I grew up in a house where it was not okay to express yourself. “Just be quiet, keep your head down, and get good grades.” If I dared to disagree with my mother there was no thoughtful conversation about feelings or ideas. There was no respect of my personhood. Disagreements with her end with her saying, “You’re right. I’m wrong. Whatever,” and then her going away. I learned from her passive aggressiveness (heavy on the aggressive part) that people withdraw from you if you buck the system.
As a lonely only child the withdraw of people was the thing I feared most. So I kept my head down and got good grades and attempted to conform as much as possible. This created friction for me because my nature is to express myself, sometimes in non-conformist ways. I wrote often in journals, sometimes expressing ideas and feelings that I didn’t even comprehend at the time. Occasionally I look back over those journals and see the child I was inside – thoughtful and burning and seeking community while also seeking space inside myself.
Adulthood for me has been a gradual burning down of those old patterns. I want to set fire to the need to look or act a certain way, yet I still sometimes worry that if I don’t conform I will be lonely. I see that many of us have the same experience in one way or another. We long for a community – family or otherwise – that “gets us.” And we desire a life that doesn’t ask us to be something other than who we are.
Last week I put a dark pink streak in my hair. It is something I have pondered doing for over a decade. At first I didn’t do it because I was married and my husband preferred me not to die my hair. Then I didn’t do it because I worried what my employers would think about it. Because, I told myself, “Professional people do not put dark pink streaks in their hair.” Finally doing it felt like a liberating rebellion.
This morning I laughed as the thought came to me that putting the streak in my hair was actually the opposite of rebellion. It’s was expressing my authentic self. And the rebellion has been all of the ways I have not been my authentic self. The streak is a symbol of claiming myself. What I have believed is rebelling against the norm has been hurting me.
Sometimes people tell me I’m brave because I will say what I actually think or feel. One boss told me, “You’re like a billboard.” He did not mean that as a compliment. I do not feel brave, I just feel more like myself. I spent so much time not expressing myself for fear of being left out in the cold that I find I am unable to keep my mouth shut now. I guess I got full of all the stuff I was holding in, the dam broke and now it spills out with no possibility of stuffing myself back in.
Luckily, my practice in mindfulness helps me direct how I express myself, and to whom. I am responsible for not causing harm with my words. One of my teachers, Tashi, says, “The truth is what is useful.” I am responsible not to burn down the field, just to burn the beliefs I keep thinking that aren’t really true. Abraham Hicks says, “A belief is just a thought you keep thinking.” Mindfully I examine those beliefs as I witness them and find that many of them are not true.
We grow up thinking that there are sacred cows – things that must happen in life for us to be “successful.” College. High-paying jobs. Living up to our potential (what does that even mean?). What if the thought I can keep thinking is that there are actually no sacred cows? That everything is open to examination and the question, “Is that really true?”
I recently had the opportunity to change my work situation and do more work that is “approved” by “important people.” I realized when contemplating my decision that to say yes to what is “approved” would have been a rebellion against myself. The job change would not have kept me from my dharma, but I don’t think it would have thrown open the door to a path that would carry me as far into my human work here as I would like to travel. I could see all the steps on that “approved” job path. So that was not the one. The path I desire is the one where I work in communion with myself, burn down the belief that what’s “approved” is important, and take the next right step in faith that the road will absolutely rise up to meet me.
So I got a pink streak in my hair. And the world did not end. And nobody stopped loving me. And the road keeps rising.