Friday, October 22, 2010

beauty and the brain

As much as I am absorbed in graduate school, my exciting thesis research and a wonderful internship experience, I miss my life lived in Spanish. The life I lived for one precious month in Puebla, Mexico last summer. It's only been two months since my return and the season in Portland has just now fully changed into fall. But that time seems far away and long ago...

Was it a dream?

It feels dreamy, that much is certain. And I've been pondering why I miss it so very much. Not just the pace and texture of my days in Mexico, but the actually learning and speaking Spanish. One of the most magical discoveries was that my brain loves learning Spanish! I had never studied another language, so this came as a surprise. I would never have guessed that I had a flair for language learning, but I guess my fluency and over-sized vocabulary in English is a great asset in learning a second language! Finally, the fruits of all my reading in the classics as a teen has paid off. I certainly didn't progress in the social domain in those years, but I obviously laid down some rich layers of knowledge that is finally being put to use.

But why? Why does it feel so good to learn a new language? Why does it bring such delight?

These are questions I have been turning over in the back of my mind, as I go through my day, listening to music in Spanish on my ipod and teasing out the words I know. Like adjusting the lens of a manual camera, slowly a phrase comes into focus and I realize...oh, wow. I know what that means! It is a endlessly fascinating puzzle. And my brain loves puzzles, it keeps the busy mind occupied and engaged. New cells grow, new pathways are forged and new connections stitched together, one syllable at a time.

I finally figured it out the other day, when I realized there is another part to the story of my happiness in Mexico. I felt extraordinarily beautiful there, in ways I rarely feel here in Portland or anywhere in the US. In Portland, I have felt very invisible, especially the past few years. For most of my life since puberty, I've felt not attractive enough, less than others around me, too chubby to be worthy of notice and absolutely not beautiful. Call me irrational, I know it's silly...but that doesn't make it less true. I've certainly written plenty here on self-image and my struggles with this at different points of my life.

But here is the thing. My busy, heckling brain just is wild and hard to tame. I tell it to shut the hell up and stop speaking so very rudely to me, stop cutting me down and nitpicking. But the negative chatter is endless, a fluid stream of self-abuse with precious little space for breaks. How does one quiet a critical left brain, exactly?


Yes, a puzzle so vast and challenging that there is not one single twitch of energy left for criticizing. During my intensive study, the learning of Spanish and the daily task of living in a new language took over my brain completely. The chatter dropped away and what was left was freedom. Freedom and spaciousness. Call it a month-long meditation in Spanish. For what is meditation than focused mindfulness? And let me tell you, living life in another language, one in which I am not anywhere near fluent? That takes some careful, fully present listening to accomplish. It's mindfulness, all day long.

In that space, my sweet, soft right brain...the intuitive, soulful part of my intelligence finally had a chance to be heard. Not only heard, but believed. I relaxed into my body, I bloomed inside and out. Worry lines disappeared from my face. And everywhere I went in Mexico, I felt beautiful. In fact, I was an exotic beauty there and I felt seen, more than seen...appreciated. People looked, noticed and approved. I began to believe other people's opinion on the subject of beauty might have more merit than my own. After all, my one vote against so many! 

Throughout my life, I have invested alot of energy into being smart, often to compensate for perceived deficiencies in my looks. Having people think I am smart has driven me, because early on, I decided I was not pretty enough. In Spanish, I sound like a small child, which probably makes me seem dumb as an adult. After all, I am a beginner in this new language. So before I went to study in Mexico, I decided I would have to let go of my ego attachment to being viewed as smart. To learn well, I would have to allow myself to make mistakes, to try to speak as much as possible and to sound pretty dumb in the process. What was so surprising was once there, I didn't care! Who cares if people think I am dumb, here they see me as beautiful. I spent my life proving I was smart because I felt ugly and suddenly, I was delighted to be thought dumb, but pretty!

I crave Spanish because within a new language, I can escape fully from my self-critical chatter. I have no words to degrade in Spanish...I have no bad habits of thought to fight against. In Spanish, my left brain is busy and happy, my right brain is contented and open.

And I don't worry about beautiful or not beautiful. Good enough or not enough. I just am.

In Spanish, I have a clean slate upon which to write this life-long conversation with myself. A new menu of words with phrases of my choosing. It is a deep, profound fresh start and I never could have predicted this in a million years.


allswellpdx said...

I'm glad you had a chance to feel the real beauty that you are! It shines through no matter what's going on inside that brain.

YogaGal in the NW said...


This is a beautiful and poignant post. It inspires me to work a bit harder at learning French. Thank you so much for the mindfulness link... what an eye opener.

Sending you tons of hugs, you gorgeous gal!