Last night I fell asleep on the shakti mat. E. says I snore when that happens. Hardly the image that I’m ( — uh — not) striving for with my meditation practice.
I read textbooks for another two hours before bed then woke thinking about work. But I felt refreshed none-the-less. They weren’t stressful work thoughts, but energizing ideas. It’s been a long time since I felt this way about my job. And I can’t point to any reason for things to have changed.
Something has lifted. Even in this darkness.
We ran this morning in the cold, then I did my morning yoga practice and meditation. It never fails: 20 minutes into the asana work, I lie down for a bridge and Leonard takes it as a cue to lie with his head on my face. His chin on my lips. I think maybe he thinks he is doing me a favor: indirectly pinning my shoulders to the floor so I get an even deeper arch as I lift my hips toward the ceiling. But it could be that he is just being a jerk. Sucking out my breath like a demon cat.
To be honest, these kinds of mornings make me nervous. This “high”, for no reason. This clear-headed, spacious sense of time and equanimity. This “lightness” that threatens like a helium balloon that I may lose my grip on.
This familiar sweet-spot before mania.
I haven’t written about bipolar tendencies for a very long time, and didn’t intend to today: what thoughts come, when one questions the present.
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.ALBERT CAMUS
They say “Trust is earned.” But I am thinking that trust is also learned. Finding this middle path between distrust and blind trust, and knowing that staying in the moment doesn’t require trust at all: it requires relinquishing the fear that is rooted in thoughts of the future. I can give all my attention to the moment and spare myself disappointments. It also requires giving up my hopes.
It’s about being a realist: hopes and fears are both imaginary.
“Trust me, everything will be okay.”
“Trust me, everything changes: stay in this moment and breathe in through the nose.”
I know far less than I’d like to about Albert Camus. And about Dharma. I’ve often considered setting up a structured plan for investigation, but at the moment, I rather like how ideas wander into my field of perception and juxtapose themselves with one another.
I believe this is also a kind of beginner’s mind.
In happy baby pose — Leonard having given up on me, and stretched himself over the sofa — I notice the chandelier’s shadow stretching over the ceiling. Fading, as the sun rises and shines through the glass doors.
I consider the concept of generosity, and it juxtaposes in my mind with equanimity, and I visualize a natural spring and a basin of water. I consider the wastefulness of a stagnant pool. I consider a water clock and decide I want one for Christmas.
I don’t think I am doing this right.
So for today, I’m giving up on expectations. I sit here with a cup of coffee, a white computer screen, and an inarticulate image for a poem that’s going nowhere.
Practicing contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER
It’s interesting that after years of charting my moods on the advice of therapists with various degrees, the Buddhist teacher I listen to now talks about “feelings”. In this system of categorizing, there are only three feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Moods on the other hand are conceptual interpretations, applied meaning based on an understanding of context. Understanding in this context being an understanding, not knowledge in any objective sense.
This works for me.
I have no idea if this is “right” but I think about all the studies of the reptilian brain – the idea that organisms of all kinds exhibit either attraction, aversion, or disregard to phenomenon. How scientists continue to argue whether an aversion response is an indication of “pain” – or of what we call “suffering”.
This has changed my yoga (asana) practice entirely. It has also ushered in a brutally honest confrontation with my own psychological pain. There is a pleasantness in the familiar. That is a truth. Though not particularly noble.
It’s pleasantness in a dark groove of melancholy; pleasantness in naming a scapegoat for what is uncomfortable.
I find this kind of sorting of language and concepts pleasant, too. It somehow makes familiar ideas shiny and new. I think this pleasantness conceptualizes as pride: “I’m so smart.”
At dinner tonight E. and I were talking about the difference between delusion, hallucination and illusion. His curiosity about the language. Mine about my own ignorance of specifics.
Every year I have a few students in movement who complain that the exercises hurt. I ask, “Does it hurt, or is it just uncomfortable? Because each of those states requires a very different response: stop, or breathe.”
Only now, with my own children grown and my mistakes made – only now as my body is edging closer to limits and requires more attention – do I surrender to the truth of subjectivity.
I’m still thinking about contentment: a mood. And how maybe contentment isn’t pleasant at all – but neutral. It’s a place to rest after the highs of gains, and achievements, and moments of wonder – but free of any fear of loss, and of any desire to accumulate more.
It requires an odd kind of faith, I think, to be content: faith that the continually changing world will bring both horrors and wonders into our present.
And we can learn to rest between them.
Breathe in. Rest. (Wait – don’t hold – don’t clench with a glottal stop – ssh – just wait.) Breathe out. Again.
I tell my students if you’re never uncomfortable you’re never learning, but
I’ve struggled with what to call myself since I’ve committed myself to a very spiritual practice of “secular” Buddhism. (It isn’t easy to give up the feeling of belonging that labels can provide.) I don’t believe in a Buddha deity. But I’m following the eight-fold path, and I definitely believe in a spirituality of our existence as a part of all things.
I cherry-pick from my personal experience with religions. The childhood faith, which I mourn but cannot accept as a whole cloth faith. And I consistently question my cherry-picking with concern for well-intentioned, but ignorant appropriation.
As part of my morning meditation, I hear the words of a camp song: “Beloved, let us love one another” [1 st John 4:7-8 ] Please don’t look it up. I promise you, what you will find is not what I hear anyway. Words. Rhythms. They burn into our minds. As they are intended to.
But they are also uniquely embedded within each of us – within the contexts of our individual experiences – even if it is nothing more than an intonation of a single word: misheard, misunderstood, misremembered, and repeated enough to become real.
I tweak the words to another verse: I rewrite “His” as “It’s” to be more in accord with my recognition of the spiritual righteousness of Nature/God (thus circumventing the bearded old man concept of God the Father of my childhood).
I remember reading once that secular originally just meant temporal or “of this century”, and not necessarily at odds with religion and/or spirituality. With this definition it would seem all religions should encompass a set of secular guidelines for ethical behavior.
I didn’t intend to write about this when I sat down this morning. But aren’t we all digging continually in the wreckage of our own lives and purposing what we find?
Shouldn’t we be doing this always?
I’m taking part in a zoom reunion today with cast members of a production of Steel Magnolias – oh, so many years ago. It’s brought up things I haven’t thought about it years. I find myself ashamed of who I was then (-in a world of pain-).
I was surprised that they reached out to include me, and I feel a bit like I want to make reparations à la some kind of 12-step program. But I’m going to let it go. Let it be. And focus on the moment.
As I write this, I know you’re in New York. And I’m hoping your back didn’t give you trouble on the flight. And I hope that C. is feeling stronger, and has a forward tug now.
I suppose if I say that there’s nothing worse than the helplessness we feel when our children are in pain, it’s only repeating a truism. But I also believe these experiences are unavoidable and have a purpose. As much a part of living as ageing and death. We have to give them meaning, I suppose. We’re supposed to name things. Give them meaning. Though I’m not convinced we can actually help our children with that.
We seem (as a society) to be stuck in a martyrdom trope: people who have been hurt go on to be saints – better people than everyone else on the merits of their suffering. I think this only makes it all the more difficult to share our pain. We risk being accused of self-righteousness, or worse. Especially now, perhaps, with social media and every post looking like a cry for attention, for the sake of attention.
Last year I read an interesting book about the history of happiness (as people have defined or shaped the concept). It touched on how Christianity, with the promise of happiness after death function(s, -ed) as a tool for oppression. “The meek will inherit the earth” is a promise that coerce (s, -ed) people to accept mistreatment in the present. I think this pressure to look upon evil with compassion is a way to coerce us into forgiving the unforgivable. Our reward being complacency: we can be confident we’ll have a leg up in the final hierarchy.
We’re caught in society’s catch-22 of being unhappy: do share, but don’t share. There is an invisible line you can’t cross, and it’s like a game of chance. A mine field. Will a troll run a spear through my heart if I use this word instead of that one?
There’s also that related trope, that worries me: “evil is the result of pain”. Our rewriting of so many and contemporary tales that give us the back stories for our “villains” to explain why they are so mean. It seems to me a whole genre has developed these past twenty years or so?
I believe these stories reinforce the idea that evil or cruelty is simply cause and effect, and that people are “damaged goods” when they have been a victim. It casts suspicion on victims. We harken back to the Naturalists, who lead us to eugenics and other solutions to attempt to avoid passing on our pain. (Well, now I’ve crawled into my own bubble of parental pain and am projecting a parallel in your situation where none exists. Sorry about that. But since I’ve landed here…)
What a crap binary to get stuck in.
What is it about our human nature that drives us so desperately to categorise and sort ourselves into strata? Who wins by virtue of conquering – in the current climate, who’s winning by virtue of perceived wealth, and popularity – who wins by virtue of loss and disadvantage?
I guess it’s more complex than a binary, isn’t it? I’m just thinking out loud. Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who is also bipolar. I was saying the most difficult part of the disorder is never actually being allowed to be happy. All joy is suspect. I’ve been wondering if, maybe, that isn’t also just human nature? Everything is suspect if we are living the examined life. Maybe Socrates was wrong.
But back to C., whose pain isn’t caused by “the evil people do”, but of some unique alchemy of chemistry and spirit that varies in each of us? It’s good to see she reaches out to you and M. for support as she does. And that she dares to reach forward to others through her blog. She has your bravery there, and your generosity that is expressed by the willingness to be vulnerable. I am certain you have made a difference there, as helpless as you might feel now.
Maybe as we age we will learn to give in to helplessness? Our bodies being only a small part of it. You know, if you did have a body transplant, I am sure M. is telling the truth here in that she wouldn’t be delighted.
I find younger men quite beautiful: as animals, like sinewy leopards. But I view them with the same objectivity as I do (as a heterosexual woman) when looking at a beautiful woman. I’m not sure if it is because I have grown sons, or simply because I love that a body reflects life experience: there are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. It’s what makes it all more interesting: less ornament, more art?
And if that’s not a truism, it’s certainly a cliché, I know. It also feels slightly hypocritical coming from me, I’m aware of that, too.
In my twenties, I had a lover who was nearing 60. It was different, being with him. He brought his whole self into the bed. It was like having a tiny window into his lifetime. There was a depth to his experience, and consequently to mine.
And it was rich, in a way that had nothing to do with sexual skill. (And certainly not acrobatics.)
Maybe I’m lucky, in that I wouldn’t have back my experience of “youth” for the world. Even if that means I have pain in my big toe, in my knees; bifocals and a tendency to say, “Huh?”.
I’m lucky that because of my youth, I know that the rain that beats on the roof will eventually stop. And that all this political turmoil will pass, one way or another. And one way or another we move on. Regroup. Grow.
Forgive. I guess.
It is all contained, after all: “our little lives don’t count at all”*. Just a tiny sliver of time. That’s kind of comforting, in a way, isn’t it? It means that being nice – loving – is good enough. In my cosmos, we are all rewarded for our effort: no tallying of wins.
I hope things are good in New York now. That you are home and safe soon. That C. is healing, and that M.’s gorgeous baked goods (Instagram) are helping everyone. Homemade food. I just realised that every time I get depressed, I stop cooking.
So, with that revelation, I need to go make the week’s menu. (I am writing again, but not ready to write about writing.)
Much love to you and yours,
*I would love to quote poems, but I’m afraid show tunes always spring to mind. This time and ear worm from Les Mis.
This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through. Category: Correspondence.
If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.
And this year has not been off to the best start. A lag, and a rush, and dealing with new realities.
I read today about – was it Seneca? – who admonished people for waiting until 50 or 60 to begin living life intentionally. And there was something about focusing on being present, not on accomplishments. Of course, the people telling us this have all accomplished enough to say such a thing.
With a straight face.
I arrived in London on the 23rd of December, and ran down the escalators at every tube station. We ran 17K on Christmas Eve, and I woke up with runner’s knee on Christmas morning – only to bicycle across London to see the boys anyway. Now, two weeks and one painful New Year’s run later, it’s clear there will be no marathon for me in February. It’s a blow to my confidence.
And not the only blow to my confidence this month. There are work issues, other health issues. There is aging, which is probably somehow related to both.
There was a storm. And I find that I’ve let myself slip into an unproductive/objective (not present) perspective.
I’m behind in my correspondence.
Today I prodded E. to head out for a hike. (Another thing on my holiday to-do list was to get a new winter hiking jacket. Not done. After 20 minutes, my coat was soaked through. Thank goodness for wool.)
We headed out to Synesvarden, which seemed like an ironic name for the spot today. White: a 360 degree view of white. We take what life brings us. Today, it came a few meters at a time. The cold-stiff orange and yellow tussocks, the granite rocks that might be coated with ice. Shadows that grow into figures that mumble or holler, “good day” as they pass.
There was a dog barking somewhere in the forest, and we circled back to find her. But she went silent.
Isn’t there a culture that conceptualizes the future as something that comes at us from behind to overtake us? Maybe they are the only ones to have it right. All this planning, all the mirages we see ahead of us. The clump of earth that should be frozen, but that rushes suddenly from behind to slip into the present, under your foot, in the form of soft and giving mud. And there you have it: the irretraceable moment that is a wet sock.
There have been bright moments. Moments that shine a bit, like glassy eyes after half-a-bottle of wine. And I keep telling myself this will pass. This grief. Because that is what this is. It seems by body understood it long before my mind caught up to see what the problem was.
There is more to this new challenge: the surrender of ambition, the letting go of childhood dreams that were based on values that I may have never fully accepted, and don’t accept now. Fears can stand in the way, no doubt, but fear can also deflect the original aim of an ambition.
“Because we didn’t get enough love of children.” That is probably more of a paraphrase than a quote, from a fiction character in a musical.
There is that moment. When you get to the brink of where you deliberately headed, and you realise: this isn’t at all what I really want.
Coddiwomple: to wander purposefully towards a vague destination.
It’s time to admit it: to live intentionally doesn’t have to involve ambition. There is purpose in being in the moment, in being in the white with wet socks, and mist in your eyelashes.