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The Art of Looking

One mother explores the possibility that the journey towards self-knowing is infinite and artful.

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What are you looking for? I’ve been asking this question loudly and frequently lately, as my month-old daughter writhes and cries in my arms. I offer milk, a kiss, a silly song. I rub her back, bounce her on my knee. I wheel her tiny, plump body through the air. The child remains inconsolable, and I am left with no clear answer. Not even a vague answer.

To the changing table we go, where I open the thirteenth dirty diaper of the day to find that my suspicions of a poop paroxysm were regrettably accurate. As I wipe her soft skin clean, and she continues to wail, I consider the question again. What are you looking for? This, it seems, is the paradox of the human condition. We enter the world hungry, and spend most of our lives seeking missing pieces, looking for that elusive something more that will fill our emptiness and infuse our lives with meaning. Watching my mighty-lunged baby turn red with discontent, I wonder whether any such something exists. If it does, I haven’t found it. Whatever my daughter is looking for—hell, whatever I’ve been looking for—always seems to shape shift, to evaporate and disappear completely the moment I think I have it within my grasp.

My child finally quiets, and lies gurgling on her changing table for fifteen glorious minutes. I waste nearly five of those minutes wondering what to do with my two free hands before deciding to simply hover over her and enjoy these fleeting moments of bliss. Because sure enough her face crumples, her legs begin to kick, and the first cry pierces the air. A clean diaper is good, but it is hardly enough. My baby has realized that the world has much, much more to offer than a measly swath of clean white cloth. Yet almost all of it remains beyond her reach.

Related: How to Recognize the Beauty of Being Broken

This is something my child will come to understand so many times, in so many different ways, throughout her life. As we all do. We set out seeking our happiness—a soul mate, a dream job, a cure for cancer, a puppy, a trip to the ocean, an hour to meditate—and once we have it, we begin to see beyond its borders to a fullness that exceeds our grasp. Our hands can hold so little. There is more, so much more! And though we may never touch any of it, there is a beauty in unmet desire, in having more to seek. It often seems that the belief that we are lacking something essential is what makes us feel complete. Because if there was nothing left to look for, what would be the point?

I’m aware that this is not very “yogic” of me, and I’m supposed to be writing about what has led me to my wellness practice. But it’s my truth. What I’m looking for, what leads me to my yoga mat each and every day, is the promise of a journey, of a practice that changes daily, and opens me to pain and failure as well as to effervescent joy and light. I used to think I could live my life circumventing pain, but this practice has taught me to embrace it. For I learn far more from my failures than from my successes. Failure makes me a better listener, and to be quite honest, I like the person failure has helped me become.

Speaking of failure, what do you do when burping, diaper-changing, entertaining and feeding all fail to quiet a baby? The websites and guide books suggest running the vacuum cleaner. A product I do not own because I live in Brooklyn, where the floors are hard wood and require little more than a Swiffer and dustpan. So I strap her into the carrier and head outside, even though it is dark now, and I am utterly exhausted and suddenly hungrier than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. We walk. And as my child’s screams dwindle into labored breaths, and finally, the peaceful exhalations of milky sleep, space begins to open up inside me. The cool air strips away my fatigue and my thoughts become clear. I fill with gratitude that my child was born at the end of summer. That she propels me outside on a crisp, beautiful evening to watch the leaves drift silently from the trees. An evening I would have missed entirely had a simple nipple in the mouth done the trick. Had I been tucked inside a hip, unlit restaurant, or stuck underground in a subway tunnel. I pause and look up. If I hadn’t taken this walk, I may never have noticed the pale halo surrounding the bone white moon.

Related: Let Go, Let God

This would be a tidy place to end my reflection, paused before a majestic Brooklyn brownstone with my slumbering baby pressed to my breast, but it would be incomplete. Just as there is a dark side to the moon, there is a dark side to my story, to every story. It’s a matter of being willing to explore that unknown, often unsavory space.

My hunger for something more, for a connection to something larger than myself, larger than life, hasn’t always coaxed me toward the light. For years, it coaxed me into seedy bars, night clubs, strange beds. Yes, before it led me to a steady yoga and meditation practice, before it fired up my courage to become a mother, my great search for meaning led me to a steady drug, alcohol, and promiscuous sex practice. I suspect that I’m not the only one who’s turned to mind-bending substances and dicey experiences to tap into that elusive something more. Just as I’m sure I’m not the only one who struck out into the world hopeful, excited and totally unsure about what I was looking for, driven by a blind and desperate need to escape the vague dissatisfaction that had plagued me since childhood. It was more than just an artistic temperament, or teenage alienation. There was a bottomless cavity inside of me, and I didn’t know how to fill it. It was easier to pretend it wasn’t there.

I don’t celebrate my past practice of self-destruction. But those experiences humbled me, and graced me with a greater sense of compassion. They were essential steps on the path to my very first heart-opening yoga class. Spinning wildly on the dance floor, full of ecstasy, woke me up to a new sense of freedom. The freedom to move like myself, to laugh like myself. To be myself. The same freedom I find by sweating on my yoga mat.

I look down at the still-soft crown of my sleeping child’s head, wondering if one day she, too, will find freedom and tranquility by turning upside down, or bending so far back her heart rises to the sun. I brush her head with my lips, and hope that she will discover a path toward light without having to muddle through the dark journeys I took throughout my teens and twenties. I wish for the power to protect her even though in my heart I know I can’t.

And that’s okay because darkness and light aren’t opposites, or even complements; they are one. Just ask Shiva, master of both creation and destruction. Or Kali, destroyer and divine mother. Or ask your mom, your best friend, the person sitting next to you. Humanity’s greatest triumphs and gravest mistakes are all born of the same universal need: the need to believe in something greater than your small self. It is not the goal that makes us human, it is the process. As if we are all descendants of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing our boulders up the most beautiful mountains.

Related: What’s Really Holding You Back from Happiness?

My child is in a deep sleep, head tossed back as if she were experiencing a strange communion with the moon. We walk home and she fusses at the sound of the door shutting behind us, reminding me that this peace is only temporary. Again and again, hour after hour, my exquisite insatiable daughter reminds me that all satisfaction is fleeting. We always return to emptiness. The crying always resumes.

What are you looking for?

I guess I don’t have an answer. Maybe there doesn’t need to be one single answer. Maybe there are many answers, and maybe they are in constant flux. Or maybe what we are looking for—in our wellness practices, in our lives—doesn’t matter so much. Maybe it’s the act of looking, the art of looking, that counts.

Jackie Stowers is the Grand Prize Winner of Sonima’s recent essay contest in which we asked readers to tell us, “What are you looking for?”



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