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Life in the Middle

From black and white to gray

Be it by nature or nurture, I am an extremist. Not in a scary alt-right way, but in an equally terrifying, all-or-nothing way. For example, when I was a freshman in college, on the whim that I wanted to become a runner, I signed up for a half marathon. Then without any real training, I showed up and by sheer force alone, muscled my way through the whole thing. Last week I decided I should be a better meditator and signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat, in Thailand. When I do something, it is all the way or not at all.

It is easy to control your conscious actions, but much more difficult to change your unconscious desires. I wish my thoughts could be as neat and tidy as my Google calendar, clean cut and controlled. A recovering people pleaser, slowly I’ve stopped wasting my time doing things I don’t want to do. I have gotten great at breaking up with old bosses and dodging time intensive requests. Haven’t used Snapchat in a year. Became a vegan at the drop of a hat. Not wasting time on things that are irrelevant or superfluous, I do a great job at shutting out things I deem “bad” for me.

In my head, compartmentalizing brings me great joy, as I try to become this great robot of productivity. No emotion, just motion. Upward and onward. I have tried to sort the relationships in my life based on healthy or unhealthy. For those who hurt me, I found it much easier to cut them off cold turkey. Living in the uncertainty that they might hurt me again was nearly intolerable. I liked my life black and white, took joy in the yes or no. The business school student in me, I wanted to put the world into a nice chart or easily understood graphic, to distill the wonderful chaos of existence into something two-dimensional that couldn’t hurt me.

But life, in its crazy vivid vibrancy and uncontrollable mania, it seeps into everything. No matter how I tried to control and contain the world within me, to predict and prescribe the planet around me, the less that made sense. As I tried to uncover purpose and meaning, I started to dig and dig, but only got more questions.

As one who is going through a premature midlife crisis, I began reading a lot about death (super fun conversation fodder lemme tell ya) devouring Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I asked existential questions to my parents, my friends, my hairdresser. Marlow, the amazing woman who does my hair and also might be a spiritual shaman placed on the planet to help me, gave me some great advice. She said, “Sarah, sweet girl, maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why you are here, ask: while you are here, what are you going to do?” But this advice fell on nearly deaf ears. I wanted my crisp, two sentence answer. I wanted to accidentally stumble across my life’s purpose scrawled on a bathroom wall. Run into the reason for my existence in a book. I wanted a map and all I got was a compass. Marlow told me to listen to my heart, but I had built a temple that worshipped my brain and left my heart outside begging to be let in.

As one would expect, my life was starting to get messy. Cutting people and things out completely works well if you are a robot. But we humans, we are long-term rational and short-term emotional. I knew what was “good” for me, but I desired what felt “good” to me. And those were not the same. Even after six months as a vegan, I was having dreams about meat. I had blocked my ex on all social media but he still called on Valentine’s Day. I was a second semester senior who wanted to be a freshman. The world was seeping in, despite all my efforts to live in a vacuum.

For spring break, I went on a yoga retreat to Costa Rica and I admit- I was so excited to finally find some answers. A part of me truly believed that I was going to be meditating under a palm tree and a coconut would whack enlightenment into my head, Isaac Newton style. Not to give away the ending, but that simply didn’t happen.

But something remarkable did happen- I came face-to-face with myself. There is something about travel, that no matter how far we go, we just come closer to ourselves. In the chaos of energetic encounters with strangers and midnight dance parties under the moon, being slammed by the surf and cradled by a hammock in the breeze, I was ripped from my old routines and into my life exactly how it is. The boundaries I had built to keep myself safe, to keep life out, came tumbling down.

It started with my eating. A control freak who had struggled with an eating disorder, I have found comfort in the rigidity of veganism because rule-following was familiar. I had lived for four years with rules I had made for myself on what I could and could not eat, and veganism was another, much healthier, code of rules I could follow. Since recovering from my ED, I shied away from intuitive eating because I thought I lacked the self-control to live in the middle. It had to be all-or-nothing. But on this retreat, for some reason, I tried eggs. Perhaps it was the egg-loving friends I was with or amazing chef who catered our every meal or something in the air, but I generated the courage to discard the identity I had maintained for six months as a vegan and let myself enjoy the damn eggs. The next day, I ate fish. Since I have gotten home, I have tried chicken and turkey sausage. The sky hasn’t fallen, haven’t been disowned. Life continued on… and I am much more full because of it.

The change in my eating might seem like such a micro-change, but to me, it is huge. The courage to move away from my rules and tolerate uncertainty is spreading to all aspects of my life. Before the trip I was so anxious about what was going to happen with my relationships after graduation, I could hardly sleep. I was living fifty days forward, and could hardly focus on my life as it was in the present moment, missing it passing me by. But with the courage to be vulnerable and step out of my safety net, I have started to live whole-hearted. The fear of the future made me small, I shrunk with the anticipation of a heart-shattering blow. But as I set aside my fear, I am playing big and loving big. No inhibition, no hesitation. Showing up with all of myself and loving the people around me- hugging them, holding them, having dance parties with them and staying up until 3 am talking. This big magical world is loving me and I am loving it right back.

One of my friends who I admire greatly once spoke about the negative repercussions of living too black and white. She said that when you live just in one extreme or the other, you miss out on all the good in the gray, the life in the middle. As my walls have slowly come down, light is flooding my vision, bathing my world in color. I wanted to leave the yoga retreat with everything figured out and tied up with a bow, but instead, I have started to strip off the layers, taking away so that I can take in. No longer imprisoned by my own sentencing, I am rewriting my story with no end in sight, no known resolution. Just the tale of a girl in the middle.   

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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