This weekend has been a bit of a whirlwind. I was around family for the day and was able to come to a new sense of space in my heart. There is magic that happens when you can let go of things that were never meant to be held onto in the first place. With my family, I was able to draw easy boundaries, be present, and not be so impacted by anxiety or overwhelm. I was able to listen and be a friend. And when a work call started to derail that, I found myself being defensive of my time and presence with my family…so I drew a boundary. And another one. So that I could hear my niece laugh, so that I could ask my sister-in-law how she was feeling, so I could laugh and giggle at conveyor belt sushi with a dear one. So that I could be present and have fun and enjoy life.
For the last 6 weeks since I began stage 3 and 4 of EMDR, I have also coupled that intense trauma work with a meditative practice. It coincided with my getting back to nature during a weekend trip with my partner, and I was able to take a lot of time away to listen to sounds I hadn’t heard in a long time: the wind in the trees, lightning bugs, crickets, rustling of leaves, waves crashing on the shore, sand being moved by the wind…so many sounds of my childhood that broke my heart open into a million pieces…so many pieces of joy and fear and contentment. I found that the more I could listen and sit in the stillness, the more I wanted it. The more I wanted to sit in that beautiful, sacred emptiness. For the most part…until ego crept in where the fear was.
These two things are related–trauma and emptiness. Trauma is held due to the tight connection with ego. Trauma is bound up in a sense of identity (this is MY STORY). In order to let go of that, you in many ways must let go of the need to have a sense of identity. This is where the meditative practice comes in-when you are able to create space to just notice your feelings and feel them right away, then our stories are those things occurring in the moment. And what is life but a series of moments?
Ego is a funny thing; often, the collision of egos halts the development of relationships even before they begin. This happens in our lives everywhere–from the relationship that ended because I didn’t want to ask for help and he was overwhelmed, to the misunderstanding in a business deal between two people I have great respect for who don’t want to meet in the middle because of their strong need to own identity AS IS, to the public displays of violence against African Americans, Muslims, police officers and homeless. Ryan Holiday, author of Ego is the Enemy, states “ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.” How true this is.
I am professionally quite successful. This has not come without some serious bumps along the way, and, looking back, they were tied to ego. I was so blindly invested in my own plans and ideas that I did not consider the feelings of others around the table. Ego puts blinders on us so that we cannot consider others in the way they should be considered. I’ve found that, since doing the work of letting go of the stories I have told myself and shifting perceptions to let go of those things I couldn’t change, the type of work that fills me with significant joy is the work where I either get to highlight the work of others or considerably help others with their goals. And, to my initial surprise, the work I have contributed on has been the most successful work of my (early) career. I spent 3 years banging my head against a wall only to let go these last 6 weeks and have everything go smoothly.
Personally, however, I have struggled with allowing people to help me until I was able to process through the loss of my dear Vanessa. You see, the part of the story I leave out, and the most painful part that I processed through, was the fact that V’s dad asked me to collect memories of her from people at school for her ceremony on the reservation that released her soul. A ceremony in which I was unable to participate. I did that, I collected stories, but I had to have a conversation with myself, divorcing my grief and emotions to become task-oriented. From that point on, asking for help became something that I just couldn’t do. It was more important for me to be stoic and “have it all together” than to be emotionally supported. I even told myself stories that I was not lovable enough for people to care about me. That had to do with me not processing the anger of not having my best friend to comfort me through the death of our other friend. I needed her, and she wasn’t there. I needed comfort, and it wasn’t there. Rather than address the shadowy part of myself (anger and grief), I let my ego win. And, in stressful situations, I have done just that-I’ve become my ego.
In her research, Brene Brown has found that the ego-takeover manifests in a few specific ways:
- Chandeliering: “We maintain our prized stoicism in front of the people we want to impress or influence, but the second we’re around people over whom we have emotional, financial, or physical power, we explode.”
- Bouncing Hurt: “The ego doesn’t own stories or want to write new endings; it denies emotion and hates curiosity. Instead, the ego uses stories as armor and alibis…like all good hustlers, our egos employ crews of ruffians in case we don’t comply with their demands. Anger, blame, and avoidance are the ego’s bouncers. Often the first hustle is putting down and shaming others for their lack of ’emotional control’.” (this is my go-to manifestation of ego)
- Numbing Hurt: “We can take the edge off emotional pain with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, affairs, religion, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet (or Pokemon GO, perhaps?)…But no matter what we use, we can’t selectively numb emotions–when we numb the dark, we also numb the light.”
- Stockpiling Hurt: “Stockpiling starts like chandeliering, with us firmly packing down the pain, but here, we just continue to amass hurt until the wisest parts of us, our bodies, decide that enough is enough…The idea that we’re ‘only as sick as our secrets’ is more than an adage; there’s growing evidence that not owning and integrating our stories affects not just our emotional health but also our physical well-being.”
Meditation is made up largely of breathwork, which engages our parasympathetic nervous system enough to disengage the ego enough to allow the body to actually feel emotion. So, while the trauma begins to let go its hold, the breathwork allows the individual to process through actual emotion on a much deeper level. In fact, religious rituals from all parts of the world have elements of this breath work and engagement with both our sacrum and our diaphragm. The best examples of this are ritualized prayer and vocal music. These both focus on breathing techniques that allow us to focus, align our values, and feel deeply.
Holiday goes on to relate that, “When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.” This is a truly beautiful statement and couldn’t be more what I have begun to feel. Ego lifts your shoulders to your ears, while confidence rolls them to align with your spine. Confidence doesn’t need to be shouted. It is felt. There’s no anxiety in it. And, if you think about it, that is what the parable (or story) of Christ, Muhammad, Krishna, and the Buddha tell us: these men had confidence that came with wholehearted emotion. These men weren’t wealthy; in fact, they regularly gave away what they ended up amassing. They often went barefoot and unguarded. They were potent just as they were. They were completely vulnerable.
Two weeks ago I attended a service at Grace Cathedral. Then, last week, I attended yoga there. And this morning, I attended service again. Since starting EMDR and processing through the abuse I experienced at the hands of the church I attended as a child, and processing through my experience with Vanessa, I have been aching for some type of spirituality or connection to a greater purpose. I have been aching to serve others. Coincidentally enough (or divinely?) I stumbled in to hear a sermon by Rev. Jude Harmon reflecting on our nation’s independence. One sentence really struck me:
“If justice is what love looks like in public, then grace is what love looks like in person.”
Grace removes ego. “The thing about grace, this unexpected generosity, is that it opens our hearts and reorients us to hope.”
Now that I revel in these quiet moments, my laughter is more real, as are my tears. Life is fuller and I am more vulnerable. I can actually give proper awareness to when the ego creeps in, and I am sensitive to it. As this is new practice, I still make mistakes. I struggle. But what I do more than I ever have before is say these two phrases:
- I need help
- Thank you
And guess what? Not only do I mean those things, but people are much more responsive than when I off-loaded my pain onto them because of ego. Be careful, be cautious. The more vulnerable we are, the less we actually have to guard ourselves. The more I disempower ego, the more I love myself…even the parts of myself that aren’t the prettiest.