Bag of rocks

In a lovely coincidence this happened on Independence Day. After a quick run to the store my partner and I cruised the local car dealerships since we could do so without being approached by salespeople. I drove up and down the aisles and she jumped out here and there to check sticker prices. At one point, as we chatted away, I paused mid-thought, and she filled in the rest. I hate this. Normally, I’d let out an exasperated sigh or snap, “Stop interrupting me!”* But neither of those things happened this time because a thought entered my head: “I’m not going to snap at her anymore when she does that.” And the next thing that happened was a feeling of relief, like I’d pulled a big rock out of the bag of rocks on my back and put it down. And the next thing that happened was my ego cried out in anguish, “What’s going to be left of me if I put this rock down? What about all of my other rocks? Who am I without my rocks?”

I’m not kidding. At that moment I believed that part of what makes me who I am is that I react with anger when I think my partner has interrupted me. Yes, I did laugh out loud at that thought.

I’ve regretted snapping before and promised myself to do better, be patient, learn to overlook it. But that response was inadequate as evidenced by the fact that I never stopped snapping. Those previous efforts were founded on the assumption that the story I told myself about my partner’s behavior had some foundation in reality. The story was: She never listens to me. That story fit neatly with my previous experiences (aka: bag of rocks). The youngest of six, raised in an often chaotic and noisy household, I could hardly get a word in edgewise. There are times when my partner doesn’t listen. But never listens? No, that’s empirically untrue. It turns out that every instance of her starting to speak before I finish speaking is not someone I love ignoring me or telling me to stop talking.

How is it that I finally noticed this truth? Practice. I spend a little time each day reading something, sometimes just a couple of pages, that challenges me to pay attention to how my mind works. And, my meditation practice is getting stronger. In recent days I’ve been asking myself, when uncomfortable feelings arise, “Am I going to throw away my happiness in this moment over this?” I take a deep breath, I let the feelings pass through, I deal with whatever needs to be dealt with, and then I let it go.

Or to paraphrase my hero Michael Singer, I am living my life rather than living my mind.

 

What practices are you using to watch your mind at work?

What’s in your bag of rocks? Which ones are you ready to put down?

 

*Communication nerds, like me, say that overlaps and interruptions are the same thing—two people speaking simultaneously. The difference is that overlapping speech is perceived as accidental for example, when one speaker apologizes and stops speaking in order to allow the other person to continue. Overlaps can also be perceived as cooperative speech where two people, often people who are close, finish each other’s sentences. In contrast, interruptions are perceived as an effort to stop the speaker from continuing.

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.

There was gratitude in 2017

I am grateful for my friends and family above all. But we all need all the help we can get so below are some people, places, and things I followed, listened to, read, visited, and watched in 2017, and probably will continue to in 2018, because they improved the quality of my life

Tara Brach—tarabrach.com I access her work through her profoundly compelling book, Radical Acceptance, and by watching and listening to her weekly meditation talks posted on her website. She writes and speaks with clarity and compassion. Her voice is a genuine invitation to transformation.

Michael Singer—untetheredsoul.com I read his book, Untethered Soul, soon after reading Radical Acceptance. Both Singer and Brach are Buddhists. Brach’s work deepens my knowledge of Buddhist thought which I greatly appreciate. Singer does not provide that kind of context in this book. Instead, his is a voice of that just tells it—I laugh out loud in surprise and embarrassment as I recognize the limits of my thinking in his words. His clarity gave me the confidence to change.

Hend Amry—@LibyaLiberty She shares with followers a lived experience that is unlike my own and yet continuously resonates with me. She is hilarious—I hesitate to emphasize that because the news, the perspectives, the geographic points on the map she references are vital and challenging to me. But she also makes me laugh out loud, often.

Alyssa Harad—@alyssaharad She is a writer who tweets and retweets about culture and politics. She takes the occasional break from Twitter (which I admire) but never on Sundays when she produces #FlowerReport–photo after photo of flora and fauna from front porches to furthest frontiers, it will improve the quality of your right now.

Philip Lewis—@Phil_Lewis_ He is a front page editor at @HuffPost. He answer to a recent twitter question, “What’s your earliest memory of a news story?” was “9/11.” I thought, “Oh damn! I am old.” My answer is Vietnam on the evening news (Huntley/Brinkley–my mom, the cultural contrarian, didn’t like Water Cronkite). Also, many of his popular music references go over my head—I know it’s important and I know I’m way behind. His generational perspective is especially valuable to me.

OpenCulture—@openculture Books, music, art, culture, archives, interviews, the past, the present, the future. It’s all here. It’s the best rabbit hole around.

Al Jazeera English—@AJENews It’s not the only site I follow that offers information and perspectives I don’t see in mainstream US media but it is surely the best.

Jonathan Foust—jonathanfoust.com He produces podcasts of his meditation talks every few days. His typical talk focuses on a single topic (anger, anxiety, equanimity) and provides a way of thinking about that issue more clearly so that I come to my next experience of it from a mindful rather than reactive place.

Viroqua, WI—Highway 14 in southwest Wisconsin Imagine you need to drive from somewhere near Iowa City, St. Louis, or Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Make sure your route takes you through Viroqua (even if it adds a little time). When you get there go to:

Kickapoo Coffee Roasters—buy a pound of beans and order the world’s best cold brew coffee, kickapoocoffee.com

Driftless Café—a great lunch spot, driftlesscafe.com

Viroqua Food Co-op—not a great co-op for a small town just a great co-op,             viroquafood.coop

Driftless Books and Music—the building itself is worth a visit and the selection is fabulous and so are the very nice people who work there, driftlessbooks.com

FYI The word “Driftless,” as you noticed, is all over this town. It refers to a region in Wisconsin that the most recent glaciers did not touch. As a result there’s none of the residue in the area that is typical of the glaciers (gravel, boulders, etc.). So Viroqua is not only a great town it’s in a geologically unique place, driftlesswisconsin.com