Written by: Stacy S O'Neill
Nine months ago my life was in ruins. Like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, I was an accidental pawn in a game of deception. Time went sideways, stood still, and finally moved forward as I strategically maneuvered to reclaim the queen of my own life. It felt, or more accurately, I felt, not only like I hit bottom, but also that the bottom gave way. The last line of my previous SYJ article, Down the Rabbit Hole, reminded us that “life without trust is no life at all.” Little did I know how heavily I would come to rely on those eight words. They became my mantra for gathering dignity and building strength for the tedious path ahead of me. From that literal and figurative cataclysmic ending in my life, something beautiful has emerged.
Coming to terms with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty contorted what I thought was real and true. Sorting all the chaos into some kind of understandable order was excruciatingly difficult, and not a one-woman-job. With reinforcement from compassionate friends, family, and professionals, I was able to begin piecing together an impressively respectable future. The physical, mental and spiritual aspects of my Self have now come out of hiding, filling the void of my former identity. But that empty space would not have existed without trusting that letting go into the abyss of the unknown was the final step towards freedom and change. In essence I was, and will always be, moving through the 5 Kleshas (obstacles) of suffering.
Obstacle v Opportunity
The ancients believed that five obstacles keep us incarcerated in a self-created world of illusion and perception: egoism (Asmita), attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesha), clinging to bodily life (Abinivesha), and the mac daddy of them all, ignorance (Avidya). We all slip into characters different than our true selves in order to survive or cope with specific situations. However, this becomes a problem when we buy into our fabrications as permanent reality. For example, you may be a police officer exhibiting archetypical traits to execute your job efficiently, but when you adopt those authoritarian characteristics as your personality, you become subjugated to the same.
We get sucked into our own delusion that we are special, different or better than others, so much so that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Just like that, the people around us don’t even know who we are anymore. Ultimately this same Asmita and “clinging” to persona draws us further and further from our center of omnipotence. It makes us contract rather than become more expansive. Hanging out in the material realm of impermanence, we prevent our own liberation (moksha). And whether we know it consciously or not, we all desire moksha because it is freedom in its purest form.
The Kleshas are a constant current running through all of us, rather than levels of advancement that we conquer and are done with once and for all. We move into and out of them, sideways, diagonally, back and forth, again and again, like the queen piece on the black and white squares of the chessboard. The real task is to recognize the Kleshas merely as a liability to the human condition, and that none of us are immune to their attraction and ill effects.
Flow v Resistance
I was watching a friend fly fish the Atlantic on a fairly rough day. Getting knocked around by the current and undertow, he lost his line-cutting snips from his pocket with one wave, and his Ray Bans with the next. From my vantage point, I was unaware of the challenge he faced in maintaining his footing, and I didn’t know that the ocean had claimed belongings of his that he really relied on. Sure, he could replace those items eventually, but they wouldn’t be the same as the ones he lost, and as a result his next fishing experience would be different too – not necessarily better or worse – just different.
Throughout millennia, progressing through life’s obstacles and challenges has often been compared to water, waves, and the ocean. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts is credited with saying: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. ” We are all aspiring surfers hoping to be one with the wave, turning adversity into something enjoyable.
By leaning into difficulty and acclimating over time, hardships become less of a big deal. Renowned Buddhist monk Pema Chodron calls this “failing better.” She explains: “‘Fail better’ means you begin to have the ability to hold what I call ‘the rawness of vulnerability’ in your heart, and see it as your connection with other human beings and as a part of your humanness. Failing better means when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth… and out of that place of rawness you can really communicate genuinely with other people. ”
From There to Here
Many people tell me they are amazed with how well I am doing in a relatively short time since my life changed. What they don’t see is how often I have lost my footing crossing the challenge-laden rivers and streams that hinder my progress in this elusive game of ‘Alice chess.’ Uncertainty is everywhere. The more I accept that, the more acclimated I become to it. I now understand that my initial disorientation at finding myself emotionally and physically alone was really just the shock of the illusion of safety and certainty shattering once and for all.
Pulling myself together to get from there to here required a gut wrenching, long hard look at my own ignorance (Avidya) and attachment (Raga) to a self-created fantasy. The brain employs a myriad of convoluted coping techniques to protect the psyche, and we can easily slip into tunnel vision or a limited view of reality. Avidya is not ignorance in terms of stupidity, but rather a lack of wisdom: one can be smart but not necessarily wise.
You may see yourself as a smokin’ hot 30-something, a perception formed from your internal dialogue. Perception is what we believe to be true, and it influences how we experience ourselves in relation to the rest of society, as well as what we see when we look in the mirror. So you might think, act and react through a skewed reality as if you are 30 when truly you are 10, 20 or 30 years older. While I’ve used the example of age here, the fantasy we create could be anything that helps us cope with what we really don’t want to face in real-time.
Raga is attachment to pleasure – and what fantasy isn’t pleasurable to the one creating it? We could be, and admittedly we are, attached to many things and possessions, and when they are shiny and new, we crave more of them (think: boat, motorcycle, girl/boyfriend, etc…) Since the nature of the material world and the feel-good feeling we get from these things is transitory, we become depressed and perhaps even lost when the fantasy evaporates and we are left holding the bare bones of reality.
It is at this pivotal point that we can humbly choose to accept actuality rather than repeat the addictive cycle of conjuring up another delusion. There is a limitless dynamic beauty waiting for us in the here and now that is far more satisfying than the static world of make-believe. But it takes radical acceptance of what is in order to see it.
What Alice Saw
The curious thing about a mirror is that we see not only our reflection, but possibly beyond it. In fact, there is a type of meditation called ‘mirror-gazing’ that teaches one to use intent focus and concentration to see beyond the usual ‘me, myself and I’ reflected in the glass, in order to reveal faces from past lives and other visions. I wonder if Lewis Carroll had some experience with mirror-gazing, seeing as the premise of Through The Looking Glass is that there is more than meets the eye – a world beyond the reflection.
As stated earlier, I felt, and that was largely the problem: the “I” part. Asmita is our ego getting comfy by setting up a check-list of likes and dislikes. What makes me feel good? What makes me feel safe? What are my deal breakers? How much am I willing to tolerate? For me, fidelity and marriage made me feel good, whole, protected and validated. Violation of those ideals was a deal breaker. It was my identity, but ultimately not my experience. Therein lies the rub: me versus my experience.
Have you ever recounted an episode to a friend, only to have them say that they don’t remember it that way? Experiences and the emotions they trigger create our stories. Regardless of whether they are good or bad, they are fabricated from events filtered through our perception. They may not always be accurate objectively; however, they are accurate to us. Enter emotional intelligence and higher states of consciousness.
In his Summer 2016 article for SYJ, Alan McAllister, PhD., states: “Stepping out of feeling-thinking, we can break the old associations and can create a new story or simply Be in each moment. Doing this, we have to allow the body to be uncomfortable and unhappy through the transition. Bio-chemistry makes us addicted to what we know, even when it is inherently painful or no longer serves us. The endorphins do this. Stepping into the unknown takes courage. On the other side of the discomfort is spaciousness, is freedom. ”
The culmination of all of our life-events fabricates a personal history that rivets us to the sob story of our past. It keeps us comfortably numb. Our primal instincts reinforce our long-term trials and tribulations, so that conscious purging of them is not natural. Even if our story isn’t a pleasant one, it is still our story, and giving it up is like tossing out a pair of broken in jeans that no longer fit. Aversion (Dvesha) to removing the filter of “my story” was mind bending. Dependency on my life partner no longer fit for me, yet I could not stand the thought of anything else.
Nevertheless, a concerted effort to viscerally focus on the positive aspects of independence finally revealed inner-strength and positivity that had long ago been hidden under the covers. I had been independent before, and I could do it again. Once I came to terms with the uneasy reality of aloneness, once I finished crying about it and started owning it, I took my first steps toward acceptance and worthiness. This was the pivotal shift in creating a new experience.
Life = The Balance of Opposites
Without death there could be no life, and oh, how beautiful life can be if we let it! Abinivesha is literally our fear of physical death: our clinging to bodily life, or on a lesser scale, the notion that something or someone is finite or will no longer exist. In a society that shuns age and wisdom in favor of youth and carelessness, it is no surprise that we hang on to the quickly receding past and the memory of our former selves. Think about how much of the present day we lose by replaying yesterday’s scenarios.
Too much of my time over most of this past year was spent frustratingly comparing my present to my past. Perhaps I was just rewiring my analytical thought process after 20+ years of thinking in terms of two rather than one. Undoubtedly, it was maddening and depressing. The idea of being a non-entity was foreign to my psyche, and thus it was crucial for me to make a complete break from my past and poise myself for a new trajectory by finding a new foundation, a new starting point. I felt a profound rush in realizing that now all of my decisions and thoughts only required consideration of myself.
Separating myself from my marriage was, and continues to be, an arduous but blissfully rewarding task. It isn’t as terrifying as it used to be. Trusting in my own emotional intelligence means becoming more intuitive. With every heart-opening risk I accept, I’m reminded that any action I make of my own volition is far better than any made at the hand of someone else, and that action is the new, empowering re-action.
I’m thinking about the conversation between Alice and the caterpillar when he asks her, “Who are you?” and Alice replies, “I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then. [4.]”
I am not sure who I am now. My identity is untethered, and this often leaves me speechless when people inquire about what I “do” or what the future holds for me. In that pivotal moment when they are waiting for a response, I smile in non-verbal hang time, choose vulnerability over defensiveness and say, “I have no idea, but so far it has been liberating and seductively exhilarating.”
Personal evolution is never easy because it challenges the knife-edge of our current capability. We must ask ourselves, ‘what is the take away from this challenge that can move me forward?’ Leading researcher Dr. Brene Brown has said that “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage . . . it is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change . . . adaptability is all about vulnerability. [5.]”
The looking glass now reflects back to me a determined and intrepid Self, curiously optimistic about what lies beyond it. I’ve settled into giddy cohabitation with the Kleshas. More often than not, I brew a pot of tea while the queen in me strategizes with the frantic March Hare, and empathizes with the colorful mania of the Mad Hatter. They are loud and erratic guests, but we know each other well enough now to travel through this crazy Wonderland together.