Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives."
How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races – the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke
When I meditate, restlessness usually predominates. My thoughts about coffee interrupt reruns of Madmen episodes, which appear after a brief awareness of my breath and my constricted chest. When the restlessness dissipates, emotions arise that often feel unbearable. My throat tightens, a burning sensation spreads from the base of my neck, under my collarbone and throughout my chest. I have felt this constriction as stifled screams or sobs. I want to constrain, suppress, stop these fire-breathing dragons. After seven years of meditation, these dragons have not transformed into princesses. But my attitude toward them has become friendlier. They have become well-meaning gargoyles who spread their wings to warn me that emotions that I regard as threatening are arising.
By letting these emotions and gargoyles be, I have found out that they are not only bearable but also inspiring. As a writer, when I pay attention to the emotions that I used to push away, I discover stories that I want to tell and images that help me tell them. As a parent, I have found that these emotions signal when an old story about their scariness is about to hijack me into the past and away from my two-and-a-half year old son, who has much more interesting stories to show me about these emotions. In this blog, I want to tell you about how I have befriended these dragons and the emotions that they defend.
I started meditating regularly after I stumbled into Trudy Goodman’s Thursday evening sitting group. I had been longing for some group, some activity that would provide me with a sense of purpose, of belonging. Because this longing had been so strong and unmet for so long, it felt overwhelming and insatiable. Before finding Trudy’s sitting group, I had tried meditating on my own, but my short meditations felt lonely and futile. The sitting group helped me stay still for longer, but it was not comfortable. People’s questions irritated me, my hips hurt, my thoughts were both banal and frantic. All of this, Trudy reassured me, was part of the process. Just watch. See what your mind does with this discomfort; see what happens when you pay attention to the breath and notice the thoughts, emotions, and stories that arise. I didn’t have to believe anything.
My first insight was not comforting: I listened to a stream of self criticism. These critical voices fueled a haze of anxiety that covered most of my experiences.
The dragons showed up during my first retreat. After a year of attending the Thursday evening sitting group, I decided to go on a five-day retreat, hoping that more meditation would calm this anxiety. On the third day, the teachers guided us through a loving kindness meditation. I felt the familiar constriction around my heart loosen and then tighten up again. During the group interview, I asked a teacher how to make my heart relax. I listened in horror as he explained that I didn’t need to change how my heart felt. I could accept my constricted heart as it was and hold it with kindness.
“I can’t do that,” I whispered.
He smiled, “It’s actually much simpler than trying to change it. You don’t have to do anything.”
I nervously returned to the cushion and received a nightmarish vision of my heart as a nest of writhing, fanged worms. I had a phobia of worms. These are my emotional needs, I thought, creatures that want to devour me and anything and anyone who comes near them. They will destroy me. But they didn’t. The vision faded and left me shaky. Instead of fleeing, I placed my hand over my heart. During the next two days, the vision returned each time in a different form. My heart re-appeared as a wound infested with maggots, a glowing egg protected by a fierce dragon, and, finally, as an embryo with a gargoyle defending it. This I could love.
My anxiety hasn’t disappeared and my emotional need for connection still frightens me. My willingness to receive this anxiety and need with kindness, however, has gradually loosened their grip on me so that I can see them more clearly. They are not monstrous; they are the vulnerable parts of me that need my attention. By meeting them with curiosity and kindness, I am learning to create friendlier stories about them with my son.
Next: Discovering my desire to be a mother on a meditation retreat.
In addition to being a meditator, Lisa Hills, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher and parent. She has been practicing meditation with the support of Trudy Goodman, InsightLA and her kalyana mitta (spiritual friendship) group for seven years. Since the birth of her son, Owen, two years ago and the completion of her English Ph.D. at UCLA, Lisa has focused on parenting and writing plays and personal essays. She currently teaches a mindfulness and writing workshop for parents with Tandy Parks in Santa Monica.