Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You Don't Have to Do Anything

I talk to my baby a lot. I tell him what I’m doing and why, essentially narrating the day and its activities.

The other day we were in the kitchen and I told him why I was at the sink. “I have to wash the dishes,” I said.

And then I considered that statement for a moment, and corrected myself. “I am washing the dishes,” I told him.

Does this distinction make sense? Does it seem important to you? I have decided that it is, and here’s why.

You can go through life thinking of things as “have-tos,” or you can do things out of a place of consciousness, where you know that you are the one deciding to do something, and that it is intrinsically worth doing.

I do not pretend to know much about Buddhism, but I imagine this is how a Buddhist would approach the dishes. It is a way of right-living and right-thinking, to do things that some might think of as chores or burdens as simply part of living a right, responsible life.

Do you have to wash the dishes? No, I don’t suppose you do. After all, you could leave them to putrefy in the sink, developing a nice crust of mold. Now, most of us don’t want to have that in our kitchens, and of course we like to have clean plates to eat off of, so we wash the dishes. But we do not have to. We could make a different choice. (I think I might have made this choice in college. But I digress.)

Anyway, once you remove the “have-to” from washing the dishes, the action seems a lot less burdensome. You want clean dishes to eat off of, so you wash them. It’s a decision, and it’s one that you do because you have decided to care for both the dish and yourself.

You are respecting the process of living, which in a nutshell is this: Order --> Entropy --> Chaos --> Action --> Order. Repeat. This is our cycle, our system. It just is.

It is why our teeth get dirty, and we brush them. It is why our grass gets long, and we mow it. It is why our minds get cluttered and we go to church or yoga and we clear them. It is why there are toys all over the house and then we pick them up and put them away. And if there is a day where you would like to get to the dishes or to yoga but you can’t because life intervenes? No matter. If it is important, you will get to it another day.

We recently bought a new car to accommodate our growing family, and not two weeks after we brought it home from the dealership, there was a tiny chip in the bumper. This upset my husband. “What’s the point?” he said, exasperated.

And then I remembered this:

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

- Mark Epstein
Thoughts Without a Thinker

And I told him: “The car is already in a salvage yard. It’s already rusted and smashed. But while it is ours, we do all we can to take care of it and enjoy it and be responsible for it. Because it is the right thing to do.”

I am no philosopher, haven’t studied it, but I think this is what is meant when morals are discussed. You wash the dishes. You take care of your car. You take responsibility for that which you own and those who are dependent on you and for your actions.

It’s clear many people don’t do what they have to. Or what they should. They don’t choose a right-thinking, right-living life. “Who cares?” they say. “Life is short, I’m out to get mine while the getting is good and I’m young and life feels good.” But there is a denial of something in this approach, a nihilism.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for taking on the burdens of the world. (See my post about why you shouldn’t even try here.) Rather, I’m advocating that you alter your attitude toward what you are already doing, such that you don’t feel burdened by what is the way of living. No more “have-tos.”

And, by so doing, you enjoy everything more. You feel more serenity. You appreciate the process. You slow down. You notice more. Look at the way the bubbles dance across the surface of the glass as you wash it. See the universe here in your sink full of dishes. You no more have to wash these dishes than the universe had to bring you into existence. But you are here, and so are the dishes, so why not make the most of it?

Things fall apart, things come together, things fall apart once more. Of course.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Welcome Your Inner Critic

You know that sneering voice I described in my last post? The inner critic who tries to keep me from reaching for big projects and exciting adventures and, basically, success?

While practicing yoga on Sunday, I had a realization.

Shunning that critic—trying to keep her out of my head through force--isn’t the way to lose the negativity she brings. In fact, I should welcome her into my head, invite her in for a cup of tea and a little sit.

Might she still be nasty? (“This tea is terrible, and I hate your couch. Oh, and look at all this dog hair! Tsk-tsk!”) Yes, she still might be. Do I have to listen to her? No, I don’t. But kicking her out and pulling the door shut as she bangs on it with her fist and tries to push her way in? What a lot of wasted energy that would be better spent elsewhere.

Instead of trying to deny her access, what if I was just nice to her? What if I had compassion for her obvious pain and suffering? What if she was just doing the best she could?

I don’t know that I’d change her, or win her over, but maybe, eventually, she’d settle back a little more comfortably on the sofa. Maybe she’d ignore the dog hair and even realize that the tea wasn’t that bad. Maybe she’d find a book on the coffee table and pick it up--busy herself with something she found interesting, that allowed her to take her mind off her troubles. Maybe, at the very least, she’d be quiet and at peace for a while.

My realization is this: That nasty inner voice is part of me. She’s like that because she’s scared, angry, defensive. She’s a little girl who didn’t know what to do when her world and the people in it were more than she could bear, and when she grew up, this was the best she could do. Her coping with all that early chaos doesn’t serve me or other people any more, but it’s a habit. What she really needs is a safe place where she can unpack everything, feel safe and have a cup of tea and someone who won’t yell at her.

So that’s what I’m going to do. The next time she walks into my head and tries to make me feel low and terrible and worthless, I’m not going to shoo her away. I’m going to ignore her ravings, wrap my arm around her shoulder and say, “Oh, you poor dear. You look cold and hungry. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea?”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Relax Your Mental Spam Filter (and Contemplate a Dream)

Last night I had the most vivid dream. I had been selected as a grant winner to write a children’s book. It was enough money to take a month or two off of freelance work and just be immersed in the creative process. Other than that the book had something to do with the ocean and ships -- I don’t remember too many more details, but I remember how I felt.

I felt as though I was being recognized for a talent I knew I had but had been afraid to engage. Nearly everyone was effusive in their praise (except someone shadowy, but I’ll get to that). More than anything, I felt like in acknowledging this award and accepting it, I was at home. More at peace and more serene than at any other time in my life. Like I was a key finding my lock, a puzzle piece clicking into the final empty space. Like I was being allowed to fulfill my potential.

As for that shadowy figure: I was aware of jealous, critical eyes, too. Surrounded by happiness and supportive people, I felt a dark presence that dismissed the award. “What, she got it? Oh, please!” it seemed to say. This person was full of unkindness toward the award and toward me, and essentially told me I didn’t deserve it. That someone else had been robbed, and that it seemed to be fixed. That I hadn’t earned it.

Upon reflection, I’m certain that sneering person was me. My inner critic. The one who keeps me afraid and holding back and procrastinating on all my big dream projects. The one who tells me to not shoot too high, and to stick with what I can get. With what people will just give me. Don’t ask for anything too good, she says, you don’t deserve it. And if some good thing should come your way? Don’t get too proud, you aren’t that special. And if you’re too good at something, watch out -- you’ll alienate people, and no one will like you.

I think dreams often have vital information. They’re the e-mails our subconscious is desperately trying to send to the already stuffed inbox of the conscious self. Could you dismiss them as spam from the wacky boiler room of your head? I suppose so. And sometimes they certainly seem to be undecipherable weirdness. But this one (and a few others I’ve listened to over the years) have had such resonant, lingering feelings that they are impossible to dismiss, even if they are hard to tease out.

The dream above is not one of those, obviously. It did take a little bit of reflection to know that the negative presence wasn’t someone external, but the critic and negative self-talker that takes up way too much space in my head.

Does that mean I’m going to start writing a book now? (I’m actually surprised by the fact that it indicated a children’s book, since I’ve never seriously contemplated writing one. Or maybe I have – subconsciously!)

Actually, maybe I will. Something tells me this is one of those dreams you listen to. I had a dream about starting this blog—even the name came to me in a dream—and it’s been a vital project in my life, even with my occasional sabbaticals.

I had a dream about knowing it was time to have a baby, and while I have never been busier or more sleep deprived, I can say without a doubt that he is the greatest blessing of my entire life. I was ready for a baby, and I’m so very, very glad he’s here.

I know that one doesn’t eject the nasty inner critic in one evening, but something about the dream above clarified things for me. I may have intellectually known that I had a destructive, sabotaging inner voice, but the dream was the only way I could have felt how damaging the voice is, and how right and perfect I am when I’m engaging my talents to their fullest potential.

Since I can’t know whether this dream will steer me in a new path until some time has passed, I don’t have too much advice. Just a suggestion to allow your most vivid dreams a chance to open up and show you something important that you might be missing.

If nothing else, maybe it’s a good idea to loosen up the mental spam filter and let something that seems kind of wacky or out there into a space where it can gain a bit of traction and legitimacy. And hey, who knows? Maybe it’ll be the newest priority on your to-do list.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to be Vulnerable

Since becoming a parent, I have realized how much effort most of us put into trying to avoid vulnerability. Of course, once you truly love someone in an unconditional way (and especially the love of a parent for a child) it's impossible to be invulnerable.

At its core, the avoidance of vulnerability is about avoidance of pain. In fact, the word is from the Latin vulnerare, to wound. When you are vulnerable, you can be hurt.

The flip side to this is that allowing vulnerability is the only path to an authentic, intimate relationship. When you allow yourself the possibility of being hurt, you allow the fullness of yourself to be visible, to be known to another.

Being known for who you really are is a terrifying thought to most of us. Most of us go through life being told that we have to perform well and to someone else's expectations to be loved, to be given respect, and so we are trained to think of others first. To compound this, we find so many people who are untrustworthy--who take our early gifts of vulnerability and, at best, mishandle them, and at worst, throw them back into our faces in an attempt to intentionally hurt us.

So then we wonder: Who is it safe to be vulnerable with? How can we tell when someone earns (and deserves) our vulnerability?

Some of us careen in the opposite direction of hard-hearted cynicism. Instead of shutting everyone out, we let everyone in. We don't discriminate, hoping that if we pour ourselves out to everyone, we will find someone who is right for us, who will keep our secret selves safe. We give up privacy and boundaries and the right to have secret selves, in fact.

So how do we tease all this out to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, with the right people, in the right circumstances?

To my way of thinking, these aren't just psychological or sociological questions, but spiritual ones. (And if you know my blog, you already know I don't mean religious questions, but more how you relate to that which you can't know, can't control. The Universe or God or Fate or whatever you want to call it.)

I remember when I was about to be married. I had a sense of unease, and I couldn't pinpoint it. Late one night, I was talking to my fiance about our upcoming marriage, and I realized that I was terrified he might die. That one day, this person I loved and was linking myself to would be taken from me. I let myself cry and feel this fear and acknowledged how real it was. And then, I accepted it. Actually, of course he will die. Now, I might die before he does, but no one has escaped death yet.

Once I had admitted this fear, out loud, I felt better. Not because I had an assurance that he wouldn't die, but because I had allowed myself to know something that I already knew.

Of course you will get hurt by loving someone. Pain and suffering are a given of life as a human being. No way to escape it. But isn't it better to know what you already know? Can't you then make clearer, better decisions? Can't you then clear out the tightness in your throat or stomach?

Vulnerability isn’t simply a matter of “opening up” and telling someone your deep, dark secrets, or your needs and desires. Rather, it’s a matter of opening up to yourself, first. Before you can tell anyone anything, before you can be authentic and intimate with another, you first have to be authentic and intimate with yourself.

Tell yourself.

Tell yourself what it is you are scared of. Give voice to the fear, and look to see where it might come from. Tell yourself, without self-deception, what you already know about the way life works--that there will be pain and loss. Tell yourself your secrets that you have been too afraid to encounter. Tell yourself the Truth.

Will this happen in an afternoon? I suppose anything is possible, but it’s unlikely. Does that mean you have to hole up for months as you sort things out? Absolutely not. The practice you do in telling yourself these fears, secrets and dreams takes place (must take place!) in the presence of other people, as you go about living your life.

Simply -- go slowly. While you’re practicing allowing vulnerability into your own life, you can ease into it with other people at your own pace. Get quiet. Listen and watch people. Listen and watch yourself. Make a note of your feelings with people. It's my belief that we come into this world with a fairly good warning system that often gets warped by social training. Once you have a handle on knowing and trusting your feelings when you interact with someone, go slowly. Don't offer everything, and don't offer nothing. You can't dance by yourself, but you don't have to dance with everyone, either. Take a few steps and evaluate. Just as you wouldn’t practice the most elaborate dance move first, neither would you offer the big stuff to someone you don’t yet trust.

And if you have known someone for a long time, but just haven’t allowed yourself to be vulnerable with that person? Well, if you’ve been doing the work of telling yourself the things you need to know, then you don’t really know that person anymore, because the old you has been replaced.

I think most people look into questions of vulnerability when romantic relationships don’t work out and they are looking for reasons why. But vulnerability is essential to any authentic, meaningful relationship: between friends, siblings, parents and children, maybe even business partners.

You might ask, what’s the upside to taking off the armor? If the root of the word is “to wound” why wouldn’t I try to avoid as much pain and suffering as possible? Well, besides the obvious reason of having an authentic relationship with another human being, I might also add that armor, while protective, is terribly restrictive. It constrains what you can do, how you move, how you perceive your own capabilities and potential. So, besides love, you will finally have the real, unfettered freedom to be fully who you are.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Life in Me, Around Me, Here.

Dear, patient Reader. I have been away. I have missed you. Missed this space. I am returning.

I am newly inspired to do so, and I will explain why in a bit, but first, my absence needs an explanation, I think.

The short of it is: About a year ago, I had a baby. My first. A beautiful, scintillating son.

If you are not a parent, you have no way of preparing for how consuming, how incredibly demanding and enrapturing parenthood is. I had no plan in place for the blog, for me. I knew I'd have my baby and see how things went.

That was OK as far as it lasted. I'm glad I didn't place undue pressure on myself as I was adjusting to parenthood. Now I realize that I learned something out of that immersion-without-plan, and so I am recommitting myself to do something for myself. Largely, that will be this blog.

Parenting will probably inform it, as it is the most thrilling, amazing, vulnerable and ineffable experience to be had, from my perspective. But this will not turn into a mommy blog. (I have a private mommy blog for that purpose, thank you very much.) (And not that there's anything wrong with mommy blogs! I love them, too!)

But here is where I explore the ideas and thoughts and big, adult things that help me be a more conscious person (and in turn, a better mommy).

I hope you will return with me, and join me on this reinvigorated journey toward bliss. I think big things are in store, and you won't be disappointed.

Loka Samastha Sukino Bhavantu. (May all beings be happy and free of suffering.)


p.s. If anyone who still follows this space wants to send me a question or address any topic in particular, please send me your questions in the comments.