Tag Archives: living practice

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.

September, Discipline

Light and dark swirl.

Take refuge, my sweetness. I am here. I love you. I am full of tenderness for your pain. I will gladly cup your weak and panting doubt, and gaze upon it while it rests. I will be your strength and your voice. I will protect you. I will love you, no matter what. It is okay to let go. It is okay to let go of the brutalizing narrative that beats you hard enough for you to feel your edges. You’re choosing a merciless boundary because you fear that if you don’t, you will disappear entirely.

You will never disappear, because I am your center. I am your center and your light. I am the life in your breath, and the seam your feet and the floor conspire to make a thousand times a day, to remind you that it is safe, and you belong here. Safety is steady, gentle work, stitched together again and again. I am the empty edges, by which you feel at home in your body, and open in your heart.

Please, take refuge in me. I am the love of discipline, for which you are searching. Consider trying a different test. Consider what might happen if you are wrong. Rest, and ask your question. Stay, and listen.

The love that drives us to serve is the fruit of surrender. I love you. I surrender to you every day. I am here. My sweetness, please, take refuge in me. Let me hold you for a while. Let me touch you lightly and whisper to you. Let me show you the strength of stillness, and what love grows there. Let me show you that it is yours.

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.

The Ordinary Nature of Kindness

June’s Kindness practice was surprisingly difficult. I picked Kindness, in part, because I expected it to be easy and enjoyable, like Love or Gratitude. I’ve hit a wall in my practice – I am feeling burned out and uninspired, and supremely confused. The more I practice the smaller and less significant I feel. The stiller I become and the less I do, the more the small space around me intensifies. I was looking for a value that I could cruise on for a month, but alas, Kindness wasn’t it.

I imagined kindness to have a warm glow about it – that there would be a pleasurable, rosy, post-giving aftermath. I thought the more I did it, the easier it would get, that I would stumble into some sort of generative love loop that would make everything around me feel nicer. But for me, at least this month, more than anything, I found it to be a lot of work.

My acts of kindness were small and ordinary. I often had trouble differentiating them from basic responsibility. Things like holding doors for strangers, fixing the tumbled-over lawn decoration of the neighbor, bringing flowers to a grieving friend, creating time for my husband to relax, and remaining patient and compassionate with my kids when I wanted to storm out of the room, all feel like part of being a responsible citizen, neighbor, friend, spouse and parent. The things that felt most special to me, were performed for their own sake, with no possible expectation of acknowledgment: tracking down the buzzing of a trapped bee and opening the window to release it; burying a bird we hit with our car, and showing my children the importance of honoring the sanctity of life.

Some gestures were small and easy, some required planning and sacrificing my limited free time. Some felt really good, and some were a total struggle, that I didn’t enjoy at all, at least while they were happening. Especially with my children, I realized that sometimes the kindest thing I can do – when they are needy, and I am exhausted – is to simply not make the situation worse. Remaining calm, objective and pleasant when I’m angry and tired takes a lot of effort. I always thought of kindness as something that is overtly generous, but I was surprised how often it ended up being an act of non-deterioration.

June was a difficult mood month – nights of dark dreams, and lots of daytime restlessness, anger, and sadness. It’s hard to know if that pervasive tone contributed to Kindness being difficult, or if it was partially generated by my practice. I struggled to articulate what counted as a distinct act of kindness and why. Selflessness – the deliberate choice to make my experience secondary, without denying it – became the criteria I used most, and I did not like how much I disliked self-subjugation. A surprising amount of the time there was a small (or large) inner protest about putting someone else first. It was disheartening to see how hard I had to work at being consciously nice. I expected this resistance – this fear that if goodness is not effortless it is not genuine, or worse, not innately present – but I had no idea how hard it would be to witness and accept this on a regular basis. To be sure, being kind was much easier when I was well-rested, and unrushed.

There were no major insights that came out of my practice this month, nothing that clicked, no sacred moments where I felt confident that I was acting in purposeful alignment. In practice, Kindness seemed nearly indistinguishable from good manners and responsibility. Kindness felt extraordinarily pedestrian.

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.

June, Kindness

I am ready for something soft and gentle, so for June, I have selected the value of Kindness.

Intention
Kindness is the offering of one’s heart to another. It presents as tender, even when there’s effort required. It has soft eyes, which requires a soft body, and a soft heart. It’s an offering of acceptance and service. It is an act of nurturing.

Sometimes kindness is compassionate, like giving your love and attention to an upset child, even if they’ve behaved poorly. It can also be an easy gesture of affection and gratitude, expressed to recognize the beauty in someone else. And sometimes it’s the hard, hard work, of showing a nasty-acting person the respect they deserve, despite their determination to be treated otherwise. In all cases, kindness is generative, it’s about recognizing the gifts around us, and then acting in a way that offers something in return. Kindness is the presence of mind to recognize a chance to serve someone else, and the willingness to do so graciously. It requires giving beyond our normal pattern. It has an element of surprise – part of what makes kindness so enjoyable is that it is unexpected, and given without expectation.

Kindness is a mark of maturity, it’s deliberate and conscious. Sometimes kindness is the act of restraint, of not putting one’s own needs, thoughts, and desires before another’s. It’s knowing how to let one’s own experience be secondary, without denying it. It’s about not taking oneself so seriously, in order to make room for someone else. It’s selfless.

June Activities

  • Metta practice – Loving Kindness practice for my formal sits.
  • Do something nice for someone in my family, at least once a day.
  • Keep a daily record of acts of kindness – this kind of journaling helps keep me accountable.
  • Mindful hand washing. Washing my hands deliberately and gently throughout the day will act as a touch stone for this practice, and serve as a small act of tenderness.
  • Get enough rest. It’s harder to be giving to others when I feel the stress of not being rested. Lights out by 10:00.

Expectations
I expect that my kindness will be received and understood as such. Genuine kindness doesn’t require this, but I often do. I have a deep-rooted expectation that other people should be grateful for my kindness, which of course leads to all kinds of confusion on my part about kindness. I expect this practice is going to be hard, even though I chose it thinking it would give me a little bit of a breather. I have a huge amount of resistance (again) to something that I thought would be easy. I have an expectation that kindness should come naturally, easily, if I am a good person, and that is probably all tangled up in my resistance.

What do I Value?
I value the ability to love well and often. I value the chance to teach my children what this feels like, so that they might have it as a foundation to their own lives. I value the ability to act like a better person than I might feel like, and to savor the gift of genuine service.

What do I Want?
I want to feel good. I want to enjoy being with people. I want to get better at celebrating others, and be moved to thank them for what they offer. I want to be an example of what it looks like to behave well, even when it’s hard.

Where is the Resistance?
I am confused about kindness, and irritated by that, since I thought this value would relatively easy. I have some deeply ingrained expectations that doing things for others merits appreciation from them. It’s upsetting and hard to admit that, but it’s true. That attitude seems like the antithesis of kindness, and having to confront that (repeatedly) in my practice is going to be painful. And because of this, I am going to get kindness wrong – a lot. And that is going to be hard, because I really, really want to be a nice person. I really, really want to believe that I am a nice person, and that that comes effortlessly most of the time.

Being conscious of kindness is going to bring me face to face with the reality of what I’m actually like most of the time, which is self-centered and impatient. I get worn out and I lose my ability to recognize the good things around me. I feel needy. I feel young. Sometimes I let my selfishness leak out under the guise of honesty. If I have reservations about something, or it’s not exactly the way I imagined it, I feel compelled to say so. But the articulation of those things can needlessly mar what is an otherwise enjoyable experience, and distract me from the positive parts. I’m confused about the line between willing sacrifice and denial. I’m confused about the difference between taking responsibility for my feelings, and making the whole world be about how I experience it.

The trouble with acting selflessly, is that it’s very hard to maintain on your own, especially when it doesn’t feel good. So much of what I believe about kindness involves not putting one’s needs ahead of someone else’s, but that leaves me wondering, how then does one be kind to oneself?

What am I Willing to Do?
I am willing to remind myself to work on this every day. I am willing to look for opportunities to pause and consider if I need to be first. I am willing to remind myself that I don’t need to be right to be successful. I am willing to do my best, knowing it will never be as good as I want, and cut myself some slack. I am willing to forgive myself for having unrealistic expectations.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained
I hope to gain better clarity around the nuances of what I can truly offer without expectation, and what has subtle strings attached. Pure acts of kindness – if such a thing is even possible – will be hard for me and I expect that this practice will expose that.

Faith – In theory, giving sincerely should create reciprocal benefit. I have a lot of trouble believing this enough to test it, but hopefully, I will discover, that by being kind, I will still have enough, and with less effort.

Skill – At the very least, I think I will gain awareness about when I make a choice not to be kind. If things go really well, I will improve at acting kindly too.

Lost
I am sure I am not as kind of a person as I like to think I am. If I do this practice well, I’ll lose some of that illusion. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing, but it will be painful to face. I’ll lose my romanticism that virtues are pleasurable, and that goodness is automatic.

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.

Love and Culture Shock

Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February, Love

Wonder Woman and Stuart Smalley mashup.

Ahhh, Love. That ubiquitous force that captures our hearts and imaginations equally. It rivals the body in its graceful bondage of these aspects of our nature. Love is of course notoriously difficult to define, but like so many before me, I will try anyway.

Intention:
Like most of my emotional experiences, love is both felt and thought. These are actually distinct pieces, and can be mutually exclusive, but co-occur so commonly and rapidly it’s hard to tell them apart. More and more, emotions seem to me like matter as we now understand it – something that exists only as the artifact of two other forces interacting with each other.

For me, conceptual love is much more common than felt love, but I hold the physical experience of felt love as the standard which supports and perpetuates my notion of conceptual love. This naturally leads to all kinds of disconnects in how my experience of “love” does (not) match my idea of “love”. Felt love, that chemical bath of peace in which I feel a deeply permeated sense of safety, warmth, joy and equanimity, is one of the truly divine human experiences. In this love is the endless, harmonious tension of patient energy. It is the force that opens hearts and eyes and minds, opens wings, opens clouds and buds and legs. The force that steps forward to receive the beauty that reigns upon us in its most glorious and terrible forms.

Now that love is not the love I feel when get off the phone with my mother, kiss my husband goodbye, or comfort a fussing child at 2 o’clock in the morning. These are loves of utility. Loves of commitment. Loves of the pragmatic functioning inside the monasteries of relationship. And these loves are largely sustained by the idea that I love, regardless of what I happen to be feeling at the moment, which runs the gamut from affection to resentment.

I find myself (again) at the crossroads of the abstract and the embodied, and it is (again) an intersection full of space. The actions in my love relationships (or any relationship for that matter) are meant to be gestures of communion, and offered in homage to felt love. But too often, my words and actions are rote, distracted, and unsuccessful in opening what is already present. Love, gracious as it is, is also discerning and insists on authentic provenance.

It is to that end, to drawing the idea of relationship closer to the experience of relationship, that this month is dedicated. To going into the space between my actions and my feelings and with an intending heart, turning the idea into the ideal, more of the time.

I am increasingly aware, and bothered, by how little eye contact I offer the people I interact with, and I actually consider eye contact to be one of my strengths. I want the mechanics of my daily life – my automatic manners and habits – to be more conscious and more pleasurable. The difference between a well-mannered relationship, and a loving relationship (I suspect) is the addition of respect and presence. Love requires witnessing the other person, and so many of my actions run as a secondary process to my attention. When I say hi to the grocery clerk, I’m already reaching for my wallet. When I thank the bagger, I am looking at my son who is talking over me. When my husband walks in the door, I say hello without bothering to look up from whatever I’m cooking, because I am also trying to detach my three year old from my leg, before I slice open my finger. Or worse, because whatever I’m doing seems more important than a person I love very deeply. What is that about? The people I care about deserve better, and so do I.

I blow so many opportunities every day to fully recognize another person, for just a moment, and I am reaping the the sour fruits of my effort. My smiles in these exchanges are frequently reflexive performances, because I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m about to do. They’re not insincere, but they’re at about 30% opacity. I want to feel more grateful for the life I have, but I am failing to be grateful inside the one I’m actually living, while I’m living it.

Love, I think, is one of those values that needs to be cultivated indirectly. And I suspect that the cultivation is actually one of simple surrender. Love is me, but it’s not about me.

February Activities:

  • Be nice, instead of just polite. Offer eye contact and conscious presence every time I speak with someone. Smile (a real one, generated by thinking about the person).
  • Do yoga five times a week. Yoga is great for finding and feeling effort without strain. This particular energy – engaged and relaxed at the same time – seems closely related to felt love. Yoga will offer the chance to experiment, to wiggle into and hold the cultivation, in a way that the more ephemeral tasks don’t allow. Learn from my body, love my body.
  • Release physical tension and resistance, every time I notice it. I meet resistance with resistance all the time – cutting a lemon with a dull knife, scrubbing pots, changing diapers, writing, even when I sleep I clenching my jaw. All this subtle tension in my body is giving me a form factor that cues more resistance.
  • Meet conflict with loving intention. When I can’t, or don’t, do that in the moment, deliberately make space for love later, and follow through.
  • Ask my family to help me with this practice. I’ve made up a heart card, and enlisted my children and husband to prompt me to pull it out, whenever they think a situation could use more love. My five year old will be great at this.
  • Acknowledge as many failures as I can, and forgive myself. Awareness is half the battle, maybe more.
  • Do a nightly inventory of what I’ve done well, so I don’t discount my accomplishments.

Expectations:
I expect I will miss a lot more moments of presence than I engage, but I expect I will get better as I practice. I expect that I will physically feel happier and more optimistic by the end of the month – that there will be a bio-chemical basis to this. This is based a little bit on reading I’ve done, and a lot on my desire for it to be true. I expect I will be physically stronger and more relaxed, and that I will be disappointed that the changes aren’t greater. I expect I will be less irritated by the conditions around me. I expect I will have more energy. I expect I will care less about “getting my way”. I expect I will discover all sorts of supporting skills to love (forgiveness and surrender come to mind) that I am not very good at, and when confronted with that, I will probably get confused, sad, or angry. I expect I will get frustrated and discouraged, and that this month’s practice will be much harder than I imagine. I expect my family will be more affectionate, cooperative and happier (danger, Will Robinson).

What do I value?
I value action. I value kindness, compassion and peace. I value strength and grit and willingness. I value the notion that I can craft the skills of surrender. I am deeply committed (attached?) to the idea that I can transform myself into a more accepting person. That I can build up the skill of letting go. I value the light of grace that lives within me, and the chance to honor the great gift of my life.

What do I want?
I want to become the role model I am seeking. I want to be healthy enough, and strong enough, and honest enough, and forgiving enough, to lead an authentic, expressive life that inspires other people to do the same. I want to make the world a more caring, accepting place to live, and to stop feeling so self-conscious about that desire. I want to live, not without, but in freedom from fear. I want to trust in my own value, and I want to teach my kids how to trust in theirs.

Where is the Resistance?
The biggest obstacle will be simple habit and lack of awareness. I also get attached to being angry – I get all caught up in righteousness, which is unhelpful, but feels strangely good. I will really resist doing this on days when my mood is low; it will be hard to find the energy and sincerity. I think I am probably resistant to receiving love. I think that phrasing is a complete indication that I am resistant to receiving love, and in danger of subtly using love as a mechanism for controlling others. (See expectations above.)

What am I willing to do?
I am willing to be gentle with myself.
I am willing to ask for help.
I am willing to remind myself this practice is about me, not about other people.
I am willing to look honestly at my discomfort, and do my best to not sew up that experience with a narrative.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Alignment – I hope that by acting with love and from love, I will become more aligned with the Universe. That the good life and good work I desire will become available to me with greater ease. A little more undulation, and a little less thrashing, please.
  • Perspective – I think by engaging sincerely and compassionately with other people, I will see the world from their point of view, a little bit better.
  • Sympathetic Joy – By treating others better, I think I will feel better.

Lost

  • Control – There is a surprising amount of overt and subtle manipulation that happens inside our family structure, mostly between kids and parents, as we bump through the motions of our days. Trying to meet these conflicts with love and honesty will require that I stop putting so much effort into getting the outcome I want by controlling others. In a lot of cases this will probably be better, since so many household skirmishes don’t even merit a serious attention, but it’s still going to be hard. It somehow feels like being ignored, which I really dislike.
  • Explicit Power – This is closely related to control, but is, well, more explicit and direct. There is a huge power imbalance between me and my kids, and I often exploit that to get my way, right away. Sometimes this is totally appropriate to keep them safe, or enforce reasonable rules and boundaries. But other times it’s just because I don’t want to put in the effort required to consider their perspectives and model good conflict resolution which requires, patience, kindness, listening, explaining, soothing, more time, and (sometimes) enforcing consequences.