Together with friend and author Lodro Rinzler, Lion’s Roar is bringing you weekly selections from Shambhala Publications’ Under 35 Project, which gathers original writings by younger Buddhist practitioners. The latest is Sarah Jackson’s funny and honest “Fame in My Brain. ”
Comfort levels were at a dangerously high level that day, due to heavy rain and depression.
I am not going to tell you how long I had my pajamas on that weekend, but please know it was beyond my control as I am a licensed practitioner of Maximum Comfort. Qualifications include certificate in Comfy Baking, (specializing in homemade brownies and poundcake) degree in Comfy Fashion Design, (working mostly in yoga pants and found/”borrowed” t-shirts, including my favorite Les Miz t-shirt with the neck cut out like Pat Benatar), and my own bed Feng Shui called “Sleep Lasagne” (a complex self tuck-in system that ensures a perfect night’s sleep).
On the best of days — when you’re in a relationship with a blue-eyed man who always smells like wood and Kombucha, like one of the old school health food stores — Maximum Comfort is heaven. But on that Saturday and many weekends after I broke up with Blue-Eyed Kombucha man, it was nothing but a paralyzing hell.
I developed a remarkably high threshold for alone time and general quiet as an adult. I was raised in a home with three brothers, two sisters, one bathroom, and old-school parents who didn’t think kids should be allowed to close their bedroom doors. Solitude is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered. My first taste of it wasn’t until I left for college, and I ate it up like I was at a buffet. Finally, I had the peace and quiet I needed to make life choices and move forward.
But at the age of 32 and a late bloomer to heartbreak, Maximum Comfort turned into a Maximum Security Prison for my mind. For months, I played, rewound, and played again the stories of what had happened to a relationship that I thought was as healthy as Kombucha, and now just seemed weird, sad, and gross…like when you find out what that drink is really made from.
I was desperate to get up and do something, anything to keep moving forward. But every step I took — whether it was towards social events with friends, gym memberships, or new haircuts — felt hollow and inadequate. So with nowhere to walk to, I just stayed put on my couch in my pajamas with a remote control to keep me company.
Who knows why I stopped channel surfing at the PBS pledge drive? Maybe I wanted to feel good about my laziness, and bad about having never given PBS a dime, all at the same time. Seems pretty in line with post-heartbreak self abuse.
Their big ratings-getter was a show called The Brain Fitness Program, a special about the effects of aging on the brain and the exercises we can use in our everyday lives to counteract them. Since I am a total square, I settled even deeper into my couch and said stuff like “oh”, and “wow”, and “huh” to myself. But one section in particular that actually lifted me from the couch, and just a little above my depression.
An expert described the mental tools necessary to study and cram for exams and other important events in our lives as “Fame in the Brain”. Basically, very basically, when we need to pass a super-important final exam in Marxist Thought let’s say, that subject creates an area in our brain that becomes “famous”. This means that all of the braniac parts required to pass the test move to that subject and do a Neutron Dance all around it to get our brain in line with all things Karl Marx. Once we have passed that exam, the braniac parts move on to more important matters. Like, meeting up with your friends for happy hour to celebrate passing Marxist Thought and to berate the friend who convinced you to take that dreadful class. (I was a philosophy major in college, so clearly I was the one berated.)
This was my very surface understanding of something far more complicated and scientific. But it was just deep enough to give me a miraculous break from the blues, and objectively consider what thoughts were famous in my brain at that very challenging moment.
The Hollywood of my brain is just as dramatic as anything you would see on E!. I suspect this is true of all of us. Sometimes it’s all about the makeover stories, “That is it! I am losing 173 pounds or I will never EVER be happy” So it’s the running, and the yoga, and whole grains, and no brownies. Then that get old, and it’s all about the new reality show “Spring is in the air and Sarah is out on the town!” That means a new wardrobe and going out and making out. It means boyfriends and break-ups and new boyfriends and new clothes and more making out. Then that show gets tired, and it’s all about “Sarah disappears to take stock of her life”. That means long conversations with old friends and shrinks about divorce and family and jobs and journaling.
And then that story gets old.
They all get old.
You keep running from one exciting and “famous” idea about yourself to the next; looking for something real and permanent to hold the hell on to. If this idea is so famous it must be real, right? It must be YOU.
If you’re not careful, you turn into your own paparazzi, chasing down the next big story no matter who it hurts.
I realized that day that I had become sick of the media coverage. I just wanted to let myself be. I was tired of grasping on to every story about my ex, no matter how painful, just because I wasn’t ready to let it go. So for reasons I’ll never understand because this program had nothing to do with the Buddha, I got off the couch that day and googled “Buddhism Heartbreak”, and started taking new steps on a path that began right in my living room, exactly where I was.
In the three years since I got off the couch that day, that path has led to places I never thought I would go. By learning how to investigate my thoughts actively, with curiosity and compassion, I discovered that I needed a break from my career and the 10 years I had put into New York City. I broke my lease in Queens and headed to the South Pacific, where I had always dreamed of traveling since I was a little girl. I took a year to hike in New Zealand, surf in Australia, chat with a medicine man in the Cook Islands, and got lost in Japan. REALLY lost. The maps there are ridiculous. Plus, I don’t speak Japanese.
I fell deep in like once with an Italian guy who wore a speedo, and fully in lust with an Australian guy, because Australian men were put on this earth to do that to American women. I have not been in a serious relationship since Blue-eyed Kombucha man. But I fall deeper and deeper in love with the world and all its possibilities, and my growing capacity to not only accept and embrace it all.
Do not think for a second that I don’t want to run back to my couch at times, and curl up with my remote control. I am still scrapping out there with the rest of you. But in my stronger moments, I head to the meditation mat instead. And in my just ok moments, I close my eyes and listen for my breath. Even five minutes of that can make the difference in a day for me now.
I heard Jack Kornfield describe meditation as being in a theater and watching a movie of your own thoughts, but taking the time to turn around to discover who or what was behind the projector. You’re just watching a thrilling, fabulous, scary story that you can pay attention to, but not doomed to entirely identify with for the rest of your life.
I like to think of it as being online at the supermarket. I can check out all of the crazy stories in the tabloids. Some are hilarious and others are devastating. I can even pick one up and read a couple of paragraphs. But now I can just leave it. I just take a deep breath in and pay for my stuff. Take a deep breath out… and my brownie ingredients back home.
No matter how famous the thought may be, I eventually let it pass and move forward on the line.