The Cool Boredom of Being a Grown-Up
Recently, over the course of one week, I heard the following from fellow humans: “It’s just so boring” at the thought of life without weed. “I was freaked out and bored” after stopping mid-binge. “I’m scared I’d be bored” at the prospect of not being angry with everyone. “It got boring” about a marriage and resultant emotional affair. And each time I thought, “Now this is interesting.”
As a meditation instructor, boredom turns me on. In many ways, meditation practice is practicing being bored. Raised as a standard, suburban over-achiever, Harvard BA, Stanford MBA, I was trained to never be bored. There’s so much to do in this American life! As a well-cultivated product of our just do it culture, I learned to equate grown-up-ness with achievement and acquisition. Now in our forties, I look at my cohort and see a job well done. Yet, as someone whose career path leads me into people’s minds, I also see that our American dream comes with painful anxiety and expressions thereof—the pot, binge, anger, affair. In fact, with the slightest reflection, we see that our beloved, relentless achievement and acquisition are not the cause of our anxiety but more expressions of it. Uh oh. It’s all very understandable though. Our primal energetic response to the uncertainty of life is anxiety, that restless unease that something must be fixed or changed. Unskilled at being with this energy, we turn toward doing—we all have well-worn strategies for filling the edgy space of uncertainty. Truth is, we are a nation of anxious addicts in various forms, some we demonize and some we valorize—from drinking and smoking to exercising above and beyond, from sinking into porn to floating away on romance, from burrowing into technology to escaping into spirituality, from shying away in self-loathing to strutting about in self-fascination, from wallowing in fear to reveling in hope. The real American dream is our collective trance of habitual distractions from simply being with what is.
Perhaps there is an alternative model of adulting that deserves our attention—a growing up that emphasizes being or what was pragmatically named cool boredom by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trunpga, the founder of Naropa University where I got a Master of Divinity. Like many of us, I began my education on being via yoga and meditation. And, like many of us, I have watched our consumer culture distort these self-forgetting practices into self-promotional projects—yoga becomes a parade of expensive pants and instagram posts; meditation turns into a tool to fuel our compulsive productivity. For a while, I’ve wondered if our culture needs to cultivate being in a way that is much more boring. Because we get what we ask for, I was recently treated to a surprise graduate seminar on cool boredom in the liminal space that followed leaving a relationship affected by substance abuse, which we’ll get to in just a bit. My extended time in space highlighted that in our ever-busy existence, there many daily shots of space—brushing our teeth, standing on the subway platform, walking to the store, sitting at school pick up, going to the bathroom, driving home—where we can not only gain perspective on our addictive patterns but also evolve beyond them just by being a bit bored. Usually we start with meditation and then apply it to daily life. But, in this time and place, maybe we need to flip the script and start with small shots of presence that aren’t susceptible to promotion and productivity. Because, in a world where we are exhausted by doing but then stuffing our minds and schedules with classes and apps and podcasts on being, where we complain that there’s no solitude and stillness, where we long to hear the quiet voice guiding us along, there is tremendous spiritual growth waiting for us in the cool boredom of liminal space.
I initially and accidentally became a student of liminal space when I was eighteen. I started college at Northwestern University and was miserable from the get go. I got very sad and very skinny, using under-eating and over-exercising as a way to avoid my feelings. My mom suggested transferring, but that seemed like something for weirdos not good girls. Eventually, the natural life-death-life cycle found me. I mentally broke down and dropped out of school. With no plan, I moved home to suburban Maryland, happened upon an internship with the National Organization for Women, waited tables at Rio Grande and saved enough money for an Outward Bound trip in Utah. In that liminal space, I did completely unexpected things for the first time in my life and grew from broken to brave. I applied to a few schools to transfer, got into Harvard and had a beautiful second college career. Moreover, I learned that the life-death-life cycle is actually life-death-space-life. Something valuable happened when I took a break from my life and spent some time in undefined space.
I picked up my study of space in earnest during my thirties when I dove into meditation and Buddhism. From the very first breath in meditation, it was all about space—the gap at the end of the exhale, the pause between thought and action. Meditation is essentially forced liminal space. It is a moratorium on doing. As such, it is death to habitual patterns, aka our addictions. We sit. Now what? Our initial reaction is fuckity-fuck-fuck. In the sudden space, we freak out in the face of our thoughts and feelings no filter. We desperately want to run to familiar distractions—the pot, binge, anger, affair, achievement. Chögyam Trungpa called this panic hot boredom. However, this too shall pass. With courage and discipline, we learn to hold our seat. Eventually, we find the equanimity of cool boredom. We stay present with the fluidity of experience, breathing our way through various mental and physical states. In this spacious boredom, there is room to release autopilot addictions and instead make conscious choices around our thoughts and behavior on the cushion and once we resume daily life.
Buddhists practice the little death of meditation to prepare for the big one—physical death. In the Buddhist teachings on life and death, death is a precious opportunity to make spiritual progress between lives. Of course, now we see that it isn’t death per se, it’s the grand scale of sudden space following death. We die. Now what? Usually, it’s fuckity-fuck-fuck super-sized. In the liminal space post-death and between lives, known as the bardo, we freak way out at our mental display without the grounding reference of a body. If we met the extremes of the bardo with the equanimity of cool boredom, we wouldn’t be drawn back into the loop of autopilot addictions—we would spiritually evolve beyond the cyclical existence of beings consumed by craving. Because most of us are unprepared for the bardo, we crave the familiar and begin a new life with our old patterns. Once a student asked Chögyam Trungpa what reincarnates and he replied, “Your bad habits.” Even if we aren’t into these teachings at the level of multiple lives, we see the parallel of how we run to familiar habits in this life all the time—going back for the pot, binge, anger, affair, achievement whenever we face uncertain space.
And what’s wrong with that? Well, for starters, it’s personally painful. Once we pay attention, we see that we crave the same few things everyday, creating a mental and behavioral prison for ourselves. This painful craving is clear with substances like alcohol, opiates or even sugar, but we also crave things like approval, accomplishment or even arguments. Our lives are a big loop of habitual wanting, and it’s exhausting to never be content. It’s also pretty childish, like fussy babies needing something outside ourselves to fix our feelings. We never fully grow up and trust ourselves if we rely on coffee, media and likes to make it through the moment.
Further, it’s self-absorbed. Life isn’t all about me, and it isn’t all about you. It’s about me and you together. We affect each other deeply, becoming different versions of ourselves in response to each other. We realize this immediately by watching ourselves at work, at home, in traffic as we shift within various inter-personal systems. When we are focused on getting our fix—be it hook-ups or followers or even friends—other people are reduced to supporting characters in our daily addiction drama. Unconsciously propelled forward by neediness, we use each other instead of experiencing each other. Indeed, our relationships of all kinds may be the best place for us to recognize and potentially release our addictive patterns.
Though, as the life-death-space-life cycle goes, before we can find the space to make changes, we have to live life in all its habitual splendor and then let painful patterns die. As relational beings, we see our stuff through each other. It’s me and you together. For the past few years of this recent life cycle, I was in a relationship with a funny, perceptive, big-hearted man who, like everyone else on the planet, was dealing with addiction. Specifically, alcohol was not his friend. Because it takes two to tango, our relationship revealed my stickier mental addictions—the classic good girl takes on bad boy to indulge her combo of moral superiority and fixing people. No doubt I’ve been working on the unhelpful helper patterns, especially in professional settings, but romance helpfully takes you right down to rock bottom. Ultimately, this relationship took me to an abyss I didn’t quite know was there.
Our two-step was even trickier because while he was on the slow boat to sobriety I was on the fast track to enlightenment. The start of our relationship coincided with my starting ngöndro, an infamously massive set of purification practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Indeed, my boyfriend was the cute guy carrot who introduced me to the lineage where I received the practices. These practices clean out the basement, so to speak, bringing up our afflictive emotions and mental states. Some stuff burns off without residue, but other stuff shows itself on the way out. Still, better to air it out in awareness now, than be unconsciously dragged around by it this life or next. We can be a little angry today instead of straight up hellish next year or next life. And angry I was. Angry, depressed, lethargic, confused, judgmental, controlling. As with all of us, there is a lot of junk in my karmic trunk. Between my intoxication on extreme mental states and his on alcohol, we were a potent cocktail of painful patterns.
One night, early in our living together, the man I loved kissed me on my forehead and headed off to Sprouts to get a bag of chips before an evening of college football. “Back in twenty,” he said. Four hours later, I heard from an unintelligible version of him seemingly somewhere on the Boulder creek path. After a significant internal debate on whether to find him or let come what may, I headed out and used previously unknown Nancy Drew skills to track him down. Turns out, my boyfriend, who had a waning dependence on alcohol with an occasional messy night, was now super high on cocaine. In this state, he morphed into a mischievous, scary-to-me iteration of his drunk, overgrown child. To my surprise, I went from exasperated, sad partner/parent to furious, screaming tyrant. I saw things in both of us that night that terrified me to my core—namely that between his self-centered, impulsive irresponsibility and my self-protective, fear-based rage, we might be capable of taking each other down entirely. Then, a few days later, we were once again a loving couple having an evening of wholesome fun watching Fiddler on the Roof at the Boulder Dinner Theater. Talk about fluidity of experience.
In the two years of living with him post-cocaine night, I became a version of myself that was unrecognizable to me. In the face of fear, there is flight, fight and freeze. I chose freeze with a side of fight. Even once he took a break from drinking, my nervous system never really recovered. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Indeed, my whole life froze during this time. Only recently out of my MDiv program, I was taking advantage of our cheap, shared rent to focus on writing and selling new book proposals, but nothing panned out. Everything was contracting—my spirit, my savings, my sense of possibility. Honestly, I think life was conveniently keeping me to myself. Between the ngöndro and addiction energy, I was not entirely fit for human consumption. There is a representative at Comcast who can attest to that.
Throughout last fall, I sensed that my completion of the practices would correspond with the completion of our relationship. The timing felt right—I would reach the end of ngöndro as he reached a year without drinking. Though my preferred death pattern has been an immediate scorched earth departure, I made a conscious choice to not set fire to the structures of my life. Instead, I talked to him—wondering if he also felt that we had completed our mutual sponsorship of sorts. Though there was still plenty of anger all around, we did our best to own our personal bouquet of mind fuckery while also not letting each other fall into the projection of the other as the problem. Of all the things we’d done together in our relationship, it turns out we were best at ending it.
Even with acceptance and awareness, leaving was extremely difficult. There were logistical reasons for this. It meant leaving the coolest dog in the world—a title miraculously shared by all dogs—who had been gracious recipient of my unused maternal energy. It also meant leaving a tumbledown country house that had become my Walden. And, money was tight. More than all of that, I almost felt too frozen to go. Our familiar hell of addictions—to substances, emotional states, people—becomes oddly comforting. My boyfriend and I seemed to be locked in a pain pact. Years before, a Tibetan Buddhist lama gave me a nickname of a particular bodhisattva who goes into hell to help other beings. In the thick of living with addiction, I ran into said lama. Saying nothing about my life, I mentioned the nickname. With that piercing lama gaze, he said, “You visit hell. You don’t live there.”
The psychological fortitude required to move out of our mutually created hell was unlike anything I had known. As a Buddhist chaplain, being with myself in those final weeks reminded me of sitting with those experiencing physical death. We have to summon a tremendous amount of courage to let go and head down the death canal. There in the deep winter, cross-legged on my green couch, I quietly realized that the anxiety that previously inspired a self-destructive drive to be scary skinny during difficult times wasn’t actually gone. It had just found another unhealthy outlet in a relationship that was sucking the life out of me and, at times, putting me in physical danger. With tenderness, I touched that dark, desperate real rock bottom of all our anxiety-based addictions be they substances or success—maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. They say that some must die so others can live. Turns out that some and others are all inside us. I looked that sneaky, shady, anxious, unsubstantial voice right in the eyes and said, “You’re dead to me.” And I shot through the death canal.
Then we release into the uncertainty of space. At forty-three, I found myself untethered. No home, no relationship, no assets. Actually, that all felt fine. Yet, as I left the relationship, I got one more book proposal rejection for good measure and then saw my small coaching business dry up. I would face space with a sharp edge of career and financial uncertainty.
After ten intense days in what shall henceforth be known as the cat pee condo bardo, I landed in a temporary living situation with a dear friend and his housemate both in their early thirties. The first few days were less than awesome. Sleeping on the floor in my trusty sleeping bag surrounded by shrine items and books, I missed my dog and bed and owls singing me to sleep. One of those early nights, the discomfort and sadness led to the unwelcome space of insomnia. Fuckity-fuck-fuck. Hot boredom hit hard.
Determined to do something, my mind catalogued my life as a mess: How do I have all of these degrees and skills and zero ability to monetize them? How do I give career shaktipat to everyone else and yet, like the cobbler’s shoeless child, remain clueless about my own life? Why am I the queen of the three-year relationship? Am I terrible at choosing men or making it work? Am I leaving them too soon or too late? Maybe I should have had those kids that I never had the relationship or money or desire to have? Wait, is my period late—so now I’m either a) pregnant and wouldn’t that be the icing on this disaster cake or b) going through early menopause and will be losing my already borderline attractiveness in 3-2-1. Maybe this is a sign to become a monastic? I’m still attached to my hair. I don’t even have great hair. I wouldn’t want to give up riding bikes. Can monastics ride bikes? Hair and bikes, this is what’s keeping me from the full-throttle pursuit of enlightenment? Now 1:30am, the housemate with the shared bedroom wall started hotboxing me and the one downstairs prepared what sounded like a full Thanksgiving dinner. Exhausted, lying on the floor in a puddle of poor me, I wondered, “Where is the smug ‘This is 43’ essay about this situation?” Then I told self-pity that while I appreciated her seductive display, she would not have her way with me tonight. I followed my breath to sleep.
Over the next few days, I took stock of the life-death-space-life cycle and contemplated my approach to space. I now recognized space as a chance to release what we don’t want to bring into the next life. Instinctively, I did a starter-model of this many years ago when I left Northwestern. Somehow that smart little girl who had never been camping or further afield than Chicago knew that in order to grow beyond her scared, starving shell of a self, she needed to go west young woman, put on a huge pack and walk through the woods, gleefully gobbling up every trail meal and joyfully realizing her first taste of oneness. All these years later, I knew the anxiety that had nearly erased her and lingered on to mess with adult me was what I didn’t want to bring into my next chapter of life.
Thanks to meditation, I better understood that anxiety was a common reaction to the uncertainty of human life. On its face, human life is uncertain. We’re here but don’t know why or for how long, and we never really know what is going to happen next. Of course we’re anxious. That anxiety easily inspires the dark, disoriented sense that life is too difficult and maybe I shouldn't be here at all. Or, as one of my friends recently put it to me, “Oh, we all got that.” And, we all have the opposite response that I’m the most important person alive and doing it better than those people over there. Generally speaking, our anxious hot boredom reaction to life’s uncertainty is the grand project of me—developing habitual strategies to either prove our worthiness or affirm our unworthiness. We often run parallel tracks working self-promotion and self-destruction simultaneously—hence our relentless outward displays of achievement, acquisition and awesomeness coupled with secret, shadowy stuff around food, intoxicants, sex, internet, etc. I’m the best and I’m the worst are two sides of the same confused ego coin.
So if I wanted to kick to the curb anxiety and its ensuing, confused projects of me, I needed to use this time in space to get very cool with uncertainty. How helpful then to have no home, relationship, career or income all at once. By our cultural measures of life, I basically had no life. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. And, my teacher in this cycle of space was big time boredom. After my late-night, self-defeating hot boredom hissy fit of boo-hoo, no job, no man, no life, I knew my habitual over-achiever wanted to jump in and fix all that shit on the quick. So, instead of poor me or perfect me, I chose the cool boredom response of let it be.
To that end, I chose not to fill the space. I didn’t fill the space with another man or schemes thereof. I didn’t fill the space with plots of grand achievement or panicked pleas for work. I didn’t fill the space with avoidance of work. I didn’t fill the space with enormous practice goals. I didn’t fill the space with eating too little or too much. I didn’t fill the space with exercising too little or too much. I didn’t fill the space with chocolate, not chocolate or debates around chocolate or not. I didn’t fill the space with travel. I didn’t fill the space with social activities. I didn’t fill the space with media or social media. I didn’t fill the space by indulging in the worry or fantasy that arose over and over. To borrow again from Chögyam Trungpa, I looked at cyclical craving the way a tiger looks at salad—meh. Essentially, I sobered up. In Buddhism, we speak of renunciation but we could also say sobriety. Both point to recognizing the pain of patterned behavior and choosing instead to be freshly present. Rather than taking cover from the uncertainty of life in addictions, we take refuge in our capacity to be with what is.
I let myself be on pause. I still had some money to get by—aided by a few more months of cheap rent and my ability to roll with rice and beans for every meal. I created a boring schedule of sleep, practice, hiking or walking, reading, journaling and reconnecting with a few friends. Notably, there was a good amount of staring into space. Occasional coaching work floated through. Various odd jobs arose. No writing appeared. I engaged in the culturally subversive behavior of not producing or consuming much of anything. It sounds relaxing, and sometimes it was. After years of freeze and fight, I reestablished basic ground and rhythms—a process of getting used to fine. At the same time, I was working with massive career and financial uncertainty. Maybe after years of training and work towards a nontraditional career, it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I’d have to start over in some form. This wasn’t a vacation. It was space. And, I was constantly questioned by well-intentioned folks on what was I doing.
In order to progress spiritually in liminal space, we first need to respect it. We have arbitrary ideas about what time and activities are more valuable than others—namely moments more easily identified as doing something seem to matter more than what happens in between them. The classic example from yoga teaching is watching ourselves intensely focus on asana and then sloppily toss props in a pile after class. Because what we do in the space after so-called practice doesn’t count? The MBA-Women’s Studies BA in me wants to quickly say that this view is rooted in the capitalist-patriarchal mentality that values masculine-doing-action-work-linearity-phallus and devalues feminine-being-receptivity-home-cycles-womb space. From this dualism, we splice up our days and lives into what matters and what doesn’t, and it’s bogus. We all know the value of liminal space. The writers know that walking and showering are the seeds from which typing grows. The parents know the casual chat in the car was more significant than the planned big conversation. The lovers know that the fleeting glance has delivered more connection than date night. The between times are fertile. The pause is pregnant.
From this awareness, we recognize all the space and thus spiritual potential we have in our seemingly busy lives—six months of career uncertainty, an hour of resting on the couch, thirty minutes of commuting, fifteen minutes of meditation, five minutes of standing in line, three minutes of going to the bathroom, one minute of walking to the car, the moment between thought and action. We can reframe these times as spiritual treasures—times when we can release what we don’t want to bring into the next moment or day or chapter of life. Since anxiety is at the root of our painful patterns, we let ourselves get bored and be with it. We watch hot boredom arise in the form of our addictive thoughts and behaviors, the ongoing project of worthy or unworthy me. And, instead of taking the bait and filling space, we simply notice our thoughts, feelings and environment without trying to change anything.
Though, as we know, when we attempt to release hot boredom patterns, we often become really interested in why we have the urges we have. And, sometimes it helps to explore why we choose what we choose in the face of uncertainty—the pot, binge, anger, affair, achievement—especially to see the complex, constructed nature of ourselves so we cease fire on singular targets of blame, like our mothers or significant others. That said, in our individualist culture, we enjoy filling space with self-analysis. As someone drawn to masturbatory musings on my motivations, Buddhism again and again offers me this freeing realization—I’m not special. We are all pursuing various projects of worthy or unworthy me. I run many miles, and you drink many beers. Moving on…
…to the grown-up question of how our addictive space filling affects us and subsequently those around us. Daily prayer, meditation and yoga are all wonderful, but spiritual progress demands an ongoing, real-time study in cause and effect—this leads to that. Standing in line at the grocery store, if I chew on financial worry, then I feel A, want B and say C to my child. Is this how I want to treat my child? Waiting for the meeting at work, if I fill time with social media, then I feel A, want B and think C about myself. Is this how I want to treat myself? Hanging out in the evening, if I zone out on Netflix, then I feel A, want B and say C to my partner. Is this how I want to treat my partner? What seems like a patronizing third grade word problem is a mighty spiritual practice. It’s so boring—where’s the incense and flowy Stevie Nicks outfit?—but so efficacious.
Because, in our heart of hearts, we want connection and joy instead of the schlock we’re dishing up with stale patterns. If we want to change the effects, we have to change the cause. Our divine mistress is that pregnant pause—she is the ultimate disruptive technology. Starting to worry, opening the app, reaching for the remote, we pause…and simply notice what is happening physically and mentally. With gentle acceptance, we observe the tightness in the chest, rapid heartbeat, sinking sensation in the stomach, speedy thoughts, spacey confusion, whatever is going on. We notice without fixing—now there’s an idea! When we try to fix the edgy energy by covering it with habitual distractions, it sticks around stamping its feet for attention and gaining momentum over moments, months, years and lives. Brilliantly, when we don’t force fixing, the energy will shift itself. Under the warm sunshine of nonjudgmental awareness, body and mind settle down and open up. Not necessarily immediately, but we titrate our ability to be in cool boredom. Standing in line, we ground our feet on the floor and experience the sensations of being a body. Waiting for the meeting, we stare out the window and notice our thoughts flow like clouds. Forgoing the remote, we listen to our bodies and minds to find what would actually replenish us. Cultivating this friendly, accepting attitude towards ourselves translates into doing the same with all the others in our lives from children to coworkers to partners to people we pass on the street. Spoiler alert, we all settle down and open up in warm sunshine.
Even better, there is nowhere for ego to hang its hat with these small doses of unremarkable cool boredom. In our culture of display, we won’t create further confining projects of worthy me by being present tooth-brushers, embodied trash taker-outers, spacious line standers, quiet listeners, attentive coworkers, polite passers-by. Besides, this day-to-day realization is the reason we’re doing all of that prayer, meditation and yoga anyway. That said, cultivating small doses of cool boredom is a rigorous endeavor that requires ongoing discipline. Thanks to years of mind-body training, especially the recent deep dive into purification, I was able to maintain a good deal of behavioral cool boredom amidst uncertainty, which was interesting to witness considering my addictive acting out of ten, five, even two years ago around food, exercise, relationships and work. But, lord have mercy, I still faced the anxious hot boredom fantasies of poor me and perfect me over and over again. The pull of physical and mental addiction can feel like possession. We don’t even remember how we ended up smoking, gossiping, checking email, dreaming of the next relationship. At retreat one year, someone asked our teacher how to do an exorcism. This being Tibetan Buddhism, there was the potential for a wild response. Our teacher said, “Lead a disciplined life.”
The moment on the couch when I gave the big no to self-destruction was an essential part of my recovery, as is the moment when we fearlessly and shamelessly ask for divine intervention to release us from any addiction. But, we need to meet these moments with sleeves up commitment to change. Little disciplines make a big difference. We can practice that disruptive pause all day, everyday in a variety of ways. Over and over, I tested what thoughts and behaviors led to anxiety, craving, self-absorption and then tried to adjust accordingly—tiny things like not listening to the radio on the drive to a hike leads to a more aware outdoor experience leads to an absence of ruminations about career and relationships leads to being more mentally and emotionally available for a friend who needs to talk. Our Judaism professor at Naropa once joked about forepray, and I think about this often. If I want the next prayer or meditation or conversation or hike or meal or writing or orgasm or day or relationship or life to be full of presence, well what am I doing in the moments leading up to it to facilitate that state of being? Put another way, if I’m scrolling my news feed while my partner tells me about his day, we’re not going to have beautifully connected sex later that night. With disciplined attention as we make the bed, water the plants and listen to others, we become the answer to our own prayers for peace, joy and connection.
Because here is the ironic good news—sad sounding discipline begets bliss. When we turn down the volume on craving, we turn up the volume on vitality. As we sober up, we see that much of what we culturally accept as normal—overindulgence around food, sex, intoxicants, media, work, shopping, fantasy—is not only neurotic but also feels terrible. We have clues of this—ex-smokers can’t stand the smell of smoke, people drop sugar and get headaches from desserts, we take a break from facebook only to return and find that it feels like a bunch of people yelling at us. The more we overlay our lives—with youtube videos, news articles, fame seeking, mental machinations—the more we deaden our natural radiance. The spiritual move of distraction subtraction uncovers the vibrant sensations of being a body. Being still and breathing reveals itself to be a sensual, pleasurable activity. Our emotions, minus the machinations, are as well. Anger sans victim story is clearing radiating heat. Uncertainty free of fear is pure presence. All of those feelings we stuff down, numb over and drown out actually feel pretty interesting once we let ourselves feel them. Imagine what more obvious sensual, pleasurable activities are like in this state of being? Bliss is our birthright. And it is hiding in the cool boredom of being here now at the DMV.
Most important, as we drop addictive projects of worthy and unworthy me, we start to uncover a visceral, co-creative understanding of self and other. Rather than using each other, we experience each other. We sense how porous humans beings are, like little antennas constantly attuning to each other. Freed from self-absorbed addictions, we become a clear channel, easily connecting with others and effortlessly tapping into their joy and pain. We see how we heal each other by being present with one another. What a gift. And, we see how we harm each other by disregarding our indelible connection. What a trap. This insight into our connectedness breeds newfound respect for how we treat ourselves and others, and it underscores the need for healthy psychological and physical boundaries. It’s a lifelong, fascinating challenge as an embodied human to be one within the oneness.
Similarly, we understand the connection between moments of our lives. Cause and effect become very clear. We see that our labels of life, death, space are temporal concepts we put on a free flowing river of this leads to that. And each moment is timeless in its potential. As with personal boundaries, temporal concepts are necessary for organizing embodied human lives. This is another beautiful challenge of the human experience—while we’re on the magical mystery tour, we need to remember to change the oil in the car. Paradoxically, all of this mind-expanding insight makes life less mysterious though no less magical. It is obvious how our thoughts and behavior in this moment inform the next moments and chapters of our life…and, if you’re into this kind of thing, our next life. We are creating our heavens and hells moment by moment and, in turn, contributing to others’. Life is not as uncertain as it seems. It’s a glorious display that we all co-create. With how we treat ourselves and others, we can reduce our painful patterns.
These insights into co-creation birth tremendous compassion. From the bottom of our hearts, our deepest concern becomes cultivating joy and eliminating pain for ourselves and others. Childish, obsessive projects of me get left behind like security blankets as we develop an unassuming but all-consuming open-heartedness towards ourselves and the stranger on the subway alike. We become completely invested in the whole lot of us. The notion of nonattachment sounds like it’s about not loving anyone, but it’s actually about loving everyone. It’s about impartiality. We can actually grow to love everyone the way a mother loves her only child. For every single person on this planet, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what we’ve done, it’s me and you together.
Compassion inspires skillful action towards the cessation of all of our confining addictions. Such action can look like any number of things—large, small, nothing at all. It can even look stern when we set those healthy boundaries because true compassion is no longer being a doormat for our own or others’ painful habits. We effortlessly fall into the ethic of discerning without judgment what creates peaceful contentment or painful craving for self and other. We consider, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Who or what am I serving with this thought, word or deed? Who or what might I be harming? Am I fueling our anxiety with this action? Am I feeding our addictions with this post?” This is mindful living—not meditating to run faster marathons or turning yoga into a display of self-satisfied lifestyle changes or being mindful at work to increase productivity in jobs that have life-destroying ripple effects.
A few years ago, I either read or heard—forgive me, I can’t remember the source—my favorite definition of enlightenment: the absence of self-pitying imagination. In my liminal space of cool boredom, when my discipline was on point, I felt a shift. I was quietly blissity-bliss-bliss, people commented on my insight over and over, compassion arose effortlessly. Then, as I neared my arbitrary deadline on figuring out work, I was possessed by anxiety and went on an extended career-worry bender like the junkie I am. During that time, I could physically feel a self-pitying curtain come down between me and the world. I recognized the sensation of self-absorption as what it normally feels like to be human. When we touch even the tiniest bit of our spiritual potential to be joyful and connected, it can be overwhelmingly beautiful. Stunned by the peacefulness of our open-heart, we run back, junkies every one, to our cocoon as the worrier, drinker, smoker, seducer, binger, achiever, helper, loser and so on. We hide there in those silly, little, imaginary, melodramatic projects of worthy and unworthy me.
Most of us want to be of help, and we are sometimes. However, we aren’t much help when we’re still hopped up on our habitual patterns. Because whether we’re looking to score cocaine or a compliment, we childishly see everyone and everything as a tool for our needs. I have a friend visiting the United States from India. She’s been watching people in Boulder ostensibly practicing something spiritual, even wanting to teach that thing. At the same time, she notices that they are all smoking this or drinking that. They are sleeping with this one while seducing that one. They are buying all of this and still wanting all of that. Weary of the addiction display, she said with a sigh, “You need to be a reasonable person walking down the lane before you can bring relief to anyone.” Amen, sister.
As my months of cool boredom continued, I gently accepted the anxious moments and relished the refreshing relief that comes from being a fairly reasonable person. Gradually, without my doing much of anything, signs of life arrived. After years of asking around about teaching meditation as a volunteer, an opportunity fell into my lap with a program for individuals transitioning out of homelessness. Many of them struggled with addiction and were now in temporary housing while figuring out their work lives—our commonalities were striking; it was no accident I ended up there. After my writing mind was silent for so long, sentences started to fall into my head on hikes. After a pleasant time with my roommates, I felt penned-in like a kid ready to go to college. After letting go of plans for those book proposals, a publisher I had broken up with in a move I’d since regretted got back in touch to talk a little. And then I received the most surprising and healing sign of new life.
After my first class of the volunteer meditation gig, I got into my car and whatever talks to me said, “Go to Sprouts.” I didn’t need any groceries and it was out of the way, but I know to listen. As I pulled into Sprouts, I saw my ex-boyfriend’s truck. Aha, the run in. I walked in as he was paying. Of course, perfect timing. Our hello was tentative—what conclusions had we drawn in the months apart. We walked out to the truck and caught up on the basics—work was good for him and still a mystery for me; he found roommates for our house and I was leaving mine for a place of my own. I broke the seal on the seeing anyone question. No, both shaking our heads, haven’t even thought about it. I told him he looked great, and he told me I looked beautiful. Then, with a familiar glimmer in those bright blue eyes and that sweet southern drawl, he said his roommates were out tonight and did I want to come back to the house. The person I felt affection for in that moment was me of four years ago because, oh girl, I see how you fell for this one. I joked that we hadn’t had break-up sex and wouldn’t that give me something to talk about with my therapist. Both of us laughing, I said I didn’t think we should do that. But, I did want to see the dog.
So I returned to the house, which no longer felt like my house. I had an adorable reunion with the dog who no longer felt like my dog. And I spent a few hours hanging out with a man who no longer felt like my man. Our conversation wandered through our relationship. We laughed and cried and held each other and hugged the dog. He apologized for treating me poorly, and I apologized for being mean. That was that. So boring. No drinks or drama or fights or fear or sex. It was, in a word, sober. Or, as he lovingly put it, “This is so you, Malachuk. Hinting that we might hook up and we end up processing our feelings.”
I told him about this piece and asked his permission to talk about our stuff with no names or details. He told me to add the cocaine detail because that was the night our relationship ended, two years before the actual ending. Then, he said, “Go be successful, Katie. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.” And new life dawned because in that moment I felt super successful at being human. I was fully freaking present in some of my trickiest emotional terrain. I understood so clearly why I loved this man and stayed with him for as long as I did and why I left this man and will never be with him again. Joy, pain, gratitude, anger, attraction, aversion, all of it was welcome. My mind felt vast—there was nothing too big or confusing or messy or beautiful for me to simply be with. The moment arose replete with tremendous physical sensation. Then, it dissipated and left no residue. There would be nothing to stuff down, numb over, drown out. Instead, there was so much space. And, truly, nothing but love. Eventually, we found our way to a sweet goodbye. Open and unafraid, I took the back roads under starry skies, silently appreciating the view.
Out of all of my accomplishments in this American life, it has been this recent endeavor into cool boredom that has left me feeling grown-up and deeply free. Life is still uncertain, but I trust myself completely. Moreover, I value my life beyond measure. Because maybe being grown-up has nothing to do with what we achieve and acquire and everything to do with our ability to be with ourselves, each other and what is. This is a maturation model of sobering up that is not taught in our culture but is incredibly life-giving.
Like most writers, I tend to circle around the same story. Telling this story—of an alternative, spiritual version of accomplishment—is the reason that I’m not a monastic. I am of this time and place. I am an American girl—born in Washington, D.C., raised in Bethesda, MD, Harvard, Stanford, Teach For America, Boston Consulting Group, even the yoga and mindfulness feels pretty American these days. I am of the land of opportunity. But, what is the opportunity? We assume it’s one thing, but maybe it’s something else entirely.
In the Buddhist teachings on life and death, in the same way that death is a precious opportunity for spiritual progress between lives, life is a precious opportunity for spiritual progress between deaths. We’re alive. Now what? My fellow Americans, until we drop the pot-binge-anger-affair-achievement, until we release our phones and fantasies, until we stop stuffing things down and drowning things out, until we loosen our grip on all that acquisition, until we hang out in cool boredom and learn to be with ourselves and life no filter, we are missing this tremendous opportunity to bloom into the blissful, insightful and compassionate beings that we naturally are. We are missing out on not only the experience but also perhaps the whole point of being alive. And, I suppose I’ll keep telling this story of our misguided sense of accomplishment and unlimited spiritual potential until I completely hear it myself. On that note, I want to thank you for being on the receiving end as the reader and holding space for someone who processes through writing. With your generosity of time and attention, you have helped a sister out. It’s me and you together.
Katie Malachuk, October 2017