I have a dear friend in Seattle. Several years back, she set her mind to becoming a firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department, one of the most difficult departments in the state. Not only do you have to be in tip-top physical condition to be considered, you have to pass a series of tests and interviews, each more difficult than the last. Of the thousands of people who try out each year, only a fraction of a percentage of them become firefighters with SPD.
My friend did surprisingly well. She was in excellent shape, and made it through several rounds of interviews before finally being cut at the next to last round. Regardless of whether or not she became a firefighter for SPD, I was glad that she had gone through the experience, because it seemed to me like she had grown up. Growing up is a never-ending process. We are creatures of evolution, and even when we look static, we are moving. The universe sees to it that we continually evolve, change, and grow. But there are some experiences that seem to mark a person clearly, and you can look to that experience as a turning point in their personal evolution. From my perspective, trying out for the SPD was that type of experience for my friend.
She would walk around the restaurant with two huge carrying trays in her hands, lifting them and lowering them like weights as she walked. She was always working out. Any menial task could be turned into a way of buffing her muscles. Drink trays were loaded to frightening capacity, and she would lift the whole thing on several fingers, carrying it effortlessly on one hand while the other was busy with a separate tray, or a heavy sampler platter. She bounced when she walked. She ran every day. She ate huge spinach salads for lunch, piled with black beans, eggs, cheese, and carrots. She laughed easily, and glowed. She seemed happy. She told me that she was working out so regularly, that on the days that she didn’t work out, she got depressed.
I remember watching her during those days, and thinking, “My god, she’s grown up. She was a girl, and suddenly, she’s a woman.” It was hard to pinpoint the difference. I think that her drive to succeed had a lot to do with it, but just being driven doesn’t make you grow up. She was also happy. She had a goal, and she was actively pursuing it. Other areas of her life were falling into place as well, and I think she was in love. She had a confidence and a compassion which had always been a part of her, but they suddenly seemed strengthened. I marveled at the change, and loved to watch her, because it made me believe that I could grow up, too.
When I was in the monastery, I often had to call on my higher self. Usually she was just with me, guiding me, speaking in a gentle, reassuring voice that was always there. But sometimes my thoughts got too thick, and I shut out her voice, and ended up by feeling lost and confused. At that point, after some tears, perhaps, or a deep bout of frustration, I would remember that I had a helper with me all the time, and I would ask her to be with me. And invariably, she was. She wasn’t my only guide though. There were many. They came in various guises, but they always came to help me, and I never felt alone. One of those visitors was particularly close to my heart- she was me.
She came to me one evening while I was meditating on the cool marble floors of the library. I was sitting outside, my eyes closed as the evening darkened, and the occasional patter of raindrops on palm leaves seemed to encourage me to breathe more deeply as I sat. Then there was a shadow to my right- that’s the only way to describe it- and I had the feeling that someone was there. My eyes were closed, but the hairs on my body stood up. I don’t know if I heard a sound, or if I just knew. And in my mind’s eye, I saw this shadow step gracefully over me, and come to sit by my side.
We were both sitting with our backs to the marbled wall, facing out towards the garden. I wondered who she might be, this silent, unobtrusive shadow, and in the moment that I wondered if she might be me, I knew that she was. She was me in three or four or five years. She was utterly calm and beautiful. Though I couldn’t see her face or her body in the shadows, and I didn’t try to look, her presence was enough to soothe me. I had been observing a lot of internal conflicts in the meditations leading up to this, and I knew that a lot of old emotions and thought patterns needed to be released if I was going to move on and find peace in my life. She came to help me with that.
Rather than describe that whole meditation, I will tell you this- from that point on, I could count on her to be with me whenever I needed her. She rarely said a word- I might ask her three or four quick questions in a row, and all she would do was nod her head quietly, point one toe down, and show me how to walk. Slowly, slowly, slowly. She was a young woman, but everything I wanted to be. She emanated peace. She laughed and smiled easily, but was just as comfortable in silence. She was happy with the choices she had made, and she lived a full, happy life. She gave and received love as naturally as she breathed air into her lungs.
She walked with me one day in the back courtyard, for the full hour, and I marveled over the grace and concentration that she practiced with. I emulated it, and was able to understand how it felt to be her. I walked with her, one with her, and had an experience of peace and calm that had hitherto eluded me. She walked with her arms folded behind her back, her every movement a study in grace. She pointed her toes carefully downward, felt the stones under her feet, and breathed the air deep into her lungs.
After that meditation, I was tempted to run to my room and scrawl the words Practice Peace!! on the handmade calendar I had posted on the wall. I was so inspired by the experience of being her, of being me, the me I want to be, that I wanted to cling to it, to remind myself never to forget it. Practice peace! Practice being peaceful! Practice living in peace! I wanted to remind myself. But I didn’t write it on the wall. I kept it in my head, and tucked it into my heart.
In the days after I left the monastery, I was in a constant emotional flux. I had come face to face with my perennial habit of wanting to be somewhere that I’m not, and despite seeing the futility of living that way, I continued to watch my mind grind along its old grooves. I practiced being present relentlessly, but sometimes I would slip for a moment, and have a corresponding pain in my heart. I just want to get to India! my mind would say enthusiastically, and I would recognize the old pattern of thinking and ball up my fists, frustrated. What the hell!? I would think. Was that meditation worth nothing? Did I learn anything at all? Despite the frustration, I knew that I had. Nonetheless, the moments of peace and presence were (and still are, to a lesser degree, I think) interspersed with moments of loneliness and fear. What am I doing here? was a common thought. Why the hell am I out here in Thailand, all alone? Can’t I do this at home?
During one of those more sustained moments, I emailed my best friend, sharing my thoughts. Her response was unexpected, but exactly what I needed. She commiserated with me for a moment, offering some valuable insights, and then, more or less, told me to pull my head out of my ass and enjoy myself. Bam. It was a strong tonic. I read those words, felt fear, and then wanted to pump my fist in the air. Yes! Exactly! I thought. I need to pull my head out of my ass. I resolved then and there to enjoy myself. Enough of this melancholy, post-meditation business. It was time to have fun. But… how to have fun? How exactly does one pull one’s head out of one’s ass? I wondered.
I headed up to Pai. Pai is a tiny town in Northern Thailand. It is surrounded by hazy green hills, and is built along a winding, slow-moving river, crossed intermittently by rickety bamboo bridges. The people sell local handicrafts, and do their fishing from the banks of the river. The travelers that come here tend to be a pretty mellow, kindly crew, and all in all, it has a very charming, welcoming vibe. I got here, and with my best friend’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to have fun.
Wonderfully, that beautiful, calm, older me accompanied me on my first night. I don’t even think I asked- she was just there. I was still wondering how to pull my head out of my ass when suddenly she was walking with me, and I was her. She took me shopping- always a wonderful therapy- and we bought the most gorgeous, rust-colored dress. Then we decided to splurge on an equally beautiful skirt made of vibrant oranges, yellows and greens. I was already feeling much better at this point, but she kept my feet walking in the direction of the river until we found a shoe shop that sold beautiful leather thongs. Bless her heart, she encouraged me to buy a pair, and so I did. At this point, I was in pretty high spirits. We had a massage, and then a glass of wine at the restaurant near the temple. We watched the little boys throw water on passers-by for Songkran, the Thai New Year. We had a delicious plate of phad thai for dinner, and read our book for a long time. She was elegant, amused, and happily content. I was her. She was me. It was great.
I was chatting with another friend on the computer several days later. I told him about my little experiment. I said, “I have always had this vision of who I want to be. She is this gorgeous woman, peaceful, elegant, and kind. She moves with grace, and is naturally compassionate and loving. She laughs easily, and is very happy with her life. She is content, grounded, and serene.” He agreed enthusiastically, and said, “Yes! I too have always wanted to be elegant, and selfless and kind.” I told him that I was trying this out every day now. “I just slip into her shoes, or she slips into mine, or something, and I become her,” I told him. “You should try it.” He agreed. He was meeting some high school friends for dinner that night, and he said he would give it a go. “Perfect!” I told him. “Your high school friends are ideal to try it out on, because they haven’t seen you for years. They have no idea if you are or are not that person, so go convince them that you are!” He was off with flying colors, and I hope he did well.
I am lucky right now, because I am a stranger in a strange land. I can be whoever I want to be. I can be that elegant woman, and no one will know the difference. No one will know that I have been a brat, and a baby, and a snob in the past. I have the luxury of anonymity, which means that I can practice becoming this woman in a space of freedom and acceptance. It is the ideal place to learn. It’s harder at home. At home, you have your family and your friends, people who have known you for a long time. At home, we are in roles, in ruts. Or so it seems. Being surrounded by familiar faces and dynamics, we do what we know how to do, or rather, what we are expected to do. Who are you? Oh, I’m the bartender who’s going to school and saving all my money to travel. I don’t smile that often, only when I’m with my friends, and certainly not for you! I am loving in relationships, but not all the time. I hold back, and act like a little girl, and get scared sometimes. Who are you?
It’s so easy to be who you are when that’s all you think you can be. When you have carved out your role, and you know what he expects of you, and she expects of you, you know who to be. You know just how to act. Sometimes it’s noble, sometimes it’s downright embarrassing. But I imagine that we all have that person that we want to be. You can see it. Maybe you saw it when you were a little kid. Maybe you feel it in you even now, that promise, maybe fresh, maybe stale, of who you always wanted to be. Is she a professor, wearing sweet suits and teaching her students psychology? Is he a real-estate tycoon, making millions and giving it away? Does she have her own house and a special garden she tends every day? Does he love, love, love her, and want to make her happy until the end of their days? Who are you? Who do you want to be?
As I was walking with this woman the other day, this older, kinder, wiser me, she took me to Mam’s Yoga Studio and signed me up for a week’s worth of classes. She smiled at the little Burmese girl who took the money, and bent down to pet the cat with the red collar and the bell. When she straightened up, she was still smiling, and then we walked together back into town, watching the sky turn pink as the sun began to set. She moved so easily, this woman that is me, and in the moments when she was interacting with other people, it came so naturally, and was such a joy. As the moments pass, and the hours and the days, I find that I am her more and more often. The pangs of fear that come are acknowledged, felt, and released. Then more often than not she goes back to reading her book or enjoying her food with a smile on her face. She is happy.
Like I said, I have an advantage in playing this game, because I am way out in left-field… In fact, I am many, many fields away. I can be anyone I want to be, and no one can call me out. But what about you? Where are you? Who do you want to be? Do you remember that vision, that feeling you had, maybe as a child, maybe even now? What does that person look like, and think like, and talk like? Is she gentle? Is he forgiving? I hope so. I’ve found that the best thing in the world for me right now is to slip more and more into this person that I want to be. It is exactly what I am meant to be doing right this moment. It takes a bit of faith, a lot of practice, and a willingness to use your imagination. It’s fun! Try it. You don’t have to totally blow your cover at home, or at work. Ease into it in stages. No one will ever know the difference. They’ll just think you are a kinder, more likeable person than they ever thought! And you? I bet you’ll feel good 😉