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Solemn promises

Although I had some trepidation about attending, my friends’ wedding was a deeply satisfying experience filled with warm conversations where I felt welcome. I appreciated that each element was an expression of the couple’s individual personalities as well as their sense of themselves as a couple. I admired their ability to withstand the pressure of the Wedding Industrial Complex. Their strength and clarity in making the wedding their own included the vows they exchanged. It was not a simple recitation of something handed to them by a religious figure or a wedding planner. They didn’t write their own vows but consciously, carefully, and freely chose the vows of their faith tradition.

I knew going in that we hold different beliefs about many topics. Some of those differences were evident in their ceremony. When people I care about make choices I wouldn’t make because I hold a different worldview, I notice how quickly my mind sees the situation as a threat. I doubt that I’m alone in this reaction. Feeling threatened and defensive I seek safety in disapproval—criticizing or dismissing their decisions, confident that I know better as I seek to substitute my judgment for theirs.

All of that thinking was like a flashing red light telling me to look inward. As I struggled to find a place of non-judging awareness from which to view their choices I reminded myself to stay present to the moment. That allowed me to see there was nothing in my immediate environment that was a threat to me. Truly, their choices have no impact on me, were not aimed at me, were not a condemnation of me. Reminding myself to stay present had another benefit. It made my own deeply held beliefs visible to me. And there it was—the place where my friends and I are in sync.

Each day I seek to achieve what Michael Singer calls, “persistently centered consciousness.” Although I don’t always succeed, I also learn and grow and I’m grateful to be on this path. Making a solemn promise to live each day according to our deeply held beliefs is a wonderful thing to have in common.

What deeply held beliefs do you try to live up to each day?

How do you react when people you care about have beliefs that are different from your own?

Prickly stuff

I bought a pair of shoes I’ve convinced myself won’t leave my feet aching within an hour. What else do I need to do to prepare to attend this wedding? Relentlessly anticipate any emotional discomfort attendance may cause me, of course. I want to go and be a presence of light and love and peace but I know I can be prickly and go quiet and sullen at the slightest whiff of something that hits what Michael Singer would call my “stuff.” (Isn’t it funny how the people getting married think their wedding is about them?)

This particular wedding should be easy. I love the bride and I’ve met the groom who seems like a wonderful person. I’m happy they found each other. But this one also ticks a lot of the boxes in which my stuff is packed. Will I hear things said in the church service that I find alienating? Yes. Do many of the wedding participants work in politics and hold views diametrically opposed to mine? Yes. Will the majority of people be strangers making this my least comfortable social situation? Yes. Are some of the participants, the non-strangers, people I struggle to relax around? Yes. Is this three-day event taking place several hundred miles from my home thus requiring a 12 hour drive each way? Yes. Really, what could I possible have to worry about?

According Singer, nothing. I’ve been rereading his book Untethered Soul. He’s wise but it’s his bracing honesty that gets to me. “If somebody does something that stimulates fear, you think they did something wrong.” Yes, I do. Ask my partner she’ll confirm that. He’s talking about the fears lodged deep inside us—fear of feeling less-than, of feeling that we don’t belong. It doesn’t take much for someone to stimulate those fears and my immediate reaction is to blame them with a certainty that suggests I genuinely believe they have complete knowledge of my psyche and are deliberately trying to upset me. This pattern of reacting with defensiveness and anger illustrates Singer’s observation, “We’re really not trying to be free of our stuff; we’re trying to justify keeping it.”

Months ago I gave up my beloved strategy of rehearsing angry conversations with imagined adversaries, conversations from which I emerge wounded but morally superior. I’m going a little further this time and letting go of the illusion that imagining eloquent retorts is a meaningful substitute for taking action. When my attention goes in that direction I’m spending my precious energy to justify holding on to my stuff. With my new strategy I focus my early morning mediation on energy flowing through me so I can put my fists down, put my new shoes on, and open my heart chakra.

Presence absence presence absence

My father died earlier this month while my partner and I were traveling out of the country. My oldest brother tried to reach me by phone but finally sent a text, “Dad passed last night.” I said to my partner, “My father died.” She said, “I’m sorry. Am I?”

Where my father is concerned, I have never known very much about my feelings. Apparently my lack of clarity is transferrable.

When I told my oldest friend my father had died, he listened to me talk for a while then said, “You’re telling me a lot about your brothers and sister and even how your mother might feel [she died three years ago] but I don’t know how you feel.”

There’s a photograph. I am five, wearing pajamas, clutching Raggedy Ann. Grinning broadly I reveal a gap where I’ve lost a front tooth. I’m perched on the edge of the overstuffed chair we inherited from my mother’s mother. Behind me, my father sits legs crossed, also grinning, with a cigar in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other. Less than a year later he left and I didn’t see him again for more than 30 years.

Once, when talking with grad school friends, I made a passing reference to my father. They turned to each other and nodded. “What?” I said. They looked uncomfortable and finally Debbie said, “You’ve never mentioned your father before but you talk about your mom. So we’ve tried to figure out if he was dead or just out of the picture.”

I felt surprised that my friends speculated about my father. I also felt something like satisfaction. To have elided him from my biography such that others couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive gave me hope. If they couldn’t see him, maybe they also couldn’t see the shame and inferiority that hung over me like a shroud because I have a father who deserted his family.

After he left, my mother’s anger and my siblings’ grief filtered every view I had of him. Like a ghostly presence, he was often discussed, but no more than a face in some photographs to me. I could tell you everything my mother ever said to indict him. I could tell you everything my siblings ever said in an effort to rehabilitate him in my eyes. And I still would be no closer to telling you how I feel about him. But I can tell you what I want to feel.

Compassion.

For my siblings caught between a terrified, angry mother and an absent father.

For my mother shamed by family, church, and culture into believing a failed marriage made her a failure.

For my father who did the only thing he could think of to save his life.

For myself struggling to find my truth among people I love whose truth will never be the same as mine.

Being there

We traveled for 24 days. We were gone so long that the days ran together and the routines of home were completely displaced. The opportunity to travel is such a gift—the planning, the preparation, and being there–that I always forget that it also includes discomfort and stress. Tummy trouble, a lumpy bed, changes affecting sleep patterns, and very little time alone. Constantly surrounded by unfamiliar sights and sounds and customs, at the end of each day I feel both exhilarated and exhausted.

In a depleted state, I am vulnerable to an old habit of mind: judgment. Initially my thoughts are overwhelmingly positive—beautiful churches, interesting museums, and wondrous natural beauty. But as time passes, and the stresses mount, negative judgments increase. I’ve often joked that my life’s ambition is to learn to say, “Pay attention,” “Keep moving,” and “Single file,” in all the world’s languages.

“Come on, it’s a narrow two-lane bridge with even narrower sidewalks. Must you stroll arm-in-arm even if that means I have to step into oncoming traffic? Single file please!”

“I know you are entranced by the tile work in the palace but there are 200 people waiting in line to see it. Keep moving!”

“Yes, it’s delightful to visit one of the world’s great cities but the streets are packed and everyone’s maneuvering around you as you stand there talking on your phone. Pay attention!”

I can tell myself that fatigue induces impatience and impatience results in a sour view of humanity. But that’s not the whole story. To the extent that I am fixated on other people, I must ask myself, “What in me is disturbed by their behavior?” I see that they are taking their time, walking aimlessly, looking relaxed and at ease. In contrast, particularly during international travel, I’m constantly on guard, fearful of making mistakes, of embarrassing myself. Watching other tourists makes me more self-conscious and my ego fights back with negative judgments.

When I finally grew sick of that crabby voice in my head, I tried to counter it. Each time my eyes settled other people I identified something positive about them. But it was still all about judging. I finally remembered my favorite practice: non-judging awareness. I don’t want to use my energy to make irrelevant, inane, mindless assessments of the world around me. But as a client once wisely asked, “What am I supposed to do with my brain?”

Observe, observe, observe. Describe, describe, describe. And avoid using evaluative language. What a relief! The world was so much more interesting. Out walking in the swirling crowds I just noticed people. Naming their features—balding, tall, green shorts, I felt like a crime novelist providing descriptions of characters. I started asking myself, “What’s that person distinctive feature? One that can’t be easily changed?” You know, in case they had to go on the lam. We were in small enough places that I often saw the same people later and recognized them because I’d so closely observed them. I also brought this practice to art and architecture, museums and cultural attractions. I realized how limited and superficial my assessments had been. “Yeah, yeah, another beautiful church” which is so dismissive, was replaced with, “I notice that almost all of the iconography in this church is of female figures.” As I paid more attention to guides than to the behavior of other people in the group, I asked more questions. I wasn’t trying to become a bigger nerd than I already am. I was trying to eliminate toxic negativity and shallow positivity.

I can go to the most interesting places, learn things that sharpen my understanding of the complexity of the world we share, meet kind, funny, clever people from all over the world. But I have to take myself along for the ride and that turns out to be the biggest challenge. With each and every thought I can either defend myself against my own discomfort and anxiety or open myself to the present moment and just be there taking it all in.

Moving and storage

Less than a week after they moved into their beautiful new home I arrived for a weekend visit with my friends C and J. That first evening we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by J then spent the better part of the next two days opening boxes, removing each item, and finding its proper place. C and J kept telling me I was a great friend for helping them and I accept their praise. However, it’s their behavior I find a true testament to friendship because I can’t imagine allowing anyone to watch my partner and me unpack our possessions. I know C and J love me but now I know they also trust me.

Although our efforts concentrated on the kitchen the things we unpacked were more than tools for meal preparation. There were gifts and inheritances; there were items that resolved a problem and others that remain a point of contention. I was in awe of their ability to lovingly recall the stories, connections, and meanings associated with these objects yet still get everything put away in the gorgeous new blue cupboards or let it go.

In addition to putting things away, C and J were also figuring out how to live in their new ranch style house, which has almost nothing in common with the farmhouse they just sold. For instance, the simple act of entering their home has been totally upended. In the old house they entered through the front door, put coats in the closet to the right, put bags and keys on the hall table in front of them, and removed their shoes placing them to the left of the table. In the new house they enter from the garage and the coat closet wall, rather than door, is to their immediate right. There’s no good place for a table where keys and bags can be dropped and the entire entry area is visible from the living room thus the challenge of dumping stuff but wanting all to remain neat and tidy.

As I watched them confront the challenge of transferring a necessary routine into a new space I thought about how deep our need is for a few taken-for-granted assumptions about how we function in the world. I wondered if craving the ability to put my keys down without deliberate thought, sure in the knowledge that I won’t spend 20 minute searching for them later, is a failure of mindfulness. Our habits, like our possessions, have a story, connections, meaning. Some are gifts, others we inherit. Mindfulness means staying alert to routines that have so hardened we can’t bear to let them go. They will surely cause me more suffering than struggling to find my keys once in awhile.

Round and round I go

We had to make last minute airline reservations. The next morning I found two emails from our credit card company asking if I recognized the transaction. My partner, who made the reservations, had already gone to the gym. After I stopped screaming when I saw that the second email informed me the charges had been declined, I went downstairs in search of her phone to find the confirmation email of the reservation. There was no email. I felt a small measure of dirty relief that at least we now shared the blame: I hadn’t seen the emails from the credit card company and she hadn’t noticed that there was no confirmation email. I went back to the emails from the credit card company and hit the “Yes, I recognize the charges” button but I suspected that wasn’t going to preserve our reservations. I went to the airline’s website but couldn’t check our reservation without a reservation code—which would have been in the confirmation email. I looked to see if the flights were still available. They were not. It was now well after 7:30 the time at which Laura said she’d be home from the gym.

I sat at the table and thought about mindfulness and non-judging awareness and how, in this moment, they both seemed utterly irrelevant. In this moment, my habit of seeing the worst possible outcomes, my capacity for judging my partner, and my conviction that we were going to have an ugly, stress-filled morning felt perfectly justified. With a smirk on my face I answered the three key questions: What is my mind doing? Racing, panicking, raging. What emotions do I feel? Anger and fear. How do I feel in my body? Tense, tense, tense. Then I started talking out loud as if to further convince myself that my reaction was reasonable. “I am frustrated that this happened. I’m angry that I didn’t look at my email once more last night. I’m mad at Laura for not noticing that she didn’t get a confirmation email. I’m mad that she’s not back from the gym and I’m dealing with this all by myself.” Then I got up and went into the family room to straighten up. I don’t know why. But while I was in there I realized I could call the credit card company and see what they could do. As I was talking to the credit card rep, being assured that she could not reinstate the reservation but that the next time we tried it would go through, Laura came home. I got off the phone and told her what had happened. She said, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I wondered why there was no confirmation email.” She went to get a piece of paper where she’d written down the reservation code. When she came back we looked up our reservation and saw its status was “pending.” We called the airline, waited ten minutes for a callback, they resubmitted the reservation, and all was well again.

As we sat in the kitchen drinking coffee, I said, “You really didn’t seem upset by this whole thing” She looked at me, the picture of innocence, and said, “Well we talked about this. I’m trying to be calmer about things.” My laughter was loud and long. We had indeed talked about this just the day before when she asked me to teach her more about mindfulness. I said, “Well you sure are a quick study.” And I am not and that’s okay.

The map is not the territory

I had to turn left out of the parking garage sending me west when I needed to go east. I could have turned right at the next street but didn’t react quickly enough. The one-way streets meant going two blocks further west. But after two right turns I was on the street I wanted to take to cross Michigan Avenue. After Michigan, I looked for the Fairbanks/Columbus Drive intersection but it came up faster than I anticipated so I missed the turn. Again I had to go two blocks further to the next available right. I made that turn and the next right successfully scooting over into the far left lane in time to turn left onto Columbus Drive. As I crossed the river I saw that Columbus became a tunnel and didn’t allow me to turn onto Wacker Drive. I hadn’t noticed the tunnel on the map but I knew it must eventually take me to the surface. I came up near the modern wing of the Art Institute, turned right on Monroe then right again on Michigan. I intended to take a right on to Wacker which would put me in front of the hotel but we’d agreed to meet on Stetson, the side street between the two parts of the Hyatt. I was pretty sure I could get to Stetson by turning right on Randolph. So I did and was immediately facing another tunnel. I didn’t know where it would take me and I had the option to stay on a surface street which I did. I took the first available left which led me directly to Wacker where I promptly turned right because I’d lost track of where I was in relation to where I wanted to be. I was now east of the hotel. I planned to just go around the block but the street was a dead end closed off by construction.

When I reached the end of the street, worried that it wasn’t wide enough for me to turn the car around, my breathing was shallow. Tears were welling up and there was a voice in my head screaming at me to give up. Pull over, call Laura, and tell her she needs to walk to find me and get me out of this.

I’ve spent the last two years studying the map of self-acceptance. I’ve read wonderful books, studied with excellent teachers, listened to inspiring podcasts. I not only understand the principle of observing and acknowledging my feelings as a way to keep from getting entangled in them, I even teach effective techniques to others. But the territory, that is, my lived experience, is filled with missed turns, unanticipated tunnels, and on-the-fly decisions that don’t always take me where I intend to go. Each day is an opportunity to go beyond simply understanding the map and face the challenge of putting the map to use, creating calm within the territory of my real life.

On the dead end street I followed Laurie Cameron’s advice: First breath—pay attention to my breath. Second breath—relax my body. Third breath—ask what’s important right now. I turned the car around, saw the hotel sign one block in front of me, made three turns, and there was Laura, calmly waiting for me and ready to take the wheel.