Tag Archives: friendship

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.

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.

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.

Sweet Weeping

For Keri

Maple branch leaking sap

One hundred yards back, looking towards the clearing,
I see the drops gleaming. Shining all the way down.

It is dry.
My coat rubs electricity out of the air
and sends it snapping out my fingertips.
I am a good and unhappy conduit.

Closer, I hear the tap of liquid on leaves, slow and irregular.
I break a swelling drop across my finger.
I taste wood, dry air, and faint, sweet maple.
I taste my childhood.

Dark branches leak the surging sweetness. Climbing and awake,
in a race of a different pace,
spilling now in the slow tip of craftsmanship.

It is in the jointed places, that life runs out.
In the broken places, life pools. The bark shines,
the wound glistens, calling attention to the bounty that springs from there.

Digital Bleed

phone charger in a box of bandages

The Friday before Fourth of July week, I am in the city, with no particular plans, and no technology to assist me with my own life. I recently gave up my smartphone, and have been seeing what life is like without it.

What’s most interesting about this experiment (almost three weeks now) is how much I’ve learned from the experience of absence. We usually seek improvement on the assumption whatever we have is deficient, not that it’s too much. Our first instinct is towards abundance, rather than reduction. Aside from our cultural obsession with efficiency, we rarely consider elimination as a path to improvement. Why is this?

Living without a smartphone has been like entering another communication class. I’ve dropped outside of the tools, patterns, and expectations now common in my peer group: A friend of mine is several hours late to visit, I finally call her, slightly worried, and she says: I’ve been in terrible traffic, didn’t you get my texts? I miss my train, and now will be home several hours later than I planned. I want to let Brendan know this, but have no phone to call him. I find a payphone (a payphone!), which I think is a delightful novelty. Even more amazing, I have quarters with me. As I dial, I realize I know exactly three phone numbers, four if you count my childhood number for a house now inhabited by people I don’t know. Without technology to store, query, and display on demand, I have to be responsible for details of my life that I had become transparent to me. I have to remember more things, like what time the train leaves, and to check my watch.

All that pocketed availability, kept me slightly separate, slightly suspended from my physical, present, reality. The divide is so subtle, I could only see it once it wasn’t in front of me any more. As our technology gets more luscious – more vivid, more social, more soothing – we soften into it. As it becomes more ubiquitous, we forget what life was like without it – we forget that there even is a “without it”.

So I’m in town, and I decide to stop by the Pearson offices where I used to work and still have some friends, one or more of whom, I am hoping to coax into having some fun with me. I suddenly remember that the building is “secure” – the lobby will have a clerk, watching for the swipe of a digital key card. I do not have a digital key card. I do not have an appointment. I do not have a phone to call, or email, or text my friends, and circumvent the system. It occurs to me for the first time, that all that security isn’t to keep dangerous people out, it’s to keep non-dangerous people in. Digital bleeds both ways. It’s a seeping, creeping, invisible gas that wafts between the bricks and glass, and puts us back in touch with the people we willing lock ourselves away from, nearly every day of the week. It’s a tugging, hugging vacuum that bends us away from the people right in front of us who want and deserve our attention. In a meeting, on walk, out for drinks, in the kitchen, on the road, at the playground.

I meander through Boston common and the public garden. I consider trying to sneak in, verses following the rules. I decide to follow the rules because I think that will actually be a lot more interesting than gliding by. I’m giddy by the time I arrive. There’s a man at the desk in the lobby.

Hi.
Good morning.
I’m here to visit someone at Pearson. I don’t have an appointment, so I’m hoping you can help me get in touch with her.
Who are you here to see?
Beth Porter. Can you call and see if she’s available?
Do you work here?
No, but I used. You could just let me go up, and I can track her down. Whatever is easier.
I can’t let you do that.
He reaches for the phone, then stops and looks at me. The fastest thing would be for you to call her.
I don’t have a phone, smiling broadly.
He stars at me, nonplussed. If I had said: I don’t have a phone at the moment, because I threw it at a brain-eating zombie who was chasing me through the common, I think he would have been less surprised.
Isn’t that amazing? I say.
Yes. It is.
After another moment,Do you have a license?
Yes! Yes, I do have one of those.

I’m giggling now. I hand him my license. He looks at it. He looks at me. He rolls his chair over to his computer and types something.
Ok, there you are.
I realize he’s looking at my old employee profile, and I’m surprised that I’m still in the security system.
Why don’t you just let me go up?
I can’t do that.
What do you think would happen? Are you worried I’ll do something?
It’s against the rules. I don’t make the decisions.

I shrug, smile.
He picks up the phone and talks to someone. He says my name. He says Beth’s name. He hangs up. I stand. He sits.
What happens now?
They come and arrest you. I’m sorry, I’m just doing my job.
I smile. I love this guy.
Take this, just in case, and he hands me a guest pass ID to stick on my shirt. Ninth floor.
Thank you. As I head towards the elevators, he says something back, but I don’t hear it clearly. It sounds like Good tidings.

On the ninth floor, there is another man at a desk. He has a pad of paper next to him. My name is written on it. Beth’s name is written on it. He tells me Beth was not at her desk. Would I like him to send her an email? I consider this. I have no way to get the response unless I wait. I don’t have anything urgent to do. Beth is almost never at her desk, and when she is, she is often on the phone. I figure the chances are high, that if she is working, she will see an email quickly. Yes, sure, thank you.

He tells me it’s very quiet in the office today. I have forgotten it’s the Friday before a holiday week. I try to convince him to let me in. He won’t. He tells me it’s against the rules. He could lose his job. I have a nice face, and he doesn’t think I would do anything, but he could get in trouble just the same. I’m disappointed. There is a new, open layout that I’m told everyone hates, because there is no privacy and all the executives are working right next to everyone else. This doesn’t seem like it would be too big of a problem, because in my experience, startups are the only companies where the executives are in the office much. I have no way to know if the people that work there really hate this arrangement, because the only people I’ve talked to about it are people, like me, who don’t work there any more. I want to see what it’s like.

Beth is not responding, so I ask him to call some other people. He’s very obliging. It starts to feel like a game. Leslie, voice mail. Daphne, voice mail. Bob, strait to voice mail. No wait, let me try his other phone, voice mail. I remember that Beth, Leslie and Daphne all have summer homes. I don’t know if Bob has a summer home or not, but I’ve been told he has a new girlfriend, which is probably even more enticing than a vacation home. My friends don’t need rescuing. They aren’t locked up. They’re out in the world, and I wonder in which direction they’re bleeding, or if they’ve pressed and held, to stop the flow.

Dinner for Ali

My Photo Stream3

Ali is a beautiful person. I’m really lucky to know her. We’re about the same age, our kids are about the same age. We have┬ásimilar┬ápersonalities. We both grew up in Vermont, and moved to the same town in MA, before we ever met each other. Funny, huh? Sometimes it takes a while for things to happen.

I made dinner for Ali yesterday, because she had a lot going. It was the highlight of my day, cooking dinner for Ali, listening to pop music, dancing in my kitchen, making beautiful food for someone I love. Thanks Ali. Thanks for being so special.