Year To Live Project: Darkness Part 3 – Through The Eyes Of The Pain Guru
Tzununa, Guatemala – May 22, 2016
Before hugging Arpita and ducking my head under the door and entering the dark space pictured above on Day 1, I had set an intention — to heal. To heal not only from the trauma of the previous sixteen months, but more so, to heal the parts of my life that had been long neglected before that trauma had a chance to unfold.
Little did I know where that intention would take me — nor how gut wrenching the experience would be. Day 8 brought the addition of a visitor into my space, a guru of sorts, an unwelcome yet much needed guide. Someone I had spent my life running from, avoiding, and numbing my way around — my current greatest teacher — The Guru of Pain.
A Day At The Movies
After the initial excitement of my first night in the darkness and the few hours of sleep that entailed, life became a series of routines. I would:
- Wake up and voice my gratitude list.
- Eat breakfast.
- Bump my head on something.
- Meditate until my right foot fell asleep, which I figured was about an hour.
- Lie on the floor and contemplate life for a bit.
- Eat lunch.
- Brush my teeth slowly since the toothpaste was tastier than vegan food.
- Work out.
- Get lost somewhere in the space and walk into a wall.
- Meditate until my foot fell asleep again.
- Lie on the floor and contemplate life some more.
- Eat dinner.
- Stub my toe on something.
- Brush my teeth again slowly slowly.
- Go to bed.
- Lie there with a numb backside, not sleeping for a long ass time.
The entire experience up to this point was rather underwhelming, unemotional, and I’ll say it — boring.
My expectation coming in was that I’d experience visions, download hidden insights, and develop a Matrix-like series of new skills — like kung fu and levitation. I walked into this room wanting to experience what would happen when sensory input wouldn’t create a distraction of any kind. I wanted to experience what was underneath everything but had hoped for something more theatrical. (Note to self: be careful for what you wish for.)
I spent the entirety of Day 7 lying on the cold concrete floor, with two shirts and a beanie covering my upper body, a makeshift blanket sarong and socks rounding out the outfit. While staring into the blackness, I watched a movie of my academic life, from kindergarten all the way through the end of high school. I could see clearly who was sitting two rows back and three seats to the left in Mrs. Wilky’s first grade class. I could hear Mr. Fappiano, my elementary school music teacher introduce himself on the first day of school, and saw myself standing in line for a cardboard-esque piece of cheese pizza years later in the Wilton High School cafeteria.
I felt like Clark Griswold stuck up in his attic in Christmas Vacation, watching old home movies, and enjoying the process. On a number of occasions, I said aloud, “Oh, wow, I’d forgotten about that,” and laughed throughout the day. What a blessing my life had been. What a gift to see it all so vividly, a spectator of my own story.
The book that inspired my year-long journey, A Year to Live, recommends doing a “life review” where you look back over your entire life. Day 7 was a life review on steroids, not just recollections, but a twelve-hour mental screening. A magical day spent watching the movie of my past, but as is my pattern, I was only allowing myself to see the shiny half of the picture.
Growing Up Boehm
My family spent the vast majority of our lives in the small Connecticut town of Wilton. The schools were good so my folks picked it as the place they’d settle and raise us. Other than a five-year overseas stint that took our family to the heart of Tokyo, this is where we called home.
I’m the youngest of three, with two older sisters. My middle sister and I share the same birthday, two years apart. My dad was an engineer before hitting night school and adding a Juris Doctorate to his pedigree. My mom stayed at home to raise the three of us, although her true loves were her garden and the numerous felines that graced our house. We also had a kick-ass dog named Angus.
If you looked at us from the outside you saw the classic All American family. A hard-working father, an involved mother, and three happy kids. When not at school, we kids were cruising the suburban neighborhood on our bikes, diving in at swim practice, or begrudgingly learning to play the piano. But even at a young age, the three of us knew that outward presentation was far more important than reality — and that the two rarely matched.
My middle sister used to say we were abused — a statement I disliked her for. I chalked up her perspective as a mix of personal weakness colored with blame for her own relationship challenges. “Abuse” is a word that lets you shift responsibility for your own actions or lack thereof, I thought. I used to say we grew up in strict household and left it at that. I also used to look at my sisters and their respective anxiety, depression, weight gain, and relationship challenges and wonder what the hell was wrong with them. We’d all grown up in the same house after all, and while I had walked out apparently clean as a whistle, they had not. Clearly it was just a DNA issue — mine strong, theirs otherwise.
It wasn’t until I woke up years later — unable to get through the day without getting high, unable to get through the week without five nights of delicious Sam Adams, unable to sleep for more than three hours at a time, and married to a woman who had walked out on me twice and would do so one last time only two years after we’d tied the knot — and realized that growing up Boehm had left a mark on me I was just better at hiding than my two sisters. Abuse? Call it whatever you want, I had escaped nothing except the ability to see the link between my early years and the rest of my life.
Escape would not only be impossible for the rest of my dark month, especially once The Pain Guru moved in.
The Pain Guru & Grinding
Climbing the ladder after dinner on Day 7, I had no idea a shift was about to take place in my dark experience. I thanked the Universe for shepherding me another day closer to walking back into the sunlight and tried to get comfortable on the ass-numbing sleeping mat.
My sleep was interrupted by a dream of walking up to my ex-wife in a strange bar, planting a huge kiss on her, and hearing, “Wow, I’ve waited my entire life for that kiss. Welcome home.” The Pain Guru set me up with that well placed jab and then brought the real heat with the subsequent right cross and left hook of the next dream — she and I back together again, walking down a sparkling Santa Barbara beach, each holding a hand of the child we’d never brought into the word with a hand of our own. Jab, cross, hook, emotional knockout. I can respect most three punch combos, but not one that comes at me when there’s no option to bury my feelings in coffee, Facebook, drugs, or alcohol.
Depression and I made the executive decision to stay in bed for Day 8, declining my vegan dietary delights and choosing instead to wallow in misery. Thanks bunches, Sr. Guru – feel free to eat a bowl of dick. The choice to skip out on Day 8 and rest was quickly met with the sound of something akin to the screeching of metal on metal from just outside my door. I had been told there would be construction on the Ashram property but that I wouldn’t hear it due to the virtually soundproof nature of my dwelling. The Guru had other plans and the relentless screeching orchestra of a power grinder meeting bamboo commenced like it was being pumped in just for me.
I threw earplugs in and a pillow over my head, but like the darkness, this infuriating noise wound its way into every possible crevice, pounding past my defenses — the fingers of which were slowly losing their grip over the family experiences I had spent my life refusing to acknowledge. With the unrelenting grinding as a soundtrack, the PLAY button was pushed and Growing Up Boehm commenced.
Growing Up Boehm – Rules First – Love Second
Rules were a big deal in our house growing up. The biggest deal. Breaking them meant an immediate and violent response. There was a lot of yelling. There was a lot of hitting. There was a lot of threatening. There was a lot of all three even if the rules weren’t actually broken, only the appearance of such. Hit first, question after, if at all. Thus, there was also a lot of confusion. Life was really good one minute, then not the next. The three of us kids never knew when the hammer was coming down, nor who it would land on, nor often even why.
Forgetting your boots at elementary school meant the threat of having your neck rung when you got home. Forgetting to flush the toilet once meant all three of us had to splash our hands around in the mess. When in doubt, punish first and sort out the details out later. I learned to respect power and strength over love and support. Do as you’re told. Don’t ask questions. Mistakes equal pain, don’t make them. These were the rules. End of discussion.
When one of us kids cried at dinner, the other two were encouraged to make fun of the offending party, further driving home the idea that there was only room for one emotion in our house — anger. Anger was everywhere, hidden beneath and painted right on the walls. Explosions were the norm, not the exception. Anger also got us listened to, any other emotion was ignored by design — an ignored child would learn to be independent.
Don’t get me wrong, there was love too — I do know this. The outward display of it was most often meted out for performance-based accomplishments either in sports or the classroom. And Christmases, birthdays, and holidays were all spectacular events, huge displays of pent-up love. Though we all learned the hard way you can actually be late to Christmas. Yes, that’s right — I think we were every year. Truly, House Boehm was a confusing one. But we knew the rules came first above all else. And the biggest lesson we were taught was that what people saw on the surface was what mattered — appearance was everything.
Although I don’t have firsthand experience, I’m old enough now to know parenting is not an easy job and being a parent to three kids in the 1970s and ‘80s was a far different pursuit than it is today. I’m also sure that my own folks growing up in the ‘50s with their own respective Depression Era parents was surely a shit show in its own right. I know that now. When the patterns were ingrained into my body and being though, I did not have that perspective or knowledge. All I knew was my house was often survival of the fittest, each of us with only ourselves to navigate the landscape.
Growing Up Boehm – I’ve Had Enough
My dad spent most of his time working. When he was home, his to-do list never ended, and even though he had a short fuze, I could tell his heart was in the right place.
My day-to-day experience was shaped mostly by my mom — someone I experienced as an odd mix of fury, wounded Southern perfectionist, disempowered feminist…and staunch animal activist. She had a sign that read, “A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle,” hung ironically above the sewing machine my dad had paid for. It was also above the desk where she hid her personal stash of chocolate and candy while decrying sugar, and espousing organic eating to us kids. After college, my mom had moved away from the South and dropped her accent completely. She spoke like a dictionary, having removed all traces of her past from her presentation. The visible trumping what lay underneath — the Boehm way even before she became a Boehm herself.
I don’t think my mother took any delight in her parenting style. In fact, I don’t think she had any control over it. She was a kettle on a hot stove with the lid so tightly jammed that it had no choice but to burst open. To this day, she’s a curiosity to me, a woman both trapped in and provided by the unfair patriarchy that she views the world as. A woman seemingly tormented by either her own decision to marry and become a mother or something else which she’s never spoken. Left with only one outlet for her rage and self-hatred — us kids.
I remember clearly the last time my mother hit me. We were in the kitchen of our apartment in Tokyo and I was twelve. I remember because of the shock on her face when I matter-of-factly explained that I’d had enough and if she ever hit me again, I would hit her back. I had grown a few inches that summer and now bigger, stronger, and faster landed on my side of the coin. The rules as stated for the prior twelve years had been clear, “Do as I say or I will hurt you. Do as I say because I can hurt you.”
This was not a moment of triumph or celebration; it was painfully devoid of emotion – as was I. In my head, that day was the collision of simple mathematical logic and over a decade of physical trauma. The rules would be forever different as dictated by my now changing biology – fortunately I would continue to grow physically – unfortunately not emotionally. Respect for strength and power is lost when that strength and power is overcome, and there’s no love and support evident below it. With my dad, I knew there was something underneath his disciplinary style, a compassion. With my mom, there didn’t appear to be anything else. My best defense was now a solid offense and I had had enough of being on defense.
So much of my journey this year is about recalibrating my relationship with the feminine — from the relationship with the women in my life to intimate relationships all the way up to one with the Divine. Up until this year, these relationships have always been grounded in the reality of my early years: the feminine hurts, the feminine controls (especially when disempowered), and it is not to be trusted.
Regardless of what was underneath my feelings, I still chose to walk out into the world and into my relationships with this chip on my subconscious shoulder. Not only to seek out untrustworthy women and then ignore when their lack of values became apparent, but then to equally disregard those who were trustworthy, unfairly lumping them all together. Sitting in a dark room with nothing but truth is a tremendous clarifier.
Buried Feelings Still Exist
For all of Days 8 – 13 the movies of growing up in our Connecticut house played on, making me relive each moment and the clearly unexpressed emotion hiding underneath it. Emotion waiting to be released. Anger, upset, disappointment, and dismay. As I lay in the fetal position exhausted, The Guru played the same clips — over and over and over — despite my desire to be elsewhere, or to change the channel. I tried to force myself to think about something else, to talk out loud about a new topic, or to knock out ten push-ups.
Nothing worked. “Thinking about something else” lasted a millisecond before I was curled up in a ball — back in my house at age five, age ten, age twelve. Before I could lower myself back to the floor for another round of push-ups, the Pain Guru forced my face forward, eyes open. “You’ve asked for this,” he whispered in my ear. “Surrender to the truth of your own story.”
I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no way to make any of it stop — and I hated every second of it. What I didn’t know until months later was this was greatest lesson of this experience — nothing is unrelated, nothing goes away, and buried feelings never die. Until we can bring those feelings out, experience them fully, and then let them go, they will sit in the background of our lives, silently pulling strings and creating mayhem, crying out for attention in their own ways.
I chose jobs, homes, and the wrong relationship partners based on these unresolved memories. I chose addictions to mask the pain of them. I can show you a trail of consequences associated with not facing what the Pain Guru was showing me and making me experience. We were alone in there, and he’d had enough of my running, enough of appearances being more important than truth.
What you’ll read in the next posts are my stories, the darkest ones I relived with no distraction to hide them. Each one is a chapter of my life that until walking into the Dark Retreat I would have sworn was a separate, independent part of my story, completely unrelated to the next.
See you all next Monday when my story goes from growing up in a chaotic house, to living in one considerably worse.
Cheers from Tzununa Guatemala,