Spring is here and within it I feel so much change! It's exhilarating which 1) feels exciting and 2) brings up anxiety. In my world anxiety can easily turn into drama if I am not careful. I have to be careful about it because drama can cause lots of energy-draining damage when it goes unchecked. To illustrate this I'll tell you all a little story about getting to know the drama-producing part of my brain a few years ago.
So my first year back in the States after the Peace Corps was pretty hard. I was still deeply mourning my life in Peru yet knew there was no staying there. My mom had moved to China (a whole other interesting story) and I moved in with my dad for the first time since I was a kid and working on our relationship felt like a huge challenge. I didn't have a job or money and I was still kinda heart broken over some people and things that I had left behind in Peru.
Feeling stuck, I floundered in anxiety. Everyday interactions with things as simple as the toothpaste selection at the grocery store brought up a disproportionate amount of emotion. A friend’s boyfriend politely asked me if I was considering getting a job in journalism and I started crying. Finally my mom suggested I talk to a therapist.
After a few sessions this therapist advised that this might be a good time in my life for a meditation retreat, preferably a silent one. I liked this idea! Social events were making me feel extra anxious and I had this huge instinct to be alone, perhaps in a woodsy cabin baking bread all day.
I signed up for a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat where I wasn’t allowed books, music, or any kind of writing project. People asked me if I was nervous and I really wasn’t. At this time when I wanted to hide from everyone, nothing sounded more relaxing than 10 days of not having to talk to anyone else.
I suppose you can guess that there wasn’t nothing relaxing about those 10 days. What I had failed to consider is that I really didn't have a meditation practice prior to this retreat. I had flirted with it before but never sat for more than 20 minutes at a time. This retreat had us in seated meditation for at least 10 hours a day. Right away, my back started aching. I breathed through it and the pain came and went.
Then deep, tough emotions began rising to the surface. It was stuff from the Peace Corps and stuff from much earlier than that. From there I began seeing the wisdom of the retreat set-up. If I had a book, a person, a journal--I would have escaped so deeply into it to avoid dealing with all the shit coming up from my depths. Yet I had nothing but my breath and the techniques they were teaching us. Just like my physical pain, I watched as my emotional anguish came and went. I alternated between bliss and feeling like that little girl from The Exorcist (not really exaggerating there).
On the evening of the fourth day I felt like I was stabilizing into that up and down rhythm, as uncomfortable as it was. I reflected on this as I sat on my bed, waiting for dinner (my third favorite part of the day--lunch was first and breakfast second, showering was a solid fourth). Then I remembered we weren't supposed to be thinking, just focusing on our breath.
As I thought that, this voice that felt a bit different than my own came through loud and clear, "But it's SO BORING to focus on your breath."
Suddenly, I got it! This voice was the one causing all of the problems in my life! It was the voice of drama. It was the voice that made me burst into tears when someone tried to help me and the one that raked my heart over the coals for events long past. Sitting on that bed in a pool of my own humility, I started laughing at myself. I mark this moment as the beginning of a very deep self-awareness process that continues today.
Recently good friend of mine directed me to the amazing book “The Presence Process” by Michael Browne (seriously this book is changing something deep in me). He talks about drama as an widespread addiction that keeps our minds shuffling into the past or future instead of being right here and right now. Further, this addiction to drama drains our energy so I don’t have to take action and move forward in our lives. Engaging in drama is a way of staying stuck, small, safe, not evolving as people.
I think we can also translate this into Ayurvedic terms. I’ve talked about vata imbalance before but essentially it’s when our air element goes out of balance due to a change in our lives (moving, breaking up, staying up too late). The result is we feel ungrounded, anxious, too much in our heads. When my vata goes out of balance then everything becomes DRAMA!
I’ve been considering how vata imbalance and drama keeps us from taking real action in our lives. I think it shows up differently for each of us but perhaps we can all relate to these examples:
Drama is lusting after the person who denies you the very attention you yearn for and then telling yourself you are too needy for a relationship.
Drama is obsessing over the 5lbs you must have gained when you actually felt just fine about your body two days ago.
Drama is when someone offers you much-needed help and you say "no".
Drama is when you are sick and you push yourself even harder, denying yourself the time you need to heal.
Drama is complaining about your job but never entertaining an actual exit plan.
Drama is when you criticize leadership while ignoring the small steps you can take to make a situation better.
Drama is always thinking that other people don’t like you or that what you say isn't interesting.
Drama is beating yourself up for eating a fried appetizer extravaganza at happy hour instead of just enjoying it (yes there are better food choices but you're eating it anyway.)
Drama cutting out all the flour and sugar FOREVER and then relapsing the next day with almond croissant and two pieces of stale birthday cake at your desk.
Drama is telling yourself that you are incapable of change and/or some part of you is broken.
Can you relate? I relate to all of these. It’s hard to write them down because they feel so close to home. We are probably all caught up in drama to some degree. This is being human. But when our life stops working, we need to start seeing drama for what it is--destructive.
Being able to see yourself as the creator of drama is an extremely important first step. This is so cool because we get to embrace that there is a part of us that is different than the drama. This part of us can even laugh at how we create drama and maybe even channel that dramatic energy into some solid creative endeavor like writing a very exciting screenplay instead of acting it out in our own lives.
Breath work, meditation, exercise all help ground us in the present moment and release the vata-spinning drama in our heads. But do you know what I think is the best antidote to drama? Vulnerability. Yup, with ourselves and with the world around us. Reaching out and sharing our struggles is the number one thing that helps us ground and move forward.
Let me explain further. In Ayurveda there is another term called ojas, which basically means the grounding energy of connectivity. We feel ojas when we’ve been with our best friends for a weekend, laughing a lot and crying our eyes out once or twice. Ojas happens when we throw our hands up and ask for help from a place of humility. It’s when we let someone else teach us from their own wisdom and take that wisdom directly into our hearts. It's when we read something touching and remember we are so not alone in our struggles.
Ojas is considered the elixir of life. It makes us feel calm, healthy, collected. It gives us glowing skin and sparkling eyes. Babies and kids are full of the stuff and some adult people shine with it too. It's our immune system and our immunity to the hardness of life. We all crave it yet simply cannot find it without leaving the confines of our mind.
It's a tricky thing because vata-imbalance (DRAMA) thrives on fear and reaching out for help means challenging that fear. Reaching out is going to make us uncomfortable so let's prepare for that in advance. One of the best lessons of my adult life is that being uncomfortable in the pursuit of gaining more self-awareness is a pretty great trade-off. The discomfort goes away pretty quickly while the self-awareness stays forever.
So let's all start. Find someone you trust--who, as vulnerability guru Brene Brown says, has earned the right to hear your tough stuff--and come clean about some of the drama that has been making you feel isolated, tired, and stuck. I'm going to bet that your friend will be able to relate, that you guys will laugh and maybe cry a bit together, and you'll walk away feeling buoyed by your own strength in the present moment.
I finished my 10 day meditation retreat feeling like my own friend. I also felt like the world could be a friendly place too and it's pretty much proved to be. More than eight years have passed, drama has come and gone, and the realizations from those 10 days still shine through quite strongly as truth. It's nice to remember them in a hard moment and extra nice to share them out so widely here. It makes me feel way less alone in this world and much more able to keep moving forward.