Guest blog by Eric Schwarz
A few years ago, inspired by my yoga practice and a famous TED talk by Brené Brown, I made a decision to lean into the uncomfortable. At the time I was in a lofty position professionally, having just been voted Best Yoga Instructor in the Washington DC City Paper. I taught to themes of empowerment, gratitude, and positivity. Obama was finishing his second term in the White House and all of his good work would certainly be continued by the presumptive President Hillary Clinton. It was a great time to be alive.
But I was also deeply ashamed of using antidepressants, which I began when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and continued using long after he died. I had successfully shopped for a psychiatrist keen to prescribe Lexapro year after year with no mention of talk therapy, no suggestion that I explore the root causes of the panic attacks and melancholia that lead me to pharmaceuticals in the first place. I found a psychiatrist who would let me continue to organize my life around avoiding the uncomfortable. The medication numbed any uncomfortable feelings. It numbed all of my feelings, including joy.
My choices and behavior informed a reality in which I felt safe and in control, but eventually this way of life began to feel bankrupt. My feelings of security contrasted with the feeling that something was missing from my life. I knew it was time to develop an intimacy with the parts of myself I was previously unwilling to see and experience; this meant opening myself up to a fuller range of human experiences and breaking up with my psychiatrist. After weaning myself off of the medication (note: only do this under your doctor’s supervision), I began my journey of developing coping skills and redetermining my relationship with reality.
I continued to lean into the uncomfortable. If it was uncomfortable, if I felt resistant, something deep within me pushed me towards it. I started with ecstatic dance, a surprisingly confronting, albeit rewarding, experience to the uninitiated. Shortly thereafter, I learned about naked ecstatic dance. That scared the shit out of me, so I knew I had to do it. The music wasn’t as good, but I felt more resilient for doing it.
One misconception people have about comfort zones is that they are static and unchanging. This is simply untrue as everything in the universe is in constant change. Your comfort zone is either expanding or contracting. Experiencing the uncomfortable is the only way to expand your comfort zone, thus expanding the range of experiences you can endure and enjoy. If you only take very hot showers, chances are you won’t jump into that pristine natural swimming hole on your hike. If you feed your child a variety of foods from a young age, she will grow up able to receive nutrients from a variety of sources without objection. If your home is the same temperature all year round, you’re less likely to go outdoors and experience the natural world.
Empowered by the success of my mantra and my new found resilience, I was called to experience one of the most uncomfortable and transformational growth opportunities I knew of, one which would potentially bring me face to face with the demons I skillfully avoided for years. I had seen documentaries and read testimonials, and now I would sit with ayahuasca, a traditional spiritual medicine used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin.
Before the ceremony, I wrote this poem to describe the fragility of my equanimity:
I am a shallow dish
My stillness is my own.
Don’t make waves
in my dish
with your bullshit
While in ceremony and deep in medicine, I had visions of my inability to receive love and support from the people in my life, going back at least ten years. Unworthiness is insidious, complicated, and often denied. My story of perceived unworthiness was all of these, with no singular origin, resulting in an exhausting, one-way flow of generosity that left me depleted and resentful. Intellectually I knew I struggled to receive love, but to witness it through vivid memory after memory, and to feel it in my body, was what allowed for me to break the story and make the change. This is how I described the experience the following day:
I know now how to reach back. Reach back is my new mantra, visibly represented to me as two hands reaching toward one another, finally connecting after a decade of failed attempts. People have been reaching at me for years. Not until I was pushed to the brink of extinction did the part of me that wanted to live roar back, desperately fighting for survival. That part of me knows my worthiness for love and existence. With this gift came the fear that I would slide back into darkness and depression. But that meant the work for me was clear: my priority was now to take care of myself and nurture myself through connection, rather than in the absence of it.
This was the single most powerful experience of my life. After years of yoga and meditating, which provided incredible benefit, I was at a log jam and seeing insufficient progress. Ayahuasca blessed me with the breakthrough that shed away years of sadness, of disconnection, of unworthiness. The medicine was not a substitute or replacement to my beliefs and practices, but a teacher that brought them into focus. She integrated my experiences and traditions, allowing me to work through the most stubborn obstacle of my life thus far. I’m lucky in that the depression and panic attacks have not reemerged. I still experience melancholia, but it is situational and in the context of the broader human experience. Through embracing the parts of myself I once desperately avoided, I can now relate to them and see them as a source of power, love, and compassion. I now know joy, vulnerability, trust, belonging, and a level of intimacy with life I never thought possible.