F is for Fair
“It’s not fair!”
Can you recall when you first began to use that phrase? I place mine somewhere around age 8. The awareness that life was unfair was my version of getting kicked out of my own Garden of Eden, my own loss of innocence. I’m sure there were many losses in my life prior to age 8, but this clear and righteous articulation is one of the great truths of human experience and marked a coming of age for me.
I remember a story I heard years ago about a child who comes home from Sunday School with a drawing. His mother was used to this as they often drew pictures of Bible stories, but she couldn’t figure this one out as it showed a big car with two people in the back seat as someone drives them through a massive gate. When asked about this the child said, “Oh, that is the Angel of the Lord driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden.” I have often had the fantasy that the dialogue in the back seat of that vehicle included various versions of, “It’s not fair!”, along with a lot of mutual recrimination as to whose fault the whole thing was, but that’s another story.
Now, many years later I have a question for the 8 year old me: “What did you expect?” In hindsight I suppose it was simply that if one knew and played by the rules there would be a predictable and acceptable outcome. I think this is when I discovered the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: There is suffering. Not liking this fact I did what Jack Kornfield describes as “going to war with the way things are.” I kept trying to storm the gates of Eden. In the process I conveniently forgot the part of the story where God puts an angel with a flaming sword at the gate to prevent such delusional and ineffective regressions.
I then spent a number of years wandering in the Wilderness of Entitlement. Somehow this suffering thing was a mistake that would be corrected any minute now. I even printed up T-shirts that said on the front: “Don’t they know who I am?”; and on the back: “Who do they think they are?” I sold a lot of tee-shirts, but only to other wanderers. Slowly, but surely exhaustion set in and I began to consider another option: maybe I could accept things “the way they are”. I would get a glimpse of something I didn’t quite have a name for and I liked it, but then the required vulnerability and hard work required seemed to be too much. So, it was put on the T-shirt and try to make the same efforts have a different outcome. Have you seen this movie?
This cycle repeated itself more times than I care to remember, but then one day I saw clearly certain consistent themes in my wanderings. There was a difference between reacting and responding. Basically, reacting is a version of my 8 year old: “It’s not fair.” And responding is a based on not taking things personally. When I reacted to the elements of my life I usually didn’t like the outcome. And, when I was somehow able to respond to them there was a kind of peace. I realized that the key to this difference was whether or not I was willing to accept responsibility for my internal and external experience. There was, and is, still suffering. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a kind of fairness to life, I’m just using a different kind of measurement. I notice that sometimes I get more than my fair share, and sometimes I get less – whatever that means on any given Tuesday. The difference is that the more I notice and respect these realities the less demanding I am about getting more, and the more I was able to be present with the hard stuff. I wear the T-shirt a lot less often now.
Coming soon: G is for Germ
I had been working on this material for a number months and could not seem to get it quite right. Then I was introduced to the Brene Brown giving two Ted Talks on Vulnerability and Shame – which I highly recommend – and I realized that I was being held hostage by some notion of “perfect”. And if I couldn’t do this perfectly then I wasn’t going to expose myself. Even now as I write I feel self-conscious and exposed and narcissistic. In other words, vulnerable.
What are our experiences of enough? What’s your first response if someone asks you, “Did you get enough? Do you have enough?” One thought is that enough implies a limit, a settling, a compromise. Do you have enough time, energy, sleep, money, sex? Haven’t we all been taught to want, expect, and demand “more”?
Then there’s the always fun question: Am I enough? That one can easily activate my internal Greek Chorus of, “No, not really.” And the list of areas and characteristics and action and in-actions that have been tried and found wanting is instantly available for reference. My internal critic makes the Internet Cloud look like an amateur.
And, enough by what standards? By whose criterion? Parents? Teachers? Priests, Preachers, and Rabbis? God? The right group in school? I’ve observed over the years that there is a stated or implied guideline/rule for every human action and inaction. A deeply imbedded – notice I didn’t say inherent – sense of what is right or correct. In other words there’s always a standard that I’m failing to meet or live up to. Basically we’re up against endless variations and permutations of perfect. As far as I can tell it goes like this in one form or another: “If you/I could only do/not-do X, Y, Z then… we’d be OK/perfect.” I’m pretty sure the game is rigged and not in our favor. So, why do we keep playing? My theory on this is that we have a secret belief that maybe we can actually pull it off and beat the system. If we just worked a little harder, were a little more courageous and creative we could pull it off.
So let’s separate perfect from enough and see what happens. When is the last time you had an experience of enough? It comes up around any of our rituals of giving and receiving as on birthdays or Christmas. The overwhelming obligation to figure out what to get people. The anticipation as people open the gift we have given them hoping that their faces will tell us we did it right. What is it we’re hoping to experience on either side of these rituals of giving and receiving? What “click” are we hoping to hear or see that makes the world ok – for the moment at least. Is it enough? Or, was more wanted, expected, demanded? In the face of all this the idea of enough just doesn’t seem to cut it. Enough seems like settling. We often end up pretending we really were dying for the socks and underwear when deep down we wanted…What? And the real killer is that even when we do get “the thing” we wanted we soon want more.
Here are some things I know about enough:
Enough is not settling, it is completion.
Enough is affirmative rather than defensive.
Enough is often not fancy.
The war of perfection is over – we won.
Enough is what is.
There’s a relatedness/balance/click to the “enough” that knows.
Enough brings a smile, a release of tension, a harmony.
Enough, unlike perfection, is available.
This post isn’t perfect, but it will have to be enough.
D is for Dancing.
It’s all about relationships.
I’ve come to realize that my definition of relationship has to do with anyone and everything that I notice, pay attention to, avoid, celebrate, and otherwise invest even a minimal amount of energy toward. In other words all experiences are relationships in one form or another. If I am aware of someone or something then I am in a relationship.
Now the quality, nature and intensity of that relationship varies hugely, but I’m sticking with this as a working hypothesis. At this moment I am having a relationship with my computer screen, and the thoughts and words that I am forming in my mind and typing on this keyboard. When I shift my awareness to my cell phone that is lying on the desk next to my computer I have begun a relationship with it. Then I note the ball point pen and the glass of iced tea and the sensations at the tips of my fingers as I type and the ache in my back because I am slouching. Then my dog walks into the room and curls up next to me. That reminds me that my wife and I will take him for a walk later. Well you get the idea.
What I also begin to notice is that as I relate to each of these things I have to take energy away from one relationship in order to invest it in the new relationship. On the good days I can broaden my awareness and be in relationship with more than one person, thing, or thought, but the quality of the relationship is diluted. This dynamic, this dance seems to apply equally to inner and outer experiences.
I am saying that there is a direct link between attention and relationship. By this definition you can’t have a relationship without awareness, and whatever I am aware of I am in relationship with. So, what happens to all the relationships in my life experience when I am not paying attention to them? It’s as if they go “off stage” for a time until they are brought back by some cue that I am mostly unaware of.
My theory about that is that I pay attention to, and have more or less conscious and aware relationships based on the amount of energy that I experience in the “others” I am aware of. I believe there is a basic spectrum related to the things I pay attention to that goes from positive and desirable on one end and negative and terrifying on the other. It is a form of carrots and sticks. For the record I like carrots better than sticks. Of course there is a lot of stuff in the middle that doesn’t get much energy from me because it is not carroty or sticky enough. (See earlier blog: B is for Boredom).
What does this have to do with D is for Dancing you might well ask. Put simply, I finally got that all relationships, and I mean ALL, are a kind of dance. Let me say quickly that I know this implies an attitude of dualism. But, since I have not yet achieved enlightenment I still operate most of the time in relationship with what has been called the “Not-I”. This applies to my experiences of myself in a bizarre form of schizophrenia. You know where “you” are arguing with “you”. “Eat the cookie!”, says you. “Don’t eat the cookie!”, says you. If that’s not a dance I don’t know what is.
The first key to this perspective is that the dances are never static. Go ahead, try and pay attention to something, anything, and have it be static. Not possible. All my experiences/relationships have been and are in motion. Now the motion may not be easily discerned, but I have found the second key: listen for the music. Just as there is always motion, there is always music. The music for the dance of life begins in the womb with the heartbeats between mother and child. The next step (no pun intended) is the breath which, with heartbeat, is the dance of life. Pay attention and you will hear the music and that will lead you to the steps of that dance at that moment.
Of course I don’t always like the music and I may not immediately recognize what steps go with the music, but if I am willing to risk it and practice my whole world changes.
That is another aspect of the dance, it is about holding and being held. No, it’s not particularly about who is leading. Rather it is about being willing to invest our attentional energies as consciously as possible. As I practice this way of being present I notice how easily I can over and under fund my relationships. This has to do with how I choose to spend my attention. This can be tricky. Sometimes I want to dance with everyone and everything, and sometimes I want only one partner. Sometimes I feel like the wallflower at the high school dance, but even that is a dance with its own music.
It takes practice to learn how to diversify our relational portfolios. We have to notice our carrots and our sticks and how we tend to be reactive to them. This is a necessary stage in stepping (sorry, I can’t help myself) across a threshold of responding to new music and new steps.
This all showed up even as I was being stingy with the relational energy I anticipated needing to sit down and dance with this topic and get it written down. Finally I started tapping my foot, or keyboard in this case, and then I really got into the rhythm. Now I notice this music coming to an end and I want it to stay a little longer. But, I know there is always other music and a new partner to dance with.
C is for Circles
I’ve been resisting writing on this topic since it first drew my attention. I’ve been “circling” around it ever since. The Gladwellian “Tipping Point” that led to my actually putting these words down was when I was reminded of a classic definition of God:
The nature of God is a circle
of which the center is everywhere
and the circumference is nowhere.
Almost at once I was flooded with circle images and phrases: Inner circle; outer circle; going around in circles; expanding circles; contracting circles; hamster cage circles; circling for a landing; social circles; spirals; cycles of nature; going full circle; circles of us and them; etc. Then I thought, “What if Empedocles was on to something?” That meant that God was everywhere and anywhere that I could be aware of. That all awareness was of the infinite nature of God.
Now, let me get the word “God” dealt with so I can go on. As a former active minister in the Presbyterian Church I was quite comfortable with this word. Then I got psychologyized and liberated and evolved into using synonyms as a way to not have to deal with miscellaneous baggage associated with this word. I tried a full range: higher power; Spirit; Nature; the Goddess; the Self; etc. Finally two things became clear to me: one, the euphemism route just felt like cheating; and, two, I missed “God” in the sense that experiences I’d had associated with that word had been very rich and meaningful to me and I wanted to re-claim that heritage. I’m not talking about the Patriarchal Cosmic Accountant. I’m talking about what I experienced beyond the theological constructs and creeds. I’m talking about what connected me to life in the fullest senses rather than what reduced things down to dualistic categories of right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. The closest word for those experiences is Grace. If you push me I would admit I am very drawn to the Tao insofar as it speaks to this issue in the opening words of the Tao te Ching: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” I think this is a big part of why I like Empedocles so much. So, “God” it is.
The next step was to consider what I mean by circles and how circles come into being. For now, since this is a topic in progress, I’m using the word “circle” to speak to any and all experiences of awareness. I suspect that there is really only one big circle, but whenever I am able to be present and aware a “franchise” circle is created. I’m going to assume that each of us has our own franchise and all kinds of circles are being drawn all the time without anybody having to get permission from me. That’s a relief.
It would seem that what I am saying is that God is at the center of all human experience. That quickly leads to another old issue: what about evil? Since so much of our experience as humans includes suffering, pain, and death do I want to put God in the center of those circles as well? Yep. Otherwise Empedocles would be pissed off at me; and, it would suggest that there are limits on God. I’m not interested in such a cleaned up version of God.
Now we’re getting to it. If God is at the center of all the circles of our existence and we don’t draw the circles we only become aware of whatever circle we’re capable of, then that changes the whole game for our dear old egos. We suddenly find our place at the center of the/our universe very relativized to say the least. I think of a t-shirt I’ve always fantasized about creating. On the front it says: “Don’t they know who I am?” And, on the back, it says, “Who do they think they are?”
The stumbling block is that we like the “Wow!” parts of hanging out in the circle with God, but we aren’t so thrilled about the “Ow!” experiences. Once again the Buddha nailed it with the whole grasping and aversion reality. In spite of all the experience to the contrary we think we can beat the system and avoid suffering. We can’t. The Circle has to be inclusive. We are not the center of the circle, but now we can be aware of the circle and expand our awareness of how vast it is and begin to see and experience our relationship to the nature of God.
My job description has now changed. Can I open my awareness to the Circle of life in all its fullness? Or, as I am fond of saying, “How much life can you stand?”
I intend to write more on this topic and hope you find it of value. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 5 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 15 posts. There were 6 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 22mb.
The busiest day of the year was August 2nd with 200 views. The most popular post that day was A is for Algebra.
Where did they come from?
The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, mail.yahoo.com, my.yahoo.com, mail.live.com, and znart.net.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for laurie casriel, threshold, “allen koehn”+presbyterian, luanne depons, and katheemiller.
Attractions in 2010
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
A is for Algebra August 2010
First the Darkness, then the Light January 2010
Religious Resonance: A Psychotherapeutic Resource February 2010
B is for Boredom September 2010
6 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,
Chopping and Carrying March 2010
B is for Boredom
I talked with a 17 yr. old a few days ago who was telling me how bored he was as he checked his cell phone to see if anyone was texting him. I’m pretty sure his feeling wasn’t about not having anything to do per se. When I asked he agreed that there’s always something to do, but none of it was appealing. There was no energy, no pull. The easy answer is that he just wanted to be entertained, but then it dawned on me that maybe what he really wanted was to be engaged. I think that most of us know the difference between being distracted and being engaged. Distracted is mostly about killing time, whereas engaged is about living fully. It’s a kind of being called, touched, awakened to life’s possibilities. This is all fine when we get caught up in ways that we like. The problem comes when the call is asking, even demanding, that we make efforts, be vulnerable, sacrifice, risk and even suffer. That’s when, as James Hollis puts it, a life of, distraction and hedonism looks quite appealing.
I have begun to have a new appreciation for boredom as a state of potential. Tolstoy calls it a “desire for desires”. I think that Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” resonates at exactly this point. As much as we might fear the call, we are dying slowly without it. Maybe we’re not so much bored as we are not paying attention. I have tried the exercise of exploring moments of seeming boredom and it doesn’t take long to become aware that there are energies present just below the surface. Fear and excitement; imagination and panic swirl around. All dressed up and no place to go. Jung’s description of such psychic energy as having intentionality comes clear when we can give and hold our attention to it. Alchemically boredom is a kind of lead with the potential for transformation into the gold of a fuller life. Fine, but who wants to pay attention to lead? The gold seems very far away in the face of the heaviness of the moment.
I like Ellen Parr’s statement (or Dorothy Parker’s, you pick) that the “cure for boredom is curiosity; and there is no cure for curiosity.” How to awaken the natural curiosity of our novelty seeking brains? It seems to me that the essence of curiosity is asking questions. What questions might we ask about the lead of boredom? The standard ones that show up pretty quickly include: “Why me?” And, “How do I make it go away?” Oh, and, “Why are they/life doing this to me?”
The shrink in me would like to move to: “What possible meaning might this experience offer?” But, that avoids the immediacy of the experience. Boredom weighs on me. I don’t like it. Boredom is boring. Granted. “How to be present with it?” That’s a better question, and one without easy answers. And, as I stay with it the energy does reveal itself. Not always pleasantly, but always present. Am I willing to be called, touched, challenged, awakened?
I’ve known and worked with a lot of people who we traditionally think of as “creative” – artists, writers, musicians – who often talk about being blocked or stuck. One facet of such stuckness fits with this idea of boredom. Life is flat and static. There is no flow of creative juices. They are ready and willing as best they can to be “engaged”, but have lost the source. For me the reality is that this state is much more universal than we usually realize. Which of us has not felt some version of this as we go through our daily routines of work and parenting and relationships?
Is this boredom or depression? The line can be very thin at times. For me the distinction has to do with whether or not one can tap into the energy that is present in what we call boredom that seems to be missing in states of depression. Just below the surface of boredom is an invitation to life; depression mostly doesn’t offer that. The vital question becomes how do we perceive and respond to this “invitation”. How do I explain to my 17 yr. old friend that he is an alchemist in the making? I think the answer, for him, and for us, is to be open to the possibility and the challenge of these moments. To recognize that what the ego feels as boring is in fact a call to explore and expand in ways that we have feared, avoided, or, simply hadn’t noticed before. Any questions?