I recently was on a silent meditation retreat. Nine days of listening to my inner nag — or nags, sometimes it feels like a whole committee is in my brain. Some refer to this as the inner critic (or critics, in my case). On this retreat, I observed (once again) just how mean my inner critics can be and how much they limit me.There’s one critic that goes on and on about what a bad meditator I am, how I have terrible samadhi (concentration), and how all my insights are shallow. This script inevitably leads me to greater striving. The striving leads to frustration (because, go figure, ease and freedom don’t come from grasping). In my frustration, the critic starts all over again about me being a failed meditator. He’s such a jerk. But I’m the one who keeps listening to him…
I have learned over the years with my inner critics not to encourage them, not to believe them, and, here’s the trick, not to hate them (that one’s hard, see jerk comment above).
Inner critics develop in us initially as survival strategies, monitoring and prescribing ways of behaving that allow us to stay safe, get love, and find wellbeing. I conformed to my family dynamics by not speaking up or expressing needs. To keep the domestic balance, my inner critics kept my anger and upset in check (and helped keep the peace). This strategy is no longer useful — now it just leads to me bottling up emotions and running resentful scripts in my head. As an adult, I have had to learn (still learning) how to skillfully express what was for so long the inexpressible.
But these judging voices don’t only develop from our home environments, they also demand we conform to society’s precepts. For years, I’ve been followed around stores by security (yes, it still happens) and once was chased out of a health food store by an owner accusing me of shoplifting (I dumped my bag out on the sidewalk in a fit of rage in response). Growing up, my inner critics prescribed and monitored a code of behavior in mostly white public spaces that, yes, still includes always purchasing something in a cafe even if I’m waiting for a friend. #StarbucksWhileBlack #ColonizedMind
This retreat, I decided to finally give my inner critics names. I wanted names that exemplified the nagging persistence of these voices but also acknowledged that I was internalizing the messages I was receiving from society. I have a favorite quote that sums up this dynamic. It comes from the great teacher Krishnamurti, via Jane Fonda (because, the sixties):
You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.
Or as the quote above from Sadhguru says: Your mind is society’s garbage bin.
So, I’d like to introduce you to my inner critics: Chikko & The Man (millennials: google Chico and the Man).
Chikko is an Amharic word that can be translated as a nagging or persistent person (the consonants are glottalized or explosive which makes it sound that much better). When I was little, my mom would lovingly use it when I asked a question too many times or repeated something over and over — anchi chikko (You nag).
Chikko, my inner critic, sounds like me, which means she can be logical and erudite, funny and charming. She presents good arguments and has little tricks for getting me to listen to her. Often she seems to be protecting me from potential danger or disappointment. She “just wants me to have a fruitful retreat.”
The Man? He’s often writing the scripts that Chikko reads because it’s his culture I/we swim in. As the great psychiatrist–philosopher Frantz Fanon said, To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. We are shaped by the culture around us and it shows up in, well, how we show up (parce que, le colonialisme). It can be really difficult to determine what’s our own intention, and what’s the cultural script. Am I doing something because I have a wholesome longing or because I crave the attention and validation taught to me by our competitive culture?
As I alluded, this can show up in my meditation practice in the form of striving or trying to get somewhere — in the name of spiritual development, I beat myself up for my lack of achievements. Sometimes it is incredibly difficult for me to untangle my aspirations and motivations from our larger culture of comparison and competition. This makes getting clear on my intentions really important — for my practice and for my life. I constantly remind myself that I practice and live not just for myself, but for the benefit of all beings everywhere without exception. For me, sharing blessings every day helps.
This is just the beginning. The process of untangling ourselves from our inner critics is, well, a process. Noticing them is the first step. Understanding — not hating — them is good. Naming them can help. Mine have been around for a long time. As much as I try to hit mute, interrupt the broadcast, cancel the show… they’re still on the air.
P.S. R.I.P. Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Calendar, January 7th is Gena or Christmas and January 19th is Timkat or Epiphany. As in Western Christianity, the days after Christmas (the “12 days”) are considered holy. But unlike in the West where Epiphany symbolizes the Magi’s visit to baby Jesus, the Eastern Churches celebrate it as Christ’s baptism.
For Orthodox Ethiopians, Timkat is the most important religious holiday of the year and includes three days of festivities including a ritual baptism where people are delightedly splashed by or immersed in water, renewing their faith and lives. Families dress in their finest clothes to dance and sing while, in ceremonial processions, priests carry on their heads replicas of the tabot or holy grail (n.b. a tabot cannot be viewed by unsanctified eyes, thus is hidden by a vibrantly colored cloth called, drumroll… sebene — which also symbolizes a halo).
Although (or maybe because) I don’t formally celebrate the Eastern or Western versions of Christmas or Epiphany, I have been reflecting on our loss of holy days.
Timkat celebration in Gondar, Ethiopia (2014)
Last week, a friend was lamenting to me that they did not get enough work done over the holidays. This person did not have deadlines they would miss or anyone to disappoint by taking a week (or even two) off, just an inner critic relentlessly critiquing their inadequate output. How many of us feel like that about our vacations, weekends, evenings, daily commute, the last five minutes?
The word holiday comes from the Old English halig “holy” + dæg “day.” Holy comes from the same root as “whole.” Holidays/Holy Days move us out of our daily routines and ruts and remind us what all wisdom traditions teach — that we are whole and everything is whole, because all is one. In our anxiety and fear and stress of daily life (and relentless assaults of this administration) we forget this truth — the truth that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny… the inter-related structure of reality” — what some might call the sacred or divine but what even skeptics can recognize as the great mystery.
Epiphany can refer to any illuminating discovery or insight, but its root meaning is the manifestation of divinity. Isn’t that what true insights feel like? Moments of wonder and awe, of sacred (re)connections to that single garment of destiny. These moments don’t require ceremonial processions (though those can be beautiful). Epiphany can be inspired by anything — stillness, movement, nature, art, conversation, contemplation.
Profound epiphanies rarely arise when we are rushed or overwhelmed, when we do not feel whole. But even those of us with a slower life or even a meditation practice, how often do we feel connected to what is whole or holy? Is our meditation practice simply another thing on our to do list? Has practice becomes a task? Are retreats obligations? Is awakening a project? In our attempt to be balanced, healthy, good, better, have we lost connection to what is essential, what is mysterious?
“Anybody can observe the Sabbath,
but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”
Holy Days are prescribed in most cultures and spiritual traditions. In Buddhism there are Uposatha or Moon Days. Often occurring two to ten times a month, in many Buddhist cultures they are observed on the full, new and quarter moons (conveniently about once a week). These days offer lay people and monastics designated time to immerse more fully in their practice, refraining from many normal activities, connection to the cosmic rhythm. The Abrahamic traditions have the sabbath, ramadan, saints’ days, high holy days, lent. Holy days are designated for rest (something we are most definitely lacking in contemporary culture) but not rest that is only about not working. This is rest that reconnects us to ritual and reminders that our separation is illusory, that there is something more essential than our current unease, our latest angst. Through reflection, prayer, readings, sermons and celebration, we let go our burdens and are renewed into our deepest aspirations for connection and love.
Holy days invite us to remember what is essential — kindness, compassion, joy, hope — to renew our capacity for touching these in any moment.
This year, in my life, I am choosing to observe more holy days and imbue moments throughout every day with wholeness. My greatest aspiration is to make each moment holy.
Melkam Timkat (Happy Epiphany).
Last Friday was the one year anniversary of my mom’s death. If you have lost nearests & dearests you know the profundity of bereavement; looking back over this past year, I see many arc(s) of grieving. And I continue to process psychological and emotional nuances of the complex relationship I had with my mother — I am still releasing the pain (and also remembering to remember the joy). My practice is central to my capacity to be with all the feelings and thoughts that arise (and pass away).
Caring for my disabled older sister, Finot, I have been witness to her process. Finot is 50 years old but has the language skills and intellectual capacity of a child. Her way of understanding our mom’s death has been different than mine. Finot’s process is maybe less complex (or complicated), but it’s equally profound.
In the days and weeks after our mom died, she engaged my husband and me in a daily ritual (sometimes multiple times a day). It went something like this:
Finot: Mommy died.
Me: Yes. Mommy died.
Finot: Tsige [our aunt who passed away over 10 years ago] died.
Me: Yes, Tsige died.
Finot: Abate [our uncle who died over 20 years ago] too.
Finot: Michael Jackson died.
Me: Yup, Michael Jackson died.
Finot: Elvis died.
Me: Yes, Elvis is dead.
This process would go on to include the list of everyone who Finot could remember had died — luckily it’s not an outrageously long list but it could go on for quite a while. Sometimes one of us would correct her, that, no, Stevie Wonder was not dead, yet.
We did this multiple times a day. For weeks. But, wait, there’s more.
After we completed the list of everyone who was already dead, we would start on the process of naming everyone we know would die. Which. Is. Every–damn–one.
Finot: Daddy’s going to die.
Me: Yes. Daddy will die.
Finot: Suki [our dog] too.
Me: Yes, Suki too.
Finot: Freddy [my husband] is going to die.
Me: Yup, even Freddy.
Finot: Obama’s going to die.
This process is longer. And quite sobering. I was talking to a dharma teacher friend who said, That’s a death contemplation. It’s exactly what it is.
In the classical teachings of what we translate as mindfulness, there are four foundations for cultivating awareness. Even though we called it mind–fulness, thoughts and emotions come later… the first foundation is the body. Included in contemplation of the body are mindfulness of breathing, the body in its various activities, and the anatomical parts & four elements (air, water, earth, fire) of the body. The final contemplation in mindfulness of the body is of the deceased, decaying body — the ultimate insight of this practice being the inevitability of death.
It’s said the Buddha described his teachings as being “against the stream,” implying that his message and practices ran counter to those of the surrounding culture. That was 2,600 years ago. These days, an intentional and regular meditation on death could be said to be “against the tsunami.” The culture around us abhors death, glorifies youth, and attempts to (unsuccessfully) defy aging.
But Finot’s meditation is right. None of us are getting out of this alive. Even Obama. But many of our anxieties and fears are founded on this denial. Our delusional attempts to avoid the inevitable truth of impermanence will not save us —accumulating more stuff that won’t last is not the answer, neither is hating our aging bodies.
Edward Conze, the noted historian of Buddhism said this:
If we can believe Buddhaghosa (the author of the ancient classic Visuddhimagga), two only among the forty meditational practices are always and under all circumstances beneficial—the development of friendliness, and the recollection of death.
Finot’s death meditations became lighter as the months passed, even playful. These days, our death meditations are mostly about gratitude.Finot: Mommy died.
Me: Yes. Mommy died.
Finot: She’s gone.
Finot: She’s dead. Kaput. Finito. No more. So long. Bye. [waves to the sky]
Finot: I miss my mother so much. Mommy is the nicest person in the whole world.
Gratitude might be the friendliest of meditations.
May we all be grateful this season. May we be grateful for our bodies, in all the ways they sustain us. Maybe we be grateful for the bodies of our ancestors.
May we especially be grateful for the indigenous people of whatever land we call home. For thousands of years, indigenous people everywhere have stewarded the land as our collective body. If we are those peoples, may we honor our lineages.
May we be grateful for the land, the sea, the air, the water, the fire for the plants and minerals. May we be grateful for all the creatures large and small, seen and unseen who make up this beautiful planet.
May all beings everywhere, without exception, be free.
Picture: Eartha Kitt modelling bodyfulness
Sati is the ancient Indian word that was translated as “mindfulness” during the Victorian era — the era that took complex Buddhist concepts and gave us riveting translations like “suffering,” “aggregates,” and “sympathetic joy.” Ugh!
is at the center of the training we undertake to alleviate stress and cultivate well–being. But we put the word “mind” right up front giving the impresssion that all we need to do is focus on our thoughts and presto… joy!
In some ways, yes, mindfulness is a great translation for (part of) sati. It speaks to the attentional capacity we need to develop — especially because most of us are complete and utter scatterbrains, our thoughts and emotions constantly yank us around. But, in fact, despite all the focus on neuroscience, it’s not only about our brains.
Sati is about training and increasing our capacity to be with our present moment experiences in a more easeful, non-reactive way. The body is the perfect place for that training. While the mind can (and does) pull us into the past or future, the body is only ever in the present moment. That’s why the breath and body are used as primary objects of meditation in so many traditions.
One connotation of sati is memory. Not in the sense of recalling information or having a memory of the past but of that act remembering. You know the feeling during meditation when your mind has been wandering and you come back into your body, your breath, the present moment? You’ve remembered “Oh, yeah, duh, I was meditating. That’s what I was doing.” That very precise moment of awareness is sati. We are remembering to be fully in this moment. We feel our breath, our body, our existence.
Interestingly, to dismember means to pull the body apart piece by piece… Maybe we are re–membering. We are getting out of our heads, coming to our senses, cultivating an embodied awareness… putting our bodies back together breath by breath.
Here’s how embodied awareness [translated here as mindfulness *sigh*] is described in the classical teachings :
There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.
(Anguttara Nikaya I, 21 )
If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated. (Majjhima Nikaya 36)
It wasn’t until I started doing yoga in my early twenties that I began to (re)connect to my body (I, like many of us, lost this connection in adolescence). I learned where I carry stress and tension in my body and where I could find and cultivate ease. I began to understand that contraction and tension in the mind has an effect on our bodies, and also that our bodies effect our minds. BUT we can’t think our way to relaxation. We need to retrain our awareness to uncover and encourage ease and pleasure in the body.
For a few years now, my main meditation practice has been lying down. I don’t usually fall asleep when I meditate, so this is a good practice for me (although the Dalai Lama said sleep is the best meditation, so, there’s that). I encourage you to find an easy and easeful way to connect to your body in your practice, to practice re–membering, to practice bodyfulness.
Before I left for vacation, my friend, Colin (an excellent coach for those who are looking), was coaching me as I was lamenting my inability to create more structure for writing & creativity . He was guiding me in an inquiry process and the statement “the space IS the structure” came out of my mouth. I realized, once again *sigh*, how I crowd all the space in my life and how, get this, even my meditation practice becomes a way to fill the space.These days, it feels so difficult to make space. Anyone else feel like this?
But the ridiculous part coming from me — all my programs use the phrase make space: make space for transformation, make space for inspiration, make space for change… make space for all of you. Duh.
Of course, it’s not my or your fault (hardly anything is — because modernity). So much of our world now is specifically designed to take space. Our gadgets as a whole, yes. But also the embedded processes of technology… the scrolling function of social media (someone designed that precisely so that you would not have to bother with the extra micro-moment it takes to click “next”), the autoplay function on streaming video that doesn’t allow any break between episodes (advice: turn that shit off!), the ubiquitous red–colored notifications on apps which immediately draw your attention when it might wander or wonder (red is also the sign for danger for a reason), all the content, content, content, content.
But also, the general trend of our society towards time scarcity and the state of constantly being over scheduled. It’s even affecting children.
Personally, I have also been overwhelmed with life circumstances, so I could maybe give myself a break, right? But that would mean making space in my heart for something different than the self–flagellating voice of comparison & criticism. I look at all the people producing weekly newsletters and writing books and I beat myself up for feeling depleted and uninspired.
After my intuitive declaration about space & structure, I learned of the Japanese word ma, which is often translated as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”
This is the Kanji character below. It graphically combines “door” and “sun” and symbolizes light entering through space (originally it was “moon” — which is a whole other post about patriarchy and masculine symbols replacing feminine ones) .
[Ma] is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision. Ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore, ma can be defined as experiential place understood with emphasis on interval. (Thank you Wikipedia!)
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space”. Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form.” —The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher
I realize now that I was trying to stoke the fire of creativity without giving enough air to the flames. Anyone who has tried to build a fire knows that it needs three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. I barely had the heat (inspiration) and the fuel (energy) let alone the oxygen (space). When I did carve out some time, I used up the little oxygen there was almost immediately — I could get no farther than writing a few sentences before losing the light. My imagination could not experience the consciousness of place, the interval necessary for creation.
Sometimes I notice something similar in my meditation practice itself. Life gets busy and I only make time for the minimum, usually a 15 or 20 minute sit in the morning. My mind, racing with that momentum, has no space for the silences which give the form…
If space is the breath of art, maybe breath is the art of space.
I CAN choose differently, plan more carefully, open up space in my daily schedule (by fiercely protecting it from filling up!). Doing so allows me to dedicate more time to my practice, rather than cramming it into the crack in my morning. When I let go of the rushing, sit for 45 or even 75(!!) minutes, and maybe even create spaciousness before and after the meditation it’s like a waterway that has been replenished and undammed. Things are able to flow.
So, I am (re)committing to making space in my calendar for writing, for longer practice periods, as well as for ma or what I’m calling free(dom) time (scheduled time for no–thing). To do this I must (re)connect to my sense of inner no–ing and not revert to crowding the door and blocking the moonlight.
AND I am going to NOT beat myself up when the space inevitable fills up again and I have to start over (just like with my mind in meditation).
Tell me, how will you make more space?
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.