It occurred to me recently that I like extremes.
I go to extremes a lot with my diet. The strict elimination diet I did when my daughter was two-and-a-half is one example. No gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts, beans, chocolate, alcohol, or sugar of any kind (including grapes). You are right to wonder what I ate during this time. Then my “meat at every meal” diet. This was actually healthier than the “cheese, bread, and beer” vegetarian diet I consumed for nearly seven years because the meat diet actually included vegetables. Then there’s my most recent (largely failed) experiment in vegan, gluten-free, no-oil eating. And in case you’re wondering, no, I do not ease myself into these dietary changes. I’m one Whole Foods trip away from a major dietary shift at any given moment. No wonder my kids refuse to eat the food I cook anymore.
I go to extremes with choices about where to live, too. I joke that I don’t travel; I move. It’s a joke, but it’s also true, and I have the six states’ worth of drivers’ licenses to prove it.
I binge-read like nobody’s business. I either check Facebook 235 times a day or I delete (or attempt to delete) my profile. I buy those yummy mini-meringues at the store and eat the whole package before bedtime. I let my hair grow to my waist and then hack it off dramatically all at once, only to let it grow out again for the next three years (by which time I need to find a new hairdresser because we’ve moved to a different state again). I stop running for eight months then immediately jump back into running 3-5 miles three times a week. I end a yoga fast by doing a 1.5-hour vinyasa practice every morning. I wake up at 4:30am for 6 weeks to meditate. And then I meditate again before I go to bed (at 8:30pm).
I’m keen on Buddhism, and when I’m engaged in these reactionary and extreme patterns of behavior, I remind myself of Siddhartha’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. After attempting all manner of extreme religious practices, Siddhartha eventually adopted a more moderate path, attained enlightenment, and started a religion to boot. The “Middle Way” continues to be at the core of Buddhism, and while it seems like a really good and simple idea, it’s a lot more complicated to apply to real life.
When I envision the Middle Way, I picture something very much like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” only with three roads diverged in a wood rather than two. The decision about which path to take should be simple: take the one that’s in the middle. But, for me at least, that middle road isn’t easy to discern. Not only is it grassy and wanting wear, it’s so overgrown it’s practically indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.
If I want to take the Middle Way, I’m going to have to keep a very keen eye on the faded blazes along the path and the subtle signs that there actually is a path here. I’ll need to have my machete handy to hack away the vines and poison ivy. The going will be slow and punctuated by frequent stops to move fallen trees off of the path and to pick off ticks that have found their way into my hair and are fixing to burrow into my skin and give me Lyme disease. (I’ve never been a fan of ticks, but moving to New England has made me remarkably paranoid about Lyme disease.)
Today my osteopath told me that the “neck headaches” I’ve been getting are caused by the extreme tension in the muscles all the way along my spine. She recommended finding ways to release tension, specifically changing my perspective on exercise from building towards something or training towards a tangible goal to being a way to quickly release tension in my body.
With this suggestion in mind, when I got home I turned the kids loose with some Wild Kratts DVDs and went back to reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I started it months and months ago, but I stopped reading when I got to the chapter about stress, which is rather amusing when I think about it.
Kabat-Zinn writes about the fight-or-flight response and the negative effects it has within the body if it’s triggered too readily and not allowed to dissipate in a healthy way. The thing that stuck out to me was the broad range of circumstances that can trigger a fight-or-flight response:
Anything that threatens our sense of well-being can trigger it to some degree. If our social status is threatened, or our ego, or our strongly held beliefs, or our desire to control things or have them be a certain way (“my” way, for instance), then the sympathetic nervous system lets loose. We can be catapulted into a state of hyperarousal and fight-or-flight whether we like it or not.
Maybe I stopped reading the book at the stress chapter because I wasn’t ready to admit that I’ve been fighting against threats to my ego and my sense of control (because there sure aren’t any tigers around here threatening me). None of the information about stress is new to me, but every time I encounter it I read it with new eyes. This time it’s in the context of my realization about my going to extremes and my osteopath’s suggestion to cool it a bit.
So, here I am at the head of these three paths, machete in hand and a vague idea in my mind. I might just stand here for a bit before I head out.