Everyone has a Parasite living inside their brain. And mine was running the show.
Standing in front of a mirror in my parents’ home, aged 30, single and shamefully broke, I slapped myself in the face as hard as I could. How could you be so stupid? And again, slap! You’re so stupid! And again, and again, and again, and again, until I couldn’t take the pain anymore.
You’re such a fucking idiot. I hate you. I hate you so much. How could you be so weak? How could you be so stupid?
And out of the silence came one last slap to sear the pain in a ripe, red seal.
Rewind back a couple of years: one of the courses I was teaching at a local university was about sexuality, it caused controversy and I got hated on big time. Later that year I was assaulted. I held on for another two semesters before, on an impulse, I resigned.
Ever since that moment, a voice in my head kept hating me for throwing away everything I worked so hard for. For not being strong enough to weather through.
The rumination was never-ending and the Parasite was eating me alive, day and night. The only way to escape the incessant negative thinking was to sleep. And I slept most of the time. When awake, I was paralyzed by fear and anxiety – I didn’t answer calls, go anywhere or see anyone. Even sunlight felt hostile to the skin. Everything hurt.
According to the Toltec Tradition, everyone has a Parasite just like this. She might be domesticated and not giving too much trouble, but all it takes is one fuck up, and she’ll spare no expense ravaging your soul. In times of trouble these Toltec Parasites can become inflamed, and when they do, they take over our inner worlds.
You’ll know your Toltec Parasite is inflamed when you find yourself stuck in a repetitive thought-loop and the unstoppable rumination debilitates you. The anxiety triggered by the looping thoughts forces you to stay in ruts longer than you need to, prevents you from taking action, and sows seeds of self-doubt, puncturing holes in your self-esteem.
Man, I wish I knew back then what I know now. But there were no shortcuts to figuring out what to do with my inflamed Parasite. I can’t say I have it all sorted out, but I have learned some valuable lessons to keep my rumination in check.
Lesson 1: Realize that it’s no big deal
I sink in my mattress, overwhelmed with depression and both the inability and unwillingness to do anything. I don’t realize that I am doing something by listening to Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. That doesn’t seem productive to me. I think of it as just a way to shrink from my responsibilities. And my Parasite lets me know it.
You’re a loser! You’re finished. Die already. Why are you even still here?
I hate you.
Nobody gives a shit about you.
You don’t deserve to live.
Kill yourself while you still can.
That last one is especially weird. Hurry! Senility is only 60 years away! But I guess no one said your inner critic had to be logical.
Pema Chodron makes me realize that nothing is permanent. From her I learn that impermanence is one of the Buddhist precepts.
Can you imagine the relief I feel the moment she reminds me that circumstances, feelings, preferences, environments, desires, and everything under the sun are all impermanent? Nothing lasts forever, everything is ever-changing, Pema says. The teaching sinks into my chest like the good medicine it is.
I relax into my pain. I stop resisting, knowing it’s not forever. Relaxing into pain is like gliding a hot knife through butter. Relaxing into pain is the first few moments of getting into a warm bath. Something heavy and awful releases its hold on me. And as I relax into my pain I take to heart the words of the Beatles song: “There will be an answer, let it be.”
The first rule of Parasite is not to resist Parasite. Let it be.
Lesson 2: Separate Self From Toltec Parasite
You know when someone says they’re “in two minds” about something? It’s because one part of their personality is saying one thing, and the other is saying something else. So, like with me, one part of me thinks I dodged a bullet (probably literally) leaving that job, and another part is bitch-slapping me for quitting.
So one day I decide to start talking to my Parasite. By isolating her as a part and having a conversation with her, I expose her to the other parts of me that are logical and playful. I take the venom out of her sting, slowly, over time. I play the long game. Patient and persevering, like the tortoise from Aesop’s fable.
Take for example the time I was invited to Turkey to give lectures there. My Parasite finds a way to rain on my parade. Your research is world-famous, but there isn’t a single university with balls big enough to hire you, she says.
“Well, if you’re not going to let us do anything other than lie in bed all day, I’m going to listen to more Pema when I get home,” I say to her.
“Fuck you, you’re a loser anyway,” she shoots back.
“Fuck you too. Fuck us both!”
“I see you ‘Fuck us both,’ and I raise you ‘fuck everything and everyone.’ I don’t want to play!” Parasite exclaims. “I want to stay angry, abrasive and mean.”
Then she falls silent.
Just like with any bully, it helps if you can prepare your responses in advance. Hypnotherapist Marisa Peer teaches her clients to say this to the mean people in their lives: “thank you for sharing that.” It shuts them down, and shuts them up, she says.
I’m standing in line at the Virgin Airlines check-in counter, minding my business and she hits me with I hate you! Just like that, spontaneously.
I hate you. You’re a loser. Kill yourself while you still can. Every word sends a venomous shiver down my spine. You’re a worthless piece of shit. Nobody gives a shit about you. They screwed you out of house and home and you let them. Handed them what they wanted on a silver platter.
“Is that so? Please, tell me more.” I surrender to the fact of my experience. I can’t fight it anymore. I’m exhausted. I let her tear me up. And yet a strange thing happens as I surrender. She stops.
The Parasite notices I’ve shifted gears, so she adapts.
My sister, feeling sorry for me, asks me to join her for a vacation after my trip in Turkey finishes. That’s how you know people love you. They still want to hang out with you even when you’re a lava lamp of misery and a tesla coil of emotional electrocution.
On a train from London to Paris and completely unexpectedly, my Parasite flares up: What now, Einstein? Seriously, what are we going to do with all that time we still have to live? You can’t kill yourself; it’s too selfish and you’re too much of a chicken shit to do it. Besides, you’d probably fuck it up, anyway.
To be perfectly honest, she’s right. I don’t see suicide as an option. I don’t kill spiders or cockroaches, how could I bring myself to kill an entire human being? It’s impossible. But there is an insidious taunting going on. She’s subtly pointing out my incompetence. Even in suicide, I’d fail.
Then it hits me. What if I could play with the voice of my inner Parasite? What if I could raise her pitch so she starts to sound like Chip or Dale from the Chipmunks? What if I imagine her as shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
I am now waiting eagerly, silently for her to come on. She’s onto me. She lays low for the rest of the trip. The more I lay in wait for my rumination to start, the more it subsides.
Lesson 3: Identify with the Listener Not The Part
Over time, I start to see that the Parasite is a part of me, and that I am the whole. I start to ask the question who am I? It’s actually a special type of meditation taught by a Hindu mystic named Ramana Maharshi. I would close my eyes and ask who am I? and wait for the answer. All thinking would come to a stop and what I’m left with is who I am.
In the ancient spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism we are divine beings. Likewise for Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. of the Native American Toltec Tradition. He’s the first one to teach about about The Parasite. We are not our thoughts, we are the witness to our thoughts, he says.
This witness is cosmic consciousness. It is everywhere. It is never born, never dies, always was and always will be. That’s who I am.
This new realization transforms my relationship to my life and the people who venture into it. I don’t go to bed resenting villains or cursing enemies. I don’t thirst for revenge at some theoretical point in the future. I understand that we are all precious and that our actions don’t define our divinity.
If you don’t want to get into spirituality then consider this idea from communication and listening expert, Julian Treasure, instead:
You are not the inner voice. You are the one listening.
You have no idea how much that inner shift has saved my life. I did it in meditation by separating my awareness from my mind, but that seems a little abstract, so here’s a more fun exercise to try out:
Go to a busy place but where you would still feel safe. Close your eyes and focus on the sounds around you.
Pick a single sound, a nearby chirping perhaps, the overall noise of the crowd, the wind, whatever. Focus on nothing but the sound. When I do this exercise, I focus so much on the sound I have the experience of disappearing. I no longer have biographical thoughts. Thoughts about who and where and what and when I am cease. I’m just receiving the sound. I am the sound. There’s nothing else. Just sound. No judgment. No self. No chance for me to beat-up or uplift myself.
I practice this listening meditation whenever I need reminding that I’m not the voice. I’m the listener. When the voice begins to overwhelm, I know that I can take the position of the listener, rather than identify with what the voice is saying. The more you practice this, the better you’re able to disengage from the distress. It’s like a muscle. The more you practice, the better you get.
Ideally and at all times, I want to be able to know that I’m the listener, not the voice.
Try it. Go to a busy place. Set a timer if you have to. Close your eyes. Become the sound.
Lesson 4: Investigate the Origin of the Part
In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff teaches us that we develop self-criticism as a defense mechanism. So we beat others to criticism of us. We anticipate rejection by being the first to reject ourselves. Both she and Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. argue that the Parasitic voices inside us, and the negative rumination that results, have their origins in childhood. At some point we learn that it’s ok for us to be spoken to like that, otherwise we wouldn’t do it to ourselves.
So I do a little research into my personal history to find out where and when I learned that it’s ok to be spoken to in that way.
In meditation, I flashback to how this whole Parasite thing blew up in my face years earlier.
I’m in war-torn West Beirut, in the middle of the playground. I’m seven years old, wearing a school uniform, surrounded by my friends. They’re all boys and I could very well be one of them. We’re lining up just before we get marched into our respective classrooms.
Before I know what’s going on, the unmistakable bellow from Asshole-Shaped Face tears through my sky. She’s the superintendent. Her job is to keep us bitches in line. She has already dolled out for me more corporeal punishment than anyone else in my life.
“Get in line!” Asshole-Shaped Face says. “Fix up your uniform!” She man-handles me to “fix” that which doesn’t need fixing. “Why isn’t your hair brushed? Don’t you brush your hair?” She bellows.
“I don’t have a brush.” I say, shrinking, embarrassed.
“Ask your parents to get you a brush. Open your hand. Open it.” Bang! “And the other one.” Bang! Cold hands hurt more, that’s why you’ll see us blowing our warm breath into them moments before an assault.
The palms of my hands are throbbing with pain, a thousand invisible ants are marching across the surface and I swallow not just my pride but my tears, preventing them from breaking out from my eyelids.
The experience leaves micro holes of hurt in my chest and my throat. A little voice inside me tells me to ignore what just happened. Let it go. It’s ok. It’s no big deal. It’s like swallowing an apple whole, instead of biting off a piece and chewing.
Hostile language [disrupts] specific genes that … protect us from physiological stress, and if we are exposed to it during childhood, it can undermine our ability to fend off anxiety, depression, and fear. Hearing hostile language [leads] to negative ruminations, which can likewise damage our brain. Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain.
Go back as far as you can in your mind to the very first time you think you experienced verbal cruelty. Examine the memory. Where was it? Who was involved? Most importantly, find a way to make peace with it.
And when you’re ready, let it go.
In my meditation on Asshole-Shaped Face, I come to realize the extent of the damage done. These are the lessons I internalized:
1) It’s ok for someone to hit me just because I don’t look right to them (in this case, I’m a girl who doesn’t brush her hair, my friends are all boys, and we get our uniforms wrangled when we play)
2) It’s ok for people to have a public opinion about my personal choices
3) It’s ok for people to speak to me in a violent manner purely on the basis of not liking my appearance or what I’m doing that’s within my right to do
This means that over the years I develop a much higher tolerance for abusive people than most. One girlfriend of mine grabbed me by the hair while I was driving, pulled my head to just above the dashboard, and I let her. Another was verbally and emotionally abusive for years and I accepted it. When some people started saying awful things about me inside the university and outside, I let them. I didn’t just let them; I took all those voices, all those unfounded cruelties and I internalized them. I made them my own.
It turns out that’s not an uncommon phenomenon. It reminds me of this show I liked, Farscape. It’s a SciFi in outer space. And in one of the seasons the villain installs a holographic version of himself inside the hero’s head. Even after the villain dies, the hero still has to live with the cruel voice of his number one nemesis telling him what a despicable shit he is.
I had installed an Asshole-Shaped Face in my own brain and she went to town on me the first chance she got. I didn’t mean to install her. I was young and impressionable. I didn’t know at the time that nothing the Superintendent ever did or said to me was actually about me. It was about her. About her fear of gender non-conforming little girls and her hatred most probably of something she denied in herself.
Maybe in her worldview she thought she was correcting me, for my own good. That’s entirely possible. Maybe she didn’t even mean to be mean? And so it was then that I realized that the only way to uninstall her was through forgiveness.
Forgiveness takes that apple I swallowed whole and never digested, and pulverizes it into tiny, dissolvable pieces. Think of the apple as stuck energy, as emotion that was never released and then of forgiveness as the enzyme for releasing it.
How To Forgive: The Ultimate Guide
Step 1. Close your eyes
Step 2. Imagine the person you want to forgive
Step 3. Forgive them
Lesson 5: Forgiving
I made peace with Asshole-Shaped Face years ago. What’s that? You don’t believe me, huh? You’re right, I should stop calling her Asshole-Shaped Face. You’re absolutely right.
Ok, Asshole-Shaped Face, I promise to stop calling you Asshole-Shaped Face.
You thought you were correcting my behavior. You meant well, I guess. You wanted me to be a good girl who brushed her hair and didn’t play with the boys. You did the best you could with the knowledge and resources that you had at the time. Thanks a lot lady, formerly known as Asshole-Shaped Face. I forgive you. I release you. Thank you.
It doesn’t matter what others did to you, you are going to forgive them because you don’t want to feel sick all the time. Forgiveness is for your own mental healing. You will forgive because you feel compassion for yourself. Forgiveness is an act of self-love (Don Miguel Ruiz, Mastery of Love)
Lesson 6: Loving Yourself as if Your Life Depends On It (it does!)
For years my self-love stays conditional. I make the terrible mistake of saying that I would love myself (and stop hating myself) only when I recoup my losses.
And one day, I have an epiphany. What if this is as good as it gets? What if I never accomplish anything else in my life? What if I’ve already peaked? Those are important hypothetical questions to ask, and as I contemplate them I come to accept the possibility of my failure.
Well, if I am failure, I just have to accept it. I just have to love myself in spite of being a failure.
The Parasite accepts this too for some reason. She’s been a lot calmer since that act of forgiveness. Soon after this epiphany, she stops taunting me about being a loser. She surrenders her expectations and lets me love myself without conditions.
Marisa Peer thinks that most people’s self-sabotaging behavior and negative self-talk all boils down to one thing: they don’t think they’re enough. She has her clients repeat the mantra “I am enough,” all day long, for as long as they can. She asks them to write it down over and over, or to put it on sticky notes, or write it on mirrors or in their cars. One woman tattoos it on her hand. The constant reminder is supposed to sink into our subconscious minds and transform us from the inside out.
Kamal Ravikant, a young entrepreneur who reaches rock bottom after his company tanks decides that he is going to love himself unconditionally. He decides one day he has had enough of beating himself up. He starts saying and thinking “I love myself,” over and over again. He says and thinks it all day long, it’s the one thought he sustains inside his head no matter what else he might be doing.
Whether he realizes it or not, he’s reprogramming his subconscious mind, replacing the horror story of his recent failures with “I love myself.” Nothing else. Just these simple words.
Loving yourself is a practice. The truth is to love yourself with the same intensity as you would use to pull yourself up as if you’re hanging off a cliff with your fingers, as if your life depended on it. Once you get going it’s not hard to do. (Kamal Ravikant, Love Yourself As If Your Life Depends on It)
Lesson 7: Nourishing the Ally
That voice that nurtures and supports you is your Ally. The Ally, Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. writes is “the voice of your internal narrator when it inspires you to live, create and love unconditionally.”
And that’s the voice that dominates my internal reality these days.
I get here by isolating the Toltec Parasite as a part, by talking to her with more logical and compassionate parts of myself, and by investigating and forgiving her origins. In turn she lets me love myself no matter what. She gives me permission to be a failure.
Once the inflammation is under control, I start to hear the faint whisper of my Ally. Well done, kid. You made it. I’m so proud of you. Never give up.
“Give yourself a gentle hug,” Kristin Neff writes in Self-Compassion. “The body doesn’t know whether you’re hugging yourself or someone else is.” The tenderness of human contact releases the chemical oxytocin in the brain, it’s critical for feelings of safety and belonging.
I am both the comforter and the one in need of comfort, I repeat this line out of her book, breathing it deeply, and feel the physical sensation of self-love take seat in the center of my heart. I do this when painful memories surface. I hold a space for myself. I hold myself.
Thank you for not giving up on us. I’m so grateful for you, I say exhaling, gripping one of my hands with the other. You’re going to succeed. I promise you. There’s nothing else I’m surer of than this.
It astounds me that even in the absence of any substantial evidence of success, how well I can know that it’s inevitable. The words not only soothe me but are accompanied by a celestial certainty, like prophecy. A prophecy that’s coming at me from somewhere else. Perhaps from somewhere deep inside me, but perhaps, also from somewhere above, below and all around me.
I am here to fulfill the destiny for which I have been created.
And with this knowing I wake up to see another day, and to keep trying without bitterness over rejection or fear of my fear of failure.
Please be gentle with yourself. The words we speak to others, and especially the words we speak to ourselves have a physically measurable impact on us.
According to one study at Massachusetts General Hospital, repetition of positive words can actually turn on stress-reducing genes. This is the exercise the study participants were asked to do:
Sit in a comfortable chair and close your eyes. Take ten deep breaths as you relax every muscle in your body. Now repeat to yourself, silently or aloud, a word or short phrase that gives you a feeling of serenity, peacefulness, or joy. Continue for ten to twenty minutes as you slowly breathe through your nose. Whenever a distracting thought or feeling intrudes, notice it without judgment and let it float away as you return to the repetition of your word. When you finish, open your eyes and notice how you feel (Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain).
No one is going to give a shit about this blog. You’re irrelevant.
“Thank you for sharing that.”