We are bit beyond Beltane and the longest day of the year is sneaking up on us just a little too quickly for me. Time goes by faster, the older I get. I hear from my elders that this is common, but I don’t like it and I don’t want to settle for it!
When I was active in my disease, I used substances to relax my body and calm my mind. I was a fretter; still am, about a lot of things. When I drank, I could finally stop thinking about all those things I couldn’t stop thinking about. I finally forgot that constant feeling that I was forgetting something important. I could be in the moment.
When I got to the point where my drugs of choice were keeping me from my feeling of contentment, I knew something had to change.
Luckily, this happens to a lot of people: our drugs stop working. For a while there, they make us feel pretty damn good, but there comes a point when the low is lower than any high is high. For me, that looked like physical shakes, dizziness and most distressful: super-intense anxiety, all day every day, which could only be slightly calmed by ridiculous amounts of alcohol. And when I was drunk, I didn’t feel good, like I had before; I only felt okay. I was really angry about that.
So I went to the program and it was very difficult and I got sober and that was that.
I have had some times of intense anxiety since I quit drinking; I’ve white-knuckled it for some extended periods. One of the manifestations of this stress is the feeling that there is always so much more to do that I can’t do anything. I get analysis paralysis trying to sort out what the priorities should be and time slips away while I’m dithering. My sense of urgency is exacerbated by this grasping for more hours in a day.
At some point, I began to realize that this hyper-future-awareness and fear response was a thing that depended not at all on the external circumstances of my life. I have done big projects and managed many classes and rituals and felt serene throughout; I’ve also had times of relatively few responsibilities when all is going swimmingly and I still freak out.
What I really needed to do was figure out how to be present; to let the now stretch out wide around me. How could I feel at peace?
I am a Feri initiate and we are known for being a bit martial in our outlook at times. This is the path I chose, that chose me. We often call our practices our “work” and apply a strong discipline to ourselves. This makes for powerful Witches.
But, at least in my case, too much discipline can be a dangerous thing. I didn’t have any tools in my war chest to help me cultivate self-compassion. So I took a side path into the woods to look for the ones who had what I was missing: calm mind, peace in the heart, solid presence.
You can probably guess where that path has led.
I found myself drawn to the Theravada Buddhist practice of mindfulness. First I read a whole mess of books because that’s how you learn spiritual stuff, right? Of course it isn’t, so I had to actually start a sitting practice. Then I got brave enough to apply for a retreat. Then I got accepted to the retreat. And then I actually went.
For 7 days, 40 of us kept sacred silence. During this time, we worked together, sat together, ate together, walked together. All in the quiet. I realized that it is really an intrinsic part of me to keep tabs on how power structures are forming, who is taking care of what, trying to manage energy. It was so uncomfortable for that young drunk girl in me to not be able to control the environment, to manipulate how people saw me, what they might think. I had no idea that her fearfulness was still so active in me, until I was apart from my distractions of computer/books/projects/relationships. There was nothing to do, nowhere to be, no one to connect with.
I felt layer after layer come away from me and it was terrifying.
When it was time for me to speak with a teacher for 15 minutes on the 3rd day, I told her of my experience and my fear. She said, “Hmmm. Layers coming off. Good. Now it is your practice to sit with your discomfort.” “Are there some prayers or something I could do?” “No. Just sit with it and observe…”
And I absolutely adored her for saying that. It was such a huge gift. Because what it meant to me was that all my freaking out, all my terror, all my pain was perfectly okay. It had a right to be there and I had a right to not try to make it be different; I would not be destroyed by my momentary experience.
It was the most incredibly powerful and utterly boring experience of my life. I loved it.
Sitting in mindfulness, walking in mindfulness, eating in mindfulness, it all helped me to remember how I could relax my body and calm my mind, sans substances. I was able to observe the feeling of forgetfulness, of not having enough time, of not being enough of what I thought was needed. I was able to meet those emotions and give a polite nod and know that within and beyond it all, I really, actually am whole and safe and beloved.
Of course, this does not exempt me from my responsibilities as a human entity on this planet. I continue to look for the ways that I can live lighter, be more compassionate, act with courage. With these new tools, I’m getting better at that, coming (mostly, imperfectly) not from a place of fear, but of from a place of solid confidence and a greater measure of serenity.
I dedicate the merit of this practice that all beings may find peace, joy and creativity.