Cartwheels across the room.

When I was little, I spent my weekday evenings in my parent’s room while my Dad lay on the bed reading. Usually his face was hiding behind a newspaper or magazine held up between his clutching hands. I tumbled around as he read, doing handstands at the foot of the bed and cartwheels across the room. I said silly things and asked questions every now and then to get his attention. This was how I spent most of my childhood with my Dad, desperately trying to get him to notice me and make a connection with him.

This yearning for his attention continued and has haunted me throughout my adulthood. As a child, I was able to playfully insert myself into his space, and I wasn’t developmentally aware enough to think to myself, “Hey, my dad’s not paying attention to me. That sucks. He’s my dad, he should be doing what parents are suppose to do!” As I grew into my teen years, my playfulness turned into an anger and frustration that my dad was neglectful and non-responsive. My mom was too, in a different way. Neither of my parents reflected back my feelings or asked what I thought or felt about something. Anything. It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, it was difficult to identify my emotions, much less describe or communicate them aloud.

Through years of therapy and learning Buddhist teachings, including mindfulness, I have explored my inner landscape. I have learned the language of emotion and learned to connect emotion to physical sensation and thought. I wonder how different my growth would have been if I had received therapy as a child. What if I had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment? I would have started drawing my thoughts/emotions/physical sensations map at a much earlier age. In this way, I have been grieving my childhood. I developed a rage around what my life could have been.

I could have dealt with my depression and anxiety earlier in my life. I could have avoided the starts and stops in my life. It probably wouldn’t have taken me 10 years to earn my Bachelor’s degree. I would have applied to graduate school in my twenties instead of my thirties. I could have avoided all of those messy and painful relationships.

These are some thoughts that circled in my head for years. I held on to them, as I held on to my anger toward my parents for not connecting with me in the human way that every child needs from a parent or caregiver. Allowing these thoughts is fine, it’s good to let them flow, but, as Epstein (1998) wrote, “Isolated in our heads, we yearn for the kind of connection that our own thinking guards against” (p. 59). It’s the clinging to the thoughts and not working through the associated emotional and physical sensations bit that keeps us stuck in the mud. “This is…the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: that it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and our selves” (p. 62). This is also true of therapeutic work. By assisting clients with exploring, identifying, and describing their emotional experience, we guide them in literally changing their brain chemistry. We hold a space in which they can unfurl into themselves and feel more grounded in who they are.

This has been my experience. Through the combination of therapy and meditation and mindfulness practice, I have observed and felt my perspectives change. I have witnessed the growth I have made from emotional reactivity to an emotional regulation based on awareness. I have experienced the shift in relationships and how I view, understand, and connect with people, especially my parents.

I don’t talk with my parents very often and when I do, there is a specific purpose behind it, a question that needs to be answered. Also, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone but a couple of weeks ago I had the urge to call them just to say, “hi.” It was perhaps one of the best conversations I have had with them. I felt as though I talked to my parents for the first time as an adult and as myself. I didn’t trudge through the conversation distracted by the disappointment that my dad didn’t ask about me. I listened to him talk about his fishing and tennis playing. I really listened and I responded with curiosity and playfulness. And I interjected to tell him about my internship not because I was looking for a particular response from him or as a passive-aggressive way to tell him that he was a shitty dad for not asking about his daughter’s life. I told him because I was proud of myself. I am proud of myself. I know that I would not have gotten to this point if I had not tapped into and worked through the unpleasantness of my childhood. Getting in touch with that pain was difficult, torturous at times, but it also motivated me to work through it so that I could let it go. My pain was “an invitation to change” (C. Matsu-Pissot, personal communication, August 1, 2015). It’s an open invitation that I will continue to accept, as I know that this work is never done.

Begin to swing the wrecking ball.

A few years ago I discovered Bikram hot yoga. It is a teacher-led 90 minute series of postures and breathing exercises that take place in a room set at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intense, to say the least. After my first class, I recall texting my friend who had suggested it to me: “I felt like I was slowly dying.” The combination of the heat, discomfort of contorting and holding my body in ways that felt impossible, and my inside voice trying to talk me into leaving or giving up – wow.

I practiced Bikram yoga for a few years but it fell of my schedule when graduate school began two years ago. Eventually, I made excuses for why I couldn’t go – it’s too much money, I don’t have time. Really, I was scared. After falling out of the rhythm of the practice, I feared facing the discomfort, the discipline, and the internal and external work that the practice demands. Yet, these are exactly the reasons why I was drawn to it, which is why I have integrated it into my life again. I did so while taking this course, so I was especially keyed into the meditative aspect of the practice.

The experience of hot yoga is like the ‘extreme sports’ version of meditation. All realms of human experience – physical, emotional, mental – are pushed to the forefront of our attention and awareness. We willingly engage in the discomfort. We mindfully step into the pain and uncertainty of it. We accept that pain and discomfort are part of the process. Using language from Buddhism, we could say that we invite suffering, but we do so in a way that we become intimate with it. We get to know it and understand it in a way that our pain and our fear of the pain no longer hold us captive. Now, when I notice my mind starting to drum up excuses for why “I can’t make it to yoga today”, I remind myself of the benefits. After each class I feel tremendous relief and accomplishment. I feel in tune with myself on an intimate (and very sweaty) level. The feeling is not unlike when I leave sessions with my therapist. I experience a sense of freedom and grounded-ness.

From a therapeutic perspective, this is what we do with clients. We walk alongside them as they delve into their pain. We remind them of their innate strength and ability to free themselves from the suffering of holding on to their pain. Sometimes we help clients to recognize that there is any pain at all. People often don’t realize that they have been throwing salt on old emotional wounds for years, and in not tending to those wounds, they have been perpetuating their own suffering. Their minds act as a shield to ‘protect’ (more like, avoid) their emotional selves when, in fact, their emotional selves need to be unshielded so that they can get the much needed attention and care. As with meditation, therapy “provides a method of getting the mind out of the way so that [clients] can be at one with [their] experience” (Epstein, 1998, p. 53).

As a therapist-in-training, the meditation and yoga practices are irrefutable in terms of my developing sharper attention and a deeper sense of empathy. The calm and grounding that I receive from these practices, in conjunction with going to therapy regularly, will allow me to be more present with my clients as well as in my day-to-day life. “Like meditation, psychotherapy has the potential to reveal how much of our thinking is an artificial construction designed to help us cope with an unpredictable world” (Epstein, 1998, p. 170). Through meditation or therapy, we can begin to swing the wrecking ball at this artificial construction, and learn to step into the uncertainty of the world armed with the awareness that we can deal with whatever comes our way.

Sometimes silence.

A recent discovery: Being the linguistic minority is a meditative experience. When I was visiting family with my mom (Ina) in the Philippines, I spent much of my time listening. I have acquired tidbits of my Ina’s dialect since childhood so I can pick up words every now and then, but for the most part, the consonant-heavy percussive conversation sails through one ear and out the other. When I was younger, this experience was annoying. Trying. Bordering on insufferable.

         I don’t know what anyone is saying. I feel left out.

        (Again), I would think.

But this recent visit was different. The experience. It was meditative. Calm. Rife with lessons to be learned – if I listened.    

Engaging in contemplative thought in class and reading the Epstein book constructed a contemplative vessel for the journey. I engaged by listening. I responded to others with looks and smiles. Gestures. Or, sometimes I stepped away to take pictures of pots in kitchens; the ceaseless afternoon rain from the second-story balcony. Silence. Not speaking while in the presence of others engaged with one another in speech, or not speaking while in another room snapping shots – those silences felt similar. It was OK to disengage. It was OK not to know what conversation was unfolding. It was OK to not interject with a comment here-and-there. It was OK. To be where I was. in each and every moment.

While on the trip, I stole 15 min here, 30 min there. To sit – meditate. At some point I made the connection between the two (sitting meditation and meditation while listening to conversation in a foreign language). I watched and listened but allowed the amorphous words to float by as they came and went – as I aim to do with my thoughts when they swirl and bubble up during sittings. Or not during sittings; in the grocery store. While engaged in conversation with an acquaintance. Hearing a song for the first time – the way it digs its hooks into my heart and wins me over before it ends.

 Once a thought clutches our brains, our hearts. Sometimes we feel we have to arm-wrestle them away. Sometimes our natural response is to attack. Push. Assume evil or malfeasance. Sometimes silence can elicit these responses. Because silence is foreign, strange, uncommon, boring, uncomfortable, vacuous. This is what we know. But it’s not true.

“We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them.”

“The problem with the Western experience of emptiness [is] that it [is] mixed with so much fear.”
(Epstein, 1999)