Through a lot of personal exploration, group therapy, plant medicines, meditation and introspection I can now see that I’ve been walking down a path guided by some beliefs I created throughout my life. I understand how we can believe that our lives consist of a variety of chance events, coincidences or, that the Universe has a plan for each of us. While I believe more in the latter, I also feel that we can make our own conscious choices along the way to affect our outcome. There isn’t a pre-determined destiny for each of us, but we are on a path with signs and opportunities along the way that can lead us to personal freedom, inner peace, and meaning, or chronic unwellness, and sometimes it takes one to get to the other.
I’ve come to realize that no matter how loving our parents are, how safe our communities may be or how educated we are, the path to self-realization is a long and challenging one. Without truly committing to this inner growth and developing unconditional love for ourselves, it is nearly impossible to get anywhere. Our society has generally been set up to hinder this growth sadly, and we often only become aware of this once we’ve developed deep conditional attachments, consciously or subconsciously, which can be some of the most challenging things to overcome.
I’ve been fortunate in my life with my family, my community, my friends, and my health however I haven’t been spared suffering, either. Buddha famously noted in the first of the noble truths, that “suffering, pain and misery exist in life.” The second truth however notes that this pain and suffering is caused by our attachment, usually due to our personal subconscious beliefs. If we don’t tend to these beliefs, bringing them into the conscious light, and start making new choices, we can find ourselves stuck in the state of suffering. On my own journey, I’ve been there and still am in several aspects of my life. One of the most challenging attachments has been to my physical body, and how I think I need to look in order to be happy and to be loved. If you look at me now, you wouldn’t think that I’m unhealthy, but I’ve managed to internalize this process throughout my life causing me to have several seemingly “invisible” health issues, and now it’s time to make some new choices, consciously. Here’s what my journey looks like:
1. Subconscious Childhood Attachment
From an early age, I have vague memories of people telling me that I was cute, handsome and good looking. As early as age six I can recall this happening, mainly by my parents and grandparents. I hadn’t recognized any other value that I brought to the world at this time so when I received compliments for my looks, and what I perceived as love, this became one of the key ways in which I felt I had value. For years this would be subconscious as we don’t develop our egos or self-awareness until later in our lives. So while nobody would have known what was going on inside of my head, the seed for this belief was planted early on.
2. Conscious Association
As I grew into a teenager, the opposite sex became something I was aware of. Even in grade three I remember having something of a “girlfriend”, and she was cute. Which meant I must be good looking if I was able to snag the cutest girl in my class. Of course, my parents and their friends continued to give me compliments around my looks and how I dressed. It wasn’t ever over the top, and I was never told that it was that important, it was a slow build. Now it wasn’t my parents that I was trying to impress and to be loved by, it was the girls. Each compliment I received watered that seed and the plant began to grow bigger and bigger. By high school I was conscious that I was considered good looking and it gave me the ability and confidence to talk to “hot” girls, dress differently, and ‘be myself’ – or so I thought.
3. Cultural Awakening
When I turned 19, I met an older girl who was pretty attractive, and she suggested that I meet with the model agency she was signed to. This pretty much checked all the boxes for conditional love at the time. However, when the Vancouver-based agency shipped me off to Milan for a summer, I was in for a rude awakening. In my small city and community, I felt I was good looking and figured I was the apple of everyone’s eye, but in Milan this was not the case. I had no idea what I was stepping into and I booked almost no work. However, it was the mental and emotional process of dealing with rejection and constantly comparing myself to others that would leave a long-term scar. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was certainly changed. For the first time I was aware that I wasn’t as skinny as other guys, I wasn’t as ripped, I wasn’t as handsome, I wasn’t as photogenic and therefore I was not as good. And if I wasn’t the best, then I didn’t deserve love.
4. Conditional Love
By the time I came home from Milan and arrived back at University for my second year, my basketball career had ended, and I was not an exemplary student. So, what did I have? A newfound consciousness of my body, some ‘strange’ new eating habits and an addiction to doing sit ups in my dorm. I lost a few pounds, switched out cheeseburgers for chewing gum and a couple of abs started to emerge from my stomach. I also began to physically push or check my stomach viscerally which became embarrassing if my friends pointed it out. However, I began to receive acknowledgement from girls and guys on my minor transformation. Perfect, it was paying off and I was getting the attention and love I thought I’d lost. In hindsight, I can see how this equation worked, but at the time, I didn’t know what conditional vs. unconditional love was, and how I was becoming attached to the wrong kind, deepening unhealthy habits and lifestyle choices along the way.
5. Internal Reinforcement
In my mid-twenties I started a new relationship, I fell in love. We were young and naive, but it was pure. She didn’t care if I was skinny or fat, if I was successful or not. We were in love and for a while it seemed like a lot of the developing self-conscious body issues had disappeared from my mind. However, when the relationship ended years later, my body issues flared up again quickly. After ACL surgery I made some diet changes in order to aid in my healing process, and as I recovered, I got into running as it was the safest thing for my knee coming off the injury. This combination led to dropping some weight, and so I thought I should properly get back to doing sit ups, too. While it started off honestly just feeling better, it didn’t take long before female attention peaked, and I received a handful of comments from friends about looking better, thinner and fitter. It wasn’t even a that many comments, but each one lodged into my mind clearly and deeply and I clung to the words fiercely.
Growing up, I’d had some issues with digestion but nothing that ever seemed detrimental to my well-being. Now, as a young adult, or old child more realistically, my abs were where my value had manifested. I was never very muscular, and my arms were undefined. I didn’t care about my legs, and felt my face is what it is, but from my post-Milan experience, I found that I could develop abs through a lot of sit ups and eating well. Internally, subconsciously, this was where I had value, how I was different, how I was special, and the reason why a woman would love me. If I sent a half-naked picture to a girl I was seeing, I was probably flexing my stomach and that was probably what she commented on. Each time it reinforced my belief that I could be loved, because of my body.
6. The Pain Teacher and Chronic Unwellness
Eventually, I met the pain teacher. After a devastating breakup which I did not understand, I internalized the fact that something was wrong with me. I was not successful enough, fun enough, fit enough, good looking enough—did I not have enough abs? I didn’t know what I wasn’t enough of, but it had to be something. This confusion resulted in a newfound obsession of becoming ‘super human.’ If I didn’t know what was wrong with me, then I had to make myself better in every way. I ran more, I worked more, I drank more, and I definitely did more sit-ups. I also slept less, and while I thought I was taking good care of myself, I can see now how misguided I was. It was no surprise that I drove my adrenals into the ground, and then kept driving. My body started breaking down, and where did it show up? My stomach. My digestive system slowly ceased to work properly, which sent me to a variety of health practitioners, while driving my stress levels up and up. As I became more and more bloated, I became more confused, and my self-worth plummeted. The combination of being dumped for no discernible reason and my conditional self-love attachment to my body—which was breaking down—led to conditional self-hate.
This process brought me to several more alternative health professionals, thousands of dollars’ worth of supplements, multiple different diets, a variety of unhealthy diet and fat-burning supplements, and eventually a state of depression and chronic stress. Nothing helped, in fact each time something failed I felt more lost and desperate. A cycle of hope started with each new diet or supplement, followed by disappointment, binge eating, and buying another bottle of some kind of cleanse or new diet pill. Retrospectively, I can’t believe what I was doing to myself and it’s no wonder I was in a constant state of stress, unhappiness and suffering.
Luckily, however, the Universe kept bringing me messages and people and I finally started to open my eyes to what was going on. Over the last few years, through a lot of personal exploration, I’ve been able to see what unfolded over these 25 years or so. I started to understand how I became unwell physically and mentally and learned how I could begin to change my belief system to become truly happy and get to a place where I can give myself unconditional love. I’m not there yet, but each day is an opportunity to take another step in the right direction. I still do core workouts but now they include more functional goals. I still post shirtless images on my Instagram stories, but I’m conscious of what I’m doing when I post it. And, I feel gross about it most of the time while though my ego enjoys the validation. It’s a process, and I’m still very much in it.
It’s difficult to be at peace all the time, but with my commitment to this work, I’m learning to be compassionate with myself, and I am able to find moments of serenity and joy. As I continue my personal growth, these moments are becoming more common and I am more conscious of them, savoring them when I can. We all internalize our own issues and attachments, and we can attach to our noses, money, career, or to our abs. They’re subconscious attachments, but they don’t have to stay that way. I know I still have more to uncover on my journey but the more I’ve been able to talk about these issues and get them out of my spiraling mind, the more it takes some of the sting out of it. While I’m not free of these issues, or the suffering, I can laugh about them now, sometimes. I can smile while writing this, and even that feels like a small victory.