many forms of resistance to it, can feel like going into battle.
A few years into our marriage, my ex-wife was debilitated by a chronic illness and our world changed almost overnight. Any thoughts we had about the future (having children, buying a home) eroded in the face of this radical force that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Our general happiness collapsed under rising levels of emotional pressure and financial worry, and it took many dark years to go from a mis-diagnosis of asthma to a correct diagnosis of GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease). She was no longer next to me in bed each night, relegated to the couch by incessant wheezing, throat-clearing, breathlessness, and the sleep deprivation that came with it. She couldn’t work. Our social life shrunk. The medical bills started coming in. Fast-forward a few years, and she was depressed, confused, scared, run ragged. She felt like she’d lost everything. So did I. I stuffed it down, used alcohol, wandered the woods alone for hours. I did my best to be a strong, steady rock. In the end it didn’t work. You can’t abandon yourself forever. It all comes back around in the long run.
Beneath my cheerful exterior I was growing numb, burning out on my job – and my life. Ultimately it would be yoga and meditation that would bring this fact into the field of my awareness and expose a deeper layer of my own interior to me – but not yet.
Year after year I watched the woman I loved suffer, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I already harbored a resentment of doctors and western medicine because I’d watched my mother lose a battle with breast cancer as a teenager. That resentment had begun to simmer, and it was bound up with the pain I held over all my lost loved ones in a sticky web of self-pity and sorrow. I was also deeply attached to a story I had made up about myself: my lot in life, I had decided, was that the people I loved most would always get sick and die. This is eventually everyone’s story, of course. But it’s difficult to see that when you’re caught up in your own story, struggling against acceptance of the basic nature of life. I was holding on tight to the notion that pain is a punishment; pleasure, a reward.
The problem with beliefs is how we brainwash ourselves with them. We will put ourselves through whatever it takes in order to hold up the construct of a belief about ourselves, another person, anything. Beliefs are like prison guards who have us convinced we’re living in the free world; meanwhile, we’re living in confinement.