The way the IWL workshop operates is that we have four instructors during the course of the eight weeks, but each instructor only comes in for two weeks. So, last Saturday being the third week, we had our first meeting with our second instructor, Erika Lopez. You could describe Erika as beautifully raw, open, honest, and real. She pushed us beyond our usual limits and some people really absorbed that and grew from it. You could also describe her as relentlessly confrontational, which was the experience that other people had of her. It was an intense three hours for all of us, maybe Erika included, and we all came out of it with emotions running high. Afterward a good number of us went out for lunch, and later that day an email exchange began that continued through last night (and maybe today — it’s early yet!).
I did find the workshop meeting challenging, but for me, dealing with the aftermath (the email discussion, and my responses to it) has been harder. It’s been comforting in that I’ve been able to express my thoughts at length and at my leisure, but it’s also been acutely uncomfortable because instead of sitting at the table with a group I trust, getting message after message in my inbox forces me to deal with them without cues of body language or facial expression to tell me how everyone else is feeling. It appears I’m much more comfortable dealing with complicated situations as one member of a group, rather than as me standing on my own.
Last night I was reading the emails and feeling really disturbed, when I remembered something I’d read in a book by Pema Chödrön. She wrote that the most unpleasant people we meet, the ones who anger or scare or annoy us the most, are actually our greatest spiritual teachers. (I also found a lovely four-minute video of her talking about this concept.) When I remembered this, the idea just dropped through all my emotions and cleared enough space in them for me to step back and consider. If I look at this entire experience — not just Erika or any classmate — as a spiritual teacher, what do I take away from it?
Well, first there are the basics. I don’t like being emotionally uncomfortable, I don’t like being on my own without explicit backing from others, I don’t like feeling like others are making assumptions about me or dictating terms of exchange. I imagine these are pretty much universal reactions to difficult situations. Then there are the feelings that are more individual; while they’re probably still quite common, they are definitely hot buttons for me and I can trace their “hotness” back to early experiences with others.
First: I don’t like it when I feel like people are being mean, unnecessarily blunt, or insensitive to others’ feelings. There is an altruistic component to this, but there’s also a selfish one. On the selfish side, I feel like I spend a lot of time/energy being nice, tactful, and sensitive to others’ feelings. So I get resentful when I think that others aren’t troubling to go to the same effort. But I don’t always recognize that I’m having this reaction, because there’s also the altruistic side. I have often felt like the trodden-upon one in an exchange, and I (a) hate it, and (b) hate to see others feeling that way. So when I think someone is being insensitive or belligerent, I think, “Hey! Stop hurting others!” without realizing that there’s also a defensive undertone of “If I bother to treat others sensitively, you should too.”
Second, and this is related: I feel protective of others. During one heated in-class exchange, in which some people intervened to stop what they perceived as bullying behavior, Erika told those individuals not to “protect” others. In that exchange and in the later emails, I recognized that yes, feelings of protectiveness are very strongly encoded in my interactions with others. I don’t believe this impulse (or the impulse toward sensitivity) should go away, either in me or in humanity as a whole. But I do believe Erika has a point about protectiveness. When we feel responsible for sparing others, we take on a willingness to self-sacrifice, and that’s not always useful or even called for.
In feeling protective and wanting to be sensitive to others, I see that I like to smooth out difficult situations and make everything seem nice. I do not think that I do this because I want to cover up what’s dark or messy; I don’t want to sweep anything under the rug. I do it because life is dark and messy, and I don’t think we should have to live there all the time. I think Erika, and maybe some of my classmates, would disagree and push me to try to live there. Probably it’s true that when I think I have a choice to not live there, I’m choosing an illusion. But I still think it’s possible to be dark and messy without using language that gets people’s backs up.
I realize now that I thought I embraced chaos and the grey areas of life, but even in my embrace of them I’ve wanted them still packaged up, presented nicely and in small doses. Of course life isn’t like that, but that’s precisely why it’s important to me to hang on to the nice packaging and presentation. I think it’s a valid attitude, but before this weekend I had never articulated that this was my attitude and that I feel strongly about it.
Third: I like to form bonds with people, which is another way of saying I want to like people and I want them to like me. Unlike the previous two tendencies, this is one I’ve been aware of from the beginning, and I’ve tried to check it because I realize it’s only a short hop from “we understand each other” to “it’s us against them.” I’ve tried hard not to mentally break our group into “allies” and “people to watch out for.” And I think I’ve succeeded much better here than I have with the other two impulses, not because I’m more evolved in this, but because I really do have so much love, respect, and admiration for everyone in the group.
Fourth, and again this is related to third: I still do feel very scared and, indeed, ashamed to have people disagree with me. This comes from growing up in environments where I felt that disagreement meant criticism meant attack. There are still times, when Erik and I are having a disagreement, when he has to tell me explicitly, “This is not me attacking you” or “I don’t think you’re stupid.” While on some level I recognize that people can disagree and still be friends, underneath that recognition there is still a perplexed child saying, “I don’t understand how that works. I don’t understand what the grownups are doing. Maybe I’d better just go play by myself in the other room.” The weekend email discussion happened simultaneously with a wave of Facebook friending and activity there, and that makes my shocked inner child feel like she’s living in bizarro world: how can the group be using terms of endearment on Facebook, when they are also sending “mean” emails that say “I don’t like you anymore” (this being of course the child’s interpretation)? I really have been surprised to find my classmates sharing and praising my chicken story on FB simultaneously with the emails, because each time I’ve gotten an email there really has been a part of me that thinks, “Okay, this person doesn’t like me anymore.”
Fifth: I value and seek out escape/retreat/sanctuary. I have thought of myself as someone who can leave her comfort zone, but until this weekend I never realized that the comfort zone is made up of both subject and method. I’m okay with uncomfortable subjects, but I always deal with them the same way: single or limited exposure, followed by heavy processing through thinking, talking, and writing. This is why I would have been more okay with Saturday’s workshop if it had not been followed by emails; I would have gone home and done my usual processing, and I wouldn’t have felt more than a little uncomfortable. But having an ongoing dialogue, being exposed to repeated emotional turmoil and not being able to escape from it, has been highly outside my method comfort zone.
When I say that I can’t escape from the emails, probably what that means is I can’t escape from myself: from the complicatedness of all the thoughts and emotions they bring up, that I don’t always understand and certainly can’t control. But, at the same time, I haven’t exactly sought to escape from the emails. I could have gmail-filtered them all to go directly to archive so I wouldn’t have to look at them. Instead, I’ve been very active in the discussion. It’s made my body quake, it’s made me feel acutely unhappy and anxious each time I’ve replied to a message, but I’ve done it nevertheless. I think it’s really good that I make this effort. But there’s so much anxiety! I’ll think I’ve said the wrong thing, I’ve said too much — basically it comes back to being afraid no one will like me anymore. So the emails have really shoved me back and forth between feeling strong and proud of myself (“I spoke up when I was scared”) and feeling horribly afraid and vulnerable (“no one likes me anymore, I’ve ruined things for others”). When I seek escape, this is what I want escape from; I want to get away from the violent seesawing of my own responses.
If our first meeting with Jaime was focused on mapping our creative DNA, I’m now seeing that our first meeting with Erika was an opportunity to locate our emotional-relational DNA. I’m still feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing, but at least I’m able now to see it as a teaching, and feel grateful for it as such. I wouldn’t say I like it, but I don’t think we get many opportunities to experience so much emotional discomfort within such a safe space (“safe” given that emotional discomfort is the opposite of feeling safe) and such a brief time period (after this Saturday we’ll have a different teacher). So, right now, I’m feeling okay.