Ch-ch-ch-changes

My mother’s best friend was born and raised in a brick house on a tree-lined street. At nineteen she married the widower next door and moved into his home where they raised five children. When she died, in her mid-60’s, she had never lived anywhere but those two houses. It’s hard for me to imagine a life lived within such a small geographic space. I’ve lived in four states and eight cities, held a dozen jobs, and found new friends, new favorite restaurants, and new paths to walk many times over.

I’d like to think that my ability to cope with major life changes means I’m a whiz at coping with the small changes of daily life. I’m not but I don’t think the problem is change.

Over a year ago, I started going to a yoga class two or three times a week. With few exceptions the same woman taught each of those classes and when she wasn’t able to be there, class was cancelled—when she went on vacation last winter, when she was sick over the summer, when ice made her driveway impassable a couple of weeks ago. So I was surprised when she announced that a substitute would teach last week’s classes while she was out of town. Of course, I was glad to be able to go to class now that my commitment to yoga borders on an obsession—a day without yoga is like well a day with a very tired, dragging butt. I no longer have to psyche myself up to go or reward myself for having gone. I still prefer the back row but don’t panic if I’m stuck up front. So why did I spend so much of the class taught by the substitute in a funk?

On the drive home l replayed the class in my head. At one point we were in forward fold and she asked us to move to a plank starting with our right leg. I stretched my right leg back and waited for her to direct us to move our left leg back. I waited and waited then noticed the women on either side of me were already in plank. The regular teacher goes from forward fold to a lunge, not a plank, and if she tells us to move one leg at a time she’ll then cue us to move the other leg. I recalled feeling uncertain moving from the forward fold to the lunge/plank and then feeling foolish for not moving to plank on my own. Those were my feelings—uncertain and foolish. But my thoughts were having a different experience. My thoughts were angry criticisms of the substitute. I was mad at her for not using the same verbal cues and strategies for moving from pose to pose as the regular instructor.

I was headed down a related path with my new computer. I was as excited as a five year old the night before her sixth birthday anticipating its arrival but once it got here I was scared and anxious. Unlike the yoga class, I wasn’t surprised by my feelings because with technology I often fear failing to understand instructions and am convinced I’m going to break it. I found myself doing a lot of deep breathing every time I had a new task to complete and was exhausted by the time I finished setting it up.

Paying close attention to these two experiences helped me see that change, in itself, is not the source of my discomfort. It comes when I resist what necessarily accompanies change—struggling to understand, being out of sync, getting lost. So instead of looking outward, looking for someone or something to blame, I am acknowledging my fear and anxiety then taking a deep breath and savoring the exhalation, the pleasure that comes from letting go.

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?

Shutting down

A teacher stands at the blackboard rapidly working through the material. As she finishes she turns to the class and says, “Now you do it.” Wide-eyed and baffled I don’t have the faintest idea what she’s done or how to reproduce it. Using the distributive property, multiplying integers, factoring polynomials, third grade, seventh grade, tenth grade as my classmates busily followed instructions stomach clenched and near tears I fell further and further behind. A single thought in my head: I don’t get it, I’ll never get it.

Those same feelings came rushing back last week in beginners’ tai chi. Like a math class, movement classes set to music that require me to follow and reproduce the movements of the instructor are way outside my comfort zone. I did reasonably well with the first four movements, sort of like addition and subtraction, but the next four were all long division and fractions for me. If I concentrated on the hand movements, which were key to the transitions, I lost track of the footwork. If I focused on the footwork my hands and arms were out of sync and trying to manage both at once was comical but not funny. I kept waiting for it all to fall into place.

After many repetitions I noticed my insides were tightly clenched, my breathing was shallow, and right on cue, there was the thought: I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. And I noticed something else: it’s really hard to concentrate with that thought in my head. It’s hard to distinguish important information from irrelevant information. It’s hard to do anything but fight the urge to flee. As a kid my response was to shut down emotionally and intellectually. In course after I course I would reach a point where I just gave up. As an adult I am able to be curious about my reaction.

And here’s the value of my daily, mind calming practices—almost as soon as I realized I was shutting down, I was able to move to the witness seat and breathe through those feelings rather than get caught up in them. I made the choice to acknowledge them and keep moving rather than shove them away and tell myself that this was an unimportant situation, not worth the stress and strain I was feeling. That’s a habit I don’t love. Whether the stakes are high or low, when I’m not good at something and I’m overwhelmed by self-doubt, I shut down and walk away. Change comes from moving to the witness seat in every difficult situation regardless of the stakes.

When do you notice that you shut down?

When do you feel that you don’t get it, that you’ll never get it?

What practices help you remain present to yourself?

Close encounters

I was humming along on a writing project when I heard the knock at the front door. I suddenly remembered I’d meant to warn my partner about the enormous wasp on the back porch. I was going to tell her to use the front door but she doesn’t have a key for it. I hurried downstairs fearing she’d found the wasp the hard way. But I opened the door to a stranger. Filled with relief that I wasn’t looking at my wasp-stung partner and just barely surfacing from the writing zone, I happily opened the screen door and accepted the flyer he was holding out to me.

Like the phone that I don’t answer unless I recognize the caller’s name or number, I rarely open the front door without knowing who is on the other side. I don’t fear crime because I’m fortunate to live in a place with very little stranger-to-stranger crime. Instead, I fear someone trying to sell me something because I’m a pushover.

The man in front of me was selling his candidacy to our county board. I didn’t know if we held similar views so I tried to engage him while glancing at his flyer. With little prompting he said he supports everyone having the same access to the rights enumerated in the constitution. I found that a bit vague so I asked him about a specific political issue. I disagreed with his answer and was about to tell him that when he suggested that local issues were more relevant. I thought that was fair so I asked him what he thought the most pressing issue was for the county board.

The issue he picked is one I knew little about but it gave him a chance to explain his larger philosophy. I don’t find his general political view wholly abhorrent—it is simply not the case that I disagree with every aspect of it. Recognizing this gave me the mental space to listen to him, listen to myself, ask genuine questions, and express disagreement. He said it was unusual for someone to really engage him on the issues. I’m not surprised because it was hard work to keep going and stay focused while listening, thinking, and often disagreeing. Our exchange was not heated but we both seemed a bit stressed turning a little pink and sweating. I know I felt very wound up inside and my breathing was shallow. This is what my body does when I feel anxious but I remained aware that standing on my front step he was not a threat to me, in that moment I was safe. Staying present to the moment I could be open to the possibility of an authentic encounter with another even in the face of our differences.

I checked on the issue he thinks is central to the county board and as with much that he said I think he’s offering a simple solution to a complex problem. I won’t vote for him but I appreciate our conversation and I gained some empathy for the work of being a political candidate. Whether we’re knocking on doors or opening doors, the truth is we cannot know with certainty what we’ll find on the other side.

 

What doors do you avoid opening?

How do you remain in your integrity when someone’s trying to sell you something you don’t want?

What can you do to feel safe even in the presence of conflict?

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.

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.