abysmal depths

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, dating back to prehistoric times. Saturn has been known to exist nearly as long as astronomy, though only in the past 200 hundred years has it not been known as the furthest planet in our solar system. Its long year (about 29.5 of ours), combined with its distance from the sun, led to the planet’s longtime association with many cultural archetypes relating to time, change, and aging. (Example: Saturday, the last day of the week, is named for Saturn.)

the opposite of the tree of life
SK © 2011

The phenomenon of Saturn return references when the planet returns to its place at the time of one’s birth. It can occur multiple times in a lifetime: around ages 28-30, 56-60, and 84-90. Astrology considers Saturn return a time for intense change, when people question their mortality, purpose, and intentions.

Astrology notwithstanding, I think Saturn return equally reflects pragmatic probability: by the late twenties, we have been adults long enough to recognize some of our behavioral patterns, for better and worse. Most likely we’ve accomplished some things, but would like to do more. Even more likely, we’ve suffered major disappointments and failed at things we considered important.

Maybe my life was in a hurry, though, because the time when I most strongly questioned my humanity, judgement, and worthiness was at age 27. The year prior, I lived in India for several months, in one of the happiest times of my life. Despite my lack of confidence, I wrote publicly for the first time. As much as possible, I tried to surrender to what circumstances and other people provided. In the process,  I witnessed new facets of my own personality and spirit.

I returned home feeling more evolved and receptive. I felt as though I lived near the edge of an abyss, in sight of all the potential I had witnessed in myself while in India—beautiful, yet also terrifying. Even knowing that it contained my insecurities, I knew I wanted to explore it more. The land surrounding the abyss felt fertile—all the comfortable elements of my default life. Yet as I continued to live there, much of the familiarity started to feel stagnant in comparison to how I felt from intense spiritual practice, when I felt most alive, most fully mySelf. Consequently, many people at home no longer understood me. As in, “You still want to get up at 5:00am to practice yoga? Aren’t you bored with that already? You’re missing out on so much! And why teach yoga? The pay is terrible! There’s no potential.”

Thus upon prolonged inspection, this seemingly verdant landscape was actually moldy and rotting. Criticism felt like a knife, disinterest like a burn, and thoughtlessness like a blow to the gut. The lack of support only exacerbated my own doubts, the many times when I feared that everyone else was right. My closest friends had all moved away from Atlanta, and other than asana practice (class with my teacher, who I barely knew at the time), I spent most of my time alone, inching closer to the abyss.

In combination with my own insecurities, nearly everything in my life—frustrating work, loneliness, reverse culture shock—morphed into a mob, increasingly jeering me to the edge. I was fired, though with a milder euphemism (“taken off the schedule because you’re so busy”), from my favorite job at the time. As I allowed, a few more malevolent shoves, via a horrendous, drawn-out breakup and multiple betrayals by people I trusted most, gave me a moment to see the abyss before half-jumping/half-stumbling off the cliff.

Regarding transformation, Wah! once said, “you can’t purify without creating some kind of cyclone.” At first, that abyss of potential certainly felt like one. I dove into the worst period of my life (so far). After encountering so much of my own light in India, I faced my “inner darkness,” as Krishna Das described his post-India experience. For nearly a year, I awoke unrecognizable to myself: cynical at best, but usually enraged, frustrated, bitter at all the people I wrongly trusted, including myself, who enabled them.

Moreover, I felt on display, a public mess. I was sure that everyone knew I was a failure—because I believed that the betrayals and setbacks indicated such. (Whereas now I know they prove that I’m blissfully human.) Out of shame, I remained isolated.

feeling far from the light
SK © 2011

I cried every day, at least once, for months. The guaranteed time, other than the frequent time between yoga practice and breakfast, was during my lunch break in my office. I worked in a warehouse at the time, and my three bosses always went offsite for lunch. As the key turned in the lock, I’d bite my lip. The tears started before they exited the parking lot. Usually I could stop with enough time to appear normal before they returned. Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday. Weekend crying didn’t have a schedule, but it still happened multiple times a day. Then too quickly I’d return to work, crying Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Just in case the scenario isn’t obvious, I was floundering and flailing in the abyss. My emotions overruled who I was. Accordingly, this negativity manifested itself physically. Headaches started easily. Back cramps were constant. Insomnia was guaranteed. I abandoned all logical nutrition and didn’t care what I digested. My energy levels were on a trampoline in a thunderstorm, erratic and unsafe. I was in a terrible place emotionally, mentally, and physically. I didn’t care about anything. I counted hours til I finished work (not that I had much more of a life). I hardly kept up with my friends, made no effort to connect with anyone. By that point, I wondered if I were simply an awful person who deserved to suffer. In other words, life sucked and I was numb to it, regardless of what I did.

As life sucked, yoga practice sucked too. Meditation was mental warfare, with myself on both defense and assault. Instead of leaving asana class refreshed and glowing, I felt cranky on a “good” (there were none) day. My body atrophied as my general health declined from a poor diet, lack of sleep, and emotional duress.

broken
SK © 2011

One morning I awoke with stabbing pain and noticable swelling on the left side of my ribcage. It hurt to sit up, lie down, roll over in bed, lift my arms, lean over, drive, ride my bike, cough, laugh (not that laughing was a problem). I asked several massage therapists to examine my ribs. Eyebrows raised or furrowed as their fingers prodded into skin that had the softness of a half-filled hot water bottle, like a massive bruise. None of them could explain it. Meanwhile, the chronic pain continued. I couldn’t even take deep breaths. For months.

By this point, since I didn’t exist without anguish, I questioned the value of practicing yoga. I doubted that its benefits if I only felt more pain. I told myself that I didn’t care if I practiced or not. My intuition, however, stubbornly reminded me that just as I had finally doubted my old certainties when I fell/jumped off the cliff’s edge, believing that my uncertainties were also untrue was equally reasonable. In other words, I had finally rejected the familiar security that had proven toxic. So perhaps the doubt of yoga’s relevance was also untrue. I rationalized that if I didn’t care, I might as well practice, even as the constant crying continued. (Not like I had any alternative to fill the time.)

used with permission

Robert Frost described poetry as ending in “a momentary stay against confusion.” This reminds me of a common translation of the second yoga sutra, defining yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Though I didn’t feel great from yoga, I did encounter occasional glimmers of clarity, when I remembered that all I had to do was breathe.

So I sustained my normal routine of meditation, pranayama, and asana every morning. Amidst all the tears, anxiety, and questioning, consistent practice was the only theraputic part of my life. However, I drastically modified my asana practice to accommodate my sore ribs, moving so slowly that I needed more than half an hour to complete ten sun salutations (which normally require less than half that time).

I realize now that most people tend to slip into self-destructive behaviors when life hurts this much. Addictions exist due to unhappiness; they provide escape from ongoing misery. In my case, however, I had the opposite: a yoga practice that reinforced my chronic unhappiness more fully, more directly, and more powerfully. And I got up at 5am to feel it.

Many yoga teachers (and consequently students) maintain that asana practice should always feel pleasurable, that one should always feel “better” after practice. Yoga functions differently for everyone, so no disrespect to those who believe so. But in my experience, that idea is fallcy. Prolonged interaction with my demons showed me that most of my heartaches resulted from my own actions and manifestations. Given that I was the source, I realized I shouldn’t project the cause onto my yoga practice.

Clearly, I needed closer proximity to deeper pain in order to learn much-needed lessons. As yoga does, practice kept me present. It revealed the value of being in the mess, the indecision, the frustration, and the stagnation. Had I not incessantly confronted my unhappiness, had I not floundered my inner darkness, I probably would have found more destructive outlets. That escapism might have removed the only motivation I had to change.

Before the start of my Saturn return, I had always avoided my insecurities. Although my fears were not unfounded, I allowed them to prevent any remedy. Distraction and internalization were the MO for all the emotions I wanted not to embody. Inevitably, I’d find something to subordinate them, justifying my lack of attention to what were actually very important matters: irresponsible landlords, bullying coworkers, duplicitous friends.

I was incapable of emotional balance because I had no interface with my emotions. Existing on emotional extremes (lockdown vs. meltdown) came much more readily. Years later, I talked with a friend about how to face depression. She sat on her couch in the mornings, contemplating what to do, how to act, what to believe. Her actions articulated what I hadn’t learned how to do by age 27—to sit on the couch, so to speak, and commune with my emotions. Sitting on the couch probably would have helped. Instead, I ignored the couch, and once I exited the locked vault that had housed my emotions for so long, I immediately tumbled into an abyss.

In a way, I was too good (for my own good) at keeping my life together. I’d never allowed things to fall apart and need help from others, many of whom, I realize now, wouldn’t have minded. I’d never lost a job, never been so broke I had to ask for money, never been so depressed I couldn’t get up in the morning and go to work, never been so sick that someone had to buy my groceries. I summoned the will to do everything because I always thought having to ask for help would only prove me a burden to my friends or family. So I zealously avoided any possbility of needing help, directing my energy into suppressing the desire. Even in the abyss, constantly crying and barely breathing, I couldn’t manage how to ask.

Though I used to equate needing help with failure, I realized that difficulties often offer powerful opportunities for connection with others. In the fall, as I subsequently navigated through terrifying emotional terrain, I realized my misconceptions. Just as I’d mistaken the toxic higher ground as fertile, many of the fears I encountered in the abyss were actually loving, compassionate, and receptive. I finally lived India’s many lessons about the importance of vulnerability. Most importantly, that vulnerability enables connection—that only by surrendering ourselves can we encounter and know others unconditionally.

one of my favorite sculptures, Rodin’s “Danaid”, a beautiful representation of surrender used with permission: http://www.flickr.com/photos/misstrejo

one of my favorite sculptures, Rodin’s “Danaid”, a beautiful representation of surrender
used with permission http://www.flickr.com/photos/misstrejo

One of the best literary teachers was Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, which I had read as my high school graduation speech. Ten years prior, I hadn’t fully experienced the spectrum of emotions described, but, as usual, the Good Doctor had advice I appreciated years later [emphasis added]:

“You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights….
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t….
I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you….
And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done….
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?….
I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.….
And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know….
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.”

Spiritual practice became ongoing interactions with my fears, when I realized how much I sabotaged myself, that I allowed hurtful and cruel people to be close to me—people who criticized rather than respected my differences. Even worse, I was meaner to myself than my harshest critic. After acknowledging the many lonely and unwinnable games I played against myself, My Great Balancing Act was learning to enforce my boundaries with others, as well as face my own destructive patterns of behavior. Thanks to my practice, I saw my true ugliness.

Thanks to my practice indeed. I started to appreciate how fitting it was that I fell off the cliff, that the fall provided long-overdue opportunities to learn how to ask for help. It proved that I can’t handle everything all the time, nor can I truly sustain avoidance. I realized the ugliness I witnessed was not part of me, but rather something I chose to embody.

Questions that helped me reconfigure my life [emphasis added]:

“What must I give more death to today, in order to generate more life?
What do I know should die, but am hesitant to allow to do so?
What must die in me in order for me to love?
What not-beauty do I fear?
Of what use is the power of the not-beautiful to me today?

What should die today? What should live?
What am I afraid to give birth to? If not now, when?”
(from Women Who Run with the Wolves, by  Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés)

As Gandalf’s fall turned him from grey to white, I emerged from my pre-Saturn return abyss a changed being. Eventually, I began to explore more beautiful aspects of the abyss. I recognized that that all the power, beauty, and potential that I saw outside of me, in the abyss, have actually been within me my entire life. I’m more powerful and beautiful than I comprehend—that even now I haven’t fully witnessed or appreciated all of mySelf.

Those terrible times also created a poignancy for some of my favorite song lyrics:

“But love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah…”

I’ve learned that love encompasses more than joy and triumph. And more importantly, that I can feel gratitude even while feeling broken. Why? Perhaps you already know.

gratitude—the first sight and sentiment I had in South India SK © 2011

gratitude—the first sight and sentiment I had in South India
SK © 2011

∞ I thanked him recently, but he’s worthy of a repeat—Todd, my teacher and friend, for his endless reserve of patience, humor, faith, and generosity.

∞ Also lovely Rhonda, for her many insights, fierce loyalty, constant support, and infectious laughter.

SK © 2011

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About stephanie francesca

Stephanie Francesca lives a life of eclectic and ecstatic passion. In no particular order, she is a writer, yogini, musician, teacher, nomad, lover, thinker, reader, dancer. She strives to balance effort with surrender, precision with laughter. Live life, love live, live love.
This entry was posted in gratitude, identity, travel, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to abysmal depths

  1. Pingback: learning to relish the small quivers of terror (or: how I learned to embrace and crave vulnerability) | southern with a small s

  2. Todd says:

    Have enjoyed reading you posts. Thank you Stephanie for being a wonderful teaching companion. I feel so lucky to have such a genuine, open person and deep thinker by my side.

  3. Sues says:

    This is a pure expression of strength & truth in vulnerability! So relatable to EVERYONE – who *hasn’t* been in the depths of life like that, feeling alone & drowning in bleakness? I think those who haven’t & haven’t learned truths of themselves from rising back up out of it haven’t really lived, yet…

  4. Todd, I feel a little absurd thanking you again, but thank you. Good tears this time.

    Sues, only recently have I understood that many of us experience this sort of bleakness. In my case, I’ve learned a lot from sharing about it. Thanks so much for all of your encouragement!

  5. Carrie O. says:

    Wow. Powerful, meaningful, helpful words. And thank you for including the “wrote publicly” link to your 2005 blog – I plan to read it all! You started that blog the same month I started the Blue Mailbox 🙂 So glad you are where you are today!

  6. Carrie, thanks so much for your support. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the India blog!

  7. Susan says:

    Wow. Beautiful writing.

  8. I encountered this quote recently:
    “Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering its a feather bed.”
    ~ Terence McKenna

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  11. Pingback: wild beauty: making the abstract concrete | southern with a small s

  12. Pingback: darkness and light | southern with a small s

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