"I've been recovering from surgery. I have a baby. I'm a veteran. If you drop me, I'll lose my stipend." The student stood in front of me as I prepared for class to begin, his arm wrapped in a cast. Persistently, he repeated his reasons for staying in the class as he washed a Percocet down with soda. My resolve buckled. I told him to sit down, and I caved to his every request for missed materials and laborious recounting of past lectures.
As I left class, I felt myself slip into a familiar pattern of thinking: trapped between my "take a hard line" self and my "Yes! Limitless compassion for all!" self. Fueling this vacillation was my old self-loathing, angry and ashamed that I had been unable to take the stand I'd committed to.
On my way home from work, a stanza from Ani Difranco's new album stuck out like a neon vacancy sign blinks at weary travelers:
"I walk past my own self-loathing
Like I walk past animals in the zoo
Trying not to really see them
And the prison they didn’t choose."
One of the reasons I love that stanza so much is because it pictures the self-criticism so aptly as a series of traps. It is like a prison, but, as a friend once told me, it's a prison with an open door; we can walk out at any time. "How frightening it could be out there!" we think, and cling desperately to the bars of our own cells. Because there's something familiar in those old negative patterns, isn't there? We grasp onto our suffering, afraid that if we let it go something new and more terrifying will replace it.
In the past few years, I've cultivated technique after technique for dealing with this, ah, problem. Yoga provides me with a baseline of strength and awareness from which to address this stuff directly. Meditation, prayer, and biofeedback training arm me with methods for interrupting these thoughts mid-stream. But sometimes I get too tired to fight, and let's face it: these techniques don't provide an easy 180 out of suffering. And fighting means facing the fact that those old patterns are still there.
So, fine, I'll say. Let the student stay in class. Let nepotism continue. Let me continue to lie awake at night, haunted by streams of self-criticism and doubt. I may not have chosen this prison, but it's what I know.
I've never been much of a gardener, but I imagine this is what folks mean when they say it's like getting stuck in a rut. It can be so easy, so comfortable, to keep pushing your wheelbarrow forward on that familiar path. But a rut is a rut; at some point, we've got to get the strength to heave our barrows up and out and to continue on, forging a new (if bumpy) path forward.
|Wheelbarrow/ "So much depends..."|