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Friendly skies

A few minutes after boarding a flight crowded with holiday travelers, I was reading my book when I noticed a woman standing in the aisle beside me trying to get something out of the overhead compartment. I leaned forward to give her more room and just then a heavy, sharp-edged object banged into my right shoulder blade. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. I looked at my partner who was sitting across the aisle and we both looked down and saw a metal water bottle on the ground. The woman grabbed it and began apologizing. The bottle was full and the whack did hurt but it wasn’t anything serious so I said, “I’m okay. I was just really startled.”

She went back to her seat and my partner asked if I really was okay. When I said I was she added, “Oh I wish I’d been quick enough to yell, ‘Is the reason for the season’ after you yelled, ‘Jesus.’” We both started laughing. A few minutes later a passenger was putting a bag in the overhead bin just in front of my seat, and another passenger helping him glanced back at me and said, “Let’s be careful, she’s already had enough trouble.” That set my partner and me into another round of giggles.

About an hour into the flight, I was standing in the aisle to let my seatmate out when I noticed the woman whose water bottle had clipped my shoulder trying to catch my eye. “I’m so sorry,” she said again and explained that she hadn’t realized the bag was open and that the bottle was at the front. She asked if she could buy me a drink. I declined “I’m really okay.” I told her again.

As I returned to my seat, I felt unsettled because I realized she had tears in her eyes when she was speaking to me. I know that in her situation, I might have spent the previous hour berating myself, replaying the scene, imagining how it might have been worse, and taking a trip down memory lane recalling other mistakes I’ve made and generally feeling like a shame-filled, miserable piece of crap.

A few weeks ago a friend and I were talking about shame. She read that some scientists believe shame is the only emotion that doesn’t have an evolutionary function. I can’t speak to its evolutionary value although there are neuroscientists who argue it has one. But if shame is distress caused by the conscious awareness of wrong or foolish behavior, especially when that behavior causes harm to another, my friend and I agreed we want to feel it. We also agreed that where we go wrong is in getting stuck in shame, in seeing a wrong or foolish behavior as the sum total of our identity.

Clearly, my fellow passenger didn’t intend for me to get a bruise on my shoulder. Like all of us, she had a moment where perhaps she could have acted with more caution or patience. But I regret not taking the time to ask her to be at peace, to have compassion for herself, and to stow her backpack under the seat in front of her.

Beating snark into loving kindness

A few weeks ago I read Margaret Renkl’s thoughtful meditation on raking leaves. I appreciated the insight she found in such a simple act. As she writes, “It will help you remember what the wind always teaches us in autumn: that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

While I enjoyed the essay I was a little surprised to see it garnered nearly 400 comments; a number I associate with polemical essays rather than ones devoted to everyday wisdom. It seemed unlikely to me that 400 people took the time to write, “That was lovely. Thank you.” And I was right. Some did express that sentiment. Several others agreed that there is pleasure and peace to be gained from a task like raking leaves but went on to decry rules against burning them since that smell is essential to their childhood memories. I should have known there would be defenders of leaf blowers (“So much depends on lot size.”) and there was the guy called the essay inane drivel because he mulches as he mows. That seemed harsh given that Renkl was clearly foursquare in favor mulching. But the comment I found myself thinking about throughout the day was from Andy in Salt Lake City who wrote, “’Wait, you have a yard?’ says everyone in America under 35.’”

I understood from the structure of the comment that Andy was accusing Renkl of failing him as a reader but I wasn’t sure I understood the exact nature of his criticism. Was it that she didn’t explicitly acknowledge that not everyone has a yard or was it worse, did he think her essay reeked of unacknowledged privilege because having a yard outside your house is something that only people of a certain socioeconomic class enjoy?

I know I felt implicated in his criticism of Renkl because within seconds my inner college debater was on the case. “Everyone in America under 35 huh? Are you including those, many of them children, who live at home with their parents? A lot of them live in houses that have a yard and trees. And if you’re only talking about adults living on their own what’s your point? I didn’t own a house until I was 38. I knew and know many people under 35 who live in rental houses with yards, just as I did growing up. Where do crappy rental houses with yards fit in here? I also know people who live in a loft, condo, or townhouse and are thrilled not to have the hassle of yard work. Maybe you’re pointing to student loan debt and implying that no one under 35 can afford to buy a house. Maybe in Salt Lake City but where I live it’s cheaper to own than rent. If you really want a yard, maybe you should move to a different housing market. And you know, there’s research that suggests home ownership, like car ownership, is less highly valued by people under 35. And it’s true that the average age of first home purchase is up but people are also getting married and having children later too. Of course, some of that is due to crushing student loan debt but that’s not the whole story nor is waiting to engage in some of those things necessarily an act of sacrifice. People make choices Andy. And another thing, not every essay is for every reader.”

I genuinely believe that my energy is precious and that what I do with my mind in each moment matters therefore, I was irritated with the choice I kept making throughout the day to spar with Andy. Eventually, I managed to stop and ask myself why I was so bothered by his comment or as Tara Brach might ask, “What in me is disturbed by his comment?

It disturbed me that I didn’t know the precise nature of his criticism. I felt out of touch, possible old. That’s when I realized that I neither want to snark back at a comment like this nor do I want to dismiss it. What I hope for is the ability to feel loving kindness toward the writer. I’m grateful to Andy because his comment challenged me to examine what I take for granted and what don’t I know about the lives of everyone in America under 35.

From my window

I didn’t take a hiatus from writing my blog on purpose. In fact, after a year of posting two or three times a month I have come to crave the writing process. With demons of self-doubt shrieking I hold Anne Lamott’s advice in my heart each time and write a shitty first draft. It is liberating. As I continue to write I feel so much pleasure (usually accompanied by frustration, self-pity, and/or despair) watching my thoughts evolve on the page. I particularly enjoy figuring out when I’ve come to the end of a post. I expect to know it in my head but always feel it in my gut.

I started writing the blog because I had embarked on a journey toward greater self-awareness and writing is the particular truth-finding practice I know I need to use. And I want to share my experiences in the hope that others will find aspects of their own truth in my words. The writing process has helped me gain self-knowledge and when I figured out people other than my closest friends were reading my posts, I felt additional encouragement to continue.

Initially, my biggest challenge was the writing demons that have always plagued me. But as the year progressed and the posts piled up, the fearful voices grew fainter. Unfortunately, several weeks ago the critically important events in our country and around the world swallowed my attention. I didn’t want to address them directly in the blog because that’s not its purpose. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t going to address them then why was I writing at all?

During these weeks I thought a lot about other times when I’ve felt hopeless in response to the injustice, fear, and misery that plague our world. In middle school I told a friend I was sure a third world war was imminent. When I was on the debate team in college I learned so much about mutually assured destruction, systemic inequality, and cultural hegemony that what little youthful idealism I possessed was nearly extinguished. These memories don’t convince me, nor are the intended to convince you, that the world is no worse now than it’s ever been. What these memories do is remind me that I have resources now that I didn’t have then.

As I wrote in January, my word for 2018 is “presence” and taking that seriously means noticing what is true in this moment: my life is not spinning out of control or filled with injustice, fear, and misery. What can I do with this truth? I can find space for compassion—wanting others to be free from suffering. As I focus on compassion in my meditation practice I direct it first toward those closest to me, then those in my wider community, then to all beings including, especially, those with whom I disagree or whose actions I find abhorrent. Finally, I seek compassion for myself. As my capacity for compassion grows I recognize that none of us are gods or monsters. We are mere mortals, broken and damaged and capable of change.
Tara Brach offers several resources for developing your capacity for compassion.

https://www.tarabrach.com/compassion-others-self/

 

 

 

 

Everyday hate

I learned to stop saying I hated anyone after my mother scolded me. “We don’t hate anyone. We might dislike what they do but we don’t hate other people,” she said. Being a good girl, I thought it instead. I hated kids who teased me, mean teachers, and even my siblings. Learning that I was free, in the privacy of my own mind, to have such thoughts was a great source of liberation for me as a child.

Of course, as an adult, my mother was free to openly hate other people. She hated everyone from Richard Nixon to the next-door neighbor. Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor that included the ability to laugh at herself. Here’s one of her favorite stories. She was the nurse at a residential treatment center run by an order of Catholic nuns. Having attended Catholic schools, churches, and nurse’s training, she was very comfortable around nuns. Maybe too comfortable. One day, she drove to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a prescription and one of the nuns, who was about 85, went along for the ride. At some point, another driver cut my mom off and she made a derogatory, profanity-enhanced comment about his intelligence. The nun gently patted my mother’s hand and said, “You know dear, he can’t hear you. But I can.”

Over the years, I’ve perceived my hateful thoughts as a sort of victimless crime because, in contrast to my mother, I kept my harshest thoughts to myself. The trivial transgressions of other drivers and other shoppers, people in yoga class and pundits on television give my ego the opportunity to take me on a wild ride of judgment, criticism, and hate. Matthieu Ricard writes that when we feel wronged by another our vision narrows such that we only see the other’s negative qualities and “fail to see people and events in the context of a much vaster web of interrelated causes and conditions.” Everyday hateful thoughts can are sustained not by being present to the moment but fixating on a particular, decontextualized moment in time.

The more I’ve learned to watch my mind at work the more I notice how little satisfaction I derive from reducing others to a single aggravating act. What starts out as a pleasurable sensation of moral superiority quickly evolves into what Ricard describes as a corrosive force, one that shreds my equanimity and weakens my capacity for compassion.

Getting caught up in hateful thoughts is as useless as shouting at someone in another car so I am grateful when I can reach out to gently remind myself that the only person damaged by such thoughts is me.

What thoughts keep you trapped in a particular moment in time?

Ratatouille pie

I glanced through the recipe eager to try an alternative to yet another pot of ratatouille. I could see there were a lot of steps but I enjoy chopping vegetables and I’ve succeeded at piecrust before. I planned it for Sunday but I hadn’t accounted for chilling the pie dough. Finally, on Tuesday I had enough time.

Make the pie dough, chill it for an hour, chop eggplant, onion, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes and marinate them with garlic cloves in olive oil, thyme, and rosemary. Roll out the dough, wrangle it into the pie pan and chill for another 30 minutes then cook it with pie weights for 15 minutes, then without pie weights for another ten. Turn the oven up to 400 and roast the onion and tomatoes on one cookie sheet for 35 minutes and the zucchini, eggplant, and garlic on another for 45. Mix grated cheese, an egg, and mayonnaise in a bowl.

At this point, I’d been in the kitchen for most of the afternoon. As I reached the final stage of the recipe, my partner came home from work. A charming and sunny woman she was full of entertaining stories about her day. She had gathered more produce from our garden and was working around me to get it cleaned and put away. As she talked, I filled the now cooled piecrust with the roasted vegetables, spooned the egg, cheese, mayo mixture on top, turned the oven down to 375 and put the pie in the oven to cook for 30 minutes. We both thought it looked delicious as we left the kitchen to continue our conversation in the living room.

When I went to check on it about 20 minutes later, I was surprised to see that while the cheese mixture had melted, it didn’t look as though it, or the piecrust had cooked. As I tried to figure out if this was how it was supposed to look I glanced up to see that the oven, though still warm from par baking the pie crust and roasting vegetables, was off. Confused, my first thought was that my partner had turned it off but in the next moment I realized it was my fault. When you change the temperature on our oven, you hit the stop button, enter the new temperature, and then hit start. I did the first two steps but not the third. I let out a loud expletive. My partner said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I forgot to turn the oven back on.” She laughed.

I’m happy to report that I did not shout at her for finding my afternoon’s wasted labor funny. However, I’m unhappy to report that my equanimity was shattered. I turned the oven to 375, pressed start, and walked upstairs. I sat on the bed screaming (quietly to myself) about all that ruined effort and if not ruined then certainly not the dish featured in the New York Times. I wanted to blame my partner for her distracting stories but I knew I had committed two of the cardinal sins of my mother’s house: Carelessness and wasted food.

The truest, deepest feeling I had in that moment was: There is no room for error in my life. I will always be thwarted in reaching my desires because I’m always going to make a mistake that ruins all the effort that preceded that mistake. The universe is just waiting for me to screw up so it can say, “You’re not good enough to get what you want. Even if all you want is to try out a new recipe.”

I stayed there for several minutes before I took three deep breaths. In the space of those breaths I was able to remember something important. I was never making the pie described in the recipe. The recipe didn’t call for a half wheat half white flour crust. I’d changed cheeses, skipped the olives, and sautéed the zucchini instead of roasting it because I already had a grated a bag of it to use up.

What had I wanted if not the original recipe? I’d wanted to spend an afternoon making pie dough, chopping vegetables, and managing the complications of a new recipe. The pleasure of making something with my own hands, using the vegetables from our garden, creating something I knew my partner would enjoy—all of that was real. The only thing that was going to ruin what I had done was my willingness to give my happiness away to the illusion that I am not allowed to make mistakes.

I wish I’d taken a picture of it. It looked nothing like the quiche I made a few years ago that’s pictured above but it tasted just as good.

 

When are you most intolerant of your humanness, your fallibility?

Oh hell

I once had a job in a small space with a small staff—director, newly hired associate director (me), program coordinator, and administrative assistant. Renee, the administrative assistant was a friendly woman with a complicated personal life involving teenagers, in-laws, and health problems. She was comfortable speaking freely about her challenges. My challenge was getting past her to get to my office. I saw my options as blowing by without speaking or pausing to say, “Hi, how are you?” only to find myself rooted to the spot 20 minutes later. Most days I chose the second option but grew increasingly frustrated because she seemed oblivious to my desire to get to on with my day.

I’ve been known to mutter the line, “Hell is other people” in situations like this. While many of us use that line from Sartre’s play, No Exit, to mean that other people can be a pain in the ass, Sartre’s meaning is more fundamental to human experience and worth exploring in a quest for mindfulness in our relationships.

In the play, Sartre’s three main characters find themselves locked in a room that they understand is hell. They were expecting fire and brimstone and torture but instead find three couches and each other. Through their dialogue we come to understand that they are each other’s perfect torturer. One woman seeks confirmation of her desirability from the sole man. But he can’t provide it because, like her, he’s obsessed with his own identity needs—in his case the need to be seen as brave and manly. She tries to give him what he wants but as the third member of the group points out, her words are insincere. This third character is a woman who longs to provide the first woman the attention she craves. Unfortunately, only the masculine gaze can meet the other woman’s need. For Sartre’s characters, for all of us, we cannot exit from the experience of seeing other people seeing us or from having their view of us shape our view of ourselves. Sartre said this about the meaning of the play:

“When we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us, which other people already have. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”

Many of us raised in societies that worship individuality forget that no matter how much we want to see ourselves as products of our own creation, how others react to us and interact with us tells us who we are. While there is no exit from seeing others seeing us, mindful presence and non-judging awareness may allow us to bring to conscious awareness our habit of creating stories about how we think we need to be seen by others.

My story with Renee was based on the many personal and professional differences I saw between us. I stood at her desk instead of going to my office because I needed to see myself, through her eyes, as a person who cares about other people, a person who doesn’t think she’s better than other people. Even though I listened to Renee, my growing resentment overshadowed the experience. I don’t know how she saw me but I certainly didn’t see myself as a caring person.

Wanting to be authentic in my relationship to Renee, I tried a new strategy. I greeted her each day with a big smile and a friendly “Good morning” but didn’t ask, “How are you?” and walked past her desk and into my office. Then, several times a week I invited her to join me on breaks or at lunch and I asked her, “How are you?” She told me about the daily struggles she faced, she asked for my perspective, she often told me about quoting me to her husband or children.

No longer trapped in my story about how I needed to see myself being seen, I was free to care about this person on my path.

When are you aware of needing to be seen in a particular way by others?

When does that need to be seen in a particular way trap you in place?

One meal at a time

When a local group met to talk about food insecurity the regional food bank director shared research showing there are 500,000 missed meals in our county each year. The political leader in the room asked one question, “How do food pantries and meal programs avoid duplication, you know, the same people getting served over and over?” The guy from the food bank was infinitely polite in his response but it boiled down to this: Folks, with a gap of 500,000 meals you are a very long way from needing to worry about duplication.

When I think about the meal gap program from the view of 500,000 missed meals I feel overwhelmed and doubt the impact of the free community dinner where I volunteer. We serve about 250 meals a month and give away food that provides another 250 meals. When the need is so much greater, how can I value what we do?

I thought about this when I was rereading Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul this week. When Singer writes about the ultimate experience of spiritual growth he describes it as identifying more with the “flow of pure energy” than with the physical or psychological realm. He goes on to say that identifying more with Spirit does not happen by “reaching for Spirit, but by letting go of the rest.” I can scare myself a little wondering who I will be if I succeed in letting go of the rest.

But just as it’s too soon for my community to worry about duplicating food services, it is too soon for me to worry about who I will become when I identify only with the flow of pure energy.

Yet, neither situation is a cause for despair nor is either one helped by despair. The meal gap is a complex issue related to jobs, schools, and public policy. It is also a simple issue. My organization and others like it provide food to the people right in front of us and we are always looking for more ways to provide more meals. As individuals and small organizations we will burnout if we only focus on the 500,000 missed meals. Instead we have to value every meal we provide, every bag of groceries someone takes home, and every time we bring awareness to the scope and the face of food insecurity in our community.

My journey toward spiritual growth is also complex as my history, community, and culture all pose challenges to it. It is also simple. Or it can be unless the only experience value is the endpoint—identifying with the flow of pure energy 24-7. That view tells me I am always failing. Instead, I choose to focus on what’s right in front of me: the limiting beliefs, the tired stories, and the old habits of hurt that rise up each day. Each time I let go of one of those beliefs, or stories, or habits, in that moment, I feel the flow of pure energy.

When do you question the impact you’re having in your world?

How do you focus on what you can do in the present to address a problem that seems overwhelming in its scope?