The author of Devotion: A Memoir explains where to find those private, personal aches.
1. In Our Bones (Literally)
Once, at the end of a yoga class, I was resting in the final relaxation pose when a guy doing a headstand fell over and his feet hit me in the chest. I wasn’t physically hurt. So, no big deal, right? But I couldn’t stop crying. A hidden sorrow had been touched. Pain lurks within all of our bodies. The yogis call this samskara, which loosely translates to scar tissue. When we really tune into our bodies, when we stretch and soften and pay full attention to them, we can sense where this pain is hiding: our hearts, hips, jaws, lower backs, bellies. Wherever it is, it does us good to seek it out. To know it. After all, our pain is a part of who we authentically are.
2. In That Roll-Down-the-Window Song
Sometimes, I’m driving along in my car and a song from my high-school years comes on the radio: Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Just the opening few chords make me want to roll down the window and let the wind blow back my hair. It makes me able to touch my 16-year-old self, and with that collapsing of time also comes an exquisite feeling — piercing, bittersweet. I want to reach back to that girl and give her a hug. She was so clueless. She was in for a world of heartache. I am powerless to change the sorrows she went through; but still, my midlife self wants to fix her. To make it better. In that gulf between who I was then, and who I became, there is a deep and mature ache. “You have to go through all this,” I want to tell her. “So that you can grow up and live a life full of wonder.” All of those feelings ride the crest of Springsteen’s lyrics.
3. On the Blank Page
When I sit down with my notebook, when I start scribbling words across the page, I find out what I’m feeling. What are the patterns of my obsessions? What do I want? I honestly don’t know until I start writing and something starts to take shape. Sentence follows into sentence like a trail of bread crumbs through the forest. I look back at what I’ve written. Oh, I think to myself. So that’s what’s happening. That’s what’s wrong.
4. In the Place Where We Feel Closest to Those We’ve Lost
My dad died when I was 23. His death was sudden and shocking–the result of a car crash — and I never got to say goodbye. I was a mess when he died, and I knew he was worried about me. It is my single greatest sorrow, but sometimes, missing him is dulled by the time passed and the demands of ordinary life. If I want to feel my dad’s presence and the wild, irreparable loss of him — if I want to cry my eyes out — all I have to do is sit quietly in a synagogue (though, depending on the tradition in which you were raised, you might choose a church, a mosque, a zendo or even a hike in the wilderness). I was raised in an observant Jewish household, so for me, Hebrew prayers — the sounds, the sunlight streaming in from the stained-glass windows of a synagogue — bring my father back to me as surely as if he were sitting next to me, my head pressed against his shoulder. I can see his grin. His clear, hazel-green eyes. The way he said my name. I want to keep this pain close to me. It’s my way of honoring him, of remembering. Of continuing to be his daughter.
5. Behind Our Perfectionism
We try so hard. We race from appointment to appointment, frazzled, running late, always feeling just a little bit behind the eight ball. We secretly believe that if only we achieve some elusive goal — fitting into a pair of skinny jeans, or redoing our kitchen or getting that promotion–that it will make us happy. But the pain of our insecurity is hidden in all that racing around. If we stop, we will feel it. It will catch up with us. And when it does, we can let it wash over us like a great, cleansing wave.
6. Between Our Fluttering, Jumping Thoughts
When I started meditating, I was sure that I was going to be the world’s worst meditator. I couldn’t sit still for five seconds. My mind jumped like a puppy from one thought to another to another. Mostly mundane stuff: Had I remembered to take the garbage out? Was my son due for his dental checkup? Why hadn’t my husband scheduled his colonoscopy? You know, fun stuff. But I kept at it, because I’d begun to understand that all of our minds do this. It’s the human condition. Our pain hides beneath these fluttering, random thoughts that run through our heads in an endless loop. But there’s so much freedom in getting to know what’s under there, the bedrock. We can shake hands with our pain. So pleased to meet you. We can invite it in, like a guest who we make welcome. We can recognize it as our greatest teacher.
7. In That Thing We Reach For… But Wish We Didn’t
Maybe it’s a massive bowl of spaghetti carbonara (my personal favorite). Maybe it’s a snuck cigarette. A second martini. A sleeping pill. Trolling Internet shopping sites searching for…yearning for…longing for… what? When we reach reflexively for something to dull an ache inside of us, in that very moment of reaching, we are hiding from our pain. We’re storing it away. Tamping it down. Saving it for a rainy day. And even though sometimes we just give in and do this, our pain patiently waits for us. Not because it wants to punish us. Not because it wants to hurt us. It wants only to serve us. To help us grow. For us to move through it — and leave it behind. As crazy as this may sound, our pain wants us to be happy.
Dani Shapiro is the author of Devotion: A Memoir and Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life.