Alone, Together

I went to a workshop with Jen Pastiloff last weekend.

That's us. Jen is currently 8 months pregnant and the most glowy, beautiful human on the planet.

It was therapeutic and powerful and beautiful and strange, but I’ve yet to find a way to describe it that doesn’t make it sound exactly like the cheesy thing it wasn’t. It’s not a self-help workshop. It’s not therapy. It’s not straight-up yoga. It’s not woo-woo. It’s human. It’s a group of humans being human in the same room while Jen speaks thoughtful words and listens and reminds us that it’s okay to be human.

I guess that’s why she calls it “Being Human.”

I signed up for this workshop because this is my year of being brave. And I knew I was in for it. I knew I’d be stepping outside my comfort zone and sharing with strangers and doing all the things I typically avoid like the plague. At least in person. I’ve written for Jen’s incredible site The Manifest-Station a couple times, and I’ve followed her writing and the work she publishes there for a while, so I know she’s about truth. She’s about being kind and forgiving with yourself. She’s about finding safety among people when it’s the last thing you want to do. She's about no bullshit. She’s about not being an asshole.

So, I signed up for this writing/sharing/yoga hybrid workshop knowing full well what I was walking into. I’d read descriptions of the workship, read praise and letters of thanks and knew that there would be tears and laughter and dancing and singing. I brought my tissues. I was ready.

See that panic on my face? That's me being ready.

I wasn’t ready.

When I got into the room, I thought about setting up in front, and then jumped to my usual space in the middle by the wall. Hiding. I set up my yoga mat and started to stretch and instead curled into myself, making myself small. I watched other women streaming into the room (and one lone man, powerful and brave in his willingness to be vulnerable amongst women), watched them smiling and talking to each other, and I sat there absorbing and observing, but not interacting.

I reassure myself by telling myself that’s what we do, we writers.

And it began. As Jen started to speak and move about the room, I found myself hoping a little too hard that she’d recognize me, because if she recognized me, I wasn’t doing this alone. She didn’t. People look so much different in real life than they do on the internet, and we hadn’t met in real life before. So it was just me. Just me as we began our yoga, my muscles quickly making it clear that it’s been far too long since they’ve done more than one vinyasa in a row. Just me as we began writing about fear, about what we want, about what we need, about why we’re phenomenal. Just me as I held hands with strangers. Just me as we sang Journey and Whitney Houston aloud. Just me as we hugged each other, so many of us visibly awkward and uncomfortable. Just me as I shared my writing, Jen asking me to share the exact thing that would surely make me cry. Just me as I cried in a room full of strangers, as I cursed and my breath caught in my throat. Just me as she looked at me, smiling, and said, "She's going to say every curse word she can think of right now." Just me as she looked me directly in the eyes and told me I was loveable. Just me as I voiced my worst fears, and a stranger next to me handed me tissues. Just me as I realized that all of us—every person in that room—was terrified. Just me as I began to realize that I’m more okay with myself than I sometimes think I am.

But holy shit was it scary. Sometimes I was shaking. I was so, so uncomfortable so many times. And I was completely shocked by my discomfort.

Here’s the thing about Jen—she gets it. She knows that we need to be heard, she knows that we need to be pushed, she knows that discomfort is necessary to get to the good stuff. She knows.

I thought I knew. I didn’t.

As I’ve described this experience to people, everyone has said to me, “OHMYGOD that is the perfect Shannon experience. This was a room full of you! Did you love it?!?” And I did love it, but not for the reasons that everyone thinks. Not even for the reasons that I thought I would.

I’m not great at boasting about what I’m good at, but among the things I know I’m good at, one is listening. I know I’m good at making people feel heard. I know I’m good at loving people and supporting them. I know this. What I am not good at is talking to other people about myself. I’m not good at telling people what I need. I’m not good at sharing out loud. In writing, sure. I can express myself on paper. It gives me the distance to say all the hard stuff, and it gives people the option of reading or not reading. There's room in writing. Space. But out loud? It’s hard for me. I don’t like being a bother, a burden. I don’t like making people uncomfortable, and the shit I really need to talk about—the shit that’s hard or sad or upsetting—that shit makes people uncomfortable. We all have our own shit—I don’t like feeling like I’m piling my shit on top of your shit. But I’m human. I need to process stuff and talk it out and get it off my chest. But I hold it in a lot so I don’t bother people. And then when I do let it out, it comes spilling out in a great whoosh, overwhelming the people I love.

It’s maybe not the healthiest pattern.

So, what I loved about this was that I got to whoosh on a page and then, when I read it out loud, it wasn’t to anyone that it would burden. It wasn’t to friends who might be made uncomfortable. It wasn’t to anyone who knows me well enough to be surprised or sad or upset. It was to a room full empathetic strangers who heard me, acknowledged similar fears, and then went back to the workshop.

I loved this experience because, in being alone, I felt less alone.

When I first moved to Seattle at 19 after my girlfriend and I broke up, I didn’t really know anyone. I spent a lot of time by myself out in the world, and that was a stretch for me. That was uncomfortable. But after a while, I started to really enjoy it. I liked the feeling of self-reliance. I liked feeling capable and independent and strong.

And that’s how I felt after this workshop. I felt uncomfortable through the whole thing, but afterward… afterward I felt capable and independent and strong. And I haven’t felt that way in a long time.

I felt like myself.

I think this is the crux of what makes this workshop so powerful. You get to come back to yourself. The yoga pushes you out of your head, the writing pushes you out of your bullshit, and all of it pushes you out of your comfort zone. And through it all, a room full of people you’ve never met see you.

I’m still not sure I’m explaining it well, but it was pretty damn amazing. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to get so uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in order to come back to myself. That felt really, really good.

As a result, I've signed up for three months of hot yoga. (Thank you, crazy cheap Groupon!) I'm scared. It's going to be uncomfortable. (Literally. I was sore for four days after the workshop on Sunday.) It's going to be me working hard in front of strangers. I'm going to have to show up. I'm going to have to count on myself. I'll have a few hours a week for three months of just me. Just me alone in a room full of people doing the very same thing. Alone, but together. There's power in that.

That's the temporary tattoo Jen handed me at the beginning of the workshop. Apt, no?

This is my time to be capable and independent and strong. I'll get there.

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