October 20, 2013

Permission to Feel (Or, What Superdogs Taught Me About Yoga).

The day I realized I had a problem, I was watching Superdogs.

I was at the PNE, which is a big fair complete with an amusement park, games, and petting zoo. Every year they have a show called Superdogs, which involves adorable dogs doing hilarious tricks. It was delightful, so delightful, that I almost started to cry. I got anxious and upset about how happy these Superdogs were making me feel. I was having a mild panic attack about watching Sid the Kid jump higher than any other dog for a frisbee.

And I don’t even particularly like dogs.

I made a doctor’s appointment that afternoon.

Sure enough, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is one of those disorder names that just sounds totally made up. It’s real, and along with the constant buzz of fear and insomnia, it can ruin Superdogs.

I’ve been practising yoga and studying Eastern philosophy for 18 years now, and they have both helped me immensely with my anxiety issues. The longer I do this, though, the longer I realize it can take for certain lessons to finally, really land.

Certain lessons, like being present or taking a deep breath, might sound really good and simple, and you think you’ve got it, but then something happens (like having a joy freakout at Superdogs) and you realize that you are still missing a piece. You don’t get it.

I was missing a really important lesson: that the best way to manage any emotion is to give myself permission to feel that emotion.

The Eastern philosophies I gravitate towards most are the ones that accept a range of emotions as natural and normal, thus taking the anxiety out of the internal dramas that happen inside all of our heads. Tantra, the lineage I study most, holds that everything that exists is already a manifestation of the divine, from the smallest bacteria to the most beautiful sunsets. Anger, sadness, vengefulness, and desire are all a part of the rich experience of being a human.

There are, of course, inappropriate actions, and we do the yoga partly so we can become aware of the emotions, give them permission to teach us something, and then use our brains to figure out how to behave appropriately.

Buddhism has a similar message about removing the “second arrow”: feeling bad about feeling bad.

One Buddhist meditation involves sitting with an emotion and allowing yourself to feel it completely in your body, and then trying to separate the story about the emotion from the emotion itself. It can be fascinating and informative to sit with anger and watch what it does in your body without trying to figure out what you should do about it.

These ideas are so different from the Christian worldview I grew up with, where you can sin simply by having a thought, and then you have to go confess your deepest darkest to a guy in a box, and then atone with your punishments or suffer eternally in Hell.

But if this yoga and mindfulness was working so well, why did Superdogs make me so upset?

Because, as it turns out, humans internalize the worldviews of our culture without even realizing it, and then accidentally apply those internalized values when we try to think in a new way. I was giving myself plenty of permission to feel things like sadness, anger, and jealousy: suffering was good, you know, because of Jesus. But the innocent joy of watching Puff Daddy and Captain Kangaroo jump through an obstacle course to a hip hop beat? It must be balanced out with more suffering.

That’s karma, after all, right? If you have a bad day, a good one will come along to balance the cosmic forces. A good day means a bad one must be coming. A very bad one. Whoops! How did my lapsed Christianity get all up in my yoga?

Karma, in the Hindu worldview, simply means that actions have consequences, and usually not until your next reincarnation. I didn’t realize how much I had been waiting, when a nice thing happened to me, for the other karmic shoe to drop.

I have a good job and a good relationship? My health must be about to take a turn. Was that guy flirting with me? He’s probably some horrible emotional manipulator that will ruin my life. I’m in a happy relationship and so are my two best friends? One of our relationships is going to eat it. Because things just can’t be that happy. It’s not statistically possible.

Suffering is safer.

A nice thing about the mindfulness practice is that once something in our subconscious is able to rise up to our conscious mind, we can start to catch ourselves doing it and then reprogram.

Looking at these thoughts with my conscious mind, I can see that they are grade A bananas. Sadness and anger had become my friends, and I had turned from pleasure and joy the way you turn from a smiling salesman in a store: he’s trying to sell me something! I am NOT buying it! 

Now, when I have a nice moment and catch myself anxiously expecting some horrible “karmic” punishment, I recognize it as a Christian guilt hangover, laugh at myself, and give myself permission to feel good. The next time Superdogs comes to town, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.

That’s what I bet Jesus would do.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise



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