Monthly Archives: May 2014

Everyone Talks in the New Conversation

“I still treat email to me as though it were considered correspondence. And I feel as though I have a responsibility to answer my correspondence. But I think that as we become more sophisticated, we’ll adopt a more humane set of rules…” – Sherry Turkle

“But the four people my book is about all chose a kind of solitude or separateness for themselves…And when I was putting the book together I’m just marveling at how separate they really were. Today these people would be on panels probably, they would get so many invitations they would never have any time to do anything else.” – Paul Elie

“I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on, is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?…what are the circumstances for ‘we’ that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me. And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible. And, that that can change our whole day.” – Ann Hamilton

“Hearing is how we touch at a distance.” – Susan Stewart, via Ann Hamilton

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This piece began when I heard Ann Hamilton use the phrase “alone together” to describe an experience very different than what Sherry Turkle explores in her book of the same title. I spent the month of March in the practice of listening. What it helped me realize was how much of my adult conversation has become written, rather than spoken, and how abbreviated and asynchronous much of that conversation is. Most adults I know do not make time for just sitting around and talking, and I actually have the sense (accurately or not) that they would find it irritating to be interrupted, and difficult to stop what they’re doing, to have that kind of impromptu conversation. To spend time face to face with my friends takes weeks or months of advanced planning. The word “conversation” is now part of our media vernacular, but I don’t know what this means, because my experience resembles very little of what it’s like to sit next to another person, and talk, and listen, and to feel in my body a confidence that we are together.

The production and consumption of media is becoming a larger part of how we spend our lives. And more and more, this is something we do alone. I listen alone. I read alone. I write, alone, to a silent, anonymous audience, who (presumably) reads my work alone. For me, asynchronous communication often fails to be a satisfying conversation, by which I mean a satisfying experience of communion. I want not just to be consumed, I want to be absorbed. I want to be seen and felt and heard. I want, I have discovered, a sensual experience.

In a traditional conversation, where two or more people speak and listen to each other in real time, there is a constant calibration of understanding. Speakers rephrase what’s been said, or offer examples to gauge their understanding, Do you mean…? Is it like…?. The conversation backs up, jumps forward, ping pongs, and ricochets between participants. It is possible to disambiguate nuance in real-time speech faster than any other method I know, and yet I know very few adults who make time to talk, in any depth, about the things that have their attention.

The sensuality in this style of conversation comes from the tremendous amount of information coming from the other person, who is a visual, auditory, olfactory and energetic panoply of experience, interacting with our own. And it comes, too, from the living animal you make between you that wanders, spirals, erupts and fades in the pulse measured out between your bodies. Harder though, in this method, is attending to my own internal experience and with a high degree of clarity or concentration. For that I cherish the written long form and its incubating qualities, that allow emotion to wake up and come forward, and present whatever it’s bearing. Some of my most rewarding conversations are long email threads (where each response takes hours, over the course of days to write) that play out over weeks or months. It seems I can only concentrate on one person at a time, me, or someone else, and that both of those need a lot of attention and energy to attain the level of intimacy I crave. I find myself continuously wanting to slow down in a world that seems determined to go faster.

Our connective technologies – increasingly social, ambient, and ubiquitous – create reflections of intimacy: faces of friends, sudden memories, and recognition of what we desire. It is easy to assume that we are inside the relationship that has cast them, when more often, we simply inside a silky kaleidoscope. We turn it over and over, fascinated by each click that reveals a beautiful new form of a pattern we recognize. Our conversations now, live outside of our mouths and outside of our hearts. The houses in which they reside, are more and more opulent – with more photos, more feedback, more participants and more visitors. These houses are busy places, and it is hard to sit still and listen, amid the chatter of what everyone is doing right now.

The “now moment” exists in a large and supported context. When we focus just on our personal experience of now it denigrates the interdependence of what gave birth to now – the space and the context that yields it. Now only exists by virtue of everything that it isn’t, but seeing the negative form that holds what “is” requires patience, insight, stillness, respect and humility. When we care too much for the newness and closeness of now, it denigrates the linage of arising.

In our current media landscape those with prominence, who are leading the conversations, and those wishing to speak with them – wanting to join the conversations – are suffering differently from the appearance of availability that pervades our communication tools. I am a seeker. I have no store of social capital to draw on. I read and listen to all sorts of wonderful stuff, and then, because the speakers appear tantalizingly close to me, on Twitter, on their web sites, on Facebook, on Google+, I want to talk to them about their work. I want to tell them what I think. I want to ask them things. I want to give them things. I want to act out my natural urge to respond to, and engage in, the conversation. So I email, I tweet, I comment, and I get very little engagement in a conversation I’ve been “invited” to, because everyone talks in the new conversation.

What I perceive about the people who are followed by people like me, is that they are increasingly overwhelmed by it. There are elements they enjoy, and the notoriety is useful for advancing work they care about, which is often beautiful and important. But they battle an impossible volume of information and contact requests. Much of what they receive is positive and supportive, plenty of it isn’t, and plenty more is simply irrelevant. They don’t know who to trust, they don’t know who might be of legitimate value and interest to them, who is trying to take advantage of them, or how even, to comfortably make the inevitable choice of who to ignore or decline, even when they presume the best about that person.

It’s hard to ask, and it’s hard to say no. And in both cases, it’s harder than ever not to feel some sense of personal distress about it. Our tools encourage us to communicate to a point where rejection is becoming a normalized (and necessary) result of the overture to connect, which is weird. The new capital is social capital. The new market is the attention market. You no longer need a lot of financial and physical capital to play, but scarcity is still a barrier to entry, just as it always has been, albeit in different forms. And in this environment, talking without expectation becomes a way to stay safe, and consuming becomes synonymous with listening. I’m not sure what this model is, but it doesn’t feel like a conversation.

Social media and the trend of digitizing the previously physical has disrupted institutions and exclusionary hierarchies, but it has also destroyed the protection they offered. We are losing the temples that harbor the great work produced by shared, long-term, aspirational goals, and held by a body larger than our own. We have lost the safety of entrenched values that hold the ideals we strive to achieve, and are created by our service, again and again. We live in a time where there is more choice, and access, and mobility than ever before. Technology has shattered calcified markets like music and publishing, it undermines controlling power structures, and allows us all to program, instead of being programmed. This is getting easier to do all the time, with langues like Ruby and services like IFTT. But what I see, is us choosing is to program our technology to program and regulate our behavior, because it’s become too much effort to make those choices for ourselves.

The other day, IFTT invited me to take a look at recipes for Nature Lovers, and what I discovered was a catalog of reminders to go outside if the conditions were correct: If it was over 70, if it was sunny, if it was snowing. This kind of programming lets us offload to our technology the responsibility of paying attention and making choices. And it also inhibits the kind of discovery that comes from unexpected circumstances. It suggests that we are commodifying attention as something that can, and should, be split into different value tranches, and then reassembled back into a complete entity by the program of our choosing. This didn’t work out well as a strategy for managing risk in our financial markets, and it feels equally icky here too. If you have a society that has decided it’s too much bother to think for itself, you have a population that is vulnerable to tyranny. You have a population that has opted out of their sovereign right to consciousness. You don’t even have to take away democracy from a population like that – they will give it to you. I find this idea troubling, but it seems to be a choice we keep making.

In many ways, we’ve each picked up the corporate practice of squeezing more and more from a single person – when everyone is their own brand, when everyone is their own tech team, and marketing department, and biz dev, there is no time and no energy left be a Spacemaker. There is less time to immerse in the work we care most about, to rest in the mess and feel around for the valuable pieces we might bring forward. There is no time anymore to simply see what happens if we wait, or wander. This is the great irony of the New Conversation – we’re all able to chat our way down the long tail until we bump into the folks that we have always been searching for. Except when we find them, everyone is too busy to talk about what we have in common.

I think our sense of urgency is compounded when we confuse or conflate emotional reaction – the strongest, most immediate portion of our felt experience – with sensuality, the deep, lasting, kinetic contribution to our fundamental belief system. Emotional reactions are akin to our thoughts, they’re mostly just pattern noise, distinct from the current of the human spirit that flows through each of us. That pattern noise is chop on the water, and more and more we choose to live in that frantic space, where it’s hard to breathe through the choking wetness, slapping in and out of our mouths.

Sensuality is given to us by virtue of our human form; it is something we can allow, but not something that we can construct. To emerge, it requires a cohesive context that is trusted at a cellular level, and this unfolding happens in partnership with our story telling psyche. Our instinct to build a narrative that explains our relationships is deeply entwined with our ability to trust ourselves and others. And what I see in our current media culture is the valuation of two things above all else: a high volume of participation at a rapid pace.

We live in an “I read it, so I know it. I can recite it, so I know it” kind of culture. Our whole education system primes us for this. We think because we understand something, or agree with it, we a qualified to live that way. We increasingly value the consumption of information over the application of information, and the inherent verification that accompanies practice. Our brains still construct narratives, but hastily and arbitrarily, because the forms and the content we’re using are fractured and decontextualized from the experiences that they present. And when our minds create something our bodies don’t believe, we feel unwell. I can’t figure out why we’re doing this, why we snatch up more and more bits, and stuff them into the gaping maws of our starving narratives. Why are we valuing “now” and “speed” and “more” so much? Why do we have such a strong cultural response that so vehemently rejects and subjugates our biology? Perhaps it is because our identities have become more individualized. Social media allows us to gossip about ourselves, and so we have become communities of one, networked to every other one.

How is it that we gather in a medium, and end up either alone, or together as a result? I think it hinges on the sensuality of the experience, which for me requires time, reflection and vulnerability. It requires accessing my own sensual nature, by making a safe space for it to come forward. Being a Spacemaker is hard, hard, lonely, doubt-filled work. It requires suspending identity, and not insisting on a single, well-understood role, even to yourself. And from that place, comes your offering to the world. From that place, comes the ability to listen to the sensuality of being together.

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My deep gratitude to Krista Tippett, Trent Gilliss, Sherry Turkle, Ann Hamilton, Susan Stewart, Paul Elie, Allen Razdow, Dan McClure, Vincent Horn, Linda McGettigan, Daniel Thorson, Chris Dancy, and Brad for their words and silence that influenced my thinking, and this piece. Some of them I have talked to, and some of them I have not, but in all cases I endeavored to listen well.

May, Strength

The most compelling lesson that came out of April’s practice was discovering the relationship between willingness and flexibility, and this has got me thinking about strength.

Intention:
In many ways, I’m simply trying to figure out what strength means to me. The more time I spend considering it, the more I realize how confused I am about this quality, and that I am also afraid of it. The conventional notions of strength that permeate our culture like might, dominance, and control are not what I’m going for. My ideas of strength are much more about holding a place, holding a relationship, holding shelter, than about using force to propagate anything onto someone else. I associate strength with quietness and nobility, independence and endurance.

My vague sense of strength is hard to articulate, in part, because it is full of contradictions. It is force held in dynamic suspension, so as to be constantly present, adjusting and determined without being aggressive. Strength has an element of conviction without needing anyone else to agree. It is controlled determination, used to enact one’s will, without controlling others. It is free from malice or fear. It does not intend to hurt others, but accepts that as a consequence. It’s hard to articulate what it feels like, beyond a sense of deep sureness, or knowing, that I will act from a particular intention. Strength defies regular form. It seems capable of taking on nearly every other quality – stillness, action, acceptance, aggression, pushing, following, waiting – and seems to be the ineffable force that underpins everything else, which all along I have been thinking of as love. Hmmmm.

My intention this month is very modest – it is simply to advance my knowledge, however small, towards becoming more skillful in understanding and using strength. And also to relax some of my fear about it. I have a growing sense that I am circumferencing my own power. That I’m ambling around and around, chattering on about every other thing I might set my attention to, and wondering from time to time, why I feel so ineffective and unfocused. It’s starting to feel naive. Timidity dressed up as amiability. Hurt masquerading as ditziness.

I pray for strength all the time, it’s part of my ritualistic closing at the end of every sit. So what a surprise to discover that I am unsure of what I am asking for, despite the fact I’m convinced that it’s critical for my success.

May Activities:

  • Strong determination sits, as my formal practice this month. I find this style of sit is so helpful for exploring the relationship between intensity and focus, and in particular, how to use those in opposition to each other to achieve a particular effect. When sitting in a great degree of discomfort, the intensity of that pain becomes tolerable by strongly focusing on something else. Until recently, this felt too much like denial for me to practice, but I’ve shifted. Acceptance does not have to mean embrace; there’s a subtly in the relationship between acceptance and attention that, I think, I’m starting to understand.
  • Weight training, three times per week. I really like having a body-based activity each month – I learn something from my body whenever I listen to it. I also like the literal simplicity of this task.
  • Check email twice a day, and if needed dedicate a block of time for writing and responding. This task is about exploring the discipline of abstinence. I get very little email, and even less that I care about, but I still check it a lot. I do this as a diversion from discomfort, usually boredom or irritation with my children, but it frequently turns into an unsatisfying and time wasting activity. I suspect I feel diffuse because I am careless with my attention, and this is intended to see if tightening that up makes a difference.
  • Since I am so confused about strength, spend six hours a week seeking information. This task is about exploring the discipline of activity. Six hours may not sound like a lot, but it is a huge portion of the limited time I have for quiet, focused activity, when I am able to concentrate without being interrupted.
  • Use the Heart Card again this month. I get angry, I use my strength carelessly. Nobody is better at creating this dynamic than my children. Sometimes life just demands certain practice.

Expectations:
I expect that I’ll (mostly) be able to meet myself where I’m at and actually enjoy the discovery process this month. There’s a certain amount of freedom in admitting my ignorance and being able to go forward without the judgment that accompanies presumption. That being the case, I don’t have a lot of expectations for this month – that’s how limited I feel in this space, I can’t even imagine an outcome.

What do I Value:
I value the ability to wield strength wisely. I value knowing how to access and regulate strength in skillful response to dynamic conditions.

What do I Want:
I want to uncouple my understanding of strength from my association of it with control and manipulation. So much of my aversion (or attraction for that matter) to strength is based on a muddied emotional reaction that I don’t understand very well. I want to trade this pattern for a healthy fear of strength, one that’s based on a clear and respectful understanding of the given force, like knowing not to wander around a golf course in a thunderstorm. I want to teach my children that strength is not just about dominating through force. They see plenty of this in our media, and also in how they are generally treated by adults, even ones like me, who love them, but aren’t more skillful.

Where is the Resistance?
Given the amount of confusion I have, I expect fear to be my biggest barrier. Naming it helps, accepting it helps open it up. My hesitation to understand and embrace my own strength is tied up in a sense of carefulness, of not wanting to hurt people. But there’s a certain dishonesty in that, or maybe more fairly, just an imbalance. Passivity born from denial of strength is weakness, not charity. I have turned my other cheek many more times out of fear, as a hedged sacrifice, than out of generosity for, and from, my own spirit.

What am I Willing to do?
(May 14) In my original post, I completely forgot to answer this question. It strikes me as a significant omission, especially since willingness was so central to the selection of this value in the first place. I have been thinking about this since Monday morning, when I realized I’d forgotten, and sitting down to write, I am continuing to struggle to articulate my willingness to engage in this practice. There is a huge amount vague, internal resistance, that does not want to do this practice. When I ask myself this question and listen for a response, I get these bursts of mental talk, that literally says things like: Nothing, I am not willing to do anything. I hate this practice, and I don’t want to do it.

So, I have hit a wall, it seems. A thick, tall, resistant wall that has an enormous amount of strength and determination to be both obstructive and influential. The irony is gorgeous, and funny, and humbling. So, under the circumstances, here is what I am willing to do: I am willing to listen to this teacher. This master of nearly transparent recalcitrance, and see what I might learn about strength. A new task for the month: Ask this question every day, and listen.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained:
Responsibility – I have, not surprisingly, very mixed feelings about this. It is a serious thing to take responsibility for one’s strength and power – to know it intimately and use it with care, purpose and intelligence. Strangely, avoiding my strength doesn’t feel frighteningly irresponsible, though logically it follows that it should. Perhaps it is my nature to be wary of responsibility, perhaps it is only my pattern. Or more likely, I am just as confused about responsibility as I am about strength.

Power – Strength and confidence seem closely related to me, both critical components in the alchemy of faith. I ache for more confidence in my choices, more comfort in my presence, and more energy in my hours. I’m guessing this difficulty is caused, at least in part, by concentrating so hard on ignoring the strength that I have.

Freedom – This, of course, is the upside of responsibility. The integrity of form that in honoring all the forces that combine to make the Way, unlocks openness by virtue of being whole. When everything is aligned, there is nothing left to do but exist.

Lost:
Safety – In avoiding my own strength, I inevitably seek and find it other places. In people. In circumstances. It’s hard to emerge from this protection feeling unprepared, but it is of course impossible to really grow without doing so. I don’t know how to be vulnerable and safe. I don’t know how to be protected and open. I am so scared to tread into this space.

Naivete – I mean this in the kindest way this word can be used. I mean the sweet, innocent simplicity of not knowing. It is hard, painful, to learn about the fuller spectrum of life. I don’t know exactly what I’ll discover about strength, but I suspect it will inevitably involve the mourning of innocence. It may be a correct and natural part of the maturation process, but it is not without sadness, and the finality that comes with changing in a way that is impossible to revert. I don’t know why this idea makes me so sad, but it does. Perhaps it is the grief that comes in accepting that some deaths are really permanent. That sweetness, that trusting wonder is beautiful, and to be cherished. Even when it is time for it to pass, I still feel a loss of loveliness in the world.

Self-Compassion, Lessons Learned

water droplets on a branch

April was a survey course in the pleasure and difficulty of being.

My first week of practice felt incredible, it was much easier than I imagined. I felt rested and energized. I laughed more, joked more with the kids, had loads more patience. My metta sits were restorative and full of a pleasant, peaceful presence. I felt my subtle heartbeat and a warm, tingling energy instead of the tight ache in my chest that I have become so used to. It was the best I have felt in as long as I can remember. It seemed miraculous that such simple adjustments could make such a big difference.

In truth, I have been deliberately working on self-care in one form or another for over a year now. It’s not fair to ascribe the benefits one week’s practice just to April’s activities, but they certainly changed how think about the basics of good health. Making decisions takes energy. Meeting conflict with creativity and kindness takes energy. What I had failed to realize is that this is equally true of my internal experience as well as what I experience in the world. Being self-centered, which seems to me to mostly be our default state, makes it hard to have perspective on how our behavior affects others, but it also makes it hard to see how our behavior affects ourselves. When we are both the actor and receiver of our actions, it is doubly hard to see either the behavior or consequences from a different perspective. I am constantly making decisions and resolving internal conflicts all day long, even before I interact with anyone else, which is also pretty much happening all the time. If this month’s practice is any indication, I have grossly underestimated the amount of energy – the kind that comes directly from food, sleep and exercise – required to do this well.

But things were going great, and I was enjoying my walk in the wonderland of self-love so much, I wandered right off the path. I had friends visit, and stayed up late. Then, I randomly decided to apply for a TED Fellowship, with two days remaining before the deadline. I watched this force of ego energy latch onto this idea and insist on making it happen, and I started using all my quiet time, and staying up late, to get it done on time. Then I hosted Easter. And packing all of that into nine days came at the expense of my practice, which I had categorically stated I was willing to prioritize over other activities. My capacity of discrete commitment to myself appears to be about a week long. I find this amazing. If you asked me what was more important than my health and well-being, for myself, and also to be of service to others, I would say nothing is. But I don’t act as though this is true, and seeing the gap between what I claim as my truth and what I live as my truth, is critical to being free from the dissatisfaction that springs from the rift between the two. I realized how special it is, how unusual it is, to be a person that commits to something over and over for months, or years, or a lifetime. And I do not mean the commitment of conditioning, of unconscious habit, which is common, but the commitment to counter-conditioning, which is exceedingly rare and difficult.

Breaking out of our conventions requires this unusual style of spacious resistance – a style of resistance that is permeable, and by being so can not be moved. I find this very difficult; I barely understand it. More and more I see the world, and my experiences here as parts of relationships – nothing I do is actually isolated or independent. As I began to focus on self-compassion, so too grew my compassion for others, which was central to the pleasure of my experience in my first week of practice. I expected this, and then I watched myself get distracted. I watched myself deliberately break the tension that allows me to live inside of relationship, and spill over to become a dimension of it.

There is so much pleasure in getting lost inside something else, of losing my permeability and getting snapped into the flow. And the second I go, I lose my commitment to willingness. There is so much pleasure in the collusion of one more late night drink with a beloved friend. There is so, so much pleasure in ego energy. It has an electrifying, euphoric, driven, quality that is, frankly, just fucking awesome, not to mention how useful it is for getting something done. But this style of surrender comes at a price – I spent the last week of April sick, and exhausted. And despite this, what I discovered, is that I’m not willing to give these up yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.

I’m frightened of the consequences of single-minded pursuit, despite the fact that the ravages of flaccid attention and effort are clear to me already. Living inside a relationship of continuous allegiance requires the exclusion of so much. This is why simple things, like sitting still, or committing to a value, are difficult – it requires the sacrifice of the myriad, ready pleasures that tug and tap and rub and whisper a thousand times a day. It requires saying no thank you, over, and over, and over, not just to the small things but the big things too, to people we love, and causes we believe in. It requires confronting, then releasing, the sadness of loss again and again, while maintaining faith in the value of our pursuit, because what we focus on dictates what we miss. How well we focus, determines how much we miss. It is a tremendous responsibility to live one’s life with the severity of deep commitment, and perhaps that is why so few of us are truly able to do it. We are too clumsy to undertake it with the exquisiteness required, and attempting to do so unskillfully, only spills the blood of our sacrifice with out generating any sustenance from our offering. We are not, as we are so often told, limited by our imaginations; we are limited by our willingness. It is a great gift, to know my capacity, and to choose again with more clarity.

I discovered something else beautiful this month, seemingly opposite of willingness, which was the effortless and spontaneous pleasure of offering something I value to another. When I host company, I like my home to be (mostly) be clean and orderly. I like to make beautiful, delicious food to eat together. Even though I like to entertain, preparing for company is typically an anxiety-ridden activity for me. I get concerned about everything looking nice enough, tasting good enough, and being right. It tends to be stressful. But this time was different.

The planning, and bustle, and work of cooking took on a quality of gratitude for the chance to express my love that way, and excitement about sharing the meal together. Being aware of how good healthy, regular eating was helping me feel, significantly intensified the pleasure of making food for others. As I cleaned, scrubbing and wiping the places that usually go neglected for months, I did it with a totally different intention than I had before. I did it as an offering of love, instead of as evidence of my worth. I realized that I had come to recognize and accept how much I value space and order, and why. For me these qualities, represent safety, clarity, and love. They represent a space of peace and openness in which distractions and discomforts are minimized so that one’s energy can be placed on being present, rather than grappling with the environment. Creating a space like this in my home is a sign of respect and love for the people I welcome. What a pleasure it was to witness the transformation that occurred in my intention from one of compliance and approval-seeking to one of devotional offering. This is the humble and profound power of discovering and living my values, rather than simply enacting a set of rules – feeling joyful for the chance to wipe the shit off the rim of the toilet. The power of love never ceases to surprise me.