Tag Archives: gratitude

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.

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.

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.

Source Code

Numbers and symbols

I am spiraling down, down, down into the ascension.

I am disoriented. I have merged with nothing. I am standing inside the source and I can’t understand anything. I never pack right for this trip, I always forget to bring love, and I can’t interpret the code.

My heart is saturated, heavy, wet. The smallest movements break the fine tension, and this grief seeps into my blood. When I bend, my head throbs and my eyes leak. This sickness, it’s an injury in my blood, cycling, cycling, cycling, as my heart sucks and rasps and pushes. It touches every cell, and washes through my bones, and my bones moan.

I feel – acutely – the absence of everything I am supposed to feel, want to feel, remember feeling. I feel the absence of the life I wish so desperately to live in, as it happens around me. Feeling my definition through the negative space rather than a form I know as my own is so painful, so disorienting that I breathe as little as possible, so that I might become numb and stop feeling everything I am not experiencing. I am transparent to my own existence, a hollow steward of the next best guess. I can no longer find consciousness inside of me – it is a thin haze, vague. I am vague. I am listening for God but I have stopped being the channel – I am inside the code and I can’t understand it. I am terrified.

I did not pack right for this trip. I brought stacks of what I know, but I forgot to bring love. Nothing makes sense.

I am resting in the eye of the great dark forces that are the infinite source of space; I am witnessing destruction. I am much too delicate for God’s work. This pain is the pain of feeling the space between everything. Of flesh rent by the dark gravity of nothing. I cannot bear the pressure and the loneliness of being immaterial. I gape, and bow and weep at the feet of the Spacemaker, so that I may remember the great service I am spared. So that I may remember the privilege of love, and what it entails.

March, Listening

Line drawing of a face in profile, listening.

I don’t know how to listen to myself, and so I don’t know how to listen to others, so desperate am I to be heard. – A letter to Sophia

The biggest question that came out of my February practice was: if it is our natural inclination to instinctively reject what we haven’t experienced, how on earth do we cultivate genuine diversity? Diversity that doesn’t just look different, but sounds different, because it represents different values. And furthermore, what do we do about the experiences we can’t share? I can’t experience the world as man, or as a person of color, or even as my children do. I can’t experience the world as a frog does, or as the earth does, even when I guess. Perhaps, it requires, horror of horrors, trust, that a perspective we will never share is equally valid to the needs we intimately know.

An emerging pattern in my practice is the value of very simple responses in the face of overwhelmingly complex questions or problems. The power of a present witness, is immense. And so March is dedicated to the very simple, and immensely difficult, value of listening, in hopes that I might learn enough to know just a little bit.

Intention:
Listening, like love, seems like an essential component perspective. And perspective seems essential to appreciating experiences and values different than our own. I may never get to a point where I am able to cross the chasm between myself and another, and in that case, it would be awfully helpful to at least be able to hear each other across the void.

I want to learn to listen in a way that I haven’t been taught. I spend a lot of time in a second, internal, conversation with myself while someone is talking to me, in an effort to figure out what I think about it before they’re even finished. Needless to say, it’s a distraction. So this month’s practice is, in part, an investigation into the relationship between judgement and comprehension. Is it possible to understand what someone has told me, without judging what they mean?

I experience listening as having three general components: Comprehension – this is the most automatic response and includes understanding the literal meaning of words, or recognition of sounds, like a car door shutting. External Interpretation – this is the presumed meaning I layer onto the external event, for example, interpreting someone’s speech as sarcastic and understanding their words to mean the opposite of their literal definition. Or hearing my son start crying when he is playing with his brother and assuming that there was an altercation between them. Sometimes I get this right, and sometimes I don’t. Internal Response – this is the internal series of events that unfold based on what I’m hearing – mental imagery, emotional reaction, and especially mental talk: do I like what I’m hearing, dislike it, agree, disagree, is it causing me to remember, plan, distract myself, want to respond, etc. This is the area in which I most commonly disconnect from the external event, stop listening, and co-opt my attention into my own affairs. It is in this space I primarily want to engage, and practice listening without rejection.

As kids, we’re taught that “listening” means doing what we’re told. You’re not listening to me, and put on your listening ears – are common refrains from parents and teachers that signal: you’re not doing what I want. Listening becomes a euphemism for compliance, and given this, it’s no wonder we’re not very good at it as adults; we have come to equate listening with an infringement of our sovereignty, and a rejection of our sacredness as unique beings. This continuous message also conflates listening with the sense that we’re supposed to do something. It’s hard to just listen and not be compelled into some sort of action – a verbal response, the getting of an object, or entering into an agreement. Often these are perfectly appropriate responses, but often – maybe more often – they are not. With my children especially, there is a tacit, shared expectation between all of us that I have the role of the “fixer”. When children are very young, this is true and appropriate, but the weening required to transition my children off their physical and emotional dependence on me, is surprisingly hard to do – and I see these patterns show up in all relationships. We start from a shared engagement point and begin a dance of repetition, often forgetting that we need not stay bound to our paths of least resistance.

My intention in cultivating listening is to develop the skill of engaged observation. To neither say, with a glance, oh, it is raining, or to chase raindrops all the way down to the lake bed, pointlessly muddying the water. But to watch instead with attention and clarity the distinctions in the pattern, so that I might hear each echo across the surface and know what’s shifting.

March Activities:

  • Meditate every day on Talk Space (internal sound) or Sound Space (external sound). This is formal skill building for the tasks of listening to my internal and external experiences.
  • In conversation, put my attention into listening fully, rather than on inner commentary, preparing a response, or simply wandering off into some other mental process. This will require slowing down, not doing so many things at once, and much more focused attention.
  • Three times a week, listen for 20 minutes or more to non-English language sound. This is similar to the formal meditation task, but designed specifically to practice deep listening in a context that will create less reaction.
  • Pray daily, ask and listen to know my work for the day. Prayer and meditation are increasingly blended experiences for me, and what I experience over and over again through my practice is humility for my smallness, and gratitude for my life. There is great joy in this, and a deep desire to live my life in honorable service to the greater context in which I exist.

Expectations:
I expect this to be really hard, and strangely lonely. I just don’t have a lot of experience listening this way, and I most people I know don’t either. It will also be hard because I so often have multiple people talking to me at the same time – I get overwhelmed and want to control the situation. I expect that I will get better at staying out of stuff I don’t need to get into. I expect my life will be enriched by valuable perspective that I wouldn’t have previously noticed. I expect I will have more insight into my own behavior. I can’t decide if I expect to have more or less insight into other people’s behavior.

What do I value?
I value honoring the expression of other people. I value the chance to show someone I respect their humanity by how I receive their words, regardless of what they say.

What do I want?
I want to be taken seriously. I want to be thought of as someone who is trustworthy.

Where is the Resistance?
I will want to be right. When I perceive that someone doesn’t agree with me, I will be tempted to think that it’s only because they don’t understand what I’m saying, and I will try to explain myself again.

I will have a hard time not agreeing or disagreeing. I consider these somehow to be an indication that I have “heard” what someone said and that my response is a validation of this. Sometimes this can be true, but more likely it only serves to reinforce my own sense of self relative to them.

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be misunderstood.
I am willing to say less.
I am willing to acknowledge what I don’t know.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained:

  • Freedom – by keeping my attention on listening, I hope to be freed (a little bit) from a compulsion to act immediately as a result of what I hear.
  • Acceptance – other people are not me, and don’t need to be.
  • Patience – like freedom, I hope through practice to learn how to wait, and gain better discernment about what requires action and what doesn’t.
  • Confidence – words can become a way to ease and divert discomfort. By sitting more with my reactions, I will learn what I value by experiencing my discomfort, or the discomfort of others.

Lost:

  • The sensation of intimacy. By building a sense of “sameness” through my internal experience I create a sense of being like others. In an effort to suspend some of this, I think I will end up discovering the gulfs I paper over with assumption.
  • The sensation of separateness. The abstraction I use to create a sense of intimacy should, theoretically, also be what creates my sense of separateness, but somehow this feels less true. Perhaps because my sense of individuality is so deeply conditioned, it’s harder to shake loose.

Sidebar, Fear and Sadness
Since this exercise is about discovery, it’s worth noting the rather despairing fear that writing this has roiled up. I am suddenly very, very worried that listening to people is going to identify all sorts of differences between us and leave me feeling separate, isolated, unseen and alone. Oddly, the reverse of this – that I should also see the many ways in which I am like other people – does not feel like it will happen. It’s hard for me to imagine how this will work if I don’t create it. There is some really low-level emotional response in me that connects listening to vulnerability. I guess this is good to know, but it feels awful, and discouraging. I sincerely want to appreciate the differences between myself and others. I want to share in the value others bring and that I cannot create myself, and yet it’s hard for me to imagine how I might move from acknowledgement to appreciation. So many people hide their beauty, masterfully, and guessing can end in a mess. It feels like I’m missing some critical, connective piece that allows the transition between these two parts of experience.

Gifts, Mother-Fucking Gifts

As I clean out objects from my house, the number of gifts I come in contact with is astounding. Paying attention to my reaction to gifts, as I decide to keep them, or give them away, I’ve begun to realize how complex they are. Lest I sound ungrateful, let me say that I am not. I am fortunate to have incredibly generous family and friends; I truly appreciate the affection, generosity and thoughtfulness with which the gifts we have were given. But gifts are complicated in a way that I think is worth exploring, and is not mutually exclusive to gratitude.

My family is given so much stuff – it’s a big contributor to how much stuff we have. I’ve got perfectly good T-shirts (for example), and I’ve got newer T-shirts, and I’ve got brand new T-shirts, and so does everyone else in my house. And when I get new versions of the same thing, it’s rare for me to immediately swap out an earlier version in order to maintain object-stasis. I just accumulate more and more. What we call consumerism, is actually much closer to collectionism, or the cycle of collectionism and disposalism, which in our house runs at a cycle of about 3:1. Aside from food and cleaning products, very few physical objects in my home actually get consumed. It’s part of what makes it so hard for me to get rid of things – they still seem perfectly good to me.

Gifts are sticky. A gift is more than the object itself, it is imbued with the expectation of our pleasure. And for my part at least, I really want to live up to this expectation. I was taught that a gift should be freely given, without expectation, but in practice I struggle to trust in this aspiration, either as a giver or a receiver. Gifts give form to our hope and fear, and in their embodied separateness keep us safe. We bear objects instead of our hearts, and so can tolerate the occasional shooting of the messenger.

Gifts reflect the intimacy between the giver and the receiver. When a gift captures a genuine knowledge of what the receiver enjoys, it is a truly magical experience. My most pleasurable gift experience was giving a race car driving experience to my husband, who is a NASCAR fan. I knew he was going to love the gift. I enjoyed weeks of anticipation before Christmas. I knew it would be a total surprise. And it was all of those things. He loved it. He never would have guessed. And then six months later, when summer came and he went and did it, he loved the experience. We got to enjoy it all over again. It remains a fond memory for both of us, but for me it’s also tinged with disappointment that I might never have that peak experience again.

And sometimes the intimacy reflected back at us in the exchange of gifts is one we’d rather not spend too much time looking at. We might have to confront that we don’t know the receiver of our gift well enough to be confident that they will like it. We might have to wrestle with the internal what? seriously? in the reception of an unwanted gift, as we do our best to be externally gracious. We might have to admit that we are not trusting enough of ourselves, or the relationship, to share our anxiety about these things. We might have to do this with people we are not “supposed” to have to do this with, like our family members. A failed gift suddenly becomes a failure of knowing, and even when this is small, sometimes because it is small, we turn away from it. We smile, we say thank you, we honor the intention, but we do not honor the reality, and into this gulf intimacy recedes a little further.

Tradition and etiquette combine to turn a beautiful practice into a super-storm of emotional complexity. Our traditions change much more slowly than the reality of our needs. Bridal and baby showers come from an era when the objects bestowed were designed to last a lifetime (or at least a long time), and when the household earning power was a fraction of what it typically is today. We live in an age where availability of things, both in terms of cost and proximity, far outpace our actual need for them. It’s hard to resist the cultural weight of our customs, not to mention the excitement that often accompanies them, and so we focus on the pleasure, setting aside the rest for a later reckoning. I have encountered a surprising number of things in my home that I don’t particularly like, yet I have passively allowed them to become the things that represent me, which is weird.

All objects come with the responsibility of ownership, and in my experience, there is very little acknowledgement about this by either the giver or the receiver. How would gift-giving change if every time we gave someone a gift, they gave us something they already owned? Thank you for this new scarf, I love it! Here is another scarf I already have, please take it. If I keep it, I’ll have to enjoy it half as much, or wash it twice as often.

What might a new etiquette for a culture of abundance look like? Many people refrain from gift-giving already, reducing or eliminating the exchange of gifts. But what if we also stared to encourage gift-giving as an act of redistributing value? Imagine a birthday party invitation that said, If you wish to honor the celebration of Jonah’s life with a gift, please consider donating a toy to Toys for Tots. And then, at the party the birthday kid could be celebrated for the generosity they helped foster. Would it work, or would you just end up with a teary child that didn’t understand why their party was so weird and different, and they didn’t get any presents?

Or what if amazon.com had a “this is a donation” option right next to the “gift” check box, that would allow you to send a gift directly to a charity, and a write donation card to the person on whose behalf you gave? In the card you would explain how much you valued this person, and why you thought they would value helping someone else. It would be a way to acknowledge something beautiful you recognize and appreciate in that person, and honor it through helping someone else.

Or what if at the Christmas tree, along side the bag full of discarded wrapping paper, there was a donation box. When each family member opened a present, the giver could explain why they had chosen the gift. The receiver would listen, thank them, and decide if they wanted to keep or donate the gift, or donate something else they already owned. When choosing an item for donation, the person would talk about why they did not need that item, how it had mattered to them, and why they thought it would be useful to someone else.

These ideas make me squeam a little. They seem plausible, and at the same time, corny, almost cloying in their earnestness. It’s hard to imagine being this thoughtful, this honest, in every exchange. It takes time and attention, bravery and trust. It takes knowledge of oneself, love of others, and the willingness to tolerate the rejection of what’s in your heart.

January, Clarity

The super-self me project is underway, and January is dedicated to the value of Clarity. I am suddenly feeling very self-conscious about publishing this – but I’m at my deadline, and rather than evaporating while trickling my way to perfection, I’m going to see what happens when I follow my own rules. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, right?

I had a hard time selecting a single word to represent this theme. I’ve been talking about it as “cleansing and purification month,” but what those actions are about is creating physical space and mental clarity. In the end, it all more or less reduces to cultivating clarity in the causes and conditions out of which my reality arises.

Intention:
This was a natural fit for January, when the excess of the holiday season makes it easy to embrace cleaning out and cleaning up. I also liked the idea of having a clean space and a clear mind as my baseline for the undertaking of this project.

The physical environment of my home seems like the most controllable condition that contributes to my experience. I enjoy having uncluttered space. I love needing something and knowing exactly where to find it. I am a little bit compulsive about wanting things cleaned up and put away. Sharing a house with a husband who works from home a lot and three kids under six, results in a space that’s much busier and messier than I would choose to live and work in, all things being equal. I get overwhelmed by how much stuff there is, I accidentally buy things we already have, and I spend more time than I want to maintaining, and thinking about maintaining, the objects in our lives. There isn’t enough pregnant emptiness into which new thoughts and actions can be born, so enslaved am I to bounty we already have.

I want the objects in my environment have a specific purpose in my life. I want to enjoy less, more. To the extent I can, I want to create a crafted, purposeful environment. My house feels like a choking ecosystem. It’s a nice little house, it’s just all clogged up with the detritus of busy, inattentive living.

The most immediate desire I have is to reduce the labor and attention I give to object maintenance. When I was getting paid for my work, and I worked outside of my home, what I had and who took care of it was not something I paid a lot of attention to. George took care of the lawn, a rotating set of Brazilian women cleaned my house. Smiling, Portuguese-speaking apparitions who, I’m ashamed to admit, were as interchangeable to me as they apparently were to their boss. Now that I have chosen to BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN THINGS, I am feeling the crush of my leveraged lifestyle collapsing back on top of me. When other people cleaned my house and clipped my lawn, I consumed at a rate greater than one person because I outsourced the effort of ownership.

I want to have a serene space in which to live and work, but I still don’t want to spend a lot of my time maintaining it. So this month is about the over-due reckoning of living within my means, but beyond my capacity. I gotta own my shit, and this means removing obstructions that prevent me from placing my awareness at the deepest level available to me. A big part of this month’s activities is about doing this literally, by reducing the things in my home, but I also want a clearer internal baseline. The more I meditate, the less I enjoy drinking. The pleasure is briefer, and the side effects are more obvious. I also think it has a bigger impact on my mood stability, physical comfort, and energy level than I wish were true. So, I as I clean up the distractors around me, it seemed like a good corollary to stop putting chemical distrators in me.

I want to have more meaningful relationships with fewer objects. As I’ve slowly (often begrudgingly) settled into the intimacy of my own life, I’ve realized how much pleasure and wonder there can be in simple tasks. One of my fondest memories from this past summer was sweeping a batch of tiny brown, papery husks that fell all over our deck from blossoming tree. At the time, there was a big orb weaver in residence, and I noticed the same husks caught in its web. The next morning, a small batch of them were scattered below the web; overnight, the spider had meticulously picked out each one and repaired the silk threads. The symmetry of our actions was so beautiful and so moving I started crying (surprise). I felt such camaraderie with that eight-eyed, eight-legged little cleaner. I felt intense gratitude for this quiet offering of validation that, yes, I too was part of the nature of things, and I thought Holy shit, this is what it feels like to really live inside my own life. This is amazing. I want to keep doing this.

January Activities:

  • Abstinence from alcohol.
  • Exercise 3 times a week, 30 minutes or longer.
  • Remove all unused objects from the house.
  • Find a place for all remaining objects.
  • Establish a system for maintaining space and clarity.

Expectations:
Some of my expectations seem really tangible, like spending less time cleaning and less time thinking about cleaning, but some of them are extremely vague, even foofy, like feel happier and lighter. Part of what’s good about trying to identify my expectations is the simple act of seeing how unspecific they are. They’re almost more aspirations, but for the (almost) non-judgemental record, they also include:

  • Be less bothered by the (mostly kid) mess around me, because there will be less of it, fewer conditions for it to arise, and because I will be more ok with it by the end of this month of practice. I expect my perception will shift in a way I can’t quite articulate, but I think it will end up more accepting and relaxed, for having exposed some of my own ridiculousness.
  • If I sincerely, consistently live the behavior, my kids will start to copy it
  • Enjoy the visual and functional aesthetic of less clutter.
  • Become more aware of my consumption patterns: buy less, enjoy it more, and actually consume it. I.e. eat it, wear it, wash it away…
  • I expect it won’t work the way I think it’s going to, and expect I’ll be a little disappointed about this.

I had to really resist the desire to over-work the four questions. I wanted to make sense of them up front, refine them into a more palatable, more likely list. Some of them don’t make a ton of sense relative to this theme, some of them are in conflict, but it feels right to try to grab it as a rough snapshot of where I’m at.

What do I Value?

  • Opportunity – which to me seems inextricably linked to open space. A chance for something new to emerge.
  • Truth – seeing as complete and unobscured of a reality as is possible for me.
  • Trust – being calm and secure that I have done as much as is reasonable to enable seeing clearly.

What do I Want?

  • I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet, and I’m sort of herky-jerking along. I want there to be something more, something different. This might be something new in its own right, or just a new dimension to what already exists. There is a sort of icky-seeming sense of wanting to be “saved” buried in that desire. Ugh.
  • I want more time for my independent adult life, writing, reading, meditating, seeing friends, etc.
  • I want better focus.

Where is the Resistance?

  • I’m not sure I want to be ok with messiness. I have a sense of pride about myself associated with high standards, hard work, and excellent performance. I’m sort of a controlling person, I stink at letting go.
  • Staying perpetually engaged with the mundane is a great way to ensure nothing I care deeply about will go wrong, for it never goes at all.
  • I have a sense of frugality and conservatism that I’m attached to. I don’t like to throw things away because I don’t want to be wasteful. It’s so ironic that that an undertaking to have less would challenge my sense of frugality. It’s because my idealism about being frugal is about to get called onto the carpet, packed up, and donated to a worthy cause.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Time for my personal projects. If I have less to maintain, I will spend less time on maintenance. It is so, so much more expeditious to do housework when the kids aren’t here, and I spend precious solitude on cleaning instead of writing, meditating, connecting, etc.
  • Satisfaction… (red flag!) I struggled to articulate this any further, best guesses included: at having changed my patterns and habits / having accomplished “it” (no idea what it is) / walking into a clean room.
  • Appreciation for what I have – Making intentional choices about the purpose of the objects I keep will allow me to understand the value and use they provide.
  • Humility – Having to confront the amount of stuff I have that I don’t need will help me acknowledge the degree to which I take more than is necessary.
  • Acceptance – doing the work has a way of exposing what’s at the top of the “let it go” stack.

Lost

  • A sense of cultural convention – I live in a middle-class suburb – drinking while socializing, and consumerism are just part of the vernacular.
  • The soothing and time consuming activity of shopping – I use it to kill time and get my kids out of the house on long days together. It feels satisfying to have “done” something like get groceries and gives me a break from the non-stop requests for attention, snacks, help, etc. when we are in the house.
  • Security – I tend to keep stuff out of a “just in case” sense that I will need it later.
  • Ease – I have a family that – loving as it is – is not quite so interested in this exploration of pseudo-asceticism as I am. Giving away their stuff on my behalf might not always go over well.
  • Old values and relationships – I’ll have to say goodbye to the emotional payload in objects I don’t value, or need, anymore. This one is going to be really hard.

Sidebar…

Possible Gotchas

  • I’ll just find different things to distract me. Distractions are internal, I’m just a lot better at noticing the outward manifestations.
  • I’ll spend more time with fewer objects, and get no net gain on free time. (The whole concept of “free time” is silly enough for me to cringe when I write that, but it has a valid colloquial meaning of: activities I’m unwilling to stop doing.)
  • I won’t reduce nearly enough stuff to make a tangible difference.

A Question to Watch For:
How much of the mess is generated by people, rather than the proliferation of objects? As I wrote this piece, the whole thing started to have a wag the dog feeling. It’s possible I’ve got it all backwards – that the people will generate the same amount of physical disorder no matter what, and no matter how much I get rid of it won’t matter.

The Immaculate Deaths of Trees

The grass bends easily in the wind. The great oak stands unmoved. A strong wind can uproot the oak, but no wind, however strong, can uproot the grass that bends flat before it.

-Chin-Ning Chu, Thick Face, Black Heart

Fallen oak tree
I am walking on the estate again. I reach the boundary gate at the river, and turn to look at the water. To my amazement, the stone mansion I have been glimpsing, straining to see from the road a quarter mile down river, is directly in front of me across the bank. It is only now that the leaves have died and fallen away, that I can see what’s been nearer than near, all along. Only now, that they have honored their totality of purpose, and completely released, is the sought object revealed to be already present. It is as if God has sighed tenderly and said, Clear enough, baby? I begin to cry, and I pray that I may die all my deaths with the grace and dignity of a leaf.

I am walking on the estate again. It’s been very windy and very few leaves remain above, but there are many below. It’s cold and bright, and I look at the mansion for a long time. I turn, and walk the other direction. In front of me is a fallen giant. I massive tree has shattered at its base and stretches across the lawn, all the way to the edge of the brook. Its size and its majesty are awe inspiring – and in its death, accessible for the first time. Dying changes the perspective of those who have only ever experienced us as living. Huge swaths of earth are torn up from the impact of the fall. Broken branches rest a foot into the ground.

There is an odd smell in the air. I weave under and around the limbs, touching the bark, marveling at the life of this creature. I decide to bring the boys back here later, so they might see something this rare for themselves – a body that’s been in the sky for hundreds of years, laid now at our feet. I look up at a branch still clutching leaves. It is an oak. They are always among the last to let go, holding their curling, russet leaves well past the first snow. I think about the cheerful, sugary maples, naked for weeks now. They helicopter down their soft seeds in the height of summer. A party. A ticker tape parade. Not like acorns at all, who hold their dense energy easily, stoically, all winter long. I feel a chilly sadness for the oak, for the vulnerability of staunchness.

I am walking on the estate again. The oak has been cleared away, the splintered stump, neatly sawed across the top. Around the edges, the tree rings are clearly marked – a bending topography of time, etched in creams and browns. Towards the middle, the cut surface is ragged and white. I touch the outside rings; the wood is very firm. I touch the inner wood; it is soft and pulpy. I pick up a piece of wood left behind, with the grain clearly showing. It is very hard and heavy. I pick up a pale, ungrained piece. It is light, it crumbles easily between my fingers. This tree died from the inside out. It is how most of us die, but strangely, we rarely think of it that way. We think of it as something that happens to us, rather than something that emerges from within us. There are tiny pine seedlings at the base of the once-here tree. I wonder, do they know the fortune that’s befallen them? Do they feel the light that has always been there, but is newly born to them?

I am walking on the estate again. The oak stump comes into view, a tidy headstone in memorial to itself. Everything about the way trees die and live, is immaculate.

Interactive Art

globe-18-Inside-earth-by-Marine-PEYRE-370x339

Photo credit to http://www.coolglobes.org/

After dinner with my friend Daphne the other night, I had some time before my train. I love having open time to let something nice happen. It didn’t take long. In front of the Boston Public Library, I sat and listened to Aisling Peartree who was singing, singing, singing – singing for the pleasure of letting one’s soul vibrate, so it can shimmy on over and touch another’s. She was great. She was just so happy singing. I felt happy too.

I wandered across the street to check out the cool globes that are in Copley Square right now. My favorite one was the Inside Earth globe.

People love to be invited into an open space. People stopped to discuss if, in fact, it was okay to sit in it. They climbed in, had their picture taken, swapped places, leaned between the legs of their sitting lover, popped their kids up to have a turn. They smiled and laughed. They had a relationship with the art. Invitation is, perhaps, the oldest technology around.

I climbed in too, and meditated. It was brief sit, but a great perspective-shifting experience. Inside the globe, sound and vibration changed. It was a little bit like what happens when you’re underwater, and it created the distinct feeling of being acted upon. I went from being part of experience in the world, to having the experience of the world happen to me. The rumble of the truck felt like is was running over me. Sound, especially deep sound, like the the bass of loud music, left me feeling a little bombarded. And just by tucking in and closing my eyes, I immediately became an object of an “other” category: oh, she’s in there…, as if there wasn’t right here, together.

I thought, this is what the earth feels like. We rumble all over it, we drown out it’s sound in favor of our own, and see it as distinctly different than ourselves. I felt deep compassion for our planet, and humility at how much perspective I lack 99.999% of the time. That’s a successful piece of art.

Sound is especially important, because it’s so hard to find any true quiet, once you’re listening. We can close our eyes and still our bodies, but sound is very difficult to control. When I got off the train and it pulled away, it drown out every other auditory signal, and I realized how vulnerable I felt, loosing – even just for a moment – and entire sense. Coming up into the Back Bay concourse, it was a blur of noise – announcements, people talking, fans, echos – and I realized that maybe part of why we are so tense, so subtly fearful, is we’ve lost our ability to consume the natural queues in the world around us. Our instincts are injured – literally deafened – and we feel less connected to our environment as a result.