This article was first published in:
We’ve got a lot of little choices like this everyday because we live in a culture based on consumption and individualism. What can YOU make? What do YOU have? What do YOU do that’s special or different? It can be wonderful in so many ways. There are ingenious and gorgeous creations all around us (but there’s plenty of crappy plastic shit too).
The blessing and the curse of individualism is that it comes at the cost of no longer having an assumption of one’s place, role, or purpose in the world.
The number of choices and options we have are dependent on wealth and privilege, but everyone has to choose their cereal, politics, mate.
And a challenge of choice, is doubt.
Did I make the right choice?
Did she make a better choice than me?
When we no longer have the village — when we don’t share the rituals and traditions passed down over the ages — we have to recreate the wheel of family, life, love, parenting and to hope we do it “right.” It’s a freeing thing to be able to decide what’s right for ourselves but it also leaves us floating, unanchored to culture and tradition.
And so, we wonder if we’re making the right choices. Should I stay in this job or go back to school? Should I move to another state? Should I get married or cohabitate? Should I breast-feed or use formula?
And the hardest thing about all the choice is that we don’t talk about the doubt that almost invariably comes along with it. (Click here to read the juicy stuff…)
When we came down out of the trees and began holding our bodies upright to reach ripe fruit we got top heavy.
Our brains got bigger and our skulls had to evolve larger to hold them. We began to be born half-baked. Our skulls under the peach fuzz of our scalps like puzzle pieces–shifting and fusing over a period of infancy. We had to stay in one place longer to raise our half-baked babies. And when we stayed around we needed tools to help us fight for food and protect ourselves. We shaved stone into arrows to pierce the hearts of our prey. Lit fires. Noticed patterns in the stars.
We began to depend more on our cognitive and creative abilities and less on our strength and size, and these abilities are exceptional. Over time: art, music, crop-selection, medicine, flight, computers.
Our brains. They have imaginal capacity beyond compare and we translate those imaginations into reality.
But the mind doesn’t have a governor. The mind doesn’t have limits if it isn’t grounded in the body. And so the wonders we’ve accomplished have come with a dear price. Difficulty knowing when to stop. Trouble remembering simplicity. Challenge in bringing ourselves back from the wide scope of fantasy and creation and grandness (or dark caverns, boogiemen, and impossible labyrinths).
In the past, culture did some of this for us. Humans had rules and rituals to contain and order us. The elder was the governor. The wisdom handed down. The expectations like the herding of kids by a mother goat. Giving us order. And some cultures have sustained their traditions–giving their people direction, mirror, path.
There are no perfect cultures where all members are healthy, actualized, peaceful. But when there is no culture but one of consumption, breakdown happens. So many of the struggles I see in my work are fed, if not created by, the lack of connection so many of us feel to a greater community. In the vacuum of our solitary minds, we build stories of insufficiency.
There is a story of a conference in 1990 where the Dalai Lama was asked by Sharon Salzberg about dealing with the chronic lack of self-worth we westerners have. She said she’d been teaching her students to first focus on compassion for self and then turn that compassion out towards others. The Dalai Lama had no idea what she was talking about. He asked the westerners in the audience who had experienced the self-hatred and self-contempt of which she was speaking and every hand went up. He then agreed that focusing first on self-compassion is key.
In a culture ruled by the mind…which doesn’t even recognize that ruler but takes it for granted and believes its refrain, we must take the radical act of
putting our minds in their place.
We’ve got to remember that we are animals. We are bodies. We need connection. We need touch. We need movement and song. Our minds need the whole of us to be in charge. Our minds are like nervous children, running through a huge house. Bring them into the kitchen, give them tea, put on a fire, hug them, “shhh” them. Tell them they’re okay just as they are.
The New Year is coming up quickly and out of the darkness the light begins to increase again. Many people use this transition as an opportunity to do things differently. We create ideas, plans, and hopes about how we can be our best selves. Cue the resolutions!
Some people get excited about a new start—their cups are brimming with optimism. Others roll their eyes, trying not to remember the past resolutions, which started out with a bang and petered out.
I remember walking into my yoga class after January 1st one year and I could barely find a rectangle big enough for my mat (though previous classes had big sprawling areas free for each of us). Just a few weeks later we were back to having plenty of room.
I tend not to make resolutions around New Years because I feel like I’m setting myself up for failure. I don’t generally change drastically from one day to the next, even if I wish I did. For most of us, changes tend to happen slowly, in baby steps, so I tend to think that a major proclamation of change simply because the earth has reached a certain point around the sun again might be pointless.
Also, New Year’s resolutions can function as dressed up bits of self-criticism or rejection:
- In the New Year I’ll lose 15 pounds and then I’ll feel good about myself.
- In the New Year I’ll be more patient with my kids and then I’ll really be a good mom.
- In the New Year I’ll be smarter with my money and then I’ll finally be a responsible adult.
Each of those examples comes from a feeling that we should be different, and that we’re not “enough” as we are. That’s not to say that we can’t grow and change in ways that benefit ourselves and those around us, but we need to pay attention to the energy behind the intention to change. (Click here to continue reading…)
When I returned home today after a long day of work the sky was black and the wind whipped cold rain around filling the slushy puddles and wetting the ice and snow banks. Before I opened my front door I could see my husband speaking crossly to my daughter. When I opened the door my son ran up to me smiling and saying, “Mama!” with pieces of rice stuck to his cheeks. I picked him up and turned to my daughter who was scowling by the kitchen table. The bath water was running and Chris told me H needed a bath to get the paper mache out of her hair and she was resisting.
I went into Mama-mode—encouraging her into the water–negotiating, pouring water over her head despite her grumpiness and scrubbing shampoo into the sticky hair. Later on when I had to pull my son out of the bath because he needed to go to bed he cried until he was red-faced and then I went back to cajole H out of the bath and into her giraffe pajamas.
Tonight I didn’t yell. Tonight I didn’t lose my temper. But it took everything I’ve learned and practiced to keep breathing and stay kind to keep things moving. In order to avoid resorting to power or force (even if only a verbal “Get OUT of the bath NOW!”).
I get angry plenty. And I wonder how many kids grow up as functional as they do being that parenthood–that LIFE–is such a challenge. And I’m a white woman with a safe, warm home and food in my fridge.
People both horrify and amaze me. The kindness and beauty of communities coming together to love and support each other. The violence, cruelty, and ignorance in the killing of an innocent man who was just saying he was fed up with being harassed by police.
I am so blessed…and life still brings me to my knees often enough.
I only know this. We all want to be happy. We act out of fear and we act out of love. We pause and we forget to pause. Many of us don’t know to pause–to take a breath. We’ve never been taught. And even when we are taught–we have to learn–again and again.
Our mind-chatter is frequently against our best interests. Our nervous systems are stuck in perpetual vigilance mode as we live so apart from the flowers, from the sky, from the feeling of rain on our cheeks.
Sometimes I hate that compassion is the tone most easily heard by others. I want to scream or yell or blame because for an instant there is relief. But a second later the pain increases. My child or husband or the person who cuts me off in traffic is further in defense–giving me the bird.
Tonight I was able to see H wrapped in a holey blue towel, her brown hair scraggling damply down her back, tears in her eyes. She was tired. She was hungry. She missed her grandparents. A bath was hard for her tonight. I was able to stay soft. But tomorrow, maybe I won’t be able to. I can’t say. But for right now, I can pause. I can breathe. I can join together with others to work for love and freedom from injustice. It comes down to each moment and each choice. Our lives depend on it.
Please Call Me by My True Names
by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
As we move through the world trying to be happier, healthier, more peaceful people, the number one skill we need to develop is self-awareness. We’ve all heard people say, “Awareness is the first step” and it’s true. How else can we make changes and grow in our lives if we don’t first recognize an unhelpful pattern, belief, or reaction? So what do we do when–in peering inside ourselves–we find we can’t tell the difference between those old patterns/reactions and our Truth?
When you feel nervous getting on an airplane, how do you know if it’s because you have flight anxiety or you’re having some kind of premonition? How do you understand your nervousness after a second date when you don’t feel as excited as you think you “should” feel despite the fact that he or she seems really great?
The longer I do this work, the more I understand that the answer lies below our necks.
Let’s call the unhelpful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings “Projection.” During projection we’re too uncomfortable experiencing the fear at the root of our experience so we blame it on something external. Usually when we’re projecting we’re not very present. We don’t have a lot of awareness of our whole embodied experience. We’re like Talking Heads–only taking in a small percentage of information from the moment. Let me give an example:
Just today I got a call from the head of my son’s childcare center. She wanted to let me know that the stye in my son’s left eye was looking more red than before and she thought I might want to take him to the doctor. I explained that we’d been in touch with his doctor and were told that it would go away by itself with the treatment we were using and she was pleasant as we said goodbye. When I hung up the phone I felt icky and uncomfortable. I was thinking that she felt I wasn’t being a very good parent for not bringing my son to the doctor despite the fact that she’d said no such thing.
In the moment I hung up the phone I was stuck in my head with my projections bouncing around off the sides of my skull. Was that just me being paranoid or did I sense that she was judging me?
Projection might feel like distaste, revulsion, or anxiety. But, then again, intuition might come with those feelings too!
The key to getting more clear on if what you’re experiencing is projection or intuition is getting quiet, going internal, relaxing, soothing yourself, and getting in touch with the felt sense of your experience.
For me, in the example above, this is what I did:
I became aware of my discomfort after a minute or two…for the first couple minutes I’d just been self-consciously uncomfortable but I had a thought “Why do I feel so icky about that conversation?” I took a breath and brought my awareness more fully into my body and I found a subtle feeling of fear. As I stayed with that I realized that it felt much more true that I was nervous about my son’s eye and about possibly being judged than that there was anything really wrong or that I actually had been judged.
This isn’t always easy or clear.
It’s a practice to get to know your own knowing. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Wrinkle in Time, “Don’t try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition.”
Sometimes we need to gather more experiences or information. But we need to live into those experiences and information with our whole selves.
Intuition has a rooted foundation that exists under the static of projection.
Practice getting to that root.