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This week’s challenge

A few months ago, I wrote this on a post-it note: “I make the firm intention to keep my commitments to myself.” The commitments included writing this weekly blog, a consistent meditation practice, and a regular yoga class. Things were going well for quite a while but these last two weeks have been difficult. It’s reminded me of that joke, “I was trying to take one day at a time but then the days stared ganging up on me.” Last minute travel to help family required 16 hours in a car, a roller coaster of opportunities for KPCK along with the regular work of planning, preparing, and serving meals, coaching new clients, much to my delight, and the immensely helpful and time-consuming certification process for my coaching program—all things I value and freely chose. I managed them but the list of things I’d also hoped to address grew longer.

Last week, when things started to get hectic, I gave myself permission to post my blog on Thursday instead of Wednesday. My experience with writing has often been marked by anxiety and failure to write so my commitment to a particular day to post was important. Last week’s one-day delay felt like a risk but I didn’t freak out and get stuck in a vortex of self-loathing over it.

This week, I don’t feel busy; I feel overwhelmed by competing demands. And now it’s Friday and I didn’t give myself permission to delay posting this week, I just didn’t write anything I felt good about. I feel that vortex of self-loathing opening up just over my shoulder.

This is the time to lean into self-acceptance but just writing this sentence causes tears to flow as I realize I am angry with myself for being angry with myself. How often I have noticed others doing this same thing and thought, “Oh, that’s no good. We aren’t working on self-acceptance in order to give our ego another reason to thrash us.” Fortunately, just remembering that opens a space inside me and I am watching myself, observing my thoughts and feelings rather than simply identifying with them. Suddenly, my ego’s grip on me loosens and it’s no longer whipping me around like a rag doll. I bring myself back to the present moment, the only one that matters.

Who am I without my reactivity?

My friend Suzanne was at the very beginning of her recovery process when we met. She had a great sponsor and worked the program diligently. We didn’t talk about it much but I’ll never forget something she shared with me. She said, “I’m a funny, creative, outgoing person. But I’ve been drinking since I was a kid, who am I without alcohol?”

I’ve been thinking about Suzanne’s fear of the loss of self a lot lately as I’ve worked on self-acceptance. On the one hand, it’s a very positive, affirming process, one that allows me to see and cultivate my essential self. But just as Suzanne feared that giving up alcohol and drugs might leave her without a personality, I’ve wondered who I am, who I am becoming as I let go of reactivity.

Reactivity is our ego at work, when I identify with my ego and react against what is, against the present moment. Eckhart Tolle writes that when we do this, we treat the present moment, “as a means, an obstacle, or an enemy” and strengthen the ego. For me, this often takes the form of spotting another’s hypocrisy in the midst of interpersonal conflict; it’s also about using my quick, sharp tongue. When I’m playing defense, caught off guard by someone’s criticism (or my assumption that I’m being criticized), in other words, when my ego feels threatened, I’m a formidable verbal opponent.

“What,” Tolle asks, “is reactivity? Becoming addicted to reaction.” And addictions are addictions because they can produce the illusion of pleasure. Beyond my gift for snarkiness, when I think of situations where I’m reactive I picture times when I’ve been able to make quick decisions, address challenges, head off problems. I can be a good person to have around in a stressful situation. And besides, a lot of people laugh at my smart-ass remarks. Of course, if I draw the complete picture, I have to admit that I’ve jumped to a few inaccurate conclusions, stepped in when others were perfectly capable of managing a situation, and added to a general state of negativity. I’ve also hurt others with my clever words. Turns out, I can make a stressful situation more stressful.

Today’s photo is of my friend, FFF. That stands for Fight, Flight, Freeze. I put a holiday bow on FFF because in this season, FFF’s on really high alert. Like many of you, I will spend more time than usual with family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, in crowded stores and on busy streets. Each encounter, each present moment will provide my ego with an opportunity to react—to fight, to flee, or to freeze. I’ll keep FFF in my pocket, a present to myself that reminds me to stay in the present. I don’t know who I am without my reactivity, but in the spirit of my brave friend Suzanne, I’m willing to take the risk finding out.

Practice has nothing to do with perfect

The outdoor Christmas market in downtown Chicago the Saturday after Thanksgiving—who would expect it to cause suffering? Probably anyone who feels overwhelmed by a large crowd packed into a small space. But my partner and I had been before and wanted her niece to experience it. Laura took the lead, her niece followed, and I was happy to let them choose where to stop. Unfortunately, at a stall with European candies, I made a tactical error. We all three waded through the crowd for a closer look but I turned my head to examine an item for several seconds. When I looked up they were gone. I scanned the crowd expecting to spot them easily as I couldn’t imagine they’d gone far.

But I didn’t see them and as the seconds passed I felt my chest tighten and my jaw clench. More time passed and a roaring voice in my head let loose. “All I did was look at something for a few seconds and they abandoned me without a backward glance! Why can’t I find something interesting without being punished for not following along like an obedient dog?” I am the youngest of six and I was so routinely overlooked that family stories were told about all the times my mother and siblings forgot to notice my existence. My five, six, ten-year old self was standing in that Christmas market in Chicago. She never found those stories funny and she wasn’t laughing now.

You can’t imagine, or maybe you can, how much I want this to be my partner’s fault.But it’s hard to know how far down the rabbit hole we need to go when we try to blame others for our feelings. My partner’s to blame for not noticing me stopping to look at candy, but I’m to blame because I stopped following closely behind them, or is she to blame for wanting to come to this crowded market, or am I to blame for agreeing to it, clearly the people who manage this thing are to blame for poor crowd control, and Chicago’s to blame for sponsoring the market, the weather’s to blame for being so nice that a lot of people came out to shop, and when you get right down to it, Jesus is to blame because this whole thing started with his birthday. Of course, no one is to blame. There are only facts: I am in a very crowded place and I can’t see my people. No one did anything wrong, not even me.

Despite the roaring in my head, I was able to make a good decision. I moved slightly away from the candy stall to a more central space and stood still. Within three or four minutes I spotted them. As I approached, my partner’s niece called out, “Oh, she found us!” The incident ended but I struggled with the feelings the brief separation evoked. Now in addition to feelings of abandonment and anger, I was upset with myself for being so reactive. Wow, was it hard to slap a smile on my face and keep moving through that crowd.

Eventually the feelings dissipated enough or were sufficiently stuffed down that I was reasonably pleasant for the rest of the trip but when I got home I fell apart. It wasn’t just the market. The travel had disrupted my routine—a missed yoga class, no meditation, no inspirational reading. And initially, I wondered if traveling was just something I’m bad at because I can’t maintain the practices that help me stay in the present. Fortunately, a conversation with my coach was on my schedule for Tuesday and her kind wisdom helped me face a deeper challenge.

My ego hijacked me—it took a perfectly normal occurrence and blew it up into a terrifying trip down memory lane. In that moment my partner didn’t abandon me I abandoned me.

In the last few months I’ve thought a lot about the practices I’ve developed. One day it dawned on me why people go to church or read their religion’s holy texts over and over. Practice. We’re practicing so that in bad moments the clarity and equanimity that come from faith are available to us. I sit in quiet contemplation of the knowledge that I Am so that when the world around me and within me starts to fly into a thousand pieces, I don’t fly with them. Clearly, I need a lot more practice. And that’s okay.

Lost and found

The first time I volunteered at Knox Prairie Community Kitchen’s twice-monthly free dinners I was nervous. We were given good instructions but I still felt unsure of myself and when the church basement filled with more than one hundred strangers, my muscles tightened and my pulse began to race. As the evening wore on I filled water glasses, cleared away plates, and relaxed enough to commit to returning in two weeks for the next dinner.

For several months, I showed up at 4:45 p.m. and listened to instructions urging us to treat everyone as we expect to be treated and to get all the food waste off the plates. I poured coffee, found extra napkins, brought dinners to those with limited mobility, and pushed all the food waste off the plates. When the last guest finished, I sometimes stayed to help clean up but most often I headed home. As I walked to my car, I would feel as if I was returning to my body. Spending two hours thinking only of the task in front of me, only of the people who needed my help, there was no space in my mind for my normally obsessive attention to myself. My ego was on a holiday. But our egos aren’t interested in time off.

KPCK is like a lot of all volunteer-run organizations—if you stick around long enough they put you in charge. Within a few months, I was the one providing careful instruction on how we treat our guests and how to clear a plate to satisfy the dishwashers. I arrive in early afternoon to help cook and I stay until the last dish is returned to the cupboard.

I enjoyed these responsibilities until I didn’t, until I became completely identified with my role in the group. When that happened, my ego became a howling chorus of complaints, blame, and criticism: volunteers leave too much food on plates, guests go to the dinner line before I’ve directed them to do so, another Board member disagreed with me. The time I spent with KPCK was no longer a respite, a way to get outside myself but just another manifestation of my ego’s need to be center stage.

I’m trying to remember to pause, to pay attention when the controlled chaos of dining room threatens to overwhelm my desire to make these dinners a joyous occasion for the other volunteers and especially for our guests. Many of our guests experience alienation and isolation because their presence in the world makes the rest of us uncomfortable. I have the opportunity to make eye contact with each person who walks into that dining room, to make sure they know I see and recognize our shared humanity. When I lose myself in that moment, I am found.

Family treasures

More than a hundred years ago my grandmother found the gleaming cherry bureau that now stands in my dining room. It was covered in a thick layer of red paint but she recognized the treasure that lay beneath.

My grandmother was a woman with a gift for seeing the possible. She was also a woman who raged at those around her. She died long before I was born but my mother told stories of her creativity and strength and wrath. It seems to me her fury was fueled by intellectual abilities that far exceeded her life’s limits.

The legacy of her anger is visible in my thin skin, easy sarcasm, and quickness to blame others for my pain. I saw it in my mother; I see it in my siblings. The anger inhabiting our homes is nearly as tangible as the corner cupboard, the camelback sofa, or the dining room table passed down to us over the years. But like these pieces of furniture we’ve lived with our entire lives, our anger is so deeply familiar to us that we cannot imagine our lives without it. I don’t know how to fill that corner of the dining room without the cherry bureau. I don’t know how to be in the world without my anger.

Tara Brach describes anger as an intelligent emotion. She doesn’t try to talk us out of it but instead urges us to acknowledge its presence with non-judging awareness. And then—take a pause and focus on the inner self, find the unmet need that evokes the anger. Even if the other person is as wrong as can be the anger is mine and paying attention to what’s going on inside, Brach argues, is the beginning of being able to respond with intelligence, empathy, and understanding. While Brach accepts that sometimes relationships have to end, her call to us holds real promise for deepening rather than dissolving them.

My grandmother owned a mahogany teacart and when it went out of fashion she had the wheels removed and a clean-lined table emerged. It’s in my kitchen and I sit at it to eat breakfast or read the mail. I did not know my grandmother but I am of her and I cherish the traces of her I find in the objects she transformed. I’m a catalyst for a different kind of change when I transform the inevitable experience of anger into a deeper understanding of myself and those around me.

What’s the story?

I took a writing class a few months ago and the instructor asked us to explain why we were in the course. I told her that I’d had an awful experience writing my dissertation—I took forever to finish it, I nearly lost a job a I loved, my dissertation advisor was unsupportive, I struggled under the weight of that experience, and always associated it with failure. Almost as soon as I sent my tale of woe off, for the first time in the many years since I finished my dissertation, I asked myself this question, “Good God, when do I get to quit telling that story?”

Lately I’ve been reading about longstanding grievances. It’s the wrong someone did to us years ago that our ego hauls out to remind us that we’re special. Although I would prefer to recite the longstanding grievances held by every member of my family, most of my friends, and a wide assortment of strangers I’ve encountered over the years, I realize that won’t actually help me in my pursuit of self acceptance.

The writing class helped loosen the grip of the dissertation story but last August when I wanted to start this blog, I found I was still banging my head against the wall of fear I built around writing. Then I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a new and deeply honest friend. When I told her the dissertation story the emphasis was on my advisor. I told her she’d once written me a letter saying, more or less, “Hey it’s okay. You don’t have to get a Ph.D.” At the time, I had a job that required a Ph.D. so her letter could just as well have said, “Hey, it’s okay to be a failure and to get fired.” My wise friend asked me how my advisor had treated me in the years leading up to the dissertation. I said she’d always had a high opinion of me and thought I produced very good work. I told her we had been close so the letter felt like a betrayal. Ever so gently she asked if it was possible that the letter had been written with good intentions, that my advisor was simply saying what she believed to be true. There was a very long pause. I was stunned to realize that it had never occurred to me that she had any motive other than to hurt me. Once I could see that there was another perfectly reasonable interpretation of my advisor’s motives the story’s hold on me was released.

When I let go of this longstanding grievance, I saw that my attachment to it had eclipsed a story that is more important, one that is alive and present. After I received the letter from my advisor, I told a colleague about it. We hadn’t known each other long but she immediately said, “It’s important to me that you stay here so I’m going to help you finish.” And she did. We met every week for more than a year. She read and reread every word of my dissertation and because of her generosity and commitment I finished. A lifelong friendship, that’s the story.

You are that light

I’ve recently worked up to thirty minutes on a pillow on the floor for meditation. And even more recently, I’ve stopped spending the first ten minutes thinking about my physical discomfort. So one morning last week, I was eager to start and didn’t notice that the lamp behind me was still on.

Well on my way to a quiet mind I heard a small click and noticed a barely perceptible change in the light beyond my closed eyelids. Happily my initial impulse was to ignore both the sound and the changing light but my curious mind got the best of me. I opened my eyes, looked around, and saw the lamp was off. Had I left it on? I flipped the switch. Nothing. I was on my feet flipping light switches. Nothing. Questions filled my mind. Is it the whole neighborhood or just our house? Was it caused by the construction project down the street or is there something wrong with our electricity?

Thinking I would return to the pillow once I had answers, I tried to access the electric company’s website. The site asks for account information. Ours is in my partner’s name but her phone number wasn’t in their system and I couldn’t remember her previous number. Their public site shows an outage map but the information was too general to satisfy me.

By now all thoughts of meditation were gone as I became immersed in busy-ness and counting grievances. I manage the household bills but I didn’t have a job when we moved here so that’s why the utilities are in Laura’s name. That still pisses me off. We’ve got to get that changed but we only think of it when something goes wrong. Like the time I sent the electric bill in almost 10 days late and they turned off the power and I had to wire money to pay it. Had that happened this time? I didn’t think so but the shame of that incident washed over me nevertheless. I went back into the online system and tried to change the password by generating an email to Laura. I sent her a text asking her to check her account. A few minutes later she called to say no email. What address had she used to set up the account? Neither of us remembered. My mind was churning through questions and causes as my frustrations grew.

Fortunately, Laura was done at work and said she was headed home. That information brought me, mercifully, back to the present. I knew I would ruin the rest of my day and hers in my current state of distress. I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my breathing, I reminded myself that we were in no danger, that there was nothing I could do to get the electricity turned on, and that I’m always looking for an excuse to go out to lunch.

This incident returned to me as I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He writes, “You cannot fight against the ego and win just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.”