The Hungry Ghost

Check out my conversation about my experience in my body and with food on the
Yoga Moves You Podcast.

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I want to share a part of me that in hindsight paints itself with clarity, and only now, years removed am I able to send compassion and tenderness to the young woman in my memory. A girl and her dance with the hungry ghost.

I was 20 when I stopped eating. I had witnessed peers in high school experimenting with different methods to find thinness, but it wasn’t until college that I turned towards deprivation to try to “fit in.” I stopped eating  because I didn’t feel like I was doing “enough” to be worthy of love. I felt overwhelmed by my finances,  the pressure of a rigorous academic course load, surviving in a new and powerful city, and my uncertainty of what I wanted in my life. At the time, I did not have the wisdom to pause and check in with myself, the scared little girl underneath all of the noise. I did not have the clarity around why I was feeling  as if I were caught in a spiral, spinning and winding further out of my own control. What I knew was that I had complete control over what I ate, or in my case, did not eat. I turned to making myself small and compact to prove that I could count on myself. My mission was to shrink and by doing so prove that I had self-discipline; that even as my life seemed to be living me, I had one portion of it that I was in complete control over. 

I shrank. I ran and worked out in my university’s gym until I almost passed out. I stayed up late studying and got up early to workout. I chased an image of physical perfection and the validation of my academic environment. If I could be perfect, I wouldn’t be rejected, I wouldn’t fail, I wouldn’t feel pain. I didn’t have time for relationships, and I didn’t care. I poured my energy into my pursuit. I was looking for someone to tell me I was doing okay, to hear the words “I love you,” and to be able to believe them. 

 

What I realize now, is that I was not alone. Even if at the time I felt that the insidious thoughts and the self-lacerating practices I employed were mine only, they were not. I have since spoken to hundreds of women personally, and read the stories of thousands more, who sing of their own struggle with the addiction to perfection. Whether it’s over-eating or not eating, disordered relationships with food stem from a source way deeper than the skin, and its an epidemic plaguing women, particularly in the west. 

It’s the plague of the hungry ghost, an obsession that has us consumed under a false belief that in order to be loved we have to look and behave in a certain way. When we develop an addiction, whether to a substance or a behavior, it is because we are not satiated in some other aspect of our life. For me, I did not feel stable. I was a college student with debt, a few jobs, academic expectations, and a lack of self-love. I wanted to be perfect so intensely, because I believed that if I was perfect than I would be worthy of receiving love. I was not satisfied by the relationships in my life, especially that to myself, and so I turned to food and my physical body to try to satiate my desire. 

The word “desire” comes from the Latin roots meaning, “to move away from the star.” In my case, the desire to feel a deep sense of love manifested in my trying to create a circumstance in which I could feel worthy of it. If I had had the tools to pause and offer myself compassion, I may have been able to separate myself from the behavior and look honestly at the source of my suffering, I may have saved myself a lot of struggle. 

We each feel the call of desire, that to fulfill a specific need at a moment in time. If we can witness ourselves in the moment of being triggered - to reach for the alcohol, the food, the perfectionism routine - we can facilitate our own healing through awareness. Once recognize the approach of the hungry ghost, we can ask the honest question “In what way am I not being fulfilled in this moment?” or “Which of my needs is not being met right now?” From there, we take the courageous step in offering ourselves compassion as we sit in the heat of a desire that we can see with clear eyes does not serve our most optimal life if we act upon it. 

It took me years of letting my hungry ghost control my life to finally pause, take a breath, and ask my heart to trust that it was not only worthy of love, but that it had been surrounded by it for a lifetime. It took me a roller coaster of disordered eating to see that ghosts are only scary if we believe them to be real. I satiated myself with honesty, forgiveness, support of community, and self-love, and it was only then that the yearning ghost felt full and let me be. 

How "well" is wellness?

To hear a deep dive into this and other provocative topics, you can listen to my interview on the Yoga Moves You podcast. 

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Wellness, with a capital “W”, has grown to be one of the most profitable industries in the world, breaking the trillion dollar mark.  It is valued as three times as profitable as the pharmaceutical industry. According to Susie Ellis, the CEO of the Global Wellness Institute, there “has been a seismic shift in the way we work, live,and play.” Businesses, consumers, and even western governments are recognizing the importance of taking care of our health as a preventative form of care. 

On one hand, the growth of an industry centered around self-care means that there are more options for people to support their physical, emotional, and mental health. With the open source internet, access to tools and information is easier than ever. The barrier to entry is lower than ever as more people offer information on how to live a healthier and more content existence. Especially in major cities, boutique fitness studios are becoming the Starbucks of the millennial generation, with a new trending offer seemingly on every block. 

The downside, is that too much of anything can create an imbalance. With so much information, one can not help but find contradictory advice. As exemplified with the perspective on fat content in foods, there was once a period when the healthiest thing one could do, according to influential wellness sources at the time, was to eliminate fat from one’s diet. Today, the current standing on fats is that they are not only essential, but increasing the healthy fats in one’s diet can lead to weight loss, healthier digestion, increased energy, and increased ability for the body to absorb nutrients. Whereas some health experts still swear that fat is a leading cause of disease in the body, others are outspoken in favor of full fat diets.

Not only is there contradictory information circulating, but social media has given access to an overwhelming amount of information from both experts and peers. The question then is how much wellness is too much? Pulling up Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook - the major marketing tools of the modern day - one who is interested in their health will be bombarded with images of what it means to be healthy.”Health” has become correlated with youth, the size and shape of the physical body, advantageous resources, and overall popularity. What we see is not the full representation of any one person or circumstance, yet it is all too easy to take the images we see as the entire truth. The epidemic spurred by social media is the plague of comparison. 

Measuring oneself against the filtered and curated view of someone else’s life inevitably leads to suffering. Even if we feel we have an advantage to those with whom we are comparing ourselves, the act of comparing in and of itself sets us up for disappointment, shame, frustration, despair, or the all-too-common conviction that there is something lacking about us or our life. Thus, social media platforms are a  fertile ground to grow an industry that speaks to the desire of human beings to be loved and accepted. We search for it in superfoods and fitness classes, and as consumers we spend our money on those things which we hope will bring us closer to contentment. 

Especially when it comes to the wellness space as is portrayed on social media, there are far too many people who seem to have figured out the “perfect” way of being. The facade put on the screen does not allow for honest connection between the posting party and she/he who is looking at the post. What is offered at face value tends to be that which will gain approval, and not necessarily that which is truly healthy or of support to those consuming the media. There are, of course, plenty of people working to disrupt the perfection model in favor of authenticity, but we need to be asking ourselves if the majority of what we consume on a day-to-day in the name of “Wellness” is in fact well. 

 

The panacea to the never-ending spiral of self-questioning and judgement that both social media and access to endless information can cause, is the decision to shut off the screen, get quiet, and truly listen to what it is we need. There is no one who is going to tell us anything of more value about how we feel or what will make us thrive than ourselves. Wellness, as an individuals search for contentment and well-being, is a transcendent ever-evolving state that each one of us has the ability to access. Our physical bodies, minds, emotional bodies, and energetic bodies are completely unique to each one of us. While there are truths that apply to us all, i.e. our bodies are meant to be moved, processed food and smoking do harm to our health, etc,  the concoction of foods, practices, and experiences that will lead us to the most optimal version of ourselves is impossible for anyone else to know let alone prescribe. The solution to the overwhelming amount of information and stimuli branded as #Wellness is to listen to what the body, mind, and spirit are asking for in any given moment and to take the information we receive and run it through a personal filter of what works and does not work for each of us. We make the commitment to notice when we are dipping toes into the fetid pool of comparison and release the attachment to someone else’s way of being. 

By taking the agency to conduct our own research into what wellness means on an individual level, we are stepping into empowerment, rather than disenfranchised by believing we need more or something different than what we already have. We give ourselves permission to embrace the body and mind that we have been given, and make choices in the name of personal growth and development. If true wellness is our goal, we must commit to doing the work to figure out what helps us to feel whole, at peace, and in love with life, and then we must courageously follow that path. That is an industry worth supporting. 

Acceptance : Noticing The Great Carousel

Photo by Nikolay Vorobyev

Photo by Nikolay Vorobyev

 

It’s hearing that song play through headphones. There is something familiar about, and so it makes you feel real. There’s comfort in the known, even the sour and sickly feelings of anxiety or the heavy footed pounding of depression. We are adaptable humans, to the point where our resilience, our motivation to survive, will turn any practiced state into something we can use - namely a false sense of security. 

It’s an old friend that you should have broken up with years ago. There’s no enhancement happening by the two of you feeding the connection. And yet, you know her habits and thus their is something warming in the predictability. She’ll always choose the precisely wrong words at the right time to make part of you ache. She’ll forget to call on your birthday, you’ll disagree on most principles of your lives, she’ll disrespect your desire to travel, there will be an unnameable rivalry between the two of you, and she’ll never fully respect or accept any of your lovers. There is always something too big about your plans, too small about the event of the day. A quiver of sarcasm in almost every response. 

It’s the habit you watch yourself performing as if you had removed left your body. Left the flawed physical container that does the same thing (or says the same thing or, thinks the same thing, or responds in the same way etc) as you watch from above. A movie that inevitably plays  out in the same way every time. All you can do it watch and try to notice evidence of a root sticking out. Try to see, from your vantage point, if a tip of the root is exposed, poking through the surface, hoping to make itself seen so that is can be finally understood. Visibility is what we wall want, even our layered habits. If it’s there, you can trace it from the tip, from the seen bit, deeper back into the unseen, into what lurks beneath that causes the familiar, safe pattern to play out each time. It’s insane, and somehow, on some level, there is a surge of connection, a warmth of familiarity that flushes though you each time the pattern is performed. 

With each day, new stimuli, and unpredictable happenstance, we search for ways to assert control. For some of us, it means living in way that is not serving us simply because it is familiar. It means choosing certainty over unknown because of its accessibility. Our intellect can play with pieces that it can understand. Math equations can be much more comforting than a blank, boundary-less page. 

I speak from the frustration of familiar feelings rising up. I try to trade the disappointment of feeling, again, for curiosity as to what I still need to learn. For me, the feeling of inadequacy, of uncertainty to whether I have “what it takes” or “enough to offer” or if I “fit the part” is a tired run-around in my mind. However it has become a familiar part of my life. Daresay a friend. 

Like being too old to ride the merry-go-round and having exciting plans to step outside of the amusement park entirely, and yet there is the big plastic horse with the red saddle and painted rose in its mane. There you are, just one more time, climbing on board, the familiar feeling not causing any surge of joy or childlike wonder, simply prompting, with slight shame you’re aware, an illusion of control of certainty. Here, you know what will happen. Round and round you go. 

Perhaps the practice becomes full surrender. Not only to the truth of the greater unknown, but also a giving over of the need to know when and how the music will stop playing, the friend will stop calling, and the ride will be over. Maybe it is the moment we trace the root as far as we can and then choose to fully accept what we find and what remains hidden. Acceptance, full and whole, without judgement or need to be any different, might be a supportive kind of comfort. One that stands in for familiarity. Acceptance is the pair of shoes that makes you realize just how worn out your others were; how much pain they caused you. 

I’m considering the possibility that radical acceptance is the kindest gift I can offer myself. Accepting of:  the choices I’ve made, not knowing what is going to happen, the feelings that rise and fall and seek to drown out any other awareness,  the people who will or will not be there,  those who will or will not say the things I want to hear, knowing how this great amusement park will stay in business, the inspiration that will flow forth and that which will halt just shy of my doorstep,  my heart and all of its tragic and valiant attempts to navigate this experience as Erin. 

Whole acceptance. It’s a deep breath. It’s an elongated exhale. It’s my own arms wrapped around my body. It’s unfaltering self-care. I trust that at some grand point, it becomes more comfortable, more familiar than the detail that I worked each day, with tenderness, to accept. 

Thank you, Heartbreak

Photo by Gerome Viavant

Photo by Gerome Viavant

About 6 months ago, one of my dear friends, and I had dinner together. We spoke about many things: finding purpose, hearing “the voice” of intuition, and the power of breakups. I was in a serious relationship at the time, and her perspective the space that heart break creates struck a chord, but far away, as if I was struggling to hear the sound but knew it to be familiar. 

We sat at a vegan restaurant in Silverlake. Not particularly good, but the cozy atmosphere and the trendily dressed staff made me feel like I was in Brooklyn, my home for so long before I moved to Los Angeles. My friend went on to highlight the benefits of the tender time that follows a breakup, when a person’s main job — and in my opinion there is truly no other nobler pursuit — is to learn to tend to themselves. When half of one’s identity of self is removed, it becomes the job of the self to expand within the void, to figure out by listening inward and by trial and error what makes one feel whole again. 

As I listened to her, I felt my body call forth a familiar feeling. I was reverting back to the memory of me in Brooklyn. Single, having been thrown up and down and all around by love. A city at my fingertips, and every moment of it tinged with tender intensity. When the heart breaks, it cracks open. What feels like loss is actually just expansion of space. it is not so much nothing-ness that we feel, but rather all-ness. Perspective is enriched, there is not a pretense to be found. A heart broken is exposed, and it is in its most raw form. I would argue, that it is the most beautiful. 

Since that conversation, I have found myself back in that raw space. When you’re in it, it is hard to remember it’s value, and sometimes, hard to remember your own. There is space, and time, and so much tenderness. When I can remember the power of this position, it feels like alchemy. When add, into the darkness of sudden aloneness, a few other ingredients, we can  can catalyze the transformation of what ancient alchemists called “the stone” (the beginning state, the starting point which in this case is heart break) into gold. 

What I’m coming to find is that missing ingredient that speeds up the process of transmuting heart ache into creation is relentless self love. Radical, one might say. A conviction to self-worth and personal value that has nothing to do with another person. Attention is turned from feeding a relationship to gorging on how spectacular it is to be with the self. 

By no means is the process of turning shit into fuel easy, and hardly ever ,enjoyable. However,  moving through fire sparked by separation, disrupting known reality, fully experiencing the dark blanket of grief, and accepting the soured feelings that arise – in my experience vacillating between not enough-ness and arrogance –  is a concoction that inevitably yields a deepened relationship with self, a widened capacity to feel fully the experience of being alive and complexity that is symptomatic of humanity. 

The old platitude “better to have loved than have lost” could go a step further. If not for loved and lost, what would propel us into the exploration of the edges of sanity, feeling and imagination? What else could earthquake our life in a similar manner, ensuring that we, and our reality will not be the same? 

For me, the wave-like experience - undulating between a remembered sense of unconditional love in the present moment and a free fall into crippling nostalgia - grants me the welcomed permission to pause. I place  a hand on my heart. Sweetheart, it’s okay, I whisper. I say what I need to hear, even when it feels false or not immediately welcomed. And then with as much trust as I can muster, I return focus on the grand and uncontrollable vision of my life and the decision of what I want to do with all of the gold that’s emerging still from my most recent fire. 

I went to a transgender meetup

Photo by Gabriel Matula 

Photo by Gabriel Matula 

I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend to a transgender support group. He identifies as a man some of the time, and she identifies as a woman at other times. He has transformed his body to be of peak masculine condition and she finds make-up and form-fitting skirts flattering. She looked beautiful that night; she had stopped by a makeup store and asked them to decorate her face. She wasn't sure who she was that night: woman emerging, or man expressing a piece of himself. Regardless, she intended to show up authentically, and would figure out the pronoun later.

I pulled up to a dark corporate building. A bank on the corner and 6 stories of dark glass windows alongside a busy road. I waited for her to arrive. She had asked me to come because he when being him was terrified of both expressing and not expressing her. He liked him, but at the same time he didn't want her to get caught inside of him, suffocated by the feeling of not being enough to be accepted. She, like all of us, wanted to be seen too.

When I saw her, I was struck by how defined her features were. I hadn’t before noticed the high cheekbones and narrow jaw, but when contoured by blush, highlighted with pale powder, this person was striking. We hugged and I felt the empty bra push against my chest. Something familiar there; the time when I had yet to go through puberty and a longing for acceptance took me to the mall to purchase a push-up bra in a size too big. 

We were told to sign in and go to the fourth floor. I saw the scribblings of women’s names next to room 420. I asked my friend if we were going to dance, I imagined the freedom that might bring for both of us. When we got to the room, the group had already begun. We took our seats in the circle. A woman in transition was sharing her story about the hormones she was taking and the experience of talking to her wife about the transition. We'd be dancing through stories.

The women went around and shared their experiences. Being called “sir” and the heart ache it brought. Being pointed and laughed out in public. Crumbling and re-fortifying partnerships. The journey of being publicly reborn, the desire to pass 100% of the time as a woman. The freedom of wearing the clothes that felt sexy, and the terror of telling parents who were less than supportive of alternative paths. Each women spoke honestly, at times heatedly. I sent each of them silent love and hoped they could feel it.

There was another biological woman in the group, and she spoke about her Native American culture. She offered to the group that in her culture, transgender was a gift from the divine. It enabled the person to see from both perspectives. It was above binary, transcended single opinion. I noticed a few soft smiles as this new view point landed in the room.

I found myself touching my heart as they spoke. I wondered if they wondered if I was transitioning. I wondered if they were happy I was there, or perhaps didn’t care. I wondered if I too was accepted in the community in that moment. I thought of all the times I too had felt not enough of a girl, young woman, adult.

And then it occurred to me - a felt sense in my chest. The details of wanting to belong are unique to each of us. For some, it’s as encompassing as not fitting into the body one was given - anatomical parts that do not match up with one’s deeper truth. For others, it’s discomfort with the shape of one’s body, the color of skin. For some it’s intellect and performance. For other’s it’s the size of their ears or the way they speak. For some it’s they popularity that lacks, their family structure, their job, their bank account. There is an infinite list of how we can choose to feel inadequate. 

I went to the meeting to support a friend and I received the felt-sense o human solidarity. Transitioning from man to woman or woman to man can bring forth an extreme version of what each of feels - a desire to belong. A longing to be validated in our enough-ness. To feel deeply our own worth and for it to be reflected by those around us. My sisters in that room are on a rocket ship to true self acceptance though an often misunderstood and even rejected route. I can only hope to be as brave and as willing to support myself when feelings of inadequacy - as they inevitably will - poke and pinch. 

We’re all just trying to come back home. And I’m proud to have met wild women who blaze a new trail, some in high heels, some lipstick, all of us choosing truth, and praying that someone one day will acknowledge how beautiful that it is. 

Are you bored?

Photo by Jed Adan

Photo by Jed Adan

”Are you bored?”

The question clanked around my insides, resounding through my body. I felt a little light come on somewhere in the middle of my brain. I had never considered the possibility in regards to my lifestyle.

I’d been feeling this dull hum of malaise that I chalked up to a quake of a breakup that occupied my awareness and seemed to be there to stay. I knew that I was removed from the vitality and the vibrancy of who I am, of when I feel the most at home. There was nothing wrong with my life so to say, besides the breakup, and yet when I was honest with myself, I couldn’t escape feeling down, sluggish, resentful of my lack of enthusiasm. 

When I was younger, my dad and I use to have conversations about “the darkness”, his name for a state that he would find himself. It was a passing depression, a dip in the roller coaster. We both experienced it, as did many of our extended family. He believed it was the flip side of intelligence, sometimes examining the world weighed a lot. I started to think that perhaps it was “the darkness” penetrating my sunny Los Angeles life as a teacher in the wellness world. I began to wonder when it would let up, as in my experience patience and acceptance are two of the antidotes to feeling low. The challenge is that one can no more predict when it will let up then they can when it will next rain in Los Angeles. 

When I was asked about boredom, something clicked. I followed that feeling of accuracy a bit further and unwound a truth for myself: I had stuck myself into a little hole, and parts of my soul, parts that make me Erin, were not being fed. I am incredibly fortunate, and ever grateful, to live in Los Angeles. To be constantly surrounded by amazing women through my teaching and my work with Quilt. I have developed a routine that maximizes time and is saturated with self-development and self-analysis. I have a regular meditation practice. I wear a few outfits, mostly yoga clothes, and am working on simplifying even further. 

And somewhere in all of that, I became, without realizing it, scared. I can see that as a way to avoid uncertainty, to not feel pain or loneliness, I stacked my days with all the things that are “good for me” that “I should be doing”. To get to xyz I have to do xyz.  While it is true that there is power in a goal and the planning process, there is also magic in the realization that plans are useless. That it’s the unpredictability and the spontaneity where life truly happens. I am learning that “healthy” means setting myself up to be able to fully enjoy life, not spend all of my time checking boxes or pursuing perfect health.

Balance at one point in my life was adding more spiritual practices, subtracting foods that didn’t work well with my body, making it a priority to sleep. Those things resonate, but so does making time to put on a dress and go dancing. So does having a Guinness (and saluting my Irish heritage) on a random Saturday at 3pm because it felt joyous in the moment. 

If we’re doing all of these things : the yoga, the meditation, the green juice, the adaptogens, the acupuncture, the cryotherapy, the sound baths etc., to live more fully, more awake, more vibrantly, then let us not forget the living part.

As always, I speak to myself, and I’m still learning. 

Time to stop writing, or reading, and dance like mad.