Monthly Archives: June 2014

Sitting at the Alter of Mystery

May was a turbulent month of nothing. I felt a lot of loss. I felt sad a lot. I felt angry a lot. I had a reckoning with my own ignorance.

A few of my relationships shifted forms, and none of these changes happened in person. Learning about friends moving away, or moving on to new jobs; discovering that former intimates had broken the digital links of platform space – unconnecting, unfriending, without saying anything about it, or revived them, also with hardly a word. I encountered my dead sister in a stack of her clothing, and then seemingly everywhere after that, in the sunshine lacquer on the leaves of trees, and the caterpillar shit that rained down from them. It is hard to live inside the swell and break, the bump and jumble of relationships, when there is no one to reach out and touch amidst the churn. It is hard to be your own ballast, when there is not a hand to grasp as you catch you balance, or a chest to pant against as you catch your breath.

What all of these things had in common, was my urge to stabilize, to tell a story and create an explanation that gave me a clear and simplified experience, even if I didn’t like it much. I like to create an experience that embellishes the one I am already having, by adding a story line of my crafting. One that allows me to have an experience I have confidence in, can immerse myself in, and then leave behind. Except narratives stay. They capture the transitory nature of sensations and fortify them, compressing dust into the dense sediment of experience. This is the power of naming, the power of blaming – it blinkers out possibility. It makes it easy to commit to what we’re familiar with, and wallow in the comfort of righteousness.

Allowing things to be as they are takes strength. Feeling things, pleasant or unpleasant, is difficult. It takes effort. It takes concentration and attention. And so does listening to the narrative without automatically believing it. Sitting in that space between between following and resistance, is an act of strength, simply because it is immensely difficult not to preempt reality with expectation. I am so committed (or conditioned) to fantasy, that I won’t commit to just doing the work of experiencing reality. And this behavior, this resistance, became my invitation to sit at the alter of Mystery.

My most important exercise for May was sitting in attendance of my resistance. Nearly every month I have some sort of insight that blesses me with humility, but what I experienced through this practice was much more profound. The resistance to strength is strength itself, and it belongs to the realm of Mystery that is far beyond the human experience, yet still available to us. Sitting in attendance to Mystery made clear to me how immature my practice is, and how I have exactly what I have prepared myself for. It made clear(er) the proportions of the relationship between myself and the infinitely dense, invisible presence that creates all, and destroys all. Strength, like love, has impeccable discernment, and never gives itself to a form that isn’t prepared to receive it. It is not a question of worth, which is inherent, it is a question of readiness. The still attention required to make oneself fertile for strength, has very little to do with any particular type of formal practice. Practice structures increase the likelihood of training well, but building a house doesn’t guarantee anyone will move in. Strength waits – neither beckoning, nor rejecting – for the durable vessel of clear and total attention that the prepared will offer. It is this form that strength enters, for it only, and always, lives at home.

I don’t know why it is so hard to pay attention, but it is. Clear training is very intense. It’s physically exhausting. It requires so much commitment, so much energy, so much skill, it’s a monumental task. I feel too frail to sit that close, to let even just the edges of life and death pass through me, moment to moment. It’s too much. There is heartache, and throatache, there are tears. And because it’s an internal experience, living this way is lonely. Words fall away. But still I have the urge to scoop them back up, and wide-eyed, hold out the tangle in hopes that someone else might know know what I mean, might know what happened, and say, Yes. Having a relationship with God begins simply with sitting still, and attending respectfully. God does not reject us. God does not abandon us, we turn away, over and over because we find the company too difficult to keep. I wonder if God is lonely too.

I am closer to knowing how insignificant I am, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. Seeing my relative capacity and preparedness for strength, for Mystery, was very helpful. It frees me to step outside the constraints of fantastic desire, desire that is rooted in the pleasure of an imagined outcome, without understanding the significance and sacrifice of the work required to achieve it. Genuine desire holds no expectation, it is simply the force of action that elicits unconditional service. Knowing how small I am, how unskilled I am, gives me permission to accept my smallness, even while I continue to act. This is the gift of original sin. It allows us to attempt the impossible and work at the unachievable – not because we are fools, not because we deserve punishment, but because this work is the most important thing we can do, and allows the fullest expression of our humanity. It allows us to do our best, to endure the disappointment and failure of our efforts, and still have the strength and courage to try again. These are the terms of a contract with God, infinite failure, infinite desire, infinite strength, infinite love. I’m not ready. But of course, I will try anyway.

June, Kindness

I am ready for something soft and gentle, so for June, I have selected the value of Kindness.

Kindness is the offering of one’s heart to another. It presents as tender, even when there’s effort required. It has soft eyes, which requires a soft body, and a soft heart. It’s an offering of acceptance and service. It is an act of nurturing.

Sometimes kindness is compassionate, like giving your love and attention to an upset child, even if they’ve behaved poorly. It can also be an easy gesture of affection and gratitude, expressed to recognize the beauty in someone else. And sometimes it’s the hard, hard work, of showing a nasty-acting person the respect they deserve, despite their determination to be treated otherwise. In all cases, kindness is generative, it’s about recognizing the gifts around us, and then acting in a way that offers something in return. Kindness is the presence of mind to recognize a chance to serve someone else, and the willingness to do so graciously. It requires giving beyond our normal pattern. It has an element of surprise – part of what makes kindness so enjoyable is that it is unexpected, and given without expectation.

Kindness is a mark of maturity, it’s deliberate and conscious. Sometimes kindness is the act of restraint, of not putting one’s own needs, thoughts, and desires before another’s. It’s knowing how to let one’s own experience be secondary, without denying it. It’s about not taking oneself so seriously, in order to make room for someone else. It’s selfless.

June Activities

  • Metta practice – Loving Kindness practice for my formal sits.
  • Do something nice for someone in my family, at least once a day.
  • Keep a daily record of acts of kindness – this kind of journaling helps keep me accountable.
  • Mindful hand washing. Washing my hands deliberately and gently throughout the day will act as a touch stone for this practice, and serve as a small act of tenderness.
  • Get enough rest. It’s harder to be giving to others when I feel the stress of not being rested. Lights out by 10:00.

I expect that my kindness will be received and understood as such. Genuine kindness doesn’t require this, but I often do. I have a deep-rooted expectation that other people should be grateful for my kindness, which of course leads to all kinds of confusion on my part about kindness. I expect this practice is going to be hard, even though I chose it thinking it would give me a little bit of a breather. I have a huge amount of resistance (again) to something that I thought would be easy. I have an expectation that kindness should come naturally, easily, if I am a good person, and that is probably all tangled up in my resistance.

What do I Value?
I value the ability to love well and often. I value the chance to teach my children what this feels like, so that they might have it as a foundation to their own lives. I value the ability to act like a better person than I might feel like, and to savor the gift of genuine service.

What do I Want?
I want to feel good. I want to enjoy being with people. I want to get better at celebrating others, and be moved to thank them for what they offer. I want to be an example of what it looks like to behave well, even when it’s hard.

Where is the Resistance?
I am confused about kindness, and irritated by that, since I thought this value would relatively easy. I have some deeply ingrained expectations that doing things for others merits appreciation from them. It’s upsetting and hard to admit that, but it’s true. That attitude seems like the antithesis of kindness, and having to confront that (repeatedly) in my practice is going to be painful. And because of this, I am going to get kindness wrong – a lot. And that is going to be hard, because I really, really want to be a nice person. I really, really want to believe that I am a nice person, and that that comes effortlessly most of the time.

Being conscious of kindness is going to bring me face to face with the reality of what I’m actually like most of the time, which is self-centered and impatient. I get worn out and I lose my ability to recognize the good things around me. I feel needy. I feel young. Sometimes I let my selfishness leak out under the guise of honesty. If I have reservations about something, or it’s not exactly the way I imagined it, I feel compelled to say so. But the articulation of those things can needlessly mar what is an otherwise enjoyable experience, and distract me from the positive parts. I’m confused about the line between willing sacrifice and denial. I’m confused about the difference between taking responsibility for my feelings, and making the whole world be about how I experience it.

The trouble with acting selflessly, is that it’s very hard to maintain on your own, especially when it doesn’t feel good. So much of what I believe about kindness involves not putting one’s needs ahead of someone else’s, but that leaves me wondering, how then does one be kind to oneself?

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to remind myself to work on this every day. I am willing to look for opportunities to pause and consider if I need to be first. I am willing to remind myself that I don’t need to be right to be successful. I am willing to do my best, knowing it will never be as good as I want, and cut myself some slack. I am willing to forgive myself for having unrealistic expectations.

What is Gained and Lost?

I hope to gain better clarity around the nuances of what I can truly offer without expectation, and what has subtle strings attached. Pure acts of kindness – if such a thing is even possible – will be hard for me and I expect that this practice will expose that.

Faith – In theory, giving sincerely should create reciprocal benefit. I have a lot of trouble believing this enough to test it, but hopefully, I will discover, that by being kind, I will still have enough, and with less effort.

Skill – At the very least, I think I will gain awareness about when I make a choice not to be kind. If things go really well, I will improve at acting kindly too.

I am sure I am not as kind of a person as I like to think I am. If I do this practice well, I’ll lose some of that illusion. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing, but it will be painful to face. I’ll lose my romanticism that virtues are pleasurable, and that goodness is automatic.