A self divided cannot stand: resolve inner conflict, get more done

Much of my personal and creative life began to fall in place when I started to practice yoga and study yoga philosophy. It was on the yoga mat and in the classic texts that I found the best instructions for healthy thinking and practical spirituality. These enhanced my writing life. (You can read my paper presented at the MLA conference and published in the book Beyond the Frontier here: ” Writing West to East and Back Again: A Yogic Approach to Life-Writing.”)

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Yoga & Writing

In the introduction to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Hindu text on physical yoga practices, Swami Muktibodhananda explains that yoga is the union of mind and body (to be clear, they aren’t separate…they just get out of synch or in dysfunctional relationship). This idea from that introduction has become central to my well-being:

Often we observe that when we try to practice self-control and discipline, we create more mental problems in our mind and personality…Therefore before you practice self-discipline and self-control, you must prepare yourself…If harmony is not created in the personality, then self-control and self-discipline will create more conflict rather than peace of mind.

You want to know what this “conflict” looks like?

Imagine your ego self holding a whip demanding that you to get to work and your feeling self complying grudgingly, refusing defiantly or in some way failing miserably. The task could be working on a creative project or going to the gym or doing the dishes. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s a split in the personality between the self that thinks you should do something and the self that doesn’t want to it. It’s a sort of schizophrenia, almost.

A self divided against itself cannot stand. Or put another way: you are not being able to stand yourself.

I lived like this for years. I got a lot written, published and performed, but I was miserable because I was living in conflict with myself. Basically I’d tell myself I was a loser if I didn’t do the thing I knew I should do. There was some value (moral, financial, ethical, etc) inherent in the action that I felt I “should” do, but instead of focusing on the value, I focused on the action itself. When I lose focus of the “why” of things, I quickly see a hostile relationship between Marya the goal-setter and Marya the goal-fulfiller.

These days, when I recognize a “should” and an aversion to it, I know to look deeper. Why do I think I should do it? What is at the root of the aversion? This sort of reflection really helps me unify my “selves.” When I am connected with my desire — with why I “should” do something –I am able to get to my work in a way that makes me feel good and fills my work with purpose.

What “shoulds” do you wrestle with? Take some time to write about these, about what value these have (financial, moral, ethical, social, etc.). Sometimes we inherit “shoulds” from our families or society without examining them; if they have no value to you, personally, let these go the same way you might discard an ugly chair that used to belong to Aunt Agatha.

I think you’ll find that once you connect with why you want to do something, the aversion will soften or even disappear and you’ll be able to show up for the work you should do because you want to do it.

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And there I was talking to a tree

I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I love nature. I enjoy sailing, hiking, sunbathing, kayaking, and bike riding. I’ve even done some protesting of GMOs.

But I know people deeply committed to eco-preservation. These people chain themselves to trees or to each other and block destruction of the environment, like the Everglades, enduring heat, injury, and dehydration, until the authorities eventually haul them away to jail. I deeply admire these people. Still, I don’t see myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I admire martial artists. That doesn’t make me a ninja.

Heart leaves
Wearing their hearts on their leaves

Still, I surprised myself the other day when I did everything short of hugging a tree to make myself feel better. Here’s what was going on:

For no real reason other than it was a Tuesday, my chest was tight and there was lump in my throat. One way I deal with anxiety is to dial up my productivity. Sometimes it helps.

On the Tuesday in question, I applied for a DBA for Wholly Creative, learned online software to help my business, organized my workspace, brainstormed with my assistant about other opportunities, and met a friend for lunch. I felt powerful, full of momentum. After lunch, I crashed for a half hour and took a nap. But by the afternoon, the tension was still there in my chest and throat.

So I tried the opposite approach: do less.

I walked to to the beach. I wrote for a little while. I watched the children throwing buckets of water at each other, the waves rolling in, couples sitting on blankets in the soft sand together, the golden light of the setting sun bathing the whole scene in such magical light that even the garbage seemed enchanted. But the breeze, waves, and sunset didn’t do much for the constriction I still felt, like an unseen hand was reaching down my throat and squeezing my heart.

I packed up my things as the breeze blew colder, and as I walked toward home, I was drawn to the coral tree that stood in the grassy area along the beach. It’s complex root structure fascinated me. Its branches rolled like cursive into the punctuation of bumps and nubs.

I slowly approached the tree, more curious than committed to an action, still with this discomfort, this dull aching in my chest and throat. I thought about doing a couple lion’s breaths, sticking out my tongue with a forceful exhale, which sometimes helped a little.

Instead I began talking to the tree. “Hi there. You’re an interesting tree. Do you mind if I sit here?” I climbed onto the horizontal portion of the trunk and settled in. “I used to have another tree friend back in Florida.”

And then I began to tell this tree about another tree, a Green Buttonwood, that used to grow along the sea wall in Lake Worth. I used to sit on its similarly sideways trunk and listen to the waves slop against the seawall while I wrote. The days I spent there with the tree, I unburdened so much in the pages of my notebook. During our time together, I went through several boyfriends, my father died, I went back to graduate school, my daughter moved in with me and I became a full-time mom. I experienced and learned so much with that tree, that I developed a relationship with it. I started to call it my tree.

Then the fences went up. Hurricanes and time had damaged the sea wall, and a restoration project was underway. I couldn’t get to my tree without climbing under the fence. I wrote the city a letter expressing my concern about the tree. I was told by the city’s arborist that there were others who inquired, too, and that the city was looking into what could be done to preserve the tree.

My new friend, the Coral Tree
My new friend, the Coral Tree

One night as I walked in the moonlight to the park, I let out a howl. The tree had been uprooted. Its trunk and limbs, sawed into pieces, were in a pile.

“Murderers!” I shrieked and ran toward the fence. I lifted the chain link and crawled under it. Surveying the damage, I let out a roar, as much furious at my helplessness as at the person or people who had done this.  And then began to sob. I rested my hand on a large limb, as I looked at the severed pieces lying casually on the grass.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.” I cried in the darkness as the leaves limply hung from their drying branches. “I tried. I didn’t know what else to do.”

That night I walked home with a bundle of smaller branches in one arm, dragging one large leafy branch behind me. Weeks later when they had dried enough to burn, I lit a funeral pyre and said goodbye. I saved one two inch piece of a large branch from the fire. It moved with me to California. I keep it on my altar.

I told this story to my new tree friend as we sat together looking out at the ocean. And then I settled in to write a poem about a girl in a tree. “Her heart relaxes in this hammock of arteries and veins.”

#whollycreative #whatsyourstory

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