Stay the Sensation: 4 Ways to Keep Zen Through a Break-Up

Could you stay the sensation if you knew it was nourishing?

That’s the question my yoga teacher posed in the class I attended yesterday while we were breathing into some “intense” toe stretches. I was uncomfortable as I eased back on my heels, pain threatening to sprint from my pinky toe to my lower calf. His question startled me out of my hazy yoga gaze, and offered me some insight into my personal life.

To be short, my boyfriend (now ex-) broke up with me in late March. The details of the relationship are much less important than the lessons I’ve learned since then, all which hinge on this idea of “staying the sensation.” Since the break-up, I have been weary, enlightened, empowered, but mostly sad. There’s nothing quite so difficult as facing the futility of your sweat, patience, and hard work. The Rolling Stones put it best when they sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” So, in hopes that this reaches someone who needs it, at just the right time, here’s what I’ve come to know as I heal.

1. Self-respect is hard. Like… really fucking hard.

During the past month, every part of me has wanted to a) hide in a corner, b) beg my ex- for any amount of time together, c) stay perpetually drunk, or d) get angry and dismiss my ex- as an immature, selfish asshole. It took every ounce of self-respect I have stored up not to do these things. Having gone through the break-up thing a few times before, I knew none of those are helpful (they’re actually harmful) and the last statement is just not true.

What is true is that there is a set amount of grief that has to happen. Unfortunately, I don’t know what that amount is. But I do know that by leaning into the discomfort that this break-up has caused me, I’ll eventually get to the other side of it. I want to share a relevant quote that I love by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in The Joy of Living:

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.

Life is kind of a squirmy thing. It’s just the Universe teaching you lesson after lesson. And lessons are so hard! And it’s so uncomfortable to change!

But — guess what? — you’ll be taught the same lesson until you learn it! So, I’ve just committed to the first kind of discomfort, facing my trip-ups as they come. I believe facing grief, change, loss, sadness, rejection, failure upfront minimizes the length of suffering.

2. If you don’t know your needs, you can’t have them met.

I just went to DC to visit a friend, and something about the space from home gave me the opportunity to realize that I was grateful I had been broken up with. WHAT?!? Who wants to be dumped, particularly by someone they love? The cherry blossom pollen must have gone to my head.

But really, what I realized was that I had disappeared into my relationship. Having always been highly relationship-focused, I struggle with sacrificing everything for the sake of continuing a relationship. Because — to my relationship-valuing brain — there’s nothing worse than losing someone, than being alone. So in trying to reconcile the incompatible (me and my ex-), my needs went out the window. Commitment? Totally negotiable. Want to see me once a week? Chill, I’m super low-maintenance. Aren’t totally sure you want to be in a relationship? I can wait.

I compromised every part of what I wanted, i.e. a committed partnership that is silly, patient, forgiving, kind, and sexy. When you look at what I want and what my ex- wants, they’re different things. Incompatible, really. He wants freedom, independence, no responsibility, and the capacity to be impulsive. And that’s alright. In this break-up, I’ve had to learn that you can love someone who wants something different than you. Eventually it will hurt like hell, because it will end if your fundamental wants are different. Or, worse, if it doesn’t, you’ll wish it was over.

So how do I move forward? How do I make sure I avoid pain? Well, you can’t be sure of anything and we can’t avoid all pain. But I can go back to that self-respect thing. I vet potential partners better. I don’t lie to myself. And I introduce awareness every step of the way. Having been smacked in the face by my needs, I can’t neglect them anymore. As my therapist says, “Once you’re a pickle, you can’t go back to being a cucumber.”

3. Sadness is not a mutually-exclusive emotion.

You can be sad and grateful. Sad and hungry. Sad and happy. Those combinations are all possible. And that’s the only way I’ve gotten through the past month. Learning that my sadness can just lie underneath everything as it needs to has been such a relief.

Allowing my sadness to just be has been a lot about learning to have empathy for myself. I’m so gracious to other people. I understand that angry acts come from suffering, that judgment of others comes from fear, that we are all doing the best we can. But I’ve so rarely (never?) extended that forgiveness to myself. Right now, I’m doing the best I can. And that means crying into my wine. And that means choosing Downton Abbey over the Flying Squirrel bar. And that means obsessively checking my phone, hoping and fearing that my ex- will contact me.

Soon, I will be stronger, but not now. Soon, I will be patient, but not now. So until then, I’ll do my best and forgive myself when I watch four hours of Downton Abbey, wrapped in my down comforter.

4. No feeling is final.

Soon after the break-up, my friend E sent me this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

A few weeks ago, my therapist ended our session with this, “Now, you’re going to go to go home, go for a walk with your dog, and have a good dinner. And that’s as good as today is going to get.”  To some, that may seem depressing. But she knows me. I find relief that every moment, good or bad, is temporary. And my life will at least hold that much: a slow day, filled with breath, and life (my dog Emily), and patience, and beauty, and good food. I have a damn good life, alone or not.

•••

So, that’s where I’m at. I hope my words help someone else to stay the uncomfortable sensation of healing in a break-up. I felt silly at the time, but one of my first responses to the break-up was to Google “healthy ways of breaking-up.” And there were some generic self-help articles, but nothing this nuanced. After you read this post, let me know if it has helped or what you’d like to hear more on.

Already Enough: Whatever This Is, It’s Enough

Last week, I had another of my lovely coffee dates with my two mentors. We decided to try a new cafe and our new selection was LOUD. So through shouts and huh?’s I learned about a wildly enlightening concept: dayenu.

Florence, one of my mentors, is Jewish and as I was telling her about plans for my blog (more on that later), she responded, “Oh, so you’re talking about dayenu?” This is where the “huh?” came in.

Florence continued by saying that dayenu is a Hebrew term that literally translates to “it would be enough.” I’m not Jewish so I’m not going to expand too much, but the translation itself was enough to set my wheels turning.

Dayenu, in a word, encompasses the feeling I have been processing and formulating for the past year. The idea is this: No matter what happens today, it would be enough. If you have beer with a friend, it would be enough. If someone compliments you, it would be enough. If you spend today alone, it would be enough. Whatever it is, it’s enough.

In dayenu, Florence gave me a word, albeit not from my own cultural tradition, to express my inexpressible.

Over the past year, I have been faced with struggle in just about every category: career, friendships, partnerships, spiritual (un)growth. As I’ve mentioned before, this whole blogging project started out of failure. I hit my bottom right before I started writing on here about crafting a life. In fact, this blog was part of a several pronged approach at clawing my way out of depression.

And what I learned through all that failure, through all those conversations with my closest friends was this:

Contentment is never about your circumstances.

We often think, “If I had one more dollar, no more debt, a cuter boyfriend, a nicer house, more friends, [insert your newest desire here]” that we would be happier.

The truth is that happiness and fulfillment are accessible every single moment.

Wait, what?

So… you’re saying if I was friendless, homeless, and had just been robbed of my last dollar, happiness is available in that moment?

I’m saying that yes, if you had no friends, no home, and no dollars, happiness would still be available to you.

Whaaaaaaaaat? What is the magic guru trick?

Pay attention.

That’s it. Just pay attention to this moment. Notice what you’re experiencing. When you feel yourself slipping into whining, depression, anger, or anxiety — just observe the moment around you. What do you smell, hear, feel? That’s the first step. Incidentally, it’s also the hardest. But for now, get out of your mind and start looking around you. Peace will come.

How To Stop Writing Your Own Character Description

When I was a little girl, my favorite thing to do was draw up characters for stories that never got written. I just found them a few months ago when I was cleaning out my closet o’ things at my parents. There are folders full of “Charlotte, 29, Girlfriend of Simon, brilliant, hilarious, but a little bit rude.” Each character had a color scheme assigned to them. And they were always partnered or positioned to eventually be partnered up.

There’s quite a bit that’s problematic with the structure of those descriptions. But I want to focus in on those last parts.

I recently realized that for a large part of my life, I’ve been trying to write, edit, and fulfill a character description for myself.

I have these characteristics that I want to be (i.e. intellectual, open-minded, dependable) and I am constantly taking action in order to satisfy those characteristics.

It’s a taxing way to be, I’ll tell you. I’ve always been a thinker, an introverted rationalizer. Spending hours, days, weeks thinking through a decision or wading through a tough situation before I know how I want to understand what happened.

And people have always praised this about me. “Hannah, how responsible you are. How thoughtful. How insightful.”

But I’ll tell you something: I’ve been so trapped by my shit that I am just now meeting myself.

What shit? Fantasies, future plans, what ifs. They’ve all sent my mind reeling for the majority of my days.

How many of you have felt like that? Trapped by your shit? Can you separate the present you from all your conditioning and judgments?

Do you know who you are?

I didn’t until I slowed my life. Specifically, until I started reading Everyday Zen and sitting occasionally. (Sitting is a practice I’m working toward.)

This emphasis on “the other than now” was what ultimately led to my depressed state a few months ago. I had the memories and nostalgia of college. I had the fantasies of better lives elsewhere (anywhere but here!). I had the conditioning that the life I was leading as a service industry worker was second-class. That I wasn’t living the life I should be living.

And in all that, I missed months of life right under my nose. Kindness, complexity, loyalty, family. I missed all of that because in every moment, I was “other than now.”

Instead of executing a well-calculated plan for who we want to be, what if we meet ourselves as we are? What would happen if we experienced this moment without our conditioning? Without the burden of every single memory that has brought us to this moment?

It’s terrifying, actually. Even in the very short time I’ve been sitting, I’ve found endless judgment, bodily fear, self-protective pride, and well-intended hurtful actions. That’s all who I am. That’s not ALL of who I am. But that’s a part.

But we must meet ourselves as we are at this moment, because there is no other you. The past you is ungraspable. The future you is ungraspable.

All you can possibly be is this moment. And this moment. And this moment.

How Collard Greens Make You a Better Person

A few weeks ago, when collard greens were still in full swing, I had an epiphany about my relationships. Here it is: Jake and I were mirroring each other down the collard green row (i.e. he worked one side of the row while I worked the other.) As we were moving along, I kept noticing that Jake was passing over some beautiful leaves on his side. I didn’t say anything even though I was frustrated because… who wants to be that person, right? When we got to the end of our row, I switched over to Jake’s side on the walk back, so that I could inconspicuously snip those gorgeous leaves without offending.

Thing was — I couldn’t find any of them.

What had been so brilliantly clear to me from my side was totally hidden from Jake’s view.

•••

Here’s what I got out of that experience: We are assholes.

I say “we” because I know I’m not the only one who assumes their way of living is the best way there is to live.

We are constantly acting like children. We map our own ideas of how the world should be onto other people. And when we don’t get our way, we’re ticked.

You can just imagine a little kid throwing a fit because the Toys-R-Us doesn’t have the toy he planned on getting.

And every time you get mad, that little kid is YOU!

We get angry because things don’t go as we expected them to. Case in point, I was mildly miffed at Jake because I had this idea of how he should be farming. That he should be more careful. More thorough. The momentary “bleh” feeling I got with being frustrated was a watered down fit.

Turns out, Jake was doing the best he could do from where he was standing. Hell, he was doing the best I could do from where he was standing. And guess what? Everyone is always doing the best she can do from where she is standing.

Maybe even more importantly — by mapping our ideas of how things “ought” to be done onto everyone else — we are missing the beautiful, creative, wildly sacred person in front of us. We are wasting our limited supply of life energy on being disgruntled.

I always think back to a story my friend shared with me about his wife’s dishwasher unloading habits. Every time his wife unloaded the dishwasher, she put all the random doohickeys in the teaspoon slot of the silverware separator. So every morning — when he went to eat his cereal — he had to rustle through all the doohickeys to get a teaspoon.

For weeks, he let this piss him off. Then one morning, he realized that his wife was one of the greatest parts of his life. And that his time was not so precious that spending twenty seconds searching for a teaspoon warranted anger at one of the best parts of his life.

So, the next time you get ticked at your loved ones, look at them. Know that they are doing the best they can in that moment.

And imagine yourself as a screaming toddler, making a scene outside the Toys-R-Us.

As my dad likes to say, it’ll straighten you out real quick.

Why Walking Will Cure Your Relationship Problems

Yesterday was the first day in awhile where I was really alone. I’ve been so caught up in moving, I’ve barely had a minute to think about free time. But, my roommate (and best friend) Sally just left town for 8 days. I’m finally settled at work and, with my social life in its current spartan state, I realized last night that the next 8 days would be a lot of just… me.

So, I biked home after work. Read some John Seymour. Ate some spaghetti. Watched people from my front deck perch. Then I thought, “Hell, let’s see the world.” So I tied on my shoes and started walking.

My city is incredible, for those of you who don’t know. The picture above is just one of the hundreds of hidden graffiti artscapes dotting the buildings around town. I have driven by this building a hundred times. But it was only when I walked past that I actually noticed the art.

My noticing and the art’s subsequent effect on my life were only possible because of my pace.

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware of the pace of my actions. I think it comes as a result of my zen studies, my commuting to work by bike, and my Friday farming. I also started working for a nonprofit whose focus is natural lands. The slowness is almost overwhelming when you begin to spend time in nature.

Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time I’ve appreciated the benefits of a slower pace. Each morning that I bike to work, I bump into people. I actually am going slow enough to smile at my neighbors, wish them a “good morning.”  (Can you imagine that in place of the anger you feel at morning traffic?) Also, when I visited Sally in London last year, I had to entertain myself while she was in class all day. So I spent 10 days walking London. It is one of my favorite trips to date, a bizarre fact considering I was alone for most of it.

But the pace was exactly right.

•••

This morning I read a small part of Everyday Zen that focuses on relationships. Charlotte Joko Beck states,

Every moment of our life is relationship. There is nothing except relationship. At this moment my relationship is to the rug, to the room, to my own body, to the sound of my voice. There is nothing except my being in relationship at each second…. [T]here is nothing but being in a relationship to whatever is happening in each moment.

When I read that section this morning, I thought about my relationship to my neighborhood, to that piece of graffiti, to the larger city.

The nature of my relationship to anyone or anything is in large part determined by the pace of the interaction.

I drove by the piece of graffiti a hundred times and never saw it. But when I slowed my pace — when I walked — I discovered art, beauty,… meaning.

How much meaning are we rushing past? How are our relationships to the spaces around us, the people around us, shortchanged because we are too busy to slow down?

This post is at the heart of The Slowing’s purpose.

Slow yourself. Literally. Physically slow your pace.

Your relationships will thank you.

The Space Between (A New Spin On a DMB Classic)

I’m not going to talk about failure. Instead, let’s discuss liminal spaces.

It’s been exactly one month and four days since my last post. For regular bloggers, that’s internet suicide. Your audience falls off, your readership plummets, everyone’s disappointed. No one moreso than yourself.

When I finally settled down about a week ago from moving apartments and jobs, I was frustrated at having let myself slack off with The Slowing. Nonetheless, I thought, “Always a new beginning.” And yet somehow I still failed to write.

I failed because I didn’t need a new beginning.

Let me explain: Last weekend I went to a forest bathing retreat.

(Quick note: forest bathing is just a fancy way of saying a really slow walk through the forest.)

Yes, my boss forwarded the “hippy-dippy” event flyer to me as a joke. And, yes, I actually went.

On the walk, one of the leaders stopped us at the edge of a clearing and began to talk about liminal, or transitional, spaces in nature. She explained that at the edge of a forest where a clearing begins — THAT’S where the interesting stuff happens. Opposing habitats meet, weather shifts, species with distinct living requirements interact. These edges are places of growth, excitement, and… tension. She related this to our lives — she was a psychotherapist, after all —  and pointed out our tendency to run from these edges.

We are constantly looking for a beginning or an end.

We want a new job, a new boyfriend, a new apartment. We want OUT of the boring career, stagnant relationship, or cramped house we already have. Starts and finishes. Secure, known, comfortable fulfillment.

The rhetoric we hear around self improvement is that of “fresh starts” and “new beginnings.” The transition, the liminal space, is glazed over because it feels unsettling and anxiety-inducing. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the beginnings aren’t where change and growth happen. It’s in the space between knowns.

Think back to your last huge transition. Maybe you changed jobs. Moved cities. Started dating someone new.

The toughest and richest parts of those experiences were most likely the weeks leading up to the beginning. It wasn’t the decision itself, nor the aftermath, that helped you grow the most. It was the questions you had to ask yourself before the change in order to move forward. Maybe you were out of work for a couple weeks, looking for any kind of purpose, so you started painting more often. Maybe you knew no one in your new city and had to determine what kind of people you wanted to pass your life alongside, so you started going to a hiking Meetup to make friends. Maybe you were finally welcoming your fears of loneliness when you met Lucy.

Everyone wants comfortable, known, secure. We are wired to want to understand our surroundings.

But as you move forward thinking about contentment and about crafting a considerate life, start appreciating and reveling in the moments that offer you the most amount of freedom and growth: the liminal spaces.

•••

So, let’s get back to me “failing” at this blog thing. As I said before, I didn’t need a new beginning. I simply needed to take a single step forward in this crazy time I am in.

In fact, thinking of forward movement as a “new beginning” was a hurdle in itself.

The pressure to write this “re-introduction post” was so great that it stunted my writing. I finally realized I only needed a single step in order to craft the life I want.

So, where does this leave you? The next time you are tempted to rush to an ending or beginning, sit with your life where it is. See what you are learning from the situations that make you squirm. Watch your fears come up over and over. Don’t judge yourself for those fears, but notice them and begin to learn what motivates you, positively and negatively. When the time comes, move forward steadily. With a single step. And rejoice in the terribly uncomfortable, unsettling, and vibrantly alive weeks that follow.

Oreos vs. Contentment: The Showdown

Phew, I’m learning what it means to be busy again. Let me say that I adore my job and my coworkers. I’m giddily happy in my job.

But in the process of transition, I have allowed myself to regress by eating poorly, neglecting my tea/meditation time, sinking into Internet distraction when I get home, failing to update my blog.

To distract myself from my perceived failures, I started thinking about all the new things I could buy for the apartment I’m moving into next weekend; new clothes for my new job. All while munching on Oreos and frozen pizza.

But behind the frustration and boredom, the void lingered.

The problem with filling that nagging void with external objects is that we’ll always need more, bigger, and better external objects to keep us “happy”.

That is something I know, but I needed a reminder.

Last night, I checked Zen Habits, a blog I follow religiously, and Leo had finally put out his new e-book, The Little Book of Contentment.

I settled into bed and read the whole thing. One thing in particular struck me. Leo writes,

When we fail at habits repeatedly, we lose trust in ourselves, don’t believe in our ability to stick to something, and feel guilty and sometimes disgusted with ourselves.

We say, ‘What the hell, self? Why didn’t you stick to that? What’s wrong with you? Gosh, I really wish you could do better. You suck at sticking to things.’

…We internalize [our failure], not as ‘this is just something that happened that I need to recognize,’ but as ‘this is an indicator that I am unreliable, not good enough.’ This becomes a big data point that shows us our self-worth.

(Side note: Leo has a whole game plan for regaining trust in yourself. Download the book and read it.)

So how do we escape this inner thrashing we give ourselves each time we fall short of an expectation? Do we try harder? Do we make more goals? Write on the blackboard 1,000 times “I will not fail”?

No, instead, we give up the expectation.

We trust that we are doing as well as we can in that moment. We forgive ourselves and sit quietly with our bodies and realize how amazing this thing called life is.

Charlotte Joko Beck writes that “ninety percent of the thoughts spinning around in our heads have no essential reality. And we go from birth to death, unless we wake up, wasting most of our life with them.”

Read that again: 90% of our time is wasted on false judgments, harmful expectations and insatiable fantasies.

Take a second to imagine that.

When you are lying on your death bed – hopefully long from now – you could think back on your life and realize 90% of it was spent elsewhere than in the moment. Elsewhere than appreciating the person and situation and natural beauty right in front of you.

If that hits you as hard as it hit me, take a moment to sit with yourself right now. Smell the room around you. Feel how vibrant your body feels. Notice the light and life in the room. Do you see how much the person you’re with has to offer you?

Do it now, because this is life.

We never need to reach outside of this moment to be content.

So, forgive yourself as I am for falling short where you wanted to succeed. Cultivate patience for yourself and others.

Change will come, but first, this moment.

See if you can’t expand that 10% awareness to 20% or even 50%.

Every moment choose life by returning your thoughts to this moment. Fill yourself with the incredibly sacred around you.