My default operating position is “closed,” which is weird, because I think of myself as a very open person. I’m open to new ideas. I’m generally open around people I meet and people I love. (I say generally, because there is one particular relationship where I find openness difficult. More on this later.) I’m open to touching moments. I am touched when something beautiful happens. I am open to the connections we humans have to nature, art, machines, and other stuff. And just so you know and you are fully on board with how open I am, sometimes my openness overwhelms me and these moments even make me cry. It sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? I thought so, too.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with a meditation practice, which is an opening and softening practice. It began because in that one very significant relationship I mentioned, I didn’t feel all that open. Hard times, splitting up, hurt feelings made OPEN difficult and unsafe-feeling so, with the guidance of my teacher, I began to work with the intention of opening and softening with the hope that something would shift or become more clear in this relationship. A little opening and softening every day for many days started to shift how I felt. I’m here to tell you that meditation is for realz. It really works. These very small shifts toward openness and softening began to accumulate until there was a rather big experience of being open and it was SO DIFFERENT from the other version of openness that I thought I was having. At first I was into it. Things were coming to the surface of me that had been buried somewhere in there and it was surprising and sometimes a little overwhelming to be open in this new way. It seemed manageable and even kind of wonderful to get a glimpse of how open open can be. But then without even really knowing how or why, the openness became difficult and a little exhausting. The experience was new so I wasn’t clear on how to get through my days with all of this feeling and vulnerability and space. I felt soooo sensitive to other people that I sometimes lost a clear boundary of what was my stuff and what was other people’s. I cried even more and not in that good way. My morning meditations were big and significant and followed by a lot of post-sitting writing so I could try and process what was going on. It turns out, actual openness takes a lot of work and on top of that, some of it is painful and unpleasant. Let me draw what is perhaps a hyperbolic picture of what this is like… Imagine living in a dark-underground bunker for 35 years. You like it down there, probably because you don’t even know you are underground. Then you find a door. It’s the kind of door that is in the ceiling and all rusty and painted black and really heavy. Probably metal. You walk up the stairs and you are so excited to push open that door—and with the superhuman strength that you contain, you do it! Slowly then, recovering your breath, you take those last few steps, crawl out onto the sand and, what’s this?? You are in the Kalahari Desert! At noon!!! The sun is so bright and hot that your eyes freak out and start watering and it huuuurts. You can’t make sense of what’s around you because you can’t see anything but light. The light is sort of nice and you sort of like experiencing brightness, and you know your eyes will adjust eventually, but eventually is taking a long time so without consulting you, your arms fly up to cover your eyes and your legs carry you right back into your bunker. This is a bit of a relief. You like it down there because it is dark and you can easily find your cans of old greenbeans.
My story was a little like that, had it been on fast forward and set in a bunker in the desert instead of in Austin, above ground. I’m starting to see how OPEN was a little too much for my system, because slowly and almost imperceptibly, the part of me that was used to the dark bunker and the greenbeans fought back. I started to close up again. I became less engaged with my practice. I began to eat the food that makes me moderately uncomfortable—lots of sugar, caffeine, wine, so that the food-related discomfort would take precedence over the open-related variety. I started to have protective, guarded urges when in conversation with my significant person. And then, just the other day, it dawned on me—The authentic-openness is gone and the old kind of open is back and I didn’t even realize it was happening.
As I write this, I cringe a little because this all sounds kind of dramatic, or weird or something. But, I carry on because this is SO IMPORTANT. Deep down, I really want more of that actual-open feeling. I want to be able to not freak out when I start to feel what open is really like and I want to hang out there long enough so my eyes don’t burn and squint and water like crazy. I guess some things are like this. You get a glimpse, but you aren’t really ready. Hole-up, recharge, then try again. Then again. And then again. It goes on like this until the visits to open-land get longer and the discomfort is less and eventually you even prepare ahead of time by grabbing a sun hat and your hammock so you can stay a while.
I really love Patanjali’s yoga sutra 1.17, because it gives me such hope about how things like this work.
Vitarka vicara ananda asmitarupa anugamat samprajnatah
I think of it like this: As we are learning something, we start with the gross or rough understanding of how things work (vitarka) and we move towards an understanding of the subtleties (vicara). That process brings us satisfaction and joy (ananda). Eventually, we come to know these things so deeply, that they are a part of us, so what was once a rough understanding is now known and integrated and easily accessed. But you might not notice because you are continually engaging with the ever-more nuanced and subtle aspects of your subject. It goes on and on like this until we know our subject very, very well.
I’m hoping 1.17 will come through on this openness project of mine. Someday, I won’t be writing about openness at all because it will be so integrated into my being and existence that I might not even be thinking about it. I’ll just ooze it through open pores.