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.
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.
- 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.
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?
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.
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.