As the child of artistic and cultured parents from exotically different backgrounds of Japanese-Buddhist and Russian-Jewish, I naively thought that I had my life somewhat figured out.
At least insofar as the quality of my personal success and happiness via the artistic mind and ethnic blend of East and West.
Weirdly enough, I believed that beauty and peace could be both confined and defined through the enjoyment and study of fine classical masterpieces, intellectualism, philosophy, and even amongst the fringes of all cultural norms.
In my family, by the early age of about six or seven, my siblings and I thought it was normal to read stories by Franz Kafka; to become lost in a film by Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa; to laugh at films of Woody Allen and The Marx Brothers; to spend a Sunday afternoon singing along to Ella Fitzgerald while touring off-the-beaten-path art studios and galleries in the quirky and hungry Los Angeles streets of the 1970’s and eighties.
While being the child of mixed-cultural and mixed-media artists was possibly the most interesting childhood I can think of, it did not necessarily equate to any sort of useful happiness or skill sets that invited a peaceful or light way of life.
On the contrary, I have often felt guilty when I was happy, and somehow more relevant and loveable when suffering. I felt an urgent sense of “just feeling lucky to be alive,” as my parents were both born during The Great Depression and lived through their own individual struggles of racism and albeit different cultural challenges during The Second World War.
My mother experienced discrimination as a Japanese even as her brothers fought for freedom during the war.
They were feared after the bombing attack of Pearl Harbor.
On a recent grey San Francisco afternoon, I loosely thumbed through the dusty library I keep in my garage. Hidden amongst antique silk kimonos and old paint cans I found I passages from some of my favorite writers.
On one shelf were the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and T.S. Eliot; on another, the complete short stories by Somerset Maugham. I found near-original copies of my favorite short books by the one and only Dr. Suess. Hidden under that shelf were stories by Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.
This was what my father called “light reading” when I was a kid.
With all of this knowledge, how could I possibly feel dark and filled with anxious anguish much of the time? What was my own search for meaning, and why did I not have it by this time of my life? Depression can come easily to anyone, no matter how well-educated or well-read. I have discovered as well a neurotic tendency to wallow in depressions’ impulsive, counterproductive and narcissistic behavior.
When defeated, I often think of my Buddhist grandmother who has since passed away into the day and the lightness of being. I remember when she used to offer fruit and incense in the windy and solid afternoons of Hawaiian summers. What I recall most was the freshly ironed floral cotton dresses she wore with that indescribable warm grandma smell.
Though she had a been a hard-working and tireless farmer who was grateful for new linoleum floors that replaced her dirt ones, she always took the time to dot pink lipstick onto her doll-shaped Japanese lips. Her hair, as soft as a thousand cotton balls strewn together, was often swept to the side with a gold bobby pin and a flower.
I spent part of a summer at her farmhouse. One day in July I heard her say Thank You over and over again as she clipped back her overgrown gardenia and plumeria trees and what seemed to be 500 feet of white bent-over lilies.
“Why are you saying ‘Thank You?’ I asked Kona Grandma.
(This is what we called her as her homestead was Kona, Hawaii, a small town that could oversee volcanoes, an ocean that seemed poured out slowly but surely’ by Gods, and the spirit of Hawaiians that cannot be disturbed, only invited in.)
“Because,” she answered, bending down to cradle my face with her small hands.
“Because if you say ‘Thank You’ to everything that is precious, even quietly down into your heart, you will become the beautiful person that you yearn to be.”
Her name was Hatsuyo, which means Affection in Japanese, and she resembled both the light and the dark beauty of everything that stood out from my Asian side of the family.
One morning, probably around 3 am or so, I heard her voice call out to me with messages of serenity and strength. I also saw her image as she sang, “There is no reason to suffer endlessly.”
“One suffers only as much as one chooses to,” she hummed lightly. I felt her presence by my bedroom window, as if she were floating eternally between this life and the afterlife.
“Remember,” she cooed, clothed in a dress of silk organza petals, “Peace comes from within, and never without.”
I somehow managed to fall back asleep and woke to the most brilliant of sunsets I can remember since early childhood. I somehow felt sober, lifted, free, weightless, and without any fear at all.
And when I say “sober,” I mean emotionally sober from all of the ghosts that have haunted me all through early adolescence and beyond.
That following Sunday was the first time I believe I became aware of what self-love was. I decided to knowingly bring back that dream-like state through self-guided mediation and prayer. As the child of artists who forgot to take me to either a Jewish or a Japanese Temple, I strangely craved a sentential feeling of spirituality.
By praying and meditating, I felt as if I were somehow committing a taboo act-in a sense, throwing away away all of my hard years of schooling—even cheating on my professional journalistic life—and making a complete fool of myself.
I had been disturbed enough for years with paralyzing fear, unfounded guilt and denial about who I was unless under the vague and severely guided titles of daughter, wife, mother and good girl forever tattooed in gold leaf upon my forehead.
After studying numerous books and teachings on Meditation, Prayer and Buddhism insofar as counterattacking self-destructive thinking and a lifetime of co-dependent and emotionally violent relationships, I learned that intellectual thinking was not enough.
Only through more pain did I discover that my personal and universal-like struggle was also physical. After having my daughters and surviving abusive situations that led to catatonic years of barely living, I knew that I must endure even more challenging times in order to become comfortable with my physical being.
It started first with returning to the light ballet movements that I was forced to leave behind when I was 12 years-old. Yoga also eventually seduced me gently, with its nonjudgmental mantras and non-preaching senses of individuality, community, and ego-less messages.
Five years later, I am so much better off that I barely recognize myself. And this is in a good way, not with any kind of modern ugly notion of female makeover manner that may behoove the Real Housewives or the Kardasashian clan insofar as an overly plumped face and lips that spill out horrible sentences of inane and ungrateful waste.
What I mean is that now, when the sun both sets and rises, I find myself crying in gratitude, replacing all feelings of desperate pain and feelings of hopelessness with sense of calming faith.
And through Meditation, Yoga and Buddhist practices, I have discovered that I am indeed enough at any given moment, which has led me to feel truly free for the very first time.
Today, I no longer feel bound by the enslavement of approval, waiting for either the witching hour or the eve when I may finally gain the favor of even a stranger, because I may be so very desperate for love, that I may actually whore myself right into emotional slavery.
I have carefully thought, prayed and stretched my way towards the following principles that have not only saved my life, but may I say humbly, the lives of my children and friends. I believe and hope that in summary, they will find their way into your sweetest and most innermost spaces of self and communal love.
Allow Yourself to Feel All Emotions
No emotion is wrong.
But when an emotion is ignored and hidden—denied and repressed—true suffering and pain may plant their relentless and steadfast weeds. Even if you must excuse yourself for 30 seconds or for a two-hour walk, or even for a five-hour drive or hike, allow yourself to feel the sobering beauty of pleasure, inertia, as well as pain. In this way, you will learn more self-acceptance, unconditional self-care and a healing body and mind.
You can begin by accepting what you are feeling at this very moment, and resist trying to make the feeling go away, whatever it is.
Wake and Sleep in Gratitude
When you awake and sleep with intentional thoughts of gratitude, and surrender yourself to Thankful Thoughts before slumber and upon awakening, peace seeps into your physical, spiritual and actualized self. This practice is healing and nourishing to both yourself and to those around you. Just like every habit, begin small and simple.
Day One can begin by simply ‘Thanking The Universe’ for waking and sleeping, and having the opportunity to experience yet another 24 hour cycle on this brilliant and complex earth.
Learn to Breathe
Until recently, I believe that I barely knew how to breathe.
While I was certainly breathing well enough to stay alive, I do not think that I knew how to breathe without feeling anxious or nervous. Through meditation, yoga and prayer, I have discovered that if I take a few steady and slow breaths when I choose or need to, that no one will die.
However, if I do not, I may surely die from stress.
Today, when I find myself wound up and wounded by life’s battles, I begin to breathe in and out at four counts each. This reminds me that I am alive, and that nothing is actually stopping me from living. This one practice may just save your life.
Attach Yourself to Nothing and Everything
With minimum effort, you can begin to detach yourself from all material belongings and even from personal relationships that does not serve you, in order to achieve a grounded and tangible level of peace never before realized.
This does not mean that you will become cold and bitter, refraining from love. Rather, this means that you will learn to allow yourself to let go and accept all things, situations and people as they are.
A personal example: I suffered in-depth last year when two people I knew attempted suicide, both of whom are getting adequate help now. I cried, isolated, stopped eating and could not sleep because I was so worried.
One day while in the midst of a deep meditative state, I somehow envisioned my friends as free spirits, as young and healthy children, and I let their suffering leave my mind, even though my heart still ached.
You, my friend, can begin by looking quietly and intently at both your physical and your personal space. In my physical world, I have donated or thrown out anything that does not serve and nourish my life including all clutter and memories of frustration. In my personal life, I have slowly and steadily let go of people and situations that more often than not leave me feeling empty and sad, while replacing them with only those who help me to feel more alive, positive, and in a continual state of present-being.
In addition to the pieces of advice I have laid out, I would like to inspire you to follow your own individual and interesting personal path. We all have different experiences, and we come from varied ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds, but all that truly matters is that we sit still long enough to listen to our own breath, heart and soul.
One story I like to tell is what I like to call The Serene Shift that happened in my life. About five years ago when I was suffering from the worst anxiety I had ever experienced, and thought that I had tried everything under and over the sun to help me, I had an epiphany or what Oprah has famously coined an “aha moment.”
What if I simply did the opposite of what I had been doing, as what I “had been doing” had always been the dreams and wishes of everyone but myself?
For example, instead of being a Worrier, I imagined myself a Warrior. Instead of Fearing, I started to Fearlessly go forth, and instead of Resenting, I began to Re-send my intentions toward everyone, especially myself, that I would intend to live free and with unbridled passion.
In so many ways, this changed my life for the better, and I have happily endured a more peaceful existence as a result.
What does this mean for you?
Time and patience will tell, if you only allow it, with moments of self-healing thoughts and kindness.
I know things will get better for you, as they have for me.
A realistic Mazel Tov and Namaste to you.
And as my father would say, “A fine how do you do.”
Author: Francesca Biller
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Caleb Roenigk/Flickr