Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crossing Thresholds

The time between Christmas and New Year’s can feel a bit strange. After the bustle and rush of preparations and socializing, there’s a lull, a week where some of our normal activities are slowed down, if not suspended. Of course, lots of folks are back at work. But many manage to take the whole week off, so business as usual is not generally resumed at full speed until after the new year dawns.

This week, the week before we start a new year, is a liminal time, a time in-between what was and what is to come. The word liminal comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold. My Oxford English Dictionary published in 1995 does not include liminal, and I laughed out loud when my spell check kept automatically changing the word to luminal. How perfect! Our culture has little tolerance for the in-between times, wants to rush ahead with an eye on the hoped for or imagined future light (productivity, accomplishments, spiritual evolution, increased awareness- whatever version of progress you value.)

Life includes a variety of liminal times: after I submit a finished manuscript but before it is published; after a death and before the funeral; when a divorce is decided upon but is not yet finalized; after engagement but before the marriage; when the sun is below the horizon at dawn or dusk but the sky is light. Of course many of these times are experienced individually, not collectively, and those we have in common in our geographical area- dusk and dawn- are generally filled with sleep or the frantic activity of beginning or ending the day. The days between Christmas and New Years, even for those who do not celebrate Christmas, is probably the closest we come to a shared liminal time.

In many shamanic traditions these liminal times are seen as times when the “crack between the worlds,” between the seen and unseen levels of reality (dreams and everyday reality; our conscious and unconscious awareness) is open. In these times we can access a prespective that is greater than our own. But this requires a willingness to go to a place of not-knowing, and for most of us not-knowing raises anxiety. It’s hard not to fill the spaces in-between with distractions, plans, and resolutions that quell our anxiety.

But what if we didn’t fill the space? What if individually and collectively we let ourselves be in-between what was and what is to come, without trying to control the outcome? What if we started to value this time as one of waiting and dreaming- not just now, but at the start and end of every day, allowing ourselves to come back to some kind of stillness, alone or with others?

I know what I am asking, because the outcome of being fully with the liminal times is unpredictable. And if there is one thing I know, it’s how hard unpredictability can be. I have had a chronic illness for twenty-six years (CF/ME.) While I know some of the things that can forseeably make it worse (staying up late, doing too much etc.) the truth is, even when I do all the things I know should help, I can find myself flat on my back with exhaustion and pain for a day, or two, or four. The hardest part of this is not the physical disability- it’s the unpredictability that repeatedly challenges my ego’s illusion of control. This is not to say that the choices I make do no not matter, do not shape the events of my life and how I respond to them. They do, but unpredictability remains.

When we are present in liminal times, when we take advantage of the pause after the exhale before the next inhale begins, we don't know what will happen, what will be asked of us. Sometimes we can see how unpredictability and our lack of absolute control have brought and can continue to bring blessings, gifts, challenges and heart ache. And maybe, sometimes, for a moment we can let something deeper than our discomfort with not-knowing, our fear of the unpredictable guide us over the threshold.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Solitude and Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between the need for community and the need for solitude. At this time of year, when many gather with friends and family, I feel the tension between my own desires for both. On Monday the 21st I shared a solstice ceremony with four friends, a time of dreaming together in the darkness and sharing the promise of the returning light. My husband Jeff and I will also spend a day with my sons and a day with his family and, weather permitting, visit with my parents next week. As an introvert even this limited amount of socializing can seem a little overwhelming.
But it also makes me think of those who are alone at this time of year, not by choice, but because they have no family or community with which to gather.

I remember the first Christmas after my divorce. My boys were four and seven at the time. Their father and I had planned for the boys to spend Christmas Eve and morning with me and then the rest of Christmas day at his house. My parents were away so this left me alone for the afternoon and evening of Christmas day. Although Christmas had been a day of family and church community when I was growing up, I had convinced myself that my general dislike for the commercialization of the season would make it no big deal to spend a large portion of the day alone.

To my surprise, it was very difficult. Try as I might, I could not shake a sense of being unmoored. I wandered around the house, unsure of what to do. I wanted to be with family even when I remembered that large family gatherings can often be an exhausting combination of work, small talk and turmoil as old buttons are pushed. I told myself that it was just another day, but it wasn’t. It was a day filled with memories- the aroma of cooked turkey filled with sage and rosemary dressing; working in a hot crowded kitchen alongside my mother and grandmother; smiling to see my dignified grandfather in a tissue paper hat; singing carols at church; watching TV specials together; playing broad games. It was the one day when the commercialization of the celebration of the birthing of the light/Christ child was at its low ebb- stores were closed and people came together with family, friends, and community.

The longing for solitude and the ache for community reflect important needs of the human soul. Both can feel like blessings when they are chosen. But involuntary solitude can be terribly lonely, and I think of all those who do not have family or friends and my heart aches. Involuntary community- attending events out of a sense of obligation when we are exhausted- can feel like a burden, and I think of those who are aching for a moment to sit down and be quiet and alone in midst of all the hustle and bustle.

Sometimes we can shift our experience by simply being aware of what is and choosing to engage in it- to be fully present with ten minutes of desired solitude as we take a bath; to allow ourselves to pause and really see the family and friends who gather, remembering that the unpredictability and impermanence of life means we cannot take for granted that they will be with us next year. Choosing what is, even when the situation is not completely voluntary, can allow us to relax and receive the blessings of the moment.

And sometimes we just have to hold the tension between the ache for belonging and the longing for solitude, until a new way of being with what is comes to us.

May we come to appreciate both being alone with ourselves and being fully with others. If we are lucky enough to belong to community, may we reach out and make room in the circle for those who are not so blessed. If we have been blessed with the time and awareness to really be with ourselves, may we become (as Rilke put it) the guardian of the other’s solitude when he or she needs to turn inward. And may we find both contemplative solitude and heartfelt community, and help create both for others in our world.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bah, humbug!
In the interests of full disclosure you should know- I don’t like Christmas. Every December I become particularly grouchy, and as I start to grumble about insignificant things my husband Jeff suddenly says, “Oh, right! It’s Christmas.”

What bothers me is the waste: the waste of time and money spent on gifts that people often don’t need and can’t afford; it’s the waste of energy- mostly women’s- as they add shopping and baking and card writing and cooking and hosting to an already full schedule for what cannot possibly feel like a “holiday” to many of them.

But mostly it’s about the waste of the darkness- a time to go inward, to reassess and renew and to remember the promise of the light to come and let this promise lift and sustain us in times of personal darkness.

Christmas- the celebration of the birth of the Light, the Sun Child, the Christ (which predates Christianity and is found in many different religions and cultures)- is at this time of year because December 21, the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, is the longest night. Imagine what this was like for those living before electricity. The days get shorter and shorter and the nights become longer. When I was a child living in Northern Ontario, at this time of year it was dark by four o’clock when we walked home from school making our way across the frozen riverbed, the ice heaving and sighing in the sub-zero temperatures. Birds have gone south, animals hibernate, trees stripped of their leaves appear dead, and the land lays cold and dormant. And on this night, the longest night, there is time for deep ceremonial dreaming that can renew and replenish the soul of the people.

And then- the very next day- the light stays a little longer, the darkness is a little shorter as we make our way back toward spring and the promise of new life. In the darkness we light candles and put lights on trees that are ever-green, to remember the promise- from the mystery, the divine, from nature herself- that the light will return.

So, I just try to side-step the rest of it. I don’t have TV so I don’t see the commercials. I stay away from malls and stores. I do join family and friends for ceremony and good food as we share the darkness and support each other’s dreaming. Together we consider the places in our lives and in our world where we are called to bring light in the upcoming year, and how we might do this in our small human lives. We laugh, we share stories, we catch up and- if we are really open to the light that is being reborn- we remember to tell those around us how much they are loved and appreciated.

Today, I saw a quote by African-American theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman. It made me remember parts of the story I loved as a child (and still love)- the angels, the star, the kings, the shepherds and the birth of the child of light. But it also expressed my own sense of what that story is meant to show us, of how we can use this time of year- in whatever way feeds our heart, mind and soul given our background and tradition- to use the fertile darkness and take the light forward.

May you find the darkness a place of soul dreaming.
May you remember the promise of the returning light.

"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart." Howard Thurman

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Inner Tyrant

In last week’s blog I mentioned fundamentalism, the tendency to pick up an absolute one-size-fits-all belief to ward off the anxiety of ambivalence and ambiguity. Of course it’s generally pretty easy to see the dangerous, narrow-minded fundamentalist in the other- the group or individual with whom we disagree.

So, what if we turned our attention, just for a moment, to our own inner fundamentalist? What if we asked ourselves, what do I take to be absolute in all situations? Where do I fail to ask open-ended questions? Where do I terrorize myself and/or others with the “right” way?

I’ve been a fundamentalist about truth-telling. Now, that might not sound like a bad thing, but stay with me. Because of certain patterns in my birth family I used my mind to attempt to meticulously keep track of “facts” to give me some sense of control in a situation where, as a child, I had very little control. This led to a lifetime of hyper-sensitivity to falsehoods and a seemingly admirable commitment to telling the truth.

Now what could be wrong with that? Telling the truth is good isn’t it? Well, here’s the thing: first of all, reasonable people, who have witnessed the same event and have no interest in distorting the facts, will tell very different stories about what happened. So, what’s the truth? This of course, gets hazier with the passage of time and/or any vested self-interest, not because we are terrible people but because we are fallible, and the way in which we create meaning and make sense of our lives includes selective remembering and shaping of events.

Once, when discussing a conflict I was having with a friend, I said to my son Brendan, (as if it was the trump card to end all discussion) “She lied!”

Brendan smiled and shrugged and said, “Yeah okay, she lied. Human beings lie.”

I’ve thought a lot about this since. He’s right of course. Human beings lie. They also tell the truth, love, laugh, cry, sleep, eat, make-love, plan etc. They lie because they are afraid, or they misremember, or they forget, or they go unconscious, or they see and experience things differently . . . .but wait a minute- that’s not really lying, is it?

So, here are some of the many problems with being a fundamentalist about truth-telling:

1) Facts do not necessarily reveal the truth. Sometimes the truth has to be seen beyond or despite the facts, and focusing on minute facts may make me miss the truth.

2) Individuals and groups see, remember, and emphasize different aspects of the truth, so it gets pretty tricky to determine any one “truth” in a particular situation.

3) Human beings lie. That means sometimes, I lie. And if I have absolutely no tolerance for lying, I will have to lie unconsciously, which makes it pretty hard to be honest with myself, let alone anyone else.

4) Like all fundamentalism, with the right combo of risk and threat, I can become a menace to others, brow-beating them into seeing the “truth” as I see it or, with a verbal agility that would put a court-room lawyer to shame, cornering the other in his or her “lie.”

5) I can similarly beat myself up internally for feelings that are not consistent with the factual “truth” my inner fundamentalist sees as so important.

What happens with any fundamentalism is that the principle that is being held takes precedent over human beings, over life itself. And our inner fundamentalist cannot keep us safe. Even if it was possible to know and tell some kind of mythical absolute truth 100% of the time, that would not keep me “safe.” Because of all the wonderful things life is, safe is not one of them, and at the root of any fundamentalism is anxiety- sometimes terror- about the wild and woolly risk of living fully, knowing that difficult things can and will happen.

So, what does your inner fundamentalist look like?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ambiguity, Ambivalence and Anxiety

In his book, Why Good People Do Bad Things, Jungian analyst James Hollis says that growing up, really becoming the individuals we are, entails expanding our tolerance for what he calls the three A’s: anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence. All three are unavoidable, and when we can’t tolerate the discomfort each brings, we unconsciously engage in the adaptive strategies we developed as children- undue compliance, self-destructive reactivity, addictions, distraction, denial etc. Hollis points out that the militancy of fundamentalism comes from the “incapacity to sustain even a modicum of ambiguity.” This reminded me of an interview with author Annie Lamott who posited that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

Faith is expansive. It is a deeper connection to Life in the largest sense of the word. It increases our ability to be with anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence without clinging to static, reassuring answers that lower or at least mask our fear and discomfort. And there are many varieties of fundamentalism: religious, New Age, political of every stripe.

I’m writing this before US President Obama gives his television address about American policy and plans in Afghanistan. This blog isn’t really about a particular political situation, but about how we make choices when the three A’s are evoked, as they are for me when I consider Afghanistan.

Recently someone sent me Sara Davidson’s blog: Confessions of a Dove in Afghanistan (see link in my profile.) Davidson is part of a group of Americans called Code Pink-Women for Peace who traveled to Kabul as part of a campaign to get the US to withdraw their troops. What they experienced there left some members of the group surprisingly ambivalent about troop withdrawal. Listening to the story of a woman who was brutalized by her husband for accidentally violating one of the many restrictions applied to women's lives, one of the Code Pink women asked if things would be worse if the troops pulled out and the Taliban returned. The woman telling the story replied, “There is no solution on a white horse. This is not just about the Taliban. It’s not about troops in or out. Karzai, in or out. It’s so multifaceted, we have to be honest about the contradictions.” Even knowing these contradictions, the woman said her personal feeling was “all troops out now,” although she admitted that other women were not clamouring for troop withdrawal.

And there we have it: the situation on the ground is not clear cut or simple. There are contradictions. Any action will have consequences. In fact it looks as if, in this situation as in so many others, any choice will have at least some negative consequences. But often choices must be made. Even to maintain things as they are is a choice. Choice cannot be avoided.

So, what do we do when our information about a situation- personal or collective- is filled with ambiguity and contradictions, our thoughts and feelings are ambivalent and, knowing there will be consequences for any choice, we are filled with anxiety?

We do the best we can. That means not going into denial about the ambiguity of the situation, our ambivalence or our anxiety. That means making a choice- if a choice must be made now- and watching carefully to evaluate the consequences, to see where our decision needs to be reviewed or modified. Holding the tension that certainty seems to alleviate, we may be able to see a creative third way where there appears to be only either/or solutions. It means learning as we go, and increasing our tolerance for discomfort and fear so we can see what is. It means resisting the temptation to use a fundamentalist one-size-fits-all principle in an attempt to avoid living a messy human life in a complicated and uncertain world. It means, growing up- exploring and bringing to consciousness our own shadow, our covert and habitual ways of dealing with contradictions, confusion and fear- so we can make conscious choices, so we truly can do the best we can.