Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Stories of Suffering/Stories of Joy

"Open" Chicago February 2013
A student stated something to me this week that shouldn't have been such a shock. But it was.

This student is writing a memoir. She's been having trouble getting memories out of her mom. Her mom is older, worn out, has had a stroke, and doesn't want to talk about the past. She has threatened to disown my student, in fact, for asking questions about deaths in the family, secrets, potentially shameful or painful things that my student wants so much to understand and get clear in writing her memoir. The process has been heart-breaking.

"All of a sudden I realized the other night that I never ask her about happy memories," my student told me. Wow. Why is that such a shock? It is. "And so I asked her about some happy memories from my childhood. I couldn't get her to STOP talking."

In an interview with a friend of her mom's, my student had heard that her mom was a good mom. A happy mom who really loved her kids. My student was touched by that, really affected and this information likely lead to her asking for more details about good times. Times my student didn't remember, but as soon as her mom began depicting, she recalled clearly.

Memories that were otherwise lost, that didn't fit into her story of suffering.

It is true that we recall suffering more than happiness, that even being present seems easier when we are in pain that in pleasure, or, as is most often the case for a large number of people, when nothing at all is happening. Whenever I do a body prompt - usually a couple of times of year - and ask people to see what their body is saying to them, almost always pain grabs the day.

Somehow there is so much shame around happiness, fear of bragging around it, that we often don't discuss it. The danger is, of course, if we decide that we know who we are (a victim, or someone who has overcome great adversity, or someone who has genuinely suffered - pick your potential poison) then we dismiss everything else that doesn't fit into that story.

The danger of a single story is just as risky in our own personal interactions with ourselves as it is on a socio-cultural level. In other words, it scales down. Though this isn't an "attitude of gratitude" love-and-light call for what you enjoy, remember in good light, it is an important, again, surprisingly, challenge for all writers and humans to take into account. Remember that before you write a single word, you have already told yourself many stories. Maybe this is why fiction sometimes seems closer to the truth than non-fiction - the truth is most of our lives are fiction. So tune in and make sure to get all the details you can, not just those that fit who you think you already are.

If you end an essay, a book, a paragraph even, thinking "Yes, this confirms who I think I am," then you should question that. Hell, not even about writing: if you end a DAY thinking "Yes, that day confirms who I am for me 100%," that should be a signal of danger - danger of solidifying, forgetting, not really paying attention.

Life is full of contradiction, paradox and mixed messages: suffering and joy alongside one another. 
Let all of it in.

PS A lovely post on elephant journal this week related to working with this.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Seduced? Deduce and Reduce to Produce

NYC April 2010
In the past, I have spent a lot of time wondering how/why it is that we are so divided so much of the time. I am not speaking of culturally, racially, class-wars or the like (though perhaps these thoughts do scale) - I am speaking of the inner wars so many people struggle with: inner critic(s) versus inner child; wanting to establish better habits but being held back by older habits, etc.

I am at the point of saying in my process that I have had enough.
I am still curious about what is going on in there, but I am sick of feeding the distraction through evaluation. For me, I've reached a point where asking all those questions more often than not leads me right back into the loop of the debate again and again. I get stuck. Enough.

Asking those essential questions: 
Why do I believe this? 
Who helped me to believe this?
What is the logic beneath this belief?
Is still important to me. However, they can, just like any other wisdom allowed to languish for too long, lead me right back into not doing what it is I wanted to do, or even be, in the first place.
In other words, the inquiry itself can stall me out - it's an extended tactic of my own resistance.
Even curiosity can hightail me right back into fear, if I allow it to keep going for too long.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I thought about seduction. The seductive power of my old habits and beliefs. Coming home from a long day of teaching, all I wanted was to "space out." A big part of me said "Please meditate and do yoga, that is good self care." Another big part of me said, "Dude. You worked all day. Those are work. Just watch some TV."

Luckily, maybe because I was teaching and participating in a writing critique session, the meditation part won out, even if I did it with bad posture while snuggling on the couch with Dylan and Aviva. The meditation gave me an opening, some space to realize I really wanted to do yoga, too. So I did.

But more often than not, I give into the seduction of these beliefs. I may even get so far as to ask questions about it, catching on to the debate inside and not believing habits right off the bat. A normal interchange for me would look like this:
"I'd like to do yoga and meditate."
"Yeah, but, it's work, you know? You deserve rest."
"But yoga and meditation are self-care."

"Nah. When you have more energy. Tomorrow, maybe, eh?"
"I said that yesterday. And the day before."
"See what a pain in the ass this is? Let's just go watch some TV. Don't stress yourself out."

BUT where does the stress ACTUALLY COME FROM? 
The voice. The debate. The questioning.
Not the yoga or meditation.

The habits are seductive. I want to look at those voices with more suspicion, more wisdom. And by looking at them, I mean taking a step back and watching them try to convince me that the old way is the best way. Like a bad lover I don't even want to sleep with anymore, but I keep returning to because at least I am getting laid, which means I am cared for, in some strange logic.*

Therefore, as I thought about the word seduction, the word "deduction" came into my head. Then "reduction," and finally "production." 

I am not normally a fan of "Here are the ten steps to productivity" kinds of posts, but frankly, for me, I am needing some bullshit cutting tools for when the same things come up again and again.
I *know* where the logic is going.
I don't need to inquire anymore, show respect,  be curious.
I need to take care of myself.

I knew from Mr. Lee's 9th grade English class, where we studied Latin roots until we were blue in the face (Thank you, Mr. Lee!), that the root "duce" means "to lead."
This morning, I looked up the original roots of the words' prefixes when combined with "duce":
Seduce literally means to lead away from.
Deduce means to trace the path of. 
Reduce means to lead back. 
Produce means to lead forward. 
That's some powerful etymology, as etymology often is.  

Instead of thinking of seduce as "sinful" as in "leading away from a good marriage" (more like it's usage is now) we consider what it is leading away from - the things, in my case, I *know* are good for me and are not really up for debate - ie - I am not debating whether or not they are good for me - then this process looks like this:

When my thinking begins to lead me away (seduce) from yoga/meditation/etc, I can pick up on its path (deduce). I don't have to follow it all the way to its end - simply bring it back to the good habit in question (reduce). Then I can lead myself forward again (produce), from the root of my desire to do this thing I no longer question - yoga, meditation, etc.

This requires making a list of what you know are "non-debatables" - for me - calling a friend when sad, writing practice, yoga, meditation, exercise. As soon as I feel a tug away from doing any of these, I can actually begin to pay attention - there is NO REASON not to do any of these at any time, unless there is serious conflict (injury, emergency, deadline that is imminent or Dylan needing my help) going on.

What are your non-debatables?

What can you do to call attention to helpful inquiry (really being curious) and seduction (getting caught up in a pattern of thinking that actually won't lead to clarity)?
Do these words do it for you, or would you need a different set? If so, what?

This four-word list is going up on the wipe-off board in our bedroom where we keep word sets or questions, "Please meditate and do yoga" type requests from our bodies so that we don't forget the essentials.

*Um. That's not just an analogy. I am writing a lot about doing that kind of thing in my memoir from ages 12-28.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Juicy Anxiety

Collages by Cathy Riddle at Shambhala Art Part II, February 10, 2013
This last weekend I taught, for the very first time, the full curriculum of Shambhala Art Parts I+II. I was trained in LA over a year ago to teach this, and Part III. I attended a retreat this January, and that finally made me feel ready to teach a whole weekend. In the meantime, I had presented parts of it at a week-long Arts retreat with Lisa Stanley and done a talk and exercise in Paris in June of 2012.

I was, needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, nervous as fuck. Super anxious. I mean, really.
I teach full-time. I teach in all sorts of circumstances with strangers. And yet. Not having taught the material yet in public means, for me, that it isn't "mine" yet. A lot of the teachings in Shambhala Art overlap with Miksang and the way I teach Contemplative Writing (because the core text, True Perception, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is the same). But the terms are different, the exercises different. Those are what didn't feel mine yet.

My familiar ground quickly became my students' anxieties. Yes. Not just mine, but theirs.

I don't mean that in any kind of sadistic way ("Oh yay! They are suffering! That's good! I can work with that!") but rather that this particular sweet set of five really opened up quickly and let it be known that they, too, were nervous. Nervous about doing exercises they don't know. Nervous about their bodies and about speech, introducing themselves, moving spontaneously in front of one another. Drawing. Speaking spontaneous poetry. Trusting one another as, in pairs, a sighted person led a blindfolded person around. A combination of every leadership retreat meets art retreat - at least one exercise triggered or intimidated everyone, and most, including myself, found nearly every exercise challenging.

And yet, strangely compelling.
I say strangely because normally we don't go towards anxiety. It sucks. Why go there? The students, granted, 4/5 knew me as a teacher, but still - the students trusted me. They quickly trusted each other and even started to trust themselves. Immediately we could all see what that trust brought forth - moments of total clarity, pure inspiration, in the middle of complete and consuming anxiety or distraction.

Inter cut. Inter twined. Inter dependent. While it is so tempting to say, to think, to look for messages that reiterate that inspiration and anxiety are, and should be, completely separate states, they aren't.
No way.
Let's face it.
I know very few people for whom even their most practiced artistic endeavor does not cause them at least momentary panic attacks each time they approach it. Not to mention "regular life non-art endeavors," though Trungpa would categorize everything we do as art. It happens. Shit happens.

And it turns out, no matter how many times we hear it we can't seem to hear it enough, lotuses grow out of mud. Compost is rotted vegetable matter that brings out better blooms. Manure is fertilizer for hearty crops. Going into the anxiety, with acknowledgement, gentleness and even some playfulness, is the only way. No sidetracking, no distraction will access the juice just waiting to be squeezed out of resistance.

Though I have quite the internal dictator, or perhaps because I have quite the internal dictator, I find it very important to distinguish here - sometimes we do need a break. A real honest breather. Some space. A walk in the woods away from the overdue article. A crying festival with a friend to process what's underneath not wanting to pick up the pen. Playing with another media, one with less tension associated with it, until you can relax enough to rediscover inspiration. I am not implying that dogged pursual is the way, all the way, 100% of the time.

But when we take space to rediscover, access what Trungpa calls Square One, and First Thought, we need to be honest about whether we are trying to escape or getting some space. Because anxiety knows. It is clever. And if we run away, it will hunt us down. If we are simply getting space, we discover that even in the seemingly solid intensity of anxiety, there is breathing room. Anxiety, nervousness, intensity - all of these and more grow in the darkness, in being ignored or avoided. Not the kind of growth that inspires - the kind of growth that chokes.

Don't take my word for it. Please. Turn on your bullshit detector and go out and test out what I am saying. Next time, instead of doing the same thing you always do (and we all have deeply ingrained habits around anxiety, especially in "making art"), try something new. Engage in a dialogue with your anxiety. Write down what you are really feeling. Pick up a brush and paint an entire black page before returning to your delicate watercolor. Let juicy anxiety and inspirational intensity dance with each other. Find the soft spot of fear, sadness, anger underneath and let it show you what it has to say.

I guarantee it won't be what you expect. It will be fresh. Real. Honest.
The best inspiration we can ever ask for.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Grounding in Humility

Fading light, Black Earth WI
Recently, a friend visited who is very well versed in Classic Latin and Greek. During one of our many amazing conversations, he mentioned that the word humility, which comes from the Latin humilitas, comes from the same source as ground, humus. Upon further research, the Wikipedia article even goes so far as to associate it with egolessness. Grounding in egolessness. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it?

Only it isn't.

There's nothing like a good (seeming) paradox to get me to pay attention. Because one of my favorite teachers once told me to go toward paradox, since it indicates some concepts coming head-to-head inside our own mind instead of an opposition in the world, I draw them near and sit them down for breakfast. Humility, I have to say, I mostly associate with humiliation - and not to the more basal associated adjective "humble."

What happens if I think of humility as associated with humble instead of humiliation?
It feels very grounded indeed.

Egolessness is grounded because it is grounded in what is - the fact of everything co-existing without needing self-reference. That is what ego is, by the way, self-reference. The "self that doesn't exist" is that self-referential self, which is quite the opposite of humble. And, in fact, usually when I "get humiliated" it is a big pop to my ego bubble. I don't get humiliated if I am being humble - grounded - present - egoless. Humiliation is a return to the ground, if we let go of the shame and embarrassment that can arise out of it.

A reminder, sometimes a fierce or unwelcome one, to come back to what actually is happening. As jarring as that can be, it is the actual ground of what is. A good place to be, return to, exist.