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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 24
Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 3: Advent
Don’t concentrate on the things you want. Concentrate on the feelings you want to experience.— Heard on Hay House Radio, December 2008
Advent (n.): arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous); “the advent of the computer”; the season including the four Sundays preceding Christmas
—wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn, accessed December 17, 2008
For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of waiting — a less somber sort of waiting than the Lenten season, because the climax of Advent is a royal birth amid humble surroundings — heralded, nonetheless, by angels and celebrated by kings and shepherds alike.
Advent, like most Christian observances, has prechristian origins:
Ancient Germanic peoples gathered evergreen branches, wove them into wreaths, and decorated them with lighted fires as signs of hope during the cold of winter… [for the coming of spring]. Christians adopted this tradition. By the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols as part of their Advent celebration. For them Christ was the symbol of hope, and was known as the everlasting Light, [before which the darkness of winter would vanish]. Therefore,… Advent, like… Christmas and Easter,… was a “Christianized pagan… [experience].” —http://clergyresources.net/Advent/origins_of_advent.htm, accessed December 17, 2008
Advent is, among other things, a metaphor for the human condition, which is one of chronic anticipation. Even if I am working on a task that interests and absorbs me, my work is motivated by the anticipation of finishing it. Yet completing the task brings only short-lived satisfaction; often there is more joy in the anticipation than in the completion, just as traveling can be much more fun than arriving. You are perhaps familiar with this quotation about Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE): “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” (Plutarch’s [C.E. 46-126] Life of Alexander).
Utter contentment is impossible for us mortals because it would mean resistance to change, and things are always changing. Only in deep meditation do we (temporarily) gather the loose threads of our lives and allow them to remain unwoven. In meditation there is no striving, there is only gentle acceptance. Jack Kornfield teaches that if, during your time of meditation, you are hungry, you can decide to embrace the hunger within your meditation or to stop meditating and get something to eat. Either is fine. You are not to judge yourself. Whatever meditation is about, it is NOT about beating yourself up — ever.
There are, of course, degrees of “chronic anticipation.” There is perennial discontent. There are fears (rational and irrational) and anxieties. There are sadnesses, which I classify as “full” and “empty.” When my mother died, I was “full” of sadness. It was a kind of wealth of feeling, enriched by the knowledge that if I hadn’t loved her so much I wouldn’t be feeling so bad, and also by a sense that, though I would always feel the loss, it wouldn’t always be so sharp and painful. But, in the year after her death, there was also depression — an emptiness of feeling, a refusal to accept the pain — and there was anxiety, because her death had been unexpected and so it seemed as if something horrible could happen at any time, and I feared to relax, to let down my guard against the possibility of disaster. This is, I’m told, normal.
‘Mom!’ no more
There was a different kind of emptiness when my youngest child left home in 1998. He had joined the army, so his leaving was sudden and dramatic, not the gradual kind of going-away-to-college leaving, which can be equally devastating but which at least allows a mother to cling to the illusion that her child still needs her.
I was so ill equipped to deal with the loss of my identity as “Mom!” that I became physically ill. After all, I had been “Mom!” for over thirty years. Being sick was, I think, my body’s way of reminding me that I was still alive. First I came down with the shingles (Herpes zoster) virus on my face and scalp. Shingles, as you probably know, is the inflammation of a nerve, and it can be excruciating. In my case, the weight of air was painful. Fortunately, my optic nerve was not involved; if it had been, I could have gone blind in the affected eye.
But the worst was yet to come. In the wake of shingles can follow any number of disorders, including postherpetic neuralgia and autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and so forth). Whatever the cause (no one is quite sure), my joints swelled and reddened and I was in constant pain for which the only sure remedy was prednisone, and you just can’t take handfuls of prednisone if you want to safeguard vital internal organs such as your liver.
By the end of 2002 I had lost my job, my fiancé, my house, my beautiful pickup truck, my savings, and my precious Labradors. I went limping to the refuge of my daughter’s home, more than a thousand miles from where I had lived for most of my adult life, and found solace among longtime friends and extended family and in the church where I now live as caretaker. I struggled for two years to succeed at an eight-to-five job in marketing, but it was beyond my physical strength.
The storm before the calm
My identity as “capable, reliable employee” had been second only to my identity as “Mom!” in propping up my ego, and now that, too, was gone. Other calamities, too sordid or too complicated to describe, came and went. At times I was literally penniless. And I couldn’t say, with any conviction, “Well, at least I have my health.”
And what I discovered, in circumstances that would have seemed unimaginably bleak only a few years earlier, was joy.
In 2000, when I first became unemployed, I began meditating and writing poems and songs — mostly gospel music and hymns — sometimes dozens in the space of a week. While the elements of life as I had known it slipped away, I turned to prayer, meditation, and poetry-writing, finding not only moments of peace but also objects of curiosity, and so I engaged in a serious study of those practices, gleefully aware that I would never run out of material. My goals, unlike Alexander’s, would never be fulfilled.
I had formally studied music, poetry, and religion in college, and had continued to indulge my interest in those subjects throughout my life. They had always been sources of pleasure; now they were resources for survival.
Bloom where you’re planted
So much of life is ballast — stuff that seems necessary for balance when you have it but that you are perfectly willing to throw overboard when your ship is going down. You have probably read about pianos and bedsteads found alongside the Santa Fe or the Oregon Trail, each discarded treasure giving the oxen one less thing to haul westward, and, as a bonus, giving the owners one less possession to dust.
The first thing to go is guilt. As observed in Lesson 13, “the only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab.”
Next is anxiety, which is a little harder to shed than guilt is because we know a lot more about the past than we do about the future.
‘I don’t mind what happens’
J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, [who] spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words — which are content — that which is beyond words, beyond content. At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.”
This kind of serenity is not emotional numbness. In fact, freedom from fear brings freedom to love fully; to be gently compassionate with yourself and with others; to experience the full range of human emotions, in fact, because you know that you are not your emotions and that they can’t destroy you, even the really messy ones. Through meditation the indestructible Self and the connectedness with all things are revealed.
My 2008 Christmas letter begins,
If I ever write a book about this period of my life (and I will), it will be titled Adventures in Poverty. It will extol the people who have encouraged and supported me since I quit my vile but well-paying job 2-1/2 years ago to start writing my own stuff instead of other people’s bloated ads and vapid news releases. It will be chock full of Household Hints (“Spray your shower walls with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and tea-tree oil and some other liquids, I forget what, then get out of the bathroom, fast”; “How to make laundry detergent out of soap slivers and other stuff you have lying around the house”; “How to make a hearty soup out of black beans, stale doughnuts, and other stuff you have lying around the house”)… and so forth. It will convince you that you don’t need a car, you just need friends who have cars. You will discover that Wal-Mart is the Antichrist, and how I know that, and much better ways to save $$$. You will learn how to sweet-talk “Ginger” at Qwest so that she won’t disconnect your phone. And you will understand how little you need, really, to be happy.
Not that I have become a willing ascetic. I still want things, in particular an antique bathtub, because when the church refurbished my bathroom after the Great Rat Exodus of 2005, the contractors installed a shower — a very fine shower, to be sure, but there are times when a girl just wants, you know, a bubble bath to ease the ache in her limbs and the tightness in her neck.
In meditation, and in writing poetry meditatively, however, I am waiting for nothing, not even a bathtub. In meditation, at least, “whatever is, is right” (Alexander Pope).
ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all — aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they — passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought;
Me private, or public, or menial, or solitary—all these subordinate, (I am eternally equal with the best — I am not subordinate;)
Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta, or the Tennessee, or far north, or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life in These States, or of the coast, or the lakes, or Kanada,
Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies!
O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.
—Walt Whitman, 1819-1892
What was Walt Whitman waiting for? To be serene, “self-balanced,” in every circumstance. Aren’t we all? Wouldn’t that make everything else unnecessary? Wouldn’t the cup always be overflowing (or at least half-full instead of half-empty, or, as the late George Carlin used to say, twice as big as it needs to be)?
Whitman, by the way, wrote in free verse, “a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter, rhythm, or rhyme (Ex: end rhyme), but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.” —Wikipedia, referencing G. Burns Cooper, Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, Stanford University Press, 1998
Write a poem (30 lines maximum) in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) about “what you are waiting for” — the one thing needed for contentment.
Write another poem (30 lines maximum) about what it would feel like to finally possess the “one thing needed.”
Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 11
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.
Get depressed, learn to knit
Worse yet, I was depressed about being depressed. I had a two-year-old daughter to care for and a husband to try to hang on to. I didn’t have time to be depressed.
In those days when you were depressed they put you in a room with other depressed people and taught you how to knit. It was called occupational therapy. You sat around with these people and exchanged misinformation. There were four middle-aged women who played bridge all day, every day. They were so chatty and cheerful that I assumed they made clumsy suicide attempts every so often just so they could spend a week or two in the hospital playing bridge.
There were no drugs like Prozac in 1972. Psychiatrists were people who tried to help you figure out why you were depressed and then, when you figured it out, stop doing whatever it was and go on with your life.
My psychiatrist was a family friend whom I’d known all my life. He wasn’t the kind of psychiatrist who asked you about the trauma of potty-training or about your sexual fantasies. He was the kind of psychiatrist who explained things and gave advice.
Liberating my inner bitch
“Know thyself,” was, in effect, the advice he gave me. He said that I was angry and didn’t know it—that I had “projected” my anger onto the world and therefore perceived the world as hostile. I was also diminished by having projected my attributes—intelligence, wisdom, sense of humor—onto other people and things, so that I had lost confidence in my abilities and my judgment. (See figures 1, 2, and 3.)
The essential I will assert itself. It will not be ignored or subjugated. If I deny it, it will flap its wings in my face. “Claim me,” it squawks. “Use me. I’m the reason you’re here.”
Mine was a quick recovery, followed within just a few months by separation from my husband and ultimately by divorce. I spent the next few years, yes, liberating my Inner Bitch but also gleefully gathering other scattered bits and pieces of myself and just enjoying the hell out of my life, my daughter, my family, and my friends.