I don’t know what I’d do without a meditation practice.
After 20+ years, daily meditation is not a huge struggle for me any longer. Yes, sometimes I miss a day of formal practice. I might even go through a period of not sitting for a week (rare). But, I have established enough of a foundation that meditation is one reliable way for me to ground and center myself.
I need a LOT of grounding and centering “these days” — although I’m not only talking about our insane political and social devolution (but, yes, also that nonsense).
Two years ago this summer, I launched my new professional life as a full-time meditation teacher & transformational coach. One month into that new life I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. I cancelled teaching engagements, clients, and consulting gigs to cope with the shock and grief (and lapsed on this newsletter – sorry).
My meditation practice helped me make space in the midst of fear, confusion, and rage. And through the support of many friends (including many of you), I spent the next year healing and slowly building back my work life. Happily, last September I received clear scans.
Then, in October, my mother unexpectedly fell ill in Ethiopia and passed away in London a few weeks later. Since then, I have become the caretaker for my older, intellectually disabled sister, Finot, who now lives with my husband and me.
Also, Finot and I were hit by a car.
And I got pneumonia.
Again: I do NOT know what I would do without a meditation practice!
It’s Called “Practice” for a Reason. I’m not practicing to become a good meditator. I’m practicing so that I can meet life’s difficulties & blessings with the same ease with which I meet my breath and busy mind.
The challenges I have faced these past two years have been intense. I rely on continually cultivating a mind & heart that can allow for all of life: the joys & the sorrows, the challenges & the delights.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn
My meditation practice (and its connected wisdom explorations) are a training ground for both the rough waters and for the fun waves. I try not to get carried away like a buoy with every sway of the currents. I constantly (re)anchor myself to what is deep, true, and ultimately liberating. Keeping my head above water. Catching a wave when I can. (Good times!)
But although the practice is simple to start (be with this breath, and now this one… repeat), that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The nuance of cultivating the aspiration for freedom but not grasping at every little passing moment that feels freeing is often so frustrating that we give up without really understanding what’s happening.
Meditation is a laboratory for being with the paradox of practice — change comes from acceptance.
I sit down on my cushion with an aspiration for health, well–being, & flourishing but I must meet the difficulties of life without pushing them away. The key is cultivating an attitude of kindness, curiosity, and ease. Or as Joseph Goldstein says: It’s not what’s happening that matters, but our relationship to it. The shift in how we meet our lives, the ease and well–being we have regardless what is happening — that’s why we practice. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
As I return to this newsletter, I will be exploring this and more with you. Thank you for reading!
May we all catch some waves.
There are a lot of new readers here. Welcome. And Happy New Year to all of us! It’s been a while since I’ve written. A lot has happened, personally and collectively. I’m not sorry to say goodbye to 2016…
As many of you know, my mother died 10 days after Donald Trump was elected. The past few months have been extremely unsettling. The grief for these two things continues to hit me like waves in the rough Atlantic, inconsistent to my expectations, rising and cresting (and felling me).
[And, let me not make assumptions, if you voted for Trump, you may want to unsubscribe. At the very least, please read this.]
I am still incredulous to these two realities. How could my mom, so powerful and vibrant throughout my life, be dead? How could this ignorant, racist, sexist buffoon be president of our magnificent country? Both of these questions are subject to myth making: the myth of democracy & the myth of a mother’s strength.
There is oppression & greed at the core of this country’s undeniable greatness (as opposed to its mythical greatness) and there was often delusion & selfishness at the center of my mom’s beautiful care for us. Each require me to do deep reckoning, one easier than the other.
As I continue to understand and forgive the limitations of the mothering (and fathering) I received, I meet many challenges. But I have discovered powerful tools and developed my own ways of thriving within my messy, imperfect life. Therapy (lots of it), meditation, coaching, ritual, community, books, art (did I mention therapy?)…
I have a multitude of resources in people, places, and spaces that help my personal transformation. And I share that among/with others: friends & family, teachers, students, clients. We are waking up together in what Mark Epstein calls the “trauma of everyday life.” Rather than shutting them out or numbing them, I open to the traumas of my past and present, allowing them to be felt fully, integrated, and transmuted into wisdom & compassion.
When we resist the underlying traumatic nature of things, we cut ourselves off from ourselves and from others. — Mark Epstein
But the collective grief and despair unleashed by the election, this seems almost impossible to feel fully or to reconcile. We live in a big country, affecting a huge world. The challenges seem numberless and endless. And with the incoming administration, every day is a fresh slap of unbelievable inanity — it is horrifying and overwhelming. And it hasn’t even really started. But I don’t want to cut myself off and I (like you) am slowly finding my way into how to stay connected to the waves without drowning.
I know many people are protecting themselves from the news in acts of self–care. And, yes, I may be spending too much time on Twitter (where it’s hard to live in the bubble that Facebook or even non–social media can create; thank you other–people’s–trolls). But at some point we all need to be paying close attention to what is happening, because what is happening could destroy humanity.
Some of you may think I’m being hyperbolic. I hope you’re right and I’m really f*@cking wrong…
I remember going to see Lumumba in the early naughts with my friend Noel. The film follows the true story of the rise and death of the Congolese leader. We lamented a mainstream reviewer describing Lumumba’s assassination as conspiracy theory. “What theory?” Noel and I asked ourselves in vain. The CIA conspired to kill Lumumba; that’s not a “theory,” it’s well documented fact (officially uncovered many years after his death).
Conspiracy started to interest me. I was newly enamored with etymology and (still am) ignorant of Latin so was delighted to discover that “conspiracy” translates to “breathe with.” Lumumba’s assassins (or the ones who plotted his death — Eisenhower, the British, and especially the Belgians) certainly breathed with each other in person or over scratchy mid–century telephone lines to murder the first democratically elected leader of the Congo. There have been countless conspiracies smaller and larger, before and since…
I really hate to quote Julian Assange (yuck) but his phrase conspiracy as governance is apt for our world. There are many powerful people (i.e. white dudes) currently conspiring to do harm — this is NOT theoretical. And they can and will out–might us and out–resource us (materially). But we DO have power.
We have power… Our power isn’t in a political system, or a religious system, or in an economic system, or in a military system; these are authoritarian systems… they have power… but it’s not reality. The power of our intelligence, individually or collectively IS the power; this is the power that any industrial ruling class truly fears: clear coherent human beings. — John Trudell*
Why did they kill Lumumba? Because he was organizing and energizing the people. The same reason they killed MLK, Fred Hampton, and others — because they were breathing together to cultivate people’s inherent power, power that reveals the love at the foundation of our interconnection.
We DO have power. And that power needs to be nurtured and cultivated, individually and collectively. Every day. And that power needs to be connected to a SACRED–CORE. Clear. Coherent. Conscious. We must be clear about our values, our commitments and our aspirations (also from breath). We must, as my teacher Thanissara states, “be taken into the sanctuary of our unshakeable, indivisible, brilliantly sane, undying, and loving heart[s].”
Can we conspire together? Actually, we must. We need to breathe together in a conspiracy of consciousness.
Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms For consciousness
is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.
— Erwin Schrödinger
It’s so interesting that the breath is at the center of so many sacred` practices. We can live more than 50 days without food and about 7 days without water. But, without oxygen we cannot survive more than about 5 minutes. We share our breath with everyone around us — including Donald Trump. Perhaps molecules within me have been within him. Ultimately, we are all breathing in and out each other over and over again. And of course, we are not and never have been separate from anyone or anything…
How do we breathe together in a way that honors our conscious aspirations for equality and freedom and kindness and care? How do we breathe together to resist the agendas of very real harmful conspiracies? How do we breathe together in the consciousness that is absolutely fundamental, that is sacred and universal?
These are the questions that I hope to explore with you over the coming days and months and years…
Please also check out the resources for resistance (in physical terms) below.
Let’s breathe together friends. May the force be with us.
Forgotten toddler tantrums aside, I’ve never been good at saying “no.” People pleasing, compulsive compassion, wonder womaning, parker–posey–party girling, and exaggerated empathy have long led to cycles of overdrive followed by burnout.
These imbalanced ways of reacting to the world are definitely learned behavior. Growing up, I got plenty of messages about being a caretaker and putting others first while alsobeing successful and sexy — Enjoli (look it up millenials). But I am a grown–ass woman now and am learning to say “no.”
Say “yes” to Inner No–ing. “No” is a compete sentence.*
But why is it so hard to say it? And mean it?
For me, there are a few things operating (they feed into and on each other):
- the need to please: This one is my kryptonite. I have a voracious need for approval. It’s wound up closely with no. 2 but is more outwardly focused — the actions I take more than the messages I receive/interpret. In the past, the need to please had me accepting almost every invitation that I received. The need to belong is wired into us for survival — we needed the pack to avoid harm. But maybe it’s been taken it a little too far — we will not be eaten by wild animals if we do
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson
n’t go to someone’s birthday gathering.
- fear of rejection: It’s embarrassing how much positive feedback buoys me and how much criticism cuts. I’m not the only one. I have a friend who remembers nothing of the multiple good reviews written about her artistic project from 20+ years ago, but she can quote entire sentences from the one bad review (from a shitty publication). Also: someone not liking me ≠ being eaten by wild animals.
- FOMO, aka greed: Fear of missing out is really an acronym for craving. And craving is really our not–so-smart strategy for dealing with the impermanence/unreliability of life. If I distract myself with all the things to do, the things to visit, the things to read/watch/eat/consume, maybe that will keep suffering at bay (um, nope). A smarter strategy is as Suzuki Roshi describes accepting that [things] go away. Maybe I don’t need that extra cookie/glass of wine/pair of sneakers/episode of Transparent to be happy.
- the pull of culture and my own conditioning: The Buddhist path (or any spiritual practice) can be thought of as “going against the stream.” That’s how the Buddha described it 2,600 years ago; and there was no social media. Well, now it’s like going against the tsunami. It’s hard not to be pulled by the messages of our time, especially when they’re disguised as positive habits (I’ve written before about the pathology of productivity).
Of course I say “yes” to many — things I love, things I feel called to do. The challenge is knowing how much is enough — I can’t agree to every invitation and I can’t fight every injustice. For balance, there are four areas where I am focusing and practicing my no’s (and they are also messily interrelated).
- no to obligations
- no to (the need for) confirmations
- no to distractions
- no to compulsions
All of these require me to cultivate awareness and presence, which require me to slow down, which require me to create space and time for meditation or other contemplative practices.
“No” requires pausing. Pausing is a radical “no.”
As a radical young adult, I explored transgressive spaces and acts and was exposed to boundary pushing in every domain. I remember wondering at 19 or 20 what (if anything) will seem truly radical once all the boundaries have been challenged in work and art and sex and life?
Today, the most radical act I can imagine for myself is to pause. No consuming. No constructing. “Yes” to curiosity. “Yes” to connection.
Just being. Followed by a long nap.
Confession: I am not good at this. Some days I am really bad at this. Do as I say, not as I do.
But there’s this: I keep recommitting to my inner no–ing. Just like in my meditation practice — coming back to the breath, to the felt sense of my being — I reconnect to the possibility of spaciousness and wonder and joy and right now. I say “yes” to this moment…
Pause. Be. Take a nap.
*Thanks to my friend Maria Arias for teaching me the phrase “Inner No–ing”
P.S. if you like this post, you’ll love these:
Pause: The Pathology of Productivity vs. The Power of Presence
Sick in the Head: Slow the F Down and Listen to Your Heart
It’s been a long while since I’ve written. What a summer.
I felt the call to pen something with each devastating moment — Orlando, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Baghdad, Nice, Syria, Dallas, Ethiopia, our ongoing climate crises, wildfires, floods, not to mention the racism and patriarchy at the center of the circus that is the U.S. presidential election. The magnitude of each was amplified by the video footage of the event itself as well as the emotional responses of the survivors (and the tone–deaf review by the media).
After the shooting in Orlando, I struggled with how to respond on social media (a problematically passive “response” but as Darryl Pinckney has said: “There is no more denying or forgetting. Social media have removed filters that used to protect white America from what it didn’t want to see”). As a straight person, I did not want to take up a lot of space but I also wanted to communicate solidarity and help disseminate important and powerful statements and perspectives that some in my circle might not otherwise see. Talking to a queer white woman friend during the following week, we expressed our aspiration to show up for issues that were not only “our own” (and therefore may not feel as deeply) as well as those that rarely get mainstream attention.
But the stream of information made me feel insignificant and impotent. The reports hit me. Hard.
It’s easier to like and share an article than write one. It felt like a daunting responsibility to offer some perspective, to muster some wise words about events so huge and heartbreaking… who am I to have any answers? With each new event/news–cycle I felt both responsible to act/write and at a loss for words. I felt despair —a loss of faith in possibilities for change.
The strange truth is things are not worse today (than let’s say 5, 10 or even 100 years ago) for black people, the LGBTQ community, women, Africa, the concept of democracy… (the earth herself is another story). There’s actually less violence, crime, war, exploitation; some even say we may be living in the most peaceful period in the history of our species.
The sun still sets and rises. It’s just that today we have non-stop coverage and social media feeds and analysis and inflammatory trolls. I am reminded of a Krishnamurti quote:
“You think you are thinking your thoughts. You are not. You are thinking the culture’s thoughts.”
Despair can be an appropriate response to horror. It is understandable to doubt the wisdom of hope when confronted with unbridled greed, hatred and ignorance. But our meditation practice teaches us the difference between an appropriate response and a habitual reaction.
I’ve written before that creative and reactive are the same word, the C just moves… That C is curiosity. A true response is momentary (and, of course, we can have multiple moments or waves of feeling and emotion). Reactivity is perpetuated by a thinking mind that is locked into one concept or perception — closed off to the changing moments of lived experience. No longer curious.
I don’t need to push despair away but I do need to take responsibility not to get stuck in its loop (which probably entails taking breaks from the news).
If I stay mired in despair, in a loss of hope, I’m not responding to life any longer. I’m wallowing. And I’m wallowing not in my thoughts, but the culture’s thoughts — can I see that? That my attention has been hijacked.
The Buddha said whatever we frequently think and ponder upon will become the inclination of our minds. The news (and my social media feed) can incline my mind to only thinking about disaster, violence, fear, celebrity absurdity, and election nonsense. What I notice is that the inclination of my mind affects my feelings, emotions, moods, conversations, decisions, actions… my life.
In fact, life changes with each moment. Images of murder and devastation are followed by feeling a gentle breeze from the window pass over the tops of my legs. Worries about a loved one accompanied by the sound of a bee buzzing caught between the screen and the window.
I can choose the inclination of my mind. I can choose to think my own thoughts.
The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs put it well in this song.
Oh despair, you’ve always been there
You’ve always been there
You’ve always been there
You’re there through my wasted years
Through all my lonely fears, no tears
Run through my fingers, tears
They’re stinging my eyes, no tears
If it’s all in my head there’s nothing to fear
Nothing to fear inside
Through the darkness and the light
Some sun has got to rise
My sun is your sun…
Your sun is our sun
Some sun has got to rise
So, until we really screw things up, some sun has got to rise.
I’ve written here before about feeling like I don’t belong to any one group or identity. Actually, I am most comfortable in hyper–multicultural spaces — places where mixed–race couples and gender–illusionists abound. Luckily, those are the worlds through which I mostly move (shout out to Central Brooklyn).
But I haven’t always felt comfortable in my surroundings or in my own skin. Most of my life, I felt like a complete and utter mess: speaking wrong, dressing wrong, listening to the wrong music… I was like this little girl here trying to hula hoop, but ALL the time, with no hula hoop, and less fashion sense.
In high school, I spent days memorizing a Monty Python sketch and considered performing it for a talent show (only grace saved me). I also did palm reading in the school atrium. And listened to a lot of Depeche Mode (was I the only black person at the Merriweather Post Pavilion 1988 concert?). I was a HUGE weirdo, and it’s a miracle I had any friends.
But how could I not have been a weirdo? No one explained American culture to us when we got here and my mom was too busy trying to keep us clothed and fed while my dad engaged in politics back home. So we had duck for Thanksgiving (my mom’s reply to our pleas for a turkey: “A bird is a bird”). And we wore these getups one Halloween. What are we? No, please tell me, I have no idea… Halloween still scares me.
You don’t have to be an immigrant to tap in to this feeling of being a mess and a weirdo (though it really, really helps). Queer people feel it. Super nerdy girls feel it. Anyone who has zero f*cks to give about fashion trends feels it… But here’s the thing, the multicultural messes will soon be the multicultural masses. Yes, just in sheer numbers, but not only.
Weirdos. Will. Slay. Because not fitting in to any one community is a super power. But only if you choose to fit into yourself first.
Those of us who have spent a childhood and a lifetime having to navigate different communities, groups, identities, languages, cultures, customs, norms and assumptions — we weirdos, we are very adept and dexterous and resilient as f*ck. We understand and connect with all sorts of people.
True liberation doesn’t come from changing everything around you to feel comfortable and pleasant and familiar. Good luck with that. Freedom comes from being at ease with whatever and whoever is in front of you.
And that starts with cultivating ease with how you are, right now. If I can’t be with one breath, how can I be with my beautiful, messy life. If I can be with my own complexities and imperfections, I can be with the contradictions and challenges of this mixed–race, mixed–culture world. And I always fit in to nature…
Feel like you don’t fit in? Good, you’re right where you need to be.
P.S. If you enjoy these missives, please share them.
[Photo: Pearl Eileen Primus (b. 1919) was a dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist.]
In my last newsletter, I shared the Zen axiom that this path (to liberation) requires us “to study the self.” I first heard that teaching in my early twenties. And because, like most of you, I went to school for the first coupla decades of life, I took it to mean study–study.
The way we are taught to “know” things in this society is largely through an intellectual, rational, scientific, material understanding. We start young and spend most of our time being conditioned in this way. Even though education theory has come to include the idea of multiple intelligences, as a culture, we still tend to think of intelligence and knowing as linguistic/mathematical/scientific abilities.
And that’s exactly how I approached the study of self and my self–development in general — I read. A LOT. I was knowing through my head. I’ve written here before about other kinds of knowing; knowing that is embodied, connected, present. But it took 20–something–me another decade and a cancer diagnosis to begin undoing all that education and (re)learn other ways of knowing.
I read and thought and listened to a lot about meditation before I actually started to practice. And while practicing, I mostly thought about my experience before I learned how to be with my experience. I had to attune to the body – a different way of knowing. And it is the balance of different ways of knowing (a full study of the self) that leads to true freedom. I’ve learned to know myself in my head, heart & belly
In the model of human personality called The Enneagram, there are 3 Centers of Intelligence: head (mental), heart (emotional), & belly (physical). I’m a heart type: I connect first emotionally, with all the happiness and hardships that can bring. But, because our whole culture skews to the head – mental knowing – I mostly float up to the intellectual. Generally, each of us gravitates to one area more than the others and, again, in contemporary life, we are encouraged/demanded to be in our heads (and rewarded for it). To undo this, first we must know our habits and then learn to balance the 3 centers.
Of course, there are many other aspects to our self–development, but I’ve found that even a basic understanding of our tendencies in relation to the 3 centers is helpful. Are you a head type — do you think through things intellectually first? Or maybe you’re a body type — you primarily feel things through your body? What ever type you might be, can you learn to balance all your ways of knowing?
One simple outline I’ve been using lately:
- Know Yourself (belly) — Connect to your body by first feeling into your belly with any centering or meditation practices you use. What is present for you in this moment? What sensations or feelings are arising? Where do you feel them? What words or images come to you?
- Love Yourself (heart) — Sense into your chest area. Can you make space for whatever is arising? Can you open to any sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions, images, memories with a sense of welcoming? Can you offer kindness and compassion to whatever is arising?
- Check Yourself (head) — Take a few deep breaths. What is your sense of what has arisen for you? What would you like to cultivate and what would you like to release? Can you integrate what is beneficial for you? Can you let go of what is not beneficial for you?
In what ways do you know?
Until next time, be well my friends.
With love (’cause I’m a heart type),
p.s. Check out my new course starting in June, in Brooklyn(!). Over 6–weeks, we will be exploring these 3 ways of knowing in an intimate group setting. make space!
To study the buddha way is to study the self. ~Dogen
Like most tweens, my nephew is often glued to his gadgets playing games. A few years ago, he went through a phase where he insisted you sit behind him and watch while his avatar accumulated points. I did my auntie–duty and watched because I want him to be feel seen by me. Also because I recognize we all have that desire to be seen… except when we don’t.
I was on a month–long meditation retreat in February and in the first few days I encountered the same question I do on every single retreat: “How can I be so completely fascinated by myself and so utterly sick of myself almost in the exact same moment?” I call this The Narcissistic Paradox of Practice.
All of us have that chasm between the desire to be seen (when we feel good about ourselves) and the desire to disappear (when we don’t). A retreat is an opportunity to sit behind our own–damn–selves while playing our hearts & minds…
Meditation practice is mostly about learning to see ourselves (compassionately).
To do this we need, as Dogen says above, to study the self. We must make space for what my teachers call the orphans of consciousness, the parts of ourselves that we have discarded or imprisoned in unconscious places within. When things are “going good” (peaceful, positive), we might enjoy “studying the self.” When things are going to shit (turbulent, troubled), not so much.
My first teacher, Barry Magid, talks about the challenge of taking ourselves whole and our lives whole. Often we come to practice not wanting to see parts of ourselves, actually, wanting to get rid of parts of ourselves. If we want only the “good stuff” or reject things we don’t like, we can’t know ourselves in full.
Or maybe you are conditioned to only recognize your faults and failures. Or always looking for affirmation and accolades from others — looking out more than in.
Can you see your–self? Just as you are, right now?
The full quote from Dogen reads:
To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
What does it mean to “forget the self” in a selfie society? In an economic climate where everyone is a brand (hello, my name in big letters at the top of this page). In a world that erases or distorts your cultures? In a life you’ve spent healing a wounded and fragmented sense of self — you’re finally glued back together and now you’re asked to break apart again?Or perhaps you’re more comfortable with breaking apart? You want to skip the stage of self–study and get to the good stuff… “I don’t know what ‘actualized by myriad things’ means, but it sure sounds better than studying my pain and trauma.”
They’re a package deal, studying and forgetting the self — let’s call them, seeing your (not)self. Step–one… See Your–Self.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” ~ Albert Einstein
The hype around meditation and mindfulness in the past few years has been bananas. It seems like a new article, book, celebrity–endorsement comes out weekly. Fueling a lot of this are the scientific justifications — studies that prove that meditation positively effects physical, mental, and emotional well–being. It does. And if this encourages people to practice, that’s great. I use my uber–basic understanding of neuroscience to highlight for students some of the benefits of meditation.
But not all of the benefits of contemplative practice are measurable. Or maybe even conceivable.
My wise friend Greg says there are really only two things: concepts & mystery. Take a guess with which one most of us are more comfortable?
And it’s not that concepts are bad and mystery is good. Or that mystery is hocus pocus and concepts are verified. It’s not a spiritual or scientific contest. We need concepts (language, metaphors, ideas) to make our way through life. Mystery is a fact; we don’t know most things let alone everything.
There are concepts. There is mystery. Both.
But concepts rule contemporary life and can imprison us in a need for certainty and control. That’s what our culture emphasizes and rewards. That is our collective conditioning (indigenous wisdom never lost the connection to mystery). The above Einstein quote in full: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [One] to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.
We witness that deadness in our culture. The dismissal of mystery, the dismissal of wonder and awe. The distrust of not knowing. Einstein also said this: The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
We must remember the forgotten gift. We need a reclamation of mystery, of what’s been lost or rejected, of what threatens. The deadness actually comes from fear, from our incapacity to stay curious about what scares us, makes us uncomfortable, challenges us. Meditation practice can help us remember the intuitive mind.
And if we need science to make us feel more comfortable with the process, maybe the “science” behind meditation should include physics.
Last month was the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. His work was revolutionary and it brings us face to face with mystery. It’s been 100 years since he told us that space and time, distances and duration are relative — dependent on different observers and locations in the universe. And we still can’t fully get it. He said time is a persistent illusion and also knew that all matter is mostly space… Wait, huh?
We don’t need to understand the math or concepts behind it because even if we did it’s so hard to internalize these truths. It’s almost impossible, we can’t internalize it. We have this perceptual illusion that we are solid, that matter is solid, NOT mostly space. We have this perceptual illusion that time is moving forward… past, present, future – NOT that it’s relative from one person, place or thing to another. Time is an illusion. Matter is mostly space.
Scientists tell us that roughly 95% of the universe is made up of the mysterious forces of dark energy and dark matter. The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5% of the universe. 95% of the cosmos is mystery. String Theory hypohthesizes that there are probably 10–11 dimensions. What does that mean?
Mystery by its very nature is puzzling. It asks us to give up our usual ways of understanding. It asks us to give up control (like we ever had a choice). It insists that we allow for paradoxes. It exists outside language. It presents us with uncertainty and unreliability. It reveals impermanence.
Not things we like very much. So we try and push away not knowing with facts and statistics. We try and hold on to certainty (of happiness, of pleasure, of safety, of solidity, of continuity). We grasp and cling — which of course creates suffering…
Our longing for safety and for what’s comfortable is very deep; it’s hard wired into us. To let go of the usual discursive focus and simply listen, that’s not easy. But our practice is all about that, isn’t it? We can be open and curious about emotions, thoughts, sensations that are moving through us. We cultivate a trust with whatever is arising. Not pin down, not know, not fix. To just be with what’s happening.
Can we open to mystery?
P.S. This post is based on a talk I gave with my teacher Thanissara at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this Thanksgiving. Give a listen here.
P.P.S. I will be going on another long retreat so you will be hearing from me again in March. Happy New Year! May peace & joy prevail on our tiny blue sphere and throughout the vast and mysterious universes.
Late last fall, after my third cold in less than two months, I went to see my integrative doctor. I had been ridiculously busy all September and October working long hours and with the rare day off. I said something about catching whatever bugs had popped up that everyone else seemed to be getting. She laughed and said, “Sebene, it’s not like the cold & flu arrive on a plane from somewhere else. There are as many microbes now as any other time of the year.”
Duh, of course… Wait, then why do we all get sick in the fall and winter? According to her, “because we have lost harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
Think about it. Summer, with its long days and high vibrancy, is when nature is most active but when most of us get our lengthiest restorative time. Starting around the Fall Equinox, just as we speed up in our post–Labor Day madness, all the plants and animals around us begin storing and slowing down in preparation for a needed dormancy. Even if we don’t have kids (but especially if we do), the back–to–school rush is the engine revving in preparation for months of total over–activity. This culminates in an insanely frantic pace around the Winter Solstice when all of nature is either asleep or dead while our crazy species rushes around in the end–of–fiscal year, sugar–fat–alcohol–induced madness otherwise known as the “holiday season.”
Deadly heart attacks most commonly occur on December 25th. Second most common day, December 26th. Third, January 1st.
Many of us (especially in NYC) wear our busyness as a badge of honor while technology allows (forces?) us to work from anywhere. We fill up every moment of our time often without asking ourselves if all this activity is meaningful. Even “downtime” is spent scrolling through texts and images adding endless links and associations to our flooded synapses. It’s totally cuckoo. What are we thinking? And what will make us finally slow down? For most of us, only illness. Starting with me.
As many of you know, I have had cancer twice. Sadly, the mofo is back.
I hesitated sharing this news so publicly but part of my evolution with illness over the years has been to challenge the culture of fear, discomfort and shame around it. And maybe this is an opportunity to remind all of us (especially moi) that we are Sick in the Head and need to Slow the F Down & Listen to Our Hearts.
Of course I have had many powerful emotions and thoughts while grappling with this news. Shock, fear, despair, disbelief, grief… and a roaring “F@*k Cancer!” and “What the F@*k?!” and “F@*k, F@*k, F@*k!!”
But what has gripped me most is the inquiry, “What is important to me?” In the weeks since my latest diagnosis, I have been exploring my deepest longing, what Suzuki Roshi called the heart’s most inmost request. What is mine?
That is not an easy question to answer because the noise in my mind (voices of family, culture, society, media, doctors, well–meaning advice–giving friends) is very loud. And bossy. And that noise insists on incessant activity — mental, emotional, physical — to never fall apart (exhausting and pretty useless), to plan for unknowns (mostly useless), to try and control the mostly mysterious process of life & death (always useless).
Hard to listen deeply with all that racket.
Of course, there are decisions to be made and actions to be taken whether we are facing a serious illness or not. What is draining and unnecessary is the constant activity and the superfluous thought (and worry). Yes, mindfulness is useful here. I’ve written before about the power of presence. But beyond breath meditation there’s also a need to reckon with reality.
Yup, I’m talking about death.
Buddhists talk about three messengers: illness, old age, and death. Some of us are blessed with good health for a long time (mazel tov), some of us will not make it to old age, but all of us will die.
Yet, everything in our culture avoids or outright denies this reality and holds up the impossible ideal of eternal youth (and limitless success/accumulation). Not that we need to be morbid. Self care is mature and wise. But how much can we diet, dye, cross–fit, pump, plump, inject, extract, and spurn anything that reminds us of this inevitability?
Something that has helped me is the five daily recollections recommended by the Buddha.
1. I am of the nature to grow old. I have not gone beyond aging.
2. I am of the nature to be ill. I have not gone beyond illness.
3. I am of the nature to die. I have not gone beyond death.
4. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, supported by my actions. Whatever actions I do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.
These reminders are simple statements of fact and within our culture of denial they form a Radical Manifesto of Reality. Join the cause. Join me. Don’t wait for illness. Or death…
These days I am taking things way the F slow. I am dropping things (see side bar). Scheduling less frequently. Trying not to fill up free time & space with agitated activity. I am staring out the window. Reading actual books (without checking my gadget every 5 minutes)! Lingering on a park bench. Noticing the rhythms of nature in the city. Listening…
What do you long for? What is your heart’s inmost request?
Next month we will explore deep listening. Until then: Slow Down. Listen.
I call myself an Integral Coach® because that’s what I am but also because I don’t want to use the “L” word (no, not that one, I’d happily call myself a “Lesbian” but I’m not, so I can’t).
It’s that other word… I’m embarrassed to call myself a “Life” Coach. Yeah, I said it.
There are amazing life coaches out there doing deep and transformative work with their clients (and there is so much jibber jabber fluffy fluff). I can mostly ignore the fluff but what I find more challenging is what I’ll call “positive thinking coaching” — the secular–prosperity–gospel, solipsistic, self-help coaching that tells people (mostly women) that they can change their lives through positively attracting and manifesting.
Look, I’m way woo-woo, am pretty sure magic is real, and I am all for positive thinking. My main man, the Buddha, was maybe the original positive thinker. He said whatever we think about becomes the inclination of mind. That’s straight–up manifesting–101.
But I’m also into critical thinking. And systems thinking. And, by my humble estimation, the systems stink. When looking at what helps someone grow in their capacity for wisdom, compassion, and joy, I take into account their personal reality and also their social, cultural, and political realities. And I wish more coaches (and meditation teachers) would too. [Big shout out to a few Buddhist initiatives that are doing this work: Buddhists for Racial Justice, White Awake, Transbuddhists.org ]
Contemplatives can get uncomfortable with talk of systems and oppression. Aren’t we supposed to be looking inwards? Yes. And, often what’s inside is a projection of what’s out there. The personal is political.
This newsletter is called wise awake (btw, that’s aspirational, not declarative) because I believe waking up is our best hope as a species. But what we’re waking up to is not always pretty; we are not waking up only to rainbows and ponies (though also rainbows and ponies). To get ourselves out of this mess, we are going to have to think personally and collectively and think positively and critically. How about Positive Critical Thinking?
For me, positive critical thinking involves deep personal work — change does start from within. It also includes acknowledging and dismantling what I’m calling systems: the oppressive forces that get embedded in our language, thoughts, views/opinions, behaviors, culture, laws, institutions… I believe these forces are outward and systemic expressions of what us Buddhisty types recognize as greed, hatred, and delusion. And they get internalized — mostly unconsciously.
This is not about pointing fingers at other people. Of course, systems are acted out through people, but no one is exempt from them. AND we need to do the work to see them clearly, understand their effects on us, and undo their harm.
Open your eyes. And your heart. And get ready for some discomfort. It might come from looking within and seeing all the ways you’ve internalized these systems and turned them against yourself. It might come from looking outside and seeing the ways you’ve projected these systems onto others. And then, of course, there’s simply opening to the pain and suffering all around us.
Not all of us are called to actively change these systems (though we can actively support those who do). But all of us are called to the work of undoing their effects within our own minds and hearts. Critically. Positively.