Did you ever ride the go-karts at Disney World? Each car is situated on individual, parallel tracks that prevent crossover and collisions, so that everyone basically drives around without incident. At the starting line, the track beneath the car is wide, encompassing the full width between the tires, and as a result the drive is quite smooth; but soon the track narrows to a thin rail and the driver must find the proper steering wheel position that will prevent the car from zig zagging the entire way, slamming into the track on the inside of the right tires, then the left, over and over again. I could never do this. Every time I tried to drive the Disney go-karts, I gave myself whiplash (physical and emotional) because I could not find the middle ground.
This is not unlike other parts of my life. If I were to whittle down my life’s narrative to a single story line, it might be about my search for the middle ground. My natural tendency, however, seems to be vacillating between extremes. At a recent weekend meditation retreat, I spent the entire first day on the cushion ping-ponging between sleepy and speedy. Although I was a little tired, my sleepiness was about more than that. It was an avoidance technique, a way to literally shut down my body so that I didn’t have to deal with the difficult emotions that arose. When not doing the old college head-bob, I was feeling speedy, zooming through mental to-do lists, and wishing away the minutes on the clock so that we could get to the next thing, and then the next, and the next. And when we did get to the next thing, I wanted to just get through that. Sleepy, speedy, sleepy, speedy. That was my Saturday.
Another area where I vacillate between extremes is in expressing myself. As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to bottle up my emotions and then explode. This feels like a balloon taking on air, little by little. Because I’m elastic, adaptable, I rationalize that it’s easier for me to take on whatever it is than to verbalize my true emotions. But eventually I lose my elasticity. I get to a point where I can’t take on any more, even though I still wish I could. And then Pop Boom Bang! One of the many problems with this approach is that no one on the outside can see it coming. Another is that I might explode at something relatively innocuous, or at least something that would be considered incongruent with the level of my reaction.
But nowhere do I vacillate between extremes more than in romantic relationships. While I feel like a fairly effective communicator in other parts of my life, all of that seems to go out the window when love is involved and I switch between extremes of hope and fear suddenly and often without warning. Being so vulnerable with someone – placing my heart in his hands and trusting that he won’t squish it – sends my rational brain on an extended vacation. When things are going smoothly, I am full of hope, struck by how easily it flows, and wonder why all the fuss about how difficult relationships can be. And then, all of a sudden, it stops being easy. When this happens, I feel disoriented, unable to express myself. And I quickly switch from a sense of hopeful beginnings to one of fearful endings. I automatically go to that extreme. When trying to communicate, I run out of skills and feel utterly hope-less.
Eventually I do reach a point of exhaustion with these extremes. On the second day of my meditation program, for example, my practice was very different from the sleepy-speedy day before. It was as if I had worn down my avoidance of the present moment, fatigued my muscles of resistance, and could finally rest in awareness. So too has this happened with expressing difficult emotions with others. Rather than always filling the balloon to bursting and then exploding, I release tension gradually, mindfully, by trying to take a gentle approach, by giving myself permission to risk disappointing the other person. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes not. And in my relationship, often directly following the point at which I reach utter despair, I find myself softening and opening and developing curiosity about what is going on in the moment, less so about the outcome – good or bad.
On the topic of hope and fear, Chogyam Trungpa writes in Ocean of Dharma:
The experience of our day-to-day living situation consists of dissatisfaction, questioning, pain, depression, aggression, passion. All these are real, and we have to relate with them. Having a relationship with this may be extremely difficult. It’s an organic operation without any anesthetics. If we really want to get into it, we should be completely prepared to take a chance and get nothing back but tremendous disappointment, tremendous hopelessness.
Hope is the source of pain, and hope operates on the level of something other than what there is. We hope, dwelling in the future, that things might turn out right. We do not experience the present, do not face the pain or neurosis as it is. So the only way that is feasible is developing an attitude of hopelessness, something other than future orientation. The present is worth looking at.
Faith is a more realistic attitude than hope is. Hope is a sense of lacking something in the present situation. We are hopeful about getting better as we go along. Faith is that it’s okay in the present situation, and we have some sense of trust in that.
I have no reason to believe I would be any better at driving one of the go-karts at Disney but I am working on finding the middle ground in other (arguably more important) parts of my life. My faith in the process of meditation has only grown since I began practicing three years ago. I don’t think it would be extreme to say that sitting with myself, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, practicing letting go of hope and fear, and cultivating space, acceptance, and kindness is the most important thing I can do with my life.
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