Befriending the Dragons: What I Used to Call My Anxiety

Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives."  You can read her other posts here.

As I sat with closed eyes amidst 150 strangers in a conference room nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, my anxiety – an anxiety that has been life-long and often paralyzing — dissolved into a shifting mixture of anger, sadness and a desire to play.  This revelatory experience occurred during a weeklong professional training for prospective teachers of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – a program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Massachusetts General Hospital and taught at InsightLA. In this training, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli help prospective MBSR teachers develop their own meditation practices. As they guided us through meditations and discussions, they repeatedly offered a simple choice: we could attend to our sensory experiences and learn from them, or believe our existing and often erroneous ideas about these experiences. I discovered that even the most unpleasant sensations are wiser and more fun than my ideas about them.

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Befriending the Dragons: I’m not a Firefighter; I’m a Jedi Knight

Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives."  You can read her other posts here.

Owen, my two-and-a-half-year old, and I had been saying “no” to each other for more than an hour when I startled us both with that yell. Our no’s started during my attempts to convert his crib into a blanket house. “No, not like that,” he complained. “No, not that way!” His no’s crescendoed into frustrated screams.

I hear Owen’s screams like a firefighter responds to a fire alarm: as an urgent alert to an emergency situation that I must contain. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this was not a fire but a toddler with a vision for a crib-house that he couldn’t communicate.

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Befriending the Dragons: Separation Anxiety – Writing Through Confusion

Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives."  You can read her other posts here.

My two-and-a-half-year-old son, Owen, screams.  His mouth stretches open; his eyes squeeze out tears; his body arches away from Ana, the woman who takes care of him while I work.

“No Ana! Momma, Momma!”

I stand uncertain, my throat tight, my head foggy. I breathe deeply and focus on my son’s face.  His mouth resembles a dark cavern; mucus runs from his nose. My mind races through the parental protocols for leaving: acknowledge his feelings, reassure him that I will be back, tell him the plan, say good-bye, and walk away.

I gather his body back into my arms, hold him against my chest.  He quiets.
“Momma is going bye-bye. You’re sad and angry that Momma is going bye-bye. Ana will hold you and you can cry as long as you need. You are going to play with Ana, have lunch, and then rest. When you wake up from your nap, Momma will be here.”

His sobs resume immediately as I place him in Ana’s arms and resolutely walk away.

Owen and I have been separating and coming back together for most of his life.  He, Ana and I had a routine that worked. He greeted Ana’s morning arrival with a wide smile. After breakfast, I kissed him good-bye and left for work. I returned before he woke up from his midday nap.  When he turned two-and-a-half, this routine broke down. He became less happy with Ana’s arrival and more insistent that I stay. “No Ana! No Ana!” he declared repeatedly. “Momma stay!” Our good-byes lasted longer and longer. And my anxiety mounted.

Intellectually, I knew that toddlers experiment with the power of their nos. Ana reassured me that moments after I left, he happily resumed playing. When Owen cried, however, I felt like a terrible mother. My rising panic and doubt created a cloud of confusion between him and me. I couldn’t see what he needed and I didn’t believe I could provide it.

Luckily, my meditation and mindful writing practices have familiarized me with this self-doubt. I knew how to explore it (read my first post here.) I started by writing as I do when I have writer’s block and when I have this frozen, panicky feeling with Owen.  I asked myself how I felt.  What felt intolerable? What associations did I have with this feeling? I wrote without stopping, without demanding answers and with curiosity about the emotions that arose.

My own childhood experiences with separation emerged. I often did not know where my parents were or when they would return. I frequently experienced terrifying loneliness. My need for connection was inconvenient in a family of four children with two parents who had demanding careers. Owen is an only child. I spend a good chunk of each day playing with, attending to and connecting with him. 

Once I felt the differences between my childhood and Owen’s, I sought out information. How could I make separation feel safe for both Owen and myself? What reassured two-and-a-half year olds? A call to my friend, co-teacher, fellow meditator and parent educator, Tandy Parks, provided the reassurance and information I wanted. She let me ramble as I recounted Owen’s tears, detailed our daily schedule, and defended my writing career. “Your schedule is fine,” she began. “But you don’t sound happy. What schedule do you want?” In all my writing about Owen’s and my separation anxieties, I had not asked myself this. A clear answer immediately appeared. I wanted to lounge with Owen, connect and play with him, and then leave the house to write. Our schedule accommodated my desire to work in the mornings, but my needs had changed. I wanted my fill of Owen before I left.

After I changed my schedule, Owen and I developed some sweet good-bye rituals. We read a book together before I go. He draws a “bye-bye window” with an erasable pen on our glass front door. After I hug him, we kiss through this window and I leave. He cries less often but still fiercely. I can now more clearly hear these cries. He doesn’t want his Momma to leave and he knows she’ll come back. 

Through this open-ended attentive writing process (what I call mindful writing), I learn about and even welcome the intense emotions that parenting can animate. Talking to a non-judgmental friend like Tandy helps me make sense of the stories I’m telling myself about these intense emotions.  Once I more clearly understand my own feelings, I can gather information and develop strategies that enable Owen and I to experience challenging situations together. For those who don’t have a parent educator like Tandy in your life, mindful parenting classes exist that support this process.  InsightLA is offering a six-week "Mindful Parenting" class on Friday mornings starting in January.  You might also check out UCLA Commons, or contact Tandy Parks for her classes.

Lisa hills In addition to being a meditator, Lisa Hills, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher and parent.  She has been practicing meditation with the support of Trudy Goodman, InsightLA and her kalyana mitta (spiritual friendship) group for seven years. Since the birth of her son, Owen, two years ago and the completion of her English Ph.D. at UCLA, Lisa has focused on parenting and writing plays and personal essays.  She currently teaches a mindfulness and writing workshop for parents with Tandy Parks in Santa Monica.

Befriending the Dragons: Beginning Meditation – Meeting My Dragons

Lisa Hills, InsightLA sangha member, writer, teacher, and parent, will post here every couple of weeks with her reflections on "the dragons in our lives."

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races – the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

When I meditate, restlessness usually predominates. My thoughts about coffee interrupt reruns of Madmen episodes, which appear after a brief awareness of my breath and my constricted chest. When the restlessness dissipates, emotions arise that often feel unbearable.  My throat tightens, a burning sensation spreads from the base of my neck, under my collarbone and throughout my chest.  I have felt this constriction as stifled screams or sobs. I want to constrain, suppress, stop these fire-breathing dragons. After seven years of meditation, these dragons have not transformed into princesses. But my attitude toward them has become friendlier. They have become well-meaning gargoyles who spread their wings to warn me that emotions that I regard as threatening are arising. 

By letting these emotions and gargoyles be, I have found out that they are not only bearable but also inspiring. As a writer, when I pay attention to the emotions that I used to push away, I discover stories that I want to tell and images that help me tell them.  As a parent, I have found that these emotions signal when an old story about their scariness is about to hijack me into the past and away from my two-and-a-half year old son, who has much more interesting stories to show me about these emotions. In this blog, I want to tell you about how I have befriended these dragons and the emotions that they defend.
   
I started meditating regularly after I stumbled into Trudy Goodman’s Thursday evening sitting group. I had been longing for some group, some activity that would provide me with a sense of purpose, of belonging. Because this longing had been so strong and unmet for so long, it felt overwhelming and insatiable. Before finding Trudy’s sitting group, I had tried meditating on my own, but my short meditations felt lonely and futile. The sitting group helped me stay still for longer, but it was not comfortable. People’s questions irritated me, my hips hurt, my thoughts were both banal and frantic. All of this, Trudy reassured me, was part of the process.  Just watch.  See what your mind does with this discomfort; see what happens when you pay attention to the breath and notice the thoughts, emotions, and stories that arise. I didn’t have to believe anything.

My first insight was not comforting: I listened to a stream of self criticism.  These critical voices fueled a haze of anxiety that covered most of my experiences.

The dragons showed up during my first retreat.  After a year of attending the Thursday evening sitting group, I decided to go on a five-day retreat, hoping that more meditation would calm this anxiety. On the third day, the teachers guided us through a loving kindness meditation.  I felt the familiar constriction around my heart loosen and then tighten up again. During the group interview, I asked a teacher how to make my heart relax.  I listened in horror as he explained that I didn’t need to change how my heart felt. I could accept my constricted heart as it was and hold it with kindness.

“I can’t do that,” I whispered.

He smiled, “It’s actually much simpler than trying to change it. You don’t have to do anything.”

I nervously returned to the cushion and received a nightmarish vision of my heart as a nest of writhing, fanged worms. I had a phobia of worms. These are my emotional needs, I thought, creatures that want to devour me and anything and anyone who comes near them.  They will destroy me.  But they didn’t. The vision faded and left me shaky. Instead of fleeing, I placed my hand over my heart. During the next two days, the vision returned each time in a different form. My heart re-appeared as a wound infested with maggots, a glowing egg protected by a fierce dragon, and, finally, as an embryo with a gargoyle defending it.  This I could love. 

My anxiety hasn’t disappeared and my emotional need for connection still frightens me. My willingness to receive this anxiety and need with kindness, however, has gradually loosened their grip on me so that I can see them more clearly.  They are not monstrous; they are the vulnerable parts of me that need my attention.  By meeting them with curiosity and kindness, I am learning to create friendlier stories about them with my son.

Next:  Discovering my desire to be a mother on a meditation retreat.

Lisa Hills and OwenIn addition to being a meditator, Lisa Hills, Ph.D. is a writer, teacher and parent.  She has been practicing meditation with the support of Trudy Goodman, InsightLA and her kalyana mitta (spiritual friendship) group for seven years. Since the birth of her son, Owen, two years ago and the completion of her English Ph.D. at UCLA, Lisa has focused on parenting and writing plays and personal essays.  She currently teaches a mindfulness and writing workshop for parents with Tandy Parks in Santa Monica.