I started doing yoga when I first moved to the Bay Area right after college, but only for the exercise. Sometimes there were breathing techniques or meditation, but I’d tune them out. When teachers said things like, “Acknowledge and thank the people you’re sharing this class with,” I would just wish that there were fewer people crammed into the small space and jockeying for a good spot. When, at the end of class, a teacher would bow and say “Namaste” or (worse!) “The light in me honors the light in each of you”, I would bow too, but only because the stretch felt good on my back. Mentally, I’d roll my eyes.
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I was not woo woo. These types of yoga teacher statements were hippy dippy nonsense to me, trite and empty aphorisms, and I was judgmental of people who said them. Surely they either did not truly believe them, in which case, it was all bullshit; or they did, making me skeptical of their intelligence. I did not believe things without a scientific explanation. I did not use words like honor or gratitude, or talk about the universe or energy. I did not meditate or own tarot cards or crystals. All of these things have changed over the last few years and I occasionally I find myself quite shocked to look back and see the width of this gulf I’ve crossed.
I spent my twenties feeling somewhat discontent and pursuing tangible, external things, like an important job, a relationship, a masters degree, that I thought would eventually equate to happiness. A good job with a lot of responsibility didn’t do it. The relationship (my first deep love) was incredible during its honeymoon period, but didn’t hold a lasting happiness. Getting into my top choice of graduate school was thrilling, but after grad school I found myself without a job and not knowing who I was without a career to define me.
Working through this career crisis, followed by the breakup of that first love, I was forced to really figure out how to face my sadness, my discontent, my insecurities, and to create my own happiness. I turned to lots of self-help books, therapy, and actually started meditating after years of just thinking I should. At first it was just a few minutes a day, but as I continued to meditate regularly and for longer, I noticed that I was happier and calmer. Not necessarily during or right after the meditation, but overall. It became easier for me to pause and breathe. If I skipped several days, I’d miss it. That was all the proof I needed to keep going.
As I translated this self-reflection into a career direction, I realized how much I enjoy working with people. I volunteered at a crisis hotline and became a career coach, spending my free time (very happily) talking people through big life transitions and questions. After a few years, I decided to take my project management skills from my previous work experience to a mindfulness training organization.
When I joined I had no idea how much this job would change me. The organization’s evidence-based approach (science!) was the perfect trojan horse for my rational mind. I experienced some real culture shock at first. I had a lot of habits and notions from more traditional organizations that didn’t carry over. In this organization, it’s normal to close your eyes during a meeting because you’re thinking deeply, maybe getting in tune with your body and deeper wisdom. It’s common to talk about alignment, energy, and what the world might be asking of us during a business strategy meeting. Over the four years I’ve worked there, I’ve adapted and absorbed this way of being and have learned so much from my colleagues-turned-friends beyond the basic mindfulness that I’d started with.
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The truth is that the world now makes sense to me in a different way than it used to. Where I prided myself on my rational intelligence, I now see so much more mystery, and truly appreciate the intelligence of understanding people and group dynamics that comes in a felt way, not through logic. I honestly feel grateful for the others in my yoga classes. We create the class together, financially and energetically; a small, small form of Ubuntu, the South African concept of “I am because you are.”
Often, on my morning commute, I’ll take a moment on my bus to look around and (in my head!) thank the other riders for sharing the bus with me and wish them well for the day. It never fails to lighten my spirits at least a bit. If the bus is crowded and I feel jostled and annoyed, this becomes especially important. Instead of taking this so personally (“why are all of these people on my bus?!”), I remember that we’re in this together, all sharing the same resources, each of us equally deserving. Instead of being irritated, I can open my heart, annoyance yielding to love. I’ve come to believe that it’s the frequency in which we feel love that is the important measure in life. Where I used to think that my happiness would come from a mix of career success, family, and friends, I’ve started to suspect that this frequency of love might just be the source of contentment that I was always looking for; instead of finite, knowable achievements, it’s the infinite and experiential for me to constantly turn to, again and again, moment to moment.
Writing this, I’m aware that you may not understand. These things are hard to put into words, and I don’t have faith that I can adequately describe my transformation or current understanding of the world in a way that will make sense to you. Words and phrases that I thought were gibberish have become meaningful as I’ve come to learn the vocabulary, come to know and experience it. Yet, I’m not sure how to translate it back. I’m self-conscious that friends and family won’t get this part of me. I’m self-conscious of having become something I once judged.
I fear traveling so far from where I came from that the connections with my oldest, dearest friends will fade away. There are many people in my life that I’m close to but rarely speak with about this part of me. These relationships have always been a stabilizing force in my life, and I am loathe to risk a rupture. I don’t mean to withhold; I want to share what’s important in my life with the people who are important to me, simply for the connection, to be seen and understood. I also don’t mean to hoard the things that have been so helpful to me, and could be useful to them. But it’s been gradual and subtle and is challenging to put into words; often it is easier to just avoid sharing these things and stick with the comfortable middle ground.
In some ways I feel I did a bait and switch on my partner. We met before I had started to regularly meditate, before I’d made this career change, before I started going on retreats. Did he fall in love with the old me, the environmentalist, the rationalist, the person that rolled her eyes at hippy bullshit? Does he resent the time I spent without him off doing these things? Every time I creep towards something new — a medicine circle, a weekend workshop, a book on emptiness and non-self — I look over to see to see if he’s still there. My fear that these changes and new interests might create distance between us leads me to share everything in detail. He is patient, asks good questions, and forces me into more clear articulation. Even so, we share this fear, both of us anxious that we’ll simply grow too far apart someday. That day hasn’t yet come despite how much has already changed, and we take solace in that.
This is all a tectonic shift in how I organize my life, and yet mainly only in my internal experience. To others, I am, so far, mostly the same Steph (or Stephanie or Stephie depending on how far back we go) that I’ve always been. Helping edit this piece, Leda shared with me: “As your friend of many decades, you are both different than in your ‘pre-woo’ days and very much the same. I mean that in a good way, in the sense that all the things you feel your woo journey awoke in you already existed in you in some way.” Perhaps that’s all; though I fear becoming something that I once judged, too far from where I started, perhaps I’m only becoming more and more myself. As with so many odysseys and spiritual journeys, I have traveled only in order to return home.
Image: René Magritte: “The Enchanted Domain”