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Waiting for the Other Shoe

May 8, 2018

‘167/365 Teetering on the Edge’ by thebarrowboy via

I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

For weeks, I’ve awoken from disturbing, anxious dreams. All my teeth fell out. My dog died. I screwed up at work. The funding disappeared. My partner turned away from me. The audience laughed at me. The house blew down.

Often, when my dreams carry a certain emotional tenor, I can trace it back to my waking life. When I’m feeling like I have no control over my real life circumstances, I dream of an out-of-control car. Anger in a dream is often some small resentment or irritation that needs to be addressed with a real person before it festers. Patterns are easier to spot over the years.

I brushed off the first anxious dream and the second, because outwardly, everything is going extremely, surprisingly well.

We did the big scary thing. We picked up and moved across the country in daunting weather into a house we’d never seen with one job for two people at an institution I’d barely heard of a few months ago without any idea when our belongings might arrive or how long our financial resources might last. And I slept more soundly during that period than these last few weeks.

I love where I work, what I do, and who I work with. Colin quickly found a good job with a short commute. We love our cute and quirky house. Our things arrived late but intact. The weather has it’s challenges, but we both prefer it. I’m on track to graduate, slowly checking off each little box from dissertation submission to cap and gown. We’re content, happy even.

Life is going well, so what’s the deal subconscious?

I realized I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Brené Brown, famous for her research on shame and vulnerability, calls this “foreboding joy.” She writes:

“In a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a setup. …When I started asking participants about experiences that left them feeling the most vulnerable, I didn’t expect joy to be one of the answers. I expected fear and shame, but not the joyful moments in their lives.”

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, p. 119

Of course, this makes perfect sense though, doesn’t it? Only when we have something do we fear losing it.

We don’t see it at first. We think if we get what we want, what we work hard for, then we’ll be happy. But once we get what we want, we become fearful and anxious.

This is why desire, craving, thirst, tanha, is called the source of suffering. We suffer because we desire, not because we do not get what we desire. We suffer when we do not get what we desire and when we do get what we desire. This is why the Buddha called craving a “fetter.” It traps us in the cycles of suffering.

Okay, so what do I do? Part of me says “Suck it up. Life is good. Stop bitching. This is just first world problems, right?” The other part says “Take a pause. Have some self-compassion. This anxiety is so normal, it even has a name. It’s okay to feel this way.”

Neither of those responses help very much. What does help? Deep recognition of samsara. Deep recognition of the trap I’ve caught in is of my own making. Deep recognition of this predicament inclines me to embrace it’s antidote.

What does the Buddha advise? Let go.

“Whatever is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit. And what is not yours?”

Na Tumhaka Sutta, SN 35.101

Everything. Our senses, forms perceived by our senses, sense-consciousness, and the pleasure, pain, or neutral feelings that arise of sense-consciousness, for all of these the Buddha advises “let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.” Even the Dharma itself should be let go, at a certain stage. Perhaps I’m not at that stage yet, but I can practice letting go of these things.

Let go, like the hand releasing, like the muscles relaxing into sleep, like the breath leaving the lungs, like the still point between the exhale and the next inhale, like the clouds passing through a sky that never seeks to detain them, like time flowing without heed for our little cares. Let go.

Let go of pride in my accomplishments. Let go of satisfaction. Let go of fear, both baseless and well founded. Let go of anticipation.

In a mundane sense, I do that by breathing and centering myself in the breath, being aware just of the breath, then slowly of other sensations, without grasping. It’s like being a participant-observer, an anthropologist in the life of a person called “Monica.” It’s being present.

Honestly, when I can get to that place, it’s very relaxing. It’s stress-free, but not in the sense of idleness or apathy. There’s still a lot of work do to in that place, but it’s the work of liberation, not the work of grasping.

It’s like tilling a garden by tilling a garden, rather than tilling a garden by worrying it will rain too much this year and kill the plants and looking up long-term weather forecasts. Tilling is hard and rewarding work and worrying about next month’s weather changes it not one bit.

I feel like some people may misunderstand me when I say I wish to let go of pride and satisfaction. They may think I am also eschewing all positive emotions, like happiness or joy. That is the opposite of what I mean.

Because clinging creates fear of loss, it also creates an aversion to joy. I’m afraid to be happy because I’m waiting to be disappointed. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Letting go is neither attachment nor aversion. The opposite of attachment is not detachment; it is, rather, non-attachment. When I let go of pride and satisfaction, I also let go of fear and anticipation because they are inextricably bound up in my psyche.

The thing to let go is desire itself, tanha or craving. Wanting and not wanting don’t change having and not having, only our relationship to that which is. It is in that relationship to that which is that suffering arises. Not pain, mind you, but suffering like foreboding joy and fear of loss.

Brené Brown prescribes gratitude as an antidote to foreboding joy. I find this a very suitable prescription, especially when combined with letting go. When I want very little, yet have much (and I do have much, in the form food, shelter, companionship, work, and basic physical safety). Brown writes that:

For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, p. 123

When I let go of my desire to get what I want, I also let go of my aversion to loss or to getting what I don’t want. Therefore, I let go of the fear of the other shoe dropping, but accepting the fear of the other shoe dropping, by letting it be there without drying to push it away. By letting the fear of the other shoe stand as a reminder to continue the work of liberation rather than clinging, to redirect my attention to the present moment.

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I can chose to wait in a state of fear or a state of equanimity and welcome.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 8, 2018 9:25 pm

    Good article. I’ve seen videos by Brené Brown but haven’t watched them. I’ll check her work out.

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