Category Archives: Living Practice

“There is no limit to the degree of skill that can be brought to how we live in the world. Thus, morality is [the first and] also the last training, the training that we will have to work on for all of our life. We may be able to attain to astounding states of consciousness and understand the true nature of reality, but what people see and what is causal are the ways that these abilities and understandings translate into how we live in the world.”
– Daniel M. Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

Writings about my applied, contemplative practice in learning what it takes to close the gap between my beloved ideals and the life I actually live.

December – Balance, Transition

December was a month of eager hedonism, after a year of serious introspection. I couldn’t have been happier, hooking my legs around the pendulum rod, throwing back my head and grinning as one hand held on and the other trailed behind me. I. was. so. ready. It’s okay, to play.

And what a season to play. Eating, drinking, parties, gifts, treats, expectations and exceptions. A dizzying ballet of love and hope and insecurity. Of gorgeous moments truly lived, of the anxious frustration at nostalgia that did not materialize, and the patient, seductive murmur of that union, which births our beliefs in tradition.

Balance comes in so many forms. The thrilling, sickening, roller-coaster whiplash of change at pace; the slow, emergent agenda of a planet that accepts what it’s given. But the most beautiful thing about balance is that it’s the apex of transition. It’s the perfect christening moment of change, and the process itself. It is at once the limits of the spectrum, and the journey across it.

This year will be a different year. A year of creative collaboration. A year of unpacking the lessons of practice, hiding from them, testing them, trying them, again. A year of a gentler swing towards my middle. I am grateful.

November, Gratitude

Intention
So much of my practice this year has been an exploration of how to simultaneously enjoy the life I have, while building the life that I want. Managing this paradox – of seeing clearly, and accepting fully my current life, while striving towards a full expression of my future self – is the work of living.

Gratitude is like a magic trick that makes invisible things material. It’s a spell we cast on ourselves, so that we see again the abundant beauty and daily miracles that deserve our respect. By acknowledging what we’re grateful for, we begin to articulate the positive relationships between ourselves and others. It’s a fast track to seeing our interdependence, and enjoying our humility.

I have so little direct involvement with fulfilling my basic needs – breath, health, abundant food, clean water, multiple forms of on-demand energy – but I live inside the illusion that I am responsible for what happens in my day-to-day experience. I forget all of the antecedents that make my life easy and possible, because I don’t participate in creating them, and (usually) don’t know anything about the people who do. It’s a trap, and it robs me of the chance to honor the value of others. Gratitude is the prayerful thanks by which I make myself whole, when I receive what has been given to me.

November Activities

  • Daily Gratitude – recount in my journal, or on Facebook, the aspects of my day for which I am grateful.
  • Family Gratitude – Resurrect our family practice of sharing gratitude around the dinner table.
  • Community Gratitude – each day, tell someone else something about them that I’m grateful for.

Expectations
I expect I’ll have some really lovely moments, like this morning when I stopped on my walk to watch a flock of geese fly overhead. A cold mist was burning off in the sunrise and their undersides glowed with a bright, hazy, rosy, light. It was the kind of color I didn’t know existed until it flew overhead, stretched across the breasts and bellies of these clamoring birds, and I will likely never see it again. I expect that Gratitude will smooth out my edges and calm me down, soften my heart and bow my head. And I expect that I’ll inexplicably resist it all the same, as I do so many other parts of my practice.

What do I Value?
I value being able to appreciate how much goodness constantly surrounds me. I value the ability to be humble, and to live close to the elemental miracles of existence. I value peering back through the abstraction that divides us and saying Yes, I see you, I see your part. And by giving thanks, I hope to honor the piece of your life that you gave to me.

What do I Want?
I want more beauty. I want more wonder. More joy. I want to wake up eager to live into the good, good life that I have.

Where is the Resistance?
I don’t really understand my resistance to this. I like Gratitude; I believe in it. And yet…
This kind of resistance is mysterious. It’s a pervasive, non-specific sense of something feeling unnatural – which is an amazingly convincing force for getting me to believe that I should listen to my aversion.

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to do the work, and I am willing to not take it too seriously when I don’t want to do the work. If I have learned anything this year, it should be this: I have a lot of resistance, and I ought to see what happens if I don’t take it so seriously.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained
Humility – It doesn’t take a lot of acknowledgement to quickly see how almost everything that I have is provided by, or influenced by someone or something else. I is for Interdependence.

Satisfaction – Expressing genuine appreciation for someone else feels good. When we say, I am so happy, so lucky, so thankful that we are together in this way, what we are really saying is, I love you. I respect you. I acknowledge the ways in which you are important, and you benefit me.

Appreciation– Gratitude is a reality check on the relationships that I like to deride or deny. It helps me see the value in the things I’m quick to criticize. It is impossible to be grateful for the plate of beautiful food in front of me, without also being grateful for the fossil fuels that delivered it from all corners of the earth, right to my front door, and to the agri-businesses and factory farms that make it affordable.

Lost
Blissful Ignorance – This is the flip side of appreciation. Gratitude forces me to be honest about my complicity in systems I dislike. It is impossible to be grateful for fossil fuels, agri-business and factory farms, without looking more closely at my own value system, and my willingness to turn away from (or accept) the abuse of our ecology and the suffering of other living beings, because it is convenient for me to do so. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge, but it is through the messy, complicated exercise of looking at these pieces and making deliberate choices about my actions, that I also begin to let go of judgement too – not as a means of abdicating responsibility, but because I have accepted it. By wrestling and living with my own uneasy, imperfect choices, I make room in my heart for the choices of others.

October, Community

Intention
It struck me in the last month or so that the recurring themes in my Living Practice center around a deep desire for intimacy, for connection, and to offer something valuable to the world. That recognition was quickly followed by the cringe-inducing irony that I have attempted to find and foster these things All. By. My. Self. Perhaps my growing dissatisfaction and dwindling interest in this project stems from the fact that it’s all about me. I am so, incredibly, and completely sick of myself. What began as an earnest investigation of morality, of my value system, feels increasingly like precious, pointless narcissism. Nothing I cultivate within myself will actually make me a better person, or feel more connected to the world around me, if I continue to stay deliberately separate from it.

I thought that this work would give me a new purpose, or give me the confidence and the courage to go into the world and discover one, but I was wrong. I have no perspective. I will never be “ready”. If anything, the harder I work at it, the more disgusted I become, and the more discouraged I feel.

I wanted to create an authentic identity to offer to the world, rather than accepting the one that was projected on me by the perception of others. Breathing life into the boundaries of the world’s collective hallucination of me left me exhausted, with no energy left to develop anything that was authentic to my own desire. Eventually, I collapsed under the weight of my own vapidness. This project was an earnest and hopeful attempt at reconstruction, but I have failed to sustain any consistent, cohesive sense of self, and not having a reliable psychological construct of “me” makes it difficult to operate in the world. It makes is hard to care about anything. It makes it hard to stay up late and work. It makes it hard to carry meaning in my heart, or be accountable to anyone. Since I started watching the sense streams that get synthesized into an experience, my experience, I haven’t been able to keep them bound together. My sense of self is so random, so fluid and rapidly changing that it’s functionally absent; it feels deeply unreliable for accomplishing even the simplest tasks. I can’t do this by myself. Uncle. Having collapsed once from the effort of fulfilling personas I never consciously chose, I now find myself staggering under the labor of invention.

Relationships are the structures that house our communion. In rejecting so much of the world, I cut loose a lot of bullshit, but also a lot of help. I grossly underestimated how difficult it is to live in the absence of a defined role that emerges before me, as I live and work among people who have expectations of me. I did not know how little I have to offer myself, and how hard it would be to be reliable companion to my constantly emerging experience. My sphere of influence has grown very small – I never anticipated that my disappointments would continue all the same, or amplify.

October Activities

  • Say yes to social engagement. Make plans, go to parties, cook meals for others, seek opportunities to be with others.
  • Attend to the people around me with kindness and curiosity. Show up and listen fully.
  • Do metta practice five times a week. Connect with and cultivate my intention to be present and be kind. Pray daily, or as often as needed.

Expectations
I expect to fail. I always do. I wish I liked failing better, but I haven’t figured out how to shake the false dichotomy of success and failure. I expect that I will also have some success living into the humblest and noblest edges of my capacity, and those actions will reside long enough in the memory of someone else, that I will bump into a better version of myself again. This is the beauty and the gift of community.

What do I Value?
I value being loved. I value being recognized. I value being seen, when I can not see myself, and gently roused to action. I value being part of something larger than myself and being called to serve my part. I value being appreciated for my work.

What do I Want?
I want to be nourished. I want a cohesive identity that will give me purpose and stability. I want to stop leaking and evaporating. It is not enough to be a conduit for life, that energy must be directed at something that reflects it back at me. I want to flourish, and have a reason for doing so.

Where is the Resistance?
It’s hard to act differently than I feel. It feels dishonest to me. I’m confused about how to honor and allow my experience without becoming trapped in it, how to reorient to a perspective where I don’t feel as though I’m choosing between honesty and humility. I have a hard time not resenting a reality that doesn’t match my desire. Even when I see the resistance, or think I do, acceptance remains elusive.

What am I Willing to do?
I am willing to do my best. I am willing to keep trying. I am willing to do the legwork and the planning that goes into meeting my commitments to other people. I am willing to roll with how things unfold, and remember that my job this month is to be present and pleasant.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

Security – when you show up in the world, consistently, you leave a residue of expectation that helps you orient to the same behavior when you re-encounter it. You don’t have to perpetually remember to meet your own expectations – people carry them and hold them out for you to step in to.

Recognition – it’s nice to be thanked. It’s really nice to be thanked warmly, and sincerely, without any prompting. It’s nice to be smiled at.

Lost

Freedom – I had this notion that by staying undefined, new possibilities would open up, that the right thing would come to me, because I would not have shut it out. It’s hard to let go of this idea, it’s so romantic. But I’m not free. I remain a slave to myself, and I’m a terrible master. I’m not ready for this kind of freedom. I’m wasting it, I’m withering in it. It’s time to concede what I haven’t earned anyway, and instead allow it to be given to me. Grace never stops shocking me in its gentleness.

September, Discipline

Light and dark swirl.

Take refuge, my sweetness. I am here. I love you. I am full of tenderness for your pain. I will gladly cup your weak and panting doubt, and gaze upon it while it rests. I will be your strength and your voice. I will protect you. I will love you, no matter what. It is okay to let go. It is okay to let go of the brutalizing narrative that beats you hard enough for you to feel your edges. You’re choosing a merciless boundary because you fear that if you don’t, you will disappear entirely.

You will never disappear, because I am your center. I am your center and your light. I am the life in your breath, and the seam your feet and the floor conspire to make a thousand times a day, to remind you that it is safe, and you belong here. Safety is steady, gentle work, stitched together again and again. I am the empty edges, by which you feel at home in your body, and open in your heart.

Please, take refuge in me. I am the love of discipline, for which you are searching. Consider trying a different test. Consider what might happen if you are wrong. Rest, and ask your question. Stay, and listen.

The love that drives us to serve is the fruit of surrender. I love you. I surrender to you every day. I am here. My sweetness, please, take refuge in me. Let me hold you for a while. Let me touch you lightly and whisper to you. Let me show you the strength of stillness, and what love grows there. Let me show you that it is yours.

August, Acceptance

Arguably, as a doorway to space, this should have been the first value I cultivated. But the truth is, Acceptance takes a lot of courage, and through some combination of building that up, and being worn down, I’m finally ready, to start.

Intention
Every time I have an experience of genuine acceptance, I am amazed at the power and the grace it brings. It feels really, really good. Accepting reality always seems profoundly simple in hindsight, but getting to that Oh, Duh moment can be a frightening and excruciating process.

The first time I saw acceptance framed as “admitting powerlessness” I completely balked. I recoiled from that idea on a visceral level, and was also genuinely confused. I was in such a weak and vulnerable place in my life, embracing powerlessness seemed like a death wish. I was hanging on with every ounce of strength I had left, which wasn’t much, and there was no way, no way I was going to stop clutching the tiny, internal ember I was determined to rekindle. Letting go, opening up, and allowing my experience all seemed like radically bad and dangerous choices.

Since then, I’ve learned that humility is not humiliating, and with that has grown an understanding that being powerless to reality does not mean I am without agency. In fact, if anything, when I come clean to myself about the aspects of my experience that I don’t like, I’m suddenly freer to do something about them. Naming them makes them real, and that makes them actionable. It also makes the big stuff bigger, the painful stuff excruciating, and the scary stuff terrifying. It’s taken a lot of practice to learn how to remember that they won’t last, when I’m in the middle of them. Tolerating painful, consuming emotions is hard and uncomfortable, remembering that I have a choice to stop using maladaptive strategies is harder, and believing that the experience will end is sometimes impossible.

More than anything, I think acceptance requires complete honesty about all the dimensions of what’s happening, and to be that bare, about oneself, to oneself, cannot be done without an accompanying dose of love. I have a tendency to focus on a portion of what’s happening, and then attempt to “accept” that at the exclusion of the rest of my experience, which is usually something I like even less than the part I’m working really hard to accept. I’ll put a lot of energy into accepting a conflict in a relationship, trying to force myself to feel okay about conforming to a pattern I don’t like – since that’s “the way it is” – while I ignore how I’m actually feeling about it. I see and acknowledge my dissatisfaction, but I don’t honor it with my own loving company. Too often I work deliberately and mindfully at accepting something I don’t want to, as a way to minimize the more upsetting experience of feeling a way I haven’t given myself permission to feel.

Acceptance is a kinetic recognition that comes from being with, and listening to, my embodied experience. Our bodies don’t brook lip service, and no amount of rationalization or mental gymnastics, will satisfy a body that isn’t at peace. Our bodies could not be more profoundly faithful servants. And when my body knows it’s been heard, something shifts, lets go, breaks, collapses – and there’s new space to pivot, breath and expand. New solutions open up, compassion unfolds, or a new patience emerges. It’s like magic, but sometimes the gateway is a meat grinder. So I continuously get lulled into the delusion of pseudo-acceptance that keeps me distracted and protected from the fear and the pain that’s going to kill me anyway if I don’t let it out. I know this, but I haven’t accepted it.

August Activities

  • Formal sits have almost entirely slipped away from me this summer – a constantly changing schedule and a house full of kids has made quiet time alone a rare commodity. But, for the time I do spend on the cushion, I’ll practice Open Awareness.
  • Do a daily journal exercise of what’s happening in my body and around me, as a practice for noticing and accepting reality.
  • One weak spot in my acceptance practice is remembering the things that went well, or that I did well. Record these daily.
  • Reread Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. I’m curious to see if it means something different to me now, than it did a couple of years ago.

Expectations
I don’t know what to expect anymore. It’s getting harder for me to see my expectations. I’m not sure if that’s because I am less diven by them, if I’ve actually changed in that way, or if they’ve just gone underground and I can’t recognize them any more.

What do I Value?
I value honesty, and the power that I know Acceptance unlocks. I value the confidence that comes with deliberate action or passivity, selected with a clear mind and a heart at ease.

What do I Want?
I want more energy and confidence. I want to stop wasting so much energy frittering. I’ve mastered an alchemy that turns minutia into monumental tasks (the other night I spent 15 minutes agonizing over which combination of Chinese food take out will be the optimal selection for everyone in our family). And inside this spell I find I am too tired at the end of the day to write, or work on the BIG ISSUES that I know I am avoiding. I want to be nicer to myself, not be so serious, and have fun. I want to like myself the way I am.

Where is the Resistance?
I don’t want to get hurt, and I don’t want to confront the fact that I hurt people too. Also, I tend to follow a story, and blinker the space of “acceptance” to fit the narrative I’ve committed to, which results in me resisting – or missing entirely – key pieces of reality. Sitting with the hard things requires time and a safe space, and I have very little solitude.

What am I Willing to Do?
I’m willing to be honest. A lot of the resistance I create is because I’m not being honest about what I’m truly feeling. So, I think up a discordant, but better sounding, or more comfortable story and then live in the squirmy space between reality and my narrative, and spend a lot of energy wondering what’s wrong. I’m willing to be loving. I’m willing to admit when I can’t be, and let that be okay too.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained
Energy – I think I’m wasting a lot of energy on resisting my experience, and expect to get some of that back.
Peace – Peace comes when I feel at home in my own body, and most of the time, I’m somewhere else, or wish I was.
Satisfaction – I’m not exactly sure how to articulate this, beyond Acceptance being it’s own reward. It feels so good to believe there is no separation between me and all the Truth I’m able to perceive. With Acceptance comes a feeling of alignment with the Way.

Lost
Identity – Often, acceptance means letting go of a facet of how I’ve conceived and constructed myself. I’m this kind of mom, or that kind of friend. I’m liked by this person, or respected in this way, or not good enough for that. So much of that narrative is either fabricated or outdated – the self is in a constant state of expiration with a shelf life as long as memory – but that doesn’t stop me from thinking it’s still true.
Comfort – Being rigorous about examining my current experience, allowing it, is uncomfortable. It often doesn’t feel good. It often leaves me exposed and vulnerable, or tapping against a blocked, blank, freeze, which I find frustrating.
Ideals – So many of my ideals and ideas are just fantasies. They’re bullshit, but they’re exciting, magical bullshit that makes me feel good. Accepting my limitations, accepting that any one of the numerous ideas that pops into my head is a lifetime of work, is disapointing. It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore, that I don’t have a sacred cause that I am driven to invest in, and I feel tremendous sadness about that.

July, Perspecitve

Intention
I am halfway through my year-long project of Living Practice, and it feels like a good time to work on Perspective. Perspective is among the more rational values I value, one that embraces analysis, detachment and reasoning. It also requires listening and empathy in order to genuinely understand a perspective that is not instinctively my own.

One unexpected consequence of this project is how isolated I feel. I had (perhaps too romantic) a notion that as I deepened, clarified, and embraced my value system, that love and beauty would open up around me. That a world that didn’t make much sense to me would come into focus, and I would feel more peaceful, more eager to engage with confidence and affection. But what I feel is weird, different and confused. I feel like the only person on earth (which I am surely not) who wants to pursue such a task and share my experience about it. I would be thrilled, in fact I deeply want, for this endeavor to be valuable to someone other than myself, but I can not seem to find an audience, and that’s amplified my loneliness.

I don’t want to quit, nor do I want the remaining months to feel like a heartless march to completion. I’m having a hard time articulating why I’m doing this, it seems to have no purpose beyond its own completion. Perhaps that is enough, but I am uncomfortable being resolute without surety of purpose (it feels delusional), and I have grown quite tired of being uncomfortable. Doubt is of course an identity in its own right, but not one that seems to be offering me much. In cultivating Perspective, I hope to find what I currently cannot see, and to relax into a broader truth than the one I am creating.

July Activities

  • Suspend my own perspective in formal, Don’t Know practice, at least three times a week.
  • Solicit perspective from others.
  • Do small things differently. Record these tasks and any observations in my journal.

Expectations
I expect to have some moments of delight, of genuine novelty, when something new is revealed to me. I expect to be disappointed that everyone else is not a hidden sage, who will graciously make sense of everything for me.

What do I Value?
I value seeking and finding the common ground of the human experience. I value the ability to see something purposeful in positions I disagree with. I value acting in a way that shows I both know and cherish the better aspects of my nature, and wish to meet yours. I value the ability to not take myself too seriously, not take things too personally, while maintaining an unshakable sense of self worth.

What do I Want?
I want relief. I want rejuvenation. I want to feel energized and curious. I want to have some fun. I want help making sense of what I’m doing, and I want validation that it’s a worthwhile and noble task. I want to be seen clearly and be shown something new. I want to reconnect with the joy and lightness of experimentation. I want to stop treating my practice like the dour blanket of self-loathing sanctimony that it’s starting to feel like.

Where is the Resistance?
There is resistance to the whole exercise. I am late in writing up this piece. I seriously considered taking the month off from my practice structure, with the rationalization that not practicing would offer a legitimate alternative perspective to practicing. I’m also in the vexing resistance sandwich of simultaneously believing that some outside Perspective will come to my salvation, and that no one can possibly understand my experience well enough to offer something meaningful. I understand this is ridiculous, and am flummoxed on how I might begin to unwind it. I am also aware of the human tendency to interpret information in a way that reinforces what we already believe, so I will surely have some deeply innate psychological resistance to truly seeing things differently, and I’m not sure how much of that I actually have the ability to overcome.

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to be brave and ask other people for their perspective. I am willing to tolerate rejection. I am willing to listen. I am willing to be disappointed and not let that snowball into discouragement. I am willing to not take a conflict with my values and beliefs personally.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained
Well, hopefully, perspective. I hope to feel less important and more relevant.

Lost
My sense of specialness. It’s possible that my persistent experience of loneliness, of feeling different and disconnected, is a dysfunctional manifestation of my desire to be unique – to have a sacred purpose in the world that I alone can fulfill, in fact have a duty to fulfill as a spiritual being. There is an element of this desire that feels like an irreducible and inextricable part of my psyche – to irradiate it would be impossible and to attempt to do so would be profane. It is this desire that opens my heart and tightens my throat, that draws out tears that christen anew my faith in a purpose I don’t know. I never doubt the beauty and correctness of this desire, but everything that follows is a restless hunt through through the dusky borderland. By insisting on my separateness, by feeling it as real and wrenching isolation, even in the midst of others, I make my mark as special. And in failing to find a population to serve with grace and confidence, I ensure that I remain pristine. I don’t know how to accept being common, and simultaneously believe that I have something to offer. I am horrified by the elitism and prejudice in that mindset, which is perhaps why I choose – prefer – to suffer quietly and alone, than to reconcile an attitude that revolts me.

The Ordinary Nature of Kindness

June’s Kindness practice was surprisingly difficult. I picked Kindness, in part, because I expected it to be easy and enjoyable, like Love or Gratitude. I’ve hit a wall in my practice – I am feeling burned out and uninspired, and supremely confused. The more I practice the smaller and less significant I feel. The stiller I become and the less I do, the more the small space around me intensifies. I was looking for a value that I could cruise on for a month, but alas, Kindness wasn’t it.

I imagined kindness to have a warm glow about it – that there would be a pleasurable, rosy, post-giving aftermath. I thought the more I did it, the easier it would get, that I would stumble into some sort of generative love loop that would make everything around me feel nicer. But for me, at least this month, more than anything, I found it to be a lot of work.

My acts of kindness were small and ordinary. I often had trouble differentiating them from basic responsibility. Things like holding doors for strangers, fixing the tumbled-over lawn decoration of the neighbor, bringing flowers to a grieving friend, creating time for my husband to relax, and remaining patient and compassionate with my kids when I wanted to storm out of the room, all feel like part of being a responsible citizen, neighbor, friend, spouse and parent. The things that felt most special to me, were performed for their own sake, with no possible expectation of acknowledgment: tracking down the buzzing of a trapped bee and opening the window to release it; burying a bird we hit with our car, and showing my children the importance of honoring the sanctity of life.

Some gestures were small and easy, some required planning and sacrificing my limited free time. Some felt really good, and some were a total struggle, that I didn’t enjoy at all, at least while they were happening. Especially with my children, I realized that sometimes the kindest thing I can do – when they are needy, and I am exhausted – is to simply not make the situation worse. Remaining calm, objective and pleasant when I’m angry and tired takes a lot of effort. I always thought of kindness as something that is overtly generous, but I was surprised how often it ended up being an act of non-deterioration.

June was a difficult mood month – nights of dark dreams, and lots of daytime restlessness, anger, and sadness. It’s hard to know if that pervasive tone contributed to Kindness being difficult, or if it was partially generated by my practice. I struggled to articulate what counted as a distinct act of kindness and why. Selflessness – the deliberate choice to make my experience secondary, without denying it – became the criteria I used most, and I did not like how much I disliked self-subjugation. A surprising amount of the time there was a small (or large) inner protest about putting someone else first. It was disheartening to see how hard I had to work at being consciously nice. I expected this resistance – this fear that if goodness is not effortless it is not genuine, or worse, not innately present – but I had no idea how hard it would be to witness and accept this on a regular basis. To be sure, being kind was much easier when I was well-rested, and unrushed.

There were no major insights that came out of my practice this month, nothing that clicked, no sacred moments where I felt confident that I was acting in purposeful alignment. In practice, Kindness seemed nearly indistinguishable from good manners and responsibility. Kindness felt extraordinarily pedestrian.

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.

Intention
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.

Expectations
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?

Gained
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.

Lost
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.

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.