On Wednesday night I tried a silent meditation for 20 minutes and found it really hard. My stubborn brain itched for stimulus as the last 5 minutes drew to an end. Isn't perception weird? How some moments feel excruciatingly short while whole years are unbearably brief. This March (which feels only a breath away from last March) reminds me how time passes through you, sharp as a knife. Katherine Larson writes in her beautiful poem, Radial Symmetry, “between the days I pass through and the days that pass through me, is the mind." Meaning that the mind has a way of speeding up and slowing down experiences to suit its whims. Most times I find myself wishing that the glittering moments in college will feel renewable, never-ending. I can't bear to leave. But I only have to look outside my window, where the pristine snow this morning has already converted to grey slush, to know that you can't freeze a beautiful thing forever.
Behind the whole mindfulness/consciousness movement is a belief that you should not prevent unwanted thoughts from entering your mind. You can only accept them and allow them to pass through you as though they are clouds passing in the sky. I sat there, hearing the faint rock music thrumming through the thin-walled ceiling above me like a heartbeat. Outside, the world slid gracefully into darkness: that threshold moment before night where the sky holds on to blue for just a moment longer than sunset. Acceptance is a tricky thing because it asks you how willing you are to be honest to yourself. In his book on self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden writes these important lines: “Self-acceptance is the willingness to say of any emotion or behaviour: this is an expression of me, not necessarily an expression I like or admire, but an expression of me nonetheless. Self-acceptance is the precondition of change and growth. I cannot learn from a mistake I cannot accept having made."
It is hard to accept a lot of things about ourselves. Our bodies, our desires, our sufferings. Everything hideous, hidden, awkward, boring about ourselves. How easy it is to hate everything we've been, everything we've done, even the person we currently are. But I'd like to think acceptance is possible, and that freedom can be found within it.
In her funny, wise, incredible, advice column, Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed writes that this is what she would tell her twenty-something self if she had the chance to: “Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
Central to Branden's book, The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, is the idea that there are two main components to healthy self-esteem: self-efficacy (I am capable of producing the desired result insofar that success depends on our own efforts) and self-respect (My life and well-being are worth acting to support, protect, nurture; I deserve happiness.) My theory is that every anxious high achiever has a disastrously imbalanced concept of these two – most commonly high self-efficacy but low self-respect. I do these things and will fill my time and energy doing them, but only to cover up the fact that I think I am not worthy of love or respect without external markers of achievement.
As Jenny Offill says, "The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three." So I'm trying very hard, despite the difficulty, to choose the other 198.