Fear means that things are getting juicy. It means that you are challenging the boundaries of what you thought was possible. Fear can be a friend, a harbinger of good things to come. Last night the fear rolled through my body and I welcomed it to tea. I know I don’t need to be afraid of it anymore.
Where am I losing energy? I ask myself this question a lot. I want to know what is draining me, what is pulling me down. I want to minimize those influences. Sometimes these things are, partially or completely, beyond my control—doctor’s appointments, conflicts with loved ones, stores with disturbing fumes. In these cases, I can take deep breaths. I can take it slowly. I can limit my exposure to necessary, but distressing situations. But, in the end, I really just have to shrug my shoulders and go through them (Squelch! Squerch! See last week’s post about this.)
I’ve been realizing recently though, that there is at least one way in which I am losing energy that is completely within my control. It’s the way that I talk to myself. I know, this is not news. Some 2500 years ago, the Buddha was warning folks that “what we think, we become”. But I’m speaking very specifically here about my attitude toward how I am approaching any given task. I have noticed that very often I am telling myself that I am not doing a good enough job. The song goes a little something like this: It’s taking me too long to shop. I am paying too much for this box of granola bars. Why can’t I write faster? Why can’t I always make the perfect egg? I’m not learning fast enough. I should be making better progress. I can’t believe I spent so much time playing games on my iPad today. I should have been nicer to that stranger. I should be getting more done. I should have gone to bed earlier . . .
You get the idea. If I let it, my dissatisfaction with myself becomes a constant drone behind all my other thoughts. It’s not fun. And it’s been kicking my ass. It’s been me, kicking my own ass, draining my energy, allowing my power to squirt out every which way. Not cool.
So what’s the antidote? Well, of course, there is the wonderful practice of mindfulness in which I catch myself having these destructive thoughts and counteract them by expressing self-compassion—maybe with a hand on my heart and an internal assurance of, “It’s okay, Sweetie.” If there are any casual observers of my behavior out there in my town, they can vouch for the fact that I have my hand on my heart, a lot. It works. But, what if I forget? What if my mindfulness is not working very well, and I get to the end of the day, and find that not only have I been disapproving of myself all day, but I didn’t even notice I was doing it? Well, that’s when I get out my gold stars. You think I’m joking. I’m not. I now have several exciting sheets of congratulatory stickers (like the ones used by kindergarten teachers) and, as I record the events of the day in my journal, I think of at least one thing I accomplished, write it down, and I plop one of those stickers down next to it. Sometimes it’s for doing something I was scared to do—like expressing myself honestly even though I feared retribution. But the bar is not always that high. Sometimes I give myself a gold star for vacuuming. Sometimes it’s for self-care, like say, napping. You’re laughing right now. I get it, but the truth is that if you’re like me, you do a whole bunch of things during any given day for which you give yourself no credit, whatsoever. Why? Because “You’re supposed to have done that. You don’t get a gold star for brushing your teeth, or feeding your family, or hugging your kids when you’re an adult. That’s ridiculous.” I agree, one hundred percent—but ONLY, if you are asking for that gold star from someone else. I can’t expect other people to get excited about my taking good care of myself. I can’t expect them to reward me. But when I acknowledge to myself the things that I am doing—even the stuff that I “should” be doing as a matter of course—I shift my self-attitude from a person who’s failing all the time, to someone who could maybe do some things better, but who is also doing a heck of a lot of things absolutely right. And that chick, definitely has more energy than Perpetually Failing Woman. Plus, she’s a lot more fun to be around.
My cat looks up at me as I enter the room, hope in her slitted eyes. Luna’s half asleep, but there’s a chance, however tiny, that I might come down to the tan, shaggy rug and cuddle with her. “Meow?” she asks. “Sure,” I say, and lower my comparatively large mass to her diminutive form.
“Yes,” her nuzzles say as my fingers find her soft, grey fur. “Again. More.” And even, perhaps, “I love you.” I think she does love me, though I’m not sure what that means to a cat. Some have claimed that feline affection is merely a way of making sure there’s no interruption in the food supply. But, in my experience, she relies on much less appealing means to make sure I keep feeding her—those evermore demanding meows that tell me how mean and stupid I am that I haven’t yet figured out that she needs more food.
But, back to the petting: as Luna fervently swipes her cheek once more against mine, I think, “Well, if she likes me this much, I must be a little special. I must be really sort of okay.” I lean into the notion—though it’s a foreign action for me. I, like so many of us, have often felt it so much safer, easier, and yes, God forbid, more virtuous to think less of myself rather than more.
Last week, I listened to a dharma talk given by Tara Brach (a meditation teacher, psychologist, and author) that speaks to the idea that much of our suffering blooms from this source—the belief that something about us is not okay, sometimes fundamentally and irrevocably so. And the antidote to this poison is that we find compassion for ourselves in those moments when we feel that self-hatred. So, I ask myself, “Would you speak to your niece this way? Or to anyone you loved? Or to a stranger?” And then I can remember that I am someone’s niece and someone’s loved one and many people’s stranger, so really maybe there is room for self-compassion in my heart.
One of the quotes Tara related during her talk was from Rumi: Whenever some kindness comes to you, turn that way, toward the source of kindness. Lately, I’ve begun to pay more attention to my reflexive reactions in the face of kindness from another. The other day, after sampling a cake I had made for her, my mother informed me, “You sure are a great baker.” I can’t tell you how astonished I was to discover how ridiculously hard it was to say, “Thank you,” instead of “Well, I just followed the recipe,” or “It’s not like it’s hard,” or “Anyone can do it,” or “You’re just being nice.”
Instead, I tried to turn toward the notion of my goodness—not just the part of me that’s able at baking, but also the essential, limitless part of me to which I so rarely pay attention. I tried and—keep trying—to lean into a sense of kindness toward myself. I imagine myself like my sweet (and annoying) Luna, yielding her small head into the tenderness of my hand, knowing it is safe there, believing in my innate goodness, even when I am still unsure.
Please note: You can find a catalog of Tara Brach’s talks (all free) here or on iTunes. The one I have referenced here is from 4/22/2015 and labeled (Retreat Talk) Loving Yourself to Freedom.
I first learned the term wu wei studying philosophy and religion in college. Taoism—from whence the term comes—held immediate fascination for me. The idea of not forcing anything in life held such an elegant sense, I could feel it down to my tiniest cells. But that didn’t make it any easier to practice.
A few years later, I explained to my therapist my understanding of the principle of wu wei. That it meant “do nothing”, but not really “do nothing”, just “do nothing” in the sense of, you know, not trying to make things happen in a certain way and stuff like that. She demurred quite forcefully. “No, wu wei, means, literally, do nothing!” I didn’t really buy what she was selling. Clearly, one can’t sit around “doing nothing” all the time and call it a responsible way of life. One needs to grasp the bull by the horns, pull oneself up by the bootstraps, win one for the Gipper, and follow any number of other effort-filled adages that lead to a successful, fulfilled life.
The only problem? I’ve tried that. Many, many times. And, yeah, if at first you don’t succeed, and all that, but there’s also the one about the definition of insanity being trying the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.
There is also this quote from the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork . . . The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
The problem with the wisdom of mystics like Merton and Lao Tzu (the purported author of the Taoist text Tao te Ching) is that it is almost diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom. If you have a problem or, for some reason, don’t like your life, conventional wisdom states that you should figure out how to solve the problem, discover how to make yourself happy. You do this by making lists, by talking it over with other people. You make plans and plot charts, set goals and establish rewards. It’s all quite simple, you just have to make a decision and move forward.
A mystic, on the other hand, will tell you to stop. Right now. No, really. Just put your hands down, take a deep breath, and be exactly where you are. Don’t think about where you want to go. Don’t think about how you’re going to get there. Let that information rise to the surface in its own time. And the really annoying thing about this is that it feels like it’s TOTALLY the wrong thing to do. Your mind is reeling in free fall. “What do you mean I shouldn’t think about where I’m going? How will I get there if I don’t? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t want to stay here!” But that’s exactly where you need to stay: right here. Wu wei. Do nothing.
Note: The picture at the top of this post is a scan from my pocket copy of Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of Tao Te Ching. I highly recommend it.
It’s been one of those weeks. The kind where I made a hamster running to nowhere on his little wheel look good. It’s at times like these that I have to remind myself to embrace the mud. As the wonderful Vietnamese, Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud, no lotus.” So I will slather myself with the muddiness and muddled-ness of my actions and thoughts, and believe—know—that a lotus will grow from this mess—sooner or later.
As I was writing the last (first) paragraph, my mother came in and brought me a flawless white viola—the only plant to grow from a seed packet I bought her a year ago. It’s not a lotus, but it’s pretty darn special—and well worth the wait.
For more on exciting things coming out of decidedly grosser ones, check this post from a few years ago: An Ode to Compost.
Also, April being national poetry month and all, I encourage you to seek out some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful verse.
Thank you for reading.:)
Before I got sick in high school, I ran cross country and track. At the end of each season, there would be an awards night, invariably during which a slide show of pictures of the student athletes would be shown and Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” would be played. I had already sat through a lot of these presentations during my older sister’s very successful running career, and I remember yearning for the day when my picture would be up there. More than that, I ached to fulfill the song’s message: to have that special moment “when I am more than I thought I could be”, so that I could “feel eternity” and “be free”. It didn’t have to be in running. It could be in whatever field I chose to pursue, but I was sure, with that silky, soaring voice egging me on, that, one day, it would happen.
I think a lot of us live this way—waiting for our lives to start. We train ourselves to do this with the stories we tell and the ones we consume. After all, how many movies or novels are there about someone living their lives from day to day as best they can? A few perhaps, but most of us find them unbearably boring. We crave adventure, love, excitement. We meet our favorite protagonists when they have been tasked with a great struggle and we leave them when they have found love or have met some elusive goal.
Don’t get me wrong, I love those stories. Heck, I’ve written those stories, but I think they, like the song, can confuse us about how we might want to live our lives. For a long time, I thought “One Moment in Time” was such a great, inspirational song—and it is. It tells us that through hard work and determination, we can become whatever we dream. And, history has borne this out. It can be true—but not for all of us. Sometimes we fail. Even when we try with all our wits and might and heart, sometimes we can’t capture the brass ring we believe will make our lives whole. And, I for one, would like to believe, that’s okay. As Mick Jagger has told us countless times: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need”. Our job, a part from trying, is to recognize what we need when it arrives. But here again, I’m talking about waiting. Living for some time in the future. For that time when I’ve lost the weight, when my body works the way I want it to, when I get this job or have that relationship. We put our attention on hold until that magical time when we feel like all our ducks will all be in a row and the euphoria induced by this knowledge will keep us sailing through life.
I’ve been frustrated again lately about my lack of outward accomplishment in this lifetime and haunted by fears that I will never have my one moment in time. And I realize that even though I am doing a lot of things to achieve my goals, a part of me is just waiting. Always waiting. And you know what? I don’t want to wait anymore. I don’t want to think of my life as unfulfilled because I haven’t won an Olympic gold medal or gotten a publishing contract. And, come to think of it, I don’t want just one moment in time—hoping and believing that that instant will carry me through the rest of my life on clouds of ecstasy. I am determined to have many moments—like when one of the little song birds comes for a visit on my window ledge, or one of my nieces gives me a hug for no reason, or noticing the crazy vivacity of acrylic paints. Or recognizing how beautiful my harp sounds even when I am struggling to learn a hard passage. Or feeling how just how soft my little, grey cat is when she comes to greet me in the morning. Or sensing the subtle trickles of honeyed relaxation that seep through my muscles whenever my mother touches me. Or remembering how grateful I am that my legs are capable of mobility, even when every step is painful. Or, or, or. The truth is I could go on for days.
When I was a kid and my family would eat something particularly delicious, my parents, both native German speakers (though different dialects), would instruct us, “You have to eat this mit verstand.” I instinctively knew that this meant it was so good, it would be criminal not to savor it, but the literal translation for the German is “with understanding”. We were supposed to eat with understanding, with gratitude, and with an attentive curiosity about what it was all about—every facet of it. That is how I would like to experience my many one moments in time. I don’t always do it—a lot of times I forget—but, I think for me, this is where eternity and freedom truly lie—in realizing the saturation of life in any sort of time—whether it be joyful or dull or difficult. These are the moments I am living for and that I am resolved to live in now. And if I get a publishing contract or somehow jump into an alternate universe and win a gold medal, I will endeavor to meet those moments with understanding, too.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
“This is the real work.”—my words to my mother as we sat the dining room table a few nights ago. I felt like I was about to spin out. I’ve been more tired this week and my tasks have become overwhelming. I was getting scared—and when I get scared, my body freezes in place, and my mind tries to run away. But this time, I didn’t want to do either if those things. I’ve been down those roads. I know where they lead.
Some years ago I had a dream in which I was walking in the woods near the house where I grew up. Traveling uphill on an autumn day, I enjoyed the colorful leaves decorating the trees. After a while a car drove slowly past, and it occurred to me to become nervous. Some yards ahead of me, the car stopped, and a man got out and hid behind a tree as if waiting for me. My inner alarm blaring, I turned on my heels intending to flee down the hill. But as I did, I saw a second man step out from behind the first, pointing a gun at him. Already in flight and frightened by what might be done to me, I didn’t stop to examine the scene any further. I fled down the hill and formulated a plan of where I might go to hide. Suddenly, I found myself swamped in cold water and snow. It came up to my waste or higher as I struggled to make my way through and escape the torture that seemed to pursue me.
When I related the dream to my mother at the time, she replied, “Well, you won’t like what I have to say about it.” “What’s that?” I asked, steeling myself for her answer. “What came to me is that you were supposed to witness, and instead, you ran away.” It’s taken me 10 years to figure out how she was right. Of course in a physical showdown, the most preservative thing to do is fight or flee, but this was my subconscious—no physical danger, just the warring of inner demons and gremlins. When you run from those guys, there is no escape. And going hand-to-hand with them is less effective than one might think.
Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Daniel Siegel tells a story in his lectures about what happens when a person is bitten by a dog. Say the dog has its teeth clasped around your hand, your innate response is to pull away from the pain and danger. And the dog’s response is to strengthen its hold on you, clenching its teeth and digging them deeper into your flesh, thereby causing more pain, more danger. But, if you were to relax, and allow your hand to move further into the dog’s mouth—in effect giving your hand to the animal, its gag reflex will kick in and expel your hand from its mouth.
I don’t know if this is true in practice, but the idea, on an emotional level, is sound. That is why, as I stated here last week, I want to embrace my illness—as well as whatever part of me is healthy—and let it all just be as it is. Not that I don’t try to feel good, but that I don’t consume the moments of my life with conspiring or running away. I want to come home to my body, come what may, and know that I am safe here—even if it is painful and scary.
One of the many health practitioners I’ve consulted over the years once told me, “Be in your body. You want your body to be there for you, so you need to be there for it.” It has taken me at least 10 years to understand what that meant (Apparently my learning curve is a nice and gentle decade-long slope!). Now, even when I don’t feel all that good about myself, I remember that the organism that is my body is still beautiful and amazing—like a tree or a flower or so many of the other living things that I respect and cherish just because they are alive. I have spent so long running away from pain, but now I am leaning into it, paying attention, allowing whenever I can, for as long as I can.
And this is the real work I was talking about a few nights ago—being there at the dining room table and saying to myself, “I feel like I’m about to spin out,” and letting that be, without judgment and without trying to change it. These moments of sitting with difficult emotions or thoughts and not acting on them is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. It feels so much easier to start howling, or throwing dishes, or binging on donuts or TV. But I know that if I do any of those things, the second I’m done, those thoughts and feelings will still be there—all the moldier and nastier for my having tried to ignore them. But if I stay with them, or as the Buddhists would have it, offer them a cup of tea, it gets better—maybe not right away and maybe not exactly in the way I think I want it to—but it does get better.
Lately, the ethics of cleaning have been getting me down.
When I was a kid, I had no problem, whatsoever, killing spiders. I remember my older sister calling me into the bathroom to deal with them. “Diana, there’s a spider in here,” her edgy voice would relate. And I would take pride in my fearlessness, as crushed the life out of one more unsuspecting arachnid.
As I neared adolescence, I lost my taste for being the brave hero who rescues the damsel and kills the dragon. I began to wonder: Just what had the dragon done to deserve such treatment anyway? So, instead of continuing my role as the death squad, whenever I happened on any manner of insect or arachnid, I patiently caught it and escorted it outside.
At some point, this time consuming work became impractical, and I then adopted the tactic of simply letting them alone. I have nothing against spiders. They don’t scare me or freak me out. In fact, they are something of a patron for those of us engaged in the needle arts—no crazy quilt is complete without a spider embroidered on it for luck. On the other hand, I don’t particularly like the live ones crawling on or toward me, so I made a deal with them: they’d stay out of my immediate space, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to molest them in theirs.
I had generalized my spider policy to all creepy crawlers (with the exception of ticks, who let’s face it really are out to get us), so that when the ants came and tried to take over our kitchen, I tried not to notice. I let my mother conduct, first benign and then more aggressive, attempts at coercing their departure. I looked the other way when she started washing them down the drain. I tried not to imagine their tiny screams as they circled through endless pipes to an undoubtedly ignominious end. I let my mom be the bad guy who, with no other options, finally sprayed the ants—ostensibly because I am extremely sensitive to nasty chemicals like bug spray, but I knew I was indulging in avoidance. I could no longer maintain a spotless conscience. I was just as guilty of genocide as she. “I was just following orders” or “I had no idea what was going on” were not going to play at the arthropod Hague. But had these indeed been war crimes? There had been no malice behind any of my mother’s actions. She told me wistfully, “I explained to the ants that they had to leave, and if they didn’t, I would have to kill them.”
The ignorance is bliss strategy blown to hell, I now have a choice to make as I trundle through the house with my trusty vacuum: to suck or not to suck. If I don’t think about it, I’m fine: “La, la, la, just cleaning the house. Not hurting anyone, just clearing the house of dirt. Hm, hm, hm.”
But, all of a sudden, my cavalier attitude becomes a liability. “How dare you?” some voice within me that sounds a heck of a lot like Yahweh (the big, scary God from the Old Testament). “How dare you, not only kill God’s creatures, but also act as if you don’t even care?”
The voice knows he’s got me just where he wants me. I look at the next web. “There’s no spider there,” I think. “I won’t kill the spider; I’ll just clear the web.”
But the voice is cunning, “Oh, so it’s okay to destroy homes as long as you don’t take lives? Do you have any idea how long it took to make that masterpiece?”
I really don’t. It could have taken only a matter of minutes—but then what are human minutes to a spider? Oh, dear.
“Hey, Hurricane Diana, how much do humans like it when their homes are demolished in a ‘natural disaster’? Jeeze, your sister lives in New Orleans! You could have a little bit more sensitivity.”
I gulp hard at this. I consider the very large number of spiders that inhabit our house. Taking each one of them outside as I find them is going to be akin to a full time job. I sigh. “Okay, this one, I will put outside,” I think.
“Only this one???” the voice questions heartlessly.
“Oh, shut up!” I tell it, as I gently clasp the spider in my hand.
This bit is tricky. Experience has taught me that spiders in these situations don’t necessarily clue in to the notion that you’re trying to save their lives and, therefore, make the venture as difficult for you as arachnid-ly possible. They run away from you. They scamper up your arm. They parachute off your hand. And before you know it, you can’t even see the little sucker—which, in hind-sight, was probably the spider’s plan all along. At least, when this happens, I can make a tenuous peace with my inner conflict: “Well, I tried,” I tell myself resignedly.
Recently, when I finally did get an uncooperative spider outside, I contemplated what this might mean for him/her. Had I now separated him from his entire family? Would she never again see her children? All of this became moot as I deposited the spider on the back step, and it . . . immediately ran back toward the house.
Maybe this is a game they play. “Let’s see how neurotic we can make the human! Hee, hee, hee.” If it is, I hope they’re having fun, because I am most definitely not. And I have to admit to you, here and now, that although I am a tree-hugging dirt worshiper, more often than not, I kill the spiders. I suck them up with the vacuum cleaner, which is probably not the most humane way of killing anything, but there it is.
Some days ago, I read a wonderful poem called Fireflies by Cecilia Woloch in which she cops to “not being Buddhist enough to let insects live in my house”—so, apparently, I am not alone in my dilemma. I am, thankfully, not a Buddhist—otherwise, knowing me, my cognitive dissonance might get really out of hand in these situations.
I once met a Buddhist who would not let her cat kill mice because she felt it would hurt the kitty’s chances of trading up in her next reincarnation. I identify two possible fallacies in this line of reasoning: one, being a cat can be pretty sweet if you live with the right people, how do we know that feline-hood isn’t just a step away from nirvana? And two, it seems cruel and disrespectful to deny a cat her true nature.
On the other hand, I can see the opposing argument: don’t well-meaning humans have to struggle to deny their true natures every day? Aren’t we required to in order to rise above the deep-seeded instincts that tell us to defend ourselves and our territories any cost? Or are our true true natures purer and high-minded than that? Or is, perhaps, my true nature a combination of aspects—the base, earthbound one and the spiritual, airworthy one? And, most importantly, which one of these should be dealing with the gosh darn spiders?
I don’t know what the “right” answer to this is, but I settle for a little bit of both. I do kill spiders because I think that, in general, my home is happier and healthier without them. And, although it seems meaningless and very probably is, I apologize each time my vacuum’s hose finds a new web. Perhaps there is something better waiting for them. Perhaps, we, as humans, kill spiders so that we may learn again and again that destruction is a necessary part of life. Perhaps, by becoming the compassionate, mindful destroyer, we learn more about the true nature of God.
If you’d like to read Fireflies in its entirety, you can find it here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/08/02
If you’d like to know more about the author of this lovely poem, go here: http://www.ceciliawoloch.com/