Fear, not pain, creates suffering

“Pain is not the enemy. The fear of passing through pain is.”
- Pia Mellody

“According to Buddhism, it is our fear at experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering.”
- Mark Epstein, Thoughts without a Thinker.


Last year, I went to a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, during which I had one of the most intense and transformative experiences of my life. It started with my realization that I was completely disconnected from my body sensations. I could feel very little of my body, and what I could feel was displaced, several inches away from my body. It took a few days to get my body sensations back and to the proper place.

When I came back to my body,  I started experiencing more and more physical pain. As I meditated, I realized how much of my pain was created by my fear of experiencing pain, by the tension that I created in my body to avoid feeling pain. In the end, I was so exhausted I gave up, and I decided to just be with it, whatever the experience was. I remember coming back from a conversation with my teacher and telling to myself in anger “I’ll do what you suggest, but this had better work!”

And it did work. Suddenly, two days before the end of the retreat, something happened. It was as I had gone through a very dark and scary tunnel and come out from the other side (it literally felt that way, something like a birth). The realization that I could deal with my pain was surprising and spacious. And I understood that is fear, not pain, that creates suffering.

Now, I realize that I have to do the same, this time for my psychological pain. I continue to remind to myself, every time I get hit by sadness or when a sudden surge of pain hits me and I feel tears burning my eyes, to stay with it, no matter how afraid I am to be there and to feel what I’m feeling. I try not to distract myself or to move away from the feeling, and it’s hard, because it’s such an habit for to move away from pain without even realizing it. It’s hard also because my pain often visits me when I’m surrounded by people (there is nothing like my subway commute to make my pain surface, perhaps because I cannot distract myself so easily, perhaps because of the people I see and feel around me).

Even with my limited success, I can feel something changing, a subtle feeling of coming back home. I have tiny moments of  kindness toward myself, of appreciation of my life and of the people around me, and I feel just a little less foreign in these streets.

Clerks (or: I’m not getting what I need from you. Can you help?)

Arthur Rackham - Mad Hatter tea party (1907)

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. ‘I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.” “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

One of the problems I’m finding with feeling, understanding, and taking responsibility for  my needs is that as soon as I feel a need that is not taken care of, I start getting angry, and when I feel angry the only way I see to express my dissatisfaction is to attack personally: “you are this and you are that..!” Sometimes I say it, but often I just stop and don’t act, because I don’t think that this will bring to anything except to ruin the relationship and make the other person angry. It occurred to me that what I should do is just to say it the way it is: “I’m not getting from you what I need. Can you help?”

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Looking in Someone else’s eyes fearlessly

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. – Pema Chodron

Please talk to each other

Sometimes I feel that there are two parts of me, and they don’t talk to each other. They act out.

Part A: “Why in burning hell did you do that?
Part B: “Why are you always criticizing me?”
Part A: “Because you’re damn stupid!”
Part A: “Again? You did that in purpose!”
Part B: “Who do you think you are?”
Part A: “I’ll show you, jerk!”

And on and on and on.

Why don’t you two get along? Think if you girls where actually behaving like good sisters, gossiping together, laughing together, telling each other secrets, supporting each other, covering for each other, looking each other in the eyes and understanding exactly what’s going on.

I’m just saying. It would be a lot more fun.

Big, dark, empty, silent

I was surprised to be so happy tonight
In the big, dark, empty, silent house.
I did cry a little, reading people’s blogs on election’s hopes and fears.
(I wondered, too, who was I really crying for.)
When I heard frightening noises, I went to the kitchen
and washed dishes.

But most of the time I laughed
Watching videos on my computer
feeling the good laughter of the present
cleaning up the clouds of the past and the future.
Three days to go.

Accident

A longing for affection spilled out of my loneliness.
It flew out and floated around, unbound,
plastic bag in the wind.
It went up up up, moved east and west, then down.
As you were walking through the parking lot, it was caught in your arms.

You looked at it puzzled,
not sure what to make of it,
then carefully removed it from your skin,
squeezed it into a small ball and threw it into the feeling recycle bin.
You’re proud to be a tidy men who cares about the environment.

Three days of rain

On Friday, coming back from watching the presidential debate at a friend’s house, I found myself walking alone on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg. It was about midnight.

It was raining slightly, but the streets were still crowded and lively. Young artsy people were filling the bars, smoking on the sidewalk, eating pizza on a step, chatting with each other about relationships, movies, and politics. Wiliamsburg felt cozy and familiar. And I felt utterly lonely and out of place.

Bedford Avenue. Foto by Luke Redmond found on Flickr

I’m at a very strange juncture in my life. I have everything and I have nothing, I’m at the peak and at the lowest point of my life. A jumble of feelings and thoughts about events I can’t make sense of are having a fist fight in my head. Above all, I feel lonely and isolated in this city of 8 million.

The feeling of exclusion from the shared enjoyment has been part of my experience for as long as I remember (I wonder what Freud would say about it ;-) . I haven’t yet learned how to deal with it, which means that perhaps I will never do. And to tell you the truth, as much as I love this city, NYC or the US are not the easiest places to learn how to feel connected again:

A recent study by sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona found that, on average, most adults only have two people they can talk to about the most important subjects in their lives — serious health problems, for example, or issues like who will care for their children should they die. And about one-quarter have no close confidants at all.

“The kinds of connections we studied are the kinds of people you call on for social support, for real concrete help when you need it,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke and an author of the study, which analyzed responses in interviews that mirrored a survey from 1985. “These are the tightest inner circle.”

Bedford Avenue Subway station. Foto by MinusBaby found on Flickr

There are so many things I need to share with my absent close confidants. I’m no longer what I used to be and I don’t know what I’ve become. My personal life is utterly confusing and disappointing. I spend too much at work because work is the only thing that makes sense. Aside from social and environmental justice, I don’t know what to desire or to dream of. The social narrative about myself that I would build by talking to friends, that essential part of my identity that would make me smarter about who I am and what I should do, it’s just not there any more.

Of course, I have a lot of responsibility for my situation. I do fear intimacy. I crave for independence and yet I need a lot. I’m suspicious of other people’s motives. I demand extraordinary loyalty and integrity from me and others. I don’t nurture and maintain my relationships.

Yet this level of isolation is beyond anything I’ve experienced so far. And I know that it’s not just me.

Rome

Bright blue skies, yellow and red buildings, dog shit on the sidewalks, the many rude people, the kind people, people in your face, at your side, all around you. The cupola of Saint Peter in the background, small cars everywhere (where did all the scooters go?).

Once again, I find myself in the familiar and alien city—as my mother, familiar and alien, her face and Alzheimer’s mixing and overlapping in a new person I don’t recognize any longer, difficult to watch for more than a few seconds. This impossibly beautiful city, loved and impossible to love, dirty, sideways, always the same and so different. The thing is, I can’t recognize myself in the faces of the people that I see all around me. They look smaller, darker, angrier, more bitter than I remember, locked in a world that is not mine. Not any more.

I look at old pictures (70s, 80s) and they seem to come from an ancient age, from a third world country, and yet I was there, I know that if I look hard enough I would find my face in the crowd, among the young people in jeans and olive green jackets, and the different anger of those years (as if we could change the world with screams and desires). The world (our world) changed alright, but not as we hoped. It changed in the opposite way, with more divisions, more distinctions, and fewer opportunities for all.

But if this is not my place, which one it is? This new country that gave me a job and a family, wealth and excitement, too much work, and the most beautiful city in the world, but doesn’t take me as one of their own? I’m not here, not there; not in the old world, not in the new world. Suspended, a country on my own, lonely place.

What do I want?

When people ask me what I want, I often can’t answer. Which movie do I want to see? Which food do I want to eat? Which project do I want to work on? Where would I like to live? I look inside, compare the options, listen to my thoughs and inner dialog, and I still don’t know.

People get upset at me because they think that I don’t care enough to answer. Nothing is farthest from the truth. I seriously consider the question. I weight the answers. I try to be fair. Sometimes I come up with a fake answer, just to say something. I know they have the best of intentions. They want to make me happy, they want me to stop complaining or being moody.

What is it? Perhaps the right option for me doesn’t exist, and everything else is at same level of mediocre desirability? It’s just a failure of my imagination that prevents me from dreaming of new possibilities? Or do I have weak desire system? (I do however, have very strong feelings about the things I don’t want)

Perhaps I’m confusing these questions about immediate gratification with questions about life and happiness. “Which movie would you like to see?” becomes in my mind “which movie will change my life forever? Which food would be my madeleine and trigger the creation of my masterpiece? Which project will make me feel loved and fulfilled?”

Rubin's faces/vase figure

I really would like to be able to spit out simple and strong opinions about everything in the world. I would like to be able to give the black and white answers I hear from people all the times: “I love this! I hate this! This is what I really want! Yuck!” But I can’t. I try sometimes, and it sounds fake.

But I also think that my inability to know what I want has to do with the porous borders between myself and the world. What is real? What is true? What is me? What is not-me?

As young kids, both my sister and I had strange perceptual experiences. For both of us, these altered perceptions only happened when we were alone. They were not exactly scary, but they were strange and unsettling.

In my case, the texture of reality would slowly change, drifting away from normality. The entire world would become rougher or smoother. Matter would became larger and lighter, as a balloon slowly inflating. The familiar “sense” of reality would be lost. The way the world looked, sounded, and smelled changed, in a tactile way.

My sister called her altered perceptual states “velocite.” Time seemed to change its pace and got progressively too fast or too slow. I’m pretty sure that it was the same phenomenon, and we just described it differently because words are a poor tool to describe altered perceptions. But it’s impossible to tell.

Old or young?

Only when somebody arrived the spell broke and the world would suddenly recalibrate itself. The presence of another person would function as a reference point and bring time back to the right pace and give back the right texture to the world.

This experience convinced me that reality is much more of a flexible concept than it seems at first glance. The sense of “reality” is a mix of ourselves, the physical world, and the social world.

So, where does this leave our selves? Which movie do I want to see? Which life do I want to live? So many questions, so few answers.

Outside the Castle

Yesterday my horoscope urged me to get cozy with people and “do not remain outside the castle.” I could really see myself outside that castle. It felt so right. Everybody is in the castle having a good time. I’m outside the thick walls, looking up and unsure what to do. Should I knock at the door and try to get in? Should I stay outside? Should I just go home?

Castle

It reminds me of when I moved to Pisa to go to college. I’d just left home for the first time, and I felt very lonely. I rented a room in the house of a crazy family from Naples. From my window I could see the apartment on the other side of the street. There were people going in an out at all times. They would shout from the street, the girls in the apartment would open the window, look down and greet the visitors with laughs and witty remarks. The sound of those windows opening and closing, the laughs and the greetings that were never for me made me feel even more lonely.

That feeling is still with me today. I was sure then that somebody had locked me outside the castle, but now I know that it’s not that simple. I bring that feeling with me, anywhere I go. Even when I’m invited in the castle, some of those thick castle walls follows me, revealing the awkward outsider.

It’s about protection and about not losing myself. It’s about the distance between one person and another and the effort that takes to cover it. It’s about the lack of social efficacy and the fear that my boundaries will be violated. It’s about the intense desire to be with others and the intense desire to be with myself, and the impossibility to find a balance. It’s about feeling vulnerable and the fear to be hurt once again. It’s about the danger that I always feel in the presence of others.

Most of all is about the boundaries between me and the rest of the world: fragile, full of holes, leaking, and kept together by pieces of tape.

For every beginning, there is an end

Yesterday I was looking at a the copyright page of Dance Dance Dance and under “Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data,” I saw “Murakami, Hakuri, 1949— ” . The “1949— ” gave me a small panic attack. I couldn’t breath right. I couldn’t think straight. The palms of my hands were sweating. (It didn’t help that I was on a plane and we were taking off. I’m always afraid of plane take-offs.)

1949— : Murakami, Hakuri is still alive, but he will die. We don’t know when, but his death is so certain that we put a long dash and left a space after his birth year. And when he dies, we will add the year of death, and the information will be complete. Our job will be done.

Murakami, Haruki 1949-“

We don’t have shelf space for aging, death, and dying. They are so unfashionable. But small signs remind us that deep inside we know the truth. Journalists write obituaries when people are still alive. We make wills. And yet we maintain the illusion that what is true for everybody else will not be true for us. That, as Christopher Hitchens says, God in our case will make an exception. It’s not surprising. The experience of the end, as the experience of the beginning, is something we don’t know anything about.

When it comes to human experience, I have a graphic and unstoppable imagination. When somebody dies, especially if they die in frightening circumstances, I cannot stop myself from imagining how it must have felt. I can feel their fear, hear their screams, think their thoughts, even sense a shadow of their pain in my body. An extreme form of empathy, I suppose.

But this is still experience of living. The final, scary, moments of life. I cannot go beyond the wall of an experience that is no longer life, no longer human.

An interesting situation, if you think about it. We are trapped in this interval between a beginning and an end we don’t know anything about. The end is particularly mysterious. The end is unthinkable. We don’t know when it’s going to come. We don’t know how it’s going to come. We don’t know what will happen (or not happen) thereafter. Yet it belongs to our history and the history of all the people we know.

Grateful to the City

I’m grateful to the City because it doesn’t make me forget about what life is about, what death is about, what money and lack of money are about.

Brooklyn Bridge

The City (and the Subway most of all) doesn’t allow me to forget me what urine, shit, and spit smell and look like when they are out in the open, communication devices as much as bodily excretions. I come home and wash my hands, but I cannot wash my soul clean and blind as I did when I lived in the suburbs.

At night, the City is magnificent, paralyzing in its beauty of lights and skyscrapers, crowds of people and cars, loud noise and incessant movement, a futuristic dance of humans, buildings, and machines.

I’m grateful to the City because it reminds me every moment what being human is about: in small gestures, in the kindness of strangers, in the expressions on people’s faces early in the morning.

A family taxonomy of anxiety

I grew up in a family divided by attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and united by anxiety.

My father was constantly afraid that something horrible would happen to us, to the point of being controlling, unreasonable, and occasionally violent. I don’t know for sure what made him that way, but I have an some thoughts about it; let’s call it the “fear of flying” hypothesis.

Let’s start with a supernatural event that happened when my father was a child. I don’t remember all the details (the place, the people, or the exact time); my brain has decided to save the story that my father told us so many times in the form of a few clear images.

I see a child, perhaps three or four, standing on an unprotected sundeck on top of a building. On the deck there are two chaises lounges with faded blue and orange stripes. It’s summer, and it’s a hot sunny day with a beautiful blue sky. The child faces south and the sun blinds him. He steps forward, stumbles, and suddenly the familiar sense of standing on solid ground is replaced by a new sensation: he is flying.

His terrorized parents found him on the ground unscathed but somewhat delirious. He told his mother that a beautiful angel made of light held him in his arms and delivered him safely on the ground. The doctor who later examined him found nothing wrong with him. I wonder if he absorbed some of his mother’s terror after this event and decided that relying on angels for his survival was not necessarily a wise choice.

A later event might have reinforced this belief. My father had an older brother. He was a cool guy who flew helicopters and looked really handsome in his uniform. He had survived the war and seemed untouchable. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. One day—my father was a teenager—he did not come back from one of his routine flights. No angel showed up to save him.

My father never took an airplane. He made a practice of choosing safe, familiar routes over daring and exciting ones. He tried to teach us the same, with fairly poor results. I still crave very much for my freedom of choice and for daring and exciting experiences. Except that I live them with this nagging feeling that if something can go wrong it will and that I’m risking my life at each step.

My mother’s anxiety was of a different kind. She was afraid of dreaming something good for herself and her family, because she learned early in life that desiring beautiful things (like spending a vacation her father or marrying the man she loved) can turn into devastating losses and long-term suffering. So, she never wished anything good for us, and actively fought our dreams. But really, she was just trying to protect us.

Although I’ve absorbed quite a bit of my parents anxiety, my own anxiety is different and much more American: it’s about having to make every moment of my life productive and valuable at all costs. The result is that I waste a substantial amount of time and resources because I can’t just take time off and relax. If I relax, it has to be productive relaxation or else it would feel as I’m wasting my life. Most of the times, my rebellious other self takes over and decides that it would be a good idea to just waste time: playing a useless video game for hours perhaps, or doing some useless but complicated research online. Anything but relaxing productively or going through my to do list.

I have been out of work for almost a week, and I’m just starting to feel that relaxing may be a really good idea. For example, I could take a walk: no, not an exercise power walk or a walk to the store to buy grocery. Just a walk, for no reason whatsoever except that walking is pleasant, it’s a gorgeous Fall day, and I want to.

And while I’m just walking, I realize why it’s so important for me to do things that don’t have a predefined purpose. I’m taking time to explore what’s happening to me. I give time to my brain to process the latest events rather than thinking of (obsessing over) them. I do what feels interesting at the moment and let myself be aware of how it feels. Does it feel good? Exciting? Boring? Is it enough? Should I move to something else? I realize that I rarely use my own internal signals to drive my decisions.

So, I take some of this hectic time with so many things to do to relax, and spend some quality time with myself. And now that I’m not bossing me around with errands to do, places to be, things to worry about, I even start to enjoy my company.

Time to leave, again…

I resigned from my job today. It took a long time, but what did it was the sense of being trapped, like in a dream where I am moving through a high viscosity fluid and each movement forward is too many times harder than it should be. At work, success meant being able to do my job in spite of the obstacles. I’m sure many people like that type of challenge. I personally prefer to do work, solve new problems, and being able to see and touch the results of what I have done every day. Having authority figures always say no and having to convince them over and over again it’s not my type of challenge. Been there, done that, hated it.

Wai-O-Tapu boiling mud on Flicker

I truly enjoyed most of the people I worked with. The ethics of the organization are outstanding. The benefits are to die for. My company is a very good company. Yet it suffers from the corporate disease of excessive bureaucracy, overorganization, and overprocessing that happens when you put too many people working together with a reward systems that doesn’t understand human psychology.

The natural reward is to be able to see what you have accomplished and feel proud of it. But in this environment rules and habits win over the pragmatic drive of getting the job done; anxiety and fear of failure win over the excitement for new and better solutions; politics win over collaborative synergies that create exceptional results. So people take pride in holding tight to their own territory and their job roles; they get some nourishment and recognition from the small control they can exert on their environment and on the work of others (which usually means stopping others from doing something or resisting doing something). I understand it; I’ve done it. It doesn’t work.

Moving from the fluid satisfaction of being happy because of your accomplishments to the frozen sense of security that comes from exercising control on others is endearing and deadly. Endearing, because it’s so human and so desperate. Deadly, because it’s the early symptom of the crystallization process that transforms an organization from a vibrant living and growing organism to a paralyzed bureaucracy. In the end, it becomes inefficient, wasteful of talent and resources, and soul starving. In the end, the tiny amount of nourishment that comes from control over others is not enough to keep you alive.

Train from Pyin-u-lwin to Hsipaw (Flicker)

I’m talking for myself. I’m sure other people see and feel things differently. People thrive on different things. The barriers that suffocate me can be reassuring for others. Rules and bureaucracy that draw my energy and enthusiasm away are felt as necessary checks and balanced by others. I respect that, it’s just not for me.

So today it was like saying good-bye to my friends and family at a train station. I said goodbye and I was sad because I will miss the people; it’s a big piece of my life I’m leaving behind, as many times before. But I can feel the future and the road ahead of me and it’s a powerful, irresistible call.

Guilt and shame

These past days, I’ve been wondering what is that holds me back. I have ideas, I have plans and desires, I have dreams. And yet, it seems that I spend most of my time distracting myself and wasting time.

Then, yesterday, riding the train to the city, I put the book I was reading down for a moment (Carol Shields’s Collected stories, just at the beginning of Mrs. Turner cutting the grass) and I turned my head. There she was. My guilt was looking at me from behind, watching my every move.

She was silent, but clearly questioning my trip to the city. “Stop looking at me that way, I need that backpack that can hold my laptop and my camera,” I said. “No, you don’t. All the bags you have are perfectly fine.” I perceived what she was really saying: “You don’t deserve it.” You don’t deserve to travel with your computer and your camera. You don’t deserve to do what you like. You don’t deserve to have dreams.

(Who is she? As much as I strain my neck, I can never make her face up. She is always behind me.) “Just wait a little longer,” she told me in silence. “All will end and you won’t have anything to worry about. All the angst about what to do with your life will be behind you. As a matter of fact, it’s already behind you. it’s already too late.”

I suspect she has been with me for a long time. Perhaps from the beginning, before I could speak and even before I learned there was a world outside of myself. She’s followed me in all my moves from one place to the next, as I left behind family, friends, lovers, homes, pets, and possessions. She is the one that has always suggested me to wait and to ask for permission before trying: “Perhaps you need to ask around, just to make sure that you are not deluding yourself. You know, I just don’t want you to fail and get hurt.”

Perhaps you too have your guilt following you all the times. It’s easy to know when she is there. You can feel her breathing behind you and you are surprised every time a police car goes by without stopping you.

But why?

* * * * *

For some reason, she grew up believing that preserving things was better than using them. She learned how to save energy and stuff. Her mother told her periodically of a box of chocolate she received when she was a child. She loved chocolate with a passion and yet she exercised great constrain and disciplined herself to eat not more than a piece of chocolate a week until the chocolate became white and stale and had to been thrown away.

She behaved as she expected to lose everything she had at any moment; as if nothing was to be taken for granted. It’s strange, because her family was never that poor or economically unstable. Her family wasn’t very rich, but always in good enough shape, even at the beginning, where her dad was earning little money, was still looking for a stable job, and they owned a tiny white Fiat 500.

She never had to skip a meal, although she remembered that one time when she stumbled walking from the kitchen to the dining room and dropped a plate of penne pasta on the floor. It wasn’t her fault but her father got really angry at her. The plate must have not been broken, because he ordered her to pick up every single penna from the marble floor and put then back in the plate. “This is your dinner,” he said. (It’s possible that her mother had complained, with no result. It’s unlikely, though; when it came to disputes with the children, her mother would take a break from arguing with her husband and take his side).

Perhaps, her psychotherapist suggested, she did lack something. Love, recognition, understanding, safety. Safety. That would explain it, wouldn’t it? Even if she had enough to eat today, she didn’t feel it was safe to expect that she would in the future. Perhaps her family would split, or her mother would send her away as she did when her sister was born, or her parents would die.

At that time she was probably 7 or 8 years old. When her parents were out she would start imagining what would happen to her if they had an accident and died. She would probably move with her grandmother. What would she bring with her? How would her grandma know? Luckily, she knew where to find her phone number. Grandma it’s a long ways away. She would have to take the train. Where would she find the money? And how would she get to the station? Could she find something to eat? How long would she able to survive?

Making plans. Preserving energy. Be prepared. She always traveled with a backpack that would have enough to survive for a week. Several pens and paper—that was essential. Some money, a book, phone numbers, keys. The case for her contact lenses, in case she had to spend the night out. You never know. You can never be too prepared.

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