Living in the Gray…

I guess it’s part of getting older. We realize all the things we so fervently believed in when we were younger are not entirely true. We haven’t heard the whole story. And the complete picture is more nuanced than we believed.

When I was younger, I had a firm fix on what was “Right” and what was “Wrong.” Eating animals: bad; eating plants: good. Doing yoga: good; weight training:: dangerous. Trusting your guru entirely: right; trusting your own intuition: sometimes wrong.

And oh my, how the tables have turned.

I really no longer know what is good/bad, right/wrong, light/dark, etc. It’s all one big mishmash to me. And things that once were good are now bad and visa versa.

Maybe Shakespeare was right: nothing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.

My guru ended up being abusive, eating only plants made me sick, going back to hitting the weights at the gym ended up being a lot of fun.
There’s been so many instances in my life lately where things that once felt forbidden are now my bread and butter. And things that once felt perfect and permanent in my life are now gone.

Things that seemed dangerous are now daily occurrences. Things that seemed necessary are now optional.

How many of you find this to be true? As you grow up, as we grow more mature, we realize that there is so much more gray area than we once believed? That what is irrevocably true in one week can be false the next. Like Taylor Swift going from beauty-queen hating country star to pumped up glamazon in the blink of an eye.

Nothing stays constant. It’s a brand new world everyday… and I’m learning to live in the gray. Learning to live with complexity. And learning that nothing is really ever right/wrong, good/bad, holy/sinful, selfish/saintly. We are all just… here, in the middle.

Experiencing Our Shadow – and Not Running from the Darkside

Sometimes I hear it.

Like a cellar door creeping open, but only from a distant room.  Like the “schlop” of a tentacled beast mounting the stairs, “slurping” past the door frame, to “slush” its way into the kitchen.  The noise of the monsters of my subconscious creeping out of my basement, ready to engage me.

The thoughts that are so dark and horrible, I generally think they don’t exist within me.

But they do.  And most of the time they stay hidden – and I hardly believe they’re even still in there.

But when they do emerge, I have two choices:

1 – I can grab the broom, shuffle them back down the corridor, down the stairs, and lock/bolt/chain/padlock the basement door so they can never resurface.

2 – gently reach out my hand – and ask why are they there.

When I do the later of the two choices… sometimes the monster’s tentacles fall away, and what is left is a little, eight-year old boy with round glasses and scared eyes.  A boy who’s classmates just tormented him for the umpteenth time that day… and he is all alone, scared, and crying.

That monster was me in an earlier time.

Sometimes it’s a nineteen-year old college junior, so afraid of the world and jealous of his peers’ spontaneity and apparent freedom.  Wishing he could be as uninhibited and open as them: going to parties, laughing, going on dates.  Instead, he’s hiding out in his dorm and pretending that he didn’t want to go out tonight anyways.  He always has way too much work to do.  And he’s terrified to imagine what it might be like to kiss another person.

Sometimes he’s that twenty-four year old, young man – flexing in front the gym mirror, trying to puff out his chest to look more like the models in the fashion books and in the auditions he is forcing himself to go to.   He’s chugging a third protein shake for the morning, with a vat of fat-free yogurt in his bag, and five-thousand more high-protein calories awaiting him later that the day.  All the while, he is pretending that he really doesn’t care all that much about how he looks.

All the trauma, pain, anguish, and denial that I never faced earlier in my life, grows into monsters in my subconscious that I must face… one by one.  And even though they are terrifying to behold, I can either continue to run from these bad feelings, or I can finally listen to them and see what they’re here to teach me.

I feel like deep imbalances can occur when we overly-identify with our bright side and deny our shadow.

We all have our shadow sides.  We all have those dark feelings and thoughts that seemingly emerge randomly.  Thoughts to which we say: “That’s not me!  I’m a good person!  I don’t think those kinds of things.”

But those thoughts ARE us.  And we DO think them.  And it’s okay.

Last week, I had a bunch of feelings pop up about feeling unsuccessful, unattractive, and untalented.

And that’s okay.

Most of my time – I genuinely don’t feel those things.  But by rejecting those contrary thoughts when they arise, I am limiting the healing that can happen in my mind and spirit.

There are times where little, baby Kaelan pops up, needs a desperate hug, and to be told that everything is going to be okay.

And if I just try to shove him back down into the basement again, it’ll just reaffirm his feelings of abandonment, to which I will eventually have to atone.

So I am really striving to let my dark thoughts and feelings surface.  But I neither cling to them – nor worship them.

But I do say to my current-day self: “Huh.  How interesting.  How interesting that part of you feels this way.  And it’s quite alright for you to feel that way.  Keep experiencing it – and let it pass when it’s done.  It’s just another bit of information – another experience to process.”

I feel like deep imbalances can occur when we overly-identify with our bright side and deny our shadow.

For then, we deny the full experience of living.  We deny the important learning that happens through the process of “Death” – when we continuously demand experiences only of “Rebirth.”  Everything in life is cyclical.  Everything in life flows round.  We have to be willing to admit and to stand witness to our Darkside, as well as our Light.

To deny the Netherworld is to ultimately deny the World Up Above.

And just as when water can not flow, so too our emotions and awareness can stagnate.  Fester.  Turn rotten.

I’m continuing to discover that by trudging through both the muck and also the sunshine that we are then able to achieve wholeness.

So, while I am all for positive self-talk, I think it’s equally valid and important to realize that other voices exist within us… and we must listen to them.  They don’t need to become our closest friends nor the voices playing on repeat in our heads… but they must be heard.

Because poor, little, fourteen-year-old Kaelan has spent enough time hiding in the closet – and shoved in the basement.

It’s time to let the light shine in.

5 Steps to Survive the End of Your World

It happened last month: Something that seemed indelible, everlasting, and endlessly-nourishing came abruptly to an end.

We’ve all had it happen: a death of a partner, the sudden cessation of a relationship, the irrational loss of a job, etc.

For me, it came from my spiritual community forsaking me.

For people who have been reading my blog for a while, you know how devoted I have been to my meditation practice.  I had lived in an ashram for years, attended weekly classes, mediated twice daily.

I felt content; I felt sure in my worldview; I felt powerful.

Then, surprisingly and suddenly, my tradition said they didn’t want me to be a part of them anymore.  I will refrain from blabbing about the details of who said what, why this happened, and whatnot.  Suffice it to say that I felt heartbroken, entirely abandoned, and grieving a very dear part of my life that I never expected to see go away.

How do we survive those heart-wrenching, gut-punching, and thoroughly world-shattering events?

When nearly everything you thought you knew and trusted about the world gets pulled away – like a child’s play things kept too close to the shore that get dragged out to sea – how do you continue on?

How do you take that next step?  How do you even breathe?

I’ve had friends get broken up with via text message (from multi-year relationships, none-the-less), I’ve seen friends shunned from synagogues, I’ve known friends to unexpectedly loose stable employment while simultaneously caregiving for someone else.

How can we heal?  How can we continue to grow with grace?

I’ve watched over the past several weeks as certain mainstays in my perception of life have melted away, notions that I felt certain were rock-steady and steadfast.  My worldview disintegrated, and now I’m shuffling through the debris to find the gems with which I can rebuild.

As I’ve continued to struggle through this process, here are some returning thoughts to which I keep cycling back:

1.   Realize that Nothing in Life is Ever Really About You

Roads collapse, bridges burn, tornadoes rip apart communities.  Forces of nature have no will or intent; they just move, and blast whatever happens to be in their way.

We expect that people have a little more intention than a storm, but they seldom do.  They are being pushed and pulled by their karma, their demons, and their own tensions.  We ultimately have little say over how others treat us – all we can choose is how we respond.

So, even if the attack that shattered your world seemed highly intentional – realize that it wasn’t.  It was just someone or something going through their shit, and we were the innocent bystander;  and our lives were the collateral damage.

It really wasn’t about you; it was all about them.

2.  You Have The Power to Let Go and Move On

Once you feel the truth in the fact that you had only a small part to play in the whirlwind, it becomes easier to truly forgive, move on, and rebuild.  We have to let go – and accept the new reality – in order to go on.  Clinging to the shards of our previous life will do no good; all we will build is a Frankenstein-esque mockery of the whole life we once led.

Find the jewels; find the pieces of the previous worldview that still feel true, take them, and go forward.  Let go of the debris.  Much of the broken remnants are perceptions you don’t need anymore.  Let them go with love, find your new truth, and keep going.  Forgive the people that injured you.

3.   Have Patience With Yourself

Allow yourself to have stages of grief and grieving.  Get mad, be surprised, become indignant.  Be sad, lonely, afraid.  Find joy, laughter, and surprise.  Realize that the assembly of your new life will take time to coalesce.  Try to be patient with yourself and others around you – and acknowledge that you won’t feel quite right for a while.

You’re going to have to go through a process of reexamining everything you previously believed, so try not to rush to any assumptions.  Let the process of healing take it’s time and be natural.  Seeds can only sprout out of the soil at a given rate.  There’s no hurrying the process.  After a field burns, it’ll be a bit before new sprouts resurrect out of the ashes.

4.   Use This Time to Discover and Explore

You are at a crossroads in your life journey.  There are a multitude of directions you could go from here.  Take some time to explore them.

Maybe there was a hobby you always wanted to begin.  Maybe there’s a group or class that has always intrigued you.   While your worldview is reforming, you have the capacity to change some fundamental beliefs about your life and the world around you.  So, set out on an adventure to uncover what some of those unrealized dreams might be.  Rediscover your child-like curiosity with the world.

I sometimes like to reframe world-destroying moments with the image of a chrysalis.  At some point, that transforming butterfly inside will become too confined by its self-constructed enclosure; and it’ll have to break out.  The world that it has known for many days, suddenly has to be ripped away in order to allow the butterfly to enter the expansiveness of the wider world.

Moreover, if a butterfly somehow get to be spared the struggle and agony of trying to claw its way out of its chrysalis – if someone cuts it open for him, for example – he will be unable to unfold his wings.  It’s through the struggle of escape that a butterfly produces enough chemicals to allow his wings to fully spread.

Maybe you are like the butterfly and needed your world to break open to make space for something so much better and happier.  Go out and find what those better options might be.

5.  Treat Yourself Kindly – and Surround Yourself With Love

Find those people and experiences that truly nourish you and draw them into your sphere.  Spend lots of time with loved ones and people who bring out your best sides.  Laugh a lot.  Eat chocolate and take bubble baths.  Take hikes and to spend time convening with nature – I personally find time in the forest or by the sea to be so healing and spiritual.

What are other activities you could undergo to make yourself feel good?  The more you focus on the experiences and people that enrich your existence, the greater likelihood that your new outlook will prioritize them.  If you put effort into sustaining good friendships, it’s likely those friendships will play a greater role in your new life.

Find what inspires you, enriches you, and brings you pleasure.  Let those be some signposts to direct the road ahead.

It’s an incredible journey to grow through the total annihilation and resurrection of your worldview.  It’s a harrowing but character-building experience.   For it’s during these times of transition that we truly see who we are, what we are made of, and what is truly important.

I can assure you that this will not be the solitary time your life dissolves; it will happen again.  And, again, you will have the opportunity to choose – how do I want to live?

We get to choose.  We can grow and live with love and compassion; or we can shut down from the heartache.

The choice is yours.  I’m choosing love.  How about you?

Art & Words: Kaelan Strouse; Background Photos by: Dan Machold & Kit