I’ve never forgotten any of the women I’ve loved. Of course, that could be because that love was always unrequited.

Each of them was beautiful, and perfect in their own way. Looking back, all of the most momentous days of life were spent with them. I hung on their words, I moved with their laughter. They lit me up and dimmed me, straightened me out and bent me.

The years have never let me forget the kisses that never were, the long walks with hands held that only occurred in my dreams.

We often put things off. “I’ll get my social anxiety under control someday; I’ll find the woman in my heart someday. She’ll reach into my life and save me from myself, someday.” But there aren’t any promises in life, are there? None of us is guaranteed a someday; especially if we’re not willing to put in the effort, or take that chance.

Two of my loves never brought any sense of closure. The drift took over and slowly carried the connection out to sea. My third, well I actually put myself out there with her. She turned me down, but at least I knew, and now we’re still close friends.

Ah, all the fear I had to fight through to even approach her. Then, the absolute terror and angst I struggled through to tell her how I felt. I’ve learned that, generally, fear is a sign that we should do what it is we’re afraid of. That’s not applicable for all situations, so don’t be dumb about it. But, for the most part, it’s good to face our fears.

I’ve been a student of fear for most of my life. Working with fear is one of the cornerstones of my practice. It wasn’t intentional, I didn’t start meditating thinking, “I’m gonna face my fears.” I was just afraid, and with meditation, we work with what’s at hand. If it’s anger, we work with and study that anger. If it’s sorrow, if it’s bliss, if it’s calm… we endure it, understand it, and move through it.

What we don’t do is run; nor do we fight. We lean into our experiences and see them for what they are—experiences. Moments. They shift and glide, they bend and weave. They escalate and fade. They’re sweet, and sour, and everything in between.

When all else fails, I step outside. If there’s snow, maybe I’ll go for a crunching walk in it, or I’ll plunge my hands into a bank. If it’s warm, maybe I’ll dig some dirt and hold it to my nose.

Life is tactile. I’m not a hard-nosed, “Disengage from everything,” Zennist. If I can’t find Bodhi in the piss and perfume of daily life, then I’m sure as shit not gonna find it while tuning everything out on the cushion.

I’m an exposed nerve, and I intend to stay that way, even if it hurts sometimes. Because pain… pain is what gives everything its context. If my life was all happiness, all pleasure, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. There’d be no beauty to it, no mystery or thrill. I could definitely do without the random panic attacks or extended periods of depression, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

Sometimes ya get Blackjack; sometimes ya bust. Usually, we stand at 17.

It’s important to not shut out the pain, to think that it’s somehow unnatural. The more we try to escape unpleasantness, the more it’s gonna haunt us. But somewhere between running away and giving up, there’s a fragile equilibrium. A puff of air can send us flailing into the void.

The trick is to find the middle wherever you happen to be. If we’re happy, there’s a middle to happiness; if we’re miserable, there’s a middle in misery. If we’re in pain, there’s a center to it; if we’re crying out in the throes of an orgasm, there’s a center to that too.

All feelings, all thoughts, all states of mind and sensations, there’s a middle way to each one. So finding equilibrium doesn’t necessarily involve straddling that line between day and night. We can take balance with us, even into unbalanced states of mind and chaotic feelings.

So the center isn’t fixed in place. How could it be when the width of the circle changes with each moment? How could it be fixed when the field is boundless? But if we can look to that center in each experience, regardless of what it is we’re experiencing, then we’ll start to embody it on a meta-cognitive level.

We seldom just feel or think things. We form thoughts about our feelings, and feelings about our feelings. When we feel sadness, we’re not just sad—we’re pissed off that we’re sad, we’re fed up with being sad. We’re saddened that we’re sad.

Practice shovels that all out and tosses it in the incinerator. Meta-cognition becomes meta-awareness. In place of that meta-cognition, there’s just open space. That space helps us to see the middle, to get to the heart of everything we encounter.

I’m not a model Zennist. I still rage at times. I still yearn, and fear, and hope, and hurt. But it’s so much less… personal these days. In other ways, it’s more intimate than ever because there’s no me between me and the things I see.

It can be difficult to not be self-absorbed at times. To be a little prideful. That’s why I held off on training to be a Zen priest. I wanted to wait to do it until I no longer wanted to do it. I sometimes say, “If you want something that much, then you probably shouldn’t have it.” That’s why I never tried MDMA. It sounds great, but, too great.

I can’t promise you that everything’s going to even out over time. I can’t promise that you’ll ever find your way out of the wilderness. What I can promise is that practice makes wherever we happen to be a little less claustrophobic. And it makes us less susceptible to being tossed around by other people, circumstances, and ourselves.

It also unlocks a different way of seeing and being in the world. One that feels more at home.

So I don’t regret those unrequited loves. When I dig them out of the attic and dust them off on rainy days, I try to look at them in an open way. Not quite sentimental, but not quite pragmatic either. As with all things Zen, somewhere in-between.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to crack this shell, to meet someone that will return my love. But this uncertainty is the bread and butter of practice. If we can learn to endure, or even embrace, uncertainty—then there’s nothing that can get in the way of living a fulfilling life.

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