I’ve spent most of my life wishing I were different. Wanting to be smarter, prettier, a better listener; thinking I should get a better job, get another degree, have a partner, volunteer more. I’ve been like a hungry horse chasing a carrot. But the carrot is dangling from a stick tied to the horse’s own head. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t reach it. She strains until she’s exhausted, never realizing the task is impossible.
So I’ve always been an overachiever and always a failure. Chasing, running, breathless, busy, stressed. Living for the future and never able to catch up. Some people call this perfectionism.
Many of us are perfectionists. Our culture’s theme song could be, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The media tells us we’ll only be happy when we have a new car or when we get married or when the cows come home. We live in perpetual dissatisfaction. It feels like a constant itch, like something isn’t quite right, things aren’t working out as we planned. We feel this way about ourselves (if only I had better hair) and other people (I wish he’d quit talking that way) and life in general (if only time would slow down, if only life weren’t so hard).
Acupuncture school has been another way for me to chase an ideal. I thought I was meant to be a healer, and in order to be the best possible healer, I had to be an acupuncturist. I was excited about school at first. But after two years, I became overwhelmed by stress, daunted by the encyclopedic quantities of information we had to memorize and the range of skills we had to perfect. It felt like I was climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, thinking that once I reached the top I’d finally be happy and complete.
Earlier this year I stopped absorbing what my teachers were teaching. I was resisting, not learning. After a lot of angst and confusion, I took a leave of absence from school. I had the wonderful opportunity to go on a long retreat this fall, to try and understand what was happening and decide whether to return to school. Spending time in intensive mindfulness practice at Green Gulch Zen Center and Deer Park Monastery gave me some insight.
I realized that we have two choices about how to live.
1. We can fight with life. This feels like perpetually wanting things to be different than how they are. Whether it’s craving a piece of chocolate or resenting our family, this is the essential dissatisfaction that plagues most of us, most of the time.
2. We can revel in life as it is. For me, this means mindfulness in the present moment. Not chasing future or regretting past. No urge to run away, no itch to get out of it or make it different. Just immersed, dunked-in-life awareness. All senses on. Curiosity. Studying things as they are. Present with life as it is. Once you relax into it, it’s thick with surprise. People are startling. Sounds and colors are enthralling. It’s a little like being on a really, really good drug. Even when some nasty feeling comes up, we can just feel it – get the weight, texture, heat, or grime of the feeling. When we let a feeling be there and embrace it, there’s space around it, and eventually it dissolves. (This takes practice but it is such a relief when I can do it.)
I wonder if these two choices are similar to Einstein’s idea: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
But, back to the question about acupuncture school.
While on retreat I thought a lot about healing. What is healing? One of the sisters at Deer Park spent seven years in medical school and residency, then decided to become a nun. She explained that instead of just treating people’s symptoms, she wanted to be a healer. How is a nun a healer? I think of her calm presence, and I think of Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle, who seem to be free from the stress that is sending the rest of us to sleeping pills and blood pressure medications. They’re not suffering; they’re at peace with life as it is (although they are motivated to change the world by relieving other people’s suffering, they aren’t stressed about it). They embody peacefulness. Being in their presence it’s easy to dwell in presence, relax into quiet awareness. Being in their presence is healing. That’s what I’d like to offer people – a true, accepting, not-chasing-anything presence. I’d like to cultivate that in myself so I can pass it on.
Brook Jasmyn, an astrologist, once said to me: “Love is the only thing that heals.” Countless ways to love, countless ways to heal. Acupuncture is a powerful healing tool, but I realized that I don’t need to be an acupuncturist in order to help people heal.
The stress of acupuncture school, and the carrot I was chasing, have fallen away. I don’t need them right now. A lot is dropping away from me these days. Lao Tzu said, “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.”
Adyashanti says, “What you are experiencing, what many people are experiencing now, is an eroding of your personal will.” The ego, the carrot-chaser, the personal will, is giving way to a quiet, aware presence that loves life as it is.
So I’ve decided not to go back to acupuncture school for now. Instead I’ll be finishing the Asian Bodywork Certificate in December (all my school credits count toward it). I’m still working as an office manager for an acupuncturist, volunteering for Hospice, giving Reiki, writing as much as possible. And practicing mindfulness. It’s an amazing practice – letting go of resistance, landing here in the moment. I’m doing it imperfectly, coming and going, in and out of presence. But it’s available at any time. It’s a practice that anyone can do, at any moment. Reveling in life as it is.