The Land of Menopause

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If you type menopause into your search engine, you get a long list of symptoms that sound alarm bells for men and women alike. I have witnessed several women ahead of me in the age game experience menopause and I’ve felt a tenacious panic rise in me. To be clear, the panic is unwarranted. It is tethered to the most difficult scenarios and I hadn’t stopped to look at where my disdain for this natural progression in life is coming from. If I had, I might have crossed over successfully to the other tangible experiences women are having with menopause. There are great stories out there too: deeper access to more liberated sexual experiences, welcomed hot flashes that feel like some kind of human purifier, emotional awakening that ushers in profound transformation. I thought I’d have more time to adjust and move in that direction, but life had a different plan. Six months ago I began an upended kind of initiation into the land of menopause.

It started with confusing back pain and pressure and discomfort in my abdomen. I did the thing that everyone tells you not to do and spent delirious hours on the internet reading the worst possible outcome for symptoms like mine. I dove into months of exploratory tests in regards to my reproductive health, masking my fear just slightly by an overt vigilance to ask doctors all of the right questions. After each test, I’d land in a kind of exhausted practice of repair meditation to battle my sadness and anxiety. A few biopsies, a myriad of blood tests and two surgeries followed by uncomfortable waiting for results, left me feeling that the worry and sadness was for nothing. Gratefully there was no cancer, just the reoccurrence of the repetitive anxious days of holding my breath and then relief when each result would come back benign. What they found was severe endometriosis, which had created extensive damage through adhesions and cysts. It was determined that my ovaries and uterus would need to be removed with the help of robotics in a third surgical procedure. For me, this natural, tender and sometimes tumultuous ascent away from the rhythm of the moon will happen in one two-hour surgery and I will have gone through six months of considering the loss first. Had I begun to stop shedding blood slowly, felt the first subtle sensations of my body heating up like a temperamental furnace, had I recognized the signs that my emotions had slipped sideways before knowing the hourglass had been toppled, I wouldn’t have stumbled ungracefully to my knees.

I am inclined to sculpt something beautiful out of almost everything; but here, I found, instead, Dhumavati, the goddess of decay.  She is unadorned and ugly. She rides a crow and carries a winnowing basket. She is stark and penetrating. She enacts her rituals on the holy ground of a field of graves. With her, your transformation comes when you embrace the ugly—the decay and the decomposition.

So before I go towards my third surgery, I want to toast the ugliness; I want to toast the part of me that has been sallow and uncertain, my attachment to staying fertile, and young. I want to show you my tiny scars that look like nothing more than fingernail scratches on my soft belly and tell you that they are portals to the underworld of me. I found the pain inside of the pain behind the complicated squeeze of entangled tissue. Dhumavati separates the wheat from the chaff and I have decided to collaborate with her and let go of all the unnecessary debris. There has been no epiphany or pronounced revelation, just an uncomfortable unraveling of the hurt that will heal me and the hurt that no longer serves me.

The science of it, the hormonal shifts and the most common stories about menopause that I have heard over the years, feel sometimes like a kind of inevitable prison sentence. I’m taking those stories and letting them go too. I’m going to stay curious, align myself with the mystery and unknown, I’m going to turn inward and discover an enhanced libido rooted in a deeper part of me.  I’m going to shift my eyes from the moon towards its buoyant reflection on the water. I’ll take one step back and imagine the way it separates in concentric circles that spread out across the expanse of ocean, making anything possible in the vast dips between light and shadow. No longer linked to the tide, I’ll cast my gaze to the depths where the light shifts spectacularly. If I am being emptied out, I’ll let that light fill the most sacred space of me. The mourning and the letting go is an essential part of the alchemy that makes room for something new. Respectfully, in this uncharted territory, I bow to Dhumavati. She is one formidable force that I am grateful I didn’t miss.

 

 

Letting in

Lately, I have been studying a practice called Tonglen, literally meaning, “giving and taking”.  Through exploring this practice I have begun to cultivate a new approach to my emotional, physical and spiritual body.  I am the first to admit that up until now I have spent years, months or days suffering through difficult experiences until I was ready to let them go.  That worked for a while, but over time I have come to recognize that the letting go process can be experienced in a different way and at this point in my life, a more helpful way. 

We live in a society that applauds happiness and avoids sadness, encourages lying about how you really feel and labels most emotions as right or wrong.  As a result we tend to want to get over difficult experiences sooner, feel happy so others around us will like us or be comfortable around us in order to be more comfortable with ourselves.  Or, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we attach ourselves so adamantly to our emotions that we become them.   We have learned to categorize an emotion as right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or not appropriate, which enhances our own shame and exhaustion.  Most of us are in bondage to our emotions because we resist them or bury them or even tether ourselves to them so regularly that they run the show.  Imagine the possibility that we have a unique opportunity as humans to experience the depth of our emotions without being a slave to them. 

So, my experiment began.  With practice, I have become more present, enjoyed slowing down, and ultimately decreased my suffering.  Here’s how it goes:

  • In a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed allow yourself to remember something that is causing you suffering.  As you remember become curious about the emotions or emotion you feel in regards to this event or experience. 
  • As you clarify the emotion, become curious about what your body does in response to this emotion.  Where do you feel it most?  Is there a response or position that your body takes when you feel this emotion: a tightening, an ache, any physical experience of the emotion? 
  • And then become aware of your breath, equalizing the in breath and out breath. 
  • On the in breath, begin to allow the emotion to spread from the original place of tightening, ache or discomfort. 
  • On the out breath become curious about what it would feel like to be free of this tightening, ache and discomfort. 
  • On the in breath, notice the sensations that arise as you continue to let the experience of the emotion soften or move through your body, even through the boundary of your skin. 
  • On the out breath, let in the relief that comes as you imagine the sensation of being free of this suffering. 
  • On the in breath, continue to expand the emotion you are exploring, letting in the experience with curiosity.  Notice the sensations that arise in your body as the emotions move through you. 
  • On the out breath, let in the experience of spaciousness that relief provides. 

For as much time as you are able continue to let in the emotion on the in breath and on the out breath, let in the liberation from suffering.  Experience fully as your breathing continues, the sensation of letting both in equally, letting neither weigh more than the other.

As I have begun to practice this I’ve noticed that I have dropped some of my resistance to difficult emotions.  In fact in one experience I found myself enjoying the body sensations of sadness as it softened its way into my body just by letting it in, accepting it fully.  Tears flowed, and rather than tapping back into the event that provoked them, I relaxed into the sensation of sadness, the ache spread, the tightness in my head receded, I wept, the softening occurred and the heartbreak that had provoked the sadness began to integrate into my experience in a gentler way.

Relationships end, loss happens, betrayal continues, wars build and we have the opportunity to accept all that comes with those experiences one breath at a time, so that our next choice comes from a place of freedom.  Generous compassion towards ourselves as we heal, is a great place to start. 

The practice is about opening to whatever arises, but it’s important not to be overly ambitious. We aspire to keep our hearts open in the present moment, but we know it won’t always be possible. We can trust that if we just do tonglen as best we presently can, our ability to feel compassion will gradually expand.
— Pema Chodrin

 

*If you are interested in exploring Tonglen, Pema Chodrin articulates the practice in great detail in her book The Places That Scare You.  It’s a great book.  I highly recommend it.