At San Francisco Waldorf School, last Friday afternoon, me and my husband eagerly sit down with our daughter (Maya’s) two kindergarten teachers for our first fall parent-teacher conference.
In that little office, I sit very straight, READY, like a catcher with a mitt waiting to receive a report on Maya and what to work on with her. The teacher starts out with talking about Maya’s fine gross-motor skills — she was doing really well. She went onto participation, Maya often “shines her light” (Waldorf’s version of raising hands) to demonstrate something to the class during circle time. And on-and-on, the teacher went about socializing, creativity, boundaries. At the end of the 30 minutes of her teachers detailing Maya’s day and specifics examples of how she was doing, I said there baffled: “So, there are no challenges? Nothing for her to work on? Really?”
The teacher, clear-eyed and grounded responds, “She is doing really well.”
I am perplexed. My problem-seeking mind ready to solve something had nowhere to land.
A keen memory from childhood I have is — I am in 2nd grade, having freshly received my print out of a report card with straight A’s. I am excitedly waiting for my mom to come home from work to show her. I hear the garage open and I am waiting by the door. “Mom! Mom! I got my report card today!” I say, bombarding her as she walks in.
She gently sets down her khaki leather purse and sits on the arm of the couch. I excitedly hand over my perfect straight A report card to her. I study my mom’s face, as she reads it, holding my breath as I anticipate her reaction. I notice she looks tired. And then, she says in a slightly teasing voice: “Oh — Straight A’s. Juen Juen (my Chinese name) you can have six stars!”
“Six stars?!? That’s it?!?” I was shocked, angry and feeling very, very unsatisfied. And my mom’s response to that was, “OK I’ll give you ten stars then.”
This star chart was what guided my life as a kid at that time — earning stars that would amount to an external reward, like ice cream or money, after reaching certain star goals.
I am shaken awake by what this parent-teacher conference moment so brightly illuminated: the stark contrast of me being ready to fix, change and hear challenges versus the reality of there actually being nothing at all wrong to work on. What is revealed is this deep belief — a pre-occupation of the conditioned mind that there is always something to improve, something to work on, something that is not quite right to keep striving for.
This has highlighted the baseline conditioning of my childhood and nervous system — the fear statement soundtrack that I’ve been paying attention to and catching goes something like this:
- “You’re not there yet”
- “You’re not doing it right”
- “Hmm… don’t get in trouble”
- “You have to be productive and on-it to be good”
- “You have to earn it (and even after you earn it, don’t rest. Earn it again)
- “Don’t get caught not doing it right.”
I don’t even know what this ultimate “right” is or where I am striving to arrive at.
This last year, I had thought my tendency was more towards anxiety and to get caught in “perfectionism” as my close friends have reflected to me — “Doesn’t have to be perfect, Cat.” I am seeing, now, there is a distinct nuance. It is less about wanting to be perfect, so much as it is about the deep seated fear of “I just want to be OK” — and my feeling is that I’m not… and I keep trying to get there.
In this moment, as I look back, I can see how second grader Cat wanted a big hug from my mom, to be looked at kindly in the eyes and soothed: “I love you no matter what, Juen Juen. Let’s celebrate and do something fun together, OK?” I wanted a place to land — to know that I was OK and had finally earned the goodness I longed to feel.
This morning, in light of seeing this pattern being illuminated, I tenderly share with my husband what I’m seeing in myself and the accompanying memory is the star system I had growing up. He looks at me understandably and lovingly says: “It’s probably really hard for you to not have a way to measure all of this good inner work. You are unraveling your karma. Maya being a great kid is like having a vacation house in Maui, Cat.”
It has been ten years since I made the choice to let go of an externally-motivated way of being, move to a Zen Center, and commit to taking a deep inner dive. It’s true though — unraveling karma, the childhood patterns that drive me today, doesn’t have a such an obvious reward, like that house in Maui.
It is humbling and awkward to be uncovering a foundational layer of child conditioning. And also very, very liberating.
This liberation is the north star that continues to nourish and guide me on this reoriented path. I am basking in this remembering. And that, right here, in these moments of awareness, I am learning to be and feel OK. I am learning to know myself and show up for myself (and in turn benefit my family, friends, and all those I meet).
Put another way, my friend and the Founder of Wisdom 2.0 recently writes, “This inner work, this capacity to be at peace with ourselves, could be the most radical and important act we do.”
P.S. Oh, and before I finish, the second grader Cat is piping in quite loudly to say she wants to be celebrated for who she is and to have some fun. 😋 A little dessert and dancing this afternoon sounds like a great idea — just because.
P.P.S If you, too, resonate with having a difficult time relaxing into being and are always striving, seeking, problem solving, fixing… I would recommend this 3-minute inquiry/meditation “No Problem To Solve” by Loch Kelly. If you’re new to meditation, it will provide a glimpse into the freedom of an unhooked mind.
It’s an inquiry you can take with you, anytime, as a reminder of the spacious, loving awareness that resides always beneath the restlessness of the mind.