Expanding Into Joy

BY EMILY

Though I live in New York City as a teacher, artist, and textile designer, I was brought up in England. And I was bound in a certain conditioning about my physicality. My father was brought up by Victorian aunts, so he was very traditional, very British, in that way of ignoring the physical functions. My mother was a bit livelier there, but this was the 50s, and you were supposed to be very discreet. 

It was a problem when I became a teenager, and the fashion was about miniskirts and showing your body. My father was kind of pissed off with me and didn't like that freedom at all. As baby boomers, we were entering into the 60s, which was supposedly very free and expressive. I was curious about sexuality and being free with others. I was always trying to push the barriers, a kind of rebellious child against the constriction of my upbringing.

I went to art school and liked the idea of being a sexy teenage girl, but at the same time, I was very inhibited. I was embarrassed about my body and thought that I was different from other women somehow, or that I wouldn’t be loved. This was underneath the façade of being a free 60s girl. So, it was a strange sort of duality. 

Once, I was interviewing for a summer job as a babysitter, and I was getting on well with the couple that wanted me to look after their child. Then they said, “By the way, we’ll be staying at a nudist camp. Do you want to do this?” I thought, Wow, this is fantastic. I said yes. But when I got to the nudist camp, I was really freaked out. It took me a while to take off my underwear. I got into it eventually, but it was still awkward and embarrassing.

That’s part of my personality—I do something, I scare myself to death, and then I say, Whoa. I back off. Something was holding me back, and I pretended it wasn't there. I would act in a way where I was free and open and having a good time. But underneath there was a kind of container, the inside of which I didn't really want to admit. 

As an adult, I lived with somebody for a long time, 23 years, though we didn’t marry. I’d chosen the relationship because it was safe and secure. I was loved. But it was not really answering my wild side. I also wasn’t allowing myself to have pleasure. I was a workaholic. I love designing, I love my work, but I didn’t make space for nurturing and pleasure. 

Feeling weary and depressed, I turned to Sufism. I’d always had spiritual practices, but I got more deeply involved. Around this time, an old boyfriend came into my life. He was married and we had an affair, which made me realize I had to leave my relationship. This was traumatic yet healing and liberating too. I left my relationship and went deeper in spiritual practice, as well as doing more artwork and other things that I love to do.

One day, a friend in the Sufi community told me about OM. He encouraged me and some others to do it, and I went back and forth on whether to jump in. It was part of my daring side. Do I dare do that? What would happen? I eventually tried it, and I could feel that there were two parts of me—one holding back but curious, and the other one saying, This feels incredible. Joy came up. I walked out of there feeling like a whole woman.

I felt a sense of wholeness. I felt open, expanded, rather than constricted and compartmentalized. I had been dating and having relationships that didn't work out. Before OM, I remember saying, I'm married to myself. I’d gradually had more ownership of myself, but not completely. What was missing was that total expanded self, and that's what I found with OM.

The safety of the practice helped—not just the container of OM, but the relationship to other people and the agreement in how you behave. I loved the reverence and silence of the practice. There was also permission to not have to speak or smile, but to know I was accepted, no matter what. I didn’t have to be a certain way.

The noticing part of OM, and the meditation part, meant that it sharpened my awareness of what was happening in my body. I might have been denying it before. It made everything more real, more tangible.

I started to experience a full bodied feeling of love for humanity. This warm quality that came into my life—a feeling of connection with others, compassion, non judgment. But it wasn't just mental or spiritual; it was physical, body-based. And it was just delightful.

Hurricane Sandy happened around that time, and OM made it more bearable. Through all the tragedy and difficulties, I was still able to go out and look at the sky or a little dog, and just be open and receiving of sensation, of beauty.

OM also opened up my artist self. I was always struggling with inhibition about my artwork. I decided to commit to doing a drawing a day and being spontaneous about it. It became a practice, like OM, to just do it and see what comes up. To be with what is. 

I had also been inhibited about showing my work. In a way, OM let me do the groundwork of preparing myself to be vulnerable, because we're very open and vulnerable when we OM. To be with the vulnerability that I had about my artwork, and then going out as me to the world, was like opening a huge door. It was about being seen.

Eventually, I did meet somebody, and I've been in a relationship with him for five years. It’s been great, though it's a complicated relationship. We don’t live together, and I’m constantly adjusting things so I can have my own time. I just feel much more fulfilled as a woman, being myself and owning myself.