We all have our weak spots: areas of life which seem to repeatedly pose questions that either make us uncomfortable or leave us without answers. Or both! When faced with these difficulties, hearing that little “inner voice” can be quite difficult, and at times, it can feel impossible. Since the age of, perhaps nine? I liked to think of myself as the kind of girl with strong instincts, and a steady inner voice that guided me through life.
And… that was easy until life got hard! I first noticed the quieting of this voice when I was in college, facing difficult questions about a relationship I was in: I simply had no idea what to do, and when I consulted my inner guidance, I was horrified to hear it had gone silent. Something that mindfulness meditation is teaching me is this: that guidance, that voice, is always there, it just gets muffled by the endless stream of thoughts and emotions that we submit ourselves to. I know that for me personally, what dampens that voice most significantly is fear. So, what I’m learning is that when I am afraid, I have to take even greater measures to ensure I’m cultivating stillness in both mind and body to be sure that I’m making good decisions.
Recently: I’ve been afraid of making poor choices about how to live my life. My yoga teacher training program was highly successful in that it not only taught me oodles about anatomy, asana, breath, and Ayurveda, but it also asked me a lot of (difficult) questions about life. It was not the nature of the questions that frightened me, it was my lack of answers: Was my career in the school system as fulfilling as it could be? Was I doing enough good for these kids? Was I doing enough good for myself? Was I eating well enough? Breathing well enough? Spending my time as wisely as possible? Was I peaceful and mindful and spiritual enough? Was I giving enough? Did I do yoga for the “right” reasons? Should I write more? Should I try painting again? Did I totally lack direction in life? Did I have any clue what I was doing, or what I wanted to do? AND WHY DO I HAVE TO HAVE SO MANY GODDAM STUDENT LOANS!? They’re obscuring my vision!!!
If you haven’t seen the movie The Giant Mechanical Man, you should. I love the part when the female protagonist blurts out that she has no idea what she’s doing. It’s a relief for most of us to hear: it often seems like the rest of the world has its shit together, and we’re the only ones lagging behind. From the outside, many of us look like we’ve got it all going on, but on the inside, I think many of us face unanswerable questions every single day. It can be frightening, holding these questions like sealed envelopes inside of us, not sure of what will happen when they’re torn open, when we’re finally forced to face or figure out the answers.
But, I think it takes time. The more desperately we search for the answers, the more noise we make, and the harder it is to hear the one and only voice that can tell us what is indeed true or right for each of us. I realized this the other night as I sat down for a dinner of scrambled eggs, bacon, re-heated chicken fingers, and a spinach-and-banana smoothie. Not only was my dinner “unhealthy” (except the smoothie, of course!), I was eating it “mindlessly”, as I watched The Office. This kind of eating was the kind that was seriously frowned upon in many of the essays and articles I read for my yoga training homework. I felt a brief moment of shame, but then I realized:
I was completely and totally aware of my mindlessness, which actually meant that it wasn’t mindless at all. It certainly wasn’t mindful, nor was it a meal of supreme health, but my awareness of all of this was present, and I was OK with it. I strive to eat well and be appreciative of my meals, but it’s OK, I’ve decided, if I sometimes plop down in front of a funny sitcom and eat whatever the hell I want: it needn’t elicit feelings of guilt or lack. Awareness is key. Being able to reflect on my choices and know if they’re working for me or against me is key. Always making the perfect or ideal choice is not. I am a human, after all, and want to experience my humanness in all its glory (as peacefully, mindfully, and kindly as possible, of course!!).
This tiny moment of awareness toward my (bad) food choice that evening lead my mind to wander toward other questions, more serious and difficult ones. I still don’t have all the answers, but when I re-evaluated them (all those pesky questions!) this time, the lack of answers didn’t threaten me. And better, some answers managed to bubble their way to the surface. I guess all this mindfulness meditation is working! My inner voice was audible again! I was able to think about why I wanted to practice and teach yoga, and what I’d been told was right or acceptable, and decide for myself if it worked for me, or, what parts of the philosophies I’d been taught worked for me. It’s hard to separate the voice of an expert from your own and decide what feels right and what doesn’t. I thought about how I wanted to spend my time, both alone, and in the presence of friends and family: I realized I could do better, I realized I could also be more accepting and forgiving. I also realized that, as much as I’m in love with the idea of living of life of dedication, depth, and discovery, it’s also important to just have fun sometimes. I think sometimes we (maybe just I?) get so caught up in deciding whether or not something is good or purposeful that we/I forget to just enjoy the moments as they come, and not take everything so seriously.
I think that if we really want to find the answers that are right and true, we have to be willing to be patient. I don’t think they come quickly. I think we also have to be quiet–I’m not sure our instincts, or our hearts, can do much good work when our minds and emotions are frantically searching the outside world for answers to “inside” questions. No book, friend, or expert can really tell us what we want, how to live, how to eat, how to practice, or how to love (or be loved). Those are answers that come from the inside, I’m learning, from quiet, from time.
If you’re at all curious about mindfulness meditation, I’d highly recommend this book. And, lastly, find a bit of calm in these wise words from Rainer Maria Rilke on the “difficult questions”. Every one of us has them, after all:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”