Learning from my travel fears.
At the end of a recent class I taught (in Balboa) I was discussing with some of my students and staff how meditation helped me because it helped me recognize, accept, and transform my anxiety. I used to experience terrible anxiety with the occasional existential weeping panic crisis- I used to sweat constantly. No Joke- constantly-and it would get really bad when I partook of my favorite productivity enhancer: coffee. Why schedule was something like this: Stay awake, study, read, allow employers to benefit from my positive attitude and work ethic while giving me very little in return, dance, practice dance, make art, make clothes, make house with my hubby, cuddle the puppies, run marathons, and go to bed late on the night cap, sleep poorly, wake up and do it again. For years danced to the buzzing protest of my body, to the sweat and tears, and to long nights wondering how I could work so hard, be so smart and so giving and so talented and financially make so little- barely enough, in most cases to afford health insurance or the loose-leaf ‘don’t sweat it’ tea that I used daily to thinly masked the insistent signs that I need to just slow the heck d o w n.
Learning how to slow down, breathe, heal, trust, and let go has been now a 3 year ongoing process which will need to be the subject of it’s own essay because it’s been such a powerful and transformative pursuit.
At any rate, one of my friends commented that he was surprised that I experienced anxiety. And I was surprised at his surprise. Despite my meditation or what seems like my outgoing personality (I tell you, I identify strongly as an introvert, but can convincingly mimic the behavior we associate with extroverts thanks to growing up in a large and boisterous family), I do, deal with fear and anxiety. Daily.
There was something that sat oddly about the conversation to me. I think it was the assumption that ‘anxiety’ only refers to dysfunctional episodes, or to people who experience socially related symptoms. What about just the worry that you aren’t who you are supposed to be? Or that who you are isn’t likeable or enough? What if anxiety could also simply refer in general to the fear that we experience in simply being living sentient beings. Could we see anxiety as a common experience, like pain, birth, and death-one that is driven as much by biology as it is by our past memories?
One big thing that my meditation and now yoga practices have taught me is that pain and anxiety are normal and unavoidable human experiences- even Buddha himself felt hunger and occasionally worry. There is a reason our bodies have a limbic response called fight or flight and it would be silly to think that this response and others like it don’t have lasting emotional or physical manifestations.
When I feel dread arise, as it always does (Will I get that job? Do I look ok? When is my car going to break down? What’s going to happen?) I use meditation to look deeper into how and where I’m feeling the worry and what their roots are. The more I address these issues, sometimes simply by finally seeing them as what they are for the first time. I could, with guidance name them: Overworking myself was a result of needing to feel ‘safe’ and secure. The stress that arose from feeling desperate and often encouraged me to take more jobs, teach another class, teach a summer class and FILL my schedule to the point where, not matter what my bank account read- I was depleted and I didn’t have time to realize that what I was putting in, time wise, was not worth the pay out (particularly not for adjunct and part time university professors-a subject for another post). With these realizations greater questions came up for me: how do I define safety, love, and acceptance and what are the ways that I have learned need, panic, rejection? How do these things in subtle and not so subtle ways affect my body, my emotions, and with them: the way I re-act to my environment and how my reactions inform the environment of how to respond to me. (Here when I say environment I refer not to some Ferngully-esque idea of Gaia or nature, but instead the events, energies, people and circumstances or situations I find myself experiencing).
Slowly, in looking at the questions and allowing myself to see the answers I began and continue to let go and to relax around my worries.
So as I’m about to embark on another trip abroad as a woman alone I am confident but somewhat wary. I am confident that I can travel safely to my destination and that I can emotionally handle any of the things that can and likely will come up that might threaten my idea of safety or ‘fun’ travel (ha!). So I think it might be interesting for people to know that I also, have been working with myself on something ‘fun’ and ‘adventurous’ like this trip. So below I’ll list for you some of my fears (both rational and irrational) that affect my level of anxiety on this trip and how I’m dealing with them.
These are my fears in order from greatest to least significant:
Somehow my agency, freedom, health or safety are threated (I’m assaulted, kidnapped, or involved in some type of accident and become ill or injured)
My visa gets rejected or there is some other fiasco and I’m denied entry for a second time and have to make another 14 hour + 14 hour back to back flight in the same god forsaken seat while spending 14 hours and a 9 hour layover in NY contemplating all my failings as a human leading me to that exact moment of sleeplessness.
I arrive at the ashram where I am supposed to study yoga and I am the largest (curviest) and least flexible person there. No one likes me and I make no friends.
I have to deal with unexpected and extreme sexism where I am ignored or dismissed to a level that I feel can no longer politely tolerate and I end up having to explain to yet another ignorant person why their behavior is socially and personally unhealthy and disrespectful while having to show them the compassion they so clearly lack for the entire female gender.
Having to come up with amusing but still polite ways to tell people:
I’ve been married for almost 6 years and we have no children and then having to smile at them and say ‘no’ when they inquire if there are some problems with me (obviously nothing could be wrong with him-even though nothing is wrong with him). Also, maybe they might like to know that their question is rude and invasive and indicates that they only think a woman’s worth lies in her ability to make children for a husband who…(ok I need to stop here)
No, I do not have diabetes and no I do not want them to guess my weight in Kilograms. Number one, the number you are saying is WAY less than numbers I’m used to hearing so it all sounds great to me, sure, I weigh 55kg: sounds great. Yes, I am a full head taller than you, yes, according to my converter I weigh about the same as your diabetic mother, but she’s short and I don’t have diabetes, in fact, according to the scale and chart at my physicians office: I (clap) am (clap) very healthy and not even overweight (clap clap) why yes, I would love desert or milk chai.
I don’t want to buy whatever they are trying to sell me and to stop following me because it’s making me think they have other motives which might cause me to start doing my number 1 big worry listed first above.
Because I’m curvy and inflexible I have no friends at the Ashram (according to my earlier irrational worry), obviously my last fear is that I will bear the emotional weight of dealing with any of the above issues totally alone and while cut off from my friends and family who are now 9.5 hours behind me.
Before you ask, yes, one person can feel all that and not explode. And no, I am not sweating while I type this up. In fact, I’m not worried at all, I’m confident because I can look at all these fears and breathe deeply. I do not need them to change. I see them. I see why they bother me. I see myself in this situation and I can understand exactly why I call these concerns based on my experiences. I thank myself for worrying because all these worries are trying to do is spare me pain and suffering or to prepare me for the experience of pain and suffering-and I am big enough to see them, love them, but not get lost in them.
In addition to looking at this list: I use a form of meditation/prayer which I find most helpful, right now, to address these issues:
I sit and inhale for 3-10 seconds filling my whole belly and side body, hold for 3 and exhale for 3-10 seconds at least 3-10 times. Then I voice for myself the new list below (in my head, not out-load cause I don’t want to look crazy in public) Pro tip- I wrote these down and recorded them as a voice memo, I used ‘garage band’ to overlay my vocal recording with some free- meditation music that Moby released for public use, the whole meditation takes me about 8 minutes. I listen to it in my head phones and feel instantly better:
“I am safe and healthy”
“I travel with ease and comfort. I feel blessed that I have the time and resources to make this trip”
“My yoga program is amazing and the ashram itself exceeds my expectations- there are even hot water showers and I find surprising things to be delighted by.”
“I love all the people who I share my practices with for the next month”
“Working with my KAIR residency team goes smoothly and my voice is understood and respected. I am understood in English and in Odia with minimum effort”
“I am surprised by the liberation and safety I feel while traveling and staying alone”
“I meet up with my friends from Louisville in Varanasi with ease and am delighted by the things we do in that area. I depart from India taking with me lots of new memories made with old friends in a new and spiritual city!”
“I buy supplies for art and have no trouble shipping them home. They arrive much earlier than I expect”
“I find amazing fabrics and trims to purchase and I HAVE the time of my life touching them and shopping”
“My senses are delighted by the beauty, tastes, smells, and sensory experiences of India”
“I am delighted by the art work I see and I find the perfect light weight Sarasvati, Durga, and Ganesh sculptures at just the right prices. Maybe I even find a Shiva I like. ”
“I live with joy, good health, and ease. I couldn’t be happier with my travels and I find reasons to laugh every day.”
This one’s a long shot but…. “I am gifted an amazing Harmonium to use to accompany myself for singing wonderful mantra and I bring it home to share this tradition in my Louisville practice”
“I am relaxed and thankful.”
I may go over this list multiple times trying to picture all of these things happening and cultivating in myself the joy of them being true. Oddly enough, doing this usually ‘sets’ me emotionally up to receive awesome things. Today I was feeling really hungry but somewhat unhappy about the offerings in the C terminal of Newark and how expensive they were. However, I was fresh off doing this mediation and I was unaware that I was beaming a smile at the girl making my sandwich- low and behold, fries and extra alvacado ‘appeared’ free of charge in my food basket and the lady next to me offered to buy me a beer, I said no but thanks, as the turbulence from the last flight was still making my tummy churn, but dang, those fries were good.
If it suits me at the end of my meditation I’ll sometimes talk to the people around me I feel in spirit. I’ll ask my grandmother or guardian angel to watch over me. If I still feel like I need more help getting into a healthier emotional or energetic state: I might pray to st. Christopher the Catholic Patron Saint of Travelers or offer my experiences to Ganesh- the destroyer of obstacles and the god of beginnings: I imagine those ideas and energies- the idea being carried across a dangerous passage by someone who wants to help me (Like Christopher did for Christ in disguise as a child), or the energies of new beginnings and being able to overcome any issue- I like to picture I can draw these abilities to myself and wrap them around me- relaxing and allowing myself to see my fears and yet not react to them or be controlled by them. I’m sure some of you might find what I just wrote blasphemous, but it works for me and I FEEL better, even good-and I’m kinder and more loving to those I connect with because of it.
Dealing the fear and anxiety isn’t so much about suppressing or controlling the fear, but working with it and choosing what feelings to cultivate in oneself.
I’m off to go check to see if there is a water fountain where I can refill this 5$ bottle of nestle water (really Newark $5!) I just finished. I’m sure there will be one and if not, maybe the stewardess on the plane will give me an extra large pour when she comes by.
Thanks for hanging in there for such a long post! Oxoxoxo!