Thanks, Mom

I noticed two women walking ahead of me into the yoga studio and once inside, I recognized my classmate Denise but not the other woman. Overhearing her conversation with the instructor, I decided she must be Denise’s daughter. One look at Denise and I knew I was right. She gazed at the woman with unabashed joy. I know that look. In the last twenty years of her life, I saw it on my mother’s face every time she introduced me to a neighbor or friend, and in her final years to every staff member at her independent living and later assisted living facility. She’d take hold of my hand, look at me and then at the other person and say, “This is my Mari.” Watching Denise beaming at her daughter the way my mother once beamed at me I felt a little dizzy and suddenly alone.

Like many mothers, mine was not the “Angel in the House;” no meek, passive, sympathetic woman. She was angry, thin-skinned and judgmental. Being treated with disrespect or unkindness made her furious but she also believed herself to be so deeply damaged that she deserved whatever pain life brought her way. I had an epiphany about her when I was a teenager. It dawned on me that what I had always seen as her towering anger was actually fear. For most of her life she felt overwhelmed and overmatched by her enormous responsibilities and she never believed her efforts were adequate. I was grateful for this insight because it lessened my anger towards her but it didn’t make it much easier to live with her. In my twenties my independence created much needed space but her relentless self-doubt, critical attitude, and anger about the past still created a toxic environment when I visited. I remember hoping that someday I would know her as a person not ruled by fear and insecurity.

One of the great joys of my life is that I did come to know her when her fears had greatly diminished. Her insecurity never left her but once it was no longer fueled by fear she was able to see her life more clearly and with gratitude. Her immense intellect, her fabulous sense of humor, her compassion all came to the foreground. My friends loved to talk with her about politics, her caregivers sought her out for advice and understanding, but I’m the person who benefited the most. No longer burdened by a harsh, judgmental attitude, she truly appreciated and admired me

Four years and one week ago my mother called me to her bedside, took my hands in hers, and said, “I adore you.” When she died several hours later, I knew the memory of this moment would sustain me even as it reminds me of what it means to lose the person who is your foundation. No one else will ever look at me as she did in that moment—love yes, but more than that a deep understanding of who I have become.

It is with immense gratitude that I tell the story of my relationship with my mother as one where two people allowed each other, and their relationship, to evolve.

Love and basketball

I’m not athletic, I didn’t grow up playing sports and yet, I know a lot about basketball. I’ve been to innumerable college games—women’s, men’s, Division I, Division III. I’ve attended both the women’s and the men’s Division I final four tournaments and I’ve seen so many games on television I’m convinced I could provide color commentary in the unlikely event that I was required to do so. Am I saying I like basketball? No. Truthfully, if I never saw another game I wouldn’t notice its absence from my life. However, my partner loves basketball plus I love my partner equals I watch a lot of basketball.

Spring was beginning to tease our senses last week when my partner came across the women’s Division I conference tournaments. Some were of more interest to her than others but several came and went on our television screen throughout the day. As we were making dinner she remarked on a particularly competitive game that was about to start. That’s when I remembered our discussion from the day before about saving the last two episodes of a show we’ve been streaming to watch that night. I didn’t say anything about it but I could feel a sulking presence enter the room.

As we ate dinner she remembered we were going to stream the show and said, “Oh, we can switch. We don’t have to watch this game.” This game was between two exceptional teams and the score was close. I was immediately aware of my impulse to play the martyr. “Oh no, that’s okay,” dismissing our previous plans and continuing to watch the game with her while silently recounting all the ways I give in to her preferences. Instead, I shrugged and said what was true, “These games only happen once a year. We can watch Newsroom tomorrow night.” Around halftime I took a break to work on a puzzle in the dining room but returned for dessert and the thrilling conclusion where the Stanford Cardinal surged and the Oregon Ducks faded. Order was restored as the Cardinal avenged the smack down the Ducks handed them earlier in the season. I may not care much about basketball but I can appreciate a good narrative arc.

Like everyone else, I have a “What about what I want?” self who is never happier than when tracking who gets what when and how often. I know I haven’t seen the last of her but in this moment when I saw her coming my way I let go of counting wins and losses.

A lot like me

Last week I read something a person I used to be close to wrote several months ago; something she probably thought I’d never see and it really hurt my feelings. Initially, I was also startled by it and kept trying to figure out why she wrote it. Then I progressed to thinking of the mean things I’d like to say to the writer and to others indirectly involved in the situation. My old habit of rehearsing conversations I’ll never have was in high gear and I had a keen desire to call two of my closest friends and tell them all about it.

When my partner came home from work I told her about it. She was surprised by what was written and she asked me a few questions. And that was strangely satisfying—having a calm discussion about the situation and my feelings. In fact, I was able to do something I’m pretty good at which is seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s a skill I suspect I developed as a child when I often felt caught between the competing narratives within my family. I thought a lot about the history of my relationship with the writer and how what she wrote fit into that story. It started to seem less like an effort to hurt me, especially since she probably thought I’d never read it, and more as an action consistent with who we are to each other now and how we see ourselves in relationship to the issue she wrote about. I also thought of moments in our relationship where she might have interpreted my behavior as hurtful. None of that took away my initial response to her writing but it created a calm space in which I live with it.

The next day at yoga the instructor (a fabulous substitute), asked us to start by running our hands over our arms and legs and torso sloughing off any negative feelings, anything we were holding on to. I thought of my hurt from the day before and happily sought to shed it. When I went home after class, I thought again about the urge I’d felt the day before to share my story with my friends. I realized I no longer felt that urge and that’s when I caught sight of a figure looking at me over her shoulder as she walked away from me. She was no more than the silhouette of a person who looks a lot like me. She didn’t say a word but I knew what she was thinking: “I thought we would be together forever.” I can understand why she feels that way. When someone hurts me she’s always been there to argue my case, to condemn the other person, to polish my version of events as I prepare to share the story with friends who also take my side, validating my anger and my pain. She saw that I was done with yesterday’s story and I had no need to work on it or share it further. I call on her less often these days and when I do it’s for shorter periods of time. To paraphrase Sara Gran, it seems that the days of memorializing everything that hurts are over.

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?

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.