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Tipping Sacred Cows
The Uplifting Story of Spilt Milk and Finding Your Own Spiritual Path in a Hectic World
This is the Preface from my book Tipping Sacred Cows - written after my divorce. Available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller.
Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
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—Dr. Seuss, Oh The Things You Can Think!
There was a time when my life was easy, or so I thought. I was happily living in my shoe-consciousness—where I was all about the shoes I was wearing, the car I was driving, and the boyfriend I was dating (and his car and his shoes)—and avoid- ing like the plague any existential quest that might lead me into the deep, dark bowels of my soul. Such a quest would involve passing through some shit and, well, hanging out in my soul- bowels seemed less than appealing.
And I suppose that’s the story of most twentysomethings, but as my thirties approached, the clock started ticking, and the search for the meaning of anything and everything kicked into gear. Miraculously, I was handed the golden egg, the holy grail of spiritual understanding on a silver platter, or rather on the silver screen, in the form of What the Bleep Do We Know!?, the movie I co-created with Will Arntz and Mark Vicente. Chock-full of spiritual know-how gathered from magical movie making, I knew it all and owned some great shoes. Enlightenment? Check!
I quickly followed up on my spiritual mastery and manifested the perfect husband, beautiful children, and a gorgeous home. Finally, everything clicked. My inner and outer selves were accessorized, matched, and decked out in deep-ish thoughts and somewhat-understandings. It was a perfect balance of beliefs that allowed me to coast along, riding high on my newfound enlightenment.
So there I was. I had my “spirituality” all laid out for me, picked up from the latest and greatest minds I’d conned my way into meeting. My beliefs lazed like cows standing in a pasture of pro- tection, all blinged out, while I worked really hard to keep them all sparkly, running from cow to cow in my awesome new boots.
And let me tell you, I frolicked the hell out of that pasture, leaping through the air, twirling, and all the other stuff you do when you frolic. I frolicked right up until I slipped on some- thing smelly and fell, and really, what was I expecting? I was in a freaking cow pasture, for God’s sake.
Splat, squish, my boots! I actually heard cartoon sounds when I landed. Okay, I didn’t, but I should have, it was that kind of absurd. I lay there, all sprawled out, seeing my pasture and my cows from a hoof-level perspective. I saw the ground on which was built my understanding of the world and who I was in my little part of time and space. In that moment, I came to one profound realization: my pasture of perfection was full of shit, and it reeked. It was a wake-you-up kind of smell. My life imploded, and it stank. Cue life-altering epiphany, ready or not (most likely not, because who’s really ready to completely throw out everything you thought you knew and start from scratch?).
I’d heard about such things—great epiphanies that illuminate some kind of knowledge and understanding into a higher state of being, an evolution of the spirit and/or mind. My friends would often sit around the fire, spinning their tales about how, after fasting or meditating or pilgrimaging or a combo of the three (or helping at a homeless shelter or doing work with the sick or some other selfless activity or maybe even seeing some- one else perform an act of kindness, shit, even reading about it in the paper), a person felt compelled to evaluate their life. Then, in the story, the person comes to some kind of spiritual jackpot and goes about the business of saving the world, or at least a section of it, while brimming with joy and spreading compassion like creamy peanut butter on a perfect PB&J.
My cow pie epiphany was so far removed from the miraculous one of landing smack-dab in the middle of a New Age phenomenon of quantum mysticism, complete with a walk on the red carpet, princess dress, and handsome prince (I mean, how does a girl who has never even spelled the words quantum physics end up making a movie about how it’s the end all, be all of the meaning of life?) that the mind boggles. When you soar that high, your epiphany is bound to be messy.
Probably because I was no June Cleaver and never mastered the art of the perfect PB&J; mine always have jelly dripping out the bottom, staining my kids’ shirts and making their hands all sticky, with my own shirt being quickly used as a napkin by my little problem solvers, because of course I forgot to give them one of those. In my life, I never seemed to have a napkin when I needed one, even though looking at me, you would probably think to yourself, how does she do it?
I was an excellent faker.
I produced illusionary napkins at will, all smoke and mirrors. People will see what they want to see, especially if the magician is really good, and I was. Unfortunately, my superpower of producing an endless supply of immaterial napkins was less than awesome. At this moment, with this epiphany, catastrophic as it was going to be when the full implications spilled out into my life, I needed the real deal because it would take every napkin on the planet to clean up the mess.
My awesome epiphany was like this: imagine yourself waking up next to your sleeping husband and feeling this over- whelming urge to scream BURGLAR! Only, I was the burglar in this scenario, and I had stolen someone’s entire life—the house, the bed, the husband—everything. Then, ironically, I realized that I had stolen fake goods.
My epiphany came on like hives—a slow burn of discomfort between the carpool and cleaning up cat vomit. It culminated one morning when all of my beliefs, my understanding of my carefully built system of daily agreements about the way life is, tipped and fell domino-like, leaving me with the task of trying to stand them all up again.
I did not know how I ended up in that situation that morning, not then. It just happened like life does. Whammo—mornings and existential angst, slipping into my bedroom window, poking at me.
I did not receive this wake-up call well; I am not a morning person. I need time before I move, time to lie there and bemoan the fact that I have to do things, like open my eyes and clean the litter box.
On that morning, I lay in the wandering-void-of-not-willing- to-be-awake, that gray space between silent room and loud thoughts, and found the first cow to which the title of this book refers, and it was definitely tipped. The cow called I am. I know this because in that in-between moment, I realized I wasn’t who I thought I was. I was a fraud, an alien. Illegal, a stranger in a strange land, with a husband lying next to me and kids down the hall.
I watched the pieces of my life come together like a mosaic above me, little shards of colored glass, each representing a belief I held sacred, an idea about what was real and what was true about myself and everything I thought made sense, every- thing I thought about what it meant to live a spiritual life. I watched my understanding of what the word spiritual meant, what anything meant, the minutia of the moments that brought me here, to this suddenly unfamiliar life, and I was filled with an unwelcome sense of hurt and sadness.
I felt as if I had been abandoned by my cows, left to survive in this house filled with children, a spouse, a dog, and a couple of cats. All of them felt alien to me. How was it possible, with all I had in my life, that I could feel so profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled? And it went beyond a feeling. I became it in every fiber of myself—my skin and hair, my muscle and bone—they all became this unbearable feeling until it felt as if it was in my cells, changing me, making me heavy in a way I had never thought I could be. And worse, I did not understand it; I did not know how I had gotten to this moment. I had no sense of where it would go. I had no sense of any other way to be. All of this washed over me, the weight of it. How much my heart hurt took my breath away.
We’ve all had those moments in our lives when we feel stripped naked and empty, when a sudden realization about our life has pulverized us. Not knowing what else to do that morning, I first checked in on the usual suspect when we women sink into a pit of utter despair: could it be PMS? Bleeding for several days without dying can cause anyone to want to check out to another dimension. Nope, no such luck. Perhaps a cup of coffee and a smoke would snap me out of my soul-destroying moodiness. There is nothing like a morning visit from Juan Valdez and the Marlboro Man to bring a girl back from the brink.
I envisioned these boys gallantly bursting into my room and whisking me off to better pastures, a place where coffee and cigarettes solved all of life’s problems. In my daydream, we sat together, discussing the big questions like Why am I here? and Why am I living this life? with some Is this it? added in. Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” played in the background, and my trusty copy of Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now sat close by for easy reference.
I played out that scenario in my head and realized that my boys Juan and the Marlboro Man did not have the answers I sought, and neither did I. I froze, because I had never before been without an answer. My sacred cows had always been able to muster a fresh-milked glass of magic—instant pasteurized 2-percent to quench my existential thirst. In retrospect (and to really push this metaphor home), I realize I had been drinking powdered milk that was not quite mixed in all the way, still grainy and like sandpaper in my mouth. I always just thought that was the way it was supposed to be.
Instead of answers, my Juan and the Man fantasy gave me a WTF enema: you know, that hollow empty feeling you get when your shit has been sucked out and it’s sitting next to you in a bag, and you can actually see all the crap you’ve stuffed into yourself. There they were, all the moments in my life leading up to this one, all the platitudes and pithy one-liners meant to ease a person into that false sense of thinking they know when really they don’t, in a bag smelling strongly of self-delusion.
Crazily enough, the thought of drinking liquid black asphalt and puffing on a nicotine bomb suddenly didn’t seem so appealing on this particular morning.
I’ve never been good at depriving myself, especially when it comes to caffeine and nicotine. Those have always been my usual go-to problem solvers—I mean, if Eckhart and Deepak couldn’t help, usually a smoke and a mocha could, and without them, I was cranky and pissed off and suffered a robust bout of self-accountability dehydration. It seems to be a thing that when adults feel deprived, we generally either feel victimized or bitter. Out of the two, I’m better at bitter, which means blaming everyone I know.
The morning of The Epiphany (yes, it is now capitalized because it was an Event), I hopped right to it and blamed my parents, my husband, my kids, and even the damn cats—fur balls, always tortured, never happy with anything, always “me me me.” They were all sucking the life out of me because they all obviously hated me and wanted to stifle me. The horrific conspiracy to keep me down was real, and the cats were in on it. Of course, the whole it-is-everyone’s-fault-but-mine argument didn’t hold water for long. It takes a lot of energy to blame the world, and there I was without even the help of a cup of coffee or a cigarette.
This is how it is when you have a crisis of self in the early morning, before the first nervanic drink of coffee, before the first puff of nicotine, before those things that pull you right back into shoe-consciousness. This is how it is, so you doubt the realness of everything. Nothing feels true.
And when nothing feels true, every bit of you freezes in place. You feel the inner you tremble. You feel it in your intellect and your heart, and most pointedly in your spirit. And you are filled with a horrible sense that you have caused yourself true harm. That’s what it was for me, that moment in my bed, with my spirit trembling in actual, real fear.
As I lay in my bed, suspended in time, not able to move for- ward and unwilling to go back to pre-Epiphany ignorance (because once the shit’s out, there’s no putting it back), I realized the truth was I didn’t know anything. Anything about happiness, love, spirituality, or myself . . . nothing, nada, zilch. Now that’s a real what-the-fuck moment.
I will say, I was righteously indignant. My inner monologue was all: How is this even possible? I am an expert, dammit. I made a movie about creating reality and finding spiritual bliss, for the
love of God! I’ve spent years reading the books, listening to the gurus, the speakers—I’ve collected some kick-ass wisdom. Look at my beautiful, gorgeous, painted cows, decorated and accessorized with everything I have learned.
Meanwhile, from a very cinematic-esque distance, I heard another voice challenging my convictions. The voice was very practical and even-toned—the voice of someone telling it like it is and speaking the truth. It said, “Betsy, if you are real with yourself, you will admit that you have no idea what happiness and bliss look like or what something like spirituality even means. Your herd of sacred cows, no matter how you fancy them up, are hanging out in a closed-off pasture full of crap. They are glass cows. Easily breakable glass cows, and it only took one small, real moment to break them. It’s time to really wake the fuck up to reality—Love you!” I paraphrase, but that was the gist.
“So now what are we going to do?” my freaked-out, inner monologue squeaked. And I said, “Fuck if I know!”
What the bleep did I know?
Up until this moment, I had believed the story I was living; I had based myself, my identity, on being the expert, the mom, the wife, and the cat and dog owner. I had based myself on a story I told myself. I built my life around a belief that I had to be perfect, that no one could ever know the doubt and pain I felt inside me. My career was built upon being in the know—if any- one saw that I didn’t know, I would be left with nothing, sort of like how I felt at that very moment. I had told myself that I should be happy at all costs, that I was seeking enlightenment, that screaming positive affirmations at the top of my lungs
would eventually drown out the negative ones I whispered. I told myself that eventually that thing called the Law of Attrac- tion would kick in, that I could indeed manifest all the gold I could imagine if only I meditated long enough, even if I never actually believed I deserved it. That didn’t matter. Just be it, and it will be—right?
I would fake it until I made it.
It was all a lie; I was the fool, fooling me. At that moment I could not identify the person at the core of all of those labels. My story was myth, something to give me cognitive comfort in the dark night of my soul, or rather, in my case, in the cold light of day.
I have to say, even in retrospect I have no idea how long this little life disemboweling took. I did at some point realize that I needed to start fresh, from the ground up.
Yeah, that’s easy to say, but after you’ve read all the perky platitudes on Facebook, how do you actually create a new life when you don’t know who you’re creating it for? And how do you create this “new” life if you don’t know how you created the life you’re already living?
Still lying in my bed, staring up at the ceiling, I started play- ing through, like a montage cliché, the movie of my life: every piece, every story, every truth, every belief from my faith to my lack thereof, everything I thought I knew. And one by one I dismantled all of it, leaving no room to justify my story, to placate it, or to appease it with the logic and illusion my sacred cows had previously so easily provided for me. One by one I ticked the pieces off: marriage—lie; wealth—lie; spiritual know-it-all—big, fat lie.
I checked them off until I could no longer hide behind the false reality I knew I had tried my hardest to make real. I con- firmed that none of it was real, none of it was true, and that I was, in fact, an imposter in my own life. It was somewhat nauseating, this self-evisceration.
The mosaic of images that swirl before you during this self- examination, the moments from your past that flash before your eyes when you are peeling yourself back, are not the ones you want to remember. They’re not the birthdays that made you laugh until you cried and the first kisses that made you touch your lips with your fingertips after they were done. No, instead they are the moments like when you lied to your best friend about kissing her boyfriend and when you first realized you could only fly in your dreams. You see the moment when your favorite stuffed animal remains silent instead of speaking to you when you cry into it at night. You see the moments filling you up with your life’s heartbreak.
You see the things that made you lose your belief in magic and wild possibility and the things that made you exchange wonder and awe for fear of failure and the loss of your own love of self.
I saw all of this, all right there in front of me, in wonderful Technicolor on my ceiling. Plus a single statement in easy-to- understand words, flashing bright and glittery: YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.
That was a truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to face. And let’s be honest—who would? I was scared shitless.
In my Technicolor autobiography on the ceiling, I found that I had chosen the easiest path in my life. It wasn’t a path that was filled with truth, and deep inside, I knew it. I had taken the story that was offered by the world at large, the one that took the least effort on my part, and ran with it, even when it hurt.
I have to say, I was an excellent runner. I even had a baton to pass along—my story of least resistance and even less internal work—and somewhere along the way, I decided I should collect lots of even less-stellar batons. Here, quick, take it: “You’re too damaged to be worth anything to anyone.” Here, quick, take it: “You’re short and will never be pretty.” Here, quick, take it: “You aren’t smart enough for college, and you don’t have the money.” Here, quick, take it: “Just think happy thoughts and everything will be okay.” Quick, run: “Make a movie about quantum physics and finally you will have the answers you seek.”
All the while, I was grabbing a baton and running, grabbing and running, grabbing and running, until I couldn’t hold any more batons and my legs burned and my feet had blisters and I couldn’t breathe. I was desperate to grab on to that one baton that would deliver me to some kind of bliss, to enlightenment, to ubiquitous, amorphous happiness.
And while I was grabbing all of those batons, I was also busy passing out the ones I had constructed out of all the rest. All of my friends, my family, my kids, my dog, and even the damn cats, they took those DIY batons because that was all I handed them.
As I lay there buried under the batons I had grabbed, I began to realize that this life wasn’t creating itself. There was an artist, a painter, a hand of God, if you will, up there somewhere, put- ting the pieces together. I saw my own hand reaching toward my pieces of glass, and I understood. There was a bit of wisdom to be found among my cows: it was up to me to create myself.
The clichés are true. With every yin there is a yang, with every down an up, and the upside to this ah-ha! moment—this Epiphany—was that I had a choice whether to believe the story or create a new one.
So often, we glom onto that new thing, that new book, that new technique, only to have our shelves become so cluttered with pretty glass cows that we lose sight of the blueprints, the unadorned cows underneath. We lose the ability to see their true beauty, their true meaning, and most important, their meaning to us. It was time to drop some batons. It was time to tip some sacred cows and chip off the bling.
I started with my own beliefs about myself, about what I thought I knew about what it meant to live a meaningful, spiritual life. It was time to figure out what being spiritual even meant, what any of it meant, and how I could finally find peace with it within myself.
I may have spent as many years on this journey as you have, or perhaps fewer. I had a lot of data, yet I hadn’t really done the work to actually incorporate my knowledge about the stuff that fills us up and gives meaning to our lives, all of the things that I had researched and explored. I started to, but then got caught up in the pageantry, the illusion that a little bit of knowledge can cause you to build, and I left those cows on my shelf of intellectual pursuit. Yet I truly thought I had integrated every- thing. I guess that is part of the journey. I had peeled away layers of the onion of how we find meaning. But the work and application—that’s the trick, isn’t it?
Back in the day, in the early stages of my “awakening” when I first began to dig, little bits of myself were being revealed that I didn’t like. Instead of digging further, I stopped because I was truly afraid of what I might find down there and afraid of what others might think of me if I wasn’t perfect, if I didn’t already know it all.
The morning of The Epiphany was the beginning of the next part of my journey. It began as I picked up one sacred cow of my past and really examined it from every angle, not just what was on top, but in those dips and curves that are usually hidden and always filled with hard-to-shake-up dust. I couldn’t start the journey forward until I had cleaned up the mess I’d left behind, at least for myself. There is no going back and undoing, and I realized I didn’t want to. I just wanted the freedom to leave it behind if I needed to, or take it with me, cleaned up and ready for use. It didn’t have to be perfect, just workable. When you decide to hit the reset button in life, you can’t always just hop on a plane and disappear off into the sunset. There is a reality you have created, and for me it was filled with a husband, children, cats, a dog, a career, a house, and shoes.
The greatest gift I have been given during this process is the freedom to break free of the old paradigm, the old patterns of myself, and to gleefully romp through my fields of cows and tip them at will. I know that when I do, I am experiencing a whole new reality (the one where I keep the kids, the cats, and the dog, but not the husband).
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