I collected my vegan meal in my deep foldable travel bowl and headed up the hill path toward the temple. It had been a full and intense three days of being in circle with wise, raw women, and this introverted woman needed to eat alone in the presence of 21 aspects of the Tibetan deity, Tara, who were pretty good at allowing an introvert to just eat in silence. My system was craving solitude and space – she desperately needed time to reflect and repair.
I got half way up the hill and it suddenly hit me: “Fuck, I have a yogi job!” My need for solitude would be sacrificed to wash dishes and sweep floors with the kitchen clean-up crew after lunch. Knowing that I still needed to eat my lunch, I kept trudging up the hill and settled myself on a comfy seat under a verandah of the Tara Mandala temple.
My mind and body were reeling from the activities of the previous three days. I was full of experiences to process. I felt a need to set up boundaries between myself and others to protect my space. I felt on the outer edge of being able to successfully hold it all.
I imagined the grey-haired woman who manages the kitchen marching up the hill to personally chastise me for not doing my yogi job
As I gratefully munched on the delicious food prepared for me, I sensed into my felt experience. I was terrified of having to force myself back down the hill to be social, useful, compliant and productive. I was in a state of fear. I took the time to notice that I was in a state of fear, a familiar way of being for me.
In my mind flavored by fear, I saw the grey-haired, apron-adorned woman running the kitchen as a tyrant who would strip me of my choice and punish me for not being productive. I even imagined her marching up the hill to personally chastise me for not doing my yogi job. Or at least she would run down her printed list of retreatants who were signed up for the after-lunch yogi jobs and she would put a big mark around my name – “Where is that Kristy Arbon?!” Where I had previously seen a three-dimensional grey-haired figure of sweetness and dedication, my mind now saw two dimensions of rigidity and consequences. What had changed? Simply the number and intensity of events in my experience over the last few days and my ability to process them all. My overwhelm had changed the way I viewed this person and this task.
I decided, there and then, to not do my yogi job if my motivation came from fear. I decided I would not abandon my needs to should on myself. My female ancestors stood up and paid attention.
As I reflected on these activities in my experience, I was able to call all of this “motivation from fear.” The only reason to do my yogi job was because of a motivation of fear. In that moment of needing space to process, I had no energy left to care about my contribution to the community – I couldn’t find a motivation from love.
I saw young inner child parts of myself terrified of being forced to do something they didn’t want to do (a decades-long pattern for me), and found some older, wiser, compassionate parts of myself coming in to the situation. It dawned on me: “What if I gave myself permission to only go down the hill to work in the kitchen if it’s done from a place of love?” I decided, there and then, to not do my yogi job if my motivation came from fear. I decided I would not abandon my needs to should on myself. My female ancestors stood up and paid attention.
My practice continued.
I felt motivation from fear of being punished as well as the “Please don’t make me do my yogi job!” plea in the internal landscape of the left side of my body – like a steel rod pressing against my inner being, allowing no movement, instilling a freeze response. When I felt into love, that was in the right side of my body: a place of warmth and flexibility, a tenderness that brought tears of appreciation, a sense of being seen and heard, a sense of coming home.
After being with fear for some time, I moved my awareness over to love. I felt the relief of not being forced, of being sovereign, of having complete choice. I felt into how delightful it was to sit in the sun, to enjoy the delicious food, to revel in the sights of the valley, the sounds of the thunder in the sky and the smell of damp earth. I allowed myself to rest back into the arms of this feminine-feeling side of me, this ability to rock myself in my own arms, my love for my own inner children.
Then I asked the question: What motivates me to go down the hill to do my job? And the answer came from fear – from the inflexible, masculine side of me that wanted me to be afraid of being punished. I moved back to love and allowed myself to rest there. Love did not want me to go down the hill. Love knew that I needed space.
After resting in a love for a while, I asked the question again: What motivates me to do my yogi job? Once again, the only motivation I could find was on the left side of my body, from fear. So I moved back to rest in the love on the right side of my body.
This back-and-forth went on for an hour – feeling into love, feeling into fear. Sitting outside the temple bathed in sunshine, the view of the valley, the thunder and light rain, feeling into my internal landscape.
… as I was feeling into fear, an internalized voice said “You have to do your job!” and another voice asked “Why?” The emergent response was startling: “Because they will kill you if you don’t!” I knew immediately what that referred to: millenia of sensitive and creative souls going against colonial and patriarchal instructions, and being killed – literally, creatively, figuratively – for saying “no.”
Having run a Buddhist retreat center for five years, I knew how important it was to the staff that retreatants show up for their yogi jobs. I was absolutely aware of what my not-showing-up meant for someone else who would need to work more. It pained me terribly to try unsuccessfully to feel in to the inner part of me that wanted to show up from love. But she just wasn’t there, and I couldn’t force her out. I guess she knew better.
At one point, as I was feeling into fear, an internalized voice said “You have to do your job!” and another voice asked “Why?” The emergent response was startling: “Because they will kill you if you don’t!” I knew immediately what that referred to: millenia of sensitive and creative souls going against colonial and patriarchal instructions, and being killed – literally, creatively, figuratively – for saying “no.” I was discovering my inner patriarch, aligning me with structures of “power over” as a way to protect me from being punished. In this sweet valley where decades of practitioners had dedicated their work to the love and protection of the divine feminine, I was getting in touch with my less-than-divine masculine. Seemed a fitting place for the two to battle it out. (I want to point out there that is also a less-than-divine feminine and an oh-so-divine masculine as well – they just didn’t show up in this little exchange.)
The movement between love and fear went on – viscerally painful, but existentially imperative. I checked the time on my phone a few times. The time of the yogi job arrived and passed. The half-way time of the yogi job arrived and passed (still no grey-haired, apron-adorned woman marching up the hill to wave her finger at me). Finally, the finish time of the yogi job came and passed. I found myself starting to make a bargain with myself that I would make myself stay after the end of the retreat tomorrow to put in extra time to make up for not being in the kitchen today, but then another part of me knew better and offered a “Let’s wait and see where we’re motivated from tomorrow.”
This is a path of non-abandonment and reconciliation with ourselves. It’s not easy work – it takes great courage and determination. It’s a David and Goliath practice – me versus cultural conditioning.
As it turned out, no-one even noticed that I wasn’t there to do my yogi job. No-one. Nothing bad happened. No-one punished me. My inner patriarch was wrong in this circumstance, but I appreciate his efforts to protect me. My inner wise woman was right all along. The following day I could come from a place of love and I willingly stayed past the end time of the retreat to help out in the kitchen.
This practice was huge for me – cathartic, informing and deeply validating. This is the kind of inner navigation system we can use when we develop the skills of interoception, intuition and felt sense. This is how we can recruit our inner wise beings to protect our inner frightened children. This is how we might see the cultural biases in our internal system, the oppressive structures we have internalized, the ways we abandon ourselves out of fear … and start to explore a different way of being.
This is a path of non-abandonment and reconciliation with ourselves. It’s not easy work – it takes great courage and determination. It’s a David and Goliath practice – me versus cultural conditioning. But it’s work we are all worthy of. We deserve to feel a sense of freedom and joy. We deserve to validate our internal experience. We deserve to be sovereign over our own bodies and mind. External culture might be telling us something, but we can gradually and gently stoke the tiny fires of our emergent internal culture to lean more on our own sources of wisdom and compassion. This is all totally doable. I hope we get to do this together. If you’re interested in traveling together on this path, check out Somatic Self-Compassion training or Thriving Woman Toolkit. See you there
You can find the audio recording and script for a practice similar to the one I used on this page.
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- Podcast Episode 6: Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Anxiety, Isolation, and Quarantine - January 5, 2021
- Somatic Self-Compassion Week 1 Practice Cycle: What is Somatic Self-Compassion? - January 4, 2021