Tag Archives: listening

The Intimacy of Proximity and The Privilege of Distance

Waves crashing on a beach
The Power of Presence
I have watched my relationship with my children evolve from me as a frustrated, ineffective power-broker, to one where I listen more, listen differently, and am less invested in having my way. And much of this shift happened because of an erosion of my illusions from the ceaseless wash of living in near constant contact with my children. There is a change that happens when our edges are perpetually touched by someone else’s – both are reshaped into something new. And what’s on my mind, is how, or even if, we are capable of digital touch.

When we share a physical space, we share the felt experience of our companions. Humans are deeply social creatures; we feel most complete when we feel fully understood by one another. But we have an equally intrinsic need for solitude. A need for the quiet, unmolested space of ourselves. Through the interplay of these desires, we learn what our soul, our True Self needs for its next phase of unfolding, and we calibrate the path of our True North.

When we live too much in isolation we lack precious perspective, and the relief of seeing ourselves in the greatness and baseness of others. It is in the pressure of being together that we discover our limits, by breaching the boundaries of our good intentions. I never intend to yell at my children, but I do. I never intend to be distant from my husband, but I am. These acts are part of the full expression of my humanity – the immediate assertion of my urgent and neglected desires – for the chaos to cease, for my will to be acknowledged, for solitude in a close space. Equally surprising (and more delightful) are the spontaneous confessions of love, the wonder of watching snow fall, the gratitude expressed for favorite clothes washed, and favorite meals made. Receiving and absorbing these acts is equally important for living a complete life; they reinforce what I value, not because I know it, but because I feel it.

These thousands of small interactions are how I teach the people I love, and teach myself, what I need. Words can lead us to an agreement, but only a shared discomfort, or a shared joy creates a shared experience. It is almost impossible for me to live a set of values into the world, if I haven’t integrated them with my desire through personal experience – knowing about them is not enough, I have to touch them, and be touched by them. This is the marrow of intimacy, the merged sensation of a shared life. How I choose to acknowledge my behavior is how I learn to listen to myself and grow into a person more capable of serving others.

What I miss the most about the jobs I was paid to do is the shared work of a common goal. I miss the tacit intimacy in the act of showing up, I care about this. I will come here, day after day, and help you with this thing we both love. I have come to understand, through deliberately withdrawing, how much I require intellectual companionship. And what I love about raising my children is the explicit intimacy of being in constant presence with people I cherish. Through deliberately engaging with them I have learned that relentless contact forces a full expression of my humanity. It is only through confronting our ruptured shadows that we are instructed in our deepest needs, and invited to grow into the space that beckons. I care about you. I will be here, day after day. I will learn to love myself more fully, so that I may love you more fully. The act of sharing our lives with others is a participatory prayer that tests our relationships. It is an act of creation by which we enrich the world through what we give away.

I have come to deeply value the sensuality of close living, despite the fact that I also find it exhausting and stressful. The physical, emotional and auditory cues a person provides are incredibly useful for understanding how to have a relationship with them. It is the continuity of exposure that makes it possible to learn the rich, complex patterns out of which people and relationships evolve. My children are incapable of doing anything less than crashing into my edges with the same regularity and unpredictability as the sea from which all life emerged. Rolling in this brackish space forces me to honestly examine my boundaries, and redefine them.

Like everything, these signals are contextual. They are patterned. They take time to learn, and longer to interpret. Evolution is the slow ghost we grow into, so that we might die complete. When we encounter behavior that doesn’t match a person’s words, we receive an invitation to engage. When we see them again and again, we have the chance to – and thank goodness, because it takes time to work up the courage to show up whole. When our shadow-side throws the yoke of manners, we leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Proximity tests our relationships, by drawing us in to the point that we are forced us apart. Our bodies lead us to act out our full identity, they live with a ruthless honesty and belie the narratives we prefer. And that identity, the dark and the bright, the overt and the unknown, is shaped in turn by what we rub against.

This Profile is Not My Body
I find Social Media unsatisfying and one dimensional. There are different platforms, and different tools, but Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Sanpchat, blogging, all of these are essentially asynchronous broadcast platforms, that allow mostly written and visual snapshots of what someone was thinking or doing. The Social Web promises radically uninhibited communication, but our most prominent tools offer us little more than a wide variety of selfies – here’s what I bought, here’s what I like, here’s what I think, here’s what I hate, here’s an adorable cat gif, here’s my foot at the beach. And these bits don’t allow for the richness of shared experience in an embodied way, or in a simultaneous occurrence. The resonance I discover is so fleeting, that I struggle to integrate it in a way that informs how I live in the world. Social media isn’t social, it’s a marketplace of other people’s selfies. It’s a high volume, transactional system, a glossy log of the lives our peers and loved ones mostly live without us. We talk about how the internet “connects us” but really, it connects us to a history of people’s selective, recorded expression. It gives us a tool for finding people who express things we like, but it is not a tool for being together. That, just as always, is a responsibility that resides with us.

The Power of Privilege
Social Media privileges a style of communication that succeeds without a reliance on physical proximity. Like all creative works, this technology reflects the values and insecurities of its builders and proponents. As someone who relies heavily on my sensory experience and wants togetherness to be part of my relationships, my identity, my expressed humanity, I feel unfulfilled by the promise of Social Media. And as is so often the case, when my desire is mis-matched with a prevailing power structure, I feel less-than. I feel isolated. I feel a deep urge to conform myself to an uncomfortable context, because that is the power of power. It’s so attractive it blinds people to the alternative of their own truth.

We increasingly seek, curate, and cultivate our relationships through digital communication. Without the repetitive intimacy of proximity to define (and erode) our edges, it becomes simpler to turn away from discomfort. As our boundaries become more diffuse we mark them with what we prefer, rather than what we encounter; it’s becoming easier to create an identity that’s shaped only by what we’re comfortable with. The reverse of this abstraction is also true. As our relationships become more abstract, less personalized, and less proximate, what we don’t like is easily hidden from us. How will this influence what we value in our interactions with others? How will it define the way we think about relationship, inform what we’re capable of giving, and our ability to empathize with the realities of others?

It is so hard to live a modern lifestyle without exchanging privacy for convenience that most of us have given up trying to do anything otherwise. Our social institutions, from banks, to friends, to schools, have raced to embrace technologies that accelerate the pace of our interactions, make them possible without physical presence, and measure us to provide insight and customization that will enhance our future engagements. The designers and evangelists of these technologies naturally favor the technology-based solutions they’ve created, and that we’ve adopted. We’re creating a feedback loop that reduces the edges we bump into, even as it amplifies our reach. And as we do this, we collectively begin to favor technological solutions to our human problems. We begin to favor what’s available, over what we need.

What is the extent to which we’ll cede our personal power in exchange for a promises of safety, knowledge, and advancement? As corporations grapple with the consequences of technology use – the ability to summon workers on demand, the at once tacit and manifest authority of Big Data, and their inability to protect the data they’ve collected – I see an upsetting pattern that consolidates power into the existing structures rather than fulfilling the promises they claim. The technology itself is becoming elevated as superior to the experience it creates, and pushes risk back onto the most vulnerable participants.

Uber, Handy and other companies laud the flexibility they afford their workers, while remaining inexplicably deaf to the insecurity that accompanies that freedom. In order to better serve customers and maximize profits, Starbucks and other fast food chains algorithmically adjust schedules and wreak havoc in the lives of employees who alternately scramble get daycare, or bridge the gap of lost wages, depending on how their hours change. In the name of better security, credit card companies are developing biometric authorization, which literally embodies the security risk in the cardholder.

“‘Removing card account numbers from the processing and storage of payments represents one of the most innovative and promising technologies we’ve seen in decades,’ said Visa Chief Executive Charlie Scharf in a news release.” And from the same article: “By getting rid of the sensitive card information, banks and merchants can leave hackers with nothing of value to steal if they break into their computer servers.”

To me, this just doesn’t count as innovation. The storage receptacle is changing, but the underlying concern is completely un-addressed: hackers gonna hack, and if there ain’t nothing left in the database, where do you think they’ll look next? Does merging our money with our identity, and our biology, really make us more safe? How does it benefit us to carry the risk of a financial contract in our flesh? It worked out in the Merchant of Venice, but few of us enjoy a great defense to ensure a happy ending.

Privilege emerges from the consensus of a population that prefers to mimic power, rather than question it. Check the “I agree to Terms” box. Swipe right. Like it. We are in the phase between Benefit and Standardization; Bondage is slumbering with one eye open.

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.

July, Perspecitve

Intention
I am halfway through my year-long project of Living Practice, and it feels like a good time to work on Perspective. Perspective is among the more rational values I value, one that embraces analysis, detachment and reasoning. It also requires listening and empathy in order to genuinely understand a perspective that is not instinctively my own.

One unexpected consequence of this project is how isolated I feel. I had (perhaps too romantic) a notion that as I deepened, clarified, and embraced my value system, that love and beauty would open up around me. That a world that didn’t make much sense to me would come into focus, and I would feel more peaceful, more eager to engage with confidence and affection. But what I feel is weird, different and confused. I feel like the only person on earth (which I am surely not) who wants to pursue such a task and share my experience about it. I would be thrilled, in fact I deeply want, for this endeavor to be valuable to someone other than myself, but I can not seem to find an audience, and that’s amplified my loneliness.

I don’t want to quit, nor do I want the remaining months to feel like a heartless march to completion. I’m having a hard time articulating why I’m doing this, it seems to have no purpose beyond its own completion. Perhaps that is enough, but I am uncomfortable being resolute without surety of purpose (it feels delusional), and I have grown quite tired of being uncomfortable. Doubt is of course an identity in its own right, but not one that seems to be offering me much. In cultivating Perspective, I hope to find what I currently cannot see, and to relax into a broader truth than the one I am creating.

July Activities

  • Suspend my own perspective in formal, Don’t Know practice, at least three times a week.
  • Solicit perspective from others.
  • Do small things differently. Record these tasks and any observations in my journal.

Expectations
I expect to have some moments of delight, of genuine novelty, when something new is revealed to me. I expect to be disappointed that everyone else is not a hidden sage, who will graciously make sense of everything for me.

What do I Value?
I value seeking and finding the common ground of the human experience. I value the ability to see something purposeful in positions I disagree with. I value acting in a way that shows I both know and cherish the better aspects of my nature, and wish to meet yours. I value the ability to not take myself too seriously, not take things too personally, while maintaining an unshakable sense of self worth.

What do I Want?
I want relief. I want rejuvenation. I want to feel energized and curious. I want to have some fun. I want help making sense of what I’m doing, and I want validation that it’s a worthwhile and noble task. I want to be seen clearly and be shown something new. I want to reconnect with the joy and lightness of experimentation. I want to stop treating my practice like the dour blanket of self-loathing sanctimony that it’s starting to feel like.

Where is the Resistance?
There is resistance to the whole exercise. I am late in writing up this piece. I seriously considered taking the month off from my practice structure, with the rationalization that not practicing would offer a legitimate alternative perspective to practicing. I’m also in the vexing resistance sandwich of simultaneously believing that some outside Perspective will come to my salvation, and that no one can possibly understand my experience well enough to offer something meaningful. I understand this is ridiculous, and am flummoxed on how I might begin to unwind it. I am also aware of the human tendency to interpret information in a way that reinforces what we already believe, so I will surely have some deeply innate psychological resistance to truly seeing things differently, and I’m not sure how much of that I actually have the ability to overcome.

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to be brave and ask other people for their perspective. I am willing to tolerate rejection. I am willing to listen. I am willing to be disappointed and not let that snowball into discouragement. I am willing to not take a conflict with my values and beliefs personally.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained
Well, hopefully, perspective. I hope to feel less important and more relevant.

Lost
My sense of specialness. It’s possible that my persistent experience of loneliness, of feeling different and disconnected, is a dysfunctional manifestation of my desire to be unique – to have a sacred purpose in the world that I alone can fulfill, in fact have a duty to fulfill as a spiritual being. There is an element of this desire that feels like an irreducible and inextricable part of my psyche – to irradiate it would be impossible and to attempt to do so would be profane. It is this desire that opens my heart and tightens my throat, that draws out tears that christen anew my faith in a purpose I don’t know. I never doubt the beauty and correctness of this desire, but everything that follows is a restless hunt through through the dusky borderland. By insisting on my separateness, by feeling it as real and wrenching isolation, even in the midst of others, I make my mark as special. And in failing to find a population to serve with grace and confidence, I ensure that I remain pristine. I don’t know how to accept being common, and simultaneously believe that I have something to offer. I am horrified by the elitism and prejudice in that mindset, which is perhaps why I choose – prefer – to suffer quietly and alone, than to reconcile an attitude that revolts me.

Everyone Talks in the New Conversation

“I still treat email to me as though it were considered correspondence. And I feel as though I have a responsibility to answer my correspondence. But I think that as we become more sophisticated, we’ll adopt a more humane set of rules…” – Sherry Turkle

“But the four people my book is about all chose a kind of solitude or separateness for themselves…And when I was putting the book together I’m just marveling at how separate they really were. Today these people would be on panels probably, they would get so many invitations they would never have any time to do anything else.” – Paul Elie

“I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on, is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?…what are the circumstances for ‘we’ that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me. And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible. And, that that can change our whole day.” – Ann Hamilton

“Hearing is how we touch at a distance.” – Susan Stewart, via Ann Hamilton

——————

This piece began when I heard Ann Hamilton use the phrase “alone together” to describe an experience very different than what Sherry Turkle explores in her book of the same title. I spent the month of March in the practice of listening. What it helped me realize was how much of my adult conversation has become written, rather than spoken, and how abbreviated and asynchronous much of that conversation is. Most adults I know do not make time for just sitting around and talking, and I actually have the sense (accurately or not) that they would find it irritating to be interrupted, and difficult to stop what they’re doing, to have that kind of impromptu conversation. To spend time face to face with my friends takes weeks or months of advanced planning. The word “conversation” is now part of our media vernacular, but I don’t know what this means, because my experience resembles very little of what it’s like to sit next to another person, and talk, and listen, and to feel in my body a confidence that we are together.

The production and consumption of media is becoming a larger part of how we spend our lives. And more and more, this is something we do alone. I listen alone. I read alone. I write, alone, to a silent, anonymous audience, who (presumably) reads my work alone. For me, asynchronous communication often fails to be a satisfying conversation, by which I mean a satisfying experience of communion. I want not just to be consumed, I want to be absorbed. I want to be seen and felt and heard. I want, I have discovered, a sensual experience.

In a traditional conversation, where two or more people speak and listen to each other in real time, there is a constant calibration of understanding. Speakers rephrase what’s been said, or offer examples to gauge their understanding, Do you mean…? Is it like…?. The conversation backs up, jumps forward, ping pongs, and ricochets between participants. It is possible to disambiguate nuance in real-time speech faster than any other method I know, and yet I know very few adults who make time to talk, in any depth, about the things that have their attention.

The sensuality in this style of conversation comes from the tremendous amount of information coming from the other person, who is a visual, auditory, olfactory and energetic panoply of experience, interacting with our own. And it comes, too, from the living animal you make between you that wanders, spirals, erupts and fades in the pulse measured out between your bodies. Harder though, in this method, is attending to my own internal experience and with a high degree of clarity or concentration. For that I cherish the written long form and its incubating qualities, that allow emotion to wake up and come forward, and present whatever it’s bearing. Some of my most rewarding conversations are long email threads (where each response takes hours, over the course of days to write) that play out over weeks or months. It seems I can only concentrate on one person at a time, me, or someone else, and that both of those need a lot of attention and energy to attain the level of intimacy I crave. I find myself continuously wanting to slow down in a world that seems determined to go faster.

Our connective technologies – increasingly social, ambient, and ubiquitous – create reflections of intimacy: faces of friends, sudden memories, and recognition of what we desire. It is easy to assume that we are inside the relationship that has cast them, when more often, we simply inside a silky kaleidoscope. We turn it over and over, fascinated by each click that reveals a beautiful new form of a pattern we recognize. Our conversations now, live outside of our mouths and outside of our hearts. The houses in which they reside, are more and more opulent – with more photos, more feedback, more participants and more visitors. These houses are busy places, and it is hard to sit still and listen, amid the chatter of what everyone is doing right now.

The “now moment” exists in a large and supported context. When we focus just on our personal experience of now it denigrates the interdependence of what gave birth to now – the space and the context that yields it. Now only exists by virtue of everything that it isn’t, but seeing the negative form that holds what “is” requires patience, insight, stillness, respect and humility. When we care too much for the newness and closeness of now, it denigrates the linage of arising.

In our current media landscape those with prominence, who are leading the conversations, and those wishing to speak with them – wanting to join the conversations – are suffering differently from the appearance of availability that pervades our communication tools. I am a seeker. I have no store of social capital to draw on. I read and listen to all sorts of wonderful stuff, and then, because the speakers appear tantalizingly close to me, on Twitter, on their web sites, on Facebook, on Google+, I want to talk to them about their work. I want to tell them what I think. I want to ask them things. I want to give them things. I want to act out my natural urge to respond to, and engage in, the conversation. So I email, I tweet, I comment, and I get very little engagement in a conversation I’ve been “invited” to, because everyone talks in the new conversation.

What I perceive about the people who are followed by people like me, is that they are increasingly overwhelmed by it. There are elements they enjoy, and the notoriety is useful for advancing work they care about, which is often beautiful and important. But they battle an impossible volume of information and contact requests. Much of what they receive is positive and supportive, plenty of it isn’t, and plenty more is simply irrelevant. They don’t know who to trust, they don’t know who might be of legitimate value and interest to them, who is trying to take advantage of them, or how even, to comfortably make the inevitable choice of who to ignore or decline, even when they presume the best about that person.

It’s hard to ask, and it’s hard to say no. And in both cases, it’s harder than ever not to feel some sense of personal distress about it. Our tools encourage us to communicate to a point where rejection is becoming a normalized (and necessary) result of the overture to connect, which is weird. The new capital is social capital. The new market is the attention market. You no longer need a lot of financial and physical capital to play, but scarcity is still a barrier to entry, just as it always has been, albeit in different forms. And in this environment, talking without expectation becomes a way to stay safe, and consuming becomes synonymous with listening. I’m not sure what this model is, but it doesn’t feel like a conversation.

Social media and the trend of digitizing the previously physical has disrupted institutions and exclusionary hierarchies, but it has also destroyed the protection they offered. We are losing the temples that harbor the great work produced by shared, long-term, aspirational goals, and held by a body larger than our own. We have lost the safety of entrenched values that hold the ideals we strive to achieve, and are created by our service, again and again. We live in a time where there is more choice, and access, and mobility than ever before. Technology has shattered calcified markets like music and publishing, it undermines controlling power structures, and allows us all to program, instead of being programmed. This is getting easier to do all the time, with langues like Ruby and services like IFTT. But what I see, is us choosing is to program our technology to program and regulate our behavior, because it’s become too much effort to make those choices for ourselves.

The other day, IFTT invited me to take a look at recipes for Nature Lovers, and what I discovered was a catalog of reminders to go outside if the conditions were correct: If it was over 70, if it was sunny, if it was snowing. This kind of programming lets us offload to our technology the responsibility of paying attention and making choices. And it also inhibits the kind of discovery that comes from unexpected circumstances. It suggests that we are commodifying attention as something that can, and should, be split into different value tranches, and then reassembled back into a complete entity by the program of our choosing. This didn’t work out well as a strategy for managing risk in our financial markets, and it feels equally icky here too. If you have a society that has decided it’s too much bother to think for itself, you have a population that is vulnerable to tyranny. You have a population that has opted out of their sovereign right to consciousness. You don’t even have to take away democracy from a population like that – they will give it to you. I find this idea troubling, but it seems to be a choice we keep making.

In many ways, we’ve each picked up the corporate practice of squeezing more and more from a single person – when everyone is their own brand, when everyone is their own tech team, and marketing department, and biz dev, there is no time and no energy left be a Spacemaker. There is less time to immerse in the work we care most about, to rest in the mess and feel around for the valuable pieces we might bring forward. There is no time anymore to simply see what happens if we wait, or wander. This is the great irony of the New Conversation – we’re all able to chat our way down the long tail until we bump into the folks that we have always been searching for. Except when we find them, everyone is too busy to talk about what we have in common.

I think our sense of urgency is compounded when we confuse or conflate emotional reaction – the strongest, most immediate portion of our felt experience – with sensuality, the deep, lasting, kinetic contribution to our fundamental belief system. Emotional reactions are akin to our thoughts, they’re mostly just pattern noise, distinct from the current of the human spirit that flows through each of us. That pattern noise is chop on the water, and more and more we choose to live in that frantic space, where it’s hard to breathe through the choking wetness, slapping in and out of our mouths.

Sensuality is given to us by virtue of our human form; it is something we can allow, but not something that we can construct. To emerge, it requires a cohesive context that is trusted at a cellular level, and this unfolding happens in partnership with our story telling psyche. Our instinct to build a narrative that explains our relationships is deeply entwined with our ability to trust ourselves and others. And what I see in our current media culture is the valuation of two things above all else: a high volume of participation at a rapid pace.

We live in an “I read it, so I know it. I can recite it, so I know it” kind of culture. Our whole education system primes us for this. We think because we understand something, or agree with it, we a qualified to live that way. We increasingly value the consumption of information over the application of information, and the inherent verification that accompanies practice. Our brains still construct narratives, but hastily and arbitrarily, because the forms and the content we’re using are fractured and decontextualized from the experiences that they present. And when our minds create something our bodies don’t believe, we feel unwell. I can’t figure out why we’re doing this, why we snatch up more and more bits, and stuff them into the gaping maws of our starving narratives. Why are we valuing “now” and “speed” and “more” so much? Why do we have such a strong cultural response that so vehemently rejects and subjugates our biology? Perhaps it is because our identities have become more individualized. Social media allows us to gossip about ourselves, and so we have become communities of one, networked to every other one.

How is it that we gather in a medium, and end up either alone, or together as a result? I think it hinges on the sensuality of the experience, which for me requires time, reflection and vulnerability. It requires accessing my own sensual nature, by making a safe space for it to come forward. Being a Spacemaker is hard, hard, lonely, doubt-filled work. It requires suspending identity, and not insisting on a single, well-understood role, even to yourself. And from that place, comes your offering to the world. From that place, comes the ability to listen to the sensuality of being together.

——————

My deep gratitude to Krista Tippett, Trent Gilliss, Sherry Turkle, Ann Hamilton, Susan Stewart, Paul Elie, Allen Razdow, Dan McClure, Vincent Horn, Linda McGettigan, Daniel Thorson, Chris Dancy, and Brad for their words and silence that influenced my thinking, and this piece. Some of them I have talked to, and some of them I have not, but in all cases I endeavored to listen well.

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.

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.