Monday, June 27, 2011

A Brief Hiatus... I recover from something I'm not yet prepared to write about. I will return to this space as soon as I'm able, and in the meantime, many thanks for your patience and any good wishes or prayers you feel able to send my way.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How to Have a Flash of Insight

I had this post basically prepared before the thing I don't yet want to write about happened, so I figured I'd publish it now and give you something to ponder while I'm on hiatus. Hope you enjoy it.

After reading over my last post and contemplating Ariane's great comment, I realize I was only half-right about the need for an introspective process as you work toward finding your bliss. Introspection alone will only get you about halfway to where you need to be. To break through the ruts and habits of what you think you know, you need the sudden flash of insight, and getting there cannot be done by your rational, intellectual mind.

I'm a big fan of the show House, wherein a brilliant diagnostician (whose character is based on Sherlock Holmes) solves baffling medical cases. But if you know the show, despite House being an ardent believer in reason, intellect and logic above all else, those tools rarely (if ever) solve the mystery. Usually he's talking to his best friend Wilson, or goofing around with some prank when he discovers the missing piece of the puzzle that allows him to finally make the correct diagnosis and save his patient's life.

Of course, it's a great irony -- in this man devoted to logic and intellect -- that it would be his subconscious that does the really heavy lifting. This is one of his character's tragic flaws--one that prevents him from having healthy relationships. In privileging reason above all else, he denigrates the subconscious and all its associates (insight, emotion, spirituality, etc.), never making the connection that this is his most vital asset as both a diagnostician and a human being.

So what I'm saying is: Don't be like House.

I know that introspection and analysis alone can't get you to bliss because it is true in art and it has been true in my own life. Of course, like House, I often forget this, and the more intractable a problem becomes, the more stubbornly I set my rational mind to solve it. This rarely, if ever, works.

I'm kind of laughing at myself, because as big a fan I am of mythology's power and Joseph Campbell, you'd think I would remember this truth and apply it in my own life. But, if you are smart, and your brain has gotten you good places before (good grades, into a good school, accolades at work, etc.) you can easily be deluded into thinking it has ALL the answers.

What most people (myself included) often forget is that your brain can also get you into as many bad places as it can good ones. This isn't a given, but people can rationalize the worst behavior in the world, truly deluding themselves into thinking that what they are doing is clearly justified.

As Steve Ross says in "Happy Yoga", thinking is addictive. And, like any addiction, when thinking reaches this compulsive level, it's not good for you.

All of my most significant epiphanies, my most life-changing realizations, have happened when I have given my brain time off--when I'm dreaming, daydreaming, meditating, creating art or engaging with art or just playing in the true sense of the word--allowing for spontaneity and creativity and surprise and not indulging a rational process.

Lately I've been feeling burned out. Trying to keep up with a very alert, active and engaged 17 month old all day, a house in a constant march toward disarray (the forces of entropy are much stronger in a house containing a toddler!) and a part-time freelance career--not to mention relationships, friendships, administrative tasks, cooking/eating and my own health and creative life--well, I've just been feeling tapped out.

Usually, when my baby naps or goes down for the night, I get on the computer and catch up on work, email and other tasks, getting sucked into the news or Facebook or other useless distractions. This week, I just couldn't. I used the time to read a book, daydream, even just sit and breathe deeply and notice how I felt. Last night, while watching the movie "The Fighter," I solved a mystery that I've been trying to solve basically my entire life. Suffice it to say, it's about my family of origin and the dynamics of it, but suddenly, all the pieces clicked and a lifetime of non-understanding melted away. It was truly a sudden flash of insight.

So without further ado, this is how I think you can allow both your brain and your subconscious to help you have important insights of your own.

  • Write down all the things that you think you need to do. Get the to-do list out of your mind and onto paper or a smartphone or someplace you can access readily. If you feel like your mind doesn't have to remember the daily tasks (grocery shopping, paying bills, laundry) and the bigger tasks (birthdays, taxes, deadlines for work or school, etc.) you will free your brain of that clutter.

  • Do your daily work efficiently. Whether this is for a job, or school or work in the home, try your best not to get distracted by time sucks like Facebook or annoying, unproductive phone calls or surfing news sites. The only exception is when you find a site that you really get something out of. For me, that's Arts & Letters Daily. It's a site that fuels my imagination and my intellect with articles that are mostly the equivalent of a gourmet meal. In other words, cut out the junk. By doing this, you are more productive and can set aside greater chunks of time for the next step.

  • Unplug your rational, productive, practical mind. How to do this? First, take a deep, full breath, all the way down to your belly button. OK. Now, there are many paths that help you unplug. Yoga works well for me, but so does visiting a museum or gallery, or reading a novel or watching a really good movie. (Again, popcorn movies are fine here and there, but they don't feed your subconscious in the same way movies with convincing characters and authentic narrative do. You're letting your subconscious chew on art, which leads it to play in the realm of dreams and myths and archetypes, which helps it to make connections to your own life.) Or, go for a walk, jog or bike ride. (Without your iPod!) Lie down on a blanket and watch the clouds go by. Play games or do puzzles, but without attachment and intention. Just to see what happens. Become a detached observer. And whatever you do, remember to breathe deeply and fully. Sometimes, the answer is to sleep. Not just to have dreams, though those can be great aids to the flash of insight (or can be the insight themselves), but also, you simply can't relax and maintain alert awareness when you're exhausted and feeling unwell.

  • Be patient. Like anything we can't control, the subconscious will deliver your flash of insight when it's damn good and ready. You can't force it, or rush it. If anything, you can only create the conditions that are favorable to having insights. So, if you catch yourself thinking, "OK, I went to yoga this morning, and then I took a walk, and then I watched the clouds for thirty minutes, so why haven't I figured anything out?", then you are back to compulsively thinking again. Breathe, let those thoughts go, and try again. The beauty of meditative work and play is that the more you practice it, the more natural it becomes, and the more often you simply find yourself with a clear, aware presence, rather than a compulsive monkey-mind. It shouldn't feel like work to do these things. Rather, it should feel like a letting go. Like a release of weight. If it feels like work, you are probably trying to use your rational mind to make something happen that you can't make happen.

  • What about money, illness, fill-in-the-blank? When you have a stack of bills you can't pay, or your health is dire or your relationship is on the ropes, it can certainly feel like there's no room for such frivolity. For whatever reason, we see much of this time spent on art or daydreaming or play as silly, childish. My response to that is to say that it is. And that's exactly the point. As children, we need play. We need to dream. Why should that need, so fundamental, so essential, simply go away at what, the age of 12, 14, 18? Now that's a silly thought. Yes, we have responsibilities, and we do not play or daydream all day. But we must make room for some of it, to remember the lightness that is not just possible, but is actually what we are. Steve Ross met a lot of enlightened yogis and gurus in his travels, and he says that all they do is laugh. So no matter what your objection, make a little room for lightness and breath. If nothing else, it will help you cope with whatever your problem might be.
Again, you can't force an epiphany. But you can improve the odds by cultivating the right conditions in your mind, body and behaviors.

In a sense, all this boils down to giving yourself permission to play and be free of your worries for a while. Permission to be present and enjoy whatever is happening now. If a flash of insight decides to make a visit, so much the better, but even if it doesn't, well, at least you get to have some fun.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Are You Introspective? You Should Be.

If I’ve made any progress at all in this journey of mine, I think it is mostly due to introspection.

One of my earliest memories of this process was as a young girl. I think I was maybe 10 or 11. A friend of mine pointed out to me that I liked to blame external causes for my problems, leading me to, frankly, whine a lot or not take responsibility for my actions. I was a terrible athlete, and every time I did poorly in some athletic event—either in school or with friends—I found some external reason for why I failed. I was terrified to face the truth that I simply wasn’t talented or well practiced enough to be good at sports. What she said stuck with me, and I just stopped whining about being bad at sports, just stopped accusing others of cheating, or whatever else I was doing that was not helping me get better and was in fact just helping me to accumulate enemies.

I learned that I had a problem, and then I figured out how to apply what I learned to make the problem go away. Applied introspection.

This is also how I figured out what to major in. I knew myself well enough that I’d be miserable in anything else but a life devoted to words, so I ignored all the calls to major in Econ or Comp Sci or plan for a career in law, and simply studied what felt effortless to study. (I also studied evolutionary anthropology, which was fun at the time—learning for the love of learning—but has since allowed me to do a lot of science/technology writing and editing, and given me an interesting background for fiction and other creative projects.) As it turns out, I have found success, independence and a decent degree of financial remuneration doing what I love.

When it came to love, I had one major and several minor failed relationships. After each one, I came to understand why the person was a poor match for me, and also what I had contributed to the relationship’s demise. When I finally met my husband and fell in love with him, thanks to all that introspective work I’d done, I was ready to commit to him -- the right person –- the person for whom I had authentic feelings, the person who had the qualities that I’d discovered I valued and who I was certain loved me for who I was, not who he hoped or imagined me to be. (You may know someone who falls for the same type over and over again, always ending up in heartbroken ruins. Happily, I avoided making this mistake, going for a more varied let’s-give-this-a-chance approach, and I attribute that broad-mindedness to this introspective process, which revealed more and more about what I felt, needed and wanted and who I was with each relationship.)

So by now you have guessed that I believe introspection to be one of the most valuable qualities to possess if you are to find balance and bliss and love in your life.

However, the question remains: Is introspection innate, or can it be acquired?

I don’t really know. I believe that people are blessed with certain gifts and talents that are just part of who they are, and that other personality traits are developed, nurtured and even instilled over time.

Is introspection an intellectual gift, or simply a learned behavior?

On this blog, I talk a lot about taking the time to mediate and examine the world and the self with a high level of analysis. I’m certain you can get better at introspection by practicing these things, but I wonder if you can become introspective if you’ve never been before. Maybe after a brush with death, or some similarly life-changing event?

I’d wager my readers here are a pretty introspective bunch. I’d like to hear from you: Were you always introspective? Do you think it is only innate or that it can be acquired?

More than anything, I'm curious about this process. Whenever I dispense advice, such as it is, it usually presumes that an introspective process is available. But what if it isn't always? What then?

I'm looking forward to any thoughts or ideas about this most fascinating of psychological and spiritual practices.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Dog, the Very Advanced Yogini

The other morning, I saw god in my dog’s eyes. My son and I and she were all outside in the backyard, and after a quick game of fetch, she laid down in the cool, shaded grass, sphinx-like.

She wanted nothing, needed nothing. Fed, watered, exercised, and near her family, she simply sat, peaceful, with no agitation.

While my baby busied himself with his sandbox, I sat next to her, and she looked at me, and I looked at her, and I swear I experienced a look of pure awareness.

Now, she’s a pretty intelligent dog, but the look I saw wasn’t her sharpness. It was a look that revealed her source, our source. It was god, in the most ineffable sense of the concept of god.

Now, dogs are generally pretty good at being in the moment, but they, too, have a kind of consciousness and bodily needs and instincts and even desires. In this moment, she was not subject to those, and thus I got a glimpse of the truth that religions and yoga and spiritual journeys are always pointing toward.

It’s hard to see this in another human’s eyes, I think, because we’re all so caught up in the illusions that our minds create for us to want or fear or hold onto. Our eyes, even if the outer, defensive shield is dropped, still retain yet another curtain that prevents most people from seeing more deeply, prevents us from being transparent to the transcendent. So that’s why it was a real privilege—this truly sacred moment—to see into my beautiful dog’s eyes and receive her gift of revealed awareness.

I’m not sure that she hasn’t given me this gift before, but if she has, then I know I must not have been able to see it, blinded by my own shortcomings and fears, needs and wants. I am hopeful that my ability to witness this, to actually notice it, means that I am shedding some of those obstructions to truth and awareness.

I don’t believe animals are here on earth to serve us, per se, but I do believe that incidental to our symbiotic relationship, they can offer us a whole hell of a lot that we’re probably usually too busy to accept.