Tag Archives: humility

November, Gratitude

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

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

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

November Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Gained and Lost?

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

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

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

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

October, Community

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

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

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

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

October Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

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

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

Lost

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

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.

Immaculate Capitulation

partially burned clover

I could linger here for hours, sinking deeper into the
busy stillness, that unwinds when I bed down
in the sweet grasses, and watch the world work.

Beetles, blossoms, birdsong.

The swollen heat of high summer has come.
It tugs, and thrums and meters out the breath of life.
I consider the sticky, happy, bleed
of pressing sunshine.

The Earth’s gentle turning yields generosity
from a relentless sun.
This critical act of immaculate capitulation
allows us to rest in darkness and gather strength to
create again.

I am feeling to find these threads,
sensitizing myself to touch the cords with confidence,
and know which action is needed.
I am thinking about how to honor the lineage of this
relationship, of knowing when enough has come. Of
knowing what to turn away from, and what to turn into.

I trust the material I am made from, yet know so little
of its working. This wisdom murmurs late at night as
the narrator of my dreams, and in the daylight hum of
the cicada.

Our distance from our native knowledge of how to be,
is perhaps the greatest consequence of our
advancement. I have seen nothing else in nature that
extrapolates its expectations beyond the boundaries of
sensation.

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.

Still Listening

The reflection piece for my March practice of Listening is taking a long time. I keep working on it, and working on it, and it’s not right yet. It doesn’t feel right yet – something is amiss, but I can’t tell what. I’m pretty sure that I’m angry, and that’s making it hard to find and work out the imbalance. If anything, the lesson learned this month has been to accept that sometimes, listening honorably requires allowing things to be done in time rather than on time.

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.

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.