My most recent movement meditation practice began with a deep cry. This is far from a rare occurrence, particularly since I started living and practicing on my own this last year. With Baxter I had a companion, a witness, and an inspired partner in my practice. But that witnessing presence also held a certain construct in place–an idea of myself from some vantage point outside myself. Who I was could always be measured, to some degree, by my interpretation of how he saw me. During our shared practices, I could hang out in technique, impressing him (or so I thought!) with my quick study, my absorbed dedication, so directly inspired by his own. His praise for my hoopdance has always meant the most to me, and still does.
But in the year and change that has passed since we separated as a couple, I have been thrust back again and again upon my own resources, my own witnessing presence, forced by circumstance into being my own teacher and coach. I knew when we separated that this would be the testing ground for everything I believed I had learned as a student of hoop meditation. Could I muster the peace, the presence, understanding of connectedness, and truth of self I had experienced in so many classes, workshops, jams and practices on my own? Bring this into my own solo practices? Into classes and workshops, for others? For the last 15 months I have been living that test. I was afraid, and still am. But I can also feel my readiness.
When I moved to Brooklyn in August, one of the main things on my mind was this: I am ready to meet, face to face, with anything and everything that is holding me back. Even then, I could already sense that it was judgment. But living, working, and practicing on my own has brought to the surface what that really means.
So much spiritual work is avoided in order not to experience the heartbreaking sensation of one’s own judgment. When I began my practice the other night, a conversation from the previous day was weighing heavily on my heart. One of my neighbors had confided in me about some family history–the intense kind: in his youth, a family member had played a significant role wreaking havoc on his heart and mind. As he shared his thoughts, instead of staying in an open and listening place, I seized on some of the words he chose and decided–early on–that he was looking to blame this family member, finding explanations to prove that his loved one had acted with intent. Instead of hearing him, I leapt into the first conversational opportunity with unsolicited advice: perhaps he didn’t know enough about mental illness to accurately assess what had happened to him. Had he ever thought about x, or y? Did he know about various diagnoses? He was looking for someone to blame–but Ann Humphreys could see farther and wider, and show him a cleared path–in order to lessen his suffering, of course.
As I spoke–with a compulsive intensity and speed, instinctively hoping to get quickly to the point of what I was really meaning to share with him, so that he could see that I was only trying to help–his gaze dropped to the floor. I was aware of this, but couldn’t get a perspective on what it really meant. Of course he probably didn’t want to hear this–he was on his way to blame! But I was going to show him how pointless that was, how he didn’t need to torment himself with ideas of how this family member should have behaved. I was simply saving him some wasted time–he’d see. As soon as I was done.
After a few minutes–still looking straight down–he began to say things like, “You know, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.” Always trying to stay in the present, I could feel my mouth draw into a kind of knowing smirk, but I couldn’t fully understand what was bringing this odd-feeling expression to my face as I replied, “Of course! I’m sure you have!” I wasn’t really saying anything all that controversial, was I? I mean, I was just sharing my experience–something he might use. I burst into a further explanation of how a simple definition of borderline/narcissistic personality disorder had helped me deal with a situation in my own life, understand how to respond to the person, etc. He listened to me, then finally met my gaze again. “I think you just moved a little too fast into defining my experience,” he said. My smirk stayed in place. I, Ann Humphreys, jumping the gun? Nonsense! Well-meaning, little old me? Not THIS helpful healer! I was just speaking my truth. Well, if he didn’t want to hear it, that was fine. To each his own. But I didn’t mean any harm. No way.
He went on to (very generously) say that he actually felt he could use at least some of the information I had shared. But that he needed me to know that he felt I had swerved too quickly–for him–into assessing and defining his experience, based on the small amount he had shared. I could still feel that smirk. I quibbled: So how was I supposed to know what was “too fast”? Was he suggesting somehow that I should have known how fast was “too fast” when we had never had this kind of deep conversation before? He clarified that he had not meant to suggest that at all, he just needed me to know how he felt in this particular situation. He also said it was getting late–we should probably wrap it up and call it a night. No harm done. It’s all good.
At this point I could feel a sensation in my chest that resembled dread, and it began to occur to me that this was not a close friend or hoop student, but a new friend and neighbor with whom I seemed to have a lot in common. I began to wonder why I had felt so compelled to offer this self-helpful feedback. I was aware of a multipartite self-defense mantra loop playing somewhere in my mind: “I’m just calling it like I see it. I don’t believe in guilt. Maybe I can’t have deep conversations with people who aren’t on a healing path. If he can find his way to forgiveness he can stop this suffering. I was just doing my best.” What I did not understand at that point was how painful it had been to see the expression of hurt on his face.
We parted amicably and I went about the rest of my evening. But the unpleasant feeling remained caught in my chest. Having learned at least to listen to my body, I allowed this sensation to stay with me and didn’t try to push it away. I hoped and trusted that what had happened would become clear to me with time and patience.
The next night I sat down to begin my movement meditation with a long stretch, as I always do. I have come to believe more and more in the importance of stretching as a means to release the emotions that live in our bodies all the time. I can feel, particularly during spinal twists and deep hip stretches, how direct this relationship is, and that stretching the joints and long muscles can allow even the most difficult emotions to release their hold and move on through the body.
However I didn’t even need to start stretching this time. Flooded by a wave of pure sorrow, I bent into prayer. I couldn’t understand and asked to be allowed to see what it was that was pushing down so hard on my heart and closing around my throat. I was immediately led back to my neighbor’s face when his eyes dropped from mine. And I understood how my words had slammed into a fragile and tender place in someone I cared about. The sorrow of it felt like it could crack my chest cage. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to do that. But it was there. It was right there. I am ready to meet, face to face, with anything and everything that is holding me back.
What became clarified in that moment was not only my original misstep (leaping to judgment, advice and problem-solving) but that now I had to begin the process of forgiving myself, and I could only do so if I felt in my heart the truth of what I had done. It wasn’t going to work any other way. I could not begin the process of releasing this pressure on my heart until I could truly see the pain in my neighbor’s face.
The sorrow of comprehending the pain we have caused others, no matter how big or how small, can be excruciating enough to keep us defended forever. It’s a riddle. As soon as I could feel in my heart what I had done–silence a friend who was only wanting to be heard–my entire being was cleared of the awful weight and I saw how I could genuinely and without expectation offer an apology to my neighbor and renew the possibility of trust and friendship between us.
The difficulty of understanding that I am no better and no worse than any other human being on earth continues to amaze me with its mischievous elusiveness. I continue to find pockets of buried belief that constellate on cue around situations where I feel vulnerable and exposed. I continue to come up against dark caves wherein I hoard beliefs that I am a good person who doesn’t deserve to be judged. Ironically, those are the same caves where the inverse beliefs–that I am hopelessly and fundamentally flawed to the core of my being and deserving of the worst consequences human life has to offer–hide. But the real problem, which is finally coming to light through some of my more trying moments, is the belief that this scale of judgment exists at all. And I’m seeing that I cannot truly understand these things until I experience them in myself.