Thursday, March 26, 2015

The White Expanse

This piece blew us all away in class. 

It's very tricky to lean into a full-on metaphorical image like this. Though Tod said it happened without his thinking about it, and without planning, his practice has allowed him to stay very close to surprising connections. He says he didn't even realize it was him until teh part about "the other members of his writing group." 

The imposter syndrome - feeling a fraud is well-depicted here. Also, the more nuanced but super tricky feeling that anything we do well must be cheating, not worth reading. If the writing comes easily, if, for instance, we build fictional worlds easily with barely any effort, then that must be bad writing, or we are just tricking everyone into thinking we are a good writer.

How to overcome this? Practice. Regular and compassionate. Consistent. And companionship.

Tod's writing:

He sprung into the white open expanse of his blank notebook page as if he was diving into a swimming pool of milk.  When he surfaced, breathless, blinking away the liquid pearls from his eyelashes, he was astonished to find that he’d written an entire story.
            The story was about a man who wrote stories, but hadn’t always been able to do so because the stories got stuck on their way out, they spoke in languages the man didn’t understand, so he didn’t know how to write them down, how to spell them.  It was a matter that came before the actual craft of writing itself, because he had to learn the language the stories were speaking.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Yup. There's no mincing around it. 
This is what has been coming up lately, in my life, in my wife's life, in my students' lives. 

When I don't get done what I set out to do (PS I had unrealistic expectations)...
When I make a mistake - or even moreso, a series of mistakes - while teaching or in public...
When I choose to sleep in instead of meditating...
When I procrastinate...
When I feel sexually aroused in a situation I suspect I shouldn't feel that way in...

I feel ashamed.
A heavy brick in my belly.
A punch to the gut.
Not a voice, not an inner critic, nothing that conscious or obvious or literal.
I don't THINK it, I FEEL it. In my locked up hips, my tightened legs, my triggered wrists.

More and more I am convinced that this is what Writer's Block, what creative resistance, what perfectionism, what procrastination ALL ARE - shame. Which is the cause and which the effect? Shame is like the fuel that powers the freezer that keeps us locked in one place. Not exercising, not writing, not exploring, not asking - all because some part of us, deep inside, believes we are unworthy. Anytime we make any kind of perceived error, it goes right into the evidence bin - not only have we done wrong, we are wrong.

For a long time, I have contended that Brene Brown's teachings on vulnerability and shame (click here to watch her stunning TED talk) are a perfect compliment to Shambhala's teachings on Basic Goodness (an article here demonstrating how the two are linked). Shame is our biggest block, our most underground and dug-in belief that we are not good. If we believe this, we can't believe we are basically, fundamentally good. We can't believe in bodhicitta, that we are all born awake and with full potential.

Shame is endless in its layers. Luckily my faith is also endless in its depths. Every time I find a new layer - this last week it was seeing that during a live online class I felt ashamed of myself because of technical errors beyond my control! - I react, I work with my body responses (through TRE or breathing) and then I slowly unpack all that was going on there. It can take months or just a moment. Over time, it gets easier to see, and easier to let go of the belief in shame, let go into the belief of my own - and others' - basic goodness.

What do you do when you encounter shame? How do you know it in your body? Do you know it? Does it have a voice? A story? Or is it more undercurrent? What is your relationship to shame and vulnerability?

And if I catch you using these questions, or my exploration, to compare yourself to, and shame yourself with, I'll come right over there and hug you and hold you while you cry. 

That is your punishment. I will mete it out mercilessly.

As Sakyong Mipham likes to say: "Be careful, or I am going to get gentle with you!"

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Former Friends

Photo by Mandoline Whittlesey

Today I woke haunted by those who are no longer.           
People who passed through my past
ghosts before they were gone:
a Jessica, a few women named Amy, one Virginia, and many more.
As if they are states I once visited
but no longer possess a visa for.
They litter my contacts in voicemail and email:
I type in someone new,
and there they are, their former selves
smiling at me.

They are not smiling at me.
I am not smiling at me.
Last night I dreamt of a host of them,
a gaggle of them approaching me in anger. I felt shame like a virus,
gangrene infecting my leg, bacteria spreading
organically, as if this is always
how it ends.

I know forgiveness.
I know how to give it for another.
Where can I cauterize my self-inflicted wounds,
these dangling ends that stir in me
amoebas of what could have been
invisible spikes
of what I thought
was a beautiful and safe cactus?

My own mind became dangerous, found land mines
in these interactions. I cannot seem to let the hair triggers go
drop the reflex to defend
let myself really never understand
let myself know that I will never really know.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Such Great Heights

Lately, I've been suffering from vertigo. For real. No joke.
The sensation? Spinning when I am still.
Reminiscent of? Childhood games, binge drinking in college, standing at top of a tall building.
It's an interesting combination of memories - excess linked through feeling dizzy.
Standing on top of a tall building is the association I've connected most with lately.

Why? Because on the way to San Francisco and back recently, I was editing the copy editors version of the book we are about to release. Because at the Karuna Training program I was attending, we spent the entire time exploring egolessness, aka: Who am I? Do I even exist?

Because during the program, I had a conversation that lead to the fortune in the photo above. It reiterated a reckoning I've been feeling getting urgent lately: that I need to leap into a deep end, begin telling The World I am available for things I've been offering so far in beta mode. For instance: creativity coaching, one on one instruction, and more. 

Finally, because I read all three Tara Gentile's titles on the way home and answered some big, hard questions for myself about my business.

I was very happy with all this hard work and thinking, but arrived home exhausted. And I crashed, physically, mentally, from pushing too hard.

The end result, vertigo. Doc says its from an inner ear infection.
My intuition says it's more than that. Both/and.

The Postal Service has a track called Such Great Heights that's been in my head the last couple of days. Ilana often sings the part about freckles in our eyes to me, but the part I've been thinking about is the heights. Queasiness, unsteadiness to go where I need to go. Fear of failing, of falling. I've know ever since turning the corner of the Western New Year that I am so terrified of this book getting out and that I have delayed it some out of that fear. Now that Losar, the Tibetan New Year has also passed, I realize it needs to happen. Now. And I also can't push myself. And it will happen whether I like it or not.

My trying to control it, what comes out of all this change, is causing the vertigo.

It's a paradox. And yet, it's not. It only seems contradictory to me - the idea of getting something done and also being kind to myself. My story is they are incompatible. And yet, this is how I've gotten here so far. I haven't gotten here on self abuse. I've gotten here on self care, on letting go, on being kind. And I'll need even more where I am going, my vertigo seems to know better than I do.

My fear of heights is not telling me not to go. It simply knows these are big heights. While the rest of me pretends it's no biggie to keep her cool, my vertigo knows the truth. I try to listen to it without panic, simply noticing the spinning sensation. Also noticing that some part of me knows that while there will be some falling, some failing, I will not die. This will not kill me.

Part of me knows I will fly. But the step that it takes to get to that point? Seems impossible.

Here it comes. Here I go. Here I come. Ready or not.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Americans

My father in Northern Ireland, early 1960's*
Ilana and I began watching the series The Americans yesterday. It's a fantastic show. The acting is subtle and strong, the depictions of spying and undercover life understated and compelling. Ilana told me, after just one episode, that she had had a fantasy that her family was undercover, secret Soviet spies, when she was young. I never knew that, but it makes sense in light of some other fantasies she's shared with me.

Funnily enough, I never had this fantasy, despite the fact that I experienced my mother as a Russophile.

The photo above shows my dad in Northern Ireland. This is the beginning of the era where they drove to Russia together, peeping behind the Iron Curtain in a VW Bug. The story goes that they were taking a co-worker of Dad's back, but of course Mom wanted any reason to head to Russia. She was fluent, with a Master's degree in Russian. I haven't dug deeply enough to see what her personal reaction was to being there (I have letters and whatnot somewhere), but I know she joked that people mistook our father for a young Lenin. The facial hair probably had a lot to do with that.

You can see it even more obviously in this theatrical shot of him from when my parents first met. He was Judge Hawthorne in a production of The Crucible at the time:
My dad as Judge Hawthorne, late 1950's. Pretty Lenin-like, eh?!
What is funny to me is that I grew up in Joseph McCarthy's hometown and burial place - Appleton WI - and my mother was a Russophile. We had Russian books and artefacts all over our house. This was mid-Cold War - 70's, 80's. Not an easy time to be into Russia in midwestern America. My mom was pretty quiet about it - didn't have many close friends in our town anyway. Dad made jokes (and likely actually did both) about pissing on McCarthy's grave and dating one of the Rosenberg's cousins before marrying Mom.

So it wasn't exactly a secret. Then again, there was nothing to hide.

If you are a spy, you cover it all up.
My parents had nothing to hide.

But I didn't grow up in a typical American family. Definitely not average Midwesterners, and certainly not the suburban-like neighbors we had. Mom taught me that New York was the promised land, and even more so, Europe. Travel was to be expected, if not living abroad. They would have raised us in Ireland if there hadn't been "the troubles" at the time. Mom went to a private, very well cultured school in Chicago growing up.

To be a small-town Midwesterner meant things she disdained: well-kept lawns, carpools, gossip and doing your nails. It's hard now to tell what was her own shame in comparing herself or our family to the surrounding community, and what was actual ethic or cultural preference for her. But the ebony bust of Nefertiti on our grand piano and the brass-and-glass Russian tea sets on the side board certainly imply she had other tastes.

Very few objects in The Americans look familiar to me. They don't indulge in Russian culture - the spy KGB couple have to act as if they have no idea what caviar is when they encounter it. And yet, there is something about their lives - trying to get by in the 80's in America as non-Americans - that I get. My parents were Americans by birth, but they didn't act like the other Americans around us. So something feels familiar to me in the way these Americans act. A little bit off. A little bit disjointed.

*I made some revisions to this post after my eldest brother brought some family stories - and definitely some dates! - into better alignment for me.