Finding the Perfect Me

by Melissa Jeltsen

I arrived at Kripalu for the first time on a brisk gray morning to attend Quarter-Life Calling, a weeklong retreat for people under 30. On the drive up, I was wracked with second thoughts—a week sounded like a long time to put my “real” life on pause.

What if I got bored? Or it was too hard? I had my laptop and cell phone with me, and I decided before I arrived that I didn’t have to completely halt my regular existence—I could handle both.

I’m most comfortable when manically multitasking. In New York City, where I live, each moment is quick and rushed and bursting with stimulation. I fight for space, whether it’s on the subway, in a tiny apartment, or barreling down the sidewalks. Noise surrounds me—honking cars, screaming people, street performers, the whoosh of the subway. There’s so much to see, to eat, to watch, to feel. The race to keep up is both intoxicating and taxing.

But something strange happened when I pulled up at Kripalu. As I took in the view of the hills and breathed in the crisp air, I felt a deep quietness enter my mind. When I found my way to my clean, simple room, I placed my laptop in a drawer and turned my cell phone off. I was going to take some space.

That afternoon, Coby Kozlowski, the intuitive, passionate teacher leading the retreat, greeted me as I entered a room decorated with soft lights and comfy cushions, and filled with 20 other people, ranging from college freshmen to those on the cusp of entering their thirties, like myself. Sitting cross-legged, surrounded by beautiful, unknown faces, my anxieties surfaced again. I felt much older than most of the participants—I was too old to gain anything from this experience, I worried. The lessons wouldn’t be applicable to me. I was a screwup for needing a program like this, when I was about to turn 29. I should have my stuff together by now. There must be something wrong with me.

Coby, in her calm, no-nonsense manner, began by countering such fears and doubts. Right away, she helped me realize that my presence in the room mattered. No matter how I showed up—quiet or loud, open or closed—my energy was shaping the space. We all were. That left me with a strong sense of accountability. I wanted to bring a sensitive, caring, open person to the room each day. As Coby asked, “What if our liberation is caught up in each other?”

The week was comprised of a series of powerful group and individual exercises. One of the first was about recognizing how similar we all are as human beings. By seeing other people as the same as us, it’s easier to empathize instead of judging them. Although we all have wildly different stories—where we grew up, the traumas we went through, the life experiences that shaped us—the emotions that we experience are very much the same.

I noticed I had some resistance to this exercise: When I looked around the room, I realized that I had, until that moment, subconsciously believed that I was special, that the pain I’d gone through was exquisitely different than others’ pain, that the love I’d experienced was more intense. But I pushed through my discomfort and locked eyes with another woman. I imagined her being blissfully in love. Having her heart broken. Feeling overcome with desire. Feeling blood-curdling anger. Exactly like me.

And just like that, I got it. We have all experienced grief. We have all experienced love. We were all a bit scared sitting in the room together. We all felt vulnerable. We all were facing our own resistance to being there. Looking around, I saw that each person was just like me. I felt safe—to be myself, to explore my own mind, to let down some of the guards that I’d so carefully built up.

Each exercise taught me something new about myself and opened my eyes to how I had been choosing to live my life. As Coby says, humans are constantly placing meaning on things, and I got to choose what each exercise meant to me. Some of the exercises were uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable, I learned, was actually beneficial. I started to look at why some of the exercises triggered me more than others. When little voices arose in my head, saying I should give up, or that this was stupid, I learned to embrace them instead of fighting them.

Many negative beliefs that I carried about myself surfaced throughout the week. I’m not good enough to get what I want. I’m not smart enough to get what I want. I’m not lovable. As we went through each exercise, those beliefs hiding deep within emerged. As they bubbled up, I had the chance to see them under the light, examine them, and ultimately strip them of their power. I remembered that I can choose my own beliefs. I can question the ones that are serving no useful purpose. I can replace them with beliefs that help me live more fully.

“You are perfect just as you are,” Coby would often say. The more I heard it, the more I knew it to be true. I just needed a reminder.

Now, back home in the city, I’m bustling from place to place. But although my pace is fast, my mind is quiet and grounded. I don’t feel as if life is pushing me around anymore. Beliefs that were holding me back no longer have any strength. I know those shackles will reemerge, those doubts will flare up again, but I’m prepared to see them for what they are and let them go.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Melissa Jeltsen is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

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