Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose

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."

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."

 

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."

Elementary Kindness

What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness.

--Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Lately I have heard many stories of dismissal and rejection. What frequently makes these recounted experiences all the more heartbreaking is the source of the denunciation--a family member, partner, friend, or other loved one. Given that our brains are like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones, we need to focus on and savor the positive experiences in our lives to counteract the harm caused by such forsaking messages.*

Happily, elementary kindness abounds if we pause long enough to notice and absorb it on a daily basis. Moreover, and particularly as adults, we can choose to actively seek out people who readily honor their own and our inherent value and worth. Even when acceptance, appreciation, and generosity are in short supply within our immediate households and communities, we can remind ourselves of their existence by finding them elsewhere.

The Internet, for example, has an abundant supply of reminders about the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I recently came across a compilation of photos that went viral and included this letter from a father to his son:

Credit to Viralnova

"I've known you were gay since you were six. I've loved you since you were born." In these 16 words, I hear so much elementary kindness: I love you as you are. I want you to be your authentic self. We belong to each other. You are safe with me. You matter.

That same compilation contained the following photo and caption:

Credit to Viralnova

I just wish I knew how the young man shown above experienced this show of solidarity. This image reminds me that we do not need to upend institutions to challenge discrimination and injustice. We oftentimes do need a sense of humor and a willingness to believe that small acts of kindness--rooted in an intention to honor everyone's dignity--can ripple outward in unimaginable ways.

Each day has 86,400 seconds. That is a lot of moments to refocus our energy on giving and receiving the kind of elementary kindness that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning, and make the world a little safer for the expression of our authentic selves.

 

* I'm borrowing from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson here and highly recommend the many resources available on his website.

An Exercise for Growing Empathy

I try to practice what I preach; I’m not always that good at it but I really do try. The other night, I was getting hard-hearted, closed-minded, and fundamentalist about somebody else, and I remembered this expression that you can never hate somebody if you stand in their shoes. I was angry at him because he was holding such a rigid view. In that instant I was able to put myself in his shoes and I realized, “I’m just as riled up, and self-righteous and closed-minded about this as he is. We’re in exactly the same place!” And I saw that the more I held on to my view, the more polarized we would become, and the more we’d be just mirror images of one another—two people with closed minds and hard hearts who both think they’re right, screaming at each other. It changed for me when I saw it from his side, and I was able to see my own aggression and ridiculousness.

--Pema Chodron, Practicing Peace in Times of War

I find Chodron's words compelling and also somewhat daunting. After all, the path from recognizing hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness to practicing perspective-taking is often messy and challenging. Additionally, members of marginalized social groups and others in one-down positions often perceive that those who dominate preach about stepping in another's shoes but, when it comes time to do so, project their own experience onto that "other," thereby engaging in a kind of false empathy that maintains repressive power.* What, then, does "standing in someone else's shoes" in ways that contribute to peace and equity look, sound, and feel like? What does authentic perspective-taking mean in concrete terms?

One way to begin cultivating such empathy is to consider the extent to which our perceived reality actually represents a projection of our internal world. Cheri Huber offers a helpful definition of projection:

"Projection" is the notion that everything mirrors who we are. We always see ourselves when we look out at the world and other people. It is not possible to see something that is not a part of ourselves.

Her last statement serves as a radical truth if we take it to heart, as perceptions of an us versus them world quickly fall apart when we accept that we can only recognize in others what also resides within. It is not possible to see something that is not part of ourselves.

Even if we do recognize the extent to which our perceptions are projections, we still are left to transform them into a greater understanding of others, the world, and ourselves. Enter the clearing exercise, which is particularly useful for resolving conflict.** When we are at odds with someone, we can "clear the mirror" by following these instructions:

  1. 1. Name what bothers you.***
  2. 2. Identify how you engage in the behavior that bothers you, too.
  3. 3. Brainstorm how that behavior works for you.
  4. 4. Brainstorm how it doesn't work for you.
  5. 5. Ask the other person what you need around this thing that bothers you.

What I love most about this exercise is how it asks us to remain in an "I" position until the very end, when we have become clearer about what is actually going on and have acknowledged that we are intimately familiar with what "you" do. Also useful is the exercise's attention to the workability of behaviors and habits. In other words, the clearing exercise requires us to depart from a rigid, dichotomous right/wrong framework and engage in more flexible ways of thinking. The actions that harm others and ourselves are often misguided attempts at protection, and this exercise helps us to uncover that truth. For example, if what bothers us is our counterpart's insistence on being right, steps two through four help us to see that "being right" often amounts to grasping for stability and security when we feel afraid of uncertainty or overwhelmed by the changing nature of this living and dying world. Thus by the time we arrive at step five, we are more apt to ask the other person for increased openness and vulnerability rather than demand that they stop being self-righteous. We also are more likely to make our request in a soft manner that is easier to hear than an accusatory, blaming demand. Step five thus presents an opportunity to model the openness and vulnerability we desire from the other person.

Practices like the clearing exercise foster our evolutionary potential for connection, understanding and love. But don't just take my word for it. Try it with your loved ones and, eventually, your "enemies."

There is nothing like a haiku to get to the heart of the matter, so I'll close with Eric Micha'el Leventhal's:

Each person you meet is an aspect of yourself, clamoring for love.

* I am borrowing this idea of "false empathy" from Garrett Albert Duncan who eloquently described how false empathy plays out in his article on critical race theory and qualitative research.

** Myron Eshowsky taught me this exercise.

*** This step may require a little digging. For example, upset about a roommate/partner repeatedly leaving their dirty dishes in the sink may actually emerge from any number of unmet needs, including but not limited to notions of fairness, respect, parity, mutuality, or accountability.

On grieving suicide

A very wise mentor explained the paradox of being a human being who continuously loves another, despite the pain of that love, with two Adrienne Rich quotes:

Save yourself; others you cannot save.

The waste of my love goes on this way trying to save you from yourself.*

When someone we love consciously chooses to end their life, how easily we turn on ourselves. "Why didn't I see that as a red flag?" "I should have reached out more." "If I had done something differently, s/he would still be alive." In the stages of grief model, such words represent a kind of bargaining with the reality of our loss. We want to make sense of this tragedy and our role in it.

When we are able to observe these thoughts as part and parcel of our experience with which we do not have to do anything--when we can accept them as elements of this kit and kaboodle called life--a little more breathing room emerges. Those moments when we reject our experience is when our stories of deficit and decay take over and diminish us. We begin managing. Controlling. Doing. Organizing. Performing. We channel our energy toward shoving all that pain--the pain that feels like a tidal wave we cannot possibly survive--into some kind of bottle. We turn away from the belief that the universe can hold us and our pain, if we allow it to do so.

I write today to come back from that place of refusal. To remove my armor and recognize that enough love already resides within to return to the land of the living, where joy and peace accompany the anguish and sorrow. I can choose to live from the inside out--to save myself, for I cannot save others. The waves will continue to come from all directions, but now I know I can bear them. I can even flow with them. On this day of Thanksgiving, when I desperately want to turn toward rather than away from my loved ones, I listened to Tara Brach's interview of Frank Ostaseki, the founder of the Metta Institute.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sml6Z0TMx1k#t=1403

How grateful I am for his wisdom:

Welcome everything. Push away nothing. We don't have to like everything that comes. We just have to meet it...We have to discover something in ourselves that's capable of that kind of welcoming.

What is that something within? I have no doubt it is the ability to practice love. Self-love is not selfish. It saves us when we feel so powerless to save others. It is the thing our grieved one could not find, even though it was there all along, which is the largest source of my anguish. "You stubborn fool! You belonged. You were loved. You touched so many lives. Why, oh why, did you turn a blind eye to yourself!?"

Right now, in this instant, we can halt that line of questioning and turn inward, toward the life still here, with compassion. I find great solace in Ostaseki's rendering of compassion:

Compassion isn't about taking away people's pain...Compassion is that capacity that allows us to stay with what we would otherwise like to get away from, until the real truth, until the real causes of that suffering show themselves. The presence of compassion is that it allows the defenses to fall down. When the defenses fall down, we can see the real causes of the suffering, and we can be of some help.

Such compassion creates the ground for the seeds of belonging, connection, and love to grow. "Why" questions, like the one above, too often engender shame with their incessant and exhausting quest for causes. They tend to breed more controlling. More resistance. More internal warfare. I find "what," "how," and "when" questions more interesting. They present opportunities to connect the mind with the heart, to come back to our embodied experience and the present moment, to arrive at an understanding rooted in love, not rightness.

My own inquiry process goes something like this: What would I have to feel if I stopped bargaining with reality? Oh, there is pain there. I am suffering. It's okay. I pray: May I feel peace again soon. May I remember the love that is here and all around me. May I take myself into my own heart and mind and love this life no matter what. May I embrace every living and dying part of this universe. May I offer my love whether it is accepted, rejected or met with indifference.**

Ultimately, we all must find our own pathway to a love in which we can finally rest. There is no script to follow. We certainly can turn toward friends, family, and professionals for support, and I hope we choose to do so. Isolation, after all, begets more isolation and disconnection. But we cannot force this love to manifest, and we cannot force others to find it. Our grieved one took our breath away with that searing truth. We can, however, listen to others' stories of encountering the love within for some guidance. Here is Ostaseki's:

The most extraordinary thing was discovering the love of my own being...I became much more intimate with it. And that love opened me to a certain kind of trust. Not a trust in others' behavior...It was really a trusting in the unfolding of things. All the things that we imagine we're in charge of. That trust became an abiding trust...It was a deep rest...My whole being at rest. A certain kind of seeking, a very subtle seeking, just stopped.

As I attempt to allow all of the preciousness, precariousness, and pain of this life into my mind, body, and heart, I can feel my inner fire returning to the glow it had before this devastating loss. Slowly by slowly. At times, I sense the vastness of warmth and light that fire can offer. If I let it.

I happily cede the final word to Danna Faulds:

Birthright

Despite illness of body or mind,

in spite of blinding despair or

habitual belief, who you are

is whole. Let nothing keep you

separate from the truth. The soul

illumined from within, longs to

be known for what it is. Undying,

untouched by fire or the storms of

life, there is a place inside where

stillness and abiding peace reside.

You can ride the breath to go there.

Despite doubt or hopeless turns of

mind, you are not broken. Spirit

surrounds, embraces, fills you from

the inside out. Release everything

that isn't your true nature. What's

left, the fullness, light, and shadow,

claim all that as your birthright.

 

* The first quote comes from "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," the second one from "For the Dead."

** Frank and Tara have some wonderful prayer words in their talk on which I am heavily drawing here.

 

What if we stopped mistaking habits for defects?

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.

--Mahatma Gandhi

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "Mental disorders are common in the United States, and in a given year approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders." A little digging reveals that this percentage came from a 2005 journal article, which based its survey questions on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. I like to imagine what the findings might be if someone asked the "9,282 English speaking respondents aged 18 years and older" who took this survey between 2001 and 2003, "What if your disorders are patterned behavior rooted in a false core belief?" To spur reflection, I might even give them the above quote and a list of such beliefs. The following is one list I found in Charlotte Kasl's writing (which comes from other work about the nine Enneagram personality types):

1. There must be something wrong with me.

2. I am worthless.

3. I have an inability to do...

4. I'm inadequate.

5. I don't exist.

6. I'm alone.

7. I'm incomplete, there is something missing.

8. I am powerless.

9. There is no love--it's a loveless world.

Moving from a distant thought experiment about over 9,000 anonymous survey respondents in a study conducted 10 years ago toward an inquiry into the possible connections between our own patterned actions and one or more of the abovementioned false beliefs is harder, scarier, and more vulnerable. However, to borrow from Madeleine L'Engle, "To be alive is to be vulnerable." So here goes...

My personal favorite is false core belief #4. When I have not been able to pause and replace that belief with one grounded in connection, love, and belonging, it has become a destiny in the following ways :

I'm not enough.

Internally: "I should be better than I am." "I'm not going to be able to realize my life goals."  "I can't trust myself to make wise decisions." "I'm a bad person." "I'm not loveable."

To the world: "I don't know what I'm doing." "I'm so sorry I can't do anything right!" "This is all my fault." "I'm a failure." "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

I try to make up for my insufficiency by striving, doing, fixing, managing, controlling. I shoulder responsibility for situations to which I contributed but for which I am not entirely responsible. I keep apologizing and making repairs long after most of the people implicated in my supposed "misstep" have forgotten about it. I add more to my overflowing plate. I withdraw.

I value sadness (i.e. melancholy). Solitude (i.e. isolation). Busyness (i.e. workaholism). Self-soothing (i.e. drinking alcohol).

I am depleted, depressed, lonely, overwhelmed, exhausted.

What's the point in taking a journey down that gloomy road? For one, I can trace back to the core belief and more quickly unhook from it because I know that what feels real and manifests in my life in real ways is often not true.* I also understand that my reality is interpreted, which means I can reinterpret and create a new reality rooted in different beliefs, thoughts, words, actions, and values.

Beliefs in connectedness, belonging, and love can seem abstract and sentimental when we have not had much experience generating a destiny from them. For those of us not surrounded and filled up with those beliefs in our childhoods and other cultural contexts where we have spent the bulk of our time, how do we bring them to life?

I recently read Andrew Solomon's chapter on transgender children in Far from the Tree. A mother in there, Carol, illustrated an acceptance, appreciation, and love for her child that I believe we can learn to offer to ourselves, as adults, in the service of generating more wholehearted destinies. So far as I can tell, replacing a false core belief with a life-giving one requires paying the kind of attention to ourselves that Carol paid to her daughter Kim:

[Solomon] said, "Do you wish that Paul had just been happy to be Paul and had stayed that way?" Carol said, "Well, of course I do. It would have been easier for Paul, and for the rest of us. But the key phrase in there is 'happy to be Paul.' He wasn't, and I am just so glad that he had the courage to do something about it. No, if he had been happy to be Paul, anybody would wish for that, but since he wasn't--I can't imagine the courage that it took. I had somebody say this weekend, 'Carol, Paul died, and I haven't finished mourning that.' I don't feel that. Kim is much more present to people than Paul ever was. Paul was never rude, he just wasn't totally present. We didn't quite have his attention." She laughed, then said with adoring emphasis, "And look what we got! Kim!" And grace seemed to be both the cause and consequence of her happiness in that emphatic declaration.

* As Tara Brach said, "We pay attention so that we can begin to loosen that thick cluster that really can define our lives."

Going Wild

You will do foolish things,

but do them with enthusiasm.

--Colette

Two weeks ago, I got hitched. I wrote about showing up and letting others see me, imperfections and all, in my last post. My wedding day delivered quite an unexpected opportunity to put these words into practice.

Credit to Joe Dillig

A dreamy outdoor ceremony kicked off the day and involved heart-warming shows of love and support for my partner, our relationship, and me. Because the rain and wind would not quit, we exchanged our vows under a tent that provided an ineffable intimacy.

Thereafter, when the dance floor started hopping, I was way into it. First, I got to rock out to the song I performed in my sixth-grade talent show, Aerosmith and RUN-DMC's "Walk this Way," with a wonderful friend from my Peace Corps days. I also struck out to find my adorable and adored friend who can do the worm. She has pulled off this feat on numerous occasions with amazing precision and grace, and I had requested in advance that she perform her best dance-floor deed on my big day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B_UYYPb-Gk

The fact that she is in her early 40s is important to the story because her awesome undulations momentarily contributed to a comparison that was not at all useful: If she can do the worm, I, a 38-year-old woman, can still do the splits. Never mind that I last actualized this exploit several years ago, experienced a fair amount of stress and limited sleep in recent days, and, perhaps most importantly, spent much of the day shivering in the cold. By golly, I was going to do the splits on the dance floor, AND I was going to make sure I made my move in front of the camera. So I tracked down our lovely photographer, and Sharon cheerfully prepared herself for my performance. I went down. Nothing felt good about the movement, but I got up without too much ado. Looking crestfallen, Sharon informed me that she had not captured the Kodak moment.

My chance to practice what I preach had arrived! I could pause. I could listen inwardly and hear my pissed off body say, "Don't you ever do that to me again!" I could heed that voice and resume dancing in a way that honored my body's current state. The show would go on and be just as satisfying without that particular snapshot.

I leapt into the splits with even greater fervor the second time. As I landed, I knew in the farthest reaches of my being that I was done, not only for the night but also for some seeming eternal period of hell. I sort of blacked out for a few minutes after landing on the floor with a horrifying bounce but vaguely remember hobbling to a bag that had pain medication in it and finding my way to a chair on the edge of the dance floor. I tried to be brave and gracious as various loved ones offered me healing words, ice, and, in some cases, drunken, unsolicited advice. Like Cheryl Strayed when she lost her hiking boot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept imagining I was the butt of a practical joke. The throbbing pain would cease and desist, and I would resume my merriment. As she wrote, "But no one laughed. No one would. The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted, and it would never give it back." My hamstring was toast. No amount of wishing I could redo my foolish act would miraculously heal my broken body.

Once again, I confronted an opportunity to walk my talk and show myself some compassion. I could replace the inner judge, who had begun to chatter intensely and rapidly about how stupid and ridiculous I was, with lovingkindness blessings like, "May your leg heal quickly. May you feel at ease." I could recognize I made a mistake and repeat to myself the Brene Brown quote I intentionally placed front and center on my website: "Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together."

The critic grew louder. I sat in the chair, the blood now drained from my face, still trying to be brave and gracious as the songs I selected for the DJ played on and people continued to rock out within reach of my stationary post. I did not want anyone to suffer with me, but I sure longed to be out there in the heart of it all. When Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" came on, I could no longer could keep the tears in check. My partner and I had crooned to this song on a road trip early in our relationship. When I picked the tune, I envisioned us dancing to it, close and slow, on our big day.  As tears streamed down my face, the internal voice of gloom and doom grew louder: "You not only screwed this up for yourself, you big fat idiot, but you also are ruining the party for the people keeping you company on the sideline."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaA3YZ6QdJU

Happily, my wise aunt appeared on the scene and told me to sock my pride. She is fond of the saying, "My mind is making promises my body can't keep," because she has made some of those promises herself. Her understanding provided a saving grace. A friend found my partner, who was in the other room conversing with cousins he rarely sees, and reported that I needed him. When he arrived, I told him I wanted to go to the emergency room; what I managed to accomplish on the dance floor was no joke.

At this point, my out-of-town father left the reception to get the rented van, located five blocks away at his hotel, so he could drive me to the hospital. My partner's former roommate carried me up and out of the building to wait for the van. Unbeknownst to me, my sister had taken a cab to the 24-hour Walgreens to purchase crutches and appeared with them in hand. My inner critic went hog wild in the face of all this grace. I started apologizing profusely to everyone around me, begging them to go back to the party. "Abandon the wounded bride; leave her to self-made pity party!" I almost shouted (I turn to third-person voice when I am being particularly hard on myself).

To make a long story short, my dad got lost after taking a wrong turn out of the hotel parking lot. The wait for him grew more and more unbearable until my partner and I decided to take a cab by ourselves to the ER--a sort of symbolic separation from our families of origin, although I certainly did not see the irony of our departure at that time. Thankfully, the ER was pretty much empty. The various health providers I ran into appreciated the story about why I had appeared on the scene all gussied up and someone put a warm blanket over me. I almost passed out from relief. I got the prescription-strength drugs I was after and reassurance that although I likely tore my hamstring, the tendon had not appeared to rip away from the bone.

We got back in a cab and headed to the bed and breakfast where my aunts had paid for a beautiful photo(8)room for our wedding night. The room was located at the top of a winding set of stairs. I surrendered my hope of arriving there. "Let's just go home," I sighed to my partner. We were going to do no such thing he informed me gently. He gingerly hoisted me over his shoulder and carried my whimpering self to our sought-after destination. This feminist never imagined being carried across a threshold on my wedding night. Alas, the universe had other plans for me.

Although in the days that followed, the judge took up her fair share of minutes and hours, I came back to the practices I consistently recommend to my clients. I allowed myself to view my injury as a loss without comparing myself to all the people in the world who have it so much worse than me. Because I named the injury a loss, I could grieve it and move on. Whenever I mustered the presence of mind to do so, I also allowed rather than rejected my moment-to-moment experience, acknowledging, processing, and letting go of the numerous feelings and thoughts that arose. I remembered Tara Brach's phrase, "Where your attention goes, energy flows," and focused my attention on the gratitude I felt for the people who came to my aid without resentment or expectation, only love. I reframed the event as an impassioned moment of glee--a misdirected one, to be sure, but not a tell-tale sign that I sucked as a human being, daughter, sister, friend, and partner. I reread one of my favorite Danna Fauld's poems, "Allow":

There is no controlling life.

Try corralling a lightning bolt,

containing a tornado. Dam a

stream and it will create a new

channel. Resist, and the tide

will sweep you off your feet.

Allow, and grace will carry

you to higher ground. The only

safety lies in letting it all in--

The wild and the weak; fear,

fantasies, failures and success.

When loss rips off the doors of

the heart, or sadness veils your

vision with despair, practice

becomes simply bearing the truth.

In the choice to let go of your

known way of being, the whole

world is revealed to your new eyes.

photo-4Turning loving attention toward my experience remains an ever challenging practice. This particular episode continues to represent what one of my mentors calls (and don't read on if swearing offends you) "another fucking growth opportunity." But I am growing. I keep thinking about the many moments during my wedding day when I felt connection, beautifully defined by Brene Brown as "the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment." I am healing, not just my body but also my spirit. Sufficiency is my reality, and I wake up each day aspiring to strengthen my belief in that radically transformative truth.

Credit to SV Heart Photography

We Belong

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

--Brene Brown

While creating a song list for a certain upcoming celebration, I remembered Pat Benatar's "We Belong." Now the song lyrics do not depict a particularly reciprocal or mutually beneficial relationship. But the song's title. Now that is something I can get behind.

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

This blog post will be short, as today is the actual day of my wedding. I write this morning both because I cannot sleep and because being surrounded by dear friends and family from near and far gives Brown's words more weight than ever. Despite my roller coaster emotions during the last few days, I feel so much gratitude for this life I have. I also understand more deeply the importance of daring greatly during the time we have on this earth. As Brown wrote,

Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It's about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It's even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

May I have the courage today to show up and let myself be seen, imperfections and all, so that I can experience not only the love all around me but also the sense of true belonging of which Brown speaks.

Since people keep telling me I can do as I wish on this day, I might as well close with some Rumi!

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They're in each other all along.

Manifesting Peace*

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

In the movie The Interpreter, a fictional ethnic group, the Ku, who live in a fictional country, Matobo, engage in a thought-provoking practice. As protagonist Silvia Broome says,

The Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There's an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He's taken out on the water, and he's dropped. He's bound so that he can't swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they'll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn't always just...that very act can take away their sorrow.

Silvia also utters the statement opening this post about vengeance being a lazy form of grief. Regardless of whether the above description comes from someone's imagination or a "real" practice (after all, they are both human constructions), I find her words about revenge and the Drowning Man Trial to be instructive. They suggest that we tie ourselves up in knots, and sometimes cause great harm to others, when we become mired in thoughts about how we have been wronged.

Domination, oppression, and injustice are prevalent and very real, particularly for the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Like many others, I would like our world and society to devote more energy to cultivating dignity, compassion, and empathy so that we may create more peace and less war, within ourselves and between people. But how do we do this?

Tara Brach often says, "Where our attention goes, our energy flows." If our attention goes to avenging injustices, our energy will flow toward strategic planning and violence. If our attention goes to alleviating the suffering caused by injustices, our energy will flow toward understanding the matter more fully and clearly before choosing our response. After all, reaching for a weapon, whether physical or verbal, suggests we do not have other tools at our disposal to restore a sense of well-being and peace.

But this "peace work" is so much harder than abstract language suggests. When we feel wronged, we want our lives restored to "rightness." And that is the rub. Oftentimes, without recognizing what has happened, we insert a lot of expectations into the restorative process that are rooted in a moral philosophy of rightdoing and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this good/bad view of the world automatically deletes a lot of context and history that could assist us in gaining more clarity about the various forces contributing to the situation. Those forces need our attention if we aspire to restore a sense of wholeness, of integrity, with our response. What is more, this narrow view takes us away from the present moment and into our stories of how life "should" be. In contrast is "living without an agenda":

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we're not entirely certain about who's right and who's wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make the person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are? It is powerful to practice this way, because we'll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again--to make ourselves or them right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.**

As usual, my own personal experience has drawn me to this topic of manifesting peace. Back in June, I wrote about my upcoming wedding. Since that time, I have come face to face with old family wounds and realized just how much sorrow I have been carrying around. I most certainly have turned to vengeance--in the form of lashing out with harsh words--when the grief has felt too overwhelming or shameful, and particularly when a lot of external stressors are present. Inspired by Old School, I have been only half-joking about carrying a horse tranquilizer gun at the wedding so I can take action if the going gets too tough.

But I have found that when I allow myself the time and space to dig below the anger, frustration, and judgments, the vulnerable sorrow at the root of things becomes a conduit for connecting with family members and the human experience more broadly. As uncomfortable as it is, I have been attending to and befriending my grief. As a result, I am better understanding the intergenerational nature of my family wars as well as the conditions that foster a sense of separation and brokenness. That understanding, combined with my aspiration to pay "wholehearted, intelligent attention,"**  has allowed me to begin to grow peace within and with individual family members. In conversations, that peace-making has involved attentive, non-defensive listening and generated validation of our own and the other's experience as well as compassion for the suffering that is present, regardless of whose suffering is there. Slowly but surely, I am arriving at the expansive freedom beneath the mourning, to which the Drowning Man Trial speaks. When I am able to stay present and arrive at that open space of "true communication," I encounter the love and tenderness that were there all along.

Pema Chodron gets the final word on how, in our daily lives, we can turn toward and foster peace-making:

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.**

* This piece draws heavily on Tara Brach's September 11, 2013 talk "Peace Work."

** These quotes come from Pema Chodron and appear in The Pocket Pema Chodron.

 

 

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?

 

 

Relating Boundaries and "Hell Nos!" to Self-Compassion

Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself—if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself—it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.

So said Thich Nhat Hanh in an interview for Shambhala Sun. To me, this quote captures why we need to establish boundaries and honor our limits--our "hell nos"--in relationships. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself since a fairly long and winding path led to this connection between self-love and limit setting...

When I first awoke to the idea that self-love was more than a cliche in a ballad fabulously sung by Whitney Houston, I started looking more closely at my relationships.

http://youtu.be/IYzlVDlE72w

Lo and behold, I was violating my own principles left and right. Although I deemed it a personal shortcoming if I took my frustrations out on my partner, was critical or judgmental toward them, or was otherwise less than perfect (i.e. being human), I had lots of excuses up my sleeve--and experienced plenty of resentment--for their hurtful behavior toward me. I also expected myself to be ever more accommodating of their wants and needs, regardless of whether or not my partner shared that expectation.

Then, on the advice of a therapist, I read Harriet Lerner's Dance of Anger and learned the concept of de-selfing:

Obviously we do not always get our way in a relationship or do everything that we would like to do. When two people live under the same roof, differences inevitably arise which require compromise, renegotiation, and give and take...[De-selfing] occurs when one person...does more giving in and going along than is her share and does not have a sense of clarity about her decisions and control over her choices. De-selfing means that too much of one's self (including one's thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is 'negotiable' under pressures from the relationship.

"De-selfing" offered a serious wake-up call. I realized I had taken on the belief, hook, line, and sinker, that pursuing my own dreams was selfish. Thus uncovering my own thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions became a new goal.

Because I was not very practiced in such self-study--I was much more accomplished at judging myself for being self-centered!--I turned to Charlotte Kasl. Her book If the Buddha Dated had lots of gems, including an exercise on setting bottom lines, or "hell nos." Her words illustrated how the act of self-compassion intertwined with the act of putting one's foot down:

Because we want to find the luminous essence within us, because we do not want to repeat painful lessons of the past, because we love ourselves fiercely and want to find a partner who is kind and loving, we commit to what is often called a bottom line. Setting a bottom line means naming the behaviors you will not tolerate in a relationship. Period. Nonnegotiable. If someone crosses the bottom line we stop seeing them--no rationalizing, no excuses. Likewise, we set a bottom line for our own behavior--making excuses for the other person, ignoring responsibilities, sacrificing our values to keep the other person. Honoring our bottom line tests our spiritual resolve.

What I find particularly insightful in this quote is Kasl's emphasis on behaviors. When we set bottom lines with a Buddha-like heart, we are not demonizing, shaming, or blaming others. We are acknowledging that certain behaviors do not contribute to our well-being, whether they are enacted by others or ourselves. We can set bottom lines and still forgive others and ourselves for the harm they/we cause, especially since that harm oftentimes results from a lethal mixture of confusion, judgment, and shame rather than intentional meanness. The difference is that in addition to forgiving, we respond differently to our own pain by no longer making excuses for others and ourselves.* Re-enter from stage left Harriet Lerner with her lovely depiction of responsibility as response-ability:

By 'responsibility,' I do not mean self-blame or the labeling of ourselves as the 'cause' of the problem. Rather, I speak here of 'response-ability'--that is, the ability to observe ourselves and others in interaction and to respond to a familiar situation in a new and different way. We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance no longer can continue in the same predictable pattern.

I regret to report that responding in "a new and different way" does not prevent loss or pain. Indeed, if our predictable pattern is predicated on de-selfing, we have likely established and maintained ample relationships that deplete rather than nourish us. Therefore, as we start to create emotional boundaries and limits that safeguard and strengthen us, we will likely provoke a reaction in those who are used to us giving in and going along. When we change the dance, we may lose the relationship. That is where the spiritual resolve that Kasl mentions comes in, as well as the words that opened this post. After all, the more we are able to generate energy that takes care of, protects, and nourishes us, the less we will need to negotiate away important parts of ourselves for the sake of keeping a particular relationship. What is more, we will have freed up energy to become more and more skillful at practicing a love that feeds us, those we encounter, and the surrounding world.

The great news is that such energy tends to attract people. Additional good news is that with cultivated clarity and compassion (practice! practice! practice!), we are much more likely to enter into and sustain relationships that are mutually beneficial and life-giving. As for the times in our lives when we feel all alone and so set out to violate our hell nos, we can turn to the immortal words of Tina Fey for inspiration:

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

* Here I am drawing on the wisdom of Brene Brown: "When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it's dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It's also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we're going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability."

Journeying toward Radical Acceptance

As I speak with more people about the possibilities created by radical acceptance, I often hear responses like:

"I want to be a new and improved me, not accept the way I am."

"If I accept the way things are, they will never change."

"Acceptance equals passivity, and I'm not interested in being passive. I'm an activist!"

"Are you suggesting I accept abuse, dominance, and oppression!?!?"

In a society that consistently promotes a linear and hierarchical view of success and change, these statements make a lot of sense. The subtle and not-so-subtle messages we often receive from families, schools, and work places are that if you do not strive to progress up some kind of ladder, you will become stuck or, worse, a failure. And probably a lazy one at that!

As a mentor recently reminded me, we in the United States also frequently carry around a deep-seated view of ourselves as defective, in part due to the dominance of the original sin doctrine. Why would we not want to jump onto the treadmill of self-improvement after internalizing the message that we are inherently bad? What I find interesting is that other cultures, such as that of the Tibetan Dalai Lama, believe something very different. In the Dalai Lama's words,

Every sentient being—even insects—have Buddha nature. The seed of Buddha means consciousness, the cognitive power—the seed of enlightenment...All these destructive things can be removed from the mind, so therefore there’s no reason to believe some sentient being cannot become Buddha. So every sentient being has that seed.

I do not mean to idealize other cultures or to heroify the Dalai Lama. Instead, I find a powerful inquiry to be, "What would my life be like if I truly believed it is sacred?" The idea of Buddha nature relates to radical acceptance in that believing our lives are worth cherishing encourages us to come back to the present moment, see it clearly, and jump into it wholeheartedly. In contrast, when we stay focused on all the ways we stink at this life, we experience only a sliver of it.

"So what the heck do I mean by radical acceptance!?" you may be wondering if you have reached this point. I am drawn to Tara Brach's portrayal of radical acceptance. She describes it as the ability to be with our experience--our internal weather systems--and say, "Okay, this is here, right now." This "letting be" does not mean passivity in the face of harm. Rather, it means recognizing that our wish for something different is at odds with the reality that is here. We can still dare to dream about and pursue change in the world when we accept our moment-to-moment experience. We do so, however, with more clarity about the pathways that liberate and revitalize us rather than lead to more battling, struggling, exhaustion and, ultimately, loneliness and despair. Perhaps a concrete example is in order.

When I was graduate student and, later, a university professor, I spent most of my conscious moments observing the inequities of social institutions, including those of the university where I worked. I oftentimes felt depleted, powerless, and less and less capable of getting out of bed in the morning, an action that usually preceded armoring up for another day of battle. When I would notice my fatigue and depression, I would quickly call on my internal judge, often without realizing it. She would admonish, "You are so ungrateful. What is wrong with you!? You lead a charmed life and should appreciate it. Get it together and stop complaining. Nobody likes a complainer, especially one as privileged as you."

Needless to say, this incessantly playing tape of criticism did not bring me fulfillment, joy, peace, or that much sought after productivity. What did transform my life was a consciously made commitment to begin paying attention to what was going on inside of me, no matter what that was. This commitment required a shift in my belief that I could not acknowledge my own suffering because of the social and economic privileges I had inherited. Once I began to soften and open to my own pain, I recognized the underlying belief that had guided many of my days to that point: my life was not worthy of close study. I began to interrupt this story of entrenched deficiency with the behaviors and words I could muster. I placed my hand on my heart, for example, and began to use lovinkindness blessings when I became aware of dis-ease: "May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease."

Slowly but surely, I began to recognize how much of my life had been lived in my head. I therefore had missed out on establishing and sustaining important human connections as well as experiencing the wonders and fragility of this living and dying world. I let myself grieve those unlived precious moments and, eventually, became more adept at perceiving and responding with friendliness to my internal weather systems. As the willlingness to honor the sacredness of my own life grew, I began to let go of my belief in some very familiar roles, like that of the oppressor and oppressed. Recognizing how often my own nature changed, I found that using shorthand, static categories for others and myself no longer made sense. These labels, or solid identifications, kept me from arriving at a deeper understanding of what makes people and systems tick and responding to them in more skillful ways.

Of course I continue to be a work in progress, but I now understand at an experiential level how honoring my own life has expanded my ability to honor others'. I can say and mean to a client, "What if there is nothing wrong with you and you just need to take off all those coats that are covering up who you are?"

I also wholeheartedly believe that the "boundary to what you can accept is the boundary to your freedom."* As poet Danna Faulds wrote,

Trust the energy that Courses through you Trust, Then take surrender even deeper. Be the energy. Don't push anything away. Follow each Sensation back to its source In vastness and pure presence.

Emerge so new, so fresh that You don't know who you are.

Be the energy and blaze a Trail across the clear night Sky like lightning. Dare to Be your own illumination.**

* This quote came from Tara Brach's talk "Absolute Cooperation with the Inevitable." ** The excerpts from "Trusting Prana" came from Tara Brach's talk "From Story to Presence."

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.