Willing my job out of existence last year mandated that I set new intentions. Pondering the future also made me consider my past—when I quit the normalest life I’d ever had and journeyed to India, I became the happiest I’d ever been. Notably, a nearly equal amount of fear accompanied that happiness. I cried a lot. I worried as I constantly discovered unfamiliar (yet ultimately more genuine) facets of mySelf.
So I begged, begged the universe for the India space again—fully acknowledging that trials accompany triumphs. I wanted to transform, to grow, to evolve. On the first morning of 2011, I gazed at my peaceful home, with its collection of musical instruments, photographs, altars, books, and art. I told myself that maybe everything would have to go, that in order to remain fully receptive to transformation I must remain fully detached from what is familiar.
Even if I weren’t ready for massive change, I knew that I was willing. Readiness vs. willingness—perhaps the same, but if not at least equally important.
In my yoga practice, I worked more earnestly on handstands, which have always terrified me. But every morning I attempted them, and with the assistance of my teacher I gained deeper intimacy with my mostly-unfounded fears. Handstands mirrored how afraid I felt about my changing work situation. Previously I was too insignificant at a corporation to be valued. This year, I began teaching at small independent schools, which recognized and valued my contributions. I worried that I would be subpar, but handstands reminded me that I am more capable than I tend to acknowledge.
I am profoundly grateful for the metaphors my practice reveals about my life and the fears it forces me to confront. Likewise, I am humbled by my dedicated, open-hearted yoga community, and the reminder to live authentically. I am constantly inspired by the sacred space inherent in my life.
Working with children again, in combination with more autonomy over my lesson content, shifted my perspective on teaching. For years I avoided teaching children not because I didn’t enjoy non-adult students, but because I didn’t believe that a tolerable situation existed. Most schoolteachers I knew were overworked and underappreciated. Nowadays I work with children of varying ages and abilities, and all teach me immensely. I finally found not only ideal academics, but supportive colleagues and families who disproved my cyncism about nurturing, engaging teaching jobs. I worked seven days a week from February to May, with only one week off (spring break in April). But even without a break from my alarm clock I was grateful for meaningful, mindful work.
School ended just in time to play at Bonnaroo (more musical collaborations were another intention), and then summer was calmer. One afternoon at my part-time job, I received a call from my nurse practitioner, who explained that my recent Pap results were likely precancerous.
I cried most of the afternoon (and night) and barely slept; students at yoga practice the next morning noticed something was wrong. I was grateful for them holding space while I felt ready for a breakdown.
At the ob-gyn office later, the nurse practitioner asked about my health—“How do you feel? Did you take ibuprofen this morning?”—as well as mentioned some cervical cancer statistics. She also described LEEP, a commonly recommended procedure for the lesions, and its implications—“Do you have a fertility plan?”—without much attention to the significance of the colposcopy and biopsy she was about to perform.
Contrary to one source, the biopsy was one of the most unpleasant experiences I have ever had. I cried, from both fear and physical pain, for an hour as the samples were taken. Afterwards, I felt so unstable that I had to move slowly. Everything seemed muted. Though still shaken, fortunately I felt safe sharing with friends the next night, and their comfort included information (abnormal Pap results are very common), hugs, and playing didgeridoos.
The next development was unexpected: the biopsy samples were less severe than the Pap results. Four of the five biopsy samples were normal. Understandably, I was baffled, though I preferred confusion over something more dire.
The nurse practitioner was also perplexed—she had conveyed urgency because of the more serious Pap results. As I listened to her detail the communication from lab technicians regarding the tests, a doctor joined us to discuss LEEP again, breezily noting side effects that I considered alarming. Not once did the doctor ask for my opinion; she spoke as though I had already agreed to the procedure. Before she left, I smiled faintly and said I had no questions.
Channeling the many people who had supported me, I informed the nurse practitioner that I would not consent to any procedure at that time, given the lack of severity of the biopsy results. I read both lab reports, saw the line that caused all the mayhem: carcinoma in situ. Then the nurse practitioner explained that the lab technician acknowledged that the Pap results were overstated.
Overstated. By that point I had had so many conversations about cancer and my imagination had created so many hypothetical scenarios about treatments that I nearly fainted from relief.
Despite the anxiety and anger this situation created, it reinforced my acknowledgment of impermanence and strengthened my gratitude. Not because my health is fully cleared (though nothing has worsened). I am immeasurably grateful that I shared this burden. I never would have benefited from the insights of many people had I not asked for help.
During the first phone conversation with the nurse practitioner, a verse from the Gospel of Thomas entered my mind:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you.”
At my previous job, I had a coworker so toxic, who tormented and criticized me so constantly, that I used to feel nauseous whenever I saw him. Not figuratively—my stomach literally turned when I walked by his desk, so much so that I avoided his part of the office around lunch. At the time, I couldn’t fathom a way to improve the situation (HR was useless), and the economy was so rough that I couldn’t find other job opportunities. So I endured. I learned a lot, but after nearly a year, I marveled that I didn’t have an ulcer or some other ailment. Another year later, I then confronted a serious health concern that he surely impacted.
The cancer havoc was a powerful lesson in emotional health. Accordingly, I scrutinized my emotional life. Like many people, I can easily quell my instincts for the sake of courtesy. I realized I still had relationships that were not fully honest, and thus not fully healthy. I accept my responsibility to communicate for the sake of my own health. I value extreme honesty—I have learned that lack of communication can upset me more than what what I perceive as unacceptable behavior. Addressing those emotional obstacles, with as much respect and compassion as possible, has empowered my relationships with many people.
Consequently, I have encountered a new emotional self, one whose emotions I cannot predict so readily. Feeling like I don’t know mySelf unnerves me at times, but I recall that I frequently felt this way in India. And more importantly, that I must begin within and bring forth what is there.
The learning curve, of course, is illuminating. For example, in the past few months I have had to interact with someone I do not trust. Social mores dictate a certain degree of civility, with which I am happy to comply. But I am still highly uncomfortable. In all the times I have failed to avoid conversation (simply small talk, not lengthy discussions) with this person, I have had nightmares. Not confusing or inexplicable dreams, of which I have many, but chilling, nausea-inducing, threatening nightmares that ensure my mornings feel uneasy. In one instance, I awoke in the middle of the night and checked my windows and doors—unsure if I were truly safe from the person pursuing me (in the dream, as I realized a few minutes later).
I am deeply grateful that my intuition can communicate so clearly and directly. My distrust may not be rational. No doubt I am projecting some of my interpretations onto someone else’s behavior. Regardless, I can respect and heed my intuition as my keenest, subtlest judgement and keep my distance from something pernicious.
Not to say that all this emotional education has displayed itself painfully. The inverse is actually more true—I more strongly value ways to reinforce positive emotional bonds. I tell people much more often how much I love and appreciate them. Delineating and communicating boundaries with others may result in distance, but just as often can result in stronger connections. I am incredibly grateful for these new depths of intimacy and vulnerability, for emotional evolution.
Amidst the cancer apprehension this summer, I had to negotiate work for the fall semester. I didn’t want to break a commitment, nor did I want schools to delay finding replacements. With some reluctance, I told the schools that I would not be available at the start of fall semester. The upside was a travel opportunity that was scheduled for September and October. I figured if I were healthy enough, some time away would be theraputic.
Given that I stayed in Atlanta in the fall, being mostly unemployed since June has been a massive challenge. Primarily financially, but plenty of discouragement and frustration too. I remind myself that many enlightened beings lived with few possessions and often no money. Poverty is often a religious vow (though I’m far from both poverty and being an enlightened renunciate), in part because it affords fewer distractions.
I still work all day, often barter and volunteer projects, which have been rewarding in every way but financially. (In fact, I find myself more content than I have felt from most of my employment history. If I had a trust fund or a winning lottery ticket, I’d continue indefinitely.) I have realized that the lack of work has facilitated much my recent emotional growth. Again, I’m grateful. Not for the financial pressure—I don’t want to struggle financially indefinitely—but for the spacetime.
Lack of work has also necessitated outside help—frustrating, but preferable to dipping into hefty savings that would incur hefty tax penalties. But the assistance has shifted some personal dynamics that have been stagnant for a long time. So I’m grateful for the opportunity that arose from the difficulty.
Though I rarely listen to pop music, occasionally a radio hit moves me. Inspired by Alanis Morissette’s time in India, the song is lyrically inconsistent on the whole, but I love certain lines:
“thank you India
thank you terror
thank you disillusionment
thank you frailty
thank you consequence
thank you silence
the moment I let go of it was the moment I got more than I could handle
the moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down
thank you India
thank you providence
thank you disillusionment
thank you nothingness
thank you clarity
thank you, thank you, thank you”
My cozy one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy-ish neighborhood still feels like an extravagant sanctuary (which ultimately indicates how much time I’ve spent in Asia). I strive to keep a broad, realistic perspective on the challenges and blessings that my intentions manifested. So I dwell in gratitude. And in awe, especially at how the universe collaborated, more abundantly than I ever could have imagined.
SK © 2011