[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.
A few years ago, while journaling, I realized that reactive and creative are the same word. The “c” just moves. My friend Rebecca (a very creative person) asked “What does the “c” stand for?” Good question.
I thought it was consciousness, but now I think it’s curiosity (which helps with consciousness, cultivation, contemplation, clarity, connection…).I recently returned from a 7–week silent meditation retreat (which is why you have not heard from me in a while and why you’ll be getting two newsletters this month — so look out for Waking Up Wisely: Positive Critical Thinking in a couple of weeks). Those of you who have done retreats know that it is possible for the mind to become quite still and spacious. Or not… This retreat I experienced quite a lot of agitation and anxiety. All sorts of things were coming up for me, including this random lol cat youtube memory (which also happens to be an apt visual metaphor for my failed attempts to cultivate a still mind those first few weeks).Our usual strategies for any kind of discomfort is to move away from it, discredit it, or get rid of it. If I’m bored or anxious, I find something to distract me. If I don’t like something you say, I condemn it. If I don’t like something I see, I shut my eyes. But on retreat there’s nowhere to go, no one to blame, and your eyes are already shut. You could sit there all day every day with your blabbering, deluded mind going on and on. But the only real possibility for creative response and for transformation is to get curious.
Mindfulness (sati) has many aspects to it. These days, the most well known and most widely cultivated aspect is the attentional quality. A very useful capacity — especially when your mind is wandering to cat videos (even if that’s not the worst thing it could be wandering towards). It’s been proven in studies, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind; but mindfulness is so much more than paying attention. Mindfulness is ultimately about learning to relate to our experiences with more wisdom and compassion; because a reactive mind is also an unhappy mind. And curiosity is a crucial component of lessening our reactivity.
But how do you cultivate curiosity when you are frustrated, anxious, angry, sad? How do we meet any moment with creativity instead of reactivity?
We open to our experience.
John Paul Lederach (see this just this) describes the haiku attitude — the state of mind/heart needed for creative expression — as the “capacity to be touched by beauty.” As I struggled on my retreat, I remembered this poetic guideline and took refuge in the glory all around me — wild flowers, dragonflies, bees, chipmunks — allowing myself to be touched by summer’s beauty. But as I reflected on the whole phrase, I realized I was emphasizing the wrong part. It’s not beauty that’s the point, it’s the capacity to be touched. Summer’s beauty is glorious. As are cat videos (well, to some of us). And anything, when used to avoid experience, diminishes our capacity to be touched.
So I rationed my chipmunk intake, returned to the cushion, and allowed myself to be touched by what, in a recent talk, my teacher Kittisaro called the wakeful, sensitive, interested, curious silence filled with listening. And there, I met things I had not wanted to touch — pain, fear, loss, grief. I met them with curiosity and kindness and the intention to give them as much time as needed.
And, in time, the stillness I had strived for in the beginning as a way to get away from the anxiety and agitation, it appeared as the spacious awareness holding it all. Awareness holding the tension, pain and fear. Awareness holding the ease, joy, and love.
And all of it is beauty.
Why do you so earnestly seek
the truth in distant places?
Look for delusion and truth in the
bottom of your own heart.
Often, I feel like I don’t belong.
Too blackish for the white folks. Not black enough for the black folks. Too political for my party friends. Not radical enough for my activist friends. Too hetero to call myself queer. Too queer to care about most hetero–nonsense. Too woo woo for the skeptics. Not spiritual enough for the renunciates. Too Americanized to get my roots. Too immigrant to get American idioms. Too feminist for heels. Too femme not to do my brows. Too intellectual for the intuitives. Not sufficiently–read for the academy. I have too much money. Not enough.
I am a 44 year old black woman who says dude. A lot.
I move through many communities and circles, even on my morning commute. I leave the apartment I share with my Danish–Italian husband in (gentrifying) Crown Heights where a local community center posts the number of days since the last shooting and where Haitians, Hasids and hipsters wait side–by–side on the subway platform. I arrive to work in NoMad (seriously) — what used to be the wholesale area full of immigrant sellers calling out to passerbys is now yet another tech alley teaming with (very) young professionals downing bulletproof coffees and recoiling from eye contact.
I code–switch and shape–shift to adapt to my external environment and access my many selves. When I was younger, this was an exercise in confusion and shame, otherwise known as constriction. I thought it necessary to hide or warp aspects of myself that I sensed were unwanted recalling the “you sound white” comments from my childhood or the many times I’ve been called nigger throughout my life.
I revealed only what I thought would gain me acceptance. Alternately, I dismissed or judged people and places that challenged my interests and views. These constrictions closed off the possibility to belong to others or they to me (the heart is either open or closed, we don’t get to choose its direction of traffic).
Anyone who doesn’t fit into or identify with dominant culture (more and more that’s most of us) will need to negotiate their belonging. But for those of us who continually transit through such disparate terrains, the translation is constant. My multitiudes only truly come together under ceratin conditions with people who can get my references to Fanon, Foucault, and The Pharcyde, Baldwin, Ball Culture, and Buddhadharma.
Luckily I live in the multicultural bubble called Brooklyn surrounded by a diverse community of friends, many of whom also traverse multiple boundaries within their own being. But even more luckily, my spiritual practice has allowed me to understand the inherent interconnection of all (even within little fragmented me).
On a psychological level it means embracing all these parts in an integrated belonging that honors each momentary context but aspires to a way of being that is open, relaxed, fluid, and authentic. I don’t need to make someone else wrong to be me. And I can be righteous and loving at the same time. This integration did not happen by merely thinking about it. It developed through many years of practice and many hours on the cushion knowing, allowing, and releasing all the ways in which I was rejecting what felt hurt, abandoned, judged, or just plain wrong. Contradictions need not be constrictions. I allowed myself to first belong to me.
On a cosmic level it means knowing this so-called reality is not the whole story. All these identities and ideologies are just teeny–tiny moments in an endless song that’s every song. That everything belongs to something that is no–thing. That consciousness is more than what my little brain can know (and next month I’ll explore Consciousness First: Reactive to Creative).
Joy Harjo says this in her poem “A Map to the Next World”
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds.We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.
Make your map.
Winter. Not. My. Season. Nope.
All I can do is wait. And complain.
It’s not that different from my meditation practice. The resistance I feel to a moment on the cushion is just magnified and elongated into the long nights and gray days of winter. A season of being caught up in wanting things to be other than they are. In the same way I can’t seem to allow myself to open to this breath (and instead plan and fantasize and escape), I can’t seem to allow this cold and dark to simply be (and plan and fantasize and escape — to tropical beaches).
This time of year is always hardest. Winter is ending so soon (please?). But every day below freezing feels like divine punishment. People around me are moody and depressed and I am screaming at my dog, Suki, because she woke me up at 2am to go out and now won’t poop even though we’ve circled the block 4 times. Poor Suki… she actually loves winter. But she has a fur coat.
This bitter cold reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s poem Integrity. It begins with the line, A wild patience has taken me this far.
Maybe I need an oxymoron like wild patience to get through winter. And not only winter but the incongruous pace with which we meet it in our contemporary lives. The ground in the park is like frozen tundra, I am layered to near immobility, but because I am rushing to catch the train for a meeting, I slip and fall on the ice.
I feel impenetrable and fragile at the same time. When it’s cold, I am contracted and huddled and my heart is often physically and energetically defended. I can’t really feel what’s wild in there, and I brace and tense in craving for light and warmth (speaking of what’s wild in there, next month I will explore “The Hawks in Our Hearts”).
Later in the poem she writes:Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere–
even from a broken web.
I could say winter and summer: my selves. I do see them as polarities rather than angelic yet earthly manifestations of life just as it is. Can I allow it all?
When I push away winter, I’m both rejecting what is dark, cold, and still in me as well as what is resistant, aversive, conflicting in me. When I only want summer light and comforting warmth, I am clinging to only the pleasant and to what cannot last. And, of course, nothing can last.
But I don’t need to reject winter nor my conflict with winter — both denials come from the same place. A refusal of what simply is. Turning a way from life. Closing off the sacred. Winter is. My aversion to winter is. Can I open to both?
Many years ago, a friend who grew up in Minnesota schooled me on how to relax into winter. It was a wicked kind of cold that night and we were going to a party in an old boat on the Hudson. The wind was fierce and my entire being was tensing up as we walked along the water. She told me I was only making it worse, that if I simply relaxed my body everything would be easier. I tried it. It worked. And then I went back to tension (and cussing).
That was 20 years ago and from time to time I remember Jacky’s wise advice. To relax and open to it all. Anger and tenderness. In my broken web.
2015 is my year of the erotic as power.
Keep your panties on people. Not that kind of erotic… Well, not only that kind of erotic.Last newsletter I mentioned bell hooks’ statement that “patriarchy has no gender.” It is true. And one of patriarchy’s primary tactics is to keep us all (whatever gender) from feeling the feminine.
I recently (re)discovered the essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” by Audre Lorde. Her message about the liberatory nature of the erotic resonated very strongly for me as I explore the role of this capacity in my own life.
The erotic as power is a deep knowing that touches into a “feminine plane” within each of us. The erotic is as she says “the creative energy empowered.” It is rooted in the senses and a vital connection to the body. But the erotic is not only the sexual. She is talking about the ability to feel fully and live deeply into our experience (to love experience), something that is discouraged in a society that values speed, activity, productivity, and the mind over living the richness and depth of feeling in the body.With sex, this depth is perverted into only being about a type of sex that is quick, isolated, and transactional (I do this, you do that) — what she calls the pornographic. In the rest of life, depth is sacrificed to the scramble to keep up and survive — what I’ll call the hustle. Yes, often you gotta hustle to survive (until tomorrow or next month or at all). The erotic is about thriving and savoring, every moment.
Society as a whole, including spiritual traditions, perpetuate a suspicion of the erotic and the feminine. As a long-time Buddhist practitioner, I often find myself questioning the constructs and forms of my tradition(s). Forms can be useful. And sometimes they need to be re-constructed.
The body, movement, relationship, sexuality, depth of feeling, expression, justice, activism, creativity, even the wild (next month I’ll be writing about “A Wild Patience”)… these are things I desire to bring into my practice and the current forms are not always supportive. An example: I definitely understand, practice, and greatly appreciate the necessity and benefits of silence and stillness, of renunciation and simplicity. But when is it self-discipline and when is it self-abnegation? And how will I know the difference?I long for the depth and richness of the erotic not only in my spiritual practice, I long for these things in my work and communities where there isn’t space for them yet. What would the erotic look like at work, with family, at home? Here’s Audre:
“For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.“
Aspirations for my year of the erotic as power:
- aimless playfulness in my explorations walking, reading, talking, cloud-watching, creating…
- more dancing — including subway platform jigs
- less time speeding through data — try the SelfControl app for blocking time-killing websites
- expressing my deepest longings — whether on paper, screen, or in person
What are yours?
Over Thanksgiving, I had the great fortune to spend 10 days at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin. I was privileged to be assistant–teaching on a retreat which meant that, unlike the retreatants, I had access to reading and writing and the Interwebs and also had meetings and tasks. But I still had the space and time to practice for many hours a day and rediscover (once again) the power of presence.
It has taken me some time to send this out, my first newsletter. Many times over the past few months I tried to write something, anything, just so I could be productive. And then I heard the phrase the pathology of productivity, from coach Chela Davison. And I recognized in it the anxious fuel for so much in my life. I asked myself, How often do I access the deep wisdom of simply being? Or is there mostly a low buzz of resistance to this very moment? A grasping connected to worrying, changing, solving, fixing, planning, getting, achieving, attaining…?
The mind that races is a mind that demands certainty and security; if I plan it all out, everything will finally be okay. Besides being impossible, that demand makes it difficult to rest in the beauty and mystery of what simply is. This moment. Presence.
The first peoples of the San Geronimo Valley, where Spirit Rock is located, lived in peaceful communities interdependent with the rest of the natural world around them (the Miwok people are their descendants). They fished, hunted, gathered roots and herbs, collected acorns and mushrooms and in communication with other tribes took care to conserve the wellness of all beings. They “worked” 3—4 hours per day and spent the majority of their time in creativity, prayer, play, ceremony, and storytelling. Their conflicts were solved through council and consensus, sometimes taking hours and days of discussion and understanding. They did not believe themselves to be separate from each other or anything around, above, or below them.
Whenever I pause and allow myself to reconnect deeply to my heart-mind-body, I can also remember the truth of interconnection.
But this requires an intentional, sustained pause. Something we all seem less and less capable to allow.
Being at Spirit Rock, amidst the eucalyptus in the woods and the hawks in the sky (and away from the demands of constant communication and activity) gave easier access to this presence, but even in the busy city, all we need to do is slow down, stop, and look up or down between the cracks of the skyline or in the sidewalks and meet the wonder that awaits us. Mother Nature is here too. Internally and externally.
Yes, mother nature.
A wise male friend recently corrected me for pitting the masculine against the feminine, reminding me that it’s patriarchy that’s the problem. He’s right; as bell hooks says: patriarchy has no gender. But one of the ways patriarchy operates is by suppressing the feminine/yin energy of presence and deep listening — dismissing it as passive, useless, un–productive.
Presence is overrun by activity and overdoing. At this time of year, when everything in our natural world is asleep or dead except us, we insist on privileging action over rest. Movement is privileged over stillness — unless we are sitting at our computers all day, rapidly moving our eyes and fingers, and perpetually propelling data into the void.
Pausing into presence, sensing, feeling, knowing what Audre Lorde identifies as “the erotic,” we come into contact with our power and creativity (stay tuned for January’s newsletter: The Erotic as Power: The Problem of Patriarchy and Feeling the Feminine).
Meditation is marketed these days as a cure for stress and anxiety and other ailments. So we can do more. It can be that. And it can be more.
The power of spiritual practice is a radical liberation into our creative power.
The first step. No step. Pause.