I close many of the Yoga classes I lead by bringing people into the fetal position for a few breaths. This is the pose that our bodies first encountered, as we developed in our mother’s wombs. Here, I like to remind them—and myself—that one of the beautiful things about being a human is our ability to choose, and in so choosing make each moment new. Continual rebirth.
What I don’t talk about in those restful moments is just how goddamn hard that idea is to put into practice.
I had a dark day recently. The first day of my cycle is always challenging. I’m in pain, I’m exhausted, I’m navigating a veritable shitstorm of hormones. My go-to coping mechanism is marijuana and movies. I’m well-versed in all the things I can do to make the day go more smoothly: gentle Yoga, journaling, drawing, going for a walk. But when it hits, all that stuff seems to be almost impossible to actually accomplish. Yesterday, my shining moment was walking to the grocery store, and I nearly passed out at a couple points during that adventure, which made me feel incredibly insufficient and weak.
Feeling weak is both anathema and constant companion for me. One of the loudest and most persistent voices in my head is the one that tells me my methods for handling my life aren’t nearly as good as they should be. I should eat healthier. I should exercise more. I should be more social. I should write more, draw more, pick up an instrument, clean my room, make more money, etc etc etc. Sound familiar to any of you?
I’m betting yes.
When I am in a situation where my whole self is weakened, especially by circumstances out of my control (my cycle, getting ill), that voice gets louder. It’d be super nice if it would recognize that, hey, I’m already laid out, maybe you could back off a while, but no. It’s like a relentless hunter, waiting for any bit of wobble in order to double down its attack.
My counselor calls this voice the Inner Critic. It is ever-present, always talking, and rarely useful. But, like all things in nature, it’s not entirely useless. This voice stems from our protective instincts. It’s the voice that said look out, I smell a saber-toothed tiger. It’s the voice that said don’t go any further down this alley. It’s the voice that said this guy is going to hit you if you stay with him too long. It has a place. It can keep us safe.
Problem is, it doesn’t know how to tell the difference between life-threatening, and literally everything else. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this voice’s refrain as a monotonous, unending no. That’s the answer to every possibility: no. Am I doing enough? Am I worthy? Am I okay? No, no, no. Can I succeed? Do people love me? Will this work? No, no, no.
It’s stifling. It can be debilitating. But dammit, above all it’s so. Fucking. Boring.
So. We have the incredible ability to choose, it’s true, and that is a beautiful, wondrous thing. It is the only instrument we have when we want to change our lives. Everything else flows from this ability.
Riding next to the ability to choose is this occasionally useful but often just awful distillation of fear. For me, more often than I’d like, that voice has its hands firmly on the steering wheel, while my ability to choose is left riding shotgun, or even relegated to the backseat. It’s not that it isn’t there, it’s just that this mean, chattering monkey is in the driver’s seat.
But, but—this voice says—you let me get behind the wheel. All you have to do is tell me to move.
And this is the same message I get from many self-help books, articles on self-care, and discussions with well meaning people. It’s just a matter of taking control. Making those choices.
Only, this rhetoric reinforces the voice. If it’s that easy, and I don’t do it, that must mean I’m weak, broken.
And round and round she goes.
I don’t have an answer. Not of the magic bullet variety, at any rate. It seems to me, though, that it all comes back to love. Those times in my life where I’ve felt most in love with myself are the times when making those healthy choices have been easiest. In turn, making those healthy choices helped me more deeply recognize my love for myself. The cycle moves in both directions, towards darkness and towards light. Too, those cycles are never-ending.
Life is the constant miracle of joy triumphing over despair. And the constant heartbreak of despair overcoming joy. So it goes. So it always has, so it always will.
Which is to say, if it’s dark now, hang on: the sun will rise again, and there are lessons in the night. And if you’re basking in the glorious light, give thanks, give thanks, give thanks.