I’m laying on a heating pad, playing with a contemplative exercise a teacher I regard highly gave to a group years ago. I am one of two people in that group who actually did the exercise I think, much less two or three times.
Each time was revelatory.
It is a surprisingly radical act to consciously do nothing*.
The basics of the exercise are as follows: –Ask yourself the question “How does my life seem to me now?” Then write for five minutes. –Next, *do nothing*, for three to four hours, not even meditate. (My version today will not be this long; we’ll call it a micro-contemplation.) –At the end, you ask yourself the same question. Then write for five minutes.
This can be a kind of ‘state of things’ address to one’s self, although there is no need to answer in an itemized kind of way. The main thing is to experience/compare the way one’s mind behaves with less or more spaciousness. Today is a perfect day for something like this, as it’s breezy and cool outside, George is content to be a foot warmer, and I’ve been staving off anxiety.
*leaving aside the question of whether this kind of doing nothing is actually doing nothing. It is closer to doing nothing that what one normally does, hahaha
A little loop of synchronicity as I skimmed through blog posts all the way back to the beginning, surprised to find that I’d started where I find myself again right now: reading Time Space and Knowledge.
When I began this blog, I was at Exercise 17, while I’m almost to 14 now, working my way through. I was thinking of commenting on some of the readings in a more disciplined, systematic way, then linking to these comments in discussions, but I’m wondering if I want to share this blog with more people I know. Should I take this little coincidence as a sign, or write it off since there are three exercises between, making it not a perfect signal? 😉
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.
—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (Gardners Books; Main edition, April 30, 2001) Originally published 1943.”
Recently, I’ve taken up practices associated with a book I’ve long been interested in, Time Space Knowledge (Tarthang Tulku).
This happens every few years, that I begin anew with the book as though opening up forgotten passageways between ‘my’ world and a sometimes hidden place… not as an act of will but as though there is a knock from the other side, letting me know visitors are arriving.
TSK is not what most call an accessible book; the language is particular and rooted deeply in eastern wisdom traditions and histories not actively explained within the text, while also being written in a rather philosophical western voice. I don’t think this is meant to exclude, but rather to allow in anyone who can ‘arrive without traveling’, whether they have studied contemplatively for decades, or not at all. That the text draws one in at all means something about capacity to travel the course.
There’s an immediate expansiveness I encounter when considering the book. Slight shifts of attention this way or that open incredible vistas beyond what I might have imagined before entering. The phrase ‘focal settings’ is used often in the text, which has become less visual and more of a whole embodiment over time. I try to grasp it less than I did at the beginning, let the book take the reins.
There is also the theme of levels, which is perhaps meant to help one recognize when they;re leaning on less or more effective sources of energy. One must drop agendas and receptively be… appreciatively, playfully, to have a chance at glimpsing… what. Well, I can’t say. My suspicion is that this is about, as my title suggests, waking from the dream of time— not merely by experiencing flow states, but actively inviting timeless ways of reality in the so-called every day. No waiting for the knock.
I’m heading back into Buddhist study after a period of necessarily letting some air out of my practice. By which I mean, I think there are times in which it is impossible to take in too much learning, but then there are times to see what is actually draw-from-able in an active way. What is left, without props or teachers? What is genuine? What is true?
Amanda Palmer described the concept of inhale years and exhale years (at least I first heard the idea from her), and what I’ve done is a bit similar. The inhale/exhale pattern is meant to let one off the hook of trying to be all things all the time; as a creative, you try spending a year-ish focused inwardly, ‘making’, then a year (times approximate of course) outwardly promoting what you came up with. Make sense?
Well, what I did, was to fling myself outward into the world. I let go of reading and listening to audios constantly, of parsing and pursuing and trying to understand or prove myself a worthy student. I let go of anyone I seemed to be forcibly holding onto and said “Let’s see.” In Play-as-Being terms it might be a somewhat radical version of “drop what you have, to see what you are.”
It has been messy and contradictory and… grounding. I could almost call it a year without (leaning on) miracles.
Emerging from this time, I realize it has been a deconstruction quite similar to another I underwent when I left Christianity, or at least the Christian church, back in the early nineties–but this time not due to disillusionment. Back then, there was an enormous difference between the faith-life which came up in my writing, prayer and private study, and the faith I was being taught to have within systems. My faith was loving and intimate, intellectually interesting, joyful even as it was excruciating in a kind of desperate longing, but none of that had place in the male-centered church; none of that seemed to make sense to elders no matter how much they touted ‘personal relationship with God’ on stage. Curiosity was continually shut down.
It was terrifying to step out of at the time, but seeing what has happened to the churches of my childhood (the extent to which they were openly primarily political entities was much less obvious or acceptable then), I’ve never not been thankful to have gotten out, smuggling along with me some of the innocence of that personal connection/intimate sense of what faith could be.
I think it has been beneficial to my Buddhist practice, where Buddhist teachers can lean things a bit too far the other way, mistaking intimate personal devotion with dreaded attachment.
Faith in Eastern traditions is quite different from the way it is taught in the West. The first website I pull up describes it thus: ” Shraddha means faith. Faith is needed when you have found the limit of your knowing. You know something this far, and you don’t know anything beyond that.Your willingness to know the unknown is shraddha, is faith.” It isn’t different from the way faith is described as a “substance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” in the Christian Bible, but by the time it filters through institutions it is usually depersonalized, made collective by demands to make ‘statements’ or ‘shows’ of faith, for instance.
Depersonalized, faith becomes the opposite of the kind of active belief I wrote about yesterday.
One story I find exemplifies substantive faith for me is actually a Biblical one: The Woman with the Issue of Blood. Without heading for the scripture nor quoting entirely, there is an ill woman who follows Jesus as he makes his way through town. She can’t reach him because the crowds are intense, having heard of the miracles that happen around him. You can imagine them kicking up dust and clamoring to be heard, seen, making requests. In fact it is easy to imagine these days because of fandom cultures! Imagine that the people had cameras then, Instagram!
But the woman persisted; her sense was to make any connection whatsoever. Once she caught up, she was able to reach her arm through the crowd and just touch him, or not even him, his robe. Jesus stops! He stops because he tangibly feels power drawn. Although it is tempting to say that she had great faith which met with great power, and that’s how the story is often told, I actually think there is a Mahakasyapa type recognition here… openness meeting openness. It is an exchange, what in buddhist terms one might call a transmission.
I also like this story because I once had an experience while in meditation with it. I vividly imagined myself to be the woman reaching out for that garment hem, only for the vision to flip. I found myself to be the one with the hem! It startled me so terribly at the time that I jumped up and walked around, frightened to offend my then idea of God. It has taken me so many Buddhist stories to begin to comprehend what the vision showed me, pointing at non-duality.
I have learned something uncomfortable-but-transformative about my capacity to be a friend this week.
It is this: I don’t believe enough.
I’m fortunate to know many expressive people, some of whom are successful at enacting their dreams and visions in the world, most in less sure stages of development. There are people so clear about their abilities, and confident about their gifts, that one doesn’t question whether they’ll be able to pursue most of their interests and connections freely. And there are people endowed with such loving support around them that at the very least it is easy to see them as less encumbered, with a bit of a head start to snowball faster. If one of these friends tells me about their plans to write a book or to develop a podcast, etc., there’s no hindrance to my celebrating with them, adding my openness energy (I know, funny term, but it says what I mean!) to theirs.
But then there are the other friends who, knowing my editing work or general appreciation for creatives, tell me they’ve thought of writing, or what-have-you. I’ve always believed myself to be a supportive friend to them. Isn’t my availability for feedback and offering positive response outwardly, support? It isn’t. Therapy has helped me become far more aware of a critical voice in my mind which up to now I’ve thought was reserved for myself. I’ve seen myself as encouraging of others, even as giving what I do not yet have.
I flashed back to a conversation with a friend several years ago, who expressed that someone thought her young life camping in the Everglades with her dad would make a good story. I agreed that it would, but inwardly, felt she wouldn’t be up to it. Her education level was relatively low, and her interest in things like grammar and spelling were not great, so a quick calculation landed me with the general feeling that this couldn’t happen.
But you know what? It could have. What it might have taken would have been, if it was more than a passing interest, someone–a friend like me– to help her get the stories out in at least a draft. There were no limits on the type of book she might write; who knows what form would have appeared once she began? I didn’t say anything discouraging, and actually was quite encouraging at the time, but was my energy in that support? It couldn’t have been, because I didn’t really believe in her. I had a notion of what her level was. In my mind, she was still someone I, a horrible Math student myself, had tutored way back in 8th grade.
I could feel quite badly about this, and l do see how it is a pattern not just with this friend but in many relationships, but the truth is that these are quite normal inner obstacles. Objectivity can also be support at times.
However, what hit me today is that nothing I thought, was true enough to keep the ceiling so low. None of those factors mattered as much as they seemed to at the time. AND THIS IS TRUE FOR MYSELF AS WELL. If I was hesitant to face my limitations when it came to supporting this friend, I have been terrified to face the way I have talked to myself, bullied myself, taken on the mantle passed down in my family of “Don’t set your hopes too high”, when the truth is, none of us has any idea what is possible… not for ourselves nor each other.
We do not know.
I’ve had experiences of shared openness which should have convinced me long ago of the empowerment we might way more easily offer, and the wonderful effects that might have for the world should we tap deeper into completely available resources. Sometimes seeing a pattern is all it takes to melt it away. What kind of awesome friend, then could I be, even to me?
I had an insight about the end of my marriage recently, while musing with notions of sexuality and gender in a way I wouldn’t have before this year: iI realized that when my then husband became a father, he suppressed feminine aspects. A playful and flirty man who could be flexible and gentle, creatively communicative, almost entirely disappeared, leaving me craving a very particular kind of warmth and closeness.
The insight makes sense in the context of the spiritual traditions I’m most drawn to, where deities have feminine, masculine, yib-yam aspects and expressions (sometimes in play at once). But even though I’ve long been interested in identity fluidity, with my work allowing me a fairly deep exploration into such, somehow I hadn’t shined this particular light into my own relationship dynamics long enough for it to begin to open up to me more.
It seems so clear now that when he stepped into role of ‘father’, which for him contained a lot of gravitas and pressure, he cut attention off from a particular kind of consciousness which had begun to develop and even flower previously. Rigidity clicked into gear, as though an inevitable and irreversible exchange had to be made. I remember having a dream then, in which he was situating a male doll, playing out a very limited range of what “father” meant (suit, tie, briefcase), so I guess I’ve been musing with this a long time. The part I didn’t see before is what that change in him, meant for me, although I calculated some of what it cost my kids and the family on the whole.
Getting married changed balances in my friendships, as it often does for women. Petty shows of possessiveness and antagonisms had created a less than friendly environment for ‘outsiders’, which I let happen, because I think there was something in our then dynamic that almost did replace my desire to seek that sort of connection elsewhere. I didn’t register how much I was giving away. That hit later, when I looked around and saw that my connections were actually his connections, and that my range of acceptable exploration, even in conversation, had become quite small.
In one key moment I called a friend, specifically asking we meet not as anyone’s wives or mothers, just (using our names) she and I. After driving an hour and settling in at the restaurant, I tried to have a direct conversation in the moment together, only to be pulled over and over again into a default ‘friendly rival’ sort of machinery around kids’ school dynamics. I remember this feeling so clearly. It was like being trapped inside a not-at-all-fun fun house, desperately pushing to find true openings.
Mind you, it wasn’t about this friend, or about the characters in the neighborhood cul-de-sac whose gossip began to seem more than benign (downright nasty at times), or about the intrusiveness of domineering family members. It was me: I couldn’t help but begin to set limits I hadn’t set before, define boundaries, try to make room. I still held out hope then, that he and I would meet the challenge together, but I definitely wanted out of the game.
I wonder now what might have happened if I could have articulated it all in these terms then, drawn attention to what he was losing too. I knew what his increasing–I’ll call them bullying–behaviors were costing, but never made the case for another way we could consciously forge ahead together, or not well. Maybe I fool myself to think that might have worked. Probably neither of us could have navigated these waters, because we hadn’t unlocked this level yet. Maybe we could have changed the game instead. I believe that’s what the current generation is determined to do.
One of the primary ways Eastern thought has been liberating to me is in contrasting rigid dualistic thinking with more awareness of interconnection. An emphasis on certain roles had place for a time (becoming a mother was certainly an intense feminine experience), but needed to keep breathing, which makes perfect sense in a context of say, Taoism, where yinyang (one term, really, not two) is about flow, or Buddhism’s dependent co-arising. It isn’t about a stark dualism of good and bad, male and female, earth and sky, up and down, but rather the interplay of forces… masculine and feminine, strong and weak forces, etc. Really knowing life this way can’t help but this shake up the dualistic world.
I’ve written about “pronouns” before, and my admiration for the way the current generation is exploring gender with ‘house on fire’ fervor, but I’m not sure I’ve really connected it with my own experience in direct ways.
I’ve noticed that it isn’t just ‘this generation’ having these revelations, but for instance my TikTok feed is full of women roughly my age, seeing their sexuality in ways they hadn’t fathomed before. The joke is that TikTok itself is “turning women gay”, but I think we’re just redefining what it is OK to see. If I’m attracted to somewhat feminine men (something one of my children pointed out to me about fictional characters I’m drawn to), that’s an interesting pattern to notice. Actively looking for the feminine in men, the masculine in women, letting non-binary express what it means individually and spontaneously ~ what an interesting world!
In terms of gender, believing in fixed identity means “I am __” and pinning others to the same kinds of declarations. Many people have never considered this a kind of belief because it is the water we’ve grown up swimming in… a sorting hat we have to encounter as we come into the world. It still seems a side-issue to many, but I’m becoming convinced the question is fundamental.
I’ve finally reached the point in therapy where we talk about present challenges. Although up to now there has been present application, such as talking about work life and not allowing mental “issues” to undo or undermine present intentions, almost always we end up back with childhood conditioning and trauma. We mostly acknowledge those things, allow air to circulate, pay attention to the way I may be speaking to myself about it all. I get to hear and let myself be heard.
Sometimes my therapist yawns, and that’s okay, in fact I like that. If we were friends camping outside under the stars having an intimate conversation, we’d be yawning too. After a while I tell the stories I’ve been most afraid to because 1) who would believe them, 2) who would care, and 3) how will I recover if I let that out now?
Usually I’m instructed to write about things if I can (my therapist is a writer, too), which in my case is a very good thing. The goals I brought to therapy this round? 1) to handle my mother’s rejection and abandonment of me after my grandfather died, 2) to be able to write (really write) in a connected way, again.
If you’ve ever seen the magnificent film Spirited Away, there is a scene in which a putrid spirit no one wants to deal with arrives at the bathhouse, and therapy sessions are like that. Whereas in the film the spirit can be dealt with fairly quickly, in therapy it may take years (and years). The issue may introduce itself right at the end of a session about some light thing, then not be seen again for a while.
But one day, if you’re very patient and gentle, and if everything aligns just right, you nudge and something loosens… the most astounding thing!
If you’ve ever experienced this, you know. And you know that just like in the film, there are treasures in the wake of such catharsis. In the case of the film, the spirit who is released is a River Spirit and protector of a polluted water way that needs to flow again for the sake of everyone around!
Once able to begin integrating the release which happens, that returning to true form/re-set a good therapist can midwife, there’s a feeling of competency that might have been illusive before. “I can bear to tend to my present life in a more active way!”
My intuition about what’s to come is that the process won’t be much different, although of course I can’t really know. I do know that the conversation we began this week felt CURRENT, as though we’ve been promoted to working with advanced AI rather than repairing rotary phones.
There are some topics I’ll begin to explore more openly and write about now, having to do with the gender spectrum and sexuality, parenting and growing old, but mostly the idea is to relax a bit and explore ‘whatever’ in an authentic fear-free way.
My goodness, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve written here! Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t mean to drop the blog altogether. Whisper: I’ve written a journal which amounts to a small book in that time (roughly 50,000 words now), mischievously titled How to be Estranged. I may share pieces of it here going forward, but we’ll see. Merely giving it that title set me in the right mindset to do it… a mindset not at all ambitious, which I want to preserve.
In the same vein, I’ve made an outline for an Introverts’ Planner. 🙂 Or, well, I’ve played with the idea. My thinking was this: that as someone who loves planners but finds many themes a bit much, it might be nice to have a wu wei-ish one. Some would think the very idea of a planner disagrees with no effort, but not me. Wu wei is more about the way you do the things you do.
I’ve also taken some strolls,
and cooked a few fantastic meals, like this Rainbow Jeon, from The Korean Vegan.
Having drained my storehouse of podcasts while home during peak pandemic, I went searching and remembered Buddhist Geeks, a modern, techie philosophical podcast I let drop years ago, in favor of a more Vajrayana focus. They’re still going, talking about psychedelics a lot (which many seem to be doing, almost as much as bitcoin), but what I was drawn to was aspecific episode with Ken Wilbur.
I hadn’t remembered about Wilbur, that his teaching is specifically about integration. He doesn’t discourage traditional therapy as many do because there are countless examples of indeed ‘enlightened’ figures who we might characterize as having gotten into ‘moral shadow’ trouble. Everything else but the spiritual cannot be considered banal.
So Wilbur describes what he calls a Fourth Turning, working with the idea of the three turnings of the wheel of the dharma.I actually like this idea, because each turning was misinterpreted at first as being in conflict with, if not undoing entirely, the teaching before, ie. “what is poison at one level is medicine at another.” Over time, we see that contrast instigates growth.
In his fourth turning, rather than turning away from “the world” or samsara, we face and embrace shadow as witness and important, if not exactly a spiritual friend.