The Deep Dark Woods, or, A Place at the Table

When I began to write this it felt familiar, so I scrolled back and discovered that I've written three similar pieces in the last two years alone. They all have a slightly different flavor, but the same salient central theme: the importance of learning to deal with your shit.

In a previous version of my life, I was crying in therapy because I'd recognized but couldn't seem to overcome my preternatural attraction to unhealthy men. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, I've often found myself confronted by the ghosts of life past. Most of my "self-work" has been operated under the naive assumption that once I'd learned something, I was done! Got it! Every time I'd find myself revisiting a theme, I would read this as a personal failure and be awash in bitter shame. One of my favorite teachers, Paul Weinfield, wrote this supportive, apropos note today:

'Try to see your life as a spiral, circling around the same issues, the same problems, the same feelings, yet with ever-deepening wisdom. We have this terrible habit of thinking about life as a series of “levels” we're supposed to be climbing, like some sort of video game, and so when old difficulties inevitably return, we think we've failed...That’s what we think is happening, but that's not what is happening. Wisdom accumulates gradually, subtly, and at a pace that has very little to do with the cyclical way that old patterns re-arise, no matter how much you work on yourself or try to be a better person. What changes with practice is not how your life looks from the outside, but the way you relate to your life.'

What changed for me, as Paul suggests, was not the scenery of my life but how I chose to be with what arises. Last summer during my daily meditation, I began a new practice: I imagined myself setting a long, spectacular dinner table on the edge of the woods. I laid out all of my favorite foods, lit candles, and invited everyone to come to the table. I quietly called out to the parts of myself that I'd long kept in the deepest dark; the most fearful, shameful, nasty beasties. Slowly, coaxed by the promise of finally being in light, they came. And they were angry.

The first month of this exercise was brutal. There is something particularly noxious about the harm we cause ourselves; insidious evidence that we're, in fact, such shit that we're not even worth our own good care. I had much to apologize for and more to forgive. When I asked these challenging feelings for guidance, they demanded that I stop trying to get rid of them. They had earned their place in me, and they would not be cast aside like trash. They needed my love, not the judgement that lurks in trying to change or eradicate a thing. So I did what meditation is supposed to help do, and I practiced equanimity in the face of discomfort.

The surprising relief was that facing the nasty beasties was no more or less uncomfortable than suppressing them. In fact, once I looked at them straight on, they softened their tone. They were sad, tired. They just needed to be seen. Honored. Loved. I once gave a friend in a breakup some advice that I would've been wise to heed earlier: Deal with it now, or deal with it later with someone else, but it'll keep coming for you until you work it out. What we resist truly persists. Being present to our pain may cause discomfort in the immediate, but it is a productive sort of suffering that will lead to greater freedom and ultimately less suffering.

After many years of reflective practice, I am not so naive now. I expect that what challenges me will reappear later in another form. Each time I circle a familiar theme, I know that I'm being given the gift of refining and strengthening my knowing. It's not only okay but also expected that we won't get it on the first shot. It is not the fact that we face these challenges, it is in how we're able to meet them that helps us build wisdom for the next go around. The longer we wait, shunning essential parts of ourselves, the deeper the hurt carves.

The gift we most need to give ourselves is what we spend our lifetimes looking for from others: Radical Yes. What do I mean by this? No matter what arises in you, you meet it with Yes.
Not "Yes, go ahead and send that email, Rage!"
but "Yes, I see you. I love you. How can I help?"
It is wonderful and essential to receive this as outside support, but just as essential is learning to provide it for ourselves. This skill offers a particularly nourishing, emboldening freedom that I wish for every human heart.

May you have the courage to approach your deep, dark woods, set a gorgeous table with a sumptuous spread and offer all the nasty beasties a place to be.
May you meet each of them with all the ease and grace you can muster.
May you not be discouraged when it's time to set the table again.
And again.
You're doing great!

Listen, learn, refine and keep loving.



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