Pictured above is a very special pillow that resides in the center of our living room. My mom sewed it for me as a Christmas present in 2013, with a single line from a Mary Oliver poem embroidered on it:
And I say to my heart: rave on.
This was the year I met Ryan, my now life partner whom I married last September. We met on a beach in Nicaragua while traveling with a group of friends and in a (skipped) heartbeat – literally 5 days – our entire world flipped upside down and our life together began. I wasn’t a believer in fast-track love. I was a slow, steady, cautious type of gal – toes in the water, one at a time. Yet there I was, out in the bottomless ocean, surfing the waves and pinching myself every few hours, convinced this was the best dream I'd ever have. I still pinch myself, daily.
Rena and Ryan, Nicaragua 2013 (three days after we met)
The past 6 years have been magical. And they’ve also been some of the scariest in my life. I’d never had a partner that I was so afraid to lose.
This is the beautiful and terrifying thing about love – in any form: the vulnerability and courage it requires. Or as our friend Marli would say, the “vulnerageous-ness”. Before I met Ryan, most of my partners were wonderful, but I never pictured a full-fledged future with them – a desire to grow old together, to have children, to build a life completely enmeshed with another human. And now that I had this desire, this expectation, I found myself grasping on so tightly. My mind began to catastrophize all of these awful things – most of which were irrational, but I couldn't help it. I'd never experienced this before. Each morning, when Ryan hopped on his bike and pedaled off to work, my mind would populate this film reel of him getting hit by a car. In the evenings, same thing – that little voice in my head would say "pssst - what if?" I wasn't a hyper/anxious type of partner and I could temper my mind pretty well, but the fear was still there deep in my gut. It still is.
I felt inspired to write this post on the heels of Valentines Day – a day in which our culture sensationalizes love with pink balloons and chocolate and cute teddy bears. Yes, the rosy parts of love are totally worth celebrating (in my opinion, every day of the year) but it's also important to honor the thorny, more jagged parts. Pink balloons don't capture the paradoxical complexity of loving another human. The delight and the fear having a perennial soirée in the belly.
As my meditation practice deepens, I'm learning to turn toward this complex paradox. I'm learning that the more I open myself up to the feelings of fear, the more I open myself up to the feelings of love. In her Ted Talk The Price of Invulnerability, Brené Brown (a courage and vulnerability researcher) explains how we can't selectively numb emotions. In other words, if we cope with fear and anxiety by numbing out or distracting ourselves, we're also numbing our ability to feel deep joy and fulfillment. If we want to feel the really good stuff, we have to equally feel the bad stuff. It's a simple equation, but an incredibly hard thing to do.
My meditation practice is helping me so much in this regard. It's helping me become more aware of when I'm numbing (something that happens subconsciously). It's helping me strengthen my inner vulnerageousness so I can actually sit with and open to the fear, instead of shrinking or hiding from it. It's helping me love boldly, instead of trying to hold back to protect myself from the fear. It's also helping me actually savor the goodness, the "Hallmark" pink balloon moments, instead of letting them be tainted by the fear of loss. Brown calls this "foreboding joy" – when you're experiencing a really beautiful moment – falling asleep next to a loved one, laughing while eating a meal – you're suddenly swallowed by the fear of something bad happening...of losing them. And this can completely rob you of life's joyful moments. If we're spending all of this energy loving so we can enjoy the goodness, but the goodness is constantly shadowed by the fear of losing it, what on earth is the point? Through my practice, I'm starting to see how this IS precisely the point. And the shadow isn't a bad thing, it isn't something to get rid of. It's something to embrace 110% because it's what makes love so beautiful.
In her poem, Mary Oliver opens with this stanza:
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
She honors the severity and complexity of loving someone, and implores the reader to love extravagantly, without restraint. To usher in all of the joy and sadness – because that's the only way to do it.
At the core of mindfulness practice is learning to love in this way. To embrace the twitterpation and the heartbreak, not valuing one over the other. I'm at the beginning of this lifelong endeavor, but I'm starting to see the deep truth in it. I don't need to desperately cling onto the good and resist the bad. I don't need to organize life into a bunch of pretty boxes, hoping and praying that they all stay intact. They won't. They can't. Instead, I'm learning that there is only this moment, and within it a formidable choice – to open or to close.
And I say to my heart: rave on.
About the Author
Rena is a meditation instructor, writer, and designer and has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for eleven years. Her studies began in college at the University of Redlands Meditation Room, one of the first "contemplative classrooms” in the country, where she studied meditation alongside her degrees in business and graphic design. She worked as a health coach for a Portland-based wellness organization, and spent six years developing her coaching and meditation skills through her work in the nonprofit sector.
Rena is currently studying positive neuroplasticity with Dr. Rick Hanson, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, and is pursuing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) certification through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.