I taught my yoga class this morning and discovered that the apartment above the studio has a new tenant–a very unhappy puppy.
The puppy yipped and yapped all morning–a mournful plea that ranged from a desperate attempt to get someone to realize how awful its circumstances are, to a polite reminder to come rescue it, to an outraged rant about the injustice of being abandoned to such deep loneliness.
The puppy was quite loud.
We started the class as we usually do with a meditation called “The Three Fundamentals.” But there was no escaping the constant sounds of our puppy-friend.
Some of the barking could be chalked up to normal puppy noises. We all tried to smile knowingly as if to reassure each other that the puppy will be fine.
But some of the yaps were quite frantic, even ending with thrashing in its crate. Those were very hard to ignore.
We tried to continue our normal yoga routine but it didn’t take long to realize that today was not a normal day.
So we took another tact.
Instead of bracing ourselves against the sounds and practicing yoga “in spite of the puppy”, we practiced leaning in.
We practiced embracing our discomfort and using it as an opportunity to learn acceptance.
Learning in is one of the themes of my life. I leaned into my divorce. I leaned into single motherhood. And now, I’m leaning into family relationship issues, job changes, financial trouble, loneliness, and even the aging process.
Like the puppy barking, it seems like it never stops. There is always discomfort to accept.
The cycles of acceptance
Leaning in isn’t a new idea. Most spiritual practices have some way of approaching acceptance. Sometimes you pray to God to give you strength and other times you put your circumstances in Her hands. Sometimes there are meditations or practices which teach you to let things be as they are.
Because my life is full of circumstances I find disagreeable, I am familiar with leaning into discomfort. And in my experience, I find many of these teachings simplistic. They seem to imply that acceptance is easy. Clean.
Even the discussions about discomfort seem a little, well, sanitized.
It’s as if all we all need is the correct breathing practice.
This has not been my experience.
Now admittedly, I’m not a put-together person. But for my money, I find the stories of Sharon Salzberg in “Faith” or Anne Lamott in “Almost Anything” much more accurate. They know that leaning in is not pretty. Both of them describe the turmoil, vulnerability, and disarray that happens as you learn to accept life as it is.
When I’m in the process of accepting something which, in my learned opinion, should not be happening to anyone but especially not to me, I’m a mess. I get confused and overwhelmed, cry or rage. I contradict myself or get judgy and harsh. Sometimes I shut down so completely that Netflix is my only comfort.
And my mind? Thank goodness no one can hear my thoughts.
First I bargain and negotiate with my circumstances (If I eat more organic food, my age-related hearing loss will return to normal, right? ) Then I create narratives where I’m either the angelic winner (I’m so brave facing my senior years alone) or the downtrodden loser (What is wrong with me that I’m so alone?).
I rationalize (No worries. I bet most people my age are dealing with hearing loss and loose skin.) I plot and scheme (I’m starting a workout routine on Monday). I give up hope (It’s inevitable that I will age so who cares?) and then I start battle again (I WILL be one of those sassy, beautiful women who everyone thinks is 15 years younger than they are. Let me make a list of what I need to do…).
Hardly calm and Buddha-like.
In the middle of the chaos of fighting and giving up, negotiating and accepting, inexplicably, there are moments when the suffering stops.
At class, the puppy slept for about 4 minutes. The silence seemed loud. Once we realized that it was happening, I could feel everyone relax.
These moments are respite. Grace. They are a pause to catch your breath.
But just as I began to wonder if was over, it started again.
I had wanted it to stop. When it didn’t, it was almost harder than before.
And eventually, one day, if I’m lucky, acceptance.
Discomfort is not what you think
Discomfort is a quite intricate. If you decide to look at it, you may be surprised by what you find.
Several years ago, I had a terrible back injury. I was so incapacitated that sometimes I was forced to crawl along the floor rather than walk. One morning as I was getting out of bed, I almost fainted from the pain.
As a single mom, this injury was inconvenient. Besides being uncomfortable, I didn’t want to face the complications of not being able to care for my kids.
Of course I fought it in the beginning. I tried tantruming to make it go away. When that didn’t work, I tried a more adult option: leaning in.
I decided to study my pain.
What I found was amazing.
Pain has many colors and textures. Warmth, fuzziness, glassy shards, metallic pounding…
It’s a true kaleidoscope. I didn’t know my body was capable of so many different sensations.
I remember discovering that if I stood in the shower in a very particular position, leaning slightly against the wall with my weight on one leg, the pain would go away. The warm water sprayed on my body and relaxed my muscles. The pulsing of the droplets on my skin created enough sensation that temporarily, it blocked the sensation from my nerves. What a discovery.
I would soak in those moments, trying to memorize what non-pain felt like. I pledged to never take non-pain for granted again.
And then, the pain would return and once again become overwhelming. Non-pain disappeared and the pain experience came back again.
Leaning in is dynamic
I used to think that once I finished processing something, I was done.
Isn’t that a hopeful thought?
Of course, it’s not that way.
Acceptance has layers, always shifting and changing over time.
It’s like describing a day at the beach. You can never fully capture it.
Is going to the beach the moment when you first arrive in the parking lot and the sun sparkling on the water startles you and makes you squint?
Or is it when you first walk into the water and the sand squeezes between your toes?
Is it the smell of suntan lotion and BBQ smoke? The sound of kids screaming? Is it when you fall asleep with the sun beating on your skin or the feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day?
Acceptance is the same way.
There is no single moment, no sensation nor experience that defines the whole.
It’s a process.
It’s the sum of all of it.
Accepting over and over
Some situations I have to accept over and over. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully there. The best I can do is to befriend my familiar issues.
During my whole adult life, I have had periods of deep financial stress.
I know the anxiety at the end of the month when I can’t pay my bills. I transfer money from one account to another, waiting to get paid, hoping I don’t get overdraft charges.
I hide my money problems by pretending to not be interested in activities instead of admitting I can’t afford them. I’ll tell a friend that I’m going to buy a pretty piece of clothing but I know I never will.
It’s familiar. Almost rehearsed.
On good days, I treat this pattern like a crotchety old relative that I love despite his abrasiveness.
But on bad days, I just want it to go away, and by the way, why does this so unfairly happen to me?
The puppy keeps barking and I still think I can make it stop.
The process of acceptance is humbling
If you think that you can accept life and still look pretty, you’re either very spiritually advanced or slightly delusional.
Leaning into discomfort is not dignified.
When you really start to live in the mess of life, it is humbling and scary.
We all have “put-together” friends. You know the ones. Their life seems quite tolerable. If something happens, they cope nicely. Even their meltdowns are tidy and limited.
Compared to these people, I feel like I can barely make it to the grocery store and back again. I have tantrums and pity-parties. The most basic life circumstance can throw me into a frenzy of journal-writing and walk-taking, trying to find peace and acceptance in 85% cocoa chocolate bars.
I treasure my other “messy” friends because they give me comfort in the world of put-together people. Only they admit how hard it really is.
Acceptance doesn’t make any sense
When I plan a yoga class, I plan the class to help people be in their bodies.
Usually this means that we move through the poses mindfully. The class is often quiet as they work. I leave gaps in my instructions to create space.
But when a puppy yips during class, my narrative about what is mindful is challenged. After all, what kind of yoga class creates stress for its students?
Part of leaning into your discomfort is accepting that which doesn’t make sense. Stressful yoga classes. Loose skin. Back pain. Empty checking accounts.
None of it makes sense. You lose your bearings. You get a tad sensitive and emotional.
A small comment makes you distaught for a full day.
But that is the point of acceptance–it doesn’t make any sense.
Who leans into discomfort? It’s illogical.
But leaning into discomfort is exactly what you need to do. It’s the only way through it.
Instead of pulling away or bracing yourself against it, let it run through.
Let the full, crazy, messy experience happen.