talking to myself

 

I fell in love with myself once and it wasn’t some kind of ego trip. No, it was the real thing: my soul fell in love with itself. I honestly didn’t know that was possible, but apparently it is.

When it happened I was sitting in a strip mall parking lot in Colorado Springs, flanked by Wal-Mart and Whole Foods on one side and some big mountains on the other. That morning I had driven down from Boulder for a doctor’s appointment. It was honestly amazing that I even made the two-hour trip because I could barely keep my eyes open. At the time I was sick with a mysterious illness that left me absolutely exhausted; most days I felt like all the chi had been sucked out of my body. Aside from going to the one class that I didn’t drop in grad school—a devotional singing course—the only other place I ventured was the grocery store and the acupuncturist’s office.

Desperate for help, I went down to Colorado Springs to see an osteopath that someone had recommended. For an hour I lay on the table and she held my head in her hands. It was the first time anyone had touched me in such a loving way for a long time and I almost couldn’t handle it. When I left her office, tired and tender, I pulled into the parking lot, leaned my head against the steering wheel, and burst into tears.

When I lifted my head, I noticed a tape recorder on the passenger seat, the one I used to record songs in my singing class. Without thinking I picked it up, pushed record, and began speaking into it. “I’m so tired. I can’t stand another moment of this. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing...” I wept as I spoke, but was too distraught to be self-conscious. For several minutes I poured my heart out to the little plastic gadget and then rewound the tape and played back my words. As I listened to the recording I was overcome with a flood of compassion and my heart broke with tenderness, hearing the anguish in my voice. When it was over I turned off the recorder and sat in silence. For some reason I felt incredibly calm and relaxed, as if I had just had a nourishing conversation with a friend.

At home later that night another wave of despair washed over me and, once again, I confided in the recorder. It was odd, but there was something comforting in the practice. I felt completely uninhibited with myself, which was rare and so liberating.

Without thinking too much about it, I began to carry the tape recorder with me everywhere I went. It was like a nonjudgmental presence and whenever I had an important thought or feeling, I pushed record. Although at first I was critical of my voice, over time it soothed me. At the end of each day I snuggled into bed and shared my heart, and I always listened to the recording right after. This helped me zoom in and out of my life situation: When I talked I opened up and released my pain, and when I listened I bore witness to my experience. Soon I had tapes full of my words and the audio journal became my nightly ritual.

A few weeks into my acoustic adventure I began to try new things: I read poetry and sang myself songs. At night I kept the recorder by my bed and shared my dreams when I woke up in the morning, much like I might with a lover. I spoke my prayers, visions, and fears, and soon started to feel like I was falling in love—in love with myself. All I wanted to do was sit down with my recorder and open my heart because talking helped me reconnect with my soul. I saw my innocence, confusion, and longing, and learned how to embrace myself by listening. For so long I wanted to be seen, heard, and understood, but I always hoped that someone else would give that to me. I never imagined I could give myself that which I always sought from others, but as I became my own lover the world began to change.

In Hindu philosophy there’s a term called sakshi bhava, which means “witness consciousness”. Witness consciousness is the ability to observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment or identification, and it’s really what meditation and other spiritual practices help us do. I often think about sakshi bhava like a movie screen: The screen is unchanging and it has no preference or opinion about what images are projected onto it—it’s simply a witness. In the same way, we can learn to witness our experience without grasping at it. This is exactly what the audio journal allowed me to do. Without even trying, the practice helped me drop into a space of witness consciousness where I was able to hear my story without trying to change it. Every time I rewound the tapes and heard my words, it was like watching clouds drift through the sky. I was able to witness my suffering with compassionate detachment and acceptance.

At the same time, I didn’t deny my story—there was space for it to be there. This was huge for me because back then I had a tendency to get lost in painful emotions or to deny them altogether by spiritual bypassing.

Have you ever heard that term spiritual bypassing? It’s one of my favorites. Years ago when I used to work in a bookstore, a new release caught my eye; it was called Toward a Psychology of Awakening, written by John Welwood. I took the book home and became obsessed with it because the author articulated something I was doing, but never realized: spiritual bypassing.

Basically, spiritual bypassing is a way of using spirituality to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings, unresolved wounds, and all of that human stuff. John Welwood coined the term in the early 1980s when he observed this happening with many of his clients who were long-term meditators and spiritual practitioners. Instead of confronting their “issues” and painful emotions directly, many of them used spiritual platitudes and other methods to ignore the reality of their experience. Me too. Spiritual bypassing was safe and cozy, but it also divorced me from the true radiance of life.

The second time I went to India I had just ended a five-year relationship. Even though my boyfriend and I parted ways in peace, I still felt very sad about the end of our partnership. The problem was, I didn’t think it was okay to feel sad because that would mean I was attached and emotional.... God forbid! I thought I was supposed to be totally detached and surrendered, so I didn’t allow myself to grieve. But the sadness in my heart just intensified over time until I couldn’t turn away from it anymore. Eventually, I had to confront my pain.

In a miraculous way, the audio journal provided an outlet where I could feel my grief and observe it at the same time. The practice helped me understand that spirituality is about being fully human—not some perfected, aloof, indifferent person who is above all emotion. After all, if numbness were the aim of spiritual practice, many of us would be robots, not sensitive, deep-feeling souls. To be really human, I feel we have to be intimate with all aspects of our experience without shutting things down and locking them away; that just leads to repression. Of course it’s a very fine line because we don’t want to indulge in suffering or get caught in our story either, but if we always try to gloss over what’s right in front of our face, we risk living insincere lives.

Spiritual teachings can be helpful or harmful—it depends on how they’re used. Either they can help us become more compassionate, conscious beings, or they can turn us into judgmental, narcissistic pricks. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Over the years spiritual wisdom has humbled and transformed me, but it’s also given me a superiority complex at times. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Maybe you know what I mean—it’s the subtle belief that “I’m above all of that ‘human stuff’ because, in essence, I’m just a witness. Nothing touches me. Nothing phases me. I’m totally indifferent, detached, and, well, disassociated.”

My last partner taught me more about this than anyone. He had a simple depth and genuine quiet that really eased my mind, but he didn’t wear his spirituality on his sleeve. Unlike my previous partners whom I shared more with on the surface, this sweet man challenged me to consider all of my ideas about what it meant to be spiritual. Of course I had my concepts, but the more time we spent together the more my mind came apart at the seams. Whenever I tried to put him in a box, he broke through my judgments with simple questions like, “Do you think being spiritual has to look a certain way?” Apparently I did.

But his presence and the audio journal (both came into my life around the same time) taught me that there is a place for everything in life—both relative and absolute. In the Buddhist tradition this concept of relative and absolute is referred to as "the two truths". The relative or conventional view is how things appear (ie. the storyline of our lives) and the absolute or ultimate view is the state that is beyond all appearances—like the vast sky without clouds. These two truths interpenetrate each other and both have important roles to play.

I find this teaching to be really useful because it suggests that the messiness of life has value even though there is an ultimate reality that transcends it—and that has been my experience. From what I can discern, spirituality is about embracing polarities. So the relative can be a gateway to the absolute and vice versa. Going into my story and then witnessing it through the audio journal has allowed me to experience these two truths in an embodied way.

I still record audio journals every now and then. Actually, there’s a beautiful wildlife sanctuary where I like to walk and sometimes I go out there with my little recorder and just share my heart. No one hears me but the trees and the birds and it always feels like this intimate exchange between my authentic self and the natural world. Sitting there in the quiet of this sacred place, I hear myself—for real—and in that hearing there’s a letting go that happens. I stop trying to defend and protect my ego, and it’s easier to drop my fixation on being a separate, solid self. In those moments I truly love the mysterious being that I am.

Try it some time, sweet blog reader. You might really enjoy the experience. Just sit somewhere with a recording device and share your heart. Then listen to it and appreciate the beauty that you are.

Thanks for reading—it means a lot.