Tag Archives: spirituality

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Self-Compassion, Lessons Learned

water droplets on a branch

April was a survey course in the pleasure and difficulty of being.

My first week of practice felt incredible, it was much easier than I imagined. I felt rested and energized. I laughed more, joked more with the kids, had loads more patience. My metta sits were restorative and full of a pleasant, peaceful presence. I felt my subtle heartbeat and a warm, tingling energy instead of the tight ache in my chest that I have become so used to. It was the best I have felt in as long as I can remember. It seemed miraculous that such simple adjustments could make such a big difference.

In truth, I have been deliberately working on self-care in one form or another for over a year now. It’s not fair to ascribe the benefits one week’s practice just to April’s activities, but they certainly changed how think about the basics of good health. Making decisions takes energy. Meeting conflict with creativity and kindness takes energy. What I had failed to realize is that this is equally true of my internal experience as well as what I experience in the world. Being self-centered, which seems to me to mostly be our default state, makes it hard to have perspective on how our behavior affects others, but it also makes it hard to see how our behavior affects ourselves. When we are both the actor and receiver of our actions, it is doubly hard to see either the behavior or consequences from a different perspective. I am constantly making decisions and resolving internal conflicts all day long, even before I interact with anyone else, which is also pretty much happening all the time. If this month’s practice is any indication, I have grossly underestimated the amount of energy – the kind that comes directly from food, sleep and exercise – required to do this well.

But things were going great, and I was enjoying my walk in the wonderland of self-love so much, I wandered right off the path. I had friends visit, and stayed up late. Then, I randomly decided to apply for a TED Fellowship, with two days remaining before the deadline. I watched this force of ego energy latch onto this idea and insist on making it happen, and I started using all my quiet time, and staying up late, to get it done on time. Then I hosted Easter. And packing all of that into nine days came at the expense of my practice, which I had categorically stated I was willing to prioritize over other activities. My capacity of discrete commitment to myself appears to be about a week long. I find this amazing. If you asked me what was more important than my health and well-being, for myself, and also to be of service to others, I would say nothing is. But I don’t act as though this is true, and seeing the gap between what I claim as my truth and what I live as my truth, is critical to being free from the dissatisfaction that springs from the rift between the two. I realized how special it is, how unusual it is, to be a person that commits to something over and over for months, or years, or a lifetime. And I do not mean the commitment of conditioning, of unconscious habit, which is common, but the commitment to counter-conditioning, which is exceedingly rare and difficult.

Breaking out of our conventions requires this unusual style of spacious resistance – a style of resistance that is permeable, and by being so can not be moved. I find this very difficult; I barely understand it. More and more I see the world, and my experiences here as parts of relationships – nothing I do is actually isolated or independent. As I began to focus on self-compassion, so too grew my compassion for others, which was central to the pleasure of my experience in my first week of practice. I expected this, and then I watched myself get distracted. I watched myself deliberately break the tension that allows me to live inside of relationship, and spill over to become a dimension of it.

There is so much pleasure in getting lost inside something else, of losing my permeability and getting snapped into the flow. And the second I go, I lose my commitment to willingness. There is so much pleasure in the collusion of one more late night drink with a beloved friend. There is so, so much pleasure in ego energy. It has an electrifying, euphoric, driven, quality that is, frankly, just fucking awesome, not to mention how useful it is for getting something done. But this style of surrender comes at a price – I spent the last week of April sick, and exhausted. And despite this, what I discovered, is that I’m not willing to give these up yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.

I’m frightened of the consequences of single-minded pursuit, despite the fact that the ravages of flaccid attention and effort are clear to me already. Living inside a relationship of continuous allegiance requires the exclusion of so much. This is why simple things, like sitting still, or committing to a value, are difficult – it requires the sacrifice of the myriad, ready pleasures that tug and tap and rub and whisper a thousand times a day. It requires saying no thank you, over, and over, and over, not just to the small things but the big things too, to people we love, and causes we believe in. It requires confronting, then releasing, the sadness of loss again and again, while maintaining faith in the value of our pursuit, because what we focus on dictates what we miss. How well we focus, determines how much we miss. It is a tremendous responsibility to live one’s life with the severity of deep commitment, and perhaps that is why so few of us are truly able to do it. We are too clumsy to undertake it with the exquisiteness required, and attempting to do so unskillfully, only spills the blood of our sacrifice with out generating any sustenance from our offering. We are not, as we are so often told, limited by our imaginations; we are limited by our willingness. It is a great gift, to know my capacity, and to choose again with more clarity.

I discovered something else beautiful this month, seemingly opposite of willingness, which was the effortless and spontaneous pleasure of offering something I value to another. When I host company, I like my home to be (mostly) be clean and orderly. I like to make beautiful, delicious food to eat together. Even though I like to entertain, preparing for company is typically an anxiety-ridden activity for me. I get concerned about everything looking nice enough, tasting good enough, and being right. It tends to be stressful. But this time was different.

The planning, and bustle, and work of cooking took on a quality of gratitude for the chance to express my love that way, and excitement about sharing the meal together. Being aware of how good healthy, regular eating was helping me feel, significantly intensified the pleasure of making food for others. As I cleaned, scrubbing and wiping the places that usually go neglected for months, I did it with a totally different intention than I had before. I did it as an offering of love, instead of as evidence of my worth. I realized that I had come to recognize and accept how much I value space and order, and why. For me these qualities, represent safety, clarity, and love. They represent a space of peace and openness in which distractions and discomforts are minimized so that one’s energy can be placed on being present, rather than grappling with the environment. Creating a space like this in my home is a sign of respect and love for the people I welcome. What a pleasure it was to witness the transformation that occurred in my intention from one of compliance and approval-seeking to one of devotional offering. This is the humble and profound power of discovering and living my values, rather than simply enacting a set of rules – feeling joyful for the chance to wipe the shit off the rim of the toilet. The power of love never ceases to surprise me.

April, Self-Compassion

Intention
This month I’m cultivating the value of self-compassion and this choice comes more from resignation than overt motivation. I have been avoiding this practice because it is so hard for me, but I also believe that this particular form of acceptance is the genomic structure for all other love that a person offers to the world. I’m dreading doing this, but I also can’t quite patch together a convincing veil of denial as to its importance. So here I sit, sad, mad, and blank, forcing myself to keep typing and see what happens.

Self-compassion is not a strength of mine, but I experience it as the acceptance that precedes the ability to love oneself, and the willingness to act on one’s own behalf, out of love. It is the mechanism that allows us to erode the barriers within ourselves so that we stop perceiving them as barriers to relationship with others. And from this work I hope, eventually, to live mostly in a state where I respect how little I know, and have an unshakable faith that my existence is a small and precious contribution to the great mystery of how the world unfolds.

I found myself unsure how to approach this month’s practice. So I’m going back to basics on the premise that self-care is the foundation of self-love. Half of my tasks are geared towards basic physical health – stabilizing and raising my energetic baseline is essential to my well-being. All but one of the tasks are concrete and structurable. I feel like I’m a long way from an automatic, healthy emotional response towards myself, but I am capable of discrete tasks to nurture myself.

Oddly, detachment from my sense of self strikes me as an important part of learning self-compassion. Adopting an alternative perspective on myself – treating myself like a beleaguered friend-child, one that I adore and want to nurture and restore back to its full health – feels like a viable path to cultivating self-compassion successfully. This seems backwards, to leave oneself to love oneself, but I suppose it makes sense if you’re not starting from the healthiest of places. Plenty of good advice suggests that when you cannot manifest the emotions you want, start by enacting the desired outcome instead; so this month I am leading with form.

April Activities

  • Daily metta practice – These are formal sits to cultivate feelings of love and compassion for myself and others. I tend to do metta when I am burned out, or destabilized from insight practice, and set it aside the rest of the time, especially when I am feeling good. As much as I value the relief of metta, I’m sure this pattern causes me to miss most of the richness and benefits of the practice.
  • Eat well and regularly – Eat a healthier and more structured diet. Set aside the time to plan meals, shop for the food I need, and prepare and eat food that will sustain my energy level through out the day.
  • Exercise three times per week. I know this is critical for health and energy. Exercise grounds me in my body and cultivates vibrancy.
  • Take nature walks three times per week. Spending time in nature is one of the most restorative activities I can do for myself, and also one of the easiest – all I have to do is show up and be there. Every time I go into the natural world I am amazed at the beauty, the competency, and the abundance of the system. I find it deeply reassuring, that as an organic being, I too have a place in the correct order of things.
  • Write myself a daily note of thanks for the work I did well. I often feel sad and disappointed that my efforts go unrecognized by others. It seems unreasonable that I should expect anyone else to do something I’m not willing to do myself, so this task is to start setting that right, and hold myself accountable for success.
  • When I am struggling, which I surely will, answer the question: What do I need to do now, so that later I will be proud of how I acted? Then do that.
  • Get enough sleep. Lights out by 10:00.

Expectations
I expect this will be uncomfortable and I won’t like it a lot of the time. I expect that even though these tasks are designed to nurture myself, I will feel like I’m not doing them right, or like they’re not working. When I’m feeling resistant, I expect a lot mental negotiations (manipulation) about how the most caring thing will be to cut myself a break. I expect that any success I have will be modest; I am not going to undo a lifetime of learned behavior in a few weeks. I expect that there will be some nice moments that connect me to that deep strength we all have that is the catalyst for beautiful action in the world. I expect that I will feel more loving towards others, and that will help reinforce my practice, and compassion for myself.

What do I Value?
I value living a life that is in alignment with The Way. I value the chance to live a life where all of my actions become an offering of gratitude for the life I’ve been given. I value the chance to be loved by others, because they trust their love is safe with me – that I have (l)earned the privilege of receiving love by first loving myself. I value feeling safe and confident. I value living a life that offers something to the world, and makes it a more beautiful place. I value having enough within myself that I can give freely, easily, and joyfully.

What do I Want?
I want to be vital. I want to believe I have a purpose in the world and be grateful for the chance to serve that purpose honorably. I want turning inward to be a peaceful, restorative, confidence-building activity. I want to love and trust myself a lot more than I do now. I want to be at home in my own heart.

Where is the Resistance?
I am susceptible to moods of debilitating despair. Practicing self-compassion during these times seems impossible, in part because it opens up space so painful that it’s simply intolerable – I just shut down. So, there will be a lot of resistance during these swings because it is easier to collapse, than to push back against a force that strong. What I’m hoping to gain through this practice is a new version of surrender – one which doesn’t deny, or fight, the truth of the experience, but also does not remain passive to it.

Self-love is the first love, but also the last. Confronting my skilllessness in this area is just extraordinarily painful, because it lays bare the truth and responsibility of abandoning oneself. There is no one else to blame, and no one else to help. I’m afraid to know the magnitude of work required to build an eternal castle. I’m ashamed of my fear and immaturity, and that’s going to creep into my practice in all sorts of ways.

What am I Willing to do?
I am willing to try, and keep trying. I am willing to do my best.
I am willing to be honest.
I am willing to do the tasks I’ve committed to.
I am willing to do the planning and pre-work required so that my tasks have a place in my days, and the highest chance of success. It is hard to relax into the inherent pleasure of something, if I am rushing through it for lack of foresight. Habitual rushing is a form of self-abuse.
I am willing to prioritize my practice over other activities.

What is Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • The ability to see myself more objectively. Being fair to myself seems like a critical interim step towards a strong foundation of self-love.
  • More energy and more vitality. Basic care for my body (diet, exercise, rest) will result in a higher, more stable energetic baseline. Pleasure opens as a possibility, when everything stops feeling like a chore. I remember a version of myself that was vivacious, and I want this back.
  • Confidence. This practice, and sharing it publicly, is hard for me, scary. I’m really self-conscious about it. Having some success in this practice – just being willing to start – is so important for teaching myself the skill of pushing through my (dis)comfort level and proving to myself what I’m truly capable of.

Lost
The protection of my illness. I am recovering from a severe depression that radically altered my life. This is real and important work. But at the same time, there is a part of me that’s fearful, probably terrified, of rejoining the world where I got so sick to begin with. I am fearful of making the same mistakes again. I am fearful of engaging in a culture that I feel often brutally pushes us out of balance, and divorces us from our basic human needs of connection to ourselves, to others, and to our environment. I don’t like being sick. I sincerely want my life and vitality back. I desperately want to learn how to do this for myself. I believe this is possible, but I don’t know how to do it, and paradoxically, perversely, “staying” sick allows me to delay creating a phase of my life that I literally can’t even imagine yet. It is a resistance so vague I don’t know how to find it, or drop it, but I sense it as a nearly constant presence.

Contributors:
I’m trying something new in this post – adding the resources that directly influenced my choice for the month. Part of what this year of practice is about is investigating the ways in which traditional teachings and modern perspectives on meditation come together to form American styles of contemplative practice. I also want to recognize how the work of others is influencing me, and express my gratitude.

This month, my special thanks to Gil Fronsdal for his dharma talk on willpower, and to my friend Keri, whose courage and honesty in her writing is a tremendous inspiration to me. I bow to you both, with gratitude and respect.

The Offering

Snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils

The snowdrops bow their delicate, white heads, and shine their light back to the earth.
The first offering of spring is to the source.
The crocuses salute the sun, all eagerness and stretching, in noble robes of purple and gold.
The second offering of spring is to the source.
The daffodils are standing now, but still tightly bound. When they open, they will gaze out upon the land.
The third offering of spring is to the world.

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.