Waves and the things we leave behind

Sept. 26, 2022, 7:27 p.m.

“Ashrams are where white, heart-broken, middle-class women go,” my good friend from India warned me. I never was one for stereotypes, and I’m not quite sure I fit the stereotype anyway, so that made me rethink the plan.

I had recently lost my father and my boyfriend of seven years. Most startling, though, I lost myself.

When the pandemic began, especially in the first few months, I started meditating often. I would not speak for whole days, instead observing thoughts as they drifted in, not letting them flood my being or direct my actions. This was the solution I had found to the anxiety we were all collectively experiencing, the ever-present fear that all those we loved would be taken by COVID-19.

Campus was empty and so I would cycle around freely in the $30 used cruiser bike I had bought and painted green so I could call it the “Grasshopper.” The name, I thought, fit well with the enormous antennae-like handles.

As my boyfriend paced the four corners of our studio apartment, taking calls and dealing with the always incoming emergencies from work, I ventured around campus and Palo Alto on the Grasshopper, talking to blue birds, squirrels and trees as I rode. I would ask nature for permission to enter the unknown clearings, telling myself to simply walk in the direction that looked most beautiful. Permission was always granted. I would look around and sit and breathe in and feel the earth under me, looking up at the redwoods  which, as a poem of mine went, were “tall trees, trunks always taking them up to eternity…” 

As I breathed out, the new breath that came in told me I belonged. It came as a certainty, that I and all things — nature, animals, air and energy — belonged to some eternal unexplainable thing.

This feeling of belonging wasn’t a constant, but it was present enough to get me by.

On three occasions during that first summer of the pandemic, I cried while I took in what was in front of me. I cried because of the absolute certainty I felt that no matter what, things are alright and all is beautiful. On the first occasion, it was a pink sky and white clouds; on the second, the bluest plain sky; on the third, an orange sun being swallowed by the sea as surfers glided along smooth waves and children ran to dip their toes in the water, only to then shrill and giggle at the surprising coldness that led them to run away.

I watched it and I knew, I felt it deeply, that we are all wonderful creatures. No one is better than another, no one worse. All of us are just trying our best to play whatever role it is we play during the time we have on earth. Ultimately, we are all just a part of a complex and fascinating system that interweaves through all things, alive and dead.

We are simply here, existing, and to simply live is to live well. And that is enough.

That felt true, at least, until I was swept over by a feeling that nothing was good enough anymore and I was a horrible being, one who didn’t even deserve to be in the world.

The feeling came when I found out my father had died. Self-hatred rushed in because of the forgiveness that was not given and the love that was withheld for fear it would not be accepted. Then my boyfriend left, and most of what I knew of love, honor and protection went too. 

Self-hatred almost drowned me. 

There was nothing I felt I could hold onto, even as I tried clinging to it all — other guys, friends, a narrative about how bad and evil I was. The latter really stuck for a while. My ego took over for a while. You see, it turns out that a big ego manifests not only when a person thinks she is great, but also when she thinks she is terrible. The ego thinks it ruins everything, because it thinks everything is about “it.” 

To compensate, my friends would tell me tirelessly about how great they thought I was. As I hopped around from one friend’s sofa to another in EVGR, my friends would pace around, worried. They would glance at the untouched plate of food one friend had prepared, then at my thinning limbs, then at each other, all as they spoke of how far I had come, how impressed they were by my efforts, and how far I would go and the people I could help if only I keep trying and don’t give up on my degree and that I am impressive and could do any and everything. 

I thought this was what I needed to hear and believe to feel better, but it only turned out to be a great burden. No one should have to be great or impressive to deserve to be loved. 

Yet it seems we go to extremes before we are able to find a balance. I became obsessed with trying to be great; to prove myself to be a “badass.” I tried to do it all, managing a national COVID-19 prevention campaign, traveling, working full-time, caring for my grandparents. Anything and everything except letting myself feel the pain I had inside. All while convincing myself that I could and should and must take it all on. 

In one memory that lingers in the mind, I was hanging out with someone I was terrified of liking. We went out for dinner in San Francisco one night. A small, round table was the only distance between us; a safe distance for me. I was terrified of letting him or anyone else get too close to me for fear they might see the ugliness I saw inside myself. To compensate, I forced myself to eat the pizza we had ordered as fast as I could — perhaps to also make up for the fact I hadn’t been eating much recently. 

I also drank the wine as fast as I could and, as you might expect, I vomited. Not food, but words. Truths and lies, things to impress him. Things I don’t remember. I simply could not stop talking. Anxiety, fear and alcohol are a terrible combination when it comes to connecting with others and for one’s memory. What I do remember is that I was trying hard to get him to like me because I simply wasn’t managing to like myself. 

So where’s the Ashram in all of this? 

Nowhere. I didn’t go. But I did go home — to myself and to my family. 

Best of all, I went to the beach. 

I let others take care of me a little bit, which I had never done before. I would rest my head on my grandmother’s lap as she watched TV. She would run her fingers through my hair and hum a little song. Each and every motion felt like receiving a blessing. I also let myself feel sadness: I would watch the sunset from the top of a sand dune and simply cry, not avoiding the fear, anger and rage that accompanied the sadness and that I had been able to run away from through all the distractions I had found, which included all of the “proving” of myself. 

It was easy to find distractions. There are always a million things to do at Stanford. We can learn from so many people. Yet especially through hard times, all I did was compare myself to others or berate myself for not taking advantage of the many opportunities around. 

I would berate myself for not being able to concentrate on the essays I had to write or the readings I wanted to complete. Even though, with every sentence, I was pulled aside by thoughts of trying to hug my father only to see his body being pulled away into a dark sea by a treacherous rip current from where I knew he’d never escape.

And still, instead of feeling compassion for myself, I felt bad. I called myself lazy and a waste of the education I worked so hard to get and that so many others dream about. I used anything and everything to make myself feel bad. Yet the constant “doing” and the constant demand and push for perfection, for As — it was all too well-fitting into the narrative of self-hatred I had in my mind.

I am writing this because I hope you never give into the comparison and self-hatred. Chances are that you have, at some point, done it too. But I hope you don’t do it again. I hope you can see that all these opportunities should never come at the expense of your wellbeing or become a weapon you use to beat yourself up with. I hope, most of all, that you can be kind to yourself, even if your difficulties are different from the ones I faced. And if you are able to, whenever you are tempted to compare yourself to others or feel like you are unlovable, I hope you go to the beach or somewhere quiet and beautiful and see what I now see as I write these words to you.

It took me a long time to get here, and it’s not just because a flight from SFO to FLN is usually 18 hours long. It took me a long time to get back to a place of compassion for myself because I didn’t feel I deserved to get there ever again. Often, I was inundated by thoughts of how so many people had worse problems than mine. I have been told, by myself, no less, that I am lucky, one of the luckiest people in the world. But that shouldn’t mean that I am not allowed to fail, to take time off or to not feel pain. 

No. I am here to tell you that it’s okay to feel sadness, and that sometimes sadness will mask itself as anger, self-hatred, righteousness or pretending to be something you’re not and making mistakes that you will regret for a very long time. Or maybe even all of those things together. Still, you should not let sadness or self-hatred take over. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You should always come back to yourself, whatever that means for you. But let that “whatever” have kindness and mercy towards yourself and others.

As I write to you, I am at Campeche Beach, in Florianopolis, Brazil. I wish you could see it — Google it if you can. It’s marvelous. I see a green island in the distance that is only accessible by boat. My feet are tucked into a perfect little mountain created by the sand around them. I have a string of little cream shells on my left ankle. I look up and out into the immenseness of it all. The sky. The sea. The waves invading and receding or simply disappearing. Before they shocked my toes with their coldness. Now they shock me with the realization they bring: there is a pace to nature and to life. All things have their time. Waves come and go. Sometimes strong, other times less so. Flowers grow, bloom, wilt, then die. Things happen because they do.

The waves are my thoughts — the good, the destructive, the mundane. They simply are and appear and recede on the shore of my consciousness. 

I’m just a girl at a beach, watching the waves come by, but not letting them wash over me. 

I’m just a girl at a beach, letting it be. 

Soon I’ll be a girl back at Stanford, just trying to learn. Still, the waves will come; they’re thoughts. But they won’t take over me. 

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