The Stress of Success/Freedom in Failure
I hope everyone enjoyed the holidays and are able to reflect with fond memories on the previous year and/or look with excited anticipation for the year to come. I was recently speaking to my therapist (a practice I highly recommend), wondering aloud what could be wrong with me. By all tangible measures I've just had the best year of my life, yet I felt relegated to a frequency of stress and anxiety not unlike that which I'd felt during some of the worst years of my life. In 2019 I got engaged, planned a wedding, executed said wedding to perfection, went to Paris... twice, was hired to apprentice under the exact mentor I coveted, and my personal business grew to the point that I had to move and invest in more space. What could possibly be wrong?
My therapist wisely explained a concept that as a Chinese Medicine practitioner I should already have been aware of - that although these are all wonderful achievements, symptomatic of progress and promise, they are also symptoms of change that bring with them a litany of responsibilities within a context of urgency. And although they might check off many of the boxes society aspires towards self-actualization, the body/mind does not differentiate from other manifestations of urgent change, i.e. Stress. Sometimes we need a therapist just to remind us that we are in fact, normal.
I thought more about this concept and reflected on some of the more difficult years of my life and whether one could apply the inverse logic: If a period of great achievement and happiness can be stressful, couldn't one of disappointment or struggle be in some way physiological beneficial? The worst year of my life was my first in Los Angeles, typically. I had no job, no money or car, no friends, partner or (local) family, and I had grown especially bitter around my then artistic struggles. I shared a dark, small, dirty apartment on a dismal block in Koreatown and wasn't sleeping well, obviously due to stress.
On the other hand, being intermittently unemployed I had more down time than I've had in life before or since. As its weather is one of L.A.'s most redeeming qualities, I had time to go running and practice Qi Gong in the park almost every day. With almost no one to speak to I wrote weekly blogs, got published on Elephant Journal, and got through an entire rough draft of my first book (still not complete).
When I came back to New York to visit, everyone commented on how good I looked. It might have been the tan, but I figured they were lying just to be nice. At the time I was so depressed, so lonely and frustrated. How could I possibly look good? I hadn't considered how much I'd probably benefited from my effective use of down time. I wasn't overworked, nor was I overwhelmed by the perpetual experience of time scarcity that has defined my past year. Instead I was engulfed in good old, Californian vitamin D with seemingly all the time in the world to express myself artistically.
Conversely, as I write this email I am in between rushed grocery shopping trips to the farmer's market and Whole Foods, which is going to make me miss the beginning of today's football playoff game, which is then going to take away from some of the administrative work I’m behind on, which will make this work week more difficult.
From a Chinese Medical perspective the liver channel is responsible for deciding on a plan of action, while it is the gallbladder that puts said plan into motion. It is also the liver and gallbladder that are most affected by stress, which is why one of the most generic diagnoses one might hear from their acupuncturist is "Liver Qi Stagnation." This simply means the energy in the liver (and gallbladder) channel is stuck, not flowing properly or smoothly, thereby impeding circulation, then "domino-effecting" either the stomach, lungs, kidneys, or anywhere else. In Western Medicine this translates simply as: "Stress creates disease." Nevertheless, the liver's duality of function from a Chinese Medical perspective is reminiscent of a common psychological premise, that some degree of stress is actually healthy, serving as a great motivator for action.
It seems during the worst year of my life, although my liver and gallbladder may have been impacted by disappointment and loneliness, it's possible I offset the circulatory side effects with exercise. Additionally, because of my predicament there were no major decisions to make, nor plans to put into action. I'd made my decision to move to L.A. and I knew the steps I needed to take to get stable and established. Life was challenging but also simple. 2019, on the other hand, was jam packed with full-time work while hunting for the perfect engagement ring, while planning the perfect proposal and then the perfect wedding for the perfect girl, plus planning international travel, then seeking a new office, packing to move, transitioning into said office, followed by last minute Christmas shopping! Here I am, finally writing to you for the first time in months on my first day off in recent memory.
My point of all this is not to seek the world's smallest violin of sympathy, nor to brag, but to illustrate that all expressions of our life are temporary and mutually interchangeable. If stress is logical during some of our best times, then it stands to reason that the opposite can be the case during some of our worst times. Unemployment can offer time for rest and exercise. Loneliness might create the perfect negative space for creativity, and even a lack of resources might offer some peace of mind in its inherent lack of potential for decisions and doubt. If I'd never been relegated to riding the bus for my first three months in L.A. I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much recreational reading done. I suppose nowadays that might translate as podcast-listening, but potentially equally informative and interesting.
For 2020 I wish you all all that you desire, but at the same time offer that it's likely that not every year can be David Foster's 2019 - not even for David Foster :) The purpose of coordinating our breath with the unusual movements of yoga and qi gong is to send oxygen/energy/qi into intentionally created, musculoskeletal negative space. As yoga and qi gong are based on life, the "tao of existence," it is only logical to deduce that we can send the same psycho-emotional energy into the more negative spaces/chapters of our lives. I wish you positive experiences primarily, but more importantly positive perspective.