There was a moment when I was in school and we were rehearsing for the school play. I must’ve been about six years old, but I’ve never forgotten it. We were doing the Jungle Book, and I had been cast as one of the monkeys. The rehearsal was in the gym, and I was standing there, with my tail tied around my waist – it was a piece of flexible PVC pipe that my mother had painted brown – standing there in front of the closed gym door. I was late, and everyone else was already inside. We had to take our shoes off before we went into the gym, and I looked down at the big pile of shoes. All big shoes, because they were all kids from a grade or two above me. I looked down at my own shoes, and then back to all the big shoes, and then back to the closed door. And then I decided to turn around and walk away. Far away. Much too scary, all this. Going into a room where I didn’t know anybody and didn’t know what to expect even though I actually really liked the idea of jumping around dressed like a monkey.
But I didn’t dare.
And I still get the urge to run away sometimes, from new impressions, exciting things and undiscovered territory. Only it takes on subtler forms now. I don’t run away anymore, but I do other things. Until recently, for example, I would make myself larger. I mean literally, like if I walked into a bar I would straighten my spine, puff out my chest, and throw my shoulders back.
Fill up the space with strength and aggression.
Or another strategy was to separate myself from the others, say that I needed to work things out for myself. That I was the loner type. That when you’re born on an island, that just makes you a different kind of person. Even though what I really, deeply wanted was a mentor, close friendships, people who I could learn from.
To keep the outside away with a mask, an image.
Looking for something to fill that space with, I went looking for spiritual things. I did about a dozen ayahuasca ceremonies, went to retreats, went to healers, went to coaches. Eventually, I realized that these spaces – the teepees, the sweat huts, the secret places out in the forests – sometimes they were really more of an escape. I felt safe there, I could do my thing, I could pretend to be vulnerable and I could give myself over to the ceremony. Sure, I learned things, but I also eventually learned that this was only a crutch.
I was confusing space with spiritual concepts, ceremonies, and sheltered environments.
Somewhere in me there was still that little boy who was afraid to open the door to the gym. Even though he really wanted to make like a monkey for a while. To play, to have nothing to prove.
I’m happy to say that I’m opening that door more and more now.
The last time I did was at a recent course I was taking. I looked around and saw six other students, a teacher with a homemade sandwich in his little lunchbox, the same lunchbox that everyone else had, a few of those white plastic coffee cups, a classroom with fluorescent lights. Writing tasks, pens scratching on paper, a few chuckles, a sigh, listening to each other. I looked around and couldn’t remember that I had ever spent my time doing that before Ever having felt so aware. Just doing. Finding things out. Not to be the best, not to figure out how I could use this material in my work so I could “grow”, not to earn a diploma. None of that. Just because I wanted to be there.
Feeling how filling your space can be so uninhibited, so relaxed.
I understood it, and I felt it immediately. How good it felt. And how different it felt from all those years of butting heads, measuring up to others, striving to win. Striving to be the toughest bastard out on the field. To have the biggest mouth. To show how good I was. All that collecting knowledge out of fear of falling behind.
I saw how in almost everything I did, the way I occupied my space was distorted by the competitions, the fears, the urge to escape.
In our society, you can go a long way not being relaxed in the way you occupy your space. Competition, training schedules, challenges and spiritual frameworks can all give you something to hold onto. In fact, many organizations, groups of friends, stores, products, and so much else in our society railroad us into this forced struggle: “belong”, “go big or go home”, “be successful”, “be happy”. It’s all too easy to find yourself on that train before you know it.
But there is no joy in it. It’s the face of a clown whose smile is only painted on and wishes he could smile without the face paint. The moments that I break through my own patterns are the moments that I feel like I am exactly there. And funnily enough, it’s when I’m doing the things that I loved the most as a kid: being outside, jumping around, building things with other people.
Less “doing” the things to get ahead, less filling space by showing how big and strong I am, with masks and spiritual concepts.
Instead, just opening the door of the gym, looking around, and feeling: this is who I am, and this is what I want.