Monday, August 30, 2010

When There Is No Watch(er)

A few weeks ago, I took my great uncle's 1976 Hamilton watch into the little clock shop on Williamson St across from Grandpa's Gun Shop. The night before, I had hugged a student goodnight and in the process, somehow caught the watch on her backpack, which then snapped the pin out of the strap that holds it onto my wrist. After searching around for a needle-like object in a haystack-like hallway, I gave up, and decided I'd just get a replacement.

I entered the shop, which I had always passed and wondered about but never had cause to enter, owning only newer clocks, and in it one worker, an older man, crouched with a magnifying glass and glaring light over parts of a clock. His posture one of a jeweler, his intention one of a poet. I felt bad interrupting him, but the bell announced my entrance. He was a bit brusque being interrupted for such a small thing in the middle of a clearly larger, and more lucrative, project, but he quickly put in a new pin and charged me for it. He asked, as he handed back the watch with a scratched glass face I now felt self-conscious about, how it was treating me. "Well," I said, "so long as I don't over wind it, it does really well. I love it. It was my great uncle's." He grinned a half grin, and I left.

Of course, later that day, it stopped working. It was a bit like when my car is making a funny noise that it won't make for the mechanic - I thought, just watch, I'll bring it back to him and it will be working again. Instead, I took it off, suspected I wound it too tight and left it at home. I also realized that one of the watchband straps that hold down the other end had come off in the backpack accident, and didn't want to have to deal with getting a new band, now, too.

I haven't put it on since. At first it was hard to not have a watch - so many people operate with just their cellphones now, but I often don't have pockets and am habituated to having the time on my wrist, not on something I have to pull out to see. Mind you, I trust my cell phone's time better than anything else, but deep inside, I'm an analog girl, and I prefer to have mechanical over digital.

It turns out I prefer neither. Now, as time has passed - or so the calendar tells me - I have relaxed a bit, learned to trust my own sense of time. This weekend I taught a photography workshop and I tested out my sense of time - has it been half an hour? An hour? - in giving talks, during shoots, and listening to others give talks. For the most part I was spot on with the time. When I wore a watch I never bothered, and now, now I don't bother either, but I also seem to know the time and also, time is less important to me. That is to say, actually, that time seems MORE important to me (eg how I "spend" it) but knowing the exact time seems less important. I haven't been late for anything or blown anything off accidentally, so it hasn't really caused problems, and I have to say it has caused benefits to not have the hour so accessible all the time on my wrist.

Buddhism talks about "the watcher" in meditation - the seemingly separate part of ourselves that "notices" when, for instance, we've moved our attention off our breath and onto passing thoughts. It is said that of course there is no separate watcher, that what we are thinking and our awareness of it are one in an ultimate sense, and that we have to let go of that duality in the long run, so we aren't always policing ourselves and seeing a divided self. This is a bit how I've been feeling about time - I feel somehow more in time, on time, a part of time, and that feels natural - as if before, with a watch I checked often, I were more separate both from time and from myself. Weight Watchers feels like this - only the inverse case helped - not paying attention caused disassociation, while checking in with time passing all the time caused disassociation with time. Curious that. Habits are habits and can trigger duality, separation. It's not the system or structure that is inherently a problem, it's how I use it, what I associate with it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Digestion issues
Money issues

I've spent the last week or so working through piles of things, of excess, as they say, in all of these areas. So much time eliminating, in fact, that I forgot to catch up on doing, building, adding: preparing for a teacher training I am teaching this weekend, preparing for my weekly college course that starts next week - Next Week! How Did That Happen?! Of course I have been writing, but I also am not as close to getting my manuscript - proposal for Bermuda Triangles memoir - out the door to the press I want to buy it up. August 31st was my internal deadline - get it gone, out the door, before I begin teaching another course.
Another course.

I always forget until fall comes how hard it is to teach just one more day. With my weekly classes, which began 3 weeks ago, I push hard Monday through Wednesday until late, then Thursday I feel a bit liberated. If I go out of town to teach over the weekend, which I do usually every other week, or even teach over the weekend in town, like this weekend, then Thursday and Friday are my weekend. But once I start at Marquette, I lose Thursday to commute time, prep and teaching. When I do the online courses in the spring for Junior High kids, my time is more flexible - I can log on whenever, and the bulk of my work fades into the early week, as their online deadline is always Monday.

Fall is my favorite season, but this fall, I feel like I am falling into it. The summer was overloaded with big harvests in many ways, and I am wading through the excess, plucking out what I need. Can one have too much dharma, too much goodness, too much support? I suppose I need to pace myself, let it all last into the long, cold winter. Right now I want to push it all out the door and have a simpler situation so I can get done with some work, and have some down time. That sounds ironic, of course, but as a very wise friend said recently to me in a letter "You love your work, but even your work that you love can strangle you if you're not careful." Indeed.

So while it is true that I am rich, the richness needs niches, needs places to be stored for a bit. I can't eat all of it right now, can't wade through all of it - I need it to rest, I need to rest, so I can move forward out of the absorption stage of summer and into the working world of fall and winter and spring. Oh Academic schedule! How I was raised on you as a student, and a daughter of a father who taught. The gluttony of summer turns over in my mind and slims down into the follies of fall; rosters, schedules, grades, emails, readings, classes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Listening In

I began writing classes again this week, and in one of the classes, a student asked me for "tips on how to listen like you do." Huh. No one had asked me that before. She mentioned that while they frequently note (and they do, as a class) how closely I listen, no one had ever asked me how I listen, or how I know how to listen.

Then, she said, to my amusement: "I mean, any tips besides saying that we should just practice a lot. I mean, I know you get to do this a few times a week and have been doing it for years. What else can you tell us?" Which made all of us laugh, of course.

I promised her I would think on it.
And then I decided I would post on it, after I took some notes on a flight at 6am.
So here goes...

On Listening

The most important aspect of listening is raw perception. Letting whatever is being communicated to you flow into your ears without obstruction is the key to a practice of deep listening. Any kind of preparation or practice that encourages and sharpens your senses will help with deep listening, as well. Practice when out on walks, practice when at a movie, practice anywhere, even in your bed, waking up in the morning, noticing and focusing your senses. Mingyur Rinpoche offers multiple options for "sense" meditation in his book Joy of Living - but even informally, concentrating on your senses - WITHOUT INTERPRETATION - is key.

Why not interpret? Interpreting engages a part of the brain that will block the strength of your raw senses. Just as in other parts of writing practice, we "bracket" or temporarily dis-engage the critic, we also want to bracket the linear mind. Concepts do not mix well with perceptions - an aspect we practice in Miksang photography. If you are thinking, you have left the perception and moved into the mind. The best interpretation, analysis or reflection comes from raw, open perceptions, including listening. Too many people feel they have to come up with a plan for what to say, how to offer insight to others when they respond (in my classes and in all of life). Let go of that: listen from the heart, I say, then you can speak back from that same place. Trust is key to this - that you don't have to know what you are going to say before you say it, just like you don't have to know what you are going to write before you write it. This is harder for some than others - but we all need to practice it, regardless.

What does raw perception feel like? How do you know you are doing it? One of my personal indicators - and yours could vary - is that I can relax enough to not listen to every single word as sharply. There's a sense of overallness, of space, and out of that space certain words or phrases seem to "stick up" (almost like hills on a landscape) and out to me. Those are the ones I write down. The more relaxed one is while listening, the better she can pick up on things like this. It is like the Magic Eye 3-D images that were so popular about a decade ago - you can't find the image hidden in the clutter if you are "trying too hard." Of course, telling someone to not "try too hard" is like telling someone to relax - almost impossible. But I can guarantee that trying to catch "significant" things in someone's speech will backfire. Any way in which you can relax into listening, open up to the whole picture, and let certain things rise to the surface will help you. This is also what we could call taking in the "bigger picture" - literally and figuratively.

When I do write down words, I am trying to not attach to them. Sometimes when we listen we want to linger with a particular phrase or get caught or stuck on something said oddly or that triggers us. It is best to learn to make contact with what you are hearing directly, but then, let go. So even as I write it down, I am working to let it go.

Listen for: words that repeat, alliteration (repeated or similar consonant sounds) assonance (repeated or similar vowel sounds), repeated themes. Also significant can be changes in tone of voice, where someone stumbles, where they pause, and where they speed up or slow down in speech. Finally, I always note the first sentence they write and what they say about a piece (in class) before they read it, if anything. Again, as I say this, it's also best to understand that I don't mean "Listen hard for these," rather, these are the kinds of things that will pop up in the landscape and often point to a deeper emotional resistance or engagement going on.

What we are noticing, especially in writing practice but also in conversation, isn't the content, really. What we are noticing are patterns of mind, the way mind is organized, what it is focused on, how it comes back and when, when it gets distracted. So even as we note the content, the patterns - of speech, of thought - are often the most powerful parts to note.

So, also, it is good to pay attention to our listening - how are we responding? Do you feel yourself tense up, tighten down, open out when listening to this person? Notice your own physical responses - your desire to close your eyes, open them, look at the person, look away. Gently notice their body - are they open or closed? Notice the beauty and strength in every being - even in a business conversation or negotiation, filled with certain "rules" for how to engage, under someone's personality, under their affects (or even including them, sometimes) you can sense where and how they are vulnerable, and have compassion for them. Let your heart connect with their heart.

This part is more for the classes, but could be true in life. First and foremost, stick as much as you can to "I Statements" - the main tool of psychotherapy and Non-Violent Communication. Make sure you aren't hiding judgment or projection behind your I Statements (lest they become passive aggressive). A real I Statement is something like this:
"I felt a sadness when I heard the part about your dog dying." A coy I Statement is something like this "I think you must have been so sad when your dog died." I Statements also work best when they lean on those raw perceptions I talked about above. So in this case, something akin to "I heard how you slowed down when you talked about your dog dying" is very powerful, and in a lot of ways, far more powerful than even your own feeling or projection into someone else's feelings.

I have recently been "reintroduced" to the power of this through my new therapist, who practices Hakomi. The work of raw witnessing, of reflecting back more pure perceptions, is stunningly profound and simple. Most people work "too hard" on listening, and on trying to offer insight to others when they say something back. Giving someone a conclusion, an answer, an insight, is problematic for at least a couple of reasons. 1, it's your solution, not theirs. 2, if we go back to the old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish, we can see that giving someone raw reflection can allow space for them to put the pieces together, and the pieces will fit better than if you do the assembly yourself. This also requires trust on the speaker's behalf - trust that "just listening" is enough. I myself in personal relationships work with this a lot, and having good friends and a wonderful partner who know when to "offer advice" and when to "just listen," as well as a new therapist who never offers advice and always "just listens" have all deepened my experiential understanding of how spacious and compassionate these kinds of simple feedback and confirmation are.

If you are in a group situation, as my students are, you can also trust that you are listening as a group. Let your raw perceptions speak, and others may hear things and make links you yourself would not make. It can become easy to come up with "some insight" and then attach to it, have it seem crucial, want to share it, feel that the person must hear it. We can be less attached and more present with raw perceptions, and the chance for our growth, as well as the growth of the recipient(s), is far stronger.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Housework Haiku

Rain turns red blue flags
into streaks of liquid color -
prayers fly free.

Looking out over the backyard through a rain-streaked window and screen, the cool wind comes in from the tiny slits we can leave open where the rain won't leak. It's a beautiful morning - stormy, cool, and the blue sky is on its way. To my right is our sink - not yet operating, but subject of hours of conversation, action and emotion last night. House projects, it turns out, are very hard for both of us - we've put off installing this sink that we were both so happy to purchase, because we both dread doing wrong - the wrong hole, wrong place, the wrong pipes that leak. We've done errors before - all remediable, but somehow they often go unspoken, undiscussed. Last night some of them burst free, frustrations with the paint job I never touched up though I promised to, the way that Dylan moves furniture first before dealing with more complicated but also more frustrating and longer-lasting issues. Avoidance. In the intimate space of marriage, things can't go avoided for long.

"Why is it that on such important occasions - New Years, Anniversaries, etc - I get so upset? It all seems to build up and then burst out when the stakes are high."

"Well," I replied, "you've just answered your own question. The stakes are high." Personally, I've never done New Years or holidays well, either. All the old garbage drums out, sets its own stakes into the relative peace and celebration of the day. Raining on the parade, it seems.

But what is the parade without rebellion? In doing Hakomi, in working with writing practice, in meditation, I have tried to more deeply feel that which I already intellectually have been taught - resistance is where the juice is. the power locked inside our denial, internal subfertuge. When that thunder claps and cancels a Miksang shoot, like today, maybe it is bringing just the space we need. When one of us cries, can't cut a hole, gets scared to discuss our feelings, and they burst forth anyway, that's space - space being released. It isn't a burden, it isn't a blurring, it's an opening, as painful as it is.

In order to hear the beat, there has to be a not beat. In order to see the red, there has to be blue or some other color or non-color. Contrast is key. Life cannot be all one shade of happy or angry. And eventually, the sink needs to be put in so the water can flow free. But in order for that to happen, some water has to leave our eyes, too. So be it.

Putting in the sink,
we flinch at the saw sound.
Who wants to hear a cut heart?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hakomi Therapy

Ever since my Facebook post about having an awesome Hakomi therapy experience, the crowds have been in questions - what on earth is this Hakomi thing and what exactly did I mean by an "awesome" experience? So here it comes...

Hakomi was first introduced to me by a friend who's been seeing a Hakomi-trained psychotherapist for a few months now. Every time she talked about her appointments and her therapist, I was very impressed. For someone who has been in therapy on and off for 14 years, it takes a lot to impress me now, and in fact, I haven't been in "talk" therapy for a couple of years now. I got on some meds, do a lot of meditation and writing, and for the most part, can process things out with friends or Dylan. But lately some things have gotten kicked up with my memoir writing that I felt I needed a therapist to help me deal with. So even though I got other recommendations from friends, I asked Becky to tell me what kind of practice her therapist did.

Hakomi, she told me. She had to spell it - I'd never heard it. Reiki, shamanism, acupuncture, EMDR, I've gone a lot of ways to network the mind and body, but not that. Her therapist focuses on talk therapy with a Hakomi edge - but I only found two (one of whom turned out to not be a Hakomi person after all) in Madison at all, and the one legit Hakomi person is really more, it appeared to me from her website, a massage therapist. Hmm. I like massage, but I do need *some* talking.

I emailed her with some questions about how the talk and massage worked together, and she replied. I still didn't quite get it, but something told me to keep persuing, so we talked on the phone and set an appointment. Still, I wasn't sure I could picture it - how would this work, massage and talk therapy together? I had faith, I guess you could say, or intuition that this is in fact exactly what I needed. After years of chronic issues with IBS and certain old back injuries, which have received chiropractic, acupunture and herbal help, as well as Ibuprofen, yoga, and PT, I was starting to notice that the emotional patterns didn't seem so separate from the physical ones. What if I could work on them together?

Upon meeting the therapist, I got a strong sense of being in the right place. Our minds mixed easily, but with good boundaries, and within the 1/2 hour introducing ourselves to each other, my mind offered up things I wouldn't "think" to say, and I let them come out. She told me there were many options, and always would be - I could treat it more like straightforward massage first, with bodily sensations guiding me as to what I needed, and/or what I needed to talk about, or we could start first with talking, or whatever. I chose massage - bad neck spasm that day - and was blow away by how integral, after all, the pain and issues are.

There's something about the nature of experiences that are profound that does, in fact, make them hard to describe. That's a bit how I feel right now about talking about it. I felt very vulnerable, physically revealed on the table, and my mind resisted it. She caught the resistance in the things I said, even in how my eyes looked, and kept asking me to be mindful and return to the hurt, no matter how it manifested. At every turn, every twitch, she gently witnessed for me, with me, my sensations and thoughts - thoughts as sensations. Nothing was rejected, nothing lost, all used for awareness. We certainly didn't "solve" anything, but "solving" anything I think is what has caused more problems for me in the past, in talk therapy and in body work.

I booked a second appointment, and would be happy to talk more specifically with anyone who thinks this kind of "therapy" might be right up their alley for now. I warned her that she may have referrals pouring in, that all my students may want to come to her, and she smiled. She's independently employed, too, and knows that is how business grows, even if from all the way across the country, from another Hakomi practicioner, who's never even met her.

I've had that, too, a woman join a class of mine saying that she'd just left Portland and her "writing practice instructor" told her to look for her "local writing practice teacher" when she settled in. The fact that there's only one of this therapist here in town makes me as grateful as that student was when she found me - sometimes there are none, sometimes more than one, and when you find the one right for you, regardless, gratitude ensues.