Tag Archives: compassion

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.

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.

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.

April, Self-Compassion

Intention
This month I’m cultivating the value of self-compassion and this choice comes more from resignation than overt motivation. I have been avoiding this practice because it is so hard for me, but I also believe that this particular form of acceptance is the genomic structure for all other love that a person offers to the world. I’m dreading doing this, but I also can’t quite patch together a convincing veil of denial as to its importance. So here I sit, sad, mad, and blank, forcing myself to keep typing and see what happens.

Self-compassion is not a strength of mine, but I experience it as the acceptance that precedes the ability to love oneself, and the willingness to act on one’s own behalf, out of love. It is the mechanism that allows us to erode the barriers within ourselves so that we stop perceiving them as barriers to relationship with others. And from this work I hope, eventually, to live mostly in a state where I respect how little I know, and have an unshakable faith that my existence is a small and precious contribution to the great mystery of how the world unfolds.

I found myself unsure how to approach this month’s practice. So I’m going back to basics on the premise that self-care is the foundation of self-love. Half of my tasks are geared towards basic physical health – stabilizing and raising my energetic baseline is essential to my well-being. All but one of the tasks are concrete and structurable. I feel like I’m a long way from an automatic, healthy emotional response towards myself, but I am capable of discrete tasks to nurture myself.

Oddly, detachment from my sense of self strikes me as an important part of learning self-compassion. Adopting an alternative perspective on myself – treating myself like a beleaguered friend-child, one that I adore and want to nurture and restore back to its full health – feels like a viable path to cultivating self-compassion successfully. This seems backwards, to leave oneself to love oneself, but I suppose it makes sense if you’re not starting from the healthiest of places. Plenty of good advice suggests that when you cannot manifest the emotions you want, start by enacting the desired outcome instead; so this month I am leading with form.

April Activities

  • Daily metta practice – These are formal sits to cultivate feelings of love and compassion for myself and others. I tend to do metta when I am burned out, or destabilized from insight practice, and set it aside the rest of the time, especially when I am feeling good. As much as I value the relief of metta, I’m sure this pattern causes me to miss most of the richness and benefits of the practice.
  • Eat well and regularly – Eat a healthier and more structured diet. Set aside the time to plan meals, shop for the food I need, and prepare and eat food that will sustain my energy level through out the day.
  • Exercise three times per week. I know this is critical for health and energy. Exercise grounds me in my body and cultivates vibrancy.
  • Take nature walks three times per week. Spending time in nature is one of the most restorative activities I can do for myself, and also one of the easiest – all I have to do is show up and be there. Every time I go into the natural world I am amazed at the beauty, the competency, and the abundance of the system. I find it deeply reassuring, that as an organic being, I too have a place in the correct order of things.
  • Write myself a daily note of thanks for the work I did well. I often feel sad and disappointed that my efforts go unrecognized by others. It seems unreasonable that I should expect anyone else to do something I’m not willing to do myself, so this task is to start setting that right, and hold myself accountable for success.
  • When I am struggling, which I surely will, answer the question: What do I need to do now, so that later I will be proud of how I acted? Then do that.
  • Get enough sleep. Lights out by 10:00.

Expectations
I expect this will be uncomfortable and I won’t like it a lot of the time. I expect that even though these tasks are designed to nurture myself, I will feel like I’m not doing them right, or like they’re not working. When I’m feeling resistant, I expect a lot mental negotiations (manipulation) about how the most caring thing will be to cut myself a break. I expect that any success I have will be modest; I am not going to undo a lifetime of learned behavior in a few weeks. I expect that there will be some nice moments that connect me to that deep strength we all have that is the catalyst for beautiful action in the world. I expect that I will feel more loving towards others, and that will help reinforce my practice, and compassion for myself.

What do I Value?
I value living a life that is in alignment with The Way. I value the chance to live a life where all of my actions become an offering of gratitude for the life I’ve been given. I value the chance to be loved by others, because they trust their love is safe with me – that I have (l)earned the privilege of receiving love by first loving myself. I value feeling safe and confident. I value living a life that offers something to the world, and makes it a more beautiful place. I value having enough within myself that I can give freely, easily, and joyfully.

What do I Want?
I want to be vital. I want to believe I have a purpose in the world and be grateful for the chance to serve that purpose honorably. I want turning inward to be a peaceful, restorative, confidence-building activity. I want to love and trust myself a lot more than I do now. I want to be at home in my own heart.

Where is the Resistance?
I am susceptible to moods of debilitating despair. Practicing self-compassion during these times seems impossible, in part because it opens up space so painful that it’s simply intolerable – I just shut down. So, there will be a lot of resistance during these swings because it is easier to collapse, than to push back against a force that strong. What I’m hoping to gain through this practice is a new version of surrender – one which doesn’t deny, or fight, the truth of the experience, but also does not remain passive to it.

Self-love is the first love, but also the last. Confronting my skilllessness in this area is just extraordinarily painful, because it lays bare the truth and responsibility of abandoning oneself. There is no one else to blame, and no one else to help. I’m afraid to know the magnitude of work required to build an eternal castle. I’m ashamed of my fear and immaturity, and that’s going to creep into my practice in all sorts of ways.

What am I Willing to do?
I am willing to try, and keep trying. I am willing to do my best.
I am willing to be honest.
I am willing to do the tasks I’ve committed to.
I am willing to do the planning and pre-work required so that my tasks have a place in my days, and the highest chance of success. It is hard to relax into the inherent pleasure of something, if I am rushing through it for lack of foresight. Habitual rushing is a form of self-abuse.
I am willing to prioritize my practice over other activities.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • The ability to see myself more objectively. Being fair to myself seems like a critical interim step towards a strong foundation of self-love.
  • More energy and more vitality. Basic care for my body (diet, exercise, rest) will result in a higher, more stable energetic baseline. Pleasure opens as a possibility, when everything stops feeling like a chore. I remember a version of myself that was vivacious, and I want this back.
  • Confidence. This practice, and sharing it publicly, is hard for me, scary. I’m really self-conscious about it. Having some success in this practice – just being willing to start – is so important for teaching myself the skill of pushing through my (dis)comfort level and proving to myself what I’m truly capable of.

Lost
The protection of my illness. I am recovering from a severe depression that radically altered my life. This is real and important work. But at the same time, there is a part of me that’s fearful, probably terrified, of rejoining the world where I got so sick to begin with. I am fearful of making the same mistakes again. I am fearful of engaging in a culture that I feel often brutally pushes us out of balance, and divorces us from our basic human needs of connection to ourselves, to others, and to our environment. I don’t like being sick. I sincerely want my life and vitality back. I desperately want to learn how to do this for myself. I believe this is possible, but I don’t know how to do it, and paradoxically, perversely, “staying” sick allows me to delay creating a phase of my life that I literally can’t even imagine yet. It is a resistance so vague I don’t know how to find it, or drop it, but I sense it as a nearly constant presence.

Contributors:
I’m trying something new in this post – adding the resources that directly influenced my choice for the month. Part of what this year of practice is about is investigating the ways in which traditional teachings and modern perspectives on meditation come together to form American styles of contemplative practice. I also want to recognize how the work of others is influencing me, and express my gratitude.

This month, my special thanks to Gil Fronsdal for his dharma talk on willpower, and to my friend Keri, whose courage and honesty in her writing is a tremendous inspiration to me. I bow to you both, with gratitude and respect.

Love and Culture Shock

Love

A funny thing happened on the way to love – I got distracted by desire.

The dominant event in February was presenting at TFT14, about the relationship between technology and culture. This was a lot of fun, a great experience, and the first piece of meaty, external, professional work I’ve engaged in in over a year. I found myself almost manic in how I approached it (thinking about it constantly, up until one or two almost every night of the ten days I had to prepare), and really exhausted afterwards.

The most interesting part was watching myself not only completely loose interest in the domestic life I’ve immersed myself in (the laundry can wait, let’s get takeout tonight), but also becoming irritable and angry when it interfered with the exciting and pleasurable work going on in between my ears. I think part of what makes deliberate thinking so enjoyable is its similarity to the subtle abstraction layer that constantly runs in the background of our experience – the one we use to interpret the world, and in which we actually live most of our lives. Deliberate thinking is an amplified version of interpretation, one in which we have a feeling of control and purpose that replaces our normal vagueness, and makes abstraction feel magical, powerful and awesome.

I had a very hard time loosing myself in play with my kids; I found it exceptionally boring. I had a much lower tolerance for their bickering, for their childishness. I found it very difficult to switch with any ease back and forth between the quiet, intense, turning and touching focus I use to develop a concept and push my thinking in a new direction, and the loud, rollicking, roll-with-it easiness that makes being with little kids pleasant. For the first time, I began to question, are the roles of professional, intellectual work, and a domestic, parenting life, incompatible? I don’t want to believe this is true, but it was certainly true for me this month.

One of the key points I made in my talk, was that information is compressed experience, and this is certainly evident in the gulf between what kids know and what their parents know. We tout education as a means to transcend our more brutal instincts, and there is some truth to this. But a less commonly acknowledged truth is that with our knowledge we often adopt an intolerance for those who don’t know the same things we do. Often this is unconscious, but the consequences are still the same as overt judgement: misunderstanding, separateness, distrust. What I discovered about myself is that much of what irritates me about my kids boils down to them not understanding the world as I do, or more specifically, not complying with my worldview. We’re fighting over perspective, which, framed that way, seems insane, especially when one of the things I most wish to impart on my children is curiosity and acceptance of other perspectives.

Living with my children is like living with people from a different culture. They don’t understand the language very well, they’re illiterate, and seem to have very few customs related to emotional regulation. They don’t like a lot of the food here and frequently refuse to even try it; this behavior is accompanied by bizarre eating habits – like eating with their hands, running around with their food instead of sitting down to eat it, or preferring to eat while sitting on top of another human, usually me. They commonly talk over each other and other people, it seems that their tribe does not speak in a tennis-volley style like we do, but all at once and very loud in an effort to be heard over the other voices. Oddly, this is also a common point of frustration for them, because it is very hard to understand anything, which is exacerbated by their inexperience with the language. They are frequently loving and affectionate, but are prone to aggressive language and violent outbursts, often yelling and hitting each other or us, sometimes resulting in cuts and bruises. They are much more interested in our culture than we are in theirs, and imitate our behaviors regularly, sometimes even calling it to our attention so that they might be praised for it. And yet, with seemingly equal frequency they actively resist the things we ask them to do so that they might become fully acculturated. They are especially resistant to matters of personal hygiene, or having to do anything quickly. Also, they love sugar. They are obsessed with sugar. It must hold a place of sacred importance in their native land, for nothing else could explain the energy they put into thinking about, and acquiring, treats.

I am deeply in love with humans who are foreign to me. And when the gulf is most extreme, I yell at them, so that I might frighten all of our hearts back into their respective dominions. It is just too painful, too overwhelming, to confront what a long journey it is to meet in the middle; the miles on my side alone, appear eternal.

Another thread throughout my presentation was the idea that it’s very difficult to innovate within the context of our native culture because it’s transparent to us – we can’t see the ways in which it influences us because it’s simply become our worldview. What gets claimed, and acclaimed, as innovation is usually closer to tepid iteration. I offer that one way to disrupt this is by intentionally broadening the values and perspectives that we include in the design process of what we create. I have a very different perspective on American business and technology cultures having stepped away from them for a year and spent my time learning how to succeed survive in different culture with different values and different rhythms. I think this is valuable and I’m grateful for it, even though it’s also been painful and scary to give up an identity I’d invested so much in. And yet the reverse seems not to be true. I can see the value I bring as an outsider, surely, but it’s much harder for me to be comfortable with and open to the value of someone who is an outsider to my own experience – even though I want to. There is a weird asymmetry here. I can appreciate a business and technology perspective because I have shared it. And although I once was a child, I remember almost nothing from my young childhood. I don’t have any recollection of the experience I once shared with my own young children, and as a result, I am very quick to discount them. I don’t even mean to, in fact I mean not to, and I still do it, a lot. And if that model holds – if it is our natural inclination to automatically reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different.

Part of what is weird, I mean truly weird, about the human experience is that we can’t imagine with any fidelity anything we haven’t experienced. The best we can do is make up a version of what might happen (or has happened) based on the reconstructed, abstract memory of something that happened to us. This means that we are wrong (in some degree or another) about everything except what is happening right now (which we also get wrong a lot), and yet we go through our lives thinking that we are mostly right, most of the time. We assume the exact opposite of what actually occurs. I can’t understand how it is even possible to do that, yet we do. All. Of. The. Time. It is amazing that anything works at all. And I think part of the reason that it does work, is that shared experience gives us a good enough imitation of someone else’s subjectivity to have it pass as our own. For it to be believable that we are in communion, and in so being, see our precious selves in another.

February’s practice had a lot of spontaneously conditional activities, which made it hard to remember how I planned to handle them, and also made clear what a large gap there is between my intention and my actual behavior. It’s hard to predict when I will get angry, talk to someone, or become tense, and nearly as hard to stay aware and responsive to those situations in accordance with my specified practice activities. The Heart Card helped with this, just having it in my pocket raised my awareness, but a lot got away from me. But despite failing a lot more than I succeeded, or in truth, probably because of that, I managed to learn a couple of things.

It’s not just me! My kids, being young and from another culture, have not yet mastered THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I knew this about them, but I didn’t realize how much it reinforced my own carelessness, until I made an effort to counter it (and I wonder why all my coaching isn’t having the impact I hope for). What also surprised me was how much other adults do not follow THE RULES OF HOW TO SPEAK TO EACH OTHER RESPECTFULLY. I went into this month’s practice assuming this happened because I blew the transaction with my own inattention, and of course this is partly true. But once I started deliberately offering my eye contact and full attention to the people I engaged with, I was amazed at how few people met me with an equal level of attention.

Many people in casual transactions, like handing me a coffee, or saying have a nice day, would not even look at me at all. Sometimes they would, but with very little emotional presence, as if they had good training in the rules of engagement, but were attentionally absent. It struck me that we all do a lot of hiding in plain sight. I can’t tell which way we’ve chameleoned, in or out, but we certainly seem afraid to be seen. The most pleasurable interactions were the ones in which my attention hooked the other person – they would start of non-committal, but then deepen their engagement based on my continued attention. By the end of the interaction they would be beaming, seeming equal parts delighted and mystified that a stranger wanted to see them. I loved it when this happened. It felt good, really good, to mutually recognize each other’s humanity in this way. We spend a lot of time imagining that love is big – panoramic sunsets, and epic orchestras with soaring string sections – but some of the most satisfying moments of love I experienced were when I did nothing more than witness the presence and simple actions of someone else.

The other important lesson I got was the first time I ran out of good advice. I was really mad at Colin (for what I can’t remember), and followed the directions on The Heart Card, to calm down and think of what I would tell someone else to do. Much to my amazement, I found that I had absolutely no good ideas at all. Really none, and I had not prepared for this particular predicament. I decided the best thing I could do, under the circumstances, was to just speak gently and honestly about why I was upset, which I did. What I said is also lost to memory but Colin’s reaction isn’t. He was gracious and loving. He said okay mom, and gave me a hug. And for him, a sensitive and cerebral kid, this was an off-pattern response. It is amazing how many of those eternal miles you can travel in the company of someone else.

So what did I learn about love? Nothing that I didn’t already know and have to relearn at every turn. Love is so simple as to not be believable. Love is coiled and slumbering all around us, and we are mostly too shy, too self-conscious, too hurt, too fearful to reach in and out at the same time, and gently wake it up.

Burdocks

Burdock bud
Think not, how many are there?, or will they be hard to pick out?, or well, this is irritating. These are common responses. Think instead, what path was I walking, that I brushed up against something so eager to be with me?

We are the perfect hosts for whatever work we need. It is not something to be sought. Look only for the irritation, poking through the layers you have put on. The work is not to dig out the hooks, or wear a slicker slicker, or to go another way, or to hack down the burdock. These are common solutions. The work is to ask, and then know, what path was I walking, that made me a good host? The work is to make peace with one’s carrier status, and then walk again, eyes open, and heart still.

An Agile Life

Agile board of post-its
I struggle with feeling satisfied at the end of my domestic days. Slowing down, being mindful, and making a deliberate effort to do fewer things well, I was surprised to discover, left me feeling like I was not doing enough, and bad at everything. Coincidentally, this was also how I felt when I was taking on more than I could ever hope to accomplish. My solution to investigate this? Pay even more attention to what I’m doing, or rather, pay a different kind of attention.

I have stepped off the corporate path, and am still running my tongue around my gums to get the taste out. Yet, when it came to trying to figure out what is actually going on in my BIG TIME OUT, the most sensible thing I could think to do was to run an agile board. I spend a lot of time wondering why our corporate and economic models omit so much of real life, but as it turns out, this has been a really helpful lens to understand my own behavior. Funny that.

I’ve got five epics: my personal endeavors, kids & family, and the logistics of the household, a “today” task list, and, of course, a backlog. I put down all most some of the stuff I anticipate needing or wanting to do, estimate how long each task will take, and then prioritize the “today” column each morning. This has been a very educational experience.

Lessons learned:

I suck at estimating how long stuff will take. I rarely know how long something will take until I’ve done it. Often, I forget to measure in a discrete way, so I retroactively guess. Sometimes I skip estimating because I don’t know, but don’t bother break out a task into something more estimable, or even hazard my best guess. I’ve seen (and by and large believed) all of these things in development teams, but trying it with something so personal let me understand the limitations of estimates in a much deeper, felt sense.

I suck at prioritizing, and a rarely execute my day in the order of priority I’ve set. As a Product Manager, I wasted a lot of energy lamenting that business units have no idea how to prioritize. Turns out I don’t either. I don’t have a clear idea of what is most important. There are a lot of competing, non-binary factors that might make something more important, or not – it depends. As it happens, I can not predict the future, nor I am I all that comfortable with not being able to. I know how is ridiculous this is, still it remains true in my experience – which is frustrating.

Hierarchical models, like prioritization, are inherently binary – you’ve got more or fewer bits of “yes” turned on. But prioritization only remains accurate when layered on top of a perspective that it already matches. When they don’t match, then there’s a conflict to resolve. What I didn’t realize is that these conflicts are constant. Sometimes they’re small and obvious, like wanting to eat something before getting started, and sometimes they’re large and subtle, like reorganizing a business unit, or development team. Prioritization can be a useful framework, certainly, but expecting it to be a unifying, static definition of reality, well, that is not only impossible, but seems like a sure way to end up confused and disappointed. But we all agreed on the priorities… Equally as helpful as identifying what ever priorities are set, would be identifying all the conflicts that might impede them – and not just the obvious ones of time, budget, tools, and human talent. Comparing the length of those lists – priorities and conflicts – might be as accurate a predictor of project success, or percentage of overrun, than any other.

My “stuff” permeates the simplest tasks in way that is fairly alarming. It takes me five minutes to put in a load of laundry if I just grab enough clothes of a similar color, add soap, and start the wash. But if I do it the way I’m patterned to do it – get all the laundry from all over the house, and sort multi-tiered loads of laundry (bleachable whites, light whites, colors, and then by fabric weight within those groups, and/or other logical grouping like linens, kids, and adults) – then it takes me, well, longer, and how much longer varies based on the laundry that day. Subtle, personal preferences and patterns influence my actions in a way I just didn’t (don’t) realize.

My life is much more dynamic and emergent than a model like this allows for, which throws off my estimates and prioritization even more than they were to start. Almost nothing is linear, and I am constantly being interrupted. My tasks take way longer than I think they “should” because I am dealing with semi-rational, semi-functional, and unpredictable team mates. My kids are little and require a lot of help. Stuff takes longer because I need to do it for them, because they undo it, because they are doing something else at the same time, because they are practicing something they’re not yet good at, and almost everything at their age requires practice. I extrapolate my own (already bad) estimates onto the kids, and then end up unhappy that the reality did match a plan that was delusional to begin with. WTF? I can clean up, get dressed eat and be ready to leave in 30 minutes an hour, but doing this with my kids is a two, sometimes three hour job. I’ve spent years being frustrated by this, and feeling like this was somehow a personal failure of mine. And it was, but not in the way I thought – it was not a failure of execution, it was a failure to let reality define my expectations and actions, rather than the other way around.

My environment and the moods of myself and others are the largest influences of what I do. If the weather is nice, or my kids are foul, the day can take a radical departure from what I had planned. I am astounded at how much this alters the flow and choice of my activities; I suspect these likely hold a much larger sway in our business environments than we recognize.

Almost everything I do is cyclical, “done” is a dangerous fallacy. Seeing this (in the very concrete form of moving post-it notes back a forth, and back again) has helped me shift my attitude to valuing the quality of the process over the completion of the task. It’s also helped me see how the natural order of everything is fundamentally rhythmic. Any model that does not account for expansion and contraction is bound to fail at some point, because it’s leaving out half of something. This is what makes temporal models so tricky – time is linear, predictable, and only moves in one direction. When we bind other processes to time, it’s easy to expect them to share the same qualities, and consider the natural reset of the cycle a failure when viewed through the primary lens of time.

These are not particularly profound realizations, but rewiring my automatic response system to value action over outcome, and welcome resets, is a profound change (challenge) for me; it requires a lot of intentional awareness, emotional energy, and patience. A task is only done for a moment, before dust starts to accumulate again, or another dish gets placed in the sink. When understood in this way, valuing an instant of satisfaction, rather than the entire process in between those blips on the graph, seems insane. Why set up pleasure to be so brief, and so antagonistic to the natural course of events? I’m surprised by how strongly I associate the “completion” model with value, and how commonly I use that as my viewpoint.

The value of this process is in analyzing behavior, not outcomes. So frequently data, tracking, and analysis are used to pressure conformity to predefined outcomes – finish a project on schedule, loose three pounds this week, meet a testing standard – rather than understand the underlying reasons for any deviation that occurs. It’s good to have goals, it’s totally legitimate to have a schedule and a plan, but it’s also important to be able willing to question if the goal and the plan were reasonable to begin with, or if they account for all the common variables. Most discussions about “failure” are focused on what prevented the objective from being met (frequently cast as unpredictable, one-time events), or perhaps they skip right to fixing the problem. Typically it’s asked: How do we make up for the deviation that occurred, and prevent it from happening again? instead of Why did we see the deviation we did?

The most valuable part of this exercise has been to help me see that the root causes of my dissatisfaction are different than I thought. I’ve become more aware of my behavior, and make more conscious choices about what I’m doing. I’m more compassionate with myself, and more satisfied with the choices I make, in large part because they’re done intentionally, with fuller knowledge of what’s gained and lost. The data is not telling me what to do, it’s exposing what I already do – indirectly, by making visible the gaps between the model and what actually happened. I’m still not satisfied, but I’m less unsatisfied. I’ve got less doer’s remorse, and this is a good thing.