illustration of woman meditating
Illustration: Guy Billout
It slams into you like a kick in the head. You're browsing through some snapshots, you see a shot of some old lady's hands, then suddenly—wham!—you realize those hands are yours. You dash jauntily up a staircase only to stop halfway, breathing in asthmatic-bulldog gasps. Wham! Overnight, like Germany invading Poland, your girlish waist expands into menopause tummy. Wham! And that's if you're lucky. Carol wasn't: She got sick, had to take steroids, and gained 50 pounds in a month. Teri finally learned to love her breasts, only to lose one to cancer. Samantha developed alopecia, shedding every hair on her body, and is now waiting for it to return. Wham! Wham! Wham!

These wallops to self-esteem involve not only the nasty shock of seeing our physical flaws but—much worse—the growing awareness that our bodies are mutable and mortal. I get walloped in the self-esteem approximately every 15 minutes, so lately I've been looking for coping skills. I've found many, some of which work and some of which don't. The ones that don't work seem absolutely logical. The ones that do sound weird. I'll discuss the "logical" methods first, hoping to pitch you into sufficient despair to try the "illogical" ones.

Dealing with Wallops: Traditional Approach

Some days, it seems as if many of us are locked in mortal combat with physical imperfection. We guzzle fish oil like Kool-Aid; hire militant personal trainers; have our fat vacuumed out, new breasts implanted, skin sliced and spliced; attack all the issues that keep us from matching our cultural concept of beauty. If you're in the midst of fighting this war, I congratulate you on your courage and optimism and regretfully remind you that you're losing.

The problem with "fixing" our imperfect, damaged, or aging bodies is that we can't. We may win a few battles, but the war always goes to entropy. This is not something our society readily acknowledges. Our advertising shouts, "Here's how to fight aging!" not "You're going to die; get used to it!" But making peace with the enemy—totally accepting our physical condition at any given moment—is the only way to win the conflict. How do we do that? Conquer new territory in our brains.

View What's Left, or Choose What's Right

At the age of 37, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke that damaged the left side of her brain. As she lost the linear, verbal thinking of the left hemisphere to the wordless sense-perception of her right brain, Taylor experienced something she later called Nirvana. "I felt enormous and expansive," she explained to the audience at a recent conference (you can see her talk online at "My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria."

Now, there have been times when I've felt "enormous and a great whale," but this only caused me to diet obsessively. Like most people, I generally see my body through the critical, socialized judgments of my verbal mind. We modern folk call this left-brain perspective "reality." Before the stroke, Taylor the scientist knew herself as "a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you." But when her left brain shut down, she found herself part of a connected universe in which, she said, "we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful."

Wise people from every cultural tradition have experienced this euphoric awareness. But in our environment, their more subtle teachings tend to be drowned out by commercials shrieking, "Fifty's the new 40!" However, after a self-esteem wallop—in the moment we find a new varicose vein or notice that gravity is slowly pulling our faces right off our heads—we may tune our desperate ears to the words of the wise.

Think of your next self-esteem wallop as a chance to choose. Toppling off the fragile pedestal of conditional self-acceptance, you can elect to fall into either of two mental states. Most people plunge into what I call the SEWER, for Self-Esteem Wallop's Egregious Ramifications. Dropping into the SEWER goes like this:
  1. Experience self-esteem wallop.
  2. Ramp up frantic war against "imperfection."
  3. Fail by inches while clinging to shreds of former identity, trying to look like the latest batch of 20-somethings, suffering the results of botched plastic surgery, and becoming the butt of cruel jokes.
  4. Die anyway.
If you enjoy panic and despair, you'll love SEWER consciousness. If not, you can try the other option. I call it SEEING, which stands for Self-Esteem Exit into Numinous Gorgeousness. (I get these in bulk from the acronym aisle at Costco.) As the name suggests, SEEING involves dropping even the concept of self-esteem and embracing a wordless, purely sensory experience of life. Here's how it works:
  1. Experience self-esteem wallop.
  2. Use the exercises that follow to switch your way of seeing from your left-brain hemisphere to the right, where you can see beauty more clearly.
  3. Allow yourself to absorb the wallop and ensuing emotions without resistance. Notice that while positioned in right-brain awareness, the wallop is unreal, and your beauty is real. This may take time, but hey, that's all you've got.
  4. Return continually to this place of acceptance, right through the moment of your own demise.
This is the process by which we experience beauty at its deepest. Call it Nirvana, as Jill Bolte Taylor did, or No Self, as the Buddha did, or, as Jesus called it, "my peace...not as the world giveth"; 10 out of 10 enlightened beings agree that it exists within all of us, and that it's worth the pain that drives us to seek it.

Now, not everyone can survive a left-hemisphere stroke. Not everyone's a Buddha or a member of the Holy Trinity. Most of us get blindsided by neck wattles and cellulite while stuck in ordinary, overtrained left brains. After a self-esteem wallop, we need ways to get from the SEWER to SEEING, fast.

Fortunately, there are reliable ways of doing this. Our culture avoids them, so they may sound very odd to you. That's fine: Just try the techniques on the next page, remembering that the objective isn't to look different (changing your body), but to look differently (changing your state of awareness).

Method 1: Draw Upside Down

For me, drawing is like taking hallucinogens—my mind goes silent, and beauty suddenly appears all around me, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "like shining from shook foil." Because many people are shy about drawing, I rarely force clients to use it to switch on their right brains. But this exercise can pull you out of the SEWER and into SEEING very rapidly. It's not about making art. It's about what Taylor calls "choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres."

The process is simple: Muddle your verbal mind by copying a picture that you've turned upside down. If that feels intimidating, buy a paint-by-number kit and turn it upside down before completing it. The inversion of shapes will confuse your left hemisphere. You'll begin perceiving nameless colors and shapes. Verbal thinking will slow down, and beauty will emerge from things you've never even noticed. Then chuck the picture—it's the awareness you want.

Method 2: Open Your Focus

The first time a yoga instructor told me to "soften my eyes," I thought she was insane. Strangely enough, I sort of did it, though I had no idea how. And suddenly, I felt wonderful.

There's a neurological basis for this. Les Fehmi, PhD, a brain scientist and author of The Open-Focus Brain, found that when our eyes are in "sharp focus," our stress responses increase; when they're in "soft," or "open," focus, we relax. An animal relaxing in the sun will maintain soft focus until something threatening or appetizing appears; only then will its eyes become sharp. Softening your eyes releases the sequential processing of the left brain and turns on the holistic perceptions of the right.

Try softening your focus now. After reading this paragraph, look up at whatever's in front of you. Then, without moving your eyes, allow your attention to broaden, taking in everything you see. Slowly expand your attention to include everything you can hear, smell, feel, and taste. As your focus opens, you'll stop thinking in words, become more present, and see beauty everywhere. Fehmi's research showed that if we do it consistently, this practice affects the brain like meditation on steroids. Try it. It works.

Method 3: Feel the Rhythm of Life

The right brain learns kinesthetically, through the movement of the body. Certain ways of moving activate the SEEING of the right hemisphere. The next time you're reeling from a self-esteem wallop, do the last thing logic would advise: dance. If you absolutely won't dance, engage in another activity that requires repetitive, rhythmic action—swimming, drumming, skiing, whirling like a dervish (the reason dervishes whirl is because it pushes them into right-brain awareness). I've felt this transform my perceptions while running, skiing, and learning to track rhinoceroses in the African wilderness. If you don't have a rhinoceros handy, dancing is your best bet.

The Payoff

I told you these solutions for self-esteem wallops would sound weird and illogical, so I won't argue if you go ahead and schedule more liposuction and Botox. Use every weapon in our society's arsenal against imperfection—but remember that Father Time, that treacherous bastard, has a lot more ammunition. When you're faced with incontrovertible evidence of this, just try falling into SEEING, rather than the SEWER. Learn to switch on the awareness in which mortality is not calamitous and in which you are obviously, empirically, eternally, breathtakingly beautiful.

If you do this, you'll find that culturally defined Barbie-doll beauty becomes steadily more boring. You'll find loveliness in the asymmetrical, the wrinkled, the lumpish, and the strange. The very thing your rigid mind finds ugliest may be what your true self loves most. Self-esteem wallops will become gentle nudges, then welcome reminders to "run the deep inner peace circuitry" in your brain. You'll win the war against your body by becoming its everlasting, compassionate, clear-eyed ally. Now, ain't that a kick in the head.

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