Lessons from a Diamond

In October 2015 I traveled to a small island in the Gulf of Thailand to spend a month immersing myself in a Yoga Teacher Training. At the time I was engaged to my now husband, and I decided to leave my diamond ring at home where I knew it would be safe. As a replacement I wore a teal silicone ring. It was sturdy, flexible and inexpensive. It held very little value, both intrinsically and emotionally. Unlike my diamond ring, I was not afraid of losing it.

I learned through my training and through reading some of the most important texts from ancient India a completely new ideology about my life on this Earth. I have never gravitated towards or been attracted to religion in the traditional sense, but the practice of yoga opened new doors for me spiritually. Through further study into the history and philosophy of yoga I was introduced to the concept of maya, which means "illusion” in Sanskrit. The illusion is that we falsely identify with our minds and the physical world that we perceive through our senses. We become attached to objects, people and our identity, which are ultimately ego-based. This is why we feel upset or saddened when you lose something or have something taken away. It is also why we tend to cling to the past and worry about the future. It is why we are constantly seeking to have more money and possessions and also why we place so much value on our social and economic statuses, level of education and career paths. But do the things you own and the names you call yourself truly define you? Do your thoughts define you? Stripped away of those, how would you identify yourself? This is the illusion.

We forget that the reality we experience is temporary. Our own bodies are temporary. We refer to certain objects or people as “mine” or “yours”, and then because we have a sense of possession we set ourselves up for disappointment and suffering when our temporary conditions change. Everything you think you own is temporary….so are is anything really yours? In the same sense, our emotions are also temporary, yet we often allow them to consume us.

It is through Yoga that I learned concept of vairagya or non-attachment. Vairagya comes from an understanding that your True self is never-changing. It is the mind and its emotions that are constantly shifting. It is our bodies that experience pain and sensation. If this is difficult to comprehend, an easy way to begin understanding is to pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. Notice how you are able to observe your own thoughts. Who is doing the observing? Who is aware of these thoughts? This awareness allows you to separate yourself from your emotions. You still experience emotions, but you no longer identify yourself with them. This profound understanding creates a deeply rooted sense of peace from within, which in turn leads you to the practice of non-attachment. When you are not attached to outcomes, objects, people or other temporary conditions you free yourself of unnecessary discomfort and sadness. You learn to live in the present moment without being distracted by your past experiences or worries of the future. However, this is much easier said than done.

These ideas resonated with me, and I immediately began practicing more self-awareness, observing my emotions rather than allowing myself to get caught up in them. As we prepared to move we got rid of over half of our possessions, and I donated over half of my wardrobe. Childhood toys and clothing that I had kept for sentimental reasons I finally decided to part with. Clothes I hadn’t worn in well over a year I chose to give away. I thought I had internalized the practice of non-attachment and understood it on a deeper level, but I was about to be taught a much bigger lesson.

Two weeks before our wedding we moved into a smaller home. We had hired movers to help move furniture inside, and I had taken my engagement ring off so that it didn’t get damaged while lifting heavy objects. I had put it in its case in the bathroom, only to discover several hours after the movers had left that it was no longer there. I turned the house upside down searching for my ring. I even had my husband go through the pipes under the sink. I dug through the garbage. We looked EVERYWHERE. I cried off and on for several days. The ring had not only monetary value, but also a lot of sentimental value. I had just gotten my wedding band and was looking forward to wearing the two rings together in just a couple of weeks. It was only then, through the heartache and sobbing that I realized the ring had become a symbol of my relationship and my status as a soon-to-be wife. I didn’t lose Mike, so why was I so upset? Was it because I unconsciously felt like the diamond had increased my sense of self-worth? Or was it because I secretly enjoyed having others look at and compliment my ring? Was it really the metal and diamond I was attached to, or was it way I believed it somehow enhanced my identity? The ring itself was just that….a ring. Why did I place so much importance on it? Yes, it was expensive, but I was not crying over money. I was crying because (and it is hard to admit) I liked having a shiny, outward symbol of my relationship. It wasn’t until it was gone that I realized I had been in some ways identifying myself with my ring. It was that sense of “mine” that led me to feel utterly victimized when it was stolen, similar to how a child cries when their favorite toy is taken away.

 
Do certain things induce a subtle feeling of importance or superiority? Does the lack of them make you feel inferior to others who have more than you? Do you casually mention things you own or show them off to increase your sense of worth in someone else’s eyes and through them in your own? Do you feel resentful or angry and somehow diminished in your sense of self when someone else has more than you or when you lose a prized possession?
— Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
 

I thought I had grasped the idea of non-attachment, but it wasn’t until I was forced to live it that I truly understood how to let go. Slowly I moved on. The joy and love surrounding my wedding day was in no way diminished by a missing ring. After all, marriage has nothing to do with external conditions and objects. The love I shared with my husband was, and is, all that truly matters.


Even now the lesson continues. Some days I still do miss having a diamond on my finger, especially when I see other women with rings like mine. The difference now is that I understand that that longing comes from my ego, which seeks to strengthen its identity through material objects and validation from others. It seems so silly to me now. My wedding band is dainty and simple, surely nothing that I feel like I am “showing off” to anyone. Since our wedding in July, I have fully accepted my circumstances and am actually quite grateful for such a powerful lesson. Had I not been so attached to an object that was temporary in nature I would have not felt such intense grief in its absence. In reality, I created my own pain.


The more time I dedicate to regularly sitting alone in silence, the more I find value from within and the less I worry about losing someone or something. I accept that everything in my life is temporary, and that is a part of the beauty of it all. Flowers bloom and then inevitably dry up and fall to the ground. Have you ever felt saddened by this? …Probably not. Instead, we focus on their innate beauty while they are in bloom. We find delight in their different colors, sizes and shapes. We appreciate them in part because of their temperance. Why should we live life any differently? Enjoy and celebrate the beauty of life and the things we have, but work towards not allowing yourself to become attached to things themselves. Only though awareness and practice of vairagya can we begin to find a sense of inner peace that is unaffected by daily circumstances and interactions.

 

 
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything - anger, anxiety, or possessions - we cannot be free.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
 

Anxiety Feels Like This...

I wake up from a good night’s sleep. It is a bright, sunny day, and I feel great.

But then I spill coffee on my freshly cleaned clothes, and there it is…that little twinge of irritation. I start moving faster almost without realizing. I pinch my finger in the door. Why is this making me so upset? It didn’t even really hurt. I walk into the bedroom and see that my husband has left his dirty socks on the floor…again. I know it shouldn’t bother me the way it does, but it adds yet another layer to my irritation. By now my breath has become trapped in my throat as my chest starts to tighten. I begin to sweat. Now every little noise or mess is frustrating me further. He sees the blank stare on my face and asks me if I’m okay. Yes, I’m fine.  The wall I have so carefully built up around my most feared emotions crumbles, and my mind runs wild.

I don’t want to start my day this way.

Why do I feel like this?

What did I do to deserve it?

Maybe I do deserve it.

Maybe I deserve to be alone instead.

I am over reacting.

I continue on the best I can. At this point I still look like my happy self on the outside, besides the red flush that is setting in on my skin as my temperature rises and blood rushes to the surface. Inside my mind is engaged in mental battle. I (the real me) is trying desperately to stop this from going any further, yet there is this distinct sinking feeling as I drift further away from reality, from who I was when I woke up this morning. I start to forget who the real version of me even is, and by now my mind has convinced me that I am worthless. I am not good enough. It’s a destructive mantra that keeps repeating itself over and over. These thoughts rush in from somewhere, but they can’t be mine…right?

I manage to get dressed. Wait, why am I crying? I had plans today. I had places to go. But suddenly the thought of leaving my house seems terrifying. I’m late, but I force myself out the door anyway. Immediately I wish I was back home but know that being home will only make this worse. There is no escape now; I have become a prisoner of my own mind. The person in front of me is driving too slowly. I get caught at a long red light. I deserve it. I’m furious. Ten minutes ago I was afraid. I am losing control of my thoughts, but I have been through this countless times before. I know how to hide it.

I engage in pleasant, casual conversations with strangers at the grocery store. Maybe I’m fine. I sound fine. But did she look at me weird? Did I say something strange?  Can she tell I’m just barely holding myself together? I should not have worn this shirt. I look terrible. My pants are suddenly too tight, and I’m so uncomfortable that it’s almost unbearable. I race home.

I get through the door. My dog steps on my foot and her nails are sharp. That’s the tipping point. All the sorrow and pain I have ever experienced comes rushing in all at once. There is no telling when the sobbing will stop. I fluctuate between being intensely afraid, to being angry …but mostly I’m just sad. I’m afraid because my chest hurts, and I feel overwhelmed, angry because I am wasting so much time, and sad because there are horrible, uninvited thoughts racing through my mind. My whole body is tingling as if I am somehow electrocuting myself from the inside. I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes, ears, throat and chest all at once. I am hyperventilating, and it’s making me nauseous and dizzy. It’s like I’m drowning while everyone around me is breathing. I have all of this energy, but nowhere for it to go so I cry until I am exhausted. Finally, the heaviness starts to lift.  I take a long, hot shower and hope that my eyes aren’t noticeably puffy.

Eventually the dark clouds break apart, and I can once again think coherently. I feel like myself again only I’m so tired…and numb. For now I am okay. I know there were more chores for me to finish around the house, but my motivation to do anything got washed away with my tears. I put on some music and lay with my dogs. I do anything but what I’m supposed to do. I cancel my plans to meet with friends later because I feel too vulnerable and drained. It’s only 4pm, and I’m ready for bed. I feel ashamed, yet know that I need to take care of myself a little bit better. I find the strength to pick myself back up, but I know that it is going to take at least a day for me to replenish my energy.

Every day is a struggle between trying to connect with myself and others while simultaneously monitoring and managing the persistent feelings of anxiety that I have lived with for as long as I can remember. Every day I fight to stay in the present moment when my mind has a never-ending supply of irrational worries to constantly pitch into my conscience. Some days are easy because I feel strong and motivated. Anxiety takes a back seat. Other days, sometimes with no warning, I feel the extra weight more intensely. Then something happens to light the fuse, and there’s no going back. It grabs on, holds me tight in its grip, and I have no idea when it will decide to let go. And so I wait, just like I always do. I try my best to focus on my breath until it passes.

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 18% of the U.S. population, with twice as many women being affected as men. These disorders are also closely linked to depression and other disorders such as phobias, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), PTSD and eating disorders. They originate in the mind, but have real physiological effects. The entire body suffers from these conditions.

I am not looking for pity, and most certainly do want to be judged. What I do want is bring the discussion of mental health out into the open. We openly talk about weight loss and workouts, but rarely do we talk about how to keep our emotions healthy. There are too many of us who struggle on a daily basis to get through seemingly normal, everyday activities, and there are definitely way too many of us who feel ashamed and embarrassed. There are too many of us who keep our internal conflicts a secret.

You are NOT your anxiety. You are NOT your depression. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is buying into the belief that your identity is embedded in these mental conditions. The other mistake is comparing yourself to the external conditions of others and convincing yourself that they are normal and are happier than you.

The best thing you can do is work towards acceptance and forgiveness. Accept where you are at each moment, both mentally and physically. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it does mean that you have recognized the discomfort and are accepting it rather than constantly fighting. Do not waste your energy fighting with yourself. Forgive. Be gentle. Remind yourself that your current mental state is only temporary and that it is not YOU. Your true self is always calm, peaceful and happy. That is your true state, and you WILL return back to it so long as you don’t forget it is always there. Focus on your strengths and talents. Do not be afraid to ask for help!

Most importantly, you can be happy, positive and motivated and still struggle with anxiety and depression. Suffering from a mental illness does not mean you have to live a life of despair. For those who are not familiar with anxiety that seem contradictory, but my point is that you cannot tell just by talking to or looking at someone what goes on inside their heads. Before you judge someone for their behavior I ask you to pause and remind yourself that maybe they are hurting inside. Maybe they were rude because they are feeling insecure, not because they are a bitter, angry person. Before you call someone “crazy” or “clingy” or “flaky”, consider the possibility that maybe they are dealing with intense emotions that are out of their control at the moment and that maybe they need support and encouragement rather than criticism. Don't we all need that?

I have kept this hidden from most for many years, and despite how vulnerable I feel putting this out there I feel strongly that it needs to be shared. I know I am not alone, but I have often felt that way in the past. I don’t want anyone else to feel alone. Please, please reach out if you are struggling. Even just talking to someone can help to get you out of your head. And even if there is no one around to talk to, remember that you always have your breath. Focusing on your breathing forces you back into the present moment, a place anxiety cannot exist.

Next time you feel disconnected, overwhelmed, frightened or depressed, exhale completely and say: All of this is temporary.

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Why do I....

Why do I doubt myself even though I have accomplished so much?

I worry unnecessarily. I worry that I won't be liked, won't be accepted or won't be offered a position. I worry about outcomes of  hypothetical situations that probably will never occur. Worst of all, I worry that I am going to fail.

But then I remind myself that worry stems from fear, and fear comes from mistakenly identifying myself with my mind, specifically my ego. I remind myself that the ego uses past experiences to make predictions about the future, which means that worry and fear cannot exist if  I am living in the present moment. If I am focused on right here, right now it is literally impossible to be worried because being present means I am not interested in the outcome of what I am doing, whether it be good or bad. 

 

Why do I feel lazy even when I am being productive?

I have an odd sort of work ethic. My inspiration comes in spurts. It's either all there or it's no where to be found. When it's there I work for hours on end, most times without even pausing to eat or use the bathroom. But then there are days when I am not inspired, and it is difficult for me to focus for more than a few minutes at a time. I shame myself and feel guilty for being "lazy". I get stuck inside my own head only to realize at the end of the day that I actually WAS productive. I've just become so used to my bursts of feverish, laser-focused attention that anything less than that feels like inactivity in comparison. If my schedule isn't uncomfortably jam-packed with tasks to complete and places to go I feel lost.

But then I remind myself that it is okay to slow down, that some tasks are done better when you are calm and centered. I remind myself that taking care of my body and respecting my health is just as important and productive as sending out e-mails, running errands, or cleaning the house.

 

Why do I automatically compare myself to others?

I am happy with my life and am grateful for everything and everyone in it...but yet I still  compare myself to others usually without even realizing it. It happens automatically. They aren't positive comparisons, either. It's not that I am comparing what's better about me than someone else; it's the opposite. The ego takes over and tries to convince me that someone else is more attractive, smarter, more successful, and more well-liked than I am. What purpose does this serve? Why does my mind do this even when consciously I know that it isn't positively contributing to my health?

But then I remind myself that thought patterns are a type of habit...a habit that I can control with practice and patience. I remind myself that I don't have to live a life compared to anyone else's, and that just being aware of these thought patterns when they show up is progress. I don't have to live a life of comparison, feeling confined by what others look like or have in their possession. I am unique, and we are all having our own unique experiences.

 

Why do I feel sad when everything is going well?

I feel happy most of the time. I feel sad or upset when something happens to cause it, something that I can pin-point and am able to tell you what it is if you asked. But then there are other times when I am sad even on what I would consider a "good" day. I feel tired, down, and anxious for no apparent reason. I can't figure out what's going on, and the emotion that comes next is guilt, quickly followed by anger. Why should I feel sad? I have a home to live in, clean clothes to wear, fresh water to drink, and I have enough money to buy the things I need to live comfortably. These are luxuries millions of people simply just do not have. I don't deserve to feel sad, especially when nothing is noticeably "wrong". I get angry at myself for it, and that ties back into me feeling lazy.

But then I remind myself that I don't have to feel sad, nor do I have to dwell on it when I do. I remind myself that my emotions affect me only as much as I allow them to. I am not controlled by them, and I understand that my true Self exists beyond the emotions that are created in my mind. This empowers me. I recognize an emotion for what it is, and in doing so can detach myself from it. I can accept whatever emotion comes up without judging it.

 

Why do I treat others with more kindness than I treat myself?

I keep my commitments with others. I am honest. I try my best to be a good listener. I am always willing to help. I am conscious of my tone of voice and the words I use and attempt to be calm and friendly even when that demeanor is not being reciprocated. So why do I insult myself? Why do I fall short on my commitments that I make with myself? And why do I feel like I honestly care more about other people than I do about myself? I feel selfish if I spend time and money on myself, and I feel happy when I can make others happy. 

But then I remind myself that in order to truly be kind and of service to others I must first be kind and take care of myself. In order to trust others I must first learn to trust myself. And to truly feel peace of mind I must first love myself enough to know when I am being unkind to my body and mind. I remind myself that if I am not healthy and strong my ability to help others will not be strong either. It is okay for me to spend time on myself, to make myself feel happy.

 

 

I have fears. I have flaws. I am human. 

I have courage. I have strengths. I am Me.