From The Under 35 Project: “Into the Wild”

From The Under 35 Project: Jennifer Horton discovered Buddhism a little less than a year ago, and her world hasn’t been the same since.

Jennifer Horton
31 August 2012

I used to think I wanted to be a hermit. I’d live alone in the woods by a lake á la Thoreau. No one to judge me, no one to bother me, and no one to impress. I read Gary Paulsen novels like “Hatchet” with rapt interest. I watched Into the Wild, fascinated, thinking “this guy knows what he’s doing. I could do that. No problem. I hate people.”

I always thought I was a loner. That I didn’t need other people.

They certainly didn’t seem to need me.

I was a sensitive child, and somewhere, I got the message that I wasn’t enough. Perhaps I got lost as the middle child, perhaps it was being on the receiving end of one too many thoughtless schoolyard taunts. Whatever the vector, the bullet lodged deep.

I floated around from one clique to the next, trying to “fit in.” Nothing ever felt right. I had a closet full of masks, but my heart was empty. I had no real friends to speak of, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re probably mistaking me for one of my masks. I was surrounded by people, yet painfully alone.

Sometime after 6th grade, I found a friend for myself. She called herself anorexia. She made me feel good. She told me I didn’t need those other people, that I had her and that was enough. She numbed me to the pain I felt from my lack of belonging, made me think I didn’t care. Ironically, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, she actually made me feel even more isolated, alone and unlovable.

Fast-forward some twenty years.

Somehow — perhaps it fell from the sky, I’m not sure — I found myself reading When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön. It spoke to me in a way that countless hospitalizations and years of therapy never had. Pema encouraged me to face my fears, to take myself and the world less seriously, to be kind.

I started meditating. At first, it was rough. Thoughts would come up, and I’d get frustrated. “Ugh. Thinking. You moron.” I’d say to myself. Then I’d get upset that I was upset. Eventually I learned to be more gentle. As I became more patient, less anxious, and more compassionate with myself, a soft spot opened up. I was becoming aware of feelings I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was going into the wild, and the wild was me.

One of the first things I noticed was a deep pain I hadn’t allowed myself to feel for quite some time. I recognized it as loneliness. It was a bottomless pit of emptiness that terrified me. I’ll be damned, I thought, I DO need other people. But after years of pushing others away and presenting a cold, aloof face to the world, I found myself with no people to speak of.

I kept meditating. I realized that before I could expect others to love me, I needed to love myself. I continued meditating, touching into this tender spot and making peace with my demons. I gobbled up more books, practiced tonglen, and listened to online dharma talks by Tara Brach. The hole started to shrink. I was still alone, but not quite as lonely. I went for walks in a nearby park, overwhelmed by the sense of connection I felt with the people I passed. The world started to open up.

I’ve since made meditation a regular practice, and I keep Pema’s book on my shelf to return to when I’m having a particularly rough day. I’ve found that when I do feel alone, it’s usually because I’m exaggerating my sense of self, making what should be little more than a dent in the road into a giant chasm. My field of vision shrinks as I tell myself stories about how I’m different than everyone else, how I’m the only one that ever feels this way, that no one would understand. I imagine that everyone else’s lives are perfect — that they don’t have problems — because that’s what it looks like to me from the outside. Then I realize I probably look like this too, and it occurs to me that I’m not the only one who wears masks. I’m reminded that we all want happiness. That we all want to avoid suffering.

We all struggle with wanting and not wanting, with feelings of inadequacy and with occasional exaggerations of our own importance. We all feel fear, insecurity, vulnerability and longing. I’ve found that the less absorbed I am in “me”, the more room I have for “we.” That the more I slow down, take a breath, and just stay present, the easier it is to see our similarities instead of our differences. I know now that I am enough. That everyone is.

And I know that I’m not alone, and never was.