The Art of Feeling Better is a series of articles where the author undertakes the adventure of finding out what it means to truly be happy. This is the first of five explorations.
To say this has been a hard year is an understatement.
We’ve all been there: a year full of upheavals, reversals and changes enough to fill an anthology of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Princes turn into frogs, getting lost in the woods is routine, conspiring forces feel like evil powers to battle and home is a place you can no longer stay.
A year where buying an “oh shit not another learning experience” bumper sticker seems like a really good idea.
But unlike a fairy tale, life doesn’t often provide a fairy godmother or grant-wishing genie in our darkest moment. There is no take-out menu for meaning, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was? You’re having a rough time? No problem. The menu is stuck onto the fridge, survey the options and call.
“Hi, I’m going through a transitional period in my life right now, it’s pretty dark, seemingly meaningless and confusing. I’d like a number 13, fairy godmother please. 20 minutes? Excellent. Yes, that’s my address. And I’d like a side of magical spirit-helper too, please. I get to choose? Oh, okay, a fish then. No, not the kind from Celtic folklore. Yes one of those silver ones that come up a lot in Chinese mythology. No MSG. Thank you.”
The truth is, we often get through those darker moments in our lives in much more unromantic and mundane ways, ways that make the storyteller in me cringe. Like staying up till 3 a.m. watching adorable, precocious children on Ellen’s Youtube channel, while stuffing my face full of popcorn, as an example.
After all, how did Cinderella spend her endless nights of solitude before she started going to balls?
What if movies didn’t have montage sequences to cut out the less exciting bits?
Maybe Rocky sat on his couch stuffing his face full of Ben and Jerry’s before getting motivated to run up those steps—who knows?
However, it’s hard to make those images of “time wasting” realism fit into the mythological context of “seeing life as a journey”. There is very little tolerance in our culture for nights of gorging on Youtube, for feeling dizzy with disorientation, or joining what I call the “walking bewildered”.
Wading through the making-meaning-of-life goddesses like Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Sheryl Sandberg, I’d lie awake in my bed, full of popcorn, feeling ashamed I was so lost, momentarily purposeless with no goals. Within the champions of liberation, where was the Queen of the Lost?
The judgement-less “self help” community felt ironically iron in its fist of positivity:
- be self-aware,
- have agency,
- align inner and outer goals,
- make the most of every second,
- be your best self, find inner happiness.
- Think positive.
- Dream better.
I, in particular, am guilty. I’m a “choose a positive narrative” addict, writing articles about following your bliss and the “Pollen Path”. Today’s zeitgeist is a fascist, rigid attitude toward the positive, toward self-realization, that can be potentially very destructive. In fact, the self help positive thinking culture has started reflecting Calvinist beliefs of emotional predestination. “Think positive and your life will be good, think negative and your life will be bad. The reason I am in a rut, the reason I am glued to Youtube, is because of my inner shame, bad thoughts, lack of goals. And all this I have to get rid of quick, or I can’t lead my best life.”
In truth, in mythological terms “following your bliss” does not mean endless, constant bliss, nor is the Pollen Path a purely euphoric journey. There are snake holes, squirmy things under the rocks, shadows under the trees and sometimes the path isn’t a path at all; these are times of creative incubation, of reflection, of spiritual humbling and of true, deep growth.
Without these moments, our life would be like the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland, an endless loop of sunshine, of monotone happiness and no depth.
Without shadow, there is no dimensions, no path.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence and wax poetic about how there must be darkness to know light, or even variety is the spice of life. Instead, I believe manipulating a positive spin on these darker experiences, or forcing oneself to extract a purpose from them is a guaranteed formula for self denial, shame and even depression.
The more we force the positive, the less we can hear our internal voice, our own golden guide working through these experiences. Grief and loss do not have to have a point other than showing you have invested and cared.
Directionless-ness does not have to have a silver-lining while you are moving through the anxiety of true freedom, and self doubt does not have to lead to self-confidence while you’re climbing an Everest of questions and trust.
There is huge value in process. It’s time to bring back process.
Sometimes process looks like binge-watching Youtube.
Even in the bleakest of hours we can recognize that transformation, no matter how minute, is happening and that we are in a greater story. Sometimes we may need help in recognizing there is a greater story. I need reminding of this, often. Without a take-out menu of help at hand, and in a society that fails to embrace the jagged edges of the journey to growth, there is an Art to Feeling Better.
The end goal? Never perpetual happiness, nor is it to find yourself—unless you left yourself somewhere? Perhaps with the forgotten keys at the back of a drawer? Check there, or maybe you’ve been hiding with the loose change under a sofa cushion? No?
No reclaiming your soul. It is yours. You have it. Always. No eternal bliss. I am aiming for a much humbler ambition: how to feel better, than you currently do, while you’re going through hell.
For we have all been there, or perhaps we’re there now, down to the dark, strange, nightmarish place. We will be there again, and again. But the boat is always moving, process is always happening. We come out of there with loads of new and interesting ideas and feelings.
And it’s never just a boat for one. Never.
My first stop trying the Art of Feeling Better was awareness. I have been told, over and over again by the many wonderful, wise people in my life, that the only thing we have control over in life is our perspective.
I figured where better to experience an earth-shake of perspective than the Kadampa Meditation Centre Hollywood at an all-day retreat with Gen Kelsang Choma on the transformation of pain and suffering.
I spent far too long picking out my outfit. What does a virgin retreat-goer wear to an all-day intensive Buddhist meditation, after all?
It was a particularly hot day in Los Angeles, so I chose a loose dress. I was still acclimatizing from being in Scotland for the seven years previous, and everything felt blistering hot to me. Back on the “civilized side of the pond”, autumn meant crisp cold air, “dreech” days, rust-colored leaves and brambles. In Los Angeles, autumn—excuse me, fall—meant baking sidewalks, dusty winds, bold sunsets and frigid air-con.
The latter was the hardest to get used to. The indoors would feel like an ice-box while the outdoors felt akin to the witch’s oven from Hansel and Gretel. The contrast seemed an affront on nature, but most things feel like an affront when you’re homesick. Surely the natural order of the universe was getting pelted with rain outside, and looking forward to a dry, warm home to come to.
Every atom of me was aching for my wellies, woolly jumpers and warming up by the fire at night.
Meditate Hollywood was in a very green part of Los Feliz. The building itself was modest, church-like and white. Walking through the door it was clear this was no church, however, rather a gallery-meets-home space. I entered into a wonderfully open area, with a bookshop, place to sit and a kitchen beyond. It felt gracious, warm and friendly. I was greeted by a woman with a big smile, who gave me a name tag.
There were no questioning glances or stares, just pleasant, happy smiles. I was the only one in a dress. But I didn’t care. For the first time being in L.A. there was no traffic, no sense of being rushed or alienated by strangers. It was peaceful here, inclusive. I liked it. A lot.
I spoke to Gregory, the Education Program Coordinator, both before and after the lecture and he reflected the peace within that I was feeling throughout the meditation center.
I’m not sure I was so in tune with the message of the teaching—receiving teaching was interesting and new for me. Being Jewish, I am used to feeling spiritual through arguing and debate. Accepting teaching unquestioned instead made me feel argumentative and irritated, not one with the universe.
However, what did was the ritual and intention of it all. I loved meditating as a group, the snack time between and I enjoyed being among people without the pressure for discourse but just to be. To me, there was a great sense of community that I was allowed to be a part of for the afternoon. I was humbled by the opportunity to be included. For a whole afternoon I forgot I was homesick at all.
For those seeking Buddhist instruction, meditation and community there is no better place. For more information check out Meditate Hollywood’s website.
(Photos: Holly Burns Photography, all used with permission).
Author, screenwriter and director, Jessica Fox’s love of stories began at five years old when reality betrayed her and dressing as Superman did not grant her superpowers. Thus a life of play was born. Jessica graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Mythology and Astronomy from Franklin & Marshall College. Currently, she is writing a rom-com with Unlimited Pictures based on her award-winning memoir Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets, directing a Mars documentary with Passion Pictures and is co-developing a family programming series “Never After” featuring Gillian Anderson. Her shorts been featured at U.S. film festivals and she was the band documentarian for the Dresden Dolls. Fox was also a storyteller for NASA and currently satisfies her inner nerd as the Chief Narrative Officer for HiddenGenius and story consults for tech organizations. Connect with her via Facebook.