How do you greet someone who’s just spent nine days not making a sound?
Our housemate Aneeta (who, incidentally, also authors the simple, generous, deeply healing, and truth-tellingly politicized dharma blog In The Process of Being) returns today from her first residential meditation retreat. In my experience, though each time is different, emerging from the womb-crucible of the meditation center has usually felt giddy and tender, and I’m amazed at how much effort is required just to speak. I feel it in my vocal chords. Each word, laugh, or murmur of assent demands attention in order to be born.
So as much as I’m looking forward to hearing all about her experience, I don’t want to be all like, Come verbalize with me!!! the second she walks in.
Frosting and sprinkles, then, to ease the initial homecoming.
Today I’m honored and delighted to be featured on The Jizo Chronicles: award-winning Buddhist blog and home of the hella inspiring Maia Duerr. Maia is a wonderful writer and creator who knows how to craft big questions out of few words. After she e-mailed me the interview prompts, it took me weeks to reflect on them — finally prompting a sweet and gentle check-in from her, like, uh, you okay over there? :)
Anyway, I am enormously grateful to be walking the path with her, and to be included in this interview series with the likes of Arun from Angry Asian Buddhist, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Roshi Joan Halifax. Check out the interview and feel free to leave thoughts, pushback, disagreements, elaborations, questions, etc.
I’ve been dealing with some depression in the last couple months, friends. Without going into too much detail, I’ll just summarize by saying that I lost sight of inspiration; all thoughts (most of which were negative) seemed completely real, solid, and inescapable; and I couldn’t remember how I make meaning in the world.
Highly unpleasant. Perfectionism played a large role here, too; I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Fortunately, over the years a number of great people have shared with me their tools and strategies for living with episodic or more chronic depression. Nothing like knowledge and loving, supportive relationships to lessen fears and ease internalized stigma.
Also fortunately, I have access to many resources for digging myself out — including free time.
What that wound up meaning, for me, was: forcing myself to do a lot of things that I reeeeeeeally did not feel like doing. Robot-style, I checked off my list.
Don’t deny it (in other words, be real with myself and Ryan about how I’m doing, even if I feel ashamed about it)
Apply for jobs (seek more structure in my day and more stability in moneyplans)
Accept invitations to hang out (even when all I want to do is stay home alone, sit on the couch, and valorize all my thoughts)
Seek parental insight on racism (ask my dad what he has done to cope with lifelong feelings of outsiderness and non-belonging)
Get under the sky (hike, see some trees, feel some air, find an arboreal newt at Butano State Park)
Try therapy (preferably with someone who knows about queer shit, POC shit, political shit, and how these relate to mental health)
Practice gratitude (this one didn’t actually work for me — the negative thoughts were just too loud and strong — but I did try)
Reach out (talk with friends who know me well, even if they’re far away and “talking” is via phone or email)
Exercise (since the bike-to-car transition, the old endorphin crank is getting real rusty)
On this last point, my friend Cat kindly clued me in to a free program through Yoga Journal: the 21 Day Yoga Challenge. Offering daily vegetarian recipes, guided meditations, and yoga instructional videos, it supports participants’ three-week quest for calm minds, open hips, and better bowel movements. Ideal for avoiding the crowds at Yoga To The People. (Despite living in what is probably the white yogi capitol of the world, with studios outnumbered only by Walgreens, I still haven’t found a cozy home base like Mandiram in Barcelona.) Online videos allow for sweatpants, bad attitude, and slovenly following of computer-screened orders.
The sessions were at first relatively numb and joyless. Stretch this, bend that, breathe, same-old same-old.
By now, Day 11, I am gobbling all kinds of YouTube yoga videos and practicing extra arm balances on my own. Falling all over the place, trying to build strength in my shoulders and core. One of my goals is to master the pincha mayurasana by the Day 21. Almost there (hopefully I’ll have a video or photo to share soon), and practicing feels delicious.
In other words, playtime* is back — and that is a good thing. A very good thing.
[Sidenote: I’m not totally sure about this, but I think it might be useful to distinguish between mindful and unmindful play. For instance, Ryan and I have been talking a lot about video games lately, and how they can become very addictive and life-force-sucking, rather than rejuvenating and relaxing (as one might imagine a “game” would be). Is it possible to play video games mindfully? Probably, but for a variety of reasons it seems awfully difficult to me, though I admit I am no expert. In any case, rather than labeling certain activities (i.e. yoga, music, sports, freewriting) as “mindful play” and excluding others, the main thing might be the quality of play, or the attitude one brings to the activity. No?]
Now, I’m not too keen on the “allegorical” school of yoga writing: always translating physical asanas into metaphors for everyday life, in a kind of pat, Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul way — you feel me? I’m more on the medical/meditative tip (i.e. this posture supports thyroid function; and when keeping the attention on the breath and sensations, yoga becomes a very practical spiritual path). Therefore, the following observation about my own 11 days of yoga makes me feel a little squirmy. But I’ll say it anyway.
Remember how I mentioned that perfectionism contributed to my depression? As we know, perfectionism breeds rigidity. Failure and mediocrity seem to permeate everything; nothing is good enough. Except maybe the rare, unattainable genius of other people. But even then, they are probably geniuses at things that don’t matter very much. Awesome at yoga? Who cares; plus, where’s the critique of patriarchy. Brilliant writer? Idealist/individualistic and/or suicidal. Stellar organizer? Either too complicit with the state, or too unsystemic in thinking. Great politics? Where’s the disciplined application. This is what my mind said, over and over. Rigid.
And what’s the opposite of rigidity?
You guessed it: flexibility. Darn allegories.
So where my depression was closed, stagnant, and neurotic, yoga has brought openness, movement, and grounding in the body. I feel so. much. better.
Of course, it didn’t have to be yoga! Running, if I could stand it, might have offered similar benefits along the exercise lines. And it wasn’t only the yoga! There were hella other factors contributing, too. (Notably, Ryan’s constant, unwavering, loving support. Straight-up amazing.)
Nevertheless, there it is. Yoga helped me be more flexible, let go of rigid perfectionism, and remember how to play.
Hold up — I think I feel that gratitude practice starting to kick in.
* * * * * * * * * * *
* In light of fucked-up racist stereotypes, I just want to clarify that when I associate playtime and yoga, I don’t mean that yoga is somehow unserious, or that inversions like pincha mayurasana are childish and/or monkey-like acrobatics. That is some colonial-ass thinking, which is unfortunately not uncommon, hence the need to mention it. Rather, when I speak of play in my practice, I mean focus, immersion, an attitude of curiosity, ability to adjust, tweak and revise, recover buoyantly from errors, or even let go of the idea of error altogether. The same applies to the freewriting practice I recently resurrected for myself, called “morning pages”: an exercise from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
The General Strike worked in Nigeria! Beautiful testament to who really constitutes the foundation of the world economy: not politicians or businesspeople (so-called “innovators”), but workers and ordinary people (who continually innovate new ways of asserting power against bosses, patriarchs, and state oppression).
Thank you, friends in Nigeria, for inspiring the rest of us! May we continue to develop and use our collective material power, worldwide, and discover together how to replace capitalism with a system that promotes freedom, equality, compassion, and positive interdependence among humans, animals, and the earth (and maybe robots; who knows ;) ).
Also, smiled at this seemingly pro-queer shoutout from Femi:
Later in his office, Mr. Kuti shouted at his television as he watched the labor leaders announce the end of the strike. “I told you those people would back down,” he said to his aides, looking up from the screen. As for the government, he said, “They prosecute people for being gay, but there is no law against stealing 14 million.”