Life, bittersweet

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself lying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”

There are times when I experience an intense empathetic state. I have a simultaneous awareness of both connectedness and suffering in the world. Yet, I don’t simply feel others’ pain. I feel a deep sense of guilt and responsibility for their pain. All at once, I fully grasp my indirect complicity by just living in this modern world, within our affluent country.

Every choice and action has millions of tiny threads attached. They pull at my skin, creating thousands of invisible wounds. I ache, uncertain of the source. If I settle here, in this reality, I become frozen. Even taking no action is painful because it creates its own consequences. 

I have always interpreted this “experience” as the true reality. I accepted that if I faced it, there would be anxiety and depression. When the practicalities of life pushed me forward and I was able to blunt some of the intensity, I saw it as hiding from the truth, even if I did feel better. What most would term “coping” felt like acquiescing to a cruel, unfair world. I became another mindless human, trampling others in my efforts to create a comfortable bubble for myself.

However, I was pondering the butterfly story recently. Is my perception of reality accurate? 

Our time on earth is a journey toward remembering our wholeness. A butterfly has no sense of individuality and implicitly knows this truth. I have viewed the world as the dreaming butterfly, experiencing a human reality where a sense of separateness creates pain, and believing it is true.

If I switch perspectives, I become a lucid dreamer. A human who can access this primal memory of being a butterfly, unencumbered by the burden of individual suffering. I can see that this pain is temporary and serves a purpose. My role in both feeling and causing pain is part of the process.

I am caught within this dream, yet aware. I can now act.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson



Nuance, tic and mannerism
I watch in taut concentration
Scope the setting
Profile my target

Tone, delivery and context
I look out through your eyes
Hear the words I speak
Choose my angle

Stop, pause or go
I contemplate my chances
Calculate my window
Wait for the signal

Life or death
I brave annihilation each time
Hold my breath in fear
Speak my mind

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson


Center of Balance

I have felt out of balance lately, trying to find security in a rapidly changing mental landscape. I could feel myself constantly grasping and hanging on for dear life to anything that gave me some momentary sense of stability. As life-long ideas about who am I snapped like twigs beneath me, I felt like I was falling from the top of a redwood, crashing through branches, wildly reaching for something to catch me.

This past week, I was consciously searching for a metaphor that captured the sensation and gave me some direction on how to manage these emotions. Although I am the furthest thing from a rock climber, I imagined myself dangling from a precarious position on a high mountain, scrambling for footing.

Within this metaphor, I began looking for a way to calm my anxiety, sadness and fear. Here is what I have worked out —

Knowing your weight and center of balance on a climb enables you to maneuver the environment safely and efficiently, evaluating your next move with a clear sense of your strength and the capacity for each step to bear your weight.

In the same way, knowing and accepting my inherent value as a person gives me a sense of being centered and in touch with who I am. Instead of having my value rise and fall as defined by outside opinions or circumstances, I have a static value — just  like my physical weight on a climb. With this stable base of perception, I can make better choices, more aligned with my true self — safer steps more likely to hold and carry me forward.

I can finally stop saying there is something wrong with me when I experience failure, loss or rejection. I just made the wrong choice because my center was off-balance or I didn’t evaluate the situation clearly. This does not reflect my value as a human being — that never changes.

So when I feel myself grasping and unsteady, I will remember —

  • Just because a limb is close by and seems like the logical next step doesn’t automatically mean it will hold me if I am too heavy. Even if I grasp tightly, it will still break — probably faster. Reaching for something that is not right for me, even if I really want it and use all my strength to hold on, will ultimately result in a fall.
  • Breaking a limb does not mean I am too heavy. It just means that my weight is more than the limb can carry. There is no judgment necessary.
  • Sometimes a step seems impossible or too risky, yet it really just means I need to build my strength. Once rested, I may find that the foothold is safe. I have to stop pushing myself to exhaustion to please or impress others or because I am impatient. I might be on the right path after all, yet the timing is off.

And when I fall, I will tell myself — Falling is okay. I took a risk. I have a harness. I’ll try again. Nothing has changed. You are the same person.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson



Rising Above Anxiety

I have a lot of free-floating anxiety these days, most likely because I think I’ve successfully transcended some significant emotional crutches. Yet after relying on them so long, I feel a void; I don’t know what to do with the mental space it created.

When the anxiety takes over and I can’t identify the cause (or there are many causes weaved together), I noticed that I rely on a particular visualization – an out of body experience. I began doing this almost unconsciously a long time ago, but recently started to pay closer attention when I realized it helped release the restriction in my chest and slow the swirling thoughts.

To bring it to life a bit more, I tried to capture the feeling in words. The more vivid the sensation feels, the faster I can calm myself.

Flash of life and death,
Pins and needles climb my scalp.
Expectant silence.

Limbs braid, spin skyward.
My heart dissolves in
a radiant burst of light.

Compelled to let go.
Body cast off like snake-skin;
No lungs enclosing my breath.

Stretching, expanding
I fade; the final notes still

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson



each raindrop plummets to the ground with fierce intensity, shaking the earth intently, each unswayed in its own angry purpose.

thunder roars in frustration as lightning awes its audience to silence with its jagged light streaks, tear stains on the face of a dark sky.

a leaf shivers and trembles beneath the cloud’s fierce outburst and silently waits for the storm to slow.