Wake Up To Your Life
May 4, 2015
I first came to a Level I workshop with the Awareness Institute (then known as the Aspire Foundation) on the advice of my meditation instructor in the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Although I didn’t know it at the time, and although it was not what I was “supposed” to be doing, I had for a long time been trying to use meditation as a tool for what spiritual teacher Michael Browne calls “achieving sedation and control. “ After meditating each morning, I’d head to the Delta of Venus café and read books on Buddhism. Around me, there was music, art, and a community bubbling with fun and intimacy. My sense of worthlessness was so great that I sat there like a church mouse, day in and day out, hardly ever speaking to anyone there. I wanted to wake up into my own life, wake up into the flow of creativity and joy all around me. But despite having creative abilities of my own, I simply could not bring myself to talk to any of the brilliant, talented reflections that swirled around me and my breakfast each day.
Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately? – my particular flavor of misery was immune to all such forms of denial. Just when I thought I’d really achieved “control” over my inner pain and chaos, something would happen that left me feeling utterly annihilated. Perhaps I ventured into a romantic relationship that fizzled. Or maybe I gained back the thirty pounds I am always losing and finding again, only to feel so humiliated by what my mind made up was a major personal failing that I could hardly show up for my life at all. After watching me sit for hours, attend weekend retreats, ricochet halfheartedly through various relationships and generally say farewell to most of my twenties not at parties with friends my age or dating, but at evening meditation sessions with a then-mostly-over-forty-and- married local sangha, my meditation instructor gently suggested I might need, well, something else.
That something else turned out to be a Level I workshop with the Awareness Institute. When I returned from the workshop, which was far different from anything I’d ever experienced in a purely meditation- or yoga–oriented setting, I felt free, happy, and fully alive. I finally felt like I was experiencing the kind of freedom I’d hoped to achieve through sitting diligently on my meditation cushion, the kind of freedom I’d been reading about in book after book. This is not to say I did not and do not continue with my meditation practice. If anything, I am more committed to it than ever. But my fundamental understanding of what it’s all about was altered and deepened forever after that weekend with the Awareness Institute.
The morning after returning from my first Level I workshop, I woke up my roommate, who was napping in the sun on the trampoline in our backyard, by bouncing him up and down. He woke up laughing and said, “Ellen, are you playing? What happened to you?”
Next, I ran down to the Delta of Venus and ran up to the owner, who I still perceive as the patriarch of all things beautiful in this little California town, to tell him how much I appreciated and loved him and the space he nurtured and maintained for all of us to enjoy. I felt like a madwoman from the mountain, joyous and unburdened by any desire for approval or appreciation. I now realized I had all that in abundance within myself. In fact, I had enough to share.
As the days passed, and as I continued to do workshops with the Awareness Institute, I began connecting more and more with all the people I’d once so admired from afar. The workshops had taught me, experientially, that everyone was my reflection. And these were my favorite reflections in all the world. As someone who had always felt a bit lonely in her life, it was no small thing for me to finally let myself belong to a tribe, and not just any tribe, but a colorful, accepting, creative and bold one at that. I continued on with the Level II and III workshops, and soon afterwards met my future husband. We had our first date at the Delta, aka tribal headquarters.
Recently,that little tribe suffered a terrible loss. One of its central members, someone who had to my mind really figured out what matters most in life – connection – died inexplicably in his sleep, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters. As our community grieved together, I felt grateful that, because of my ongoing involvement with the Awareness Institute, I had had the confidence to get to know this remarkable being while he was still alive, and that I now trust my own heart enough to show up for the people I care about in a vulnerable, authentic way.
I felt lucky to have memories of chatting with him during our children’s swimming lessons at the local pool, lucky to have shared a few sweet family-oriented events along the way. Thirteen years ago, this lovely man would’ve been someone I shied away from. His stunning artwork, ease with people, and brilliant mind would’ve set off all my fears of inadequacy and rejection. I have to wonder: prior to discovering these workshops, how many amazing people did I miss out on knowing? Too many, that’s for sure. To someone like me, there is a tremendous privilege to be had in honestly grieving, for beneath the grief, there is a very pure acknowledgment of having loved.
The Awareness Institute is still teaching me a lot about love. It is still teaching me how to be the kind of friend you can call at two in the morning when you need to cry, the kind of friend who can hold space for any feeling, even the ones our culture doesn’t know what to do with. Honestly, at this point in my life – female person/wife/mother/friend – that is really all I want to do: be present. Be present for whoever needs me in any given moment. That is where my truest joy lies, and I find that when I venture forth with an open heart – socially bumbling writerly-type that I am – people give me second, third, even fourth chances to connect. They feel my love, which is stronger than any amount of social awkwardness. And thanks to the Awareness Institute, I am forever finding out that, in that selfless presence where there is no “I,” love flows effortlessly. Connection just happens. As we say often in the workshops, feeling is healing. Having come from a sort of emotional Sahara of my own making, I am immensely grateful to be finally living in a fertile delta of emotional range and understanding.
Ellen is a team volunteer for the Awareness Institute.