Jennifer Madriaga, Author at Pinay.com
Sawa bona. (I see you.) Sikhona. (I am here.) Also translated as: Until you see me I do not exist. When you see me, you bring me into existence. ~ Traditional Greeting from the Samburu tribe of North Africa We are all interconnected. The need for validation comes from the (more…)
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. The stories that we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. I remember one of the stories I used to tell myself was that I was damaged, unable to be repaired. Because I believed this story for so many years, I (more…)
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” ~ Marianne Williamson
The other night I awoke in a state of heightened anxiety, bordering close to panic. In the past, I have experienced panic attacks, usually during times of great duress and trauma. I forced myself to breathe deeply and slowly in order to slow my heart rate down and to ease the knots in my abdominal area. My distress was so acute that I could not fall back asleep.
Recently, things had been going well in all areas of my life. I made new connections from around the world, engaged in brainstorming for new, exciting projects that will provide opportunities for immense growth and expansion, and I had a series of synchronistic happenings that meant good things in my career.
For the past year, I had set intention and visualized wonderful things happening, and they were actually happening.
So then why was I so anxious?
We have no shortage of conditioning when it comes to being fearful of bad things happening. All around us there are reminders that the world can be a tragic and malevolent place to be as evidenced by the headlines that are on endless streaming. We have learned to be in a state of hyper alertness, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
In my own life I have had times characterized by hardship and struggle where nothing seemed to go right. I remember times I would cry for what seemed like weeks on end, fearful about the next impending disaster after a series of mishaps and traumas. As a result, my default expectation was one of dread for many years.
As I lay awake in the dark, trying to figure out why I felt so panicked, a startling revelation came to me. And that revelation was that I was experiencing a fear of good things happening.
On the surface, it seems that the fear of good things happening is ludicrous. Why would anyone be afraid of good things happening? After all, isn’t that the goal of hope, that the things you wish for will actually manifest?
However, if you have lived your life used to the feeling of dread, it may actually be much harder to relinquish that feeling than you realize. We may unwittingly sabotage ourselves when it comes to achieving success, love, and happiness because we are simply not used to it!
I recently learned about the phenomenon of “upper limits,” which I read about in a article by Gay Hendricks, a long-time therapist and researcher. All of us have been conditioned to accept certain thresholds that are comfortable in different situations. However, once this threshold is breached, our instinct is to pull back as a way to protect ourselves. While it may make sense in situations where we might be in real danger or experiencing real threats, it may also happen when a big opportunity for something good to happen presents itself. Breaching our comfort threshold means risk. Even if the outcome is positive.
For instance, you may only be used to feeling happy up to a certain level. But if that level is breached, you will find ways to make yourself less happy. An example might be where you go on a picnic with friends on a beautiful day. However, if you reach your happiness limit, you might blow up the situation by complaining or criticizing. Maybe the sandwich bread was too soggy or the picnic blanket was making your legs itch. Your complaints now sour all your companions, and the good day, which could have been a spectacular day, is now ruined.
How are these “upper limits” created, and how can we remove them? The most common scenario with the creation of “upper limits” is where parents transmit their feelings of fear and inadequacy upon their children, particularly those who have been identified as gifted and talented. Children may receive mixed messages regarding success and how much success is permitted. A parent may be proud but also jealous of their child’s gift. A child can shine in their talent, but not too much, lest they outshine the parent.
Of course, this cycle tends to perpetuate itself where the children, concerned with betraying the expectations of their family, grow up to raise children who are the same exact way, acting out from a legacy of fear and inadequacy.
The root cause of “upper limits” is directly related to our feelings of worthiness related to receiving. If we don’t feel worthy of receiving, we may push away opportunities that could change our lives for the better without even know we’re doing it on a conscious level. We may rationalize why we don’t take another job or why a romantic relationship can’t work. We go through the “worst case” scenarios as a way of reassuring ourselves that something good can’t possibly happen.
Fear is one of the most sure markers that we have reached our “upper limits.” And I was feeling it in spades that night. The positive thing is that I had an awareness of why that fear was arising, and I was able to journal all the limiting belief systems that were arising because of my fear. Some of the ones I identified were, “I don’t know if I’m qualified to do this.” “I will disappoint lots of people by having good things happen for me.” “People will be unhappy if I am unsuccessful.”“I don’t feel like I deserve good things happening because I’m a bad person.”
The most effective way that I have found to help re-program my “upper limits” has been the practice of meditation. Already, it has been shown that a meditation practice grows new neural pathways and reduces gray matter in the brain, which is associated with fear and anxiety. While I am obviously not fully free of my “upper limits,” I have gradually increased my threshold for accepting change.
I have also developed an ongoing gratitude practice where I focus on the positive aspects of change. It’s because I took risks that I now have an abundance of deep and nurturing friendships. It’s because I took risks that I experience a freedom to express myself in a way that is in alignment with profound authenticity and integrity.
This quote by Helen Keller sums it up for me: “Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The past couple of weeks have been challenging. Not that one single thing in of itself was big. But imagine the supercell thunderstorm with its millions of swirling and windy drops drowning the horizon and erasing the world from view. That was what life felt like.
Frankly, I experienced the most psychic pain that I had in a good while. Much of it was related to the surprise and suddenness of best-laid plans being put to waste in my job setting and then the unexpected snafus related to my losing internet access and to a gigantic error with my bank account (where my checking was completely emptied) . In short, I experienced a disappointment in my expectations across all sectors of my life–namely a letdown in the belief that all was well when it was not.
Given all that I have been through in the past five years, I felt a great deal of pride in being centered despite the massive loss and transition I experienced in a relatively short amount of time. However, I found out that being centered is not always possible. Sometimes you just need to give into the emotional deluge that controls your life.
As the proverbial shit hit the fan all at once, deep-seated fears and anxieties related to security and worthiness came to the surface. All the mishaps occurring in every aspect of my life was causing me to question my competence, even though much of it was not even of my own doing. I felt helpless and frightened. It seemed I was at the mercy of unknown forces conspiring against me. There’s nothing worse than feeling you have no control.
I cried and gnashed my teeth more time in the past few days than I have in months.
This past Saturday when I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do to find resolution with my pile of crises, I wept for what seemed a long time. Finally, I closed my eyes and listened to my breathing. I needed to recharge my depleted energy reserves, so I decided to go for a hike along the Eno river.
I set an intention to let it all go, even as I churned with residual turmoil. What was going to happen was going to happen. And what had happened could not be changed.
Toward the end of my hike, I ended up sitting on a rocky outcrop that jutted into the river. While my dog Gandalf splashed around, I took my shoes off and placed my feet into the water. As I wiggled my toes, I noticed tiny tadpoles swimming around as the cool water rushed over my feet. The day was perfect, not too hot, and the sky was slightly overcast so the sun wasn’t too harsh.
I wasn’t quite smiling but I wasn’t depressed either. The sound of rushing water was the appropriate white noise to bring my blood pressure down. And there was birdsong in all directions. Further down the river where the water was calmer, several turtles sat in repose on a large rock.
The past few years I have developed a mindfulness practice as a way of weaning myself off anti-depressants and other medication. The basic focus is on the breath, which you can do anywhere. However on this particular day, I needed something more to focus my attention. Being outdoors in a picturesque setting like the Eno makes it easy to focus on the present.
I sat in the river and thought about nothing for a good hour. I observed the details of the landscape and the river. I enjoyed the sun on my arms and my legs. I closed my eyes and listened to the rapids rushing around me. I found myself actually feeling peace.
Eventually, Gandalf started to get restless plus I was experiencing hunger pangs. So it was time to go home. As I drove home, I noticed the beauty of the rolling countryside and the light through the trees. The sky had cleared and seemed extra blue.
In addition to my mindfulness practice, I also have a daily gratitude practice, and while I was not particularly feeling grateful earlier that day, I went ahead and said aloud, "Thank you.” Not for anything specific but just to express acknowledgement that I could find something to be grateful for. I ended up repeating those words all the way home as a mantra.
I made myself lunch and rewarded myself with a long, leisurely nap. I slept deeply.
I spent the rest of the weekend with friends, enjoying long conversations and good food. Even if the world was apparently collapsing, one could still find pleasure in the company of those who care for you. Plus there were no shortage in demonstrations of kindness toward me. That I could have an opportunity to receive from others was itself a kind of gift.
Even as I experienced suffering on a level I had not felt in a long time, I found things to cherish. I went into immense gratitude for the things that I did have, especially the loving support of friends and neighbors.
I also spent hours in the quiet. I read books I meant to read (especially since my internet was out and I had no access to Netflix or my usual plethora of websites). I journaled. I thought deeply about why my fear and anxiety was so intense and realized they were tied to a need for certainty.
Certainty exists but not in the way we want it. Cause and effect is a certainty though many times we don’t know exactly what the cause is nor the effect. Change is certainty as well though the pace is something that we don’t always to determine.
Then I started to think about all that I had lost, and why it had happened.
I also thought about what I had gained and how loss had made that possible.
It was then I realized the full extent of my growth as well as the depth of my resilience.
That Monday everything slowly resolved. We found remedies for the work issues, which while not ideal, worked perfectly fine. The cable company came out and replaced the faulty lines for my internet. The bank put my money back into my account.
And I had survived to see these things happen.
Even now I still feel out of sorts. I’m still physically and emotionally tired from work and mothering. I still have my anxieties living at the edges of my consciousness. I still have doubts. I still have fear.
My life is continuing to evolve and I don’t dare make predictions, especially after what happened last week. But how good that this time it involved no real tragedy, of which there has been no shortage in my life.
Perhaps life can be relentless and grind you down. Perhaps life can hurt unimaginably. Perhaps it can be vicious and cruel and full of betrayal. It has been those things for me.
But it can also be sweet.
Last night I went for an evening walk with my son and our dog. At the periphery of the path, dozens of fireflies starting lighting up. My son has no shortage of wonder as he would gasp each time one lit up. Then he said to me, “Mommy, they’re there to light the way so we can we see where to go.”
I replied, “Of course, they are.”
The days are becoming longer. I’ve lost track of the snow days we’ve had. All I know is that it’s March, and the daffodils have managed to bloom even with the polar vortex visiting an inordinate number of times. This past winter it’s been too easy to become ensconced in seriousness, to have seriousness become the baseline. Driving on black ice makes it so. Some days felt so precarious–all that slipping and sliding around, trying to keep your eyes on the road and the hands steady on the steering wheel.
But it’s been lovely to have days off forced upon me. Trapped inside with my dog and my boy. And both of them like to play. A lot. And so we’ve sung songs and done silly dances. Created dioramas and pastel drawings.
The dog is forced to wear silly hats. We pile up pillows and blankets and hide underneath. Hayden asks me which Power Ranger I would be. I respond the Red Ranger. He says the Red Ranger is always a boy. I say that it doesn’t always have to be.
The world is both tragic and magic. All around us the world continues its madness, both whimsical and terrible. Within my house “Where the Wild Things Are” is staged with whooping and accompanying destruction of Lego structures and fallen paper airplanes. But we are safe. Thankfully so.
We create colorful dreams in the midst of chaos. Even my son notices the constant cacophony of sirens. The fire station is just a mile down the road. He doesn’t know this but I say a prayer every time I hear the siren sounded.
My son cuddles with me and says, “Thank you, Mommy, for being so much fun." He draws a picture of me and him under a large tree.
The work laptop remains dormant. The work projects can wait. And I’m not responding to those insistent emails.
We’ve created no shortage of snow angels this winter.
But where are the tulips? I’m ready for their happy blossoms. Yes, it’s March. Cold and blustery. Yet so many reasons to smile. To express gratitude.
Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.
~ Kurt Vonnegut
I am going to go ahead and say it. I want to fall in love this year.
I cannot tell you how hard it is to say that. Maybe my friends would find that funny because I’m the woman who’s been on over a 100 first dates the past few years. I’m the one who signed up for six online dating sites at the same time. I’m the one who has no shortage of crazy ass relationship stories. I’m the one who has enough stories to create a TV series that would rival “Sex and the City." I had one friend tell me, "Jen, I know that every time I see you, that you’ll have one hell of a funny dating story to tell me. I swear you make me laugh until I cry." (Though on my end sometimes, there’s been more crying than laughing. The line between comedy and tragedy has always been pretty fine.)
I believe in the power of setting intention. I have seen dramatic results in just the past few years in terms of the friends I have made, in the adventures I’ve had, in the way I am able to find joy and express gratitude each and every day. In short, my life is amazing. But I know it can be more so.
For the past few years, I have pushed the envelope in dating. After a 17 year relationship, I needed to do that. I needed to experience the unknown. The ridiculous. The sublime. The mundane. The complication. And yes, heartbreak. Several times over. Sometimes by the same persons. (I seriously hate that the last word in the last sentence is plural. Sigh.)
Even in the midst of heartache, there was something within me that remained hopeful, that knew I could have the relationship I always wanted and never had. But it means having to keep my heart tender. To allow it to open fully to possibility. And to experience fear in a way that I don’t experience in any other realm in my life. Honestly, I’m characterized as fearless in so many areas of my life, but this aspect involves knee-knocking fear.
I realize now as I engaged in post-marriage relationships, I kept a part of my heart sheltered. I kept self-sabotaging thoughts and doubts in play. I engaged in worst-case scenarios in my mind (some of which came to fruition). And I chose men, for better or for worse, who were never truly capable of giving me what I truly wanted (and I knew this, even from the very beginning.) So even as I said that I wanted an authentic, loving relationship, I wasn’t being very authentic in how I approached dating.
So part of the serious self-scrutiny that I have been engaging in for the past few months is why I allow myself in romantic situations that are ultimately dead-ends. I could easily fall into the trap that many women ensnare themselves. That there are just no good men around. That love sucks and what’s the point. That opening yourself up means always getting hurt. I could do that but doing so would absolve me of responsibility. And I am surely responsible for each of my decisions. Every. Single. One.
Part of me engages in self-deprecating, cynical humor. But if I am truly honest, I know that it’s a mechanism that helps keep vulnerability at bay. It helps put up fences (which are sometimes good things), yet this has not served me well when it comes to finding a significant other. At this point, I feel like I have to tear down all the fences, so I can look at the landscape more clearly. And know that love is waiting to be seen right in front of me.
I experience kindness, tenderness, and love on a daily basis from my friends and family, and even strangers. If I can find it everyday from other sources, I know that it has to exist in the romantic realm. But I am now coming to the inevitable conclusion that I haven’t risked myself enough when it came to finding the relationship of my dreams.
I’m going to need to engage in some really deep breaths this year. I am going to have to take several leaps of faith. Plural. Yikes. I know this. Universe, I’m ready this time. I’m ready to be cherished beyond measure. I’m ready to have someone add to my completion. I’m ready to fall in crazy love, to trust fully that whatever happens will be wicked awesome. I know that I can be vulnerable and great things can happen. I know that I can be happy with someone else and not have to give up my individuality. I know that someone out there can be happy with weird and awesome me. Who will love every single aspect of me and give me a reason to smile.
Okay, intention set. I’m ready to rock and roll.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. The stories that we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. I remember one of the stories I used to tell myself was that I was damaged, unable to be repaired. Because I believed this story for so many years, I never ever shone my light. My true self remained hidden because I had bought into a lie told to me repeatedly by others. I underwent a series of medical diagnoses that supported my story, which I thought gave my story of being damaged additional credibility. Depression. Bipolar. Anxiety disorder.
Part of me became comfortable with feeling perpetually sad and anxious. In fact, it became my baseline feeling where healing seemed impossible. I was always going to have emotional issues. I was always going to be suspended in a state where nothing got better. This was my story. And I was sticking to it. Oddly, the story became my security blanket because it was familiar, which provided a sense of stability and consistency. I told myself this story again and again, and others were more than complicit in reinforcing this story. I was a negative person surrounded by negative people. I’m sure that it was probably an energy drain just being around me and my former social circle.
These days most people would find this version of my story hard to believe. I was talking with a good friend yesterday, who was telling me that I was one of the most energetic and optimistic people she had ever known. “I just feel better when I’m around you,” she said. “You’re so loving and giving. You inspire me.” I gave her a huge hug in response.
It’s moments like these that make me realize that the plot of my personal story has shifted in huge ways where I now have people that reflect back love and appreciation again and again instead of criticism and judgment. My circle of friends is composed of people who strive to live out kindness and love everyday. Not that any of us are perfect. But the difference that I see in myself and in the people now around me is our capacity for resilience, in overcoming our momentary lapses. Or perhaps it’s better described as living through our very human moments!
I’ve written about how the words “I am enough” revolutionized my life. The big question everyone has is how we start feeling that we are enough.
I realize that a big part of shifting into something better is being willing to change your story. To let go of the foregone conclusion and old assumptions about yourself and the world. For years I was completely convinced in my story of being broken. My heart felt like it was always on the edge of pain, like I had a large splinter rubbing against it. When I would have moments of joy and happiness, I would immediately go into worry about losing it. I would experience great fear. When I went into pain, there was almost a reassurance about it, and I could reinforce my old way of thinking, “Well, see! You were disappointed again! Nothing to do about it!”
For me the shift started with being willing to let go. It doesn’t mean that I released all parts of my story all at once. On the contrary. It actually meant that I had to fully live in my old story to realize that it no longer served me. In fact I had to live it so fully that my misery forced me into having to do something to release suffering. If I wanted something different, then I had to do something different. A large part for me was having to change the dialogue with myself.
In my head I would always hear this reasoning, “God must hate you. Why else would all these bad things happen to you? So you must be a bad person." One of my earliest practices to try to shift would be to say positive affirmations. But as soon as I would say something internally that was positive, a part of me would rebel against it and become critical all over again. The criticism would run like this, "Do you really think that things can change? You’ve always been a fuck-up, so why do you think it can be different?" My critical inner voice has always been cruel beyond measure. I once heard the spiritual teacher Panache Desai say that it was like having a cheerleader following you around that was always shouting, "YOU SUCK!" It’s a funny image, but it was absolutely true.
It’s no coincidence that when you have an ongoing dialogue with yourself about how worthless and terrible you are that you will attract people in your life to provide confirmation. The Law of Attraction (as well as Law of Manifestation) are real things. And the truth of the matter is that things got worse, in fact MUCH worse, before it started to get better. By being willing to release negativity, I had to acknowledge it existed, which meant having to face it head-on, to sit with it and have a large conversation with it.
Thich Nhat Hanh described welcoming all your emotions like they were guests in your house. Emotions are messengers, and they only wish to deliver a message before leaving. So once you receive the message, they will leave. One of the emotions that I always had problems with was anger. I was taught it was not all right to be angry, and so I had accumulated anger over YEARS. I always denied I was angry, and so anger stayed with me until I was willing to receive the message. Once I fully felt anger, it was a really frightening thing for me. I ended up taking my son’s Nerf baseball bat and beating the shit out of bed full of pillows to release my anger. Afterwards, I cried and then laughed hysterically.
Because I found vulnerability threatening, I always treated emotions like they were the enemy. They were to be fought. Or avoided. So many of us drown in emotion while denying that we are feeling anything at all. Honestly, it is scary. It is painful. But in the end it’s like swimming up from the bottom of the ocean. You think your lungs will burst but then you reach the surface and are able to take a huge breath. What you needed was always there to begin with. You just had to be willing to break the surface.
The year of 2013 has been about learning to break the surface. One thing that I’ve learned is that the process of changing means having to re-visit things that are uncomfortable and creating a new lens with which to view them. I know now that the things that have happened to me are in fact stories. But what point of view will I use in re-telling them? And what point of view will I use in writing my new chapters. Each day it’s different. Each day I have to engage in a fresh dialogue with myself where I decide to say, "This is going to be a good day." And then actually mean it. I didn’t always feel like I meant it when I would say it. But at least the intention was there. And sometimes great change has to start with something as small as intention.
The past year was filled with tumult. But also bliss. With stress. But also freedom. It has been a pendulum that swung back and forth, but I’m now starting to feel comfortable with finding peace no matter the external circumstance. I fell in love several times. I fell out of love several times. I lost friends. I gained friends. I had days that were good. I had days that were not as good but still found things to be grateful for. I’m still here. And I’m grateful for that.
Each day I moved a pebble for the past four years, and now I’ve moved thousands of pebbles. I can see the difference.
Yesterday morning, I received the following email from Luminita Saviuc, the founder of the blog Purpose Fairy:
Hi Jenny :)
You have been published:
P.S. I loved your post!
I clicked on the embedded link, and there was MY article along with my accompanying short bio and picture.
Several weeks ago, I had set an intention that I would get an article published with Purpose Fairy, which is one of my most favorite blogs to read. My friend Tracie had suggested that I submit an article. I thought that was a great idea.
Except that I had no article to submit.
And no idea what I would write about.
I’ve been a writer for years, and most of my writing has been in either fiction or poetry. I’ve always loved telling stories. Even as a young child I wrote stories about my first bike or the squirrels in the backyard or science fiction yarns of an Earth with no ozone layer. I wrote for the pleasure of it. There was something so gratifying about creating a universe out of words.
During childhood I shared my stories with everyone because I felt like my stories were meant to be shared with other people. I felt a great zest and happiness in jotting things down and giving them to people as presents. It was like giving out candy, and I was just confident that people would appreciate them as I much as I did.
But over time that confidence disappeared. While I still loved writing, I became more and more reluctant to share my work. The joy of sharing had disappeared for a variety of reasons, one of which was, “What if it isn’t good enough?" Judgment had replaced joy. The act of sharing such a large part of myself because fraught by anguish and anxiety because I was thinking, "What if no one likes it?”–ergo “What if no one likes ME?”
Then came a time I stopped writing for awhile. In all honesty, I probably needed that time. Though a part of me thought that maybe I wouldn’t come back to writing at all. I had become estranged from writing because it had become too charged. I felt too vulnerable, too consumed by criticism.
It was only about four years ago that I started really writing again, and the catalyst was the end of my marriage, which also coincided with the birth of my son. The stress sometimes felt beyond endurance. Writing once again became my respite, something reliable in providing comfort and solace as I went through one of the most difficult periods of my life. It was the beginning of accountability as well as a time to find myself again.
I started writing again in workshops where other people could read my work. This was a huge thing for me, being able to trust others to give feedback on my work, but I was able to feel safe again. I was able to start seeing that the stories I wanted to tell mattered. Especially my own story with its accompanying feelings of shame, heartache, disappointment, and grief. Not only could I tell my story but love my story. I could send love to all the parts of my life that needed healing.
When I started writing the article that eventually appeared in Purpose Fairy, all I knew is that I wanted to share something hopeful about my life. I had just turned 40 years old. Life has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, and it’s still not quite where I want it to be. But despite life still being as unpredictable as ever, I felt different from what I had been. And the difference was feeling, “I am enough." I knew then that was what I would write about.
Since my article has appeared in Purpose Fairy a little more than 24 hours ago, hundreds of people have now read it. And liked what I wrote. Even identified with it. There was nothing more satisfying and rewarding than reading comments that said, "Thank you for writing this. I feel like this is my story too.”
I read a quote by Kim McManus that applies to the experience of sharing my story so publicly. It says, “Your heartache is someone else’s hope. If you can make it through, somebody else is going to make it through. Tell your story.”
I have learned that my story is also someone else’s story. My story matters. Your story matters. Tell it.
Purpose Fairy has published one of my articles, which is a version of an earlier blog entry that I wrote. Please check it out, and re-post it! Spread the love!
And for those of you who have found me through Purpose Fairy! Welcome! Love and light to you!
Given the intensity of the past week of all that has been happening, both in my personal life and globally, it’s been a bit hard for me to slow down. I’ve had a bit of monkey mind lately, and it’s hard when I am in adrenaline mode, thinking non-stop.
There’s so much I want to write about, so much to say. But right now, my heart says I need to go into quiet. Into appreciation. Because despite everything, the world has so many moments of wonder at any given moment. That there is so much to love about this world. So much to observe and treasure.
So no more words. Just moments that I was grateful to capture.
Of all Asian American groups, the Filipino community is perhaps the only one obsessed with the impossible desire of returning to the homeland, whether in reality or fantasy. It is impossible because, given the break in our history (our initiation into the Imaginary or mirror-stage of colonial existence), the authentic homeland doesn’t exist except as a simulacrum of Hollywood, or a nascent dream of jouissance ….
-Epifanio San Juan, Jr.
In a country accustomed to natural calamity, even those well-seasoned in the havoc of Mother Nature are shocked by the scale of devastation by super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). It’s only now that all of us are starting to fully realize and absorb the full extent of what has transpired. When comparisons are being made to the tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan, you know that this is another event beyond simple comprehension.
I can only feel inadequacy in trying to express myself, yet I want to try to explain what it means to be a Filipino American, and why the aftermath of Yolanda has shook me to my core. So much has come to the surface, and it’s taken me days to come to any sort of coherence.
How can I truly process all of this? All efforts to comprehend seem so small. The super-typhoon bore down on November 8, the anniversary of my now ended marriage. On that day I was ensconced in my own swirl of emotion, thinking somehow that my own personal storm was larger than myself, unmanageable, too cryptic to be deciphered. But now all that is made seemingly insignificant by a tragedy too large to describe.
I currently live in North Carolina, and on a day-to-day basis, there are few reminders of my being a member of the Filipino diaspora. In some ways I feel far-flung from my community of origin, having no one to share cultural kinship on a continuous basis. In my local social and work circles, I am the only Filipino around, and because I have lived in North Carolina for the past 18 of 22 years, I’ve now become accustomed and well-versed in the customs of the South, having learned to eat grits and biscuits with gravy. I incorporate the word “y'all” on a regular basis, and my accent is a strange amalgam of West Coast and Southern. Most of the time I am mistaken for being Mexican (though I always joke that Mexico is the colonial sibling for the Philippines–Spain ruled the Philippines via Mexico for several hundred years.)
At the moment I maintain my connection to the Filipino community primarily through the place I call my hometown, Virginia Beach, Virginia, where about 17,000 out of almost 26,000 Filipinos live in the Tidewater area. For me, it’s the closest place where there is a substantial core population of Filipinos. My parents are pillars of the community, having been in a number of leadership roles through various cultural organizations. I, myself, am still involved with organizations like the Filipino American Historical National Society of Hampton Roads and the Young Filipino-American Professionals, and I still Skype into meetings as well as as attend a myriad of social events throughout the year as time permits.
The Filipino community is close-knit. Even though there are instances of clannishness and regionialism, we are all united by the concept of bayanihan, a word that roughly translates as “community." Bayanihan has traditionally been represented by the custom of helping a neighbor move their house. See below:
However, the meaning of bayanihan is much deeper than this. We treat non-blood relatives as family, and growing up I remember the confusion that my non-Filipino friends had when I would call friends of the family "Uncle” and “Auntie." For them, it seemed strange to refer to people who weren’t family as family members. Yet this custom fits perfectly within the concept of bayanihan. It also explains the almost instantaneous kinship I feel when I meet another Filipino, no matter where I am.
The Philippines has the dubious distinction as being the country beset by the most natural disasters in the world. It averages 20 typhoons a year and just recently suffered a 7.2 earthquake in the Visayas, the same area where Haiyan (Yolanda) made landfall. Everyone I know who has family in the Philippines can speak of having to deal with the consequence of typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruption. I experienced living through typhoons when I lived there as a young child and also through subsequent visits when I went there during rainy season.
In 1993 when I visited as a college student, the country was still recovering from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and on my trip to my grandparents, my family and I spent hours maneuvering through roads built on vast moonscapes of volcanic ash, the journey made even more slow by driving monsoon rains as well as by lahar alerts. As if to reinforce the feeling of apocalypse, I remember a huge swarm of locusts flying through the air as we drove through the decimated land. Below is a picture that I took of the landscape that we slogged through for almost six hours:
On that same trip, when we traveled to the mountain city of Baguio, we experienced a jolting ride on the main thoroughfare, still severely damaged the from the 1990 Luzon earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. As we rode up the mountain in a speeding bus on a tight hairpin road (which is an experience in of itself), parts of the road cracked open by the earthquake had been covered with large pieces of plywood to make it passable. Massive landslides were only partially cleared to make room for one lane. An example of one such landslide is below:
In 2009, my family dealt with massive flooding from Typhoon Pepeng where water rose to the second floor of my paternal grandparents’ house in the city of Urdaneta. Flash floods also inundated my mother’s childhood home and shattered the cinder block wall in the backyard.You can witness the flooding in my mother’s hometown of Villasis in this video:
I describe these experiences because the regular occurrence of natural disasters and their aftermath is not a new or unexpected thing. The fact of the matter is that natural disasters have been incorporated into the expectation of daily life. I don’t want to say that we are immured to them, but we know that they will happen without fail. And even in the face of this particular fact, Filipinos display a humor and optimism as well as consistent hardiness and resilience when cleaning up and re-building.
So I think this is why there is even a greater sense of shock at the devastation that has occurred in the Philippines among those in the Filipino community. No one has ever seen anything like this on such a scale. And even though I have no immediate family in the area hardest hit, my heart hurts in a way that I have not experienced before. This is a tragedy that is felt by the greater human family, but a particular and deep resonance exists for me because of my relationship to the country, even if that relationship is fraught with complexity and sometimes ambivalence.
If you were to combine the land mass of just the over 7100 islands of the Philippines, the result would total the size of Arizona Yet the Philippines is the twelfth most densely populated nation in the world right after Mexico. Filipinos are the second largest Asian American group, and our large presence is in due mostly in part to a fact forgotten by the general American public–that the Philippines was once a possession of the United States for nearly fifty years. This explains why English is so widely spoken in the country. My great-grandparents were considered to be "nationals” of the United States but never citizens. A strong American presence remained in the Philippines through its military bases, even after independence was granted in 1946, and this presence probably would have continued if it were not for the fact the bases were seriously damaged by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
The number one export of the Philippines is its people. About 10% of its population lives elsewhere, and the economy is sustained in large part by overseas remittances. Even though I was born in Hawaii and am an American citizen, the circumstances of my birth are related directly to the massive migration that has been occurring since the 1960s. While my parents are naturalized citizens, they go back to visit the Philippines on a regular basis, oftentimes for school reunions. Their former classmates live all over the world–not only in the United States but in places like Australia, Italy, United Arab Emirates. If you are Filipino, you are likely to live abroad or know someone in your family who does.
This is the story not only of my parents but of their generation. Those of us who are second generation share similar stories to tell. An emphasis on maintaining strong cultural ties has been inculcated within us, even as we have been assimilated into at-large American society. There has been uneasiness in bridging these two worlds, but despite the inherent tension that exists, we find ourselves being drawn back to our families’ country of origin.
Bayanihan among those of us who are the children of the first generation resonates with even more additional meaning because of our shared collective experience, one where we have to navigate the duality of identities, between being Filipino and being American and realizing that we are an amalgam of both.
It is precisely because of this phenomenon that I and other Filipino Americans have been impacted in such a deep way by what has transpired and what is currently transpiring in the Philippines. No doubt we would have been deeply affected, even if were not Filipino, such is the scale of this tragedy, but it hits home in so many ways. The faces of strangers resemble our own. We see ourselves. We see our families. And the meaning of bayanihan makes those Filipinos who are strangers our close kin.
My friends and I are already mobilizing, planning and coordinating fundraisers, sharing information on Facebook about the missing, writing essays and poems about our visceral response. Bayanihan is in full force as we seek solace in finding ways to help.
Bayanihan means no degree of separation. I am already meeting other Filipinos and Filipino Americans through social media as we collaborate on a variety of projects. Some of us have family in affected areas. Some of us don’t. Yet we are all united in a desire to alleviate the suffering of those who we see as our extended family. While we may not have known each other just a week ago, we are already close. And that will be the silver lining to all that has happened.
Celebrating my third birthday in the Philippines with family in the province
Another poem I wrote for the Hawak Kamay project. We have been asked to write poems of comfort for the survivors.
I promise you that you’ll know sweetness again,
that a day will come when the wind smells of
salt and cooking fires, of blooming orchids and
growing things, and you will be sitting outside
in the shade of your favorite tree, feeling gratitude
that you have this moment, this one moment,
even after all that has happened.
But for now, accept the small tender gestures
that are offered. Close your eyes and weep
if you must. We cry, too. We all have had
our hearts broken. We are in this together.
All I can offer are tender words and
an open heart. Maybe it is not enough,
but it is something, maybe small, but
it is something. But the smallness of
many gestures adds up to something
large, and this is how we will go on,
supported by the many open hands offered.
This is my contribution to the Hawak Kamay (Holding Hands) project, which is a poetry project dedicated to creating poems for the survivors of typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda):
You have become driftwood.
Only the sea knows the full story
of how you were battered and
shaped into death, limbs twisted,
the lungs saturated with brine.
Then you were tossed aside
as the sea retreated and forgot
But you are loved
though I do not know your name,
only that you were too frail
for the fury of the sea.
I love you in your stillness as
the living cover you with cardboard
to shelter you from the sun and
the gaze of shocked survivors.
I love you and the Universe
you once contained, which include
memories of the sea and its splendor,
its varying shades of blue and gray
depending on the day.
You are precious to me, and
you are not forgotten.
You still ride in the current of life
as I type this, as my heart feels full
at knowing the ending of your story.
It is difficult for me to fully digest the happenings in the Philippines, a place so beloved and close to me. I want to write about it, and poetry is a good way for me to get to the heart of what I am experiencing.
Here is the full description of the project from the Facebook page:
“Hawak Kamay: Poems for the Philippines After Haiyan,” is a poetry project started by Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California. The phrase “hawak kamay” means “to hold hands” in Filipino.
The Hawak Kamay poetry project and facebook group are open to EVERYONE, not just Filipinos. Everyone interested in making public your poems about the disaster is invited to join us.
Please post your healing and inspirational poems here on our wall. You can also email them to PoemsForThePhilippines@groups.facebook.com.
“Healing and inspirational” poems are best because we hope victims and survivors can soon have in their hands these poems or a sampling to help their spirits be raised.
We will get your poems out to the people … we’re still in the beginning stages but working as quickly as we can.
Please invite your friends, whether poets or not, to the group. We want to send as many words of beauty and love and support to the Philippines as we are able.
To direct people to this group, please give them this web address: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PoemsForThePhilippines/
Sawa bona. (I see you.)
Sikhona. (I am here.)
also translated as
Until you see me I do not exist. When you see me, you bring me into existence.
~ Traditional Greeting from the Samburu tribe of North Africa
We are all interconnected. The need for validation comes from the feeling of wanting to belong somewhere. Each of us wants to feel acknowledged, important, valued, loved. But even as we crave to be recognized, we may fear revealing our true selves. The fear of rejection can drive us to create personas that represent what we think others want to see. Personas are projections, illusions that can be so convincing that we may come to believe that they are in fact real. But when we are not grounded in our heart center in our interactions with others, we become plagued by feelings of loneliness, emptiness, sadness, falseness.
The beauty of a greeting that says, “I see you,” lies in recognizing the true heart of the other. But the truth is that many of us hide our hearts, having been taught that vulnerability is a pathway to pain. We may have been punished for our sensitivity, called “weak” or “worthless,” been told to toughen up. And the truth is that many times we have been taught this by those people who may have been closest to us–our parents, our siblings, our friends, our lovers. We have been taught that we deserve love only if certain conditions are met. As a result the need to protect ourselves then eclipses opportunities for kindness, generosity, understanding, love. When fear of pain shuts us down, we have no way of seeing another way of being exists. We come to expect punishment and ruthlessness as the only end results.
But if someone says, “I see you,” where the heart is truly recognized–stripped of defenses, unencumbered by externals like academic accomplishment, income level, job titles, and past experiences–something miraculous can happen. The other person now revealed can say, “I am here,” to complete the connection, to acknowledge the Oneness that exists. “I am here” can then expand in context, beyond “simply being” to a sense of gratitude of being seen and recognized. Both people are seen. Both people are present.
Nothing has been more liberating than to finally remove the yoke of others’ expectations and judgments. Ironically, once I defined my value as being intrinsic and independent of what I have accomplished or obtained, I found the things I most craved came to me–validation, acceptance, love. When I allowed myself to be truly loving of myself, I could then be truly loving of others. And when I was truly of loving of others, then others could truly be loving back. As a result, I have no shortage of authentic, heartfelt connections. My friends are truly my soul family. And this soul family only continues to grow on a daily basis. I can now say, “I see you” and have the other person feel that it is completely true.
For years I feared what would happen if I allowed myself to be vulnerable, to be in tune with my heart’s desires. At the root of that fear were the questions, “What if no one wants me? What if now one loves me? What if I end up alone?" The paradox, of course, was that I already felt unwanted, unloved, and alone.
The beautiful thing about authentic connection is that there is no such thing as scarcity. We do not have to compete because love as a resource is truly limitless. And because it is limitless, we can continue to "pay it forward” and see it grow even more.
One of my favorite greetings is “namaste.” Translated it means “the divinity within me recognizes the divinity within you." It’s another way of saying, "I see you because I see myself within you." I try to keep this in mind, especially when times are challenging with other people–the crazy driver in traffic, the surly co-worker, the chronic complainer–because I know at one time I have been (or will be) the other person. One of my goals is to continue to cultivate compassion within myself. And I know that I can always do better!
When I was a high school student, I read an essay by Einstein on science and religion. He spoke of "cosmic religious feeling” which transcended the traditional paradigms of religion based on fear and punishment. When I spoke with a close friend, we re-labeled “cosmic religious feeling” as “greater human goodness." I remember feeling a profound sense of optimism and hope as we talked about what it meant as we sat on the beach under a starlit night. The belief in "greater human goodness” has stayed with me all these years, and now I dedicate my daily life to finding it and embodying it. And what I love is that I have found no shortage of people who believe it too.
Let all that you do be done in love.
~ 1 Corinthians 16:14
As a young child I was deeply sensitive. Small things would move me–sunlight through the leaves of a tree, the glimmer of dew drops, the sad chords of a love song. Because I could feel so deeply, I could feel the emotions of others. And in experiencing the emotions of other so acutely and accurately, I came to have a feeling that I was somehow responsible for the feelings of other people.
Early on I was a people-pleaser. Being a “good girl” meant being responsible for the happiness of others. In fact, there were times I was outright told by other people that the cause of their unhappiness was, in fact, me. In this way I was already being conditioned that my sense of self-worth was tied directly to how I made other people feel, not having any inkling that it is in fact up to each of us to be responsible for our own feelings. What I learned was that my feelings don’t matter. Because I learned that my feelings should be eclipsed by others’, I felt a sense of deep despondency and pain. (But of course, I did not have permission from myself or others to acknowledge it.)
This paradigm of conditional love/acceptance is one which a large number of people experience. And the end result in many situations is one where the sense of self is violated. Many times I gave, compromised, sacrificed again and again with the expectation that the validation I received from the other person would make me whole and complete. I thought that I was broken, incomplete, a “bad person” unless I “gave until it hurt." So many of us have been taught this myth of "incompleteness” to our great detriment.
Increasingly it would come to pass in many of these situations that what I gave was still not enough for the other person. I would become drained of energy and resources as I gave and gave and gave, thinking that somehow I could provide satiety. I had unknowingly become caught in a cycle where I became convinced that I could “fix” the other person. Ironically, our collective unhappiness and discontent would only deepen as each successive demand/deed failed to fill whatever void existed within each of us.
What I have come to realize is that I can never offer someone what does not already exist within myself. Relationships are ultimately energetic transactions derived from belief systems. When a belief system is one rooted in scarcity, fear, inadequacy, sometimes rage, then how can love truly exist?
I had been motivated to fill up my own great void by trying to fill the great void of another person. But there never was a need to do so. We are already complete. Those things we seek outside of ourselves have existed within us all along. All of us are in fact Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” who is told by the Glinda the Good Witch, “You had the power all along, my dear.”
The Prayer of St. Francis says that it is in giving of ourselves, that we receive. This is absolutely true. But what exactly are we giving of ourselves if we believe that “incompleteness” is our truth? And what we will receive in return? The myth of “incompleteness” only perpetuates itself, paradoxically expanding the very emptiness we seek to fill.
Only by giving from our wholeness, from a complete love that has always existed, can we truly really receive love in return. But even I have difficulty with this statement. Because I have believed that I have been broken for so long, this has actually been a difficult concept to embrace. I have only arrived in totally believing my wholeness bit by bit. While wholeness has always been the truth, it’s taken time to undo years of conditioning.
One of my favorite practices has been the use of affirmations. Louise Hay is probably the most well-known advocate of affirmations though the power of thought has been discussed for decades. She has created several decks of affirmations that I use for my personal use. In fact, sometimes I carry a deck of them in my purse, and I will have people pick one at random. Inevitably, it is the perfect affirmation for the situation.
I picked a card from Louise Hay’s Wisdom Card deck, which is available as an app for iPhone. I’ve posted it below, and I think it’s perfect for today’s post.
“The reward of our work is not what we get, but what we become.”
~ Paulo Coehlo
Life can be a struggle. Over the past four years as I have transformed my life into something different, I’ve found myself asking, “Why does it have to be so hard?" Starting my life from scratch once my marriage ended meant many times I found myself overwhelmed, and some nights I would wake up panic-stricken, covered in a cold sweat. Will I be able to make it on my own? What if I can’t do it?
Every drop of insecurity and fear that existed within my being would come to the surface, and I would experience intense paralysis as I lay in the dark, trying to slow down my breathing. Everything I had once known had fallen away, and a part of me desperately wanted my old life back. While it was miserable, there was a predictability, a familiarity. But deep down another part of me insisted, "You CAN do this,” despite the appearance of my life being in utter chaos. And it was this tiny kernel of strength residing within me that brought me through the night as I willed myself to agree that things were getting better, even if there seemed to be no visible evidence.
One thing that I have always found difficult is making myself a priority. Ever since I could remember, I have always placed the needs and expectations of others before my own. In sacrificing my needs and my expectations, I lost myself so completely that it has taken me until now to have an idea of who I am authentically, independent of the dictates of others. During my marriage, I sacrificed my own ambitions and aspirations for the medical career of my husband. I always told myself my time would come to shine, to be my own best self. And then I realized it never would, not if I stayed.
I know there were many times I disliked myself, sometimes actually hated myself. I knew that I was a person motivated by fear, by lack, by insecurity, by jealousy. And I did NOT want to be that person. Ironically, a big reason why I had become THAT person because I lacked the courage to live my truth. I did not want people to judge me. Because if their judgment was damning, who would I be then? I did not want to know the answer. For years I lived less than my best self simply because I felt like had no right to shine my own light.
But the truth of the matter is that we are constantly being judged. For better or worse, there will be that one person who seeks to discredit us, to tear us down. In my case, this was actually my own family, which was my worst fear embodied. And I was indeed subjected to the judgment of my neighbors, especially because I left my marriage just months after the birth of my son. But despite the slings and arrows of those judgments, I am still here, alive and well. And not only alive and well but happier and more content than I have ever been in my life.
Joseph Campbell states that part of the hero(ine)’s journey involves having to be alone to face the darkness of the new world (s)he has encountered. It has been described as “being in the belly of the whale” where no light is apparent. However, to emerge from the whale’s belly is to be re-born. And to also gain the knowledge that the world is not the same place it once was.
Many times I have felt I have been in full freefall, which is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. I know that I have the choice to treat my life as an adventure, and the nature of adventure is uncertainty. And while there are still times that I feel fear, I know it is because I am at the edge of a new episode that can only serve to make my life better than it once was. As someone once said, no one said it would be easy, but it will be worth it.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
~ Joseph Campbell
It’s easy to be reflective of late, especially after just celebrating my 40th birthday as well as I come upon the anniversary of my marriage and divorce, which coincide in the same month. The past few years have been marked by profound change in ways that are both subtle and dramatic. Sometimes as I read through my earlier journals from the years 2010 and 2011, I find myself thinking, “So is this what the butterfly sees when trying to remember the time it was a caterpillar?" That’s how much my world has shifted.
For years my life was defined by deep feelings of inadequacy as well as concurrent actions of striving to keep those feelings at bay. Even as a young child, I felt nothing I did was good enough, and I can still recall feelings of intense anxiety, sometimes terror, at simply waking up and knowing I had to go to school. While my parents meant well, I was inculcated with the belief that to be loved meant having to prove your worth each and every day, which meant doing things in a certain way–staying quiet, doing what you were told, getting good grades, taking certain subjects. In other words, I was given a supposed checklist of success, which would supposedly lead to this elusive state called "happiness.”
I was taught to be competitive, to believe that my self-worth was directly tied to accomplishment. I could not be of value unless I achieved something. This is a belief system embraced by many, and for me, it only served to deepen the feelings of emptiness and downright devastation that I experienced, especially if I failed at something. When one lives in a constant state of competition, there is no such thing as ever being good enough. One lives in a constant fear that you NEVER will be good enough. Even as I continually achieved and collected accolades, I suffered from constant panic attacks, chronic anxiety and depression. Therapy and anti-depressants would provide short-lived respite.
However, even as I spent most of waking time dedicated to “doing,” part of me was suspicious of what the point exactly was to all this “doing." A secret voice was always asking, "Is this all there is?" Part of me was deeply ashamed that this voice even existed. After all, society was reinforcing that I was doing things the "right way.” After doing what I supposed to do, I graduated from high school to attend an elite university. This was supposed to be a reward to all my hard work. But as I attended classes and mingled with my classmates, that voice seemed to get louder and louder, “Is this all there is?”
I would chide myself when I heard this question. “What else could there possibly be?" I dutifully checked off the items on my checklist of success, completely believing that once I completed each task, I would be closer and closer to that state called "happiness." However, with each accomplishment, I only seemed to be further and further away from where I wanted to be. A part of me resigned myself to believing that perhaps what I really wanted could never be attained, that it was elusive and outside myself. But even as I tried to give into resignation, that voice, "Is this all there is?” continued to plague me. I heard this voice even when graduating magna cum laude from college, even when attending graduate school, even when marrying, even when buying my first home. I had become an adult and done everything that was expected of me. And I was completely miserable.
“Is this all there is?” became an accusation. But I busied myself with tasks to which I attached great importance. I cooked gourmet meals. I traveled to faraway places. I did yoga. I went through the motions of what a good life was supposed to be, never realizing in all those years that what I had longed for resided within myself. My self-worth still resided in the external– from accomplishments and material possessions, in the need for validation from others. It never occurred to me that I could give myself validation because I had never been taught that.
I remember back in 2001 discovering a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he spoke about suffering. It struck a chord with me, but I could not understand it. For he said to lessen suffering in the world, you had to reduce suffering within yourself. That concept seemed completely foreign to me. I was taught that to lessen the suffering in the world, you had to lessen the suffering of others. I did not understand how lessening MY suffering could possibly lessen the suffering of others. So even when we are well-meaning in focusing on the suffering of others, it only serves to distract from addressing what needs to change within ourselves.
Fast forward to the present, I now realize that we cannot possibly give or receive love without knowing love within ourselves first. And how did I finally understand this? It was when I heard the words, “Who you are is enough." I don’t know from whom or exactly when I heard this, but the concept was so revolutionary to me that I shed tears. And for the first time, I felt free. I have heard this mantra echoed numerous times from many spiritual teachings and teachers since hearing it the first time, but I finally understood what Thich Nhat Hanh meant.
I have dedicated the past few years to releasing my old belief systems related to worthiness. When the inner voice asked the question "Is this all there is?”, it was really asking, “Are you good enough?" And the answer has been and always will be, "I am enough.”