Freedom

The reality of growth is that it isn’t linear.  It isn’t a straight shot from damage to health.  I performed at an event for eating disorder awareness once and a fellow panelist asked me where I was in my recovery.  The question struck me as odd.  “I think I’m in this for life,” was all I could think.  And I believe the same is true for the majority of areas of identity/patterns/behavior that I struggle with.  Life as I have come to know it is a constant swaying from one side of the pendulum to the other, and at my best, when I’m doing all the healthy things I need to do to fully show up, I’m resting gently midway between either but the pull never goes away.  If it did, there would be an end point.  I would know that once I reached Level 32 (or 64 or 3,076) I had peaked and could then coast but I’m fairly certain that is not how life works.

I’m a pleaser by nature.  And as this behavior begins to change, adapt, transform, just like with similar losses of structure at other times, what comes with it is a loss of identity.  When someone’s personality has been constructed in response to another’s experience of her and she then starts to remove the other from the equation, what’s left?  

I remember when I realized I no longer believed in the Christian God I had been brought up with and the deep loneliness I felt in that moment.  Up until that point, I hadn’t even realized that I did believe in the God of my childhood.  But something about the structure and stories and presence had worked its way into my psyche and offered me some security.  Another and maybe harder to understand example of this was when, after living with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt for 15 years, I finally made my last payment and was debt-free.  Instead of feeling free that I had finally reached the point I’d been working towards after so much time, I fell into a deep depression.  I wasn’t happy but paying off my debt has given me a purpose.  I had replaced knowing myself with knowing what I had to do and losing what it was I had to do made me feel lost, scared, empty. (This could also explain how and why I kept my debt at the levels I did for so long, but alas, that’s another blog post.)

I have never questioned the appeal of military enrollment, religion, cults, politics.  I completely understand the human condition that is afraid of too much freedom, that doesn’t know what to do without boundaries and constraints.  Dogs feel safe in their kennels, we feel safe in our 9to5s, no matter how much we complain, bitch and moan, we make it work because there is something comforting about structure.  Both debt and a Christian authority allowed me to feel safe even if they didn’t make me happy.  I understood what my next move was, how to put one foot in front of the other, where I was headed.  With that gone, instead of freedom, I felt lonely, depressed and untethered.  Those losses equated to me not knowing what my purpose was and I confused purpose for identity.

I understand those people who cut themselves in high school.  Those who dragged a blade over a thigh to feel something.  I had a counselor tell me once that I am an adrenaline junkie.  I understand needing to confirm that you exist and a bright hot line of red pain being the most accessible way to do that.  When I feel too safe and too comfortable I start to feel smothered.  I feel naturally more alive when I am pushing up against discomfort–working a little too hard, drinking a little too much, getting caught up in drama I really have no stake in.  I remember a professor of mine in university talking about an Icelandic country’s tolerance to all forms of personal expression and social rebellion and, in correlation, their incredibly high heroin use:  we like to know where the line is, we like to know we have something to push against to confirm our own presence.  Limitless freedom is something we don’t know what to do with.

I remember sitting in meditation once and it was like a doorway was opened for me and through it was Freedom.  I had such a visceral response as I stood at its edge.  The (loud) reaction from my mind was, 

“I’M NOT READY!” 

I’ve kept that memory with me when I’ve struggled with how shallow my time in meditation seems to be sometimes, that there is a part of me choosing that, feeling comfortable in that, wanting the safety of that.  This knowledge makes it easier to be gentle with myself when I see patterns that I don’t like that I have been living out for so many years.  Because the truth is, things work for us until they don’t.  And there is a reason we choose seemingly harmful, destructive ways again and again over their alternative: something is easier to work with than nothing.  And when we can’t imagine an alternative to struggle that doesn’t look identical to absence, lack, space, we keep doing what we’re doing.  Too much freedom and we have to really start to ask some pretty deep questions: who am I with nothing to measure myself against?  

Do I know myself well enough to be unshaken by loss, change, threat?

Without realizing it, all of the self-work I’ve been doing for the past however many years has been about addressing the being left standing when all the other distraction, obligations, dramatics, has been stripped away.  Getting to know, making peace with, and ensuring that should I lose approval, employment, housing, love, health, or mobility, I won’t have also lost Me.

This is the basis of the work I do in Using Art to Heal, the virtual workshop series that starts next month.  There is a baseline that is completely independent of all that swirls around us that most of us just haven’t taken the time to get really clear on who and what that is.  Because once we know that, truly know Ourselves, we are unbreakable.  And that is real freedom.

Shame

Somewhere along the way I got the idea that to be myself I had to leave the room.  Whether I’m a natural introvert or was just saving myself the time and effort of having to ‘leave the room’ remains to be seen.  When I started writing to be read and heard, when I started performing honestly, it was a genuine surprise to me to be rewarded for it.  And even now, after seven years of public reception, I reveal myself again and again with the safety net that, should the penalties be big and coming, I’m still young enough to recover.  Still young enough and hippie enough to pack a bag and leave town should I need to start over.  Any time I share something revealing about myself in a public way I wait for the other shoe to drop, the sanction to come, the pink slip saying I’ve now reached the line and, “Though we thank you for your service, are now severing our relationship with you.”  (I expect this notice from the world at large, not any specific body or organization or person, I think).  Even now, I can still see the other self hovering near the door.

Having authentic relationships is still something I am learning to do.  And still, with the ride or dies I have accumulated over the years, still at times of revealing my ugly, my petty, my narcissistic, greedy, immature, selfish, mean, I am baffled that they will continue to receive all of me.  Continue to take my calls, like my posts, laugh at my jokes.  Sometimes I feel like reminding them, did you miss what just happened?  Did you miss the part where I showed you that true me?  Do you want me to go back and do it again so you don’t miss it this time and can stop loving me?

Recently I reached a new revelation: my entire house is built on shame.  How I think, act, emote, project–all of it.  Through all of the self work I’ve done in the past five years, I can now clearly identify that when I am angry or afraid there is a lesson to be learned.  There is a reaction happening in me that is an opportunity to know me better, sink deeper, become more grounded.  What I hadn’t identified was that shame is providing me with the exact same information: I had thought Shame was the Truth.  

I had identified anger and fear as the arrow pointing to the error, the lesson to be excavated, the wound I was protecting, but shame felt like The Truth.  

I had not identified shame as a giver of information, a false belief needing to be corrected, a wound that was never healed.  We’re three months into 2021 and the revelations have been large, indeed.  I thought wrong was my starting point, needing fixing my premise.  In 2020 I started meditating with my eyes open rather than closed, but even then, even at 33 with eyes that I believed to be wide open, even with that working in my favor, I couldn’t identify this belief (nevermind its flaws).

Praise be to shadow work, therapy, and the time and space to sit still and cry.

But first, before the celebration, Doubt.  Never before, in all my years of self work, have I ever nearly been thwarted before beginning.  But this time I thought, “I don’t think so.  It’s just too big.”  I said it not out of fear but just in recognition of the sheer size of the project — how do you deconstruct an entire home, life, identity?  How does one do that?  And for how long?  And at what cost?  But with immense humility I learned: most of the work will not be done by Me.  By showing up and not turning away from the shadows and memories I’d forgotten, facing the fear of discomfort and discomfort itself, sitting still where I’d only up until then avoided, by not running, not picking up my phone the moment I felt a twinge, the walls shifted, the foundation was enforced, and footprints expanded.  

For so long, self-protection was my baseline; shame my motivation; and anger, anxiety and defensiveness my personality.  I feel younger, smaller, and more sensitive than I did.  My armor has changed, and in some ways the world seems much bigger now.  Now that I’m seeing less of my own assumptions and projections — life has become less about seeing others as my enemy.  I also feel exhausted.  I was fighting an opponent in my own mind year after year.  

Shame was the reason I cried every time I got on stage and in nearly every honest conversation I had—in those moments the guard came down, all was exposed and the fear and foreignness was too much to withstand, too much to bear.  And looking back at it, my instinct is to regret, to shame myself further, instead of employing understanding and compassion.  I’ve said it before and I continue to say it, all that is buried and all that is coming up, we are not responsible for its origins, but we have an ownership over whether or not we can honestly look at the results of our lives and labours and say, “Yes.  I am satisfied with this,”  or “No, I need to do a bit more work here.”

When we are maintaining the shiny with our insides a mess, who are we serving?  Are they worth it?  If they are, would they ask this of us or want this for us?  If inside there is a churning, a must keep going, what’s beneath that?  I would happen a guess from my recent experience that it’s fear, and maybe beneath that a yearning for safety, for love, to be held.  The world may not be able to give you that, your security does not keep it/consumerism running.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it, haven’t earned it, shouldn’t prioritize it.  I am holding (y)our broken heart in my hands.  I am promising to keep it safe while it heals.  I am telling you you are everything that is good and beautiful and holy.  

You were always enough.

My Face

My mom taught me to take care of my skin from a young age and I’m grateful she did.  And now in my early thirties as my skin starts to change and my face starts to look different, I can be caught asking – does something need to be fixed here?  stopped?  is something happening that shouldn’t be happening?

I tried watching a new Netflix show about a middle class family and the mom character’s forehead was frozen.  I have no judgement about women’s choices and in fact when a girlfriend was telling me about the work she was going to have done on her face, her pure ownership and excitement about her decisions made me excited for her. And now that I feel the pressure, I understand these decisions in a new way, but regarding the Netflix show, I couldn’t figure out how to watch the show without this being addressed—am I supposed to pretend this is what average north American women’s faces look like?  Did the character get botox?  I wasn’t able to watch the show because of how distracting I found it to be.

The more inundated I am with images from social media, TV, movies, advertising, the more I will see and accept this as the norm.  I already see that in myself.  And that would be ok except when I see myself start to question my own face’s legitimacy, when I start to think, “is this something I have to spend my money on?  Is this something worth considering, fixing, fighting?”

But then without intending to, I had a moment passing a mirror the other day and I thought, “No.  I want it all.”  I want to know what’s behind the curtain, at the end of the line.  I want all parts of this life.  The parts my culture supports and the parts it doesn’t.  I want to experience the changing face and body.  I want to be my whole self despite what culture tells me is shameful, valueless, unwanted.  I don’t have the energy to fight culture, to make big change, but I will fight like hell to preserve the curious part of me, the part of me that’s rooted in something deeper than what I’m being shown.

Letting go of one thing doesn’t have to be sad.  It can be hard, though.  When I see too many skinny bodies and smooth older faces I start to ask myself if I’m wrong.  If maybe everyone else knows something that I don’t?  When I see only smooth and shiny faces on women over 40, how do I look at my own face differently and the faces of women I see on the street and at family events?  I’ve even started to wonder, would I have had my breasts reduced if breast size doesn’t “Say So Much” in our culture?  I don’t regret the decision, we make choices with the information we have, but I do have questions.  Culture is flawed and I don’t want it determining what I’m afraid of, decisions I make that I can’t undo, what my life is grounded in.  Separating myself from it is hard.  But every now and then I have moments like that one in front of the mirror where some deeper, truer, more sure part of me says, “Fuck it.  I want it all.”

Your Back Fat Will Set You Free

When my (then) partner asked me why I don’t shave my ass I told him, “because you have to draw the line somewhere.”  Ladies and gentlemen, this is what freedom looks like.

What I meant was that I was done with striving.  I could see the futility in trying to achieve the airbrushed look and I was ok with letting it go.  I remember when Dove came out with its advertising campaign for moisturizing deodorant to make armpits pretty, and all I thought was, “Can’t one part of me be ugly?  Can’t one part of my body go unnoticed and unfixed?”  I was about 19, and that was when I saw that it would never end.  The ad campaigns, the magazine articles, the product placements: the jig was up, I could see the strings.  And it’s not that I was angry, it was more that I saw that the game was rigged and I could never win it.  As a result, playing became a whole lot less fun.  If I want to be happy, I have to accept this reality, this body, this moment.  

When I get caught up in believing that freedom, perfection and success are one closet organizer, one pair of Spanx and one self-help book away, I am back on the treadmill.  I am, once again, out of my life and caught in the reel that is the movie version someone else has scripted for me.  As someone with a lot of compulsive behaviours, I can see quite clearly that the desire is to be out of my body and out of my life, to be someone or somewhere else entirely.  Eating feels better than exercise, shopping feels better than journaling, scrolling feels better than conversing.  One allows me to separate, disassociate, disconnect, and the other requires me to be present, feel, and face discomfort.  One Zen teacher I have encountered says that your angst can become your liberation.  

Ladies and gentleman: my back fat has set me free.

I was getting dressed one morning and I was distracted.  What I normally do without thinking, I forgot to do: I forgot to avert my eyes.  At just the right moment when pulling on my shirt, I forgot to turn away and in that moment, I looked at the parts I’ve come to ignore.  My eyes grazed over the pieces I pretend aren’t there, over the places I stopped looking at long ago, and I saw them.  And, almost as if I’d touched a hot stove, I looked away fast: I slipped, but I caught myself, disaster averted.  But because I’ve been more regular with my meditation practice, reactions like those, the ones that were once instinctual and unnoticed, are now noticed.  Regular meditation makes the previously unnoticed noticed.  When I see that some unidentified force is determining my actions through an emotional reaction, when I see that shame or anger is causing me to react out of self-preservation, I can now recognize it.  I may not always have the sense of self to do anything about it, but when I once would have reacted, buried and moved on, there’s now an alternative.  So, slowly, I looked back. 

The lesson in meditation is that you don’t have to be afraid.  Fear is the scariest part, not reality.  I can look at my body.  I can see that any shame or anger I feel is the result of outside opinions and standards, that none of it originated innately or organically.  One measure I use to determine if something is true or not is if I could have determined it for myself through science, observation, experience, or would I need someone to teach me.  Can I know it or am I required to believe it?  When I see too many tiny bodies I start to doubt myself, maybe I’m wrong?  Maybe this body is wrong?  Maybe I can’t be trusted?  I get caught, of course, because frankly it’s easier to fix my makeup than to fix my relationships, to re-organize my junk drawer than to reorganize my thought patterns.  Meditation helps, turning off my devices helps, getting quiet helps.

When I was sitting the other day, I was experiencing intense anxiety and I couldn’t get any deeper in my body than it.  So that was where I sat.  I breathed into the space in my chest which was as far as my anxiety would allow me to reach.  And the story isn’t magical, it didn’t dissipate or go anywhere, but by accepting my breath and my mental state as it was, I wasn’t required to fight anything off or fight to get anywhere, so instead all my energy could go into breathing and watching and that was enough.  Sitting with my tension was the same experience as looking at the parts of my body I’ve always wished and been told should be different.  Seeing them without judgement, without fear, without desire to change, looking at them for what they are: a body.

This isn’t an all women/bodies are beautiful, positivity for positivity’s sake moment, it was just a body.  Everything else was made up.  That is liberation.

People Pleaser

I’m not gay for the same reasons I didn’t become a teacher: everyone said I would.

For a long time I gave off a gay vibe and (gay) women were often confused by it.  What happened, I think, is that I was called a flirt young and found myself in some situations with straight men that felt mighty uncomfortable and inappropriate.  So I got into the habit of downplaying my energy around men because it felt safer to do so and like I couldn’t be blamed for something bad happening that way.  I didn’t, however, downplay my energy around women and I could see the confusion playing out with my queer community in the same way it had played out with straight men in the past.  So eventually, to remedy this, I got better at locking it down around most people in general.  I learned not to hold eye contact too long, not to accept invites for one-on-one hangs or rides home, and to never brush someone’s arm with my hand.

I didn’t know how to set boundaries so I took ownership of everyone’s experience and adjusted myself to keep everyone comfortable.  This way, I thought, no one would feel misled, and I couldn’t be called a tease or a flirt.  In essence, I got small.  This was a pattern that played out in several areas of my life: I made something my responsibility that wasn’t my responsibility.  I thought that if I was Right then no one would have a problem with me Ever.  And if someone ever did have a problem (or several) with me, I would find how I had erred and course correct.

I thought I could be happy once I was Right, but not until then.  Once I had taken proper inventory and remedied all errors, I’d then be good enough, smart enough, informed enough, talented enough, pretty enough, successful enough, everything enough.  And once I reached the point of Enough, I could finally begin to Live, and at that point, I would finally be allowed to be happy.  

So I was trying to Be Enough and I saw any negative feedback from the world (which included such innocuous things as an absence of positive feedback) as the finger pointing to the flaw I needed to fix.  This is an incredibly uncomfortable and unstable way to live (as you can imagine), as it means attaching your entire sense of self (and therefore your entire sense of security) to insecure units of measure like other people’s opinions which are based on their own feelings, egos, and capricious standards.  It’s a sure fire way to feel like you’re always on the verge of having your legs knocked out from under you since your goal is to never have an experience with someone where they seem less than outwardly approving of you.

The 2016 American election was a truly eye-opening experience for me (in a lot of ways, but I’m just focusing on this one, here).  Seeing someone with no reason to be in that position of power attain that position of power simply by being really loud and never faltering in their version of reality illuminated something to me: he won by being the loudest voice in the room.  I was still under the impression that there was a moral adjudicator balancing the scales of justice somewhere.  Seeing that that was not the case, that the world’s events are being caused by egos and the insistence of preferences simplified things for me.  I think I was still unconsciously operating with the Dad in the Sky version of God.  The premise  that I needed to be fixed and that something outside of me knew what was best for me.  I truly thought there was a playbook and others had it and one day, when I’d become enough, I would be shown it.  What I learned in November 2016 is that people’s likes and dislikes, egos and voices are all just colliding and bouncing off of everyone else’s and sometimes the loudest and least forgiving voice is the one that gets through.

I realized that all of it, all of the personality adjusting and flaw correcting meant nothing other than that I was constantly uncomfortable and unable to find stability.  It was only meaningfully affecting me and not anyone else.  I began to realize that Perfect isn’t a thing and that by basing my happiness and inner stability on the likes of those whose own values are wont to change as often as the weather, it was impossible for me to become anything and instead, I could only maintain this level of instability and insecurity.  

People Pleasing is not an easy habit to change.  Letting go of the goal of keeping those around me happy, I would experience (and still continue to, today) crazy bouts of discomfort that include nausea, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, huge feelings of self-doubt, and the worst of worst case scenarios playing out in my mind.  People pleasing has affected everything from my relationships to my personality.  It’s played a part in the cities I’ve chosen to live and the companies I’ve chosen to work for.  And everything from the homes I’ve lived in to my finances have been affected by it.  The beginning of this essay is obviously a joke, but the truth is that I have swung between pleasing and acting out of spite my entire life, and both are flip sides to the same coin.  In neither situation had I identified what I wanted and believed as right and based my actions on that.  Both motivations are about other people’s wants.

I have spent the majority of my life trying to avoid the discomfort of disappointing people and the devastation that comes when I ultimately do.  I have even taken on a life largely of solitude in order to avoid both the dampening of self I experience when accommodating others and the distress of the internal fight to not care if I do.  It is a really lovely feeling when those around us are happy as a result of our actions if our actions are based in authenticity.  But the good feeling is rooted in the authentic action, without that part, the feelings of others just ensnare us and limit our freedom.   If happiness is something that we have decided we want for ourselves (and we have a tendency towards people pleasing), then we have a choice to make as to which we value more: the happiness of others or our own.  And once we’ve made that choice, are we willing to withdraw our attachment to one in order to fight like hell for the other?

It has taken me too long to know that alignment is a requirement for my happiness (and possibly all people’s, I just haven’t taken the time to do a proper poll at the time of this writing).  Alignment means my insides match my outsides and it took a really long time for me to even be able to begin to ask the question, “What’s on the inside?”  Maintaining the comfort of those around me made figuring out what I actually wanted much, much harder than it needed to be.  It bothers me how long I struggled with this, how long I avoided that inner knowing, how long I felt wrong and confused and uncomfortable.  And the flip side is, now, how grateful I am that I’m here, that I see that knowing now, that I can see how much time I still have left (*knock wood*) to live with that certainty now, knowing that it gets stronger and more pronounced the more and more time I devote attention to it.

After my last relationship ended I was unable to pick up the pen to write about it because of how deeply I could see that all of it had been said (by me) a million times before.  When we finished and I sat on the couch for a week staring out the window, I could see more clearly than ever before all of my mistakes, all of my ownership of the results I was holding and all of the times I had missed the lesson and chosen to act as I always had while (I have to assume) hoping for different results.

Throughout the course of that relationship, I ignored what I knew deep down to be true: that we were not compatible.  I could have known that three years earlier, but I just pretended not to see it.  I chose to not acknowledge what I knew as truth out of laziness, fear and genuine hope.  I stifled all the communications from my inner compass and was then disappointed when things didn’t go my way.  After years and years of frustration and stagnation and not holding myself accountable, I can see how futile it is to ever try to suppress your own deeper knowing when one of your goals is to be happy.

This knowing is what is being ignored or silenced when you are prioritizing others’ preferences to your own.  I didn’t even know how to hear it, if I’m being honest, but I always knew when I wasn’t listening, when there was something being said that I was too afraid to listen to. To access this certainty, I required years and years of self-help.  Not just the bookstore section, but committing to bettering, understanding, and caring for myself.  I needed practices like therapy, yoga and meditation that cut through the noise and the bullshit and the confusion that swirls always and forever around in order to get to that point of changelessness inside me.  I needed to be around people whose love for me I never doubted no matter what I did.  And I needed countless hours alone to sit and write and feel and cry.  And even though its presence is stronger than it’s ever been, it still requires maintenance to access it.  I still cry, I still sit, I still write, I still get disconnected and have to come back.  I am so surprised, again and again, how much work is required to live a good and intentional life, and some days I’m able to do it and other days I just have to write off as a wash and tell myself that I’ll try again tomorrow.  It feels like such a kick in the teeth that when you actually begin to rectify this behavior, you still experience genuine physical symptoms of distress like chest pains and insomnia, but it just goes to show how ingrained our survival mechanisms (which is why people pleasing develops) really are and how real our evolutionary fear of getting kicked out of the tribe is.

 Discovering your true wants requires going really deep, but so does tapping into why this pattern developed so you can recognize what your psyche is most afraid of (abandonment, most likely,  and its resulting effects), and subsequently realizing that this likely isn’t probable anymore since you’re an adult who can take care of yourself and choose who to associate with.  Living life as a people pleaser is so hard, changing your ways is so hard, but there is freedom beyond this, and to have read this far, I think you know that.  I think you’re now looking for permission to reach for it: give yourself permission, set yourself free.

A Conversation Between Me and The 12 Steps on Step 7

Step 7 “Humbly ask God as we understand it to remove our shortcomings”

The Scene: A living room with both parties sitting on either ends of a couch.  12 Steps appears open and relaxed, Pam has knees pulled up to chest with blanket wrapped around her shoulders while not making eye contact.  Coffee table set with tea set with two cups and saucers.

12 Steps: What are your shortcomings as identified by your inventory in Step 4?

Pam: Selfishness, self centredness, self-pity, victimhood, dishonesty, immaturity, pride, arrogance, shame, cowardice.

12 Steps: Are you willing to ask God as you understand it to remove your shortcomings?

Pam: 

12 Steps: How about this, are these shortcomings the reasons for your resentments and listed mistakes as identified in Step 4?

Pam: Yes.

12 Steps: Have areas of your life become unmanageable due to these shortcomings?

Pam: Yes.

12 Steps: Is there any reason to believe that  the same worldview that got you into this mess is the same worldview that will get you out of this mess?  That even though your current thoughts and beliefs landed you where you are, somewhere you’ve stated is undesirable, your current thoughts and beliefs can get you somewhere else, somewhere that is desirable?

Pam: No.

12 Steps: So you admit your life has become unmanageable because of these character defects, that there’s no reason to believe you can course correct your trajectory while maintaining these character defects, and yet you have a resistance to having them removed.  Is that correct?

Pam:

12 Steps: 

Pam: I’m afraid I won’t be special anymore.  I’m afraid these ‘defects’ are what give me my strength, my stamina, my personality.  I’m afraid I’ll lose my backbone, that my spine will deteriorate, that I’ll crumble and be unable to get up.  I’m afraid I’ll become a shell of myself, and maybe even disappear.  I’m afraid that by giving over control, asking for intervention, I’ll stop being me.

12 Steps: You already gave up control in Step 1, did you not?

Pam: Yes.

12 Steps: What did that feel like?

Pam: Resistance at first.  And then freedom.  Relief.  An exhale.

12 Steps: And yet you believe that with your current understanding you can either get you out of the mess that you and your current understanding got you into or that you can manage a situation you’ve identified as unmanageable for a while longer, is that correct?

Pam: Maybe.

12 Steps: Ok.

Pam:  Ya.

12 Steps: Let’s stay here for awhile then.

Pam: Ok. 

Camera stays on them sitting quietly in unchanging positions for a few minutes, 12 Steps appears to be comfortable and relaxed, sipping tea with a peaceful expression on his/her face.  

Fade out

Using Art to Heal: Virtual Workshop with Pam Stewart

Starting Thursday, October 15 at 7pm Pacific Standard Time, I’ll be running a six week virtual workshop series called Using Art to Heal. Each week will focus on a different area of blockage or neglection that’s been negatively affecting your life and/or your art. We’ll look at work, life and art fears; internal blocks; hopes and dreams; life health and joy.

Time Commitment

Each week will require approximately a five hour commitment: the group sessions which will take place once a week for two hours, daily activities/prompts on your own time throughout the week, and at least one one-on-one with me during the six weeks to talk about your specific experience and areas of concern.

What to Expect

Each week’s session will begin with a group check-in about the previous week’s homework/assignments: what came up, what were the hurdles, where were the surprises; a talk about the coming week’s focus; and directed movement, meditation and free writes. Each week will have different homework assignments meant to open you up, identify how you have been sabotaging yourself, and play. The purpose is to feel good, see what you’ve been avoiding, and allow the art of play and reflection to free some of the tension in your life that’s preventing you from living and creating honestly.

Participants

This is a course for artists and non-artists, writers and non-writers; people who think they have maybe been missing something and could be living in a way that is more true to who they are. There will be an expectation of all participants of energy, participation, vulnerability, commitment and time. You don’t need to have any specific skills, any answers, or any experience with workshops like this. All that is asked is you show up, be honest and try.

Cost + Fees

Cost is free or pay what you wish. Group size is limited to allow space and time for vulnerability and depth.

To Register

Visit pamstewartwrites.com/events

DISCLAIMER

The content contained in this workshop series is intended to inspire joy and spark creativity in your life. It is not intended to replace care best provided by qualified professionals and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Beginning Again: A Course In Miracles

I first bought the book when I was 28.  My original plan had been to start the workbook on my 29th birthday to be completed on my 30th.  Oh how naive I was.  I started it, sure, but damn that is one dense text.  I got hardly anywhere in the Text itself and tried instead to go directly to the Workbook.  After a couple of months, the exercises became too time consuming and I put it down for longer and longer periods of time.  My 30th birthday came and went, and even though I stopped picking up the book entirely, I never moved it to the bookshelf even though I went years between picking it up.  It always had a prominent position on my coffee table even when I moved apartments, it moved with me and still never made it to the book shelf.

The language itself was such a commitment.  How could this be the way to God if the text was this difficult to get through?  I slogged, I was uncommitted, I was bored and I was disappointed.  This wasn’t fitting my plan.  It felt like when you plan to go on a trip somewhere to ‘Find Yourself’ and instead just … find yourself.  This wasn’t making me feel anything profound or different or spiritual.  This felt like bad homework.  So, I let it go.

I’m now coming up to my 33rd birthday and I have picked it up again.  This time, I’m not looking at the workbook but am solely focused on the Text itself.  At first, the language made me feel nothing.  But underneath it, I kind of wondered if it’s a tool in the way I found the structure of Zen to be a tool — a path that’s been walked by so many before me that it was merely intended to limit the expected, more avoidable distractions that are bound to arise.  Working with a Zen teacher I trust taught me that it’s ok to accept their knowledge and wisdom.  The point of the container they provide is not mind control but to simplify the path to knowledge.  As I go further into it — though it’s never fully spiritual, my intellect is always engaged — I am feeling more from its words.  Often, I see the fear and resistance in me.  The concept of the Holy Spirit has been a hard one for me.  The premise that I do not have direct access to God but require an intermediary scares me.  The ancient Christian language scares me.  “Aren’t I too smart to be a Christian?”  I’ve thought more than once.   

There have been days I’ve felt euphoria, there’s been days I’ve felt lots of fear and rejection.  I’ve cried twice so far when reading.  There’s fear of being fooled and there’s hope that it’s safe to believe.  My favorite parts are when the narrator speaks directly to me of their experience, when clarification on mis-documented or misinterpreted moments from the bible is given.  Those are all the parts I’ve highlighted as most of it reads so densely as a philosophy text that I just have to trust it’s logic as it feels too advanced for me to poke any holes in (though I still find myself looking for them).

One question posed early on in the Text is “Watch carefully and see what it is you are really asking for.  Be very honest with yourself in this…”  (page 62).  After some time of sitting and writing on the question, this answer came to me: to learn to love.  That is what I want from my most honest place from the Course.  I feel hyper-defended and wary of others in my life.  It is difficult and disappointing to read that the path to God, according to the text, cannot be reached alone — which is how I’ve convinced myself thus far in my life I am safest.  It reads, “The Kingdom cannot be found alone, and you who are the Kingdom cannot find yourself alone.” (page 143)  My aloneness is one piece of how I have identified myself as special, as separate, as ‘above.’  Breaking that apart is scary and difficult for me to imagine.

On days when I’m flowing, I understand what the Holy Spirit’s role is.  I see that I can’t solve the problems of the ego from the same level as the ego.  I do need something external and beyond.  The statement “Your mission is very simple. You are asked to live so as to demonstrate that you are not an ego…” (page 68) was jarring.  That’s it?  But that’s all that I am.  How will I know where I end and everyone else begins?  

Oh.  I see.

I feel as though much of my self-help was leading me to this.  There was always a bit of disappointment when a book ended, certainty that it hadn’t gone deep enough, like if it was the truth then it wouldn’t have ended.  Perhaps I was taking baby steps, easing towards a readiness to this ‘God language’ that would allow me to read it and not run in the other direction.  Much of the infrastructure of the text I had discovered on my own.  I think that is why I am able to proceed with studying it.  I found there to be an underlying current of Truth beneath all the noise and activity and words of daily life.  This I had come to refer to as God on my own.  I had identified that a life where I had reached my potential would be one in which I felt free, honest, expansive and kind.  If I am understanding the text’s premises correctly, the book centres on Truth, freedom, extension and love/joy.  This correlation helps me to know I am following a truth discoverable for myself which I believe to be the only way to know one is on the right path.  Outsourcing wisdom to others is too dangerous, as history has proven.

I Promise I Will Not…

A very long time ago I made a deal with God: I said that I would forgo love for a Writing Life.  Love was the only thing I wanted nearly as much as to write, and surely, I thought, success at writing would demand a great sacrifice.  (The beautiful joke is, of course, that the majority of my writing has been about not finding love.)  The result of this promise was that without realizing it, I internalized the idea that love and writing could not co-exist in my life.  Over and over again my pattern looked like seeking love when I didn’t have it and running away from it when I did.  I’d seek intimacy, not write while in a relationship, believe it was impossible for me to write while in a relationship, fear and sabotage relationships when I was in them, and then pine and write about them when I wasn’t.  Because I didn’t realize how deeply (and invisibly) I felt contracted to this promise, I never understood the panic I felt around commitment; and because I had never exorcised my desire for love (only my willingness to accept it), I just kept seeking it out and sabotaging it, seeking it out and sabotaging it.


I had forgotten about this promise, this ‘deal’ that I had made, but I uncovered it when I went digging around my patterns in order to uncover their source: why do I claim to want one thing but act in a way that is antithetical to it?  I say I want a relationship, but when I envision being in one I feel trapped, penned in and uncomfortable.  I didn’t know the truth so I had to tackle the problem from both sides: if I truly don’t want a relationship, why do I believe that I do?  Or, if I truly want a relationship, why do I panic whenever I get close to one?  What I found hidden away was that promise I made years and years ago: that deal I made with the Universe and this push-pull way of being the only way I knew how to follow through on the impossible terms I’d set.  

I decided (painfully and tearfully) that I had to let both sides of this commitment go.  I decided I had to loosen my grip on my dream of being a writer at the cost of love and let go of the idea that love will prevent me from being a writer.  The heartbreak I felt as I prepared myself psychologically to unclench the fist holding the writing dream felt like betrayal, felt like giving up, felt like resigning myself to a life unlived.  I sobbed for an entire afternoon deliberating over whether or not I was abandoning myself by doing it or by not doing it.  Did I know what I was doing then, when I made the promise?  Or, do I know what I am doing now by questioning its validity.  I thought that by spending one day on the changing of my beliefs around art I’d be ready to move on, but I hadn’t realized I had an equally implanted and free-standing idea about love.  Not only did I have to relinquish the belief that I was in control of and could force my way to success as a writer, I had to also come face to face with and deconstruct my beliefs that love would get in the way of me reaching my potential.  For though they seem to be one and the same thought, they are not.  They were two independent ideas, one negatively affecting me about writing and the other negatively affecting me about love.

I think part of the reason I was ready and able to see these beliefs for what they were when I had gone so long oblivious to them, was that for the first time in my life I have begun to pray for ease.  I have been so wholeheartedly attached to my struggle that it never occurred to me I could have what I wanted without it.  That I could have a writing life, a love life, a worthwhile life, all without struggle was not something that had ever occurred to me to expect.  In order for my psyche to allow peace, I had to confront the limiting beliefs in place preventing me from achieving it.  This is how affirmations work (of which I have never been a fan, but am now seeing their legitimate practicality).

It was heart wrenching realizing I had to let go of the oath I had made.  Letting go, I thought, was akin to giving up my dream of writing.  It took me a little bit of time before I realized that I didn’t need to give up my dream of writing, I just needed to form a new way of dreaming it.   What I wanted from my dream was a sense of validation and completion, but I was using lack and suffering as a means of achieving it.  I held my dreams tensely, uncompromisingly, and withholdingly.  Dreams, like little kids, become too fragile for the real world when held like this.  For years I struggled with feelings of loneliness and sacrifice because I believed that is how one should feel when working towards their best life.  But these feelings are contrary to how I want to feel in my day-to-day life — I want to feel free and expansive regardless of where I am on my journey.  I came to see that there is no way walking the wrong path will lead me to the right place.  I was so afraid of not achieving and not reaching my goals that it was impossible to feel wholly present, authentic and successful as I work towards them.  

If the only way I can have the life I envisioned for myself is by living half lives on the path to getting there, doesn’t that negate the pot of gold I imagined there to be at the end of the rainbow?  It terrifies me to contemplate going the next 2-25 years in the same uncommitted, half out way I’ve been going.  If letting go of my promise to forgo one source of happiness for another is the only way to open myself to truly living, then I have to hope that the universe doesn’t demand I sever my own limbs in order to do it.

I attempted a one-sided negotiation to force the life I wanted into being.  With this promise subconsciously motivating me, I couldn’t’ see that I was forbidding myself from growing and evolving out of the person I was when I made it and into the person I could become without it. So nothing — not the writing, nor my capacity for intimacy — could evolve.  I have had the attitude of a lonely, 26-year old struggling artist for many, many years now, even though I have not been any of those things for many, many years!  I was keeping a promise I made when I was a completely different person with a completely different set of beliefs and values without even realizing it.

I didn’t believe I could have both, love and writing, and as a result, I’ve forever had neither.  My resiliency and determination, though, have resulted in many, many times of almosts.  I was afraid of asking for too much, so I sacrificed both.  But what I didn’t realize was that what I am actually after is Wholeness.  And Wholeness, for me, doesn’t come without both Writing and Love.  I was asking for the wrong thing (writing success at all costs) so of course my tools for achieving it (control, struggle, sacrifice) were also wrong.  When the only means of achieving something are not traits that I value but I convince myself that they will make the ends worth it, I’m either going to crumble because it’s unsustainable or miss my life because I’m too focused on the end result.

I was chasing something outside of me while stunting something inside of me.  I made this promise without realizing I had made it or that I was holding myself to it, and it took years before I could see and attempt to remedy it. Happiness had never been my goal, writing success was because I believed it would make me happy.  My misplaced belief that artistic success goes hand in hand with personal martyrdom is culturally induced and inaccurate, as is the idea that a relationship and commercial success will make me happy.  I don’t want my life to be about achieving something through restriction, I want my life to be about living wholly, presently and authentically — even if that means letting myself re-write my earlier contracts.

Our Identity is What Makes Us Vulnerable

I see what makes us fragile as I watch the men in my life battle to hold onto these ideas they have of themselves.  There’s a reason it’s so common for men to soften as they get older, when they see the needlessness of gripping so tightly to what they thought they had to be.  When we have an idea of who we are, when there is a ‘box of identity’ around us, the boundaries of right and wrong, and how we should behave become our points of weakness, fragility.  When we have a black and white view of who we are, we have not  accounted for all possible variables.  No one can know how they would react or respond in any possible situation.  The more narrow our view of ourselves — the stricter our vision is — the more of reality we will have to reject over the course of our lives as our vision and idea of ourselves becomes threatened.  If you want to spend your life fighting, define who you are and believe in your own definition.

To truly be unshakeable, one must let their idea of themselves go, one must allow for the scenario that there is no such thing as You, as I.  Everything is always in process, becoming one thing from something else — even though you were still you at 3, at 19, at 45, You are not stagnant.  It’s futile to try to hold onto an idea of ourselves and call it The Truth.  As long as we are remaining open, letting emotions and discomfort pass through us, we are being altered.  When we stop allowing that (free movement of internal experiences) — when we get blocked, shut down, stop time and experience from changing us, that is when we draw lines around ourselves, believing that we are something concrete.  That NOW and NOW we are something, that HERE and HERE I exist.  There is freedom in letting go of who you believe yourself to be.  

This is the point that is always hardest for me in meditation.  The holding on, the believing that “I” need to be in control here, that “I” need to make something happen here; instead of realizing that in meditation, the “I” is the part standing in the way of something truly happening.  What my biggest measurable accomplishments have taught me is that as long as I believe that I am in control of something, nothing greater than my control can happen.  As long as I am holding tightly to the reigns of my experience, then my imagination is as far as I can go (and the bounds of my imagination are pretty limited as far as imaginations are concerned as well as as far as possibilities are concerned).

Freedom is found in the dismantling, the letting go, the seeing that the box was never really there, we just all agreed to pretend that it was (like we do with the economy or time).  You can make anything seem real if you get enough people to agree on its existence.  But there is a truth that exists whether anyone is willing to acknowledge it or not, there is space that is available to us regardless of how firmly we believe ourselves to be trapped.  There is expansion as soon as the belief that the box is necessary is let go of.  When it happens, it feels a little like, “Oh                  .”