My insecurities are animals. Butterflies to be exact. They take up physical space in my body. I can be going along comfortable in my day, feeling clear, and minding my own business. But as soon as an event happens that excites them – an awkward exchange, a subtle reprimand from my supervisor – I notice that immediately there is fluttering in my stomach. The butterflies. A dryness in my throat brought on by the wind from their incessant flapping. It is a feeling of anxiety. Intense unease. I think of it as a kind of early warning device. A smoke detector that lets me know there is some way in which my ego has outgrown its proper size and shape and is leeching into areas in which it does not belong.
It used to be that when I had this feeling, always stemming from an interaction with another person, I would seek to fix it somehow as quickly as possible, as quickly as I knew how. The most immediate way I used to know was to have a drink. Or five. Once that warm, funny, out of body feeling came over me, I no longer found myself with pain or discomfort. In fact, I no longer found myself with anything, other than a kind of goofy and satisfying absence.
That, of course, was not sustainable. For one thing, alcohol didn’t deal with the discomfort, it only postponed it until I was sober again. It was like getting an extension on an overdue paper that was late simply because I didn’t feel like writing it in the first place. I may have more time, but I still have the same problem.
The second reason alcohol was not a sustainable solution from the discomfort is that when I drank, I inevitably ended up doing or saying something that had the unfortunate effect of further bruising my inflated and fragile ego: a phone call I shouldn’t have made, a comment I shouldn’t have posted, a message I shouldn’t have sent. Then, when sobriety, like a Grim Reaper, made it’s unavoidable return, the smoke detector was really sounding off, clouding my body and spirit with a thicker, deeper shame and discomfort.
Once I entered into a more permanent sobriety, I noticed that the butterflies were in many ways more insistent and more reliable. I could predict with startling accuracy the people, places and things that were going to stir them into their manic flight. Alas, now that I could not simply quiet them with drink, I noticed that my next instinct was to control them through some kind of action. Maybe if I make a corrective phone call, I will feel liked again. If I stay up all night composing an incredibly thorough, and perfectly-worded email, I will arouse sympathies and re-ignite the admiration I fear that I have lost. The unsurprising truth is that this never works. The desperation of my ego is palpable in these interactions, and they usually have the effect of perpetuating even more discomfort. I am never satisfied. I play and replay every line exchanged, wondering what else I should have said to appear even more perfect and beyond reproach. If I don’t get the response I seek, my continued attempts transform into a kind of badgering. A compulsive need to communicate with little listening or caring on my part. Needless to say, this strategy has yet to be effective in saving a relationship.
There is, however, one thing I’ve found I can do when I am in this state of discomfort: Nothing. Because I have made meditation a regular part of my daily spiritual practice, it is inevitable that I will find myself having to sit at the precise moment that the butterflies are dancing inside of me. Truthfully, I hate this. I would rather do the dishes, scrub the toilet with a toothbrush, or log into facebook for the umpteenth time when I have this feeling. The restlessness is intense. I have found myself walking around my apartment, forming a perimeter around my meditation cushion like a dog pawing useless circles at the foot of a bed.
Sitting with this feeling is terrifying to me.
And when I finally do sit, it’s like a high noon showdown between my breath and my discomfort. Usually, in those the first moments, it is all I can do to remember how to breath. (Amazing right? The ego is supposed to be tasked with protecting us, but in its outsized form, it is willing to literally stand in the way of our survival. I wonder if this is what I’m like when I am driven by ego- when I am its living, breathing, manifestation.)
Once I remember how to breathe, the next few minutes are spent fantasizing about the situation at hand. What I might say, how she might apologize and declare her undying love for me. How someone else, having heard the expert way in which I resolved this conflict might recommend me for a Nobel Peace Prize, which I would, of course, win and accept humbly, talking in my speech about the need for meditation and a solid, spiritual dedication….
Speaking of which, I’m supposed to be meditating.
So I return. To my breath. In and Out. Rise and fall. Thoughts come. But, thankfully they leave again, nothing more than trails of light across the emptiness of my mind. I notice finally, that the butterflies have calmed down. They have taken a rest on a branch somewhere deep within me. They are quiet now. Still and, even beautiful.
And I enjoy it. Because they are preparing, I know, for another flight.
-November 28, 2011