Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bliss is in Your Nature

About 6 months ago I got a dog from the shelter. Her name is Grace. I love her insanely.

Now, I had grown up with dogs all my life, but I'd never been a dog "owner." My parents had always assumed the responsibility for feeding and otherwise taking care of the dogs.

I assumed when I got a dog it would be much the same--that I knew how to be a dog owner. No problem, I thought!

But not only had it been over 10 years since I lived in a house with a dog, but I also forgot about dog-nature.

I found myself frustrated that I couldn't tell the dog what I wanted from her, that she didn't understand me. I was so caught up in a verbal-intellectual mode of being that I couldn't see how I would ever understand this dog and she would ever understand me.

And then, lying in bed one night, worrying about this beast we had brought into our home, and how we would ever learn to live with her, I had a realization: that she was simply a dog. Not human. A dog. With a dog nature, and dog instincts. I was the human, and I could not expect her not to be a dog.

I must seem pretty slow to pick up on things, right? Well, as obvious as the fact that she is a dog seems to me now, it took a significant dawning of consciousness to wake up to that observation. And once I did, I realized that I had to flow with her dog nature, harness it, find out how to do what I could to understand how she was motivated so that we could come into harmony.

(I quickly discovered what motivated her: stuffed ducks and lots of snacks.)

Once I did that, and understood her as a dog instead of a non-verbal human, not only was I able to better control her, but when there was a mistake, I found I grew less frustrated. Whenever she made a mistake, I had to ask: Was it my mistake first? Usually, it was, and I found a way to prevent the behavior in the future, and motivate her to do what I wanted instead.

She is far from a perfect dog, partly because my husband and I are far from perfect dog trainers, but we have become much more in tune with her dog nature.

Ok, so you're wondering what this has to do with finding your bliss. Well, I'm labeling this post under "meditations" for a few reasons.

The first reason is that I believe it is very important to acknowledge the shape of your nature. That is hard to do unless you are able to first see it in something/someone else. So, part one:
  • Observe an animal. Bird, dog, cat, squirrel. It doesn't matter. Just focus all your powers of observation on that animal. What seems to interest it, drive it? What does it want to eat, where does it want to go? What does it seem to be afraid of? What can it do that no other animal can do? What does it have in common with all other animals? What role does this animal play in: your backyard? your life? your local ecosystem? the larger world?
Write this down, write whatever comes to you, and if you feel like writing beyond these questions that's fine. Just meditate on this vessel of life as you observe it. Now, part two:
  • Observe yourself as an animal. Ask the same questions of yourself, and try to view yourself as objectively as possible, just as though you were watching yourself and your behavior through a window. Write down the answers, exploring as many aspects of your nature as possible. Meditate on what I like to call the "shape" of your nature--in other words, the aspects that are inherent and unique to you as an individual and as a human.
OK, so that little exercise is over with. What do you do with it now? Let me ask you this: Do you get mad at a cat for grooming himself? Do you find yourself frustrated that a bird sings? Do you get annoyed when a dog wags its tail? I hope not. If you do, this is a pretty sure sign that there is anger and frustration within you that needs to be resolved. How can you be angry that the sky is blue? How can you hate the shape of bird's wing?

Just as it is foolish to be angry with the nature of the sky or the wag of a dog's tail, it is foolish to be angry or frustrated with your nature as an individual and as a human being.

Sure, there are some things about yourself you may not like. We all have flaws. But there is no benefit in spending emotional energy and thought on what we may not be capable of changing. Are there some things that can be changed? I believe there are. But I also believe you must find what is capable of change, and what you must accept as part of your nature.

Today, I cried at work. No one saw me (thank god!), but I cried because my boss was a little miffed and his tone was scolding and I took it all very personally. Years ago, I might have been very angry with myself for crying. Now, I realize that I am, have always been, and will always be, incredibly sensitive. I mean, seriously, I am basically just a giant exposed nerve. This can be terrible. But it can also be exquisite. So I have to accept that about myself, and find a way to get to the place where that sensitivity serves me best and gets in the way the least.

So find the shape of your nature, and you may find the space where that shape fits best.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Better Living Through Editing

I'm going to try to make Wednesday "Language Day" on Gimme Bliss. I'm a writer, and Wednesdays are the days I teach a fiction writing class, so I'm already thinking about how to make language more precise, more elegant, more straightforward.

I've taught a lot of university-level writing classes now, from English Composition 101 to Rhetoric to Fiction. What I've learned over the course of several years of analyzing and evaluating other people's writing is that there is an amazingly direct correlation between the clarity of a person's written language and the clarity of that person's thoughts. When I first began teaching, this came as a huge surprise to me. As someone who has always had a fairly easy time articulating what I mean, I never realized what a huge problem this was.

What I was happy to learn from my students was that clarity in writing (and therefore clarity in logic and thinking) could be taught. I will give you some tips to start clearing the fog of thinking that comes from foggy writing, which, I believe, will serve anyone on the path to finding their bliss. After all, if your thoughts are not clear to yourself, much less anybody else, what hope can you have of trusting yourself and your instincts when the time comes to take the leap and make a decision?

First, though, let me explain why it is I think these two things really are connected. Basically, we take for granted that words are abstract entities representing things. I mean, after all, they're just little black marks, and there's no real reason the word for a teapot isn't "balopta." Hell, it might be in some other language. The point is, our words are arbitrary signifiers, but that doesn't mean that they don't mean anything. On the contrary, the only way for you and I to talk about teapots is to have a word we agree means "teapot." We run into a problem, then, when people don't use words correctly, or when they use words that are so broad as to be difficult to interpret. Watch this clip of Miss South Carolina for an example of this that may shatter your faith in our education system. (Sample: "I believe that they should, uh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.")

If you're sitting across from someone at teatime (apparently I'm fancying a little British scene in my head today), and they say, "Pass the thingy," and there's a teapot and a creamer and a sugar dish, you have no idea what to pass, do you? So you ask for clarification. And they may say, "the white thingy," in which case you have to go back and forth or resort to pointing. Gestures of course are why we can get away with being so much less precise in speech than we can in writing, where there's no one there to explain what is trying to be expressed.

Obviously, this method is not only terribly inefficient, but frustrating, not only to the person trying to figure out what you mean, but really ultimately to you, too. If only you could get what you want! If only that person who wants to help you could understand what you want! And so it would be helpful to you too, to be as specific and precise as possible, and say, "Pass the teapot."

Now of course this is a somewhat exaggerated example, and an overly simplistic one. But I think you see the point. Our words, especially our written words, and especially when we are communicating with someone we can't see face-to-face, help us to express what we want and then get what we want. That can be a physical thing, like the teapot, or it can be an abstract thing.

Instead of saying, "I want my life to improve in all aspects"--much too broad and overwhelming!--think of specific things in your life that you'd like to change. Get almost absurdly specific. So, "I'd like to have at least 30 minutes of time to read a novel, three times a week." Or instead of, "I'd like to fall in love," try, "I'd like to meet someone who is also interested in French New Wave cinema." Then all you have to do is find out when your local film society is showing a Truffaut film, and show up. It's a given that the people there will be interested, and some of them will be single, so voila! Strike up a conversation with someone and whether you fall in love or not, at least you are having fun, exploring your own interests and meeting people you might like to know.

The more specific you get with your language, the more you will be able to express--to yourself as well as to others--what it is you mean, what it is you want, and who it is you are.

I'll return to this topic of language again, but for now I'll leave you with a list of tips for writing and thinking more clearly:
  1. Get specific. See above, but really, get so specific it's almost laughable. Leave no room for doubt.
  2. Avoid cliches and phrases you've heard before. If it sounds familiar to you, or you pluck it out of the air with such ease that you're not even sure where it came from, reevaluate it. Is this what you want to say, or is this what you've heard other people say?
  3. When reading, test sentences for logic. Be very rigorous. Does that e-mail your boss sent really say something, or does it just seem to say something? Consider poor Miss South Carolina's phrase: " we will be able to build up our future." It kind of sounds like it could mean something, but does it really? How do you "build up" the future? Testing other people's language for bad logic is a good way to prevent doing the same thing in your own writing.
  4. Be direct. When writing, think of how you would say something out loud, and base the way you write on how you speak. Obviously you don't always want to be very informal, but a lot of times people will try to sound more educated or eloquent or formal when they're writing, and end up just sounding silly. If you'd say, "Please call me as soon as you can," don't write, "When it is at your convenience, calling to update me on the status would be most appreciated." Write instead, "Please call with an update at your convenience."
  5. Read what you've written out loud. This applies to an important e-mail to your boss or to a list of goals you've written for yourself. If it sounds awkward or vague out loud, it will come across that way to others and be of no help to you as you try to take the next step.

I promise that if you take care of your words, your words will take care of you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ask the Universe for Help in Finding Your Bliss

So I was reading the New York Times today, and an article in the Science section caught my eye. It was titled thusly: "A World of Eloquence in an Upturned Palm." So I clicked on it, and lo, the article describes how it might be possible that the upturned hand, the "Gimme" gesture, as the author refers to it, might be one of the earliest universal signals and possibly even a precursor to language.

From the article (italics mine):

"That simple gesture, the upturned palm, is one of the oldest and most widely understood signals in the world. It’s activated by neural circuits inherited from ancient reptiles that abased themselves before larger animals. Chimps and other apes, notably humans, adapted it to ask not just for food, but also for more abstract forms of help, creating a new kind of signal that some researchers believe was the origin of human language.

If that’s true, if human eloquence can be traced from a primal message signifying “Gimme,” I’m not sure what conclusion to draw about our species. Maybe that we are inherently social creatures who survived and prevailed against mightier animals by learning to enlist the cooperation of others. Or maybe just that, in our heart of hearts, we are all slackers."

Even though I have my share of lazy days, I am not of the opinion that we are fundamentally slackers. I prefer to subscribe to the idea that we simply cannot go it alone--to do so means extinction--both as an individual and as a species.

In other words, we need help. And as Stuart Smalley would say, that's OK. In fact, it's more than OK to ask for help. It's essential, it's smart, it's the only way to survive.

Have you ever seen that show Survivorman? Basically he goes it alone in some remote, god-forsaken extreme environment, to prove something (I guess) about his skills as a survivalist. He is the cameraman, audio guy, everything. No one is there. I can't tell you how convinced I am after watching his shows that humans are fundamentally social and gregarious people, and that while many of us (me included) enjoy being alone for long stretches of time, not only is extreme self-reliance not ideal, it's downright unsafe. Physically or mentally. This guy comes close to croaking on at least half of the shows I've seen.

So what does all this mean as you try to find your bliss? Ask for help. Not just from people, but from the universe. (And now you're asking, what does that hippie-talk mean to me?) Put a call out to the universe by setting an intention. I do this in yoga, but you can do it in whatever faith or meditative practice feels right for you.

  1. Get quiet. Find a quiet place--a yoga studio, your room when no one's around, church, a walk in the woods. Find some quiet where you can hear yourself think, and there are no distractions.
  2. Once you have your quiet, be still. Stop moving. Breathe deeply. Allow yourself to be comfortable not moving, not having to go anywhere. You are where you are, that is it.
  3. Talking to yourself (yes, that's OK too) silently or out loud, admit that you need help. Raise your palms in the ancient, upturned plea, if that physical gesture reinforces what you're doing and why. Or, kneel down in submission to the largeness of the world, the grand, inscrutable awesomeness that is life, and our miracle of existence. If you're someone with a science background, as I am, this can be difficult. (Cold, impersonal universe, bunch of rocks, bags of meat, etc., grumble grumble--trust me, I've been there.) But just admit that the universe is larger than you, and that you, personally, don't have all the answers. This level of humility is very important to be comfortable with and to accept.
  4. Tell the universe that you don't know what you want exactly. Or maybe you do, but you're not sure how to get there. You're confused, you feel overwhelmed. You don't know how to find your center, because if you did, you wouldn't be at this point, dammit.
  5. Now, just listen. Stay there. Be open to whatever you hear, or if you hear nothing, or feel nothing, acknowledge that it may take time, that maybe where you need to start is with patience. You may not know what you're doing there, and you may hear nothing, and if that's the case, tell yourself that you will be open to answers, signs, unsolicited advice. You will be ready when answers come your way.
  6. Repeat as necessary.
This is where you start. At least this is where you start if you're where I was when I began my journey, crying every day, sick to my stomach all the time, lost, confused, desperate for change. This is where you start when you have no idea where to go next. You admit you need help, and then you ask the universe to guide you.

You would be amazed at what a shift this can initiate. When you become open to help, you suddenly find that it's all around you, waiting for you to take advantage of it.

Once again, from my man Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth:
Bill Moyers: Do you ever have this sense when you are following your bliss, as I have at moments, of being helped by hidden hands?

Joseph Campbell: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time--namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin ot meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
Couldn't agree more. It's happened in my own life, and it will happen for you. So go ahead, start talking to the universe!

Monday, August 27, 2007

What is Bliss?

Prague sky
Originally uploaded by madame valentin
Joseph Campbell, whom I mentioned previously as a major influence on my life, wrote a lot about bliss.

In fact, it was through his writings that I came to understand the concept as he means it. Many people think of bliss as pleasure, especially as a kind of sensory experience. As in feeling "blissed out" after a massage, or a menu calling a cake "Chocolate Bliss."

And bliss can be pleasure, but in this case I'm referring to a more spiritual, less physical sort.

The two relate, though. Eating that cake, if you can forget about all the calories, can be such an intense experience that you momentarily forget yourself, and are transported outside yourself. The same thing with the massage. You are in your body, but your mind is clear, open, free from desire, pain, or stress.

Now, rather than catch tiny snippets of this in the form of temporary experiences, what if you could sustain this feeling, or something close to it, inside yourself at all times?

What if you could have that feeling emanating from within you out to the world, instead of paying the world to bring that feeling within you, to consume it?

The good news is, it is possible. I know firsthand that it is. The bad (or at least somewhat annoying) news is that you are the only one who can create that for yourself. It takes work, and you are the only one who can know what your own bliss is. Really. The only one.

Talking to friends and family can help, but they can only give you hints, and sometimes, if they are not truly in tune with you, can mislead you. They may not do this intentionally, but are rather projecting their own wishes and desires for you or themselves onto you.

But that's OK. Because you can find a way to listen to yourself and hear what it is you want. That's partly why I'm here. To teach you to pay attention, to listen, so that you can ignore the static and tune into your own wavelength.

Here are some of Campbell's words from an interview with Bill Moyers, in the book "The Power of Myth":

"Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality.

"How do you do it? My answer is, 'Follow Your Bliss.' There's something inside you that knows when you're in the center, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam.

"And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don't get any money, you still have your bliss."

Welcome to Gimme Bliss

Oh, hooray. Another blog. From someone who has something to say. Someone who wants to dispense advice and life wisdom.

How could this possibly change your life?

Well, if I do my job well (which I intend to) and if what I have to offer has value (which I believe it does), just maybe it will. That's my aim. And you'll be here and you'll let me know one way or the other, and just maybe it will change my life for the better too.

After all, I believe one path toward bliss involves remaining open to possibility. So let's say to hell with it together: What have we got to lose, and what a life we may gain!

Oh, and the name of this blog. I believe we're all meant to live our bliss, and if that means we need to go out and get it for ourselves, then OK. We'll go out and find it, dammit! Sure as hell ain't no one going to find our bliss for us.

One of the best guides I've had on my journey is the late mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, who is perhaps most famous for the quote: "Follow your bliss." I'll explore what that meant to him and what it means to the rest of us in the future. Campbell has a specific concept of what bliss means, and it's his definition I'm embracing.

I'm also riffing on my very favorite album in the last few years, Gimme Fiction, by the band Spoon. That album has been a great source of mystery and inspiration for me on my journey.

So there you have it. Gimme Bliss. Welcome.