Adventures in Mindfulness
Katie Estes is a freelance designer, art director, photographer and stylist. She sometimes writes too.
If this place is so beautiful then why do I keep thinking about all the ways to die? I'm not sure a person could try to stay more alive. I'm using books as bookmarks in my self-help stack. My browser has tabs with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield left permanently open. I've bounced around to so many beautiful places I don't know where to go.
While on top of this beautiful mountain taking pictures of Clementine's ears, I remembered this anonymous quote:
"If you want to learn what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph."
I'm terrified of losing so much, just look at my Instagram. Photographs and film are the only art I've ever felt. They help me feel, remind me to feel. Sometimes I'll look at a sunset and not even know what to do with it if I don't take a picture. Perhaps all this beauty is insinuating that I learn to love myself the way I do others, animals and landscapes. That perhaps sitting on earth so grand they make an entire TV series out if it, means nothing if it ends in fluid and consistent tears for entire afternoons. In the exhales between sobs I vacillate between how much I want the pain to stop and how heartbreaking it is that I can't love myself.
Logic only gets me into trouble here. I've already lost everything, so why does it still hurt so much? That I actually do have an answer for and that answer is complex PTSD. For awhile that made me feel better to just know, understand a little tiny bit why I can't process things like seemingly everyone else can. Unfolding logic says go get treatment (I am,) but this is a special affliction that affects every little thing. Like decisions for example. It's nearly impossible to make them. The future is, on a good day, an exciting prospect that holds promise. The next it's a debilitating sentence that I have no control over. I know this is what mindfulness is about, sitting with these feelings. But I have a very special mind that overrides body and spirit. It convinces me that every negative thought is real, has happened and will happen. After that it tells me what little value I have, with vivid memories as proof. Mindfulness is probably the only reason I've eaten in the past couple of weeks.
For a month the sky has been falling in chunks while I dodge the big pieces and think about how to avoid the future ones. Usually I can hide behind something, cynicism, a boyfriend, or run somewhere, but everything, everything caught up with me and it's not pretty. It's fucking gory. The weird part is people saw me this time. A friend, who had been there, asked what was wrong without running away from the discomfort of being around someone who is suffering. Which made me cry harder, for the next month. It was a release valve that made me look at how much I was actually hurting and carrying around for 33 years. I told people. Like my friends scattered across the country. And that helps, that support, but there are more moments when the phone is deathly silent, promising to remain that way forever. That's when I feel an aloneness that I can't address. Don't have the tools, the instructions. Just me and a handful of people that care but don't understand.
That's when that quote above resonates hauntingly in the back of my mind. I used to not take pictures of myself. I didn't care about losing myself, I wanted to. There was a period where I couldn't look myself in the eye in the mirror because I was ashamed of feeling. I do now. I selfie. When I swerve because I'm driving the car I love too fast, I'm scared, even though I sometimes fantasize about getting in a wreck. When I slip on an icy trail, hiking alone with my dog, I'm scared, even though I think about what would happen to her if I were gone. Patty, that hunk of dog was the only thing I had for awhile keeping me going. I wonder if she worried about what would happen to me when she died.
Let it be known I'm active with intensive therapy and pursuing various methods of accessing my innards. I'm writing this in effort to purge, but also to state the facts. Too much swept under the rug makes for a catastrophic future. Thank you to the people that have met my burden with kindness and understanding even if you didn't really know what to say. I now echo that sentiment to myself.
Why do hearts break?
They’re not porcelain.
A tomato squeezed will burst.
Pulp and seeds will seep out.
Parts will splatter on the wall.
Now how can that be put back together?
You have to grow a new tomato.
^ Oh How I Miss Moab.
Oh how the externals wedge themselves into your heart. Attachments to places, things, and the worst, people. It can make it really hard to leave, give away, or abandon. This time around I thought of myself not unlike a solar panel, I went, I absorbed, I recharged with beauty.
I was assessing myself, through a question posed by the Power Path: what is the root of the fear that has imprisoned me? The pen wrote unworthiness. Unworthiness has shown up aggressively through most of my life, the worst of it being through rejection. Sure I've had art shit on, writing rejected, but the worst is human rejection. I don't do well with any of them. Sometimes why helps in these situations, and it is always all too clear in my mind that rejection proves unworthiness. Ego is so pleased to have a story, a brick to pile on the insurmountable weight already there. There is also the fear of rejection that colors every thought, action, every text. So when it comes you think I'd be ready. All that practice. But, nope, it's 1000 times worse because it's confirmed. You're unworthy. It's hard to reprogram such negativity, such beliefs. Where I may lack in some areas of confidence, bringing myself to beautiful places comes easily.
This began as an excruciatingly slow extraction from the city, first to Tarrytown then to one night in the Catskills. Then Hawaii, then to the mountains. Every single night in Santa Fe there is a life assuring sunset. Every single day I woke up to the Priest and the Nuns right outside my door in Castle Valley. Nature is for everyone. To do anything other than to protect it is insanity.
Placing myself in ridiculous vast landscapes for no identifiable reason other than to stare, has brought profound insight and deep healing to the bloodbath of unworthiness. It's hard, though not impossible, to be depressed watching Stellar Jays zip past you, sitting on the edge of a canyon rim overlooking a green valley, or riding a bike over rock like no other, staring at layers of red rock and snow covered mountain. Everyone's worthy of giving themselves the chance to do that. And it really does work. Sure there will always be pain, but you don't have to bleed out.
A bunch of hearts in Moab.
A very special one ^ ask me if you want to know where it is.
"We become so accustomed to speeding ahead that we rob ourselves of joy."
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön, p. 30
This quote from Pema Chödrön came up the other day, nicely summarizing a visual I've had in my head for years. The visual was that of a relay race, like in high school with silver batons. I ran in the fast group, I am built for running away from things, and stood there on the track, watching, waiting with the anxiety of the coming baton. What if I dropped it? Was I going to grab it underhand or overhand? What was the very detail of the rapidly approaching future? Fuck, it's here. Then I ran awkwardly for a few seconds, wondering again if I'd drop the baton, then handed it off, panting, waiting for it all to cycle over again.
This went on for years, the pushing, failing, flailing, and I missed everything. Nothing was good enough or something was better, if I could just keep pushing on to find it. The relay race continued and I burned out. Daily. I experienced pockets of meticulously carved out joy over the past few years but was still shrouded in some sort of fear, some sort of pain, some sort of anger. I was only available for some of it, whether running relay races before bed, or creating some sort of pain simply because that's what was familiar to me. In periods of calm, I made the future a threat. I come from a family that talks about what they should have for dinner while still chewing lunch. I studied and trained in a profession where things were due yesterday. It's always tomorrow in New York City. For a while, it was enough to just stare at a mountain, but then that tickle of what's next would appear. This is beautiful but I want to find the next beautiful thing to show everyone how beautiful the beauty is. Again, missing any presence of beauty. Anything can be a relay race.
Lately, I've been confronting this. All of this. I didn't actually know this was an option. Maybe I had an idea but I would have rather suffered. Rather just keep running.
"The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face."
-Pema again, p.30 again
These are Pema's words, but echoed in Eckhart's teachings, David R. Hawkins's and others. And also, no? No no no no no. I never wanted to do that. Learning to let go, allow pain, be mindful, is one of the hardest (easiest?) things I've ever done. The easy part is that you don't actually have to do anything. It's the fighting and resistance that is exhausting. It's the suffering that's exhausting. Right up until the very moment of being seen, whether fear, pain, hurt, jealousy, anger, there is suffering. Intense suffering. I don't want to see. I've been through enough. I just want it gone. And that's exactly what happens. The very instant you look, the thoughts lose their power. The very second you are aware, you're no longer lost in thought.
You sit down in the middle of the relay race so that someone knees you in the face and trips over you. "Why'd you stop?" They might ask. Or in this scenario, "Why'd you fucking sit down?" And you let them run and you take two steps to the side. From the sidelines, you watch the runners and see this hell loop of thought. Except you don't judge it. You see it, it's there and you're there with it, no longer a part of it. You're beachside, with a rainbow and a cupcake no longer suffering.
This takes practice. It takes belief, commitment, and relentless awareness. It takes the utter depletion of suffering to not want to suffer anymore. Facing your shit, your relay races, in my experience, has brought a kind of peace I never thought possible. Somedays I relapse, as I call it, and buy into the thoughts. This may happen. Go fiercely back the sidelines and just watch. Allow. Be there with them, and let go.
I have the lyric from Geto Boys, Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gansta, in my head, so:
"And now, a word from the president:"
"Even when the sky is heavily overcast, the sun hasn't disappeared. It's still there on the other side of the clouds."
There are as many ways to access spirituality, the now, whatever, as there are people in the world; what there isn't enough room for is judgment of which way is right. What's right is what's right for you. For me, it's books. How do I know? Because I've tried everything else. Everything. Almost everything. I've had exquisite teachers, but nothing felt sustainable. Whether it's prohibitive costs, limiting beliefs (my own or other's,) physical location or confidence, there always ends up being a block to consistency. Books are always there. Their return on investment is immeasurable. Especially if you buy them used on Amazon or they are gifted from a friend. They don't judge. (Sometimes they judge.) You can read them over and over and the 15th time might mean something wildly different from the first. For whatever reason, I don't give up on books. I might read one for six months because I'm resisting, I swear I can read faster than that, and then I'll pick it up months later and read it again and it will make sense. Finally. I especially like books with stigmas. Like The Power of Now.
I read Power of Now and it didn't make sense. I so desperately wanted it to make sense. It didn't. I even bookmarked key ideas with colored tabs to motivate myself. A year later, I opened up to some of those tabs and they started to make sense. I noticed that a closed book is sort of intimidating. Sitting there, taunting you with, "I'll change your life, all you have to do is read 300 pages and pay attention." That's a hell of a lot of pressure to take with you while turning each page. Of course you're going to resist. One excerpt that made sense to me, that cleared an entrance into understanding was the following:
"The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now—that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality. Slipping away from the present moment even for a second may mean death. Unfortunately, they come to depend on a particular activity to be in that state. But you don't need to climb the north face of the Eiger. You can enter that state now."
-Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, p. 42
I can? Because I've been doing it this other really ineffective way. When I was in grad school, I'd numb myself into a stupor in between projects by watching survival shows about climbing Everest. I didn't even climb the mountain, I just thought about other people doing it. Tolle's statement seemed to me like a relatable activity: creating a rush in order to feel. Just fill in the blank with whatever suits you—drinking, drugs, arguing, blaming, overworking, overthinking. Overthinking! This I can talk about. My go-to method is over analysis in attempt to get to the present. I tear myself down, exhausting myself with berating thought after thought until I'm so empty that I can do nothing but cry. And I mean cry. Cry until I believe every thought I came up with, and all negative future scenarios that I believe I deserve. It looks a lot like this:
I create this vicious, brutal, terrorizing cycle that leaves me with nothing in the present but suffering. By replacing thoughts with awareness, the past and future lose their power over me. The need to control them, to cling to, to claw at them lessens (with practice.) The addiction to thinking subsides. In the past I've worried about what I was going to worry about. The past was my present. The future was my present. The more it hurt, the more true it was. I don't share this to be a victim, I've tried that and it didn't work either, I share because this was my version of "climbing the Eiger." And being conscious of thoughts instead of thinking about thoughts and what they mean is just simply an easier, better way.
I've talked about the now with some people and it usually takes a direct negative, sometimes mocking turn. How can I not plan for my future? It's irresponsible. Tolle addresses it as well. He refers to necessary planning as your life situation. Whereas Tolle is sometimes hilariously blunt, I see it as a valid question with some degree of truth. There's a quality of defensiveness in that question. No one is saying you're doing anything wrong. There can be presence in planning for the future. If you are planning a trip, a move, a project, that is what you are doing. If done with full presence, you are researching, finding the best deals, weighing out options, completely aware and retaining information. You might find the more present you are, the more you practice being present, the more you remember. Clarity sticks around a little longer. It's no longer a means to an end. It's not resistant planning that needs to happen in order for the fun or the release to happen. Treating it as a means to an end will practically guarantee that the suffering will continue once the event does arrive. Being present while planning practically guarantees that the future will be good as the present you planned it in.
I'm far from perfect and am only a week deep in doing my best to be intensely present. So far this is a more accurate representation:
The past and future come knocking, and it takes a constant conscious effort to see them, but not attach to them.
And I would be lying if there hasn't been a day of just this:
It's hard but it's better than suffering. And better than watching these looped animated gifs. Staying present has been the ONLY thing that has provided consistent relief from recent and life-long overwhelming emotions. I'd love to hear any methods that have worked for you as well!
Pictures compliment retrospect, everything makes sense after the fact, especially if you take a picture and color correct the memory. Things are brighter, guns are shinier. Sunsets remain a mere suggestion of their reality. Below is a lump of pictures that make it seem like I knew what I was doing while I was doing it.
Day Four. No Tylenol, no Guaifenesin, maybe some powdered witchcraft, but mostly torrents of phlegm exiting my face. I get these colds when I'm overwhelmed. Too much happening at once with no answers, paired with our little 3-legged heeler waking us up every day at 6 am, plagued by the same answerless questions. "What's that noise outside?" "I can't see, I can't see!" "Why aren't you awake yet, I've been barking for 10 whole minutes?"
I put the baby/pet gate up last night (same thing according to the people at Walmart) at the bottom of the stairs, uh huh I have stairs in this house, and it worked. No barking, no forceable quarantines in the softbox. When I woke up, questions were answered, my head cleared and I found myself experiencing that momentary calm when everything makes sense and everything will be fine forever. Amazing what sleep (and Valerian) can do.
Lingering of course is the knowledge that there will always be overwhelm, no matter how hard I try to excise all the tumors out of my life. I'll have another cold, I'll be stressed out, I'll be lost in the fog of indecision exactly when an important decision needs to be made. But right now it doesn't matter. Because I slept. And I'm drinking coffee.
This is where the triumphant music montage would kick in, reinforcing this statement. And because this is a blog with links and stuff, I'll do just that.
I love food. So much. I like cooking it too, but I didn't used to. Mostly because there was usually someone more skilled available, and then I couldn't make dainty lady food without meat. Sometimes I feel like this when it's time to cook, even though it will likely be cheaper and tastier if I don't go out. I've never mastered a pantry, never had space for something like that, or the ability to keep it stocked. Dinner comes from the store, usually because I just purchased it an hour before. Today, because I'm dog sitting in Land of Endless Pots n' Pans and Viking Stove, cooking is far less daunting. Also because I didn't visit any grocery stores today, bitches.
As follows, a recipe for thoughtless tasty meal:
Chick Peas from a can
Quinoa from the Costco bag bought two months ago
A shit ton of curry powder
More powders: turmeric, chimayo chili powder, cayenne, coriander and turmeric, because there is never, never too much turmy.
Sweat that shit! Make it soupy! Quinoa needs all the help it can get. This is actually quite filling for the lady dining alone. Lots of protein here. The beer as always, is optional but suggested.
Olga der hund.
Risa the dog.
Me and the fat white wolf.
Go to mountain.
(Do not alarm authorities.)
Let the mountain have it.
It's what they're there for.
Then take a shit ton of pictures.
The place I'm staying at has two comforters, right on top of each other, different duvet covers and everything. It's unbelievably fluffy. I feel like the yams roasting comfortably under a marshmallow topping. It's the perfect weight too, although I'd sleep under a bookshelf if someone would help me out in the morning.
I'm fairly off grid here in my temporary quarters, like camping, but not glamping. Like responsible isolation. It's been super cold, but I'm learning how to do that. At least I have my double comforter. And kimchi. Put kimchi in everything--eggs, tuna, rice--and everything is ok.
Take a picture of it!
I was driving across Texas, going 90 I'm sure, when I noticed that an outrageous sunset was setting up. Picture anxiety started to appear, my immediate thought being well sunsets last all of 15 minutes, so I'm already too late. Had I known sunsets in Texas last an hour and half, I would've calmed down a bit. I was armed with my phone, clicking away while driving, but the camera roll was already full of 17 identical windmill pictures in a not amazing pink and purple sky. Then that little dialogue box, "storage almost full" popped up, as it has been for the past year. Then the camera stalled with the blurry background, taunting me like maybe I'll let you take a picture, but I haven't decided yet. Nope. No more room, no camera for you.
So I anxiously deleted, decreasing my speed to a responsible 85. (If cruise control is on, I just go in the back and read a book.) Noticing that the sunset was actually getting better, I made a last minute decision to swerve off to an exit and unleash the big camera. Big Camera is such a source of anxiety. It's so powerful and I use it to about 25% of it's power, so more often than not I just keep it tucked away like that fancy coffee table book you don't want open or touch too much for fear of it actually looking, you know, used. I pulled over, got out without a jacket, the temperature dropped 40 degrees as I was driving, and shivered while setting up Big Camera. I had that mind argument with my camera that I'm sure other photographers have that goes something like, "why aren't you seeing what my eyes are seeing!!!" Or maybe good photographers just change their settings and patiently wait for the perfect photo. :)
Below is the best I got before retreating back inside to the heated seats. The sky melted into deep pinks, purples, blues, and finally into a fiery magenta as I hit Amarillo. Even though I stressed about not being able to properly capture exactly what my eyeballs recorded, I was able to enjoy the sky show quite a bit.
Sale cheese (hard or soft)
Jalapeno (without regard to heat potential. Chop and dump, seeds and all, deal with it later.)
Salted honey, oil, champagne vin, salt and pep for dressing
Mountauk Driftwood Ale
Cup of bone broth (optional)
Obviously the beer and broth are separate but advisable to drink in succession of each other. Broth first. (The link is for a 6-pack, beware, but very worth it.) Best eaten in front of laptop. (See pic.)