December 23, 2013

(Un)comfortably Numb.


“We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.”

~ Pema Chödrön

“At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”

~ C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

This particular holiday season has been hard for me. I feel badly wired, frazzled by an alternating current of crawling-out-of-my-skin anxiety and leaden sadness. Often, in the midst of all the neon merriment, I feel that the universe deserved nothing more from me than an upraised middle finger.

For awhile I remained present, and forced myself to “sit” and “stay.”  It took discipline, but I had a year of practice behind me and I felt prepared. (Also, honestly, a little smug and virtuous). There were all kinds of seductions going on all around me, from the lure of shopping (because I had to do my Christmas shopping anyway) to the wanton and lascivious presence of cookies, homemade candies and only-once-a-year peppermint stick ice cream and egg nog. But I could get through a tough time without numbing out.

Did I mention a whole year (!) of practice?

And then I gave in. I was so anxious, and so desperate, and it really truly seemed like someone should comfort me, help me, and make things easier. So my brain, my incredibly crafty brain went into overdrive with justifications: it’s just for a little while, you can stop any time, all those people who talk about “numbing out” are talking about long-term behavior, not just a few weeks…and I was gone.

First it was food. I don’t eat many carbs most of the time, but I had done so well all year that I could, theoretically, eat whatever I wanted for a couple of weeks. So I had some eggnog, and some peppermint stick ice cream. Then I had some Flaming Hot Cheetos, and a croissant, and a bowl of noodles. I didn’t intentionally binge, but I kind of ate whatever came my way. (I was taking a break).

Plus, if you eat enough eggnog and a handful of Flaming Hot Cheetos you get kind of sleepy, calm and…numb. It was relief, sweet relief as all that serotonin flooded my brain and took the edge off.

Next, I numbed my brain. I sort of stopped meditating, telling myself it was okay, for a little while. Besides, I didn’t need to “sit;” I could meditate while washing the dishes or folding laundry. I would be all Thich Nhat Hanh, mindful as hell while I peeled an orange.

Except that when I was folding laundry I was watching really awful, predictable Hallmark Christmas movies that were the mental equivalent of junk food, and when I washed dishes I was thinking about what I was going to eat next, and when I had time to read I was reading such horrible $1.99 Kindle fiction that you don’t want to know about it.

Had I set out to perform an experiment to demonstrate the destructive powers of “numbing out,” I couldn’t have done a better job. Because just a week in, I was a hot mess. My stomach hurt all the time, I was taking two hour naps, and I slunk past my shrine avoiding the calm and knowing eyes of Kwan Yin and The Buddha. There were sudden, shocking spasms of pain in my lower back and I cried for no apparent reason. I stopped writing, because I didn’t really have anything to say.

Two days ago an ice storm knocked out power to almost everyone around us. I made an offer on Facebook that anyone without heat and working outlets could hang out at our house. Then I panicked, realizing that if anyone actually came here I would have to take a shower, run the vacuum cleaner and put on real clothes. Also, I would have to sneak around to eat my junk food, and probably pretend that I was still being all healthy and mindful and stuff, because that was how I was supposed to be.

I would have to hide my real behavior, like an addict.

(Because I am an addict.)

Because, apparently, in a couple of weeks it is possible to be sucked back into all of the behavior that make it look as if life can be one long, smooth stretch of ribbon instead of a jagged and rocky path.

Because “practice” means you have to keep doing it, maybe all the time.

Because many addicts can’t have “just a little bit,” and I am clearly one of them.

Because in my life, eating the Turkish Delight of “comfortably numb” means betraying all that keeps me alive, present, sane and healthy.

So last night, I woke up again. I took stock of my flaccid, grey spirit, and knew what I needed to do.

I need to eat things that are good for me, even if I can “get away” with two more days of Flaming Cheetos. I need to sit, even if my mind fights me every single second. I need to move my body, challenge my brain and return again and again to this moment, because it’s all there is.

Present, struggling, feeling the sharp places, I am fully alive to the sparkling ice on the trees, the loving eyes of a dog and the miracle of hot water falling on my naked skin.

I can save myself, again and again, every time I fall for the offer of Turkish Delight, the sugary and spiritually lethal lure of “numbing out.”

And that, oddly enough, is incredibly sweet.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Francisca Ulloa on Flickr



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