Archive for February, 2010


I started meditating and then decided to try working this out here.

The book I’m (re)writing, Ambivalent Miracles, is some kind of Kilimanjaro. And as is the way with naming things, the title seems to have embedded itself in me on personal levels: I often bring ambivalence to the writing, or at least the needing to write it, and it may feel like a miracle when I finally send it off, which I just try to regularly envision myself doing. After all this time, and the climbs and setbacks that have happened along the way, I just need to summit, at long last, and finally descend. I never in a lifetime expected to live this long at Kilimanjaro.

I’m trying to bring joy to the ascent, and sometimes I do, when I find the groove. I am putting distance behind me, and it is beginning to settle into its essence, its voice.

But showing up to it often hurts. There is a spot beneath my breast bone that roils. There is nausea, both when I sit down before it, and when I’ve gone too long without facing it; either way, the bile rises. I sit down at the keyboard and feel the press of tears full to bursting–not when I’m writing, but when I’m contemplating writing, when I know it’s time to resume the chipping away. The anticipating it, the fearing it; that’s what hurts. The chattering, screeching, fidgeting, mocking monkey mind is a demon. I have to design tricks to sidestep it–freewriting, plowing forward without knowing, sprinting sometimes. I need to remember to find ways to write in faith; devotional writing; writing as a form of knowing, even when I feel like I do not know. (Is this wherefore the yoga?)

Writing is walking into the not-knowing. And I’m free in it when the risk feels low, like here. But the academic audience is severe, is often a ruthless chorus of self-loathing critics, and I remember how their words abraded me last time. I still have the scars, though they’ve faded. And I can hear them even now–but it doesn’t matter, because I have to tune them out to listen in, to hear the voice of the narrative that is already there, ready to be articulated. In the end, it has to not matter the outcome. It has to matter that I write the book that is ready to be written, that needs to see light. Not necessarily the book that “they” might want. I have to trust that the chips can fall exactly where they’re meant to and that doors are always opening. The matrix of possibility constantly shifts and flows, undulating with infinite opportunities.

I know these things rationally, or spiritually. It’s the visceral panic, though, that counts when I sit down to the task. Every day, freaking out, slaying the field of hissing dragons, picking my way over them, and trying to move at least few feet forward. Gaining ground regardless of scuttling claws behind me.

Send me an image; I’ll take all the inspiration I can get these days.


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Sometimes I think about how all the things we have and work for and want don’t ultimately make us happy and, indeed, often contribute to our aggregate misery and anxiety. The house (the mortgage), the car (the payments), the jeans (the back fat), the trinkets (and the losing them). The trips to Target propelled by a vague sense of wanting something–something I don’t need and the manufacture of which probably contributed to the misery of someone else. Sometimes I fantasize about getting rid of it all and just getting out and doing something, like our friend Becky who right now is driving across the country conducting censuses of homeless people in different cities, determining those most at risk for dying, and housing them. (See Common Ground’s 100,000 homes campaign.)

And sometimes, like this morning, I think, “this would be a good day for diamond earrings.”

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As I’ve mentioned in passing, I’ve been in a bit of a Carl Jung binge lately, especially since my mother out-of-law (my mother outlaw) gave me the mind-boggling Red Book for Christmas. I just taught, for the third time, Jung’s Undiscovered Self, which is perhaps his most concise exploration of the content and psychosocial implications of what he calls the Shadow. I hope to write a fuller post on this soon, but for now suffice it to say that the Shadow is all the dark, messy, primal, often creative, often tabooed stuff in the human psyche that we tend (and are taught) to reject and/or repress in ourselves but recognize–project–onto others, especially those we see as somehow fundamentally different from us. We do it individually, and we do it collectively, and we often use religion as a particularly handy tool for doing so (which is particularly ironic in the case of Christianity).

Maybe I’m supposed to write on this topic, because the same Jungian messages keep coming at me from all these disparate sources–Kundera’s Immortality, and, last night, Parker Palmer’s gorgeous Let Your Life Speak. I wanted to share this passage from Palmer (via Annie Dillard) as food for thought:

Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. This, of course, allows the shadow to grow unchecked until it emerges, larger than life, in the public realm, a problem we are well acquainted with in our own domestic politics. Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world but also the spiritual skills to journey toward the source of both shadow and light.

Spirituality, like leadership, is a hard thing to define. But Annie Dillard has given us a vivid image of what authentic spirituality is about: ‘In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.’

Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One is that it will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our own lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealization, and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

Why must we go in and down? Because as we do so, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves–the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone ‘out there’ into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

But, says Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious–to ‘the unfied field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other,’ to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives. Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of ‘hidden wholeness’ because they have been there and know the way.

I love Dillard’s idea that it is actually the “substrate” that provides the foundation for the good. What monsters do you get, and do you fear, to ride? Who “out there” is the problem for you?

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A couple days ago, my friend Aurelio, a reader of this blog and author of the wonderfully erudite Luctor et Emergo, suggested “devotion” to describe the kind of attempt at discipline I was explaining in my last post. Aurelio is a fine artist and practicing Buddhist, so I suspect he’s learned a thing or two about devotion.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about this word before, but since he mentioned it, I’ve felt a shift taking place. Devotion; it’s such a better word than “discipline,” or “routine,” or even “practice.” Though it incorporates all of those, it also somehow contains love and faith. PIETY; an act of prayer or private worship; a religious exercise or practice other than the regular corporate worship of a congregation; the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal; FIDELITY.

This is what I’m trying to practice as I look in the wall of mirrors at the yoga studio and try to sweep aside all the critical voices in my head nagging at my physical imperfections. I am showing up in a faithful way, an honoring way–whether I “feel like” it or not, whether I’m grumpy or tired or in total, painful resistance all the way through. Whether I feel lean or bloated (and in Bikram, where you’re basically wearing underwear, it’s usually the latter). Even when I feel awkward and stupid and maybe especially then, when I most need to show up for myself.

Whereas I associate “discipline” with things like military, Puritan, monkish, self-controlled, fasting, obedient, and cold, with “devotion” I can remember that this is about wholeness, dedication, fidelity. I can bring the love to it.

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This word, tyranny, has been bubbling up in my thoughts lately.

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that my single New Year’s resolution for 2010 is to “have more fun in the midst” of the things I’m doing. In other words, to remember to play, to enjoy, to not take it all too seriously, because it is so easy to get caught up in the pattern of living life as a series of tasks, duties, obligations, “to dos”. This is part of the being over doing practice. Although a lot of people think of me as a playful, silly type, I’ve always carried a super-serious undercurrent that sometimes, well, pulls me under.

In pursuit of my resolution, I made “havingfun” part of the main passwords I use on a daily basis. So every time I type the password, I’m invited to stop and check: Am I having fun in this? Or am I in hyper-focused, “Sue” (the serious, taskmaster personality) mode? This growing awareness has changed, loosened, my approach in the classroom and I have to say, I’ve been having a lot more fun with my students and really feeling absorbed in our conversations. It also helps me play more with my academic writing, and that creates creative openings. It makes the “duties” of my day feel less tyrannical.

This, of course, has raised my awareness of the “tyrannies” I allow or create or at least experience in my life. What do I mean by tyranny? Websters describes it as “oppressive power” of some kind, and we can think of the political iterations of authoritarianism, autocracy, etc. But what I have in mind are activities/relationships/patterns that come to feel obligatory, entrapping, tediously repetitive, and in some way not really optional, not really chosen. Of course, these include things that most of us “have” to do all the time: commuting, laundry, housecleaning, meetings, cleaning up after or taking care of others, paying bills–you know, “the drill.”

It’s when I’m feeling obligated toward such things, when my life feels propelled only or mainly by these things, that I get depressed. Occasionally I just flatline, and it feels like all the life drains out of me. But here’s the big irony: In order to reach goals I set for myself, I set up all kinds of mechanisms that are, in effect, little tyrannies.

If you want to write a book (or even an article), you generally have to break it down to small tasks and routines. If you want to lose weight, you change your behaviors, meal by meal, workout by workout, showing up for each minor and psychological step on a path to transformation. If you want to meditate, you practice, every day, or however many times a day. You show up, whether you “feel like” it or not.

What we are, in effect, doing is setting up a structure that facilitates an end goal. We’re building a little container, if you will, which can also function as a little cage. And, sure, there is always a choice in terms of following through, but a practice is, after all, a way of learning discipline; of “doing the work” or “showing up” regardless of mood or inclination in that particular moment. In a way, you stop allowing yourself an easy “opt out.”

I need these things. If I don’t, for example, try to carve two hours before noon Monday through Friday to spend time with my book, it’s just way too easy to blow it off, because other things always feel more pressing or interesting. And because it’s hard to show up; it raises every nasty fear and doubt in the book. So I have to commit to it beforehand, to give myself that structure. And since I’ve been committed to this “practice” of showing up to my work, I’ve gotten a lot done, even though some days it’s agony.

But what about the days that this practice just adds to my sense of a tyranny-driven life?

At my hot yoga studio they’ve been doing a “30-day challenge” this month. The challenge is to show up every day to yoga, to see how it changes your life. I decided to accept the challenge–not with the goal of coming every day, because that’s simply not possible in my schedule right now, but with the aim of seeing how often I can find ways to show up, and what that feels like. So far I’ve been showing up 4-5 days a week, which is pretty intense, though largely gratifying. The thing is, though: I don’t want yoga, this practice that is really helping me on many levels, to become another tyranny, and especially not an externally imposed one. So if I really don’t feel like going, or if getting there is going to add another 1/2 hour of intense stress in my life to make it happen, I’m not going to do it. If yoga generally attracts a lot of goal-driven achiever and monkish types, Bikram is the evangelical version of this. The teachers are basically fanatical about the discipline, and they spout a fair amount of Bikram-jargon in the process. It is changing my life, but I also have to tune some of that preachiness out when I do it. I recoil from all practices that feel like dogma.

I think this instinct to resist more tyranny is a healthy one. On the other hand, I’m aware that it may be a cop out, or at least the wrong framework for thinking about practices like yoga or writing. If I want to learn real discipline, real practice, I think I have to learn what it’s like to push through my biggest resistances, my most intense moments of absolutely not wanting to do it. I can’t give myself an “out” simply because I can reasonably justify doing so in a given moment. But the thing is, in order to make it not feel tyrannical in these resistance moments, I have to keep an eye on why I’ve made the commitment; I have to return to what it’s about.

Yoga right now is about learning a real practice, and showing up to take care of my spirit and body in a totally committed way. Writing right now is about finishing a project I’ve had in my life for many years and thereby being able to move forward, toward my next horizon. Maybe if I can keep these things in mind I can transform the short-term interpretation of them as tyrannies. And maybe I can interpret the other “tyrannies” in my life as little acts of gratitude.

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