It wasn’t until my late twenties I realized I had been living and making choices from a smaller and limited sense of myself.
By then I was really good at turning away from what scared me, didn’t understand, or intimidated me. I ignored my feelings and my body with some version of distracting and keeping busy or numbing and checking out. This served me in surviving the trauma of my childhood and twenties but did little to heal or soothe my pain or anxiety.
It also got in the way when I tried to cultivate meaningful connections. From this smaller part of myself, I tried to control relationships so I could avoid feeling hurt, tried to curate experiences and conversations that risked very little. I eschewed stillness and silence and the feelings and memories they might bring up. As a result, I was was both clingy and unapproachable and I undermined relationships that challenged me to show my true self. I stopped calling or spending time with family and childhood friends.
Luckily, I have family and loved ones who stubbornly love me anyway. They recognized something I could not— I was worthy of love and the world needed me to show up fully and free.
Because of their love, because a part of me recognized (and feared) my purpose and destiny, and in spite of playing it safe and trying to hide from the world, I found my calling as a teacher and a father in my late twenties. I began teaching English in a high school in the Bronx. I also met my wife and started a family.
And just like that, a great thaw. I had no choice but to feel the parts of myself I had abandoned and it scared the hell out of me. That was the beginning of my journey of self-exploration. Over the years I have turned to various spiritual communities that challenged me to cultivate my relationship to God. They helped me develop loving awareness of my body and mind, to Ancestors, and to mother Earth. I've learned to study and be of service, to be vulnerable and take risks, to heal and care for my body. I returned to praying, made offerings to the Earth, began meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. All of it played a role in leading me to a simple yet profound way of healing--the practice of consistently noticing the small ways my body wants my loving attention.
I notice the tight knot in the pit of my stomach when strangers look at me in my eyes, the tightness in my chest and wrinkled creases of my forehead when students are vulnerable and share about their lived experiences, the small valleys between my neck and shoulders as I worry about being able to care for my young family, the pause between each held breath as I wait for some form of calamity to befall me or for someone to discover I'm a fraud.
Even so, I continue to risk going into the body and continue the work of getting to know myself more fully. As I cultivate more loving and curious awareness, the pain and fear feel smaller in comparison to the spaciousness in my heart. As I take this risk with my spiritual and mindfulness communities I also learn about the abundance of love in my own and in everyone's hearts. I learn what devotion and worship feel like in my body. These sensations are infinitely more spacious than the tight quarters of my head and mind, where I usually reside.
Going into the unexplored, risking the memory of pain and trauma by connecting to my body in small (and appropriate) ways helps me get closer to feeling like I belong, closer to my true self and to my purpose. It allows me to be in relationship with loved ones and strangers, in ways that feel empowering and supportive.
And I'm continuing to learn how in ignoring the body, I agree to carry the burden of pain and trauma (my own and that of my Ancestors and the Earth) like heavy armor. These ways of being while useful at times, leave me feeling exhausted, burdened, and disconnected.
Part of my practice is to notice the moments when I feel connected to my body, to my family and loved ones, to nature and the universe—to something greater than myself. I savor those moments and they help me be resilient to the moments when pain and suffering arise.
I still sense the knot in my belly, have my worried expressions, and sense of overwhelm but can now also find the vastness of my heart and the universe. I feel held.
What survival and coping strategies have you learned? Do they still serve you?
In what ways do you connect to your body in loving and caring ways?
Which friends, loved ones, and communities support you in connecting to your fuller self?
What contemplative and /or spiritual practices support you when you’re feeling disconnected?
Try the Set Yourself Free meditation with Mayuri and explore how bringing loving attention and presence to your body can help you feel free.