Within each of [us] lies the existential mystery of being. Apart from one’s physical appearance, personality, gender, history, occupation, hopes and dreams, comings and goings, there lies an eerie silence, an abyss of stillness charged with an etheric presence. For all of our anxious business and obsession with triviality, we cannot completely deny this phantasmal essence at our core. And yet we do everything we can to avoid its stillness, its utter emptiness and radiant intimacy.” ~Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation
When I was a child, particularly after my family had moved a few times, and life had shown me that it was anything but constant, I became terrified of going to bed at night. Even then I can remember struggling to identify exactly what I was afraid of. I settled, finally on the answer that so many kids choose.
“What are you so afraid of?” My parents asked each time I cried about going to sleep.
“The Dark.” I responded.
“We’ll be you a night light, will that help?”
“A little I guess.”
And it did help, a little. I still got out of bed many times over to sit at the top of the stairs near the comforting sounds of the television, or to hear their voices in the living room. I knew not to go down, I would only get in trouble.
At some point I realized that there was no comfort to get. My parents were frustrated by what they perceived as my attempts to avoid bedtime and I lacked the language to explain that there was something else “out there,” or more accurately “in here” that was unsettling. I didn’t really think that anyone could explain it to me anyways.
When I settled into my bed at night and all the distractions of the day were gone, TVs off, video games silenced, toys put away, homework complete, and I was still and alone in my bed, I realized I wasn’t alone at all. There was something else going on, an energy inside my skin, a disturbance that wouldn’t let me sleep.
My child’s mind conjured up images of monsters in the closet, vampires under the bed, tornadoes outside the windows coming to sweep our house away, but what was scarier than all that was this darkness inside of me. It was weird and unwieldy and it seemed separate from my thoughts. I couldn’t describe it to anyone, and I realized if I tried they would probably think I was crazy.
During the days I went to school and didn’t think about the nights. I did my reading, and social studies, I reluctantly worked at my math. Like any schoolchild I learned my numbers. And one day, either in class or from a peer, I learned about a number that was beyond all numbers, a number that was bigger than a trillion, a number I couldn’t even picture, it was infinity.
We tossed it around the playground,
“You’ve got cooties!”
“Well you’ve got cooties, times 100!”
“Times a million!”
“Oh yeah, well I just tagged you back and you’re it, you’ve got cooties times infinity…”
It was kind of unfair to pull the infinity card because nothing could go beyond it, but once in a while, perhaps when we were sick of playing the game, someone said it.
I was fascinated by this word, which was part number, part concept. I tried to picture it as dollar bills or chocolate bars stretching out into outer-space further than anyone could actually see. Infinity. Forever. Never-ending, eternal, always and never. It was something my mind could not grasp.
“Mom, how much is a million dollars?” I asked.
“A lot of money.”
“Are you rich if you have a million dollars?”
“I’d say so,” she replied.
“What about a trillion, do you know anyone who has a trillion dollars?”
“I don’t think so. There aren’t many people who have a trillion dollars.” I pondered this for a while trying to picture a trillion of anything, twelve zeros behind a one.
“How much is infinity? What does infinity look like?”
“I don’t know Paige. It wouldn’t look like anything I don’t think.”
“No that’s not what I mean, I mean like… Is it a lot? Would it fill this whole room?”
“I don’t know, Paige.”
“Okay, how about a trillion then, do you think a trillion dollars would fill this whole room?”
“I really don’t know Paige, ask your father.”
A million, billion, trillion. A million toys, a trillion trees. A billion people. I mostly thought about these numbers as dollars, that was something I could picture. I thought about the bad guys in a movies who get ransoms for kidnapping. I wondered why none of them asked for infinity dollars, then they’d never run out of money or have to kidnap anyone for ransom again!
At night I lay in bed, sometimes with a small light on and tried to get to sleep. I actually counted sheep! Sometimes it worked, their big hairy white bellies flew past my eyes and sent me to slumber. But other nights it didn’t work. I tossed and turned and tried every falling asleep trick a ten-year-old can think of, in order to avoid what I knew was there. On those nights when sleep wouldn’t come I felt afraid, but I also felt compelled to experience it, this mysterious night time presence. And so I would press on my eyes with the backs of my hands until I saw stars behind my eyelids. When I opened them there was a moment when the room wasn’t there, everything was black, and The Dark wasn’t in the room, rather it was inside of me. I opened my eyes as wide as I could and I felt what I could never see. Infinity.
When I was ten my family moved to Belgium. The sound of ripping tape and the scent of corrugated cardboard filled our home for weeks as movers and my mom packed boxes full of our things. I marveled at the big men delicately packaging our dishes, my toys, wrapping couches and rolling rugs. Some of it would go with us to the town of Ohain, near Brussels where we were moving, some would stay in storage in Minnesota. To not be with our “stuff” for several months while it was shipped across the ocean was a baffling and wondrous concept to me. I kept imagining it sinking in the ocean along the way.
After months of anticipation and goodbyes to my friends, school, and neighborhood the five of us got on the plane, me, my brother, my sister, Mom and Dad. I felt more like a family unit than ever as we entered the unknown together.
When we arrived at the Brussels airport after connections, a sleepless night, and a massive time change to a foreign country where we would now live, my siblings and I were excited to see the signs we couldn’t read, the food we didn’t usually eat, and there, yes, in the airport a Pizza Hut we recognized. They have Pizza Hut here too!? We marveled amongst ourselves.
I can only imagine how tired my parents were after moving their entire lives and their 10, 8, and 4-year-old overseas. Even for a practiced adult traveler jet-lag is a disorienting experience, for us the strange mix of excitement, fear, and exhaustion was new. We must have eaten something, maybe Pizza Hut, and then checked into our hotel.
All five of us slept in the same room. This is adorable to think about now, it makes me love my young parents all over again like a child to think of us all in a small hotel room together. As soon is at was late enough to call it “bedtime” we drew the curtains closed and all fell asleep. Hours passed, or weeks, I wasn’t sure when I woke up alone on my cot in the pitch black room. I scanned the edges of the curtains for daylight. Nothing, it must still be night. My eyes landed on the digital clock on the bed stand in the middle of the hotel room.
“0:00” it read.
“0 o’clock?!” Where am I? I thought. Have I stepped outside of time? Entered another dimension? Will the sun rise now that it is 0? Will morning ever come? I wanted to cry out. I wanted my parents to comfort me, but the thought that they had disappeared in this new realm, on this new continent where time didn’t exist, stopped me from acting. That, and the fact that if my family was all still there somewhere in the dark, and I woke up my brother and sister, my parents wouldn’t be happy. I leaned into the darkness and listened. I heard their breathing, the four of them, in and out in the dark.
Even if time had ceased to exist they were there. We were there together.
I closed my eyes and sank back into the abyss.
“Suffering is how life tells you that you are resisting or misperceiving what is real and true.” ~Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation
Mo the turtle teaches me to slow down, to plant my feet in the earth and let life be. Out in the world we people move so quickly to the the next thing. Inside we flail against our shells, not realizing that the shell
is us. There is no way to get even an inch of space between the shell and self. The shell is carried like a burden rather than a blessing, lugged like a painful memory instead of revered for its lessons and protection over time.
Mo, our pet turtle, ambles along the edge of my bedroom while I write this. His shell, which is actually a part of his body, not separate from him, hits the sideboards, the potted plant, almost knocks over a glass of water, until I hear him underneath my chair. When I peak over the edge of my notebook he stretches his purpley-blue neck far out of his shell and looks up at me with a sideways facing eyeball. He blinks once. I reach for him and place him into the blanket on my lap. He closes his eyes and perches on my legs while I meditate.
Everyone who meets Mo is fascinated by him.His slow still presence and curiosity about the world around him, draw us in. When friends arrive at our house, from children to adults, the first question they ask is “Where’s Mo?” In fact, we’ve dubbed, “Where’s Mo?” the most often asked question in our house. We each take turns letting him wander the rooms, forgetting to watch him closely and then discovering him snuggling with the cat, sleeping quietly underneath a chair, or under a pile of pillows.
Mo is cold-blooded, he doesn’t generate his own heat, rather his blood adapts to the surrounding temperature. When Mo first arrived at our house this fall I marveled over and over at the fact that in a cold room, even when covered by blankets Mo will not get warmer. Cold blooded is hard for this mammal to understand. I’m still surprised how cold he feels when I first nestle him into the crook of my arm, or how warm he feels after he’s been cuddling under the covers next to my husband Jeff.
Mo is a little dinosaur, a living reminder of millions of years gone by and of extinctions we all carry somewhere in our collective consciousness. In graduate school I learned that every breath we take has at one time been a part of another living organism. “We are breathing dinosaurs!” I wrote excitedly in my journal at the time. That the whole of life is intricately interconnected is such a given for me now that I forget that I once saw life and people in separated boxes.
Mo’s delicate skin, protected by a shell,
has small scaled legs, and scratchy claws,
his slow blinking eyes, and tiny hiss of exhalation if he is threatened,
his simple meandering and his ease of being
speak to the this interconnectivity.
We are fascinated by him, not because he is alien to us, but because we see ourselves in his existence.
This 30-Day-Challenge will unfold over many more than 30 days. A good reminder to think of how we push our kids, and selves, and partners to work harder, be more timely, do better. Once, for a brief time, before pre-school perhaps, we didn’t have these ideas of what was supposed to happen and when and how.
When Jeff and I perform at birthday parties of kids under five we get to see this. Our whole facilitation of the birthday concert changes because kids this little haven’t been schooled in sitting quietly, listening, calmly, or even which way to face when a concert begins (towards the performers). It’s kids this age that want to talk to us the whole way through the show, “Did you say bobcat? My dad saw a bobcat once!” They comment on our comments, and they cry out with emotion as the events of our performance unfold.
It’s just the two of us, dressing up as different characters: mountain lions, trees, honeybees. The littlest kids delight in letting me know, when I return to the stage as “Paige” rather than “Bobcat,”
“Jeff stuck his head inside of a cave and met a bobcat!”
“Oh my goodness,” I reply, “That sounds dangerous, I hope he’s okay! Why was he doing that anyway?”
“He was looking for my birthday present.”
I can’t say this younger audience is always my favorite, as a performer. When we first began this career it was strange to be interrupted mid-dialogue. I was taken aback, unsure what to say, and I soon discovered that if I listened to one question or comment from the audience, I’d have twenty four-year-olds, trying to talk to me at once. Over time I learned some tricks of the trade, diversion works best,
“Thanks for telling me, I’d love to hear more later. Oh wow! What’s that?! Do you see it, over there? A beautiful blade of prairie grass!”
There is something delightful and wild about working with little humans who haven’t a clue about “right” behavior, who haven’t even a clue that there could be such a thing.
Last week I visited my ninety-eight-year-old Grandmother. Born in 1915, raised on a farm, and then working as a teacher, Grandma Guinther spent her whole life being schooled, or schooling others in what was “right.” Correct behavior, table manners, pronunciation, spelling. Now she has dementia and lives in a memory care facility with others who no longer have the capacity to care for themselves. When I visit her I often struggle with what to do while I am there. She’s wheel-chair bound and gets too confused if we go anywhere unusual. So the choices are to sit in her small bedroom surrounded by family photographs that she intermittently recognizes but mostly ignores, or to sit in the main room with other people who are also in various stages of letting go of their minds.
The search for something to do, while visiting, has little to do with Grandma and more to do with me, the visitor. She doesn’t seem to mind what’s happening regardless of the activity, or lack thereof. She doesn’t really recognize me anymore, though I like to think that I am a familiar face amidst the crowd of people she sees on a weekly basis–nurses, aides, visitors, other residents.
Last week when I stopped by, we sat in the main room and looked at her Cat Book. The Cat Book is a large coffee table book full of cat pictures, hundreds of them. I flipped through the photos and showed them to my grandma, sitting next to me, and then turned it out to show the photos to the other ladies in the room, like reading a story book. Some looked at the photos, others nodded off. One woman scowled at me each time I showed her a picture, but then looked hurt if I didn’t. At one point she called-out to me,
“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying it!”
“Oh, I’m not selling anything.” I replied, “I’m just visiting with my grandma.”
“She’s your grandma?”
“Yes she is.”
The woman grew quiet again, looking at me expectantly for each new cat photo.
Grandma Guinther ooed and ahhed over each picture. She’s loved cats for as long as I’ve known her. Now she has three of them. They are her stuffed animal companions. She’s usually holding one of them on her lap, stroking it and cooing to it, “You’re a good little puss, aren’t you?” Recently she also acquired a baby. Well, a baby who is also a kitty.
On another day last week, my sister, Katrhryn, my mom and I visited Grandma Guinther together. This time we hung out in her room. Grandma was having a “good” day, that is she wasn’t too anxious or too lost in the past, so Mom called her sister Margaret and put Grandma on the phone.
The strangest part about dementia is that you just don’t know what you are going to get, sometimes there are flashes of clarity and it’s like you’re having a conversation with the woman you used to know, and other times, sometimes only moments later, Grandma is talking to you about your dead grandfather, who you never met, or accusing you of moving her pocket book. On this day she was in the flow of the present enough to carry on a mostly sensical phone-conversation.
While Grandma talked to Aunt Margaret on the phone, Mom straightened photographs on the wall and wrote in the guest book. I sat on the bed listening and flipping through a prayer book that I found on the night stand, Kathryn played on her phone. And that’s when we noticed, Kitty Baby.
“Oh my God, what is that?”
“It’s Grandma’s new friend, haven’t you seen it before?” I said stifling a laugh.
“We think one of the aide’s gave it to her,” Mom chimed in.
My mom had earlier shared with me that when she visited grandma a few weeks earlier she found this strange doll in Grandma’s arms. Grandma was cooing to it like she did to her cats, but also bouncing it up and down, like a real baby. “It’s kind of sweet,” I said at the time. “Or creepy.” Mom responded.
Creepy, sweet, or neither, here it was, a baby dressed like a cat, looking up at us with its calm cerulean eyes and a striped tiger hood.
Kathryn picked it up and put it on her lap. She stroked its hooded head for a moment and then grabbed her phone.
“What are you doing?” Mom asked, noticing the commotion. Kathryn was positioning and then repositioning the doll in her lap.
“Ah! I can’t get the right angle. The light’s not right.”
“She’s trying to take Kitty Baby’s picture!” I chimed in. “Oooo, put it over here.” I grabbed the doll, now dubbed “Kitty Baby” from my sister and placed it in the corner. Grandma was still on the phone. There was a pause as we all heard her speaking to my aunt, “Well, we’ll be heading to Cleveland later this afternoon.” There was another longer pause in the action, Mom standing with her hand on a picture frame, me holding Kitty Baby, and Kathryn with a camera in her hands and Grandma in her wheelchair, in the middle of it all. And that’s when we started to laugh. It was a middle-of-church-service laugh, an algebra-test-in-progress guffaw, when stifling does anything but stop the hilarity and the giggles spills out of your body, using any path necessary, even leaking out in tears.
We formed a circle of laughter around my Grandma. None of us could control ourselves. Mom had to leave the room to catch her breath so she could take the phone back from Grandma. Grandma was oblivious to our behavior, although I like to think she felt the joy of the moment. Kathryn got the perfect shot of Kitty Baby. I marveled at the absurdity of it, the wildness of life, the delight when we can step outside and look in.
..Continued from previous entry…
She said…, oh that makes me…
I know but…
You are mean…
When I am imprisoned in a swirl of thoughts,
to take a deep breath, or ten, and unclench the fist of my mind, and heart, and gut.
The work of letting go has been to discover what life is like when I’m not spending it in offense or defense (protection or grasping).
These offensive and defensive moments often happen during interactions with others, of course, but the most profound offensive and defensive behavior was what I discovered inside of myself.
I woke up every morning and noticed that there was a part of me, that was already chattering away about the day ahead—what will I do, where will I go, what do I have to do, what do I want to do. Then there was the afterthought associated with the list of to do’s, perhaps resenting those “have tos,” perhaps excited about those “want tos,” but either way not here. Not here, in my body, waking up, making breakfast. Already there in the imagination of what’s to come, or what might not.
As I watched this chatter I began to notice that along with it there is a general feeling that comes. The feeling is of a low-level anxiety or unease—a pressing on the skin from the inside. In words, I’ve come to think of it as the general sentiment of “there is a problem.”
It was this very feeling that prompted me at a young age to develop an eating disorder. At first I was just a runner, cross-country practice prompting me into more and more miles, and then I started to like the feeling of exhaustion. I started to long for a body so tired it didn’t have to feel, a body so beaten it could fall into bed and sleep, anxiety out-run… until the next day when it would all begin again. At that time I wasn’t aware that I was attempting to escape anything, I was just a fifteen-year-old going through the motions. Though an eating disorder is long behind me, I discovered in adulthood that I was living with this low level anxiety, or “there is a problem” attitude driving me.
When I first consciously noticed this anxiety in myself it actually got worse. I think it was because I was paying attention to it, whereas before it was just the thing that made me jump out of bed in the morning. Now I noticed it every turn and I couldn’t do anything to make it go away because I could see that it was there. It was amazing to watch how this ego, or mind-chatter, was literally never satisfied.
I’d start a project I was excited about and there would be little more than a moment’s enjoyment before I was wishing it would end, or complaining about the details, or running into “issues.” I noticed it in conversations with friends, both in my words and in theirs:
“There’s always something…
“I’m so stressed all the time..
“It just never stops…
“Go go go, you know I’m busy.” Pause. Sigh. “Busy but happy.” Forced smile.
I began to be able to see in my own thoughts the constant, unceasing, never satisfied search for the perfect moment, perfect schedule, perfect balance of work and play and family that will finally, ultimately, perfectly be enough. Enough money, enough time, happiness, fulfillment, space, recognition…
But what if it doesn’t exist?
Except for here. Right now. Only ever and eternally, now.
I imagine that every single one of us has had the experience of thinking out or planning out a whole day or weekend, or even an hour. And then actually experiencing that day or hour and finding that it did not at all fit our plan, perhaps it was better than we imagined and we feel happy, perhaps it was worse and we feel disappointment.
What if we did away with all of this? Wouldn’t it be so much easier, to just experience life as it is? To walk into the day and let it happen… instead of making it mold to our will?
For a whole year, maybe more, every time I was able to notice this anxiety pressing inside of me for things to be different, faster, slower, better, not that way…this way, I would stop. As soon as I noticed that I was gripping or pushing, by holding my pen too tightly, or manipulating a conversation, or defending an idea I would just stop. No matter if I was late or tired, or lonely, or in the middle of a conversation. I would stop. Take three deep breaths. And just gently say to myself, “There is no problem.”
And as I did this practice, at first frequently—literally before I’d make it from my bed in the morning down to the kitchen to make coffee I might have stopped myself 20 times! Until I needed to say it less and less and I began to feel this deep, calm, relief and spaciousness where anxiety used to reside.
“Enlightenment is the deep understanding that there are no problems.”
Jennifer said those words to our women’s group and something deep inside of me listened, though my mind got very active trying to prove her wrong:
…Deforestation, global warming, Rape, Poverty, Murder…
A problem implies that it shouldn’t be happening. But if it is happening, if it is what is happening, then there is no way that it should not be happening because it is. That does not mean that we do not leap to stop the falling child or change actions in our lives to live in better harmony with our nature or our families and friends, or protest gun violence, or women’s rights. It simply means that no thing that is happening in our lives is a problem. It just is.
We simply are.
We are here
and we are here
and we are here.
Over and over again we are here.
And if we work with, and respond to our lives from unity rather than inner division, from acceptance and investigation rather than the mindset that there are wrongs and problems and we are victims, and they are victims and it is all so screwed up, so why even bother?
I wonder what kind of world we could create.
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The journey is not to find Truth but to discover what is not truth. Truth cannot be found, it is always and always here.
I read these kinds of koans for years thinking of them as puzzles to chew on, until an answer arrived, like working a Rubiks Cube until all the colors aligned. But really there is nothing to think about, thinking muddles the truth further rather than clarifying anything. And so it sometimes feels futile to attempt to write about all of this, and yet I feel compelled to try.
I came across a definition of ego recently which I want to share. In my women’s group (remember that group from entry #1?) we work a lot with this word. There we’ve likened ego to the masks or personalities we wear–the face we put on which is not really who we are. It’s the things we call our “identity:” what I like and don’t like, what I do for work, what places I’ve been, my memories and future hopes. This definition serves well conceptually but doesn’t quite capture the power of ego. Ego is not a static thing, like a mask one puts on, rather its a movement, or a compulsion. “Ego is a verb” Jennifer has also said to us in our women’s group.
Adyashanti, one of my favorite writers and speakers describes ego as “the act of consciousness being obsessed with its own psychology… It’s when everything is filtered through the me.” I realized as I was listening to him that this is what I was pointing to in entry #11 To Live My Life From Here, when instead of just feeling pain and sadness, my own or someone else’s, I made a story about it with “me” in the center. Filtering the interactions of our daily life through all of our past experiences, beliefs, values, self-concern, this is ego.
I wanted to share this definition because it is something I often find myself trying to explain, and just missing the mark. Words fail for something so fundamentally a part of our cultural story that we don’t question it: that our identities are important and good things, that we can make them better and worse, that they are how we interact with the world, that filtering the now through what we have learned about the past is helpful.
I wrote also in that first entry that after years of searching for happiness, answers, peace and love in environmental and social justice work, in psychological processing, in family relationship work, I found myself on my knees in my backyard, begging for help, a guide, support that made sense.
And eventually that guide and support showed up in the form of my women’s group, and our mentor, Jennifer. Since then it’s been a fascinating and at times extremely challenging road of learning all about this ego character and what it’s up to. A steady meditation practice has helped. Sitting quietly every morning gives a chance to watch the mind, to begin to notice the difference between thoughts and who is watching or witnessing those thoughts.
The greatest difference between what I began studying and working with in women’s group and outside of it through readings and other teachings, and other self-help kind of paths I’d been on, was that what we were doing in women’s group was (and is) experiential.
We didn’t just go to women’s group and talk about all this stuff–meditation, love and kindness being the basis of all human life, interconnectivity, living from a higher self–and then leave it on the pages of a book or in the room where we met, I began to practice and experiment with what we talked about in my own life. Having the support of other people who were also (and still are) experimenting with this in their lives was additionally supportive and wonderful.
Everyone’s path is different, though we share many common moments. Each of us in our group has taken the time to watch and learn what our particular attachments and aversions are (remember that whole ego thing always pushing away or clinging to?). Once we understood a little of how each of our different patterned identities worked (where we seize up and can’t breath, where we freeze and don’t want to move, where we want to lash out and attack of protect) we could begin to see what our “work” was. Though Jennifer is fond of reminding us that it’s actually much more work to hold onto a delusion than to let it go.
Something which I think is really important to note about this is that it would be really nice if we just had to “let go” of destructive thoughts, patterns, etc. one time and be done with it, but actually we usually have to let go over and over again… though my experience is that the letting go gets deeper and deeper every time.
TO BE CONTINUED….
As I’ve gotten deeper into these entries I’ve been surprised to find what I’ve written. There’s been many moments in the past weeks when a voice in my head has begged me to stop. Stop sharing, stop talking about things, stop being vulnerable. The audience, in my mind, becomes giant and judging. You grow fangs and claws, and are out for the kill–to tear me apart with a harsh judgement or a mean-spirited comment.
I set out to write what arises, to follow this flow of words from the heart, wherever they lead. Somedays I’ve thought to write something different, or to try to control what comes. “Maybe,” I think, “I can tell that funny story about that time when I lived in Australia and went to the beach to watch the kite surfers…” But then I catch myself planning and recall that I’ve vowed not to plan this. I’ve promised myself not to think out any of these entries, but rather to write what comes and be sure it is coming from love not fear, openness, not constriction.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for your comments and encouragement. Sharing this part of my life with someone beyond my journal is filling me with so much joy. And I will continue to write, audience or no. I’ll face down those fanged monsters in my mind and reveal them to be nothing more than dust when I turn to blow them away with an exhale.
“The trajectory of our spiritual lives–no matter what our path…the trajectory of our spiritual lives and all of spiritual awakening is towards surrender.” ~Adyashanti
This is my surrender. This writing is my surrender of being right, of writing perfectly. Through each of these entries I feel the chance to lay bare a quiet part of myself that is difficult to express in conversation. And here I am again, surprised, astonished, even at what’s been written as if I really had nothing to do with it at all.
Thank you for reading
thank you for writing
thank you for the opportunity to attempt expression.
Surrender does not mean white flag waving
to steel cold guns pointing in the face of scared solider.
Surrender is slipping quietly through the cracks of hard world,
is wind swirling between branches and leaves,
is sun reaching tiniest plants hidden in the depths of mountain valleys.
Surrender is stopping holding on or resisting,
stopping strong stubborn spine,
is water seeping through porous rock.
Surrender is lying down inside of self,
while also being up right in the world.
Surrender is opening my heart to the whole of life, knowing it might hurt, and doing it anyway, over and over again.
I wake up this morning after a terrible dream and want to be comforted.
I want someone to hold me, to take away the pain of the images in my dream.
People killing people, suffering on every level,
those who are killed and those who do the killing.
It’s a dream, yet there’s worse happening in reality. Along with empathy, guilt moves through for my privileged life, for my lack of suffering.
It’s moments like these when the power of believing thoughts is transparent. I find myself in a state of sad loneliness because of a dream my mind created. Yet, this alone is not a bad thing. The empathy and love I feel as a result connects me to the whole of the human experience. The part that is useless is the guilt, helplessness, doubt, fear and clinging that are generated if I follow my thoughts.
I watch the whole thing move through me like a violent storm across an otherwise peaceful landscape…
When I first wake up I just feel it, I’m crying as a get out of bed. I’m disturbed by the pain and cruelty I witnessed in my sleep. As I put my contacts into my eyes, the world comes into focus, and the thoughts begin.
“It was just a dream.”
“But somewhere it’s real, or worse. I’ve seen it on the news.”
“Why am I so lucky?”
“I should really be doing more to help others who are in pain.”
“but who? but what…where to?”
“Fly to foreign lands and set up camp?”
“I can’t. I’m useless.”
“What’s the point of my life? So privileged. Why me?”
Suddenly empathy becomes self-doubt. Before breakfast my whole life is called into question and I haven’t even spoken. Connection to others who are suffering in the world becomes all about me. I feel terrible. Suddenly all I am really thinking about is what I can do to make myself feel better.
As a student of environmental studies and social justice this is a battle I’ve been engaged in before. And I’ve never won. I know I won’t win it now if I stay with the thoughts that I’m bad, that I should do something more.
be something more.
work for something more.
whatever more might be.
Only the ego can take something so beautiful, our deep connection to all of a life and the ability to feel love and empathy for all creatures, and turn it into my problem. My loneliness, my guilt, my fear, my burden to bear.
Pema Chodron, American-Buddhist nun, writes that the greatest gift we can give to the world is our own awakening. Sri Nisargadhatta Maharaj, Indian sage, writes that greatest way we can spend our time in this life is to work to become free from our patterning. Free from our anger, blame, guilt, and depression. After all, we cannot offer help to the world if we are living our lives in a state of inner division.
Luckily I am still standing in my bathroom. I don’t (though I might have in the past) have the dream, get depressed, feel resentful, yell at my partner when he asks for something, create an argument, fall to pieces in the middle of it, saying,
“Why are we even arguing about this it’s so stupid. Don’t you know there are people in the world who are really in pain? What’s wrong with us?”
Thereby passing on the blame, guilt, and shame, into the world. Thereby making suffering out of nothing. Out of a thought. Out of a dream.
Instead I wake up with tears in my eyes. On that cusp between sleep and wakefulness, between eyes open and closed, I feel the pain of being alive. The pain of suffering, of living and dying, of killing and being killed. I breathe in deeply this feeling. I watch the temptation to make it all about me pass by. I send love and light into the world with my out-breath. And I catch a glimpse of the connection and love of the entirety of life. And I promise to live my life from here.
When we say a simple and sincere yes to life, yes to death, yes to the ego’s own dissolving, we don’t have to struggle anymore. It becomes a new way of navigating through life. Flow is what navigates us through life–not concepts, not ideas, not what we should or shouldn’t do, not what’s right or wrong. Over time what we come to see is that flow is amazing. ~Adyashanti The End of Your World
One of the most difficult cultural messages to unravel in my own inner life has been the message of “the doer.” I, and most people I know, was taught — you are what you do. This wasn’t overtly state of course, rather it was subtle programming that seeped in through watching the world around me–be productive, cross things off your list, have a good time, don’t forget to smile. We’re taught from an early age to seek external recognition and praise for all these things that we do–from grades in school to money for work, to accolades and praise for something creative–our worth is determined by something given to us from the outside.
As I’ve intentionally worked over the past ten years to create and live the life of my dreams I’ve had to directly encounter and investigate this programming in my own life.
In graduate school, studying environmental education, I was asked to sit quietly in the woods while doing nothing. It was a “solo,” an hour or more of time without pen, paper, books, etc. sitting in one spot, just being. This was the first time I’d ever connected with nature in this way. I remember wondering if the trees valued themselves more or less for being tall, or strong, or short, or wide. I realized that the trees probably didn’t see themselves as separate from life itself, let alone the forest they created, and that therefore value was a foreign, human concept. As someone who had struggled for many years with an eating disorder, body image issues, and generally valuing and judging my body and actions harshly, this blew my mind. It was a light bulb moment that delighted me.
I vowed to myself then, alone in the woods, to live like the trees: for life’s own sake, not for an arbitrary concept of value or worth. Like so many of life’s most potent truths this proved to be difficult. Not so much difficult to do, but difficult to remember when faced with a culture that immensely values doing, external recognition, and praise. It was hard not to want and seek what I’d been programmed to desire since childhood. I worked half-heartedly to be like the trees for several years until one day, in my late twenties, I realized nothing was going to change if I didn’t actively foster this idea in my life.
Deciding to intentionally explore this idea in my own life: that value is an arbitrary and useless concept when applied to one’s self as a means to an end, or as a motivating force in one’s own life, flew in the face of almost every way I’d functioned up to that point.
Without that doer I, at first, felt lost and unmotivated. I’d always been a runner and later a gym rat, working out 6-7 days a week, always driving my body towards an imagined ideal of perfection. Suddenly all of that was turned on its head.
Whose idea of perfection was this anyways?
Was it mine?
Where did it come from?
Why did I start to think this?
Why am I doing this again?
I’d ask myself these questions and I could no longer find an answer to keep me going.
The exercise I was doing at the time was not enjoyable beyond a perceived goal of bodily beauty. As I began to question this idea, I was forced to recognize that I didn’t believe in this goal any longer. I also knew, deep inside, that the workout regimen I held myself so strictly to, was not for health. I didn’t need to workout 5,6,7 days a week to be healthy. And in fact might even be hurting myself by doing so. For that matter what did being healthy even mean anyways? Where did I get that idea in my head!?
There were many mornings that I would wake up, begin my day, sit and then just feel confused… unanchored. Here was this thing, exercise, that had been a part of my daily existence for so many years that I hadn’t even questioned it. It was so lauded and encouraged by the external forces in my life– from the media to my personal relationships– as good that I hadn’t ever imagined it was anything but.
For a few months this was agonizing. It was, like any addiction, difficult to release my dependency. Having had an eating disorder in my earlier years I was familiar with the feeling of letting go of something that had served me in some way, but which had become destructive. What was so different about this letting go was that I was releasing something that most people agreed was a good thing.
I was not obsessively exercising, in fact I was keeping up with what many considered a norm. But the norm wasn’t what I was going for anymore. I wanted to explore what life could be like with freedom running it, instead of patterns and cultural conditioning. I wanted to know what life could be like if I were a tree in a forest who didn’t even think to look down at one’s self with judgment, blame, or guilt… about anything.
And what I found, when I really got down to it, was that there were many things in my life–exercise just one of them–that I was choosing to do from a sense of obligation, comparison, or a desire to be “better” and more valued.
This was big. Huge.
For several years I sat and wrote in my journal every morning about all of the things I wanted to let go of, all the unnecessary baggage I was carrying around, all the effort and energy I had been putting into holding my life together. From that addiction to exercise, to my love relationships being a certain way, to my work ethic that I’d so carefully created and protected. I was going for bare bones, stripping it all away. What did I do/have/want to be in this life that was truly coming from a higher self, or from a sense of love and connection with life?
You may wonder, as I did, what would remain if all was taken away. What would be left if I stopped trying to be that…
…person I’d imagined myself to be for so long?
I was ready and also a little terrified to find out.
There was a deep fear, within all of this exploration of values and motivations, that if I stopped trying to be someone, or stopped doing things to be valued that I’d just sit on the couch all day, watch cartoons, gain 300 pounds, and never do anything interesting again. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
As I’ve intentionally cleared away the clutter of my own mind, and conditioning, by investigating and questioning thoughts and beliefs that once seemed indisputable (like exercise being important and good for me) a new part of me has woken up. It feels like a new part of me has started to live.
I’ve heard many different descriptions of what I am also pointing to, but the metaphor of a river makes the most sense to me. A river wanders its banks without will or effort. It moves around, through, under. It winds past rocks and over. There is no resistance, just response to what arrives. There is little need for forethought or planning, just a slow or quick trip down stream, depending on the weather, the day, the slope of the river bed. Sometimes, when it is cold, the river is still. Winter comes and the surface freezes, though water still moves beneath the hard places. In spring, the snow melts. The river is fed with new life.
The river is inside all of us, moving our lives, even when we think we’re the ones making the decisions.
The thing that amazed me most about this process of investigation, that started with an hour long solo in a forest, was how experiential it was. This wasn’t just a concept or an idea, I could live this on an entirely practical level. Contrary to what my fears wanted me to believe, I don’t sit on a couch all day or eat nothing but junk food, or watch excessive amounts of television. Life happens and I experience and respond to it. I wake up when I’m ready or when I need to, when I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep, when I need exercise I go to a dance class, for a walk, to a Pilates class. When a task needs to be completed I finish it. I don’t plan out each moment of my day, I don’t measure hours of exercise, I just wake up every day and see what it has to bring.
I feel annoyed, so I want to express the annoyance and fix whatever is annoying me. I feel annoyed and I don’t want to deal with it. I ignore it and distract myself with something else.
It’s foreign to feel emotions and do nothing with them.
The last thing I feel like I want to do when I experience anger, sadness, frustration, or upset, is sit still. Yet this is what I’ve been working with the past five years or so. See the emotion, feel it. Don’t react, respond when you are able, or if a response is needed at all.
Oh but the urge to react remains! It would feel so good to just speak my mind and tell you exactly what you did wrong, tell my version of the story, prove my self right. But it would only be a moment of satisfaction like a puffed up balloon, inflated, full, floating gloriously towards the sun and then… pfzsszzzzsszzzz… it falls back to the earth just a thin sheaf of plastic after all.
“I don’t want you to play with that, it’s mine and fragile.”
He takes the toy from my hands and throws it gleefully into the air. “Look,” he says, “it’s pretty in the sunshine!”
“Please give it back,” I ask politely as I’ve been taught.
“All right,” he says devilishly, “but in just one moment.” He tosses it again faster this time, back and forth between his palms. “Oops.” It falls to the floor and breaks into pieces, changed forever.
As a child if someone did something “to” me that I perceived as wrong, I’d turn to a parent. I’d seek judgement, reprimanding and blame from an external source.
“You should have listened. You should have given it back when she asked for it. And you… you should have been clearer that you didn’t want the toy played with in the first place, why did you have it out of the box if you were afraid it would get broken? It seems like you both owe each other an apology.”
I feel empty inside at the end of the conflict. Nothing feels resolved, and my toy is still broken.
The actions are done, past.
To dwell on them is to leave the present.
To take a stance on them is to create a story: “I was right, he was wrong, and I still got into trouble. The world is unfair.”
So that every time any conflict like this happens again, I will feel the victim over and over. Only, not just the victim of that moment, but the victim of every time I have been “wronged” for my whole life.
As an adult I’ve felt I’m often playing out the same scenarios over and over again with different toys and different judges. An incident in traffic, a conflict at work, a friend who does something I think is incorrect or hurtful. The judges have come to live inside my head or in the words of my friends when we gossip about what happened, “Can you believe it!? Can you believe he did it again?”
As human beings we have learned how to have boundaries. We have learned how to communicate our needs. We have learned how to say, “I am sorry.” Now, we must learn how to forgive even when these boundaries are broken, even when we want to make someone wrong, even when blame feels warranted.
We must learn how to forgive, just because. We must learn to love the relief and the space and caring that moves in when forgiveness is chosen over blame. We must forgive because there is enough anger, blame, and judgement in the world to fill it with pain for another century.
How many times when someone has said, “I’m sorry,” or in the case of a child, or even our court system, been made to say so by a parent or authority figure, has it actually meant anything?
For me, as a child, when my brother was made to say “sorry” all it meant was “I’m wrong,” and therefore “you’re right.” I don’t need to be right anymore.
I want something that exists beyond wrong and right.