Even with over 20 years of meditation practice, I recently re-discovered just how attached I am to my face. Yes, the pun is that we are all attached to our face, it is part of our head, but what the pun insinuates but doesn’t explore is just how emotionally attached I (we as the case may be) am to my face until some recent surgery showed me the hidden extent of it.
As I attempt to faithfully see everything as practice, being self reflective, looking over and over at my mind and its habits, I kind of got around seeing this particular fondness as an attachment, I see an aging face for sure which gets getting used to for sure, but its been funny to discover how I thought I was a preference really was an attachment in disguise. There’s always something new to discover about ourselves, and life certainly offers the opportunities.
I had some surgery in my mouth that has left me at least (hopefully) temporarily, looking like someone else. When someone suggested it was worse looking to me than anyone else, I laughed (carefully covering my mouth) when they suggested no one would notice or care, I couldn’t help but say that I didn’t think they would feel that way if it were their face. It’s easy to say take it easy to someone else, easy to say don’t worry when it’s not you who is having the difficulties! And, yes for sure – I do care more than anyone else about how I look.
So I kept examining my feelings about my appearance – what I was willing to expose, what I wanted to be private and secret, and I got to seeing just how attached I am to my face.
With old age and sickness close on my coat tails being as I’m in middle age, I realized that I better let go a little of this reign or I would be suffering non stop from here on out. I really don’t want to suffer any more than is absolutely necessary! There’s what’s called optional suffering, and I saw how I was adding to that pile.
We all have our little pockets of shadow. Most everyone has a bit of something that hasn’t been aired out, and spiritual practice is about finding those crevasses and smoothing them out by filling them up with the light of awareness. No matter how slowly, or when in ones lifetime.
I share this, and other stories about myself at my own expense mainly because I see too much posturing going on with spiritual teachers. Not sharing the shadow isn’t giving anyone the hope that they too can change, or that it’s perfectly normal to have less than lovely aspects. Being all love and light perpetuates a myth that spiritual practice means that those who practice or teach are better than – more equip, more clean so to speak – with not so many problems which is simply not true. Hopefully, our teachers are those who have and will continue to work with everything they have – slightly, unsightly, seen and unseen, and share some of the war stories with humor and anecdotes.
Working with what is means just that, and life certainly does pitch some fastballs. Not all catches are graceful. But practice shows us that we have a choice about how we feel about things, and that we can pick up and try again.
My karma tends to involve suffering in the body. With now at least 21 surgeries to date, I now consider myself an expert in the body and how it feels to be out of control, experimented with, dissected, in pain, made mistakes on, and generally left at home to heal on my own. I used to think I had played the karma out, until recently…
I don’t wish these kinds of lessons on anyone, but for me there have been gems in each one of these small traumas and at this point I know no matter how difficult something might be, or how much I initially think I can’t take it, I do and can and will.
I’m about to go out now, face forward, smiling inwardly – I’ve decided that although I care about how I look, it won’t totally prevent me from doing what I want and what is important. This has been about my face, but really what has surfaced in front of my face is a life that I still want to live.
I received more email from this post than any other in 10 years – here is a selection:
Jill, I was very touched to read your heartfelt words and have thought of you all day. I do not know if you will remember me, and that is not important, but I think you should know how it is that I remember you.
I met you for the first time in Colorado at the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Teacher training and listening to you and watching you I was drawn to the beauty that you are. Yes, on the exterior you are lovely, but the beauty from within exceeded the exterior. What was apparent to me was the sincerity of your heart, a heart that had been through hell and chose to stay open, and also chose to use whatever pain that life had served up as a way to be of benefit to others.
On the occasions that I have had since to be around you, I continue to see that this is true. I admire that you have found a way to humbly and courageously share what others may or may not understand. And I feel certain that this perceived crack in one’s idea of beauty will reveal more and more light that has everything to do with love.
I send you boundless metta to lift you from what might at times feel too heavy to bear. I continue to feel grateful that our paths crossed and the possibility of a future meeting would be lovely also, who knows. I will leave you with a poem, I bet you know, but that blazed its path into my heart many, many years ago when I still thought that I should be “more perfect”
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There’s a crack in every thing.
That’s how the light gets in. -Leonard Cohen
Deep bow to you, beautiful one….sincerely, cathy jackson
What beauty, humility, kindness, and acceptance are in your words. You have amazing courage living life and sharing your experience.
The world is bettered by it.
Thank you. Zsuzsa
Thank you for sharing your realizations and vulnerability. I too, am going through the ‘middle age’ changes and didn’t realize the amount of suffering I’ve been going through by being attached to that which has and continues to change. I’ve been ‘wanting’ it to stay the way it was, yet improved (my view on what improve is… perhaps a better way of saying it, is society’s view on improve).
I took a yoga workshop from you in Vermont many years ago. I believe it was just prior to or in my first year of starting school for Chinese Medicine. I learned much from that workshop about yoga, and about myself. I am very grateful for that time and for your generosity in shaping my life. I have recently completed the first 100 hours of teacher training and will be completing the rest by October. My self study includes exploring yoga postures with the meridians and acupuncture points. Looking at ways of healing the body through the synergy of both lineages.
Thank you again for all you do!
I had my second surgery for skin cancer on my nose last year. It was difficult. My face was bandaged for months. I too was attached to my face, a bit vain at times.
I’m ok with it now, in fact, I am more comfortable with myself in general and in a positive way I don’t care as much as I once did about how I look. It’s free-ing.
As a young woman I was often told I could be the “Dove Girl”. I didn’t get it at the time.
Beautiful story. I told you when it all began, the one who really cares is the one who sees it every day and has feelings regarding the image we put forth. When I was 20, I had beautiful, powerful hands, intact and completely filled with energy. I would look at them with total gratitude, perhaps too much so. Then I lost a digit. It took me several years, over a decade to be exact, to come to regard my fingers with similar gratitude. When I did, the feeling was much deeper and meaningful to me. For in my disfigured digits, I had a new and renewed grace.
There is a nonchalance that I find allows people to see through the disfigurement and completely miss the fact of my shortened and gnarled finger tips. In the beginning, it was all I could do to hide my fingers and everyone saw it.
Life sure is wondrous and mysterious.
I met you at the mindfulness facilitator’s retreat at Spirit Rock (Iwas the one who asked you to share the details of your personal healing story) and I sure am glad I added myself to your list of subscribers! There is almost always something in your posts that deeply resonates, and encourages an attitude of perspective, reminds me of my higher goals in life. I so appreciate them and want to thank you! This time I love the part about optional suffering! And also about teachers posing — although I’ve been lucky to have pretty down to earth and humble teachers, like yourself. J
ust as with the retreat when you shared your personal story, I appreciate your airing out your day to day creases/gems. And in general, love your writing — it’s always inspiring.
Thanks for writing such an honest assessment. Of what we all are going through. It’s a straight from the heart. Truth about everyone. I have noticed wow I am attached due to family and other people – Reinforcing the notion of how they think I should look…. Being a veteran of Beauty pageants, how I looked became more important than who I was and what my feelings and thoughts were.
There is an obsession with the outside..The Physical look. I have thought much about this subject, and am happy you shared this story with such true honesty. I am sure there are many who can relate.
These are interesting issues both culturally and personally…
I love what you wrote today and I love how real you are and your willingness to look at your own stuff. I absolutely love what you wrote. Thanks so much for sharing with us.
Thank you Jill. I was a student in your first mindfulness teacher training at Spirit Rock, finished April ’09. I now teach 4 to 5 classes a week to senior population primarily. Mindfullness has helped me through a divorce which needed to happen and has inspired my teaching to help others.
I really needed to hear your message today as I’m dealing with a fastball life threw me and I fumbled it. It’s not deadly, but something I would rather not have to deal with, and should have avoided. Thank you of just reminding me to stay on the path and when I fall off, there are lessons that might be valuable if I can go with the flow of what IS the reality today.
We met briefly, once, at SMC, some years ago (I was with xxx at the time) but you won’t remember me. I just wanted to respond to say that I was deeply moved by your essay. It arrived in my inbox with quite sharp timing in my own life, and I have been thinking about attachment, loss, aging, and the self, very much lately. One week ago I went through major surgery which I believed as I went into it would leave me seriously disabled, my body permanently changed. I wasn’t sure, going in, that I would be the same person afterwards. To be brief, I have had rheumatoid arthritis for many years. Due to this, I have two replaced joints. One is my right elbow, which was replaced in 1997. I am a writer, an artist, and a musician, and I’m right handed. In some ways, I came to realize over the months that this health crisis developed, who I am depended on being able to use my right hand and arm.
But a few months ago that replaced elbow became infected. It’s the worst that can happen to a replaced joint. Doctors told me I might lose the arm, and then I found a very good surgeon who said he would only take out the joint. It’s infected, it has to come out — that was the consensus. I would be left with no elbow at all, and would wear a brace for the rest of my life. How much use of the arm I would have was very unclear, but it didn’t look good. The surgeon wasn’t sure that my hand would still work at all.
I can’t imagine how I would have dealt with the fear if I hadn’t been a Buddhist for 37 years. Although these issues have always held a lot of meaning and weight for me, I began thinking about fear, loss, attachment, and how we define ourselves to ourselves a great deal. In spite of all those years of practice and study, I was pretty well overwhelmed with fear. I was also in a great deal of pain. And I went into surgery believing that I would wake up unable to do any of the things that I loved, and that made me the person I am. I could of course see the fallacy of this kind of thinking — but fear is so powerful. I could talk, in the abstract, about attachment as the root of suffering, about letting go, but now it was very real. I didn’t know how I would face it.
And then something amazing happened. My surgeon decided to try and save the elbow. He used a microscope, and went in and tried to remove all traces of the infection from the titanium joint that he could see. So I woke up to blinding pain and the news that I still had an elbow. When I asked him, later, how he had made the last minute decision to try to save the elbow, he said an amazing thing (especially for a surgeon, not usually known for their “bedside manner!”). He smiled at me and said, “I saw who you were.” Isn’t that amazing? I was so filled with gratitude, and still am.
I will stay on very powerful antibiotics via an IV implanted in my arm — I transfuse myself for two hours twice a day, and will do this probably for 2 months. After that, we’ll know if it’s really going to work. But as you see, one week out from major surgery I am typing with two hands, and not even in much pain. I am still traumatized from the whole experience, but I have time now, and motivation, and the chance to perhaps heal completely.
The day I came home from the hospital (tuesday), there was an envelope waiting for me. It was a lovely note from David Brown, and contained a protection cord and some blessed dutsi from the Sakyong. David told me that the Sakyong had been thinking of me during the hours of my surgery. I was overwhelmed not with fear this time, but with gratitude again.
So I want to use this new time that I’ve been granted to practice — to make my art, to write, to play and write music — but also to turn to practice in a way that I never have before. Because of course this is only a reprieve: the dharma teaches us this, we don’t take refuge in false hope, but in a truth that leads us back to loss, which we know will finally be the loss of everything we love, and everything we are. Death comes without warning. I feel closer to that teaching now.
Your essay really helped me in dealing with where I am now, and I just wanted to tell you my story and to thank you. You’re a wonderful writer, and when you share an experience like this in writing, you never know who you might be reaching and helping.
Your experience made a real difference in my experience. Isn’t this one of the most powerful aspects of sangha?
I wish you well and will be thinking of you. Although I’ve been a practitioner since the 70s and my first teacher was the Vidyadhara, I was only able to attend Seminary in 2003, in France. The Sakyong began that amazing Seminary with these words (delivered with a brilliant smile): “Well, we know by now that things are not going to work out, so let’s get started.”
I am remembering those words now, and the kindness of my teacher, and the power of my sangha and the teachings. I think it’s amazing that the internet now makes it possible for you and I to reach out across space and share our experience.