Aspiring to Become Hootless

Recently, I have been wanting a particular thing to happen in my life. And I mean REALLY wanting it. My mindfulness practice continuously teaches me that grasping after desires creates suffering, whereas trusting events to unfold in their own way, at their own pace, generates ease. When we can relax into our life, as it is, we feel more peace and contentment. But this practice of letting go of hoped-for results is no easy task, particularly in the outcomes-obsessed present-day United States. I therefore am consistently on the lookout for tips about approaching life with open palms (i.e. not trying to control everything!). Happily, an acupuncturist  just introduced me to a new concept: becoming hootless. Credit to icanhascheezburger.com

Hale Dwoskin describes hootlessness as follows:

Hootlessness is when you do not give a hoot whether you achieve a particular goal or not. Contrary to popular belief, you do not attain your goals when you desire them strongly enough. In fact, if you honestly examine your past experiences, you'll discover that most of the goals you've achieved are the ones that you let go of wanting--even if not by choice...When you allow yourself to release to the point where you are hootless about getting your goal, two things may happen. Either you'll find that you abandon the goal altogether and feel lighter because of it, or you'll be much more likely to achieve the goal than you were when you wanted it...The more hootless you feel, the freer you are to enjoy whatever you have in this moment without the usual fear of loss or disappointment.

What hootlessness amounts to in my book is a deep trust in our ability to handle whatever arises in our lives. In short, fear does not run the show, wholeheartedness does. This does not mean NOT having goals. It means relating to our goals in ways that allow us to be present to our lives, the people in it, and our environment. Hootlessness also allows us to approach life more flexibly instead of with a ton of rigid expectations, rules, and regulations. As Dwoskin points out, our wanting mind is often seeking approval, control, security, or separation. When we are able to name what we want and release our hopes and fears about how we are going to get there, space appears and we experience more freedom.

I appreciate Dwoskin's attention to language when we set goals. In his words,

'I allow myself to...,' 'I can...,' or, 'I open myself to...' are good ways to begin a goal in courageousness. 'I have...' is a good way to begin a goal in acceptance. 'I am...' is a good way to begin a goal in peace. These ways of starting a goal statement enable the mind to use its creativity to generate possibilities of how the goal can happen.

Here are a few of his courage-based goal statements that I find particularly useful for clients and myself:

  • * I allow myself to feel like I have all the time in the world. (This one challenges the scarcity model dominating U.S. culture.)
  • * I allow myself to have a loving relationship that supports me in my freedom and aliveness. (This one frames the setting of boundaries with others as an act of self-care.)
  • * I allow myself to love and accept (or forgive myself), no matter what. (Hooray for self-compassion!)
  • * I allow myself to be at peace, relaxed in the knowing that all is well and everything is unfolding as it's supposed to be. (Enough said.)

When I follow Dwoskin's advice by being honest with myself about past experiences, I see that desperation and attachment to outcomes were not a central feature of realizing the goals that have been deeply meaningful in my life. For example, during my second year of graduate school, I grew increasingly uncertain about pursuing a doctorate degree, largely because my department did not feel like a good fit for me and my renegade goals. I spoke with my advisor about whether or not to again apply for a fellowship I had unsuccessfully sought the previous year. It would pay for the rest of my schooling and allow me to focus more intently on my studies. She asked if I would choose to stay in the program if I received the fellowship, and I was quick to say "Yes." However, I already had a plan B in place and no longer felt I needed the fellowship to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish vocationally. Lo and behold, I approached the application process much more calmly than I had the year before and had the presence of mind to do a little research about the professors who selected the award recipients so that I better knew my audience. I felt like the essay I submitted authentically represented my academic vision and let go of the outcome. Needless to say, I got the fellowship and ultimately completed the program and my dissertation in ways that honored who I was as well as my commitments to social justice and arts-based research.

In contrast, when I decided to leave academia to pursue becoming a therapist, I did not initially have a job. Increasingly desperate to land work that would pay my bills, I accepted an offer for a position that had a good salary but that was in an organization with which I did not share several core values. Afraid of ongoing unemployment and its financial consequences, I pulled myself out of another job search in which I was a finalist to accept the offer. That second organization had felt like home during the interview process. Less than a year after I took the first job, I was fired. The job was a terrible fit for me, and I had taken several vocal stands against one of the projects the organization was pursuing on ethical grounds. Being fired was a humiliating experience, and, years later, I am still healing from the shame of it.

I do not mean to be polyannaish about hootlessness. Sometimes we've got to do what we've got to do to get by, even if several red flags are smacking us in the face while we do so. But we oftentimes give in to our deepest fears when our wanting mind takes over. We then go about our lives in ways that create a lot of unnecessary suffering. That suffering can be a great teacher, to be sure. Being fired from that job was what my supervisor would call "another fucking growth opportunity" that helped me realize a depth of clarity about my path that I might not have attained without the experience. Going forward, however, I can approach my wants with more awareness about the ties that bind me and, to the best of my ability, release them.

Aspiring to become hootless is akin to what Pema Chodron deems experiencing hopelessness: "giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death." Embracing the uncertainty of life and inevitability of death while pursuing our goals is damn hard. But the benefits of doing so certainly outweigh the costs. The late John O'Donohue captures the fruits of becoming hootless with his beautiful poetry:

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more

 

May I live this day

 

Compassionate of heart,

Clear in work,

Gracious in awareness,

Courageous in thought,

Generous in love.

 

Intimate Honesty

An honorable human relationship--that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word "love"--is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.  

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

 

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

 

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

--Adrienne Rich

My partner and I frequently joke about my compulsion to tell the truth. I therefore was not surprised to find myself growing increasingly twitchy while reading the epilogue of Janis Spring's After the Affair, a book I have been using with couples who are attempting to recover from infidelity. In it, she wrote, "Keep in mind even if you're determined to rebuild your relationship, there's no correct response: It's not always better to confess or to conceal. You may decide to tell in order to get close again, and you may decide not to tell in order to get close again."

Now I try very hard not to go all black and white on the world. However, while reading this chapter I found my internal voice screaming, "You cannot hide an affair! You have to tell the truth to your partner!!" My intense reaction to this epilogue has gotten me quite reflective about interpersonal honesty and particularly its uses and misuses.

Credit to twenty pixels

 

Having learned the wisdom of going inward when I want to rant outward, I quickly realized the extent to which my direct experience with betrayal amped up the volume of the voice that wanted to argue with Spring's epilogue. It just plain sucks to have someone you trust deeply lie to your face only to later find out that they did so and chose not to tell you the truth. I do not think Rich was exaggerating when she claimed,

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

That excruciating pain often worsens when the individuals doing the deceiving believe they were protecting you, for your own good. The message one often hears in this action is, "You don't think I can handle the truth." I, for one, would prefer to be treated like an adult, not a victim who needs to be rescued from my hurt feelings.

Spring wrote, "There's no way to predict with certainty how your partner will react, today or over time, but if your knowledge of your partner's character and personal history leads you to suspect that your secret will shatter his or her sense of self, it's probably wiser to keep the truth to yourself." I can live with this statement if the partner doing the concealing has strong evidence--beyond their subjective assessment--that the truth will actually crush their partner. After all, such justifications are frequently a projection of one's own fear onto another. The "my partner can't handle the truth" assertion can and frequently does serve as a flight from accountability, to our loved ones and ourselves. When someone sidesteps their own fear by accusing another of being too fragile or overly sensitive, that is an attempt to control the situation. It it crazy-making behavior, but it does not mean the accused is crazy. Or too weak to hear the truth.

I also would rather hear people acknowledge their self-serving intentions when using deception. These frequently include shielding themselves from a partner's anger, avoiding a confrontation with their partner's pain, and/or preventing the loss of the relationship. Honesty about our vulnerability in the face of difficult truths can spur empathy, compassion, and connection, even from the individuals experiencing betrayal. I thus view self-honesty as part of the "honorable human relationship" of which Rich spoke.

With all of that said, I've been paying a lot more attention to the way we deliver our truths, particularly as I grow more committed to living mindfully. The notion of wise speech in Buddhism has been especially useful in thinking about how to "refine the truths" I tell. The guidelines for wise speech "urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful."

Wow is following these guidelines hard. It's so easy to exaggerate the truth, use biting words, harden our tone, and blurt out the first words that come to mind in the heat of a moment. What is more, reverting to an either/or framework when we are upset, hurt, or fearful can happen in the blink of an eye. In other words, we often need oodles of practice (and self-compassion for the numerous times we flub at executing wise speech) to hold and express conflicting emotions and thoughts in a single space--to be angry and loving; to speak honestly, gently, and kindly about difficult subjects.

To speak mindfully also means acknowledging that not all our thoughts and emotions need to be shared. As Carlin Flora wrote, "Constant venting of tiny stressors and criticisms can quickly hack away at the core of a relationship." Taking the time to discern what matters most can help us to discover when we are expressing truths that are actually helpful to our partners, ourselves, and the relationship.

Moreover, given our negativity bias as human beings, we often need to actively work on highlighting the positive aspects of our lives and relationships. I like the Gottmans' recommendation of cultivating a fondness and admiration system in our relationships, as it allows us to go from "scanning the environment for people's mistakes and then correcting them to scanning the environment for what one's partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect."

I still believe that revealing the truth of infidelity is more beneficial than hiding it in most cases. I also aspire to speak my truths wisely. In the eloquent words of Charlotte Kasl: "[T]here is no beauty in words that are intended to undermine, wound, shame, or harm...There is music in our words when they come from a kind heart and mind. A deep part of spiritual practice is to drop back inside and speak with intent to be clear, true, and kind."

Going Home

Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,

Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.

Credit to Hey Girl Social Worker

I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.

How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.

I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,

So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.

The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.

My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:

Someone is Dying

 

That someone is me.

 

Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.

 

I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.

 

I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot

 

be painted until the moment arrives.

 

And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.

 

Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.

 

You will join the earth, as I am born again.

 

* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."

 

Returning to Intention

Some of us are like Lotus, we can only grow in the mud. Extraordinary things happen when your world is tested. We may yearn for calm but yet we resist. To find your kind of extraordinary, recognize the opportunity, and take a moment to be still. Let your heart flower and grow. If it makes you feel alive, despite the challenges, keep it close for this IS your story. Live like the Lotus--pure in intention, rising above adversity, extraordinary, beautiful, and divine.

--Rita Said

Credit to The Cosmic Collage

 

As an academic who poured my attention into challenging injustices when and where they arose, I was fond of disregarding intentions. "Almost no one wakes up in the morning wanting to stomp on other people's heads," I would declare. "As the saying goes, the path to hell was paved with good intentions. I care about impact. Show me how your good intentions lead to justice and equity, rather than oppression and domination."

Although I still believe that we often evade taking responsibility for the contributions we made to harmful outcomes by using the "good intention" justification, mindfulness practices have deepened my understanding of how important clear-seeing intentions are for helping positive actions to unfold. More specifically, the realization that we need to pause and listen inwardly to become conscious of what our intentions actually are has been a game changer, bringing more aliveness and wide-awakeness to my daily life.

If we take a moment to be still and turn inward to understand our intentions , we may very well find they include a desire to be in control, an avoidance of pain and fear, and/or the receipt of approval. These intentions come from our ego self and warrant compassion, as they are trying to get us to where we THINK we ought to go and to protect us from PERCEIVED danger or harm. However they are, at the end of the day, "my will, not my heart's will."* As Tara Brach so beautifully articulates, listening inwardly with heaps of kindness is like moisturizer for the heart. We come back to what matters most to us, which is where pure intentions reside.

Since illustrations often work best to bring these kinds of insights to life, here is one:

Having committed myself to radical self-care, I frequently come up against old judgments. "That's so selfish!" one voice screams. Another chastises,"Way to buy into capitalist hedonism, escapism, and hyper-individualism, you self-centered piece of crap!" Man, can the voices inside our head be mean and take the wind carrying us toward a rest break, a nap, a sitting meditation, a slow flow yoga class, or--can I even say the words!--a massage right out of our sails. Becoming aware of the judgments that take me down the rabbit hole of despair is the first step toward finding my kind of extraordinary, and that awareness is no small thing. It comes with practice and the intention to be kind to myself. Only once I have actually hit pause on the self-criticism button do I experience enough stillness to listen to what matters most.

In that quietness, I know in my heart that my intention is not to prove something or to win a prize. My intention also is not to navel gaze. Here is what it IS: I wish for ease or peace, not only for myself but also for others. Additionally, I aspire to discern the goodness within and all around me so that my attitude is one of sufficiency and gratitude, with the wonderful side effect of seeing that my attention does not so easily turn toward what is lacking. These intentions make me feel alive AND contribute to a pathway that includes fighting for social justice without turning on others or myself.

To live like the lotus seems more like a wise intention than a  "good" one. I will keep it close as this IS my story, and I want to live it remembering, "The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing."

* Tara Brach uses this language in several of her dharma talks. Three in particular informed this blog post: Compass of the Heart, Listening with an Awake Heart, and Nourishing a Liberating Intention.

Enough Room for It All

I recently had the privilege of working with a yoga therapist on some alignment issues, and what do you know? The intense striving and time spent in my head during a long life chapter have taken a significant toll on this body o mine. This skillful teacher helped me to develop a mantra for the path forward, as I learn to breathe more from my belly and open up my constricted chest: "I have room enough for it all; I let go of control." I have room enough for it all. I remember being drawn into both/and theories while in college. They transformed the absolute, black-and-white truths of my childhood into a wondrous grey space of paradoxes and possibilities. "I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman insisted. For years I confined this more postmodern reality to the intellectual realm, not realizing that a both/and philosophy could apply to the conflicting emotions and physical sensations within. But then I realized I could love someone and be angry at them at the same time--that I could stay connected to another while feeling a difficult emotion toward them. Such a simple thing, really, yet so easy to miss the radical potential of saying, "And this, too," when an either/or framework has set in and flourished, without our conscious consent. Only when my heart was broken did I find my way into Pema Chodron's words:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

What a revelation to realize I did not have to get rid of the fear and sadness; in fact, the more I resisted their presence, the more I strengthened their control over my daily life. And how terrifying to honor the fear since I firmly believed being afraid was something to conquer, not something to relate to with kindness. Fear-based thinking also drove much of my so-called success. If I let go of control, I questioned (though not with much awareness), who will get things done? Who will protect me from harm?

I have found the neuroscience that explains my revved up nervous system in evolutionary terms to be extremely helpful. We all have this iguana brain that takes us into fight, flee, or freeze mode from time to time (and more regularly than that for many of us). I can relax into the fear a little more knowing it's shared by everyone else on this planet. I am not alone. And. AND! There is so much evolutionary promise in attending to and befriending the fear since these actions reestablish our capacity for empathy, connection, and creativity. What is more, fear's presence, when I allow myself to become aware of it without judgment, can offer useful information--data, if you will--that leads to greater understanding of the world and myself. Then the fear does not flood the landscape, and I can let there be room for the coming together and the falling apart.

As for understanding how my body simultaneously can be rooted downward and expanded upward, I'm slowly and surely feeling my way there. Poets like Rilke help me to re-member,

If we surrendered to earth's intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Surrender. What a difficult word. It requires trust in ourselves and the surrounding world. So many of us have learned that the universe is not a friendly place but, rather, one filled with enemies and warfare. But what if we, like Einstein, decided the universe is an hospitable place? According to him, such a stance would result in using "our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives." When I slow down enough to listen to my own motives, I sense that my intention to understand is stronger than my desire to control, and surrender naturally begins to take place. Understanding, after all, requires opening up, not closing down and off.

So I like my mantra. And I like the instructions to repeat it with my hands on my belly, aware of my inhaling and exhaling breath. When the words become embodied in this way, I am reminded how miraculous and precious life really is. In Kute Blackson's terms, "Every breath you take involves an interaction and communication of trillions of cells. There are universes dancing inside you." There really is room enough for it all.

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 

 

Connecting busy-ness to laziness

Yesterday I did what I usually do when my mind is humming and an undercurrent of dis-ease is clouding the landscape. I went for a walk and listened to a Tara Brach talk. Her newest one had not yet been posted so I chose an oldie, "Vulnerability, Intimacy, and Spiritual Awakening," that I intuitively sensed might calm the storm within. I'm so glad that I did, as the alarm bell for which I longed sounded during this talk. It came in the form of a Tibetan belief: busy-ness is the most extreme form of laziness. Those words stopped me in my tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_Yz0EAG78

In three days I will begin, in earnest, a full-time psychotherapy practice after a year of juggling my practice with a part-time job. My conditioned response is to keep riding the high-speed train of the past 12 months. What I know how to do best is attack my task list with gusto and hit the ground running with as much manic energy as I can assemble.

Thankfully I have some supports in place that regularly ask me to pause and reflect on my intentions and actions. Two of my fellow pilgrimage-goers, Marcelle and Grey, reminded me just this morning that my busy-ness is covering over significant fear and grief. Those emotions, in turn, are hovering over that which underlies everything in this living and dying world--our vulnerability.

This morning's gathering brought to life Brene Brown's wisdom that shame thrives in a petri dish of silence, judgment, and secrecy whereas it dissipates in the presence of empathy, or "me too." In the midst of two other souls working hard to realize their creative visions, I found the courage to touch the brakes and remember the questions that matter most: What is happening? Can I be with it?

Upon making this inquiry, I understood that my current journey involves creating anew not from a blank canvas but from ruins. I am drawn to the model of transition that highlights how major transformation begins with loss. The loss within me that has been wanting to be named and given loving (not critical!) attention is that this career is not my first one. I spent much blood, sweat, and tears--not to mention nine years--becoming an academic who had just begun to feel confident in her work. I also chose to walk away from that carefully sculpted career. On this new path of becoming a healer, I am once again unsteady and full of the self-doubt that new beginnings engender.

Earlier today I was able to reconnect with that tender point in time when I was a graduate student who did not speak during her first semester of classes and constantly second-guessed her ability to be a contributing, welcomed member of an academic community. I also remembered that I did not stay in that place but grew, and even flourished, until that particular season of life ended, as they all do, with my conscious and encouraging assent. By slowing down, I came back to this wish: May we grant ourselves the space and time needed to let go of dying dreams so that new beginnings can unfold at their own pace.

With recognition of that vocational loss, enough space opened for another one to emerge. This more vulnerable wreckage wants air, too, so that it does not bloom on the petri dish of shame. Yet this particular loss is terrifying to share publicly, especially for those of us engaged in healing work, as it has the power to tear apart our sense of efficacy and value and, for me anyway, can instantly assume the spectre of the ultimate failure. Even as I write now, my chest is constricted in fear, and my stomach is wildly generating knots. That, after all, is why it's so important to name these remains and work with them--their power wilts in the face of "me too." Can I be with this? I think so.

A short time after beginning my private practice one of my clients committed suicide. I had no idea this highly pre-meditated end was on the horizon, and it brought me to my knees. To borrow from poet Danna Faulds, the suicide ripped off the doors of my heart and veiled my vision with despair. And what do you know? In the face of this violent finale, I got very busy.

Today, with the passing of time and the invaluable support of colleagues and friends, I have great compassion for the busyness-laziness that was born of trauma. I went into survival mode, largely functioning from the fight, flight, freeze part of my reptilian brain until I sensed enough space to remember that I could remain safe when staying with my experience. In other words, I arrived at a place of not needing to engage in a high-speed chase away from what initially felt like an oxygen-free zone of pain.

All of this is to say that sometimes the grief and fear are too much. We need time to be lazy and regather our shattered selves. My own aspiration is not to stay in a zone of busy-ness until I find myself gasping for air in a stagnant pool of exhaustion and misery. As a professor and survivor of suicide, I came close to inhabiting that place.

So I will close with gratitude for the beings and natural spaces that brought me back to the land of the living where the wind once again touches my skin and reminds me that this too shall pass, whatever this is. I also am thankful for writers and teachers like Ram Dass who shared in a letter to the grieving parents of a deceased child, "Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts--if we can keep them open to God [or the interconnectedness of all things]--will find their own intuitive way." May we therefore allow our hearts to open and believe in our capacity to let pain "burn its purifying way to completion," when  we can once again rest in stillness and love.

 

Queering Couples Therapy

Mel Freitag and Amber Sowards getting Married! Credit to Amber Sowards of the Wisconsin State Journal. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's recent ruling of Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional has inspired me to write about the direction in which I would like to see my own field of "marriage and family therapy" go.

Too often I find myself saying to LGBTQ clients, "So if you can ignore the gender-normative and heteronormative aspects of this resource on strengthening relationships, it could be useful to you." For clients who are in polyamorous or open relationships, most of the couples therapy literature all but screams out, "You do not belong here!" or worse. But heterosexual, monogamous couples also lose out by the narrow depictions of sexuality and gender that are so common in this field and our society more generally. The case studies presented in couples therapy texts, for example, frequently refer to "husbands" and "wives," presuming that the individuals participating in marriages and other relationship formations define ourselves in these historically loaded terms. For many of us committed to gender equality, however, "wife" sounds more like a bad word than a role we freely choose to assume.

My point is that the sexual and gender binary frameworks that we use as shortcuts to describe human difference usually do more to limit than strengthen relational ties. For instance, statements about how (all) men prefer sex and activities to talking whereas (all) women feel that talking brings them closer to their partners do more to reinforce cultural stereotypes and dominant gender norms than to address what is actually going on between people in the present moment. As Kenji Yoshino beautifully articulated in Covering,

...the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word 'mainstream' makes sense, as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays. Used generically, however, the word lacks meaning. Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us is entirely within it. As queer theorists have recognized, it is not normal to be completely normal. All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.

Happily resources exist that ask us to inquire into the limiting beliefs and roles--including gendered and sexual ones--that get us into hot water in our relationships. One book that I've found to be particularly useful is David Richo's How to Be an Adult in Relationships. Although not explicitly queer, Richo's book draws on mindfulness principles and practices to challenge normative frameworks ("ego wishes and attachments," in his words) that thwart intimacy. As he writes,

Mindfulness is inherent in human nature. We were built to pay attention to reality. Indeed, paying attention is a survival technique. Over the years, though, we learn to escape and take refuge in illusory sanctuaries built by an ego frightened of reality. We notice that it is easier to believe what will make us feel better, and we feel entitled to expect that others will be what we need them to be. These are man-made chains that look like links to happiness. But...We do not have to put our dukes up. We do not have to become the pawns of our fixations or our fixed conceptions of reality. We do not have to find a pigeonhole...We can simply let things unfold, attending to reality as it is and staying through it as we are.

Richo's work provides avenues for waking up in our relationships, not digging our heels in to repeat patterns from our families and cultures, which often include rigid conceptions of gender, sexuality, and marriage. In its call for accepting our "here-and-now predicament," Richo's model also holds space for the address of oppression and domination. Thus we can still attend to the harms sustained by virtue of being a member of a marginalized social group within his mindfulness approach. But we do so with an intent of restoring dignity to each other and ourselves rather than retaliating and punishing others.

Mindfulness resources like Richo's offer a useful alternative to gender-normative, heteronormative, and monogamy-centric relational therapies that currently dominate the field of couples therapy. In fact, the focus on "paying attention and letting go" in his book serves as a reminder to be wary of "queer" or "LGBTQ" relational models that ultimately recreate the very exclusion they sought to contest via "fixed conceptions of reality." The challenge remains to use queer as a verb, not as a noun, so that we keep on uncovering the natural wholeness that is our birthright. To borrow from Rumi,“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 

 

Letting Go of the Controls

One of the most useful stories I've heard from Tara Brach centers on pilot Chuck Yeager losing control of his plane. As she wrote,

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, a few highly trained pilots were attempting to fly at altitudes higher than had ever been achieved. The first pilots to face this challenge responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes when they went out of control. They would apply correction after correction, yet, because they were way out of the earth’s atmosphere, the rules of thermodynamics no longer applied, so the planes just went crazy. The more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the rides became. Screaming helplessly to ground control, “What do I do next?!” the pilots would plunge to their deaths.

 

This tragic drama occurred several times until one of the pilots, Chuck Yeager, inadvertently struck upon a solution. When his plane began to tumble, Yeager was thrown violently around in the cockpit and knocked out. Unconsciously, he plummeted toward Earth. Seven miles later, the plane re-entered the planet’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies could be implemented. He steadied the craft and landed. In doing so, he had discovered the only life-saving response that was possible in this desperate situation: don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls.

 

It’s the exact same way with us. As Wolfe wrote, “It’s the only solution that you had. You take your hands off the controls.”
Most of the people I meet have areas of our lives that we wish were different--unsatisfactory jobs, health problems, unhappy childhoods, addictions of various kinds, and difficult relationships, to name a few. Until we have practiced taking our hands off the controls in these situations, and so experienced the freedom of living presence that Brach describes, the idea of letting go may seem counter-intuitive if not downright idiotic. After all, we're controlling the situation to bring us a sense of safety and security. To admit we are standing on shaky ground brings up all sorts of scary truths. To control others, the environment, and ourselves is to deflect attention away from our vulnerability as living and dying beings.

Chopper expressing his discontent at being in the car.

The Controller is most palpable in my current life in the arena of my adored cat, Chopper. He's been my sidekick for close to 10 years and diagnosed with cancer for 2 of those. He has valiantly endured numerous unpleasant interventions and countless car trips to the veterinarian, which, as the photo above reveals, are not his preferred activity. But the tumors keep returning, again and again. We are at a juncture, Chopper and I, where the treatments no longer seem to be working and he is giving me numerous behavioral cues that he does not want to keep getting pricked with needles and swallow pills that make him feel lousy. To listen to those signals means I need to let go of the controls and, ultimately, to Chopper.

As I've written previously, animals matter intensely to many U.S. pet owners these days, and I am among them. This cat has accompanied me through moves across the country, relationship beginnings and endings, career changes, and other life transitions, and he has always--and I mean always--greeted me with unconditional love and acceptance. His relatively young age and uncomplicated, endess supply of love makes letting go of him more agonizing; the fact that he cannot tell me in English how he feels about his situation spurs a lot of doubt about my decision-making on his behalf. To stop fighting to save him from his cancer is maddeningly sad and terrifying, as the unknown future may hold physical suffering and deterioration from which I want to protect him and, honestly, do not want to witness. I therefore am grateful for Brach's gentle reminders that staying present to our own and others' lives, even when they include seemingly unendurable pain, opens us to the vastness of love.

In her book True Refuge, Brach tells another story that allowed me to see more clearly the possibilities engendered by presence on journeys of illness and loss. In this narrative, Pam's husband Jerry was dying from lymphoma after a three-year battle against it. Pam was doing everything in her power to keep him alive, and Brach gave her permission to let go of the controls:

"It  sounds like you've been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry...and it's been very busy," she said to Pam. "You've already done so much...but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don't have to make anything happen, you don't need to do anything...Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence...In those most difficult moments...you might pause and recognize what you are feeling--the fear or anger or grief--and then inwardly whisper the phrase 'I consent'...All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and 'let be.'"

Pam listened to Brach's advice and called her a month later to let her know that Jerry had died. She also relayed,

"Over those last few weeks I had to keep letting go of all my ideas of how his dying should be and what else I should be doing, and just remind myself to say 'I consent.' At first I was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days I felt as if my heart  actually started consenting...When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch...how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him."

This beautiful story unveils the power and strength of saying yes to our experiences and being with whatever arises. I now understand that if I pay attention to Chopper--really pay attention--I will know what to do, without needing to control the situation. In other words, I can trust the actions that emerged from the intention to be with him through whatever arises. Pam's story also gives me an aspiration for the time I have left not only with my beloved cat but also the other living beings gracing my life. As she said about her final days with Jerry, "In the silence I could see past a sense of 'him' and 'me.' It became clear that we were a field of loving--total openness, warmth, light. He's gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home...truly I came home to love."

 

Honoring Resistance During Times of Change

In a few short weeks, I will begin working full-time in my private psychotherapy practice. Up to this point, I have always worked for someone else. Thus the idea of being entirely self-employed spurs oodles of terror. My fear-based thinking goes something like this: What if new clients don't appear? How will I pay the bills? I've already changed careers so if this one doesn't work, I'm doomed to failure. Who do you think you are!? To turn my attention toward the exhilarating  aspects of this transition more than the distressing ones, I pickuntitleded up Nancy Levin's Jump and Your Life Will Appear: An Inch-by-Inch Guide to Making a Major Change. I am grateful I did. Her honesty while disclosing her own story combined with the pearls of wisdom shared throughout the book helped me to interrupt the unrelenting self-doubt track playing in my own mind. Levin's book also guided me back to the aspirations that got me here in the first place--to be true to myself and live a wholehearted life. I particularly loved her chapter on honoring our resistance.

Levin offered the following criteria for distinguishing resistance from legitimate warnings that we are about to make an ill-advised decision:

If you feel defensive about making a change, if you're making excuses for why you can't make the change, or if you feel defeated before you even begin, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you want the change but feel you can't let go of what you already have, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you're trying to convince yourself that your current life isn't so bad, you're experiencing resistance.

Resistance has certainly been in my house as of late, and I happily heeded Levin's advice to make friends with that resistance--to open to it with curiosity--rather than reject or do battle with it. Of course our impulse is to do anything but let the resistance be there, but I know from experience that the more we resist our experience the more we strengthen it. As Levin wrote, "Resistance is like a beach ball. When you push it underwater, it pops back up to the surface even stronger."

When I've been able to meet the resistance with kindness, I see layers of fear laid bare, many of which were established long before I set out on this latest venture. Sure enough, at the core of my internal bogeymen is an old belief that whatever I do, I'm not good enough and never will be. Thankfully, I know I am more than my thoughts. Each time I identify this pernicious one about my inherent insufficiency, it has a little less power over me and a little more space opens up. It's a gradual process of change, to be sure, but I did not integrate that nasty belief into my being over night. The initial thought of inadequacy had to be repeated over and over and over (and so on and so forth) before it became a belief. I therefore can accept that unlearning it is not going to be like removing tear-away pants and start to shed this habit of diminishing myself, layer by layer.

I can also remember that this voice of self-doubt initially arose in a misguided attempt to keep me safe. By telling myself I needed to and could do more than I was already doing in all areas of my life, I was trying to safeguard my vulnerability from external criticism and judgment. When I can actually absorb that this deficit-based belief emerged to protect me, I easily soften and open to my experience, even when that experience is something as dissatisfying as resistance.

What is more, during the times when the resistance will not pipe down, even after I've attended to and befriended it to the best of my ability, I can remind myself, as Levin reminded me, that I don't have to surrender to its demands. As Levin said about her own process of working with resistance, "I [came to] recognize that the sensations of fight or flight were just the past knocking, and I didn't have to answer that knock."

I appreciated that the chapter on resistance closed with a little text box about offering self-forgiveness. If we take our wholeness to be a birthright, pardoning ourselves for contributing to our fragmentation via our tireless minds makes a lot of sense. So I leave you with Levin's wise instruction on forgiving ourselves for resisting what is good for us:

Forgive yourself for staying in a situation that doesn't serve you. Forgive yourself for resisting your birthright to pleasure, joy, and love, and commit to opening your heart and your life to that birthright. You have a whole new future ahead of you!

 

 

Distinguishing Wise Discrimination from Aversive Judgment*

In my line of work, particularly with couples, the old adage, "Would you rather be right, or happy?" comes to mind a lot. When large differences exist, as is frequently the case between partnered individuals, digging in our heels and claiming rightness (or the other person's idiocy) becomes oh-so-easy when we feel like our perspectives or even our selfhood are being threatened. That to me is the key: we jump into right/wrong, good/bad stances when we feel afraid. Fear is a natural emotion that arises when we feel unsafe. To fight, flee, or freeze makes perfect sense if our lives are really on the line, such as in instances of violence, abuse, and neglect. However, individuals in intimate relationships frequently resort to this "reptilian brain" reaction when our experience of threat feels real but is not actually true.

The classic pursuer-distance dynamic captures such emotional reactivity. One person starts to see danger signs flashing in the midst of conflict and so begins to retreat (i.e. flee) from the scene. The other person becomes emotionally flooded with a fear of abandonment and chases after the other, raising her voice and refusing to let the interaction come to a halt (i.e. fighting). The fleeing partner, now feeling like a hunted animal trapped in a corner, threatens to leave the house or the relationship and/or explodes in rage. When all is said and done, both people feel ashamed, spent, and remorseful. Sound familiar?

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel helps us to understand the evolutionary history of our emotional reactivity via his brain hand model. He also offers an alternative to going reptilian: pausing long enough to identify the fear and not immediately react to it. When we can calm our nervous systems enough to recognize we are actually safe, such as through deep breathing exercises, we can reengage the more recently developed part of our brain that has the capacity to empathize, cooperate, problem-solve, and be creative.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vESKrzvgA40

In contrast, when we react to fear by making others or ourselves bad or wrong, we're using aversive judgment, or what Tara Brach calls "an aggressive force that separates." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines aversive as "tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus." When we use aversive judgment, we make others and ourselves (when the judgment is directed inwards) noxious and punishing entities. In other words, we reinforce a perception of the world as an inherently dangerous place where enemies lurk around every corner. In such a world, war and the establishment of hierarchies composed of "better" and "worse" people become the answer to conflict.

Tara Brach reminds us that this us/them, superior/inferior mentality is also an evolutionary artifact. When we lived in small groups, the framing of outsiders as threats to our survival could and did strengthen internal group cohesion. With our twenty-first century brains, however, we have the evolutionary potential to recognize our interconnectedness and feel compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves. We therefore can practice working with, not against, our fears and so choose not to violate others' or our own dignity when we feel endangered. We can remain whole.

Not reacting to our fears does not mean we tolerate harm to others and ourselves. This is where wise discrimination comes in. We can acknowledge that those who cause suffering are themselves suffering and decide the best course of action is to direct our attention elsewhere or leave the relationship. Standing up for ourselves and acknowledging another's struggles are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Nevertheless, how we take stands matters a lot if we are committed to stopping the war. If we decide to make another bad or wrong for their actions, we're back in the land of aversive judgment. A nonviolent approach, in contrast, asks us to investigate our own unmet needs in the relationship and communicate our desire to honor our own value rather than violate it for the sake of staying in relationship with someone who mistreats us.

At the end of the day, being right versus happy does not quite capture the stakes of social interactions. I would rather deepen my understanding of the human condition so as to be able to recognize quickly that when we harden, whether by becoming self-righteous or emotionally disengaged, we are trying to protect ourselves. Until we can detect and make visible the soft underbelly beneath the daggers and shields, we will not forge authentic connections and a sense of belonging, both of which, in my experience anyway, are the sources of our greatest contentment. To borrow from Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

* This post draws heavily from Tara Brach's wonderful talk "Part I: Evolving Toward Unconditional Love."

Letting Go of Addiction

Recently I gave up coffee. I was a serious coffee drinker, having developed an addiction to it as a graduate student that I actively nurtured for over a decade. The idea of not having a giant cup of joe (well, several cups in reality) upon getting out of bed in the morning seemed both cruel and ludicrous. Why, then, did I quit this amazing source of liquid caffeine? The primary catalyst was a wake-up call from my partner on the heels of a major loss. An unwavering appeal from an acupuncturist to quit all forms of coffee soon thereafter sealed the deal. Sometimes we need those outside ourselves to hold up a mirror before we can clearly see what is reflected back at us.

I had been plugging along, jittery as hell, through graduate school, a three-year stint as an academic, more graduate school, and, finally, my beloved new career as a psychotherapist. Through much of that time, being on a caffeine-enhanced edge had its benefits. I could not sit still very long--or sleep very well--and so worked a ton and pushed my body to its limits. Accordingly, I accomplished a lot and consistently received the external validation that I used to crave even more than the caffeine. Plus coffee went hand in hand with the beer I also started to drink in graduate school. The alcohol facilitated winding down at the end of the day, after so much coffee consumption, and eased my anxiety about the many tasks left undone, particularly when I was a tenure-track professor. It also muted a deeper, more insidious sense of inherent deficiency.

As I've written previously, a lot of healing can and has come from self-acceptance and the understanding that imperfections actually serve to connect our vulnerable human selves. I mean, who wants to hug perfection? You might mess it up! Moving toward lovingkindness and away from self-judgment greatly decreased my desire to numb out with a beer or two.

Unfortunately, changing our beliefs does not necessarily eliminate the anxiety coursing through our bodies. I come from a family chock full of anxious types. A backward look, through more than one generation, bolstered my decision to quit coffee because in the various cases of alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, rigidity, and stubbornness that I found, I could see the legacy I inherited. As epigenetics has revealed, stress and trauma can affect the gene pool for three to four generations. All of this is to say that an historical glance at my family system supported a decision to halt the incessant self-blame for my anxiety--I was predisposed to this shit after all!--and call on the power I actually had to alleviate my own suffering.

The fact of the matter is that coffee contributed to a sped-up, fearful, hardened self that I no longer wanted to inhabit. More pointedly,  I experienced a fair amount of emotional reactivity while using coffee to weather my long days, which was brought home to me in the face of an unexpected death that profoundly shook my personal and professional worlds. I am grateful that my partner risked expressing concern about my coping strategies during this time of intense grief and raw vulnerability. That care challenged a misguided sense of resilience I had been carrying around: "I will push through this pain." Letting go is different than fighting or giving up, and this tragedy flipped my palms up in a gesture of surrender--to the inevitable sorrow accompanying loss, uncertainty of life, and impermanence of being.

Once I allowed myself to hear the love behind the request to stop inhaling coffee, I could see the remnants of a divided life that I still embodied. Despite the energy and time I had poured into undoing the conditions and habits that fed a deep fear of failure, I had not yet attuned to the embodied aspects of my daily reality. The abovementioned difficult loss presented an opportunity to be more open and honest with myself about the parts of my life that were not working all that well.

I have long aspired to be present to this life and the lives of others, and I can do that more readily when I feel calm, grounded in my body, and well-rested. I may not be able to accomplish as much or create a spurt of short-lived energy to get through something without the false refuge of a 20-ounce coffee, but I can tell you this:

My fears feel less overwhelming. Breathing comes easier. I sleep more readily and restfully. My yearning for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day has dramatically dwindled. The regulation of my emotions--particularly when I confront something upsetting--requires significantly less effort. I am in greater touch with what is happening in my body and therefore can respond more appropriately to sensations like exhaustion, hunger, and pain.

Weaning myself off coffee over several weeks with the help of half-caff and decaffeinated beans seemed to diminish but not completely eliminate the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Nevertheless, we human beings are amazingly adaptable when we allow rather than resist our experience. Not battling the fatigue, headaches, and flu-like signs of withdrawal helped them to move through and out of my system in a couple of weeks.

Perhaps some day I will be able to have an occasional cup of coffee and savor it. For now, I can accept that my particular family legacy and high doses of caffeine are not a great pair and, so, gently and patiently let go of that over which I have control--my addiction to coffee.

Going on a Pilgrimage

Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free "travel packages" sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage--"a transformative journey to a sacred center" full of hardships, darkness, and peril.  

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost--challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.

 

But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story--every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy--but it is the part of the story most often left untold.

 

Parker Palmer. Credit to Narayan Mahon and the UCObserver.

That Parker Palmer sure does have some wonderful wisdom up his sleeve. I appreciate that he does not treat arriving at a sense of self as an easy matter, achieved by following a simple script. As the above quote makes clear, "hardships, darkness, and peril" are an essential part of awakening to our "sacred center."

I often hear people associate talk therapy with ineffective turns toward hardships: "Those bad things that happened are behind me, and that's where they should stay." I also frequently hear fear mingled in with a disdain for traveling through the shadows: "If I venture into the darkness, I'll be swallowed by it, never to emerge again." I hear wisdom in these statements, too. Our minds can be powerful juggernauts, taking us into winding labyrinths that contain terrifying monsters and excruciating shame. We need to make sure we have ample resources to go on pilgrimages and, when we feel depleted, be gentle with ourselves for deciding to staying in places where safety abides.

In the realm of healing, what strikes me as important about perceptions of safety is that we understand them to be real and (AND !) not necessarily true. In other words, we can honor our experience of feeling safe while also recognizing that illusions likely cling to that sense of safety. Our perceptions are not the whole story. We are more than our feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the seemingly inviolable stories we create about all these phenomena, which, as it turns out, are fleeting. Not impermanent.

The illusions we carry about safety and other aspects of our lives usually emerge from earlier attempts at self-protection so we can embark on our pilgrimages with a light touch and plenty of kindness. Fists clench to regain safety when we feel danger. Therefore judgment does not need to accompany our search for the light.

Parker and other wise teachers remind me that I have to go inward to find the sacred center. Others can provide guidance and solace, but they cannot awaken me. They cannot rescue me from the darkness if I am to understand--and understand deeply--that the sacred center is always with and within me. Additionally, we cannot will clarity into being. We often have to get lost and take those falls that Parker mentioned before we open our palms to the sky and surrender to the reality that much of this life is beyond our control.

The beauty of surrender, of letting go, is that we can more readily come back to the present moment and actually inhabit it. Additionally, an open palm provides more space than a clenched fist for insights to emerge. For example, we may come to understand through our pilgrimages that our stories of deficiency actually involve the playing of roles, projected by others and learned over time. With that knowledge, we can unlearn old roles and, in the space generated from that unlearning, focus our attention on living in ways that are not so limited or limiting. We may also come to know that vulnerability--moments of fear, loneliness, and sadness--generated our willingness to play those roles. So we can forgive ourselves and, finally relax with ourselves, understanding that the sacred center really is here. Now.

The life-giving power of speaking "truths"

The things that go without saying go even better when said.

--Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

In "The Secret that Became My Life," Jane Isay recounts learning about her husband's gay identity after many years of marriage and then staying in the closet with him for many more. About becoming a "full-fledged secret keeper" she writes,

What may start as a simple set of secrets can spread through a person's character like cancer. Keeping a secret demands habitual denial, which gradually may morph in to self-deception, resulting in the diminution of the self...The keeper worries about being found out. The keeper also tries to create an internal story that keeps self-judgment at bay. So we rationalize, and we explain, and we cover over the bright shiny truth. We tell ourselves stories about how much better off everybody is if they are ignorant. The keeper is afraid of change, of retribution, and of being judged.

I appreciate the attention she gives to the toll these secrets take on the secret keeper, as this aspect of secrecy seems central to shifting our belief that life does indeed go better when we speak our little "t" truths.* In other words, secrets harm, and even destroy, the secret keeper. Because they do so from the inside out, the self-injury inflicted by secrecy may go undetected until the damage is widespread.

I have known many people who have well-crafted explanations for why silence must continue about issues like childhood sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, a family member's alcoholism, infidelity, and trans gender identities. Generally, fear is driving the story and often with good reason. We can lose our loved ones, our place in families, our jobs, and other important aspects of our lives and livelihoods when we speak the truth. I appreciate that Isay does not sugarcoat the pain of truth-telling when we have carefully guarded a secret for a long while. She also does not end the story at encountering pain, loss, and conflict; she follows it to healing:

Telling is not simple for secret keepers who have dedicated much time and energy to the secret. It is painful and humiliating to explain feelings and motives under these circumstances. Even if they believe that they kept the secret for good reasons, they feel guilty. Faced with a loved one wanting the truth, people tend to pull back. Yet an honest account of the circumstances that led to the secret is often necessary to begin the process of healing.

One way to discuss the costs of secrecy in non-judgmental terms is to focus on the energy required to hide truths. "Where our attention goes, our energy flows," so we can assess how much attention we give to covering over the important truths of our lives.** Do we try to control not only what we say but also what others share? Do we spend many moments of each day worrying about what will happen if the truth gets out? Do we resort to numerous avoidance strategies--including using drugs and/or alcohol, overworking, and overexercising--to keep our fear of being found out at bay?

If we do indeed spend significant amounts of time and energy safeguarding our truths, we may want to consider how this management of reality amounts to a lot of unlived life. After all, living from a story of fear differs significantly from being present to the life within and around us. More pointedly, chronic fear puts tremendous stress on the body and impedes creativity, connection, and empathy.

Ultimately, secrets close us off from others since trust and intimacy require a high degree of authenticity and vulnerability. They also limit our freedom and wholeness. When we only focus our attention on the possible horrific outcomes of truth-telling, we become blind to the possible benefits of it. Isay beautifully articulates some possibilities engendered by honesty at the end of her story:

Some revelations stop relationships in their tracks. But others reveal the true person in our midst, the imperfect, limping, and often loving soul we cared about so much. And so we continue to care, and together we can rebuild, this time slowly, on a foundation of truth...We have choices in this life, and we make mistakes. Forgiveness is not impossible, and the wholeness of spirit that comes from truth is cool and pure.
* I'm distinguishing little "t" truths from big "T" truths that claim to be absolute.
** I'm borrowing this saying from Tara Brach.

 

 

And by failure, I meant unforgiven...

Being this moment is who we are. In being the awakened life we are, our practice effort is noticing what blinds us. These blinders are self-centered emotion--thoughts interwoven in forms, conceptions, and sensations. Practice effort may be defined as labeling thoughts and being bodily present, as noticing strategies and experiencing...If we are unclear, we may think practice is about making things better, about changing and improving. Though improvements may occur, they are not the aim of the practice.

--Elihu Genmyo Smith

Because I present myself as a recovering perfectionist, I have had the honor and challenge of working with several clients who also identify with this label. For me, the difficulty of this collaboration resides in an intimate understanding of how fearing failure can create impenetrable fortresses, within and beyond the therapeutic setting. Needless to say, working with perfectionists as a perfectionist means clients frequently hold up an obvious mirror to my face. I do my best to meet what reflects back at me. Admittedly, I sometimes run away until I have calmed my fears or can only be with the reflection for a few moments at a time before my own carefully crafted walls start creeping up, around, and over me, doing their best to safeguard my soft underbelly. The moments of staying with that reflection, without doing anything with or to it, have taught me the following about the blinders of perfectionism:

When we repeatedly and consistently pummel ourselves for our imperfections, the hardest part of our humanity often surfaces in an effort to protect us.  Although we are hurting, those with whom we are in relationship may only see a severe, glaring mask and so withdraw from us or react with their own venom to this perceived enmity. In the moment we most crave connection, we inadvertently create barriers to it. That is what defense mechanisms do; they produce the very phenomenon against which we are trying to defend. Unfortunately, we miss the chance to connect when we harden since bonding in an authentic way requires that we take the armor off and show ourselves to the world, vulnerabilities and all. As Ash Beckham said in her TEDxBoulder talk, "If you want someone to be real with you, they need to know that you bleed, too."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSR4xuU07sc

How do we open and soften to others in the face of the failure specter? My fellow perfectionists, I write with the utmost sincerity when I say that acknowledging our own suffering begins the pathway to healing. We cannot let down the barricades to others until we open to our own experience with curiosity, friendliness, and tenderness. Said differently, we start the recovery process by saying to ourselves, "I'm sorry"--not to apologize but to show care and concern toward the pain within. We begin saying yes to our experience and the life that is here by forgiving it.*

If these words spur all sorts of judgments toward me or yourself, I ask that you foster curiosity about that inner critic. In my experience, that judge is our best and strongest builder of the blockade that is attempting to protect us but is actually keeping us separate, from others and ourselves. She emerged to help us survive at an earlier point in time. Perhaps she showed up when we could not meet parental expectations as children, no matter how hard we tried. Or maybe she appeared when a primary caregiver told us s/he loved us no matter what but modeled a highly conditional self-love (i.e. was a perfectionist him or herself). Beyond the family, perhaps we went to a highly competitive school or spent a lot if time in social institutions where we repeatedly received the message that any performance below some arbitrary ideal represented a failure:

of character

of achievement

of beauty

of "normalcy."

My point is that although the critic means well, she's not helping us a lot of the time. So we can decide to let her go. But that action is easier said than done. Usually, she's a master of wall-building--after all, she's been at it for a long time--so we need to be very intentional and disciplined about cultivating and then employing another, gentler voice. A question I find useful in the service of letting the inner judge go is, What would I have to face/feel/experience if I suspended my judgment?  Generally, when I contemplate setting down the shield of self-judgment, I find what we therapist types call "primary emotions"--the softer, more vulnerable feelings of fear and sadness. If we allow ourselves to investigate these feelings with friendliness, we may generate enough heart space to begin offering ourselves forgiveness. We may even (dare I say it!) want to replace the incessant criticism with blessings of lovingkindness: May I be happy, be safe, be healthy, live with ease.

In addition to offering forgiveness to myself, I find that unlearning dichotomous, value-laden ways of thinking (right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure) opens doors to more wholehearted ways of approaching this life, which is so much more dynamic and complex than rigid black-and-white thinking allows. As I've written previously, this truth has been so important to my own healing that I tattooed a reminder on my body: "Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."

But with what do we replace these binary frameworks? Enter Sharon Salzberg's wisdom, which I recommend reading again and again and again:

the immediate result of an action, and how others respond to it, is only a small part of its value. There are two other significant aspects: the intention giving rise to the an action and the skillfulness with which we perform it. The intention is our basic motivation, or the inner urge that sparks the action. The skillfulness with which we act involves carrying out the intention with sensitivity to and awareness of what might be appropriate in any given situation. While the skillfulness of an action has a great deal to do with the result, it is the intention behind an action that is critically important. We can't control the response to an action. We can do our best to act skillfully, but it is at the level of intention where we make a crucial choice. An action can be motivated by love--or by hatred and revenge. Self-interest can be the source of what we do--or generosity can be. If our intention is wholesome, we can have faith in the workings of interconnectedness to continuously unfold our action, no matter how small or big, in positive ways.

For perfectionists, the "inner urge" driving much action is external approval and/or the achievement of some ideal. But as Salzberg pointed out, we leave a whole lot of our well-being to forces beyond our control when we focus our attention on others' responses and immediate results. What might happen to our actions if we made our intention to forgive ourselves for our imperfections, to offer kindness to ourselves rather than judgment? You will need to try it to believe it, but I know from my own experience that I have oodles more love and compassion to offer outwardly when I can muster friendliness toward myself. I also have more freedom. Moreover, and to circle back to the quote opening this post, I often see the present moment with more clarity when I am forgiving of myself and so remove the blinder of self-judgment. In other words, I tend to act more skillfully from this clear-seeing place that recognizes the "matrix of conditions" influencing this moment.** But that "improved" skillfulness and whatever results it engenders were not the intention. Self-improvement was not the goal. Forgiveness and lovingkindness were.

Once again, we arrive at a question that each of us must answer for ourselves: What stands between me and stripping away "the entangling, unhealthy ways of relating to [myself] with dislike and diminishment"?*** I imagine the answer to this question involves at least some pain that has thus far been covered over. In light of the fact that I permanently placed Rumi's words on my arm, you likely will not be surprised that I am going to close with his words, too:

Don't turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you.

* As usual, Tara Brach heavily influenced this post. For this one, I particularly drew on her retreat talk, "The Heartspace that is Our True Home."

** Here, I again was borrowing from Sharon Salzberg's Faith.

*** More Sharon Salzberg!

Fear as our anticipation of loss

Fear is the anticipation of loss.

--Tara Brach

Perhaps you see the above quote and think, "Duh. Tell me something I don't already know!" Or perhaps you see those six words as a gateway to unraveling a lifetime of fleeing, fighting, and freezing. The latter was my experience.

Fear threads through so much in U.S. society. Right now, for example, our public eye seems attuned to the triple threat of a war with Syria, yet another mass shooting, and Miley Cyrus's VMA performance. I am curious what happens when we frame these events as haunting reminders of loss and ask the question, What am I afraid of losing if we attack another country? I watch the news? I read another scathing critique?

Another way into this idea that fear foreshadows loss is to consider the question: What would I have to face if I stopped running from (as well as chasing or numbing to) fear? If most of us pause--really pause--and explore this question with openness and curiosity, I am confident we will come up against various kinds of loss. Loss of job security or the job itself. Loss of a sense of control over our loved ones and/or ourselves. Loss of the story we have long told ourselves about how our lives are supposed to go. Loss of our health. Loss of a friend, family member, or relationship. Loss of our own lives. Just to name a few.

Fine. I fear loss. So what? The major issue at hand is how fear can shut us down so that we walk through the world as a shell of ourselves, missing out on the joy, peace, and wonder that accompany fear and loss. Although fear is a natural reaction to threat, the amazing human mind can use our thoughts to make fear a monster in a never-ending horror show.

When considering the extent of fear's power to suppress our happiness, creativity, and spontaneity, I find Jaak Panksepp's studies of rat pups particularly compelling. As he wrote,

In this experiment, young rats were first allowed five-minute play periods on four successive days, and then on the fifth, half were exposed to a small tuft of cat hair on the floor of their 'playroom.' During that session, play was completely inhibited. The animals moved furtively, cautiously sniffing the fur and other parts of their environment. They seemed to sense that something was seriously amiss...following a single exposure to cat odor, animals continued to exhibit inhibition of play for up to five successive days.

A small tuft of cat hair extinguished previously vigorous play even though the cat was nowhere to be seen. How many of us go through our days hidden and afraid in anticipation of a bogeyman that does not actually exist? And, again, what are we afraid of losing?

In my own life, I've recently come up against fear as the anticipation of loss in the realm of a beloved pet's illness. Like many people in the U.S., I rely on my domesticated creatures for comfort and simple love. I used to judge myself for doting on my two cats, but I think our material and emotional devotion to our pets in this country is a sociocultural phenomenon related to our growing sense of social disconnection and simultaneous craving for a connection with living organisms outside ourselves. Like Donna Haraway, I agree that we can learn from this inter-species encounter. As she wrote, "Today, I think we have an obligation to learn from dogs. I think that we can become better human beings by paying attention to the relationships we're in with dogs. Together we can not only survive, but flourish. We can learn to be present and to be real."

I'm going to apply her argument to my 9-year-old cat, Chopper, who has taught me to be more "present and real" in recent months on account of his struggle with cancer.

As I have deliberated what treatments to pursue and the likelihood that he will come out of this thing cancer-free, I have come up against an intense fear of his eminent death. I have wanted all of this to just go away and, at times, avoided Choppypants, as we lovingly call him, because the fear and sadness feel overwhelming. Yet Chopper keeps showing up (he currently is insisting on being in my lap), practically yelling at me to remember, "I'm here right now! Play with me and stop dwelling on all the bad stuff that might happen, down the road, in some story you're calling 'The Future.'" He is teaching me to stay with my fears and sadness--to allow them so they have the space to do their thing and then go on their merry way. After all, emotions have a biochemical lifetime of 90 seconds when we do not use our thoughts to create a lifetime movie.*

Chopper is also reminding me, "Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here."** In unlearning my old relationship with fear, I am finding I can return to the love that was always here and is available in the furry mass on my lap right now.

*  I borrowed this tidbit of knowledge from neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor.
** These are Marianne Williamson's words.

The Possibilities Engendered by Opening and Softening

We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.

--Thich Nhat Hanh

Once upon a time, a very wise woman said to me, "The primary goal of open systems is to understand. Closed systems, on the other hand, aim to protect." These words profoundly changed my life. As usual, I'm starting from the end of the story and need to back up.

For starters, what are open and closed systems? I like Ludwig von Bertalanffy's portrayal of an open system as a system that permits interactions between its internal parts and the surrounding environment. Ultimately, this exchange allows the system's components, and so the larger system itself, to be transformed. In contrast, closed systems establish and maintain isolation from their environments. Because "no material enters or leaves it," a closed system is easier to predict and control. Importantly, von Bertalanffy concludes, "Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components." Every living organism is essentially an open system.

Perhaps you see where I'm going here. In my line of work, the distinction between open and closed systems seems to capture a lot of what is ailing clients and the spaces in which we live and work. Given that we human beings are open systems, things tend to go awry when we block interactions with each other and the environment, such as when we do not allow external resources to come to our aid or cut off our connection with others.

When I meet someone and discover how hard she works to keep most everything locked inside, or encounter a family system and learn of its many secrets, or inquire into organizational practices and find out that transparency is virtually non-existent and decision-making lies in the province of a select few, my closed system alert goes off. Usually a bit more digging reveals that these closed systems are trying very hard to protect themselves from perceived invaders, and fear is driving the show.

Unfortunately, the achieved safety of closed systems is more often than not a mirage, created from stories of enemies, scarcity, and powerlessness that may feel real but are not actually true. What is more, a natural effect of closing a system that aspires to be open is that it hardens into a fragile, shriveled cast of its original self and severs its connections with the surrounding environment, including the living beings residing there.

The words opening this entry changed my life because I had recently awakened to the idea that love is synonymous with understanding. When love is about listening with an awake heart and embodying the present moment, we can perceive others as they are, rather than as projections of who we want or think them to be. Such understanding is not possible when we seek to isolate ourselves or throw on layers of armor in the service of protection. To borrow from Thich Nhat Hanh, "When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace, and love."

Acceptance, joy, peace, and love. Most people I know want to experience more of these in their lives. I also imagine that most people do not associate these states of being with feeling under siege, diving behind a barrier for cover, or withdrawing into turtle-like shells. Softening and opening to what is actually happening are actions that keep us vital and able to sustain nurturing relationships, not only with others but also ourselves. They also are scary as hell if we have devoted a great deal of energy and time to thickening our shields and sharpening our weapons. So we often need to give ourselves permission to start slowly and keep practicing these courageous acts with patience and kindness. At least I did and still do.

Please do not mistake me as saying that all dangers are a figment of our imagination. Living in an unsafe environment for a prolonged period of time seriously undermines our systems' ability to function and thrive. Moreover, our fight, flight, and freeze responses to aversive environmental stimuli are natural and help us to survive when we are in actual danger.

What I am arguing is that we often could stand to pause when we feel fear or discomfort. If we realize we are confronting false alarms and external forces beyond our control, we could soothe the "inner iguana" living in the ancient part of our brain so that we could return to the present moment and reinhabit it, with awareness and kindness. As Rick Hanson wrote,

Keep helping your body feel less alarmed...continually softening and opening the body, breathing fully and letting go, sensing strength and resolve inside. Alarms may clang, but your awareness and intentions are much larger--like the sky dwarfing clouds. In effect, alarms and fears are held in a space of fearlessness. You see this zig-zaggy, up-and-down world clearly--and you are at peace with it. Try to return to this open-hearted fearlessness again and again throughout your day.

Softening and opening in the face of fear amount to honoring the open systems we are and strengthening them (contrary to the popular idea that softening means weakening). As we soften and open, we stay connected and interact with the world in ways that promote our growth and well-being. We also deepen our understanding of this world and those in it, thereby enlarging the pathway to acceptance, joy, peace, and love.

Charles Bukowski gets the final word with his poem "Bluebird":

there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you. there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he's in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too tough for him, I say, stay down, do you want to mess me up? you want to screw up the works? you want to blow my book sales in Europe? there's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I'm too clever, I only let him out at night sometimes when everybody's asleep. I say, I know that you're there, so don't be sad. then I put him back, but he's singing a little in there, I haven't quite let him die and we sleep together like that with our secret pact and it's nice enough to make a man weep, but I don't weep, do you?

 

 

The Trouble with Disembodied Minds

In his TED Talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" Sir Ken Robinson argues,

As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side. If you were to visit [public] education as an alien and say, 'What's it for?'...if you look at the output--Who really succeeds by this? Who does everything they should? Who gets all the brownie points? Who are the winners?--I think you'd have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors, isn't it? They're the people who come out at the top...

 

We shouldn't hold them up as the high water mark of all human achievement. They're just a form of life, another form of life. But...there's something curious about professors. In my experience, not all of them, but typically, they live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They're disembodied in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a kind of transport for their heads, don't they? It's a way of getting their head to meetings.

 

If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way, get yourself along to a residential meeting of senior academics and pop into the discotheque on the final night. And there you will see it, grown men and women writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting for it to end so they can go home and write a paper about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iG9CE55wbtY

Robinson's depiction of academics is not only hilarious but also deeply resonant for this recovering university professor. I spent years cultivating the capacities of my brain's left side at school, initially because that was a way to meet others' expectations of me, or at least not disappoint them. But as I grew older and began to perceive more clearly the hierarchies and inequities of our social order, academic knowledge became a way to respond to the disapproving words, "You are too sensitive," "Lighten up! That's just the way things are," and, "Stop being so critical!" With a PhD under my belt, I finally could respond to my internal radar that all was not okay with one of the most revered skills in our Enlightenment-based society: a logical, reasoned, evidence-based argument.

Unfortunately, arriving at the place where I qualified for an academic slot came with a pretty heavy price tag--namely, a kind of spiritual deprivation that quashed my creativity and diminished the attention I paid to my emotional development. At the peak of my academic career, I remember my own therapist instructing me to pretend I was a first grader and speak about my emotions from that perspective. "I don't need a dissertation from you about your feelings," she said. "I want you to be able to recognize and say, 'I feel sad. I feel happy. I feel scared.'" Needless to say, I was not very adept at identifying, processing, and letting go of emotions and so they often drove the show, seemingly not needing my Enlightened permission after all.

Any of you academics out there ever received a super nasty anonymous peer review? In my mind, that seems like one of the best examples of what happens when university professors do not attend lovingly to our emotional lives. The neglected emotions still appear on the scene but often in ways that wreak havoc and produce plenty of undue harm. I think Brene Brown hits the nail on the head with her discussion of emotions, shame, and academics:

...emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you're too relatable, your credentials come into question. While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we're taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.

Using my body to get my head to meetings, I also frequently missed the wonder of the present moment. In her weekly talks, Tara Brach regularly argues that awakening to the life within us starts in the body. When we touch into, say, the clenching of our stomachs that accompanies fear or the sense of contentment associated with a smile, we can more readily step out of the stories we've created about our lives and jump into life itself. In other words, we realize all these thoughts, feelings, and emotions are the waves of our lives, and we are the ocean, vast enough to let those waves wash over and through us before they dissipate. If we allow them to dissipate.*

Given that I work with individuals who often have complicated relationships with our bodies, such as those struggling with aging and/or chronic illness and/or those in the process of surgically and/or hormonally altering their bodies to make them more congruent with an internal sense of self, I imagine that this invitation to return to our bodies might seem unpleasant, if not downright threatening. I would argue, however, that our lived experience becomes a lot richer when we use all the senses available to us, not just our intellect. And to use those senses, we cannot dissociate from our bodies to the point that we no longer feel the coolness of the chair beneath us, smell the blooming lilacs as we pass them, hear the sound of frogs at night, taste a cool glass of water...

I continue to think one of the most powerful examples of how limited our world becomes when we prioritize a singular way of thinking and communicating as well as how expansive that same world can become upon deciding to relate to ourselves and the surrounding world in a multitude of ways appears in Amanda Baggs' video, "In My Language." So I will conclude with it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=JnylM1hI2jc

* I borrowed this metaphor from Tara Brach's talk on Skeleton Woman.

Exploring the relationship amongst weddings, (hetero)sexism, and the loss of our original shapes

We arrive in this world with birthright gifts--then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

Amen, Parker Palmer! Soon I will marry the love of my life. My partner is an amazing human being, full of "birthright gifts." I feel blessed at the possibility of sharing the remainder of our lives together and publicly making a commitment to our relationship with friends and family encircling us. My love and gratitude for this person is what makes my growing dis-ease with our upcoming wedding so painful. I have needed to do a bit of digging to figure out what is going on. It turns out that looking backward has helped me to understand the present, particularly its trappings. To borrow from William Bridges, "Journeys, unlike point-to-point trips, have a way of doubling back on themselves so that you find yourself dealing again and at another level with issues you thought you had left behind."

Almost eight years ago, I began to identify as queer. At the time, this decision was professional, political, and personal. As an academic, I had long been drawn to the "queer theory" found in the pages of books like Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands. Although she and I had vastly different life experiences and ancestral histories, her words offered me a glove into which I could slide--without kicking and screaming--and still breathe. As a politically active feminist and educator, "queer" made sense to me. At that point, I had spent most of my life following heteronormative rules. Having recently entered into a significant relationship with a woman, I found that "straight" no longer applied but "lesbian" did not either. Queer seemed to be a "slot" with enough space for my lived experience. On a personal level, "queer" opened up all kinds of possibilities for ways of being in this world. Although I was using the term primarily to describe my sexual identity, I found it freed me up in other areas of my life, where "images of acceptability" had overshadowed other dreams and distorted my "original shape." I began to use queer as a verb. I queered my dissertation. I queered my understanding of family. But mostly, I queered my sense of what it means to be a woman.

Words cannot do justice to the experience of using "queer" as a tool to peel off the layers of expectations in pursuit of my birthright gifts. I invested so much time and energy in my childhood, adolescence, and young adult life trying to mold myself to surrounding expectations of beauty and dominant notions of "femininity." As a young kid, I was precocious. I had things to say--observations to share, feelings to express, perceptions of the world about which I wanted to dialogue with somebody. But I seemed to keep violating so many rules! In a heartbeat, my curiosity seemed to morph into accusations of being "impolite," "unladylike," "inappropriate." So the silence began to wash in, as a kind of protective cape at first. Unfortunately, its delicate threads became a woolen blanket, smothering a sense that my original shape included a strong voice with the power to cultivate and share insights. Like so many young women I encounter today, I frequently ended sentences with, "I'm sorry," or, "I don't know," as if taking up space in the world as a thinking, speaking human being was a violation.

As for my body, I starved it. Stuffed it. Poisoned it. Consistently glared at it with disgust in the mirror. What is still embarrassing to talk about now is how much I came to despise my skin and the lengths to which I went to transform it. It is pale and freckled and sensitive. As a child, I did not see models of beauty anywhere that included it. The beautiful ones in my whitewashed suburban community had olive complexions. I do not remember how many times I burned my fair skin, trying to approximate that distant beauty. So I could be seen--so I could see myself--as lovely. And loveable.

The philosophy of queerness allowed me to begin removing all these unwanted deposits of shame and judgment. For the first time in my adult life, I began to appreciate my body and all that it allowed me to do in the world. I gained confidence in my ability put words on a page that someone else might actually want to read. Ultimately, I finished a dissertation that felt like a genuine accomplishment because connecting with others in an inquiry process nourished me. I had an image of radical acceptance tattooed on my skin to remind myself I could choose not to abandon my birthright gifts. I stopped betraying myself for the approval of others at every turn and began to see my "true self" could offer me the comfort and solace I thought I could only receive from others.

Brene Brown wrote, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more." I absolutely believe that coming home to myself--my true self--allowed me to meet my life partner and our relationship to stick, as I arrived at a place where I allowed myself to be seen, vulnerabilities and all. So I was surprised when several old deformations of my original shape reappeared upon deciding to make a lifetime commitment to this person and our relationship. I felt ugly. Unacceptable. Inadequate.

To understand this reemerging self-betrayal, I began paying attention to the barrage of external messages I was receiving. The incessant pop-up ads on my computer that, alerted to my recent engagement, tried to sell me every kind of product imaginable in the service of making me a perfect "bride." More painfully, the primary question I received upon encountering people I know was, "How's the wedding planning going?" despite my recent completion of a master's degree and the exciting new beginning of a career pathway. All at once, "bride" seemed to eclipse every other slot, and I was having a hard time digging through the incessant chatter about white dresses, good hair, and svelte bodies to the selfhood I worked so hard to uncover.

I remain grateful for compassionate friends, mindfulness practices, and Chrys Ingraham's searing critique, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, which helped me to establish protective boundaries, thereby keeping insidious social pressures at a safer distance. These words by Ingraham particularly hit home:

White weddings, while important in themselves, are a concentrated site for the operation and reproduction of organized heterosexuality. More so than other prominent heterosexual practices and rituals, e.g. dating, proms, and engagements, weddings are culturally pervasive, symbolically prolific, and are rarely questioned or examined. Yet, they are so taken for granted they seem naturally occurring and function to naturalize a host of heterosexual behaviors that are, in fact, socially produced. In other words, one is not born a bride or with the desire to become a bride yet we have an abundance of evidence that shows that many people believe otherwise. But that's putting the bride before the fairy tale! From the moment we enter the world, culture works to install meaning systems about everything from sex to gender to social class to ethnicity to sexual identity. Heterosexuality, whether naturally occurring or chosen, is organized by those meanings.

As I continue to grow and work with others who are trying to recover their original shapes, I aspire to promote Palmer's message of courage and renewal. I do not think we can come back to our wholeness until we begin to see clearly the deforming social messages not of our own making, cultivate support networks committed to discerning our selfhood, and actively practice the feeding of our true selves. As for disrupting the sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression that distort and destroy so many lives, I do not believe we have to fit into a narrowly conceived "activist" slot to effect change since we often unwittingly contribute to harmful expectations via our moment-to-moment actions, thoughts and emotions. As Julia Serano argued, "the one thing that all forms of sexism share...is that they all begin with placing assumptions and value judgments onto other people's gendered bodies and behaviors." I for one can get behind new social beginnings that involve suspending assumptions and judgments so as to clearly discern others' and our own birthright gifts.

On my wedding day, I will be wearing a dress. It will be turquoise.