A whirlwind first day back in university brings all kinds of insecurities and bullshit up front in my mind.
This has been basically my day yesterday.
I’m freaking out.
In February, when I decided that I wanted to go back to school to become a psychotherapist (in addition to my writing career, of course) it seemed like a good idea.
Yesterday, not so much.
Maybe it’s the shock of sitting along with 300 18-year-olds as a jaded, cynical 33-year-old who’s seen all this before. Maybe it’s the realization that joining my work life to my studies will be more challenging than I thought.
There was this feeling of… powerlessness that I couldn’t put my finger on until tonight. I used to stand in front of classes. I used to teach. And here I am back again, not only as a student but as the lowest of the low: a first-year student. I’ve taken a mighty drop. And maybe it’s my ego rebelling against this perceived loss of status, yelling “WHAT THE HELL YOU’RE BETTER OFF ALONE IN YOUR LIVING ROOM WITH YOUR CAT THAN BEING A PEASANT AMONG PEASANTS!”
Or maybe it’s just all too much, and my brain just can’t even.
Ego and status
But the more I think about it, the more my reaction to this first day back as an undergraduate seems related to my ego just rebelling against its perceived loss of status, its perceived loss of power.
There’s a piece of dharma I really like; it’s called The Eight Worldly Winds.
“Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is.
“Loss arises… Status arises… Disgrace arises… Censure arises… Praise arises… Pleasure arises…
“Pain arises. He reflects, ‘Pain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is.
“His mind does not remain consumed with the gain. His mind does not remain consumed with the loss… with the status… the disgrace… the censure… the praise… the pleasure. His mind does not remain consumed with the pain.
“He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss. He does not welcome the arisen status, or rebel against the arisen disgrace. He does not welcome the arisen praise, or rebel against the arisen censure. He does not welcome the arisen pleasure, or rebel against the arisen pain. As he thus abandons welcoming & rebelling, he is released from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”
This entire day has been about my ego rebelling against disgrace, or at the very least loss of status. It’s been about how powerless I feel sitting one among hundreds in a giant lecture hall, unrecognized and unnamed. In an environment where I am used to being recognized and named, and much higher up the academic food chain, this is an immense shock.
And so I sit, writing about this, observing these thoughts whirling in my mind like a hamster on speed, and naming them. “Disgrace.” “Disgrace.” “Powerlessness.” “Ego.”
It’s all just my ego, and it’s making me suffer: because of it, I couldn’t relax into the lecture and just enjoy learning new things.
I’m surely not the only one whose life has triggered some kind of panic. Maybe something happened that you didn’t see coming or couldn’t control. Sometimes we just freak out. Life throws something at you, or you start doing something new or risky, or something that makes you vulnerable. Something that exposes your ego like nothing has before.
And it’s hard, freaking out. Because it seems like everything will crash. It seems like everything will just fall onto your head and crush you. Yesterday felt like nothing made sense anymore. Up was down, white was black, and I was sitting as a lowly undergrad among other lowly undergrads.
And then I try to take stock of what I have.
First, I can breathe.
I can breathe in and breathe out. I can feel my chest rising and ebbing. I can feel my heart beating. Even if it’s beating hard. My body is shaking from the stress and the lack of food, but it’s shaking nonetheless.
I am here.
Second, I am doing this for a reason.
I reflected long and hard on this. I took weeks to finalize my decision, to weigh the pros and the cons. I consulted with a professional career counsellor to confirm that I wasn’t insane.
I am doing this for reasons that made more and more sense as time creeped towards today, towards this morning. The fact that the reality of it is a little more overwhelming than I thought doesn’t change those reasons.
Those reasons are valid. My heart’s calling is valid.
Third, I am able to fully grasp my capabilities.
The first time around in university, I had no idea what I was capable of. I just went along doing what I did, ending up in a field I enjoyed, but I might as well have done history, or political science, or whatever. I believe I would have performed well in any of them. There was no purpose, no sense to it. I just went along because I was good at it, because I kept being validated with good grades and scholarships. Because it was easy.
But what if I put my abilities to something of meaning to me? What if I put all that heart and all that brain into something that calls to me, that really calls so strongly to me that I am willing to get into more debt for it?
I’m reading Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are right now, and I must remember that one of the messages is that it is never too late, for anything. That I can have a meaningful career even if I start in my late 30s. That all that matters is that I am present where I am, right now. That the past or the future don’t matter. What I did, what I was, they’re all gone. They’re non-existent.
I am not destroying the building of my life and starting it over somewhere else. I am adding a wing to it, one day at a time, one brick at a time. It’s not a new career; it’s an extra one.
But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I think I should do, or believe that I should have done. It only matters what I do.
So I breathe.