in search of identity

College and Boys

9:10 AM

Marymount graduation
The following post is an excerpt from Snow Globe Reconstruction, a work in progress...

I graduated from Marymount High School in 1977, overflowing with relief that I had made it through the maze of childhood drama and insecurity. Here I was riding the wave of adult possibility, but I was still...well, mostly terrified. After a short season of ministry training and service in Youth with a Mission in Sunland, CA, I managed to talk my folks into letting me enroll into Pepperdine University in Malibu, with the added perk of boarding at school. My father had always said we could go to any school we liked as long as we were home for dinner. Sort of kidding, sort of not.

My dad and mom agreed to let me rent an apartment with a couple of other students as long as I came home on the weekends…no wild parties allowed.

I was lost but having fun. Like, riding-on-a-tilt-a-whirl-while-throwing-up sort of fun. It was wonderful and disorienting; for the first time in my life, literally, I was alone to make my own decisions. Before moving to Malibu, every hour would have needed to have been accounted for, and every decision explained. Invited to ride in a car with a boy, I would have called for permission, or I would have at least been prepared to make a case for my choice. Although my parents were amazing and did a darn good job with four girls, looking back, I could have used a more extensive internship on how to be a grown-ass adult.

Due to very limited freedom up to that point, I was tentative and over-cautious at times, but vulnerable and naïve at others.  With no confidence or experience in the arena of independent socializing, walking into a room full of college students required a persona, and I didn’t really know what a “normal college girl” acted like, so I had to improvise using inference and hypotheses to pull it off. I tried out a subtly sensual tomboy vibe, warm and available emotionally but distant sexually, and I think I almost pulled it off.  As masks go, it was relatively harmless, but the problem with creating personas is that sometimes we start to inhabit them as if that’s who we really are. Eventually, the masks begin to function like fun-house mirrors that distort our true reflections.

Wearing the facade of the accidentally-sexy ingenue forced me to take another look at my sedative eating habits. I went to a naturopath/chiropractor who put me on a “cleanse,” the first of many throughout my life. I lost 10 lbs eating sprouts and avocados drenched in Bragg’s Aminos, allowing myself fruit in the morning, only. But this behavior would only be sustainable for the first month, followed for the rest of my tenure at Pepperdine by a mutated diet that for allowed sprouts and avocado during the week punctuated by pizza and ice cream on the weekends. I knew something was wrong, but had no idea how to address it, so I stayed on the tilt-a-whirl for two long trimesters.

Eventually, I chose to practice my naïve-and-overtly-cautious skills on a guy, an ex jock and graduate from Pepperdine who had returned to the scene of his college glory days to attend a basketball game with friends.  The romance was short-lived and innocent, lasting no more than a couple of weeks; my theory has always been that it didn’t take him very long to sense that I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted. I didn’t know him at all, but I was still devastated that he disappeared, apparently into an actual relationship before my insecure attempt at junior high romance had time to bloom. Even though this moment would eventually become a blip on the timeline of my story, at the time it reinforced my fear that I was socially handicapped; this little event caused me to reach out to my mom over a tearful lunch, and she suggested a counseling appointment at church as a next step. Terrified of making a mistake at this sensitive life intersection, I agreed; maybe God would tell Pastor Jack who I was supposed to become?

Our family pastor Jack Hayford, along with my mom, sat down with me to hear about my disillusionment over this first year “away” at school. Truth is, although I didn’t think I knew what I wanted to do with my life, the road I was on at the time really wasn’t that far off. I had signed up for a degree in communication with an eye on broadcast journalism. With a class in photography and one in journalism, I might have been happy traveling that road, but insecurity took over, and I wanted to surrender the wheel to somebody else…God? My parents? Would somebody, anybody, just tell me what to do?

So, Pastor Jack gave me a push in a definite direction, and my mom offered up the possible coordinates. My sister Cherry and her husband Dan lived in Hawaii, serving at the evangelical Youth with a Mission base on the big island. Maybe I want to consider a hiatus from Pepperdine, and go to Hawaii for a year to serve, with my big sister there to look after me? I could offer myself as a student and intern in ministry training, and perhaps, this would lead me to the next step.

It didn’t occur to me to resist. Hawaii? Don’t mind if I do. I could please my parents, avoid making some terrible mistake, and go on a terrific adventure. I was on a plane in weeks.

YWAM in Kona, Hawaii, was a great adventure. I fell in love.

just breathe

Glitch in the Exhale

11:09 AM

On January 30th, I will turn 60; it's a big number. 

For my birthday, I have chosen to book a bit of time at a dear friend's mother-in-law apartment to enjoy some radical solitude, breathe and be still, and write. Sounds like fun to me.

So, I thought I'd share a bit about...wait for it....meditation and mortality. Super exciting topic, I know.

Talking about prayer and meditation is a dangerously boring and significantly subjective topic to throw out into the wide, wide Interweb expecting anyone to turn an ear in my direction. This isn't exactly the first time I've talked about these topics, but hey, it's my birthday. Humor me. This is a good year to ruminate about my mortality, and I've paid in decades for the right to do so. I'll make this quick.

I have heard it said that the process of dying uncovers the authentic self; in other words, the way we approach life in general is going to lay the groundwork for the way we will ultimately let go of life as we know it. If we tend to spend our days in a cranky or agitated state, this might color the last months of life. If you tend to face life's hurdles with a positive attitude, good on ya; this might make for a less bumpy exit. 

Mind you, this conversation isn't so much about training for a successful exit; it's more about considering the way I am running my race, or completing my life's quest, so to speak. After all, the means I use to achieve a certain end needs to match the end I seek. Agitated attempts at control may not lead me any closer to peace, if that's what I'm ultimately seeking. So, what am I here to learn?

At the threshold of this 7th decade, I'm wondering if the state in which I find myself when I'm still and quiet might not be indicative of who I am at my core and how I've evolved over time? In terms of the journey inward, my attention to the breath has been a significant guide.

The first time I was trained in meditation, I had a wise, extremely kind and patient teacher who helped my first experience to be so much more productive and mysterious than I imagined. I was encouraged to focus on the face of my trainer who challenged me to meet his gaze while becoming aware of other things within my periphery; the lesson was on maintaining a point of focus while continuing to practice awareness of the other things that existed in, and even beyond, the space within which I was sitting. 

I remember maintaining connection with his face while he guided me, suggesting I  "become aware" of the window frame while remaining focused on his eyes. His instruction continued for 45 minutes or an hour as I set my attention on one thing while allowing myself to become aware of others. The lesson: intentionally practice setting my attention on one thing while at the very same time allowing awareness of other elements to be present in my consciousness without getting too attached to them. 

Expansion.

Since then, I have worked with a variety of methods, like using a candle as a focal point; in this case, I can hold my attention on the candle while continuing to practice awareness of the things and places around me. I have also worked with guided meditations, body scans, and at times, I have even been able to just put my butt in a chair and sit. Silence. It's in this quiet state of mind that I experience peace and healing.

The greater part of the practice for the last few years, however, has been to focus on my breathing, and I still have a lot to learn about this. As is usually the case where I'm concerned, I learn by trial and error.

Here's what I've observed so far.

When I focus on my breath (or if I focus on anything, if I'm being honest), it's my nature to try to control it rather than observe it. Biofeedback or yoga are good vehicles for experimentation with deep,  self-directed breathing patterns, and they've both been really helpful to me, but not so much during meditation. Attempts at controlling the rhythm of my breath in meditation creates a tension between doing and being. Meditation is largely about sitting and NOT doing. It's about acceptance of, and surrender to, what the present moment is bringing, and breathing is a part of that surrender. My brain stem is fully capable of reminding my lungs what to do.

So, why do I often feel like my natural breathing rhythm during meditation...has a glitch? I notice that during the exhale, right when my breath has almost "emptied," there seems to be a pause at the "bottom" of the breath, like, it gets...stuck.

It feels like there's a glitch the exhale.

So, what's up with the irregular rhythm of my breathing...the break in the flow?  

As usual, I have a theory.

People who experience panic disorders or even garden-variety anxiety have a tendency to "freeze" physically, to tighten scrunched, elevated shoulders, and hold tension in the abdomen. I wonder if the glitch in my exhale is just another area of tension in my body that needs a reset? Truth is, in lieu of a panicked state that would justify an attempt at controlled breathing, there just isn't any persistent requirement that I attempt to choreograph my body's brain stem functions, and the compulsion to do so is indicative of my (slightly pathological) belief that I need to control everything. Again and always, for me, it comes back to letting go.


Incidentally, many months ago, I wrote a post called "Trust Me," about it:

"Second-guessing my intuition, a less-than-productive pattern that has hamstrung my ability to move through the process of making decisions, has plagued my capacity to move forward since I was small. A classic codependent, I learned the art of imagining how others may respond to any move I make, causing me to freeze even when action was acutely necessary. I can’t say this trait has been useful. Decisions, and the consequences that follow, are a powerfully organic force of life, and it’s torment to live at odds with our choices. What ifs burden my thinking, and it hasn’t gotten better as I age; it mostly ebbs and flows.


So, although these issues have stalked me all the way to my 59th year, I have declared my 60th year will be the year I shed the automatic anxiety I have carried all of my life, and learn what it really means to trust."

A lofty goal, but, a goal, non-the-less, and sitting here today, a week away from that significant benchmark, I believe that how I breathe when I am still and quiet is a meaningful marker, that learning from my observed glitch in the exhale might just move me closer to my target. 


So...here's how I am moving through the tendency to tighten during the breathing cycle.

I choose to let go of the need to make my breathing do something that feels right to me, allowing my body to draw deep or shallow breaths naturally. It is what it is; I can observe this life-affirming mechanism without manipulation. 

Looking at breath as a sustaining life force, it becomes an exercise in faith to allow my body to breathe without interference; in fact, it seems worthwhile (and helpful for me) to try instead to scan my body for tension, and practice deep relaxation. The more I am able to allow a "let down" in my body, and the natural flow of my breath, the more I seem to be at peace. This is what has helped the most.

I know. It seems a bit indulgent to to write an entire post about my pattern of breathing, so if you've made it this far, I consider it a personal favor. This one's for my birthday.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference. 


And, keep breathing. 

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