The year I turned 40, I was depressed.
For over 13 years, I'd been doing extensive self-awareness work -- therapy, meditation, energy work, self-help books, classes and intensive yogic training. Many teachers, many lessons, so much learning and growth -- but I still felt crappy.
I found myself crying a lot, so I'd take long bike rides to lessen the pressure. I would ride fast and far, mostly to escape my feelings. While peddling I had glimpses of presence and peace, but off the bike I was left feeling like I wanted to scream.
I didn't like it. It was scary. I found myself idealizing a life on autopilot where I no longer desired answers to the big questions.
One day, I reached a new place of overwhelm, like I needed to throw up or runaway. I literally could no longer tolerate myself.
I told my husband I just needed to walk. So I walked and cried, and cried and walked.
Then, a profound and terrifying thing happened.
I heard something. I'm still not sure if it was an audible voice or a feeling, it's pretty much a blur, but what I "heard" was this:
The pain I felt in that moment reminded me of when I gave birth to my third daughter in the back of our car, when the feelings of pain and the presence of something greater coincide and you know you have no choice but to let go.
So I went down to the ground. It was so gut wrenching that I felt willing to surrender my entire life -- my husband, my kids, my past, my future. I gave up stories, opinions and desires, all of my ideas about how life should be.
Then it was quiet. Then I felt weird for being on the ground.
I was still afraid, but a little relieved. Like some of the air was slowly leaking out of the too-tight balloon. I guess it was a catharsis, or maybe a step beyond catharsis, because it didn't stop there.
Words and imagery started coming fast, and while I can't remember all of it, because there isn't a way to accurately describe a mix of feelings, words, and pictures, I do recall the gist:
They are not yours, they are theirs. You do not get to decide what they do or who they are. You do not get to decide how they feel about you or what choices they make. You do not control other people. You cannot control what happens. You just get to live a life. And you get to love others who live a life.
That was it. I had to give up control.
I had to let everyone go, especially my husband and kids, the ones I love most. I no longer got to carry a story about what a husband should be or what a kid should say and do, I no longer got to dictate their story.
I could only be responsible for my life. Then as a partner and parent, I could love them as they lived their lives.
So I let go.
And I continue to practice letting go. My past stories and outdated belief systems have deeply carved-out pathways in my brain and body, so letting go is a process, a continuous choice that allows me to love in present time.
You just get to love them.
I get to love some people closely, like my husband and kids, my extended family, an old friend, a class full of students or participants during a presentation.
I also get to love people from a distance. I can say no to an opportunity that doesn't feel right, I can choose to not be with someone who makes me feel bad, I can let go of obligations that drain me.
I don't have to judge or change anybody, but I don't have to put myself in harm's way.
When I slowly got up off the ground that day and walked home, I realized something old had died. Or if it didn't die, it was at least revealed as false.
I'm still challenged by the same kind of issues -- I judge, I like to be right, I like it when people like me. But I've cracked open a space between my "issues" and my response to my issues.
I've gained a view of my mind activity, which means I'm no longer at the mercy of my mind activity.
One of my favorite Zen teachings is, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."
I'm not claiming to be enlightened, but I've definitely experienced some enlightened moments and glimpses of clarity.
Humbling, to say the least, because it's not all about us and our individual needs. The world is bigger and more mystical than our mind-made plans and ideas.
A glimpse of enlightenment is like cleaning fluid for a dirty window, a window that you didn't even realize was dirty in the first place. The world and your life remains somewhat the same, you indeed continue to "chop wood and carry water," but the clear view of everyday experiences takes on new meaning.
Like the fact that I like people so much better now. I enjoy both Mondays and Fridays. I am in awe of the moon, and the tree out my window. I feel compelled to rescue bugs and talk to animals.
I enjoy washing my face at night. I laugh louder at funny things and I dance and sing more openly. I can gaze out windows for hours, and hugs often bring tears to my eyes.
I still get angry and sad, and I still get really scared sometimes. My emotions fluctuate just like they always have, but I am less swept away because I recognize they are fleeting.
I no longer view success as external achievement, but rather an ability to be self aware and have internal well being. I appreciate external achievement, I'm actually quite ambitious, but I don't require specific outcomes to feel like I belong.
This act of surrender has allowed me to feel core-level joy. Sometimes I can actually smell grass when I feel this joy because it reminds me of playing outside as a kid, a time when I was so sure about who I was and what was most important.
My aspiration is to touch that core-level joy, even if it's only for a brief moment each day, so I can reconnect to the message of my experience:
The gift of living is fully felt when we are being profoundly real. True freedom is found in being exactly what we are, and nothing more. But if we are going to be this free, we must let others be free as well.
Love is not about telling others who to be or loving them only if they do what we say. That's bondage. When we hold others in bondage, we ourselves are in bondage because we are attempting to control the lives and behaviors of others -- this is undoable and therefore anxiety provoking and usually painful.
I don't get to be fully myself and then ask others to be like me or anybody else. That doesn't make any sense. If I want to be loved for who I am, I must love people as they are, too.
We can love people, but choose to not be around them. Self love tells us when it's in our best interest to love some people from a distance. Releasing "should" and "have to's" creates space for well being.
The more real we are, the more real people we come into contact with - there's a fluidness and deeper understanding that's not always verbalized, but felt.
Life will never be perfect, challenges will continuously present themselves over and over again.
But challenges can be dealt with and experienced with awareness. Difficulty can be met with a freer mind, with a mind that has less fear and rigidity and is more open to available coping tools and endless possibilities.
So now I live life with fewer answers and a lot more questions. I no longer believe that I know what is best for others.
But I do enjoy supporting others in figuring out what they believe is best for them.
To me, that feels like true love.