17 May Mind Body Balance
About 6 weeks ago I was in the midst of a crisis and my good friend Caroline took it upon herself to make me go for a run with her every day that week. She also made me go with her to a yoga class. In principle, I love the idea of yoga. In reality, I don’t think I’d ever been to a class. The one she took me to was an intermediate level class, and I struggled. It’s always challenging to enter a new environment, but add on a total inability to do anything asked of you and it can be quite a bit harder. Somehow she talked me into signing up for a 12-week beginner series. I’m not going to say that I wished I started doing it earlier in life, but I will say that it has been mildly life changing. For the past 15 years, I have been on a very slowly unfolding journey, of coming to understand the mind body connection on increasingly deeper and more complex levels. Much of my focus up to now has been on trying to tease out how stress affects our minds and our bodies. Starting the yoga practice has helped me to see how connecting on a deeper level with my body might help bring the mind body connection back into balance.
The first four months of 2019 have been about as difficult as any four months I can recall. On January 3rd I was feeling under the weather and woke up from a nap to a call alerting me that my mother was on the way to the ER with chest pains and breathing problems. I had a similar call about a month earlier so I knew where to go. Unfortunately, the breathing problems had turned into heart issues so they had taken her to another ER with better heart facilities. As I was leaving the first hospital I got a call from her. It was clear she was in a panic but she wasn’t actually talking into the phone. Instead she was moaning, wailing, and asking me for help. I got to listen to this the entire 20-minute drive to the other hospital, and despite my attempts to speak to her, she did not hear me. When I got upstairs I was able to help her to calm down.
It turned out that she had pneumonia and I spent the next 4 nights in the ICU with her. When I first got to the ER, her heart rate was around 153 resting. The x-ray of her lungs looked like a polar storm (the next day they pulled nearly 3 liters of fluid from the area around her lungs). While I sat next to her, trying not to be overwhelmed by the amount of distress she was in, I got a text from my cousin who told me that she had just gotten off the phone with my daughter, Holly, and wanted to know if I remembered that I had been a sperm donor.
I was surprised but not shocked. I did remember that I had been a sperm donor. In fact, my partner Suki and I had been working on a film about issues related to sperm donation, adoption, nature vs nurture, as well as a myriad of other themes for over a decade. This was actually amazing news because I had actually been hoping someone might find me, but also a little overwhelming. I texted Holly right then and let her know I was happy to hear about her but that I was a bit tied up just then. We talked a few days later, as I was on the way back to the ICU, and it was a profoundly emotional experience, in the midst of a wildly emotional period of time. Even mitzvahs can be stressful.
My mother had a very hard time in the hospital. She’s stubborn as a goat, so when the inevitable ICU-induced cognitive issues set in, it was difficult to handle them. I won’t go into all the details, but it was a very emotionally trying period. Thankfully, I have spent a decade learning how to respond to stress rather than react to it, so I was able to weather it without too much personal drama, and I learned a lot from the process. For the most part, supporting my mother during the month of January was pretty much a full-time job. However, at the same time, Suki and I were rushing to finish a documentary we had been working on that focused on a series of public confrontations in the common space around a Confederate Statue, called “The Commons.” We sent off a final version to a film festival on January 14th, and that same afternoon a big event happened related to the story, so after leaving my mother’s recovery room I had to rush off, film for hours, and edit all night. A few days later, I sent a version of the film with the new more complete ending to another festival – a prominent one that had never shown our work – and within days they invited it as well. As I said previously, even a mitzvah can be stressful.
A few days later, I had to head to New York for a party that my twin brother set up for our 50thbirthday. I had bought a plane ticket a day earlier than my family because we are getting ready to sell our Brooklyn home and I had to deal with that. However, my first order of business was meeting my daughter Holly. It was an amazing experience. Even though I’m making a film about the story I only shot a 30 second shot of our meeting (I got her prior approval) because I wanted to be fully present with her. It is a great source of joy to have connected with her.
The next day I got to work clearing out the basement of my home of 20 years. After that we had a birthday bash on a boat and it was a deeply moving and profound experience. Significant birthdays are often times of both conscious and unconscious reflection and re-orientation. My mother’s illness, my new daughter, the transition with our home, and my 50thbirthday packed an emotional wallop. While I felt pretty prepared to handle it all, I don’t think I was as fully present with the emotions that turning 50 brought up. I could see them at the edge of my peripheral vision, but I didn’t really have the room to sit with them fully, and I can see how these emotions are affecting my thoughts in subtle ways.
A couple of friends had driven a van to NY from North Carolina and we loaded it up with most of the stuff in our basement that was worth keeping. They drove it back, and shortly after we landed at the airport, they arrived in the van, and we loaded all the physical and emotional baggage into our house. Over the next few weeks, I tried to find places for it, and I also went through some of it, which continually connected me to my past and my questions about my future. At the same time, we prepared for the two film festivals we had coming up. The first, Big Sky, is one that has shown all 6 of our previous documentary feature films. The festival has always been a big supporter of ours, but it doesn’t have much impact on the documentary world. The second festival, True/False, has never shown any of our films, but it does have a big impact on the documentary world. While we have had some limited success (two of our films were short-listed for the Oscar), we don’t have much of a profile in the documentary world writ large. Even though our film was having its world premiere at Big Sky, only about 20 people showed up for our screening. I didn’t let it bother me, but it was a sobering reminder of how difficult it can be to do the work that we do.
The day I returned from Big Sky, we had a screening at a local bar that we set up for the activists through their event organizer, so that they could see it before it played publicly. We had set one up before Big Sky, but they had cancelled due to another event. This time I was surprised to find that they simply didn’t show up. However, some activists that we had invited did and they liked it, so we hoped the others would at least hear about it.
Two days later, Suki and I traveled to True/False, where the film got a great reception at its first three screenings. At the fourth screening, we were the subject of a direct action by students participating in a de-colonize documentary fellowship. The protest was led by a student from the campus where we did much of our filming. We had provided her group with a great deal of our footage to support their work, so we were a little surprised by the action. The student accused us of being outsiders who worked in secret, hiding our purpose, and profiting off the activist labor. She and a group of fellows argued that we had no right to include these public protests without the activists’ consent. They filmed their action with three cameras and very quickly put it online. It was a deeply de-humanizing and confusing experience.
It was in the midst of this trauma that Caroline took me running and to yoga. That first month was very difficult and disorienting. After the first week, I went for a run with a friend and I told him that despite the traumatic nature of the situation, I was working to be grateful for it.
Our documentary, “All The Rage”, about Dr. Sarno is also a very personal film about healing from pain and other mind body related illnesses. As I worked to heal after some terrible back pain issues many years ago, I focused more on my mind than I did on my body because I knew that the genesis for my pain had more to do with stressful emotions than it did with any physical “injury”. Dr Sarno’s approach is steeped in the psychological even as he was trained in the physiological. His insistence was to think psychologically rather than physically because he saw the pain and other symptoms as distractions from the emotions. He could be quite dogmatic about the import of letting go of fear of the physical issues because he understood the ego to be quite adept at using the physical symptoms to protect us from our emotions. My own experience has borne this out to be true. Traumatic situations are like internal hurricanes, and they often dredge up both wild emotions and wild symptoms which bring this truth into sharp relief. I learned more about my true self in the first 7 days I was stuck on the floor in overwhelming pain than I did in my previous 40 something years.
It took me almost a month to go from being unable to move from the floor where I fell to standing upright and moving forward. By that point, my left leg had atrophied quite a bit and I was nervous about doing too much physical therapy as that could be a distraction from my emotional focus on healing. Still, over time I slowly began to exercise more and now I run 6 or 7 miles several times a week. My left leg is still much thinner and weaker, but I have slowly gotten stronger. Even while I was stuck on the floor, I got back to work on the film about Dr Sarno. A couple of years later, when we were pretty far into our editing process, we ran a kickstarter campaign to raise funds for it. We got a fairly large donation from a guy named Dr Sklar so I reached out to him. He had trained with Dr Sarno and was excited about the film. He asked that we do him a favor, and make sure to include some exploration for the spiritual aspects of healing. Ironically, I had just filmed a scene the previous day that was directly related to this idea. You can see that scene below.
I did not grow up in a religious environment, but was drawn towards understanding the more spiritual and philosophical aspects of religion, and ended up as a religious studies major college. In examining many different religious practices, it became clear that almost all organized religion starts with an esoteric spiritual impulse that then gets translated into words that attempt to translate that impulse but often get turned into systems. While words give us a means to communicate with each other in a manner that purports to provide clarity, that process often leads to communication that is less clear than we might believe. The truth is, we communicate with energy as much we do with words- and when we focus on the words, rather than the energy that those words attempt to articulate, we often get stuck arguing about ideas related to meaning, rather than understanding. Let me try to give you an example.
Perhaps you are feeling frustrated with something that your young child has done. You don’t want to say that you are mad at them so you explain why the thing they did is wrong. However, the unconscious energy of your feelings is probably much more communicative than the words you are using. The child understands that you are mad, and likely wants to avoid that anger, but the words have little meaning to them. The same is true of adult to adult conversation. Often times, we’ll find ourselves arguing with someone we are close to and realize that we aren’t trying to win, but instead that we’re just on defense. We’re not even really dealing with the words that are coming at us but instead defending against an overwhelming energy. We are slapping away rage, and in so doing, inspiring even more of it. When we slow down and recognize the energy, rather than the words, we can find ways to respond to it that cool things down rather than bring more rage. It’s often easier to do this when the rage is not directed at us. Recently, both in person and via social media, I have paid more attention to the energy of what a friend is saying, which has helped me to reflect back to them things they are communicating that they might not have been so aware of. One friend, who is wickedly funny, had complained about job searches in a long series of posts. Part of her humor has to do with slight turns of phrase that are both self-deprecating and ruthless at the same time. I wrote her a long message in response. Here’s just a small part of it, wherein I urged her to think about being a writer, “I understand that you already know this- but there is some small dark (hurt?) part of you that is stopping you- but that thing- that part is increasingly weak I believe- I don’t think you have to crush that part- but just have empathy for it- don’t be scared of it. somewhere along the line someone shamed you for thinking you were “smart” or “talented”- and that created a block- that comes out sideways- Please keep writing.” Again, I wrote quite a bit more. Her response was to say that she was sobbing and that she felt seen for the first time.
The point is, we often get confused between “who we are” and the “patterns of behavior that we’ve learned to use to hide who we are”. Which finally brings me back to both yoga, and the paths that we take on our journeys to heal. When I speak about healing, I’m not talking about physical illness, but instead our separation from ourselves. I’m talking about unwinding our true self from our ego protective self. It can be a long process. There are a lot of books, a lot of teachers, and a lot of healers. The farther along that you get on that journey, the more you’ll get from all of them. For a long time, I have had a hard time learning from others. I have often wanted to figure things out for myself. I haven’t figured out exactly why that is, but I am working to accept more help. Over the years I have tried to do some yoga stretches and positions by picking them up from books, friends, or videos. I have understood that it is an important mind body practice, but I have been wary of entering into a practice. I have approached meditation in the same way, though I have been somewhat more committed to that practice.
I have now been going to yoga for six weeks, and I have been very committed to taking it seriously while at the same time not taking it too seriously. I have seen a lot of benefit from the practice already. My body is certainly more limber and more in balance. However, I have also found that it has made me more settled emotionally as well. Once again, I can say that I am grateful for the troubles that we recently faced with our film, because it put me in a place where I had to ask for help, and I recognized that I needed to be more focused in my practice of healing. I have been running for many years, and that has helped to heal my body, and my mind. However, I feel confident that Yoga is now a part of my daily life. I may not keep up with 2 or 3 classes a week, accompanied by small daily exercises. However, being diligent and committed to a focus on both the mind and body aspects of my healing in a more balanced way is my new normal. For many years, I have been somewhat afraid of focusing on my physical health, because I feared that it would become a distraction from my being aware of my emotional well being. Yoga is providing a pathway for me to bring those more into balance.