Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The comfort of the cage

The other day I was running around Lake Merritt in Oakland. It was sunny, the sky was, well, sky blue with no clouds. The light was glimmering off the waves and a cormorant flew low over the water. My Oakland peoples were out running and walking their dogs. It was Springtime and life was in the air.

But I didn't care. I was worried, and I kept thinking about whether she was going to call. I would only feel better if she called. Or should I call her? Should I be honest and upfront about my needs because that is who I am, honest and upfront? Or should I play it smart, let her come to me, knowing that this strategy is probably more effective?

All of a sudden, I got pulled out of this tizzy of thinking and I realized where I was. I saw the water shining, I heard the rhythm of my footsteps, I smiled at a guy running in the opposite direction. I felt a part of this day, connected to the lake and the sun and the other people. I felt alive!

And then I remembered I was worried, and just as suddenly, I was back in my anxious little head, worrying and strategizing. As unpleasant as it was, it was as if a part of me actually preferred the worried thinking to the freedom of letting go.

This part of me said, "hey, yeah I know you are digging on the scene and and the sun and the lake and just being and all, but you have a life to worry about, so get back to worrying, bitch". And like a good bitch, I obeyed, worrying my little head off the rest of the run.

This is what I call the comfort of the cage: when we actually choose a crappy state of mind over a more free state of mind because somehow feeling good is scary and feeling bad is safe.

In my experience, there are three reasons we do this:

1. We are scared to not think about our lives. We feel like something bad will happen if we are not worrying, planning, analyzing. "Can't let go into the moment, because then the house of cards might topple". This is what happened to me when I was running around the lake.

2. Feeling good is scary because we might lose it and feel bad again, so instead of dealing with this fear, we decide to just get it over with and feel bad again. This happens a lot with people who are starting to get better from depression. They are so scared of falling back into depression that they can't enjoy the new, good feelings and end up exactly where they don't want to be - depressed again. It's like flying feels really good, but shit, I might crash, so I better go ahead and just land the plane.

3. We find ourselves feeling really good, and then part of our brain wants to figure out exactly how we got here, so instead of just enjoying, we start thinking again, and dammit, the good feeling is gone. This one happens to me sometimes during meditation. It's hard for me to enjoy the new scenery, I want to go back and create a map.

In each of these instances there is the underlying sense that uncertainty is unbearable, and we actually prefer unpleasant states of mind that we are familiar with to the uncharted terrain of being more alive to the moment.

I don't know of any foolproof tricks to stay in the moment. I just keep reminding myself to let go, that it is ok to get out of my head and enjoy what life has to offer. Maybe one day, I will no longer be my mind's bitch.

What about you? How do you get out of your head and let yourself be in the moment?

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  1. Sounds like a case of what I call the "Jeanettes!" To get out of my head I tell myself, "Fuck it dude, let's go bowling." Ok that's not my own, it's a line from the Big Lebowski but my method is very similar. I tell myself simply, "You're doing everything right or You've worked hard for this or you've experienced enough to know better." Then it triggers that I've learned (through much despair and anguish) that there are competing perspectives at play. Maybe they're the one's that have been offered to me by society: that I'm either entitled to the 'moment' or undeserving of it.

    (side note: I read once in a book that parents of a certain elevated social status have this culture of teaching their kids entitlement. I wonder if it applies to the 'moment' as well. I think it might. Then my semi-catholic upbringing tells me not only am I undeserving but I should also feel guilty about it.)

    Reasons 2 & 3 changed the course of my life at a time where I thought I might actually achieve enlightenment and disintegrate into Nirvana. I know it sounds crazy but I was sincerely worried that I would no longer be able to relate to people. I was also concerned that it was induced by taking shrooms. Then I was influenced by the book Siddartha which pretty much told me to "take the long path and stay humble with the people," i.e don't be too concerned with staying in the moment. It will come and it will go.

    Though I now take the above as a metaphor, at the time I accepted the possibility of reaching "Nirvana"but that it could exist on Earth. I don't discredit my experience because drugs were involved. The experience was truly therapeutic and has allowed me to live more in my skin ever since then.

    Like you say though, I think maybe there was that uncertainty that I would lose it. That I would fall from grace. So I chose to land the plane into the territory I was used to. For months after I would try to retrace my steps back which resulted in disappointment 'cause I couldn't hold the 'moment' like I did before (I stayed in the 'moment' for almost 2 months.) I would then tell myself, "this is what you wanted."

    Over 10 years have passed since then and each year I get better at becoming less concerned with holding the 'moment.' I enjoy my positive developments and I allow my regressions. The difference is I sort of remove myself to watch how it plays out. Sometimes its sad, its mostly hilarious but it never ceases to be entertaining.

    This quote from Leaves of Grass helps too (think of "letters from God" as the 'moment':

    "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name,
    And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come for-ever and ever."

  2. Thank you, anonymous, for this very thoughtful comment.

    A few thoughts:
    1. You don't need to tell me which line that is from! Thank you for reminding me of it. Kind of helps in just about any situation.
    2. Seems like you have developed a lot of acceptance for yourself to be in the moment or not. It's a good reminder to me that I can get all anxious about "being in the moment" as in "Oh no! I'm not in the moment, how do I get back? Maybe this is the time for "Fuck it Dude, let's go bowling." I think this is what the Whitman lines are getting at too: not grasping after these letters from God.
    3. Sounds like you had a very powerful drug experience, and I don't discredit what you experienced either. Sounds like the shrooms acted as a portal and you took with you what you learned on the other side, though it took a while to integrate it here on Planet Earth.

  3. Loved this post and loved the comment by the first anonymous.....The phenomenon you describe resembles the explanation I heard a psychoanalyst explain as one of the reasons for fear of success. That is that people are unconsciously fearful of their own repressed primitive envy. As infants, she explained we are all envious. We are socialized to not allow ourselves to feel this way since there is an aggressive component to envy that differentiates it from jealousy. In envy, we compare ourselves to someone (Buddhists call it comparing mind.) and the comparison makes us feel that we don't measure up, that we are flawed, defective (i.e. we feel shame). So, as a defense against this shame, we wish the other person would lose what they have that makes them seem superior or, maybe, just crash and burn.....So, now as adults, when we feel good or when things are going well for us, we fear losing that state because now we are the one who is one up or superior. So people say things like "knock on wood", or the Yiddish "kunna hora", or throw salt over their shoulder. They think they'll be smited by saying out loud that things are good. Or they say, "Pride cometh before a fall." Unconscious repressed primitive envy? Superstition? Whatever, it's a bitch.

  4. A fourth reason not to let ourselves enjoy the moment: fear of the evil eye. It's funny, people will say that they don't deserve to have bad feelings (sadness, anger) because their circumstances aren't as bad as other peoples' (ie, "Now people in the Sudan, they have it bad. I have no right to feel sad.") But they also use "comparing mind" not to feel good as you point out. I find many people have an especially hard time owning their good qualities or accomplishments. (ie, "I don't want to say I am smart because that sounds like I think I am better than other people.") As you say maybe the real fear in this instance is other people's envy.