Once, I killed a mosquito in a dream. I woke feeling fearfully responsible, puzzled I could do such harm (it felt quite serious) even when (especially when) unconscious, even when there was no choice in the matter at all. In my waking life, I try not to kill flies or mosquitos, but what occurred in the dream got down into to a response I couldn’t slow down enough to navigate, couldn’t catch in time.
Like so much in life.
It frightened me for quite a while, that neither will nor cultivated awareness made much difference to my action, outside of allowing me to examine.
Mind you, it isn’t that I have a belief around not killing a fly or mosquito. Rather I was haunted by the sense that no matter how much effort put in, I might not reach deeply enough into the foundational operating system to ‘actually’ turn my response toward generosity or ahimsa (do no harm) in a way I could relax with, could trust.
I suppose it is the trolley question: when someone else acts heroically in a sudden emergency, one wonders what they themselves would do. Many people are pretty sure they’d enact consciously chosen values, but I’m not. I’m not sure self-preservation wouldn’t win out.
I began Vajrayana practices with this kind of (hidden) karma in mind.
Some years later, a hint came across my path, a master who wrote [paraphrasing]: You can kill anything if it doesn’t weigh on your mind, but if it does, even a mosquito can cause great trouble.
When I came out of my first stint in therapy, I had the sense it had been a mere stepping stone to the higher way of meditation I’d begun practicing there. Whereas therapy would leave me drained and sad a lot of the time, contemplative study elevated my outlook and stirred innate playfulness. I laughed more, felt as though everything ordered itself into a friendlier context. There was ENOUGH of ‘whatever was needed’ to greet ‘whatever happened’. However, I can see now that although more attentive, simultaneously sharper and more open, in many ways I continued to bypass hard decisions, drunk with some feeling of permission to skip over the mundane.
Second-arrow is a concept sometimes used to illustrate the way we all experience pain in our lives, but then also suffering, as added on to that pain by our interpretations, blame and praise. The general idea is that when we’re hit with an arrow, it’s painful. However, we can learn to, right at that moment, become aware enough to respond with/to the second arrow, even dodge it altogether.
Much of the work I do in therapy is about this: “Yes, this happened, but why do you think it is your fault? “Could you actually have done something about that?” “What about what is happening now?”
The first arrow can make us more aware of our surroundings and our coordinates within them. A path of expanded perception may appear, lighting up possibilities. “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind are few.”
Perhaps therapy just helps slow everything down.
Many of us sustained injuries way before we encountered coping skills. We have wounds we walk on and hide, to greater and lesser degrees of success… wounds we couldn’t have addressed properly before. Deeper avoidance patterns may require outside help, just as persistent pain in a shoulder may warrant the care of a physical therapist. It can be hard to know what can or should be addressed logically vs. given the cosmic perspective treatment.
In my case, I benefit from a therapist’s trained eye to parse between first and second arrows… what treatment will benefit versus what I can work with, or around, with the aim of fewer friendly fires. 🙂 It is from a place of compassion that I do this, and an optimism I’m not sure there would be, if not for spaciousness developed in meditation. It does make a difference that therapists I’ve worked with have been contemplative people who comprehend and value devotion.
A note stuck to my computer reads, “I hope you’re well, and that the new year will be kind to you.”
It’s a line that seems personal, as though taken from a longer letter, but was pulled from a 2010 workshop chat log at the start of 2020, when I needed to remember the feeling of being seen and guided, rooted to a less society-bound vision, less swept up in the struggles of the day.
In 2010, the US was a few years into the Obama presidency, and I was newly involved with work meaningful to me on a surface level and to a higher contemplative aspiration. I was beginning to execute decisions I’d been frightened to make, having a heightened experience overall. A smooth stone in a gushing stream, this voice held steady kindness, reminding me that whatever else was going on, the eye-on-the-ball was whether I was becoming kind and present in the midst of it all, or not.
It eased my heart, then and now.
Sadly, there are many estrangements in my life, but also tremendous, enduring, even while subtle, encounters… dreams endlessly becoming persons and situations and dreams again. Not much seems meant fit into my life in a finite way.
Sometimes, when I can find an edge of that and settle into it with appreciation, without trying to pin relationship down to definition, a vast and glowing field appears.
I am walking from ‘the house’ toward the front gate on familiar chipped square tiles. I encounter three ferociously barking rottweilers. They are to the right of the path, in the part of the yard where one of the avocado trees rains down the largest leaves. I feel afraid. I wake. —–
I am walking from the house toward the front gate. The light feels different, brighter. I look to the right, and the dogs aren’t there. Maybe they are somewhere else. I’m surprised. I wake. —–
I am walking toward the gate, and the dogs aren’t there. I keep walking. I am noticing more details, more color as I reach the gate. It is not right on its hinges so I lift up the gate itself as I open and lift the handle, and walk through.So tangible.I keep going, out into the street, surprised not to be stopped, where there are three huskies laying around in the road. I look at each of them and see that two are sleeping, but one is wide awake. I look into his eyes – startling blue; they are my son’s. —–
The first part of the dream above stagnantly recurred for years before I sought out therapy. And then during that process, began moving into its other progressions.
It stopped when I knew what it was saying… what was trying to make its way through to my psyche: the three huskies were my children, my life now. The hell-hounds were behind me.
I was free to go, but didn’t know.
I experienced a lot of peace after that, and a level of stability that supported a great deal of forgiveness, as though a huge deposit had been made into my emotional account. I’d honored my own story and voice, therefore didn’t need to be understood as much. By making place for it somewhere it wouldn’t hurt anyone else, exposing it to the light, the fear had found correct proportion.
I’m not sure people can forgive by acts of will, but forgiveness is definitely possible.
I’ve been sharing some ways I productively deal with restless feelings lately. It has been amazing how much energy there seems to channel! What I haven’t talked about directly though, is the relentless nighttime anxiety I’ve been experiencing since early last year. I wasn’t sure how to grip the subject, mainly because I hadn’t thought of it like a recurring dream, nor compared it to the example above–until this week.
I also remembered sleep paralysis as a teen. Any kind of dream would lead to being/feeling choked while trying to scream… not able to use my voice. Or, I would half-wake feeling as though I were outside my body and couldn’t get back in. Others who have had these experiences describe hallucinations, actual figures that seem to be in the room on that sleep/wake boundary.
There wasn’t too much information then (there is A LOT now, and a researcher friend helped to fill fascinating gaps in my knowledge), but while feverishly reading self-help books in the library, trying to get a hold on what was happening, I did become enamored with Carl Jung, relating to the hidden layers of meaning and symbology he described.
SO, what is happening now is similar to sleep paralysis: I wake at some point almost every night, in tears or argument. First thing in the morning this greets me too, until I shake off things, memories mostly, that I thought I came to terms with before.
A lot of it is physical. The science-y part of me breaks it down this way:
There is a history of panic attacks in my family.
There is a history of barely traceable hypoglycemia as well, which leads to drops in blood sugar during the night, affecting sleep and dreams.
I am in a key age range for hormonal changes, similar to puberty.
Even before some recently upsetting events, I was having work anxiety I couldn’t shake, catastrophizing and exaggerating faults; the anxiety has just switched what it is clinging to.
* Therefore, one part of my hypothesis is that I need to have some blood work done, see what is off kilter, and fix it.
But as anyone who has experienced these things knows, what the nightmarish phenomenon roots into can also reveal a lot about what one is not facing. Not continuing to ignore … taking the content coming to the surface as a sign it is ready to work with, may yield rewards.
I’ve reached out and have made an appointment with a therapist.
Good for me.
And good for you, doing so too, if you recognize yourself in anything I’ve written here, which may spark deeper inquiry.
As you see, bolder formatting is temporarily gone from this site. I’ve stripped it down while making changes, but also to symbolize my current state.
In meditation this morning, the theme of faith arose. Unkind thoughts were present – an argument I’ve been having with someone for as long as I can remember… feelings of injustice, betrayal, silencing. But, rather than get deeper into the argument, I could see how it had affected my trust levels in relationships, and how much of ‘me’ it had defined.
I would say, “I’d let it define”, but that wouldn’t be accurate. It is more like, my quest to resolve or escape it has, both knowingly and unknowingly, defined key interpretations.
As can happen in meditation, I could experience the argument as an object of attention, one of various, a wheel spinning off in the corner somewhere, bigger or smaller, taking up more or less space. And I could ask, “Help me let this go.”
Who was I asking? Who was the I, asking? Worthwhile questions, but distractions in this context, because more important is the asking itself and the imagining… the feeling of the possibility of that wheel no longer spinning so fast, defining so much.
I think this imagining, at the point at which ‘I’ runs out, or intersects, is faith, and where across religious/spiritual disciplines and schools of thought, there may mustard seed sized agreement. It is a bit like a blank slate itself.
I’ve been rather (overly?) ‘thought’ful in my writing here of late. So much has been on my mind that I’m not sure whether or how to talk about, and until I am sure, I’ve decided to try to work it out in other ways.
Retail work has been the most surprising of those ways… getting on a train I don’t step off of for hours, setting aside worries and all other options/choices. Goodbye, scrolling Twitter until I think, “What time is it?”, Goodbye, “looking for something to watch on TV.” After having a flexible schedule for many years, this structure feels incredibly freeing to me, comforting in the way I imagine weighted blankets are comforting to people who liked to be tucked in at night as children (not me – I always needed a leg or at least foot outside of my blanket).
Choiceless, in a good way.
I’m fairly suited to the kind of work I’m doing, thankfully, at least in most ways, on most days. I can get the sort of ‘hit’ of feelings of youth that I imagine some people get from watching a sport they played in high school.
With this one decision (and the company’s decision to hire me), I solved at least three big puzzles that were fast becoming problems prior: weight gain (I’ve lost 8 lbs. so far and hit my 10,000 steps mark almost every day); eye-to-eye starvation (Most of my daily conversations had become typed or mitigated by social media, which is way too comfortable a zone for me, not being especially verbal); and, putting my ethics into practice.
That last one is hugely important, so let me elaborate…
In the Taoist ox-herding tale, there is seeking and striving up the mountain, and a time of retreat that can look like one has finally arrived. My spiritual life–alongside, but sometimes consuming, the rest–has been a mix of those modes: lots of (almost constant) study, retreat, giving up whatever seemed in the way of devotion–‘working’ to trust the flow and truth of insight and intuition. To that end, unimaginally wonderful friends and teachers have appeared all over the mountain as I’ve wandered … people deeper and happier than any I’d before encountered, sharing similar longings and a language of play-beyond-words… celebrating the enoughness of ‘what is’.
Finding these places, these people, has often felt like validation of my deepest needs and calling, and of course, one would want to stay… would want to do whatever it took to stay, including bring others along. On the mountain I learned of a million bright and open eyes, countless ways of seeing and being seen, and how to find thin places where distance, manipulations and lies, have no meaning at all, present no barrier (“How can a mantis block the road?”).
Yes, like visiting Heaven, or, more comfortable imagery for me: a land of Buddha fields.
As I traveled though, I always suspected there might come a time when my go-to’s would no longer work… when I wouldn’t be able to retreat and study myself into a blissful mind palace state of grace over and over again. Truth be told, as much as I have loved and desired that, I have also wanted to be drawn from… to serve… to pour myself out completely so that I could really rest, “one day.”
And lately, I simply show up to meet the moment. I don’t control where I am or who I encounter, for hours of most days, and often can’t fully classify a good day from a bad. I am ‘snapped out’ of my story-telling and ruminating, over and over again until that movement works its way into my body, giving my mind to whatever the apparent situation may draw out. It isn’t exactly that I’ve come down from the mountain nor left the quest behind, but that all those books and sutras and sessions and endless audios have become a kind of inward architecture… more perhaps, Rumi’s Guest House.
“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
(Coleman Barks translation)
There may be a shift here, from reading to being read, which I like to think may be a true culmination of practice, moving into living lucidly, spontaneously as true default… inhabiting a certain quality of mind. I’m still a little concerned I’ve managed to find just a new way of avoidance, but it seems to be where/how the aliveness has moved, sweeping me into a new phase of exploration.
I even feel some of that here, coming back to my fingers. Dare I hope?
And dare I hope that just situating myself where Life seems to want me, might also matter to ‘the world’ – a ‘coming back’ gesture of belief in Basic Goodness… a better collaboration?
The 16 year old car I’ve been sharing with my son has had it… its very latest expression of resistance being the driver’s side door, which only closes after a 5-part dance of pray, jiggle, shake, pull, and slam. This, on top of the finicky gas reader, the loud whistle just slightly different from the one we’re used to, and the crackled melting seats. The time to let go is now–yesterday actually–but I’ve been hesitating.
For most of my childhood, my grandfather owned an auto body shop. Occasionally, we’d drive up to see him work and help clean up… a frustrating visit for a child outside of going to a restaurant at some point because there weren’t many safe places to play.
There were, however, interesting things about: typewriters, rolling stools, and calculators which made receipts. In later years he lived right there behind his shop in the air-stream trailer he and I traveled in to see my Great-grandfather for what would be the last time. That trailer was in much better condition than most of the the cars and boats he endlessly traded and tinkered with.
Once, he tried to talk me into turning an air boat–the kind that glide through the Everglades–into a houseboat!
It was just the sort of project to lodge in his mind as a next big thing, alongside hydroponics gardening and online stock trading– things which for months or years he would beat the drum about, hoping someone in the family would seize and run with the idea.
He was right about computers though, encouraging what he saw me go toward naturally when given one, although he could be impatient about my bearing (real) fruit (money) in some way.
He always thought I should start a blog, but not like this one. See the fruit factor, above. 😉
He liked to work as though getting away with something. Whether intricate work like watchmaking and sewing, or larger-scale mechanics and real estate, very little seemed all the way right. Yet, in that not-quite-right-ness was a choice he was consciously making … a rebellious streak.
I‘m a little like that too. 🙂
Unlike me however, my grandfather believed in formulas, and in sayings, such as “There are only two reasons people do things: fear of loss, or expectancy of gain.” I couldn’t glom on to this, nor most of his formulas actually, no matter how oft repeated. I would think, “That’s a problem, if true.” After he’d driven away though, I would ask myself whether some of his formulas, especially about motivations, were true of me, and determine that they not be. In an upside-down sort of way, they often became great advice
We worried about him a lot in the last years. We worried when he insisted on driving the bartered cars up and down the coast, often breaking down at least once between one point and the next. We worried that he thought rest stops were good places for naps; he felt that by looking as though he had nothing, he was safe. It was because of his own serious need of towing service that he always kept an AAA membership, adding my name to make sure I would never be stranded.
I feel a little stranded, now.
Which is what tipped the scales today… got me thinking too deeply. Because of the state my car is in, I signed myself up for AAA this morning, then spent the rest of the day trying to shake deep and unreasonable anger… some at him, for worrying us with his maddening ways of thinking and infuriating priorities. And then, for going on before everything could make sense for the family, so that we might mourn his passing together without the second-arrow-suffering so common as to be cliche’.
Suffice it to say we haven’t escaped that.
The membership was a little thing, but represented so much. When I received email confirmation for the account, my first thought, bizarrely, was, “His mercy endures forever.” I’d renewed this for myself, but in his name, in a way…
After all, it was my grandfather who taught me to drive, in a tiny Chevrolet he stored for a man who lived in another state. I practiced for hours, circling cones he picked up somewhere and placed around the bowling alley parking lot across from the shop. He also taught me to play tennis, to fish, to drive a boat. The very first time I saw a cruise ship was from his boat… one which seemed so large to me just a moment before.
I’m thankful I got the chance to express my appreciation to him directly many times, but I’m thankful for other, difficult things, too. He could mostly handle having honest conversations about things we clashed about, because if a discussion became too heated, we’d both stop rather than risk deeply hurting (or god-forbid losing) the other.
Not everyone can do that. My mother and I could not.
As to why I have avoided changing cars like the plague, aside from it being better for the environment not to constantly upgrade…It is a feeling that just has so much baggage for me: fear of being fed bad advice, vulnerability at the mercy of others to follow through at their end in a trustworthy way.
Although through meditation practices and commitment to examined living/examined mind, it is possible to live with a great degree of open-awareness, nothing quite shows up ‘who you are’ like loss does. Thus I’ve found losing my grandfather to be a place of deep vulnerability, more like an inverted mountaintop than one offering some great perspective – a stripping away rather than any gaining of insight.
Even having ample time for preparation and reflection, I was just so unprepared for how alone I would feel each time I remember he’s gone.
Some heartbreak is due to the way my small family has handled things, in essence closing me (and my children) out of the process, not necessarily out of maliciousness, but their own pain and exhaustion. Most of it is simply the childish wish that things (“everything from all time”) could have gone differently had I just been more this that or the other. There was so much he wouldn’t let anyone do for him, so many ways in which his independence and stubbornness set the stage for confused reading of intentions, for fragmentation.
Yet I always knew that he loved me, and that he would be there for me if I were really in need. I suppose growing up often means losing ‘that person’. So many great books have this theme of transformation post hollowing out.
But may I say, I’m tired of transforming…
And when I look around, I don’t see others called upon to ‘transform’ quite so much…
So what can I do. I’ll turn my heart toward conscious appreciation… for the way I got to witness and be part of his having a kind of second wind at the end, going out with and leaning on friends, smiling more than I’d seem him do in a very long time. He learned to easily say “I love you” after withholding that phrase for most of his life, and to listen to the whole sentence when someone said “I love you”, to him.
I think that he was able to survey the whole of his journey at some point too, that the end result was a life in which he had provided foundation and rescue for 3 generations of our too often struggling family… a life where he had, however unsteadily at times, ‘been there’ in ways only he could have been.
I keep waiting for him to show that he’s still there in some way. The day of his passing I felt the strange ‘off page’ sensation of a conversation, of permission asked, of the need to say a blessing. I wrote what amounted to a prayer, that he would experience forever the freedom and joy of knowing… complete ease. Other things. It was less than an hour between my pouring my heart out, of gesturing that I could let him go, and the text my mother sent of his passing. (Yes: text.)
Since then I’ve kept myself so busy, and my body so full, that I’ve been able to mostly squash down the sadness, except on those nights when I wake up with tears streaming down my face… except when I encounter someone else who has just experienced a loss and our losses bump into one another… except when, like today, I determine to let the feelings flow wherever they will.
Actually, I’m able to write a little today thanks to a quiet moment I found while scrolling Instagram and sipping coffee during a beautiful sunrise. George the dachshund settled in on my legs and fell asleep so heavily that I couldn’t bring myself to shove him off, so I scrolled, and mused, sometimes gazing at the white gauzy curtains that resemble those from my childhood.
I remembered vividly, once as a teen, having a hard time trying to change myself/my life. My grandfather pointed to the oak tree outside the living room window of our house in South Miami and told me how he’d seen it grow from a small shallowly-rooted tree that could hardly withstand a summer storm, into a deeply rooted tree that withstood strong hurricanes.
My mother ridiculed me for telling the story that way, tried to tell a different story about the tree to supplant what he’d said. Until he died I never knew how much she resented his care of me, though I realized she didn’t share that. Back in that moment, his story gave me comfort beyond anything else he might have said, because the example was so tangible. So it didn’t really matter to me whether it was true or not.
It still doesn’t.
Sometimes, lately, I feel like I’m back there again. The tree isn’t in quite the shape he promised it would be… needs some tending to become a better shelter.
A family of cardinals has been visiting the little second-story balcony of our rented apartment since February. Only one wears the bright red that clearly signifies *cardinal*, with the other three more brown-toned, often fluffed and lively in their chattering. One of the brown-toned cardinals sports bits of orange too, as though going through a protracted transition phase. I can watch them for hours on end, delighted.
Setting out seeds and creating a rather lush space filled with plants and places for them to perch on has attracted a lot of my attention over these months, along with blue jays, doves, and mockingbirds into the space. An especially daredevil black and white cat whose whiskers frame his face into a quite pompous expression also finds his way up high, lounges about, observes the goings on below. I’d bring him in but for the vehemence the mere sight of him brings out of my loudly barking dog.
Just a few days ago, a tiny ladybug flying high in the air and landing onto the large floppy leaf of what we always called an Umbrella, caught my eye. (I’ve since learned the tree also goes by the name of Octopus, thanks to the blooms it shoots out, which look like red tentacles.) The sight was so unusual that I noticed a tangibly different texture of attention occur in me, a deeper stopping of spontaneous appreciation. It felt like a question mark rather than a simple noticing, but no question formed.
It may have been a signal, and a more significant gift than I was aware of at the time, because when I arrived home after work yesterday, the entire tree had been removed without notice, instantly replacing our treehouse-like view with the neighboring complex’s unbearably uninteresting parking lot. I handled it better than I would expect myself to, strangely.
What this means for our humble but wondrous menagerie is hard to say, but I hope that I’ll be able to somehow mimic the shade for a while.
I do wonder if the signal given is that it is time to Go.