This week’s challenge

A few months ago, I wrote this on a post-it note: “I make the firm intention to keep my commitments to myself.” The commitments included writing this weekly blog, a consistent meditation practice, and a regular yoga class. Things were going well for quite a while but these last two weeks have been difficult. It’s reminded me of that joke, “I was trying to take one day at a time but then the days stared ganging up on me.” Last minute travel to help family required 16 hours in a car, a roller coaster of opportunities for KPCK along with the regular work of planning, preparing, and serving meals, coaching new clients, much to my delight, and the immensely helpful and time-consuming certification process for my coaching program—all things I value and freely chose. I managed them but the list of things I’d also hoped to address grew longer.

Last week, when things started to get hectic, I gave myself permission to post my blog on Thursday instead of Wednesday. My experience with writing has often been marked by anxiety and failure to write so my commitment to a particular day to post was important. Last week’s one-day delay felt like a risk but I didn’t freak out and get stuck in a vortex of self-loathing over it.

This week, I don’t feel busy; I feel overwhelmed by competing demands. And now it’s Friday and I didn’t give myself permission to delay posting this week, I just didn’t write anything I felt good about. I feel that vortex of self-loathing opening up just over my shoulder.

This is the time to lean into self-acceptance but just writing this sentence causes tears to flow as I realize I am angry with myself for being angry with myself. How often I have noticed others doing this same thing and thought, “Oh, that’s no good. We aren’t working on self-acceptance in order to give our ego another reason to thrash us.” Fortunately, just remembering that opens a space inside me and I am watching myself, observing my thoughts and feelings rather than simply identifying with them. Suddenly, my ego’s grip on me loosens and it’s no longer whipping me around like a rag doll. I bring myself back to the present moment, the only one that matters.

Who am I without my reactivity?

My friend Suzanne was at the very beginning of her recovery process when we met. She had a great sponsor and worked the program diligently. We didn’t talk about it much but I’ll never forget something she shared with me. She said, “I’m a funny, creative, outgoing person. But I’ve been drinking since I was a kid, who am I without alcohol?”

I’ve been thinking about Suzanne’s fear of the loss of self a lot lately as I’ve worked on self-acceptance. On the one hand, it’s a very positive, affirming process, one that allows me to see and cultivate my essential self. But just as Suzanne feared that giving up alcohol and drugs might leave her without a personality, I’ve wondered who I am, who I am becoming as I let go of reactivity.

Reactivity is our ego at work, when I identify with my ego and react against what is, against the present moment. Eckhart Tolle writes that when we do this, we treat the present moment, “as a means, an obstacle, or an enemy” and strengthen the ego. For me, this often takes the form of spotting another’s hypocrisy in the midst of interpersonal conflict; it’s also about using my quick, sharp tongue. When I’m playing defense, caught off guard by someone’s criticism (or my assumption that I’m being criticized), in other words, when my ego feels threatened, I’m a formidable verbal opponent.

“What,” Tolle asks, “is reactivity? Becoming addicted to reaction.” And addictions are addictions because they can produce the illusion of pleasure. Beyond my gift for snarkiness, when I think of situations where I’m reactive I picture times when I’ve been able to make quick decisions, address challenges, head off problems. I can be a good person to have around in a stressful situation. And besides, a lot of people laugh at my smart-ass remarks. Of course, if I draw the complete picture, I have to admit that I’ve jumped to a few inaccurate conclusions, stepped in when others were perfectly capable of managing a situation, and added to a general state of negativity. I’ve also hurt others with my clever words. Turns out, I can make a stressful situation more stressful.

Today’s photo is of my friend, FFF. That stands for Fight, Flight, Freeze. I put a holiday bow on FFF because in this season, FFF’s on really high alert. Like many of you, I will spend more time than usual with family and friends, coworkers and neighbors, in crowded stores and on busy streets. Each encounter, each present moment will provide my ego with an opportunity to react—to fight, to flee, or to freeze. I’ll keep FFF in my pocket, a present to myself that reminds me to stay in the present. I don’t know who I am without my reactivity, but in the spirit of my brave friend Suzanne, I’m willing to take the risk finding out.

What’s the story?

I took a writing class a few months ago and the instructor asked us to explain why we were in the course. I told her that I’d had an awful experience writing my dissertation—I took forever to finish it, I nearly lost a job a I loved, my dissertation advisor was unsupportive, I struggled under the weight of that experience, and always associated it with failure. Almost as soon as I sent my tale of woe off, for the first time in the many years since I finished my dissertation, I asked myself this question, “Good God, when do I get to quit telling that story?”

Lately I’ve been reading about longstanding grievances. It’s the wrong someone did to us years ago that our ego hauls out to remind us that we’re special. Although I would prefer to recite the longstanding grievances held by every member of my family, most of my friends, and a wide assortment of strangers I’ve encountered over the years, I realize that won’t actually help me in my pursuit of self acceptance.

The writing class helped loosen the grip of the dissertation story but last August when I wanted to start this blog, I found I was still banging my head against the wall of fear I built around writing. Then I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a new and deeply honest friend. When I told her the dissertation story the emphasis was on my advisor. I told her she’d once written me a letter saying, more or less, “Hey it’s okay. You don’t have to get a Ph.D.” At the time, I had a job that required a Ph.D. so her letter could just as well have said, “Hey, it’s okay to be a failure and to get fired.” My wise friend asked me how my advisor had treated me in the years leading up to the dissertation. I said she’d always had a high opinion of me and thought I produced very good work. I told her we had been close so the letter felt like a betrayal. Ever so gently she asked if it was possible that the letter had been written with good intentions, that my advisor was simply saying what she believed to be true. There was a very long pause. I was stunned to realize that it had never occurred to me that she had any motive other than to hurt me. Once I could see that there was another perfectly reasonable interpretation of my advisor’s motives the story’s hold on me was released.

When I let go of this longstanding grievance, I saw that my attachment to it had eclipsed a story that is more important, one that is alive and present. After I received the letter from my advisor, I told a colleague about it. We hadn’t known each other long but she immediately said, “It’s important to me that you stay here so I’m going to help you finish.” And she did. We met every week for more than a year. She read and reread every word of my dissertation and because of her generosity and commitment I finished. A lifelong friendship, that’s the story.

You are that light

I’ve recently worked up to thirty minutes on a pillow on the floor for meditation. And even more recently, I’ve stopped spending the first ten minutes thinking about my physical discomfort. So one morning last week, I was eager to start and didn’t notice that the lamp behind me was still on.

Well on my way to a quiet mind I heard a small click and noticed a barely perceptible change in the light beyond my closed eyelids. Happily my initial impulse was to ignore both the sound and the changing light but my curious mind got the best of me. I opened my eyes, looked around, and saw the lamp was off. Had I left it on? I flipped the switch. Nothing. I was on my feet flipping light switches. Nothing. Questions filled my mind. Is it the whole neighborhood or just our house? Was it caused by the construction project down the street or is there something wrong with our electricity?

Thinking I would return to the pillow once I had answers, I tried to access the electric company’s website. The site asks for account information. Ours is in my partner’s name but her phone number wasn’t in their system and I couldn’t remember her previous number. Their public site shows an outage map but the information was too general to satisfy me.

By now all thoughts of meditation were gone as I became immersed in busy-ness and counting grievances. I manage the household bills but I didn’t have a job when we moved here so that’s why the utilities are in Laura’s name. That still pisses me off. We’ve got to get that changed but we only think of it when something goes wrong. Like the time I sent the electric bill in almost 10 days late and they turned off the power and I had to wire money to pay it. Had that happened this time? I didn’t think so but the shame of that incident washed over me nevertheless. I went back into the online system and tried to change the password by generating an email to Laura. I sent her a text asking her to check her account. A few minutes later she called to say no email. What address had she used to set up the account? Neither of us remembered. My mind was churning through questions and causes as my frustrations grew.

Fortunately, Laura was done at work and said she was headed home. That information brought me, mercifully, back to the present. I knew I would ruin the rest of my day and hers in my current state of distress. I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my breathing, I reminded myself that we were in no danger, that there was nothing I could do to get the electricity turned on, and that I’m always looking for an excuse to go out to lunch.

This incident returned to me as I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He writes, “You cannot fight against the ego and win just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.”

Confessions of a Saboteur

The Universe is a relentlessly uncooperative negotiation partner. For years I tried to make a deal—I would lead a small life if the Universe would eliminate fear from my experience. But over and over it places amazing people and ideas and opportunities in my path. Naturally, when something wonderful comes my way I get excited, tell my friends, read books, take classes. I talk with people who are doing what I aspire to do, make plans and decisions, and feel thoroughly alive. Obstacles are inevitable and I tackle them with skill and determination. I allow myself to imagine enormous success.

Eventually the voice of the saboteur emerges to thwart the wily Universe. The voice asks if what I’m doing really matters. You know, in the big picture why bother? It tells me that no one in my family has ever succeeded at anything important and it’s unlikely that I’ll be the first. It suggests that my friends’ question, “How’s your work going?” is code for, “Hey, why aren’t you making more progress?” Suddenly even small problems overwhelm me and I wake in the middle of the night feeling a lead weight on my chest. I look at my life and I all I can see are the places where I’ve let myself down.

Experience tells me that giving up now will cause less pain than failing later so I stop following up on plans and commitments, I ignore encouragement and offers of help, and I hide my best ideas in a notebook no one else will ever see.

Why doesn’t the Universe grow bored with my continuous efforts at sabotage and just agreed to my terms? In despair and frustration, I look up antonyms for sabotage to see if they reveal the Universe’s motivation. I find the words faithfulness, devotion, and loyalty. This stops me in my tracks as none of these words describe my relationship to myself. I am not faithful to my own desires. I do not devote myself to my own happiness. I offer no loyalty to my dreams. Too many reasons, too many stories but this sudden awareness of my own lack commitment to myself allows me to face the most uncomfortable question:

Can I forgive myself for fixating on failures so that they dominate me, terrify me, and paralyze me?

With trepidation I offer to change the terms of our negotiation. I’m going to look fear in the face, acknowledge it as it passes through me, and continue on the path of faith, devotion, and loyalty the Universe has set before me.

The mooks in the back of the room

Some semesters it seemed as if the registration gods conspired against her and five or six young men would fill the back row of my friend Karen’s intro to philosophy course. Slouched in their seats, baseball caps pulled low, wearing letter jackets—just the sight of these students propelled Karen back to her student days—these were the jocks who had her treated her love of learning with disdain.

When Karen told me how she felt about these students she called mooks, she was ashamed. Many professors were outstanding students and can be a bit indifferent to all but the best students in their classes. Not Karen. She sees past superficial differences to reach the learner within. But when a group of hulking athletes took over the back row it reduced her to her smallest self and she believed there was no way for her to connect with them.

She wasn’t proud of how she reacted and she knew she couldn’t just stuff her feelings down and move on. She’d tried that and it hadn’t worked.

Karen began an inquiry process when she admitted to herself that she was reacting to these students from her younger self. In accepting this she could finally notice the tension she felt throughout her body, especially in her face when she looked at them. She realized that her arms were often folded across her chest in a gesture of self-protection that also shut off her off from them. She saw that her contempt was written all over her body and even if she doubted their love of learning she knew they were smart enough to feel her dislike. As she made a conscious effort to relax her body, her mind began to follow.

Over time, she came to see them as she saw other students—with openness and compassion for them as individuals. She was no longer surprised or suspicious when they participated in class discussion or performed well on assignments. When they struggled, her compassion for them overcame any lingering doubts about her ability to help them.

Who are your mooks? Who are the people who reduce you to your smallest self? When you see them ask Tara Brach’s perfect question, “What in me is disturbed by this?” When you find the answer, I urge you to act with compassion toward yourself, as that is the first step toward behaving with compassion toward them.

Dropping stitches

My friend Aurelia and I recently learned that we both knit. That’s not entirely accurate. Aurelia is a freestyle knit artist who makes beautiful garments combining patterns and techniques with joy and confidence. I knit row upon row of even stitches and produce scarves. Reading patterns, purling, knitting and then purling these things fill me with dread. My eyes glaze over when I try to learn from knitting books but my bigger problem is that I panic in the face of mistakes. I stare and stare at them and finally rip it all out and start over. If that doesn’t work, demoralized, I give up and shove the piece in a bag.

Whether I’m knitting or meditating or writing, once I have a basic understanding of a practice I experience mistakes with a deep feeling of failure and the conviction that I won’t be able to recover from the setback or worse that I’m simply not capable of succeeding at the task. Is it absolutely true that I have no experience of recovering from mistakes? No. But in the moment of error my experiences of being resourceful and resilient flee my conscious mind.

Aurelia invited me to join the Thursday afternoon knitting group at our local yarn and yoga shop. I took my bag of damaged projects and with a teacher’s soul she went through each item praising my even knit stitches and patiently explaining how to correct problems. The phrase she used several times was “learning to read my knitting.” She taught me how to make sense of each stitch, to understand its function and therefore how to retrace my steps and make it right.

While I continue to struggle in the face of inevitable mistakes, thanks to Aurelia’s kindness, I am learning to read my life as well as my knitting. I notice how I feel in my body—tight chest, clenched stomach. I pay attention to what my mind is doing—racing with fear or withdrawing in defeat. I acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are only trying to protect me. I allow them to move through me and find myself in a calmer place. Panic recedes. Resourcefulness and resilience flow. I pick up my dropped stitches and move on.

What I want

I like to hang out at the intersection of Byron Katie (loving what is) and Marie Kondo (does it spark joy) and instead of always asking myself, “Do I have everything I want?” and I ask, “Do I want everything I have?”

Daily life is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle messages to survey our life, find the gaps, and fill those gaps with stuff—food, sex, clothes, technology, etc. We rarely pay attention to how all that stuff makes us feel. Our stuff—emotional, material, interpersonal, and cultural—is drowning many of us in affluent America.

When Byron Katie talks about loving what she’s challenging us to examine each feeling, emotional entanglement, financial decision, core belief and love it. It’s not enough to tolerate it, or make excuses for its presence in our life, or accept it because it can’t be any other way. No, actually look at it, see it for what it is and love it.

What’s the outcome of loving what is? We don’t know. Outcomes, especially those based on human interaction, are by their nature uncertain. So we don’t love what is because it promises a happy outcome but because it is the only path to a happy present.

What does loving what is look like in daily life? Maybe like Marie Kondo holding a well-folded t-shirt to her chest and asking if it sparks joy. In my own life, I’m doing this with the things I say to myself, my beliefs about myself. “Self-criticism,” I ask, “do you spark joy?” “Hell no,” it says. “That’s not my job. My job is to get you to move your ass and get something done.” Well that’s interesting because I notice (finally!) that all that self-loathing is a piss poor motivator and rarely leads to my best work.

Shopping, binge watching tv, sniping, controlling, and limiting beliefs about myself and others—this is stuff in my life that no longer sparks joy. Because I want to cultivate an attitude of loving what is and of self-acceptance I don’t toss these aspects of myself out with the holey underwear and chipped vases. I seek instead to examine this stuff closely, to understand the role it tried to serve in my life. When it tries to take over my psyche, I acknowledge it and, following Tara Brach’s sage advice, I invite it to tea and feel its grip on me loosen.

Day by day, I am coming to want everything I have.