Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Pattern Unfolding

I taught my first workshop in the summer of 1972. I was seventeen. With all the confidence of the young who do not know what they do not know (yet) I volunteered to lead a workshop training staff at the United Church camp where I was going to work for the summer. The workshop was on introducing city kids who had often never been outside the urban environment, to a natural setting.

Nature programmes in 1972 were generally about identifying and naming the various species of birds, trees, flowers etc. This did not appeal to me, and I was guessing it would not bring the children who were coming to the camp any closer to feeling connected to the earth. The camp was in southern Ontario (outside the city of Hamilton) and I was from the bush of northern Ontario. I knew that the kind of feeling I had for being at home in the wilderness was difficult to cultivate in an urban environment.

It’s not surprising, given that I was a semi-permanent fixture at the town library, that I went to books to help me figure out what I would do for the training. By some miracle, I found a book, which I remember vividly to this day- Acclimatization by Steve Van Matre. The book suggested introducing children who lived in cities to nature by having them bring all of their senses to specific experiences and relating these experiences to their home environments. So, I had first the staff and then the children, stake out one foot square areas of ground and, lying on their stomachs, watch all the life happening in that area at nose level for fifteen minutes. Then I asked them to describe it in terms of their familiar territory. They told stories of miniature parks, of worker ants that were like the commuters in the city, of a whole “city” of activity going on. We did other exercises that brought each of the five senses to experiencing the environment.

I think back on this today and I can’t help but be astonished at how so much of what I eventually trained for, did for a living and love to do (group facilitation, taking people to the wilderness, teaching mindfulness practices, helping people align with their deepest selves and the earth . . .) was there in that initial experience. It drew me like a magnet, and some part of me (that was a long way from conscious) recognized this and ran toward it.

This comes to mind now, as I start a new chapter in my life. One of the great things about being in my mid-fifties is that I have a kind of freedom I haven't had since I was a young woman. Oh, I still need to make a living, but I am not responsible for anyone else. My children are grown and I am living alone. I find myself thinking about the young woman I was at the beginning of my working life, about the dreams and passions I had then and what aspects of that younger self I may have left behind and now want to retrieve. I got married the first time when I was just twenty (what were we thinking?) so I wonder what dreams may have gotten short circuited, what aspects of self did not fit my (woefully limited) ideas of being A Wife.

I don’t have a lot of answers to these questions yet, but I am enjoying the process of exploration. There are threads that are ever-present and ones that got dropped: the desire to write novels and pursuing more academic learning and teaching come to mind as the later, and I will weave these into my life now. But the thing that is truly wonderful to see is how much of what has happened- despite the detours, distractions and unconsciousness- has held a kind of implicate order, a coherent if sometimes chaotic tapestry shot through with the brilliant colours of a few of consistent threads. I could not have seen nor orchestrated such a pattern. I was just following my nose. Even the name of the summer camp- Restall- foreshadowed my own struggle with and need for rest, my own knowing that rest is found not only in being still but in going toward what we can do and be whole-heartedly.

When you look back on your life, can you see the pattern of what has always been loved, what has always drawn you? What intuitive wisdom did your seventeen year old self have whether or not he or she could have articulated it? What have you consistently given yourself to whole-heartedly?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?

So, here’s my latest confession: I am not good at fun. Really. I’m great at work- any kind, all kinds. I practically run toward those situations (inner or outer) that have any kind of roll-up-you-sleeves-and-get-in-there requirement. But I'm not good at fun- at hanging out without any kind of plan or agenda or meaningful conversation. I get testy when people (usually those close to me) tell me I “should just relax.” Attending a workshop years ago, I felt my anxiety rise when directed to spend an evening “just playing” with movement. (Had I been told to dance I would have been fine, but the “p” word put me off.) Recently someone sent me an email suggesting that developing hobbies would be a good way to deal with the stress of my current marital break-up. I bristled. I don’t do hobbies.

There are of course, lots of reasons for all of this, and it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in my family background. We were the poster children for the Protestant Work Ethic. To this day my parents, now in their seventies, love to put in a full day of rigorous work around the house. Once, when I was imploring my father to slow down a little, he told me he would rather wear out than rust out. When I was a child we spent our holidays camping at provincial parks in Ontario. My mother brought along a child-sized gardening kit (small, so it could be packed easily) so she could rake-up the leaves and twigs and other “debris” around the campsite. My father wasn't really happy until he’d split a cord of wood for our use and left a neat stack for the campers who came after us. They both just shook their heads at a fellow camper who built a fire with gasoline soaked twigs and proceeded to sit in his lawn chair and used the toe of his boot to gradually push the end of a whole uncut log into the flames.

You can see how my work and play wires might have gotten crossed. Along with this, my basic personality was (and remains) pretty serious. Even as a child, I liked serious questions, serious dilemmas, serious efforts. There is of course an upside to this: much of what I do for work (writing, reading, studying, group facilitation, counselling and spiritual direction etc.) is truly what I enjoy. My work, in some ways is my fun. Given my upbringing and personality, choosing work I enjoy may have been a pre-emptive (albeit largely unconscious) move to ensure I'd have some fun.

But there’s a downside to this also. If you turn everything you enjoy into work you can become good at, offer to the world and maybe even get paid for, you can end up always working. So, while lots of folks have to ask themselves what they would love to do if they could get paid for what they love to do, I need to ask: what do I enjoy that has absolutely no chance of being shaped into meaningful or income-producing work?

At this point it's a very short list. Recently my sons introduced me to the computer game Rock Band- the Beatles version (since, as they put it- the songs, like me, are “old” so I know them.) Now playing computer game drums, guitar or singing with two people you love and enjoy (one of whom has absolutely no sense of rhythm) can be a lot of fun. As I sing “Hard Day’s Night” or miss a beat on the drums for “Yellow Submarine” it’s impossible not to laugh. Fun- pure enjoyment with no other redeeming features, no prospects of being turned into meaningful-contribution-to-the-world work.

Why am I concerned with learning to have fun? Because life is too short to always be working, even if your work is enjoyable. Because the human mind, heart, body and spirit needs fun, needs some silly time if it is to truly rest, rejuvenate and regain perspective on what matters. Silliness heals. Play protects us from taking ourselves too seriously. Of course, knowing this, I am tempted to say I am working on having fun, learning how to play, and practicing silliness. Maybe I could teach a workshop on silliness!

Sigh. Old habits die hard.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not Taking Things Personally

Sometimes, the hardest and wisest thing to do when someone is behaving badly or taking actions that affect us adversely is not to take their behaviour personally.

My youngest son, Nathan, works at a company that finds participants for market research. He works on site, interviewing and selecting those who are most appropriate for the group and paying those who are not needed. The policy is that anyone who shows up more than fifteen minutes late cannot participate or be paid.

Last week, a woman arrived for a group, clearly flustered, sixteen minutes late- one minute after the person hosting the group had closed the door. Nathan told her she could not join the group, nor could he pay her, expressing his sympathy for her situation. The woman was furious. She started yelling at him and demanded to speak to his boss. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number and waited while she called.

He told me he could feel himself starting to react to her anger with a sense of indignation. Although he'd been polite he could feel his patience wearing thin. As he waited for the woman to get off the phone co-workers came over and sympathized with how unfair the woman was being. “But,” he said, “their sympathy didn’t really help. It just made me feel justified about getting upset with her. And then, I thought: I don’t know this woman. I don’t know what is going on in her day or her life. Getting upset with her only escalates the situation and makes us both feel worse. I don’t have to take her reaction personally. I can let her say what she needs to say and leave.” So that’s what he did. Wise man, my son.

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s book Taking The Leap. She talks about times when we get our buttons pushed- someone is rude or unreasonable or just won’t do what we want or hope or feel certain they promised to do- and we get angry or hurt or afraid. Pema calls it “biting the hook.” Emotionally and mentally we get dragged into a drama, a story that causes suffering. Jungian psychoanalysts would say a complex- an emotionally charged and relatively autonomous part of our unconscious formed around a past injury or trauma- gets activated. When we bit the hook or are possessed by a complex we go unconscious. Everything feels very personal, and we are reactive.

Of course, it’s one thing to maintain perspective when a total stranger is yelling at us in a situation where there is nothing we can do (and we often fail to remember it’s not personal even then.) But it’s quite another to stay awake and aware when the other is someone with whom we have an intimate relationship and his or her actions affect us profoundly, materially and emotionally.

Many of you know that I am going through a marital separation. It is heartbreaking and difficult, as these things usually are. But I ask myself- can I take what the other has done or is doing, even a little less personally? The danger here is that I will go into denial about the emotions that are arising in the moment. (Although I admit that these emotions are sometimes about feared future consequences or about past injuries, neither of which are happening now.) I do not want to deny painful emotions. On the other hand, I don’t want to add more suffering to my pain or to the other’s pain- and thereby escalate and prolong the suffering.

So, I try to do what Nathan did: take a step back, slow my reactivity down just a little, and consider what other choices I have. It’s not about being passive. I may need to say or do something. It's not about abandoning myself. In fact, it’s about a deeper level of self-care that does not re-wound the self by taking what the other does or says, personally. I remind myself, “This is what the other can do, right now. What he can or can’t do is about him. It’s not about me. I do not have to take it personally.”

Sometimes- not all the time- this creates the smallest breathing space around reactivity, buys enough of a pause to simply be with the emotion and consider what response is necessary. When we respond instead of react we’re much more likely to communicate clearly and that’s likely to lead to less suffering all around.

So, here’s to learning how to take things a little less personally, how to let the other be wholly other- an individual with their own struggles and stories that are not ours. From that place, finding right action and real compassion may just be possible.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Coming Up For Air*

Like a swimmer coming up for air after a long dive, I fill my lungs and look around.

What can I say about loss that you do not already know?

The thing that amazes me most is how surprised I am, every time.

Is this innocence or arrogance- this forgetting that all things will pass- that we do not control the world- that other’s have their agendas, their struggles, their choices, even as we have ours?

Grief is as kind as it can be, coming in waves instead of all at once- surely a flood that would drown.

It’s hard to predict when the next wave will hit. I miscalculate and have to abandon a shopping cart in the middle of the supermarket cereal aisle to dash for home and lay down on the cool white tiles of the bathroom floor.

All those years of meditating and praying, studying and reading allow a kind of holy curiosity. I do my daily practice and I rest in the arms of the Presence that is always with me, and watch the ache change from one day to the next.
Like shadows moving over the landscape as the sun traverses the sky and clouds come and go.

I notice how the body continues to breathe even when I cannot remember how, and I am grateful to be a living organism. Survival is built into our cells, our DNA. An aching heart still pumps blood.

Off the coast of Louisiana an oil rig explodes and the ruptured sea bed bleeds thick black oil into the blue water.

And I wonder: what have we done with the precious and fragile gifts we were given?

Friends call. It is good to know I have not been forgotten.
Private pain can make the world shrink.

Some bring cooked rice, spiced salmon and fruit-filled muffins. For the first time I understand why people bring food to the bereaved. The smell brings me back to my animal body, reminds me to eat. The taste says, “You are not alone. You are not done. You are alive.”

And still the oil spews into the sea. Two hundred thousand gallons a day. Experts begin to speculate about the damage to marine life, bird life, human life. No one seems to know what to do. The company that was doing the drilling says they do not know who is to blame.

The trouble with lies is that they stick to the stories that give us meaning, they contaminate everything, make us doubt our own experience of what we thought was good and true. We stop trusting our memories, our ability to tell truth from lies.

I outrun the pain with work. This has always been so, but I am more aware of it now- I watch myself sort and pack and unpack without pause, knowing that when the work is finished the emptiness must be faced.

Time works its magic. Healing happens when I’m not looking, and I’m pulled back into the warm chaotic mess of life. I notice the children running in the playground, the tree by my window in bloom. I am surprised how life works within me, on me, without my conscious agreement.

We are life, choosing life. That is how we are made.

Engineers and crew work to find a solution, to stem the flow of oil, knowing the destruction is worsening with every day that passes. Minutes are gallons. Time is not on their side.

Shifting perspective I can see my loss in the bigger picture, can see the opening it creates in my life and my heart for being more of what I am. I feel something working in me, and dare to think of transformation. Faith carries me.

The oil slick is visible from the space satellite. The big picture is grim. Wind and wave carry the black cloud throughout the life-giving waters. Rescue workers try to reach oil soaked birds. Already they are predicting a “dead zone” in the ocean. The question now is how large it will be.

Will I have a “dead zone?” Or will I keep my heart open to myself and the other, to the world, to the oil soaked birds, the blue black waters, and our human weakness for half-truths, for short-term pleasures and profits?

We have a choice. We can shrink in the face of wounding- personal or planetary- or we can inhale deeply, link arms with each other and enlarge our capacity to meet it all- the joy and the sorrow.

I am alive. This breath, this moment. It is good.
*For those who do not know I have recently experienced the dissolution of my marriage and the loss of my home in the woods.